Points of Order
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West, Labour)
I am taken aback at being called so early in the debate; like most Members, I am used to sitting here for a few hours before speaking. However, I am pleased and grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me.
As is traditional on these occasions, I want to mention issues affecting my constituency. I shall mention two matters, both of which I have raised in the past, although events have moved on since then. The first relates to Southern Railway services between London Bridge and my constituency. I have an inner-London constituency south of the river. Overground services are particularly important to my constituents and me, as the north London underground railway, as it is known, has not yet come to our part of south-east London. Fortunately, that will be remedied in a couple of years' time.
I have previously raised in the House issues arising from the route utilisation strategy for south London, and from the extension of the East London line to Crystal Palace and West Croydon. As part of the changes, Transport for London will take responsibility for the route, and for all stations from New Cross Gate to Crystal Palace and to West Croydon, and will take over the running of Brockley, Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill, Sydenham, Penge West, Anerley and Norwood Junction stations to boot; they will become part of what will be known as the London overground network, although it will be run by TFL and will be part of the tube system. That, of course, is a great boon to my constituents and to right hon. and hon. Friends whose constituencies neighbour mine.
I raised the issue in the past because there was some doubt about whether the services would be at the expense of, or additional to, existing services. Fortunately, most of the problems have been resolved, and my constituents and others are looking forward eagerly to the considerable expansion of the public transport network in south-east London. It probably will be the greatest improvement since the arrival of the railways many decades ago.
With change comes difficulty, as everybody knows. New stations are being fitted with the Oyster card system, which has been hugely successful on the underground network and on London buses. Extending it to the national rail network will be to the advantage of passengers throughout the area and the country, wherever it is adopted. Bringing in the Oyster card service means bringing in gates, which is where the current problem exists. There is a plan at Sydenham and Forest Hill stations to introduce over two phases and by the end of this year automatic gates, which will be brought on line while the Southern Trains franchise is still in existence.
Unfortunately, this is causing many of my constituents considerable inconvenience and has made their lives difficult because of restrictions on the up service from Sydenham and the down service from Forest Hill, requiring people to go to the other side of the station and back over the footbridge to get to the service they want. For people with buggies or luggage or with mobility difficulties, that is extremely inconvenient. Everybody understands why the new system is being brought in, but it cannot be right to inconvenience the law-abiding and ticket-buying majority in the hope of catching the fare-evading minority. My constituents certainly do not see it that way.
Fortunately, the elected mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, arranged for me and him to meet senior Southern Trains managers at Forest Hill and Sydenham stations last Friday and, more particularly, for the managers to meet a number of constituents—their customers, passengers, or whatever they are called these days—and to hear from them first hand precisely how difficult their lives have been made by the lack of co-ordination in introducing the programme. As I say, nobody disputes the need to reduce fare evasion and to improve security by ensuring that only genuine passengers have access to both trains and stations. My constituents would agree with that proposition.
However, as the full scheme can be implemented by the end of this year, we are asking Southern Trains—it has agreed to consider this—to revert to the original position of unguarded gates until such time as it can bring in the whole scheme. My constituents will then be able to have access to both the up and down platforms at all times of the day with minimum inconvenience. I hope and expect Southern Trains to respond positively in a short space of time.
The other issue concerns health in south-east London. The primary care trusts in Lewisham, Greenwich, Bromley and Bexley put together a review of acute provision within what they called "outer south-east London." I grew up in south-east London and have lived there all my life so far. I have never heard of outer south-east London. However, I applaud the PCTs for taking a joint approach to planning important services in the area. The last time I spoke on this issue was at the start of the consultation period. Fortunately, within the last few weeks, that consultation has concluded. The one thing that became apparent beyond all others was that the people of Lewisham do not regard themselves as living in outer south-east London, whatever that might be. If services at Lewisham hospital are taken away, the people would be more likely to go to King's in the west or Guy's and St. Thomas's in the north than they would ever be to go to Queen Elizabeth in Woolwich, Princess Royal in Farnborough or Queen Mary in Sidcup.
I am delighted that the result of the consultation has been to underline, rather than undermine, the services provided by Lewisham hospital. It is good news for Lewisham residents. The confidence and respect of residents for University hospital in Lewisham has been confirmed by the exercise and by the PCT. The joint PCT accepted that it will continue with the world class maternity and, certainly, paediatric services, which are among the best in the country—as good as Great Ormond street, according to the Healthcare Commission, or better, as Great Ormond street does not provide a children's A & E service but Lewisham does. There are many other arrangements—for example, the future of maternity services and collaboration with the academic health sciences centre, which is due to be set up shortly—which will be to the benefit not just of Lewisham hospital as an institution and a centre of technical and medical excellence, but to my constituents and the many others who use its facilities.
Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)
I will also keep to eight minutes, as I know that a lot of colleagues want to get in.
Like Jim Dowd, I have the privilege of representing parts of south-east London, and in a second I shall mention some topics of concern in our part of the world. First, however, I shall mention some slightly broader issues.
We go into recess today with hope and a bit of encouragement that, at last, in Zimbabwe, which we have debated so often in recent weeks, there may be a glimmer of a possibility that things can get better. From these Benches, via the Deputy Leader of the House, may I offer the Foreign Office team our best wishes and encourage them to continue to do all they can, despite the difficult position of the UK, to encourage African Union member states in particular to work strongly and determinedly to bring to an end the illegal and absolutely oppressive Government and to move to a much more positive future in Zimbabwe?
There are two other places where the next few weeks will be crucial. The Deputy Leader of the House will know that, in a matter of days, talks resume between the President of Cyprus and the Prime Minister and President of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This weekend was the 34th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. Many people have seen false dawns in trying to find a resolution, but the election of the new President of Cyprus in February has raised a welcome possibility of new talks and proposals for peace. There are lots of difficult problems, including land, housing, property, disappeared people and so on, but on behalf of the whole House, I wish those initiatives well. It is important that the Government in Ankara understand that, whatever the internal problems of the governing party and the military, they have a huge obligation to seek with their neighbours and on behalf of the whole of Europe to bring Cyprus back to being one nation, with all its communities living together in peace. It is a Commonwealth country and an EU country, and we are a guarantor power. I urge Foreign Office Ministers to be proactive with a greater intensity than ever before.
The third Commonwealth matter that I shall mention is Sri Lanka, in which I have long taken a interest. I am aware that the Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations has just returned from Sri Lanka, and I hope with colleagues from all parties to meet him shortly to go through what he has learned. There are many people working hard under the radar to bring the parties together in Sri Lanka, including Keith Vaz, who is in his place, and others. There has been conflict in that country for far too long. Violence and terrorism are unacceptable. Unless everybody is brought round the table and engaged in the process—Sinhala and Tamil, all the faith communities, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian, and others—there will be no peace on that island. I sense that we have not played a proactive part. India has a huge part to play, as does the United States. I hope that an opportunity can be taken. If the Government in Sri Lanka still think that they can bomb the LTT into submission, they must realise that that is not realistic. As we know from Northern Ireland and elsewhere, unless we engage people, there will not be a solution. I am sure a solution short of separation and two states is possible.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)
We should pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman himself for his work over many years. Does he agree that whatever happens in Sri Lanka should not prevent the British Tamil community from playing their full part in our democracy and from engaging fully with elected Members of this House?
Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)
Absolutely. A new high commissioner for Sri Lanka has just been appointed—I have not met him yet—and we must send a clear message that people from all communities in Sri Lanka who have settled here can express their views within the law as freely as other citizens. There must be no intimidation and no sense that the debate here about what is happening in Sri Lanka is being suppressed.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth scholarships, but there was a big setback this March, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided to stop funding a proportion of those scholarships. That decision was not met by a positive response around the Commonwealth—indeed, the reaction was to the contrary, and real anger persists. The former Member for Bristol, West, Valery Davey, who is now the extremely able chair of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, and colleagues from all parties are working with others to try to get the Government to think again. I want the Government to think again and to reinstate funding across the Commonwealth, so that postgraduates of excellence can come here and benefit by studying before going on to be friends of this country abroad.
On the domestic agenda, I have just come from a march from Great Dover street in my constituency to Downing street in memory of David Idowu, who died aged 14 after being stabbed by another teenager five weeks ago. There is a huge gathering of his family, his friends, his neighbours, local schoolchildren, local teenagers, representatives of the Churches and other faith groups, local councillors and so on. The march is about to go over Westminster bridge, and I hope to join it later at Downing street.
There are ways to deal with knife crime. As we are putting our case in Southwark, my specific plea is for the assets released by the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill to be released early to help existing organisations do more. For example, there is a youth club over the road called The Hub. It is open on some nights of the week, but it would like to open on all the nights of the week. The organisation XLP has a bus that it uses on estates, and it would like to use that bus all day, every day. Downside Fisher youth club, Rockingham estate play association and many other youth organisations would like to do more, which would lead to other people volunteering. Will the Government think again about whether they can fund more detached or outreach youth workers in all our local authorities, to work in the statutory or voluntary sectors? Youth workers could be out in the community as role models and support systems for individuals. If we had 50 of them in Southwark—25 men and 25 women—it would be a great advantage.
Sarah Teather (Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform; Brent East, Liberal Democrat)
In Brent, we have found that long-term sustainable funding is needed to work with deprived communities, but the constant changes in the different funding streams and changing priorities can make it difficult to build up trust with difficult-to-reach communities.
Simon Hughes (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party President, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)
That is absolutely true, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House brings my hon. Friend's point to the attention not only of her Cabinet Office colleagues, but of colleagues in other Departments.
I repeat my oft-heard plea—every London Member says this—for the Government to be much more ambitious about their social housing programme. Over the summer, I hope that the Government talk to the new Mayor of London to ensure that he is ambitious about not only one and two-bedroomed properties, but three and four-bedroomed properties, too.
We have had a great sporting summer so far, although the cricket is a bit risky. [ Interruption. ] We beat New Zealand and we still have a chance of beating South Africa, although it will take a better performance than in the past two tests. Wimbledon was fantastic, and there was some unbelievable tennis; the British Open was probably the most exciting of recent times; and the motor racing has been wonderful, with two grand prix successes in a row for Hamilton. We have great talent in this country, and there are some wonderful organisations that offer sporting opportunities particularly to youngsters. In Lambeth and Southwark, we have the sport action zone. Will the Government, working with local authorities, ensure that the message about what is available is communicated even better, and continue to support community and other funding initiatives? We are about to watch what will hopefully be a successful Olympics, and I hope that that inspires us to better achievement.
Finally, I want to discuss a local issue. Ms Harman and I share political responsibility for the Aylesbury estate. Earlier this year, the Minister for Local Government said that the Government would consider ways to support the regeneration of that huge estate, which was an iconic symbol for the previous Prime Minister when he took office in 1997. The council has an ambitious plan to rebuild the estate, to which the community has signed up, but the plan needs Government support and resources. That plan could make a great community for the middle part of Walworth and the middle part of Southwark, but the Government must be bold. Indeed, the Government need to be bold in all the matters that I have mentioned, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be bold in telling her colleagues that.
Mike Hall (Weaver Vale, Labour)
I want to raise a number of constituency issues that have implications for the Government and for legislation.
First, I shall discuss common land in Norley, which is a beautiful village in the middle of my constituency. It has recently come to light that a company has registered the leasehold of the common land. That affects 28 of my constituents, who fear that they will have to pay for access to their own homes. The lease is dated
The Government have four important questions to consider. First, on what basis can a company acquire common land that has been designated as common land for hundreds of years? Secondly, where a company applies to register a leasehold on common land but does not produce the evidence to show that the lessor has the title to that common land, surely the Land Registry should consult local residents who are affected to let them know what is happening and give them the opportunity to get involved in the process, which is nearly 10 years old in this case? Thirdly, where prescriptive rights of access to common land have been acquired, I want the Government to make it absolutely clear that if the property is sold, the rights acquired are transferred with the sale, which would go a long way in allaying my constituents' fears. Finally, where a company attempts to sell the freehold on common land, surely they must be able to prove that they own the freehold to the satisfaction of the Land Registry?
Let me now discuss the activities of United Utilities in my constituency. It is necessary to write to United Utilities at least three times in order to get an answer to the question one originally asked. This is only a small thing, but United Utilities promised that it would not change the way in which it charges park homes for land drainage; it made that promise three years ago, but this year it has introduced changes that mean that people in park homes in my constituency face an increase of between 85 and 183 per cent. in their charges. I had to write three times to United Utilities to obtain an explanation. It told me that the changes would be revenue neutral. When I pressed it on that point, it said that, based on the 2003-04 figures, it was £25,000 worse off, but it had managed to rebalance the books. When I asked it about the figures for the next three years, it said that it does not have those figures and that it would be too expensive manually to collect them. How on earth can United Utilities say that those changes, which are only small but which affect my constituents, are revenue neutral? That is an important question for the Government to answer, and it relates to my next point.
United Utilities has also decided to change the way in which it levies water charges on churches. Such charges are now based not on rateable value, but on the actual area covered by the church, including car parks and open spaces. Churches obtain their income from parishioners, and any money that United Utilities takes off them in increased charges for water will come out of the money that they spend on their communities, their churches, their parishioners and their work. I have pressed United Utilities to say whether it will maintain the 90 per cent. charitable discount for churches and places of worship, but it has not answered that question, which I have asked three times. Incidentally, I have also asked the Minister with responsibility for that matter that question, but he has not answered it, either. I need answers to all those questions from United Utilities.
I am rushing through the points that I want to raise. My next point is about NHS Logistics, which is based in four parts of the country. There is a depot in my constituency. The company supplies consumable goods to the national health service and, in September 2006, against my advice and that of other Members, the Government transferred NHS Logistics into the private sector. It was taken over by DHL and is now called NHS Supply Chain. At the time of the transfer, a written guarantee was given to NHS Logistics staff that they would be subject to "Agenda for Change". On
That guarantee also contained a promise that the trade union recognition and activities available to workers at NHS Logistics in the NHS would transfer to DHL and NHS Supply Chain. Only recently, a union official at DHL-NHS Supply Chain was suspended for trade union activities, and at a disciplinary hearing was given a six-month warning about them. That is not consistent with the terms and conditions guaranteed in writing when NHS Logistics moved to the private sector. It was also promised that a service agreement should be written between the Department of Health and NHS Supply Chain about what trade union activities will go on; another issue is whether the agreement will be written and binding. The master service agreement has been written and I seek confirmation from the Government that that agreement, signed by DHL and the Department of Health, still stands and will be adhered to. I seek clarification on how the Government will scrutinise whether the agreement is kept.
The penultimate matter that I want to raise relates to the BBC and its trustees. The recently published BBC annual report shows that the BBC should pay tax on taxable benefits given to BBC non-executive directors. The report also confirms that private health care for BBC senior managers is being paid for from the BBC licence fee. We are now told that there is an issue about where BBC trustees live—there is concern that they are too London-centric. I should like the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to consider that matter.
