6.22 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am very sad that people have seen fit to go on strike today, and I regret it a great deal. I am very pleased that only about 135,000 people seem to have gone on strike, and that they amount to only about one third of those who could have gone on strike.

Some people seem to be happy with the strikes—and in my family they are two teenage girls, whose schools have been closed today. I am very unhappy about that, so my standard of living has, indeed, been touched. I presume the reason why people have gone on strike is to try, ostensibly at least, to retain a high standard of living when they are pensioners—so they think.

I am very pleased to hear for the first time today that we are living 10 years longer than we did in the 1970s, but somehow we have to find the means to look after those people properly until the end of their life, and no one in the House wants to do anything but that.

When I left the services, I tried to ensure that I had a decent pension, and I saved hugely, but in almost two months I lost 20% of what I had saved, and I had saved about one third of what I had made since I had left the Army. So I understand what happens when one loses a lot of money in a pension fund, and I was horrified.

I understand that private sector workers would have to put about 30% more into a pension pot if they wanted a similar pension. We would all like to raise pensions, but we just do not have the money. Let us remember that about 20% of the people who work in the United Kingdom are paid directly or indirectly by the Government. The Office for National Statistics suggested in June that, accounting for gender, age,

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occupation, region and qualifications, a public sector worker earns on average 7.8% more an hour than a private sector worker.

It is interesting that we all want pensioners to have the best quality and standard of life right until the end. I do not disagree with Members on either side of the House when they say that we should do everything in our power to get pensioners everything they want. I am pleased that those who earn a salary of up to £15,000 on full-time equivalent will not have to pay any more and saddened that others will have to pay more until they retire to provide the means for decent pensions. The Prime Minister said earlier that a nurse earning £34,000 will get a pension of £22,000 when she retires. I am sure that all of us in the House—[ Interruption. ] Hon. Members can barrack all they want, but all of us agree on one thing: we want to give our pensioners the best possible standard of life until they drop down. We all agree on that, but it is how we do it that matters.

6.26 pm

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): I think that it will be generally accepted that people’s long-term living standards depend on decent pensions and that as a society generally we need to save more. Until now, having a pension has been seen as the safest way of saving—

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Frank Dobson: I certainly shall not.

Over the past few years people in the private sector have seen their bosses slash the pensions available and swindle them out of what they thought they signed up to when they joined their pension scheme. Now the Government are turning that idea on the public sector, with higher contributions, longer years of work and then lower pensions. One of the dangers is the lesson people will draw from what has happened in the private sector and is now proposed for the public sector. The Government talk about nudge, but the nudge will now encourage people not to bother to save because some swindler, either public or private, will take it off them and they will not get what they thought they signed up for.

On 11 August the Prime Minister repeated his praise for the emergency services, the police, firefighters, ambulance staff and A and E staff. Then he went back to Downing street and proceeded to press on further with trying to undermine the pension provision for all those people, making them work longer, pay more and then get less in their pension. He clearly considers them only when doing a bit of PR at the Dispatch Box. The same is true of the Government’s approach to teachers.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of teachers to this country’s future, especially head teachers, whose leadership is crucial in schools, because they do more for wealth creation than anyone in the City of London has ever done. They educate, train and produce adaptable young people who are the greatest asset to wealth creation in this country so that we can compete with the best on quality and not be dragged down to having to compete with the cheapest on price, because that is something we will never do.

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The Government ought to wonder why head teachers are going on strike. Not only are they going on strike for the first time, but they have had a strike ballot for the first time. They are determined to improve their schools and believe that the pension proposals, if they go through, will damage their schools in the long term. Everyone accepts that changes are necessary. The teachers have accepted that changes are necessary, and they accepted agreements a year or two ago to make a bigger contribution.

The interesting question that the Government do not answer is why they have not produced the actuarial review of whether the teachers pension fund is in credit or deficit. They know that it is in credit, but they will not produce the answer because they know that it will expose the fact that they are trying to shift money from the teachers to the Treasury to pay for the incompetence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has made as big a mess as was predicted when he took over as Chancellor. I have nothing more to say, Madam Deputy Speaker.

6.30 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am pleased to be called to speak in this important debate to which there have been so many good contributions, but I shall introduce a bit of a downer. If the ghost of Christmas present visited the streets of Ogmore and Bridgend as we run towards Christmas, he would not find a great sight, because we are seeing rising household prices, and a squeeze on incomes because incomes are falling. People who work in retail parks and shops are being asked to reduce their hours, and there is greater job uncertainty. It is not only low earners in working families who are being squeezed; middle earners are being squeezed too. There is a squeeze on the high street, and shops in my constituency are being closed for the first time in 20 years.

There are rises in some areas; there are rising queues at the jobcentres. I am glad the Secretary of State is back in his place. He visited Wales not long ago, and we were pleased to see him. He visited Merthyr where he said there were plenty of jobs out there. On the day he was there, there were 39 jobs, but there were 1,670 people chasing those jobs. He suggested looking in Cardiff, where things would be better. They were better: there were 1,700 jobs there, and 15,000 people were chasing them. I suspect that the situation is no better today. That is the backdrop to this debate.

There are rising queues at my surgeries, at citizens advice bureaux, at housing advice surgeries and, most chronically, at food handout centres. Queues at food handout centres in this century are a repercussion of the current dilemma. Great people are setting up food distribution centres to hand out food, not just to low-earning families but to people who would previously have been thought to be relatively prosperous and doing okay, but are now finding that the squeeze is so acute that they must rely on food handouts.

