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Westminster Hall

Volume 499: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 November 2009

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Sex Discrimination (Religious Organisations)

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

It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. O’Hara. For the avoidance of doubt, I had better start by declaring my interests as a man, a Christian, a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, an elected member of the General Synod of the Church of England who represents Salisbury diocese, a lay canon of Salisbury cathedral and a member of the council of Salisbury cathedral. My late father was a bishop who sat in the other place.

What are the facts about women in the Church of England today? About a quarter of priests—about 2,000—are women. Nearly half the people coming forward for ordination and training for the Church of England ministry are women. An NOP poll showed that more than 80 per cent. of the clergy and more than 90 per cent. of the laity support women priests. Only 2 per cent. of Church of England parishes have asked for a flying bishop. Almost 70 per cent. of the clergy and more than 75 per cent. of the laity support women bishops, according to a Sheffield university study. Two English cathedrals have women deans, and there are 15 women archdeacons. The worldwide Anglican communion has 38 provinces, 25 of which have women priests and 16 of which have legislated for women bishops. Nearly 30 women have been Anglican bishops in the past 20 years. So the Church of England is behind the curve, and we do not want it to be.

The fact is that most members of the Church of England who go to church want women to be ordained as bishops. What we need from Parliament and the Government is clarity on the terms that would be acceptable—first, of course, to the Ecclesiastical Committee and then to both Houses of Parliament. I remind those Members of Parliament who say that Church of England decisions are nothing to do with them that all Members of both Houses—regardless of their faith, or, indeed, of whether they have a faith—have a duty to exercise their judgment on any Measure that the established Church brings to us. Under the terms of the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Ecclesiastical Committee, on behalf of both Houses, is required to report on

“the nature and legal effect of”

any Measures and to set out

“its views as to the expediency thereof, especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all His Majesty’s subjects.”

Every Member is invited to vote on the Committee’s recommendations.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I declare an interest as a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee. Is he aware that one of the human resources objectives on the Church of England website refers to the

“development of a diverse workforce and a fair and just workplace”?

How can the workplace be fair and just when, as that estimable organisation Women and the Church constantly reminds us, so many talented women are not being given the chance to work in the Church of England at an appropriate level? That cannot carry on for ever, can it?

I suppose that it is another case of one rule for the Indians and another for the chiefs. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I look forward to the day when a distinction no longer exists, because it is discrimination.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 had its Second Reading in the House on 26 March 1975. Introducing it, the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, said that it would apply

“not only to intentional discrimination but also to a practice which, regardless of motive, is discriminatory in its effect on persons of one sex and cannot be shown to be justifiable.”—[Official Report, 26 March 1975; Vol. 889, c. 513.]

The exemptions set out in clause 19 included employment for the purposes of an organised religion, which applied where a person’s

“sex is a genuine occupational qualification”

for a particular job.

On Second Reading in the other place, on 1 July 1975, the then Bishop of Leicester, speaking

“more or less officially for the Church of England”

welcomed the exemption. He said:

“We hope that this Clause will stand and remain acceptable, although it is extremely probable that some Members of your Lordships’ House may live to see a change in practice in this matter.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 1975; Vol. 362, c. 134-35.]

The bishop was speaking on behalf of the Church by law established in England in 1603, largely as a result of the genius of Queen Elizabeth I. Our own Queen, the defender of the faith, has seen the Church of England abandon its objections in principle to women priests and women bishops.

Most Christians believe that God is above gender. The disciples with whom Jesus surrounded himself were both women and men. It is not true that He thought that women were not up to it; on the contrary, it is striking that Jesus treated people the same, whether they were male or female.

It took a long time, but in 1975, the General Synod declared that there were no fundamental objections to ordaining women as priests. Thirty-one years ago, in 1978, the Synod voted on ordaining women to all three orders—bishops, priests and deacons. The necessary two-thirds majority was achieved in the House of Bishops and the House of Laity, but the House of Clergy recorded only a simple majority, so the motion fell. Seventeen years ago today, on 11 November 1992, the Synod voted in favour of women priests. In 2005, it decided that there was no fundamental objection to women bishops.

The Synod’s legislative procedure works much like that of both Houses of Parliament. The Synod has the equivalent of a Second Reading, followed by a Committee or revision stage, Report and a final Reading. In 2008, the Synod told the revision committee to work on a draft Measure—a Church law—to legalise women as bishops as well as priests. However, it also told the committee, in the spirit of tolerance, to produce a statutory code of practice under which priests and members of the Church would be treated fairly if they were not willing to accept women as bishops. The committee was told not to propose a Measure that created a two-tier system of bishops; it was to be all or nothing—not some proper, male bishops and some improper, women bishops with less authority than men.

The revision committee did exactly what it was told not to do. Why did it do that? On 8 October, it issued a press release saying that it had voted to abandon the code-of-practice approach and that it would instead recommend the imposition by statute of flying male bishops, who could land in a diocese with a woman bishop and deprive her—automatically—of her authority and religious functions.

Before voting, the members of the revision committee were told, as we all were in paragraph 16 of the further report from the legislating drafting group, that such an approach would not breach the terms of the Sex Discrimination Act because, where there are conflicting rights in English law, the exercise of one right may sometimes need to be restricted to protect the exercise of another. In such a case, the restriction of the first right should be proportionate. As paragraph 17 puts it,

“The exercise of women’s priestly and episcopal ministry in certain places can properly be restricted by law, but this should only be to an extent that is ‘proportionate’ in order to respect the theological convictions of others in relation to that ministry.”

I have no doubt that the members of the revision committee had lots of additional advice, but we do not know what it was, because it is secret. Based on what I know, however, I have three questions for the Minister. First, the Sexual Discrimination Act 1975 exemption is principally directed at circumstances in which a religious office is reserved for men only. Does that exemption apply now that the Church of England has decided that women can be priests and bishops?

Secondly, will the Minister confirm whether, in UK sex discrimination law, the principle of proportionality may only ever justify indirect sex discrimination and that restricting the rights of women bishops to protect the beliefs of men or women is direct sex discrimination and cannot be justified in terms of proportionality or, indeed, under European law?

Thirdly, the further report, which was used to inform the votes of the revision committee, failed to mention that the principle of proportionality requires that the means adopted to achieve the desired aim should be both appropriate and necessary. Does the Minister agree that the report failed to address those conditions or to assert that they would be met by the course of action suggested, thus breaching sexual discrimination legislation?

Why does any of this matter? It matters because if the recommendation of the revision committee is approved by the General Synod, meeting in Westminster next February, the draft Measure will be sent to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament before it is presented to both Houses for approval. After that, the Measure will have the full force of statute law. When it comes before the House of Commons, the Government will have to decide how Ministers will vote, and recommend how other Members of Parliament should vote. I know how I will vote. How will the Minister vote?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing the debate, particularly on the anniversary of the vote for women’s ordination. Unlike him, I am not an expert on the issues, nor a member of the General Synod. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) I am a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which deems Church law to be expedient or otherwise before it is considered by both Houses of Parliament, and before Royal Assent. However, I am not speaking for the Ecclesiastical Committee; I am merely expressing a view.

In matters of religion, Parliament has two separate roles. One affects all Churches and other religious organisations. The other affects solely the Church of England as the established Church. Ever since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which has already been mentioned, the general law has recognised that religious organisations need some exemptions, given the dictates of theological belief and conscience. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the orthodox strand of the Jewish faith, Islam and many others impose gender rules about who can be priests, rabbis, imams and so on. Might not it be wise, in the present circumstances, for Parliament to go on enabling the various Churches and faiths to come to their own views on those matters? The Equality Bill, if I understand it rightly, sensibly does just that.

I should take some persuading that the Church of England should be fundamentally in a different position from other Churches and faiths in relation to sex discrimination legislation. I do not, of course, see why it should have a unique exemption just because it is the established Church; equally, however, I do not see why it should not have the same freedom that Parliament is prepared to extend to Churches and religious organisations more generally. All denominations and faiths must resolve those matters in the light of their own doctrinal frameworks and convictions. The difficulty, as I see it, is that the Church of England has been trying to do something quite ambitious and unusual since it first ordained women as priests in 1994. The legislation that Synod and Parliament agreed at the time enabled the Church to maintain what I might call a mixed economy. The Church of England concluded that women should be priests—and quite right too. At the same time it found a way of enabling those with theological difficulties to remain within the Church and be ministered to in a way consistent with their own convictions.

It is easy to make fun of that sort of compromise, but there are quite a lot of people in this country—churchgoers and others—who value the fact that our established Church is the original broad Church. If we want it to stay that way, it needs, within limits, to continue to be genuinely inclusive. The Church of England may, for its own reasons, decide to draw its own lines more sharply, but I wonder whether Parliament should be trying to lean on it to achieve a narrower settlement than was reached in the 1990s. The question now is whether some new version of that mixed economy can be constructed in the legislation that is needed for women to become bishops, as well as priests, in the Church of England. I strongly supported women becoming priests and I obviously support their becoming bishops. In my judgment, the sooner that happens, the better.

I wish the General Synod well in grappling with its own legislative challenges. I can see that the task may be more difficult now than it was last time, and I do not want to say or do anything to make it even more difficult. If I have understood the position correctly, much of the argument within the Church of England is not about whether there should still be that mixed economy, but about how best to achieve that. Clearly, there are some important judgments to be made about what to put in legislation, what to leave to codes of practice, what to make mandatory and what to leave to discretion, but they are matters, in the first instance, for the hon. Member for Salisbury and the other members of the General Synod to wrestle with. Those of us on the outside of the debate may need to be a little cautious in expressing a view. Parliament, as we have said, will have its own opportunity to consider the matter when it comes before Parliament.

We must acknowledge that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have on their hands a difficult job, which is perhaps not made easier by noises off from the Vatican. We should welcome the fact that they are both strong supporters of removing the last barrier to women’s ministry in the Church.

I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said so far. I am not sure that I necessarily see the tectonic plates of the Catholic Church as running against what he and I would like to happen. Is not it possible to interpret the Holy See’s overtures to Anglican married ministers to come into the Catholic Church as a sign that even that Church is changing in that regard?

I certainly hope that it is.

I strongly hope that the legislation going through Synod will make good progress and not get bogged down, especially as I have come to learn that the Church’s processes are sometimes slow, sometimes cumbersome and always complicated. We should be cautious about appearing to criticise the efforts of the archbishops and all those who are trying to preserve the Church of England as the broad Church that can continue to hold together as many people as possible who hold a variety of Christian views. There is nothing between me and the hon. Member for Salisbury as to the outcome of the debate. It is just that—I am sure he would agree with me—I do not necessarily see the route between points as always a straight line. It is sometimes a bit more complicated than that.

It is a pleasure to rise, somewhat earlier than I had anticipated, to participate in the debate, which was expertly introduced by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). It is a pleasure to hear him speak with so much authority on these matters—as he does on matters of science, as I know from my experience—even as a lay person, to use the term in its non-scientific sense.

It is a bit curious that I have been selected by my party to speak in the debate, because the fact that I am not religious is, I think, well known—perhaps better known than the fact that I am not a woman. However, on reflection, it is not so curious, because the Liberal Democrats take a slightly different view from the other parties, owing to our views on establishment. Not surprisingly, our party does not have a corporate view on whether there should be women bishops in the Church of England. Anything that I say on that matter is, therefore, a personal view. However, we have a view on whether it should be a matter for us in Parliament, as I accept it is at present.

We believe in disestablishment, because we think that establishment is wrong in principle. There should be appropriate separation between the state and any religion. Also, because all religions choose to discriminate in certain ways—or certainly the Church of England does, as it is legally entitled to—establishment seems somehow to associate the state with that discrimination. For those of us who want as little discrimination as possible that cannot be justified on objective grounds in public authorities—the state—it is difficult to see the Church of England as part of the state and to see it discriminate.

We are where we are. We have an established Church and there may be good arguments against that, but as long as we are where we are, that is surely a good reason for us to set an example to other parts of the Christian faith and other religions—particularly to people in my constituency who are Muslims and who do not let women into their mosques—by allowing women to become bishops. That would set an example far beyond our Church and religion.

I understand the hon. Lady’s position, and I am glad that she has had the opportunity to state it. I was just explaining why, in the first instance, we believe that disestablishment is the way forward.

People of all religions and of no religion in our party hold that view. My hon. Friends the Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Northavon (Steve Webb) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) are all actively involved in the Church of England. As practising members, they all share the view that disestablishment would be a good idea, and I agree with them. None the less, I accept—I must say to the hon. Lady that I had written this down—that while the Church is established and it comes to us for a decision, it is right that we should make a decision, and that is the context in which those of us in our party make our decision.

I tend to argue—albeit from the outside—that there should not be discrimination. However, I accept that it is a matter for that organisation. My interest comes about only because I am interested in the establishment, which I oppose, and because the matter needs to come to Parliament to decide. I am torn between not getting involved, because the Church of England should decide the matter on its own, and, as the hon. Lady says, coming down one way or another—in my case against discrimination—even though we are coming at it from the outside. However, I would feel awkward if the Church of England started to decide what political parties should do. That is why the position of those of us who believe that it is a matter for the Church is a difficult one.

The problem is that it would not matter whether the Church of England were established or disestablished. The whole point is it would be coming to Parliament as the established Church, inviting us to endorse something that is illegal; or, through its own rules if it were disestablished, saying, “We are going to do something illegal”—that is, if it was being discriminatory. That is the problem that we face.

I disagree. Furthermore, I was puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman said in his speech. Let us say that a religious organisation that is not established came to us and said, “We are thinking of changing the way in which we discriminate. We are not going to discriminate as much, but we will still have a two-tier system because some bishops or priests will have their authority limited on the basis of their gender by the fact that other people will come in.” The Church will still be able to use the exemption that has been granted to it to do that. The exemption therefore does not have to be got rid of for the Church of England, whether established or not, to end discrimination. It is available to it to say, “We are using this exemption in order to discriminate.” However, unless it had no discrimination whatsoever and no arrangements to help those parishes that will not accept the authority of a woman bishop, it would be better for it to keep the exemption so that it could use it in a more limited way.

The problem is the Church of England has decoupled itself from the exemption by saying, “No, it is not a prerequisite of the job that you be a man,” so it is now saying, “We are decoupled, but we are now heading back towards the buffers. We are now going to go back on what we said by reintroducing discrimination.”

No, that is wrong. I am not a lawyer, and I spent far too long on the Equality Bill to want to return to it on an Adjournment debate on a Wednesday afternoon. Discrimination is not just about a priori criteria. If we treat someone differently in their job on the basis of their gender—in other words, make them a different type of bishop because of their gender or because someone else is coming in, as the hon. Gentleman said—that would still be discrimination, even if it is said at the outset, “It does not matter what your gender is.” It is less favourable treatment, or different treatment that may be considered by the “victim” to be less favourable. That is direct discrimination.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, an organisation needs to have an exemption from the law in order to discriminate directly, because it cannot run a proportionality argument on direct discrimination. That is why the exemption exists. This debate about the Church, whether established or not, is not about the existence of that exemption, because if it ever wanted to go back to or to create a system where there was still some difference in treatment, which may be seen to be putting one gender at a disadvantage, it would require that exemption. None the less, that exemption should be narrow, as it is, for organised religion where gender is a genuine occupational requirement. I have consistently argued that the limited exemption for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation should be as tightly drawn as possible for organised religions that deal with roles that are essentially proselytizing, such as those for priests and so forth.

By allowing exemptions for religious organisations to seek to discriminate, we have the balance broadly right. We do not allow it on racial grounds. There have been religions across the world that have sought to have racial discrimination in their outlook, and they would run into difficulties here. There would be a clear clash of their right to believe with the right to non-discrimination set out in our equality law. However, they are not around here at the moment, so it has not been an issue, and we would not want to see it be so either. There are clear orthodox bases for sex discrimination, whether or not we agree with it or whether or not we are religious, and that has to be recognised.

Is it not the case that the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is very substantially weakened by what the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) said in his opening remarks? The great majority of the ministers of the Church of England, of its congregations and of the General Synod have expressed support for the concept of women bishops. How can what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is saying be sustained in the face of such figures?

