I thank you warmly, Madam Speaker, for inviting me to open this debate. I was guilty of a solecism on the question of private notice questions yesterday. If today I commit any further solecisms—because I have never taken part in one of these debates before—I apologise to the House in advance.
I do not intend for a moment that, as radio broadcasts suggested overnight, this should be simply a debate on London health, although I have to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health would have only herself to blame if it were. I shall be brief, because other hon. Members have other matters that they wish to raise.
We have debated London health on three occasions since the House reconvened last October—on 21 October, on 31 January in a general debate about the health service, and on 14 February. I did not speak in the third debate, because it was on the eve of the deadline for the consultation on Bart's. However, I spoke in the earlier debates, so I shall not rehearse my views on the London health position that I expressed on those two occasions.
On the first of those occasions, I said that I had sympathy for the policy of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, both on the rationalisation of specialties in London and on what was argued to be the over-provision of London hospitals. Others will decide whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer's cheerful casualness this morning on the subject of London hospitals was the most wholly constructive tone that could have been struck in the present circumstances.
On the question of Bart's, I have from the start recognised the difficulty of merging two great hospitals. Bart's has entered into the spirit of the merger conversations in an effort to make it a success. In one of my earlier speeches in the House, I commented on the way that the process was being managed and the sensitivity of the leadership being given to it.
In the context of the decision announced yesterday, I have to say that the stunningly juvenile trivialisation of an anti-Bart's press release that has emerged from the Royal London trust within the past month has in no way encouraged me to believe that the lesson was being learned about how sensitively that leadership has to be conducted.
The decision has now been taken, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health did not announce it to the House in person yesterday. She has specifically said that she wants to ensure that the ethos of Bart's is carried on into the new merged institution. Much will hang on what use is made of the Bart's site, which, in the minds of many who have been associated with Bart's, is hallowed ground because of the history of nine centuries of medical care on that site beside the great priory of St. Bartholomew.
How the use of that site is handled will play a large part, over the next five years, in the way that the merged institution will develop. I understand my right hon. Friend's difficulty about making a statement on that, beyond the relatively general remarks about a project team that she made in her written answer yesterday. Her announcement was about the decision to close Bart's, and it could not be complicated by other observations, which, at that stage, could not really be made. However, it is absolutely critical that that work goes forward in an imaginative way, and that it enjoys the Government's support.
I commented yesterday on my right hon. Friend's decision not to make a statement to the House. I understand that she would have received advice from her civil service advisers that, if she made a statement on one hospital, she would have to make a statement on all of them. If a hospital, however, has been around for 900 years, for it to receive its death warrant through a written answer does not seem to be wholly worthy of the traditions of our party.
I am afraid that my view of the manner in which the decision has been announced is that it bore signs of some of the insensitivity with which the proposed merger has been carried forward so far. I hope that everyone will have learnt a lesson from the episode, and that we can look forward to a better future than some of us might think we can look forward to.
I wish to raise the subject of Nicholas Ingram, who was born in my constituency of Cambridge. He awaits a horrific death by electric chair in Georgia in the United States of America. His execution has been timed for 7 o'clock tomorrow, 6 April.
I must make it clear that in no way do I condone the crime of which Ingram was found guilty. I understand that he was convicted of tying a middle-aged couple to a tree as he burgled their home. He was 19 at the time. The crime was supposedly committed after a day's drinking and drug taking, during which he and an accomplice had already broken into two homes. Later, he shot the couple and the man died, while his wife survived.
I have the utmost sympathy with victim of that crime. I have not heard from her in the Ingram case, but I am sure that his execution will raise many unpleasant and difficult memories for her. If Ingram did commit that appalling crime, he should, of course, be properly punished. In all cases, the punishment should fit the crime. It should not be more barbaric, cruel and vicious than the crime which he perpetrated against his victim.
The intended method of execution—the electric chair—is performed only in the United States of America. Nick Ingram has been waiting for that for the past 12 years. A misapprehension exists that execution by electrocution is painless and swift—it is not. Elsewhere, the overwhelming trend is towards more humane forms of execution.
I should like to describe what observers at previous electrocutions have reported. They have reported that the body turns bright red as the temperature rises, that the flesh swells and that the skin is stretched to the point of breaking. Sometimes, the prisoner catches fire, especially if he perspires excessively. The prisoner's fingers, toes and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that sometimes the eyeballs pop out and rest on his cheek.
The prisoner often defecates, urinates, vomits and drools. Witnesses have often heard a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the air. In the meantime, the prisoner almost boils. The temperature of the brain approaches the boiling point of water, and when the post-electrocution autopsy is performed, the body is so hot that it cannot be touched by human hand.
When we speak about barbaric acts, that is what we are talking about. Execution is not instantaneous. Death is not painless. Torture is prolonged and painful. Victims can take minutes to die, or even to lose consciousness, and they struggle to free themselves from the excruciating pain.
Nick Ingram is a British citizen. He has been awaiting that horrific end for the past 12 years. He knows very well what happens to prisoners who are electrocuted. I ask the House to judge whether that punishment really fits the crime.
The sentence is decided by the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles. The legal adviser to that board has already said that he will listen to any appeal from the United Kingdom Government with the utmost gravity. In view of that, I find it extraordinary that the Prime Minister has felt unable to express any view on behalf of the UK Government.
I wrote to the Prime Minister about the matter last Thursday, and to date I have not received any reply. I was informed by a journalist on Monday that a letter from the Prime Minister was on its way to me. What is more, the journalist was able to tell me what that reply said. He told me that it differed slightly from that sent to Mrs. Ingram, Nick Ingram's mother.
To Mrs. Ingram, the Prime Minister said that there were no proper grounds for him to intervene. Apparently, Nick Ingram's dual nationality somehow takes away from the fact that he is, in all seriousness, a British citizen, having been born in my constituency. To me, the Prime Minister has apparently said that no formal grounds exist for him to intervene.
A great deal of difference exists between those two replies. If that is what the Prime Minister has said to me in his letter, an explanation is required. If no formal grounds exist for him to intervene, surely he can intervene on informal grounds. His recent trip to Washington would have been an ideal opportunity for him to take a view of the matter and to express it both to the President and to the authorities in Georgia.
Yesterday, a federal judge in Georgia threw out a civil rights lawsuit filed by Ingram, in which he claimed that electrocution was a cruel and unusual punishment, banned under the United States constitution, and inconsistent with a mature society. At a hearing this afternoon, two lawyers from this country will try to convince the board that Ingram was not mentally fit to stand trial for the murder of the Georgian man during the drunken robbery in 1983.