That is a toxic mix. We are not seeing a rebalancing of the economy between public and private sectors jobs, or seeing private sector growth. We are seeing a rebalancing of the economy from growth to chronic contraction. Why is that coming about, and who is being hurt most? I suggest that the cumulative effect of some of the Government’s new and current policies—those they

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have put in place over the last year, as well as yesterday—is hurting working families, women and those who are struggling to make ends meet. The Department for Work and Pensions is cutting child care costs from 80% to 70%. That is £13 a week for working families in Ogmore, and around 400 families will be worse off. An Ogmore family with two children will lose an additional £3.70 a week by 2013-14 thanks to the Government’s freeze on child benefit.

In-work families in Ogmore will be £100 per claimant worse off thanks to the freezing of the basic and 30-hour elements of the working tax credit. An average Ogmore family will lose £160 a year because of the increase in the tax credit withdrawal rate. The baby element of child tax credit has been scrapped. No one can put a price on a baby—I have three children in my family—but some money can be paid towards that. The credit was £545, but it has now been scrapped. The average loss from the cut in the second income threshold will be £285 per family. In total, around 9,100 families in Ogmore will be affected by the tax credit cuts. That is a crying shame.

The Government often say that they do not want to learn lessons from the Opposition, so let them learn from Chris Johnes, Oxfam’s director of UK poverty. He said:

“Freezing working tax credits will penalise those who are trying to make a living by working their way out of poverty—this should be among the last places the Government looks to make savings. At a time when the lowest-income households are already struggling to make ends meet, it could push even more working people into poverty.”

That is the Government’s legacy.

6.34 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I am grateful to have been called to speak in this debate. I declare an interest as a proud trade unionist and a proud deferred member of the local government pension scheme.

The pension dispute is just the tip of the iceberg of the devastating effect of the Government’s policies on the living standards of ordinary people. My surgery is full and my postbag is full of letters from people who are struggling because of Government policies, which make the poor pay for the devastation that irresponsible bankers wrought on the world.

People are losing their homes and jobs. They are terrified that they will lose their disability living allowance. They are struggling to pay their household bills and are very frightened. Things will only get worse for those ordinary people. Let me tell hon. Members what my constituents are telling me. Paul works in customer accounts for a local council. He tells me that he strongly objects to the pension proposals affecting him. He says that he has already lost £3,000 owing to the new pay and grading structure and will now have to pay 3% more for his pension and work longer. Like many thousands of others, he believes that he may well have to leave the pension scheme altogether.

Jeanette is another constituent who is deeply annoyed by the cuts to the local government pensions. She says:

“I really need to express my disgust at the treatment of Local Government employees, as the majority of us do work very hard and make a great contribution to local services and meeting

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national targets and budgets. I feel we are pawns in the political game and are easy targets, with propaganda being used to fuel the media misconception that we are lazy, workshy overpaid employees who have a cushy working life in comparison to the private sector.”

She went on to say that she felt that she was having her pension stolen from her.

It is no wonder that those constituents are so angry. Their pension scheme is a funded scheme: both employee and employer pay actual money into an actual fund. It takes in £4 billion a year more than it pays out and was changed just a few years ago to make it sustainable. Now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wants to rob the fund of £900 million—not to make it sustainable or to improve it, but to satisfy his need to make cuts, rather like the worst employers of the past who raided pension funds.

This illustrates the complexity of public sector pensions. There are six schemes, not one—all with different rules, accrual rates, retirement ages and benefits. Contribution rates range from 0% for the armed forces to 11% for the police. To speak of them as though they were one unaffordable public sector pension is misleading. The Government say that their proposals are an improvement, but they are not telling the whole truth. The average public sector worker will still end up with a pension of less than £6,000, will have to work a number of years longer, will have to pay 3% more and have their pension uprated by the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index.

It is no wonder that public sector workers are angry, but they are also scared. Paula, a teacher of deaf children for 30 years, told me of her fears that her pension will lose its value because of its being uprated by the CPI. She said:

“I have little or no family, I live alone and if I were to fall into debt the fear of that keeps me awake at night. My lifestyle is already very frugal, I have no choice about that because of the price of gas, electricity and fuel. My pension puts limits on my lifestyle now. I dread to think of what will become of me in a few years’ time when my financial position has not kept pace with prices and that wakes me up at night constantly.”

Of course, there is much worse to come for the low paid: cuts to housing benefit and in-work benefit for a great many low paid workers—

Mr Speaker: Order. The Front-Bench winding-up speeches will begin at 6.40 pm. I call Pat Glass.

6.38 pm

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Is it worth it? I will have to rely on bullet points.

I want to speak about the impact of the Government’s policies on children and young people—their educational chances, their life chances and their employment. In the past 19 months, we have seen a Government who have a massive gap between their stated political objectives and the main drivers put in place to meet them. We heard from the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who said that she came into Parliament to eradicate child poverty, yet the Government are going to put 600,000 more children into child poverty. The hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) gave a notable speech, much of which I agreed with, about early intervention, yet the Government have massively cut funding to local government, which is going to deliver on that.

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The Government tell us that they want to narrow the gap in outcomes between the poorest and the most advantaged in our schools, that they want more children from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university and that they want to build skills for the future—but what do they do? They slash the education maintenance allowance. The number of young people going into further education this year has fallen—in one year—to levels last seen in 1990. That will not deliver a knowledge-based economy for us in the future. They triple tuition fees and tell us that £9,000 will not be the norm. Wake up—it is the norm, and as a result, this year applications for higher education fell by 12% nationally and by 15% from British students. The biggest drop has been in applications from young people in the most disadvantaged and poorest families.

That is what the Government are doing. What they say is one thing, but what they deliver is something completely different. It is not just that they are failing on the economy now; it is that they will not deliver on the skills we need to get us out of this mess in the future.

