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20 Dec 2010 : Column 1201

High Speed Rail

4.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement on the Government's plans for the development of a national high-speed rail network, and on the proposed route that we will put forward next year for public consultation.

One of the coalition's main objectives is to build an economy that is more balanced both sectorally and geographically, and that will deliver sustainable economic growth while also delivering on our climate change targets. Investment in infrastructure, and transport infrastructure in particular, will be a key part of that approach. To deliver economic growth and carbon reduction, we must provide attractive alternatives to short-haul aviation while addressing the issue of scarce rail capacity between city centres. Network Rail has calculated that by 2024 the west coast main line will effectively be full, with no further enhancements that could reasonably be made to meet future demand.

The Government believe that the best long-term solution to those challenges is the development of a national high-speed rail network. Our proposed strategy is a Y-shaped network, to be delivered in two phases, the first being a line from London to the west midlands and the second the onward legs to Manchester and Leeds, with connections to points further north via the east and west coast main lines.

Our proposals will provide an unprecedented increase in capacity on the key north-south routes out of London through a combination of new infrastructure and released capacity on existing lines. Reliability will be improved and journey times between major cities slashed. Central Birmingham will be brought within 49 minutes of London-potentially less for non-stopping services-and within one hour five minutes of Leeds. The released capacity on the west coast main line offers the possibility of commuter-frequency fast services to London from places such as Coventry and Milton Keynes.

By running trains seamlessly on to existing inter-city routes, the proposed network will also bring Glasgow and Edinburgh within three and a half hours of London, which is fast enough to induce a major shift of passengers from domestic aviation. In the longer term, we will also explore with the Scottish Government the options for further reducing journey times to Scotland.

The development of a high-speed rail network has been a key factor in our decision on additional runways at London's airports, which is why we said from the outset that any such network must be linked to our principal gateway airport and integrated with the European high-speed network via High Speed 1. In June, I asked HS2 Ltd to carry out additional work on such links. I have studied that work and the recommendations of Lord Mawhinney's review, and I have also examined Arup's proposals for a transport hub near Iver.

I have concluded that a spur route to the airport, running on the surface close to the M25 for part of its length, is the best option. It is lower-cost than the other options considered by HS2 Ltd, will keep journey times between London and Birmingham to a minimum and will retain the flexibility to be extended into a loop in future. To deliver the best possible value for taxpayers'
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money, I propose that a spur route be constructed as part of the second phase of the network, opening at the same time as the routes to Manchester and Leeds. I have today asked HS2 Ltd to carry out further work on such a spur route, with a view to public consultation later in this Parliament alongside the routes to Manchester and Leeds. For the period prior to the opening of that second phase, high-speed rail travellers to the airport will be able to change to fast Heathrow Express services at Old Oak Common, where there will also be a direct interchange with Crossrail.

With regard to a link to HS 1, HS2 Ltd's report identifies that a connection can be made via a new tunnel from Old Oak Common to the North London line near Chalk Farm, from where existing infrastructure can be used to reach the HS 1 line north of St Pancras. That proposal is significantly cheaper than any other option for a direct link, and it will enable direct trains to run from the midlands and the north to Europe without affecting existing service levels on the North London line. Such a tunnel can be constructed only before the Old Oak Common interchange comes into operation, so the link will be included in the phase 1 scheme put forward for consultation.

The Government believe that the construction of a high-speed rail network will support economic growth and the rebalancing of the UK economy, but we recognise that the proposed line will have significant local impacts on the areas it passes through and that we have a duty to do everything practically possible to mitigate those impacts. That is why, since my appointment as Secretary of State, I have reviewed the proposals of the previous Administration. I have looked at the case for high-speed rail, at the corridor options for a north-south route, at the different route options put forward by HS2 Ltd and in detail at the route option recommended in its March report. I have reached the conclusion, as the previous Administration did, that the route option recommended in March represents the most appropriate general alignment for the high-speed railway between London and the west midlands.

However, before finalising the detailed route that I am publishing today for consultation, I travelled the length of it and talked directly to local authorities, property owners, and many of the protest groups and their Members of Parliament, and I commissioned additional work on the options for improving the proposed alignment. As a consequence, significant amendments have been made to both the vertical and horizontal alignment, and to the proposed mitigation measures. In total, around 50% of the preferred route proposal published in March has been amended in some respect.

I am confident that solutions have now been found that can significantly mitigate the impacts of the railway at local level which, when properly understood, will reassure many of those who have been understandably apprehensive about the potential impact on their lives and their property values. For instance, in Primrose Hill, work to identify the most appropriate locations for the necessary vent shafts has shifted the proposed tunnel, and thus also the vent shafts themselves, to the north, away from the most sensitive areas of that part of London, locating them alongside the existing railway.

Between Amersham and Wendover, opportunities to cover sections of the proposed cutting to create a green bridge and a longer green tunnel have been
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incorporated into the route design to reduce its visual impact and avoid severance of public rights of way. By moving the alignment away from the historic property of Hartwell house, HS2 Ltd has been able to ensure that the line would not be visible from the house itself and that additional earthworks and planting can be undertaken to further reduce visual and noise impacts. In the most northerly section of the route, an improved alignment has been identified that would move the line further from Lichfield.

Despite our best efforts at mitigation, however, we will not be able to avoid all impacts on property values. Where a project that is in the national interest imposes significant financial loss on individuals, it is right and proper that they should be compensated fairly for that loss, so I have asked my officials to prepare a range of options for a scheme to assist those whose properties will not be required for the construction of the railway, but who will none the less see a significant diminution of value as a result of the construction of the line.

The forthcoming consultation will include proposals for such a scheme, which will sit alongside the statutory blight regime, which covers those whose properties would need to be taken to build the line. I am publishing today on my Department's website, and placing in the Library of the House, a set of reports by HS2 Ltd that sets out for each route section the options considered and the changes proposed, together with detailed maps showing the revised preferred route from London to the west midlands in full. That route will form the basis for the public consultation, which I expect to begin in February next year.

When the consultation is launched, I will also publish a revised business case, a full appraisal of sustainability, noise contour maps and route visualisations, all of which can be completed only now that the final preferred route for consultation has been determined. Let me be clear that the consultation will encompass the Government's strategy for a national high-speed rail network, the choice of corridor and the detailed line of route that I have outlined for the initial phase from London to the west midlands. As part of the consultation process, roadshows will be held along the length of the preferred route from London to the west midlands to ensure that local people have the opportunity to find out more about the project and to discuss specific concerns with those involved in developing the scheme.

It is my view that a high-speed rail network will deliver a transformational change to the way Britain works and competes in the 21st century. It will allow the economies of the midlands and the north to benefit much more directly from the economic engine of London, tackling the north-south divide more effectively than half a century of regional policy has done, expanding labour markets and bringing our major conurbations closer together. The consultation exercise that we will launch in the new year will be one of the biggest and most wide-ranging ever undertaken by any Government, and I urge all hon. Members with an interest to participate and to encourage their constituents to do so. These proposals have the support of political and business leaders from all parts of the United Kingdom, and I hope they will gain cross-party support in this House. I commend this statement to the House.

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Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. Today, he is facing a rising tide of criticism over the transport chaos gripping the country, so it is unlucky that he is scheduled to update the House on high-speed travel on a day when most people would settle for travel at any speed at all. As he knows, it was Labour in government which set out a vision for a high-speed rail line running from London to Birmingham from 2026, and on to Leeds, Manchester and Scotland in phases during the following years. I pay tribute to the tenacity and determination of his predecessor, the noble Lord Adonis, whose exhaustive work on the scheme has allowed the right hon. Gentleman to pick up and run with the vision he has set out today for high-speed rail.

I recognise the importance of increasing rail capacity and connectivity, particularly in respect of the west coast main line and the Chiltern line beyond 2020. I assure the Secretary of State that Labour remains committed to investing in a world-class rail system, and that high-speed rail could have an important role to play in delivering it. That is why we began the planning process when in government-in fact, I suspect that his proposals probably have more support on the Labour Benches than on the Benches behind him. He is the one sitting in a divided Government, although for once the divisions do not involve the Liberal Democrats. No doubt, he will find out in due course whether he has done enough today to persuade the Secretary of State for Wales, who is in her place, not to resign in protest at his plans.

We have just embarked on a fundamental review of our policies, just as the Conservatives did after the Prime Minister became leader of his party-and just like the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who appears to have looked again at all his party's policies since joining the Government. It would be ridiculous for our future support for high-speed rail not to be at the heart of that review-and it will be at the heart of it-given that it is a £30 billion commitment on future Parliaments. In the meantime, however, the Secretary of State has the support of Labour Members as he moves forward with the next stage of planning the route he has set out today.

It would be good if the Secretary of State were to show the same determination and commitment to other critical investment in our rail industry-investment needed now, not in future Parliaments. He has cut and delayed the vital investment we had planned for this Parliament; he has delayed the new generation of inter-city express trains and cut our plans for 1,300 new carriages; he has delayed much of the electrification that we planned and cut Great Western line electrification beyond Bristol and into Wales; and he has delayed the Thameslink and Crossrail schemes, which will not now benefit passengers until 2018-or is it now 2019? It keeps slipping.

We have set out an additional £7.5 billion of capital investment from which significant sums would have been invested in our rail networks in this Parliament. Does the Secretary of State realise that because he has cut so much spending in this Parliament while post-dating a £30 billion cheque for a high-speed rail scheme, the cost of which will fall in future Parliaments, people may well be sceptical about the extent of his commitment to Britain's railways today? Does he understand how he puts at risk public support for future investment such as
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high-speed rail, given that he cannot even get the investment to keep our trains and other transport infrastructure running during severe weather?

Does the Secretary of State also understand the anger that will be felt in communities across the country when people hear him claim that his support for high-speed rail is due to concern about the north-south divide in Britain? His party's support for high-speed rail is a fig leaf to disguise the fact that it has no strategy for investment, jobs or growth in the north. If he were really bothered about the north-south divide, he would not be supporting the scrapping of the regional development agencies, the future jobs fund and the education maintenance allowance, or the trebling of student fees, the delaying of broadband roll-out or the increase in VAT to 20%-another broken promise from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. If he were really bothered about the north-south divide, he would not be loading the largest cuts on to councils in the midlands and the north. If he were really bothered about transport links beyond the south, why is it that authorities in the north are facing the biggest cuts in their road maintenance and local travel projects, with Merseyside facing cuts of 49% and Manchester cuts of 42%, while midlands and southern counties are doing much better?

Let me ask the Secretary of State some specific questions about the scheme that he has announced today. What impact will the changes to the route, the additional compensation and hardship payments, and the other commitments that he has made today have on the £750 million that he has allocated in this spending period? Can he offer an assurance that that will not have a knock-on effect on other rail schemes already facing cuts and delays, and that it will not set a precedent for compensation in other cases where infrastructure is driven through people's homes and businesses? He has previously referred to the construction costs for major projects in the UK being significantly higher than for comparable projects elsewhere in Europe. What progress has he made, working with Infrastructure UK, to find ways of bringing down the cost of the scheme to the taxpayer?

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the cost of the trains to run on the high-speed line has been included in the figures used for the cost of the scheme; or, as with other schemes, such as Crossrail, do they constitute separate expenditure yet to be identified? One of the things missing from the debate on high-speed rail to date has been the likely cost of using the service. Does he agree that if all taxpayers are to contribute so significantly to the cost of constructing the route, it cannot be a service with ticket prices outside the grasp of most people? Does he agree that many people will question his commitment to take the line beyond Birmingham, when he is restricting his proposed legislation to the first part of the route? Why is he not taking powers in the hybrid Bill to build the line to the north of Birmingham?