I make a plea yet again to the Leader of the House and to the Prime Minister to make it known to the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles that this country considers electrocution to be a barbaric method of execution, and that it should not be perpetrated in any civilised state.
It has been left to the European Parliament, which yesterday called on United States President Bill Clinton to spare the life of Nicholas Ingram. Klaus Haensch, the president of the Parliament, said in a letter to President Clinton yesterday that there was
abhorrence in much of Europe for execution by electric chair".
All I ask is that our Government should do the same.
I welcome the holding of this debate. It is a sensible adaptation of our procedures to continue to have general, open and, as a rule, relatively low-key debates before recesses.
At this time of year, my right hon. Friend the Lord President will be giving special attention to the programme for the next Session of Parliament. The newspapers have already picked up some ideas about what is in line, all of which sound highly desirable, but, in addition, I hope that my right hon. Friend will encourage his colleagues to include a construction contracts Bill, based on the proposals in the report of the Latham review.
We all know that our former colleague Sir Michael Latham is an especially assiduous and hard-working man, with a detailed knowledge of the construction industry. It is no surprise, therefore, that the proposals are carefully researched and widely supported in the industry.
The construction industry is, of course, of major importance to our country, especially these days, when the infrastructure needs to be developed and redeveloped efficiently and economically. The problems that the proposals deal with are serious and deep-seated, and lie at the heart of the complex contractual relationships that are negotiated between the many different parts of the construction industry day by day.
It is extremely bad for our country that that important industry should be continually distracted to the degree it is by argument about contracts and payments. The industry cannot sort out these problems on its own, but needs a Bill. I believe that the Latham proposals point the way.
I can see three reasons that might make the Government hesitate to legislate on the proposals, but, in my judgment, none is a show-stopper. First, they may be seen as introducing more regulations while the Government are trying to deregulate. Secondly, new regulations usually involve costs, and the Government are, of course, major buyers of construction. Thirdly, the proposals include legislation on late payment, which is something that we have resisted before, none more than me when I was a Minister and, for that matter, before and since being a Minister.
On the first point, I see the Latham Bill as an anti-paperwork Bill. The intention is to reduce the amount of paperwork as well as the amount of argument, both of which bedevil the construction industry. The Bill is designed precisely to minimise the arguments that ensue under the present contractual arrangements.
My second hesitation involves cost to clients, including the Government. However, the Bill is designed to cut costs, and Latham suggested that it would cut them by up to 30 per cent. Certainly every subcontractor now has to allow a huge contingency against contractual arguments and payment delays involved in the present system. Therefore, the Treasury should support the Bill.
Although I have worked for small businesses throughout my political life, I have argued against general legislation for statutory interest on late payment before, during and since my time as Minister with responsibility for small firms, and I remain firmly against it in general. Such legislation would be very complex, and would need to allow for different practices in different trades.
Small firms that cannot now lean on their large customers for payment would have the same difficulty in getting the interest. Of course, a very large number of small firms are retailers which take cash over the counter and which would be hit, not helped, by the introduction of statutory interest.
I am, however, convinced by the Latham report's suggestion that the construction industry is different. The cash flow, and hence the health, of the industry is seriously compromised by the present contract system, and the use that is made of every opportunity for a dispute to delay payment.
I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Lord President will do his best to include the Latham Bill in next year's programme, and will tell his colleagues, especially the Secretary of State for the Environment whose primary responsible it is, that there is support for just such a Bill in all parts of the House.
I welcome this innovation of Adjournment debates in the morning instead of the afternoon, because I now have the opportunity to speak. When such debates took place in the afternoon after the business of the House, at about 3.30 pm to 4 pm, and we had only three hours, I usually failed to be chosen, so perhaps this innovation is a step in the right direction.
Although I want to get back to my constituency and family, perhaps it would have been wiser were the House not to adjourn so early for the Easter recess, but instead were to consider issues of grave importance not only to my constituents but to the country at large. I am thinking of the escalation of crime, especially joyriding.
In my constituency in the past few months, joyriders have killed numerous motorists who were unaware that they—the joyriders—were drunk or sometimes drugged, and had no licence or insurance. Two weeks ago, a young boy of 14, together with three other boys of the same age, took his parents' car. He was not licensed to drive and, at 14, was incapable of driving properly on the main road. He drove into another car at about 70 or 80 mph and killed the young lady who was driving and some others in the car.
On 12 March, I received a letter from the uncle of that young lady, Lianne Davies. I think that I should read to
the House the sentiments expressed in that letter, because they encapsulate the problem and tragedy of joy riding. Mr. Davies wrote:
In the wake of the tragic death of my niece, Lianne Davies as a result of 'joyriding', I feel that something must be done to try and prevent this tragedy happening again and again. The whole of the community has been touched and angered at this tragic waste of a young life, someone who was just embarking on a new life with her boyfriend, Christopher, together with her young son, Thomas.
Not only has this tragedy angered honest, hard-working and caring people at a local level but it has disgusted and angered people nationwide.
The time has come to stop the minority in our area, and nationwide, 'ruling the roost' and laughing in the faces of so called law and order. We must now have a punish that befits the crime. Time and again these 'yobs' are getting off far too lightly. The person who drove the car which killed the Mansells, last August, received just 7 years and his accomplices are only on a charge of car theft. That driver is a murderer and should have been sent down for a minimum term not a maximum. The others in the car with him should be on a charge which is greater than just car theft.
During the week after this terrible tragedy we are still hearing stories of cars being stolen in our area and in fact, in the early hours of Saturday morning the 11th of March, the day after Lianne's funeral, Maesteg town was cordoned-off to try and catch 4 'joyriders'.
The issues, as we all know, are greater than just considerably increasing the punishments for car crimes. The underlying issues are those of discipline at home and in our schools. Human rights have swung too far in the favour of those who now turn around in school and say to a teacher, 'you touch me and I'll have you on a charge of assault'. The so-called 'do-gooders' in our society have ruined it with the softly, softly approach. Surely we must return to some level of common sense where a teacher is able to discipline a pupil, and a policeman can perform his duty without threat of losing his or her job. A few canes didn't do me any harm. The world and the 'law' has gone crazy. The police must have more powers to handle difficult situations.