6.40 pm

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): Today’s debate has been an extremely good one, with many Members contributing. It has been a very serious debate about the real consequences to families across the country of yesterday’s facts and figures and yesterday’s decisions. We are holding the debate on the day on which the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that Britain is facing the steepest drop in living standards for generations, and the day after the Chancellor told us that there will be a quarter of a million more people on the dole each and every year, that growth has collapsed and that borrowing is set to be an astonishing £158 billion higher. We know that it is hurting, but it is not working.

I will not mention every Member who spoke in the debate, because to do so would take me to the end of my time, but there are some things on which we agree. The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said that the best way to increase living standards is to increase growth. I agree, but the Government’s policies are choking off growth, not supporting it. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) made a thoughtful speech, and the hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) talked about the impact on children in care. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) took us to Planet Zog, I think, and even worse, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) wanted to take us back to Wales in the 1980s when, by my recollection, unemployment was considerably higher than it is today.

We heard serious speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who described discussions with women in her constituency who are really worried about the impact of Government policies, as well as the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for or Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who all talked about the devastating impact on communities, families and child poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) talked about the impact on housing

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and jobs, and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) made a powerful speech rebutting the claims, to which Government Members are clinging, that low interest rates are a sign of confidence on the international markets, instead of a reflection of decisions made by the Bank of England. As Japan’s experience for many years shows, they are a sign of weakness in the economy.

The Treasury analysis published yesterday of who is taking the strain of the Government’s plans is pretty gloomy. It shows that the impact of their plans next year alone is regressive across 80% of the population. It also shows an increase of 100,000 in the number of children in poverty, just as a result of the autumn statement. The IFS analysis published today, which takes account of far more measures, is far more damning, showing that the poorest 30% in society will lose more than three times as much as a share of their income as the richest 30%. In addition, an earlier analysis shows that 600,000 more families will fall into absolute poverty.

We remember what the Government said. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said today that he was protecting the poorest families. No, he is not, and the IFS figures make that clear. The Chancellor said, “We’re all in this together,” and the Deputy Prime Minister said his cuts would be progressive. Time and again, the facts show the opposite. Even today, the Prime Minister claimed that he was increasing child tax credit, providing more support for families. He said that he had increased child tax credit this year, but the truth is that this Government have cut tax credits for families, cut child benefit, cut Sure Start and cut the child care element, so some families are losing more than £1,000 in child care support alone.

As for the Government’s claim today that they will increase child tax credit by £135 next year, that is just inflation. They are not increasing the value of tax credits; in fact they are cutting them, and cutting child benefit too. A family on the minimum wage with two children will lose £320 a year as a result of yesterday’s decisions alone, and over £100 more as a result of the freezing of child benefit. That is the equivalent of about two weeks’ take-home pay. If the Prime Minister thinks that he can stand in the House of Commons and claim that he is increasing support for children, and imagines that parents will not notice what is actually happening to their pay packets and what they receive at the end of the month, he is simply out of touch with what is happening in communities across the country.

We understand that the Chancellor wanted to raise money for youth unemployment. It would have been better not to abolish the youth guarantee and the future jobs fund in the first place, it would have been better not to let long-term youth unemployment rise by more than 80% since the beginning of the year, and it would have been better to prevent youth unemployment from hitting the 1 million mark and start reducing it, as we did before the election. However, we do support extra action for youth jobs, and indeed we said that we would raise a bankers’ bonus tax in order to pay for it.

What was the Chancellor’s response to that? It was not “Oh yes, what a good idea, let us introduce a bankers’ bonus tax.” It was “No thanks, I think I will leave the bankers alone. In fact, I was planning to cut their 50p rate as soon as I could afford it. I have another wheeze: I want to take the money from families who are on the minimum wage.” That is what the Chancellor did

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yesterday. He has already taken £6 billion a year from support for children, and now he has gone back for over £1 billion more: £7.5 billion a year from children, and £2.8 billion from the banks. He is taking between two and three times as much from children as from the banks. That is the supposedly progressive decision that this out-of-touch Government have made.

What do the Government’s proposals mean for women? We know that the Government are already worried about their popularity among women, for the No. 10 memo tells us:

“We know from a range of polls that women are significantly more negative about the Government than men. We don't at present have a finer-grained analysis than this”.

It also says:

“the group of Cabinet Office and No 10 women we assembled felt strongly that the general tone and messages of government communications, particularly around deficit reduction were an issue - with women, especially in the public sector feeling targeted… we found the insights useful.”

We can imagine the Tory special advisers scouring the Cabinet Office and No. 10 for women who would tell them the obvious. It is not rocket science, and it should not take so much for them to find out what is the experience of women across the country.

The memo also says:

“we are clear that there are a range of policies… which are seen as having hit women, or their interests, disproportionately, including… Public sector pay and pensions…Tuition fees… Abolition of Child Trust Funds… Changes to child tax credit and the childcare element… Changes to child benefit… Rising cost of living… Lone patent obligations… Income support”.

Exactly. So what have the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister done in response to that? They have simply gone back for more.

In the autumn statement, the Government are hitting women hardest again. We already knew of the £16 billion that they were raising in tax and benefit changes— £11 billion of it coming from women, even though women still earn less and own less than men. It is hurting but it is not working, so the Government think that they should just go back and make it hurt more. The Prime Minister can try as much as he likes with his new women’s spin doctor, the marginally greater chance that a woman will occupy the throne as a result of the succession changes, and some family-friendly photo opportunities, but that is all that he is offering, and it will not work. The Government are out of touch, and women throughout the country are aware of the damage that they are doing to their families and their lives.

The biggest problem, of course, is the impact on growth and jobs that is affecting women, families and everyone else in the country. An extra £29 billion on the benefits bill is not lifting people out of poverty, and is not helping people into work. It is the cost of failure: the choking off of recovery, more people on the dole, and the pushing up of inflation. We should be investing in growth and jobs, not borrowing to pay the bills of failure. This is hurting, not working, and it is time to change course.