Finally, I pay tribute to a guy called Harry Pyle, a very old friend of mine. Harry died on
Paul Beresford (Mole Valley, Conservative)
I want to use this opportunity to raise an issue that I have raised several times. I seek to persuade Ministers, at the Home Office in particular, to improve the legislation on paedophiles—particularly predatory paedophiles who use encryption.
Most of us in the House know that paedophiles collect photographs of child abuse. In the old days, they used hard copies, then they used videos. Now they are into digital data, which are kept on computers, CD-ROMs and DVDs—any form of digital storage. They source the material by downloading from websites, swapping among themselves on the internet and producing their own photographs. The demand for new material is endless and increasing. There have been a number of changes over the years. Internationally, there is a bigger supply. In this country, there is an increasing demand. Worse than that, the level of depravity also seems to be increasing.
Many people see paedophiles as individuals who seek young teens, but the reality is that they increasingly look for material depicting the abuse of very young children—infants, and even babies. Most recently, the material has been able to be encrypted in such a way that the police and even the security forces have been unable to break into it. I have discussed the issue with police experts and the National Technical Assistance Centre, which has the job of breaking encryption for the security forces and the police. I understand from the head of NTAC that an increasing proportion of its work is related to encrypted child abuse data.
Such data used to be difficult to encrypt, but then came along 128-bit and 256-bit encryption that the individuals could download free from the internet. The process has got progressively more simple, and the new Vista Professional operating system means that, at the moment the individuals turn off their computers, all the material is automatically encrypted. Some individuals go further; they have computers with no hard drives and store the data online, often in other countries, and access is hidden by password or key.
Part 3 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—RIPA, for short—relatively recently introduced a penalty for failure to provide, on request, the password or the key. The problem is that the penalty is not working for the simple reason that it involves two years in jail. The data that the individuals—men and women—are hiding would put them in prison for considerably longer than that and they would also end up on the sex offenders register.
I am requesting a change. I shall give the Minister a brief example. A friend and colleague of mine, Dave Marshall of the Metropolitan police, arrested two individuals who were on the way to France. They had a manual on how they were going to collect and abuse children in France; fortunately, they were picked up first. At one of the individual's homes a computer was found with what was believed to be 150 gigabytes of encrypted photos that could not be accessed—if they were single pictures, that translates to 750,000 photographs of abuse.
The individual involved is a prime suspect in a case involving the abuse of a little girl of three, so the police particularly want to look at his computer. They know that he likes to photograph his activities and are sure that the photos are on the computer. NTAC has had the computer for more than nine months but has failed to break the encryption. The police want the data to convict the individual—and others, of course. They want to collect the names and faces of the children, because they want to care for them. We in the House want such individuals put away for a very long time so that they cannot touch children.
I have raised the issue with Ministers again and again. They are sympathetic, but say that they wish to wait and see how part 3 of RIPA works. It does not work. I cannot understand why we need to wait for more and more paedophiles to escape detection, while little children fail to get the safe care and attention that people expect of our society. There will be yet another Home Office crime Bill; a small amendment in it would rectify the situation and could increase the penalty from two years to at least five, so that our children and babies can be protected.
Ann Cryer (Keighley, Labour)
I would like to talk about one subject this afternoon. Airedale general hospital is situated in a very attractive part of my constituency, at Eastburn in the Aire valley. It cares for constituents of Keighley, Pendle, Skipton and Shipley. It has a well used helipad that works with the accident and emergency department, which cares for climbers, potholers and abseilers from the dales, as well as for others with less rural interests.
This excellent district hospital is the biggest employer in my constituency and is highly regarded by me and my neighbouring colleagues—and, more importantly, by our constituents. However, I wish to draw the House's attention to the long-standing problems caused by lack of investment in the kitchens and canteen. Since 2002, the hospital trust and management have been asked by Bradford's environmental health service to improve the kitchens. At the time, the trust and management explained that funds were not available for that work. Each time the kitchens have been inspected since then, the list of improvements and refurbishments needed has grown. At the moment, they include replacing floor tiles, wall surfaces and ceilings, as well as new, improved methods of air extraction—at a total cost, it is claimed, of £1.5 million.
Last year, I had meetings with management where I stressed the need for the work to be done. By then, however, they had decided that the only solution was to go down the privatisation path. In March this year, the staff were advised that a procurement process was under way to outsource catering. On Thursday of this week,
Good food is a very basic requirement, and it goes without saying that it is especially important for people who are unwell and in hospital. The food at Airedale general hospital has been praised. I note that the hospital trust's in-patient survey for 2007-08 stated:
"Food ratings were well above average with Airedale in the top 20 per cent. of all Trusts—72 per cent. of patients rated food as 'very good' or 'good.'"
Letters to the local paper, Keighley News, and website forums have also congratulated the hospital on its standard of food.
I have been advised that before making its decision on catering the trust board will, when allocating the contract or otherwise, take into consideration the following criteria: quality, nutrition, safety, contingency planning, guarantees, value for money and staff transfer proposals. However, public opinion, the responsiveness of local provision and the environment are not included. There is considerable evidence that the public support the retention of in-house catering. Last year, a petition was signed by 650 people in two hours. The story has occupied many column inches in the local press. This is a subject that people really care about, and I have asked that the trust take into consideration the views of local people.
Furthermore, damage is caused to the environment by transporting food over long distances, and freshness is reduced when food is not prepared on site. I believe that the promotion of good food by all public sector bodies, whether schools, care homes or hospitals, is a way of promoting a culture of healthy eating that is clearly needed in this country.
Finally, I want to talk about the staff, who are the most important factor in all this. There are significant implications for those staff, whose numbers have reduced from 92 last year to 65 now and who are working ever harder in very difficult circumstances. Many of them have contacted me. I believe that the interests of staff are wholly and inextricably linked to the interests of patients. Any threat to their jobs, terms and conditions is not acceptable. Catering work is often relatively low-paid, but the work is vital. The hard work and loyalty of these staff has been core to the success of catering at Airedale general hospital, but I am not convinced that there will be any long-term security for their employment rights.
As has been seen on numerous occasions following other such privatisations, there is no turning back, and often good things are thrown away. I hope that these few words will encourage Airedale hospital trust to demonstrate its loyalty to these extremely loyal workers by deciding on the in-house option on Thursday.
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
Before the House rises for the summer recess, I wish to draw to its attention once again the plight of the Cumbrian economy—my perennial rant about our situation in Cumbria. That is because we are still the fifth poorest sub-region or county in the whole of Europe. It is not just me saying that; I am not talking down our county, with its superb people and innovators. The Commission for Rural Communities says in its latest report that people living in parts of rural Cumbria are among the country's worst paid and our areas among the most deprived. It highlights a lack of affordable housing, declining services in rural areas and poorer access to services for people without cars. For those who have cars—and it is essential to have cars in Cumbria—their costs are rocketing for the reasons that we know.
There are things that the Government could do about this. First, they could sort out the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the funding that we are supposed to have through the rural development programme for England, which is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the European Union. We have had a two-year funding gap whereby the money has not come through because the bureaucrats have been wrangling about what we should be doing. Perhaps other areas of the country have also suffered, but Cumbria needs that cash. We do not need political wrangles about how to spend it. We have the innovators—the small business men and women and the rural areas who have the good ideas—so give them the money.
Cumbria is also suffering because of the continuing shambles of the Rural Payments Agency, which is again late in paying hundreds of farmers in my constituency. Although it is not as bad as last year or the year before, they will now be clobbered by the clawback of the money that they were wrongly paid. Twenty thousand farmers in this country were wrongly paid. We know that the Government will behave in exactly the same way as they did with child tax credits. Demands will land on the claimant's mat for the money to be repaid immediately, even though it is not their fault. Many farmers will not have spotted that they have been wrongly paid, so the money will not be there to be paid back—it will already have been reinvested, to use the Government's term. Some farmers will be put out of business when that money is demanded back. It is high time that DEFRA sorted out the shambles of the RPA. Yes, it can be forgiven for getting it wrong in the first year, when it was setting up probably the most complex payments system in Europe, but it is not acceptable to get it wrong in the second and third years. DEFRA should subcontract the payments agency out to Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which seems to be able to pay its farmers on time, or across the border to Scotland.
The plight of the Cumbrian economy has not been helped by the continuing post office closure programme. I utterly condemn the senior management of the Post Office for being the Government's little puppy dog in this. When I phoned the senior officer to say, "We are campaigning to save post offices in my constituency", the answer was, "Well, I'm under instructions to close 2,500 post offices in the country, and if you manage to save one, Mr. Maclean, I'll just have to find another one to close." That was not a threat—she was not being nasty but merely stating a fact. For each post office in our constituencies that we and local people manage to save, another will be closed instead because those are the Government's orders. The consultation has been an utter sham.
I have recently been inundated, as most colleagues probably have, by correspondence about the cost of fuel from people who have to travel in the course of their work. I have just received some letters from workers from the RPA, who point out that they are on 40p a mile—as is everyone in this House, of course—and that their actual motoring costs are now about 52p, 53p or 54p a mile. I have heard from social workers and meals on wheels workers in Cumbria, some on only 39p per mile, who are now, as volunteers, making a huge loss in trying to deliver meals on wheels or social services. That cannot continue. The report on Members' allowances said that the cost of motoring was high and MPs were making a loss, but we did not wish to raise our levels until the Government and the Treasury did it for everyone else in the country. It is vital that throughout the country those essential volunteer drivers, who are driving in the course of their duty, get an increase in their Treasury mileage rates to a lot more than 40p per mile.
In Cumbria, we are facing the additional costs of vehicle excise duty. An area such as Cumbria has a lot more people with cars—they are not the newer, flashier models but older cars. We have a low-paid rural population who do not have access to buses—they just ain't there. We all use trains when we can. We get into our cars and drive the 30 miles to the nearest train station, and then we use the trains. Those lower-paid workers will generally have older-model cars, and they are in danger of being clobbered because of the Government's changes on VED.
I appeal to the Government: to help the Cumbrian economy, let us push the button on the nuclear programme and stop messing around. Cumbria is a nuclear county. It has Sellafield, the only centre of excellence in this country for nuclear technology. We want Sellafield to be expanded; we are willing for it to be a depository for nuclear waste—not a dump, but a depository such as those in Sweden or other Scandinavian countries where people can access it and check on the materials. We will do that for a price. We are willing to have a nuclear reactor in Cumbria. We will take that technology, provided we are not afflicted with more ghastly wind farms destroying the beautiful landscape of rural Cumbria.
At least nuclear energy will contribute to our electricity supply 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and not the 30 per cent. of the time that our miserable wind farms do. Our beautiful county is in danger of being destroyed by wind farm applications at Shap, Berrier, at the foot of Blencathra and now Cumwhinton near Carlisle. They contribute little to our energy needs, but—goodness me—they could certainly contribute 24/7 to the ugliness and destruction of our visual environment.
My penultimate point to the Government is this: please do not muck around with our GP practices and our excellent chemists. We do not need polyclinics in Cumbria. If I had cut my finger in London, I would not dream of trying to search out a local GP. Like everyone else, I would go to St. Thomas's or one of the big hospitals. We know that there is a problem and that London needs health centres and possibly polyclinics. In Cumbria we have had big rural GP practices for years, with six or seven doctors working together in excellent health centres. We do not need polyclinics, and nor do we need the destabilisation of our system of rural chemists—some doctors are now applying to have 100-hour pharmacies, because they believe that their businesses are under threat from the Government's White Paper.
I conclude on this point: as colleagues pass through my constituency in the Lake district this summer, possibly heading for Scotland, the highlands or elsewhere, they will find one or two tiny little parts of it where, if they stop and look carefully, they will see a red squirrel. But they should look very closely, because we are in danger of losing that species. Our red squirrels are in danger of extinction. I appeal to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to give us funding for traps to control the greys—let us spend the summer saving the reds.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)
Saving the reds is, of course, a sentiment that I echo.
This debate should be renamed the tour of Britain because it gives all Members the opportunity to visit, via virtual reality, the constituencies of other Members. The red squirrels of Cumbria are very important to David Maclean, and I am sure that the debate will end with Angela Browning inviting us all to spend our summer holidays in her constituency, seeing all the wonderful flowers that grow there.
I want to spend the brief time that I have to raise a local, a national and an international issue. I have raised the local issue with the Minister before, and it concerns a site in Leicester that is still owned by General Electric, the second largest company in the world. Those who have been to Leicester—I know that Mr. Vara frequently visits relatives there—will come off the M1 and drive to Rushey Mead and past the old Thorn EMI site. That site is now for sale. For many years, it made about a third of the light bulbs for the whole of Europe, but it has closed, and GE wishes to sell it.
The land, however, is contaminated, and we have asked the council and Ministers to intervene to ensure that it is not sold for commercial purposes until there is a full and thorough investigation by the local council and the Environment Agency into the reasons for the contamination. It should be put on the market only once the contamination is cleared. Once it has been cleared, the land should be used for housing rather than for commercial purposes or sporting activity. I find it very strange that the Government are trying to force an eco-town on Leicestershire in the western part of my constituency, on what I regard as green belt land. That is a beautiful part of the county, but I can offer them a brownfield site in the middle of Leicester, which will be ideal for house building once it has been cleared of contamination. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give us some good news about the Government's commitment to dealing with contaminated land and on their desire to ensure that when developers wish to build, they should build within cities, where possible, before moving outside.
My second point concerns home affairs issues, although I do not want to turn this into a debate on the programme of the Select Committee on Home Affairs because there will be other opportunities for that. I fully endorse what Simon Hughes said about the march against knife crime that is currently going through Westminster, and I hope to join him and others outside No. 10 at 4 o'clock to show our support for the need to find a solution to that ever-increasing problem. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise those issues, and to raise the issue of peace in Sri Lanka.
I would like, however, to address the Government's decision to initiate a consultation on alcohol. As my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer will know, on Tuesday of last week the Home Affairs Committee completed its lengthy inquiry into policing in the 21st century. Alcohol-related crime is an important aspect of the time spent by the police on solving crimes of violence. In fact, 46 per cent. of crimes in this country are alcohol-related and, based on current figures, 6 per cent. of hospital admissions are alcohol-related. I welcome the fact that the Government have decided to carry out a consultation on the sale and availability of alcohol.
Cut-price alcohol is offered to those who wish to go to pubs and clubs for so-called happy hours. Our major supermarkets discount alcohol to such an extent that people—in many cases young people—who go to nightclubs on a Friday or Saturday night have already been able to front-load their drinking by drinking cheap alcohol at home. In some cases, alcohol in places such as Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco is actually cheaper than water. I welcome the consultation, which will last until October. Looking at the alcohol industry and, more importantly, at the effect alcohol has on crime is an important step forward.
Finally, I would like to raise an international point, which relates to Yemen. I declare an interest: I was born in Yemen, and spent the first nine years of my life there. I try to go back at least once a year with the all-party group on Yemen. Members on both sides of the House have had the opportunity to visit that wonderful country. Unfortunately, the Government have decided to restrict travelling to Yemen on the grounds that the terrorist situation has become much worse. The problem with such advice is that people-to-people contact, which is so important to building up relations, is put at risk.
