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

2:22 pm
Photo of Mr Mark Tami

Mr Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside, Labour)

Last week the Upper Waiting Hall hosted an exhibition of manufacturing in north Wales in the name of my hon. Friend Chris Ruane. I hosted an exhibition some weeks earlier highlighting the importance of the aerospace industry in north Wales. Both exhibitions showed the strength and growth of manufacturing in the area and, importantly, that industry was innovative and planning for the future. The challenge for us as politicians and Government is how we build on that success and ensure that business and industry are there for many years to come, and that we attract new companies, particularly supply companies, to the area.

Just over 20 years ago, my area suffered the largest job losses ever experienced at a single plant in a single day, when more than 8,000 people lost their jobs at Shotton steel works—an event we never want to experience again. But Shotton steel works, now Corus, has survived, and I am pleased to say that it is investing again in the future. I am particularly impressed with the development of Living Solutions, a modular construction that can provide housing units quickly and effectively. I know that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is considering that for public sector workers experiencing housing difficulties, especially in the south-east. Recent reports have highlighted the sub-standard accommodation that our armed forces are obliged to endure. I urge both my right hon. Friends, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, to move the projects forward as quickly as possible.

I am privileged to represent an area that includes the jewel of British manufacturing—the Airbus plant at Broughton. It is the global wing centre of excellence, which builds the wings for all Airbus aircraft, and it fulfils one of the stated aims of the UK to attract the most innovative, high-tech and valued added parts of industry. The Broughton site has almost 7,000 employees and supports 19,000 jobs through the Welsh supply chain and in the local economy from induced employment.

Recent attention has understandably focused on the launch of the A380, the largest passenger airliner in the world. The first flight is expected in April this year, and the first commercial flight will be to Singapore from Heathrow. Special thanks are due to BAA for the work that it has done to adapt Heathrow airport for this new large aircraft.

The positive economic impact that the project has had on the UK economy is to be commended. Work valued at £7.5 billion has already been placed in the UK, and over the life of the programme that is set to double, to well in excess of £15 billion. In addition, the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines are set to generate work to the value of £11 billion over the life of the programme. More than 400 companies throughout the UK are contributing to the A380 programme, and the entire project is estimated to have created 84,000 jobs, direct and indirect.

The long-term outlook for Airbus is positive, as products last for over 40 years on average, which is good for job security. The company contributes more than £1 billion per annum to the UK trade balance each year, and with the A380 that is set to rise to more than £1.5 billion. Airbus UK has Investors in People status and is committed to developing a well trained and supported work force. The training programmes that it offers include adult skills training initiatives, young people development, and employee training and development, and the company has training partnerships at its sites.

With around 500 apprentices overall at Airbus UK, the Broughton site is believed to have the largest apprentice training programme at one site in the UK, with nearly 400 apprentices in training and annual intakes of up to 100 people. In addition, a direct entry graduate scheme is in operation and around 100 DEGs are undergoing training and development across the two sites. All this has been possible thanks to the positive contribution of the work force and their trade union representatives. They have responded to the new challenges and enhanced the partnership approach. I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to Robert Dowie and the other convenors and shop stewards at the site.

It is vital that the UK, and especially Wales, continue to invest in the future. The A380 was a watershed. It has been said that it is second only to the space shuttle in terms of the new technology and engineering included in the product. It is certainly one of the most ambitious aerospace projects in recent years. Airbus is now considering investments for its newest product, the A350. Decisions on work-sharing activities and locations for this commercial aircraft for years to come will be taken in the near future.

It is well known that other Airbus countries—Germany and Spain—are keen to see this quality work brought to their sites. Brian Fleet, plant director at Broughton, is leading a project team putting together its business case to Airbus, and it is clearly vital that the UK provide support for that. It is worth remembering the statement made by the Chancellor during the Budget address last week, when he said:

"The key to a sustained improvement in manufacturing is the rising level of business investment"—[Official Report, 16 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 257.]

There can be no better example than the Airbus facility at Broughton.

EU/US trade discussions about large civil aircraft put a particular complexion on the issue. I do not propose to go into the intricacies of that debate, which is being led by the European Commission on behalf of the member states. I wish Peter Mandelson all the best in these difficult and complex discussions. The most important point in the debate is that European support is not given up as a result of US sabre rattling. Repayable launch investment has been a very effective mechanism for supporting Welsh jobs and a good investment for the British taxpayer. The money has been repaid with interest, and royalty payments are made on every aircraft that is sold.

It is well known that Boeing has received huge support through tax breaks from Washington state. NASA has funded huge amounts of technology and research, the results of which have been passed over to the Boeing engineers. Recently, the Japanese Government provided launch aid for the latest product, the 7E7. The Americans just do not like competition, especially when that competition offers a better product to the customer. Is it any wonder that it is now, when they have fully funded the 7E7 research, that they cry foul? As Corporal Jones in "Dad's Army" would say, "They don't like it up 'em."

Airbus UK has the leading role globally in wing design, technology and manufacturing, but the current leadership is based on "metallic" wing solutions. The future for Airbus and for all aircraft manufacturers is in composites. They have been used for many years in items such as tennis rackets and for marine technology. Their use is predicted to grow rapidly in the coming years in many engineering applications across a wide variety of industries. The weight saving made possible by the use of composites gives major benefits in aircraft design and helps to reduce environmental impact by increasing efficiency through lower fuel usage and the ability to fly further, or to carry a greater payload for the same amount of fuel.

The situation faced by Airbus UK is that capabilities in composite design and technology have been built up over the years by the French and German sites, mainly because composites are used in other parts of the aircraft structure. I am pleased to say that this Labour Government are well aware of the importance of composite technology, and that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions opened an advanced materials research centre at Airbus in Bristol just last month. Government investment of £5 million was provided for that regional centre, and it is worth noting that an engineering centre for manufacturing and materials was opened in 2003 in Port Talbot. That was one of the first parts of the national composite network established by the Government.

The A350 will be the first Airbus civil product with the wing primary structure made largely from composite materials. In order for Airbus UK to win that vital wing business, there will need to be considerable investment in new engineering and manufacturing facilities, in work force training and in composite processes.

That is why UK repayable launch investment is so important and will play a key role in securing the requisite UK work share in that vital project. I am sure that our European partners will deliver that support. We need to show the same level of commitment.

The Government have demonstrated their support for Airbus in the past. I urge that we do so again. It would help to secure the future for many tens of thousands of British workers, providing quality and secure employment not just for today but for many years to come.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Mrs Sylvia Heal

Mrs Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

2:31 pm
Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor

Mr Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend East, Conservative)

As the indications are that we are likely to have an election soon, I thought that there would be no harm in using the Easter Adjournment debate to place on record a number of issues that we should pay attention to in the new Parliament and perhaps in the forthcoming election.

Five things concern me and I hope that people will think seriously about them. The first and most obvious one concerns where I used to come from, Scotland, where we have the problem of devolution. We hardly ever talk about devolution but it has an horrendous cost for Scotland, Wales and London. The least we should do, bearing in mind the fact that there has been a huge change of opinion on devolution since it was introduced, is to give the people of Scotland, Wales and London the opportunity to say whether they wish their devolved Parliaments and Assemblies to continue.

I visit Wales, which is a lovely place. I also visit Scotland a great deal. I am certainly of the opinion that there has been a huge change of opinion. People feel that they have far too many politicians, that it is costing far too much and that something should be done. What worries me as we face the election is that I cannot identify a single party that says that the people of Scotland, Wales and London should have the opportunity to say whether they wish their devolved government to continue. We should give them such a chance, and I hope that whoever wins the election will make that clear.

The second problem is that of asylum seekers. It is a frightening problem. In some areas, because people have the impression, perhaps wrongly, that the Government have lost control of the asylum seeker problem, we find that race relations are deteriorating, which is bad for communities and for the country as a whole. I am glad to say that, in Southend, where I reside, we have good community relations, but in other parts of the country people feel that things are going wrong and that something should be done. The greatest danger of all is if the parties start shouting at each other about who is to blame for the problem. We should be looking at the real problem and seeing what can be done.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who is one of the most agreeable politicians I have come across, answered a question just last week that I put to him, asking how many people were told last year that they had to leave the country. The answer was 64,000. I then asked him how many had left and the answer was 4,000. That is not because of the inefficiency or incapacity of the Government. It is simply because of the basic problem that asylum seekers who come here have a habit of destroying their passports and all their papers. So when the Government say that they have to go back to their own country, their own country says that it does not want them because they do not have any papers or any proof of who they are.

I know that those figures are exact, because I was given them by the Minister. I have been told by others, although it has not been confirmed, that there are actually 250,000 people in Britain today who have no right to remain here and who should be back in their own countries. We certainly should show the utmost appreciation and help to people who are being persecuted, but when we have that massive number of people and nothing can apparently be done because of the problem of the absence of papers, we should face up to that. The most obvious thing is to have some initiative, taken perhaps by the United Nations, so that when someone comes to our country from another country claiming asylum, there is a document that will enable them to be sent back if the Government decide that they should be.

If we do not face up to that, we will have the problem of a large number of people in this country who no longer have the right to benefits and who will look to other places to get money. It will not be good for anything, and I hope that the issue will be faced up to no matter who wins the election.

The third problem that we have to face up to is that of the European Union. It has haunted me for 25 of the 40 years that I have been here. What worries me immensely is the way in which democracy is being fundamentally undermined because of our membership of the European Union. When I came here, the MPs or the Lords decided all the taxes we had. Basically, the European Union is taking more and more power and the people's views are utterly irrelevant.

We sometimes forget that a good democracy depends on the people having a view and being able to express an opinion. For example, when a Conservative Government brought in a poll tax that people did not like, they were able to reject the Government and to get that changed. The people had power, but the number of people taking part in elections now is simply fading away, because a lot of them feel that there is little point in voting.

I had the pleasure of speaking to a lovely group of school children from London who were being shown around here. There were 70 of them aged 17. They were delightful. I talked to them about the political system and how it worked here. Then we talked about politics. It was quite disturbing. Seven of them told me that they thought we had a dreadful Government. They thought that the Prime Minister was a rascal, that the war in Iraq was shameful and that public services had gone to pot. That rather cheered me up as a Conservative. Then they talked about the Conservatives. They did not say a nasty thing about them. There was no capitalist pig stuff or anything like that. They just thought that they were totally irrelevant and they had no views on them at all. They then talked about Liberal Democrats. The only opinion expressed was that they were slightly nicer people but they had no policies.

I then asked those youngsters, "How are you going to vote at the next election? You will have to decide if democracy is going to continue." We had a poll. I asked how many were going to vote Labour and the answer was none; how many were going to vote Conservative and the answer was none; how many were going to vote Lib Dem and the answer was one out of 70. Although that may appear to be a victory to some degree for the Liberal Democrats, what should worry us is the number of young people who are simply switching off.

I went to the university of Aberdeen to speak to a meeting of 300 young people. It was beautiful and very exciting for me but what appalled me was that, when I asked, "How many of you are involved in politics?" the answer was: one out of 300. When I was at university, everyone was involved in a party or movement of some sort. The fact is that young people are switching off and the number of people voting is going down.

Why is that happening? It is happening because people can no longer express an opinion about the things that they care about. Take a basic issue of the old days like capital punishment or corporal punishment. We can no longer determine that because of the European convention. The treaty will confirm that if it comes in. The same applies even to things such as the export of live cattle. A group of five people recently called at my surgery, including a clergyman who brought a dog with him to show that he was fond of animals. The group asked me whether I would vote against the export of live cattle. I had to say that I was sorry, but there was nothing we could do about that. They asked whether they could go to their European MP. I told them not to waste their time, because if the European Parliament closed its doors tomorrow, nobody would notice apart from the taxi drivers of Strasbourg. They then asked me where they could go.

Similarly, some of my pensioner constituents asked me whether it was really true that the Government had been told that we had to pay the heating allowance to people in the overseas territories of Europe. I had to explain that, yes, we had to pay it to people living in Guadeloupe, Martinique or the Azores, where there is sunshine all the time, but that people living in Iceland or northern Canada, where it is cold, do not get it. They asked, "Why don't you do something about that as an MP?" The answer, of course, is that we have no power at all over such matters.

Some time ago, we had a debate about the age of homosexual consent—a big, vital issue—but it was pointless, because the European Court of Justice had decided on the matter 18 months before. There is a basic problem in Europe because of the destruction of democracy. The big problem ahead, which I hope people will think about and which has nothing to do with party politics, is what is happening to Europe's population. The United Nations has calculated that if trends do not change, the number of people living in Europe in 50 years' time will have declined by 100 million because of the way in which population numbers are going. We see that in Scotland more readily than elsewhere, and we see it throughout Europe. We will have a shrinking tax base, more demand for health care and pensions, lower inward investment and, frankly, heightening social tensions, given the number of people coming into these countries. It is a frightening situation and we have to ask whether Europe has the ability, without democracy, to resolve the problem.

In Southend-on-Sea, we worry about a fourth issue—the Government's ability to ensure that things done by organisations can be questioned. We have had a bit of a nightmare over the rates issue. In Southend, there was a relatively low increase—although it was an increase—of 4 per cent., but unfortunately we have had to cut back on public services because it has been calculated that the population has reduced from 180,000 to 162,000. However, as someone who lives in Southend, I can say that there has been no reduction in our population at all. The numbers attending local general practitioners' surgeries have increased, the number of houses has increased and our schools are busier than ever; and we think that the calculation is completely wrong. But what can we do about the situation? Home Office Ministers say, "It's nothing to do with us." Such issues must be resolved; if we cannot sort out problems, we will not sort out anything at all.

My last point concerns the Iraq war. I have often been in a minority in the House of Commons, unfortunately at times, although I find that opinions seem to change in my direction. I was one of those who opposed the Iraq war because I thought it pure hypocrisy on the part of the Americans, who, having supported Saddam Hussein and given him all the weapons of mass destruction for the invasion of Iran, then turned against him. The Government now have a terrible problem, although I do not mean to be unkind, as it will apply to all Governments in future. The statement that we heard today concerning the lady who resigned from a Government post and whose letter was not published suggests that faith in the Government is declining.

I have three children, one of whom is in the Army and was out in Iraq. I can tell the House that it is frightening for any parent to be in that position. I would say this to the Government: in this situation, where lives are being lost in the services, and Americans and the Iraqis themselves are suffering in huge numbers, the least that they could do is to explain the whole situation to the public and tell them the whole truth. Frankly, it is not enough for us to shout across the Chamber at each other about who is to blame; particularly when lives are at stake, we should do all that we can to tell the truth.

The crucial issue is what will happen in the future. I believe that in Iraq we have created an horrendous mess that will be difficult to resolve. Having been misled on Iraq, I hope that the Government will not make the same mistake on Iran, which is a country with many positive aspects that we should face up to.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you were kind to call me early in the debate; I appreciate that very much. I hope that Members of the House will think about the points that I have made; it is just possible that I might be right.

2:44 pm
Photo of Mr Harry Barnes

Mr Harry Barnes (North East Derbyshire, Labour)

In response to Sir Teddy Taylor, I agree that young people are switched off by party politics, but they often have a great interest in politics in a wider sense. They are very much involved in a big campaign that is taking place at the moment—Make Poverty History. They have great concern about environmental matters, the quality of life generally, and issues of war such as the invasion of Iraq, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We need to realise that it is not the case that there is nothing out there as far as younger generations are concerned—there is a great deal, but politicians need to focus on making things seem relevant to them. I want to speak about young people, but in a different sense from their involvement in party politics.

When parents have their lives shattered by the actions or failures of others in relation to their children, they often experience a deep-seated need for a form of official recognition of their plight. When that is not forthcoming, the deep psychological scars that they have experienced can never be fully lifted from their lives. I shall give three examples of what I mean.

First, like many other hon. Members, I have a constituent whose adult son was killed by a reckless driver, but the courts did not deliver a significant decision against the culprits. My constituent now feels that his son's life was undervalued. I knew the son and was dealing with a Child Support Agency case on his behalf.

Secondly, I have parents in my constituency who, years after suffering the trauma of their child's death in hospital, discovered that Sheffield children's hospital held a wide range of slides and blocks of their late child, with other body parts having been disposed of following a coroner's post-mortem. Yet the official recognition that eventually emerges in hospital post-mortem cases has not emerged in their child's case, and they still therefore feel aggrieved. The mother once said to me that after her child's death she had the comfort of knowing that no one could take away her memories of him, but that is exactly what the body part revelations did to her.

The third case is the one on which I wish to concentrate—it is that of Christopher Butcher from Dronfield in my constituency, where I also live. Christopher is much the same age as my own son—approaching 37. In normal circumstances, they would have known each other, attending the same classes in the same school, but Christopher suffers profound disabilities and irreversible brain damage. Although he obtains day care from the social services of Derbyshire county council, his parents look after him, and as they become older the task becomes greater and they worry about his future. They have compelling reasons to believe that his condition was caused by the whooping cough vaccine—an issue to which they were alerted by publicity in 1977—when Christopher was nine years old.