In so far as I have a view on the way in which any religion organises itself, I think that there should not be any discrimination. When my constituents write to me and ask me what I think, I reply, “If it comes to me and I have to make a decision, I will vote on the least discriminatory basis.” However, I will do so conscious of the fact that I am, in a sense, interfering in a club of which I am not a member. That would apply to anyone here who is not a member of the Church of England.

My general rule is that organisations work better when there is no discrimination, but I believe in freedom of religious belief. If something or someone who is closely tied to that religion, such as in a proselytizing role or a key leadership role based on promoting doctrine, feels that they have to discriminate, I am not going to campaign for that to end. I do not campaign for the end to discrimination in priesthoods in any religion. What I feel strongly about is religious organisations seeking to discriminate against ordinary people in the way in which some adoption agencies and schools have sought to do. That is when I get going, although I do not want to go down that path now.

I was seeking to explain why, in the context of believing in disestablishment, my party is reticent about getting involved in telling the Church of England what it should do. If all my colleagues were asked for their personal views, I suspect that the majority of them, whether or not they are members of the Church of England, would be in favour of non-discrimination. I recognise, both in my constituency and across the country, the valuable pastoral role that women priests have played since they have entered the Church of England. That cannot be denied. The sky has not fallen in, as some thought it would. I hope that the Church will be able to reach an accommodation and be at peace with itself and with its decision, and I hope that that decision will be to end discrimination. If it comes to Parliament, that is what I shall support, on a personal basis.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this important debate. It is not a debate about what instructions we should give to the Church of England, but a spirit of inquiry from my hon. Friend, who represents a part of the Church, just to test the matter and have the Minister be clear about what the law says so that it can guide the Church in its deliberations. Just as my hon. Friend declared his interest, I can declare my interest as a man and as a Christian, albeit a member of the Catholic Church rather than the Church of England. However, I am afraid that I do not come to this debate with such an impressive list of theological or Church qualifications. Like the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I would normally hesitate to discuss the tenets of another religion, but, as my hon. Friend accurately said, whatever faith we have, and whatever view we take about the establishment of the Church of England, it is the established Church and we in Parliament are asked to take a view of it. In a sense, even not taking a view is taking a view, in that not participating in the debate or not taking a particular view may affect the outcome of that debate.

I had thought that, coming to this debate as a Catholic, I should do a little research myself to see what current Catholic thinking is. I dug out the Ordinatio Sacredotalis, the apostolic letter of the late John Paul II to the bishops of the Catholic Church on reserving the priestly ordination to men alone. Unlike the Church of England, the Catholic Church takes a definite position on this issue. Indeed, according to the late Pope, the Catholic Church does not really have any authority on this matter at all, in the sense that it has said that it is not the deciding factor on whether women can be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In his letter, the late John Paul II made his position clear:

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

That does not leave a lot of room for doubt. However, the Church of England, of course, does things in a somewhat different way.

My hon. Friend raised some important issues and they are important for two reasons: first, because of the draft Measure that, as he said, is being debated in the Church of England. He said that he seeks guidance from the Minister here today on exactly how the current law will apply to that Measure, so that he can give the Church some guidance about how it should draft it and decide on it.

The second reason why my hon. Friend’s points are important concerns the Equality Bill; I apologise if referring to that Bill upsets the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, but I will refer to it only briefly. I understand that schedule 9 to the Bill just converts existing legislation relating to the requirement to be of a particular sex to a new framework. However, I want to ask the Minister whether anything in that schedule would affect what the current law says. Given that the Equality Bill will come back to this House for Report and Third Reading, if he says anything now about the application of current discrimination law, we might need to look again at those aspects on Report.

If I have got the nub of my hon. Friend’s argument right, this may be where the hon. Gentleman, and I disagree. I quoted the Catholic teaching on this matter because the exemption on direct discrimination in the current law only applies, as I understand it—I think this is what my hon. Friend said—if the religion itself says that there is a specific legitimate theological reason why a post may only be held by a certain person: in this case, by a man. The Church of which I am a member still holds that to be the case, so it would trigger that exemption in the law and would be able to discriminate against women and say that only men can be priests.

However, my hon. Friend made the point that because the Church of England has decided in principle that women are able to be priests and bishops, that exemption does not apply and regular law therefore applies, and the Church of England would have to treat women bishops in the same way that it treats male bishops. Consequently, it should not undermine the authority of women bishops and it should have sensible procedures in place so that they are not undermined. That directly relates to the decisions that the Church of England will have to make ahead of February 2010, when it passes its Measure on this subject. I think that is the nub of what my hon. Friend said.

I reinforce the questions that my hon. Friend put. They are pertinent and important because they may affect what the Church of England decides to do, and, therefore, the nature of the Measure that is brought before this House for approval.

That is an interesting clarification. I must confess that I have not studied the detail of the law in this area. However, if the hon. Gentleman is right, the question is whether the Church of England should seek a different exemption that would give it the flexibility to decide whatever it wants, or whether it will be satisfied to be straitjacketed into an either/or situation. That is a matter for the Church itself, but it is curious that the strict nature of the exemption as described would not allow the Church any flexibility as soon as it decides to open up the bishopric to women.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that really is the nub of what my hon. Friend is saying—that because the Church of England has said that there is not a specific requirement to be a man in order to become a priest or bishop, the specific exemption in equality law, current sex discrimination law and the Equality Bill is not triggered. For that exemption to be triggered, there must be an occupational requirement to discriminate on the basis of sex.

The other important issue is how the application of the requirement to be a particular sex can be brought in, which may be the point the hon. Gentleman is getting at. The non-conflict principle can be brought in, relating to whether or not a decision affects a significant number of the religion’s followers. That is why the statistics that my hon. Friend gave at the beginning, showing that a significant but not overwhelming number of the Church of England’s supporters support women bishops, are important. The numbers he quoted were very significant: more than 80 per cent. of the clergy, and an even higher proportion of the laity, support women priests, and almost 70 per cent. of the clergy and more than 75 per cent. of the laity support women bishops. Nevertheless, that still leaves a minority—a small but significant minority—of both laity and clergy who do not support women priests or women bishops. It may be that, if those people have strongly held religious convictions, the non-conflict principle in both the present law and the law the Minister’s Department is bringing before the House is a proportionate way of dealing with that conflict.

I think that one of the questions my hon. Friend asked is this: is what is being proposed—or at least thought about—by the Church of England a proportionate way of dealing with that potential conflict? If it is, that may be a road that members of the Synod choose to go down. If it is not, however, that factor will clearly be very important in their deliberations.

My hon. Friend has asked questions that are very important not just to the Church of England but to us as Members of Parliament, because we will be asked at some point in the next few months to make a decision on them. Furthermore, they are of general importance because this debate informs how equality law, both current and future, applies to all religions. That is important to every one of us, whether we have a faith or no faith at all.

I join other speakers in offering my congratulations to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this timely debate, the contributions to which we have all listened to with great interest. The Government will be carefully following the progress of the Synod’s draft Measure.

I am grateful for the clear way that the hon. Gentleman set out the issues. I am also grateful for the contributions from the hon. Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman).

As it is a time for confession, I guess that I ought to say that I am also a man. Furthermore, I am a Christian, although I happen to be a Methodist. I do not know whether that makes us sufficiently ecumenical to determine the issues we are debating today, but certainly we all come from quite different backgrounds. Of course, my role today is to say what the Government believe.

In discussing these issues, we touch on the particular relationship between the Church of England and Parliament, and on the historic place of the Church of England in the political and social life of this country. As a Minister, I am hesitant to intervene in the internal debates of the Church of England, especially on a matter which is so hotly debated within the Church itself. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Salisbury rightly said, we may need to determine our position on those debates at a later date. Nevertheless, I have been asked some specific questions and I will do my best to make the Government’s position, as I see it, as clear as I can.

The Government’s general position is certainly clear: we wish to prevent unlawful discrimination because of sex, or because of other protected characteristics. We recognise that there are specific circumstances where exceptions are warranted, and where that is the case, we provide them in a way that balances appropriately the rights of all the relevant parties.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 is the main legislation in Britain that prohibits discrimination between men and women, both in the workplace and beyond. Let me say briefly how that Act applies to religious organisations. In its capacity as an employer, the Church of England is bound by the provisions of that Act like every other employer. Like all organisations, it can require either a man or a woman when recruiting to a job or selecting, promoting, transferring or training an employee in relation to that job, but only in narrow and tightly defined circumstances where it is a genuine occupational qualification for a particular job. The 1975 Act exhaustively lists a very narrow set of such circumstances.

It is also lawful, if the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion, for an organisation to restrict access to a job to a man or woman strictly to comply with the doctrines of that religion or to avoid conflicting with the strongly held convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. Authorisations or qualifications conferred by a qualifying body for the purposes of an organised religion may be similarly limited. It is that exception that is most likely to be engaged by restrictions on women filling posts as ministers of religion.

Turning to the first question I was asked by the hon. Gentleman, let me be clear that it is permissible in law not to allow women to be bishops provided that that is done to comply with the doctrines of religion or to avoid conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. That is the case now under section 19 of the 1975 Act. To answer the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, we believe that it will remain the case under the Equality Bill. The law will not change.

Specifically, paragraph 2 of schedule 9 to the Equality Bill provides an exception for occupational requirements related to sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and marriage or civil partnership where employment is

“for the purposes of an organised religion”.

That is defined as employment consisting wholly or mainly of

“(a) leading or assisting in the observation of liturgical or ritualistic practices…or

(b) promoting or explaining the doctrine of the religion”.

The measures the Minister has just read out would enable discrimination to be applied to those who assist in the observance of religion. Can he confirm that in theory, the drafting would allow a church to restrict organists based on sex, sexual orientation or the other grounds listed? The wording is “leading or assisting” in liturgy.

Applying the requirements is permitted only where that is a proportionate means of complying with the doctrines of the religion or avoiding conflict with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers. Of course, in the end, it would be a matter for the courts, but it seems unlikely that it would go as wide as to include an organist. That is certainly not the intention.

The Government’s agreed position on which posts should be covered by the exception remains the same as when Lord Sainsbury described it in the debate on the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, which contain an exception analogous to section 19 of the 1975 Act. He said that it involved

“a very narrow range of employment: ministers of religion, plus a small number of posts outside the clergy, including those who exist to promote and represent religion.”—Official Report, House of Lords, 17 June 2003; Vol. 649, c. 779.]

It is unlikely that an organist would come within that qualification, but it would clearly cover bishops.

Whether or not the conditions I have set out are still met—that is, whether a requirement that bishops should be men was in place in order to comply with the doctrines of the religion or to avoid the kind of conflict described—is ultimately a matter for the courts. I am sure we will all have our own views on whether the Church of England could maintain that position after the debates it has had, but it is not—at this time, in any event—for Ministers to offer an opinion.

I have also been asked whether direct or indirect discrimination is at issue. It is right that as a general rule, only indirect discrimination can be justified using the principle of proportionality. A limitation placed on women because they are women would be a form of direct discrimination and so could not be justified in that way. Such a limitation would be unlawful unless allowed by a specific exception, although in that case the exception that would be claimed includes a requirement that a restriction be proportionate.

The hon. Member for Salisbury also asked about the work of the Church revision committee. It would not be appropriate for me to go into the rights and wrongs of the Church of England’s internal processes and discussions. As I understand it, the Synod has not yet been presented with the proposals under consideration by the revision committee, so to do so would be premature anyway.

What I hope is clear is that whatever proposals are brought forward for consideration by Parliament would need to comply with the law as it stands at the time. They should not, in any matter subject to discrimination law, result in direct sex discrimination unless there is a specific exception allowing it, nor should they result in indirect discrimination that is not a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim. In the Equality Bill, we have changed neither the range of religious posts to which the law applies nor how it applies to them, but we have maintained and clarified the position as it is now. Compliance with the current law will therefore be a good guide to future compliance in that respect, although the Bill is of course before Parliament and subject to debate.

As we have heard, the Church of England is exploring moving away from the current position and proposing to allow women to be bishops. That is, of course, a move that many of us welcome. At the same time, I understand that the Church needs to consider the feelings of those who disagree strongly with that move and cannot accept that change. The Church’s debate concerns how far it should be possible to go in that effort: not about whether in principle women should be bishops, but about how, and about what accommodation could or should be made for those in the Church who do not think that they should. It is a very difficult question, first of all for the Church of England itself, and it is obvious from what we have heard today that the Church is wrestling with it.

I recognise the difficult position faced by those in the Church of England tasked with finding a way through the issues. I hope that they can find a way through that provides comfort to those who feel strongly on both sides. I do not know how close such a solution is, but I hope that one can be found within the framework of applicable discrimination law.

Sitting suspended.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

I am delighted to introduce a debate which I believe is timely in its scope. Perhaps I could begin by making the rather outlandish claim that mankind has probably come up with only two ways in which to destroy the capacity for human life on this planet: one is through climate change, which I hope will be dealt with in Copenhagen; and the other, of course, is weapons of mass destruction generally, and nuclear weapons specifically.

The approach taken to nuclear weapons in recent decades, post-cold war, has been one almost of fatalism; it says that we have learned to love the bomb and to live with it. However, we should consider some of the statistics on the capacity of nuclear weapons systems in the world. At present, there are probably 23,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, in the hands of nine countries. There is the ever-present danger of proliferation: North Korea and Iran are either in the process of achieving nuclear weapons capacity or have already done so, and that is likely to be followed by other state actors, which, prompted by their near neighbours, may choose to go down the same path.

Terrorists will almost certainly draw the same conclusion as new proliferating state actors have: that possession of nuclear weapons is a viable way forward. Furthermore, we know of 25 occasions in the past two decades—perhaps there have been more—on which nuclear weapons material has been lost, stolen or mislaid. Given all that, we ought to begin to rage against fatalism and say that the time has come when we do not simply accept fatalism as a way forward for this world.

In that context, it is worth my quoting two distinguished Americans. The first is Senator Sam Nunn, who testified to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which was appointed by Congress. He stated in his testimony that

“the risk of a nuclear weapon being used today is growing, not receding.”

Sam Nunn, for those who do not know him, has impeccable credentials as a defender of America’s position during the cold war.

Senator Bob Graham wrote in the commission’s report:

“The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

From a commission composed of senior members of the American political and military establishment, that comment of itself ought to frighten everyone who hears it. That august body considers that it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used.

We now have the capacity to begin to rethink the whole process, and it comes down to one simple thing: does this generation have the political will to say that we can make the change that will confine nuclear weapons not simply to the silos or even to levels of deactivation but, more importantly, to the past? I believe that that political will has begun to grow, and it is being led by some interesting voices who would not normally be associated with such a debate.

George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who are all battle-hardened cold-war warriors—they all have badges and decorations from that era—wrote an article in January 2007 about a world free of nuclear weapons, and, in so doing, began to lead a debate that has echoed around the world.

It is certainly the case that our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, quickly took up the challenge and committed Britain to following the pathway to a nuclear-free world. I could quote many people, but, most recently, President Obama, who chaired the Security Council of the United Nations in September, laid out a genuinely ambitious programme for the United States. Let me say that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) would not necessarily applaud its every aspect, but it has several features that all of us, even the people who have been talking about the capacity for nuclear de-escalation, ought to applaud and watch with interest.

For example, President Obama has begun to speak about a total review of America’s nuclear posture. The posture review will report to him by the end of this year, and more widely in the early part of next year. It could lead to a very different way of looking at America’s security needs—one that does not rely primarily on nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of the safety of America or its allies.

President Obama and President Medvedev have committed themselves to looking at how to replace the strategic arms reduction treaty, which is due to expire soon. Those talks are already taking place. START was the effective limiter of the number of missiles and weapons systems that the Russians and Americans could possess. President Obama has spoken about ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. He will meet stiff opposition in the Senate from people who are known opponents; nevertheless, the fact that he is putting his moral authority behind it is tremendously important.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this most important matter to the House. The debate is timely. I am sure that he will not mention my contribution in the magazine Red Pepper several years ago to this debate, in which I called for the Government not to go ahead with Trident, but we all share in his welcome for President Obama’s shift in policy.

Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that at a time when the British public look with consternation at the fact that our Government followed the American Government to conflict areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan, people would see it as fantastic leadership by the Prime Minister if he were now to follow Obama by softening his policy on Trident, or at least putting it on the back burner?