6.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I agree with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford

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(Yvette Cooper) on one thing: this has been a worthwhile and important debate. We have had 31 contributions from across the House on the important issue of living standards. However, there is an omission in the motion. It refers to the impact of policies on living standards and to hard-working families, women and parents, but it does not mention pensioners at all. I wonder why. It is probably because the Labour party assumed that we were not going to keep our promise, but we did. We uprated the basic state pension by 5.2%—the biggest increase ever, at £5.30—and passed that money through to the poorest pensioners. We have done the right thing by pensioners; it is not surprising that Labour Members do not want to talk about it.

What are the key things that matter to our constituents about living standards? The first and most important is their mortgages. One in three households has a mortgage. We have the lowest mortgage rates on record and we have kept them that way.

The right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) made a thoughtful contribution in which he reminded us why most of his colleagues wanted him as party leader and not his brother. He explained that he did not think the Government’s stance on the fiscal position had anything to do with interest rates, but does he accept that Britain’s credit rating has improved, almost uniquely, because we are taken seriously on tackling the debt? That is the crucial difference between this side and the Opposition.

The hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), if I can distract him from his BlackBerry, referred to the national debt and to Labour’s golden economic legacy. He forgot to point out, however, that the national debt—£750 billion in total the year before the election—was slated under his plans to double to £1.5 trillion. I may be old-fashioned, but with a trillion here and a trillion there, we are soon talking about serious money. That was the burden.

We have talked about our children, with some almost dismissing the idea that we as a society have lived beyond our means. For every £3 we raised in tax, we were spending £4. That simply could not go on.

Several hon. Members rose

Steve Webb: I am not giving way.

That could not go on, and it meant that our children will have to pick up the tab. Similarly, several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), have referred to public sector pensions. This is a classic case of asking our children to pick up the tab. For example, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) asked why we did not value the teachers’ pension scheme, as we might find that it was in credit. I have news for him: there is no scheme; there is no money. Today’s teachers pay for today’s retired teachers. There could not be a credit, because there is no fund. That is one of the problems with this whole debate. [ Interruption. ] There is no fund and no money; there is nothing invested. [ Interruption. ] If the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras wants to intervene, I am happy for him to put on record what he is saying from a sedentary position. As a former Secretary of State for a major spending Department, if he does not understand that there is no cash in the teachers’ pension fund, I will be very pleased to take an intervention from him.

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Frank Dobson: The Minister and the Secretary of State refer to creating jobs in the private sector to compensate for the ones that have been lost in the public sector. Can he confirm that neither his Department nor any other is checking on how many of the so-called new jobs in the private sector are simply ones transferred from the public sector?

Steve Webb: I can understand why the right hon. Gentleman did not want to deal with the issue that I raised. I can point out to him, however, that the total number of people in employment will rise from 29 million last year to 30 million in 2016 under the projections. There will be more people in employment, and a rebalancing towards a vibrant private sector, which we want to see.

As well as mortgages, Members on the Government side have talked about the council tax. Labour Members did not seem to want to talk about the council tax, as though it did not matter. The council tax is one of the most regressive taxes that we have. This Government froze it and will freeze it again. That is real help for hard-working families.

A number of hon. Members talked about fuel prices and petrol. It is this Government who cancelled the 3p rise in January. It is Labour that had the escalator, year after year, with above-inflation increases in petrol prices. Under our plans for duty, petrol prices will be 10p a litre less than under Labour’s plans.

Mr Byrne: I am following the Pensions Minister’s argument closely. The Budget also set out about £30 billion of cuts in the next Parliament. Will he confirm whether it is the Liberal position to support those cuts?

Steve Webb: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for intervening, because I asked him the question when he was speaking, and he said that he opposed cuts for people who are out of work and that he opposed cuts for people who are in work. When I asked him whom that left, he said nothing—he never answers the question—and his Back Benchers said, “The bankers”. He was in the Treasury when, before the general election, the Labour Government introduced a “temporary” bankers’ bonus tax. If Labour thought they were going to win the election, why did they not make the bankers’ bonus tax permanent? It was a one-off, pre-election gimmick, whereas this Government have introduced a banking levy that, every year, will raise more than his temporary banking tax raised in any year.

Sheila Gilmore: Will the Minister give way?

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: I have four minutes to respond to more than 30 speeches. Out of deference to Labour Members, I will do so.

The shadow Home Secretary talked about the position of women, and it is important that we deal with that point. The difference between this Government and the Labour Government is that we are taking 1 million people out of tax, the majority of whom are women, whereas her Government abolished the 10p tax rate, from which the majority of the losers were women.

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1048

There has been much discussion of the gainers and losers from the Government’s policies. I refer the House to the chart on page 4 of the Treasury document, “Distributional analysis to accompany the Autumn Statement 2011”, which ranks households by expenditure and shows the smallest cash losses at the bottom and the biggest cash losses at the top—progressive changes in difficult times.

Several hon. Members rose

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) made a characteristically thoughtful contribution pointing out the contrast between the two parties’ records—the 75p pension rise and the abolition of the 10p tax rate under the previous Government, and the personal tax allowance increases that this party is bringing in.

Hon. Members: Give way!

Mr Speaker: Order. The House must come to order. It seems clear on observation that the Minister is not giving way.

Steve Webb: I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) spoke about how low interest rates benefit growth, which is crucial to the economy. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) raised the crucial issue of us having to pay our own way.

