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27 Mar 2007 : Column 384WH—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): I am delighted to be able to respond to a debate that has been going on for some time. I congratulate my
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hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) not only on securing this debate, but on her studious care and attention to the inland waterways network over a number of years. It has recently resulted in her being awarded the Titania Salver by the Inland Waterways Association. I hesitate to quote from the citation that was used on that occasion, because I suspect that she was partly given the award for her browbeating of me and my Department. The association is conscious of all the work that she has done in her constituency and the surrounding areas for inland waterways over a long period. May I say only that as she has been awarded the Titania Salver, I am pleased to play Bottom to her Titania?

A number of hon. Members have spoken. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) made her point courteously. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) made his point in an impartial and neutral way—the same point was made in a rather less courteous and extremely party political fashion by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). The point has recurred throughout the debate, so I should attend to it.

I shall not attempt to read out a prepared speech, because much of the discussion that has taken place during parliamentary questions and in other debates in the House over the past months has laid down certain facts in this debate. My seeking to respond to the specific questions raised by colleagues and other hon. Members this morning would be a better use of the available time. First, I shall tackle the key issue assertion that the situation relates in large part to failures in DEFRA’s administration of the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment.

I should make it clear that DEFRA was seeking to find, in-year, £200 million from within its budget. I have detailed in writing to many hon. Members the exact breakdown of that sum, but I shall rehearse it briefly: £95 million was in respect of legacy issues; £40 million was to help meet various other pressures that had arisen early in 2005-06, such as compensation, structural funds, the final cost of foot and mouth disease and property rent increases; and £55 million related to work on flood management, waste, IT and research and development delayed from the previous year.

So, some £95 million was devoted to legacy issues coming into the year. Some £65 million related to tighter fiscal rules; a surplus capital charge budget was no longer available to fund programme expenditure due to the clarification of fiscal rules. Some £10 million was needed for extra emergency preparation for dealing with avian influenza. Earlier this year, I received many letters from members of the boating community up and down the country saying that this was all a waste of time and asking why on earth we were spending money on avian influenza. I think that subsequent events put a stop to those rather foolish letters, and that the £10 million was deemed to be well spent on the extra readiness that we put in place.

Out of that total of £200 million to deal with pressures, only £23 million—11 per cent. of the total—related to the extra RPA running costs in that financial year. It is extremely ill informed or disingenuous for anyone to
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suggest that the in-year £3.9 million cut in British Waterways’ budget resulted principally from the situation at the Rural Payments Agency. That is just not true; it is not the case, and I hope that this debate has provided the opportunity to lay that to rest at long last.

Now for the figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands referred to a 12.5 per cent. cut in the budget, which I shall try to clarify again—I have done so in writing many times—because it is inaccurate. The indicative baseline figure that was set under the 2004 spending round for 2006-07 was in fact £62.59 million. My hon. Friend has held ministerial office and is an experienced Member of Parliament, so she knows that the formal allocation is always worked out before the financial year and that it does not usually bear a strict correlation with the final year of a three-year comprehensive spending review period.

The formal allocation for 2006-07 was £59.429 million. That represents a reduction in the indicative baseline of £3.171 million or 5.066 per cent. Following that, there was an in-year cut—this is the one to which everyone refers—of £3.9 million, representing 6.6 per cent. of the budget. The total is £7.1 million, which even on the indicative baseline figure—that is what my hon. Friend used—represents 11.3 per cent. However, as she knows, as I know and as every Member in the Chamber knows, the actual in-year cut relates to the formal allocation—it always does—which was a cut of 6.61 per cent.— £3.9 million.

I do not want to be tendentious, and I am not trying to say that £3.9 million does not matter, because it does, or that it is a drop in the ocean, because it is not. A cut of the order of £4 million from a total budget of £189.4 million is a sizeable amount for any public body to find and, as my hon. Friend clearly indicated, because it was in-year, it was all the more difficult to find, because many of the funds had already been committed.

I am not trying to diminish the difficulty that such a cut in-year can pose for an organisation, but if we believed that every single one of the difficulties, cutbacks and figures to which hon. Members referred this morning related to that £3.9 million, it would have been multiplied many times. Things were being ascribed to that one-off in-year cut—I emphasise that it is a one-off in-year cut—that were simply not tenable.

Mr. Paterson: Will the Minister comment briefly on the impact that the European Union’s £130 million fine will have on DEFRA’s budget? Will he also comment on the British Waterways document, which states:

Barry Gardiner: I am happy to reply to both those questions. Will the hon. Gentleman remind me of the first one?