I have been involved with Christopher's case throughout my entire parliamentary career of 18 years. Indeed, my predecessor, the late Ray Ellis, also dealt with it. I first met Mr. and Mrs. Butcher shortly after I first arrived here in 1987. I cannot use this Adjournment debate to help to open a door to obtain official recognition of the reasons why Christopher was robbed of his normal life, for each door has long since been firmly closed, although I, and especially Mrs. Butcher, kept trying to prise those doors open. All that I can now do, in what is probably my final Commons speech before retirement, is to put a few words on the record so that at least Mr. and Mrs. Butcher can feel that Parliament has heard something of their case.

Mr. and Mrs. Butcher have tried numerous avenues, including the family practitioner committee, numerous Ministers in Conservative and Labour Administrations, solicitors, the Association of Parents of Vaccine Damaged Children, the vaccine damage tribunal and the Solicitors Complaints Bureau—the latter because one of their solicitors had links with the consultant with whom they were in dispute. Their efforts always fell foul of a series of standard barriers. First, too much time was said to have elapsed since Christopher was given the vaccine in 1968. Secondly, the balance of arguments was said to go against them. Thirdly, new evidence was insisted on, but when it was provided, in what we called a leaked letter, it was dismissed for the balance-of-argument reason again.

I always thought that, in reality, the balance told in favour of Mr. and Mrs. Butcher's case. The timing of the vaccination shortly preceded the onset of brain damage. The leaked letter that I mentioned showed medical evidence that the probability was that an error had been made in Christopher's hospital treatment, while the solicitor, who had links with Christopher's consultant, failed to advise Mr. and Mrs. Butcher of a closing date for applications to the vaccine damage tribunal.

In 2002, Mrs. Butcher wrote a letter to the Whitby Gazette about the whooping cough vaccine. She asked whether people were aware

"that in 1968 two batches (3741 and 3732), each batch containing an estimated 60,000 individual doses, never passed key toxicity tests. One batch was 14 times more potent than the British standard doses, the other batch 16 times more potent. A further 14 batches were not tested at all and some experts now believe these batches could be the reason for a massive rise in reported adverse reaction to whooping cough vaccine."

Mrs. Butcher's strongest point is that, as a baby, Christopher was in hospital with meningitis and made a good recovery. However, he was then immunised despite the fact that Department of Health guidelines, which she did not know about at the time, said that that should not happen in such cases. I quote from a letter that she wrote to me on 28 June 2000:

"Clear contra indications make this the worst type of vaccine damage because it could and should have been avoided. These contra indications set by the Department of Health came into being in 1956 to safeguard children like Christopher who suffered a serious neurological illness to protect them against vaccination. These safeguards were issued to all prescribing GPs in 1957. As you are aware, Christopher made a full and complete recovery from this illness"

and was then given the vaccination.

My files on the case are extensive, and in the time available to me today I have been able to give only a flavour of the matters involved. I just hope that Mr. and Mrs. Butcher will feel that a few minutes in the Commons, where they have heard about their son's plight and their grievances, provide something for them, and that they will recognise that their MP, having whittled away at aspects of their case over the years, felt it important enough to give it his final parliamentary spot for a full speech.

2:53 pm
Photo of Mr Paul Tyler

Mr Paul Tyler (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons; North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

I am pleased to follow Mr. Barnes, who has demonstrated yet again, after a distinguished parliamentary career, that speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves is a very important role for every Member of this House. I am grateful to him for how he presented the case, and I have a similar task.

Following previous recess debates, the Deputy Leader of the House has been meticulous in obtaining answers to the questions that we have raised, even if some of those answers have been far from illuminating. He may recall that I have raised on several occasions the alarming case of Sergeant Steven Roberts, the first British casualty in the Iraq invasion, who came from Wadebridge in my constituency.

Today happens to be exactly the second anniversary of his avoidable, unnecessary and truly tragic death. Hon. Members may remember that Steve died because he had to give back his enhanced combat body armour—which, it is now accepted, would have saved his life—due to the Ministry of Defence's failure to ensure sufficient supply of that essential protection. All the evidence is that if he had been wearing the ECBA, he would still be alive today.

As I pointed out as long ago as the recess debate before Christmas in 2003—on 18 December 2003, at column 1753—the National Audit Office reported that no fewer than 200,000 sets of vital equipment had been "lost" by the MOD in the previous few years, and nothing had been done to remedy the discrepancy in the long months of preparation leading up to the Iraq war. I note in passing that today's report from the Select Committee on Defence points to yet more discrepancies and inadequacies in the preparations made by the Ministry of Defence both before and since the invasion.

Sergeant Roberts's family were told at an early stage that the fatal shot might well have come from a colleague's weapon—a sad case of so-called friendly fire. However, the fact that it was fatal was due entirely to the lack of effective protection.

On 19 January 2004—14 months ago—I took Steve's widow Samantha, his mother and his brother to meet the Secretary of State. We were given an explicit promise that the investigation would be completed as soon as possible, that he would meet us again when it was, and that the MOD would not dodge its responsibilities. He even accepted that he and the Ministry would face up to the consequences of the logistics failure.

Some 14 months later, that has not happened. Instead, there have been constant attempts to pass the buck and shift the blame. Talk of courts martial and of the Metropolitan police examining the case for a prosecution of the unfortunate other members of Sergeant Roberts's unit all have the unpleasant stench of a search for scapegoats. Meanwhile, his widow Samantha Roberts and her solicitor await confirmation of the previous informal hints of accepted liability.

All Members will recognise that I have a duty to demand a proper explanation from Defence Ministers to establish what is going on. The family have surely waited far too long for a full explanation and for justice. I know that they share my frustration that lessons still seem not to have been learned from the episode. We cannot even be sure that such an avoidable tragedy will not be repeated.

As it happens, I have also been involved as a Member in a number of exercises to try to support and assist service families. There are many in the south-west, but obviously other Members here will represent them, too. Successive Governments have not treated service families with the respect and consideration that they should have. For example, ever since the first Gulf war, there have been all too many examples of veterans whose health has been devastated by their service. My particular interest in the chronic long-term effects of exposure to organophosphate pesticides has led me to work for some years with the Royal British Legion to seek a fully independent and expert investigation. Whether the impact was simply from OP poisons, the combined effect with the cocktail of inoculations, or some other exposures, many troops—hundreds and possibly thousands—were sent to one of the most dangerous war zones on our behalf and placed at extra risk to their health by the MOD. Some have died, and many others have had their lives and livelihoods ruined as a result.

Surely that is no way to encourage recruitment to and retention in the armed forces. Is it any wonder that the armed services are having such difficulty in that respect? As we all know, it is service families who often provide new recruits, and the way in which they have been treated has done great harm to our national interest.

As it happens, we in the Gulf war group in the Royal British Legion eventually succeeded, despite rather than because of ministerial interest, in securing an independent inquiry into Gulf war illnesses, headed by Lord Lloyd. I have challenged the Prime Minister to permit Ministers and civil servants to give evidence to that inquiry, but without success. Although, clearly, its robust conclusions give victims at long last some sense that their fate and needs are being recognised, that is no thanks to the Ministry of Defence.

That group, of course, is a cross-party group, and from my experience in the House, I believe that many of us can perform an important function through cross-party work on such issues. My most constructive and rewarding preoccupations have been on a cross-party basis, and I like to think that such activity has been even more important than my contribution as a Front-Bench representative of my party and even as my party's Chief Whip. I am proudest, however, of my occasional role as a facilitator and catalyst for such cross-party initiatives. I hope that the House will forgive me if I comment briefly on the way in which we operate in that respect, as I suspect that, like other Members today, this speech will be my swansong.

In addition to the all-party organophosphates group that I formed and have chaired since 1992, which has made some progress, I have been a humble contributor to the Parliament First group, led by Mr. Fisher, which has done important work in identifying the way in which Parliament can improve its scrutiny of the Executive. I have worked in the Modernisation Committee, which has made improvements, on a cross-party basis, to the way in which the House operates. I am also currently engaged in the Hansard Society commission, Parliament in the Public Eye, which is chaired by the noble Lord Puttnam. I hope that that will report soon after the election with helpful, positive and constructive suggestions as to the way in which Parliament can restore its authority and reputation.

As Members might know, I recently brought together a cross-party team of experienced parliamentarians, such as Mr. Cook, Mr. Clarke, Sir George Young and Tony Wright, to kick-start again the movement towards reform of the other end of the building, which I believe to be both urgent and extremely necessary if Parliament is to re-establish its authority collectively.

I am devoted to this place and what it represents. I am even more convinced than when I returned here, however, that we must deal with the essentially wasteful, trivialising and disenchanting nature of a great deal of the confrontational exchanges here. The ritual of mock mediaeval jousting in a mock mediaeval palace should be put into the dustbin of history.

The main change in Parliament between my first brief appearance in 1974 and my return in 1992 was the emergence and evolution of Select Committees. The contrast between the proceedings in this Chamber and in the replica line-up in Standing Committees on Bills, and the more consensual work in which we are all involved, across parties, in the best Select Committees, is marked. Select Committees provide genuine and effective accountability. Any Member who might have doubts about that should read the annual report of the Liaison Committee, which shows that Select Committees are ensuring effective accountability and making sure that the Government are scrutinised effectively.

Bill Committees, however, are now certainly the weakest link in the whole process of legislative scrutiny. They cannot remain unreformed for much longer if we are to produce better legislation and enhance the reputation of Parliament. I spent this morning in the Inquiries Bill Committee, on which a Government Member sits who also happened to be a member of the Select Committee that has been considering those issues. The cross-fertilisation of such careful scrutiny does not come across into the consideration of legislation, however, which is surely a major weakness in the way in which the House operates.

Let us also contrast the absurd music hall performances at noon every Wednesday with the real interrogation of the Prime Minister in Portcullis House twice a year. That truly provides more light than heat, and shows Parliament operating more effectively. I give full credit to the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Livingston, for persuading the Prime Minister to submit himself to those two-and-a-half hours of solo investigation, and to the Prime Minister for being persuaded. I suspect that any future Prime Minister who sought to step back from that would be held to ridicule.

I am also proud of my small role in the introduction of Westminster Hall sittings, which have enabled Back-Bench Members of all parties, and perhaps Government Back Benchers especially, to probe and question without the artificial us-versus-them bias that we enjoy across this divide. The shape of the room, as with Select Committees, reflects the multi-party, pluralist character of our Parliament, at long last catching up with the end of the two-party system in the country at large.

I am delighted, too, by the progress—still limited but useful—in improving access by the electorate to the decision-making process here. I do not mean the expensive, in my view, and certainly long-term development of a visitor centre, but the two-way, interactive electronic engagement that is now possible between our work and the work outside. The Modernisation Committee report, "Connecting Parliament with the Public", has some useful contributions to make to the process, and I hope that the necessary resources will be provided in the new Parliament.

I leave the House with mixed feelings—with some achievements, I hope, but much unfinished business. Having been heavily involved in every election since 1964, I will no doubt have terrible withdrawal symptoms. Indeed, I may need some clinical treatment to help me to deal with the political addiction. On that cheerful note, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you, and all my colleagues—in all parts of the House—a very happy Easter and very best wishes for whatever lies in store for them in the next few weeks.

3:05 pm
Photo of Mr Tony Banks

Mr Tony Banks (West Ham, Labour)

Mr. Tyler is absolutely right—I have worked with him on a number of all-party initiatives, particularly on animal welfare, demonstrating that we are at our best when we work together.

This is probably the last occasion on which I will make a contribution in this Chamber. As ever, I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. Having decided to stand down after 22 years as an MP, I have been intrigued by the degree of surprise expressed by many colleagues at my decision. Of course, it is far better that people are surprised that one is going than surprised that one is staying.

One of my Labour colleagues, who will remain nameless, asked me, "How seriously ill are you?" I was tempted, as it is easy to give way to such temptation, to say that I had only a few weeks to live, but I thought that I might be tempting the fates were I to do so, although I might get run over on the way home this evening. It still took a while to convince him, however, that I was in the rudest health and looking forward to exploring new challenges and possibilities. Of course, it could all go pear-shaped, and I might end up busking on the underground. If that happens, I hope that colleagues will take pity on me and drop the odd guinea into my cap.

I want to use this Adjournment debate to draw the attention of the Deputy Leader of the House, and of the whole House, to some of the dangers and problems that I believe we face as MPs. The coming general election will be only the second in which I have not been a candidate since 1970. It will be an odd feeling to be on the sidelines, but not a wholly unwelcome one. It will be pleasant to think that the election campaign might be an opportunity for a searching and constructive debate on the big issues of the day. Of course, it will not be, any more than the preceding election campaigns have been. Individually, we would all wish for that rational debate, but when it kicks off, we will find ourselves drawn almost involuntarily into some fairly unseemly brawls.

Unfortunately, the more we kick lumps out of each other, the more those malevolent reporters of political events sneer, and the more our stock falls in the estimation of the electorate. Of course, we expect journalists to be snide and insulting—that is what they do. We also expect to be told by loudmouths in bars that all politicians are incompetent, venal and self-serving. In fact, I remain constantly surprised by the number of people who seem to know precisely how best to run the country, but unfortunately, they are either to busy writing for some two-bit rag or propping up a bar to find the time to get round to doing it.

As MPs, obviously, we have our political differences. We should not, however, sell each other short. Each and every one of us comes into this place committed to try to improve the welfare of our constituencies and our country. In the process, undoubtedly, we make mistakes. No one in his or her right mind, however, would seek election in order deliberately to make matters worse. We give succour to our enemies and further undermine respect for Parliament if we attempt to score political points by accusing each other of bad faith or venality. Parliament might seem a robust institution, but it is constantly being undermined by forces outside, and it would be a tragedy of epic proportion were we also to allow it to be undermined from within.In this country, we enjoy one of the least corrupt political systems in the world, but no one who reads our newspapers could be blamed for believing the complete opposite. We are not being incestuous when we stand up to defend our position as Members of Parliament. If we are not prepared to advocate the work that we do and the reputation of this place, how can we expect those outside to do it for us?

Every time we accuse one another of bad faith, we further undermine the already dangerously low levels of confidence in us among the electorate. We have not really enjoyed democracy for long enough in this country to be confident beyond any doubt that it is strong enough to withstand any attack made on it. In rightly exercising our political differences, we should never forget that part of our collective duty and responsibility relates to the protection and enhancement of this vital and still vulnerable institution.

It has been a privilege to serve in this place, and at times I have probably sorely tried the patience of both my constituents and my colleagues, but I also know that in politics we are never given the benefit of the doubt. Unless we tell people what we have done or are doing, they will presume that we have done little or nothing. I have therefore compiled, for the record, a short statistical account of my 22 years in the House.

Since my election in 1983, I have maintained a full-time fully staffed constituency office in the east end. Together with my fantastic staff, I have dealt with thousands of personal cases, not always with success but always with our best endeavours. There are those who maintain that I have only worked to ban hunting—a cause that I am proud to have played a part in achieving. Let me disabuse them. Since 1983 I have introduced 20 ten-minute Bills covering a range of subjects including fixed-term Parliaments, a ban on war toys, a compulsory national community service system, and the introduction of a directly elected mayor for London. A number of those Bills eventually surfaced as legislation, and I expect that a number more will do so in due course.

During the same period I have tabled 7,540 written questions and asked 719 oral questions. In fact, following the business statement it is now 720. I have tabled 340 early-day motions and made 1,383 speeches and interventions—1,384 once I have sat down, which I shall do shortly.

Without doubt there has been quantity in my endeavours. I will leave others to judge their quality. It has been an enormous honour to be a Member of this House, and I stand down with grateful thanks to my party, my constituents and all my parliamentary colleagues—and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

3:12 pm
Photo of Mr Peter Viggers

Mr Peter Viggers (Gosport, Conservative)

It is indeed a privilege to follow the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks). Both have made a major contribution to the House in their different ways, and they have always done so with sincerity. I have always enjoyed the contributions of the hon. Member for West Ham. I particularly remember the delight and surprise when he was made Minister for Sport: he seemed as surprised as the rest of us. He made a major contribution at that time.

I make no apology for raising the issue of the Royal Hospital Haslar. Colleagues whom I have met over the last couple of days asked if I proposed to speak about it, and I replied that I did. It is a source of amusement to some of my colleagues that I can go on pursuing such an issue, but I am going to do so now. It really matters to my constituents, and there is nothing at all amusing about it for them.