The Secretary of State's party has no credibility when it comes to investing in our railways. We remember the 18 years of Tory under-investment in Britain's railways, and the botched privatisation, which resulted in years of instability and uncertainty. It was Labour that delivered years of sustained investment, leading to a doubling of
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passenger numbers. He is right to continue the work, which Labour began, to prepare for high-speed rail in the UK. However, we must also see investment in rail schemes that will benefit the country and assist growth and economic recovery now, not just in 15 to 20 years' time. We must see investment in technology to improve the resilience of the network to severe weather, and we must see passengers protected from the spiralling cost of fares. If the Secretary of State is really serious about maintaining a consensus on high-speed rail and building public support for his plans, he should think again about some of the decisions that he has taken in his first few months in the job. He should think again about cuts to new carriages, the delays to electrification and the massive hike in fares.

Mr Hammond: I will start with the good bits. I thank the hon. Lady for what I think was her support for the next stage of the process-going through the consultation and introducing a Bill later in this Parliament, if that is what we decide as a result of the consultation. I am also happy to pay tribute, as she did, to the work of my immediate predecessor in developing the case for high-speed rail, although it is worth noting that not all his predecessors seemed to have been quite so committed to the project.

I am afraid that it is the hon. Lady who lacks credibility, in talking about our failure to invest in the railway. She can talk about a decade of Labour investment as much as she likes. What most people will have noticed is a decade of driving us towards the brink of bankruptcy. What we have done is salvage a substantial programme of investment in rail infrastructure-a programme the scale of which neither she nor many commentators outside this place predicted we would be able to continue with- the context of the extreme fiscal constraints that we face. We have gone ahead with Crossrail and Thameslink, and with a programme of additional rail vehicles-"gone ahead with", not merely announced unfunded promises, which is her legacy. We will go ahead with the inter-city express programme, as I have already announced. We will announce to Parliament the details of that programme, along with the electrification associated with it, in the new year. The hon. Lady can go on all she likes about proposing £17 billion of additional investment. Her party has no economic plan, no policies and no credibility.

Turning to the specifics of the hon. Lady's response, the high-speed rail investment that we are proposing will be approximately £2 billion a year over a period of 16 years. That is roughly what we are spending now on Thameslink and Crossrail, so large infrastructure projects can be funded while the investment in the mainstream main line railway is funded as it is now.

The hon. Lady asked about our commitment to high speed rail as a means of addressing the north-south divide, and she reeled off a string of tried and failed mechanisms for addressing that persistent problem. We have decided to take a new approach to closing the gap between economic growth rates in the north and south, and the experience of other countries suggests that investment in strategic infrastructure is the best way to deliver that outcome.

The hon. Lady asked whether the change of route and the exceptional hardship scheme will impact on the £750 million that has been set aside for HS 2 during this Parliament, and the answer to that is no. She also asked whether there would be an impact on other rail schemes'
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budgets, and the answer is again no. The HS 2 budget is ring-fenced; other rail schemes are typically funded through Network Rail and through support to train operators.

The hon. Lady asked about the compensation scheme. I have indicated that we will seek to go further than has happened with previous such infrastructure schemes in the UK, because it is right and proper that individuals who suffer serious financial loss in the national interest should be compensated. She also asked whether we will be setting a precedent in that regard. She should be aware that developing European jurisprudence in the area of property rights and the need for Governments to compensate is pointing towards more generous compensation becoming the norm, and I suspect that that will be the case for future projects.

On construction costs, yes, we are of course anxious to get such costs down to something closer to European norms. The hon. Lady will know that Sir Roy McNulty is carrying out a review, one element of which relates to the cost of UK rail construction, and Infrastructure UK is also engaged in that issue. A report will be published in April. She asked whether the cost of the trains is included in the total figure, and I can confirm that it is.

The hon. Lady also asked about the assumption with regard to ticketing and to the prices of tickets. I can tell her that the business case modelling assumes the same ticket pricing structures as those that are now in place on the west coast main line. In practice, however, the west coast main line and High Speed 2 will be in competition with each other. The operator of High Speed 2 will have a very large number of seats to fill, and we anticipate that the processes of competition in the marketplace will create opportunities for passengers who are prepared to buy advance tickets and to shop on the internet to get bargains for travel between London, the midlands and the north.

Finally, the hon. Lady asked about the strength of our commitment to going beyond Birmingham. With respect, when her party was in government, its position was always focused on a line from London to Birmingham. It was us who took the debate beyond Birmingham and made the case for Manchester and Leeds. Indeed, the business case for this railway, for the connection to Heathrow airport and for the connection to HS 1 depends on a railway that forms a complete network linking Britain's four principal population centres, so I can assure her of that commitment.

I put it to the hon. Lady, however, that if we had sought to carry out the detailed work required for a hybrid Bill that covered the entire route, including the legs to Manchester and Leeds, it is unlikely that we would have been able to introduce such a Bill until the end of this Parliament. Our decision was therefore to introduce a hybrid Bill to deal with the London to Birmingham section-which is already a massive undertaking-in 2013, and that, while that Bill is going through Parliament, we should continue our detailed work on the legs to Manchester and Leeds, so that they can be included in a further hybrid Bill in the next Parliament.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): The Secretary of State kindly visited my constituency to investigate the impact of the route there. He will recall that he
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himself noted how high it would be. There would be large gantries and viaducts crossing motorways. At the time, he said that he would ask HS2 Ltd whether it could do anything to mitigate the impact. He did not mention North Warwickshire in his statement; is he able to give people in the area any good news?

Mr Hammond: I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the point at which the railway will cross the M6 at Coleshill. At my request, HS 2 looked into whether it was possible to build under the motorway, but I am afraid that that is not technically possible. HS 2 has managed to reduce the height of the proposed flyover by a modest amount, but I am afraid that it will still be quite high at Coleshill.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that what he has announced will involve the demolition of 350 flats in my constituency, the building over of a well-loved park, and the abandonment of a proposal to rebuild a girls' Catholic secondary school on the part of the site that has been taken over? While people in Primrose Hill may welcome the minor changes that he has announced, they will feel a little surrounded if there is to be a further tunnel on the other side of Primrose Hill, emerging at Chalk Farm, because they will have a tunnel on both sides. Does the Secretary of State accept that HS2 Ltd really ought to go back to the drawing board? The idea that the connection of a significant network will be dependent on a spur connecting HS 2 with HS 1 is preposterous, and the company really ought to start again.

Mr Hammond: Before the right hon. Gentleman describes the proposal as preposterous, he should look at what has been published and consider it carefully. It is a carefully worked-out engineering solution that provides a value-for-money answer for people who believe that it is essential for trains to run directly from the midlands and the north of England, through the channel tunnel, and onwards to the European high-speed network.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the impact on his constituency, which arises largely from the planned expansion of Euston station. Yes, there will be a number of property demolitions and replacements. It is planned to replace the properties that I have seen alongside the railway in his constituency with new properties. Some of the existing properties date from the 1920s and 1930s, and could do with being replaced. As he said, part of a small park will also be required.

The detailed design for the replacement Euston station has not yet been completed, but it is possible that it will be largely below ground level. At present, a large piece of the structure effectively creates a barrier down the middle of the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, separating east from west. Camden council is keen for that barrier to go, and for a natural pattern of streets to be opened up at the back of Euston station. I hope that we shall be able to facilitate that through this project, and to bring a positive benefit to the people of Camden.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): My right hon. Friend is well aware that my constituency has been severely blighted by the proposed route of the high speed railway, and he has received about 500 letters from me explaining quite how devastating that is for my constituents, so I shall not dwell on that now. Let me ask him, however, whether this is really the best value
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for money and the best solution to the undoubted need for new transport infrastructure. In particular, is the demand for seats really going to grow by 3% every year, as has been forecast to make the economic case? Is it really true that people do nothing when they are sitting on a train, and that that is dead time? There is also a lack of connectivity: there is nothing in it for anyone who is under the track.

Let me say finally-as you are looking at me crossly, Mr. Deputy Speaker-that there is a risk that other trains will be axed later to make way for HS 2 trains on the platforms. I should be grateful for the Secretary of State's comments on that.

Mr Hammond: I can reassure my hon. Friend on the last point. Other trains will not be axed to make way for HS 2 trains. This will be a dedicated high-speed passenger line, and it will not affect other railways.

My hon. Friend asked about the impact on South Northamptonshire. Obviously I am well aware of her concerns: I spend most Sunday afternoons signing letters to her and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). We have gone to great lengths to try to minimise the impacts on my hon. Friend's constituents and the communities she serves. If she looks at the maps and plans we have published today, she will see that we have been able to achieve a reduction in the impact, and I hope that, during the course of the consultation, I will be able to engage with local communities about the mitigation measures that will be put in place, including extensive planting, bunding and sound barriers to reduce that impact further. On the question about growth in passenger numbers, the model the Office of Rail Regulation uses is based on demand for travel growing broadly in line with the economy and all the evidence suggests that that is the case. Those growth forecasts are robust and we expect them to be achieved.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): High Speed 2 is about vital economic development, as well as about providing essential additional capacity for passengers and freight, but when will the Secretary of State explain how this essential economic development will take place, and will he guarantee that the line will run past Birmingham so as to bring benefits to the north, as well as between London and Birmingham?

Mr Hammond: The hon. Lady is, I think, repeating the suspicion-I can only describe it as that-of the Opposition spokesman, who expressed some concern that we might not be going to continue beyond Birmingham. Our firm intention is to go to Leeds and Manchester. Indeed, the business case will be based on the completion of the Y network to Manchester and Birmingham, but I would not like anyone to be-

Frank Dobson: And Leeds?

Mr Hammond: Yes, and Leeds. However, I would not like anyone to be under the illusion that benefits for people living north of Birmingham will begin to accrue only when the second phase is built. The point of reconnecting the first phase of the line to the west coast main line is that people travelling to Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland will enjoy journey-time savings from the
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point at which the first phase to Birmingham is opened. That is because the trains we will operate on this proposed railway will run straight off the high-speed line and on to the classic line, dropping the speed down to the line speed of the classic line, but allowing passengers to enjoy the benefit of the journey-time saving between London and Birmingham.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I hope it is in order, Mr Deputy Speaker, briefly to congratulate you on your brave announcement yesterday, and to welcome you to the club.

Has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had an opportunity to study the experiences of countries such as France, Germany and Spain and the lessons they learned in the construction of their high speed lines? I am thinking in particular about their very effective schemes to minimise noise pollution. Also, please can we ensure that our new railway infrastructure is not a series of new ugly concrete constructions, but instead that we have structures of which we can proud, as we have had in the past with, for example, the Forth bridge and Brunel's tunnels and viaducts?

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Yes, we have looked very closely at what has happened in France and at what is happening in Spain, and we have drawn on the experience of those countries in modelling the business case and addressing the approach to mitigation. My hon. Friend's question reminds me to make a rather important point. We will not be committing to orders for trains for this railway until almost 2020, so there is another 10 years' worth of train design development before the commitment has to be made.

Frank Dobson: Like for the aircraft carriers.

Mr Hammond: Well, they were your aircraft carriers, and I am not going to let the right hon. Gentleman anywhere near designing our trains; that is for sure.

The Eurostar trains that run on HS 1 were designed nearly 20 years ago and have concentrated power cars at front and rear. There will therefore be about 30 years of evolution in train design in respect of reducing noise and increasing fuel efficiency between the design of the Eurostar trains and the design of the trains that will run on these lines.