In opposition, one must do two things: yes, one must oppose the things that one is against, but one must also propose the things that one is in favour of. The Labour party failed to tell us where the £46 billion of spending cuts identified by the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions would come from. We heard speech after speech from Labour Members who were opposed to every single cut, but I heard no Labour Member say what they would cut. We heard that there should not be cuts for people out of work, or for people in work, that there should not be cuts to the public sector, or to the private sector. Where does all the money come from? Answer came there none.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question put accordingly.

The House divided:

Ayes 226, Noes 293.

Division No. 406]

[6.59 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Bell, Sir Stuart

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Gordon

Brown, Lyn

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Cooper, rh Yvette

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Mr Wayne

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Maria

Efford, Clive

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lloyd, Tony

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Jim

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh David

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Joan

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Shuker, Gavin

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Sammy

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr David Hamilton and

Phil Wilson


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Alexander, rh Danny

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackwood, Nicola

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, Paul

Burt, Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, Mr Edward

Davies, Glyn

Davis, rh Mr David

de Bois, Nick

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fallon, Michael

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Mr Roger

Garnier, Mr Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Grant, Mrs Helen

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, Mr John

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Horwood, Martin

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Mensch, Louise

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Mr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, Richard

Paice, rh Mr James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Rutley, David

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Julian

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stunell, Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Teather, Sarah

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Shailesh Vara and

Norman Lamb

Question accordingly negatived.

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1049

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1050

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1051

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1052

Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119( 1 1),

generalised tariff preferences

That the House takes note of European Union Document No. 10052/11 and Addenda 1 to 3, relating to a Draft Regulation applying a scheme of generalised tariff preferences; and supports the Government’s aim that the reform of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) should be an opportunity to focus the scheme on the poorest countries by increasing preferences to those on the scheme and widening the eligibility criteria of the special incentive arrangement for certain countries, GSP+, but that this should not be used as an instrument to increase protectionism by the blanket removal of all Upper Middle Income Countries.—(James Duddridge.)

Question agreed to.

Planning National Policy Statements


That Standing Order No. 152H (Planning: national policy statements) be amended as follows:—

(a) line 28, leave out sub-paragraph (c) and insert—

‘(c) may report from time to time and shall cease to exist when the relevant national policy statement is designated’; and

(b) leave out paragraphs (4) and (5).—(James Duddridge.)

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1053

Dalgety Bay (Radiation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

7.15 pm

Mr Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Lab): I have called this debate for one purpose and one purpose only: to persuade the Ministry of Defence of the need for urgent action in an area in my constituency where radioactive materials have been discovered.

The affected land on the shores of the Firth of Forth occupied by and near Dalgety Bay sailing club is a few yards from people’s homes, near where children play, and is an area where many go for walks. But in the past six weeks, materials that were dumped there by the Ministry of Defence in the 1950s—aircraft dials, aircraft paint and other materials—have been discovered, with radioactive levels that are 10 times anything witnessed before. They are an undeniable hazard, they are materials which children should not touch, and they are particles which should be removed quickly and in full.

Urgent action is necessary not just because of risks to safety, but because the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has now stated publicly that unless the Ministry of Defence brings forward a remedial plan for the area, the agency will designate Dalgety Bay a radioactive contaminated piece of land. This will be the first and only land to be designated as radioactive contaminated in the United Kingdom, and the agency says that it will nominate the Ministry of Defence as the culpable party.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ministry of Defence abdicated its responsibility for the contaminated land when it unilaterally informed the local forum that it

“had no plans to continue monitoring and removing contamination from the site”?

Surely such irresponsible inaction deserves the strongest condemnation.

Mr Brown: That was in 2010. I shall come to that.

I have had to call this debate because, despite a succession of approaches to the Ministry of Defence—letters, phone calls, a chance conversation with the Secretary of State for Defence, whom I acquainted with the issue—the Ministry of Defence has yet to instruct the necessary actions and agree that a plan for remedial work is prepared, funded and implemented.

Since 1983 I have been the Member of Parliament representing the community of Dalgety Bay. It is near where I grew up and went to school, and near where I live and where my children go to school, so I have been aware for many years of the history of the site and of the past dumping of materials there by the Ministry of Defence. Those came from Donibristle airfield, which was created in 1917, was opened, closed and then opened again, and when reopened became, like the nearby Royal Navy base, vital to the second world war effort. Even as late as 1959, when it was announced that it would be closed down as an aircraft repair yard, it employed 1,400 industrial and non-industrial staff.

In that time, disused aircraft, including aircraft dials, materials used for painting dials and other instruments, were broken up and dumped at Dalgety Bay. On that

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1054

land houses were built and the sailing club was established. Since 1990 materials with some radioactivity have been detected at Dalgety Bay. In June that year, after environmental monitoring by Babcock, the owners of Rosyth dockyard, elevated radiation levels including the presence of radium 226, were found. At that time particles were removed. As was reported later, they were removed “as far as possible”, but since 1990 and at regular intervals, I and the local community council, headed by Colin McPhail, have pressed for regular monitoring of any potential threat to the safety of local residents and to reassure locals that we have consistently asked for surveys to be done, tests to be carried out and investigations to be made.

Until 17 October this year, no investigation that I have seen has yielded evidence of substantial pollution or danger. In fact, at the request of local people, the National Radiological Protection Board—now the Health Protection Agency—carried out surveys during May and June 1991, as it monitored the beach, and then in 1992, 1993 and 1994. It reported that it found only low-level contaminated material buried below a layer of soil.

That was followed in 1995 by a detailed risk assessment, commissioned from a multidisciplinary research team at the university of Aberdeen. Its purpose was to assess the implications of radiation contamination, to consider the level of risk to the public and to review the options for reducing the contamination, if that were necessary. The study found that the variations in the ambient radiation dose rate values were within normal levels and calculated that the highest ambient dose rate found at Dalgety Bay was only two thirds of that found naturally in the granite in Aberdeen.

