HC Deb 21 July 1999 vol 335 cc1103-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Pope.]

9.33 am
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Before the House goes into recess, I think it important to raise matters relating to the welfare of my constituents; the conduct of business with integrity; and the way in which a major national utility conducts its affairs. I wish to bring this matter to the attention of the House, of the Government and of the regulator of the Office of Water Services. I shall discuss the circumstances surrounding a planning application to build a business park, which was made by the Arrowcroft Group, the property partner of North West Water. I should like to make it clear that what I say pertains in no way to the merits of the application, which will be considered by a public inquiry under a Government inspector later this year.

I shall talk about the conduct of people in Arrowcroft, in North West Water and in other firms. I am sorry to say that their conduct involves lies, concealment, deception, double dealing, proposed blackmail, proposed bribery and attempts to manipulate Members of Parliament. Certain documents that have come into my possession arouse great concern in me.

The Waterside park planning application was mooted some time ago following the failure of a similar application. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I visited Mr. Ferguson, the chief executive of United Utilities, at the building where North West Water and Norweb—the north-west electricity supplier—are housed, in Warrington. My hon. Friend and I met Mr. Ferguson on 27 March 1998. He assured us that no decision had been taken on whether there would be a planning application. He told us that our views would be taken into account. Furthermore, he said that he would communicate with us when a decision had been made.

However, two weeks earlier, a Mr. Terence Holden of Arrowcroft, who has been in charge of the application, wrote to Mr. Ferguson, saying: Dorothy told me you would be seeing Bennett and Kaufman on Friday 27th March. By that date I shall have a much clearer picture on the timing of the application and will keep you advised. It is important that we do not let the politicians know why we have delayed making the application i.e. because of Highways issues and the state of negotiations with Denton. This would obviously give them an opportunity to apply pressure on both Denton"— a golf club— and the Highways Agency. Mr. Ferguson told us that no decision had been made, but he had two weeks previously been involved in correspondence about making the application, and about the way in which my hon. Friend and I should be dealt with and the matters that were to be concealed from us. He lied to my hon. Friend and me by saying that the application had not been decided on and that we would be contacted when a decision was made.

It has also emerged from material that has come into my possession that certain matters have been deliberately concealed and distorted by those who are planning the application. For example, a letter addressed to the design team from Michael Aukett Architects, says: The planners agreed that a hotel need not be included in the application. However, I possess material that says that there would be a hotel and that even contains estimates of the number of workers to be engaged on building it and on working in it.

In addition, North West Water and Arrowcroft claimed that they would provide ample public space to replace the open countryside that they intend to destroy. However, the note goes on to say: The planners thought that the density of houses … could be increased considerably. They do not like public spaces in the residential areas. They told us that there would be a lot of public space, but planned to include none.

During that period, my hon. Friend and I tried to obtain information on the damage to the environment that would be inflicted if the planning application were to succeed. There were denials that such damage would occur. Indeed, the claim was that the environment would be enhanced. However, a document circulated within Arrowcroft and North West Water refers to an increase in noise levels for properties along Cornhill lane from 40 to about 65 decibels. Earth-moving noise levels of 55 to 60 decibels were anticipated at Debdale, based on the operation of three bulldozers. Noise levels of 65 decibels were expected at Debdale for a short period; the daytime ambient noise levels would increase from between 45 to 60 decibels to between 60 to 65 decibels. The document noted that towards the end of the development, construction activities are likely to be taking place close to the properties at Corn Hill Lane where noise levels may be greater than those witnessed in Debdale. The document also refers to an anticipated increase in traffic: This may be regarded as a detrimental impact upon the residents there. While claiming that the development would inflict no adverse environmental impact, documents were being circulated that admitted just such an impact.

One of the worst scandals in the whole affair is the attempt to blackmail residents of an area in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. The residents were blackmailed with detrimental developments to their environment unless they caved in and abandoned their opposition to the planning application. Once again, we shall hear from Mr. Terry Holden—I regret that he appears regularly in the narrative. A good deal of my constituency abuts directly on that of my hon. Friend; in one area, two streets—Debdale lane in my constituency and Kings road in my hon. Friend's constituency—were suffering difficulties that North West Water could have solved.

Mr. Pat McCloskey of United Utilities and North West Water had arranged meetings with my hon. Friend and me. I must point out that Mr. McCloskey is almost the only individual to emerge from the whole affair honourably and with credit, and as someone who wants to do the best for the area in which his company operates. I hope that I do not do him too much damage by saying that—bearing in mind the kind of people with whom he mingles in his work. On 16 January 1998, Mr. Holden wrote to Mr. McCloskey, stating: The end result is that I have reluctantly agreed to meet with the residents of Cornhill Lane to both inform them of the development plans and to make a first pass at gently trying to ascertain whether they would agree to surrender their rights over Kings Road, in due course, when the new road is built. Denton golf club—about which I shall have more to say—wanted that road to be taken out of use as one of its conditions for agreeing, in any circumstances, to North West Water's planning proposal.

Mr. Holden continued: The poor condition of Kings Road would be a very valuable negotiating tool if we move such discussions forward. For that reason, I have told Paula on a number of occasions that we should preferably do no works, but if we are really up against it i.e. it gets dangerous, we should only do the bare minimum as a short term measure. I have taken the view that it could cost the residents circa £8/10,000 each as a contribution to the maintenance costs and all the time that they are faced with this potential cost we would be in a strong negotiating position. He was intending to intimidate and to blackmail those residents over their attitude to any planning application.

I fear that I shall again have cause to refer to Mr. Holden's views on my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish and myself. The letter went on: I saw Andrew Bennet again this week. He did not mention the road. He and Kauffman's opposition to the development is fanatical and they will certainly try and use the road situation to their advantage in some way or other. What that man seemed to fail to understand—obviously, it is not part of his nature—is that people can act for altruistic reasons, in order to assist their constituents. Both my hon. Friend and I have large majorities; although we should like them to be larger, we do not have to go around cherry-picking for votes.

Mr. Holden then wrote to Mr. McCloskey, who had agreed to see my hon. Friend and me, expressing his concerns that Mr. McCloskey was assisting us and our constituents by meeting us. Mr. Holden wrote: Bearing in mind where we are at the moment North West Water will look foolish should you now talk to them about closure of the road. I am far from happy about the way this has been handled. He meant that he was far from happy that Mr. McCloskey was being open and honest, and was trying to assist our constituents.

There was further correspondence about Kings road in which Mr. Holden stated that Denton golf club would not under any circumstances agree any arrangement which does not include for the closure of Kings Road. He continued: I am concerned about the negotiations which will have to be concluded with the ten or so people having rights of way over Kings Road and do not want them to get the idea when the time comes to negotiate that the whole development is dependent on the success of those negotiations! You will now begin to appreciate why I was so concerned to learn of the discussions with the residents via Kaufman and Bennett. Our best negotiating angle with these residents is to be able to say Kings Road is in poor condition. We could repair it, but you the residents are obliged legally to pay a proportion of the cost i.e. probably £10–15,000 each. If, however, you will agree to us having an option to vary your right of way in due course when the new road is built from Manchester Road to Cornhill Lane … we will carry out short term repairs to Kings Road to improve it for a year or two at our expense. We will also pay you (say £5/10,000 each) when the option is exercised. In effect, Mr. Holden was saying, "You get in our way and you get nothing; you help us and we'll do a bit of work for you and, in addition, we shall pay you some money."

Mr. Holden wrote again to Mr. McCloskey on 3 February 1998. He said: Thank you for your letter of 28th January. I have gone to considerable lengths to try and explain to you the position over Kings Road. If we do what you propose"— that is, helping the constituents of my hon. Friend and myself— it will remove our best negotiating position and have exactly the opposite effect to that which I hoped to achieve. You have no liability to pay for the repair of this road and I simply cannot understand why you should offer to do so, particularly when it creates difficulties with regard to the development strategy. As I view the situation we have played right into the hands of Mr Bennett and Mr Kaufman. Did you not consider it odd that two MPs were getting involved on behalf of 10 residents with regard to the repair of a private access road. Also, one of the residents on Debdale Farm is the leading light in the Action Against Kingswater Campaign. He continued: I don't think you will gain any goodwill with these people"— my hon. Friend and myself— either in relation to the development or from the corporate point of view and my instinct would be to do nothing to help their cause for the time being. Mr. McCloskey was badly put out by that. He had cancelled a meeting with my hon. Friend and me for what I thought were reasons arising from his own schedule of engagements, but it now emerges that he had been forced by Mr. Holden to cancel the meeting. Finally, Mr. McCloskey wrote to Mr. Holden: When we last met, we agreed a two week delay in arranging my meeting with Gerald Kaufman in respect of Debdale Lane. As I have now had contact from the residents and, today, a letter from Gerald Kaufman, I cannot, in all honesty, delay this matter much more. The words "in all honesty" used by Mr. McCloskey are singularly foreign to others involved in the affair.

Two golf clubs are situated on the land. North West Water and Arrowcroft had decided to destroy one golf club—Fairfield gold club. A letter from Mr. Holden says: the loss of Fairfield Golf Club is unfortunate. On the other hand, they were seeking an agreement with the other golf club—Denton golf club—to minimise the opposition at any stage of the planning process or a public inquiry. Therefore, negotiations were taking place between Arrowcroft and Denton golf club. We have a letter from Mr. Holden to Mr. M. Aukett of Michael Aukett Architects about a meeting that Mr. Aukett was going to hold with the agent of Denton golf club. The letter states: I am rather concerned that you are meeting Alex Dawson"— that is the agent— He will try and pump you for any information he can obtain which will help his negotiations with me. I think you must express complete ignorance of everything. Otherwise one word could upset the very sensitive balance of my negotiations with them. For example, do not tell him anything about the United Utilities meeting later this month and in particular do not tell him that we are working to get an application submitted by the end of this year. I have led him to believe we will only submit an application when we have secured a deal with them. They must not think they have us in a corner under time constraints. Their support to the planning application is all a part of the deal so you have to do nothing to enlist their support. Please do not show them any further plans or discuss anything to do with the UDP allocation and our discussions with Tameside. Mr. Holden was seeking negotiations with Denton golf club in which the club would be brought on side for the project, but he was lying to Denton golf club and concealing information about the course and purpose of the negotiations.

Here is Mr. Holden—yet again—writing once more to Mr. Aukett: One small point that occurred to me. I think perhaps we should not show your golf course layout on the planning application. I think it would be better if we simply put a red line around the proposed new Denton area and say new 'Denton Golf Course area to be re-configured to their specification'. If we leave the holes as shown it will provide a ground for objecting by Denton Golf Club and also for members of the public". Those people are organising a planning application about which they have lied to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish and me, about which they have concealed vital information, and about which they are now behaving in a seriously underhand manner in respect of a crucial establishment, Denton golf club, in the area that they would ruin.

I have yet another letter from Mr. Holden, in which he states: One way to resolve all the land issues surrounding this site (Denton, Fairfield, Kings Road, rights of way, ownership of roads etc) would be to persuade the Local Authority to use their CPO powers in due course. This would be time consuming, expensive and should only be considered as a last resort. While negotiating—apparently in good faith—with Denton golf club, Arrowcroft prepared for the possibility of a compulsory purchase order. That order has now been applied for, and it goes way beyond the area of the planning application. Arrowcroft is now seeking to destroy both golf clubs—Denton and Fairfield.

Throughout, my hon. Friend and I have been trying to obtain details of the costs of the development, which we and all our constituents as customers of North West Water would have to pay. Those costs have been withheld from us, and I can understand why, for, within weeks, two different costings were circulating within the organisation, one of £66 million and another of £104 million. There is no reason to believe that either of those costings is accurate.