The hon. Gentleman leads me in two different directions. The first is to confirm that I was not going to mention his article in Red Pepper. May I return to his second point later, because I want to make one further point about President Obama?

President Obama announced that in March next year there will be a nuclear summit in which he will bring together the main actors for several important reasons—among them, to discuss two important issues. The first is the security of nuclear material: how do we lock it down and ensure that it is not available to the rogue state or rogue terrorist? That is an important step. The second issue is the lead-up to the non-proliferation treaty review conference, which will take place in May next year.

I turn back to the hon. Gentleman’s point. He is right. Actually, our Government have already made some significant steps in the non-proliferation direction, but we could go much further. Part of the conversation that we need to have, not just today but in the weeks and months to come, is about how far Britain can go in achieving consensus across our political system, or at least beginning to build that kind of consensus. Trident replacement has been put back, in effect, until beyond the next election, and the Prime Minister has begun to speak about the capacity for moving from four to three Trident submarines in any case. What that means is that many decisions about Britain’s contribution that would have been unthinkable two years or a year ago are now thinkable.

The NPT review is not a British issue but a global issue. Frankly, if this generation of politicians does not seize the political opportunity globally, it will not matter what is done here in Britain. The world can be destroyed from many other places, without a contribution from Britain—although I freely concede that Britain can play a part in destroying the world, if we do not get our own contribution right.

The NPT review conference next year will be of fundamental importance in the process. The treaty is significant in that it placed obligations on non-nuclear states, but it also placed important obligations on nuclear states. The bargain, which has been betrayed by the nuclear powers, was always that the non-nuclear states would not choose to proliferate on the basis of the nuclear states agreeing that they would actively seek a pathway to disarmament. The nuclear states’ failure to grasp the disarmament nettle has bedevilled this treaty. That is not the only reason, but it is at least one reason why there has been proliferation since the treaty first came into operation.

The treaty has three pillars, which I will mention in the traditional reverse order, because that will help me make my case. The third pillar guarantees to all states access to the peaceful use of nuclear materials, so that applies in respect of nuclear energy, which can be controversial in itself. Let us not dwell on the philosophy or theology of nuclear power; let us simply say that it is widely accepted. For example, in the debate about Iran, few people argue that the country should not have access to a peaceful nuclear energy programme. However, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to recognise that, in respect of the four countries that would like to seek access to that nuclear fuel cycle, there are grave suspicions about those that already have it: about whether access to nuclear power opportunities would be allowed on a basis that would not be commercially restrictive or, possibly, politically restrictive in future. That is a difficult argument, but I can sympathise with those seeking to enter the field of nuclear power who feel that they may, in future, be told that for political reasons—perhaps they do not subscribe to the highest standards of human rights legislation or practice—their access to the nuclear fuel cycle may be withdrawn.

We have to accept that the price we pay in terms of matters nuclear is so high. However, even though in different circumstances we might argue that there is a price to be paid, it ought to be paid in respect of access to nuclear fuel only when people are abrogating their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. That needs to be established beyond all doubt, to encourage the non-aligned states and others to accept that they can buy into a deal on the NPT treaty.

The second pillar of the NPT concerns the guarantees given to the non-nuclear-power states. Historically, we have not moved a long way in that direction. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to recognise two things. First, if we want to build in a high cost for those non-nuclear powers that would seek to withdraw from their treaty obligations—if we are to make the Irans and North Koreas know that there is a big price to pay, including expulsion from access to peaceful nuclear technologies and perhaps tough sanctions regimes—and if we are to say to the rest of the world, “You’ve got to be part of shoring up the process of penalising the withdrawers from the NPT process,” we have to go back to what I have said about the third pillar. We have to guarantee that people see that peaceful nuclear power and the treaty issue are locked together and that the cost is proportionate and borne only by those who seek the arms route and not the civil technology route.

Secondly, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look seriously at the development of negative security assurances, because although the world has gone down that road in some areas we have not explored fully enough the capacity to give security assurances to those who agree that they will not take the nuclear route. It is important that we explore that. I will mention a particular instance in which that is fundamental: I think that my hon. Friend can probably guess which region I will talk about in that context.

The real drama in all this is in the first pillar, which deals with what the nuclear powers do. What commitments are they prepared to give? There are things that must happen, although I do not intend to go through a checklist. A lot of specific points can be made in a shopping-list way, but some things have to be hammered out in the long, patient debate between now and the NPT review conference.

We have to ensure that people can see that the theology of nuclear weapons has changed—that we devalue nuclear weapons as security systems—and make it clear that nuclear weapons play a different, lesser role in security for the long-term future of Britain and the world. Unless we devalue nuclear weapons, we will continue to make them prime in the security structures of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel—and now perhaps Iran and North Korea. We must get beyond that.

We also have to build in a recognition for the non-nuclear states that the decisions made by the nuclear powers now are going to be irreversible, because if people believe that this is simply a technical lull to be reversed by changes of Governments, regimes and even changes of climate, the treaty process will be undermined.

I want to finish by talking about a particular region. One thing that bedevilled the last review conference in 2005 was a belief on the part of states such as Egypt that the bargain that they signed up to had not been kept. Egypt worked hard to persuade other Arab states to sign the treaty, on the basis that Israel would be brought into the ambit of the non-proliferation treaty. Egypt felt, rightly, in 2005 that not only had that bargain not been kept, but there was not even any pressure to see how the issue could be moved forward.

Interestingly, the present Administration in Washington has said publicly and loudly to Israel that it must look at its role in signing up to the NPT. That will be so fundamental in moving the agenda forward if we want to persuade the Egypts of this world, and others, to take the NPT seriously. I am not saying that my hon. Friend the Minister needs to make a declaration today about the role of the middle east, but there has to be some framework within which it is taken seriously as part of that treaty review process.

My hon. Friend has mentioned Egypt and Israel and said that it would be unfortunate if Iran and North Korea obtained nuclear weapons. May I suggest that Pakistan’s and India’s attaining nuclear status a few years ago and spending a great deal of money on those weapons is already killing people in those countries? Despite the economic boom in India and improvements in Pakistan, people are still dying in those countries because they have no fresh drinking water, no proper housing, no education and no health care. Those countries are unable to afford those sorts of luxuries because they prefer to spend their money on nuclear weapons. I hope that the Minister will touch on that issue when replying. We have done nothing to encourage the likes of Pakistan and India to refrain from obtaining nuclear weapons and from arming themselves to the teeth to attack each other at some point, and instead look after the welfare of their citizens.

I am inevitably sympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend makes. She is right about the crippling cost of these weapons systems in both India and Pakistan. However, it is worth making two other points. The logic of India’s having the bomb was, at least in part, because China had a nuclear weapons system and the logic of Pakistan’s nuclear system was entirely determined by the logic of India’s. But, of course, the two countries that came closest to nuclear war in recent times were India and Pakistan, which is a salutary message to us all. Nuclear weapons are not just toys that stay in the military kitchen: they are so dangerous that they can plunge regions and the globe into unimaginable conflict. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.

I want to move from Israel to talk about the situation in Iran. A problem that has bedevilled negotiations is that we have not been able to generate the total commitment from the rest of the world to put pressure on Tehran in terms of its own nuclear system and say that it is unacceptable for Iran to move in that direction. We would shore up pressure on Iran if we told its friends and neighbours that its nuclear weapons system would be unconscionable. They would exert pressure if they believed that there was pressure more generally on Israel and other parts of the world to shore up the whole NPT system.

The point that I want to establish is that actors throughout the world have made huge changes in the culture of and the debate on nuclear weapons systems. This generation can make an historical and practical break with the intellectual past, and move in a direction that we have been unable to take for many years, although the end of the cold war may have signalled that capacity. It is up to this generation to make those decisions. The NPT will be fundamental, because this is the one time when non-weapon states will be able to measure the credibility of nuclear weapons states throughout the world. It is the one time when we can set a direction not to conclude the issue instantly or even in a short time, but to take the world to a future nuclear-free position. The situation is brutal, and history may not be able to judge us if we get this wrong, but I hope that history will regard the NPT review conference next year as the platform on which a nuclear-free world was built.

I welcome today’s debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) for securing it and for introducing it as he did. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) summarised the situation in her intervention; any country that goes down the road of possessing or developing nuclear weapons brings on itself enormous costs and thereby denies opportunities to many other people. India and Pakistan both have an enormous number of poor people, and the obvious calculation is that money spent on developing weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other inevitably denies education, health and clean water to much of their populations. We should be fully aware of that, and not afraid to say it.

I declare an interest in that I have been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament all my life, and have no plans to leave it. I am a national vice-chair, and chair of its parliamentary group. On its behalf, I attended the preparatory committee for the NPT review in New York earlier this year. That review was very different from previous ones that I attended in Vienna and elsewhere. They were almost desultory, in that the five declared nuclear weapons states turned up, restated their position on the non-proliferation treaty and then proceeded to state the exact opposite—that they had no intention whatever of fulfilling their obligations under the treaty to begin steps towards disarmament. People often went away from those events in a frustrated frame of mind.

Two PrepComs have made a difference: the one in 2000 and the last one in New York. The one in New York was so different because of the completely different approach by the United States. The US ambassador, Mrs. Gottemoeller, made her position clear on behalf of President Obama, and read out a lengthy letter. In addition, this year President Obama in his Prague speech envisaged—as far as I can recall, for the first time by a US President—a world free of nuclear weapons. Sadly, he went on to say that it would not happen in his lifetime, and as he is such a young man, that is deeply depressing. Nevertheless, he was prepared to take that step and suggest that there could be a significant difference.

The New York review was fascinating, interesting and hopeful. The previous year’s review in Vienna had been a series of ritual condemnations of Iran, and each speaker tried to outdo the others in the rituality of those condemnations. This time, there was a much more serious approach towards dialogue, understanding and developing the non-proliferation treaty.

There are problems with the NPT, which I will come to, but also opportunities. It was an amazing document of its time. It was amazing to achieve a commitment from the five declared nuclear weapons states in 1970 that they would take steps towards eventual disarmament, and that all the other signatory nations would not seek to develop or possess nuclear weapons. It has been effective in a number of ways, and some countries deserve particular praise. I am thinking mainly of South Africa, and its denial of a nuclear weapons programme following the election of President Mandela, and its total disavowal of nuclear weapons, so that Africa can become a nuclear weapons-free zone. A similar process happened in Argentina, and other countries, which deserve particular credit, such as Ukraine, have moved away from the nuclear route. We should recognise that some countries have made a fundamental step towards nuclear disarmament.

However, there are problems with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Its membership is restricted to the five declared nuclear weapons states, and to the majority of the rest of the world’s states who do not possess nuclear weapons and are not attempting to acquire them. Those who have nuclear weapons outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty are denied membership, and that category clearly includes India, Pakistan and Israel.

I deeply regret the fact that India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons. With the current instability, particularly in Pakistan, there is serious cause for concern about the safety of those nuclear weapons. As my hon. Friend said, they have been an enormous economic burden on both countries. However, the issue is a south Asian one in that both countries developed those weapons because of animosity towards each other, and they are targeted at each other and not at anyone else. It would be unbelievably crazy to use them because if one side fired a nuclear weapon at Lahore or Delhi, the people who died would not have known which weapon killed them because the effect would be the same on everyone. One hopes that there can be a continuing good relationship between India and Pakistan, de-escalation, and eventually agreement on mutual disarmament. We should support and encourage that.

The situation in Israel is slightly more complicated because it is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and has never sought to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central pointed out that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons makes the concept of a nuclear-free weapons zone in the middle east extremely difficult. There are also problems with many of the neighbouring countries, which believe, understandably, that if Israel has nuclear weapons and the west cannot persuade it to disarm, they may feel pressure to develop them one day. I had a similar conversation to that of my hon. Friend, with ambassadors from a number of countries, particularly Egypt.

There are some interesting signs, and I want to quote from a document that may be of some interest. The Paris summit of Mediterranean countries was held on 13 July 2008, under the co-presidency of the French Republic and the Arab Republic of Egypt and in the presence of Israel, which was represented by its then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. It discussed the issue of peace within the region, and said that it was in favour of

“regional security by acting in favour of nuclear, chemical and biological non-proliferation through adherence to and compliance with a combination of international and regional nonproliferation regimes and arms control and disarmament agreements such as NPT,”

the chemical weapons convention, the biological weapons convention, the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, and so on.

The document goes on to say:

“The parties shall pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems. Furthermore the parties will consider practical steps to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as excessive accumulation of conventional arms; refrain from developing military capacity beyond their legitimate defence requirements, at the same time reaffirming their resolve to achieve the same degree of security and mutual confidence with the lowest possible levels of troops and weaponry and adherence to CCW”—

the convention on certain conventional weapons—

“promote conditions likely to develop good-neighbourly relations among themselves and support processes aimed at stability, security”

and so on.

The reason why I quote from that document is that at that conference, which was hosted by France and attended by Britain, there was participation by Israel that appeared to envisage a process towards some degree of nuclear disarmament or adherence to some kind of international convention. We should seize on that and try to encourage Israel in that direction, because the implications of not achieving nuclear disarmament by Israel are that the pressure is then on in other countries, from the military, from industries and from lots of super-nationalist people, for those countries—be it Egypt, Iran or anywhere else—to develop their own nuclear weapons. No one wants that; no one wants that armament happening.

The problem of the lack of capability of the NPT to bring about disarmament must be dealt with. Therefore, I strongly advocate that the Government recognise what President Obama is doing in calling together the nuclear weapons states—I assume, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm whether I am correct, that that would involve all the countries that possess nuclear weapons outside the NPT—in the pursuit of a nuclear weapons convention. That has been strongly supported by the Canberra commission, by Australia and others. The idea would be that a weapons convention involves all states and has a series of phases for the elimination of the weapons.

The convention would outline a series of five phases for the elimination of nuclear weapons: first, taking nuclear weapons off alert; secondly, removing weapons from deployment; thirdly, removing nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles; fourthly, disabling the warheads and removing and disfiguring the “pits”; and fifthly, placing the fissile material under international control. It seems to me that the way forward, towards nuclear disarmament, must be a combination of next year’s NPT review and what can be achieved from that and the participation by the five declared states and all the others, and of promotion of and support for the concept of a nuclear weapons convention that can help to achieve that degree of disarmament.

The hon. Gentleman is making quite a bit of sense—we do not always agree—but he is speaking generally. May I press him to be specific? Does he, like me, believe that Britain’s rush towards replacing Trident is inconsistent with the NPT, which we signed in 1970?

I was coming to that anyway, but I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says in that respect. I therefore ask the question: what contribution is Britain making? Britain is not the biggest holder of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world; it does not have the largest number of warheads. It is, on one level, secondary to the big holders of nuclear weapons, which are primarily Russia and the United States. Nevertheless, we hold nuclear weapons; we are one of the five Security Council members; we are one of the five declared nuclear weapons states. The Minister will be well aware of the strength of parliamentary feeling concerning nuclear weapons and the strength of feeling in our own party, but also of the strength of feeling concerning the whole programme of Trident replacement, the vote that took place in the House on replacement of the submarine system, the initial gate decision that has to be taken and the final decisions, which I assume will be taken in the next Parliament.

I hope that, as part of our contribution towards the NPT review conference next May, we shall do a number of things. One is to say that we are not proceeding with the incredibly expensive replacement of Trident. Greenpeace and others estimate the cost to be £76 billion upwards over its 25-year lifespan, which is £3 billion a year. I am thinking of the message that that gives the rest of the world when perhaps we are on the threshold of nuclear disarmament—that is the atmosphere and the opportunity. Therefore, not to proceed with replacing Trident would be a very good thing.

I recognise the taking of submarines off patrol. I recognise the reduction in the number of warheads. I recognise the Government’s willingness to develop an arms reduction laboratory and to take part in a number of serious discussions and conversations about a nuclear-free world. That is welcome and a change, but we must take a significant step ourselves. The NPT review starts on 3 May next year, when I suspect that everyone in this Room will be busy doing other things. I would love it if whoever the British Government send to the NPT review were prepared to say that we are not proceeding with Trident, that we are prepared to take part in a nuclear weapons convention and that we recognise the importance of achieving a nuclear-free world.