I am not a security expert, but I do not think there is a huge problem for tourists visiting Yemen if they take the advice of the Yemeni Government. In other words, they should stick to the big towns and cities of Yemen, such as Sana'a and Aden—the city where I was born—where the Government give protection to tourists. The advice is sending the wrong signal given our determination to ensure that the Government of Yemen remain in line with our agenda to combat terrorism in that region of the world.
We have a proud record of providing aid to Yemen. We set up the donor conference in 2006, where millions of pounds were raised for Yemen by the countries involved. Some of that money has been spent, and other resources remain to be spent. Because we provided the basis for the donor conference, and have now started a consultation on the Yemen development plan, it is important that we are seen to take a lead in helping the Yemeni people, 35 per cent. of whom live in poverty. The level of ill health among young people there is terrible. As we enjoy our summer holidays, whether in Tiverton and Honiton, or the lovely city of Leicester—whichever pitch right hon. and hon. Members make today—I hope that we remember that there is a world outside. Yemen is not a traditional summer holiday destination for Members of Parliament, but I hope that we will take the necessary steps to protect and support the people of that small and beautiful country.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth, Conservative)
I propose to speak briefly about three subjects: knife crime, tax credit problems and choice in health care.
Although I am a Leicestershire Member of Parliament, in 1980, I stood for election to the Greater London council in London, not far from the constituency of Simon Hughes. I well remember driving back on Friday evening and seeing the whole of Brixton in flames, and the roads cordoned off. In subsequent years, I was at Oxford university researching, specifically, policing and public order in a multi-racial Britain. I looked at the Scarman report, and studied the Bristol and Brixton riots in some detail.
I raise this matter because I fear that the policing strategy and the general attitude to the knife crime wave in London, terrible though it is—I believe that 25 young lives have been lost so far—is slightly off-message. Members with long memories will recall that the key problem addressed by Scarman was the "sus" law: the blanket stop-and-search arrangements that had inflamed relations with the ethnic community. As I consider the strategy to deal with the present problem in London, I am concerned about the possibility that we will repeat the problems of the 1980s, when the perceived strong approach of the police involved targeting large numbers of people in the hope of finding a fairly large number carrying knives and did not involve targeting known offenders. I am concerned that such a strategy will blow up in our faces.
I do not believe that the police can maintain blanket stop-and-search arrangements for a long period. There must be a strategy for targeting the gang leaders. The police have a duty—I think it is in the Public Order Act 1986—to provide public tranquillity, and tranquillity is often enhanced by the presence of police. The new "half police officers" and special constables should be brought into play in that context. However, the situation is worrying: policing by consent is above all essential, and should be the main goal.
About 10 years ago, when we debated speed cameras in the House, the only basis on which Members accepted the proposal for cameras en masse across the country was the understanding that they would be clearly marked. I remember those debates well. I have noticed in the Metropolitan police district—I tabled some questions about this yesterday—new bi-directional speed cameras that are marked on only one side. That strikes me as dangerous. There is a general agreement that safety cameras—or speed cameras; call them what you like—are a good idea, but there will be problems if they do not command public consent. Moreover, I believe that the police are in breach of the guidelines that clearly state that the cameras should be marked on both sides. I could read them all out.
My next point concerns tax credit. What a nightmare! I cannot believe the amount of work that my local tax offices devote to dealing with it. It is generally those with the most problems whose problems are compounded by the lunacy of the Government's overpaying them and then saying "We want it all back." It is madness. I cannot believe the amount of time and misery that it has generated.
I referred a case to the ombudsman, who—not because of that one case, but because there are hundreds of such cases—produced "Tax credits: Getting it wrong?", a scathing report on the Government. The problems are on almost the same scale as those produced by the Child Support Agency, which have bedevilled members of all parties over the years. The position is truly ghastly, and the least well-off generally suffer most. The tax credit system has put people in debt for the first time. People who have never entertained debt in their lives find themselves in debt, just like the wretched farmers—including some in my constituency—who are suffering at the hands of the Rural Payments Agency.
As I have said, Ann Abraham, the ombudsman, launched a scathing attack. How can it be that £1 billion was overpaid last year and a third of tax credit awards were overpaid by more than £1,000—25,000 by over £5,000? We must, I think, consider the way in which the Government have tinkered with tax and credit over the years. The current Prime Minister began by abolishing the family credit system, and then introduced working families tax credit, disabled person's tax credit, child care tax credit and employment credit. He then abolished the married couples tax allowance, introduced a children's tax credit, introduced a baby tax credit, abolished the working families tax credit, the disabled person's tax credit, the children's tax credit and the baby tax credit, introduced child tax credit, abolished employment credit and introduced the working tax credit that we now have. Is it any wonder that people are confused after 15 changes over the years, and that the ombudsman has taken an interest? It is a disgraceful record.
It is no secret among some of my colleagues that I have an interest in integrated health care and have been involved with complementary medicine over the years. I welcome the publication of a long-awaited report by the Department of Health's steering group on the regulation of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. I am sure that this will interest the Deputy Leader of the House. The report, published on
What we have found in the whole field of integrated health care is that once there is statutory regulation—this was true of the Osteopaths Act 1993 and the Chiropractors Act 1994; I served on the Committee stages of both—doctors are prepared to refer people. One of our problems with integrated health care, including homoeopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture and aromatherapy, is that doctors do not want to refer people because they are not certain that those to whom they are referring them are properly qualified. If we can ensure that more such therapies are regulated by Acts of Parliament, many more people will be referred, which will be much cheaper for the national health service.
I hope that my points will be considered. I rest my case.
John Grogan (Selby, Labour)
I want to say a few words about three subjects that are close to my heart. Following the comments of Simon Hughes about the great summer of sport that we are currently enjoying, I should like to say a little about cricket, and particularly the broadcasting of cricket. I should also like to say a little about beer, especially in the light of the alcohol strategy that the Government published today. Finally, I should like to say a little about Mongolia.
John Grogan (Selby, Labour)
There could be links, which I shall develop in due course. That sets me a challenge. I did once play in a cricket match in Mongolia, and had a beer afterwards.
I fear that before the House returns in October the England and Wales Cricket Board, led by Giles Clarke, may well sign a new broadcasting contract for 2010 to 2013. It could be the second such contract allowing cricket, alone among all our major sports, no window on free-to-air television. There will be no live matches, but it is live matches that thrill the blood, so that will be a great disappointment.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the test match between England and South Africa. I was lucky enough to be there on Saturday. Perhaps it was not the most exciting day of cricket, but it would have been seen by only about 300,000 people on Sky, compared with the up to 8 million who watched some of the terrestrial coverage. Next summer it will be the Ashes series again, yet cricket is still living off the heroes of the last Ashes series—names such as Pietersen and so on are well known. The next Ashes series will be live on free TV in Australia through the night, but not in this country.
There are two ways of progressing, the first of which is the listed events legislation. It is no accident that the Wimbledon final, which is listed and must be available free to air to all the population at a fair and reasonable price to the broadcasting companies, was enjoyed by 12 million people. Every pub, restaurant and club in the land could put it on, and people who were not at all interested in tennis watched it. I fear that if the cricket authorities do not put some cricket back on terrestrial television, Ministers may be persuaded at last that they have to look at the issue again—indeed, we are coming up to a review of listed events.
The second way in which cricket can return to free-to-air TV is simply through the cricket authorities recognising that although they have to make money out of Sky and other subscription broadcasters—Sky does a marvellous job—they can still insist in their contracts that some cricket be on free-to-air TV. Rugby league does that with the Challenge cup, which will be enjoyed on BBC television this weekend. The Football League recently did a broadcasting deal in which it insisted that 10 live matches from 2010 be on free-to-air TV.
There are ways of having cricket on TV and still retaining a good income for the sport. I hope even at this late stage that the English cricket board and the two gentlemen who are negotiating the contracts—I have mentioned Giles Clarke; the second gentleman is a constituent of mine, Clive Leach, who lives in Barkston Ash and is chairman of Durham, and to whom I appeal in particular as a constituent—will think again and see whether at least some cricket, such as part of one of the Twenty20 competitions that were announced last week, could be on free-to-air TV.
The issue is the subject of great debate in the English cricket board. Giles Clarke won by just one vote among the counties last year. In the first ballot there was a tie, at nine votes each, and his main rival and critic, Mike Soper, took a very different view on free-to-air TV. I appeal to the counties of England represented on the English cricket board to take an interest in the negotiations over the next few weeks and bring some cricket back to free-to-air TV.
Moving rapidly on to beer and the Government's alcohol strategy, I regret the fact that there was no reference in the alcohol strategy announced this morning to dealing with the below-cost selling of alcohol—particularly beer, but other alcohol, too—in supermarkets, which is a concern across the House. There were some worthy measures mentioned. It is always worth remembering, by the way, that our alcohol consumption per head is falling, although that does not detract from the health dangers facing those who drink too much or the dangers to public order and so on.
The Government need to revisit the issue of alcohol pricing. They will not get away with dodging it. There are many pressures. For example, the Governments in Scotland and Ireland have said that they will legislate. The official spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition said that they would deal with below-cost selling—in an undefined way, but that is nevertheless a big step forward. Doctors and senior police chiefs are forming a loose coalition demanding action. Even Tesco has said that it would not object if the Government decided to act.
It is ridiculous when alcohol is sold for less than the price of water and when 60 cans or bottles are sold in some supermarkets for £20 or less. The Government need to revisit the issue over the recess. The Department of Health is publishing a study on the relationship between alcohol and price. I say gently to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we cannot find ourselves in a situation next year where there will be one price of beer or wine in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Dumfries, yet over the border in Berwick, York, Manchester or Leeds—indeed, throughout the whole of England—there will be another. That would not be sustainable. As I have said, Ministers will not be able to dodge the issue.
Finally, as well as being chair of the all-party beer group, I am chair of the all-party Mongolia group, and I look forward to going there next week. The national hero of Mongolia is Genghis Khan, which makes it even more remarkable that Mongolia has developed a market economy and a democracy over the past 15 or 16 years. Given that its neighbours are China and Russia, that is a tremendous achievement. Tomorrow, the Khural, the Mongolian Parliament, will meet for the first time since the most recent election, when sadly, despite international observers saying that it was free and fair, there were some disturbances and five people were killed.
I am sure that the whole House will wish the Mongolian Khural, meeting tomorrow, success in the formation of a new Government and in building the democratic future that it took this House 1,000 years to build, but on which countries such as Mongolia have made remarkable progress in less than 20 years.
Robert Walter (North Dorset, Conservative)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I could speak about a number of constituency issues, but I shall limit myself mainly to two. The other topical issues would include the latest application to build a wind farm in my constituency, which I hope we will see off; today's announcement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government of her response to the regional spatial strategy, which eats up the green belt in the southern part of my constituency; the crisis in both social and affordable housing; the appalling misery experienced on the A350—the main north-south route—by drivers and those who live near the road; and the suffering of dairy farmers, as we are a hot spot for bovine TB, yet we have seen an almost complete lack of response from the Government.
The two main issues I wish to deal with are economic: one is about the rural economy and the other is about the technological and industrial economy. Although many people may not recognise it, North Dorset does have a technological and industrial economy.
Last week, the list of post offices to be closed in Dorset was issued and some eight in my constituency are on it, while another three are due to be converted to outreach services.
The technological issue concerns the aerospace industry and goes wider than just Dorset, as it deals with the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States.
Some of the eight sub-post offices in my constituency that are on the list for closure should not be included on it. I hesitate to mount a campaign, but I will be participating in a march from Milton on Stour to Gillingham next Sunday morning, and anyone who wants to join us would be most welcome. I want to mention the post office at Blandford Camp. When the man from the Post Office came to see me, he told me that the post office at Blandford Camp, which is the home of the Royal Corps of Signals, was on the list. I said that that was rather surprising as I had visited it the other day and it seemed to be very busy. He said, "Oh yes, but there aren't enough people at retirement age, there are no benefit claimants and no pensioners." I said, "Well, yes, it is a military establishment, so it is unlikely that there would be any of those categories of people." None the less, I was told, this was part of the criteria, so we need to find some way of countering that sort of "logic", particularly when that post office has an enormous amount of parcels business, for example, which supports our troops serving overseas. I feel that it would be a very sad loss if that post office were closed.
I mentioned Milton on Stour a few moments ago, and its post office is also due for closure. This is a thriving rural community very close to the town of Gillingham, but not in it. It has a very limited bus service, as do other areas with post offices on the list. There is a bus service, but anyone who uses it cannot get back the same day, which is rather illogical if one wants to go out to do some postal business. I implore the Post Office seriously to consider the logic of closing some of these post offices and I implore my constituents to make a very good case for keeping them open, particularly those in remote rural areas, and to write letters individually. Petitions are great, but they do not always do a lot here; individual letters will be more influential. If we can keep up the campaign, we may stand a chance of saving at least some of these post offices.
Let me consider the technological and aerospace industries. Flight Refuelling, a traditional company, has been based in Wimborne in the south-east of my constituency for many years. It is now sometimes known by its parent company name of Cobham, after the founder of flight refuelling. It is the world leader in air-to-air refuelling and almost every aircraft in the world—whether a Boeing, an Airbus or a fighter aircraft—has some bit of refuelling or fuelling equipment that the company has supplied and that has been built in Wimborne.
Air-to-air refuelling is the key issue in which the company is currently involved. On
The only problem is that the US Government Accountability Office, under considerable political pressure from Boeing and Congress, has thrown that very good order into touch, and the contract must be readvertised, despite the fact that the US air force says that it is the best aircraft for the job and that it wants the aircraft. I implore the Government to remind the US Government that we are a net buyer of US military equipment and that we should have a fair playing field for the supply of equipment across the Atlantic.
Ian Gibson (Norwich North, Labour)
The major road between Norwich and London is the A11. Over the years, it has been the butt of many jokes and much comment. For example, it used to be said in the 1960s that, as one entered Norfolk, one would meet the Romans leaving because it took so long to come down the A11. Nowadays, many comments are made about keeping "them"—those crooks from London who come up the main road—out of Norfolk. It is said that if one dualled the road, they would come back quicker. That argument was vehemently presented for the non-dualling of the road. Comments have even been made about the need for a drawbridge in Wymondham in Norfolk to stop people coming in. I cannot repeat what people in Norfolk say about the Chelsea tractors that arrive every weekend at second homes in Burnham, but those driving them would favour a faster road.
If one goes to dinner parties, as I do, with movers and shakers, the first comment that they always make about improving Norfolk is, "Dual the A11"; then they get around to discussing important matters such as creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and making and doing things. However, the A11 fascinates people and, when I am being mischievous, which happens rarely, I say, "Well, dualling is fine, but in California, it would have five lanes by now." However, I dread that thought, with climate change so high on the agenda.