There are three strands to the issue. First, the Royal hospital Haslar is a military hospital. Indeed, it is the last military hospital in the United Kingdom. When it was announced that the hospital would close in December 1998 and move to a new centre for defence medicine, there was shock and disappointment in the area, and the announcement was greeted by a rally and march of some 22,000 people. The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine has indeed moved to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, and the planned development there of a £200 million new centre has been cancelled, leaving the Defence Medical Services spread across Birmingham in penny packets. They have no centre for messing and recreation, and are in different units of accommodation all over Birmingham. The key specialties—general surgery, orthopaedic surgery, general medicine and anaesthetics—are still seriously undermanned. There is a serious problem in defence medicine.

The second strand is the civilian strand. The overall plan in South Hampshire is to develop Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth through a private finance initiative. It was initially thought that it would cost about £70 million; the latest estimate is about £200 million, and it is some 15 months late. There is no commercial or financial closure, and no immediate prospect of either.

The third strand is what is planned by the primary care trust in Fareham and Gosport, which has now been merged with East Hampshire. The PCT had planned to build secondary care around the PFI bid at Queen Alexandra hospital, but the bid is faltering. As I have said, it is 15 months late and nowhere near completion. The PCT presented plans based on a consultation process, which involved focusing on either the Haslar hospital or on Gosport War Memorial hospital. The PCT consulted widely, and held a number of public meetings. Throughout those meetings, it received feedback from the area that it wanted the Haslar hospital to continue, yet eventually, despite a public meeting of 700 people at St Mary's church, Alverstoke, which I chaired and which unanimously required the retention of the hospital, the PCT decided to press ahead with the proposal to close it and focus on Gosport War Memorial hospital.

The next stage was consideration of the PCT's decision by the overview and scrutiny committee of Hampshire county council. The committee decided to refer the matter to the Secretary of State for Health because he has the opportunity, if he so chooses, to refer the matter to an independent reconfiguration panel which can look at health care in the area as a whole and come up with conclusions. The panel has been invoked only once, in East Kent, where it decided that the focusing of all attention and resources on the PFI bid at a larger hospital was wrong and that existing hospitals should be used instead. The situation is very similar to that in South Hampshire, where we also maintain that too many resources and initiatives are being put into a PFI development. We need the reference to the independent reconfiguration panel. It is the only way in which the juggernaut of the PFI bid and the PCT's proposals can be derailed.

I asked for a meeting with the Minister of State for Health, and a meeting was eventually arranged for 22 March, last Tuesday. I proposed to take with me representatives of each of the parties from Gosport, which would demonstrate to the Minister that there was all-party support for the reference to the panel and an opportunity to examine the whole issue again. The Minister cancelled the meeting, with no more than a day's notice and giving no particular reason other than that he now had another meeting to attend.

This is the current position. A decision made by the primary care trust is widely unpopular in the area. It is believed that it will not be possible to continue with the PFI bid and the retention of Queen Alexandra hospital as the only main hospital in the area, which would involve fewer operating theatres and fewer beds than we currently have. We have no alternative date fixed for the meeting. I wrote to the Minister on Tuesday telling him that I proposed to raise the issue during this debate, and asking him for an early meeting. I drew his attention to the case of Wyre Forest, where an independent candidate stood for election on the basis of the campaign to save Kidderminster hospital. I need hardly remind the House what happened in that constituency, where the views of the local community were flouted and the Labour candidate was defeated by a massive majority.

It is monstrous that, as we approach the likely date of the election, we should have to deal with a cancelled meeting and no restitution of that meeting, and that my constituents do not know what will happen. I warn the Government that the issue of Haslar hospital will play a large part in the coming election, and I urge them now, even at this late stage, to rearrange that meeting so that people of all parties in my constituency can make their views known to the Minister and ensure that there is to be a reference to the independent reconfiguration panel.

3:19 pm
Photo of Mr Alan Hurst

Mr Alan Hurst (Braintree, Labour)

Before I start my speech, I should like to pay tribute to Sir Teddy Taylor, who is retiring. As he and other hon. Members will know, I have had some association with his constituency over a number of years, and I can confirm the enormously high regard in which he is held by people of all political parties.

I turn now to a matter that affects my own parliamentary division of Braintree, and it concerns a road. For a Member who represents a rural or semi-rural area close to a town, roads can be a plus but they can also be a minus. Many Members will have travelled along the M11 out of London towards Stansted or beyond, and many will have travelled along the A12 from London to the east coast. A large part of the area between those two roads is my parliamentary constituency. Joining those roads is another road: the A120.

I do not wish to exaggerate, but until recently, most of the A120 was little more than an improved country road. It is now right to say, however, that after many years, many deliberations and an extensive public inquiry, the road west of Braintree leading to Stansted is a modern, fast-moving motor road. Indeed, those who travel on it are amazed at how quickly Stansted is left behind and Braintree appears. On reaching Braintree—which, not many years ago, the old A120 used to go through—there is a bypass. The cars spin along it, their drivers thinking that they are going to the end of the land, as they travel in such speed and style. They then reach a landmark that has historically been known as Galley's corner, although some people now call it McDonald's corner or the "cholesterol roundabout", because it is surrounded by fast-food outlets, multiplex cinemas, designer fashion shops and every other attribute of modern life. The roundabout, though, was not designed to take such a throughput of traffic, and however quickly someone might leave Stansted and approach Braintree, they will soon hit an enormous tailback.

However, that is not really the point that I want to raise, because the Highways Agency is seeking to resolve that tailback problem by constructing the A120 east of Braintree through to the A12, thus joining the two cardinal routes. Every time we design or construct a road, there will be winners and losers. I went to see the Transport Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson about this matter about 18 months ago, because a rumour was being circulated by one of the political parties in my division that the line of route was already known. These stories always spread like wildfire—there is always a conspiracy involved in anything to do with government. Those of us who have served in public office for a number of years performing various functions will know that the conspiracy theory is invariably not the one that holds water, and that another theory will always be much more apt.

I went to see the Minister, and he showed me on a map that there were about 13 possible routes—I did not count them—to take this road east of Braintree to join the A12. I was informed that there was no preferred route at that stage—they were all being worked on and considered—so I went away and told my constituents that I understood that either three or six options would be presented to the people of Braintree and the adjacent areas, to ascertain which route they would prefer. Indeed, I believe that that was the policy that was pursued on the western section.

My constituents and I were therefore somewhat surprised—to put it mildly—when it was announced in February that there was one preferred route. We were being given the Henry Ford option: "You can have any route you like, as long as it's this one." It is right to say that one or two other lines were sketched in on the maps as possible routes, but it is not for us humble members of the public to design roads. That is not our calling. The designers of roads are engineers and surveyors, and it is for them to put before the local people a number of choices about where a road should go.

The route that has been chosen gives great offence to the historic, tightly knit communities through which, or close to which, it will run. It will leave the roundabout that I have mentioned and sweep across country at elevated level past the villages of Tye Green, Cressing and Lanham Green. The fact that it will be elevated will make a difference, because people will be able to see the wretched thing from their back gardens. Not only that, but they will have the disadvantage of its being illuminated at night, and there will be a constant hum of traffic going through. They will experience a sudden change from living in an historic rural community to living by the side of a motor road.

After that, the road will skirt Silver End, which I have had occasion to mention here before. It is the model village that was built by the Crittall window-making company, and which produced the first Labour Member of Parliament for the county of Essex in 1923. The road will skirt close to the village before cutting across country between the town of Coggeshall and the village of Kelvedon, passing a little hamlet called Half Way, which might not be at the forefront of hon. Members' minds. I called a meeting at Half Way, a hamlet of about 40 residents, and we got a higher turnout than we do at most elections: I think that about 35 attended. They were very reasonable; they did not scream and shout. They discussed the reasons why it was inappropriate for this road to run right past their little hamlet to the next hamlet and the next village along before crashing down into the Blackwater valley.

The Blackwater river is not one of the great rivers of history—it is not the Mississippi or even the Thames. It is a river that runs across Essex and out into the North sea, with a number of tributaries, and it provides a real aspect of old England that is so often now missed and lamented: a river valley with water meadows. We read in the environmental magazines that one area of the countryside that has declined more than any other is the water meadow, yet in the Blackwater valley we have water meadows teeming with extensive wildlife that is native to old Essex. The new road will sweep down the valley, and rather than tunnelling under the river, it will go over the top of it. It will be quite hard to disguise a road bridge of that kind. Eventually, the road will make its way out through other fairly unspoilt countryside to the north of Feering to join the A12.

A resident who lives on the A12—a brave man, but he has jolly good double glazing on the front of his property—bought his bungalow many years ago and improved it over the years. He told me that he had bought a little field at the back of his property, and that the road would go across the corner of it. He said that there was also a railway line there. He told me that if the road was built he would no longer be able to sit in his back garden and look at the stars coming out in the clear sky, and that he would have to look instead at a sweeping bridge with traffic roaring across it, right at the bottom of his garden.

It is open to the Highways Agency to go back to their drawing boards and to conduct proper studies of alternative routes for this road. I do not think that they have carried out environmental surveys, or that they have fully assessed the social impact of a road of this kind sweeping through this part of Essex. I am pleading on behalf of my constituents. I want them to make representations to the Highways Agency—as I am doing indirectly now, through the Minister—in their own handwriting, rather than ticking boxes on a standard questionnaire. Questionnaires are designed to elicit the answer that the designer of the questionnaire wants. I want to see as many letters as possible going to the Highways Agency describing exactly what the consequences of this road will be in blighting the lives and properties of so many people, and I want the Highways Agency to come back and say that it is going to offer us costed, planned, easy-to-understand options from which we can choose.

3:28 pm
Photo of Mr David Atkinson

Mr David Atkinson (Bournemouth East, Conservative)

In addition to following my hon. Friend Mr. Viggers, it is a real pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Sir Teddy Taylor, and perhaps to precede my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Coming from Southend myself, I once had my eye on both their seats. It is also a pleasure to follow Mr. Hurst. He may recall that he was the chairman of Southend's Young Socialists when I was the chairman of Southend's Young Conservatives. I wholeheartedly endorse the tribute that he paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East.

As this is likely to be my last speech to the House, I want to refer to one of the principal interests that I have pursued since my election here in 1977, in addition, of course, to my constituency interests. As a student, I had hitchhiked to the Soviet Union, where I saw at first hand its appalling denial of human rights. A few years later, I saw hundreds of demonstrators in support of the Prague spring being shot in Wenceslas square.

The opportunity to do something came shortly after my election here, when Margaret Thatcher appointed me to the British delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As well as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, I note that in their places are the hon. Members for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks), all of whom are on the current delegation. Incidentally, West Ham was the first seat that I fought, and it was also the first seat that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West fought. In addition, you yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have been a valued member of our delegation in the past.

My membership of our delegation enabled me to produce several reports exposing the human rights situation in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When those countries became independent and free, I had the good fortune to be the chairman of the committee responsible for their accession to the Council of Europe. But my principal preoccupation has been as the rapporteur since 1989, first for the Soviet Union and subsequently for the Russian Federation, and at next month's part-session in Strasbourg the Assembly must decide whether my work should cease because Russia has honoured its commitments and has now reached acceptable standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

I am under considerable pressure from our Russian colleagues to recommend that Russia should no longer be subjected to the humiliation of such detailed scrutiny, or "outside interference" as the ultra-nationalists describe it. I am told that just as—as I explained to the House in my Adjournment debate on 10 January 1996—I had recommended that Russia should join the Council of Europe with the argument that it would be better both for Russia and for Europe for it to be in than out, so I should now recommend the end of my detailed monitoring of its commitments to encourage President Putin to pursue his reforms against the darker forces that threaten Russia today, and, it is also said, encourage him to attend the Council of Europe's third summit on 16 and 17 May in Warsaw.

I cannot recommend the de-monitoring of Russia by the Council of Europe at the present time, and my latest progress report to the Assembly explains why. Russia has not met its obligations to be a free democracy. It has yet to hold elections that are fair. As the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections demonstrated, Russia does not have a national television broadcasting system that is unbiased and free of state influence and control. Thus I am insisting that at least one mainstream channel that is politically neutral and impartial should be established, which is also the recommendation of the Committee of Ministers.

The independence of the judiciary is another basic obligation of membership of the Council of Europe. I welcome the considerable reforms that introduce the presumption of innocence, juries and magistrate courts, and the requirement of court orders for search and arrest warrants, which was not the case at the time of the Soviet Union. But recent court cases, such as those concerning the physicist, Valentin Danilov and the scientist, Igor Sutyagin, and the current Yukos trial, suggest that Russia does not yet have a rule of law that is firmly entrenched.

With regard to the detailed commitments that Russia made upon accession in 1996, I welcome the considerable reduction in the number of prisoners, the introduction of community service and non-custodial sentences for juveniles, and the undoubted commitment of the Ministry of Justice to improving prison conditions and to constructing new facilities. But needless to say, there are no votes in prison reform, and it will take years for sufficient resources to improve or replace the totally unacceptable conditions that I have seen in Russia's prisons, which were built to serve the tsars.

Other outstanding commitments are the reform of the office of the prosecutor general, whose powers of oversight remain far too wide, and of the Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, which continues to refuse to transfer the running of the Lefotovo detention centre to the Ministry of Justice.

Last year's report by Human Rights Watch entitled "The Wrongs of Passage" shows that Russia's armed forces continue to fail to exercise a duty of care towards their young conscripts, hundreds of whom commit or attempt suicide each year, and who are subjected to degrading and brutal treatment known as dedovshina, or hazing. I am insisting that the Russian Government and the Duma get a grip on that wholly unacceptable situation.

Freedom of religion is not yet enjoyed throughout the Russian Federation, as I heard when I met Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious organisations whose churches or prayer houses are regularly attacked or burned, with pastors beaten, meetings disrupted, often without any response from local law enforcement agencies. Regrettably, such campaigns are led or encouraged by the Russian Orthodox Church. I want zero tolerance of such harassment and persecution of people seeking to exercise freedom of worship.

Russia continues to interfere in the internal affairs of other member states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, contrary to its commitment to abandon a policy of having a zone of special influence, which it calls its "near abroad". The personnel, arsenal and equipment of the 14th Russian army remains in Transnistria, thus contributing to a divided Moldova. Russia maintains an active presence in Abkhazia in Georgia and encourages separatism by issuing dual passports to its citizens. That is not peacekeeping, but a long-standing policy of divide and rule, which is unacceptable in today's Europe.

Another major commitment remains the signing of the European social charter and the convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, while the European charter for regional and minority languages has yet to be ratified. Above all, Russia has not yet abolished the death penalty, which I view as essential before I can recommend de-monitoring.

I have not referred to the situation in Chechnya because when the Assembly accepted Russia in 1996, it agreed to my amendments providing for a separate monitoring mechanism for Chechnya, which introduced an international dimension into seeking a political solution. Until recently, Lord Judd undertook that onerous task. We continue to make it clear to our Russian colleagues that as long as civilians disappear or are kidnapped and the military act with impunity, without being held to account, we cannot accept the claim that life in Chechnya is returning to normal.

There is a great deal more in my report to the Assembly, which extends to 90 pages, describing the spheres in which Russia falls short of our standards. I accept that what I have said today is more appropriate to a single-subject Adjournment debate, but I have been unlucky in the ballot for several weeks, so I am grateful to the House for listening to what I have had to say today.

Given what I saw on the streets of Leningrad 40 years ago, I am sorry that I cannot say that the Russian people today enjoy the same freedoms and rights as most Europeans. For the sake of the Russian people, I hope that the Council of Europe will continue to hold Russia to account for those standards, as I have tried to do, and I look forward to hearing in the Minister's response that that is the Government's approach, too.

3:38 pm
Photo of Dr Phyllis Starkey

Dr Phyllis Starkey (PPS (Dr Denis MacShane, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Milton Keynes South West, Labour)

I want to raise an issue of enormous concern to my constituents; it is about our local league one football team, the Milton Keynes Dons. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to rehearse all the old arguments about the events that led to Wimbledon football club relocating to Milton Keynes in late 2003 and taking, in July 2004, the new name of Milton Keynes Dons.

I accept that some people—possibly some in the House—objected to the move and argued at the time that it set a dangerous precedent. A section of Wimbledon's supporters, including their supporters association, chose to transfer allegiance to the newly formed AFC Wimbledon, which is based in Kingston. Other Wimbledon fans followed the club to Milton Keynes.

Obviously, my constituents and I take a view of events different from that taken by those who support AFC Wimbledon. Wimbledon FC was without a ground of its own, had been based outside its borough for a decade, and was faced with bankruptcy. The move to Milton Keynes was the only viable option, and it met the long-term aim originally set out by the Milton Keynes development corporation of ensuring that the new city had a Football League professional team of its own. The Football Association sanctioned the move, recognising the unique situation of Wimbledon FC and of Milton Keynes, and also agreed the name change in 2004.