The implications of not doing so are very serious. We should never forget just how evil and immoral nuclear weapons are. They are a weapon of mass destruction. They cannot be targeted at an individual military establishment or a specific bridge or whatever. A nuclear weapon is, by its very nature, blind to who it kills and what it destroys, because it is so huge. The nuclear weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were tiny compared with today’s weapons, killed several hundred thousand people in the first few hours and many more in the years to come through the fallout and the results of that explosion. The weapons available today could wipe out this planet several times over. Is it a good idea to have them? Obviously not. Is it a good idea to disarm? Obviously, yes. Is there a process available to do that? Yes, there is. The process is the NPT; the process is the nuclear weapons convention, but above all, it requires a sign and a commitment from the five declared nuclear weapons states that they are prepared to move towards disarmament and to envisage a nuclear-free world.

None of the threats that are around, of instability and all those issues, can be solved by the possession of nuclear weapons, but the more we have big, powerful nuclear weapons, the more others are encouraged to develop them. I am not in favour of any country developing its own nuclear weapons, be it North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel or Iran. I am therefore in favour of an inspection regime that inspects all civil nuclear power facilities, and above all I am in favour of an openness about and the inspection of fissile material, so that there is no production of fissile material that can then be converted into weapons-grade plutonium. It is very important to achieve those things, and we achieve them through dialogue, inclusion and a nuclear weapons convention.

I hope that the Minister can give us some optimistic news, that Britain will play its full part in the run-up to the NPT review conference and that there will be a further parliamentary debate on this issue in the early part of next year, so that we can have some parliamentary input into that. Members of Parliament have a role to play; we have an important part in the debate and the message that we give out can be very important.

I hope above all that this country does not go down the road of replacing Trident and creating a new generation of nuclear missiles, but says yes, we are prepared to take the step necessary to take away the threat of a nuclear holocaust around the world, because that is the direction in which we should go. If we miss the opportunity at the NPT review conference next year, rearmament around the world and proliferation of nuclear weapons could—I hope that it does not—follow, so this debate is timely and important and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central for securing it and for what he said today.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) for introducing the debate. His remarks were calm and considered, but he was also extremely knowledgeable in his presentation of the facts. Given that this is such an important issue, which rouses considerable passions, he deserves quite a bit of credit for that. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), too, deserves credit. I always listen carefully to what he has to say, although we do not always agree. However, his passion and the incredibly detailed information that he has fully embraced are quite incredible. I am glad that he goes to the non-nuclear proliferation treaty meetings and the NPT conferences; I hope that the various Governments there will have listened to him, because he has a considerable amount to contribute.

I have been enthralled by today’s debate, although I am not sure that my speech will reach the standard of previous contributions. However, I shall try my best. What is different this time about the period in advance of the NPT review is the contributions made by significant figures in America. It is all about politics, relationships and trust, so the leadership that we have in place is crucial. Senators Sam Nunn and Bob Graham, and William Perry, George Schultz and Henry Kissinger—significant figures from the American establishment—are not normally associated with this kind of debate. Having them take part is of great assistance.

We constantly praise President Obama. His tone, his demeanour, his approach and his emphasis on these matters is impressive. He has opened doors that his predecessors slammed shut and padlocked, determined never to open them again. We can now have sensible discussions rather than megaphone diplomacy with Russia, Iran, North Korea and China; and even France is being considered for discussion, a country that the Americans were never greatly enamoured with in previous years. I believe that President Obama, too, deserves credit.

I pay tribute, as I said, to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central for introducing this timely debate. It is important that we consider these issues.

I would not normally intrude into such a speech, but the hon. Gentleman may have missed paying tribute to someone else—as, indeed, I did. One country that sometimes gets obscured in the process is China. Its premier, Hu Jintao, has stated that China also supports the international community in developing long-term plans, including the conclusion of a convention on the complete prohibition of nuclear weapons. It is not only the conventional list of people involved in the debate; it includes other interesting but important characters.

China is looking beyond its borders. In the past, it was quite isolationist. It is now looking abroad—to a certain degree controversially so with Africa—but if it is operating in a more global sense there may be opportunities. With a man like Obama at the helm, and with the great support of the establishment in America, we might well make significant progress.

I also pay tribute, uncharacteristically, to a constituent of mine—the Prime Minister. He deserves credit for the priority, time and consideration that he has given to the matter. He has made a number of high-profile keynote speeches, and made specific contributions to the debate. I agreed with him when he said that

“we cannot expect to successfully exercise moral and political leadership in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons if we ourselves do not demonstrate leadership on the question of disarmament of our weapons”.

He has come up with a disarmament package, and has been considering the technology and a nuclear bank. However—there is always a “but”—the foundation upon which he is building that dialogue is fractured.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the debate of a few years ago on the renewal of Trident. We made the case strongly at the time that such a decision was premature. We did not need to make it then. We thought that the main gate was a more appropriate time. However, it is not simply a party political debate for us in this country; we are also sending out the message to partners throughout the world that we are carrying on regardless.

The Prime Minister also spoke of cutting the number of missile tubes from 16 to 12, but for a number of years the Trident submarines have all operated on 12, so it was not a substantial commitment. He must be careful that his commitments are substantial and recognised. The audiences that listen to such debates and hear such commitments understand the details. Another important matter is the strategic defence and security review. Not to include Trident in that review will again send the poor message to the rest of the world that we are carrying on regardless. None the less, the Prime Minister is committing time and political capital to the issue, which is what it deserves. Along with the major figures in America, we might therefore make some progress.

The next important thing is to have an early discussion about the initial gate for Trident. The debate has been put off, which I regret, as I believe that it would be worth having such a debate before the election. However, I am glad that it has been recognised that the decision should not have been snuck out during the summer recess.

Since the vote two or three years ago the domestic and international reality has been radically transformed. In the light of the economic recession, it is incumbent upon us to review our priorities. It has even put into greater focus the £76 billion cost of running Trident. We have also moved on significantly regarding the threats posed to this country. We no longer have a cold war.

People say that, because we can never predict the future, we should never change our strategy; but unless we try to project into the future and predict what the threats might be, we will be hamstrung. We will constantly be going for the gold-plated option. We will never be considering in a smart or intelligent way how to deal with the threat that is posed. President Obama is opening dialogue with other countries, but it is important that we follow with action.

We must also consider whether, in our dealings with Iran and North Korea, it is possible for us to provide any motivation or incentive for those nations to act differently. Will Britain’s continuing to have nuclear weapons have an impact? The hon. Member for Manchester, Central rightly referred to incentives and sanctions. It is an important consideration. The grand bargain has been broken: we did not complete our part of the bargain of constantly striving towards disarmament.

Although my party is not in favour of nuclear power, we recognise that part of the bargain was that other countries would have access to the nuclear cycle for civil nuclear power. That part of the bargain, too, has not been progressed. It is little wonder, therefore, that those countries have lost faith in the non-proliferation treaty and are now seeking to go their own way. If we are to encourage those countries to act more responsibly, we need a package of incentives and sanctions.

It is no good coming up with alternatives just in advance of the NPT. We need longer-lasting initiatives and ideas if we are not to end up with countries saying, “We are fully committed to the NPT,” and then going on to say that they will never get rid of their nuclear weapons because they cannot predict the future and therefore need their gold-plated protection to remain in place. We must act on our words. We need much more effective delivery over the long term if those countries are to have any faith in commitments made by NPT members.

We Liberal Democrats have reviewed our position in the light of changing international and economic circumstances. We have also reviewed our position on Trident. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has been commissioned by our party leader to consider the alternatives. I shall not go into them now, because I do not want to prejudge what my right hon. and learned Friend will say. Nevertheless, if the Government took a similar approach, they could send out to the rest of the world the message that we were seriously considering changes to our nuclear weapons systems, so that there could be more trust in what we were committing to.

As hon. Members know, article VI of the treaty relates to nuclear disarmament. It states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The 2000 NPT review conference agreed 13 practical steps, of which No. 6—I hope hon. Members will forgive me for reading it out—refers to

“an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all states parties are committed under Article VI”.

I would challenge those who believe that, as we can never predict the future, we must always have a system, about whether they are truly committed to the NPT conference, the NPT treaty and the 2000 review conference, and to the 13 practical steps that were outlined. I have heard other parties say, “As we can never predict, we will never get rid of it,” but I think that that position does not comply with the treaty. I would like to hear from the other parties whether they will consider removal of our nuclear weapons systems, and not adopt the argument about never removing them because we can never predict.

That is an important consideration, because if we do not act on our words, use the right language and have the right commitment, it will be no surprise when other countries deviate from the provisions according to which we believe they should be operating.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing the debate and on the quality of his opening speech. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of travelling with the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) to Washington, where we met various representatives of the United States Administration to discuss the matters we are debating today. My conversations with the hon. Gentleman during that visit left me in no doubt about not just his expertise in dealing with this subject, but his deep and long-standing commitment to the cause of non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament.

When we look at the history of the non-proliferation treaty, we can take some pride in the fact that it has helped, in its way, to keep the peace in the world over recent decades. Most importantly, the existence of the treaty and the framework of inspections and controls it incorporates have provided mechanisms that have prevented proliferation. In trying to imagine how the world might have developed if the NPT had not existed, I think we would today see a world with many more powers in possession of nuclear weapons. The NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency have also provided a mechanism for allowing certain countries—the ex-Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and also South Africa—to dismantle nuclear weapons programmes that they had on their territory.

Nevertheless, the NPT arrangements are now under strain as never before. That derives from a number of different trends, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. At its most basic, nuclear know-how is much more widely spread throughout the world than in the 1960s or 1970s, and that knowledge of details of nuclear technology can be transmitted from country to country on a disc or at the click of a mouse. Because of rising hydrocarbon prices and concerns about climate change, more and more countries are looking to develop civil nuclear energy programmes, as they are entitled to do, but which adds to the risk of creating a further spread of nuclear knowledge and materials around the world. That makes it ever more important that systems of physical control and of inspection are fit for purpose.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there are now not only sovereign states that have developed or are seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty, but terrorist groups that make no secret of their wish to obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them to create as many victims as possible. Today the ambition and example of North Korea and Iran are testing to the limit whether the controls embodied in the NPT actually work and will provide a safeguard against further proliferation.

My party is utterly committed to making next year’s NPT review a success. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has spoken on a number of occasions about the critical importance of the review and his fear that if it were to fail or be seen to have been a failure, it would in practice present a green light to other nations with regard to starting to develop nuclear weapons programmes of their own.

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

We would like to see the parties to the treaty set themselves a number of objectives next year. One should be to strengthen the inspectorate by, for example, making the additional protocol, with its provision for unannounced inspections, mandatory for all signatories to the treaty. Another should be to make it easier for action to be taken against violations of the treaty or defiance of the IAEA. For example, there might be provision for automatic reference to the Security Council if a country acted in the way that Iran has done, having withdrawn from the additional protocol after originally subscribing to it.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not in favour of anybody developing nuclear weapons, but will he concede that although Iran has not signed up to the additional protocol, it has maintained membership of the NPT process itself? That is quite valuable, because it provides an opportunity for negotiation, discussion and debate. If Iran was driven out of the NPT, it would not be very helpful.

It is certainly important that Iran remain within the NPT process and that inspectors can carry out checks, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the major anxieties about the Iranian Government’s conduct is that they still refuse to co-operate fully with the IAEA’s requests to be allowed to inspect the facilities that it wants to examine or to have access to the individual Iranian scientists and other officials to whom it wishes to speak. When Iranian Government spokesmen say or hint that if they are pushed much further, they will walk out of the NPT altogether and chuck the inspectors out of their territory, it sends a message saying that one has reason to mistrust the Iranian Government’s intentions. Whether or not that is the message they intend to convey, that is how such an attitude is interpreted elsewhere in the world.

Another important item on next year’s agenda should be efforts to internationalise the nuclear fuel cycle. Again, that is very much a live issue in respect of Iran. Different Governments, including our own, have made various proposals such as international banks of enriched material or guarantees from existing nuclear weapons states to supply the enriched material required for the civil nuclear programmes of countries that are not nuclear weapons states but that wish legitimately, within the treaty framework, to develop civil nuclear energy programmes. Establishing some form of international control over the nuclear fuel cycle is essential if those countries seeking to develop civil nuclear energy are to be able to press ahead while retaining confidence that adequate safeguards against weapons proliferation remain in place.

I strongly agree with this part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he accept that a country considering gaining access to civil nuclear energy would want absolute guarantees that it would not face massive commercial disadvantage as a result of internationalisation or the possibility that, for reasons outside the ambit of the NPT, people could try to use the process as a way of interrupting the fuel cycle? It must be a system secure enough to allow those who buy into it to trust the regime.

I agree. Confidence on the part of those countries that are not nuclear weapons states but wish to develop civil nuclear energy that they will not be put at a permanent disadvantage in the security of their legitimate energy supplies by arrangements designed to stop weapons proliferation will be crucial to the success of the review which we all hope for. That is an important point.

The other item that has to be addressed next year, though I do not underestimate how difficult it will be to achieve, is finding a way of extending the NPT regime to those nuclear weapons states––India, Pakistan and Israel––that have nuclear weapons but are not party to the treaty and recognised as nuclear weapons states. One big problem we will face next year is that any change or new and binding arrangement will need unanimity. Looking around the world at the tensions in various regions, one sees how easy it would be for even a relatively small number of countries to disrupt proceedings for their own reasons and make it impossible to reach a unanimous and constructive conclusion.

The political climate in which the review will take place is certain to be influenced by other developments, not least what happens between now and then in North Korea and Iran. I hope that the Minister will bring us up to date on the Government’s assessment of the situation with both those countries. From the outside, it seems that the challenge posed by North Korea has calmed somewhat in recent months. The language of the North Koreans is not quite as belligerent as it was earlier this year. Does the Minister believe that there is cause to hope that there is a way forward in persuading Pyongyang to return to the NPT and to suspend and then abandon its weapons programmes?

With Iran, from where I stand, it seems to be a case of pessimistic assessments becoming more powerful. A couple of weeks ago, we were all hoping that the compromise proposal for Iranian nuclear material to be sent abroad for enrichment might be agreed by all parties, but the reluctance of Tehran to sign up to that compromise is disheartening. That causes us to wonder about the good faith of the Iranian Government in the nuclear negotiations. It would be helpful to have the Minister’s assessment of how the Government see the state of play there.

As the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out, the context for next year’s review of the NPT will also be affected by progress, or the lack of it, in other nuclear negotiations and agreements. I do not think that he and I have ever in our political lives been on the same side of a debate on nuclear weapons, but I make it clear that we accept that all nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT are bound by the obligation to seek multilateral disarmament. In response to the call by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Sam Nunn for setting an objective of abolishing all nuclear weapons, we said that we would sign up to it while remaining cautious about the time that it will take and the enormous difficulty of achieving such an objective, however desirable.

The first step that might be taken towards a new round of multilateral disarmament and creating a propitious climate for the NPT review would be if the United States and Russia were to agree on a replacement for the strategic arms limitation treaty when that expires next month. Do the Government believe that such a deal between Washington and Moscow is likely and, if so, what time frame might it be achieved in? Do they think that a START––strategic arms reduction treaty––agreement might then lead to a further round of multilateral talks in advance of the review of the NPT next summer? I hope too that the Government might be able to tell us something about the state of progress on international agreement on physical control of nuclear materials and the idea of a fissile material cut-off agreement.

Finally, I hope that next year the Government will encourage our friends in the United States, particularly our friends in both parties in the US Congress, to accept that American ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty would be a major signal of US commitment to the process of multilateral disarmament. It would undoubtedly help towards the achievement of a successful review of the non-proliferation treaty, which it is profoundly in the interests of this country to secure and which, clearly from today’s debate, commands the support of all sides of the House.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) on securing such an important debate and by paying tribute to him, as one of my predecessors as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister and in his role as a parliamentarian, for being a long-standing champion of a nuclear-free world.