Mr. Paterson: I asked about the EU’s £130 million fine, and then about the £10 million reduction in major works.

Barry Gardiner: In relation to possible EU fines, a contingency sum will be included in the DEFRA budget. It is a contingent liability, and has not affected this year’s funding. It is available if and when the EU
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levies a fine against the Government; it is a matter for negotiation between the Department and the Treasury, and is accounted for with a contingency sum. I emphasise that it is a provisional liability that will lie in the accounts. It has had absolutely no effect, and the hon. Gentleman knows that. He understands the working of departmental finance and is more than well aware of the situation. It is somewhat mendacious of him to suggest otherwise.

The hon. Gentleman’s other point was about the extent of the reduction in capital work this year. From memory, there was a £5.6 million reduction this year in work that has not been proceeded with as a result of the cuts. He is talking about a reduction in the 2007-08 budget, but I do not know where he got the figure because there has been no projection of it from which to make the cut.

Joan Walley: I know that time is pressing, but the concern is that whatever the extent of the cuts for the British Waterways Board, it is resulting in the loss of key personnel, which reduces its ability to lead. It is that leadership role that results in additional moneys being lost through the failure to bring down other funding streams.

Barry Gardiner: I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that issue, and I stress that, as was confirmed in public by Robin Evans at the boat show earlier this year, where there was a public debate on these matters, the £3.9 million funding cut this year has had absolutely no impact on British Waterways’ restructuring programme. That programme was always planned as part of its commitment in its “Waterways for Tomorrow” report, and the efficiencies that it planned better to deliver for the future of the network.

Those elements should be clearly separated out. It may be convenient to hide behind the cuts and to say that the restructuring programme was then imposed, and I accept that British Waterways may have brought that programme forward by a few months in response to the cuts, but the restructuring was always planned as part of its commitment to reduce the in-year grant in aid from the Government.

Before time runs out, it is essential to address the points about British Waterways’ long-term funding. We are working with it to develop a long-term future funding model, and to give it the flexibility to engage in more commercial activity to help it to improve its income stream and to enable the Government’s grant in aid to be reduced over time. That has always been its intention. We are awaiting its proposals for a regulatory reform order to that effect.

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Mines Rescue Service

11 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Mines Rescue Service Ltd, which has evolved and diversified from a service that was purely focused on coal mines to a specialist organisation and a confined-space rescue service. Owing to the shrinking deep coal mining industry, income is falling, but the basic requirement remains the same, and as a result, the whole service is in danger of collapse at a time when the threat from terrorism and the potential for confined-space attacks like the London underground bombings are high.

Mines rescue in one form or another is as old as the coal mines themselves. Standards in the past were slack, and it was common for miners to lose their lives or suffer crippling injuries without the shedding of a single tear from a callous mine owner. Standards developed over the years as tolerance for such atrocities diminished, but disasters still occurred. For example, in my own village of Kelty in Fife, the Lindsay colliery disaster in 1957 cost the lives of nine men, and a further 11 were injured by an explosion. One of the men who was killed was overcome by gas while trying to rescue other miners.

At Hill of Beath in 1901, seven men were poisoned by carbon monoxide that was given off as a result of a fire at the Engine colliery. Initially, two men went in to inspect the fire, and when they failed to return, five miners and the colliery manager went to look for them, but they, too, were overcome by gas. They all died. At Seafield in 1973, five miners were killed. In 1931, 10 miners at Bowhill were killed by a firedamp.

There is a memorial on the site of the Valleyfield miners’ welfare club, commemorating the 35 men who died in the Valleyfield pit disaster in 1939. The memorial depicts a woman holding a child, and she represents the lost miners’ wives, waiting at the pithead for news of their loved ones. I have selected Fife disasters, but I could fill the whole debate with victims from pits throughout the country. That is why the MRS is so important. We must never return to those days of pit disasters.

The main focus of the debate is the modern MRS. Following privatisation in 1994, the Health and Safety Commission set objectives for mines rescue: to maintain the existing high standards of rescue provision; command the confidence of all who work in the underground coal industry; ensure the preservation of a national mines rescue capability; ensure small and remote mines have access to rescue services; and avoid disproportionate cost burdens on small mines.