There is much more that could and should be said but what I, on behalf of Lianne's family, want is some sort of legislation which severely punishes car crime, and more police presence at all hours in the community to stamp out this crime and others, such as under age drinking, which is rife, and drug-taking. Punish the parents, punish the landlords, punish the criminals severely and let a prison be a prison not a community centre. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
Lianne's uncle suggests that, if I want to discuss the issues further with him, I should.
The whole town turned out at Lianne's funeral, and everyone shared the family's grief. One can imagine the shock of a parent who has reared a daughter and a son until they are 21 and 14 respectively, and who is informed, an hour after they have gone out for a ride in the car, that both children are dead. Nothing can compensate a father or a mother for the death of two children.
A month before Lianne's death, a father of 32 and a mother of 31 were driving home from the seaside on a Saturday evening. Another car, driven by a person who was unlicensed and under age, with three under-age people as passengers, drove down a hill directly into their car, killing them both and leaving a young son of three an orphan. That tragedy was caused by joyriding. It is high time that the House and the Government took action, together with the motor manufacturers, to try to resolve the problem, which would be in everyone's interests.
We should also have more police on the beat to ensure that joyriding does not take place. The incident I have described could have been avoided if the 14-year-old boy involved had been apprehended when he took possession of the car and before he went out driving. I appeal to the House and the Government to do something. If they do not, there will be further deaths as a direct result of joyriding by people who are unlicensed and who should not be on the road.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) on his speech. He has expressed views that are shared on both sides of the House. I thank him for bringing the matter to the attention of the House; he deserves support.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to refer my remarks to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, because they specifically concern the final decisions on the reorganisation of local government in Devon. When the Local Government Commission for England first considered the matter, it went to a great deal of trouble and published three alternative suggestions for the reorganisation of Devon.
The first suggestion was for a unitary authority of four areas; the second was for a unitary authority of six areas; and the third was for Plymouth to change its status and, once again, to be a unitary authority, with the rest of Devon remaining the same.
There was much consideration of the proposals throughout the county, and the third proposal seemed to be fairly widely accepted, although not universally. As shown on page 104 of the commission's report, 31 per cent. of the county accepted the proposal, and a further 14 per cent. wanted no change. The commission's proposal was the nearest thing to leaving the county as it was. Everyone accepted that Plymouth, one of the largest cities in the country, should have its own unitary authority.
Much to everyone's surprise, when the commission made its final decision, it produced a recommendation that had never been put as an alternative, which was for Plymouth and Torbay to be made unitary authorities, with the rest of the county to remain the same. This immediately provoked an uprising—perhaps that is an overstatement: a considerable amount of adverse opinion—in the city of Exeter. Exeter is one of the oldest cathedral towns, and it could not see why the upstart Torbay should be given unitary authority status when it was not.
There were immediately problems in South Hams as well. For a local authority between Torbay and Plymouth, it was worrying that the two local government areas on either side might become unitary authorities. It was feared that one or other was likely to want to extend its boundaries and slowly to eat up South Hams. It has been mooted that perhaps South Hams should become a unitary authority.
My local authority of East Devon is remarkable, because it is one of the few local authorities in the country that has no debt in housing, or in anything else. That is a pretty remarkable achievement for a local authority at this time. East Devon has even allowed some of its capital allowances to be used by other authorities because it does not need them all. We have a pretty good local authority in East Devon.
East Devon is suddenly saying that, in view of Exeter's position, it should perhaps now be considered for unitary authority status by the Secretary of State for the Environment. East Devon is much larger than Torbay, it is much larger than Exeter, and it has a larger population than both areas. People ask why, if Exeter is being considered for unitary status, East Devon should not be considered.
From looking at the report of the Local Government Commission for England, I see that 14 counties in which it was originally suggested that unitary authorities should be created will not now, in the final recommendations, have unitary authorities, but will remain the same. The 14 counties are Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire, Surrey, East Sussex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. All will revert to their previous positions. Yet in Devon, contrary to the original recommendation, a new unitary authority is being suggested.
I point out to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that it is suggested on page 104 of the commission's report that there is
widespread support for unitary authorities for both Exeter and Torbay".
That is a massive overstatement. Many people have told me that, when an opinion poll was carried out in Torbay, they did not vote because the suggestion that Torbay should become a unitary authority was not an alternative given by the commission; they did not take it seriously.
The only people who voted were those who were keen to bring about a unitary authority. The other people did not bother, and did not think that the suggestion should be considered. I very much doubt, therefore, whether the words "widespread support" are accurate. Devon county council, East Devon district council, Mid Devon district council and, I think, Teignbridge district council were all very much in favour of the Local Government Commission for England's original recommendation—for the status quo to remain, except for Plymouth.
The great difficulty is that, when the measure comes before the House, it will be by way of statutory instrument, to which there can be no amendment. Therefore, we cannot vote on what the local people might like. We will either have to accept the measure or reject it absolutely. That puts some Members of Parliament—I believe that the same is true of counties other than Devon—in a difficult position.
Therefore, will the Secretary of State look at the matter again before he brings forward such a measure? If the majority of people throughout Devon were consulted, they would be more likely to support the commission's original recommendation—that Devon county council and Devon district councils should stay the same, and Plymouth should become a unitary authority. I believe that people would be much happier if we proceeded in that way.
I am aware that the debate is popular and many of my colleagues want to contribute to it, so I shall be brief.
I wish to follow the remarks of the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) and record, as people sought to do yesterday, the general dissatisfaction about the way in which a major health announcement was made yesterday.
I wish to place on record how extraordinary it was that such a major announcement—covering so many hospitals and constituencies, and involving so much money and emotional investment—should have been made by way of a written answer, particularly as the original proposal was announced in the House. In addition, we discovered that, on the same day, the Secretary of State for Wales was making a policy statement to the opposite effect.
The Secretary of State for Health will suffer as a result of the way in which the announcement was made. The right hon. Lady's failure to provide an opportunity for questions means that people's frustrations will be pent up until they can question her. I always thought that there was a majority in the House against the Secretary of State's proposals, certainly as they relate to the south London arrangements and Guy's hospital. She has done nothing to reduce that opposition, and may well have produced firmer opposition to Government plans. I fear that, as a result of the way in which she handled the matter yesterday, she will not have heard the end of it.