I also say to my hon. Friend that where we can hide this line, we will hide it. Where we cannot hide it, we will ensure that it is architecturally designed and that it is something that people are pleased to look at, not a British Rail engineering-style eyesore.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Given the massive cuts to regional and local transport systems that have already been announced and the fact that the capacity problem could be dealt with by investment in the existing west coast main line, why are the Government wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on this scheme?

Mr Hammond: Because the capacity problem could not be dealt with by further investment in the west coast main line. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that it could, but if he looks at the engineering reports
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that have been published, he will see that, in practice, it could not. We are going ahead with additional rail cars and additional train sets on the west coast main line, and the Network Rail route utilisation study published two weeks ago shows that by 2024 the line will be operating at capacity between London and Manchester, and London and Birmingham. It is not possible, because of the design of the infrastructure-we are not just talking about platform lengths-to put longer trains on a railway that is designed in the way that the west coast main line was designed. If he recalls the chaos that lasted for years when the west coast main line was upgraded a couple of years ago and if, on the back of that, he is seriously proposing that we should add two additional tracks to its entire length while resignalling the whole thing, he needs to think again.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate the Secretary of State on having the foresight to add a connection from High Speed 2 to High Speed 1. Can he tell me what the capacity will be for this link and so give this House an indication of the proportion of services from Birmingham that will be able to be through services to the continent?

Mr Hammond: The determining factor, of course, will be commercial considerations: how much passenger load there is and where interchanges might be made in the system between Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Old Oak Common and the route through the channel tunnel. However, the proposed single bore tunnel will have capacity for four trains per hour in each direction.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): The Secretary of State's response to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) will bring little comfort to people in Warwickshire or those living on the outskirts of Coventry. I wish to ask the Secretary of State specifically about the increase in the frequency of service between Coventry and London that he mentioned in his statement. Does he understand that what will anger a lot of people is the blighting, which can go on for many years? What sort of compensation scheme will he offer? Normally, such schemes are based on market values, but the market value of some of the properties involved is set to drop drastically. Can he answer that one?

Mr Hammond: The consultation will set out the proposals for compensation. Of course compensation arrangements have to be based on market value, but they should be based on the unblighted market value of the property in question. On the frequency of services from Coventry to London, one of the points that I have tried, on several occasions, to make to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members is that the west coast main line will change radically in nature once this railway is built. It will no longer be primarily about long-distance trains from Scotland, Preston, Manchester and Liverpool; it will be about long-distance commuter services. Places such as Milton Keynes and Coventry will be well within commuting range of London with fast commuter services. I say to him that if he looks around the south-east, he will find that one of the great drivers of prosperity is the ability of people to get into London quickly and reliably on frequent services. The ability to extend that to stations on the west coast main line will greatly benefit the population of those areas.

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Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I commend my right hon. Friend on his statement and the speed with which he has brought forward these proposals. He is particularly right to reject some of the criticisms of the Opposition, because I recall that their conversion came only with Lord Adonis and that proposals for anything beyond Birmingham were tacked on only in March this year. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with Transport for London? Beyond Old Oak Common, what dispersal measures will be needed in London?

Mr Philip Hammond: By the time the HS2 railway is built, the improvements and upgrades to the Northern line-for which we confirmed our investment funding in the recent spending review statement-will be completed. Dispersal will take place, it is estimated, with about one third at Old Oak Common, with passengers dispersing principally on to Crossrail, and about two thirds at Euston, with the upgraded Northern line. I have also asked HS2 to consider remodelling the station at Euston, so that Euston Square station can be incorporated into the main Euston station, giving access to additional underground lines.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): These things are never easy, and the Secretary of State has said that he has done a lot of listening. When he sets up the roadshows for the new proposals, will he personally attend them to hear what citizens have to say about his new plans?

Mr Hammond: I am not sure that that will be practical, in view of the number and frequency of the roadshow events. I can absolutely assure him that I will attend at least one-probably more than one-but I certainly cannot promise to attend all of them. Perhaps I might elaborate on this point. We intend to hold specific, locally focused roadshows at multiple points along the line of the London to Birmingham part of the route, where the exact route alignment has been defined. We envisage that those discussions will mainly be about local impacts. We also intend to hold a series of more broadly based meetings across the UK to discuss the broader principles of high speed rail and some of the more strategic issues about the route choices.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement, which I believe will help address the north-south divide. Has he made a detailed estimate that is available to Members of the huge economic benefits of this scheme to the north of England?

Mr Hammond: A full business case showing the economic benefits of the proposed railway will now be updated on the basis of the route that I have set out today. That will be published at the commencement of the consultation in February.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am suspicious, even though I do not want to be. I want to give the Secretary of State complete support, but 90% of investment in railways already goes into the south-east. As he said, £2 billion a year goes into Crossrail and £2 billion a year into Thameslink. Now he is suggesting that another £2 billion a year should go into the Birmingham-London link. It would partially
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remedy the north-south divide if the work was started in the north and moved to the south. If he cannot do that and really wants the support of northern MPs, the hybrid Bill should cover the lines to the north, too. Will he consider that?

Mr Hammond: I understand the hon. Gentleman's suspicion. It is in the blood, I suspect. I also understand his point, and it would help to allay these concerns if, in some way, we could include in the first hybrid Bill specific commitments to Manchester and Leeds. We cannot include detailed route alignments and land acquisition because that would make the Bill vast and it would probably be in Committee for about five years. I take on board his points, and also any suggestions he might have about how we might do that practically, which is something that I have also discussed with my predecessor. Everyone who wishes this project well understands the need to give strong reassurance to those communities around Manchester, Leeds, South Yorkshire and the east midlands that stand to benefit from the second phase.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): May I, too, offer my best wishes and support to you, Mr Deputy Speaker?

Having travelled down this morning on a very packed train from Leeds, may I say how much I welcome this statement? I am looking forward to seeing HS 2 come to Leeds. Given that trains going in and out of the station in Leeds are expected to see a 40% increase in the number of passengers, what extra capacity does the Secretary of State think that HS 2 will bring to the long-suffering passengers in Leeds and the north of England?

Mr Hammond: The route will more than triple the potential capacity available to passengers. I suspect that the very packed train that my hon. Friend experienced this morning might have been due to some specific problems on the east coast main line caused by overhead cable difficulties. I welcome his support. This will be a major deliverer of economic regeneration to Leeds and, in the next economic cycle, I hope that Leeds can resume the dash for growth and regeneration that it has so clearly pursued over the past few years.

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware of the strength of support among the Scottish business community and the Glasgow and Edinburgh economic partnership for the principle of extending high speed rail to Scotland. When does he expect to open detailed discussions with the Scottish Government about the financing of high speed track in Scotland, should the Scottish Government decide to accommodate that? Can he give us an indicative timeline, if those discussions prove successful, for when we might expect to see high speed track in Scotland?

Mr Hammond: It is important for the hon. Gentleman to note that the benefit is incremental. Once we have high speed to Birmingham, that will shorten journeys to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and once we have high speed to north of Manchester, that will shorten them still further. We are committed to discussions with the Scottish Government, but that would be a third phase to the
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project-we have to get to Manchester and Leeds first. The appropriate time to start discussing that third phase will be when we start the detailed design work on the second phase.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Can we support High Speed 2 as a movement toward sustainability and welcome the Government's communication with people? I refer particularly to the extension to HS 1, which allows the modal shift from airlines to railway usage. Will the Secretary of State consider supporting the way in which the A45 is to be moved to within Birmingham international airport so that the runway extension is in place for when High Speed 2 comes through?

Mr Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has thrown a slightly separate question at me there, but I can confirm that I have had discussions with Birmingham airport, and indeed the NEC, and they are strong supporters of the project. Like many others, they see it as opening up huge opportunities for them.

Birmingham airport will be about 30 to 35 minutes' travel from London Heathrow on the high speed rail link. That is less time than it currently takes one, with a fair wind, to get from terminal 4 to terminal 5 at Heathrow. The opportunities are quite significant.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Returning to Birmingham, but this time to the spur that goes into Birmingham, I was intrigued by the Secretary of State's announcement on compensation and enhanced compensation schemes. Do they apply only to the main line or also to the spur into the centre of Birmingham? As well as applying to private individuals, do they apply to institutions such as universities with halls of residence that are somewhat inconveniently located on some of the routes?

Mr Hammond: The exceptional hardship scheme, which is the scheme in place to deal with people who have an urgent and pressing need to move and cannot do so because of the effects of uncertainty around the proposals, applies to the complete alignment of the route into Birmingham. It applies to residential properties, but not to commercially owned properties. It is unfortunate that the halls of residence to which the hon. Lady refers-a virtually new building-sit across the route of the railway. If the railway goes ahead, that commercially owned property, or at least part of it, will have to be demolished and full compensation will be paid. I expect that it will be rebuilt in full with the proceeds of that compensation.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I call John McDonnell-I am sorry, I mean Jeremy Lefroy.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. He said that after the first stage of the project is complete, trains will run on the existing west coast main line northwards. Given the limit on the number of train paths on that line even now, what effect will that have on existing services and timetables?

Mr Hammond: The major constraints on capacity are south of Manchester, particularly on the Birmingham to London stretch, but clearly there will still be constraints
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on capacity as there is not infinite capacity available. We expect a significant proportion of train paths in the early days will be on the London to Birmingham and London to Manchester routes with a smaller number going on northwards, reflecting current patterns of passenger demand.

Mr Deputy Speaker: And now the ever-patient John McDonnell.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I say to the Secretary of State that I am just grateful we are getting a train set for Christmas and not a third runway at Heathrow. He has referred to the Heathrow link, the Mawhinney review and the Arup proposals for a transport hub near Iver and has concluded that there should be a spur to the airport running close to the M25. Does that mean that the Iver hub will or will not take place?

Mr Hammond: We do not favour the proposal for the Iver hub as a way of delivering high speed rail passengers into Heathrow. It is worth noting that the proposals that Arup worked up on its own account-it was not commissioned to do so-around the hub at Iver were originally intended as a proposal for getting traffic from the Great Western main line into Heathrow. HS 2 came along as a bit of an add-on to that proposal, and Arup may still wish to pursue it as a proposal that is of interest for that purpose, but it is not our preferred route for getting high speed rail passengers into Heathrow.

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Severe Winter Weather

5.25 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): With permission, I would like to make a statement on the continuing severe winter weather. We are facing exceptional conditions. It looks set to be the coldest December since 1910 with average temperatures 4° to 5° below the norm for December. Many areas have had record low temperatures, and snowfall has been the most widespread since 1981. The forecast is for continued severe cold and further snowfall through the coming week and over Christmas and the new year.

Transport services have suffered extensive disruption in the past few days, and there is a likelihood, I am afraid, of further disruption through this week. I recognise that this is particularly stressful just a few days ahead of the Christmas break, and I understand the frustration of those who are trying to get away or, indeed, trying to get home.

Transport services were also disrupted in the first spell of winter weather that came unusually early, at the end of November. That period tested the systems which, in some case, had performed so very poorly earlier this year. The then Government asked David Quarmby, chairman of the RAC Foundation and a former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, to conduct a review of last winter's resilience. His initial report was issued in July and a final report was published in October. It made 28 recommendations, some of them directed at central Government, some at local government, and some at transport operators. Many of those recommendations have already been implemented, although some will necessarily take longer.