As my hon. Friend said, we are facing a year of unique opportunity, but also one of unique challenge in some ways, which will be a test of political leadership and political will. In the same way as this generation’s response to the challenge of climate change will determine the destiny of future generations—that is generally understood—the question of nuclear proliferation is very much up there as one of the top issues about which this generation of politicians must make difficult choices that will determine the destiny of the world in the long term.

Today’s debate has been measured, mature and an important contribution to raising awareness of the non-proliferation issue as we face a year of unique opportunity and challenge. The issue needs a lot more of the oxygen of debate in Parliament and in the country, in terms of the leadership role that Britain seeks to play and will be playing.

Since the House last debated nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the Government have continued to give the issue a top priority. The Prime Minister launched the UK’s “The Road to 2010” plan in Parliament on 16 July, which set out a detailed blueprint of proposals for a balanced strengthening of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime. It has been well received and gained positive support from President Obama.

On 3 and 4 September, we hosted a groundbreaking conference for the P5—the five permanent United Nations Security Council members—to discuss confidence-building measures towards nuclear disarmament. We worked closely with the Security Council members to secure the landmark summit chaired by President Obama and resolution 1887, which has helped to increase political momentum for strengthening the non-proliferation treaty. Secretary of State Clinton said that the UK’s leadership was a crucial factor in the success of the summit.

Next May, at the NPT review conference, we must give expression to and make tangible steps forward towards the new positive approach. Working with partners from across the international community, we shall seek a mandate for concrete, realistic and balanced action to strengthen the NPT’s three mutually reinforcing pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. We want a mandate to strengthen the non-proliferation regime through improved safeguarding, verification and compliance measures.

We believe that comprehensive safeguard agreements, which allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to track its members’ declared activities, and the additional protocol that will allow the IAEA to detect undeclared activities, should become the obligatory minimum standard, so that the organisation can police the non-proliferation regime effectively. We are committed to ensuring that the IAEA has the necessary authority and capacity to assure compliance with non-proliferation objectives.

As hon. Members have said, improving the organisation’s ability to detect safeguard violations will not be enough. Potential violators must know that if they are caught there will be a high price. We should adopt automatic penalties for violation of safeguard agreements, such as suspending international nuclear co-operation or technical co-operation projects until compliance has been restored. Referral to the UN Security Council would be another option.

Outside the NPT process we must use financial and legal tools better to disrupt illicit proliferation networks, which will mean tightening controls on transshipment and strengthening restrictions on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology. More robust international mechanisms of enforcement are essential to ensure that we avoid future challenges such as those presented by North Korea and Iran. The international community must stand together to demonstrate that if the NPT is to be taken seriously, it will truly be enforced. The actions of Iran and North Korea must not be allowed to prevent the international community from moving forward to a more peaceful era.

Our position is very clear and it is important to make the point: Iran has a right to a peaceful nuclear programme, as any other country does. We respect Iran as a major country in its region, with a major international role to play, but it needs to understand that there is an expectation that it will adhere to international rules and be transparent about all aspects of its nuclear programme. Without that, the international community can have no confidence in the intentions of the Iranian regime and will have to act appropriately.

By conducting a nuclear test, North Korea contravened its international legal obligations under the NPT, and its ballistic missile launches are a clear breach of UN Security Council resolutions. Those provocative actions undermine regional security. In response to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), there is a glimmer of hope for North Korean engagement but, as yet, there are no tangible signs of a North Korea willing to play by the rules. We continue to hope that it will change course. In the same way, we hope that, although the clock is ticking, Iran will respond positively to the offer of dialogue, diplomacy and engagement to reach a peaceful resolution to the situation.

Hon. Members raised the question of India, Pakistan and Israel. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) suggested that Britain had done nothing to apply pressure to India and Pakistan. I assure her that Britain continues, both in our bilateral relationships and in multilateral dialogue, regularly to make the point to India and Pakistan that we want them to come within the international framework and the international regime. One point that is not often sufficiently made about our action in Afghanistan is that it is due to the serious and real threat of Pakistan’s nuclear capacity falling into the hands of fundamentalist terrorist organisations, which would threaten the stability not only of the region but of the entire world.

I recently met the deputy Foreign Minister of Israel as part of bilateral dialogue between our countries. We made it clear to Israel that now is the time for it to sign up to the treaty. Even Israel’s making a clear statement that it was considering joining the NPT, perhaps against an agreed time frame, could make a significant difference to the willingness of other middle eastern countries to participate and to their sense of security. This may be a moment when Israel can seriously consider signing the NPT, which would be a major contribution to progress in the period ahead and to giving greater confidence to other states in the region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central raised the question of the price of withdrawal from the NPT. Our position is that we support the EU document tabled at the 2007 committee that sets out clear consequences for countries that quit the treaty in circumstances likely to damage international security. It is good that discussion on modalities was referenced in September’s Security Council resolution 1887, promoted by President Obama. One of our priorities is to make progress on that.

As the Prime Minister has said, to exercise leadership on non-proliferation, the nuclear weapons states must show the same moral and political leadership on disarmament. That also plays to the point that my hon. Friend made about negative security assurances. We understand the desire of non-nuclear weapons states for negative security assurances, but, more than that, the United Kingdom has already given such assurances to almost 100 countries under the nuclear weapons-free zone treaties. We were delighted to be able to support the Thai resolution at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago, which called for the resumption of consultations on the south-east Asia nuclear weapons-free zone treaty.

The Minister is making roughly the speech that I had expected. That is a compliment, not an insult. Negative security assurances can be treaty-based. Nuclear-free areas of the world already exist. On the middle east, there is sense in saying to Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran that the world recognises their particular security needs. That should be done not just by Britain, but collectively to reassure them that if they were to forgo nuclear weapons, it would not be at the cost of their survival, nor would it increase the threat from their neighbours.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Such guarantees would be extremely important to a long-term settlement in the middle east, at the heart of which would be a two-state solution and the offer from the Arab League states to normalise relations with Israel. We should pay serious attention to that issue as we move towards the review conference in May.

In the run-up to the NPT review next May, does the Minister have any hopes for the development of a nuclear weapons convention or the participation, by some mechanism, of India, Pakistan and Israel in the review? Is he concerned that, having withdrawn from the NPT process after developing its own nuclear weapons, India was ultimately rewarded by the United States with nuclear technology? That is not a good precedent.

Logically, a convention could be the ultimate legal underpinning of a nuclear weapon-free world. However, we cannot wish away current political realities and pretend that negotiations on such a convention would make headway. We believe that having a new conference or new bodies to discuss such a convention at this time would run the risk of undermining the NPT.

We are concerned about the signals sent out by the Indian deal, but assurances about India’s future conduct were gained as part of it. We want to see the delivery and implementation of the commitments made by India, but we have not seen anywhere near as much progress as we would have liked. I must make progress to do justice to the points raised by hon. Members.

On Trident, hon. Members are aware that the initial gate report will consider a broad design option and recommend a preferred option. That will allow detailed design work to start. It will not involve a decision on the number of boats or on the warhead. Initial gate is an internal decision point that will ensure that the programme is on track. Construction contracts will not be issued until after the main gate, which will be at some time around 2014, although there will be similar contracts to commission design work after initial gate. There is a commitment after initial gate to keep Parliament informed and to ensure that there is an opportunity for further debate and discussion.

Although I respect the contribution of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), the question of what is Liberal Democrat policy on the replacement for Trident remains. His contribution erred on the side of scepticism about the replacement for Trident. He should not give the impression to the House or the public that Liberal Democrat policy is that there should be no replacement for Trident, unless he wants to clarify his party’s policy on the matter.

I am grateful for the opportunity. I did not know that the Minister took such great interest in my party’s position. We have made it clear that, first, the decision was premature, and secondly, we will not replace Trident on a like-for-like basis. We have made that statement and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) is conducting a review to look into those options. The Minister knows that that is our position and that it remains our position.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that the Liberal Democrats are conducting a review and that they have certainly not made a decision not to replace Trident in any form. It is important that the public are clear about the respective policies of the political parties that are represented in the House.

I want to deal with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central made about fissile material security, which was also mentioned by other hon. Members. The Government are committed to tackling the threat of terrorists getting their hands on fissile material. We have developed an extensive programme of work to mitigate that and we have worked closely with international partners and doubled our contribution to the IAEA nuclear security fund to assist countries in improving the security of their nuclear facilities.

However, it must be said that there is still considerable work to do. We welcome the fact that the new United States Administration have signalled that the matter will be one of their top priorities and that Parliament has expressed its support for our policy on nuclear security. The scrutiny period on the ratification of the amendment to the convention on the physical protection of nuclear material has now passed and we will be formally ratifying the convention in the coming weeks.

I want to refer to the comments about the negotiations—the discussions— between the United States and Russia, which I think hon. Members accept is a very important element to our capacity to make progress because, after all, US and Russian nuclear weapons comprise some 95 per cent. of the world’s total stockpile. We very much welcome the joint understanding between Presidents Obama and Medvedev in July to conclude a successor agreement to the strategic arms reduction treaty, which expires in December. In response to the hon. Member for Aylesbury, we are hopeful that there will be such an agreement by the end of this year on a new legally binding treaty further to reduce US and Russian strategic offensive arms. That will make a major contribution and send the right signal. However, we also recognise that further progress must be made.

It is worth reflecting on the progress that Britain has made on the issue since the cold war. We have reduced the explosive power of our nuclear forces by around 75 per cent., reduced the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160 and reduced the number of nuclear weapons delivery systems to just one. On the submarine-based Trident system, our warheads are not targeted at any particular country and are at several days’ notice to fire. We now possess only around 1 per cent. of the global and nuclear warhead stockpile.

Although some hon. Members would say that we have not gone far enough, in the context of multilateralism, we have sought to lead by example and have made an important contribution. In the same way as we have responded to the world economic crisis and the emergency of climate change, in international forums it is our Prime Minister who has often banged the table and demanded a much greater level of global action on the issue. Of course, that was very difficult without a US Administration with a more progressive approach, but now that we have a more progressive partner in the US, there are some very real opportunities. The United Kingdom’s level of influence on these issues is significantly linked to the international respect that our Prime Minister has gained as a result of the leadership he has provided over a long period.

The year ahead will be seen as an historic moment in terms of non-proliferation. The challenge that political leaders face is to demonstrate that they are up to this great task and that they will make the right decision for future generations. The decisions that are made this year will determine whether a nuclear weapon-free world is simply some illusion or whether it will be achievable in the lifetime of the parliamentarians who have participated in this debate. There is no doubt that the terms of the debate have changed in recent times. The question is whether the international community can demonstrate the political will to take necessary risks and to take bold and brave decisions that are in the long-term interests of our planet.

South London Line

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for having chosen this debate for this afternoon. I am conscious that, in comparison with the subject of the last debate, this issue might be regarded as parochial. I accept that it is not in the same league as ending the nuclear arms race, but for people who live and work in or visit this great capital city of ours, the future of the South London line is very important. I am grateful to the Minister for attending the debate, and I note the presence of the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who also has an important constituency interest in this matter. I will be happy to accept a contribution from him later in the debate.

Those of us who have represented south London for a while have had many battles about transport. I was reflecting earlier on a debate that occurred when I was first elected, in which Lynda Chalker—now Baroness Chalker—was a Transport Minister. I remember that she conceded that south-east London was a white hole on the London transport map and that we needed to do something about it. In those days, the first battle was to persuade London Underground, as it then was, to extend the Bakerloo line down to New Cross to connect with the East London line, and to extend the Northern line down to Camberwell. Both of those extensions seemed entirely logical to everyone—the space was available and there were old railway lines at the Bricklayers Arms yards—but we lost those opportunities, which was a mistake, as the congestion on our roads and buses ever since has shown. I am keen to ensure that we do not lose another opportunity to sustain the level of train and rail services, especially given the changed pattern of services.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, let me say something on that last point. As Baroness Chalker has lived in my constituency, I am sure that she would agree that the whole of south London suffers because, although it is criss-crossed with railway lines, the railway companies often put the travel needs of south Londoners well behind those of longer-distance commuters. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

I absolutely agree; that has certainly been the case. My constituency has many roads that have railway lines going over them, and in the old days, there were many more local stations. This morning at the Armistice day service in Bermondsey, someone who had heard that I would be having this debate asked me, “Are you also campaigning to make sure that the Spa Road station is reopened?” There used to be more stations like that one, and one of the great battles of recent years has been trying to get the train services to service the people of our communities and not just to pass through, over or under us. I have some suggestions on ways we can ensure that it does not happen again.

The next battle that I fought was about the Jubilee line extension that Mrs. Thatcher’s Government wanted. They were in discussions with the people at Canary Wharf about paying for it, but the proposal that was the main runner was for the line to run from Waterloo to London Bridge and then directly to Canary Wharf without stopping anywhere in between. That case required private legislation, and I am happy to say that I blocked it for long enough to achieve what was needed. I later saw a memo that said something like, “If we don’t give in to the local MP, we’re never going to get this line at all.” So I think that the most prized success of my political life has been winning two extra tube stations—one in Southwark and one in Bermondsey—at a cost of £25 million each. They are very valued stations, and it would have been a nonsense to have a tube line extension that did not stop to serve the local business and resident communities, and visitors. Fortunately, we were successful.

We then had a battle to make the East London line connect with things, because it used to be the shortest of the tube lines running north to south under the Thames, ending at New Cross and New Cross Gate in the south. That was closed for a long time and we feared that it would not be reopened, but we were successful and won the argument to reopen it. It has now been closed to be turned into an Overground line, which is due to open next year and is on time. It will run from Highbury and Islington in the north to Crystal Palace and West Croydon in the south, and there will be new stations, which is very good, and which we are grateful for.

The debate is not about either/or. That line is on target, on time and will be a valuable addition to the transport system in London. It will be well used. In the run-up to the Olympics, and during and after the games, it will be extremely valuable for connecting all the people coming in from the south-east of England and saving them from having to go through the centre of London.

I, too, welcome the development of the East London line. I understand that trains have already run on the tracks as far as Dalston and that the works are ahead of schedule. The East London line phase 2 was agreed thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) when he was Secretary of State for Transport. It is vital that the official EU notice of the East London line phase 2 contract should be signed next month and is not delayed. I understand that that might be delayed, but that would be a great shame at this stage for a project that is so needed and that has been on time so far.

The hon. Gentleman and I share a common interest in ensuring that that really good idea is taken through to completion, and I endorse his intervention completely.

Our fourth battle was over the Thameslink line, but that was another example of the interests of the locals being bluntly overridden in the end. The options were whether the Thameslink service, which in itself is a good thing—a north-south, through-London, cross-capital service linking Luton airport in the north to Gatwick in the south—should go via the Elephant and Castle and Herne Hill or via London Bridge and the other way. After many public inquiries it was decided that it should go via London Bridge. Although that was well received by commuters on the line, it was not well received locally because it has meant the demolition of a listed building at Borough market, the alteration of other listed buildings and the moving of the market itself. Many of us feared that the character of that fantastic mediaeval wholesale market, which is still working and very popular, might be put at risk. We lost that because of the point to which the hon. Gentleman referred: in the end the interests of the wider community overrode those of the local community.

There are also other, smaller consequences of that decision. For example, if one wants a night service on the Thameslink line one now has to go to St. Pancras to join the service. Debates are still ongoing about the removal of the international terminal from Waterloo to St. Pancras, and the Minister helpfully saw a group of us a few days ago to discuss the future of Waterloo station, because clearly that also needs redevelopment.

My last specific point relates to the South London line, which is an orbital, loop line running from London Bridge in my constituency. It runs through South Bermondsey, which is also in my constituency, Queens Road Peckham, Peckham Rye, Denmark Hill, Clapham High Street, Wandsworth Road and Battersea Park and arrives in Victoria. Just as we have a North London line, so we have a South London line, and it has been a very useful service. I clearly have a specific interest in two stations and their users. Today’s debate is timely because the Minister’s colleague, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), met today with the Mayor of London, Members of the Greater London assembly, including my colleague, Caroline Pidgeon, who is a Liberal Democrat assembly member, the Southwark rail users group, the Lambeth rail users group, representatives of the King’s Health Partners and others. It is also timely because we know that there is an important meeting on 24 November as part of the consultation on the options.