I shall flag up questions now to allow the Leader of the House to give the Secretary of State early notice of what she would have been asked about yesterday. If the Secretary of State accepts—as she appears to do by her written answer, her press statement and her letter to me and other colleagues—that there are preconditions for the closure of the Guy's hospital accident and emergency unit, and if those conditions are not met in three, four, five or six years' time, does that mean that the closure will not go ahead?
Those conditions are that the London ambulance service should be fully equipped and should do its job properly, that all other accident and emergency units in south London should be fully functioning and able to cope, and that there should be adequate funds. Logically, if the conditions are not met, the closure should not go ahead.
The health commission said that the closure should go ahead only if the preconditions were met. If that is so, has it been decided that the accident and emergency department will close if it will close only if certain other things happen? The truth is that it may close, so it would be far better to say that it will remain open but that, if various conditions are met, it may close. It would be better to do that than to blight the department for four years when, at the end of that period, it may still be needed and may stay open.
I have a set of questions involving Philip Harris house. The press release says that it will be in full use. The letter sent out to the chairman of the health authority said that it would be used substantially in line with original plans. Elsewhere it states that three quarters of the space will be used as originally intended. What is the truth? Is it not true that £1 million worth of equipment will have to be taken out of Philip Harris house so that it can be converted for uses other than those for which it was originally intended?
Is it not the case that, although the special trustees may leave their money in, Philip Harris, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the Kidney Patients Association are not willing to give their money and their money will be taken out? Is it not true that large parts of the building of Philip Harris house will not now be used as originally intended? Is that not madness, given that it is a state of the art building in the health service?
What about the other two newest buildings: Guy's tower and new Guy's house? In the past two weeks we have put it to the Secretary of State in a letter, and to other people in other ways that, suddenly, King's College London and the United Medical and Dental schools would not need as much space as before. Up to 20 floors in the two other newest buildings will be available. Why was that fact not dealt with in the written answer, the letter or the press statement? Why has no thought been given to those matters? Does it not materially change the logical way to plan when one of the prospective users no longer wants to use the site—as happened two weeks ago?
Was the regional health authority general manager correct to say that that development may mean that part of the Guy's hospital site—the new Guy's house and Guy's tower—may be disposed of? Does "disposed of" mean sold off, and does that therefore mean that part of Guy's hospital will be sold out of the national health service? If so, we should have been told. I do not think that a majority of the House would be in favour of that.
What about the worries that having a minor surgery unit and some non-emergency beds without intensive care or intensive treatment units is dangerous? The consultants say that they will not carry out such activities without intensive care back-up in case of emergencies. Is it not entirely irresponsible to have such units without that back up?
Why have we still not received the trust business case, which was meant to have been produced before the consultation began? In a letter to me yesterday, the Minister for Health said:
The full business case for the redevelopment of Guy's and St. Thomas' has been submitted to the South Thames Regional Office, and the Trust is now exploring private finance options. We look forward to seeing the completed full business case from the Guy's and St Thomas' Trust in the near future.
Not to have the business case at the end of the consultation or even on the day of the announcement, when it was meant to be the basis of the proposal for the hospital, is, to say the least, extraordinary, and probably hugely incompetent. How on earth can a decision be made when one of the decision's building blocks is not in place?
Have not all the consultants in the south-east of England said that they are dissatisfied with the proposals relating to neurosciences and paediatrics, will not use the services as currently proposed, and will send all their patients to Great Ormond Street hospital rather than elsewhere in south London? Has not the neurology debate involved various changes of view in recent weeks, some of which were raised at the regional health authority meeting, but none of which was addressed, let alone answered, in the Secretary of State's written answer, press statement or letters?
What will happen about the management of the trust—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) in last week's debate? Will we be left with a management—with the most highly paid chief executive in the land who was previously employed to run one of the two hospitals in the merged trust—which does not have the confidence of the people who work in and use Guy's hospital? I have never said this before in the House, but the chief executive has to go, and the management must be changed. It is entirely unacceptable that people are running the trust in a way that does not enjoy the confidence of any of the people in Guy's hospital. An urgent decision is needed, and the Secretary of State should ensure that it is taken in the next few days if there is to be any prospect of credible progress.
The written answer was two pages long. It would have been possible to make a statement of the same length. It was entirely unacceptable that such a statement was not made. All the questions that remain to be answered will remain to be answered until they are answered fully. When they are answered, we may discover how illogical, inappropriate and unsupported the decision was. To quote what a Conservative Member said yesterday, it was at least—and to put it mildly—politically inept.
Before I commence my remarks, I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). The more often such sentiments are expressed, the more likely it is that there will be action in the direction that we both want. May I offer the hon. Gentleman a word of advice? Perhaps he should have a word with some members of the magistrates bench in his area, some of whom I fear seem to leave all common sense behind when they are put on the bench and reach some very strange decisions and sentences. I am sure that the House was grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore for raising that issue.
As we are debating matters which should be raised before the adjournment for the Easter recess, which is the first main holiday of the year, I hope that it is appropriate for me to raise what seem to be unfair advertising practices by sections of the travel industry. There are two practices which are virtually scams inflicted on the travelling public. The first is that of holiday travel insurance.
At the moment, there are numerous advertisements for holidays at various discounts from 4 per cent. to 15 per cent. I have a copy of such an advertisement which is in general circulation. However, in order to obtain that discount, according to the advertisement to which I have just referred, it is necessary for the operator's
travel insurance to be purchased at the time of booking and as part of the same transaction.
That advertisement, and other similarly phrased advertisements, fail to inform the public of the very substantial commission paid on the travel insurance premium by the insurer to the operator.
The Travel Trade Gazette issued a list of insurers and the amount of commission payable. It is clear that up to 50 per cent. commission can be obtained by an operator. The usual level of commission is 40 per cent. to 45 per cent. for longer haul holidays. Therefore, someone booking a £400 holiday which was subject to a 7 per cent. discount would receive £28 off the cost. If there was a 4 per cent. discount, he would receive £16 off. However, that could result in that person paying back in insurance premiums, through the commission that is paid, more than the amount saved. That is not quite the bargain that the operators would like to let the public believe it is.
Some operators provide their own insurance, trusting that they will be able to make a handsome profit after having to pay claims. That practice reminds me of the collision damage waiver policies of some American car hire companies, which add enormously to the advertised costs of car rental. However, to revert to travel insurance, let me quote at length from the Travel Trade Gazette, which is one of the most authoritative journals on holidays and travel. It states:
The multiples generally charge more for their insurance than other travel agents, banks or building societies, to claw back the cost of offering holiday discounts. They offer a bad deal to families,
whereas most independents offer discounts to children or cover them for free. A family of four travelling to Florida could pay up to £218"—
for their insurance—
with the multiples, when the net cost to the agent is £50. Underwriters and brokers see little hope of change while insurance is used to fund discounts … Commercial Union's Travellers Insurance Association manager … said high retail prices cause problems when customers were disputing claims.