Mr. Holden's attitude toward my hon. Friend and me is fairly risible. My hon. Friend is regarded as the more reasonable of us two, as most people might expect. Mr. Holden says in a letter: Gerald Kaufman the MP for the adjacent constituency is the principal objector, but he has not seen our development proposals and we believe he is somewhat mis-guided in his actions. He is not the first person to have said that, and I trust that he will not be the last. However, in another letter, Mr. Holden writes: I suggested to Bennett that he should consider supporting the proposal very carefully. I ventured the idea that he may gain more political 'kudos' by doing so rather than by blindly condemning it. The letter continues: I reached a prior agreement with Bennett that neither he nor I would publicise our meetings or use anything discussed for political ends. He has honoured that agreement so far. I am, however, doubtful whether Kaufman would agree to such an arrangement. It is not for me to make such suggestions, but you might like to consider trying to get them to agree before your meeting that it is private and that any matters discussed will not be publicised or passed on to third parties. With an acumen that ought to ensure his employment as a political commentator for one of our better newspapers, Mr. Holden says: Political intelligence tells us that Kaufman no longer carries much weight in his party, particularly with 'new labour'. Bennett however appears to have straddled the divide between 'old' and 'new' labour. He has, for example been given a job on an Environmental select committee. My hon. Friend is no longer present, because he has gone off to his job on the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, of which he is Chairman. Mr. Holden sums up as follows: It is not clear why but a definite view has been expressed that Bennett can control Kaufman and it is the former that we should work hard on. Those are the matters that I thought it appropriate to bring to the attention of the House, but I should like to add one more point. Arrowcroft is the property partner of United Utilities, an enormous organisation, which owns both North West Water and the North Western electricity board, Norweb. It is therefore curious that Arrowcroft is not a public company and that all its shares are held by very few people. A list of shareholders shows an Alan Jones and, a little further down, a Catherine Leslie Jones; they live together and have 35,000 shares between them. The list of shareholders also shows a Bankim Chand Gossai and, further down, an Umeshwatie Devi Gossai; they, too, share an address. Then, we have Barbara Priscilla Eppel, who owns 440,000 shares; Leonard Cedric Eppel, who is chairman of the company and owns 600,000 shares; and Stuart Neil Eppel, who owns 330,000 shares; other members of the Eppel family are also shareholders. Nicholas Paul Hai and Rochelle Eleanor Hai own more than 360,000 shares between them. One short list comprises the names of all the shareholders in the property company of one of the biggest companies in the country—it is a family company, and the relationship between the two companies is baffling, to say the least.

However, it is clear that they are not a very successful family. While the property company registered a profit of £501,472 in 1997, in 1998—these accounts were published last month—it made a loss of £192,531. On the other hand, the family certainly know how to look after themselves. In 1997, directors' emoluments were £487,204 and, in 1998, they increased to £605,939. The emoluments of the highest-paid director increased in one year from £119,679 to £194,353. The House may agree that certain fishy matters should be investigated.

First, in the light of the evidence that I have presented to the House today, I believe that it would be best for North West Water to withdraw the planning application instantly because it is a shoddy, seedy affair. Secondly, the company should dismiss Mr. Holden who is, at best, a fool and, at worst, a rogue. He does not do any credit to the company for which he works. Finally, I believe that the matter should be referred to Ofwat because a major water company is acting in property speculation in a most disreputable and deceitful way.

10.2 am

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I appreciate this opportunity to draw to the attention of the House a subject of overwhelming importance in my constituency. However, I assure hon. Members that I shall not speak for as long as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). When one has a safe seat, it is hardly fair to those hon. Members who represent less safe seats to speak for 30 minutes in this valuable debate.

Mr. Kaufman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have spoken in debates of this sort for more than 25 years on behalf of my constituents.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mrs. Bottomley

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I respect him greatly but, in a debate such as this, it behoves us to be quite brief. I shall try to be that.

I wish to raise the matter of the future of the British Aerospace site at Dunsfold. In recent months, I have received many letters from the up to 1,000 employees on that site whose jobs are in jeopardy. I have also received many letters from members of the local community who value the contribution that the site, which dates back to 1941, makes to the local economy. Many other hon. Members who have Dunsfold workers living in their constituencies have also received letters, and the House will be aware that there is an early-day motion about this problem.

Dunsfold is the home of the Harrier. In the 1960s, this remarkable British aircraft was developed at Dunsfold and it has been manufactured and serviced there ever since. The Hawk aircraft was also developed at Dunsfold in the 1970s. It was manufactured at the site from 1974 until 1989, when production was moved to northern England. Both aircraft continue to provide employment for those at Dunsfold. The Harriers built at Dunsfold are in service to the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, the United States Marine Corps and the Spanish, Indian, Italian and Thai navies. The Hawks are in service in the United Kingdom, Finland, Kenya, Indonesia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, the United States, Oman, Malaysia and Australia. In other words, Dunsfold is an internationally known site that is important to other nations besides the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Defence and the House must consider whether the proposed closure jeopardises the long-term viability and integrity of the Harrier fleet. There are also wider questions concerning regional development. These are highly specialised jobs in a prosperous region of the country. With the development of the service industry, financial services and other related industries, specialised design and manufacturing engineering jobs are playing an enormously important role in the employment ecology of the south-east. We must ask how the regional development agencies, and therefore the Departments of Trade and Industry and of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, can play an effective role. Many of us are highly sceptical that regional development agencies are anything more than road blocks and paper pushers. The RDA has certainly been characteristically inert and inactive throughout this saga.

In recent months, I have been in regular contact not only with the management at Dunsfold but with the shop stewards, who have behaved in a tremendously constructive, enlightened and responsible manner. Alan Whyte, a supervisor, was recently quoted in the Financial Times as saying: I have been working here for 29 years and to come in this morning and hear that the job will come to an end over the next 18 months has come as a little bit of a shock. All of us accept that we live in a world where employment insecurity is part of day-to-day life. However, there are particular questions surrounding these highly skilled and specialised professions, which have been honed over 30 years of work on the Hawk and the Harrier.

The Harrier is built differently from most modern aircraft in that it is essentially hand crafted. Many in the House have greater expertise in these matters than I, but all hon. Members will agree that the Harrier has systems and modifications that have never been used elsewhere. Those traditional aircraft skills, together with the unique Harrier experience, exist nowhere else.

Although British Aerospace has suggested that it will seek to redeploy the Dunsfold workers at other sites, that does not mean that all will be saved from unemployment. Some employees may be able to find alternative work in the area. However, we must not overlook the fact—I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to satisfy himself about this point—that this team has worked closely together for the past 10 years. A team has existed for 30 years, but this team has worked collaboratively for the past 10 years. Evidence suggests that only about 5 or 10 per cent. of the team would be prepared to relocate because their way of life and their families are established in the south-east. If those employees do not move to the north, it will raise serious questions about the viability of the Harrier programme.

A major new factor is the establishment of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence recently met members of the shop stewards committee to talk about unfair competition. Serious questions remain. I have had on-going correspondence with the Secretary of State for Defence on this subject. The fact is that the rates charged to the Ministry of Defence for return to work on Harriers are £30 an hour at DARA and £51 at Dunsfold. That is because DARA's cost structure is not the same. It operates on an RAF base where infrastructural costs, such as security, runway maintenance and some power charges, are covered by the MOD. DARA does not have to add in a headquarters charge, a write-off charge or a 10 per cent. profit margin. In other words, it is not a level playing field.

I ask the Secretary of State for Defence, through the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, whether he will establish a formal partnership between DARA and Dunsfold on the Harrier programme. In that way, this wonderful site, those skilled workers and the contribution that they make both to the defence force in Britain and to our exports could be maintained. This Thursday, hon. Members whose constituencies are affected by the announcement and I will meet John Weston, the chief executive of British Aerospace. Obviously, we shall want to ask him many questions about how, with that expert team under threat, he can be confident that he can continue to satisfy many of his major customers, including, for example, Boeing, to which he is committed to delivering one aircraft a month.

That is not a matter for the House. However, the House should be concerned about whether the Secretary of State will intervene to ensure that the Harrier programme will not be put in jeopardy and that the assumptions are not over-ambitious and unrealistic, and to say whether he will be prepared to set up a formal partnership with DARA, as outlined in the early-day motion. Furthermore, the DETR and the DTI should reconsider their role. If regional development agencies and Government offices simply produce rhetoric and, when difficult issues arise, get involved only in passing paper, disillusionment will grow. Those jobs make an enormously important contribution in the south-east.

Finally, I make a recommendation that I hope will not be necessary. The Government should adopt a responsible attitude to what might happen to the site in the long term if it is not possible—although I believe that it will be—to reconsider many of the underlying arguments. I commend the activities of Waverley borough council which, with the support of the county council and the Surrey training and enterprise council, under the auspices of the Surrey economic partnership, commissioned an impact study in the light of the announcement. I hope that, before my constituents go away for their summer break, they will, as a result of my having raised the issue in the House, be able to go with greater confidence, good cheer and optimism.

10.11 am
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I want to draw to the attention of the Minister and the House the urgent need for more effective ways to control the major problem for those who live near airports and airfields—aircraft noise, particularly at night.

In my brief time in the House, there have been several debates about the need for action on behalf of those communities enduring chronic night noise from local airports. I want to make my own contribution and suggestions for a possible way ahead. Earlier this year, early-day motion 533, tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), summarised the impact of aircraft noise on nearby communities. As it said, night noise has adverse social consequences and may have a damaging effect on the health of those who live close to airports.

Civil aviation is powering ahead, fired by open access policies. Published air traffic predictions show an annual growth trend of 6 per cent., which will double the number of flights every 12 years and could dramatically upset the delicate balance between economic expansion and environmental restraint.

Airlines and airports say that aircraft are becoming quieter, and indeed they are. The phasing out, under international agreements, of the noisier chapter 2 aircraft by 2002 is welcome, but it should be noted that, already, 80 per cent. or more of UK-registered large jets are of the more modern and theoretically quieter chapter 3 type. Despite the progressive introduction of those quieter engines, overall noise is escalating because of the greater number of larger aircraft involved, so Government intervention is absolutely necessary.

Last July, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions published a transport White Paper, which stated, among other things, that the Government would enact legislation to enable local authorities to enforce noise mitigation measures for airfields and airports. That legislation and those enforcement powers cannot come soon enough. Noise is a very important issue for those whose homes are near airports or under flight paths.

My particular interest in this matter arises from the presence of East Midlands airport in my constituency. The airport's origins were very much rooted in the local authority consortium that developed it, managed its operations and liaised effectively with nearby residents if problems arose. Since its sale to the private sector some years ago, the airport's fortunes have taken off rapidly.

The airport is now a major employer for our area: 5,000 jobs are located in and around the airport. It is a major regional asset in the provision of scheduled and charter passenger flights. It is a major player in the air freight market. It is the latter point that can produce problems for those living near the airport.

The airport is surrounded by many villages in Leicestershire's border region with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and I recently attended a meeting of the parish councils from those villages, who have formed an umbrella group called the Association of Airport Related Parish Councils, or AARPC. Each parish council itemised to us a litany of concerns about the airport, but in every case the core worry was that of night noise, either from over-flying or ground running.

AARPC is urging the local planning authority to protect the well-being of communities near the airport by imposing appropriate restrictions on airport operations. What it is seeking appears to me to be a good template for the extra environmental powers that central Government should consider giving to local government. I shall give two brief examples.

First, AARPC says, flight paths should be agreed so as to minimise the over-flying of residential areas, particularly at night. Secondly, the group is pressing for a regulatory framework that can ensure that ground running and the older chapter 2 or comparable freight aircraft are not a feature of night operations.

It is not only local parish councils that protest long and loud to me. I have a sizeable postbag of complaints from individuals, particularly from the large village of Kegworth. I see a continual stream of constituents at my advice sessions. I have spoken at public meetings called to discuss airport noise. At least three independent community groups are lobbying hard for environmental improvements to the airport. They are Save Aston Village Environment, or SAVE, People Against Intrusive Noise, or PAIN, and Wings.

Two criticisms frequently surface in my discussions with residents and protest groups. The first is their belief that airport authorities are not policing the flight paths of user aircraft as closely as they might, especially at night. Secondly, residents and protest groups believe that local authorities should monitor aircraft noise at a range of locations in the affected communities. The data from that comprehensive array of survey points would firmly establish the shape and size of the noise contours within the overall noise footprint. The results of the survey should be subject to systematic audit by an independent body before being brought into the public domain and being fed into the planning process when further development is being sought by airport operators, or for enforcement action if appropriate or necessary.

To be fair to East Midlands airport, I must point out that its development policy recognises that it has a duty to minimise and manage the impact of its business on the environment and local villages. Indeed, the first key issue spelt out by its development policy document is tackling the noise associated with planned increases in air traffic movements, which will be linked to two projected extensions to the runway.

Within the obvious and paramount requirements of airport and aircraft safety, the airport has a duty to minimise the noise generated by its operations, but more has to be done if local communities are to be satisfied and noise levels are to be acceptable.