Milton Keynes Dons is now well established in Milton Keynes, playing at its temporary base of the National Hockey stadium. Crowds are getting larger, reaching about the average for league one, and there is a very active new supporters association. Work has begun on the new purpose-built stadium at Denbigh, and I was pleased to join Pete Winkelman in cutting the first turf there. I am pleased that the team's performance is taking the club away from the relegation zone, as it has remained unbeaten in the past eight games.

The Milton Keynes Dons supporters association was established in May 2004. It is very active in all things usual for such an association, including holding a very successful appeal for the tsunami in support of a local charity that works in Sri Lanka. The association is anxious to ensure that fans have a strong voice in the plans for the new stadium and for the club's future. Immediately after its formation, it took steps to form a supporters trust. It approached Supporters Direct for help and advice, but unfortunately, that organisation has been extremely unhelpful.

First, the MK Dons supporters association applied to Supporters Direct for financial assistance in establishing a supporters trust, as it was entitled to do. At the request of Supporters Direct, it clarified with the Football Association that

"the team who moved to Milton Keynes was officially considered a continuation of Wimbledon FC, and would retain its share in the Football League and its league place."

However, Supporters Direct refused to fund the MK Dons association on the grounds that it had funded a supporters trust for Wimbledon already. That decision had been taken before the club moved to Milton Keynes, and before AFC Wimbledon was formed. The money involved was spent before the original supporters trust transferred its allegiance from Wimbledon FC to AFC Wimbledon.

The MK Dons supporters association reluctantly accepted that ruling, but asked instead for practical help from a liaison worker, as is normal when a trust is established. Subsequently, it requested access to the model constitution for trusts and asked Supporters Direct to sponsor an application to the Financial Services Authority for recognition as a supporters trust.

Through the good offices of my hon. Friend Andy Burnham, a member of the Supporters Direct board, we persuaded that board at least to consider the request. Supporters Direct has made the model rules available, but it has declined to sponsor the MK Dons' application to the FSA, or to sponsor the supporters association's application to join Supporters Direct.

My constituents and I are extremely angry about what we believe to be the improper and discriminatory decisions made by the Supporters Direct board. Regardless of the events surrounding the move to Milton Keynes, MK Dons is recognised by the FA to be the continuation of Wimbledon FC. The current members of the MK Dons supporters association had no involvement in the club's move to Milton Keynes. They are merely football supporters who wish to exercise, through a properly constituted supporters trust, some control over their club's future.

I have read the aims of Supporters Direct, and my understanding is that that organisation was established precisely for that purpose—to promote and support the concept of democratic supporter ownership and representation through mutual not-for-profit structures, and to promote football clubs as civic and community institutions. That is what the MK Dons' supporters wanted when they asked to have their own supporters trust.

Supporters Direct is an industrial and provident society, and its members are the existing supporters trusts. As someone formerly active in the co-operative movement, I know that that movement is well aware of the danger, for co-operative and mutual societies, of becoming exclusive rather than inclusive. I suggest that the members of Supporters Direct should remind themselves of their obligations under the equal opportunities legislation, and of the inclusive nature of a true co-operative and mutual society.

However, Supporters Direct is in receipt of significant public funding—£325,000 in 2004–05 from Sport England and £90,000 from Sport Scotland. That funding is given on the basis that it should be available to help any supporters who fulfil the eligibility requirements and wish to form a supporters trust. My constituents in Milton Keynes, whose taxes, with everyone else's, are funding Supporters Direct, do not understand why they, uniquely, seem to be barred from gaining access to those funds.

The reasons given by Supporters Direct for refusing to help MK Dons supporters seem to be based not on a fair and balanced assessment, but on prejudice and persistence in fighting a battle that was lost when Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. Many of those who were most active in founding Wimbledon AFC are involved in Supporters Direct either as board members or on the staff. They are entitled to their views, but they should not abuse their position to discriminate unfairly against my constituents who also want to form a supporters trust and have a voice in their team's future.

The Football Association is clear that MK Dons is the successor to Wimbledon FC. Supporters Direct used that to justify not funding a second trust linked to the same club, but then took no action against the original trust, which switched its allegiance to

"a club other than the one it was originally set up for"—

that is, Wimbledon AFC—in clear breach of Supporters Direct's rules. What authority does Supporters Direct have to set itself up against the Football Association and other bodies concerned with football?

My constituents have been extremely patient and have tried to be accommodating, but their patience, and mine, is running out. I hope that at the end of this debate my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism the points that I have made. I shall certainly ask him to intervene to ensure that the public funds given to Supporters Direct are in future allocated fairly and without prejudice and that my constituents do not continue to be discriminated against.

3:47 pm
Photo of Mrs Angela Browning

Mrs Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)

Two years ago the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry attempted to come to Cornwall for a holiday. That was an excellent choice, but her plans were thwarted because she found that the transport system into Cornwall was not working as well as it should and she was forced to fly. As a result, she made many public statements in the west country about the Government's commitment to improve the road and rail infrastructure in and out of the south-west. She said:

"What I know as Secretary of Trade for Trade and Industry is that when you are looking at the South West, getting the transport system right is one of the most important things you can do to help grow new businesses, to help those businesses to be more successful and bring in new investment to the region."

The Secretary of State is persuasive and speaks, as we all know, in dulcet tones. When I am in a telephone system, having made my sixth selection of number to press with Brahms' second symphony playing in the background and a voice comes on the line and says, "Your call is important to us; we will answer your call as soon as possible," I could swear it is the voice of the Secretary of State. She has a persuasive tone that suggests that if we hang on, our call will definitely be answered. In the south-west we have been hanging on for two years waiting for her support for some of the issues concerning our roads.

Mr. Tyler is in his place and I know how hard he has worked. With Linda Gilroy, we have made a three-party attempt to persuade the Secretary of State to support, for example, dualling of the A303, which goes through my constituency and is of strategic importance to the whole south-west peninsula.

Unfortunately, as I have said many times in debates, the Secretary of State for Transport has decided not to dual the A303, so we have only one strategic route in and out of the south-west peninsula—the M5 as far as Exeter and then other roads further into Devon and Cornwall.

All three Members of Parliament I have mentioned received representations from the Devon and Cornwall business council and we all wrote, in a collective exercise, to get the Secretary of State to support us. We had hoped that she would make representations to the Department for Transport, but disappointingly we can only conclude that she did not press the case for dualling the road, as she had promised in 2003, for the business interests of the south-west.

Even more worryingly, I recently came across a map of the south-west and the south of England which showed that, according to the Government, there were no roads west of Bristol regarded as of strategic national importance. I tabled parliamentary questions to ask Ministers to list all the trunk roads, which include the A30, the A38 and the M5, which goes on past Bristol down to Exeter. I was astonished to find that a major motorway was not regarded as of national importance. In answer, the Government said that they had divided all the roads in the country into two groups, those of strategic national importance and those of regional importance. As far as the Government are concerned, there is nothing of national importance west of Bristol. They say that the classification is to enable local decision making about those roads in the future and that funding will be allocated at local levels rather than through the Government budget for the Highways Agency.

The Government's reason sounds persuasive and I can just hear the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in her dulcet tones, telling us how wonderful that will be. But in reality it means that some of the bigger issues, such as road maintenance for the M5 and some of the structural changes that will be needed, will no longer have the backing of a national Government budget but will come out of the much stretched resources of the region. That will affect various junctions along the M5. For example, at the exit to the services at Exeter, a whole new town is to be built, and the junction will therefore almost certainly need major restructuring and investment. As my political colleague, John Penrose, in Weston-super-Mare, pointed out on hearing the news, junction 21, the Weston-super-Mare turn-off, will almost certainly need more investment.

I do not know why the Government regard the south-west peninsula as a second-class region of this country, but inward investment and important industries rely on good road infrastructure. That is self-evident in the case of tourism, but we also have successful manufacturing businesses throughout the area. When a company is deciding where to relocate, the Government's view of the strategic importance of the road and rail network is one of its considerations. Inward investment in the south-west will therefore be seriously compromised by the fact that the Government are cutting off the south-west from what they see as the important areas of the country. On this issue, I feel like a grumpy old woman—[Hon. Members: "Never!"] In fact, I am hopping mad about it.

People in the south-west, and I speak personally about my constituents in Tiverton and Honiton, are hardworking. They come from mainly rural backgrounds—even the towns in my constituency are rural market towns—where people are very self-sufficient and prepared to work hard. Yet somehow, their area is regarded by London as a second-class area with second-class citizens. We have seen the effect that has on some of our indigenous industries, especially farming.

Farming has taken a real knock in my constituency, which is primarily made up of mixed, small, family farms. There have been changes in the countryside, but in my constituency, the perception is that the Government regard us as second-class citizens, in second-class communities.

When we were going into the last election, foot and mouth was with us. None of us who lived through that time will forget it, yet four years later we have still received no definitive answers from the Government about the cause of the outbreak and the lessons to be learned. There have been many inquiries, but none of them seems to have been joined up. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I recently had the opportunity to question the permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the chief vet and others. The Government say that they believe the index farm, which belonged to Mr. Bobby Waugh, was where animals were fed unprocessed catering waste; but what they have not told us—and I have pressed them on this in the Committee recently—is that it was not simply the fact that animals on that farm were fed unprocessed waste but that such waste was kept on the farm at all. It is illegal to have unprocessed food on a farm, yet recently the DEFRA permanent secretary wrote to the national co-ordinator of Associated Swill Users:

"Some unprocessed catering waste was held temporarily in barrels on a hard standing in front of Burnside Farm, before being removed for processing."

If we are to learn lessons from the last outbreak of foot and mouth, it is important to identify where and why it broke out. The consequences of another outbreak, in slaughter and further losses in the rural economy, will not just be felt in pound note terms; the emotional stress of the farming community cannot be quantified.

I want the Government to treat rural communities and farming areas such as mine more seriously and not take them for granted, discarding them as second-class citizens or areas. I was not born in Devon. I have lived there for only 35 years so I am not local yet, but the people of Devon are the salt of the earth. They make this country what it is. They believe in fair play and in straight talking—sometimes their straight talking is very straight indeed. They want to know that in Parliament, whoever is in power, they will receive a fair deal and that they will get straight answers to their questions. They want to feel that our democracy will treat them fairly and not discard them.

As we end this term of Parliament and, I hope, go into a general election, I make this plea. The rural communities of this country must change—we all understand that—but equally the Government of the day must understand that rural and urban communities are different. Rural communities have sound values and their people are independent-minded. Those people make me proud to represent them and I hope that the Government, too, will be proud of our rural communities and make sure that they get fair play.

3:59 pm
Photo of Ms Julia Drown

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon, Labour)

This is my last opportunity to address this Parliament. I am proud to represent both rural and urban communities and I must say that I see no great distinction as I move from one to the other. There are different flavours and different policy aspects and it is important that policy be rural-proofed, but I am pleased that on so many of the issues that I have raised on behalf of my constituents there is consistency of view.

People in the rural and urban communities of my constituency were pleased that I lobbied successfully for a new hospital in Swindon, which has modern facilities and more beds than the old one, and is able to treat many more patients. Next month, we will see the opening of our treatment centre, which can accommodate a further 128 beds and five operating theatres, so we can hope for even more improvement in the town's health services.

I am also pleased to have lobbied successfully to get money into our schools, including the replacement of the wartime huts in which our pupils previously had to learn their lessons; instead, they are now in modern accommodation. I have also been successful in lobbying the Government on some of the crime and antisocial behaviour issues that my constituents have raised with me. What has happened in Wiltshire is a good story. It is now the safest county in the country, and I pay tribute to the work of our police force. We have had a number of community support officers because of Government investment, and street wardens have made an enormous difference to the town as well.

All those people working together have been able to tackle crime. From April to December last year, we saw crime overall drop by more than 5 per cent. and a 1 per cent. increase in the detection rate. Robberies are down by about 13 per cent.—burglaries similarly—and violent crime has been reduced by 2 per cent. That is a comfort to my constituents. Although the perception is often that crime is still increasing, the reality is the other way round. Some of our legislation on antisocial behaviour is incredibly important in getting across the message that, if the community works together, we can tackle crime and make us all feel safer.

I have had to pursue in Parliament antisocial behaviour issues associated with Travellers. I am pleased that the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 includes legislation to deal with those issues and that additional stop notices have been introduced this month. Central Swindon has a problem with prostitution, and again, antisocial behaviour orders have given the local community and the local authority, with the police, the power to improve neighbourhoods.

On general antisocial behaviour issues, I am pleased that, in the past couple of weeks, an interim antisocial behaviour order on a youth in Freshbook in my constituency has been confirmed as a two-year order. It was great to see local residents coming out to talk to the local newspaper and saying, "The interim order has made an enormous difference to our lives." Local publicans are saying that people can walk out without fear of intimidation and that they can bring back a sense of community. That makes a real difference to the quality of people's lives across the board—young and old—and I congratulate the Government on responding to pressure from Back Benchers to introduce that legislation.

Our understanding of the community contrasts strongly with some Conservatives' activities, certainly on the ground in Swindon, where the local council has recently produced a budget in which there are massive cuts to our voluntary sector. Those involved say that they support the voluntary sector, yet they withdraw grants of £50,000 to advice points, saying, "Oh, there is a duplication of provision," when there are massive waiting lists for advice. Those advice points serve the most disadvantaged people in our community and people absolutely depend on them to deal with financial and housing problems. I suspect that, if those places really do close down, it will end up costing the council more in the long run. So there is a contrast between what we have done and how we have responded to communities and what we have seen from the Conservatives.

As this is my last chance to comment on some issues, I particularly want to look at some of the ways in which we work in the House, because a lot of what we do we do inefficiently. Although I appreciate and support all the work of the Modernisation Committee, much more needs to be done if we are to make our democracy more effective, to get the public to relate better to Parliament, to reduce the cost of Parliament and to improve MPs' lives, which is particularly important because, if we improve the job of being an MP, we can get more of the very best people in the country to become MPs. That is in itself important for democracy.

I know that people straightaway talk about the hours of the House, which are important. There is a huge danger, because it is always easy to vote for more hours of debating time, but hard to ask for them to be reduced so that we can spend time more efficiently. However, we clearly could do that.

There have been more than 1,200 Divisions during this Parliament, but we could have the predicted the results of virtually all of them before they were held. [Interruption.] Yes, all of them, except for a few. However, most of us have been here to vote in those Divisions. Anyone who has not taken part in a debate has had to stop what they have been doing—perhaps rudely having to say goodbye to constituents whom they have been seeing—to traipse over here and go through the Lobby. Some people might say that we are sent here to vote, but we could vote electronically. As happens in some councils, we could tell Mr. Speaker before a debate whether we wanted to abstain or vote against our party line. We could have a named vote, if that were needed.

I calculate that each of us wastes an average of 15 minutes during each Division. An average 436 Members have voted in each of those 1,200 Divisions, so an average of three weeks of work time is wasted for each Division. So far, this Parliament has wasted 70 years of work time voting. If Ministers and Members had voted efficiently, we could have spent that time on our constituents, or even with our families. We all say that families are important, so we could improve Westminster and make life more sensible. We have each wasted an average of eight weeks of time during Divisions that we could have spent better.

I support the point made by Mr. Tyler about Prime Minister's Question Time. It is not a useful addition to our democracy. It is no wonder that seeing that sparring match turns many young people off, so I would like that to be addressed too.

It is daft that we are not allowed to sit and work in the Chamber while other people are speaking. The idea that Members cannot do a bit of work or read while listening to a debate is wrong. We all have to do that during our lives because we all have too much to do, so the problem should be addressed.

We still have not done anything significant on child care. We have more bars than I have cared to find out during my time here, and we have restaurants, a hairdressers and a gym. Yes, there are about 10,000 people working in Westminster, so why not have those facilities; but should we not address the question of nurseries, too?

During debates on modernisation, I have always been identified as the breastfeeding MP because I have rightly promoted breastfeeding. It is good for mums and good for babies. I thank Mr. Speaker for providing facilities for breastfeeding mums, but there is no reason why we should not be more positive about breastfeeding. One million babies throughout the world die every year because of low breastfeeding rates, so we should do more to promote it. It is ludicrous that members of the public cannot sit in the Gallery behind that screen and breastfeed. What problem would it cause?

It was sad for democracy that a decision was made to ban breastfeeding from the Committees of the House. Every single professional organisation wrote in to say that breastfeeding should be allowed and the majority of Members made it clear that they supported it by signing early-day motions. If all those people support breastfeeding, why not go ahead and allow it?