'Travel agents put too much emphasis on making profits from insurance.'
That would be bad enough, but other aspects of that policy must be aired. If a potential holiday maker has his or her own annual insurance, the discount may be withdrawn by the operator unless he or she agrees to sign an insurance indemnity.
I recently met the well-known television travel presenter, Mr. John Carter of "Wish You Were Here", who showed me a letter that he had received from a Mr. Cushway of Chelmsford. Mr. Cushway has his own annual insurance, but he was astonished to read the terms of the indemnity that he was expected to sign by the operator, "Going Places", if he did not take out the operator's insurance. The indemnity reads:
In consideration of Going Places agreeing to book my holiday/travel arrangements without proof of my insurance arrangements, I hereby agree on behalf of myself and (if applicable) My Party to indemnify and keep indemnified Going Places and the tour operator for any costs, claims, liabilities or any other losses whatsoever that are incurred by Going Places or the tour operator and which would otherwise have been met or satisfied had I taken out insurance with Going Places or the tour operator.
That means that if one received an injury resulting in a personal accident claim, even if that was the liability of the operator, the holiday maker would not be able to claim against the operator. Is it therefore no surprise that Mr. Cushway wrote:
After a careful read it appears that they are getting customers to completely indemnify both Going Places and the tour operator from 'any' claims. This also includes claims that are clearly the fault of these two companies ie: flight, hotel cancellation or overbooking.
I hope that hon. Members will agree that the public should not be subjected to practices like that. It would seem that steps should be taken, either to remove the condition of having to take out the operator's travel insurance or to make the amount of commission paid more public and to allow travellers to purchase their own insurance without signing an indemnity.
The other issue to which I want to refer briefly is that of flight fare advertisements. For years now, the travel pages of our newspapers, particularly the Evening Standard, and the teletext advertisements on television, have offered tempting offers of tickets to far-away places at very attractive prices. Unfortunately, a considerable number of those offers prove to be bogus. The excuse is that they are limited and are no longer available. However, at least one operator advertised services which never existed in the first place, let alone any fares that could operate on them.
Too many of the advertised fares are unavailable—[Interruption.] I was somewhat deterred there by an irrelevant intervention from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). As a result of the practice that I have described, many people will be paying far in excess of the amount that they thought they would be paying when they communicated with the advertiser. I once telephoned a company which advertised flights to the United States for £199. I was told that all those seats had gone. When I asked what the next cheapest category was, I was told £299, but there were no seats at that price available. I eventually paid £349, nearly double the amount originally advertised.
That somewhat unfortunate state of affairs has come to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority, which has drawn up new guidelines for ticket advertisements. It has suggested that four main aims should be achieved. First, if flights advertised are not all available at the quoted fare, it should be clearly stated that flights are available "from" the quoted price. Secondly, the ASA suggests that there should be sufficient seats available at the price quoted to ensure
that there is a reasonable prospect of obtaining the price that is advertised.
Thirdly, all fares should be available between one and six weeks after the appearance of the advertisement unless otherwise stated. Fourthly, multiple insertions of advertisements should not be made if there is a strong chance that the prices featured may change.
However worthy such guidelines are, there are serious questions to be asked about how effective they will prove in practice. For example, it will be up to local trading standards officers to investigate, but they already have to cope with the whole mass of consumer legislation and their efforts are likely to be patchy in effect.
The interesting factor is that the other bodies expected to check on the advertisements are the newspapers in which they appear, which have no direct knowledge whether advertised fares are available. An unofficial survey by Holiday Which? checked one edition of the Evening Standard advertising flights to Spain, and it was discovered that of the eight companies offering flights, only two could provide them at the cheapest advertised price.
What happens if a company is found to have transgressed the ASA code? After persistent contraventions—I stress that they have to be persistent—the authority can apply to the High Court for a restraining injunction. Only if the company continued to transgress, in breach of the injunction, would it be liable to prosecution for contempt of court. It is clear that in practice the code is difficult to enforce and does not work. The result is that the British consumer is being ripped off.
What redress is needed? I suggest, first, a clear and more effective sanction against such advertising, carrying heavy fines. Secondly, we could consider legislation similar to that being advanced in the United States, which specifically prohibits deceptive advertising. Thirdly, the Office of Fair Trading should conduct an investigation to find out whether such advertisements should be monitored so that action could be taken much earlier. If the United States Department of Transportation can take strong steps there is no reason why our Department of Transport, or the Department of Trade and Industry, cannot do the same.
The two problems that I have raised are blots on a successful British industry, and their removal would do much to raise its standing in the eyes of the public and enhance its image. It might even help bookings to pick up this year. If the industry cannot put its house in order, the demand for legislation will inevitably increase. Action is urgently needed if the consumer is to be properly protected against such scams. Holiday travel should be a pleasure, not an opportunity to be overcharged.
I hope that the Leader of the House will support my views and pass my suggestions to the relevant Ministers, and I hope that representatives of the media who may be with us will take on board the fact that this is a case of commercial sleaze—a subject with which they are much preoccupied—and perhaps give it some publicity.
The debate began with an eleventh-hour attempt by one knight of the shires, the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), to save one of the London hospitals. Then we heard from another knight of the shires, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who wanted to save the old-fashioned Devon county council. There has also been an eleventh-hour attempt by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) to save a man's life in America. I shall make an eleventh-hour attempt to save 74 jobs for disabled workers at Remploy in Derbyshire.
We all know that Remploy has been a huge success. There are about 90 units throughout the United Kingdom, and as far as I know from my research, until now not one has been closed on commercial grounds. Closures have taken place only because of fires or other planning difficulties.
However, according to a lobby of disabled people who came to Parliament yesterday, the Remploy factory in Alfreton is to close. I have informed the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), in whose constituency the factory lies. He knows about the closure, says that he has made representations, and is fully aware of what I intend to say. I must raise the subject because many of the workers at the factory live in Bolsover; several more live in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes).