In 1996, the company was incorporated to offer a similar service to non-coal mines and to provide other services that would reduce the expense of operating the service for coal mines. It was designated as a non-profit making company, as the mine owners, the Health and Safety Executive, trade unions and the Department for Trade and Industry agreed, and the coal mining companies effectively own it. Today, the MRS has costs of more than £6 million, 122 employees and six sites, and it services 16 coal mines and 28 non-coal mines, storage mines and museums.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the
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debate. The Minister responding to the debate also responded to an MRS delegation that I led some months ago. The hon. Gentleman said that 16 collieries are covered, which is true. However, one problem is that five of them do not produce coal at the moment, so the MRS needs to diversify its income, as it has successfully done in the past 10 years. Does he agree that respite funding is necessary for a brief period to allow the service to break even through non-mining work fees so that it can head towards the day when carbon capture technology is in full flow and the need for the service is even greater than during the days to which he referred?

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I was fortunate to have joined him and the delegation that met the Minister. The MRS needs a short-term respite to keep it going. It is an excellent service, and it has shown great efforts to diversify. It is a first-class organisation that deserves support to keep it going, because, as the hon. Gentleman says, there are possibilities for coal mining in the future.

The Escape and Rescue from Mines Regulations 1995 state that every coal mine owner shall ensure that there are two teams of five rescue workers that are capable of reaching the mine within 60 minutes on a 24-hour basis, and that no mine of coal shall be worked unless the owner is participant in a mines rescue scheme approved by the Secretary of State. It is quite a commitment, and in effect it means that to support the 16 coal mines, there must be 48 brigadesmen and 12 rescue officers in four stations. The four stations are at Kellingley in West Yorkshire, Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, Rawdon in Leicestershire and Dinas in Wales. In addition, there are two training centres, in Houghton in Tyne and Wear and at Crossgates in Fife in my constituency.

Funding has been mentioned. The centres’ core funding is provided by the mine owners on a fee per tonne extracted basis. In 1996, 59 mines extracted some 32 million tonnes; today, there are 16 mines, fewer than one third of the 1996 number, which extract 10 million tonnes, which is also about one third of the 1996 amount. During that time, the fee per tonne has risen only from 12p to 16p, and in fact, the 16p rate has remained the same since 2003-04. The income from the mines has dropped from £3.6 million in 1996 to about £1.67 million for 2006-07. As the mining industry contracts, so does the MRS income. The situation will become worse during the financial year ahead. The fee per tonne will not increase, but yet again, costs have risen. The extraction volume is also expected to fall by another 1.5 million tonnes, which means a further reduction in income of £240,000.

For more than 100 years, the MRS has developed its specialist skills, experience and knowledge from working in difficult and potentially dangerous environments to effect the rescue and escape of mine workers from underground. The MRS brings that expertise to support a comprehensive range of health and safety related products. Training and services are available to a range of private sector companies, large and small businesses and public sector organisations, and a variety of courses are provided, with each one structured around first aid, firefighting, health and safety, confined space, breathing
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apparatus and rescue and consultancy. Its brochure lists 31 different courses, from emergency planning to automatic external defibrillation.

The MRS is also contracted to the Coal Authority to attend all coal mining related hazards to ensure public safety. The MRS has diversified into research, and it receives funding from the European Union and the Health and Safety Executive. The company also has contracts with other underground mines.

In the most recent financial year, the income from non-deep coal mine reserve cover and training was about £4.5 million—three times as much as its deep coal mine rescue income. However, that still left a shortfall of about £150,000, and next year, as I have explained, the shortfall will increase to £250,000. The Minister knows that the MRS team from Crossgates was highly praised for its work at the Stockline Plastics factory explosion in Glasgow in 2004. Brian Sweeney, chief officer of Strathclyde fire and rescue service, said at the time:

Here are some more testimonials. Doncaster chamber of commerce has said:

while the Environment Agency has said:

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. On his point about fire and rescue services, I met the chief fire officer in my area on Friday, Richard Bull, who is involved in discussions on, and is writing a paper on, greater connections between the Mines Rescue Service and the fire service. The hon. Gentleman’s example of the men at Crossgates is a good example. Would he encourage the use of that skill and expertise, particularly in confined spaces, and greater co-operation with the fire and rescue services?

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. I had the good fortune of opening the enclosed spaces training facility in Crossgates last year. Some of the organisations that attended, such as the fire and rescue service and the health service, were extremely impressed by the quality of the training provided and were keen to have greater connections. We need to spread those connections throughout the country, to ensure that everybody knows what the Mines Rescue Service can offer. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), has been extremely helpful in setting up some of those introductions, but much more needs to be done, so I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

British Airways has said:

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Nottinghamshire police said:

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