On 2 December I asked David Quarmby, in the light of the weather conditions that we were then experiencing, to conduct an audit of the implementation of his recommendations and to make any further observations that he felt necessary. This is an independent report and I understand that David Quarmby intends to publish it tomorrow.

One of the principal recommendations of the first Quarmby report concerned salt-levels of stocks that local authorities should hold, dosage rates for optimum use of stocks and the acquisition of a strategic stockpile by central Government. Local authorities went into this period with significantly better salt stocks than last winter and the Highways Agency, on the Government's behalf, had purchased 300,000 tonnes of salt to form a strategic stockpile, of which over 150,000 tonnes is already at UK ports, with the remainder scheduled for delivery through December and early January.

Over the past few days, highway authorities across England have been focused on delivering their planned salting and snow clearance to keep their local strategic road networks open. Together they had ready some 1.25 million tonnes of salt at the start of the winter. As hon. Members would expect, salt usage has been significantly above the norm for the time of year and so my Department decided two weeks ago to procure, as a precautionary measure, up to an additional 250,000 tonnes of salt, to replenish the strategic stockpile as salt from it is released to local authorities. Last Friday the Department for Transport offered 30,000 tonnes from the strategic stockpile to local authorities to provide reassurance over the holiday period. That allocation has been taken up and will be delivered over the next few days.

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The strategic road network inevitably suffered severe disruption in the wake of heavy snowfall this weekend, but recovered reasonably rapidly and, with isolated exceptions, has operated effectively since Saturday afternoon. Similarly, heavy snow and the formation of ice at very low temperatures caused some disruption on rail networks on Friday and Saturday, but the rail industry has pulled together to keep essential services running, using special timetables where necessary, and I am pleased to report that commuter services into main conurbations this morning are close to normal. Transport for London has successfully followed its winter weather plans and has been able to run a near-normal service across its network. However, issues with Eurostar are ongoing and have been well reported today, including the impacts of very severe weather in northern France.

Disruption due to weather conditions of this extremity is inevitable, and the measure of resilience is the networks' speed of recovery from such events. On that measure, the strategic road network and the rail network have performed broadly satisfactorily, in view of the exceptional circumstances. The experience at airports, and at Heathrow in particular, has however been different. Conditions have been difficult throughout north-west Europe, with Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol airports all struggling to cope at times. This afternoon, just before I came into the Chamber, it was being reported that Brussels airport will close until Wednesday because it has run out of de-icer. But, yesterday's whole-day virtual closure at Heathrow, coupled with continued substantially reduced capacity, presents a very real challenge from which the system will struggle to recover quickly.

I spoke this morning to BAA, the airport operator, and to British Airways, its principal user. I am clear that BA made the right call on Saturday to cancel its flights in anticipation of the airport's closure. Had it not done so, the scenes of the terminals on Saturday night that we witnessed on our TV screens could have been much worse.

Heathrow operates, at normal times, at some 98% of full capacity, so when there is disruption caused by snow or by the need repeatedly to close runways or taxiways for de-icing, capacity is inevitably lost and a backlog builds up. There is still a large amount of work to be done to restore Heathrow to full capacity, and further snow and severe icing is anticipated over the next few days.

The immediate focus at Heathrow must therefore be on maximising the number of flights with the available infrastructure, and in order to do that I agreed with BAA this morning to a relaxation of restrictions on night flights for the next four days. Operating hours will be extended until 1 am, and arrivals for repatriation flights will be allowed through the night. None the less, BAA advises that, with further severe weather forecast, Heathrow is likely to be operating at reduced capacity until Christmas.

Conditions in the terminals overnight on Saturday were very difficult, with some 2,000 passengers stranded. Once the airport has returned to normal operation, my officials will work with BAA to understand how that situation arose and what it plans to change to ensure that we do not experience a repeat. It is clear from my discussions this morning that some preliminary conclusions have already been drawn.

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We recognise that the cost, both economic and social, of this level of disruption can be great. Winters such as this year's and last have been rare in modern Britain, but we need to consider whether we are now seeing in our weather a step change that might justify investment in equipment and technologies to reduce the impact of severe weather. I will assess advice on that subject from the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, and we will work with transport operators to examine the business case in each sector for increased investment in winter resilience where that makes sense-recognising always that spending more on winter preparedness inevitably means that there will be less to spend on other priorities.

This is not just about making sure that people can travel and goods can be delivered. Disrupted transport links, combined with cold weather, increasingly impact on other essential services. In particular, they threaten the vulnerable in our communities. To help those most in need to stay warm in the coldest parts of the country, the Government have so far this winter paid out some £355 million in cold weather payments, through an estimated 14.2 million payments to affected households. In addition. winter fuel payments for pensioners have been protected at the higher rate for this winter, with 12.9 million payments made to those older people who meet the qualifying conditions. We have also taken precautionary steps to ensure that the health services are well prepared, with local plans in place to deal with the extra demands that this type of weather brings.

Despite those steps, weather of this severity can cause unexpected problems for many people, including those who would not normally consider themselves vulnerable, but who might be in serious difficulty if, for example, their boiler breaks down or they cannot get to the local chemist to collect their medication. With support from the Government, the Local Government Association will therefore work closely with local authorities in England to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place across the country. Individual local authorities will publicise information locally on how to access those advice services ahead of the Christmas holiday period.

Severe weather poses significant challenges to the energy supply industry. Difficult driving conditions have affected fuel oil and coal suppliers' ability to make deliveries, particularly to more remote areas away from the strategic road network. That has resulted in delivery backlogs, which suppliers have been working hard to reduce in difficult circumstances. Distributors are doing all they can to prioritise deliveries to vulnerable customers and to people who are running short of fuel. Working with the Government, the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers has issued a code of practice to its members to help them prioritise orders to those most in need and to alert local authorities when they are aware of a risk of potentially vulnerable households running short of heating oil.

The severe weather has also led to a very high forecast of demand for gas, which is expected to be more than 26% above the normal for this time of year. As a result, the National Grid issued a gas-balancing alert yesterday to provide a signal to the market to bring on additional supplies and to reduce demand from large users on interruptible contracts. There is no reason to expect any disruption to domestic customers, or to commercial customers unless they have interruptible contracts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and
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Climate Change has today issued a written statement that provides more information on that issue.

Nationally, we will continue to do whatever is necessary to support essential services and provide advice to businesses and householders on steps they can take to help themselves and others. So, for example, we have published a snow code to give common-sense advice to householders and businesses to help them clear snow and ice safely from pavements and public spaces without fear of legal action. As an emergency measure, we have relaxed the enforcement of EU drivers' hours and working-time rules to mitigate the effect of the severe weather on critical parts of the supply chain that have been badly hit by the weather. We published guidance for local highway authorities on the range of actions that can be taken to ensure optimum use of salt stocks, and over the next few days we will publish updated technical advice based on the latest research findings, so that all authorities can adopt best practice. We have also confirmed to farmers that they can use red diesel in tractors and other equipment to help salt and clear snow from public roads during extreme weather.

We are not yet through this period of extreme weather. My priority at the moment remains working with the transport industries to allow us to return to normal as fast as the continued freezing temperatures this week permit. I will also be working with ministerial colleagues and officials from other Departments, with whom I have been in contact daily since Friday, to continue monitoring the situation, assessing the risk of further disruption and taking whatever action is needed. Those arrangements will continue for as long as necessary through the holiday period. I can assure the House that wherever Government action can help to ease the impact of severe weather or mitigate its effects, we will not hesitate to take such action. I commend this statement to the House.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for updating the House. After a weekend of chaos across the country, during which there have been severe transport problems on our roads, railways and runways, families struggling to get together for Christmas are furious that they have spent hours stuck in their cars at stations or airport terminals. What has really frustrated people has been the total lack of information available. They understand that things will go wrong when we experience such severe weather and no one-not even me-is suggesting that the Government can, or ought to be able to, control the weather. However, the Government should be able to control how prepared we are for that weather, and they can co-ordinate information so that those travelling can make and alter their plans accordingly.

Right from the first hit of severe weather at the start of this month, the right hon. Gentleman and his Department have seemed woefully ill-prepared for winter, despite the fact that the report on winter resilience that we ordered in government has been sitting on his desk since July. The 17 recommendations in the interim report and the 11 recommendations in the final report have clearly not been put into action with the urgency that they demanded. At the last Transport questions, he said that those recommendations had been implemented, yet in his statement he said that some of them will necessarily take longer. Well, which is it?

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The reality is that Transport Ministers were caught off guard by the arrival of winter early this year, and failed to keep the country moving at a time when so many people need to travel to be with their family and friends. I am afraid that some of the right hon. Gentleman's words today still sound complacent. Why was only 100,000 tonnes of salt for the roads in place at the start of the month, when the report said that 250,000 tonnes was needed? Can he confirm which local authorities currently have salt stocks below the new benchmark of 12 days' worth of salt? What conversations has he had about services to deal with the abandoned cars and jack-knifed vehicles that have caused much of the delay? What steps has he considered to manage traffic flows better-for example, by not letting people join a motorway such as the M5 when it is already blocked, so that they will end up sitting in their cars not going anywhere? He said in his statement that the strategic routes have operated effectively since Saturday afternoon or evening: tell that to the people who were stuck for 13 and a half hours on the M40 trying to travel towards London.

On our railways, why does the update report that the Secretary of State has received in the past few days contradict the claim that the rail industry has sufficient equipment? Why are essential measures such as anti-icing capability on trains and new hot fluid distribution on to tracks not going to be in place until February, according to the most recent update-a little bit too late?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the most frustrating thing for passengers is lack of information? Why is it, therefore, that the new unified national real-time passenger transport information system to allow passengers to find out where their trains actually are, not what the timetable says, will not be in place until 2014? He said that the railways had kept essential services running and that commuter services were running well and close to normal, but people were stuck at Peterborough and King's Cross last night with very little information about when the east coast main line was going to get back to normal.

The chaos that we have seen at our major airports is not only unacceptable but risks damaging our international reputation. It is just not good enough to pass this off as a private sector problem, as the Secretary of State did earlier. Passengers stuck at Heathrow and Gatwick for days on end have every right to feel abandoned by this Government. Other countries have kept planes flying and airports open, yet here passengers have been left on planes for hours on end without food and drink, and others have been forced to sleep on terminal floors with no blankets and poor information. The winter resilience report found that those in the aviation sector

That is surprising given what we have seen in the past few days. Will he examine whether there has been any complacency among those at our airports? He referred to some preliminary conclusions following his conversations today, but he has not told us what they are. It might be useful to know.

Is it not the case that the chaos that we have seen has as much to do with this Government's values as their competence? The Prime Minister's close ally, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), gave the game away this weekend when he said:

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The right hon. Gentleman has obviously volunteered his Department to pilot this new approach to government and become the official Department for Chaos. He is doing quite well, actually. No wonder he has been dubbed the "No Transport Secretary" this morning.

People want competence from Ministers. They want good-quality information when disruption happens. They want co-ordination of recovery and mitigation across the entire system. They want help when they need it; they do not want to be left to fend for themselves as though there were no such thing as society. Will the right hon. Gentleman now learn the lessons of the past month and finally get a grip on the transport chaos that threatens to see Christmas cancelled for families up and down the country?

Mr Philip Hammond: After a heavy dump of snow, we have had a heavy dump of political opportunism from the hon. Lady. She talks of chaos, but does she remember the chaos last year when the Government of whom she was a member ran out of salt and had to stop gritting the roads because they had not bought enough of the stuff? They had not prepared at all. I will take no lectures from her on preparedness. Local authorities, the Highways Agency, rail operators and Network Rail have all entered this winter better prepared than they were last winter.