The factory employs 74 people, many of whom use wheelchairs. Others are epileptic, and they all have all the usual problems that disabled people face. Over the past two or three years we have talked about disabled people at length in the House, partly because of all the private Members' Bills that my hon. Friends have tried to introduce on successive Fridays. It is appalling that, with the Government-sponsored Disability Discrimination Bill, which talks about looking after disabled people's rights, on its way to the other place, 74 disabled people are being kicked out of their jobs in the middle of Derbyshire.
It will be said that those 74 people have been offered other jobs—that is the usual cry—but it is not easy for disabled people to travel long distances, and the proposal to shunt them along to Mansfield means an average journey of about 10 miles. Yesterday in the Lobby I spoke to someone from Clay Cross, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East, which is 12 miles from Mansfield. That person finds it difficult enough to travel the five miles to Alfreton, without piling on more by going to Mansfield and back.
It is a disgrace that Remploy is being allowed to shut the factory and that, seemingly, the Government are doing nothing about it. The people concerned have written to the Prime Minister but, as has been said earlier in the debate about other people, they are still waiting for a decent reply. I think that the Prime Minister passed the letter on to one of the Ministers in the Department of unemployment. That is why, even at this late stage, the matter must be resolved.
On Friday 7 April a 50th anniversary celebration will take place at Remploy, and the directors in Cricklewood have had the cheek to invite the 74 people from Alfreton to travel down for a celebration party and to cut a cake, just days before 20 April, when their jobs will be cast aside. They will not go. Every one of the 74 workers is backing the trade unions' attempts to save the jobs. Incidentally, there are about six unions involved at Remploy, every one of them committed to fighting the closure. Those people will not go to the celebration because they do not find anything to celebrate in the fact that they are being chucked out of work.
I appeal to the Leader of the House to ask the Ministers responsible to act. I suppose that the subject comes under the Department of Employment, or possibly the Department of Trade and Industry—and of course it affects social security, too. We are often told, especially by Ministers, about the massive sums spent on social security and we all know that it costs about £9,000 per annum to chuck somebody out of work. Yet the proposal is to get rid of 74 jobs, which will cost the Exchequer—that is, the taxpayer—£9,000 apiece. That is crazy economics, and that is why Ministers should call on the directors of Remploy to ensure that the factory is not closed.
Now that the true figures have been revealed this morning by one of the groups of chattering-class people, which has told us that the unemployment statistics are wrong, we all know that what we have always said is true, and that there are at least 4 million people without a job. Now a further 74 people are to be chucked on the scrap heap to join that pile of human misery.
What about the work that the 74 people do? They produce jumpers for Marks and Spencer, and throughout the entire period of that production Marks and Spencer has not made one complaint about the quality of the goods. There is no argument for closing the factory on those grounds either. So what is the reason for the closure? As we all know, the reason is that there are people running Remploy who are hand in glove with the Government. Disabled people know that the only protection they have is through membership of a trade union, and all the employees belong to a trade union. We know that the Government have a thing about people who are members of trade unions.
I call upon the Minister to convey my message to his colleagues. The closure is due to occur on 20 April. There will be no celebrations for the employees of the Remploy factory in Alfreton, but there could be if the Government would listen to the people who came to lobby their Members of Parliament yesterday—as is their right—and to present petitions.
I now turn to another matter regarding a different lobby. Last week, 5,000 people came to lobby Parliament about education cuts, teachers' pay and the larger class sizes that will result from the Government's proposals for education. The people who came from Derbyshire to lobby their Members of Parliament had to take the day off to do so. Everyone should have the inalienable right to come to this place to petition Members of Parliament.
Fire fighters, teachers, parents and kids took part in that lobby and they presented a petition to the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and I helped them with their petition. What is wrong with people travelling to London to petition Parliament?
London is 150 miles from north Derbyshire, so when teachers and others travel to London to lobby Parliament they cannot work on that day. In the education debate that followed the lobby, the Secretary of State for Education, prompted by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), had the gall to attack those teachers for taking the day off. She talked about calling in the auditor. That is appalling. Not everyone can get to London easily or at the drop of a hat. People in many parts of Britain have to take time off work to carry out their duties of petitioning and lobbying their Members of Parliament.
I have a typical letter from one of the schools involved in the lobby in which it is made abundantly clear that no money was lost to the local authority as a result of its involvement. It has written to the Secretary of State for Education to say:
We regret the necessity of writing to you"—
that is the Secretary of State—
on the subject of your totally unfounded remarks made in the House yesterday on the subject of the presence of Derbyshire teachers at the lobby of their MPs".
It refers to the closure of the school in north Derbyshire and explains that the lobby:
was on a day already scheduled for inset. It therefore caused no inconvenience to pupils or parents, nor is there any accruing cost to the authority as the time lost will be recouped in a series of evening sessions which have already been arranged. You will note that the only cost has been to the teachers themselves".
Members can imagine how those teachers felt when they switched on their televisions last Wednesday and heard the Secretary of State attacking them for having the temerity to come to their Parliament to lobby Members and to petition the Prime Minister and others. It is the height of arrogance for the Government to attack people in that fashion. The Secretary of State for Education should have the decency to apologise to those teachers in accordance with the requests made in the letter.
I have spoken about two lobbies today. One concerns a group of disabled people who are fighting for their jobs. Surely the Government could intervene and call upon Remploy to keep the Alfreton factory open. Secondly, the Minister should have the decency to apologise for her unwarranted attacks on the teachers, parents and kids who came from Derbyshire last Wednesday to fight for teachers' pay, people's jobs and for a decent education.
As usual, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has given us a colourful account of various matters in his constituency. I regret his latter remarks about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. Teachers and other professionals have ample opportunity to visit this place to lobby Members of Parliament or whatever during their holiday time.
The hon. Gentleman said that the teachers travelled to London on a training day. One is bound to ask why training days occur during term time when they could take place during school holidays. Children are often forced to take days off school because of teacher absences due to training or due to lobbies such as that described by the hon. Gentleman. There is ample opportunity for those activities to take place during the school holidays—which are substantial, although well deserved nonetheless.
I crave the indulgence of the House for a few moments as I wish to refer to a matter which has been discussed many times on the Floor of the House in the past few weeks. Education in Bedfordshire was the subject of certain comments by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, who referred to the fact that Bedfordshire education authority has mounted a massive campaign against the Government. Although the financial settlement is tight, I believe that it will benefit my constituents and the teaching profession as a whole.