My arguments are simple. My key argument is that I do not accept that as a result of Thameslink, all services on the South London line should finish because it is impossible to accommodate them at London Bridge. I know the lay-out of London Bridge and I understand the arguments—it needs more through track and through platforms and fewer terminus platforms—but I do not think it impossible in engineering or structural terms to continue the service. That would mean that people starting at Victoria or any other stop on the line could carry on around the same line to London Bridge, or vice versa. That is important because clearly, people who live and work in my constituency or visit it find it more convenient to use one train than to change trains, with all the uncertainty that that always produces.

I argue, therefore, that rather than promising a service that will always connect—because, with the best will in the world, it does not always connect—it is better to keep the existing good service, even if it does not run as frequently as it does currently. If people know that there is a regular service twice, three times or four times an hour, they can organise their lives accordingly. If people know that it is more frequent during rush hour than the rest of the day and on weekdays than at weekends, they can organise their lives. That is important for three reasons. First, a growing number of people live and work in and visit boroughs such as mine, which has 250,000 people, and the other south London boroughs affected. For them, it is the most important route. If we are encouraging people to use public transport, we should encourage them to use the South London line.

Secondly, there is a particularly large benefit in having a direct line service from London Bridge and South Bermondsey to Denmark Hill, a recently refurbished and hugely improved station. That is the station for King’s College hospital and the Maudsley hospital. London Bridge is the station for Guy’s hospital. Both serve the university partnership, with the students and those who teach them, at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ and King’s. There are huge numbers of patients, plus all those pursuing their academic life. The numbers of patients are almost unexpectedly high. There are 2 million patients locally, and a potential 5 million patients using the hospitals, as they are specialist teaching hospitals. The Maudsley, with its Institute of Psychiatry, is the premier psychiatric hospital in the country, and Guy’s is hugely busy internationally as well as nationally. We are talking about very large numbers indeed. For those people, the South London line is important, particularly for the mentally ill, physically ill or disabled. Changing trains or finding access to stations difficult adds to the burden, risk and difficulty or puts people off altogether, and they resort to other, more expensive forms of transport such as their own private car or a cab.

Lastly, although the numbers are not as big, Millwall football stadium, the New Den, is at South Bermondsey, and is used regularly. Millwall, happily, are doing fantastically well again, having just won in the cup on Monday, and they are shooting back up to the top of their league. It is also used for other events, not just football. It would be nonsense if we cut off people’s direct access to such an important venue.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some other stations on the South London line would suffer even more? I am thinking particularly of Wandsworth Road. It would lose its direct link with Victoria, which also serves my constituency as well as that of my neighbour. Battersea Park would be cut off entirely from the South London line. Would it not be preferable to allow selective door opening at those stations? Service into Victoria from all of them could be accommodated easily provided that Network Rail got over its embarrassment at having selective door opening so close to Victoria. That seems to be the only reason holding it back from continuing a direct link to Victoria from those stations.

The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely clear point. The options study is now on the table. People have accepted that we need to consider the options. There is equivocation about whether we should accept that we cannot get trains all the way around the loop to London Bridge. We need to be absolutely clear that we start with a service that keeps the line running all the way around the loop, for the reasons that he and I argue, and then work out how to add to infrastructure, train length and so on as the need arises.

I want to finish by giving some figures. There are 25,000 members of staff at the health and academic institutions on the sites that are affected at Guy’s hospital, in London Bridge, and at King’s College hospital and the Maudsley hospital, in Denmark Hill. There are 15,000 students and academics across the three campus sites at those hospitals.

I am conscious that this is an issue of both technicality and funding. I would be really grateful to hear from the Minister today that the Government will not say that they oppose the idea of continuing to look for a way of keeping the service between Victoria and London Bridge, although I obviously understand that we would have to look at how the funding would be raised to keep the service. However, if in theory it is acceptable to the Government, who are a key stakeholder, the Government can come in to bat with Members of Parliament, such as the hon. Gentleman and myself, with Transport for London and others with an interest, to ensure that we keep a service and do not lose it.

If we are arguing for public transport, to reduce a service or to make public transport on the trains of south London more difficult at this stage seems to be completely contrary to all logic. I hope, therefore, that the Government can give us a helpful reply.

First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate and on making the case so well for rail services in this area of south London. In the time that I have, I may struggle to cover the complexity of the issues involved and he may not find that the shape of my response entirely matches the way he has put his questions. However, I will hopefully cover much of the ground as we go along.

I am aware that this issue is also of interest to a number of other Members of Parliament, given the correspondence I have received over the summer, to other stakeholders and indeed to the wider public. As was mentioned earlier, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), met a delegation from the London assembly, including the Mayor of London, earlier this afternoon to discuss this very issue.

It is probably worth starting my response to the points that were raised by setting out the background to the proposed changes on the South London line and some details about the existing service. It is also worth making it clear that, when referring to the South London line, I am referring to the service from London Bridge to London Victoria via Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill—not forgetting, of course, South Bermondsey station, which is used by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

The current service operates every 30 minutes in each direction between London Victoria and London Bridge, and it is operated by two-car trains through most of the day, with four-car trains provided in the morning peak period. It provides the only service for Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street stations, with all other stations on the line being served by other train services. These services on the South London line, although busy in peak periods, do not have a material crowding problem. Indeed, the latest “passenger in excess of capacity” figures for autumn 2008 show fewer passengers than overall capacity on all trains.

I also want to give some background to the Thameslink work at London Bridge and planned service changes. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, works on the Thameslink programme have already commenced across London. From late 2012, some time after the Olympics, London Bridge will become the focus for the project. While works are carried out, the capacity of London Bridge, in terms of the number of trains it can accommodate, will be reduced. It is simply not possible to rebuild a Victorian station that is situated on a viaduct in a congested part of central London without some disruption to services. We all recognise that that reduction in the number of services that can operate into London Bridge is not ideal but, as they say, it is simply not possible to make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

Service changes will also be required on other routes into London Bridge. Indeed, those changes were highlighted in the Department’s consultation on the South Central franchise last year. The original plan, as consulted on by Network Rail as part of the South London route utilisation strategy—or RUS—document, was to divert the South London line service away from London Bridge. That would have created a new Victoria to Bellingham service south of Catford, where sidings exist to allow trains on that service to terminate.

The reason for the diversion of the South London line between Peckham Rye and London Bridge is that that line carries the smallest number of passengers into London Bridge of all the services into London Bridge. Typically in the morning peak period, some 350 people are on each of the South London line trains arriving at London Bridge between 8 am and 9 am. The evening peak loadings are significantly lower than that.

I recognise that changes to these services will consequently impact on these current users. However, similar train services into London Bridge carry more than double the number of passengers compared with the South London line, and South London line passengers from Peckham Rye, Queen’s Road Peckham, and South Bermondsey will have other services that they can use, which operate from the East Dulwich corridor. For example, South Bermondsey would still have six trains an hour to London Bridge at peak times and four trains an hour in off-peak times.

Although it was recognised that links between South London line stations west of Peckham Rye and London Bridge would be cut, journeys would still be possible via a change of train at Peckham Rye or Queens Road, Peckham, and that is without having to change platform.

For all the reasons noted above, it was the Department’s intention to implement a Victoria to Bellingham service in late 2012 in place of the existing Victoria to London Bridge service. The service changes made by TfL now mean that such a replacement strategy will not be implemented as originally planned. The changes were made at the request of the Mayor and TfL.

I turn now to the East London line extension phase 2 to Clapham Junction. The south London route utilisation strategy highlighted the potential benefits that the extension of the East London line to Clapham Junction would bring to this area of south London in providing new orbital links to and from south, west, east, north and north-east London and reducing passenger congestion on London Bridge while rebuilding works were under way. However, despite a significant increase in the budget made available to them in recent years, TfL and the Mayor did not believe that the £75 million scheme was affordable within the TfL budget. That reflected the priority that the Mayor gave to this scheme against other transport improvements in London.

The Department recognised that the East London line would deliver some additional benefits to passengers, and therefore accepted the responsibility to fund a £19 million addition to Network Rail’s borrowings to fund works on the national rail network. It also supplied a further £20 million increase to TfL’s overall grant to fund part of the East London line project and help fund other transport schemes in London. I understand that around £15 million of that was earmarked for the East London line. TfL therefore proposed to fill the funding gap by withdrawing the replacement South London line service to Bellingham in its entirety from late 2012, with the money saved being diverted towards the capital costs of the East London line extension. The cost savings over 10 years for not operating this service were £24 million, which the Department agreed to provide to TfL.

Therefore, out of an estimated cost of £75 million, the Department will be funding some £58 million of the project, with TfL funding around a quarter of the costs. That was a change that TfL was fully at liberty to request, given the powers granted to it over Department for Transport-specified train services. Similar powers also exist for the passenger transport executives in other metropolitan areas.

TfL made the judgment that the East London line service to Clapham Junction provided better overall benefits than the South London line to Bellingham. As London’s transport planning body, it is entirely appropriate that it should make that judgment and assess the trade-offs between the different service proposals, especially as the service operates solely within the zone 2 boundary.

TfL analysis showed that some 12 million people would use the second phase of the East London line, compared with 5 million who would use the Bellingham service.

I thank my hon. Friend for restating the Government’s firm belief in the East London line extension phase 2, which is going ahead. However, does he not think that TfL could easily reinstate the direct link from Wandsworth Road or Clapham to Victoria simply by inserting additional stops and extending operating hours on one of the many other services that go through such stations on their way to Victoria?

I advise my hon. Friend that we will be exploring more options as we go forward.

As with any such funding agreements, there are a number of conditions attached to the funding, of which TfL was fully aware before it signed up to the offer. Conscious of the need to keep stakeholders informed on any changes, the Department included within the agreement a clause that requires TfL to inform key stakeholders on the route of the changes proposed.

The decision not to implement the proposed London Victoria to Bellingham service was requested by TfL and the Mayor. Implementing both the Bellingham service and the East London line would have been ideal. TfL and the Mayor judged that the East London line extension provided more benefits than the South London line and decided to use funds allocated to a replacement Victoria to Bellingham service to finance a shortfall in funding allocated by the Mayor to the East London line. As a result, central Government will be funding over three quarters of the overall budget for the scheme, with the Mayor funding around £17 million.

The East London line will bring significant benefits to this part of south London. It will provide four trains per hour between Clapham Junction and Dalston seven days a week. The service will be provided by new four- car high-density units like those that TfL is introducing on the North London line and East London line phase 1 when it opens next year. It will provide connections with key interchanges on to other parts of the London transport network, such as at Canada Water for the Jubilee line, Shadwell for the Docklands Light Railway and Whitechapel, with interchanges for the District and Hammersmith and City lines. It will provide a connection with Crossrail, when that project is complete, and with Clapham Junction, for Southern and South West Trains and other London Overground services. Importantly, it will also aid the regeneration of the Peckham Rye, Camberwell and Denmark Hill areas by significantly improving access to jobs across London.

Transport for London estimates that the East London line phase 2 increases by 125,000 the number of jobs potentially available within a one-hour commute of this area. That compares with 36,000 from the proposed Bellingham service. I recognise that there are some downsides to these plans and I understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend about a possible delay, but I am not aware of any delay in relation to the East London line phase 2. He really should talk to TfL about that.

Between Victoria, Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye, passengers will not, under the current plan, be able to access Victoria directly in the late evenings after 8 pm and on Sundays, but they will be able to travel via Clapham Junction. Passengers from Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street stations will also need to travel via Clapham Junction to access London Victoria, but the service frequency will double from every 30 to every 15 minutes and will also allow passengers to access services to both London Victoria and Waterloo from Clapham Junction. It must also be remembered that according to Network Rail’s plans to 2014, suburban train services through Clapham Junction to both Waterloo and Victoria will be lengthened to 10-car services in 2013-14.

To mitigate the impact of these changes, TfL, with London TravelWatch, is looking at how some of these gaps in service can be addressed by providing additional services or amending those that are provided. I hope that that addresses my hon. Friend’s question. I have also asked officials from the Department to ask Southeastern how it might propose to fill some of these gaps in service and what the associated costs might be.

Let me be clear. Funding in forthcoming years will be tight and we would expect TfL to fund any additional services, given that the Victoria to Bellingham service would have maintained these links and that TfL requested that that service should not be implemented.

I hope that the Minister will mention the fundamental benefit of having direct access between the parts of London where King’s and Maudsley hospitals are based and Guy’s hospital campus.

I am coming to that.

I recognise that train services from South Bermondsey will reduce from six trains per hour off-peak today to four trains per hour after 2012. Again, I recognise that that is not ideal, but a four-train-per-hour service is still a good service.

Hon. Members have raised concerns about severing the link between Denmark Hill and London Bridge and the links between the hospitals at Denmark Hill—King’s College and Maudsley—and Guy’s at London Bridge. I am aware of the vociferous campaign that the foundation trust at King’s College has led against these changes, but it is important to look at the proposed changes together. The proposed package of services to Denmark Hill will improve access for patients and staff to the hospital, not detract from it. Most services through Denmark Hill will either operate to a similar pattern to today’s or will be enhanced. We have already seen services through Denmark Hill extended northwards through Blackfriars as part of the first phase of the Thameslink programme, with services operating to Kentish Town providing direct services from St. Pancras and Farringdon to Denmark Hill, increasing accessibility from the north.

Southeastern is planning some further enhancements to the Dartford to Victoria service from December. The East London line will extend these improvements. By linking with Clapham Junction, it will be significantly easier to access the hospitals from across south and south-west London with just one interchange. Disability improvement schemes at Clapham Junction, which I have debated with my hon. Friend before, are already under way. Network Rail plans further works at that station before 2014.

The links to the north-east of London are equally important. Both links will allow more people from across London to access services at the hospitals without a need to change trains in central London: they are currently forced to change trains at either London Bridge or Victoria. TfL analysis has shown that around 30,000 more people will live within a 30-minute journey of King’s College hospital as a result of these changes. It is also worth noting that there is already a staff bus linking the Guy’s and King’s College hospital sites, and staff and patients will still be able to access London Bridge via a change of trains at Peckham Rye. The frequency of trains between Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye will increase to eight per hour under these plans.

I understand that representatives from TfL have been in discussion with the governors at King’s College hospital and are awaiting further information from them regarding trip-making by patients and staff to and from the hospital to assess who will gain and who will lose from these changes.

I ask hon. Members to look at the service changes on the South London line together. I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the changes at London Bridge, but I have to say to him that I have run out of time.

DWP (Plymouth)

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity of this debate, coming as it does today when we are also debating the final stages of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, and following yesterday’s debate on the Welfare Reform Bill.

Work is the best pathway out of poverty, and the policies that we have developed since 1997 to ensure that work pays have been vital to many people and families in Plymouth. In Plymouth, Sutton, I took on from my Conservative predecessor a constituency that was among the most severely hit by earlier recessions—especially that of the 1990s, which left it with some very poor communities, including, on the 1995 index of multiple deprivation, the poorest ward in England.

In the nine months before the 1997 election, I took time out from paid employment to ensure not just that we won what was then key seat 16, but that I knew what the priorities were for action. In 1997, a key priority was delivering jobs for the 4,000-plus who were unemployed in my constituency, one third of whom were under 25. On the doorstep, I found lone parents who asked me, before the days of the minimum wage and tax credits, “Who will pay me £180 a week?” The answer at that time was no one.

On every doorstep, there were parents, grandparents or young people who were out of work or knew someone who was and had been for a long time. The new deal programmes, funded by windfall levies on the utilities, the early establishment of employment and health zone status and new deal for communities investment over 10 years in Devonport, have had a lasting impact on people’s life chances and ability to get employment. The minimum wage, tax credits and a raft of family-friendly workplace policies meant that at times the Plymouth travel-to-work area had unemployment below the national average instead of above it, as sadly is the case again now.

This recession has been particularly harsh. Its origins may be global, but, as every MP knows, the effects are local and, as is so often the case, those most vulnerable to any volatility are the elderly, the young and those on low incomes. But this recession has also hit many hard-working individuals and families who are used to feeling more in control of their lives, making their own luck and weathering storms.

Just as the current economic crisis is unprecedented in its severity and global nature, so too has been the response of our Government and others around the world. In previous recessions under Conservative Administrations, the prevailing view was that we had to let the storm ride its course. Not only were job losses, failing businesses, home repossessions and public sector investment cuts seen as necessary evils, they were sometimes considered necessary for some kind of natural readjustment of the economy—an antidote to an over-mighty Government.