The hon. Lady talked about Quarmby's interim report and final report, and the implementation of his recommendations. Of course action on some of the recommendations has not been completed yet-it requires capital investment and the procurement of new equipment, such as de-icing equipment for trains in the south-east. The first of that equipment has been delivered and fitted, and is undergoing proving trials. As soon as the proving is complete, the remaining 20 units will be rolled out. She cannot sit here with no plan, no suggestion and nothing constructive to offer, simply lobbing rocks from the sidelines, and expect to be treated seriously. As for our delivery on Quarmby's recommendations, I suggest that she wait to see his report on the audit that he has carried out. He is their man, he was appointed by their Government, and he is now auditing our response to his recommendations. She should wait and see what he has to say before making such ridiculous points.

We were not caught off guard by the onset of winter, but we were caught off guard by the severity of the weather, as was everybody in this country. The hon. Lady asked about the recommendation that a strategic stockpile of 250,000 tonnes of salt be built. The Highways Agency has purchased 300,000 tonnes of salt, 156,000 tonnes of which has been delivered. The remainder is scheduled to be delivered over the next three weeks. If one is building a strategic stockpile, there is no need to replenish local authority stocks throughout the length of the winter, nor for every last ounce of it to be sitting in place on 30 November.

The hon. Lady asked how many local authorities are below the 12 days' resilience level recommended by Quarmby. That threshold was recommended for the
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beginning of winter. Of course, many local authorities that were operating at or close to the threshold are now considerably below the 12 days' resilience level, although some local authorities have much more substantial stocks. If they wish, local authorities will be resupplied from the strategic reserve that we have built. In turn, the strategic reserve will be replenished from the salt that we are currently sourcing from locations across the world, including south America, the middle east, India and Australia.

The hon. Lady asked about vehicles joining motorways. The police have powers to prevent vehicles from entering a motorway, if they deem it appropriate to do so.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the situation at the airports, and I am happy to agree that what has happened at Heathrow airport is not acceptable. We have to work with the airport operators and the airlines to work out how to avoid such situations. I can give her further clarification on the early conclusions that have been shared with me by the airport operator. It recognises that it was a mistake to continue trying to operate the schedules that it was using on Saturday, and that it should have made a decision earlier to cut severely the number of flights departing and arriving, so that the airport would not be congested with aircraft when the snow came in. That is the kind of practical lesson learning that must be done. We will work with the airport operators to ensure that next time, such lessons are learned and implemented.

Finally, the hon. Lady had the audacity to ask why the rail equipment that Quarmby recommended in his October report is not in place and operating. The answer is clear: Labour did not order it when it was in government. We have ordered it, but it does not appear by magic, simply by snapping your fingers; these things have a lead time and must be done properly. The equipment will be in place by the end of the winter, and it will make our railways operate more effectively.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Northumberland has had very heavy snowfall over a very long period, so I welcome the efforts being made to get domestic oil deliveries to remote homes, where people are getting really desperate. May I ask the Secretary of State to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government? Local authorities such as Northumberland are having to spend heavily from their reserves to keep roads open, at just the time when that Department is saying that using reserves is the way to fund redundancies.

Mr Hammond: My understanding, which the Local Government Association confirms, is that all local authorities are saying that they are adequately funded to deal with the contingencies of the severe weather, and that funding constraint will not be a problem in responding to the situation this winter.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): In this exceptional weather, can the Secretary of State assure us that he has adequate means of becoming aware of the emerging problems as well as the current ones? Will he explain the powers and influence that he is ready to use to alleviate the situation, whether by providing additional resources, improving co-ordination or ensuring a better flow of information?

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Mr Hammond: We are operating a cross-departmental ministerial team approach, because we need to consider matters such as health, the protection of vulnerable people and energy supplies. There is also a huge role for local government in responding to a situation such as the current one. We are receiving four-hourly update reports on the situation, including Met Office forward forecasts, and over the past few days we have been convening daily to consider the current situation, the expectations for the next 24 hours and the actions that are needed. As I said in my statement, when there is something that the Government can do, bearing in mind that we do not own or operate many of the transport networks-such as relaxing the ban on night flying at Heathrow or the restrictions on drivers' hours-we will do it.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I spent eight hours at Heathrow terminal 3 on Saturday, and there was no information whatever about what was happening to flights. On the other hand, people who were due to fly with British Airways from terminal 5 had advance notice and did not travel to the airport. The question must be: why did operators such as Virgin Atlantic not cancel their programmes? Will the Government look into that?

Mr Hammond: We will, and my hon. Friend's question has to be addressed to the operators. British Airways made the call on Saturday morning to cancel all flights, because it considered it certain that the airport would have to close. I have spoken to Willie Walsh today, and he has told me that based on the forecast he saw on Saturday morning, any airport anywhere in Europe, bar none, would have had to close. BA therefore made the decision to pull all its flights.

The lesson that is emerging for BAA, which it will take away from the situation, is that it has to be more proactive in examining forward forecasts, and that when airlines do not make a decision to stop flights, the operator might have to make that decision for them, to avoid large numbers of people being stranded in terminals.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I hope that the Secretary of State will join me in thanking many of my constituents and their colleagues who work at Heathrow for trying to get the airport open and fully operational again in the most difficult circumstances.

I join the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) in saying that the lesson to be learned from the last occasion when such a problem occurred, although not on the same scale, was about information. We thought that lesson had been learned. BAA and the individual airlines must be required not only to take decisions soon enough, but to communicate them proactively and directly to customers travelling with them.

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to record my thanks, and the thanks of the Government, to the hundreds of workers who have been out, often in temperatures of minus 10°C or minus 11° C, clearing snow and de-icing through the night, as well as caring for passengers stranded in terminals. They have done a fantastic job, and I am afraid they will have to go on doing that fantastic job for the next few days.

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The hon. Gentleman is also right to focus on information. Nobody likes to have their travel plans disrupted, but one of the interesting features of human psychology is that somehow, things are never quite as bad if people know what is going on. As he will know, we have committed to introducing an airport economic regulation Bill during this Parliament. One thing that we are committed to doing in that Bill is ensuring that airport operators' financial incentives are clearly aligned with the needs and interests of passengers. I will ensure that supplying information is part of that matrix, so that the operators will do it because it is in their financial interests. That certainly seems to be a motivating factor.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that a delegation of Kent MPs recently met the management of Southeastern Trains to discuss the chaos and deep passenger dissatisfaction caused by the bad weather a few weeks ago. The latest conditions have yet again led to much disruption to services for Southeastern passengers. When the franchise is considered for extension in 2012 will he consider, among the other necessary factors, Southeastern's poor service delivery during adverse weather?

Mr Hammond: Of course we examine the performance of train operators, and it is absolutely right that Southeastern's performance was very poor during the bout of cold weather at the end of November. However, in the current weather conditions, the information that I have on Southeastern's performance over the past 72 hours is far less clear-cut. The disruption has been no more than is to be expected in the extreme weather, and as I understand it, commuter services into London on Southeastern by and large operated normally this morning.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The public expect Ministers to be players, not just spectators. Snow happens, but it is the urgency of the response that matters. The Secretary of State said nothing about whether Cobra has been meeting, nothing about what the Government offices are doing to co-ordinate their response, and very little about what he has done with the various companies and airports. He has not said whether he has asked them why they do not have senior management down there dealing with the problems, why the train companies have not got information to people who have waited for hour after hour on trains and platforms, or why the police are not taking action to get people off the motorway. With the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change sitting next to him, he did not say why he has not done anything about the exploitation of fuel oil and bottled gas. Does he think that that is why he is rumoured to be one of the early victims of the new year reshuffle?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): May I say that we want very short questions? Obviously, it would be helpful- [Interruption.] Order, Mr Penning. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could also shorten his answers, although I understand that this is a very important subject.

Mr Hammond: I can shorten the answer to that question, Mr Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman offered nothing constructive, and people watching will see that he has nothing to offer except a meaningless
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rant. I told him in the statement that a cross-ministerial team is meeting regularly and that regional resilience teams are in operation.

What is the right hon. Gentleman talking about, saying that none of the senior management are at airports? Of course senior management, both of the operators and the airlines, are there managing the situation hands-on. He had better ask the police why they are not taking action, because they take the action that they believe is appropriate.

As for fuel, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has asked the Office of Fair Trading to look into- [Interruption.] Labour Members seem to think that we should introduce some kind of Moscow-style central control over everything. The fuel oil business in this country is operated through hundreds of small independent firms, and if price collusion or illegal activity is driving up the price to consumers, the OFT will report back to my right hon. Friend and he will take the appropriate action.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend explain why some operators stopped flying when runways had been cleared and were still open? Secondly, why did it take four hours to remove a tanker from the M1, the country's main arterial road, on Saturday afternoon, resulting in massive delays for southbound traffic?

Mr Hammond: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is referring to a tanker accident on the M25 on Saturday afternoon.

David Tredinnick indicated dissent.

Mr Hammond: There are problems in recovering tankers after accidents. I am aware of the accident on the M25, after which there was some possibility at first of having to pump the contents out of the tanker before it could be moved. In the end the fire brigade allowed it to be moved without the contents being removed, shortening the closure of the motorway by about three and a half hours.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): What my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) was asking for was leadership. People are sleeping on airport floors, being turfed off trains, and frozen in their cars, and they are cold in their homes because they are not getting deliveries of domestic fuel. Where is the Prime Minister? He is the invisible "Cam", but he should be taking the leadership position on this.

Mr Hammond: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that people who are sleeping on airport floors and who are having their travel plans disrupted are not helped by such ridiculous rants from him and his colleagues. Those people need a calm, measured and considered response to the problems, which is what the Government are giving. This is an extreme weather event, and this Government will do better than the previous Government did last year.

Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): In his statement, the Secretary of State touched upon the steps that are being taken to ensure that health
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services are well prepared throughout this cold snap, but he will also recall that last winter, a number of A and E departments were forced to close because of the severe weather, including ones close to my constituency. What discussions has he had with the Department of Health to ensure that the emergency services, and particularly the ambulance service, are given robust support to ensure that they can continue to give a full service throughout this difficult time?

Mr Hammond: I have been in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary. As I understand it, this morning, there were no major problems across the NHS-all NHS services are operating reasonably well. Of course, there have been isolated problems of getting staff into hospitals. In some cases, including in my county, Surrey, local 4x4 owners have volunteered to drive staff to A and E departments. Such voluntary action will help to reinforce the resilience of the NHS. Ambulance services are coping well at the moment, but if there are difficulties, the military stands ready to provide support with 4x4 vehicles if it is needed.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The last time the Secretary of State gave a statement on the weather, I asked him about winter tyres. He told me that he did not think them appropriate for this climate and this country, and indeed that David Quarmby looked at the matter. Try as I may, I could find no reference to winter tyres in the Quarmby report. The only advice I found was from the Highways Agency, which says:

Will the Secretary of State please now reconsider his response?

Mr Hammond: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to clear something up-I clearly mangled my words in my reply to her. I was trying to convey that in the circumstances of the UK, and given the cost of fitting winter tyres, I do not believe it appropriate to mandate their use. However, I am happy to confirm on the record that for those who can afford winter tyres-not just the cost of buying them, but the costs of putting them on and changing them back at the end of the winter, and of storing summer tyres-they provide significant additional grip for motoring in such cold conditions.