I shall now move briefly from the particular difficulties of our regional airport to the general lessons that can be learned from our experience and applied to the national scene. There is an increasing demand in a fast-moving world for rapid distribution of goods. That in itself puts enormous pressures on air freight services, which can translate into a serious environmental impact on airport communities, binding their quality of life tightly to the operational characteristics of their commercial neighbour. Airport communities badly need a control framework that resident and environmental organisations agree is so lacking at present.

Environmental limits must be set for existing and new or extended airports. Those limits would be permanent criteria that would have to be observed at all times. Their range and type would of course vary to reflect local geography and circumstances, but a number of core limits would apply to all airports. Those would include a cap on the number of air traffic movements, a restriction on types of aircraft to be operated, approved tracks for aircraft related to runway configuration and controlled times of operation. The limits would also specify noise contours to be observed. They would control overnight running of engines or ground power units, the location of public safety zones and a good deal more. The overall aim is to fix limits on air traffic and noise levels permitted at an airport and to define a physical area beyond which further development will not be sanctioned.

An unquestioning attitude to demand-led projections for airport growth is entirely inconsistent with any concept of sustainable development with which I am familiar. In an ideal world, there will be no need for national noise legislation. Indeed, the White Paper specifically encourages airports to enter into voluntary noise mitigation agreements with their local authorities, and planning policy guidance 24 spells out how planning authorities can best use powers to minimise noise impact by specifying conditions and criteria for permitting noise-sensitive and noise-generating developments.

However, the Government will need to legislate to give new powers to airports and local authorities—to airports so that they can take action against, for instance, non-compliant airlines, and to local authorities so that they can enforce noise mitigation agreements.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House are well aware of the major economic benefits associated with the United Kingdom's network of airports. That commercial success need not be, indeed will not be, jeopardised by a better regulatory framework for noise control. Our Government must not turn a deaf ear to the clamour of concern expressed by airport communities about the night noise that they must endure. It is imperative that there is early legislation to allow both airport shareholders and airport neighbours to get a good night's sleep.

10.22 am
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I am worried about three issues, with which I hope the Minister will deal in his winding-up speech so that I may go into the recess much more happily. First, I am worried about bed-blocking in my constituency. It is totally alien to the concept of the national health service and to the Community Care (Residential Accommodation) Act 1992. Secondly, I am concerned about the installation and location of mobile telecommunications masts and their effect on health. Thirdly, I am troubled about the main corridor of public transport between the west country and London: the former Great Western Railway, which is now run by FirstGroup.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman has not used the service to the west country, has he?

Bed-blocking is a scurrilous practice that comes about because of bickering between the health authority and local authority social services departments—regardless of what is best for the patient. Some elderly people in South Hams and Torbay are occupying beds in hospitals which they should not be occupying. Often, they are well enough to be moved and should be in residential and nursing homes, which are not full. The phenomenon known as bed-blocking is an absolute disgrace. It uses scarce NHS resources and causes stress to patients and a deterioration in their health following treatment.

So long as the local authority keeps an elderly person in hospital, it does not have to pay for the care. The moment that the patient is discharged from hospital, the responsibility for and cost of care shifts to the local authority social services department budget. The Government pay so long as an elderly person is in hospital, but social services must pick up the tab—paid for from the council tax—as soon as the person is moved into the community.

It costs about £500 to £1,000 a week to provide a bed in a cottage hospital, and between £1,500 and £2,000 a week to keep an elderly person in a district or general hospital. It does not take much intelligence to work out that given that social services are prepared to pay just in excess of £200 a week for care in a residential home and just over £300 a week for care in a nursing home—non-economic derisory sums that will no doubt be subject to future debates—the local authority is placing an enormous and avoidable burden on the taxpayer by keeping an elderly person in hospital. Refusal to place patients in private residential homes at the appropriate time increases the cost of care almost fourfold.

That is one of the worst examples of financial mismanagement and complete disregard for the welfare of the individual that I have come across. Just by chance, the two local authorities in my constituency—Devon county council and Torbay unitary authority—are Liberal Democrat-controlled. I therefore have the misfortune of having two Liberal Democrat social services departments, which are manipulating the elderly in order to save on council tax.

If social services continue such a practice, I imagine that it will be entirely appropriate for the health authority to contract services directly with the private sector in order to keep costs down. I cannot understand why the local cottage hospital cannot enter into private contracts with local residential and nursing homes and thereby bypass social services departments completely.

Mobile telephone towers impinge on our health. We all complain about these dreadful people—I know that there are none in this place—who walk around with mobile phones, bleepers and various other things. We now see them all over the place. Such people are always waiting for a phone call from someone terribly important—a world leader if one is a politician, or a billionaire for a major contract if one is in industry. They have become as obnoxious as smokers in restaurants. They are on trains and aeroplanes; walking around with such phones has become a disease. People need never be alone so long as they have their mobile phone. How many people do we see sitting alone in cafes and restaurants but talking to somebody on the phone because that makes them feel comfortable?

Given that such phones clearly have a function, it is not surprising that mobile phone towers and base stations are needed to enable people to conduct their conversations. Such towers and masts are growing faster than leylandii, and are now being erected close to many private houses. One recent application in South Hams was for a tower about 100 yd from a large village settlement just outside Totnes.

We are discovering that mobile phones can stew our brains. I hope that hon. Members—at least my hon. Friends—move the phone from one ear to the other so that they stew both sides of their brains. There is no doubt that mobile phones generate much heat. The implication is that masts might also generate heat and, being so close to people's homes, affect the bodies of those who live near them. We now know that heat from the sun is carcinogenic, that smoking gives off heat and causes cancer and that there is a risk that mobile phones cause cancers and growths. There must be a risk that mobile phone towers give off rays that affect our health.

In view of that, will the Government confirm that an environmental impact assessment should be made of every application to erect such towers and that it should include a health risk assessment? As I was one of the first Members of Parliaments to raise the risk of genetically modified crops in the House about a year and a half ago, it is fitting that I should also raise the health risk from mobile phone towers and base stations.

My third point concerns First Great Western Trains. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that Labour Members are present to support me. It is very good that they are, and perhaps they will remain. To get down to Devon and Cornwall one may drive, but the Deputy Prime Minister does not like us doing so, although it is far cheaper and often as quick as going by train. I pay tribute to FirstGroup, which, since it took over Great Western, has wrestled with intractable problems—old rolling stock, worn engines, bumpy track and a work force who seem to have lost much of their morale.

The trains have hardly ever run on time since FirstGroup took over. I am always interested in the reasons for the delay. There are cows on the line near Westbury. I do not know why cows like the line around Westbury, but they are always out on the track. There are sheep at Castle Cary. There are sometimes leaves in tunnels, but I do not know how they get there. Bridges are always being struck by lorries, which delays trains by anything up to an hour, and signal boxes are being knocked out by lightning.

Further delays are caused by passenger incidents. Miraculously, people seemed to fall ill as soon as the train gets to a station, and the train has to stay in the station until the ambulance arrives. Why the patient cannot be left with the station master or one of the station staff while the train carries on, I shall never know.

As hon. Members know, two years ago the service was deplorable and one was lucky to get to the other end without some catastrophe taking place. It has improved; I pay tribute to FirstGroup for that improvement. In the past few months, trains have been arriving more or less on time. However, there is a new timetable. In the summer timetable, journey times have been extended so that what used to be the fast train to Exeter, which took two hours, now takes two hours and 15 minutes. Trains are running to time, but the timetable has been extended.

There is provision in the railway franchises for compensation to be paid when trains arrive more than an hour late. Why should it be necessary to write to FirstGroup for compensation? Why cannot the station master at the station at which one arrives appear, carrying a big bag, and hand money out to the passengers when they get off the train and present their ticket? That would compensate them to some extent for being stuck on the train for the extra hour.

It is a long journey to Devon or the west country, and catering facilities have taken a nose-dive recently. I cannot understand why the items in the catering car cannot be British. These are British trains; why do we always have to have French water? There are about 55 springs in this country. Can you imagine a French train sporting English wine, Mr. Deputy Speaker? You could never expect to see that.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I hope not.

Mr. Steen

There is nothing wrong with English wine. There are about 450 commercial English vineyards, and I know that Madam Speaker enjoys a glass of English wine, as I do.

However, the quality of the products stocked in the catering car has gone downhill. Worse, many of the restaurant cars and the various foods that should be available on the train are not there and the facilities are not provided. Many people rely on the restaurant car when travelling to Cornwall, and it is a great disappointment and a cause of considerable friction when the advertised facilities are not provided.

Finally, the smoking saga on Great Western deserves a mention. If one happens to be a first-class passenger at the weekend, one cannot avoid sitting in a smoking coach. People pour in from every part of the train to smoke in the first-class coach, and a first-class traveller at the weekend needs a gas mask to avoid those smokers who tend to come from the weekend first section. Labour Members probably do not have such problems because they all travel second class—I wonder whether they do—but if one is paying the full price, one wants to be able to travel in a non-smoking coach at the weekend. My advice to first-class weekend travellers is not to pay the first-class price; they should just pay for a second-class ticket and upgrade because they will be smoked out anyway.

I shall not be happy unless those three issues—bed-blocking, mobile phone towers and Great Western—are addressed before we rise next week.

10.34 am
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I want to address the House on some of the benefits that have come to my constituency from the Government and then to consider one or two points arising in Ireland.

Before I start talking about the good news for Hull, I should say that we have had one or two disappointments. We did not get our single regeneration budget money this year, for the first time ever, and we did not get our medical school, yet again. However, my constituency has had considerable help from the Government. We have an education action zone, which is changing the attitude of parents, students and teachers and is well supported by local industry. The local newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail, has led a vigorous campaign on raising standards, which is badly needed in the city of Hull, and especially in my constituency.

We have a sure start scheme, which will be of tremendous importance in parts of my constituency where we have a great many teenage pregnancies and single young unmarried mothers. That will do important work in Orchard Park ward and University ward. We shall also be a pilot area for the new deal for the over-50s.

Part of the problem is that the present Government tend to do good by stealth and do not always get their message across about what is happening in individual constituencies, which is of great importance. Help for education in Hull has been of particular strength, giving purpose and ambition, for the first time, to many young people in an area where there is a lack of skilled employment and a great need for important investment to improve citizens' skills.

Although we have been given enormous help for education, we have suffered considerably in relation to access funds, the announcement of which was delayed this year. Two sixth-form colleges in the city and a general college—Hull college, Wilberforce college and Wyke college—have all had to write to Professor Melville, chairman of the Further Education Funding Council, drawing attention to what has happened.

It might be easier for the House if, instead of making all the points at length, I read out one of the letters that has been sent to Professor Melville. It says: Re: Student Support/Access Funds. This college has now received its Access Fund allocation after considerable delay and well after the date when we expected the information. It is now clear, after discussions with Kingston upon Hull Local Authority representatives, that the amount made available to students in financial need in this area will be considerably reduced. As you are no doubt aware, participation in post-16 education in Hull is very low in comparison to the national average. There are a number of factors which influence the staying-on rate but the fact that the Government has introduced EMAs in pilot areas in order to increase the post-16 participation level would seem to imply an acceptance that an appropriate level of financial support is of great importance. Against this background the College Corporation has a great deal of anxiety that students in this area will be less likely to participate in post-16 education as the level of support available to them is drastically reduced. We have calculated that a student who would previously have received £750 will now only receive between £350 and £400, and we believe this is likely to have an impact, not only on recruitment but also on retention, in this college where a large percentage of our students formerly received grants. It continues: The principle of equality of student support nationally is one which we may all feel able to support, but the reality is that students in Hull will lose out in order to benefit students in more affluent areas where the staying-on rate is already higher. Enormous investment is being made in the education action zone in an attempt to raise pupils' aspirations, but when pupils reach the age of 16 and transfer to other institutes of further education their grant will be considerably reduced, so the carrot part of encouraging them to stay on in further education will be considerably reduced. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and his colleagues should discuss seriously with Professor Melville of the Further Education Funding Council the effects of such schemes in cities like Hull. It cannot be the Government's intention—indeed, it is not—that the introduction of such schemes should act as a deterrent to students staying on in education, particularly when there is such a great need to encourage pupils to take up their places.