Other people say that we can always use the trains. Some of us have been fighting the train route from Norwich to London for years. It is unreliable and today's report about Network Rail fits perfectly with our experience of the trains. The train is no substitute—it is so unreliable. Dualling the road is therefore important.
Norwich is a large and vibrant European city, with a route to Yarmouth, which now has an outer harbour. People will want to get from London through Norwich to the outer harbour. We want that fast route to be developed.
This issue was first talked about as long ago as 1971, in Edward Heath's Government. Progress has always stuttered along since then. The proposals for the Attleborough bypass were made in '89, and in '95 they were put on the long-term programme. In 1999, Lord Larry Whitty, then a Transport Minister, said it was a necessity to get the A11 dualled. In November 2001, the Department for Transport—bless it—announced that the A11 was to be made completely into a dual-carriageway. I supported that, and was quite enthusiastic at the time—and I was the butt of many cartoon jokes saying it would never happen. That was the level of argument at the time.
In fact, however, most of it has been dualled. The distance from London to Norwich is 100-odd miles. The stretch between Roudham heath and Attleborough was dualled in 2003, and the Attleborough bypass was also dualled that year. That venture has led to increased road safety and greater journey time reliability. However, the section between Thetford and Barton Mills/Fiveways is still not dualled, and the pressure is mounting to do that. As this remaining stretch is only 9 miles in length this might seem a trivial issue, but I think that that is an argument for getting the job done sooner rather than later. That would excite people—as I have said, it certainly does so at dinner parties. It would excite those in business and in the travel industry, because there are many traffic jams along that stretch of the A11 as the lorries pile up as they move out into eastern England.
There are also environmental debates and difficulties, for instance to do with sites of special scientific interest. There are environmental pressures to bypass Elveden, where Guinness magnate Lord Iveagh has his place. That has been agreed by the Highways Agency, which has bought a piece of land to allow for migrating birds and certain habitats, and thereby to compensate for the upgrade.
The cost of the upgrade of this 9-mile stretch will be £135 million. It astonishes me that it will be that much, but the experts tell me that that will be the cost. I do not want to compare that with the cost of identity cards and wars, as that would be far too political for end-of-term discussions, but I think I have got my point across. I am sure that £135 million could be quietly absorbed, and that would result in a happier business community in the east of England. The East of England Development Agency has come out in support. It says it would boost the local economy by £600 million and it is vital for the region's economy. It would also generate wider economic benefits for the region and bring firms into Norwich and Thetford.
Dualling would not only benefit the region's economy, but, as I have mentioned, it would help tackle the congestion between Thetford and Barton Mills. I and many other MPs representing the region, and many residents of the area, think that investment in the scheme would be a building-block in the continued economic success of our region. The East of England regional assembly—in an amazing burst of enthusiasm that astonished me—recently gave the green light for the 9-mile stretch on the A11 to be dualled and made it a priority. The Highways Agency is giving support, too. It is beginning to be recognised that that area of the country needs to develop. I do not want to go into all the sad stories about jobs and wages in the area, but that is a real issue.
Bringing the project forward will be the important battle. The east of England regional planning panel has voted to recommend prioritisation of the A11 upgrade, and the Department for Transport recently said that,
"provided there is no undue delay...a scheme start date of late 2010 is still achievable".
It does not really recognise how essential it is to bring that programme forward, and to sanction it and make it happen. If we are to open up this vibrant, creative region of the country to the rest of the world, and make it more than just a place where people have their second homes, dealing with the A11 is a priority.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)
I am sorry not to be able to follow on from Dr. Gibson on a light note, but today we have formally been given the final list of Devon post offices that have been subject to consultation, and we now know exactly which ones will close. I particularly want to raise the matter today because of my ongoing concern about the impact on village communities, which has been touched on by colleagues. A crude criterion has been applied: whether a post office is more than 3 miles from another one.
One of the post offices in my constituency that is due to close is located in Tipton St. John, a small village in east Devon. We made a very strong case, saying that although its post office is located within 3 miles of two other village post offices, the geography of the constituency consists of narrow lanes that are very difficult and dangerous for elderly people or people with small children to walk along, but we were given the answer that the Post Office had satisfied itself that people could catch a bus to a town.
That fundamental criterion might have been overlooked, but, even more worryingly, the village shop aspect—some post offices are also the local village shop, which is a very important facility in rural communities—does not seem to have been taken into account at all. The post office in Tipton St. John is also the village shop. Our difficulty is that despite the fact that I met the Post Office's representatives twice while the consultation was going on, it has still not recognised that any form of outreach service should be provided in place of the closure. That will be very damaging to the local community. In the other six villages where the intention is to close the post office and replace it with some form of outreach service, several of those post offices are also sited in the only village shop for miles.
I particularly worry about the role of the consumer bodies that are in place to make representations on behalf of consumers. Postwatch wrote to me, putting in a detailed application, to say that it was very concerned about some of the issues that I and many others have raised, However, Postwatch seems to have no teeth, and I think it almost a foregone conclusion that these Post Office consultations are a mockery. The most one can do for one's constituents is try to negotiate the best deal possible on outreach services, because, as we have heard, if one saves one post office, the chances are that the post office in the next village may close in order to meet the requirements.
Members of Parliament have been placed in a very difficult position, but so too has Postwatch. Given its role in the process—it says that it has focused very much on the 3-mile limit between post offices that has been set—it seems to me that many of these consumer bodies, which, at one time, would have been championing the rights of consumers and would have been at the forefront of campaigns, have lost all their teeth. I put it to the Government that they have deliberately manipulated many of these representative consumer bodies and watchdogs, which look after things such as postal services and monitoring health service complaints. The Government keep changing these organisations every few years until they have reduced them to being the most ineffective bodies. I intend no disrespect to the people involved in them today.
The post office closure exercise has shown us that if Members of Parliament, the consumer bodies and large campaigns—even though people engage in them in the best hope and faith that they will change minds—cannot make these changes happen, this exercise has been on paper only; it has not been a proper consultation. There will be long-term consequences for the viability of rural communities, such as the villages of Kennerleigh, Newton St. Cyres and Plymtree in my constituency.
The other issue that I wish to raise is that of charity shops. I have several small market towns in my constituency, with populations of between 8,000 and 10,000. Shopkeepers in those towns are increasingly concerned about the number of charity shops. No one is saying that there should not be any charity shops —I have opened some—but I have received correspondence, which I have forwarded to the appropriate Minister, from the chamber of trade in Honiton about the balance that needs to be struck when planning applications are made. The question is how many charity shops can a small town accommodate before the regular traders start to feel disadvantaged? I know that there are trading standards rules on what charity shops can sell, but the traders have a point. I ask the Minister to consider the appropriate number of permissions granted for charity shops to trade in small towns before they start to undermine core businesses.
It would not be the end of term debate, as Keith Vaz said, if I did not invite all colleagues to visit my beautiful constituency during the long summer recess. Hon. Members have heard me talk about the beauty of my constituency before. It has two wonderful national parks nearby—Dartmoor and Exmoor—, and Devon has wonderful beaches both north and south—
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)
I am coming to that. Colleagues who dined in the Members' Dining Room three weeks ago will have experienced the regional menu of Devon produce, including Devon crab cakes and ruby red Devon beef from the Coombe estate in Gittisham in my constituency. So this year, I encourage colleagues to come to the beautiful county of Devon and, especially, to my constituency to take advantage of the wonderful home-produced food. It is not just cream teas: even vegetarians would love the ruby red Devon beef. It is to die for. It is delicious. I hope that everyone has a very happy holiday, and welcome to Devon.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)
I cannot match the exotic invitations to Devon, Mongolia or the A11, but I wish to raise a couple of matters of concern to my constituents. I start, inevitably, with Heathrow.
Last night, Members may have seen the "Panorama" exposť of the Government's decision-making process on the development of Heathrow airport and the information about it obtained by various freedom of information requests. It confirmed that the decision to allow the expansion of Heathrow was made on the basis of information that was "doctored"—it is the only way to describe it—by BAA. That doctoring included the invention of an aeroplane that does not exist yet and is not likely to exist because no manufacturer is willing to create it. That was included in the modelling for the air pollution and noise estimates.
Allegations were also made in the programme about collusion between Government officials and BAA. It is now time, as I have said in an early-day motion that I have tabled today, for a full public inquiry into the decision-making about Heathrow by this Government. It is clear that the Government must now reject all further expansion at Heathrow, because the undoctored evidence demonstrates that if the Government allow it, they will not be able to meet European directive restrictions on air and noise pollution.
I hope that hon. Members will find time today and when we return to sign that early-day motion and that the Government will reject further expansion at Heathrow. I hope that at the same time we can have that inquiry into how a Government can make a policy decision that is based on information doctored by a private company.
The next matter that I want to raise is the BBC resources section. I have constituents who work there, including Mr. Mark Cody, to whom I pay tribute. He has soldiered on, exposing what is happening in that section of the BBC. Some hon. Members will remember that we had a debate earlier in the year in which we drew out some of the information about what is happening with the BBC and its licence. We were then told that the BBC resources section, which includes studio production, post-production and outside broadcasting, was to be sold off. The target was £150 million of income. We now know that £3.4 million has been spent on consultants and advisers to sell off BBC resources, yet only one division—the outside broadcasting division—has been sold, for £19.3 million. The rest of the negotiations have collapsed.
All that money has been spent, and the worst thing for my constituents—in particular for Mr. Mark Cody, who has explained this to me and to others through his union, the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union, is that members of staff have been left virtually in the dark. They have been offered various commitments about protection through TUPE—the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006—if their division is sold off, yet that protection amounts to very little, particularly when it comes to the threat to their pensions, their future wages and their working conditions.
I urge the BBC to start to consult the union properly, to ensure that there is openness and transparency and to ensure that people like Mark Cody are kept fully informed. At the moment, if he is transferred at some future stage, there will be a pension shortfall and he will lose part of his pension, his conditions of service will be undermined and his employment will be threatened. That problem affects loyal staff in a profitable area of the BBC.
Events in another section of the BBC will affect my constituents, too. The BBC is not only outsourcing but offshoring. The latest scheme is to offshore the World Service—the BBC proposes to move major parts of the World Service abroad. The service is directly funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so there must have been some consultation with the Government. For example, the south Asian broadcasting service in Urdu, Hindi and Nepali will be transferred offshore to India, Pakistan and Nepal. That section represents a third of the World Service's audience, attracted, of course, by a superb and excellent independent service.
The problem of offshoring the services to those states is that they come within the ambit of local laws. Already, the BBC has been threatened with censorship by the Pakistani authorities as a result of some of the stories that it wanted to produce and broadcast. In addition, staff are being told that they can transfer abroad on lower pay and short-term contracts and to often unstable and unsafe locations, or they can face redundancy. That is a take-it-or-leave-it offer for those staff, many of whom built up the service over the years. It has a standing and credibility across the world that is second to none. None of the issues with the BBC's performance is acceptable. I urge the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to review those matters and to report back to the House.
The final area of concern that has been raised by my constituents is what has been happening at Shelter, the housing charity. Some Members might know, because they have been written to by Shelter's staff, that Shelter's senior management team has been forcing through changes in staff conditions and contracts against the wishes of the majority of staff, 60 per cent. of whom are unionised and represented by the Transport and General Workers Union, now called Unite the Union. That situation has led to industrial action for the first time in the 41 year history of Shelter. Shelter staff report to me that there is demoralisation and key expert staff are leaving as a result of the imposition by management of cuts in wages and working conditions.
That must be a concern to us all. Many Members on both sides of the House have worked with Shelter over the years; it has provided us with an excellent service in briefings and other materials, as well as campaigning on issues such as homelessness. At a time when we have a housing crisis, especially in terms of affordability, and when repossessions are rising, to undermine Shelter is to undermine an organisation that provides us and the homeless with a service.
Interestingly, before the management sought to impose pay and condition cuts on their staff, they gave themselves a significant wage rise. In fact, the chief executive, whom I met, gave himself an 18 per cent. wage rise just before he started sacking his own staff. The staff themselves have had an average pay cut of £2,300. There have been cuts in wages of £800 per annum, and increased hours. We are told that some staff are now having to work three weeks extra for no additional pay, yet the headquarters has been cosmetically refurbished for £750,000, and £500,000 has been spent on consultants to advise the management on how to cut the wages and conditions of the staff.
I urge the Shelter board to intervene. I have met the chief executive of Shelter, who says that this is actually to do with the way in which contracts are awarded by the Government. If that is the case, I urge the Government to meet the Shelter board to resolve the problem before this essential organisation is undermined. We must not undermine Shelter's status and the services that it provides to Members of this House and to homeless people as a result of its campaigning. It would be a tragedy, in this year when we need the organisation so much, if it were undermined by the way in which its brutal management are dealing with its dedicated staff.
Lorely Burt (Shadow Minister, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities; Solihull, Liberal Democrat)
I should like to speak for a few minutes on a subject that I know is close to the hearts of many hon. Members. We are all suffering, or have suffered, or will suffer, from post office closures in our constituencies. We in Solihull are lucky—if that is the right word—because only three post offices are earmarked for closure. However, having lost several important post offices in the cull that we experienced a few years ago, each one that we have left plays a vital role.
Our story in Solihull is also being played out across the country, and the questions that it raises are pertinent to every Member's constituency. Mr. Walter mentioned the criteria that can be used to try to obtain a reversal of a decision to close a post office. Three criteria of which I am aware are: unforeseen planning proposals that might increase unpredicted footfall; the difficulty of reaching other, more distant, post offices; and the deprivation that would be suffered as a result of the closure.
By extraordinary coincidence, one of those three criteria pertains to each proposed closure in Solihull. In Haslucks Green road, in Shirley, a superstore and shopping development is planned, despite the fact that we already have six supermarkets in Shirley high street. I have fought bitterly against the Asda superstore, but our failure to prevent this unwanted development has turned out to have a silver lining. Haslucks Green post office is just a few hundred yards away from it, and it will be besieged, not least by people who cannot even get to the superstore because of the traffic congestion that will be created.
Distance is another criterion that can be used. The Post Office, having encouraged the owner of the post office in Catherine de Barnes to grow his business, is now suggesting that it should be closed. I cannot match some of the ridiculous examples given by other hon. Members about people being unable to get a bus back home from the post office the same day, but Catherine de Barnes is a small village, and the bus to Solihull only comes about every 70 minutes, if we are lucky. The idea of going anywhere other than Solihull by bus is really not feasible. The post office is the only shop in the village, but it has a unique advantage in that it has a combi-counter which offers post office services seven days a week, up to 9 o'clock at night. People come from miles around to use it.
Deprivation is the third criterion. In Olton Hollow, there is more sheltered housing and, arguably, more elderly people than anywhere else in the borough. Olton Hollow, as the name suggests, is in a hollow, so anyone wanting to reach another post office would have a physical and metaphorical steep hill to climb.