When the inquiry team published their survey in 1998, they reported that radium contamination was present not as a layer in the sediment, but randomly distributed as particles. However, they found that the number of radiation particles found in the area surveyed was very small and, thus, the risk of coming into contact with such a particle was “very low”. They found that the risk of inhalation was also low and reported that skin contact with a particle for an extended period could produce a very small burn similar in nature and severity to a fire-ash burn, but concluded that the maximum fatal risk per year from inhaling or swallowing a radioactive particle to any user of the area surveyed was negligible; it was calculated as clearly

“less than one in a million”.

However, we rightly agreed that we would continue monitoring, and in 2006 SEPA compiled a report that concluded that further work needed to be done. It also highlighted the possibility of coastal erosion that might bring particles nearer to the surface, but said:

“The most probable effect of an encounter which lasts for a number of minutes is a skin burn. The chances of ingestion…is highly unlikely, around one in half a million per year”.

The common view locally was that during the break-up of some aircraft some of the redundant luminescent materials had been burnt, and it was likely that the resultant ash and clinker produced from burning were either buried or spread on the ground surface. It was reported:

“It is therefore possible that the action of burning of luminised dials can produce a diverse range of chemical forms”.

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1055

Since then, at our request and at the request of others, six monitoring surveys and three intrusive investigations were carried out by Entec over the course of 12 months, and they have found that the radioactive materials probably derived from a bed of ash material. But, as was reported,

“recontamination of the beach continued, indicating that either the ash horizon was not the only potential host material, or that”—


“sources continued to be present…and continued to re-contaminate the beach.”

Of the 128 particles, 48 were recovered from investigations of the ash bed, 28 from clearance surveys of the beach and coastal path, and 51 from regular visits to monitor the area. These surveys made it clear that

“the data do not indicate a reducing rate of hazard recurrence…at the site.”

I should add that, also after our request, work was also commissioned over these years by the health board, whose study of data from 1975 to 2002 did not reveal any correlation between the location of the radioactive materials and the incidence of cancer. So until a few weeks ago none of these surveys revealed any substantial risk or out-of-the-ordinary levels of radiation. Many of them were carried out at the expense of the MOD, because it rightly recognised that this monitoring was its responsibility. But in mid-October, work done by SEPA dramatically revealed particles at a level of radiation 10 times that of any previous discovery and led to the decision by SEPA, after repeated contact with the MOD, that it had to take action in the weekend of 17 to 19 November to remove potentially dangerous items. This was work that, as the correspondence makes clear to me, the MOD was willing to instruct. However, unfortunately, it would not guarantee that it would immediately remove any items discovered or submit them for full investigation.

So on Saturday 19 November, without the help of the MOD, SEPA took action and removed what it reported to be

“a second potentially high activity source”.

It was

“five times greater activity than anything previously recovered”.

SEPA also reported that a

“second source was also recovered”

and that

“a third source was found at the surface”

and that required urgent action.

So the real issue here is that there needs to be agreement on a plan for remedial action, given what we know now about the radioactive materials on the site. In October, SEPA wrote to the defence industrial office asking for assistance in monitoring and for a plan of action to repair the site. On 10 November—I quote from its letter—the MOD said, astonishingly, that

“any suggestions that the Ministry should provide a plan of action is immature at this stage”.

On 24 November, SEPA again wrote to the MOD asking for a commitment to undertake appropriate remediation and

“the delivery of a plan”


30 Nov 2011 : Column 1056

“sufficient resources and funds to enable work to be undertaken”.

However, at the most recent meeting with the Dalgety Bay officials, the MOD was

“unable to commit to undertaking any remediation following site investigation”.

That has caused SEPA to say that unless there is a plan—not just agreed in principle but produced by the MOD—it will, in March next year, designate the site as contaminated and name the MOD as the responsible party

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated not only on securing this debate but on the dogged way that he has pursued this issue over a number of years. He will know that the beach is incredibly popular with his constituents and with mine. Does he agree that it is absolutely vital that the Ministry of Defence deals with this quickly so that our constituents can continue to enjoy this beauty spot?

Mr Brown: Yes.

We now have clear evidence that there is a radioactivity level higher than anything that has been seen before. We have a desire—indeed, a demand—locally for remedial action. The community council chairman, Colin McPhail, has said very eloquently that fears in the area need to be allayed. We have correspondence, which I have seen, between the two Government agencies, but it has failed to resolve the issues despite the urgency of the need for action. It is therefore necessary that I bring this matter to the House so that we can secure agreement on preparing and financing a remediation plan for the site.

Over the years, the MOD has funded work, including the removal of radioactive contamination from homes in the area, but the result of its work on those homes has never been disclosed. It has funded the permanent erection of signs to provide warning information to the public, but those signs now require updating. In 2009, the MOD undertook an investigation of the slipway area which recovered 100 sources of radium. The MOD analysed whether the inter-tidal area was itself the source of the contamination, but found that not to be the case. The MOD has agreed to fund three annual surveys and removal programmes at Dalgety Bay. However, SEPA believes that it has detected caches of contamination that MOD contractors may have missed. Through the re-monitoring that SEPA has done, significantly more sources of radioactivity have been found, and while the MOD contractor removed 33 sources, SEPA has removed 442 separate particles. Together with this large number of sources, the SEPA investigation has recovered four high-activity sources from the inter-tidal area of Dalgety Bay, and those are, at the highest levels, 76 times greater than anything previously reported. In the light of recent findings, SEPA now considers that any survey and removal at Dalgety Bay that was previously agreed is not enough. It believes that joint work is now required with the Health Protection Agency and that an urgent plan is required to repair the site.