I now turn to some matters that concern Ireland, which to a degree have been overlooked because of the attention that we have been paying to the peace process over the past few weeks. To some extent, that has hidden other things. I shall make three points.

First, I condemn the scurrilous campaign that has been waged against the Bloody Sunday inquiry, including its purpose and its origins. The campaign has involved the witnesses, the judges and the manner in which the inquiry is being conducted. If there were a campaign to undermine the integrity of an inquiry taking place in a court of law, there would be grounds for the Attorney-General to take action for contempt of court. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will consider the campaign against the inquiry and against the integrity of those who are taking part in it, which could affect the attitudes of witnesses. Perhaps he will consider whether the newspapers involved in the campaign are committing a contempt.

Secondly, I draw attention to two newspaper articles that appeared on 27 June about a Mr. Stobie. One was written by Ed Maloney in The Sunday Tribune and the other by Chris Ryder in the Irish edition of The Sunday Times. Mr. Stobie was on trial nine years ago for possession of weapons, which he alleged had been placed in his property by the police. It is a strange case. When it came to trial, Mr. Stobie claimed that he had been an agent of the security forces and that unless something was done he would reveal all that he knew. A full account of these matters can be found in the newspaper articles to which I have referred.

The important thing about the case of Mr. Stobie is that when possession of arms is alleged in Northern Ireland the onus is on the accused to prove that he had the weapons legitimately. The strange feature is that the police withdrew the case against Mr. Stobie nine years ago after he had made his strange outburst in court. Not only did they do that but they had entered a verdict of not guilty of the offence alleged. It is difficult to see how that can be when the onus on the defence has been changed and a statement has been made setting out the various allegations. The case is then suddenly dropped like a hot potato by the police. Bearing in mind what is coming up under Chris Patten in his report on the RUC, the connections between prosecutions, police informers and its role in myriad cases should be considered extremely carefully.

Thirdly, an inquiry is being conducted in response to the complaints made by the late Mrs. Rosemary Nelson. A leaked document was printed in the newspapers from the chairman of the Independent Commission for Police Complaints for Northern Ireland. He had produced a commentary on the RUC investigation. It is quite a damning document about the police attitude in the Nelson case. I shall read out the introduction to the commentary to enable the House to get the flavour of it. I shall not take too long because I do not want to waste the time of the House. The introduction reads: In June 1998 the Chairman of the ICPC, through the medium of an 'in confidence' letter, brought to the attention of the Chief Constable the supervising member's concerns"— that is Geralyn McNally— about the RUC's conduct of investigations in the Nelson complaints case. This letter stated the concerns in broad terms and provided some illustrative examples. In the ensuing discussions between the Member, the Chief Constable and the Chairman … the supervising Member rejected any suggestion that her concerns should be expressed in terms of a formal complaint. That suggestion was made to her by the Chief Constable. The document continues: This was because her association with the investigation was on the basis of her public appointment under statute. She was not involved, therefore, as a private citizen. The document then states: To position herself as a citizen with a grievance, as opposed to an official office holder drawing attention to serious concerns, would have been wholly inappropriate and essentially undermining of her statutory role. The Chief Constable was not of a mind to exercise his discretion to have the matter formally investigated under Article 8 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. He did, however, decide to request Commander Mulvihill of the Metropolitan Police, who had been brought in to take over the substantive complaints inquiry, to review also the original RUC investigation. That is the background to the case.

The conclusions reached by the chairman of the ICPC read: The report that has been produced could be criticised on a number of levels, not least of them being that it lacks balance. That is the Mulvihill report. The conclusion continues: I have worked with Ms McNally for two years now and I am unaware of any defects of intellect"— she is the supervising officer— vision, hearing, memory or personal integrity on her part. The outcome of her supervision of this case was not 'the subjective view of one individual' but rather a systematic evaluation of the facts in the matter as they were presented to her. Although the report liberally strays into uninvited comment on the part played by the Commission in this investigation, Mr. Mulvihill offers no personal evaluation of Ms McNally, unlike the Chief Inspector whom, as has already been noted, he considers to be a principled man imbued with a strong sense of duty. It is interesting that when this matter came to be considered again there was no official examination of the supervising officer, Ms McNally. That is a deficiency and it applies also to the Mulvihill report. The conclusion continues: Throughout the review, the Commander is frequently faced with either accepting Ms McNally's account of events or that of the Chief Inspector. He consistently opts for the version offered by the Chief Inspector. As was stated at the beginning of this paper, Commander Mulvihill's review lacked the standing of a fully-fledged inquiry and this is reflected in its process, analysis and outcomes. This is in no way a personal criticism of him. He undertook a very difficult assignment with honesty and integrity, but the parameters which were set for the task inevitably meant that many of the opinions which were expressed by him have no more standing than that: they are opinions. The analysis states that there were several matters of the utmost importance. The first was that the RUC initially refused to investigate the allegations that officers made death threats against Mrs. Nelson and agreed to do so only under pressure from the ICPC. When it did so, it treated the matter as a question of incivility. I accept that a death threat to a solicitor is incivility but others might suggest that it is something stronger than that, something more serious and something that should have been examined with a greater sense of urgency than was shown in this instance. Mr. Donnelly, the chairman of the ICPC, takes the view that treating the matter as one of incivility could be regarded as resistance to and trivialisation of a serious matter. Mr. Donnelly said that a senior RUC officer probing the death threat claims told at least one officer tinder investigation to prepare a statement in advance of interview. That is contrary to all practice on this island. Later, Mr. Donnelly states that the officers involved were given witness statements of what was being said about them. Again, that is unusual in such an inquiry. The RUC accepted that it was unusual, and it is hoped that it will not happen again.

Mr. Donnelly cites evidence of RUC officers being interviewed on serious charges and asks whether their attitudes are tolerated by the organisation. In some cases, answers to questions were no more than four lines. In many cases there were no substantive answers to questions, only "No comment" or "See my statement." That is regarded by the inquiring officer as being a rigorous inquiry.

Mr. Donnelly notes that, as I pointed out, Sir Ronnie was not of a mind to exercise his discretion to have the matter formally investigated"— a matter in which a solicitor claims death threats from RUC officers. So the matter goes on. I shall not weary the House with further details of the complaints.

While we have been discussing the extremely important matter of devolution in Northern Ireland, which we hope will be achieved later this year, matters are still bubbling on in Northern Ireland, sometimes below the surface and sometimes above it. It is sometimes difficult to sustain the belief that the RUC is treating some serious matters with the proper respect and consideration that they deserve. That is shown in the Nelson inquiry and Mr. Donnelly's report, which reveal collusion between the police when threatened by further evidence given by people who have been involved on the murkier side of the security services. Collusion has also been shown in the Stobie matter.

Moreover, there has been a deliberate and virulent campaign by serious newspapers to undermine the integrity of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General should consider whether that constitutes a contempt of court.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say to the House that a large number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and, unless contributions are considerably shorter, many of them will be disappointed?

10.50 am
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Mindful of what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall try to be brief.

I wish to raise an urgent matter—the state of the United Kingdom sheep industry. Unless immediate action is taken, there will be an exodus from many of the upland areas of Britain. Despite the welcome news last week of the lifting of the beef ban, in practical terms that was largely a psychological lift—not much beef is likely to be exported in the near future as we have lost an entire market.

The Competition Commission report on the dairy sector has not brought joy. That was covered in a debate last week and was sufficient to make the president of the National Farmers Union in Wales announce that he was quitting dairy farming because he could not see any future in it.

I shall try to straddle not the divide between new Labour and old Labour, which was mentioned earlier, but the divide that still exists between the countryside and urban Britain. The vast majority of people in the UK are entirely ignorant of the crisis in the sheep industry. The situation is so serious that in earlier times it would have warranted a royal commission to investigate it and make recommendations.

The sheep industry is suffering as much as other sectors but receives scant publicity. It is the dominant industry in most of Wales, Scotland, Cumbria, north Yorkshire, the Peak district and much of south-west England. It also has an important role in Northern Ireland. A contraction of the industry would cause much of rural Britain to be further depopulated, and the knock-on economic damage would be equally devastating. The impact on family farms would be enormous.

In my constituency this week, the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society is holding its great show—the largest in the UK in terms of the numbers of visitors. Forty breeds of sheep will be on show, more than at any other show in Britain. It is my duty to speak up not only for my constituents but for all sheep farmers in the United Kingdom. The past three years have been the worst for sheep farming that I can recall in a life that has been spent working in or very close to the livestock industry. Except during the times that I have been blessed to serve in the House, I have been much involved in farming matters.

In my constituency there are far more sheep than human beings—no fewer than 16 sheep to every person. I started my working life at the age of eight, droving sheep from the mart to the railway station and was paid small sums for doing so. Never have I been so worried about the future of the area that I represent and the upland areas of Britain. The root of that worry is the crisis in the sheep industry. I no longer have a pecuniary interest in the industry, but many people whom I know have.

Many hon. Members serve constituencies in which sheep farming plays an important role, and I am sure that they will understand my concern. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of areas such as rural Wales depends primarily on the recovery of the sheep industry. I have no doubt that the same is true in Scotland and vast tracts of rural England. It is not a matter for flippancy; nor is it a storm in a teacup. In debating sheep, we are discussing the future of hundreds of thousands of people and millions of hectares of the United Kingdom.

The average price of finished lambs at the farm gate has fallen by 40 per cent. over the past three years, and 30 per cent. over that in the past month. That has produced a similar decrease in the prices achieved by farmers for store lambs sold off the hills for further finishing on lowland farms, and also for breeding ewes. At the same time, the increase in the value of sterling has driven down the value of European Union subsidies received by sheep farmers, and returns for lambs as well. The sheep industry has suffered a multi-whammy, as there has also been a disastrous 40 per cent. drop in the value of wool on world markets.

The Government's figures show that average farm incomes in the hills have dropped by more than 40 per cent. in each of the past two years. With an average hill farm income in Wales standing at £5,000 per year last year, it is certain that many of those farms are operating at a substantial loss this year. They are also subject to a hill livestock compensatory allowance review, which will have a major impact on the industry.

It is clear that there is no return on the capital invested in the average sheep farm, when drawings are allowed for. I defy anyone to raise a family and live properly on such an income, let alone reinvest in a business. Unless the situation is turned around, there will be no investment in hill farming. To turn it around, the fortunes of the sheep industry will have to improve dramatically.

The tragedy is that the EU is short of sheepmeat. There is no overproduction of sheepmeat in Europe, but we cannot get enough of our sheepmeat onto the European market to satisfy the demand that undoubtedly exists. It is intensely frustrating that our neighbours in France, for example, are getting prices for Iamb that are 50 per cent, higher than those in Britain. Clearly, we have a marketing problem, not overproduction.

With too much sheepmeat left on the domestic market because it cannot be exported successfully, the big supermarket buyers hold the whip hand. They can force prices down through pressure on the meat processors. One has only to visit a livestock market to see the mobile phones, about which we have just heard, being used by buyers at the other end of the line to tell people in the ring how much they can bid. It smacks somewhat of a cartel.

A further problem is that there are too many old ewes producing hard-to-market small lambs. Last autumn they were practically valueless and have been kept on into the current season. We have many problems, but in the past fortnight we in Wales have started to construct a new all-Wales livestock marketing co-operative to try to tackle some of them. Salvation will come through co-operation—particularly in England now that the regional development agencies, which may be able to help, have been set up—and the big dealers and the big supermarket buyers could be bargained with on a more level playing field.

There is a crisis in respect of cull ewes in the United Kingdom. We need to reduce their number considerably. A cull needs to be carried out, and I hope that the Minister will relay that to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Sadly, the ewes that were not culled last autumn are now the equivalent of skeletons because they have been kept for a year too long. They are valueless and, sadly, but for the sake of animal welfare they ought to be sent to an incinerator. That would be the kindest thing to do. This year's cull ewes, which are coming down the line, will be culled, particularly from the hills, as a matter of the stratification of the sheep industry.

Hon. Members will know that last year the Irish introduced a scheme under which farmers were paid £15 a cull ewe to take them off the market. I believe that such a scheme would be of great value in the United Kingdom, but action needs to be taken now; by October, it will be too late because those ewes will be flooding onto the market. The French require whole carcases—not split carcases which were and still are the order of the day. They can deal with them, and there is a good case for reviewing the matter now that the position in respect of beef has slackened. Disposing of those cull ewes now would mean that there would be fewer lambs next season and stronger demand for next season's lamb crop, which would improve farm incomes and put some much-needed cash into farmers' pockets.