Judging from yesterday’s speech by the Conservative leader, although the Tories say that they have changed, they have not. They are still blaming what they see as big government rather than understanding the need for active government alongside the community and voluntary sectors. Talk of the big society is simply code for “You’re on your own. Please pick up the pieces of the spending cuts that we need to make to fund the tax cuts that we want for the richest 3,000 estates in the country.” I understand that the cost of the Tory proposals to do that are estimated to be £3.6 billion in the first year alone.

Talking the good talk does not add up to walking the good walk. The money would have to come from somewhere, and I can only surmise that the proposals would drive a cart and horses through the partnerships that have given Plymouth a good track record over the past decade.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the job losses at the dockyard were huge. Thousands of jobs were shed from Plymouth’s main sector. I once observed my Conservative predecessor turn on her heel in a public meeting in the Guildhall and walk out, saying, “I don’t care what you think.” Some 10 years later, her legacy—or, more accurately, that of her Government—was to leave the Plymouth, Sutton constituency with some of the poorest communities in the land, including the very poorest. The speech yesterday of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made me shudder. Although he seems to realise that the Conservatives need—

Order. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the subject of the debate. So far, there has been little reference to the work of the Department in Plymouth. Will she please keep to that subject?

I understand your point, Mr. Benton. However, I must outline the context so that the success that there has been and my concern over whether it will continue can be understood. I will try to adhere to what you are saying.

I am proud that the Government whom I support are taking an approach different from the Conservatives’ and that the leadership of our Prime Minister has changed the political weather, not just in this country, but internationally. We have said that we will not cut, but grow our way out of recession. Much of the investment is in the hands of the DWP. Our approach is to give advice and support. We stand by employers and employees, small and medium-sized businesses, depositors, home owners and young people. I thank the Minister for her part and her Department’s part in that.

If the Government had called the wrong shots, such as failing to address the issue of the banks and failing to take steps on a scale never tried hitherto, the job of the Department would be even bigger than it is. The Opposition opposed most of those decisions. Today’s unemployment figures show that more people in Plymouth are now employed and fewer unemployed. On a like-for-like basis, the figures for my constituency show that 3,214 are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in November 2009, compared with 4,715 in 1997. That is despite the current economic situation being more structurally deep-seated and global in origin than the largely homemade recession of the 1990s.

I want the support to continue and have secured this debate to ask the Minister what can be added to the efforts of her Department. At the forefront of the big task are Jobcentre Plus staff. The importance of the Department as an employer in Plymouth must be noted. The public sector generally is a large employer in Plymouth. The people who work for Jobcentre Plus are part of that. I hate to think how that situation would suffer with a change of Government.

Plymouth has an ambitious growth agenda that I am confident can be realised despite the economic conditions. Our science and engineering sectors are what the country will need to restore its prosperity. In particular, we are trying to nurture and grow green jobs, such as those in the renewable energy sector. There have been bad setbacks in the manufacturing sector. About a month ago, Toshiba made its last televisions in this country, and Gleason is another well-known casualty of recent international pressures.

The job losses in the dockyard that are part of planned defence efficiencies have come at a bad time, although they have not been of the scale that was expected by some. There was nothing like the devastation that happened under the Conservatives in the ’90s when thousands of jobs were lost with little of the support that I am discussing today. The dockyard is producing vehicles for the Army and further orders are possible, which shows that there are gains as well as losses.

The trade unions have taken a responsible role in assisting big employers such as Princess Yachts to weather the storm. Short-time working agreements have been important in that. I was pleased to read today that, having shed 260 jobs this year, the company is taking on 20 employees. That is a small sign that things may be taking a turn for the better. Much of that has been made possible by the proactive support from the DWP and Jobcentre Plus, in which the Government are seen to be pulling out all the stops to minimise the loss of employment.

We have some excellent local partners who together are building a robust framework that will help deliver economic development over the next 20 years—an important background with the grain of which the DWP needs to work. The Plymouth City Development Company has already played its part in delivering real, tangible benefits to the city and, working with the regional development agency, it helped to bring about the leasing of the long-vacant yard in the dockyard to Princess Yachts. I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence in responding to pleas from myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) to release land faster than it has ever done before.

I want to mention the work that the local strategic partnership has developed, bringing together the public, private and voluntary sectors to identify our strengths and to develop action plans that play to them. The DWP values its work. Partnership working between the DWP and organisations such as Working Links and A4e in my constituency is important, and making common cause with the Learning and Skills Council is also part of the recipe. The “wealthy and wise” theme group at the local strategic partnership helps to make that possible, in a level of co-operation and joined-up work that was undreamed of, unthought of and unsought in the 1980s and 1990s. It is made possible by active government and is not understood by the policies that we have seen announced by the Opposition this week.

Plymouth also has an enviable track record of involving the community through third-sector organisations. The Woleseley and Millfields community economic development trusts in particular have delivered a great deal in some of the most fragile communities, empowering them to do things for themselves, and self-sustaining to a large degree. However, things are always changing, and policies need to evolve too.

One of the central points of current welfare policy is the knowledge that the first six months of unemployment are crucial. That period offers the best chance for people to get back into work. In Plymouth we have a good story to tell. Even now, those flowing off the register have been doing so at roughly the same rate as people flowing on to the register. However, I know from my meetings with Jobcentre Plus, the university and the further education colleges that young people are finding the recession particularly difficult.

In previous recessions whole generations were written off, which is why the Government’s guarantee for work and training for all 18 to 24-year-olds is so important. I welcome funding for that and many other initiatives under the Backing Young Britain and future jobs programmes—in particular the announcement, made today, that there will be funding from the future jobs fund for a programme in Plymouth. That is welcome.

Vital to ensuring that the impact of the economic crisis on this generation of young people is minimised will be employers—public sector as well as private sector—stepping up to the mark to play their part. I hope that the Minister can give me some assessment from the DWP perspective of how Plymouth is doing in that respect. Can the Minister assure me that the “Back to Work” White Paper will include additional support for young people and for the employers who want to give them opportunities?

Plymouth is well poised to take advantage of the green jobs revolution. The Government recently declared the south-west to be the country’s first low-carbon enterprise zone, with additional funding for the wave and marine-energy technology sectors. I hope that my hon. Friend can outline what the role of her Department is in supporting that green jobs revolution. What help will be available to those employers taking on extra staff to deal with issues related to climate change and our transition to a low-carbon economy?

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in a moment or two about how her Department is stepping up to the mark on such things, but before I invite her to set out how they are sustaining their drive to tackle those issues in the most adverse of times, I want to raise the work that her Department does in the field of pensions. I know that the pension credit has made a big difference to many people in my constituency, and many older people—women in particular—have benefited not just from the increase in incomes guaranteed by the credit but from the tax-free winter fuel allowance, which has taken the fear out of winter fuel bills, even if some of those pressures have returned over the recent year or so.

I know that the commitment to restore the link between pensions and earnings by 2012 is eagerly awaited. Thousands of people in my constituency will welcome it. It is an important strand of future-proofing pension provision.

Personal accounts will give those without access to a good-quality workplace pension scheme the opportunity to save, again ensuring that people can look forward to a retirement with a decent income. I understand that the Minister’s Department is seeking to provide pension forecast information. Will she remind me how far away that is, and how work is progressing?

Some ideas in the interim report of Anna Walker’s review on water metering and charging would make a difference to many pensioners and other low-income households in Plymouth if followed through into the final report and acted on by Government. I know that discussions have been held between the DWP and the review team, and I will be pressing colleagues in the Treasury and DEFRA, and indeed the Prime Minister, to ensure that some long-awaited relief comes for those on low incomes, whether they are in work, on benefit or in retirement on modest incomes.

There is a qualitative as well as quantitative difference in the support offered during this recession. We have protected about 500,000 jobs, and the actual figure saved is probably higher. To put it another way, proportionately, 2,000 jobs have been saved in Plymouth. The extra £5 billion, including £2.9 billion in 2010-11, that Labour is putting into getting people back into work and training this year and next year will fund the extra support that we are providing for new clients, people unemployed for more than six months and the expansion of the flexible new deal. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that the investment that we are making in front-line services will weather the efficiency measures that, realistically, we know the Treasury will expect from all spending Departments.

I cannot end this debate without mentioning the importance of the Child Poverty Bill, a commitment that my hon. Friend will confirm we are not shying away from and that will enshrine and entrench a historic commitment to end child poverty. The work of the DWP has enabled many people in my constituency to come out of poverty. The proportion of lone parents in work has risen from one in three a decade ago to more than half now.

I worry when I hear people say that there will be no difference between the present Government and any future Government of a different nature. I want to be certain that the sort of investment that this Government have made will continue to be an important part of our programme. I look to my hon. Friend to explain what her Department is doing in Plymouth with a clarity that will help people avoid sleep-walking back to the future, to a place where we have been before, with disastrous consequences that I do not want to see again in Plymouth in my lifetime. I know that I can count on her to avoid the half-baked platitudes set out yesterday as a recipe for tackling poverty.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing this important debate, and on the work that she has done for her constituents, particularly in promoting co-operation among employers, the Department for Work and Pensions and people who need jobs. The local employment partnerships in Plymouth are a fine example of the importance of employers, as they have helped nearly 2,000 people into work.

My hon. Friend inherited serious poverty and deprivation issues when she was elected in 1997, but now Plymouth is definitely a city with a buzz. The buzz has been created by and has grown with the growth and improvement of services and facilities in the city and the improved prospects for its citizens over the past 12 years.

Plymouth, like many of the great cities of Britain, has a great historical tradition as well as an eye to the future. Its marine technology and science industries have developed over the centuries as part of its great naval tradition. However, it also has many new industries, including the biggest cluster of digital media companies outside the M25.

My hon. Friend has been extremely kind about the work of the DWP. She has paid tribute to DWP staff and I would like to join her in acknowledging the excellent work done by them in jobcentres throughout the country. The agencies of the DWP have developed and modernised over the past 12 years. They have become more customer-focused, brighter and more professional places to visit and contact.

The Department currently employs more than 7,500 people in the south-west and nearly 2,000 in Plymouth itself. In total, the public sector employs more than 36,000 people in Plymouth and more than 700,000 in the south-west region. As such, as my hon. Friend recognised in her speech, it is a significant employer in the area. However, more significant is the work that the staff of the DWP have done for the population of Plymouth. Despite the current economic climate, the labour market is still far stronger than in 1997. The employment rate is up by 7.3 percentage points, the claimant unemployment rate is down by 1.5 percentage points and the inactivity rate is down by 4.6 percentage points.

As my hon. Friend said, unemployment has risen in recent months and there have been some large-scale redundancies in the city. Behind those statistics, many individuals face the loss of their job and their income, and are left with the uncertainty of how they will replace them. We cannot always prevent people from losing their job and we know it has been much more difficult for people to find a new job in recent months, but the Government are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. The new deal has helped nearly 10,000 people into jobs in Plymouth and over 21,000 more people are in work today than in 1997.

Jobcentre Plus in Plymouth has taken on 160 new staff, 120 of whom are in the Plymouth benefit delivery centre, and has extended the opening times of both the benefit delivery centre and individual jobcentres. By taking those decisions quickly, Jobcentre Plus has been able to maintain the high quality of its services. All benefit claims are being processed within target and accuracy rates. Meanwhile, jobseekers have been seen promptly and given the high-quality advice and support to which they are entitled.

Jobcentre Plus has also continued to react promptly to events in Plymouth, and has ring-fenced £150,000 in rapid response service money to serve the needs of those made redundant in Plymouth, including the 270 redundancies announced at Toshiba between June and January this year. City College Plymouth has made Picquet barracks available for 20 weeks at a total cost of £30,000. Plymouth city council is contributing £9,900 to that and Jobcentre Plus is contributing £20,100. The barracks have been set up as an outreach centre for large redundancies.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Princess Yachts and Toshiba have both used that facility to ensure that a quick and effective service is provided to those involved in large-scale redundancies. The site will subsequently be used to provide a support service to unemployed customers. As a result of that prompt action, of the 139 ex-employees of Toshiba who made a claim to benefit, 73—more than half—found work within the first 10 weeks of their claim. We are not sticking with the status quo; we are investing in the future and introducing programmes to ensure that individuals and the country come out of the recession stronger, not weaker.

All this is part of the Government’s national strategy to introduce measures to minimise the impact of the recession on unemployment as speedily as possible. The Government have increased funding to Jobcentre Plus by £3 billion to ensure it continues to provide personal help and advice to everyone who needs it. That money also ensures that the flexible new deal, which will provide tailored help for the long-term unemployed, can cater effectively for high volumes of jobseekers. On 12 January, a further £500 million investment was announced to provide, from April this year, opportunities for those who are still unemployed after six months to take up support.

We have also introduced the young person’s guarantee, so that from early 2010 all young people approaching 12 months on jobseeker’s allowance will be required to take up the offer of a job, training or meaningful activity. That offer will be delivered in the form of a new job created through the future jobs fund, or help with getting an existing job in a key employment sector, or work-focused training, or a place on a community task force delivering real help in the local community.

As part of that guarantee we have introduced the future jobs fund, which is worth around £1 billion, and to which local authorities and others may bid. It aims to create about 150,000 job opportunities, a significant proportion of which will be in areas of high unemployment. The fund will form a key component of the guaranteed offer to young people, and Jobcentre Plus will continue to meet the needs of Plymouth and the south-west. Today, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who is also the regional Minister for the South West, announced the 30 successful bids in the fourth wave of future jobs funding, which will create up to 7,200 jobs in England and Wales.

To date, the successful bidders have created about 95,000 jobs. In Plymouth, Wolseley Community Economic Development Trust was a successful bidder. Its work will create up to 181 jobs in Plymouth with a range of roles, including youth work, administration, customer service, maintenance, horticulture, and learning and support. Those jobs are targeted at deprived neighbourhoods with young people working in those neighbourhoods, and contributing to public services such as health and care provision, and supporting third sector organisations. The trust is also working closely with Connexions staff to launch a new team to support the district young people's strategy. We are using the customer feedback gathered by Connexions as a part of its work with young people to develop a service that meets the needs of local young adults. Jobcentre Plus is fully committed to Backing Young Britain. The process for contacting employers endorsing Backing Young Britain is currently being designed and is due to be launched later this month.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of green jobs. The Department is helping the growth of green jobs partly through the future jobs fund—the environment is one of the community benefits against which people may bid—and we have a fund to provide 100,000 jobs in key sectors. The green arena is one of those key sectors.

Will my hon. Friend comment, as I asked, on whether employers, including in the green sector, are coming forward to provide opportunities for the future jobs fund and Backing Young Britain jobs?

My hon. Friend is right. This is partnership working, and we need employers to continue to make bids via local authorities. I hope they will do that to provide real jobs that have community benefits, are innovative, and provide good, quality experience so that people learn the skills that will be useful not just for the present, but as we come out of recession.

My hon. Friend spoke about pensions. The Government have made a commitment, which is enshrined in law, to restore the link between the basic state pension and earnings in 2012 or by the end of the next Parliament at the latest. State pension forecasts already include information to alert people to that change, and the effect that it may have on the amounts in their pension forecast. All requested pension forecasts include a specific flyer insert, and our web-based service provides specific links to further detailed information.

Both the Department and Plymouth have been extremely successful over the past 12 years. The Department has improved its services, helping millions of people into jobs and millions more to improve their job prospects. At the same time, Plymouth has grown and prospered, with increased employment and improved services.

Female Mortality (Africa)

Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Benton. This is the last debate of the day, and I thank you in advance for your chairmanship.

I am delighted to have an opportunity this evening to discuss a problem that I believe the Minister, his Department and the Government have taken seriously and on which we have a lot in common. I want to try to draw attention not only to the problems, but to some of the low-cost solutions that we can perhaps bring to bear.

In the UK, no woman in the advanced stages of labour would be expected to walk 30 km to receive medical treatment; that would be unacceptable. No woman in the UK would be allowed to die for the want of such basic medical treatment as a blood transfusion or a simple antibiotic to ward off infection. In the UK, fewer than 13 women die in childbirth for every 100,000 live births, but in Mozambique one woman dies in childbirth for every 100 live births. That is unacceptable, and to stand by and allow it to happen is simply not acceptable.