There seems to be a sensitivity to the effect that if we change things in the House, it will somehow fall apart and destroy itself. We should be more willing to experiment and relax. We are too defensive. If we cannot properly debate and decide things in the mother of Parliaments on the basis of professional advice and what most people want, it is a sad day for democracy. Mr. Speaker himself said to me, "Julia, you should just have gone ahead and done it. You shouldn't have asked." That is crazy—I do not want to put the staff of the Serjeant at Arms in an embarrassing position. We should be able to listen to professional organisations and do what is right. I remember Tony Benn saying to me, "Julia, the only way to get a crèche in this place is to go round, get nice big A4 posters, shove them on the front of a bar and turn it into a nursery. That's the only way you're going to get it done." I look to hon. Members in the next Parliament to do better and achieve what we should be able to do: talk about such matters and vote on them.

I have been pleased to represent South Swindon, which is a fine place in which to live. All hon. Members are invited to an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall in the parliamentary week starting 4 April at which Swindon Dance will exhibit its fantastic work. I am grateful to all my constituents, who have thanked me and pointed out how much we have been able to achieve by working with activists in many organisations throughout the town. I am pleased to have done that work, and my constituents have noticed the difference between a hard-working Labour MP and an inactive Tory MP who did nothing for the town. I thank activists and volunteers in the Labour party and other groups, and I also thank my staff. Democracy is wonderful, but it needs to improve in this country. I am pleased to have played my part in it—and you never know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in future, I may be back.

4:10 pm
Photo of Mr Alistair Burt

Mr Alistair Burt (Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition; North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)

I do not agree with everything that Ms Drown said, but her contribution demonstrates the value of these Adjournment debates and the way in which we can raise many different things at the end of term. I was disappointed, however, that she had to end on a rather unpleasant note. Many of us worked with her predecessor and thought well of him, and a generous comment at the end of her speech might have served her rather better in the House.

My constituents would like four issues to be aired before this Session is completed. I shall explain the first briefly, then try to lump the remaining three together. May I make a plea to Ministers on behalf of my constituents to tackle the refitting of the St. Pancras Thameslink rail terminal? For 35 weeks, commuters from Bedford travelling on the Thameslink midlands main line into St. Pancras have endured without complaint what they call "the blockade". Thameslink used to run right through the centre of town, and people could travel from Bedford to Brighton, but they have been prevented from doing so by the works at the new Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras. By and large, the works seem to have gone well, but commuters have been told that the Thameslink station, which should have been completed with the rest of the terminal by June 2007, will not be ready then.

That is a tragedy, as it would prevent interchanges between the Thameslink line and European services, between the proposed Olympic service to east London and the Midland Main line, and with the Great Northern suburban services. It is like building a motorway without junctions. Would the Deputy Leader of the House kindly talk to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who is responsible for rail transport, to see whether we can secure a commitment to complete that work? In commuters' minds, the issue is coloured by their concerns about Thameslink 2000, which is now known as Thameslink 3000, because it has simply not happened. Completion would be a gesture of good will towards commuters, who pay over the odds for fares with rises that exceed inflation. Thameslink makes a contribution with a premium payment to the Strategic Rail Authority, so there is no shortage of cash and completion would be a great help. I am grateful to Andrew Long of the Bedford Commuters Association for the support and information that he has provided.

I shall group the next three items together, and would be grateful for the assistance of the House in helping me to create an interactive event. Imagine that we are presented with a form from Her Majesty's Government for the new citizenship test, albeit one at an advanced level. We are asked what we would do in three situations and in which one we would expect the Government to intervene. The three situations arise in my constituency, but they could occur elsewhere. First, situation A: Swineshead is a village in the north of my constituency. It does not have any shops, and it no longer has a village pub, but it does have a village hall which, along with the church, is the only place where people can gather in large numbers. Twice a month, the village hall provides an opportunity for people to get together and use its bar, which makes modest profits of £300 to £400 a year. Those profits are used for the benefit of the village to assist with small repairs and so on. The village hall and the village pay £30 every three years for the licence or £10 a year. Under the Licensing Act 2003, there will be a charge of £190 for the transfer to the new system, followed by a regular charge of £150 a year. That is 15 times the current charge—money that will be taken out of the modest profits and cannot be used for village purposes. It is a payment to bureaucracy resulting from the new Licensing Act. Would the Government intervene to assist that village in retaining its funds for village purposes?

The second situation concerns the multiple sclerosis therapy centre in Bedford, which serves Bedfordshire. It is one of 36 centres in England and Wales. They are all voluntary, run for charitable purposes and staffed by volunteers. A couple of years ago the centres came under the Healthcare Commission for inspection. They did not mind. They had previously been self-regulated, but they accepted the need for regulation and inspection. Even so, some odd requirements were added—for instance, the centre in Bedford is required to have a protocol for what happens when the toilet rolls run out. For 20 years the centre was run without that, but we will let it pass because the centre is letting it pass.

The inspection charge at first and for this year is £1,080. This year it is proposed to increase it by 45 per cent., and by 2008 the charge will be £4,000 a year. That is what the Healthcare Commission has been told to charge, because it must make ends meet and be self-financing, by order of the Government. The voluntary centre says that the money is being taken out of the funds used to provide for patients and their friends, and it is money that can be raised only by volunteers standing on a street corner and shaking a tin. Would the Government intervene to prevent that 300 per cent. increase in charges, to help multiple sclerosis sufferers and their families?

Or take situation C—Mid Bedfordshire district council, a low-charging district council. It charges the 10th lowest rates out of the 238 district councils in England and Wales—£90.18 per year is a typical charge. The council is under pressure to provide more services and works closely with the Government. It identified £2.4 million worth of savings over the past three years, but this year it must increase its charges by 13.3 per cent., which equates to £1 per month.

I have put to the House three situations, A, B and C. Will the Government intervene in situation A, where villages are asked to pay more money for licensing bureaucracy? Will the Government intervene in situation B, where multiple sclerosis centres face an increase of 300 per cent. in their inspection charges for the Government inspector? Or will the Government intervene in situation C, in order to safeguard the ratepayer from a rise of £1 per month from a district council?

I know the answer: it is situation C, where the Government have already decided to intervene and are rate-capping Mid Bedfordshire district council for the appalling crime of charging an extra £1 per month on its council tax in the coming year. They leave aside the several hundred per cent. increase in licensing charges for Swineshead village hall. They are not interested in the 300 per cent. increase in inspection costs for the multiple sclerosis centre. No, they have decided to bring the might of Whitehall to bear, and have capped Mid Bedfordshire district council for charging an extra £1 a month.

Yesterday in the Chamber I was very cross with the Minister for Local and Regional Government. I spoke and behaved in a way that I do not normally do, because I am a moderate sort of chap, as the Whip, Mr. Murphy, knows full well from our frequent games of football together. Today I am not cross. I just find it ridiculous. That is why I present the three situations to the House and ask what we would do, were we the Government. Which one would we choose to intervene in?

What does the choice tell us? It tells us that the Government have lost their compass—their sense of proportion. Village halls across Britain face increases of the sort that I described. It seems to them nonsense that they should needlessly have to pay more to a licensing authority—money that would otherwise be used in the village for communal purposes. Why can they not be relieved of the burden?

Multiple sclerosis therapy centres are providing a free service to the national health service, doing work and raising their own money, with volunteers standing on street corners, going to shopping centres and running bring and buy events. If they downed tools and did not do that, who would pick up the responsibility? To be facing the same inspection charges as a BUPA therapy centre may face is nonsense, but the Government have not listened.

Two months ago, I and my constituents in Swineshead wrote to the Government to get an answer on the licensing. We have not heard anything. The multiple sclerosis centres have written to the Minister. They have had an answer but no assistance. Mid Bedfordshire district council has certainly heard from the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who has decided to cap it for £1 a month.

I was a member of a London local authority in 1982. I know what rate capping was designed to do. Businesses were driven out of London boroughs because of the high rate increases that were introduced by a few very high-spending councils. We all know that the world is different now. Labour is in government because the loony left was dealt with. That was what the power of rate capping—the power of this place to intervene in local democracy—was about. It was not about dealing with the Mid Bedfordshires of this country or about dealing with low-charging authorities spending an extra £1 a month but finding that converted into a percentage that makes the Government step in and use their power. It shows that the Government have lost their sense of proportion, lost their moral competence and lost the plot.

I leave those questions hanging. What would hon. Members do if they were facing the citizenship test? Most of us in the Chamber would find a better answer than situation C. I appeal to the Minister—I know that he will have only a short time to wind up the debate—to answer the question: why, of the three situations, is only one attracting direct Government intervention? Will he please go to his colleagues and ask them to deal with the other two on behalf of the therapy centres and village halls around the country, not least because of the district councils that are doing their best and facing that ridiculous power of capping for a very small degree of hurt?

4:21 pm
Photo of Mr Mike Hall

Mr Mike Hall (PPS (Rt Hon John Reid, Secretary of State), Department of Health; Weaver Vale, Labour)

May I start by referring to the 1992 general election? If the House will bear with me, it will see the point that I am trying to make. My agent was called Tom Sherrett and he was always against campaign visits. I eventually persuaded him to allow me to have a campaign visit. My right hon. Friend Ann Taylor and my hon. Friend Mr. Banks came along. We had a fantastic campaign visit and, a week later, I won with a grand majority of 191. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, who will both stand down at the general election when it is called, for their help during the 1992 election and for their contribution to the workings of the House since then. I wish them both well in whatever life form they find themselves in after Westminster.

I want to raise with the Deputy Leader of the House a number of issues which are constituency-related but on which the Government may be able to offer some help. For the past two years, an event called Thundersprint has taken place in Northwich town centre in my constituency. It is a great razzmatazz, a fantastic spectacle where people from across the country demonstrate their prowess on motorbikes, which can be vintage bikes or state-of-the-art formula 1 racing bikes.

Because of the way the current law is worded, the event has to take place on a car park. Last year, 60,000 people attended Northwich town centre to witness that spectacle. This year, on 8 May, when I hope to be the guest of honour, the event will probably attract up to 100,000 people.

We have to modify the way in which the event takes place because Northwich town centre is being stabilised. I have mentioned it in the House before. The town centre is built over four disused salt mines, which are in danger of collapse. A Government-funded project of £32 million is starting to stabilise the town centre. We are having to organise the Thundersprint event around the obstacles that the stabilisation project has placed in the car park.

A far better solution, which would be safer for cyclists, for spectators and for everyone else involved, would be to allow the event to take place on the highway. Of course, we would have to close it for a few hours on the Saturday and Sunday for the event to take place, but it would be far better. I was heartened when on 6 July last year Regent street, here in the capital, was closed so that Formula 1 cars could be demonstrated on the highway, one after the other, racing up and down the street, and then taking part in a grand parade. If it is possible for Formula 1 cars to do that on one of the main roads of the capital, why cannot the same be done over 500 m on Barons Quay road in Northwich town centre? I have raised that issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson, and with the Secretary of State for Transport, and even at this late stage I am hopeful that they will be able to bring forward a solution that will allow that fantastic event to take place and thousands of people to come to Northwich town to enjoy themselves.

I turn to the Telecommunications Act 1984. I had not been aware that that Act allows telecommunications operators the statutory right to have access to erect their equipment on adopted highways. I do not pretend that they actually put their masts in the roadway, but one operator proposes to put a telecommunications mast on a grass verge that is part of the adopted highway in the Leftwich estate in my constituency. It wants to erect a 12 m parallel column with three 2G/3G dual-band antennas within a GRP shroud—whatever that may be—and radio equipment and ancillary development. The grass verge is less than 1 m wide and is next to a bus stop and a telephone box. That is totally inappropriate, but under the 1984 Act the highways authority does not have the right to object to that access, nor even to charge the telecommunications company rent for the land that it uses. Everybody on the Leftwich estate knows that this is a barmy idea, and fortunately, on Tuesday night Vale Royal borough council rejected the planning application for this telephone communications equipment to be sited there. I pay tribute to my friend and constituent, Allan Lamb, who presented a passionate case on why that application should be refused. The residents of Leftwich will be very relieved about that.

Hon. Members will not know this, but a couple of weeks ago, Rebecca Watts, a baby girl under two years old, died from the very rare acute myeloid leukaemia, which normally affects much older people, usually aged over 50. To make it worse, exactly 12 months ago another baby girl aged under two died of the same condition in the street next door. There was already grave concern about public health among people on the Leftwich estate, and the last thing that they wanted or needed was the erection of a telecommunications mast in the green spaces in their area and the creation of further public health fears. I can report to the House that Central Cheshire NHS Primary Care Trust, the Health Protection Agency and Vale Royal borough council are doing their level best to look into the epidemiology surrounding those two incidences of acute myeloid leukaemia to see whether they are connected and whether a cause can be found. Those agencies are fully committed to keeping my constituents in the Leftwich area of Northwich fully informed of developments, and I am working closely with them to make sure that my constituents are given the reassurances that they want.

I want to move on to another planning issue, which has not been resolved to my satisfaction. On 30 June last year, Vale Royal borough council granted temporary planning permission for an anemometer on Aston Grange farm, which is in one of the most beautiful parts of my constituency. We objected to the application more than 12 months ago because an anemometer measures the power of wind, and we saw it as a precursor to a planning application for a wind farm, which would despoil one of the most beautiful rural parts of my constituency in the Weaver valley. Sadly, our fears have come true because Tegni Cymru, the Welsh private electricity company installing the anemometer, has put forward proposals to place four 125-m-high wind turbines on Aston Grange farm. I am determined that we must fight the application when it comes forward, because it would despoil the most beautiful part of my constituency, be a blot on the landscape and represent the loss of a superb visual amenity. Having fought the proposals by Network Rail and the National Grid Company to put a substation and trackside feeder station on the green belt in Weaverham and Acton Bridge in my constituency, I will do all that I can to ensure that that planning application goes no further forward.

I now want to deal with a completely different issue: Cheshire county council's ill-thought-out proposals to slash the salaries of teaching assistants in my constituency. The council has introduced proposals that will mean that teaching assistants will see their pay cut by £2,000 per year, or £40 a week, and that other professionals in the county council area will lose up to £6,000 a year. The county council introduced those cuts as part of its single-status proposals, and the House will not be surprised to know that Unison has rejected the proposals outright because of the effect that they would have on teaching assistants.

There are teaching assistants in every part of my constituency, and the county council is trying to say that they are part-time employees who work only 32 hours a week and not during school holidays. It is clear that the county council does not value the work that they do, so schools such as the Russett special school in Weaverham will lose its teaching assistant, who will look elsewhere for employment because she cannot afford to take the cut in wages that the county council proposes. There are 1,900 teaching assistants in my constituency. I would like the county council to look again at the proposal, and value the work that the assistants do throughout the county to improve education in my constituency.

In the time that I have left, I want to mention the need for a new crossing over the River Mersey. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House would be surprised if I did not raise that issue—I have done so on a number of occasions. If we are to develop the full economic potential of the north-west and deal with the severe congestion in the borough of Halton, we need a second crossing over the River Mersey—we need the new Mersey gateway.

Halton borough council, together with Liverpool city council, Knowsley metropolitan borough council, Warrington borough council and Cheshire county council, local businesses and the Northwest Development Agency have all said that a second crossing is essential to the north-west. The documentation and paperwork have already been submitted to the Department for Transport, and we are eagerly awaiting an announcement. I hope that one can come soon. I am not exercised by the fact that we might not have a lot of time after Easter, but the crossing is something that we need.

In conclusion, I want to refer to the Riversdale footbridge across the Weaver navigation in the Northwich part of my constituency. In November, British Waterways, which is responsible for the footbridge, closed it without any consultation, announcement or precursor on the health and safety ground that it was structurally unsafe. Ever since, I have been pressing British Waterways to try to resolve the problem. The footbridge is an integral part of the footpath networks around Northwich town centre, and it is part of one of the safe routes to Sir John Deane's sixth form college, primary schools and other schools in the area. It is essential that the footbridge opens.

British Waterways says that it has no statutory responsibility to open the footbridge and does not have the £500,000 needed to carry out the repairs. I urge British Waterways, and Cheshire county council as the highways authority, to come forward with a solution that sees the bridge opened at the earliest opportunity.

4:33 pm
Photo of Mr Richard Allan

Mr Richard Allan (Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office; Sheffield, Hallam, Liberal Democrat)

It feels like only yesterday that I was standing here making my maiden speech, and in parliamentary terms it was, as it was only eight years ago. However, like other hon. Members who have spoken today, I am grateful for the opportunity to make my final speech, as I am also planning my escape at the next election. I have the fake passport printed and the tunnel dug; I am just waiting for the balloon to go up.

I would like to pay a slightly warmer tribute to my Conservative predecessor than I did in my maiden speech, as I have got to know him better since then. That has happened because he is a prominent member of the local synagogue in Sheffield, which has a good civic service every year at which it raises funds for the hospital. As he was a prominent member, I kept away for the first few years, thinking that that was polite, until it was made clear to me that my absence had been noted and I would be very welcome.