Snow chains, however, are a different matter. It is illegal to use snow chains on roads that are not covered in compacted snow, because they cause considerable damage to the road surface.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the nation's army of gritters who were out overnight-in Suffolk, that involved temperatures down to minus 12°C-to keep our roads open? Will he also answer a question that was put to me by several constituents? Can he continue his steadfast and solid leadership of the past few days, rather than responding to the histrionic opportunism displayed by the Labour party?

Mr Hammond: My hon. Friend makes an important point. People who are watching this debate on the BBC News channel in an airport terminal will not find the
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laughter and hilarity of Opposition Members, or the unconstructive rants from some but not all Opposition Back Benchers, at all edifying or helpful to their cause. I am happy to join him in commending the stalwart work of the people who man the fleets of gritters, who are out every night in all conditions doing their important work.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): What assessment have the Government made of the ability of aircraft and train operators to advise people who have been delayed of their statutory rights in respect of compensation? In slower time, will he arrange to meet insurance companies to ensure that they respond positively to the demands of people who have missed trains and flights, and had holidays ruined, or who have had pipes burst or damage done to their homes?

Mr Hammond: The right hon. Gentleman raises some important points. I can tell him that the Treasury has been talking to the insurance companies to ensure that people have the appropriate information and that companies can respond to inquiries about the extent of their cover. Often, those people will be in a real-time situation-stranded in an airport, for example-and will want to know what costs they can and cannot incur in trying to complete their journey. That is important.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there have been developments in the past year or so in European jurisprudence with regard to compensation arrangements and the obligations on airlines to look after people who are stranded at airports. However, when the problem is caused by, for example, extreme weather conditions, compensation would not normally be payable as such.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Southern Railway about its performance during this bad weather? Do Southern Railway and Network Rail need to invest in snow-clearing equipment to ensure that services run more smoothly in future?

Mr Hammond: I can tell my hon. Friend that I had a conference call with Southern Railway management and Network Rail's route director on Wednesday afternoon to talk about their preparations for this bout of cold weather. We also spoke about some of the medium-term plans-I hesitate to call them that, but I am talking about plans for beyond the end of this week. They are looking to install experimental heated rail sections as well as to invest in additional clearance equipment. Clearing snow and ice from the railway is primarily a Network Rail responsibility, but train operators are increasingly considering installing anti-icing equipment on their trains to supplement what Network Rail does.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): Will the Minister at least consider additional funding for local authorities? In my area, the local authority is struggling desperately to keep streets open and roads clear, but an additional problem that people tend to forget is pavements. Many of my constituents are fearful of leaving their homes in case they fall, so will he at least consider additional funding?

Mr Hammond: As I said a few moments ago, local authorities indicate-the Local Government Association confirms this-that they will not have difficulty this
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year in funding their winter activities. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the extent of gritting and salting that local authorities plan to carry out. Those resilience plans will have been put in place well ahead of the winter, and they should be well publicised locally. In some areas, the plans will not include the salting and gritting of footways. I believe that there is a role for civic society to play in that. Many people, if they can get their hands on a supply of salt and grit, would be prepared to shovel a bit on to the pavements around their homes and their neighbours' homes. I commend local authorities that have taken action to make supplies of salt and grit available for such neighbourly action.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Does the Minister share my concerns that in stark contrast to the excellent work of many local authorities, developers responsible for unadopted roads all too often do not react quickly enough to adverse weather conditions?

Mr Hammond: I am afraid that I must tell my hon. Friend that the maintenance of unadopted roads is entirely a matter for the owners of those roads. Typically, that will ultimately be a matter for the owners of properties that front on to those roads, who often finance such work through their service charges. Like the rest of us, but through a rather different mechanism, they must decide whether they want to pay more in service charges so that they have a greater level of winter resilience for their roads.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Despite some of the heaviest snowfalls for decades in Newcastle, we managed to keep most of the public transport system going for most of the time. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) said, many people found that they could not make it to the end of their streets because of ice and snow on the pavements. Given that, rather than simply commending councils that make grit available to local residents, is it not time for a requirement for people to have access to the grit that will enable them to get on with their lives?

Mr Hammond: The hon. Lady might revel in the thought of a centralised state where people in Whitehall press buttons and issue commands to local authorities, but we happen to take a different view of the world. Local authorities are responsible bodies answerable to their electors. They must make decisions about their priorities, and if they get it wrong, local residents know what to do about it.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): This time last year, the ramp leading down to the parliamentary car park was covered in snow. It closed the car park. I offered to clear it myself, but was told that I was not qualified to do the job. I said, "Well, I've done it before", but the answer came back, "Well, you can't do it because of health and safety". Will my right hon. Friend clarify the snow code he has introduced to ensure that we do not succumb to these ambulance-chasers? There are people in Britain who have that get-up-and-go attitude and who want to get out there and clean the streets, but who are worried about being sued under
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legislation and the direction of travel introduced by Labour, with health and safety getting such precedence. [ Laughter .]

Mr Hammond: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour Members may laugh, but they will remember this being a serious problem last winter, with people being afraid to clear snow and ice outside their homes and afraid to act as good neighbours. One of Quarmby's recommendations was that we publish a snow code, compliance with which would give people a high level of protection from civil action. We have done that, and I hope that people will respond by acting in that neighbourly fashion.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have failed to keep the emergency grit stocks at full capacity? Despite warnings of arctic blasts for weeks, grit stocks have been rationed, and emergency supplies are said to be 80,000 tonnes lower than they should be. If this is true, why has it happened and which Minister will be resigning?

Mr Hammond: I know that the hon. Gentleman is new and was not in the House last winter. He asked whether we are keeping emergency grit stocks at full capacity. There were no emergency grit stocks last winter. In fact, there were no grit stocks at all last winter. Local authorities and the Highways Agency have bought grit for their own use, and this year, for the first time ever, we have a strategic stockpile of salt-more than 300,000 tonnes of salt have been ordered for that stockpile, 156,000 tonnes of which have been delivered, and the remainder of which will be delivered between now and the middle of January. A further 250,000 tonnes have been sourced, and we are currently arranging transport to get it to the UK. I do not suppose that he has the faintest notion of the logistics involved in trying to uplift 250,000 tonnes of salt from around the world at short notice and to ship it to the UK in specialist vessels, so perhaps, before asking such a silly question again, he will think about what is involved.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): The Secretary of State will have noticed that the spirit of Christmas has augmented the already happy-go-lucky nature of the shadow Secretary of State. However, she made one serious point in her reply to the statement, and it was about information. Some companies are using premium rate telephone numbers to get information to travellers. Surely the Secretary of State will be able to use some of his fantastic influence to try to make these information lines free of charge in this current crisis.

Mr Hammond: My hon. Friend is right that in many cases the only lever we have over private companies is to apply pressure. This is the first I have heard of this issue, but if he has specific examples, I will be happy to follow them up.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Many emergency and council workers will be working over the Christmas period dealing with the aftermath-and, indeed, the ongoing nature-of the weather conditions. Will the Secretary of State prove that he is not complacent by
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guaranteeing to the House that either he or one of his team will be in Whitehall during the recess, not at the end of the phone or travelling to some place else-not that they could-but at their desks, every day of the recess?

Mr Hammond: We have said-I said it in the statement-that we will continue with the arrangements in place for as long as necessary. We held teleconferences over the weekend with Welsh Assembly Government members, Scottish Ministers and regional resilience teams around the country. It is not practical to get all those people together in a single room-nor is it desirable when travel is dangerous and difficult-but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the team in place will continue to monitor the situation on a daily basis for as long as it is necessary.

Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): I agree with the Secretary of State that in these times, calm and focused action is more important than histrionic responses. Will he let me know what steps he has taken to ensure that the airport de-icer supply chain is sufficiently robust and resilient to cope with the adverse weather conditions over the coming days?

Mr Hammond: My hon. Friend raises a real issue. I talked to Gatwick airport on Wednesday, and it told me that it was full to capacity with runway de-icing fluid. By yesterday evening, however, it had used about 90% of those supplies, although fortunately it will be resupplied tomorrow. However, the supply chain for airport de-icer is tightly stretched, and we are monitoring the situation on a daily basis with operators. Alternative products can be-and are-used in other places around Europe, and if supplies get really tight, operators will have to display some flexibility.

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): My constituents are now enduring their 23rd successive day of arctic weather. Schooling has been disrupted, the economy impacted and elderly and vulnerable constituents have effectively been imprisoned in their own homes for more than three weeks. Owing to the exceptional weather, North Lanarkshire council requested military assistance, but it was denied. Will the Secretary of State tell me now, or find out on my behalf, who took the decision to deny military assistance, and on what grounds?

Mr Hammond: I can look into the specific case, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman the general rules on the provision of military assistance. The Ministry of Defence will offer assistance to local authorities or other responders where the latter can demonstrate that no other means of delivering the required response are available. If contractors or own resources are available, military assistance will not normally be provided. Where the military has unique equipment, or where no alternative source of manpower is available, the MOD will look at requests sympathetically. We have to do it that way. We must not end up in a situation where local authorities think that they can reach for military manpower as a simple, low-cost solution to every problem. They have to exhaust all other avenues first. However, I will look into the case he raised and write to him later this afternoon.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and commitment to consider when "just in time" becomes "just too late". I ask him to remind the Opposition that salt is not a panacea and that when temperatures fall below minus 5°, there is little that can be done. That should be recognised. One of the legacies left to this Government by the Opposition is insufficient gas storage. Not only that, but it was not completely full at the start of winter. Furthermore, gas has been exported when taken out of storage. Will he commit to talking to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about this issue? I am particularly concerned that we are not maintaining storage when we could.

Mr Hammond: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the issue that my hon. Friend raises. Historically, the UK has had lower gas storage capability than many of our continental neighbours, but it is an issue that my right hon. Friend intends to address as soon as possible.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Stafford is a proud railway town. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating rail workers up and down the country who have kept services going under often atrocious conditions? I pay particular tribute to staff in Stafford last night, who went the extra mile in giving information under difficult circumstances.

Mr Hammond: I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating staff across the railways. They have been operating in extremely difficult conditions, and I have seen for myself something of a blitz spirit where people have been mucking in. Some of the old divisions between Network Rail and train operators seem to have melted away under the weight of the snow-if that is the right way to put it. Railway staff put in a fantastic performance over the weekend to get the railways operating normally-by and large-this morning.

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Points of Order

6.19 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In answering an urgent question earlier today, the Minister for Immigration referred to a major ongoing anti-terrorist operation taking place across the country today, with arrests being made in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael). Could you tell me whether you have received any information from the Home Office or the Home Secretary about whether she intends to come to the House, either later today or tomorrow, to update us on the nature of this major anti-terrorist operation?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I can say to the hon. Gentleman that I have not received notification of any statement on the matter that he has raised. I understand his particular interest, and I am sure that those on the Government Benches have taken note of his point of order and that, should we need to be given any information, either he or the House will be informed directly.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. After the statement on high-speed rail by the Secretary of State for Transport, I went to the Vote Office to obtain the details-the devil often being in the detail-for my constituency, which is where the main terminal is located. I was told that it was contained in a 1,000-page document that had not been made available to the Vote Office, and I was advised to go to the Library. I went to the Library, which had one CD-ROM that it was not possible to download or forward to Members. I was told that CD-ROMs might have been sent to Members, but they have not arrived as yet. This is another instance of what is becoming a frequent occurrence-it occurred last week with the reports on court closures, and it occurred earlier in the Session with Building Schools for the Future-whereby the Government think that making available very limited data, in an inadequate, electronic form, is sufficient to give Members notice of what is happening in their constituencies. It would be a welcome ruling from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to say that when statements are made to this House, Members should have details that explain the important implications for their constituents of what is being told to the House.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Philip Hammond): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hear the hon. Gentleman's point. The documents are extremely voluminous, and it is not practical to deliver them in printed form to every Member, but my understanding is that a CD-ROM has been sent to every Member whose constituency is affected. I will go out of the Chamber now and ensure that that has happened, and if it has not, I will ensure that it happens straight away.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the Secretary of State. It is obviously important that Members of Parliament have the information that they need with regard to statements, and I will pay attention to what he has said. In the past, he has, with his normal courtesy,
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written to me in the Chair to update me on the situation, in case I need to raise it with Mr Speaker. I hope that that deals with the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter).