Citizens Advice carried out an online survey, and it might help the House if I were to quote some of its findings. Citizens Advice feels that six weeks is too short a time for the proper consultation of vulnerable people. More than 90 per cent. of those who completed its online survey said that they would be personally affected if their local post office were to close, while 75 per cent. said that they would be significantly affected. In addition, 75 per cent. of respondents to the survey said that they could get to a local post office on foot, but only 14 per cent. would still be able to do so if the local office closed. For people on benefits, of course, there would be an additional cost if they could no longer reach their office on foot. The survey found that half of the over-65s and nearly half of those on means-tested benefits visited post offices several times a week. Despite what the Government may say, more than 60 per cent. of the over-75s still use the post office to pay many household bills.
In Solihull, just as elsewhere, other criteria apply that are not being given proper consideration. For example, what happens if the nearest alternative is already too busy, with elderly people waiting in queues for long periods of time? We were not allowed to run a petition inside the post office in Shirley as the shop is owned by the Co-op, so the owners of 35 local shops agreed to take it instead. Many of them said, "For goodness sake, please don't let them close the post office at Haslucks Green, because we don't want to have to wait 45 minutes at the one here." They said that even though the post office in Shirley was physically nearer for them.
What about parking? If it is a nightmare to park near the nearest post office, what will that mean for people forced to use transport to reach their post office? What about the effect of a post office closure on the surrounding local economy? In Olton Hollow, for example, the closure of the post office will affect the footfall in the local parade of shops.
When I raised these questions with the relevant Minister this morning, he blamed the decrease in post office business on changes in technology such as the internet. Of course, some patterns of business do change, but many services, such as the provision of TV licences, have been withdrawn from post offices. Moreover, different criteria now apply for online payments such as for car tax. Following the withdrawal of Post Office books, there has been the reluctant introduction of the Post Office card account. Although that account is difficult to apply for, it remains phenomenally successful, but the Post Office now faces the indignity of having to tender for its own post office card accounts services.
When services are withdrawn, and when people find it more difficult to get to their post offices and queues are longer, that means that the Government are making the post office network unsustainable. In the midlands, there are 160 proposed closures, and only four decisions have been reversed. I am concerned that there is some sort of conspiracy. Our communities are putting themselves through the pain of fighting to save their precious post offices, but it seems to be a done deal already. I have tabled an early-day motion stating that the word "consultation" must mean just that, and that the result must not be a foregone conclusion.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes, Labour)
I always love taking part in these debates, as they are one of the few opportunities that Back Benchers have to raise their constituents' concerns. In the last such debate that I took part in, I raised the matter of free travel for pensioners in my constituency. One of my local councils was restricting free travel for pensioners, but I am pleased to report to the House that pensioners in my constituency had their free travel restored on
I also raised some fears and worries about the closure of Waltham fire station and the loss of a pump at Immingham fire station. I appealed for more time, as any closures that were to happen would have been announced in the middle of the recess. The announcement was put off but—sadly—we shall find out about the future of those fire stations on Friday. I want the fire authority to think again about the impact of the fire station closures on our communities.
One reason why I make that point is that last Christmas—I do not know whether hon. Members recall this—there was an explosion at Fred's Taxis in Immingham. Sadly, two women who worked there, Ann Mawer and Sue Barker, lost their lives. The inquest was held this week, and it recorded verdicts of accidental death as a result of the explosion, which was caused by the storage of petrol on the premises. We do not yet know what caused the petrol to ignite. I have been working with Ann's sisters to ensure that the law is better enforced, or indeed changed so that there are stricter controls on how much petrol can be stored on domestic premises and very small commercial premises of the type used by most taxi firms. We could lose a fire appliance at Immingham, where the accident took place. In light of those two tragic deaths, I am sure that Humberside fire and rescue authority will understand why people are so concerned.
Last year, Immingham was subject to flooding, and some constituents were out of their homes for more than a year. A lot of that had to do with loss adjustors and insurance firms delaying giving people the money and the go-ahead for building works. Again, the fire and rescue service was crucial in assisting many of the people who were affected by the floods, so I call on the fire and rescue authority to think again. I hope that that campaign will meet with success.
I praise the Government for announcing that there will be a water and flood management Bill. I have received a wealth of information from constituents who were affected by the floods last June, and I will forward it to Ministers so that they can see some of the suggestions that my constituents have made. Last year, there was a focus on places such as Hull, but a lot of the floods in my area were in the more rural parts of the constituency. We have to address those concerns, particularly with internal drainage boards.
I have already raised in the House the issue of the A180, and the need to get that damned noisy road resurfaced. One section has been resurfaced, and it has been announced that another section will be resurfaced. However, there is a catch: only half of it—the westbound, but not the eastbound, carriageway—will be resurfaced. Who at the Highways Agency came up with the idea of resurfacing just one side of the dual carriageway to reduce the noise? If the equipment is on site, let us do all the work. I will not stop campaigning until every section of concrete on that road is finally stripped off, and until the road is re-tarmacked.
Also on the subject of roads, I am sorry to say that in Barton-upon-Humber yesterday there was a fatal accident in which a pensioner was knocked down and killed on the crossing in the marketplace. I send my condolences to her family. Town residents have long complained about the safety aspects of the crossing. There is a lot of industry in the Humber area, and there are many heavy goods vehicles. They continue to go through small towns, market towns and villages in the area, although there is a perfectly good dual carriageway, albeit a noisy one with a concrete surface. They choose to go through the villages. Some people have told me that that is because their satnavs sometimes direct them by the shortest route, rather than by the main roads. I want something done about the number of HGVs that use towns such as Barton-upon-Humber—people say that the situation there was an accident waiting to happen—and Immingham, which I mentioned earlier. HGVs continue to thunder through the centre of that town, past schools and shops. We need to address that issue.
Another transport issue that I should like to bring to the House's attention is that of free school transport. There has been a bit of a fuss in my local area recently, as North Lincolnshire council intended to withdraw some of its free school transport, and to start means-testing those who used it. I am pleased to say that the council has changed its mind following a revolt by parents worried about the safety of their children if the free transport were not applied. North East Lincolnshire, the same council that withdrew free travel for pensioners last year, is also going to go down the road of means-testing children's transport to school. Clearly the council has seen the fuss caused in the neighbouring authority and I hope that North East Lincolnshire council, as it did with bus passes, changes its mind about removing something that is free and starting to charge for it.
Last week it was announced that North East Lincolnshire council was to receive more than £3 million from the Government to refurbish kitchens in schools. Several years ago, many of the kitchens in primary schools were removed. I am pleased that the campaign has paid off and that money will be invested in school kitchens.
While I am on my feet, like Angela Browning, I will extol the virtues of British seaside resorts. If people wish to come to Cleethorpes, we are more than happy to welcome them to our wonderful sandy beach with probably the shortest pier in the world and definitely the very best fish and chips in the world. I wish all hon. Members a good, relaxing and peaceful recess.
Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent, Independent)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents on a number of issues and I shall try to use as little time as possible.
First, I pay tribute to one of my predecessors in representing Blaenau Gwent, Aneurin Bevan. In this, the 60th anniversary of the health service, it is a great pleasure to represent the area and to be linked alongside such a great man. I pay tribute to Tredegar Medical Aid, one of the organisations that influenced Bevan in pushing forward the national health service, and to the people of the south Wales valleys, who showed that co-operation coming together with funds could benefit more than just the individual.
The NHS principle of treatment free at the point of need is as important now as it was 60 years ago. Bevan would be proud that the NHS is still in existence, but I believe that he would be disappointed in the fact that ill health remains and that the divide between rich and poor is as wide now as it was then. Health inequality between industrial heartlands such as my constituency and the wealthier areas of the country is nothing to be proud of. The differences between those areas are far too great.
Bevan said that the NHS should be for the rich and the poor, who should be treated alike, and that poverty should not be a disability and wealth not an advantage, but the statistics show that where we live is as important in assessing our life expectancy now as it was after the second world war. Life expectancy for those in the well-off areas is some 10 years more than in the poor areas. Infant mortality rates are much higher in the poorer areas. A lot of that has to do with poor housing and education, in which we need to invest. Those areas in poverty are remaining in poverty and we have done very little to lift them out of it. Infant mortality rates show a health inequality gap: one in five children in poverty, but one in 20 in the more affluent areas.
Bevan said that the reason to gain power was to give it away, but we should not give it away to management consultants within the health service. We should give it to the people who need to make the decisions—the doctors, nurses, cleaners, cooks and patients. Bevan's co-operative commonwealth for health is as relevant today as it ever was.
I wish to refer to two other issues, the first of which is the Post Office, as raised by many Members. I want to concentrate particularly on the Post Office card account. The average card lobby that I receive on any particular issue is a dozen, perhaps 20 cards. I have brought a sample of the 500 I have received about the card account, and I guess that the number will be higher in the bigger constituencies. That shows what the general public think about supporting our post offices. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government recently launched "Communities in Control". She spoke at length at the Dispatch Box about petitions, but there is no point in encouraging individuals to take part in petitions and the political debate if the Government ignore the outcome. Petitions show the need for the Post Office card account to remain with the Post Office. The Government want to spend taxpayers' money to the best of their ability, but surely the card account protest shows that taxpayers want their money spent on retaining the card account where it belongs. The Government must listen to that referendum.
Finally, youth inactivity and youth crime have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. When I was a young man, which was a long time ago, youth crime and crime in general took place in the big city. Now, even gun crime and knife crime have shifted across the country, and they have probably touched all constituencies. If one were to sit down in a room with elected representatives, the police, teachers and people in the community who work in such areas, problem families who are always in trouble could be identified. The process begins with a mum and dad who are perhaps disfranchised for whatever reason. When that mum and dad have two or three children, the problem gets that much bigger. We need to deal with such problems at the core, because it is no good being reactive—we must be proactive. Some of those families need 24-hour support and the help and encouragement of others to put their lives right. Changing a social worker without allowing representation, which breaks continuity, is unacceptable. We cannot play with youth worker involvement, which should be there as a matter of course. Education has a huge role to play.
Wonderful community groups work in my constituency, and they put on shows for young people. However, they have to raise some £10,000 for a week's show, which is a lot of money for a small group to raise. All we seem to see is community centres closing for lack of funding, which is not continuity and which disrupts the community. Short-term project funding instead of long-term solutions is not the way forward. The community knows what it needs, and we must consult the community at large to find out what it wants.
I thank you for this opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wish everyone, including House staff, a restful summer recess.
Mark Lancaster (Shadow Minister, International Development; North East Milton Keynes, Conservative)
The expansion of Milton Keynes remains one of my constituents' main concerns. I will begin with a partial review of the "South East Plan", which was published recently. Although we have known for some time that Milton Keynes is expected to absorb some 50,000 dwellings by 2026, it has come as a shock to discover that we are now expected to provide some 5,600 dwellings to the east of the M1.
For those hon. Members who do not know my constituency, the M1 forms the boundary of the city of Milton Keynes. Rural north Buckinghamshire lies to the east of the M1, and I fear that housing to the east of the M1 will be the thin end of the wedge. Interestingly, the Government always claim that they are keen to consult the local population, but when they did so—albeit briefly—last year, of the six options that were put forward, the one option that included housing to the east of the M1 was the least preferred among local residents. Yet again, the consultation was a sham, and the Government have decided not to follow the wishes of local people.
A connected issue, which I have raised in this House on many occasions, is my campaign for "i before e", or infrastructure before expansion. If Milton Keynes is to expand, it is vital that the infrastructure is in place. In recent weeks, I have raised my concern in the House that we are some £24 million short of our basic needs allocation for schools. Furthermore, the Government have told us that all our problems will be answered by the innovative Milton Keynes tariff, a system whereby £18,500 will be given towards the Milton Keynes infrastructure for every new house that is built. However, such schemes rely almost entirely on a strong housing industry. During this economic downturn, fewer houses are selling in Milton Keynes, so we are not getting the income from the tariff. In turn, it appears that many of the schemes that we hope to deliver in the next two years—such as the new multi-storey car parks in the city centre—will have to be delayed. The Government put all their eggs in one basket when it came to the delivery of the Milton Keynes infrastructure. Will the Minister consider again how we are to deliver that infrastructure, which is much needed?
Connected to that issue is the future of the grid roads in the city. Those who have come to Milton Keynes will be aware that it is one of the few cities in the country that can be crossed in 10 minutes. That is because of our marvellous grid road system. Yes, it is very much designed for the car—that may not be particularly green in the modern age—but it is effective. Yet it appears that the new east and west expansion areas will not have the grid roads and that there will be some sort of hybrid system—a "worse for all" system.
Today, the Leader of the House said that she wanted an e-petition system for Parliament similar to the one for No. 10 Downing street. I tell the Deputy Leader of the House that some of my constituents petitioned No. 10 about saving the grid road system, and were concerned that the reply was so ill informed as to state that Milton Keynes council was the planning authority for the east and west expansion areas. As the hon. Lady may be aware, it is not Milton Keynes council, but Milton Keynes Partnership—the unelected, unaccountable quango—that is the planning authority. Given the lack of research evident in the replies to the petitions to No. 10, what hope is there for the system when it is extended to Parliament?
I want to raise three brief issues about trains. As a result of the severe overruns on Network Rail engineering works in early July, the Office of Rail Regulation agreed a set of 25 milestones for Network Rail so that progress towards the December delivery could be monitored. That, of course, will affect hon. Members, many of whose constituencies are on the west coast main line. Each of the milestones is vital if we are to meet the December timetable, so if one goes, the whole project will disappear. Yet there will be only two reports on the milestones in the next two months. I would be grateful if the Minister came back to me to explain why there cannot be a monthly progress report to ensure that the services are met.
I turn to capacity. Milton Keynes continues to expand. Unfortunately, we have had to give up the battle of trying to get the Virgin trains that stop in Milton Keynes to allow passengers on. At the moment, they can only get off during peak hours, despite empty carriages. That seems ludicrous. I understand the arguments that in future there will be greater capacity for more northern towns, but why can we not allow passengers on the trains at the moment, as Milton Keynes continues to expand?
We are also concerned that for every one of its two high-speed links to the City, London Midland, which provides the commuter service, could be holding up slots for seven Virgin Pendolino trains. As pressure increases in years to come, the slots may well be lost. I seek assurances from the Government that Milton Keynes will continue to get its fair share of slots for commuter trains.
I also want to raise the issue of compensation from train operating companies. In the past, automatic compensation was paid—in cash, directly to affected passengers and season ticket holders—when major disruptions occurred. Such incidents were classified as "void days". Today there is no such classification; it is left to the individual to claim from the train operating company. It is up to the individual to prove their inconvenience by having to keep detailed records of their potential journey. That is inconvenient to the point of being unworkable, as few passengers have the time or resources to record in detail every problem that they encounter. Under a supposedly simplified system recently announced by the Government, there is no provision for strike-day compensation for season ticket holders. What the individual train operating companies do is up to them and even if alternative transport arrangements are provided, they are often inconvenient and the passenger suffers extra journey time and financial hardship.