In opening the education debate, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made what I considered to be a most unfortunate speech—I have certainly heard him speak better on previous occasions—in which he castigated taxpayers for not pouring more money into the problem. That is a typical example of what Labour Members do if they are in any sort of difficulty—they chuck money at the problem and hope that it will go away. The Government take a more responsible approach. Many teachers, parents and school governors have written to Conservative Members about their difficulties and we could have agreed that more money would solve their problems. That would be the easiest way out. However, the Government are more responsible than the Labour party when it comes to spending other people's money.
In my county of Bedfordshire, the approach of parents to education ranges from the ignorant to the very genuine—obviously, the majority fall into the latter category. However, there are parents—some of whom may also have written to my right hon. and hon. Friends—who display an ignorance about the education system which makes me wonder whether they have any idea what happens to their children between the time they leave them at the school gates and when they collect them, or deputise someone else to do so, at 3.30 pm.
One constituent from the Sunden Park area was very abusive in his letter to me, using foul language which I shall not repeat to the House. I replied that as he was so oaf-like in his attitude to education he was not fit to have a child, let alone to demand that others look after that child on his behalf. Another constituent who wrote to me was distressed that the dinner supervisors could be made redundant due to education budget savings which would have to be made at the school. She protested that that would mean that she would have to pay more in child minding fees because her child could not come home for lunch when she was at work. Some parents use schools purely for child minding purposes and give no thought to education. That sort of ignorance distresses us greatly.
The education debate should add a new dimension to parental responsibility. Some 99 per cent. of parents are entirely genuine in their concerns. They have written to me to express their fears at what might happen as a consequence of the savings which have been threatened by, in many cases, Labour and Liberal-controlled local authorities and which must be made in accordance with the Secretary of State's strictures. Like the majority of counties, Bedfordshire received an increase in its education budget and in its standard spending assessment, although one would not think so from reading the letters. I hope that there will be greater involvement by parents in schools and that they will take more responsibility for their children's education. In many cases, they leave it totally to the teaching profession, feeling that once their children are at the school gates they are somebody else's problem.
I hope that there will be greater parental involvement in parent-teacher associations, which are doing reasonably well in my constituency but could do with a membership boost. I hope that there will be larger attendances at open evenings. One often hears from head teachers in particular the lament that parents do not turn up for open evenings and take no interest in their children's academic progress. I hope that more parents will stand for governing bodies. Sadly, in many schools where there are places for parents they have to be begged and cajoled to serve as governors, to assist schools and the community.
If the strictures rightly being placed on schools are to do positive good, parents should understand that while they may lobby Members of Parliament—rightly, as the hon. Member for Bolsover said—and councillors, they must play a larger part in the education of their children and the running of schools. I hope that the several hundred parents who wrote to me will make it their business to help to ensure that their children receive a decent education and will become personally involved in the running of local schools.
I am lucky to have in my constituency many excellent little schools and larger ones, and good teachers. However, I was disturbed to read national figures, which may not necessarily apply to my constituency, showing that the amount of time that teachers spend in the classroom is dropping. In some LEAs, teachers spend less than 70 per cent. of their time in front of classes during the course of a shortish day in terms of hours, albeit onerous in terms of the work to be done. Nevertheless, a figure of 70 per cent. or 75 per cent. is not good enough. Many savings could be made if the system allowed teachers to spend more time in front of their classes.
I mentioned in response to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover the basis of so-called Baker days. At a time when teachers' holidays are rightly generous, it seems wrong for several more days to be taken up by training in school time. Only recently, a local school teacher was seen in town on a so-called Baker day, busily shopping for her family's needs. That may have been a minor exception, but it is incredible that training days must be taken when the school is open, when they could be held during the long summer holidays or other holidays that teachers rightly enjoy. To take a day away from teaching children is totally wrong.
Why is it—the hon. Member for Bolsover may have the answer—that despite the assistance that the Government have given teachers, the massive rise in salaries, way above inflation, that the profession has enjoyed, and the fact that the number of teachers has not fallen during the past few years, one third of 14-year-old children have a reading age of 11? Are teachers happy with that situation, and is the taxpayer getting value for money? The majority of teachers, certainly in my constituency, are first class, but when the taxpayer is expected to fund additional pay to a profession already generously remunerated by comparison with some others in the private sector, the taxpayer is bound to ask why it is that levels of academic achievement do not seem to match the needs of employers.
I remain concerned at head teachers who almost avoid going in front of classes. One appreciates that there are problems of supply and sick leave. In some cases, the situation is exploited. We all know of cases of teachers on extended sick leave who cannot be got rid of for one reason or another. The opportunity exists for head teachers to spend more time in front of classes. They may plead that they have administrative duties, but in spending more time at their desks than at the chalk face they are failing in their duty to children.
I am close to the teachers in my constituency. In the past fortnight I have seen 24 head teachers in individual meetings. I am confident that my constituency has a first-class band of professionals, but improvements could be made to any system. I regret the campaign mounted by the Labour and Liberal-controlled Bedfordshire education authority which, in the words of the Conservative leader Mr. Philip Hendry, seems to want to heap a great deal of misery on parents, teachers and pupils for political advantage. When Bedfordshire's education budget was before the county council, two options were open—a 3.5 per cent. cut proposed by the Labour/Liberal majority and a 2 per cent. cut proposed by the Conservatives, which would have halved the number of proposed teacher redundancies. The council, being controlled by Labour and Liberal members, chose the former and then inevitably blamed the Government for the problems that would follow. It could easily have accepted a 2 per cent. budget cut, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on the Floor of the House.
Over the past five years, Bedfordshire has enjoyed a real increase of 30 per cent. in its standard spending assessment. Where has that money gone? As a Member of Parliament, I cannot blithely tell the local education authority, "Of course I will go to the Secretary of State for Education and ask that more money be poured into your pot and of course I can go to the Secretary of State for the Environment and ask him to raise the cap", if I am not satisfied that the money will be properly spent. When a local authority that receives such an increase over five years still pleads poverty, makes teachers redundant and imposes substantial education cuts, one is bound to ask where the money has gone.
I can give one example of the way that money was spent which may amuse Opposition Members—if not embarrass them, as it should. Bedfordshire recently received applications from 21 members of the public for a master's degree grant. As the House knows, many local education authorities do not have the money to fund such grants. A county council spokesman was quoted in Bedfordshire on Sunday for 29 January:
We have a general policy that we do not award discretionary grants for this type of degree.