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Firearms Control

[Relevant document : The Third Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2010-11, on Firearms Control, HC 447 .]

6.22 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I beg to move,

I believe that I speak for the whole House when I say that as we start this debate on firearms control today, our thoughts remain with the family and friends of the victims and all those who had to deal with-and are still dealing with-the consequences of the shootings in Cumbria in June, and in Northumbria in July. Those events shocked the nation. Twelve men and women were murdered, and 11 were injured by Derrick Bird in Cumbria. One man was killed and two people were injured by Raoul Moat in Northumbria. Today's debate fulfils an earlier Government commitment to discuss firearms control in the House in the light of this summer's tragic events. Although I appreciate that there may be some concern that this debate has not been held until now, I am sure that hon. Members agree that one advantage in doing so is that we now have both the independent Association of Chief Police Officers review and the Select Committee on Home Affairs report on firearms control, which has been published only today, to inform us.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Given that the Home Affairs Committee report was published only this morning, given that we are on a one-line Whip, given that the Chamber is empty and given that Westminster itself is effectively empty, why have the Government deliberately chosen to debate this issue-an issue that I know the Minister is sincerely concerned about-on today of all days?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman knows that we were committed to holding this debate. We particularly wanted to hold it in Government time, even though there were a number of opportunities to hold it in other time. We wanted to wait for the outcome of the Home Affairs Committee's inquiry, which has reported only today, and we did not want to wait any longer, so there was a difficult balance to strike. However, I assure him that we will listen carefully to the views expressed on both sides in this debate as we consider the issues, including what he says and what his constituents say. I hope that he knows that we have made every attempt to listen carefully to the views of local people who were affected by those incidents, as well as the views of the wider public and of hon. Members.

Indeed, a number of Ministers have visited the communities affected by those events, and we fully appreciate the impact that they have had on the people who live and work in those areas. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary visited Cumbria in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. I was able to visit and meet some of those affected, along with the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), in late August. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) made a similar visit last week, and he also visited
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Northumbria in the wake of those shootings. I want to express my admiration for the local communities who were forced to react to those horrific incidents, and who did so with such courage and dignity. Both the Under-Secretary and I have met PC David Rathbone on different occasions, the officer who was blinded after being shot by Raoul Moat. We were deeply impressed by his courage and his stoicism. Indeed, I am sure that the whole House wishes to pay tribute to the police officers in Cumbria and Northumbria who had to respond, in many cases unarmed, to the events as they unfolded.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that although plenty of people in Rothbury-where people were in fear for a long time because of the presence of the gunman-are astonished that he was able to be in possession of firearms, equally, there are many people who, while sharing that astonishment, believe that those who genuinely use firearms for sporting purposes, in a proper, licensed manner, should not be penalised for the behaviour of that terrifying man?

Nick Herbert: I agree with my right hon. Friend's sentiments. It appears that the weapons used by Raoul Moat were unlawfully obtained, unlike those used by Derrick Bird. Later, I shall underline the importance of ensuring a proportionate response to such incidents while nevertheless recognising that some areas might need a tightening up of controls, albeit one that recognises the legitimate needs and recreations of those living in the countryside or elsewhere who take part in such sporting activities.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): The Minister has quite rightly paid tribute to the police. Will he also join me in paying tribute to the civil nuclear police, who played such a sterling and difficult role in those terrible times that we all went through?

Nick Herbert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do that. One of the things that was impressed on me when I visited Cumbria and received a briefing from the chief constable of the Cumbrian constabulary and his team was the role that the police at Sellafield-the civil nuclear constabulary-played in helping to respond quickly to the events as they unfolded. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Copeland and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who have admirably provided a voice to their constituents. I know that in tight-knit communities, the effects of such events have been all the greater. The hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend have shown great leadership in their communities, particularly in Cumbria, where so many people lost their lives.

Although the police investigation in Cumbria is ongoing, and inquests in both Cumbria and Northumbria are yet to be held, a review carried out by assistant chief constable Adrian Whiting, chair of the ACPO firearms and explosives working group, recently reported its findings. Mr Whiting has extensive knowledge of the subject matter, and we are grateful to him for his report. The review considered whether the decisions made and actions taken in granting and renewing the firearms and shotgun certificates issued to Derrick Bird were appropriate, or whether any actions could have been taken to prevent the tragedy from occurring. Mr Whiting found that the
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decisions made and actions taken by the constabulary on firearms licensing were reasonable. Mr Whiting did not identify any immediate changes to legislation that would have prevented those offences. However, he did suggest a number of general improvements that he thought might improve public safety. Those included a number of suggestions that have been taken up by the Home Affairs Committee, to which I shall refer later.

It is clear that, following two events of this scale, lessons must be learned to ensure that, wherever possible, action is taken to help prevent such crimes from occurring again. It is crucial that proper controls are placed on those individuals who seek to own a firearm. However, it is also important to acknowledge, when discussing this issue, that licensed firearms are only one side of the debate. It is generally acknowledged that the vast majority of guns used in crime are illegally held.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): My right hon. Friend raises an important aspect of the debate in mentioning the difference between weapons that are lawfully owned and those that are not. I want to quote page 10 of the Select Committee report, which states:

because the gun is not always left at the scene of the crime -

May I invite my right hon. Friend to reconsider this, and to put into the public domain more information about whether the firearms used in such events are legally or illegally held?

Nick Herbert: Of course we will consider all the recommendations in the Select Committee report carefully. We are also considering very carefully the question of what data the Home Office should collect. We need to strike the right balance between imposing ever more onerous conditions on local police forces and ensuring that the necessary data are collected centrally, and we will have more to say about that in due course. I certainly take my hon. Friend's point on board, however.

Much of the harm caused to our communities by firearms is caused by those who are not licensed to own a gun. The Government attach great importance to tackling the problem of illegal firearms, and we will continue to work to ensure that whatever measures necessary are taken to cut the use of illegal firearms in criminal activity. By setting up the national crime agency, we will be introducing a body that will build on the Serious Organised Crime Agency and that will be empowered, in partnerships with police forces, to target the types of serious crime that frequently involve illegal firearms and to eliminate them from our communities. Combining early intervention work with tough enforcement, and empowering local communities to prevent the spread of violence, will be crucial. This area of work will be informed by the Government's new crime strategy, which will be published shortly.

It is important, however, to emphasise that gun crime thankfully remains relatively rare in this country. Provisional data indicate that firearm offences accounted for just 0.2% of all recorded crime in 2009-10, and that figure
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has been going down. However, that still equates to nearly 8,000 recorded offences. Gun crime causes significant and lasting harm to individuals, families and communities, and, however small the number of incidents that occur in the context of the overall number of crimes, the impact of these incidents must never be underestimated. Thirty-nine lives were lost to gun crime last year, and there were 336 serious injuries. That is unacceptable, and we must work to bring the numbers down.

Mr Reed: Between 1997 and 2008-09, 742 people were murdered with firearms in this country. Given that it was the atrocities in Scotland in March 1996 that led to the last meaningful review of gun ownership legislation, and in the light of the events of this year, does the Minister agree that Parliament now needs to change and tighten the gun laws in this country?

Nick Herbert: I certainly agree that it is necessary to review the gun laws, as the Home Affairs Committee has done, and to consider whether sensible measures might be taken to improve them and, in specific areas, tighten them. I am not sure whether I agree with the hon. Gentleman's implication that there needs to be a wholesale change in our gun laws that would restrict the legitimate ownership of guns, because most incidents relate to illegal ownership, and I believe that that is where we need to focus our enforcement activity.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister knows that a review by the Select Committee is not the same as a Government review of this matter. What are the Government doing?

Nick Herbert: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have said that we will take on board the Select Committee's recommendations, which were published only today, and that we are considering the matter very carefully. I will speak in a moment about a measure that has already been introduced, and I will give a broad indication of an early response to the Select Committee report. There has also been a review by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The Government have certainly responded to the incidents that have taken place in Cumbria and Northumbria, but I believe that we are doing so in a careful and considered manner.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): A resident of Northampton to whom I am particularly devoted is my aunt, Diana Ellis, and she has always said, "If it is not broken, don't fix it." Will my right hon. Friend reassure her, and many hundreds of thousands of other people in this country, that Her Majesty's Government will not act in a knee-jerk fashion on this matter and further increase the legislative burden?

Nick Herbert: Yes, I will reassure my hon. Friend of that. We will carefully consider the recommendations put forward by the Select Committee and others, and we will take action where we judge it necessary and proportionate, and where it will help to secure public safety. We will not, however, produce a knee-jerk response to these events. Indeed, the fact that the Government have not done so, and that we are nevertheless considering the issues carefully and with an open mind, has been generally welcomed throughout the country.

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Mr Reed: Can we please now dispense with the notion of a knee-jerk response? It is six months since the events in my constituency, and we have now had the very thorough and considered report from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the excellent work of the Home Affairs Select Committee. The notion of a knee-jerk response now is just not applicable.

Nick Herbert: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees, however, that it is fair for the Government to look at the Home Affairs Committee's report, which was published only today, and to consider it carefully. When I referred to a knee-jerk response, what I meant was that it would be wrong to rule in or out without further consideration anything that the Select Committee has recommended. It is right that we should consider these issues carefully, and he will see that there are areas in which we believe action should be taken.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to take the time to review all the reports, including today's report from the Home Affairs Committee, carefully and to ensure that any formal response by the Government does not criminalise, either by implication or in reality, the hundreds of thousands of people who use firearms totally legally for sporting purposes and the industries that feed off them? Does he agree that we must not run the risk of those people and those industries being criminalised, even by implication, and that we must focus of the illegal use of firearms?

Nick Herbert: Again, I accept my hon. Friend's counsel. We intend to strike a proper and proportionate balance here, and we will respond in a timely fashion to the Select Committee's report. We will then come forward with any specific proposals.

It is frequently said that we have some of the toughest gun controls in the world. Firearms control in this country has a long history and has evolved gradually, with frequent tightening of the legislation by Parliament. The first British firearms controls were introduced by the Vagrancy Act 1824. Firearms certificates have been required since 1920, and shotguns have required a certificate since 1967. There have since been amendments to the Firearms Act 1968, which sets out the framework for today's legislation, in response to the shootings in Hungerford in 1987 and in Dunblane in 1996, banning semi-automatic weapons and handguns respectively. I think that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides would agree that the system has been made progressively tougher. In its current state, it places tight restrictions on individuals who wish to own a gun. Guns are used legitimately for pest-control and sporting purposes, and the Government certainly do not believe that such activities should be curtailed provided that there are proper controls, but it is of course right to keep those controls under review and, in particular, to reconsider them in the light of recent incidents.

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way.