Although there is no legal requirement, the train operating company can, at its discretion, pay compensation, although of course it invariably chooses not to. Many of my constituents feel that that is unacceptable. Even if compensation is paid, it is now done in vouchers, not cash. Although those vouchers can be used against season ticket renewal at a future date, if the person does not use the train for other journeys, it is months before they can use the vouchers. My constituents are clear about what they would like to be done: for lost days, a return to the old system of automatic cash compensation; for strike days, an automatic refund, the same as for lost days; and for the payment to be in cash, not vouchers.
Mark Lancaster (Shadow Minister, International Development; North East Milton Keynes, Conservative)
I am afraid that I have no time—I am sorry.
In the final few moments that I have, I want to raise the issue of the British grand prix moving from Silverstone to Donington park. Although Silverstone is not in my constituency, much motor racing activity is, and it would have a severe impact on my constituency should it move—on the hotel business, for example, because many people going to Silverstone stay in hotels in my area. Although I realise that this is not a matter directly for the Government, the Minister concerned has recently had meetings with Bernie Ecclestone. All I ask is that we perhaps move to a system whereby the British grand prix can alternate between Silverstone and Donington park.
Anne Milton (Shadow Minister, Health; Guildford, Conservative)
I echo many of the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster. The "South East Plan" was published last week amid an unnecessary degree of secrecy. I phoned the office of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on several occasions last week and was told by her staff that they did not know when it would be published. In fact, they clearly did know because there was a ministerial statement on Thursday. I cannot see why it was felt necessary to keep it secret. That does not inspire confidence in my constituents, who will now be involved in the public consultation that will continue until
The changes to the draft visions of the regional spatial strategy will see an increase in the original housing numbers of 31 per cent. for Guildford and 9 per cent. for Waverley, and of note to my constituents will be a 25 per cent. increase in Woking. That will clearly lead to the green belt around Guildford being destroyed. The plan says:
"In order to meet regional development needs in the most sustainable locations, selective reviews of Green Belt boundaries are required in the following locations:
In the Metropolitan Green Belt to the north east of Guildford and possibly to the south of Woking".
I draw attention to the report commissioned by the Government—I will be interested in the Minister's comments—from experts Roger Tym and Partners, who warn of the effects of imposing unsustainable building targets on the south-east. They say that the building plans will
"have a negative effect in all sub-regions on the objective to reduce the risk of flooding...A number of trunk roads are likely to be unable to cope with the predicted traffic demand...There is some over-loading on most routes into London and all sub-regions adjoining London would therefore likely be under stress under the higher growth forecasts...Increasing the provision of housing under all our scenarios will result in a regional deficit in water supply, with many areas in severe deficit of water resources".
Last July, the Prime Minister said:
"I assure the House that we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt."—[ Hansard, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]
In a No. 10 lobby briefing on
"Green belt land will stay as green belt land. Yes we can give you an assurance that we will not build on the green belt land. We are not proposing any changes to our very robust protection of the green belt."
Yet the green belt is specifically mentioned in the "South East Plan" and my constituents will see the potential for its being built over. Can the Minister explain how those statements square with the proposals in the plan?
I pay tribute to East Guildford Residents Association, and particularly to the chairman, Dr. Graham Hibbert, who has long worked to improve the local environment in Guildford. EGRA, as it is known, includes Abbotswood, Burpham, Chantry View road, the Cranley road area, Downsedge, Holy Trinity, Merrow, Shalford and Tyting farm. More than 2,500 people are represented through that organisation. EGRA says:
"The plan is bad news for Guildford...Guildford will undergo major expansion which will irrevocably damage its heritage and compromise its future. The scale of growth proposed is not primarily targeted at helping current Guildford residents who want to buy and live here. We seriously doubt that, as a gap town in the Surrey Hills, Guildford can be an economic and housing hub".
I would also like to pay tribute to the Guildford Society. Many market towns have similar societies, and they do a huge amount in their own time, spending hours going through planning proposals. As it points out, Guildford
"is in a gap in the Downs and is surrounded by Green Belt on all sides and by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The town lies within the 5 km buffer zone of the Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area. Significant areas lie in the River Wey flood zone. The constricted roads are already at capacity...If we expand on the scale proposed Guildford will grind to a halt."
All those associations, and all my residents, are extremely concerned about these proposals, and it is not at all clear how, when or if the Government will deliver the infrastructure improvements necessary.
While we are on the subject of infrastructure, I would like to say a little about Guildford, its funding and our roads. We are a significant contributor to the Treasury coffers. Local residents pay a heavy price for economic success in terms of congestion and traffic, but that is not recognised in our funding settlements. As one county councillor said to me, we have double the amount of car usage and half the amount of money. Indeed, the Government's settlements show that in 2008-09, Surrey received a minimal increase in Government grant of 2 per cent.
Total Government funding equates to just 18 per cent. of the annual budget. The remaining 82 per cent. has to be funded through council tax. Government funding represents approximately £205 per head for Surrey residents, compared with an England average of £595, and £856 in Manchester, but we are one of the few areas that contributes to the Treasury.
Turning to police funding, only 42 per cent. of Surrey police's budget is funded by the Government, but Northumbria and Greater Manchester only have to find somewhere in the region of 10 to 15 per cent. We pay a heavy price. The Government want us to take more houses, but they are not prepared to give us the money to ensure that Guildford keeps moving or to ensure that local business remains a success.
As time is so short, I would like to finish by mentioning Cranleigh and Milford hospitals. Local residents have fought for a long time to keep Milford hospital open; my hon. Friend Mr. Hunt played a significant part in that. On Cranleigh village hospital, the decision made two years ago by the former Guildford and Waverley primary care trust to proceed with the so-called option 1 has finally been shelved as a result of a damning independent panel report. The decision made by the former Guildford and Waverley PCT was taken up and run with by Surrey PCT, and if the Deputy Leader of the House has some time in the recess and wants a little holiday reading, I can recommend the report of the independent panel. It is outstanding. I am now at a loss to know how to reassure my local residents that Surrey PCT can fulfil its obligations and duties. The report contains comments such as:
"'no apparent links to social care'; 'Workforce plans are not developed'; 'no evidence of how the proposals will increase the availability of day care surgery'; 'Not possible to assess whether more OPD services will be available'".
The report goes on and on.
I know that the trustees of Cranleigh village hospital, Cranleigh parish council, the League of Friends in Cranleigh and the GPs in Cranleigh have a superb plan that will deliver all the Government's objectives for providing care close to where people live. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to apply any pressure she can to ensure the successful delivery of that project.
Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest, Independent)
The best invitation I can offer to the House is to my party conference—the conference of independent health concern. It will take place in my garden, after a very good buffet lunch, on
My manifesto for the NHS contains seven points, and a lot of them support and add to Lord Darzi's review. The first, which does not appear in the review but which I consider incredibly important, is the abolition of prescription charges. We know that they are unfair, and that an inquiry is being carried out at this moment. The Secretary of State for Health told us today that the result would be produced shortly, but he then said that it was some months away. The process has been going on for months and months, which just shows how difficult it is to make any sense out of prescription charges if they remain.
We are told, in an attempt to reassure us, that only 13 per cent. of people pay the charges. However, they include people with long-term conditions—for instance, young people with cystic fibrosis—who a few years ago would not have survived. One young lady told the Select Committee on Health that she was taking 85 tablets a day. Those with long-term conditions such as Parkinson's are not exempt, yet those who are lucky enough to have thyroid disease, which is easily put straight, are exempt from charges for every medicine that they might need in the future. The people most affected are working adults whose incomes are just above the income support level.
We are told by the Government that abolishing prescription charges would cost £450 million a year. That is a fraction of the national health service budget, and about a quarter of last year's NHS surplus. However, even if the Government desperately want to find another source of funding, I think that this is one of the occasions on which a tiny hypothecated tax on the super-rich would be borne by everyone concerned.
The second point in my seven-point manifesto is, of course, quality. I have four Cs. The first is care, which includes safety, avoiding errors and using the best treatment protocols. The second is compassion, which includes dignity and kindness. The third is communication: communication between clinical staff and patients and their relatives at home and in hospital, and communication between hospitals and GPs and between GPs and hospitals. An article in this week's British Medical Journal asked:
"Can we call this failure of information transfer care at all? Isn't the truth that this institutional behaviour of non-communication is just carelessness and neglect?"
According to Lord Darzi,
"High-quality care is care where patients are in control, have effective access to treatment, are safe and where illnesses are not just treated, but prevented."
Darzi recognises both the difficulty and the importance of measuring quality, but it must be measured. Until we have a better way of measuring it, surely complaints about quality, particularly those that come to Members of Parliament, should be passed on.
The third of my seven points is competition. Obligatory reading for everyone involved in it is an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by Richard Smith, a recent editor of the BMJ. He has reluctantly come to see that competition may be essential. As I have supported the NHS so intensely throughout my life, it goes against the grain for me to realise that it is like a great big juggernaut or tanker which cannot easily be turned around. Perhaps we must appreciate that there is something in competition, but if we do, we must bear in mind some of the criticisms of the experience in the United States—worded very well—that appeared in the BMJ at the end of last year. The authors observed:
"Extensive research shows that its for-profit health institutions provide inferior care at inflated prices... commercialisation drives up costs by diverting money to profits and fuelling growth in management and financial bureaucracy."
The New England Journal of Medicine said in January this year:
"The extreme failure of the United States to contain medical costs results primarily from our unique, pervasive commercialization."
If there is to be competition in the NHS, it must be regulated. That means a fair and level playing field, open to NHS providers as well as non-NHS consortiums. An example of unfairness is where out-of-hours care is put to tender, but where there is no definition of how the service is to be provided, so that the non-NHS providers can come in with a reduced skill mix and thus offer it more cheaply.
Fourthly, all providers—hospitals, GP conglomerates and mental health providers—should be able to go for foundation trust status, because it means that they can engage with Members, keep their surpluses and, by so doing, have money for quality awards.
Fifthly, we should accelerate the work of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, as recommended by Darzi. That would be part of the answer to co-payments.
Sixthly, patient and public involvement in commissioning is crucial. We have to strengthen local involvement networks and overview and scrutiny committees.
My final point is about health care rationing—we are scarcely allowed to use the term; we have to use "prioritisation" instead—which is essential. I quote again from The Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine:
"The final recurring theme, present throughout the last 60 years and no doubt into the next 60, is the thorny question of rationing health care...The future of rationing health care will provide a key battleground for the NHS."
Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, may I say to the House that if everyone now takes their full eight minutes, we will probably not get everybody in, but that if they reduce it a little, we might? Perhaps hon. Members will bear that in mind.
Michael Moore (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, International Development, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland, Scottish and Northern Ireland Affairs; Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Liberal Democrat)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will seek to honour what you have just said.
As Keith Vaz said, we have had a tour of Britain. We have heard a lot about the different experiences in England and Wales, and I should now like to draw Scotland into that picture, too. There is a theme linking many of this afternoon's speeches, which is essentially that the Government are failing in particular areas. That is generally the case in rural Britain and, as I see it, particularly so in my constituency. Some key decisions will be made over the summer by the Government and the agencies acting on their behalf. Currently, I fear that they will make the wrong kinds of decisions.
One issue is that the Government are failing to understand the realities of rural Britain and the extra pressures of the increases in the cost of living, particularly in fuel and, as was mentioned earlier, the changes to vehicle excise duty. Local businesses in my constituency, whether in the fishing communities or the textile industry in Hawick or elsewhere, are struggling with the extra costs that have been imposed on them in the past few months.
Like many others who have spoken, I face the prospect of post office closures in my constituency being announced in a few weeks. There are 3,500 pensioners who go to post offices each week to get their pensions and 3,500 other people who collect their benefits there. They depend on a network of post offices spread across the vast, beautiful constituency that I represent. I rather fear that, as others have said, the criteria are not designed to ensure that we get a sustainable network that services the local community in the way required. Thousands of my constituents have signed postcards, and thousands have also signed the sub-postmasters' campaign on the Post Office card account. I hope that the Government will hear what has been said throughout the country about that.
A related matter is puzzling for many of my constituents and must be dealt with—the issue of the Royal Mail and its address database. A number of communities in Berwickshire—for example, the villages of Foulden, Hutton, Paxton, Lamberton and Mordington—have a Berwick-upon-Tweed postcode. I have no wish to cast aspersions on the good people of Berwick-upon-Tweed, but my constituents are very firmly in Scotland, even though they have an English postal address. It can be plain irritating for the people concerned, but it can also have serious consequences for official documentation about which country they live in, for example. It can affect insurance premiums in areas where small villages are linked to nearby towns and it can also affect deliveries to those areas. A community such as Fountainhall, a full 15 miles from Galashiels, has a Galashiels postal address, which can cause utter confusion, particularly when people try to buy or sell a house. The Royal Mail has frankly refused to accept that it has any responsibilities in this matter. It has refused to accept that the commercial database that it sells has consequences for people such as my constituents, who are the consumers in this case. I hope that the Government will look further into this issue and force the Royal Mail to rethink.
This summer, pay phones are to be closed across my constituency. Very little account has been taken so far of the poor mobile phone coverage in the area or of the fact that pay phones are often the emergency lifeline for these communities, so I hope that we will see a rethink of plans to close the 46 such phones selected for closure, which represent 27 per cent. of the unprofitable boxes in my constituency—a higher proportion than in just about any other part of Scotland.
Soon after we return from the recess, one of the biggest changes affecting the country as a whole will start in earnest in my constituency when we switch over to digital television. I have raised many issues about this matter in the past, but I want to refocus the Government's minds on "Freeview Lite" and the fact that anyone served by a relay transmitter will get a second-class service with far fewer channels, whether it be on the TV or the radio. With my area having 11 relay stations, almost half my constituents, through no fault of their own, will get that second-class service. If we combine that with doubts about the future of ITV regional news and concerns about the allocation of the digital dividend from the switchover process, we see that very serious problems surround the entire digital switchover process, and the Government need to address them—urgently.
One issue causing great anxiety and anger among farmers in my constituency is the proposal to introduce electronic identification tags for sheep, which is going to be compulsory by the end of 2009. We all understand why biosecurity and disease control are uppermost in our minds and we understand the need to follow through the food chain and ensure proper traceability, but one size cannot fit all. With the farming community comprising many different farms with more than 1,000 ewes across the beautiful hills of my constituency, it is simply not practical to implement those proposals. We need a risk-based approach that will be affordable, proportionate and cost-effective for all concerned. A batch recording system would offer us such a scheme, and I am appalled that so far nobody has been able to take it up and accept it. I hope that the Minister will support a feasibility study and a Scottish trial to ensure that we see off the nonsense of the current proposals.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the future of the Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs offices in my constituency. So far, we have heard very little detail about the costs that the Government plan to save. I have tabled parliamentary questions and I hope that I will get a response to them. We are in danger of losing high-quality jobs in an area that can ill afford to lose them. It is time for the Government to look hard again at what they are proposing. I hope that they will do so and send out a signal that they understand rural areas.