Every year around the world, 80 million women face an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy; 20 million women risk an unsafe abortion rather than carry their pregnancy to full term, and 68,000 women die as a result of botched abortions. Every year around the world, 50 million women suffer from a serious pregnancy-related illness and 4 million women are disabled as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. One woman dies every minute from problems related to pregnancy or childbirth. That is not to mention the many millions of women every year who are permanently disabled, left unable to walk or ostracised by their communities because of severe incontinence. The tragedy has reached such a scale that, in their recent report, Baroness Tonge and the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health questioned whether a significant number of the women affected by those problems would be better off dead. That is an incredibly sad thing to say.

However, the real tragedy is that 80 per cent. of these deaths result from one of the five well understood and relatively common obstetric complications that can be readily treated with existing and inexpensive medical or surgical interventions. They are: bleeding; infection; complications of abortion; high blood pressure associated with pregnancy, and prolonged or obstructed labour. All of those problems would be treated with standard simple medical solutions here in the UK.

What is the Department for International Development doing to help to resolve those problems? I put on record the fact that DFID should be congratulated on, and we should be proud of, the work that it has done so far. Its 2004 document, “Reducing maternal deaths: Evidence and action”, is an excellent piece of work. It set international standards, establishing a clear strategy for tackling the tragedy and for meeting millennium development goal 5, which is:

“reducing mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015”.

I understand that that strategy is being updated to take into account the fact that millennium development goal 5 has been amended to include an additional target to be achieved by 2015: universal access to reproductive health care. I know also that DFID has been working closely with the Norwegian Government to produce an evidence paper that will set out the strategies that have been proven to work in improving maternal mortality rates on the ground. All of that work should be applauded.

A great deal more could still be done, however. At the current rate of progress, we will never meet millennium development goal 5—it will be beyond us. Maternal mortality in developing countries has barely decreased in the past decade, despite the efforts that our Government and others have made. In parts of Africa, maternal mortality and morbidity rates have increased. Some have argued that the targets are too ambitious, but they are not. We must question whether our response could be more effective; we need to heighten our work on the solutions rather than on the problems. There is evidence that it is possible dramatically to reduce maternal mortality rates relatively quickly. In three countries—in Egypt, Honduras and Yunnan in China—the maternal mortality rate has already been successfully reduced to about 100 deaths per 100,000. Honduras has reduced its rate by nearly 50 per cent. in the past seven years. Such changes are achievable.

The failure to mobilise world efforts to reduce maternal deaths stands in sharp contrast to the successful efforts of past decades to reduce child mortality and recent global efforts to tackle HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and, of course, malaria. The relative lack of investment in reducing maternal mortality is deeply worrying when compared with the investment in tackling health problems such as major communicable diseases.

Maternal health has not had a high profile internationally, and the international conferences of 1987 and 1997 have not led to sustained action on the scale that is needed. The reduction of maternal mortality should be defined as both a human rights issue and a health issue. Almost all such deaths are avoidable and are rooted in inequality of access to care, which is a sign of a denial of women’s rights. Maternal mortality rates reflect the greatest disparities between rich and poor and they are a good indicator of the extent to which a health system is rights-based. Indeed, DFID has gone so far as to say, in paragraph 63 of its 2004 report, “Reducing maternal deaths: Evidence and action”, that

“maternal mortality can be considered as the best single indicator of the effectiveness of a country’s health system.”

Hallelujah! That is absolutely right.

Sadly, in many countries women’s rights are consistently overlooked and ignored. In the UK, we do not consider women’s health care to be a secondary priority; for that reason alone, we should take the lead on this issue internationally and redouble our efforts. In addition to the moral and ethical arguments, there is an economic argument. The USA has said that maternal and newborn mortality accounts for costs in lost productivity of $15 billion a year across the world. The death of a mother is a sharp and unpredictable shock to the livelihood of any household and is likely to deepen poverty. Few poor households are secure enough to absorb the loss of their most economically and socially active member, and every year as many as 2 million children are orphaned by the death of their mother. If we want the millennium development goals to mean something, we need to stop that travesty and see what concrete steps we can take to bring change.

In 1994, Thaddeus and Maine described the three delays that contribute to maternal mortality: delay associated with the decision to seek care, delay in arriving at the point of care and delay in the provision of adequate care. In my constituency, one small social enterprise company, eRanger, is attempting to tackle each of those delays with practical and low-cost solutions. Looking at the problem differently will give us the greatest breakthroughs. The eRanger company produces low-cost motorcycle-side trailer combinations that offer three customised options: an ambulance, a mobile clinic for outreach work and a mobile education unit. It utilises a robust 200-cc motorcycle with a custom-built, padded sidecar in which a patient can lie down and be safely strapped in. In an emergency, a nurse or midwife can travel behind the driver—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying, the eRanger motorcycle, with its custom-built sidecar, can also take a doctor or nurse as a pillion passenger, if that level of support is needed.

The average cost of an eRanger ambulance is £4,000, which includes spares to allow smooth running for 12 to 18 months or 10,000 km. The vehicles are put together in South Africa; a local co-operative is used to build the cycles and sidecars. The price equates to about one sixth of the cost of a 4x4, and there is less opportunity for abuse by local workers. In other words, for every 4x4 operating as an emergency medical care vehicle in Africa, there could be six eRanger vehicles, reaching six times more women and potentially saving six times more lives.

The eRanger education unit is vital in teaching women about birth control, but the ambulance model has proved to be the most successful in combating female mortality. In August this year, UNICEF, recognising the very significant contribution that the eRanger ambulances made, signed a long-term agreement, for two years, to supply eRanger ambulances, mobile clinics and education units. So far, 22 ambulances have been delivered to Sierra Leone, and eRanger has an expected order for between 20 and 50 ambulances for Liberia. Since 2005, more than 400 eRangers have been deployed in Africa and Afghanistan. In 2004-05, DFID sponsored a pilot scheme in the Dowa district of Malawi using 21 bikes, and about 250 eRangers are now in operation in Malawi. The Minister of Health for Malawi plans to place a combination of eRangers in every single health centre in the country under community control. Largely as a result of eRanger presence and, indeed, the support of DFID, maternal mortality rates in Malawi have dropped by an incredible 60 per cent. since 2005.

Access to an eRanger motorcycle can ensure that a woman in labour gets to her “local” health centre. The drivers are on call using satellite mobile phones and can get to most women extremely quickly, which can almost entirely remove delay 2 in Thaddeus and Maine’s analysis. The motorbikes can also significantly contribute to the reduction of delay 1, associated with the decision to seek medical help. The education bikes can inform women of the medical treatment available to them, reassure them of its safety and remove the common perception that medical centres and hospitals are just places where people go to die. The fact that the journey is free, easy and safe also encourages many women to seek help rather than suffer in silence. Once at the medical centre, eRanger bikes can be a further help with delay 3. There are many reported cases in which blood transfusions or other supplies were needed at a medical centre, but there were simply not the resources to deliver them to the patient. The eRanger is an affordable way of solving the problem.

As demonstrated in Malawi and across Africa, the bikes can make a world of difference, so why are they not more widely used? What I seek today is a more active response from DFID. Despite DFID’s encouragement of eRanger’s work to date—I acknowledge that it has been supported—the organisation currently has no point of contact within DFID. It is difficult to understand where DFID is placing its effort in Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, without having a point of contact, yet that is something that could easily be achieved. The organisation has no interaction with DFID in the UK regarding planned or implemented projects that could benefit from using eRangers as part of a maternal mortality road map. The very thing that DFID says that it wants to do—I believe that it does want to do it—could be helped if there was some interface with what is a very small non-governmental organisation.

Unlike the agreement with UNICEF, there is no agreement with the Department to supply eRangers to DFID projects. It is extremely difficult to interface with organisations in Africa and Afghanistan unless one has a contact in DFID in those countries that will open doors. Although the Minister has given a pledge to supply those contacts, that arrangement does not appear to be in place at the moment. It seems that DFID will only interface with large, established NGOs, yet often it is organisations such as eRanger that can provide huge advances at a fraction of the cost.

In DFID’s strategy document, the Department states:

“Effective communications and transport are critical to success…New solutions to reduce barriers are needed.”

The eRanger organisation does exactly that. It has produced a low-cost solution to deliver the sorts of health care provision that we need. Clearly, eRanger is a solution that has been proven to reduce barriers, and I hope that the upcoming evidence paper will reflect that. It would be of great assistance if the Minister assured eRanger that it will have sight of the new updated paper as soon as it is published, and if he agreed to himself or his policy officials meeting myself and representatives of eRanger to discuss further engagement with DFID and how to combat the problem of maternal mortality internationally. In addition, will he commit to agreeing to supply eRangers on DFID projects, should the evidence paper find that that is a successful and economically viable intervention? If it does not, fair enough.

Finally, I place on record my thanks to the Minister and his officials for the impressive work that the Department has carried out in this area. My plea is for him to go further, to think outside the box, not to reject small NGOs and to make a real difference to women who currently suffer needless pain and death. As Dr. Kiptu, the medical officer in charge of Magunga health centre in Kenya, states:

“It is not just making things better in the hospital—it is saving lives every day. God bless you for that.”

Let me, in the usual way, congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) on securing the debate. I share the concerns that he raised and welcome his interest. I join him in acknowledging the important work of the all-party group on population. I was interested in his description of eRanger, particularly as it is a social enterprise, and as the vehicles it facilitates the building of are delivered through a co-operative. As chair of the Co-operative party and a Co-operative MP, I have a particular ideological interest in the business model he is promoting. He asked several questions and asked for a number of assurances, which I shall come to. I shall respond initially by giving some context to the debate.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, female mortality is a critical development issue: it is central to three of the millennium development goals, which the international community and the British Government are striving to support the achievement of. In many countries, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is slowing, but it is still the leading cause of death for women in Africa. We know that it is young girls who are disproportionately affected, because they have little control over key aspects of their lives, including sexual behaviour, schooling and access to health care, and little ability to mitigate the impacts of the epidemic on other aspects of their lives.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 250,000 women die each year from pregnancy-related complications. In some countries, the figure is much higher. Almost half the maternal deaths occur in just four countries: Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Sierra Leone has one of the highest reported rates; indeed, a woman in Sierra Leone has a one in eight chance of dying due to pregnancy, so the information that the hon. Gentleman provided about the deployment of eRanger vehicles to Sierra Leone gives a further sign of encouragement for us to take from the debate. The other countries with high reported rates are Rwanda, Malawi and Nigeria. In Africa, many women die due to their unequal access and outcomes, based on class, custom, wealth and power. In Nigeria and Malawi, over 70 per cent. of women say that their husbands alone make the decisions regarding their health care—a terrifying statistic that demonstrates the low status of women in some communities.

One strategically encouraging sign has been the commitment—finally—of the United Nations to establishing a gender agency, for the first time bringing together disparate parts of the UN community to create a much more powerful agency, with a high-ranking leader within the UN system. I hope that that will raise the profile of women and give voice to the many women who, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, are not heard at the moment in the communities in which they live.

The hon. Gentleman knows that it is difficult to measure maternal mortality accurately. While there seems to have been considerable progress in some countries—we can take heart from the example of Zambia—overall, as he rightly says, there has been negligible progress. Skilled attendance at birth is easier to measure. That means of measuring progress in getting support to women is a core component of a strategy to reduce maternal deaths that we are deploying, and which other donors are getting behind. However, that measurement is not always reliable or consistent. Skilled attendance at birth is very low in most of sub-Saharan Africa, reflecting the higher rates of maternal mortality. For example, in Ethiopia only 28 per cent. of pregnant women receive pre-natal care and only 6 per cent. of births are attended by skilled health staff. That gives some indication of the scale of the challenge that the hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to, and which we recognise.

Our efforts are focused on trying to reduce child mortality and, of course, maternal mortality, but also on reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS as part of the overall drive to reduce female mortality. There has been some progress. The average life expectancy of women in Africa, despite the AIDS epidemic, is slowly increasing and now stands at 54 years. There has been a 20 per cent. reduction in child mortality since 1990, but a girl in Africa is still 25 times more likely to die before her fifth birthday than a girl born in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that while there has been progress in some areas, maternal mortality levels remain unacceptably high and progress seems to have stalled. In many countries, as in the UK a century ago, there is still an acceptance that women will die in childbirth. That is compounded by the low social status of women in parts of Africa and by a lack of access to services.

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, a series of key interventions can be made to make a real difference to women’s survival rates. Family planning and access to safe abortion services are crucial examples, as both are often stigmatised, poorly resourced and, in the case of abortion, illegal in some countries.

Sadly, the truth is that there has been inadequate investment in health systems in general and in maternal health in particular for far too long. For an individual family it might be very costly to access care, and the result is that women are left to die at home. Caring for a woman through pregnancy and delivery requires health services that work, with trained and equipped staff. We know that there is a massive shortage of health workers across the continent, and many health systems are so weak that they offer little or no effective care, particularly in critical areas such as family planning, safe abortion and, crucially, obstetric care. The unmet demand for family planning, for example, results in one third of maternal deaths, including the 13 per cent. from unsafe abortion.

I will give a more graphic example of the differences between Africa and Europe and Asia: while over half of sexually active couples in Europe and Asia use contraception, the average prevalence of contraception across the continent of Africa is only 20 per cent. In many countries, particularly in west and central Africa, rates are less than 5 per cent. Access to contraceptives is probably the most cost-effective way of reducing maternal mortality.

The hon. Gentleman and others may well ask what we are doing about such a grim picture. As he said, we have a strategy on maternal mortality and reproductive health, and it is being updated with an evidence paper to help guide our future work and that of other donors. Politically, we are beginning to see an unprecedented international interest in maternal mortality, partly driven by the White Ribbon Alliance, which has been championed by the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown, and is beginning to catalyse the support of women across the globe and, in particular, the support of African leaders.

The UK has tried to support that process by leading efforts with international partners to develop a broad-based, global consensus for maternal, new-born and child health. That consensus sets out a framework for action, hopefully aligning political will alongside advocacy and finance, behind a set of five agreed policies and priority interventions to try to save the lives of women and children. The financing issues to put those interventions in place are being addressed.

The hon. Gentleman may remember that the high-level taskforce on innovative international financing for health systems, jointly led by the Prime Minister, hosted an event at the UN General Assembly in September, where more than £3 billion was announced to strengthen health systems in developing countries. Leaders from Malawi, Ghana, Liberia, Burundi and Sierra Leone announced expanded access to free health care, which in the long term will result in millions of children and pregnant women gaining access to essential services.

As for my Department’s financing, 15 per cent. of UK development aid goes to health. The UK has committed itself to investing some £6 billion to strengthen health systems until 2015. Much of that money goes to supporting and strengthening general health services. For example, in Ethiopia we have committed some £25 million over four years to increase the number of community health workers tenfold. With our support, access to contraceptives has already increased from just over 20 per cent. to just over 51 per cent. Our support to the health sector in Malawi has contributed to an increase in skilled birth attendance from just under 40 per cent. to some 45 per cent. in 2007-08.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of international organisations, including UNICEF, which does vital work. We help to fund work of UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and UNFPA, which also works in that area.

The hon. Gentleman made a specific plea for further engagement with eRanger, the organisation and social enterprise in his constituency. I am aware that a series of motorcycle and bicycle ambulance schemes are making a real difference. I have seen them in action in Nepal, where they are clearly helping to save lives. I am aware also of the DFID programmes that support eRanger programmes in Malawi and Kenya. The hon. Gentleman asked me to ensure that eRanger sees a copy of the strategy; I am happy to give him that assurance. I would be happy also to follow the example of the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), who met the hon. Gentleman and eRanger; if necessary, I shall meet them again. I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman with a contact for eRanger to use; in turn, I hope that that will help eRanger to gain access to the relevant person at the DFID office in-country.

I cannot guarantee that eRanger will always be the contracted organisation. We have to allow the developing countries concerned to take those procurement decisions for themselves. However, I would want social enterprises and co-operatives to have access to the information that will enable them to make their pitch.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).