I did not expect that, the first time that I turned up, I would be sat next to Sir Irvine Patnick. He leant over to me and explained that the organisers had thought that, as the current and previous MP, we would have lots in common and would like to chat to each other, ignoring the fact that we had had a fairly intense election campaign and that there were party differences between us. He was brilliant about it, and we have met each other every year since. I pay tribute to the work that he did in his decade as MP for Sheffield, Hallam.

I want to raise a couple of issues that have remained on my agenda, and that I want to leave on the Government's agenda, as I would feel guilty for not doing so if I do not get another opportunity. They are quite different issues.

The first relates to the comments made by Sir Teddy Taylor about the difficulties of dealing with European Union legislation. Members might be aware that I have spent a lot of time in the House dealing with information technology issues. The plain fact is that most of the issues with which we deal in relation to information technology are proposals and directives emanating from the European Commission. That is entirely sensible—very few issues relating to telecommunications or the internet can be dealt with sensibly at a national level, and they are properly dealt with at European Union level. Indeed, if there is any complaint to be made, it is that we cannot involve countries such as the United States, Russia and China in a common decision-making framework.

Our ability to deal with European Union legislation, however, has been almost inversely proportionate to its importance and significance. We deal with it in funny little Committees, of which most people are not aware, in obscure parts of the Palace of Westminster. It rarely comes to us for consideration at a time when we can influence it; it comes to us when the directive has been signed, sealed and delivered and we are simply translating it into UK law.

My political direction might be different from that of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East and some of his colleagues, in that I think that the European Union method of decision making is appropriate for many of the matters with which I have been dealing. There is a big gap in scrutiny, however, and I would be unhesitating in my criticism of a failure to scrutinise and the potential negative impact that that has on the democratic system in the United Kingdom.

The Government could deal with this issue: it relates essentially to the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. The Executive goes to European Councils, and in the form of the Minister, signs up to all the directives at the point at which they can be influenced. In the UK parliamentary system, however, the Executive chooses not to come to Parliament and debate openly the choices that it will make when it goes to the Council. It chooses to keep that in its own private domain. Plenty of other European countries, particularly Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, choose not to do that, and Ministers who are going to the European Council to sign up to important measures engage with their Parliaments at a time when the directives are still potentially changeable.

On the current agenda, there is an important technical directive on computer-implemented inventions, on which Members on both sides of the House will have been lobbied under the banner headline of software patents. That directive is very significant for a very large number of people in the IT industry. It is a contentious matter of great interest to many people, and yet there have been attempts to deal with the Commission's proposals through the Council of Agriculture Ministers and all sorts of other inappropriate parts of the European Commission machinery. I hope that the Minister will be able to examine now and in the future how such a directive—on which hundreds of thousands of letters will have been written from across the United Kingdom to both MPs and MEPs—can be dealt with in the House with the kind of prominence that it deserves, rather than being in the Executive's private domain.

We have had a good tour around England today, with Mrs. Browning describing the Government's "League of Gentlemen" style of policy for roads in the west country, where local roads are only for local people. In relation to the second issue that I want to raise, I want to follow the example of Mr. Atkinson and take us further afield: in particular, to the republic of Colombia in Latin America, a country in which I have taken an interest as a Member of Parliament.

I sought a debate on Colombia, unsuccessfully, in recent months, following a visit there in September last year. I want to put on record my thanks to the staff of the embassy in Bogota, particularly Susan Le Jeune, and the ambassador, Tom Duggin, to whom reference has been made, who organised an excellent visit for me. I was given the opportunity of sitting in on one of the meetings that the President of Colombia holds every Saturday, in locations around the country. He sits in a village hall or equivalent for seven hours, answering questions from the ordinary public about the drains, the state of the local roads and so on. He drags half his Cabinet out with him every Saturday—I witnessed the 70th such meeting in two years.

It was a busman's holiday for a Lib Dem to go off and watch a kind of town hall meeting, but it might be a good idea for the UK Government to emulate that, with the leader of the country in the chair listening to the concerns of ordinary people in that way. We have our surgeries, of course, but the Colombian President has taken access for ordinary people to the nth degree.

I had a fantastic visit. It demonstrated the importance of the Colombians' problems, many of which are directly related to activities in other countries including our own. The Colombian Government claimed success recently in reducing the murder rate to just over 20,000 a year, and that is in a country smaller than the United Kingdom. There are hundreds of kidnappings every year, and significant human rights abuses are perpetrated by all sides. All the illegal armed activists in the conflict, paramilitaries and guerrillas, are responsible for serious abuses of that kind, fuelled by narco-trafficking. Drug money goes into Colombia from countries including our own. There are drug production industries which use precursor chemicals, again from European countries—from most countries that have chemicals industries. There is more that we could do about that.

I want to raise a couple of issues that will, I think, continue to be valid issues for the Foreign Office to raise. A number of individuals have recently been targeted. It is shocking, having visited a country and met people who are involved in human rights organisations, to hear a little later that other people have turned up at their door and told them that unless they cease their activities they will be killed. I want particularly to mention Yolanda Becerra of the organisation Feminina Popular in Barrancabermeja. I visited her. She does tremendous work in promoting the rights of women in particular, but has been subjected to paramilitary threats recently. I think that the UK Government have a role to play in making requests of other Governments, and that in this instance they should request the Colombian Government to ensure that people like Yolanda Becerra can operate with some security.

The other serious human rights crisis in Colombia recently was the murder of a group of leading activists in a peace community called San José de Apartado, which has been trying to stay out of the conflict. Armed people have gone in—there are suggestions that they are associated with the Colombian military—killed a number of leading activists and left the whole region in terror. That is another issue that the UK Government could raise with the Colombian authorities.

Other Members have spoken of the importance of ensuring that people, especially young people, remain engaged in politics. I agree. It is one of the major challenges for us, and I think that the key word is relevance. We must not let this place become a sort of magic circle using its own language and doing things in ways that people outside simply do not understand, because that creates a barrier. It may be comfortable for us, and make us feel somehow special or different, but it gives people out there a sense of difference that they do not experience in a positive way. Our connections with the outside world are all-important. There is, or should be, a revolving door between ordinary people and this place. We should always remember that we are representing people out there rather than the class of politicians as a whole.

I intend to use the revolving door on the way out. Others will come in. I hope that the House will be positive about the new skills and experience that others will bring here, and take advantage of them to continue the process of modernisation that has been mentioned today. There is always more that we can learn, and more that we can do to improve the workings of the House. In general terms, the opportunity that I have had is one that I have very much appreciated.

4:43 pm
Photo of Mr John Cryer

Mr John Cryer (Hornchurch, Labour)

I think that seven Members speaking in the debate are retiring at the general election. I pay tribute to them all. I know that they will all be missed, especially my hon. Friend Mr. Banks and Sir Teddy Taylor. They are not immediate but fairly close neighbours of mine, two of our constituencies being in Essex and the other in east London.

The opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham reminded me for some reason of a story I heard recently about Clement Attlee. When he reached the age of 80, he was asked what it was like. He replied, "Well, it's better than the alternative."

Let me now continue with whingeing gits day, as I affectionately refer to these Adjournment debates. Like most Members, I have a number of constituency issues to raise. The first relates to the channel tunnel rail link, which runs through the south of my constituency, through Rainham. The Bill that paved the way for the link took many months to complete its passage in the House, and that is part of the problem with which a number of my constituents are living today. A baffle has been erected between the houses of some of my constituents and the new channel tunnel rail link, but, between the baffle and the houses is a smaller railway line used by c2c on the London, Tilbury and Southend line, which goes through my constituency and ends in that of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. The problem is that the noise from the smaller, suburban line reverberates off the baffle. The noise level has actually got worse since the baffle was erected.

Union Rail, the main contractor, has refused to do anything about this; it has refused to change the design and structure of the baffle. The problem originated in this place, in that these issues were not properly addressed when the Bill to create the channel tunnel rail link was going through Parliament—there should have been specific measures in the Bill on how these baffles were to be constructed—but Union Rail is now being obstructive about the problem.

The issue of mobile phone masts has already come up today. This is an issue that many of us deal with on a regular basis, and I have recently been involved in two campaigns against such masts. I see that Mr. Amess is in his place. He regularly complains about having to deal with these unplanned erections, as they have been called. That is very worrying for him, and very worrying for the rest of us.

As I was saying, I have recently been involved in the defeat of two plans for mobile phone masts, and before that I was involved in four or five other successful campaigns. It is convenient to use the Stewart report in this context. It forms the basis of most of these campaigns, and I am sure that every hon. Member here today is familiar with it. It is very handy, but we have all come across examples of plans that have been submitted to a local authority that the authority finds difficult to turn down despite local popular pressure.

There have been a couple of private Members' Bills on this issue, but we should consider the possibility of strengthening our planning law and guidance, to enable local authorities to resist these masts more comprehensively. There has already been some strengthening of the planning guidance on the back of the Stewart report, which is a very good piece of work. It was brought out under difficult circumstances, because the exact consequences of the masts are not yet known and probably will not be known for some years. Nevertheless, we should be looking at strengthening the planning legislation. We should actually return to the pre-1980s situation. In the 1980s, the Tory Government weakened our planning legislation to allow big companies to ride into towns and more or less throw up whatever they wanted to. We need to return to a situation in which local authorities have more power.

I turn to an even more parochial issue. One of the problems that I have with my council, the London borough of Havering—which, naturally, is Tory-controlled—is that it is building up large cash reserves while turning down every request for traffic calming measures, crossings and so on. In my constituency, there are one or two examples of areas that badly need such schemes because the traffic travels very fast and is becoming dangerous. The main one that springs to mind is Newton's corner, in Rainham, where a crossing—preferably a pelican crossing—is badly needed. I have been trying to persuade the local authority to put one in for the past three or four years, but it keeps turning the proposal down while amassing great reserves of cash.

The next issue that I should like to raise is the proposed motocross track in north Rainham in my constituency. It is planned to construct it on land largely owned by the Thames Chase community forest, an area that is being turned over to cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders and on which thousands of trees are being planted. Yet, in the middle of it, there is an attempt to put a great big cyclocross track. This would ruin the area, which is also very close to housing. Two plans have already been turned down, but I suspect that the applicants will come back. They will either appeal or come back with a third plan, and they will keep going until they imagine that they have got what they want. My main objection is to the noise disturbance, and evidence presented by the applicant seeking to argue that that issue has been addressed and will not be a problem might have convinced my local authority, but it has not convinced me.

All-postal ballots are a local and national issue, and they have been discussed a great deal, including in a series of Question Times on the Floor of the House. My borough was a pilot area for an all-postal ballot in the last local elections, and I am convinced that those elections resulted in at least some questionable activities. All-postal ballots are open to all sorts of abuses, and the House must send out a message to anyone who stands as a candidate at the next general election that anyone who takes part in fraud will be dealt with very severely. For my part, because of my past experience, details of which I have sent to the Electoral Commission, I shall be watching the situation extremely carefully, and if I discover anyone taking part in any suspected fraud, I will have no hesitation in putting the evidence before the police.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East referred to the plummeting numbers of people, particularly young people, taking part in elections. At the last election, it was down to 58 per cent., although I agree that that is not because of a lack of interest in politics. I visit on average a school a week in my constituency and I find that people as young as nine and 10 are a lot more interested in politics than I probably was at their age, but that does not translate into an interest in party politics. I suspect that that is because there is a fairly undefined but general feeling that we have lost the ability to influence our destiny, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the EU has played a part in that. If we go down the path that some hon. Members want to go down of joining the euro so that we lose control over interest rates, we will then lose some control over taxation because we cannot run a single currency without a single tax-gathering mechanism, and that is mentioned in the Maastricht treaty.

Two years ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer was told by the European Commission to cut £10 billion from public spending, as though that had anything to do with it. He said no and told it to get lost and it could do nothing about it. But if that happened after we had signed up to the constitution, the European Commission could take the Chancellor and the British Government to the European Court of Justice, and as sure as eggs is eggs the Court would rule in favour of the Commission, as it does year in, year out.

If we went down that path, we would have to go to the electorate and apologise for any problems that arose, whether they were the result of a crisis in public spending or an economic crisis, but we would have handed over all the levers of economic power to unelected and unaccountable people in Brussels or Frankfurt. How would people react? They would not say, "Oh, brilliant. We will take part in the election." They would say, "Well, stuff the mainstream. We will move to the fringes." The number of people voting would plummet even further than it already has, and increasing numbers of people would move to the fringes, particularly the far right. That is my suspicion, and I have a vested interest in this because I have been a lifelong anti-racist, and I can see a nationalistic backlash resulting from going down the path of the EU straitjacket.

With that, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all right hon. and hon. Members and the staff of the House a happy Easter.

4:53 pm
Photo of Dr Bob Spink

Dr Bob Spink (Castle Point, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to follow John Cryer, who is an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament, even though his father used to keep me up late at night in the early 1990s. I forgive him for that and I wish him well. I am particularly pleased to follow him because I agree with what he said about the euro. If we lose the pound and move to the euro, that will sound the death knell to Britain's sovereignty, so I stand shoulder to shoulder with him on that. Europe remains one of the defining issues. In Essex it will be a key issue in the general election, and I hope that no one is seduced to vote for the UK Independence party, which would betray Britain. I see hon. Members agreeing with their smiles and nods.

Having got that off my chest, let me return to the real debate this afternoon and go straight to the key subject of hospice funding. This country's funding of adult hospices from Government sources stands at about 20 per cent. or a little lower, yet children's hospices are funded at a miserly rate of 5 per cent. That is far too low. Yet set against the 1.8 per cent. that Little Haven hospice in my constituency received from Government funding last year, the average 5 per cent. for children's hospices looks downright generous. I shall now look at the Minister and establish eye contact with him—I know that he expects me to raise this matter, as I always do. He has his answers written down and I hope that included in them, will be an undertaking to tackle the strategic health authority in Essex and the primary care trust to ensure that for this year and next, Little Haven receives at least the average 5 per cent. funding that other children's hospices receive.

Depriving children's hospices of reasonable funding is to betray the wonderful people, the dedicated staff, who work in them, and the volunteers who raise money for them. Very much included among those are the three Conservative clubs in Castle Point—the Hadleigh club, the Benfleet club, where I shall go immediately after this debate, and the Canvey club. I know that the Minister is listening; he is a jolly good man. Finally, I want to say that I am proud to be a Conservative on this issue, as my party's policy is for the Government to fund both children's and adult hospices at the rate of 40 per cent. a year. That sounds to me like an election-winning policy if ever there was one.

I now move on to a matter of serious concern in my constituency and the south-east generally—development. The overdevelopment of my constituency, without any infrastructural provision whatever, is irresponsible. Fortunately for me, the people in my constituency understand that the problem has been forced on Castle Point by the Deputy Prime Minister, who has set a target of building 4,000 extra houses. I wish he could visit Castle Point so that he could show my constituents where he wants those houses to go, and answer their questions about the lack of infrastructure.

I have fought every major planning application in my constituency. I have fought to stop the overdevelopment of my beautiful borough and the destruction of our green belt. I have fought to secure decent infrastructure in the area, and I hope that my constituents will bear this issue at the forefront of their minds at the coming general election. It is an issue that affects the quality of their lives. When I raised the matter with the Deputy Prime Minister himself two or three months ago, he referred to my constituents as nimbys. They were outraged and the local press were outraged. I am sure that my constituents would have a word or two for the Deputy Prime Minister if he ever ventured into my constituency.

Another major issue in Castle Point is infrastructure. We need to do something at Saddlers Farm on the A13 to achieve grade separation and improve the traffic flows on that major road. We also need to improve the junctions at Tarpots and in Hadleigh.

However, our major problem is that we lack an additional access road to Canvey island, where more than 40,000 people live. If—God forbid!—the island ever had to be evacuated, those people could not be removed in good time. Safety is one of the issues, but there are also questions of convenience and quality of life. My constituents often wait for hours when there is an accident, or if the main access road is closed for some other reason. That does not happen only a few times a year: it happens almost every month, and sometimes twice a month. It is a major problem, and we must tackle it seriously.

An equally important problem is the c2c rail line, to which the hon. Member for Hornchurch referred. My hon. Friend Sir Teddy Taylor probably referred to it too, as he is a great fighter on behalf of the commuters who use that line. About 4,000 of my constituents use the line to commute to London.

Benfleet station is the busiest station on the c2c line. Peak-time trains are often full and overcrowded when they stop there, so my constituents get a bad deal, as they have to stand up for the 35 or 40 minutes that the journey to London takes. That is unsafe, and not very nice; I know, as I have to do journey myself, from time to time. Therefore, I was disgusted when five train sets were removed from the line last September. With other MPs, especially my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, I ran a campaign to get the trains back. The local Yellow Advertiser newspaper also ran an important campaign to the same end.