Michael Penning (Shadow Minister, Health; Hemel Hempstead, Conservative)
Many comments from hon. Members of all parties have been about the Post Office card account, and I will discuss the Post Office's future shortly. However, since Christmas, a couple of events have taken place in my constituency that I would like to bring to the House's attention. On the Dexion front, 700 of my constituents had their pensions stolen from them five years ago. After five years of campaigning, before I was a Member of Parliament and subsequently, with all those people sticking together, trying to get justice for themselves, the Government eventually introduced a compensation package, which would have given my constituents 80 per cent. of the pensions that were stolen from them. We did not accept that—we stood our ground and got 90 per cent. Those payments have started to be made in the past few weeks. That proves to me that, if a community sticks together, no matter how big the organisation against which it is fighting, it can win.
Those who drive through my constituency often get stuck because of roadworks on the M1 between junctions 6 and 10. Those works will be finished at Christmas and the widening of the road will open up Hemel Hempstead to much more retail use and many more businesses on the industrial estates. Sadly, the Government appear to have shelved the road widening from junctions 10 to 13, so my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster, who was here a few moments ago, will still get stuck because the Government have shelved the plans north of Luton.
On a sad note, like many hon. Members, I have been inundated with concerns from my constituents in the rural and urban parts of my constituency about the closure of three post offices. The craziest aspect of the post office closures is the way in which they affect the most affluent and the poorest parts of our constituencies. Most people in the village of Potten End in my constituency would agree that it is a fairly affluent community, but it survives with one shop, with one post office inside it.
Another part of my constituency, the Heights is, according to Government figures, one of the most socially deprived wards in the country, with the highest unemployment and economic inactivity in my constituency. It also has the most pensioners in my constituency. Believe it or not, that post office, too, is closing.
When the Post Office explained to me that the closures had to go ahead, I asked, "If my constituents fight, fill in petitions, send letters and contact the head of the Post Office, what difference will it make?" The reply was, "We can't tell you. We're in consultation." I then simply asked what percentage of consultations were successful. Let us all be honest with our constituents—on what percentage of the consultations does the Post Office back off? The answer is 4 per cent. Ninety-six per cent. of proposed post office closures in this country go ahead. Let us be honest: the Government have made a decision and created an economic environment in the post office network that makes post offices not viable—I intended to use another word, but it was inappropriate for the Chamber. They are not viable if business keeps being taken away from them and we do not let them sell the products for which our constituents prefer to use the post office.
The other sad situation that continues is that of Hemel Hempstead hospital. Other hon. Members have also expressed concern about the future of their hospitals. The hospital is not Victorian, not falling down—it was built in the 1970s—and has been expanded over the years. Other hospitals in the Hemel Hempstead area have closed to join the central site, which is close to the M1 and the M25. A decision was made to close acute services there—the elective surgery would go to St. Albans and acute services would go to Watford. We fought that decision and delayed it; we fought it again and delayed it again. However, on the very day of the wonderful service in Westminster abbey to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS, while I was in the queue to go through security, I took a call from the chief executive of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, who told me that, in the first week in March, Hemel Hempstead's acute services will close and be moved to Watford. For those who do not know where Watford hospital is, it is smack bang next to Watford football stadium. If Watford play at home—I wish the team every success; many of my constituents are Watford fans—they get a reasonable crowd and there is traffic chaos. An extra burden will be created because the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in St. Albans is to close. How on earth are two huge towns such as Watford and Hemel Hempstead, as well as St. Albans, to cope? We will fight the decision. We will not lie down and roll over. There will be another huge demonstration in my constituency in the autumn, when my constituents will again show that they do not want to lose their acute hospital. We do not want a polyclinic to replace an acute general hospital—indeed, we do not want a polyclinic at all. Our surgeries are vibrant and well served. None of the lists of any of the surgeries in the town are full, yet we will have a polyclinic in the middle of it imposed on us, with a catchment and list of about 8,000. That means that some of my surgeries will suffer.
Finally, let me return to football. Sport has been talked about a lot today. Many of the people in the northern part of my constituency support Luton Town football club. It is a wonderfully historic club, but it is going through some particularly difficult times on the pitch, which have been exacerbated by poor management and the attitude of the Football League to a small club such as Luton Town. It will go into the season with a 30-point deduction. It will not survive that, so it will go out of the football league and into the conference. For any team in the country, a 30-point reduction would lead to relegation. For Luton Town, it will mean the end of league status. I do not believe that if Luton Town were Liverpool, Arsenal or any other premiership club, this would have been done to it. It has been done to it because it is a small club in a small community, and it has been hammered by the bureaucrats who want to set an example. They would not have done that to Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United; they should not be doing it to Luton Town.
David Amess (Southend West, Conservative)
Before the House adjourns for the summer recess, I wish to raise a number of points, but I promise colleagues I shall do so briefly. I would not describe the Government as being in a state of disarray; I actually think they have disintegrated, and I am worried that if this drift continues until 2010, when we must have a general election, the situation will be very serious.
My first point is to do with death. Constituents have petitioned me about the proposed closure of a local coroner's office. The office serves my constituency and surrounding constituencies. The proposal has been made without any consultation with the coroner, any related staff or the public. It will diminish the service, and we will be the only jurisdiction without a local service. I hope that message will be passed on.
On post offices, last night I presented a petition signed by more than 1,000 people. It refers to the post office at 553 London road. The post office has been there since 1886, and the area I represent has the greatest number of senior citizens in the country. They cannot go to the post office in Hamlet court road. We have suffered closures in Fairfax drive, West road, The Ridgeway and Station road, so yet another post office closure would not be acceptable, and I am holding Gary Herbert and Clare Lovett to be as good as their word to me last week and to listen to my new representation—thereby pushing up the proportion my hon. Friend Mike Penning mentioned from 4 per cent. to 5 per cent.
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office in Southend is being reorganised. If that goes ahead, there will be a reduction in the local work force of 20 per cent. which would cause devastation locally with another 100 job losses on top of those already announced in 2007. This seems to go completely against the Thames Gateway strategy.
I also wish to draw attention to the new local housing allowance that was introduced on
My penultimate point is about equity release. I recently met the director-general of Safe Home Income Plans. The organisation regulates firms that offer equity release packages. In the current economic climate, senior citizens are suffering terribly, so they are having to look into equity release. Safe Home Income Plans deals only with reputable firms, but I am very worried that given the declining reputation of this way of releasing equity, representatives of any number of firms that are not reputable will knock on the doors of senior citizens, who may not be able to read the small print of the documents they are shown.
Finally, I wish everyone a very happy summer, in particular the Land Army girls, including my mother, who will be receiving their medals tomorrow.
Julian Lewis (Shadow Minister, Defence; New Forest East, Conservative)
This is a rather personal speech, and I apologise for that. Shortly after it became clear that we had won the campaign to prevent MPs' home addresses from being disclosed as a result of future freedom of information requests, an honourable Labour lady Member who had suffered badly from the disclosure of her address approached me with a warning. She said, "Be careful Julian, you will be targeted next for what you have done."
I had expected from the outset that by organising this campaign, I would inevitably sacrifice some of my privacy by drawing attention to my own electoral arrangements, but I spelt them out in detail in the Whitsun Adjournment debate on
I asked Mr. Yates whether I was correct in thinking that the matter had been raised with him by Terry Scriven, a retired colonel in the military police who will be standing against me at the next election, and he confirmed that that was so. Mr. Scriven could easily have asked me openly about this matter, but he is the sort of individual whom, unfortunately, one encounters from time to time in public life—the sort of person who smears one in the papers but rushes to shake one's hand when one meets him. He insinuates wrongdoing without having the guts openly to accuse one. His political party is irrelevant to this sort of behaviour, which I have experienced on a number of previous occasions.
Dave Yates saw no reason to deny that Mr. Scriven had e-mailed him about my registration arrangements, and eventually I was sent the relevant exchanges. The first e-mail was headed
"registration as a voter under a false name".
It identified my home address in the constituency and asked who had authorised the procedure. The chief executive replied—I believe that he did so on
However, last Friday—just seven days later—my office was informed by Dave Yates and another senior council official, Dave Atwill, that a journalist had been in touch stating that he had seen an e-mail from Dave Yates that seemed to suggest an irregularity in my registration. The journalist was none other than Ben Leapman of The Sunday Telegraph—the only participant in the freedom of information court case who had demanded the publication of all MPs' home addresses in order to check that we are not fiddling our expenses.
I fully accept that a newspaper is perfectly at liberty to employ any journalist it likes, although the choice of Mr. Leapman by The Sunday Telegraph has a certain incongruity; it gives me the sort of feeling that Labour Members would have if The Guardian took on my hon. Friend Mr. Cash or my hon. Friend, as I call him, Bob Spink as its European Union correspondent. Unfortunately, apart from employing an anti-Conservative activist as a political journalist, The Sunday Telegraph has bought into his reckless campaign to expose MPs' addresses and has done everything it can to attack me and suppress the arguments against this.
I have reasonably broad shoulders—I would not have taken up this issue in the first place if I did not. However, one thing alone dismayed me: the fact that I knew that Terry Scriven had gratuitously included my home address in the e-mail correspondence with Dave Yates. If, as I had every reason to suspect, Mr. Scriven had disclosed these e-mails to Ben Leapman, I wanted to know whether he had at least had the decency to remove my address before communicating with the one reporter in the country who had ardently campaigned for the publication of MPs' home addresses and who, it is reasonable to infer, is extremely upset at the fact that, thanks to my campaign, that will not now happen.
I therefore asked my office colleague, Mrs. Di Brooks, who is sadly not a retired colonel but a rather tough-minded, former RAF non-commissioned officer, to send Mr. Scriven the following e-mail:
"Dear Mr Scriven,
Julian understands that you have made available to a newspaper journalist the exchange of emails between Dave Yates and yourself.
As you know, and appeared to accept, there are security reasons why Julian does not wish his home address to be made public.
Will you please confirm, as soon as possible, whether you removed the...address from these emails before you disclosed them to a third party?"
Now all Mr. Scriven needed to reply was that I was mistaken and he had not disclosed the e-mails to anyone. Alternatively, he could have admitted doing so. What he actually said was:
"Good Evening Di,
Very nice to hear from you.
I am sure Julian is aware of my security background. I support him totally in keeping the addresses of MPs, Prospective MPs and indeed Councillors addresses private and out of the public domain (this includes journalists)."
That was not exactly a direct answer to the question, so Di wrote back again:
"Dear Mr Scriven,
Two simple questions...Have you disclosed any of the contents of any of Dave Yates's and your e-mails about Julian's address to a newspaper reporter or haven't you? A simple yes or no is all that is needed ... If the answer is yes, then did you remove the details of his home address ... or didn't you?"
Instead of getting a simple yes or no to either of those questions, she received this reply from the straight-talking colonel:
I think you need to read my mails carefully and I also think you need to think carefully about how you phrase your emails.
Finally, let us...be clear about the role/capacity you are writing what appear to be demanding emails to me."
Such exchanges were repeated several more times, with Mr. Scriven ducking and diving, dodging and weaving, but ultimately saying that he would "clear up any confusions" I might have at an event on Sunday at which we would both be present. However, he did not do that, and I handed him a very short letter which asked him to state, without further prevarication, direct answers to those two questions. He took the envelope and headed at high speed to the nearest gentlemen's toilet, where he remained for several minutes. It is conceivable that he did not open the envelope there, but I find that hard to believe. Nevertheless he still did not answer the questions.
In the meantime, Ben Leapman had been pestering Dave Yates with phone calls at home on Friday evening, trying to stand up a story that I had behaved illegally by registering under a nom de plume. Mr. Yates sent Leapman away with a flea in his ear and wrote to me yesterday saying that he is
"happy to confirm to anyone who is interested that your dealings with me and my Electoral Registration officers have been in complete good faith on all occasions."
Finally, after several more e-mails and a deadline, I received a letter this morning from Mr. Scriven, who finally assured me that he did not disclose the information. He suggests that it could have been released because people had put in freedom of information requests to the council and got hold of the e-mails that way. I have checked with the council, and no such information request was made. I therefore have to rely on The Sunday Telegraph to tell me whether Ben Leapman is now in possession of my private home address, which is quite properly anonymously registered, irrespective of whether the e-mail correspondence was supplied to him by Terry Scriven, phantom FOI requesters, Father Christmas or little green men from Mars.
Sarah Teather (Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform; Brent East, Liberal Democrat)
Two and a half months ago, a man was stabbed to death at the end of my street. Michael Mann, who was in his early 40s, was killed by a single stab wound in front of his partner, Natasha, and their six-month-old baby, leaving a bewildered family to try to pick up the pieces. The trauma of that experience was exacerbated considerably by the complete incompetence of Natasha's housing association, PCHA, which refused to take her request for rehousing seriously, despite the fact that it was her neighbours from an adjacent flat who were arrested for the murder and then bailed. Sadly, that is an all too common experience.
Michael Mann's murder brought to a close a period of relative calm in Brent. We had begun to think that we had turned a corner after several years of high-profile gun and knife crime fatalities. The most famous and shocking was the killing of the child Toni-Ann Byfield in 2003. It is seared in my memory because she was murdered just days before the by-election in Brent, East, and the front pages of the newspapers that told the story of my victory also carried photographs of children carrying candles in a vigil outside the house in which she was killed.
Things had seemed a little better until May this year, when three people were killed in the space of just a week. The toll now stands at two fatal gun attacks and two fatal stabbings. The headlines have all been about young people and gangs, but the fatalities in Brent this year have been adults, mostly killed by other adults, with causes ranging from domestic violence to neighbour disputes. It is a complex picture and we need to be careful not to make too great a generalisation about the causes. There is no doubt that the fatalities of adults have masked many other incidents involving young people, which are often not reported to the police because of fear or because of a lack of belief in the police's ability to tackle the problem.
Policy Exchange's recent report, "Going Ballistic", said that only one in four young offenders thought that the police could protect them from crime. More shockingly, two thirds of those who thought that the police could not protect them had previously been threatened with a knife, so there is often a cycle. Perhaps the greatest challenge in tackling knife crime is tackling the fear that everybody else is carrying a knife. It is important to put on the record that a recent random search of 300 young people at a school in Brent found that none of those children was carrying a knife. The concern about knife crime, which is rightly expressed, often fuels that fear in young people and means that they think that they will be safe only if they all carry a knife. There is a desperate need to tackle that problem, perhaps with better and closer relationships on a ward level between community police and young people.
Research on gun crime in Brent has turned up a similarly complex picture. The council commissioned research that was published in 2005, and is going on to commission further work that looks at the causes of gun crime in Brent. The 2005 research contradicted many of the stereotypes. It found that gun crime was not just a problem of one ethnic group against another, and neither was it about drugs. It is not necessarily directly related to gangs. We have had gang problems in Brent, but the research shows that the incidence of gun crime is not always related to gang crime.