The community that lives in Dalgety Bay and in the vicinity of Rosyth dockyard is a loyal and patriotic community whose patience and good will has been sorely tested. At one time, Rosyth dockyard and naval base employed 15,000 people and was the base for thousands of servicemen and women. Churchill rightly described Rosyth as the greatest defended war harbour

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1057

in the world. Today, it is home to 1,500 workers who are building the new aircraft carriers, but the naval base that has been so important to the local economy has gone. The current proposal for Rosyth is that nuclear decommissioning work be done on nuclear submarines that are currently stored there. Ironically, at the very moment when the MOD is trying to persuade local people that their fears about any radiation from that nuclear source should be non-existent, it seems to be utterly slow to act on the removal of the other source of radioactivity, which is its responsibility. This is no way to treat loyal supporters of our armed forces and people who, having refitted the Polaris submarines at Rosyth, have lived with nuclear dangers for years.

It seems very strange that this country has been home to nuclear-powered and nuclear weapons submarines, nuclear power stations and experimental nuclear work at Dounreay, and yet we face the prospect, because of the inactivity of the MOD, that a small piece of land occupied mainly by a sailing club will carry the title of the only officially registered area of radiation contaminated land in the United Kingdom.

The damage to the area, the loss to the community, the disruption to local people, the reduction in property values, the loss of a public space where children can play and young people can sail are totally avoidable. That can be avoided by decisions of the MOD that should be announced today. I ask in this debate for a recognition of the Ministry’s responsibility to agree to develop and to fund a remedial action plan to clear up the Dalgety Bay site. The community council, among others, is right to demand nothing less, and, on behalf of the community I make their demands directly to the Minister this evening. I expect not only a full and comprehensive response but a decision to be announced this evening that the action that is necessary to draw up a remedial plan to clear the site at Dalgety Bay will be instructed by the Ministry of Defence immediately.

7.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): It is a pleasure to see the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) in his place and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. All those involved understand that there is a serious issue at Dalgety Bay. The Ministry of Defence, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and other stakeholders who comprise the Dalgety Bay Forum all recognise that there is an issue.

I do not entirely recognise the portrayal of the situation given by the right hon. Gentleman. Since the early 1990s, we have been aware that radioactive material was being washed up on the foreshore and found on land, as he said. This material takes the form of fragments from navigational instruments and dials coated with luminescent paint with radium 226. The flakes of such paint are radioactive. We have worked with SEPA and the Dalgety Bay Forum for many years, certainly between 2007 and 2010, to understand the risk and the requirement for remedial measures. Such measures should be proportionate, sustainable and cost-effective.

We also agree that removal of radioactive sources by MOD and SEPA has reduced any hazard posed to the local population. Notwithstanding the fact that the

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1058

issues have been around for some time, the general consensus has been that risks were low, as the right hon. Gentleman admitted. We took this approach because it was consistent with the advice of the Health Protection Agency, which he mentioned. Until recently, SEPA publicly acknowledged the MOD’s contribution to finding a credible solution. However, following preliminary testing earlier this month, SEPA disclosed that it has discovered higher levels of radiation than in previous tests. Naturally, this has caused a certain amount of concern among his constituents and he is right to raise that.

Given the recent finds, we agreed only last week to work with SEPA over the next four weeks to identify a programme of work that will inform the scope of any long-term credible remediation and management measures. This work will also look at interim management measures and we will continue with our existing monitoring programme. Indeed, the first meeting between the MOD and SEPA to establish a credible investigation plan occurred yesterday, which is further evidence of how seriously we take this issue.

Previously, we have acted voluntarily and discreetly to investigate and remediate radium 226 contamination affecting residential properties that have been built on the site of the former Royal Naval Air Station Donibristle. This measured approach was welcomed by the residents as our action avoided unnecessary blight, anxiety and stress. The MOD also took forward the recommendations of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment. We remain concerned that any designation of the area because of the contamination would be not only premature but disproportionate and certainly not in the interests of residents.

I must also make it clear that the location from which the artefacts and radioactive material are currently emanating has yet to be conclusively established. We are concerned that recent attempts to attract national media attention to this issue will have the opposite effect to the one intended on the local community.

To put the situation in context, the beach and the foreshore at Dalgety Bay lie adjacent to the former Royal Naval Air Station Donibristle. Our records show that Donibristle was first used by the Royal Flying Corps in early 1917. The RNAS took over in August that year, and from 1 April 1918, when the RNAS and the RFC were amalgamated, the site came under Royal Air Force control. It was put on a care and maintenance basis in 1921, and the airfield was reopened as an air station in 1925, when it was used as a shore base to disembark carrier aircraft and as a training base. Donibristle was a torpedo training school from 1934.

With the onset of world war two, the grass strip airfield came into royal naval use once more, and RNAS Donibristle was commissioned as HMS Merlin, eventually becoming an aircraft repair yard. By 1941 the yard was processing some 320 aircraft a year. A second runway was completed in early 1944, when the station had the capacity to accommodate 220 aircraft and was, therefore, pretty busy. Some 1,000 military personnel and 2,000 civilians were employed on site, and by the end of the war the total number of aircraft repaired and inspected reached more than 7,000. After the war, the site flew the flag of Flag Officer Carrier Training. In 1953, HMS Merlin was paid off, but repair and reconditioning work continued for the Fleet Air Arm.

30 Nov 2011 : Column 1059

The yard and airfield are recorded as having closed in August 1959, but there were royal naval barracks at Donibristle between 1962 and 1963. The land was subsequently sold, and some time later—in other words, well after the MOD had gone—it was developed for housing and industrial use, including the Donibristle industrial park.