The debate is entitled "Firearms Control". It deals with a wide variety of guns and their use. I invite my right hon. Friend to consider the use and legality of handguns As he has said, they were made illegal following
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a disaster, but given that we are to host the Olympic games, we are in the embarrassing position of having to send a British Olympic shooting team abroad to train. I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend about the issue, and I feel that it should be examined. We need cognitive legislation, such as the new Bill, rather than an outright ban.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend has illustrated the importance of striking the right balance. We all understand why the action was taken in response to the dreadful Dunblane incident in 1997. However, the issue of competitive shooting at the Olympics has been raised with the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, who I am sure would be happy to discuss it with my hon. Friend.

The Government welcome the timely report on firearms control that was published today by the Home Affairs Committee. I thank the Committee, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), for its work on the issue. As I have said, we will consider its recommendations carefully, not least in the light of today's debate. The House will understand that it would not be right for me to respond in detail today, but I want deal with three key points.

First, the Committee recommended that the Government should codify and simplify the laws relating to firearm ownership. As I made clear when I mentioned the history of firearms legislation, those laws are widely dispersed across different Acts of Parliament. Furthermore, they are very complex. I believe that the issue would benefit from further attention, and we will therefore consider that recommendation carefully.

Secondly, the Committee recommended tighter restrictions on the granting of firearms licences to individuals who have engaged in criminal activity. That concern clearly arose from the shootings in Cumbria, and I raised it with the chief constable myself when I visited the area in August. There may be an opportunity for careful adjustment, but that will depend on the nature of the offence. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), will listen carefully to what is said in the debate and will use it to inform any future decisions. However, we welcome the Committee's recommendation.

Thirdly, the Committee raised the issue of the age at which an individual is permitted to shoot. I understand why that issue has been raised, but I think it important to appreciate that many young people enjoy shooting in a safe and responsible manner. Assistant Chief Constable Adrian Whiting told the Committee:

We will of course consider the Committee's response in full, but it is important for legislative changes to be proportionate.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: Of course I give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Keith Vaz: We published our report only 18 hours ago, so I do not expect the Minister to respond to each and every one of its 22 recommendations, but the fact
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that he has picked up those three points makes it clear that the Government understand the nature of the inquiry and the need for further consideration of the recommendations. Can he give me an idea-without necessarily specifying a month-of the approximate time within which the Government will respond to the report?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tells me that he is going to say "two months" in his winding-up speech. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman considers that a suitable period within which to respond to such a sensitive issue.

The issue of the mental health of applicants for firearm and shotgun certificates has also been raised. As the Committee has noted, it has now been agreed between the British Medical Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers that the police will notify a GP of the grant and renewal of a firearm and/or shotgun certificate. The implementation of that arrangement is being sought within the next six months. In essence, the process will involve a system of notification by way of a standard letter, which means that GPs will be in a position to alert the police if they have any concerns. The police will then be able to request a medical report under the procedures mentioned at the start of the debate. I believe that that is a welcome move. There will be further discussions in due course about the possibility of placing a marker on computerised medical records to create a more enduring record of which patients own a firearm.

I believe that that development indicates that the authorities have been able to take sensible steps to improve the operation of firearms laws in the light of public concern. However, I agree with the Select Committee's suggestion that requiring firearms applicants to undergo a compulsory medical check would be costly and would be regarded as disproportionate.

Overall, the Committee's contribution to an ongoing subject of consideration is very useful, and we will consider it fully before deciding on our final course of action. As we consider our response, it will be important to provide an opportunity for wider engagement with the issues, and we will announce shortly how we will ensure that it is provided.

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): Will the Minister also consider instances where sentencing may have been too lenient? I understand that the sentence for illegal handling of firearms is five years' imprisonment and that the sentence for an aggravated offence is seven years, but that that is rarely upheld in the courts. Will the Minister consider whether we can strengthen the position by increasing the sentence, if it does not constitute a sufficient deterrent?

Nick Herbert: I think that I am right in saying that such sentences have been toughened considerably in recent years. As my hon. Friend knows, we recently published a Green Paper on sentencing. There will be an opportunity to respond to it, and he will be welcome to do so. We will, of course, consider further representations about the levels of offences, but I think that this is a question of enforcement as much as penalties.

Sir Alan Beith: Is the Minister satisfied that the arrangements that have been discussed with the BMA
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will extend to encouraging GPs to report cases in which a personality disorder of some kind is apparent? Such a disorder might not be a treatable mental illness, but it might be a pretty clear indicator that someone should not be in possession of firearms.

Nick Herbert: I agree. It is important for GPs, who will be in the best position to raise concerns, to use the system of notification in a way that ensures that such issues can be taken into account by the police.

It is absolutely right, in the wake of such major incidents as were experienced in Cumbria and Northumbria, to reconsider the legislation that controls firearm ownership in this country, but we must also ensure that our response is considered, proportionate and evidence-led. As the Prime Minister said shortly after the shootings:

Public safety will always be our watchword, and if there is a clear need to make specific changes to legislation, we will not hesitate to present proposals. We remain committed to considering the present range of firearms controls in a measured way.

I look forward to what I am sure will be a thoughtful and constructive debate on this important and sensitive subject. We will listen carefully to points raised by all Members this evening, and we will use them to in shaping our response to such incidents.

6.49 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): May I begin by echoing the Minister's comments about the victims and their families who were caught up in the dreadful events over the summer in Cumbria and Northumbria, and by paying tribute to the wider communities in those areas who went through very distressing and upsetting times? I also commend the work of the emergency services, not only when the events took place, but in the following weeks and months. In particular, I pay tribute to David Rathband, who was so tragically injured by Moat in the Northumbria shootings.

Tony Cunningham: My hon. Friend rightly pays tribute to the emergency services, but will she also pay tribute to the Churches in my area? The people at that time needed a lot of spiritual support. It was offered by the Churches, and I thought they did a fantastic job.

Diana Johnson: I am very happy to pay tribute to the Churches, and I also know that my hon. Friend spent a great deal of time working with the communities and making sure that the families and victims had everything they needed.

This debate is timely. The Select Committee on Home Affairs report on firearms control was published at one minute past midnight. It examines in detail whether, in the light of the dreadful events in Cumbria and Northumbria earlier in the year, we need to change our firearms legislation. We must remember, of course, that not all the reports on the events in Cumbria and Northumbria are available. Although we have had less than 12 hours to consider the Committee's findings and recommendations, it will be useful for us now to start to
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set out some initial thoughts about the report and to raise some of the issues that will certainly impact on this policy area in the weeks and months to come.

Having read the report this morning, I commend it as excellent. The Committee undertook extensive deliberations and produced some thoughtful recommendations. I appreciate that the Government will wish to consider them carefully before responding fully in due course. I also note the strong feeling on both sides of the firearms control debate, and I thank those groups and organisations who have provided helpful and thorough briefing material. We should also note that changes to firearms control legislation are often a result of tragic events such as Hungerford and Dunblane. This is clearly a very sensitive issue.

I read with great care the report of the debate on the Cumbrian shootings that was held in the House at the instigation of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed). He has been unanimously praised for the leadership he showed in his community both at the time and since. I pay tribute to him as well, and to other hon. Members from that area whom I know also worked tirelessly at that time. I took particular note of my hon. Friend's comments about reviewing firearms control in the wake of the tragedy in his constituency. He felt that we should not have a knee-jerk reaction, and that it was important to collect all the facts and consider all the evidence before reaching conclusions. That is the right approach. There is agreement across the political spectrum that there must be mature consideration of the key issues in respect of firearms control. My hon. Friend also made telling remarks about the media, and their portrayal of what had happened in his community. The Select Committee also commented on that.

Unfortunately, my hon. Friend has had to leave the debate early tonight, and he has made clear his concerns about its being scheduled just a few days before the House rises for Christmas. It should also be noted that he is on paternity leave at the moment, but he felt so strongly about this issue that he made a special effort to come to the House. I know he will look to the Government to respond to the Select Committee's recommendations by way of an oral statement in the House-rather than a written statement-so that there can be further debate on these issues.

Let me say a little about the historical context to our debate. Since the 1920s, we have used legislation to control firearms. That is now set out in 34 pieces of legislation. The main one is the Firearms Act 1968, which, as the Minister said, has been amended many times. It is widely agreed that we now have some of the strictest gun controls in the world.

Shotguns are used for pest control, game shooting and target shooting. There are 1,366,082 shotguns in England and Wales, held on 574,946 certificates. Applications are made under section 2 of the 1968 Act. There are also 138,728 firearms certificates, which cover 435,383 guns in England and Wales, including barrels and sound moderators. The majority are sporting rifles that are used for pest control, deer stalking and target shooting. The application process for firearms, under section 1 of the Act, is different.

We must recognise the important role of shooting as a legitimate recreational activity in this country. In 2005, the Labour party set out its charter for shooting, which recognised that there was no connection between
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legitimate sporting shooting and gun crime. We also know that the sport of shooting is a £1.6 billion industry, in which 70,000 people are employed in full-time jobs. I note from the Select Committee report that it, too, recognises that thousands of people use firearms in recreation and in their employment, and that it in no way wishes to restrict such activity. However, it is always helpful to test the effectiveness of firearms control and review current thinking on it.

After the shootings by Derrick Bird on 2 June, when he killed 12 people and injured a further 11, the Association of Chief Police Officers was asked to produce a report, as Derrick Bird was in lawful possession of firearms. The report's remit was to look both at that specific case and any wider issues. It was produced by the ACPO lead on firearms licensing and chair of the ACPO firearms and explosives licensing working group, Assistant Chief Constable Adrian Whiting, and was published on 2 November.

The report made three key recommendations. First, it recommended the establishment of formal links between GPs, mental health services and police forces to enable medical professionals to alert the police if they have concerns regarding certificate holders. Secondly, it said the cost of any GP report should be borne by the applicant. Thirdly, it recommended that formal approaches should be made to members of an applicant's family at the grant and renewal of the certificate. It is clearly very helpful to have this report as a further source of information for the Select Committee and the Government to reflect upon.

Let me now address a few of the specific recommendations in the Select Committee report. First, on the role of GPs and their involvement with firearms control, the Committee welcomed the recent agreement between ACPO and the British Medical Association that the police will alert GPs to every new and renewal licence application. That is an important step in ensuring that the licensing authority receives accurate medical information about applicants. It carries on some of the work started under the previous Labour Government, and we support the change.

It is interesting to note that an applicant may also approach their GP as a person of good character to act as a referee or counter-signatory for a certificate application. If a GP becomes worried about his patient, the BMA has issued guidance that doctors should

That is very important in respect of those who have held licences for some time.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does the hon. Lady not agree that what she has just said might put off a legitimate holder of a certificate who feels that their health might be, for whatever reason, deteriorating from going to their GP at all, because they might believe that their certificate would be in jeopardy? That would constitute a substantial danger not only to the public, but to that person's health.

Diana Johnson: Those points were aired at the Select Committee. I know the BMA has taken a certain view, and it has decided on giving this particular advice to their GPs. However, I will have a little more to say about GPs and the people who go to see them more regularly.

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The view was also presented to the Select Committee that the medical records of firearm certificate holders should be tagged. That would enable a GP who becomes concerned about a person's health to notify the authorities. The Select Committee rejected that approach. The Information Commissioner's Office raised concerns about the effect of tagged medical records, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation believes that this would create a further burden on GPs, and GPs were concerned about the issue of liability.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree with the following comments by Dr John Canning, who is a general practitioner in Middlesbrough and the chairman of the British Medical Association's professional fees committee? He said:

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