As Policy Exchange found, the distinction between victims and offenders is often blurred. The Brent study found that all those people who offended with guns have been victims of crime. Most had been victims of gun crime and half had had family or friends who were directly affected. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the research and the most common feature between offenders was a hyper-material culture and attachment to overt wealth. There is a bit of a moral parable about what happens when someone values things that they can see rather than things that are about them as an individual. When that is coupled with a fear of violence, it is easy to see how people can get into a cycle where life is cheap.
We have many ongoing projects in Brent that work through the umbrella project, Not Another Drop. I want to highlight one particular project, which targets young people who are thought to be at risk of or on the cusp of being involved in serious violence. It is called In-volve RAW and focuses on young people in the south Kilburn area of my constituency and in Harlesden and Stonebridge in neighbouring areas, as well as the Harrow road corridor that runs between those two areas. It focuses on raising self-esteem and trying to tackle the problem caused when people's sense of value is about overt wealth rather than themselves. The project tries to reverse negative self-images and, in particular, tries to help young people to deal with anger and a sense of hopelessness. It is an interesting project that I hope that the Government will look at carefully and consider replicating in other areas.
Finally, I want to mention the fact that that project, along with many other projects in Brent, suffers from a lack of consistent and stable funding. It is difficult for the council and other community organisations to plan the funding of good projects in Brent when initiatives and priorities constantly change. I have one plea for the Government: will they consider a more stable way of funding this difficult work with difficult communities, who need long-term work in order to build up trust?
Stewart Jackson (Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government; Peterborough, Conservative)
I am mindful of the time constraints, so I shall be brief. I want to bring to the attention of the House an important issue concerning the practical flaws in the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and in particular in how it operates in relation to failing schools. I voted for the Bill two years ago and feel predisposed to make comments, which are not party political in nature, on it. I invite the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, through her Ministers, to review what actions are needed to ensure that the provisions laid down to deal with failing schools can be used with greater alacrity.
My concern is for some of my constituents' children who have been adversely affected as a consequence of an ineffectual head teacher, a weak and compliant governing body and a local education authority that was willing to act but was circumscribed by legislation. The school to which I refer is St. John Fisher school, a Roman Catholic voluntary secondary school in Peterborough. It is a mixed school of 744 pupils and, until quite recently, it was one of the highest performing schools in the Peterborough local education authority area. The school operates within the Roman Catholic diocese of East Anglia and, in particular, within the diocesan board of education.
From 1999 until
The initial warning in that year was subsequently rescinded. It was clear, however, that things were not improving. In the past four years, results have plummeted, the school has had difficulty in attracting and retaining newly qualified teachers, and the head teacher was the only head teacher in the country who refused to take part in the excellence clusters programme. Trade unions surveyed the staff, and the results that were presented to the governing body showed a culture of centralised control, bullying and intimidation. This was routinely dismissed by the governing body as an attack on the head.
The senior management team refused to communicate with outside bodies such as the diocesan board, the LEA and Cambridgeshire constabulary. "Difficult" governors were removed, and teachers who would not co-operate with the head were asked to resign or made redundant. There were questions about the appropriateness of having a personal friend of the head as the chair of the governors. It has emerged only in the last few months that the governing body actually voted for a £20,000 fund for legal fees to enable the head to send legal letters to people who fell foul of her, including some on the LEA and the diocesan board.
Matters reached a head in late 2007, when the governing body removed an LEA governor, Councillor Stephen Goldspink—who also happened to be the deputy leader of the city council, and who was attending an extraordinary meeting of Peterborough city council at the time—for having the temerity to complain about the inconvenience to his constituents of inconsiderate parking by some parents at the school.
This year, it has been confirmed that the school is now on the infamous list of 638 failing schools, having fallen below the target floor. By
The key question now is how will the present legislation, Ofsted and the Department for Children, Schools and Families be able to deal with a rogue governing body and a head teacher who refused to acknowledge or engage with statutory bodies, and who used delay, obfuscation and the appeal process for more than six months, which is more than half the school year? That is the problem that we face. Lessons need to be learned, particularly in regard to the role of the diocesan board, which had no statutory powers to intervene, and to the process of appeals against the legislation.
Thankfully, the school now has a new head, Mr. Sean Hayes, formerly the head of St. Alban's school in Ipswich, and a new interim independent executive board. They are focusing on discipline and teaching standards and on improving poor results. I wish them well, but we must remember that some of the most deprived children in my constituency have lost a vital year in their education.
I ask Ministers to ensure that such a situation could not and should not happen again. I implore the Deputy Leader of the House, perhaps in her remarks at the end of the debate, to give an undertaking to that effect.
Bob Spink (Castle Point, UKIP)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible to find a way either to extend the debate, or reduce the amount of Front-Bench time in what is essentially a Back-Bench debate? That would enable Back Benchers who have sat here all day to deliver their speeches, even though they might have only a few minutes to make their—
Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of this House and he knows exactly how we operate. It is unfortunate that people who have been here all day sometimes do not get called, but there is nothing that the Chair can do about it other than to exhort Members to take a little less time when they speak. Now we are only taking time out of what remains. I call Shailesh Vara.
Shailesh Vara (Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament; North West Cambridgeshire, Conservative)
Thank you again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and may I take this opportunity to thank everyone who was able to contribute to this end-of-term debate? As always, a number of issues were covered, ranging from the local to the international.
Jim Dowd made a very conscientious speech, and not for the first time he spoke about the local transport situation affecting his constituents. Resolving those problems will not be easy, but I certainly wish him well in all his efforts.
Simon Hughes spoke for most if not all hon. Members when he rightly welcomed the moves being taken towards achieving some sort of peace settlement in Zimbabwe. However, given President Mugabe's record in these matters, we must recognise that these are only talks. We must maintain the pressure on Mugabe and his regime, as we will be able to have a sense of rejoicing only when an actual result has been achieved. I should also like to take this opportunity to welcome the involvement of South Africa's President Mbeki, who I very much hope will use his considerable influence in other parts of Africa.
Mr. Hall gave a very knowledgeable speech, in which he raised some issues concerning United Utilities. He said that he wrote to United Utilities three times before he got a reply, and that he is still waiting for a reply from the Minister. However, if the past record of ministerial responses is anything to go by, even when he gets a reply from the Minister he will probably need a lot more than three supplementary letters before he gets a substantive response.
My hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford gave a very serious speech about the data stored by paedophiles. He has spoken about the problem before, and he has considerable expertise and knowledge about it. All of us in the House wish him well in his endeavours to ensure greater protection for children and families who are victims of paedophiles.
Mrs. Cryer spoke up for catering staff at Airedale hospital trust. I very much hope that the decision due to be taken on Thursday is the right one for all concerned.
A number of hon. Members raised the very real issue that affects constituencies around the country: the closure of post offices. My hon. Friend Angela Browning, my right hon. Friend David Maclean, as well as my hon. Friend Mr. Walter and Lorely Burt all described how the closure of local post offices was ripping the very heart out of their communities. I think that we all share their concerns—I certainly do, as I was informed only some two weeks ago that five post offices in my constituency were to be closed.
On the theme of post offices, Mr. Davies gave a heartfelt speech about the Post Office card account. Like him, we have all received hundreds if not thousands of letters from constituents urging that the Post Office card account be retained, and that demonstrates the enormous strength of feeling among the public on this issue.
Keith Vaz gave a typically eloquent speech. He talked about a consultation on alcohol and its relation to crime; I look forward to its conclusions. I hope that the Government will take on board the good points raised in the consultation, although their usual practice is to kick matters into the long grass by announcing another review.
Few Members present will not have had large numbers of constituents raise tax credit issues with them. My hon. Friend David Tredinnick spoke for many of us when he highlighted the problems of overpayment, and the problems with the process of recovery that follows.
Mr. Grogan gave an appropriate speech, given recent sport activities. During the recess, he may well receive hundreds of letters from cricket fans who welcome his plea that cricket be made available on free-to-air TV.
About midway through the debate, we heard a light-hearted, humorous speech by Dr. Gibson; it came at just the right time. However, he had a serious message to convey about the A11. I am sure that the changes that he proposed will not easily be agreed to, but I have no doubt that he will continue to fight for them in his usual way.
John McDonnell raised some very serious points about information, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, on Heathrow airport and BAA. I suspect that the issue will run for a while yet, and that we have not heard the last of it.
Shona McIsaac is a veteran of these Adjournment debates. I trust that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on to the relevant Minister in the Department for Transport the hon. Lady's concern about the concrete surface of the A180, which is being replaced on only one carriageway.
It is vital that when cities and towns consider expansion, they do not overlook the growth of infrastructure. That was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster, when he spoke of expansion in his constituency.
On the subject of expansion, my hon. Friend Anne Milton spoke of the inconsistency of the south-east plan, which threatens the green belt, despite statements having been made by the Prime Minister in the House urging protection of the green belt. My hon. Friend asked the Deputy Leader of the House a simple question about how to square the Prime Minister's statement with the reality, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give her a reasonable, straightforward answer.
In the past three years, my hon. Friend Mike Penning has demonstrated how robustly he defends the rights of his constituents, as regards their local hospital. He has fought hard for that hospital, and I have every confidence that he will continue his campaign to save it.
In a succinct speech, Dr. Taylor raised a huge number of points and demonstrated his expertise on health matters. I very much hope that Health Ministers will find time during the recess to consider some of them.
Mr. Moore rightly pointed out the enormous concern felt by businesses and individuals about the great increase in fuel costs. That issue concerns all our constituents, and he was right to raise it today.
My hon. Friend Mr. Amess, another veteran of these Adjournment debates, mentioned the fact that land-girls, including his mother, will receive medals tomorrow. I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that we share in celebrating the good news, and we congratulate all of them on their achievements and their medals.
My hon. Friend Dr. Lewis raised some very serious concerns about his campaign to ensure the secrecy of MPs' second-home addresses. The whole House will agree that it is to be hoped that there will be no adverse impact, for him or his loved ones, resulting from his campaign.
Sarah Teather spoke of the tragedy of gun and knife crime, which affects so many people. I think that we would all agree that we must all work together to try to deal with that scourge.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jackson, a constituency neighbour, raised the concerns of the St. John Fisher school—concerns that affect hundreds of children. I hope that there is a concerted effort by all concerned to ensure that there is a satisfactory solution in the near future.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, it only remains for me now to wish you, all the officials and staff of the House, all Members and their staff and the security staff who do so much to look after us a very happy recess and we look forward to seeing everybody safely back in October.
Helen Goodman (Parliamentary Secretary, House of Commons; Bishop Auckland, Labour)
It is always a pleasure to take part in the pre-recess Adjournment debate and to follow Mr. Vara. When I was a child I never really understood the meaning of the phrase "The show isn't over until the fat lady sings", but I think I understand it now.
The debate was opened by my hon. Friend Jim Dowd, who talked about the rail connections from his constituency to central London. It is fortunate that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Harris, is here to note that that matter needs to be looked into.
Simon Hughes began by raising some international issues. He may be aware that Zimbabwe will be on the agenda in Europe next Tuesday. He may also be aware that the President of Cyprus and the President of North Cyprus will be meeting on
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of knife crime, which has been very much in people's minds because of some horrific deaths recently, particularly, but not only, in London. Those points were echoed by the hon. Members for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) and for Brent, East (Sarah Teather). It is interesting that that was a focus for London Members, because it is clearly a problem in London and the big cities. The hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey and for Brent, East asked about funding for young people's centres and whether or not money from dormant bank accounts will be released early. I can confirm that that will be the case.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hall raised a rather complex question about common land. He talked also about the unfair pricing of utilities, particularly with regard to churches. My understanding is that the Secretary of State put out guidance on this in 2000 and churches are supposed to benefit from lower charges. He talked about NHS Logistics and the position of the workers there. My understanding is that there is to be a ballot on the point raised by my hon. Friend.
Sir Paul Beresford talked about the importance of the Home Office and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform dealing more toughly with internet paedophilia. He raised the question of whether the penalties under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 were adequate. I will convey the urgency of the matter to my colleagues in the relevant Departments.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer demonstrated once again what a hard-working and caring MP she is on behalf of her constituents. She talked about the need for more investment in the Airedale general hospital, in particular the need for investment in kitchens and the canteen. My understanding is that the Minister of State will have a meeting with my hon. Friend to discuss this matter, although in the first instance this is a matter for the local trust board.
David Maclean spoke about the needs of rural communities. Since I share a boundary with him, I am deeply sympathetic to what he was saying. He talked about the performance of the Northwest Regional Development Agency. I commend to the right hon. Gentleman the new regional Select Committees that will be set up, as I do to Anne Milton who talked about the regional spatial strategy in her area. Those Select Committees will provide hon. Members with opportunities to examine the performance of regional bodies.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border also discussed post office closures.
Dan Rogerson (Shadow Minister, Department for Communities and Local Government, Whip; North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)
As this is the only parliamentary opportunity between the start of the consultation on post office closures in Cornwall and the closures at the end of the programme in September, will the Deputy Leader of the House take to her ministerial colleagues the utter despair of my constituents, particularly in the area around Bude, where six post offices are closing in a very rural area? I hope that she will convey my constituents' dismay that the programme is being conducted in the summer, when there will not be adequate scrutiny.
Helen Goodman (Parliamentary Secretary, House of Commons; Bishop Auckland, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. The hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) also raised the problem of post office closures. Obviously, I will pass those comments on to the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs. My own view is strongly influenced by the fact that 12 post offices have closed in my constituency.
My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz discussed the General Electric site that is for sale in his constituency and the importance of brownfield land being used for housing. The proportion of brownfield land used for housing has increased from 56 to 75 per cent. in the past 10 years.
The hon. Member for Bosworth discussed tax credits. He raised the administrative problems, but he forgot to remind the House that 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty through child tax credits. Although the rate of error and fraud is too high at 7.5 per cent., it is much lower than the 13 per cent. rate that we inherited from the previous Administration on jobseeker's allowance.
My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan has long been a champion of the interests of ordinary viewers who want to see the best matches on television. He again raised that issue, on which he has been a consistent champion, and I understand from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that the matter is under consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and other hon. Members also discussed the alcohol strategy. The consultation document was published today, and the consultation will examine whether the voluntary code should be replaced by a mandatory one.
The hon. Member for North Dorset mentioned procurement in the aeroplane sector, which affects his constituency.
My hon. Friend Dr. Gibson discussed his desire to see more investment in the A11, but I am not sure whether he realises that 14 schemes have been completed locally in the past year.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke about charity shops overburdening some small town centres in her constituency, and I will pass on her views to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government.
My hon. Friend John McDonnell discussed the proposals to extend Heathrow and his concern about the decision-making processes. His comments will be examined by Ministers in the Department for Transport. He also mentioned the insecurity faced by some BBC employees and the proposal to change the operation of the World Service. The World Service is, I think, the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to which I will pass on his comments.
The hon. Member for Solihull spoke about the interaction of the Post Office with the Department for Work and Pensions. My hon. Friend Shona McIsaac gave a speech that demonstrated once again what an effective Member she is on behalf of her constituents. She talked about the importance of fire installations and the extraordinary proposal of North East Lincolnshire council, which intends to—
It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.