We all recognise that “radioactivity” and the fact of contamination will give cause for concern, so it makes sense to ask how serious and real the risks are at Dalgety Bay. I am aware that there has been criticism of the manner in which the risk has been presented in the media. SEPA has recently found higher activity sourced at some depth—about 75cm, or 2 feet for those who deal in old-fashioned measurements—beneath the foreshore. MOD experts advise that that does not necessarily imply a step change in the risk to human health, or the need for additional mitigation measures over and above what SEPA has already put in place.

Indeed, as I have said, the Health Protection Agency has and continues to hold the view, despite the recent finds, that the risk is likely to be low—a view that SEPA has hitherto shared. Nevertheless, given the recent finds of relatively high activity, the HPA quite understandably feels it important that the risk be adequately quantified and understood, taking into account the likelihood of exposure. I therefore welcome, as I hope the House will, SEPA’s establishment of an expert group, which is charged with doing exactly that. My officials are observers to the group and stand ready to assist as required. That leads me to the calls for the MOD to develop a “credible remediation plan”.

We need to understand how the contamination at different locations is being caused. Is it, for instance, from erosion of the former refuse tip within the headland, or is it from other sources? Interestingly, the refuse tip is not documented in the 1959 contract of sale, and it is recorded only subsequently in the 1960s, on maps and so on. It is equally important to understand how radioactive sources found at depth in the foreshore have come to be there, the plausibility of their exposure by a storm event, and the impact on public health if that occurs.

The removal of what is known has ensured public safety in the short term, but an effective solution depends on assessing what might still be present and the risks from it. Moreover, what precisely would comprise an effective solution, given the current uncertainties? The answers to such questions are necessary in order to inform appropriate remediation measures. For those reasons, the MOD has offered to assist SEPA further. We are engaged with SEPA, working in consultation with it to develop and deliver the investigation necessary to help answer those important and relevant questions.

Of course, responsibility for such investigation would normally fall within SEPA’s statutory mandate for which it is funded, but I recognise that any delay would not be in the interests of residents. Moreover, my Department has disposed of material for them, so we are continuing with our voluntary assistance, which includes arranging for the disposal of material found by SEPA.

Mr Gordon Brown: The issue comes down to this: even after the letters from the Ministry of Defence and the meeting yesterday, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency still says that, unless the Ministry of Defence can give assurances, it will designate the land as radioactive

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and contaminated, which is not something people want. It seems strange that the Ministry of Defence was prepared to accept responsibility for monitoring when there was no problem, but now is not prepared to accept full responsibility for remedial action. I simply ask the Minister to give a straightforward assurance that the necessary remedial action will be taken and funded by the Ministry of Defence. I think we should ask for nothing less and that he is in a position to give that assurance.

Mr Robathan: I think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that the important thing is to know what the dangers are before getting into a great state about it, because I am afraid that there is some conflict and disagreement on this. We are engaged with SEPA on the matter, and I think that it is important that we remain engaged.

Mr Brown: The Ministry of Defence has been told by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that a remedial action plan is needed. It has the power to designate the land and require the Ministry of Defence to do this. It will not change its mind about whether a remedial action plan is needed, and nor should it because of what we have found in the past few weeks. All we need is an assurance from the Ministry of Defence that it will not only produce the remedial action plan with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, but properly fund it. The Minister is in a position to give that assurance, based on everything else the Ministry of Defence has said and done in the past, and should do so now to allay the fears of local residents.

Mr Robathan: The right hon. Gentleman tells me that I am in a position to do this, but for a long time he was in a position to take further action should he have so wished. I am afraid that that is the case. Contrary to some media reports, I do not believe that it can reasonably be said that the MOD is being complacent or unhelpful. On the contrary, we have assisted and will continue to assist SEPA by undertaking surveys and disposing of recovered sources. We have remedied land-based contamination in residential areas within the former RNAS Donibristle site. We have also funded the warning signs and play an active part with the Dalgety Bay Forum. All in all, we have already spent £750,000 on land remediation signage and surveys and on assisting SEPA in other ways. Without further investigation, it is difficult to justify using taxpayers’ money to remediate while the current source, level of risk and remediation necessary remain unclear. That is why, in addition to the three-year monitoring and collection work we are already doing in conjunction with SEPA, we have agreed to undertake further investigative work. As I said earlier, we understand that the work we have done was seen, until recently, as entirely satisfactory by SEPA.

Mr Brown: The work is not seen as satisfactory by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. I talked with head of the agency this afternoon, who assured me that he has had no assurances from the Ministry of Defence that it will do what the Scottish Environment Protection Agency needs. To return to the central point, the Ministry of Defence was prepared to accept responsibility for the site when there was no real problem, but now that we have a problem it should, in order to allay local people’s

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fears, say that it will fund the necessary remedial action plan. It is not in a position to say whether that action is needed. In law, that is a matter for SEPA, which the Minister seems to misunderstand. The question is will the MOD, having designated the site as an area of difficulty, honour the responsibility to fund the remedial action plan? It is a simple question and we need a simple answer.

Mr Robathan: I can see the characteristic passion and vigour with which the right hon. Gentleman has put his case. There is more to this than media reports in Kirkcaldy, or wherever it may be, suggest. The Health Protection Agency has a role to play. He shakes his head, but the

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Health Protection Agency has a role to play in this. He is of course right and entitled to represent the concerns of residents, but I do not think that we should get this out of proportion. We continue to believe that the risk to health remains low and that precipitate action is in no one’s interest. I can assure him and his constituents that the MOD will continue to work in a credible and responsible way with all concerned at Dalgety Bay.

Finally, may I say what a pleasure it has been to discover how many Members of the House are as interested as I am in the concerns of the people of Dalgety Bay?

Question put and agreed to.

7.44 pm

House adjourned.