The wool industry is in crisis and the cost of shearing sheep is greater than the value of the wool. Only yesterday I was told of an upland farm on which it cost £1,200 to shear the sheep, but the value of the wool was £800, which is an astonishing situation. This season's lamb prices are down by £9 a head, gross margins will be down by 30 per cent., and I calculate that last year's average income on upland sheep farms was the equivalent of £2.70 an hour for a 39-hour week. Hon. Members should compare that with the £3.60 an hour paid as the national minimum wage.

The sheep industry has sustained severe losses over the past two years and it cannot sustain any more. I am afraid that the exodus from the countryside is about to start in a big way. I have talked to young people in my area and I believe that they will leave the land in substantial numbers. I am sure that that is not what the House wants, but I believe that it will happen unless a great deal of emergency action is taken. Problems with the euro and with exchange rates have not helped, but I believe that we should join the euro as soon as it is practicable to do so. I call on the House to take action now and I hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will ensure that a cull ewe disposal scheme is introduced to bring at least some relief to that hard-pressed sector of the sheep industry.

11.4 am

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words about the chronic shortage of general practitioners in my constituency, which is causing great concern. I raised the matter about 18 months ago in a Wednesday morning debate, when my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was a Health Minister.

I shall not bore the House by going through a rigmarole on statistics. Suffice it to say that the Sunderland health authority area is estimated to be short of 30 GPs, which puts us above the national average for patients per GP: there are about 2,250 patients per GP in Sunderland against the national average of about 1,900. That local problem stands out because, paradoxically, it exists in a region that enjoys a ratio of GPs to patients that is higher than the United Kingdom average.

I have to give full credit where it is due: my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, and his predecessor, who have been sincere and sympathetic, have attempted to introduce initiatives to ease the problem. I also give credit to Sunderland health authority, which is in the somewhat invidious position of trying to improve a situation over which it has little statutory control.

The nub of the matter lies within GP practices. I have spent many hours discussing this issue with various colleagues and I should place on record the fact that my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) have also been closely involved. They have done what they can and, although they may not use my words and expressions, they generally agree with the thrust of my remarks.

When I looked into this problem, I found that it has been long standing and that it should have been foreseen. In many ways, it is a demographic problem because my area has more than its fair share of GPs aged over 50. I am grateful to the Northern and Yorkshire regional office of the national health service executive for providing me with statistics showing that of all the health authorities in the region, only Sunderland has a preponderance of doctors over that age. Although the majority of doctors in every other health authority are under 40, two thirds of general practitioners in Sunderland are over 50. That situation has probably come about because of a historical accident, but the problem needs to be tackled and no matter what is done at present that will still be the position.

I am putting down a marker because I do not want someone to say in 20 years that no one noticed these problems. They are with us now and unless they are dealt with vigorously, they will return with a vengeance, whatever we do to provide short-term alleviation. No matter how much good will is shown by the Department of Health, the Sunderland health authority and the regional health authorities, they are dealing with a flawed situation and that flaw lies within the present system of GP practices.

For example, a practice of three GPs might look after 6,000 people, which is extremely reasonable considering that one GP in my area looks after 4,000 people. If one GP retired and was not immediately replaced, even though efforts were made to replace him, two GPs would be left to look after those 6,000 people.

One of the problems is that the system of payment in GP practices is little better than that for piecework: the more patients a doctor has, the more he is remunerated. Once GPs have become used to a much higher rate of remuneration, they have a disincentive to recruit partners. The system is fundamentally flawed and has been since the NHS was founded. Moreover, it is having a deleterious effect in Sunderland. Although my area is 30 GPs short, only four practices have placed advertisements to try to find partners. One would assume that if practices are not placing advertisements, they are not trying to improve the situation.

The answer to the problem is salaried status for GPs. I know that the British Medical Association is not in favour of that and has fought against it since the inception of the NHS, but recent research shows that 93 per cent, of young GPs would prefer to be salaried workers rather than small business men running their own practice or partners in a practice. We are also considering the possibility of expanding the local university's medical service so that while young GPs are being trained within the university they can give some of their time to assist GPs in the area.

Unless the primary care sector is thriving and vigorous, the excellent initiatives that the Government are carrying out, such as health action zones, are bound to be blighted and may fail. As recently as last week, I met my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and I know that he is doing all that he can. However, we now face almost three months in which Parliament will not sit and I dread to think what the position may be when we return because, despite all the efforts, the problem is getting worse.

This is a matter not merely for the Government, but for all hon. Members. Are we satisfied that the current system of GP practices is working? I am not and I wish to lay down that marker. I urge the Government to put much more emphasis on trying to change the system so that, eventually, all GPs are salaried. It may be argued that that will cost more, but so be it. The current system is unsatisfactory. It cannot be only my constituency that has a shortage of GPs. The problem is inherent.

I give full credit to the Government, who are trying to alleviate the problem by getting more GPs on to the books, but ultimately, we must have a system in which, if there is a shortage in an area, both the health authority and the Department of Health can put it right. That does not seem to be the case. We are floundering around trying to see what can be done to alleviate the problem, instead of considering a solution which, in the long term, would prevent such a problem from arising.

I have spent just about long enough saying what I have to say. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to raise this matter because it is causing a lot of concern in my constituency. Next Thursday, I have been asked to address Age Concern specifically on this matter and I am not particularly looking forward to it. I therefore ask the Minister and all hon. Members present to consider this matter. The system has been in place for 50 years and it is not working to the satisfaction of all those who want to benefit from the service, particularly in my constituency.

Despite what the BMA may think—no doubt I shall be public enemy number one, given what I have to say—the majority of young doctors do not want to be entrepreneurs and business men; they want to carry on their profession as salaried workers and let the Government deal with the administration and the executive functions.

11.14 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

It is absolutely imperative that the House does not rise before debating fully the threat posed to public services, the private sector and people's normal daily lives by what is misleadingly called the "millennium bug"—the time bomb that is ticking away and which will affect the performance of the date-related computer systems on which we all rely. No one can guarantee that that threat will be avoided and yet, despite what the Government may claim, most people totally underestimate or under-realise it. As a result, they will not be prepared.

Last month, the Government distributed a booklet entitled "Facts not Fiction" in the national Sunday press. I regret to say, however, that it was a missed opportunity adequately to warn and inform people. The Government have also introduced quarterly reports to Parliament, which are now to become monthly reports as the deadline draws near. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for the formidable role that she has played as the principal Minister responsible. I hope that she will be allowed to continue in that role for the rest of the year, because she is aware of the seriousness of the problem and no one new to the job would have the time to get to grips with it or have a greater influence on it.

Many experts now say that it is already too late to do much more than what has already been done to respond to the problem. Reports that are now appearing make it clear that there will be problems. Although they will be much worse elsewhere in the world—this country is better prepared than most—as we cannot isolate ourselves from them, we will import other countries' problems as well.

The House has never had a full-scale debate on this issue. Apart from Government statements, Hansard shows that the Government have responded only to personal initiatives or Back-Bench Members of Parliament. Those include my original question to the previous Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in 1995 on the issue; my Adjournment debate the following year; another Adjournment debate on the consequences for defence earlier this year; my proposed amendments to the Data Protection Act 1998; my three private Member's Bills on the issue; the Adjournment debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) earlier this year; and replies to questions by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Why has there been no general debate on the threat? Why has there been no debate on the Science and Technology Committee's report entitled "The Year 2000: Computer Compliance", which it published in April last year? What have the Government got to hide? Is it because they lost six crucial months when they came into office in May 1997, during which they shelved—or effectively sacked—the awareness campaign of the previous Government, TaskForce 2000, before eventually replacing it with Action 2000, which became fully operational only last year? I fear that, with hindsight, those six lost months will mean that this country is no longer the best prepared for avoiding problems.

That also explains the recent Cap Gemini report that Britain has slipped from second to eighth place in the millennium readiness stakes, as other European countries accelerate their efforts. I am already convinced that the failure of both the previous Government and the present one to support my three Bills on this unique issue will be exposed as missed opportunities, which, in hindsight, they were badly advised to ignore.

Nowhere is that demonstrated better than in last weekend's report about the eight companies that the Financial Services Authority refuses to name, despite the demands of Action 2000, in which investors' money is at risk because the companies are rated as "red" in the latest report by the National Infrastructure Forum. That information will get out sooner or later—almost certainly sooner, because of inevitable leaks in response to increasing rumour and speculation about who they are. There is a clear duty of immediate exposure so that appropriate action can be taken, not least by those whose investments may be at risk. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is immoral and dishonest to deny disclosure now. I look forward to his response.

All that and so much more could have been avoided if my first private Member's Bill, the Companies (Millennium Computer Compliance) Bill, had been allowed to complete its stages in the run-up to the last general election. The Bill would have required company directors to disclose the millennium compliance of their computer systems in their annual reports to shareholders. We would, by now, have had two years of annual reports providing for total transparency in law of every company's millennium readiness. If action was not being taken, shareholders would have wanted to know why and would have demanded that something be done. It was a simple solution to a unique situation and it would have been effective in safeguarding this country's private business sector.

The present Government cannot blame the previous Government for a lack of foresight in not perceiving the opportunity of my Bill, because they also refused to support it when I brought it back in its amended form after the last general election.

There is no reference to that risk to shareholders in the Government's booklet "Facts not Fiction". Under the section headed "Personal Finance", we are told that your money is as safe as it has always been". It contains no cautionary warnings to reflect other recent reports.

In February last year, I warned the Prime Minister at Question Time about the high risk of undertaking the two biggest ever information technology projects—millennium compliance and euro conversion—at the same time. Last Sunday's The Mail on Sunday warned that European banks and financial institutions will not be millennium compliant in time, which will affect the euro. Interest rates will rise. That and other consequences will have an impact on this country.

The Government could have delayed proceeding with other IT projects so as to give priority to the overwhelming and essential need to be millennium compliant. The Passport Agency struggled to issue thousands of passports because of its inability to cope with the millennium bug and the new requirement for children to carry their own passports.

In May, The Sunday Telegraph warned that some of Europe's busiest airports and air traffic control centres have fallen seriously behind in their plans to deal with the millennium bug. They include Paris, Rome, Madrid and Luton. The major power failures at Heathrow at the start of this May's bank holiday weekend showed that people's plans can be disrupted no matter who they are. Even Posh and Becks had to abandon plans to fly to Nice. That experience will be nothing compared with the consequences of computer failure. How many people are aware that the channel tunnel will be closed to the public at the millennium to prevent a potential disaster caused by the Y2K bug?

On 1 June, the Daily Mail reported that the Home Office had issued leaflets to every local authority "predicting Millennium night chaos" and warning of medical, public order and criminal disasters on a grand scale. My local authority of Bournemouth, which is one of our major tourist resorts and had hoped to organise millennium night events, has no insurance cover for public liability and is still waiting to hear from the Treasury whether the Bellwin scheme for emergency financial assistance to local authorities would apply. How many other local authorities and voluntary organisations are abandoning their millennium plans because of the threat of the millennium bug?

Are the Government confident that all their millennium plans are adequately covered for public liability? That may explain the report on Operation Surety in The Sunday Times last weekend. The Special Air Services and other special services are shortly to be deployed to protect key government sites and civilian installations, such as banks, airports and power stations, and to support emergency services. Will the Minister confirm the existence of Operation Surety?

Those threats and risks, as well as many more, would have been dramatically reduced if the Government had had the good sense to support my two other private Member's Bills on this issue. The Millennium Conformity Bill, which I introduced last year, would have required all computer systems and the services they provide to recognise 2000 as defined by the British Standards Institution's code of millennium conformity. I shall again move the Second Reading of my Computer Millennium Non-Compliance (Contingency Plans) Bill this Friday.

Unfortunately, the Government have shown that they do not fully appreciate either the problem or the threat, and continue to rely on voluntary persuasion of the need to take the necessary action. They have not grasped the fact that, no matter how well any organisation is prepared, it can take just one glitch, one overlooked, non-compliant date in any of its own programmes or those in the chain with which it is linked for all of them to be affected. It is all or nothing. It is impossible to conclude that there will not be problems. That warning is blatantly missing in the Government's booklet to inform the public, entitled "Facts not Fiction".