I am delighted to be able to congratulate the Secretary of State for Transport, who gave me an undertaking in this House just a week or so ago that those five train sets would be returned to the c2c line sometime this year. However, I am slightly disappointed, as "sometime this year" is not good enough. I want those train sets back on my line so that my constituents do not have to stand, which is generally what happens, as that is unsafe and inconvenient. Moreover, I want them back before the summer. That is what I shall press for, if I am fortunate enough to be re-elected.

I want to say a few words about the need for more police officers, community support officers and special constables. The police have a very hard job, and they do it extremely well in my constituency. However, they need more resources to keep police stations open so that they can do their job properly, and they need a lot less bureaucracy.

In addition, we need more facilities for kids, to get them off the street by offering them alternative things to do. We need to tackle asylum abuse too, but there is clearly not time to deal with that today.

Finally, I want to say that I represent a very beautiful area of south Essex. My constituency nestles on the Thames, and Canvey island is actually part of the Thames estuary. The area has a remarkable heritage, but most importantly, its people are really good and self-reliant. They love their country and their community, which they want to be protected and improved.

An election is due. More than most, I know that this may be my last speech in this House. I accept that: I am a democrat and have been humiliated by the electorate before. I also know that I have four excellent candidates up against me in Castle Point, and I wish each of them well. They are good people.

I want to end by saying that I have worked hard for my constituents, country and community. I have worked especially hard to protect Britain, in Europe and in an uncertain world. I have very much enjoyed being an MP. There is no greater privilege or honour than to be elected to represent the community in which one lives. I therefore thank all my constituents—even those who seem to write to me every day.

5:04 pm
Photo of Dr Rudi Vis

Dr Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green, Labour)

I have spoken about Cyprus in previous Adjournment debates, but I shall not do so today, given the very sensitive negotiations that are being held in respect of Turkey's possible accession to the EU on 3 October. I shall turn instead to the proscription in the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States of the People's Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran—the PMOI—in the review of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Obviously, no one wants to undermine effective and lawful measures against terrorist organisations, but the PMOI is a legitimate resistance movement with the aim of establishing democracy and respect for human rights in Iran. Yesterday was new year's day for Iranians the world over, and two days ago I attended an international symposium of parliamentarians and jurists in the assembly hall of Church House in Deans yard, where I spoke in much the same terms as now.

The PMOI has ceased all military activities since June 2001. More importantly, its activities, which were confined to Iran and never took place outside, were aimed at the repressive regime of the mullahs. The proscription of the PMOI and another 20 organisations was discussed in the House for one and a half hours, and no evidence against the PMOI was forthcoming in that debate. The proscription seems to be a legal construct, but in reality it is a political construct, so it can be done and undone.

Mrs. Rajavi, who is seen by the PMOI as the president elect, and directs a large administration in France in preparation for and in the hope of a takeover in Iran, recently spoke in the European Parliament. She rightly rejects the appeasement approach that France, Germany and the UK want to follow. She also rightly rejects the war option. She presented a third option—change brought about by the Iranian people and the Iranian resistance.

It is difficult to understand the appeasement road. Why would anyone be in favour of a regime that has no human rights, has a nuclear weapons programme, exports terrorism and fundamentalism and has killed 120,000 of its own people? It is also difficult to understand the war option, particularly after Iraq. I would add that there are few similarities between the societies of Iran and Iraq.

Mrs. Rajavi's third way is surely the preferred option. It requires the proscription of the PMOI to be lifted as soon as possible. Doing so would be part of bringing much of what is now so dangerous and difficult in the middle east to an end. I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to put my request to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, for an answer based on real evidence.

I wish all hon. Members a tranquil Easter.

5:08 pm
Photo of Mr David Amess

Mr David Amess (Southend West, Conservative)

I wish all those who are leaving the House voluntarily a long and happy retirement. The House will miss their contributions for various reasons, and I am sure that their constituents are grateful for what they have been able to do for them.

I want to raise a number of issues before the House adjourns for the Easter recess. They all involve injustice. In this country there is increasingly a feeling of unjust treatment. The unborn child is treated unjustly under existing legislation, and that would increase if the Science and Technology Committee report were implemented and parents were allowed to choose the sex of their children.

Only this week I was lobbied by the Fire Brigades Union, which believes that its members' pensions have been dealt with unjustly. It advised me that the Government plan to close 46 local emergency fire control rooms and replace them with only nine regional control centres. That is unsafe and unjust.

Only a few days ago, all Members were lobbied by an Alzheimer's group. In Central Lobby, I met a constituent called Mrs. Glassbrook. Baroness Chalker is a relative of hers, and together we have been trying to deal with the case of Mrs. Glassbrook's husband for five years. I asked how her husband was and she said that sadly, he died last month. I have just part of the file that I have on her husband before me now, but the help that he needed came too late. I vow to that lady to get justice for all those who suffer with Alzheimer's.

I also seek justice for Southend council tax payers. Just a few weeks ago, I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate. The present leader of Southend council is standing down in May because of the stress that he has suffered trying to make ends meet. He wrote a brief letter to me saying that in response to the debate, the Minister talked

"about percentages rather than money. He failed to say that most of the 4 per cent. increase had to go to Education and that what was left over did not even cover the pensions deficit that they insist we pay. Once these issues are addressed there is a minus score to cover inflation and job evaluation which is also a government ruling."

As the leader of the council puts it, 4 per cent. of nothing is nothing.

It is crazy that the Office for National Statistics should claim that the population of Southend has fallen by some 20,000. When one adds up the number of electors in both constituencies and includes the number of those aged under 18, one gets more than the 160,000 figure reached by the ONS. I said to the Minister that perhaps we could set aside some time to count all the human beings living in Southend on a particular day, and he is going to come back to me on that point. I have made an appointment with the ONS to go through the figures in great detail.

There is further injustice in the way in which law and order is being dealt with at the moment. Most hon. Members saw the BBC programme "Drunk and Dangerous", which contained appalling scenes. I hope to meet the programme producers shortly, but the programme ended with details of the action taken against some of the individuals shown. One got a £35 penalty ticket and another got an £85 penalty ticket. One gentleman was so severely injured that he lay in Southend hospital for five weeks, but no action was taken against his assailant.

Hardly a week goes by that I do not get a letter from a constituent about unjust sentencing. Recently, we all read about Jamie Mason, a 12-year-old boy who was killed in January by someone who should not have been in Britain in the first place. That gentleman was sentenced to eight weeks in jail.

In December, a young man was found dead outside the nightclub featured in "Drunk and Dangerous". All the police resources were concentrated outside the nightclub, while no doubt the rest of the town was open to all and sundry. Who decides how forces are deployed? Why are nightclubs never challenged? How is it that the general public have to pay for the disorder outside such places?

I was drawn to a recent article headed, "Where are the Police when you need them? Fewer crimes than ever are being solved. What's gone wrong and how can we rebuild a force to be proud of?" The most reliable figures for Essex show that crime detection is down 19 per cent. and the number of people brought to justice is down 8 per cent. The article ends with four suggestions: follow the example of West Midlands police and free officers from paperwork; spend more time on foot patrol, solving the crimes that concern the public most; be accessible, even in rural areas—the number of police stations has dropped from 2,700 to 1,900 since 1990; and improve police officers' customer relations skills. I hope that the newly appointed chief constable of Essex has time to read that article. If he does not have a copy, I will send him one.

I hope that a few Members listened to the "Today" programme this morning to hear of the plight of my constituent, Maajid Nawaz, and the two other detainees. It is an absolute disgrace. They are serving a five-year sentence, which in Egypt really means five years, and have already done three years. Maajid's mother came to see me in great distress, because the men were deprived recently of many of the human rights that we expect. The families would very much welcome a further meeting with the Foreign Secretary to talk about the men's welfare. There must be an arrangement whereby the Government can ensure that the men serve the rest of their sentence in the United Kingdom.

A local fisherman came to see me recently, because he was concerned about fishing quotas for smaller vessels, and I shall raise the matter in Brussels next week. He was concerned about the allocation for the non-sector group, which comprises about 240 boats of under 10 m and about 24 boats of over 10 m. It was announced that the quota for the under-10s would be 1 tonne of sole a month for nine months. The fishermen could not survive on that amount, so after some lobbying they were awarded 2 tonnes a month for nine months—but that is more per boat than the yearly quota for the whole of the over-10 m fleet, so those who work those boats are undoubtedly being treated unjustly.

On 4 April, at Southend United football ground, I am proud to say that we shall be launching a strategy to tackle obesity. Sporting celebrities and people from the health and education services will attend the conference. My final remarks are also about Southend United. Last year the team reached the final of the LDV Vans trophy in Cardiff. Everyone said, "David, you've got to go along. You'll never see Southend in a football final again in your lifetime." What happened? The team reached the final again this year. I wish the manager, Steve Tilson, and the director, Ron Martin, the very best of luck for Sunday 10 April, when they will again be travelling to the Millennium stadium for the final against Wrexham. I hope that on that occasion justice will be seen to be done, the best team will win, and that the best team will be Southend United.

5:18 pm
Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths

Ms Jane Griffiths (Reading East, Labour)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. It will not surprise Members that I shall mention Crossrail, for which I have been campaigning for many years.

I was disappointed at the lack of local co-operation on that campaign, but I am glad to say that that has now been reversed. I am delighted that the hybrid Bill on Crossrail has been published and even more pleased that it will be subject to a carry-over process so that whenever the election comes—possibly in May, who knows?—the measure will not be lost. As Members who have been in this place for longer than me will know, the Bill was lost once before.

The announcement about Crossrail was both good news and bad news for my constituency. The bad news was that the western terminus is still proposed to be Maidenhead—Maidenhead!—not Reading; but the good news was the announcement that there would be consultation on safeguarding the route to Reading from Maidenhead, which we hope will prohibit development that might prevent the extension of the route to Reading. The cross-party group of Reading political candidates learned of that when they accompanied me to a meeting with Crossrail in December 2004. I always like to work cross-party when I can, and it is surprisingly often possible to do so.

I am pleased that Mr. Viggers referred to the cross-party work that he has been doing. I am pleased that, since 1997, I have worked with him on the all-party Japan group, and I hope that that work has been productive for both. My hon. Friend Mr. Hurst also referred to cross-party working, and I feel that our constituents respect cross-party working where it is possible. It goes a long way to combat the widely held cynicism felt among people who perhaps only see Prime Minister's questions and nothing else of what happens in the House.

Photo of Mr Peter Viggers

Mr Peter Viggers (Gosport, Conservative)

I should like to take this opportunity to say that the hon. Lady's speech in the House on the subject of the Emperor of Japan's visit was exceptionally valuable and well worth while, and I congratulate her again on it.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths

Ms Jane Griffiths (Reading East, Labour)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which has rather moved me.

I want to raise quickly in the short time that I have left a couple of issues that have emerged recently in my constituency. It is painful to say it, but after the 2004 local and European elections, there was some concern about the possibility that large numbers of postal votes were not all done correctly. That is certainly a concern that I raised in respect of Redlands ward of my constituency, but we in Reading are not alone in having that experience. A police investigation has been carried out. An internal audit by Reading borough council has also considered the matter, and both investigations have uncovered serious irregularities.

The findings of the internal audit investigation were given to Thames Valley police, who carried out their own investigation, the outcome of which was a determination that voting fraud had been widespread in Redlands ward, where people had voted either using the identities of people who had moved away, or had invented the identities of people who simply did not exist. It has not been possible for the police to find evidence against any individual, but the fact remains that we are left in a situation that will not inspire confidence in any future election.

I understand that a petition to rerun an election must be presented within 21 days, so there is no way for the courts to become involved in the matter. The local Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties have called for the election in Redlands ward to be run again, and today's Evening Postthe local paper in Reading—has as its headline, "Resign in the Name of Democracy". In the spirit of cross-party working in most unfortunate circumstances, I must agree with all three and say that the three councillors elected last June in Redlands ward should resign and let us run the election again.

It is disappointing that the chairman of Reading Labour party, Stuart Singleton-White, has said that he does not think that there is a case for re-running the election because of the majority involved and the fact that the number of votes was so great. He does not feel that the outcome would be influenced thereby. I am sorry, but if one ballot paper is fraudulent, the election should be run again. I hope that the three councillors will listen to reason in their interests, in all our interests and in the interests of democracy, because as the saying goes, "You can't be a little bit pregnant"—there is either fraud or there is not.

It has been determined that there was fraud, so the people of Redlands ward in the heart of my constituency have the right to believe that, when they cast their votes, the councillors that they elect—or, indeed, the Member of Parliament whom they will elect in due course—have been elected freely and fairly. I have been part of election teams in six different elections, mostly in the former Soviet Union, and I take that responsibility very seriously. We are always very frank in the reports that we make following our observations. How can I return to my constituency and say, "Oh well, of course, we wagged our fingers in Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia, but it is okay in Reading."? It is not okay. I am sorry that both Reading borough council and Reading Labour party are not yet with us on that, but I think that they will be; I think that they will see sense.

I wish to raise another slightly painful issue. A recent libel case has involved two hon. Members—not me—on opposite sides of the House: my hon. Friend Mr. Salter and Dr. Fox, who is not in his place. As that action was at least in part based on a letter that I wrote to a constituent who had questions for me, I feel that I must, painful though it is, mention the matter today.

I will not regale the House with the details of everything in the letter and everything that has been said because most of them, in any case, are in the public domain. However, I must say that I spoke the truth and wrote the truth in the letter. I hold no brief for the hon. Member for Woodspring, but what he has said publicly has been the truth. I hope that the matter can be set straight.

I will not stand by and see untruths perpetrated. I will fight against corruption and bullying wherever I see them. I am quite sure that my successor in Reading, East—I wish him well, whoever he might be—will have that same battle to fight. I hope that he succeeds. I hope that he will not tolerate bullying. I hope that more people will not have to be the victims of it in the way in which too many have been. I hope that no one in the future will tolerate that corruption—I am sorry to have to use that word, but it is the word that must be used—and that it will not be allowed to continue.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I wish friends, colleagues and all hon. Members here a happy and tranquil Easter, and a peaceful and better future for all of us?

5:26 pm
Photo of Dr Julian Lewis

Dr Julian Lewis (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Leader of the House of Commons; New Forest East, Conservative)

This has certainly been a valedictory debate, in more ways than one. We are closing this particular part of the parliamentary year for the Easter recess, and as we have heard time and again, many hon. Members have been taking the opportunity to make what will almost certainly be their final contributions in the House if, as we expect, a general election is called shortly after our return.

Once again, the Deputy Leader of the House and I face the unenviable task of trying to summarise many speeches in a relatively short time. I believe that 19 speeches have been made during the debate: 10 by Labour Members, seven by Conservative Members and two by Liberal Democrats. I cannot but observe that the two Liberal Democrats who contributed to the debate are both retiring. I suppose that we must all draw our own conclusions about where their colleagues are at the moment, but they are certainly not in the House of Commons earning their money.

In preparation for these debates, I always seek inspiration from the news of the day, or at least any other electronic communications that come my way. Hon. Members can imagine my chagrin when, as I checked my e-mails before coming into the Chamber for the start of the debate, I found that a single e-mail had arrived. I do not often get spam, so I fear that someone is trying to tell me something. The e-mail was from an organisation called Skills Train and had as its subject, "Train for a new career today". I am not sure what the organisation has in mind, although it says that any one of a wide variety of career paths could be mine. However, if the good electors of New Forest, East do what I want them to do, I hope that I will not have to take up that offer for at least a few years to come.

The custom at such times has been to pay tribute to colleagues who are retiring, and I know that the Deputy Leader of the House intends to do that to at least some such Labour Members. I know that more than a dozen of my colleagues will be stepping down at the election, so I would like to say a brief word about a few who have especially touched my life during the course of a political career that went on for a considerable time before I was fortunate enough to be elected.

Top of the list must be my hon. Friend Dame Marion Roe, who brought more than a dash of glamour to the Conservative Benches during her distinguished career. I include her on the list because she has never been known to be stumped by a constituency case. I have always borne in mind the example she gave me of a sad lady who visited her. The lady was quivering and extremely nervous and agitated as she explained that she was constantly being zapped by rays coming from the men of Mars via the medium of her television screen. For a brief moment, my hon. Friend was stumped, but inspiration struck, and she said to that poor lady, "This is quite simple to deal with. Every time you watch television, put on a pair of rubber boots, which will prevent the rays from being earthed and the problem will go away." The lady never returned to see my hon. Friend, but whether that was because the prescription worked, or because her bluff had been called, or because it was an episode of "Candid Camera" that was never shown, I do not know. However, if I remember my hon. Friend for nothing else—and I shall remember her for a great deal more—I shall certainly always keep her wise ability to deal with a constituency case diplomatically and effectively in the forefront of my mind.