At the very least, the commendably realistic warning of the Leader of the House that there are no guarantees that material disruption of public services will be avoided should have been quoted in the booklet. There is no guarantee that electric lights will come on, domestic gas will flow, water taps will run, telephones will operate and food, petrol and cash will not run out.

If the House is not fully to debate this problem, will the Minister tell us how he intends to report the new monthly reports to the House during the summer recess? Should those reports disclose that targets will be missed, and given that slippage has been a common feature of past reports, will the recess be suspended so that a proper statement can be debated? When the House returns in late October, there will be insufficient time to take meaningful action—fewer than 50 working days. Will the Government issue further warnings to the public that they should be prepared for problems, and guidelines on what sensible precautions to take? The Government have not done enough to prepare this country for what could happen early next year. They have just 165 days left in which to do so.

11.26 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Soon after the House goes into recess, the world will celebrate Yorkshire day on 1 August. Perhaps Yorkshire day has not yet reached the scale of Burns night or American independence day, or even the celebrations to mark the Queen's birthday. Nevertheless, we shall be doing our best in Yorkshire. This year, it will have a particular resonance because on 1 August, Yorkshire will be playing in its first one-day cricket final at Lords for more than 12 years.

Yorkshire people are known the world over for their generosity, outward-going nature and sheer joie de vivre. A campaign was started this year for a Yorkshire parliament. It rightly drew attention to the strong Yorkshire identity, but it was probably wrong to illustrate that identity by reference to the trio of Freddie Trueman, Geoff Boycott and Michael Parkinson. A more modern trio would have been Darren Gough, Mel B from the Spice Girls and Sean Bean, the actor from South Yorkshire. However, in the absence of a Yorkshire regional assembly or parliament, I shall touch on three areas of particular concern to the Yorkshire economy.

The Yorkshire economy is generally booming at the moment. Unemployment is low—it is falling in my constituency—and interest rates are low, but there are particular concerns in individual sectors. Many people in Yorkshire will start Yorkshire day, which falls on a Sunday this year, by having their only cooked breakfast of the week. They will have time to do that, and will no doubt have bacon and eggs or a bacon sandwich. I hope that, as they do so, they will reflect on the dire plight of many pig farmers. We heard about sheep farmers earlier, but many pig farmers in Yorkshire and elsewhere are in difficulty.

The latest statistics from Eurostat show a dramatic fall in production in the pig sector, which will get worse over the summer. In the third quarter of the year, pig production is predicted to fall by 13.7 per cent., and gross indigenous pig production will fall in the fourth quarter by as much as 20 per cent. Those figures are truly alarming.

Part of the explanation for that fall is the drop in pig demand throughout the European Union. As has often been said in the House, British pig producers labour under an unfair competitive disadvantage, because of the welfare measures that they have properly put in place under pressure from retailers, the Government and consumers. Tethers, sow stalls and, most importantly, bonemeal have been banned. Those measures are not in place in all European Union countries, although some of them will be by 2004. Horror stories are emerging from some of our European Union competitors. Even Euro-enthusiasts such as I have a good degree of Euro-scepticism about the conditions that pertain in some of our competitor countries.

According to Reuters, a French Government inquiry, which produced a report, found factory waste in animal feed. Reuters said: Residue from toilets, septic tanks and sludge from waste treatment factories are routinely used in the making of European animal feed … Initial findings show that certain types of meal destined to feed pigs, poultry and fish, have not been properly treated in the view of this analysis … In one case, matter ending up as feed ingredients for pigs and poultry included untreated byproducts from the production of gelatine from pig and cow skins". I urge Ministers, over the summer, to redouble their efforts in the European Union. I urge them to insist that such practices end, to insist that animal welfare standards are brought up to scratch in our competitor countries sooner than 2004, and to do everything possible to encourage supermarkets and local authorities robustly to buy pigmeat safely. Currently, that will mean buying British in most instances.

Another industry that has long been associated with Yorkshire—and, over the last couple of decades, with my constituency in particular—is the coal industry. There is now some recognition in the Yorkshire coalfields that the Government have done a good job in righting wrongs that have existed in the past, particularly in giving justice to miners suffering from industrial diseases by ensuring that they receive proper compensation. They have also created a window in the energy market in order to provide a more diverse energy supply. Coal now has a chance: there is a more level playing field.

I hope that, over the summer, Ministers will consider an Environment Agency report on the control of pollution from existing oil and coal-fired power stations. Our international obligations demand that we cut 1980 levels of sulphur dioxide emissions by 80 per cent, by 2010. The Environment Agency suggests that we go further, and cut them by 87 per cent, by 2005. There is some disquiet in the Yorkshire coalfields about the idea of our proceeding faster than our international obligations demand. It is also felt that the report should be closely associated with the Government's energy review, and their review of the electricity pool. "Joined-up government" is, of course, a cliche, but it really applies in this context.

Following the Government's energy review, the Drax power station in my constituency—the biggest coal-fired power station in Europe—is to be disposed of by National Power. When that happens, National Power, which is still a dominant force in the industry, will no longer have a flue gas desulphurisation plant as part of its portfolio. It strikes me as sensible for Eggborough, National Power's biggest power station, to be fitted with such a plant, and I urge the Environment Agency and the Government to encourage such a development. If all three major power stations in the Aire valley, Drax, Ferrybridge—which is being disposed of by PowerGen, and will have a flue gas desulphurisation plant—and Eggborough are so equipped, for the first time, it will do wonders for the local environment.

Ultimately, however, flue gas desulphurisation plants give the coalfields only a medium-term future. If we are serious about giving them a longer-term future, we must encourage clean-coal technology, in which this country leads the world, in the same way as we encourage the renewable sector. The coal industry is expanding internationally, especially in China, and we have a tremendous export market. The Government have said that they will not decide whether we should have a demonstration clean-coal plant for three years; I think that that is too long for us to wait.

I am aware of the constraints of time. Perhaps Front-Bench Members would consider imposing a 10-minute limit on Back Benchers' speeches in future debates. I am a minute or two short of 10 minutes.

Finally, let me say something about Yorkshire's burgeoning restaurant sector. Yorkshire is now one of the gastronomic capitals of Britain: for example, Hazelwood Castle in my constituency is a superb restaurant. Perhaps the Government will consider introducing a small measure early in the new Session. I believe that they are already committed to a reform of the licensing laws following the work of the better regulation task force. Currently, if restaurants in Leeds, Sheffield, York and Selby want to stay open after midnight, they must provide live music and entertainment: they must make more noise in order to stay open. That is nonsense. I hope that, by Yorkshire day next year, people will be able to enjoy a meal in a restaurant late at night without being subjected to incessant noise.

11.35 am
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I want to raise an issue that goes to the heart of our parliamentary democracy: the confidentiality of the constituency case work of Members of Parliament.

I believe that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who were once a Back Bencher, and all of us regard our constituency case work as sacrosanct. It is as confidential, as privileged and as closely guarded as the confessional, as correspondence with lawyers and as matters relating to doctors. We have always regarded it as such, and I was astonished to discover the other day that, in fact, Parliament affords no protection whatever to it.

In late May, a representative of Messrs Baker Tilly, a trustee in bankruptcy, called at the offices of Mr. Jonathan Aitken and removed nine boxes of private papers. Those private papers included correspondence with constituents and with ministerial and Government colleagues, correspondence with religious and spiritual leaders, and correspondence with current and former heads of state. Baker Tilly's representative gave Mr. Aitken an undertaking that precautions would be taken to protect the confidentiality of the papers, and that the files would be kept in a locked cupboard at Baker Tilly. Mr. Aitken was also assured that they would be taken only for inspection, and that, once they had been examined and checked for financial details, they would be returned. On that basis, Mr. Aitken not only agreed for the files to be taken, but helped to load them into Baker Tilly's van.

Mr. Aitken was horrified to discover that, within days, the trustee in bankruptcy had sought the opinion of valuers, Messrs Gorringes, on the value of the papers at sale. The valuers suggested that they could be sold for a considerable sum. The trustee stated: This sum will be realised should I be able to sell the correspondence without any restriction to the ultimate purchaser". Gorringes's head of valuation, Mr. Gilham, said on 14 June: We believe however that these sensitive files are of value and that the market lies in the publishing arena. On the basis of the limited research we have been able to undertake we have reason to believe that if the nine boxes"— all nine boxes— were to be offered to newspapers and publishers a six figure sum would be easily attainable". Last weekend, The Sunday Times carried an article about the matter. As a result, Mr. Aitken's former constituents in South Thanet have been caused considerable distress. The papers contain material of a highly sensitive and highly personal nature. Moreover, when I met Mr. Aitken at his request to discuss the matter, and agreed to raise it in the House, he informed me that, in another incarnation as a sidesman at St. Margaret's church, Westminster—which is effectively the chapel of the House of Commons—he had written on numerous occasions to Canon Donald Gray, the former Speaker's Chaplain, and had issued special requests on behalf of colleagues on both sides of the House who were in distress, and were suffering marital difficulties. There were requests such as, "So-and-so's son is a drug addict: please can we remember him in our prayers?". Those, too, were matters of a highly sensitive, highly personal nature, which were never supposed to be disclosed in any public way, and should not have been so disclosed.

Some of these matters are before the court, and I do not wish to intrude on the privilege of the courts to determine matters that are properly in their domain. However, at 8.30 this morning, I met the trustee in bankruptcy in the House, and I am pleased to be able to reassure hon. Members that I have now received an agreement in writing. It states: None of Mr. Aitken's correspondence with constituents has been or will be copied and nor will it be offered for sale. These papers will be returned to Mr. Aitken's solicitors forthwith. No correspondence between Mr. Aitken and parliamentary colleagues has been or will be copied, nor at any time offered for sale unless the court so orders. No correspondence between Mr. Aitken and the Speakers Chaplain, Canon Donald Gray have been or will be copied or at any time offered for sale. These papers will be returned, also, to Mr. Aitken's solicitors forthwith except those papers which relate to Mr. Aitken's financial affairs. Papers that may be regarded as Government Papers covered under the 'Thirty Year Rule' have not been and will not be copied or offered for sale. They will be held subject to the undertaking already given to the Treasury Solicitor. The remaining papers—the remaining matters—will be dealt with in court. It would be improper of me to seek to deal with them.

My point in raising the matter and in placing it on the record is that, happily, as a result of considerable pressure being brought to bear, not least by the thought that the matter would be raised in the House this morning, the issue has, so far as the constituents of South Thanet are concerned, been put to bed. I accept entirely the undertaking that the trustee in bankruptcy, Mr. Colin Haig, gave me this morning. It is in writing. I have no reason to question his word, but there is a principle that must be considered during the recess so that some progress can be made in Parliament in the autumn. I firmly believe that, in the light of those events, which I do not believe many Members began to understand were possible, the two Front-Bench teams, the Cabinet Office and, dare I say it, the Speaker's Clerks and Office need to review the position.

It is an appalling situation. I should make the following point: those who know the man will understand why he is so concerned. Jonathan Aitken's first concern was for his former South Thanet constituents. He was desperately disturbed to learn that there was a possibility of their private correspondence being made public. He was equally concerned at the thought that colleagues' private matters that had been discussed with the Speaker's Chaplain could have been made public.

It is essential that we look again at the whole system of parliamentary privilege to ensure that, at no time—hon. Members on either side of the House might find themselves facing bankruptcy—shall any colleagues' private constituency papers be seized by a trustee in bankruptcy, or offered for sale.

11.41 am
Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

I should like to raise some important issues before the summer recess—issues that some Conservative Members may not wish to hear, but that need to be raised none the less.

In recent weeks, there has been much interest in and speculation about Mr. Michael Ashcroft. Many allegations have been made. Many revelations have appeared in the daily papers about his status as a foreign funder of the Conservative party, about his business dealings and about his relationship with the previous Government. Throughout it all, the Leader of the Opposition has stood by Mr. Ashcroft and said that he has no case to answer. Mr. Ashcroft has conceded that his connections with the Conservative party are causing it damage, but he still resolutely refuses to go.

May I remind the House who Michael Ashcroft is? He is a United Kingdom tax exile. His principal residence is in the United States of America. His principal business interests lie in Belize. He funds the Government party there—the People's United party, which I understand has recently sought advice on joining the Socialist International. He is Belize's ambassador to the United Nations. He is a citizen of Belize; he is also a citizen of the Turks and Caicos Islands. As far as I know, he is a citizen of other places, too. All those credentials are considered by the Leader of the Opposition to qualify him for his other job: treasurer of the United Kingdom's Conservative party.

Mr. Ashcrof is a man about whom our man in Belize warned the Foreign Office: there was, he said, a shadow over his reputation that ought not to be ignored"— of course, that shadow has been ignored by the Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Ashcroft is a man whose business interests, according to a report by Rodney Gallagher, which was sponsored by the Foreign Office as part of its aid to Belize, were creating a growing sense of disquiet in Belize—a sense of disquiet clearly not shared by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Ashcroft is a man whom our former high commissioner in Belize, Mr. David Mackilligin, described last week as an object of suspicion to governments in the area, especially the Americans who have to cope with constant war against drug-runners and money-launderers". He went on to write, in a letter which appeared in The Times: he cannot escape responsibility for establishing a system that makes Belize a much more tempting target for drug-runners than it would be and for resisting efforts to regulate it properly in order presumably to maximise his company's profit. That is, apparently, what motivates Mr. Michael Ashcroft—the bottom line. It is not political conviction; I have mentioned that he funds not only the Conservative party but the People's United party in Belize. It is not personal loyalty. It is not public interest, but the ruthless pursuit of the bottom line. He has made money out of flags of convenience in Belize, which is known to have one of the worst safety records in the world. According to The Independent this morning, he has sold passports for profit. According to our Foreign Office diplomats, he is prepared to "stir up trouble" for Britain in the Turks and Caicos Islands if he does not get his way.

In no fewer than 10 of the 40-odd votes in the United Nations since he has been Belize's ambassador there, Mr. Ashcroft has voted against the United Kingdom. As I have said, he has opened the door in Belize to money laundering and drug trafficking through his interference in the regulation of its financial sector. The linking of Michael Ashcroft to the drugs trade is the most alarming aspect.

On Sunday, Mr. Ashcroft told the BBC that, although he was aware of one investigation undertaken by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States, he believed that it had concluded in 1992 and that its principal interest was Belize, not him. To be caught up in one drugs investigation may be just bad luck—a big man in a small place at the wrong time—but there is more.

I have seen documents, which have also been seen by The Times— files of the DEA, the FBI and the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. All refer to Michael Ashcroft and to his business interests. I have no reason to believe that they are forgeries. They are taken from the files of United States investigation, intelligence and enforcement agencies. They make disturbing reading.

In 1989, Mr. Ashcroft's name was linked to a DEA drug-trafficking inquiry that stretched across Europe, the United States and Canada, and involved the son of Jean Baptiste Andreani, who was immortalised, if that is the right word, in "The French Connection." In 1992, a Thomas Ricke was arrested and jailed for laundering money, gained from organised crime, through Michael Ashcroft's Belize bank. In 1993, the DEA conducted an investigation of Belize-linked businesses, half of which were connected to Michael Ashcroft—12 of the 25-odd that it investigated had links with Michael Ashcroft.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bradley

No. Time is pressing. Other hon. Members want to speak.

In 1994, a DEA file reported observing Michael Ashcroft taking a flight from the United States to the Caribbean. It referred to possible air smuggling/money laundering activities under way by Michael Ashcroft". It also reported that the plane was owned and piloted by two suspected drug traffickers.

In 1996, Mr. Ashcroft was the subject of another investigation. In 1997, a man arrested in Holland on suspicion of drugs offences gave as his address the same address in Belize as Mr. Ashcroft's principal company, Belize Holdings. Those are serious matters.

I do not claim that Michael Ashcroft is guilty of any offence. I simply do not know, but nor does the Leader of the Opposition. However, he above all should be concerned about these allegations. The drip, drip, drip of disclosures is becoming a torrent that threatens to engulf the Conservative party. It is extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition has taken no action about it. After all, it was he who said just last year: We are not going to have in the future any of the kind of controversies that have dogged us in the past over funding". He said it, but did he believe it and did he mean it?

If Michael Ashcroft were just another business man, we would take little interest in him, but he wants to play a role in British public life, and that gives us a legitimate interest in his affairs. That is why the Leader of the Opposition must refer him to the ethics and integrity committee that he established recently. That is why he should relieve him of his post as treasurer of the Conservative party, and why he should consider returning to him the donations that he has made in recent years.

Michael Ashcroft says that he will not go. Only one man can decide his fate—the man who says that he runs the Conservative party—but does he dare? Does he have the courage or even the authority to sack him, and can he afford to, given that Michael Ashcroft is the man who owns the Conservative party?

The Conservative party says that sleaze is a thing of the past, but it is running its campaign in Eddisbury on money from Belize, and tomorrow it will ask the people in that constituency for their trust. Does the Leader of the Opposition want it said that Michael Ashcroft is the man who defines the Conservative party? This is a real test of his qualities of leadership. He has a big decision to make.

11.51 am
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I shall preface my remarks by congratulating those hon. Members who have taken the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to highlight the problems of the sheep and pig industries. Before I move on to my own theme, however, I wish to state how much I deplore the comments of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley).

The House will understand that what the hon. Gentleman said was covered by parliamentary privilege, but I did not hear him cite any specific charges that had been brought against Mr. Ashcroft. I remind the House of the very important principle and tenet in British law that a man is innocent until proved otherwise. The hon. Gentleman questioned the motives and motivation of Mr. Ashcroft, but I hope that I shall not be out of order in questioning the hon. Gentleman's motives. He spent 10 minutes giving us a lot of innuendo but, as far as I know, he was unable to substantiate that with any facts.

On a more pleasant note, I wish to say that, in my opinion, the British countryside looks more beautiful than it has ever done at this time of year, probably due to the wet spring that we had. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have an interest in trees, and you will appreciate that the beauty of the British countryside is largely due to the tree cover that it enjoys. I want to speak specifically about commercial forestry.

Last year, the Government issued their forestry strategy for England, which was largely aspirational and entirely platitudinous. As far as commercial forestry was concerned, it was eminently worthy but, in practical terms, worthless. England, together with Ulster and Eire, is bottom of the European league for tree coverage. In England, 8 per cent, of the land mass is covered in trees. In Eire the figure is 7 per cent., and in Ulster 6 per cent. In contrast, the overall figure for European Union land mass coverage is 36 per cent. Taking the United Kingdom as a whole, the comparable figure is 10 per cent., but that includes large areas of scrub oak, the third most common species after spruce and pine.

I have some questions for the Government. Are they satisfied with the present situation and the current downward trend in new planting? What, if anything, are they prepared to do about the matter, and how will they go about it? At present, the forestry industry is experiencing unprecedented difficulties. First, it suffers from red tape, particularly that associated with felling controls. Secondly, it suffers from cheap imports—I remind the House that labour costs in Latvia, for example, are a quarter of those in the United Kingdom. Moreover, road fuel prices in Latvia are only a third of those in this country. Thirdly, crippling vehicle excise and road fuel duties have a much more significant effect on forestry than on industries whose loads are less bulky and often much more valuable.

Haulage accounts for at least 25 per cent, of the delivered value of British-grown round timber. For obvious reasons, the scope for transferring the loads to the railways is limited. A lot of our forestry land is well removed from the rail-heads, and in any case loads have to be hauled by road to reach them.

A fourth problem facing the industry is the lack of any coherent long-term Government strategy sufficient to give the private sector long-term confidence. Forestry is, after all, a very long-term business. People who plant trees often do not live to see them come to maturity. Planting, therefore, is done with the long term in view.

Fifthly, the Forestry Commission is a rogue elephant when it comes to commercial decisions, and does not always operate under the same constraints as the private sector. Many other difficulties face the industry, not least an ill-informed public who do not accept that trees are grown as a commercial crop and that trees, like humans, have a finite life.

A prosperous commercial forestry industry brings many economic benefits. First, there is an obvious benefit in the employment that it creates. The forestry industry is a major employer in rural areas. It is estimated that it employs 35,000 people in the United Kingdom, and that employment is permanent and year-round. That contrasts with the agriculture industry, where more of the labour tends to be under contract and on a seasonal basis. Moreover, the forestry industry is often situated in remote areas where there is no alternative employment.

In the past decade, the industry has invested no less than £1.8 billion in new saw milling and wood processing facilities, which now produce timber and wood products derived from British forests that are worth £2 billion per annum. That is a valuable contribution to our balance of payments. Our forests represent a store of value and are a very important strategic reserve.

The third benefit to be derived from a healthy forestry industry is to the environment. I have already mentioned how trees benefit the landscape, and most hon. Members will be aware of the beneficial effect that trees have on our atmosphere by absorbing surplus nitrogen and other impurities. Forestry is a sustainable and infinitely renewable source of raw material and fuel. Given that so many people are worried about the environment, a thriving forestry industry will ensure that there is life and work in our countryside, and will prevent its reduction into a decaying park.

I have several questions that the Government must answer. Do they acknowledge the economic, environmental and employment benefits of a thriving forestry industry? Do they accept that the portents for the future are alarming? The area approved for felling increased from 12,000 hectares in 1989 to 19,000 hectares in 1998, but the area planted in the same period fell from 37,000 hectares to 17,000 hectares. What action will the Government take to deal with the problems that I have described? They could remove at a stroke the burden of regulation and the punitive effect of the exorbitant 11.6 per cent, increase in road fuel duties.

Will the Government look again at the efficacy of their grant schemes in encouraging a vibrant forestry industry, and will they consider reintroducing tax reliefs such as existed before 1988? Now that the "polluter pays" principle is so well established, there is a strong case for giving relief to those who, far from polluting the atmosphere, do so much to clean it up. Or will the Government do nothing? Will they take the short-term view that foresters are an insignificant minority; that 35,000 jobs are neither here nor there; that our timber can all be sourced from abroad; that a living vibrant countryside is the rhetoric, not the reality, of Labour in office?

I move that the House does not adjourn until a Minister has come to the Dispatch Box to state unequivocally that wood is good, and what the Government will do positively to encourage this generation to plant trees for the benefit and enjoyment of generations yet unborn.

12 noon

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

In January this year, a constituent of mine, while travelling home to Wolverhampton via Birmingham international airport, was detained by French immigration officials at Charles de Gaulle airport. They apparently did not like the look of his passport and thought that it may have been forged. That turned out not to be true. My constituent is a British citizen and his passport was okay, but it took the best part of 36 hours to convince the French officials and, during that time, my constituent underwent what can only be described as an extremely unpleasant experience.

I have made a formal complaint to the French ambassador here in London and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the way in which my constituent was treated. To give the French ambassador his due, he has taken my complaint seriously, and several months ago he asked for an investigation to be carried out by French immigration officials. I am awaiting the outcome of that report and I do not want to pre-empt it, so I shall not go into great detail about what happened to my constituent, but, because of his experience I wish to bring several points to the attention of the House and the Minister so that he can pass them on to the FCO and the Home Office.

First, despite repeated requests, my constituent was denied access to the British embassy in Paris. When I took that up with the Foreign Office I was told that, within the EU, and presumably any other country, immigration officials exercise their own discretion as to how they carry out their job. But it is a serious matter that a British citizen should be denied access to his own embassy. In this case, there was a practical reason for contacting the British embassy. Had it been involved earlier, the mistake could have been cleared up in a couple of hours, rather than the 36 that it took.

Secondly, France and Britain are meant to be partners within the EU. Intelligence and common sense should have reigned on this occasion and the French immigration officials should have contacted British immigration. Not only would the entire mess have been cleared up, but if my constituent had not been who he said he was and had been trying to enter the United Kingdom illegally, British immigration officials would have liked to have known about it. They would have liked the opportunity to interview him to discover how he got hold of his passport and how he was attempting to gain entrance to the United Kingdom.

Those of us who represent multicultural constituencies in Britain and deal with many immigration matters know that most illegal immigration into Britain is a result of organised international crime. Large amounts of money are exchanged. The only way to fight such international crime is by having cross-border co-operation. I am concerned that in this case that simply did not happen. I do not know how many other times such a situation has occurred, but that important message should go back to the FCO and the Home Office.

At the moment, Home Office Ministers are engaged in discussions at the Council of Ministers about improving cross-border co-operation between immigration authorities to deal with illegal immigration. Whatever they manage to agree on, it is crucial that immigration officers are allowed to talk to each other, first to try to combat illegal immigration, but also to try to prevent the extremely unpleasant experience that my constituent underwent. Even if we are partners in the EU, a British citizen should not be put through what my constituent was put through.