My hon. Friend Sir Teddy Taylor made a significant contribution to today's debate. For three decades or more, he has fought the battle for British sovereignty both inside and outside the House. His campaign against the European Union's assumption of powers that ought to remain in the grasp of our country, Parliament and electorate is unparalleled. It is a source of shame to me as a Conservative that for a brief period the Whip was withdrawn from him for continuing to say on that vital issue what he had said all his political career. I can assure him, although I am sure that he does not need reassurance, that such a thing would never happen in today's Conservative party.

Right to the end of his political career, my hon. Friend Sir Sydney Chapman has assiduously participated in Question Time after Question Time, and has shown throughout that courtesy and gentility are alive and well in the House of Commons. My hon. Friend Mr. Trend is also retiring. The House should be aware that he did an enormous amount of cross-party work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to bring the benefits of training in democratic techniques to the new democracies that were formerly part of the Soviet and eastern European bloc. They have benefited from his guidance and advice. When I was a recalcitrant official at Conservative central office, I benefited from the wise and kind advice that he gave me as deputy party chairman.

My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson will probably not remember this, but when he was chairman of the Young Conservatives he took the time in the midst of a busy party conference in Blackpool to give encouragement to a young state school boy—myself—who was attending his first ever national Conservative conference, and to give advice about how to conduct oneself at such events. I am sure that many of us have had similar experiences—we know how much it means at the outset of our political careers to receive advice from people whose own political careers are well advanced, and we appreciate their taking the time and trouble to do so. Finally, my hon. Friend Mr. Wilkinson, who had a distinguished front-line career in the Royal Air Force, has been committed to the defence of the United Kingdom for decades. I have found his career and principled adherence to the promotion of this country's defence inspirational over the years.

Before I come to the contributions to our debate, I should like to make one more point. We have all, not least myself, spent a great deal of time talking about Members who are leaving the Commons, but we should bear in mind the situation of the young hopefuls in every party who, even as we speak, are gearing up to try to enter the House of Commons for the first time. Who can forget the ordeal of the selection process? Who can forget the task of forging a campaign team from a variety of volunteer activists? [Interruption.] Hon. Members say that they wish that they could forget, but I am sure that it is burned indelibly on their souls, just as it is on mine. Who can forget what it feels like stepping into the unknown for the first time on polling day? Like other hon. Members, I have personal friends standing in seats from Bournemouth and Brighton to Harlow and Worcester, from Eastleigh and Romsey to the Forest of Dean, from Weston-super-Mare to Mid-Dorset and North Poole and many, many more. I wish them well in the ordeal that they face, as I am sure hon. Members in other parties wish their friends, whom no doubt they are encouraging, as I would wish to encourage mine.

Once again, this end-of-term debate shows the value of the single Member constituency. Who can doubt for a second that the speeches that we have heard today showing the depth of knowledge, commitment and understanding about local issues are a direct result of the way in which the individual Member of Parliament is allocated an individual geographical area and a particular collection of citizens of the United Kingdom to represent?

I begin by mentioning the first speaker, Mark Tami, whose contribution showed his intense commitment to the manufacturing and aerospace industries as they are represented in his constituency. I would expect nothing less from a former head of policy for a major trade union and a former member of the TUC general council, as I know he is. He clearly has a tremendous commitment to Airbus and to his constituency work force, but I would like to pay tribute to him for something else. He was the first speaker in the debate, and he remained in the Chamber throughout the entire debate till the very end, listening to every other contribution. I take my hat off, metaphorically speaking, to him for doing that.

Then my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East spoke in detail about devolution and said that now that it has been tried for a considerable time, people should be given a chance to have a say once again, but this time with the experience and ability to judge whether they consider it has worked or not. I cannot think of any reason to oppose such a suggestion. He spoke also about asylum seekers who abuse the system by deliberately destroying their papers after entry. He referred, as I would have expected, to the EU and to the Iraq war, and he said that many young people are switching off politics. That theme recurred in many other contributions.

No one could fail to be moved by the contribution of Mr. Barnes, who spoke in great detail about a case on which he had been working for 18 years. The fact that he chose to use his last contribution in the House to bring what comfort he could to the family whom he represented so assiduously shows a great nobility of spirit. I am sure that that family will treasure the words that he had to say about their case.

Mr. Tyler is an extremely assiduous parliamentarian. He once again returned to the Steven Roberts case—the terrible case of the soldier who told his wife before his death occurred that he had been forced to give up body armour, and then indeed lost his life in Iraq as a result. I add my own tribute to the extremely brave campaign that his widow, Samantha Roberts, has been waging to get justice for his memory.

I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman on his dislike of jousting in the Commons Chamber. It is a fact that if we were to remove from the parliamentary process the adversarial system, and substitute for it a system where politicians of all parties were effectively in each other's pockets, democracy as a whole would be the loser. The way in which corruption is dealt with in a democratic system is for people who err to know that if they err, their political opponents will be on to it like a shot. Woe betide us if we ever get to a situation where all politicians are chums not just personally, as many of us are across the divide of the House, but politically. I have had dealings with people who live in societies that are run by constant coalitions. They tell me that they can never really have confidence in going to a member of the opposition in order to criticise the Government because they can never be sure that, the next day, that member of the opposition will not be in alliance with that Government. Therefore they will always pull their punches. In a democracy, we do not want politicians to pull their punches.

Mr. Banks also shared the view of not liking combative politics.

Photo of Dr Julian Lewis

Dr Julian Lewis (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Leader of the House of Commons; New Forest East, Conservative)

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is dissenting. I am put in mind of one memorable Adjournment debate, when he was a Minister responding to a colleague of mine. The debate was about bell ringing. He opened his remarks by saying that that colleague, whose name I will not mention, was the man who had

"put the camp back into campanology."—[Hansard, 20 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 1080.]

[Laughter.] It is great when I get a laugh for someone else's joke. If that is not a little bit of jousting, I do not know what is.

My hon. Friend Mr. Viggers has made the case for saving Haslar hospital a cause célèbre at Westminster. It is synonymous with his name. No one could have fought harder for a constituency cause than he has on that issue, and I wish him every success.

Mr. Hurst is clearly determined to do the best for his constituency in terms of communications by road and the blight on the lives and homes of his electors that ill advised road planning measures can inflict. He impressed the House with his mastery of detail on the issue. I hope that his campaign likewise meets with success.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East, who is retiring, gave strong evidence of his commitment to human rights in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. It was a fascinating insight for me, because the work for bodies such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and other transnational assemblies on which he has been our representative are not always sufficiently represented in the House. I was glad that he had not had the wool pulled over his eyes as to the state of affairs in Russia today, although naturally, like him, I welcome all steps in a democratic direction in that much benighted country.

Dr. Starkey managed to do something that is extremely clever for any politician, and that is to combine their political causes with the cause of benefiting, backing up and supporting anything to do with football. I have found from my experience that I can struggle with what I regard as the most important political cause going, but it will never be reported half as much as when I say a single word about safe standing in football stadiums. Then I can be assured of blanket coverage.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Browning spoke with great feeling and affection for the countryside and made it clear that people in the countryside hate to be considered second-class citizens. Ms Drown spoke about her work on hospital provision and antisocial behaviour. I was a little surprised, however, that she did not refer to her work on international development and some of the causes that she has supported in other parts of the world for the underprivileged and downtrodden. Over the years she has been here, I have noted her great interest in and effective spokesmanship on behalf of those causes. I for one, if I am fortunate enough to be back here after the election, will miss what she has to say on those subjects in particular.

My hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke about the problems of the rail link from St. Pancras and the heavy-handed Government pressure on his local authority. Mr. Hall expressed grave concern about public health in his constituency, telecommunication masts and ghastly wind farms, a subject on which I share his doubts.

Mr. Allan paid tribute to his predecessor, Irvine Patnick. I am sure that his successor, Dr. Spencer Pitfield, the Conservative candidate, will earn equal plaudits. John Cryer made a typically principled speech on Europe and on postal ballot corruption. He often says things with which I entirely agree—that will probably not do his electoral prospects any good—and today was no exception.

My hon. Friend Bob Spink is a cheery soul, but cheeriness can be carried too far when wishing one's opponents the best of luck in an election campaign.

I should like to have said a little more about the contributions of the hon. Members for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), and of my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, but my time is up.

As this is such a friendly and jolly debate, I shall conclude with a word of kindness even for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is quoted in today's papers as being worried about the contribution that Lynton Crosby, an Australian, is making to the Conservative election campaign. I assure him that we deliberately have an Australian making such an important contribution, because at the general election the Conservatives intend to turn the results of the last general election completely upside down.

5:46 pm
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Mr Phil Woolas (Parliamentary Secretary, House of Commons; Oldham East and Saddleworth, Labour)

Dr. Lewis should keep digging, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is a pleasure to wind up the Easter recess Adjournment debate and to thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East for his kind remarks about Members who are retiring from this House; I echo those sentiments. On a second note of consensus, I strongly agree with his point that this debate, above all others, shows the value of our single-Member constituency system.

I shall try to respond to the points made by hon. Members and commit myself to taking up issues to which I am not able to reply directly. My hon. Friend Mark Tami raised the issue of manufacturing in his constituency and the benefits that the Airbus A380 has brought to his constituents. I echo his comments; I am aware that he is a champion of manufacturing industry and of that project in particular.

As usual, Sir Teddy Taylor made a strong and feisty speech. It is a great sadness that he will not be able to join us for future Adjournment debates, but I wish him every good fortune for the future. He made three points: something should be done; something should be done; and "We're doomed!" He said that devolution to Scotland and Wales was regrettable. I should point out, to make a partisan point, that Mr. Wiggin, the shadow Welsh Secretary, is in favour of abolishing the Welsh Assembly, yet Mr. Nick Bourne, the Conservative leader on the Welsh Assembly wants—surprise, surprise—to increase its powers. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East needs to square that circle. Nevertheless, we will miss him and his speeches, particularly his campaigning against the European Union.

Similarly, we will miss my hon. Friend Mr. Barnes. I echo the serious remarks that he made. To use what is perhaps his last speech in the House of Commons to give comfort to a family is very honourable, and I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House writes to him about the case of Christopher Butcher.

Mr. Tyler also raised a constituency issue. I undertake to write to the Secretary of State for Defence to ask for the completion of the process that he asked for. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Parliament First group, and he is a parliamentarian who does put Parliament first. He understands the difficulties that Governments of all political colours have in reconciling differences between Parliament and the Executive, and has been a great advocate of the modernisation of Parliament, but in a cautious way. I hope that some of his campaigns will come to fruition in the years to come; I am sure that they will.

My hon. Friend Mr. Banks made a typically forthright, robust and humorous speech. He had gone to the trouble of calculating how many times he had intervened in the House and noted that he had tabled 7,514 written questions and 720 oral questions. He forgot to point out that he was a Minister for part of that period, and a very successful Sports Minister at that. Most of us had forebodings that a Chelsea fan would not know anything about sport, but he has a lot to look forward to in his retirement, if indeed that is what it is. I suspect that it will not be a retirement, but he will have more opportunities to watch his beloved football team. We all wish him the best.

Mr. Viggers again mentioned the Royal Hospital Haslar. It may help him if I inform the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is currently considering the letter from Hampshire county council health review committee requesting that the primary care trust decision on service changes in Fareham and Gosport be referred to the independent reconfiguration panel. My right hon. Friend will announce his decision in due course, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter on behalf of his constituents.

As he always does in such debates, my hon. Friend Mr. Hurst painted a picture of his constituency to make the House familiar with the issues in it. He raised the problems of the consultation—or the lack of meaningful consultation as he and his constituents see it—on the development of the A120 and one roundabout in particular. I am informed that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is awaiting the outcome of the consultation, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend's point about its inadequacy is passed on.

I pay tribute to Mr. Atkinson for his work in the House, particularly on the international stage and in the process of bringing democracy to the eastern European countries. Our abhorrence of the Berlin wall and everything that it stood for is one thing that unites us in this House, and I remember as a young student being aware of his work, many years before I was elected. I pay tribute to him for that. I can give him the assurance that he asks for, and I will bring his comments to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.

As has already been said, my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey is a very clever politician, and she raised the important point of her football team—the MK Dons—and the problems that she has experienced with Supporters Direct. She has asked written questions about Supporters Direct, and the Minister for Sport and Tourism will respond to the points that she has raised today.

Mrs. Browning raised a number of constituency points, as she did in the last recess debate. I say to her in all seriousness that it is regrettable if the impression is given that the Government see the south-west of England as second class. It is not the intention at all. The policy of devolving transport decisions to regions is intended to help them to plan and provide better, and not, as she may have implied, to reduce the funding available. Her point about the A303 is important. It is a cross-party point, and I will bring her views to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.

My hon. Friend Ms Drown made a strong speech, and I know that she is held in high regard by Members throughout the House for her work for the people of Swindon, and South Swindon in particular. She will find that her legacy will be as a moderniser not just in this place. It is no surprise that she was an accountant in the national health service—she was, of course, one of the so-called bureaucrats that the Conservatives would abolish if they had their way. However, I suspect that she has probably saved the NHS more money in her professional work by pointing out how efficiencies could be made, thereby releasing money for patient care, than the rest of us put together. She brought her eye for figures to the debate and pointed out that collectively we have wasted at least 70 years in the Division Lobbies. I am sure that hon. Members will continue her campaign for modernisation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon also raised concerns about cutbacks in advice services, family centres and other services in Swindon. She will see her legacy when she travels round her constituency and sees the new hospitals, schools and developments that were made possible because of her election and the changes that were brought about. I wish her all the best for the future.

Alistair Burt raised some important constituency points about St. Pancras and Thameslink. He made some political points about the choices that the Government could make. It is not the intention of the Government's policy, of course, to hinder in any way the good people of Swineshead or the multiple sclerosis centre, which was a matter raised in business questions. He asked us to make a choice: he has a point on the first two, and I will raise those points with the Ministers concerned.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hall used the Adjournment debate to raise important constituency matters, such as the Thundersprint event on 8 May, at which I hope to join him. He raised important points about the Telecommunications Act 1984, wind farms, teaching assistants, pay cuts from the county council, and his campaign for the new crossing of the Mersey. I can inform him that the relevant Department is now considering the revised appraisal and bid, and an announcement will be made in due course.

Mr. Allan made important points about the scrutiny of European issues, many of which are contained in a Select Committee report published this week, and raised again his concerns abut the future of the republic of Colombia. I can inform him that the Under-Secretary responsible has written to all Members this week about Government action over Colombia, partly in response to his and others' campaign. He is also a valuable member of the Speaker's advisory panel, and his work on that on behalf of all of us should be noted. I thank him for that, and wish him all the best for the future.

My hon. Friend John Cryer made a typically articulate common-sense case on behalf of his constituents. A number of hon. Gentlemen have raised the issue of the c2c line. I know that there have been improvements, but there is still some way to go, as the old adverts used to say. He raised his important concerns about postal voting, of which I know that the Deputy Prime Minister is aware.

Bob Spink—the "shadow Minister for Adjournment debates"—managed to score highly by mentioning a number of constituency issues. I hope that he makes it to the Benfleet club this evening. I will take up his specific point on the hospice—his request for an increase of the 1.8 per cent. for the Littlehaven hospice to the average of 5 per cent. from his primary care trust. I could, of course, point out the increases in funding that the Government have provided for hospices, and I have just done so. [Laughter.]

My hon. Friend Dr. Vis moved off the issue of Cyprus, on which he has spoken with great authority and passion for many years, and took us towards the policy on Iran. I think that he is aware of the policy towards the People's Mujaheddin, but I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is aware of his comments, and I thank him for the intelligence and insights that he has brought to the debate.

Mr. Amess made a number of constituency points, some very powerfully, particularly in relation to his fears about drink-driving incidents. We all share his outrage in that regard. I wish that my team, Oldham Athletic, were joining his in the final, but unfortunately we were beaten by Wrexham in the semi-final. I suppose, therefore, that I will support Southend. I wish him good luck.

My hon. Friend Jane Griffiths made a speech about Crossrail. I congratulate her on her campaigning on that issue, and take her point about where the end of the line should come. I know that the Secretary of State is aware of those points, and perhaps I shall pass over the other points that she made about local issues, as that is not territory into which I should tread. I wish her all the best for the future, however.

May I take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of wishing you in particular, and all right hon. and hon. Members, a very happy Easter? I look forward to a vigorous new beginning of the Session, after the recess, on 4 April.

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Mr Nick Ainger (Government Whip (technically a Lords Commissioner, HM Treasury); Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Labour)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.