I respectfully ask the Minister to convey my points to the FCO and the Home Office. Whatever the outcome of my complaint about the way in which my constituent was treated, real issues arise here with regard to a British citizen being denied access to his or her embassy when in trouble and needing help. In this case, when the British embassy did intervene, the matter was cleared up. If we are to have co-operation between immigration officers across the EU—I strongly recommend that; it is needed—it should be at a level where it is workable and practical, so that we can get to grips with internationally organised illegal immigration.

12.5 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) has demonstrated that it is possible to raise an important case concisely and coherently. I am grateful to her for sitting down when she did, and I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful to her for the example that she has set. Would that others might follow it more often.

One of the sad things about today's debate—I have said in the past that this is a useful exercise and I have replied to these debates for the past two years or more—is that so many hon. Members have not been able to take part, a number of whom have sat throughout the debate. I feel especially deprived that I have not heard my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I was desperate to know the latest position of the Palace theatre, and to hear the many other things with which he would doubtless have entertained us. The hon. Lady's case had echoes of one that he raised during the Whitsun Adjournment debate.

I ask the Minister and the Government business managers to consider the matter carefully. Either we should go on until 2 o'clock, as I have commended to the House before, or Madam Speaker should be asked if she would be kind enough to impose a 10-minute limit on all speeches.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) is not in his place, and that is rather unfortunate for such a senior hon. Member. He took half an hour of our time—slightly more—to outline an important case. No one could for a moment dispute the importance of what he spoke of, and he used parliamentary privilege entirely properly to raise those points. It is a pity that he is not here to listen to my response. I hope that he will be here in time to hear the Minister's response. He raised issues of alleged corruption in strong language, taking a great deal of time to do so, thus preventing a number of other hon. Members from raising their constituency cases.

This has been a serious debate. Privilege has been used on one or two occasions. It was used entirely properly by the right hon. Member for Gorton, but it was not used as properly by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). As my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) said, the time-honoured principle of English law is that a man or woman is innocent until proved guilty. We had not a single shred of evidence from the hon. Gentleman. Newspaper reports were quoted and we had innuendo aplenty, but there was no substance in the allegations.

I know my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition well enough to know that any allegation of real substance would be taken most seriously by him, but we have not had that. It is a pity that the privilege of the House should be used to smear—that is what was done this morning—not to bring out facts, as the right hon. Member for Gorton sought to do. He quoted chapter and verse when he did so. I am delighted to see that the right hon. Gentleman is now in his place.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) discussed the closure of Dunsfold and its effects on two exceptionally important aircraft and the skills and viability of a whole community. I hope that Mr. John Weston will listen carefully to her.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) was right to talk about aircraft noise. We then heard my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) discuss bed-blocking, mobile telephone masts and the Great Western Railway. I offer my hon. Friend advance congratulations on his birthday tomorrow; perhaps it entitled him to make an omnibus speech. National health resources can be put at risk by bed-blocking, and Ministers should take careful account of what my hon. Friend said. I was horrified—we all were—by his graphic account of stewed brains. Those who use mobile phones regularly should perhaps take a break during the recess. I entirely favour the serving of English wine on English trains—some of it is splendid—but I expect French wine on a French train.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) talked of Northern Ireland, raising two disturbing cases—Stobie and Nelson. Everything he said emphasised the reasons for concern throughout the country at the possible breach of the anonymity rule in the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Those who fear that certain people may be identified do not pour scorn on the inquiry, but merely underline the principle, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, that a man is innocent until proven guilty.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) spoke eloquently of the sheep industry, of which he has deep personal knowledge. Anyone who represents a rural constituency will know that he did not exaggerate. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should heed most carefully what the hon. Gentleman said, and should also heed all that was said about the pig industry by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). Those vital sectors of our agriculture are in dire straits. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Yorkshire day and restaurants, and he may wish to know of a wonderful competition held in the restaurants of the House last week to demonstrate the versatility of pork. If such a competition were spread a little further abroad, we might have a more viable pig industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) spoke with force and passion, as he often has, about the millennium bug. The country is in his debt for the action that has been taken. Would that there had been more. The risks to which he referred are disturbing, and it is a pity that neither the previous Government nor the present have enacted his Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) discussed a matter of great importance to all Members of Parliament—the Aitken papers. We are in his debt for the assurances that he has gained from the trustee in bankruptcy. He was right to draw our attention to a threat that may face us all. Papers possessed by Members of Parliament that contain confidential information about our constituents and others must never be able to be seized and sold. My hon. Friend appears to have averted a catastrophe in the case of the Aitken papers—Jonathan Aitken, incidentally, was a most diligent constituency Member, and his papers are voluminous—but my hon. Friend's success does not remove the general threat, and we should return to this matter in the autumn.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow has great knowledge of and love for the countryside. He discussed the forestry industry—vital, even if it employs relatively few people—with knowledge and real feeling. The green and pleasant land about which my hon. Friend waxed so eloquent looks delightful and beautiful at present, but it depends on a properly managed forestry industry, and no Government should ever forget it.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) spoke interestingly about general practitioners. There are too few in his constituency, and too many of them are over 50. No doubt Ministers will address both issues in due course.

As the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire has returned to the Chamber, I should tell him that we all welcomed his discussion of aircraft noise, which blights many communities, particularly in rural areas. It is not only big airfields that cause the problem.

As always, the debate has been wide ranging. As the right hon. Member for Gorton is now in his place, I shall repeat that he began with a speech which, although too long, was important. The exceptionally important matters that he raised need to be addressed. We have travelled from the deeply serious to the mildly frivolous. We are all reasonably exhausted and ready for a break that ought to include a holiday. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and every other hon. Member a productive and enjoyable recess filled with plenty of constituency work but also a real family break.

12.17 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I should reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) about the large number of Members who have not been able to speak today. By the time of next year's debate, we will have been able to experiment with means to allow hon. Members a greater chance to raise constituency issues, perhaps in Westminster Hall. Our task is to ensure that constituency issues are raised and pursued while the primacy of the Chamber is maintained. That would be a major step forward.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I should have liked to hear more from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the Palace theatre. I could give chapter and verse on what has happened before, and I do not doubt that we shall hear of it again.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

An unusual number of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have been squeezed out of today's debate. Will the Minister convey to his right hon. and hon. Friends constituency concerns and other matters brought to the House by those who were unable to speak?

Mr. Tipping

I shall explore the possibilities. Any hon. Member who feels seriously aggrieved can write to me, and I shall ensure that the correspondence goes to the right place.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) got us off to a good start this morning. We need to look into the relationship between the Arrowcroft Group and United Utilities. It seems clear that Arrowcroft has been ignorant and arrogant, acting out of pride and prejudice but without sense and sensibility. The matter is before a public inquiry, and it would be unwise of me to comment further. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will continue to pursue the matter rigorously, whether they are new or old Labour.

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) spoke movingly about the problems at Dunsfold, which affect both her constituents and the Harrier programme. I shall draw her comments to the attention of relevant Ministers. She is right to say that regional development agencies are on trial, and that Dunsfold provides an opportunity to demonstrate what can be done. We want action as well as talk. I reassure her that there will be discussions between British Aerospace and DARA on the way forward. However, Dunsfold is primarily a matter for British Aerospace. I wish the right hon. Lady well in her discussions with the company.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) spoke of East Midlands airport, which I know well. I must confess that, many years ago, I was a leading light in the privatisation of the airport; I am pleased about that, because privatisation has brought new investment and new jobs to the area. The key issue at the airport is for the company to talk closely with local people. It should try to trade off investment against the obvious environmental concerns that have been expressed in the area. My hon. Friend made a good point about local decision-making in respect of planning, but noted that, in effect, these were regional and national matters. There is a case for considering a regional and national framework in respect of matters that affect airports such as the East Midlands airport.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) raised several issues. I shall not pursue all of them. He is right to highlight the fact that a Berlin wall sometimes still exists between health authorities and local authority social services departments. That is a real problem; we need to do better. Measures are in train to try to break down that wall. Patients should be the central concern; people should not be passed around like parcels. Money saving should not be the motivating force.

I understand all too well the hon. Gentleman's comments on mobile phones. Research is being carried out into their effect on people's health, but, looking around the Palace of Westminster, I fear that the research will be too late for some of our colleagues, whose brains are already hardened.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) spoke movingly and strongly of the problems of the sheep industry. In another context, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) also referred to farming. It is clear that the agriculture sector faces problems at present—prospects are difficult. However, there are matters that we can pursue. First, we should examine the role of supermarkets. Secondly, we must ensure that farmers work co-operatively, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire suggested—for example, through farmers' markets. It is important to promote British meat—British lamb and British beef—as having better quality; we have higher welfare standards. That will take us a long way forward.

I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the remarks of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire on the cull ewe disposal scheme. A wider issue for debate is the role of the rural economy; we need to make it clear that agriculture is not necessarily the essential ingredient for bringing new investment, new jobs and a new future to rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) raised the problem of lack of GPs in Sunderland. The health authority is beginning to address that problem, and will shortly hold a meeting with 16 practices in order to try to develop and improve services. The number of GPs now in training, and who will go into the NHS, has increased during the past two years. My hon. Friend referred to salaried doctors; that reminded me of the formation of the NHS—the voice of Nye Bevan. I know that my hon. Friend is a strong follower of that tradition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby spoke strongly and knowledgeably of the coal industry. Environmental constraints are a major threat to that industry. It is important that our energy policy is balanced and that we reduce emissions, but we must acknowledge that the gains made thus far were made on the back of the coal industry and of coal-field communities. Much more needs to be done to ensure that the cleaner plants, such as Drax and Ratcliffe on Soar, have an opportunity to compete—that is one of the matters that will be dealt with by the pool review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) raised a constituency matter that merits wider consideration. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Foreign Office, Baroness Symons, is looking into the matter; I already have an undertaking that the wider issues raised by my hon. Friend will be included in that consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) spoke about education in his constituency. He pointed out that there were improvements, but that there is a need to add value for post-16 school leavers and adult learners. That is a central thrust of Government policy. I am disappointed to learn of the difficulties in Hull. We are committed to do more; we are committed to lifelong learning. I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments will be drawn to the attention of Ministers and to the Further Education Funding Council.

My hon. Friend was the first of this morning's speakers to refer to wider issues. The Patten review of the RUC is an important milestone for Northern Ireland. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland my hon. Friend's other comments on Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is to be congratulated on raising an issue that he has pursued vigorously for many years. I have no doubt that there will be problems when the millennium comes. There will be glitches and we should not run away from the problems; we must engage with them because time is running short. Although 80 per cent. of Government systems are all right now, there remains much to do. There is still slippage. However, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is cracking the whip hard. I believe that there will be no serious and severe disruption in the United Kingdom of the kind predicted by the pessimists.

As time passes, we shall need to consider the matter closely and give reassurances. We shall need to highlight the international situation. Work is already under way at the Foreign Office. I anticipate that, in early autumn, the Foreign Office and several other Governments will draw attention to countries about which there is concern. In October, I anticipate that guidance will be given by airlines as to airline and airport safety. Yes, there will be international problems, but it is important that there is no knock-on effect for the UK. I am not advocating an "I'm all right Jack" approach, but we are well placed vis-a-vis other countries.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Financial Services Agency and the eight rogue firms. At some point, a naming exercise will have to occur. At present, it would be wrong to do that. However, I expect that progress will be made, but, if that is not the case, disclosure will have to take place for the sake of the consumer.

The House owes a debt to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) for what he did today. I undertake to look into the wider issues in respect of constituency correspondence.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) raised the Michael Ashcroft saga. It seems that damning allegations are being made. I cannot understand why the ethics and integrity committee of the Tory party have not investigated the matter.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) told me that wood was good. I agree with him. I shall walk in the woodland during the summer; woodland can lift the environment and lift the landscape. I look forward to being in Yorkshire on 1 August—enjoying the landscape, the woodland and the great gastronomic delights of north Yorkshire.

With that, I wish all hon. Members a good recess, a chance for refreshment with their families as well as a chance to pursue constituency work—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The Minister's comments were splendid, but he was not absolutely exact in his timing. I am sure that his remarks were appreciated.

We now move on to the debate on publicly funded legal services and legal aid in Reading, East.

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