Only one such grant was made. It was—surprise, surprise—given to Councillor Adrian Heffernan, the Labour councillor for Leighton Buzzard. All 21 applications from the public were turned down, but, extraordinarily enough, the Labour and Liberal-controlled local authority made a grant for a master's degree to the Labour county councillor for Leighton Buzzard. Opposition Members accuse us of looking after our friends. Bedfordshire stands accused by me and by my hon. Friends representing constituencies in that county of not spending its money correctly and prudently. Yet the
authority was able to afford to give a grant—of all the applications, it was the only successful one—to a Labour county councillor. I should add that the councillor expressed some surprise and embarrassment that his was the only application to be approved. Never let us stand accused of looking after our friends, bearing in mind the example that I have given of what is taking place—perhaps in a tiny way in some instances, but in a considerable way in others—in education authorities that are under Labour and Liberal control.
Bedfordshire will battle through. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for putting us on our mettle and ensuring that we are giving the people of Bedfordshire value for money. I hope that the local education authority will take up the challenge, as have teachers, governors and pupils in my constituency. If the exercise is successful, as I believe that it will be, there may be openings for some form of growth next year. As things stand, however, the settlement was necessary and it has my full support.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on her contribution to the debate. Her remarks were heard in silence by the House, which reflected their force. I hope that, even at this late stage, they will be conveyed to the Prime Minister.
There was not just one important and controversial announcement yesterday transmitted by means of a written answer that should have been transmitted through a proper parliamentary statement. Apart from the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for the Environment made a potentially important statement about mechanisms for water charging in future.
The good news was that water companies would be allowed to go beyond the year 2000 using rateable values as a basis for charging for water. Like so many other things, however, there was bad news as well. The bad news outweighed the good news. For the first time, the Secretary of State stated that official Government policy was that metering should be the norm as a means of charging for water in future. The right hon. Gentleman's statement will be profoundly depressing to many people and organisations throughout the country. I have in mind organisations ranging from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and the National Consumer Council. Representatives of the water industry such as the Water Services Association and the Water Companies Association have warned of the problems involved in moving towards a compulsory system of water metering as the basis for charging for water.
There are some fans of compulsory water metering, including the Director General of Water Services, Mr. Ian Byatt. His enthusiasm for compulsory water metering is well known. Over some time, he and Ministers have undertaken trials to assess compulsory water meters. There have been many well-founded reservations about the usefulness of the trials. The first trials took place on the Isle of Wight and in Bromsgrove. If, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you decided to select representative areas to determine whether water metering was a good idea or a bad idea and whether there would be technical problems, I do not think that you would select places such as the Isle of Wight and Bromsgrove. They were selected, however, some years ago.
It is sometimes argued that compulsory water metering is a great environmental measure because it leads to the conservation of water. It is about time that the Government started to listen to those who say that if they, the Government, did rather more to reduce leakage of large amounts of water from pipes, much more could be done for conservation than would result from the imposition of compulsory water meters. If there is a conservation argument in support of water metering, I do not find it acceptable to say to consumers throughout the country that those who are expected to conserve water are those who cannot afford to pay their water bills. Compulsory water metering hits those on low incomes, those with large families and the disabled.
There are some people who can benefit from the introduction of water meters. For years, they have had the right voluntarily to opt for the installation of a meter. We are now faced, however, with the thin end of the wedge that will lead to compulsory water metering. Ministers have said that they are not looking towards compulsory water metering, but we have seen over the past few years that new properties have water meters installed.
A petition was presented to me a month or so ago from people in the Weoley Castle area of Birmingham. They had moved to a new housing estate. It was an example of new housing association property. My constituents are very pleased with their accommodation, but they were never asked whether they wanted water meters to be installed. They have the same needs now as they had when living in their previous homes but they had no choice when it came to the installation of water meters.
We are faced with a developing two-tier system. Some people are having water meters forced on them. In the long term, perhaps, everybody will be in that position.
There are other options. In December 1994, I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for the Environment, in which I asked him how much the water meter trials had cost consumers. I asked him also about the research that had been undertaken in assessing other charging mechanisms. The reply read:
The national metering trials cost £19 million. The Department of the Environment funded just under half of this amount. The water companies involved funded the rest. There are no proposals to undertake trials on other alternative charging mechanism."—[Official Report, 6 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 133.]
There we have it. In fact, there is work to be done. There are other options. For example, we could consider updating rateable values as a means of charging for water. There is a real argument to support that option. There is a real argument also in support of using the council tax as a means of charging for water. Water companies have said that we should examine how the council tax could be so used. What would need to be done to the tax bands? How far could the council tax be related to water charges? Unfortunately, the Government are not prepared to spend one penny to ascertain how the council tax could be so applied. They have ruled out the use of the council tax and have opted for metering, with no apparent justification.
I believe that the Government have adopted an opinion on what water, the supply of water and the reclamation of sewage are all about. Their opinion is very different from mine. It seems that the Government regard water as a commodity. They appear to take the view that we can have water in the same way as we can buy a pint of beer, or go to the local supermarket to buy other goods.
Water is not like that. It is the most essential public service. It will remain a public service whoever owns it, whatever the charging methods and whatever regulatory system is in place. Supplying water and reclaiming sewage are public services. It is about time that we recognise that and introduce suitable systems for charging for them. It is not acceptable to treat the supply of water in the same way as the supply of a pint of beer. It is no more acceptable than using such a charging mechanism for the emptying of our bins or for sending our kids to school.
We must recognise that water is a public service. I hope that, despite the written answer that appeared yesterday, Ministers will think again. I hope that the Leader of the House will provide time for a proper statement and debate on the water industry and the charging systems that should be adopted, fair and equitable systems that will be in the best interests of the most important people of all, the consumers—every one of us.
I wish to raise three brief constituency matters before the House adjourns for the Easter recess. First, I was a member of this place when legislation was introduced in 1984 to enable television cabling to take place. In 1991, legislation was introduced to permit road works to take place as a result of cabling. We all have our views on cabling. Personally, I have no desire to sit down with a piece of machinery, flicking from channel to channel—I think that companies are offering 48 channels and that people will be able to shop by television, and there is also competition for telephones, and so on—but as a Conservative, I believe in choice and that the general public should have that opportunity.
Let me return to 1984 and 1991. Perhaps I was not listening carefully to the debates then, but I had no idea of the impact that cabling would have on one's constituency when the contractors arrived. My constituency does not primarily have paving stones; it has tarmac. Ever since United Artists moved to my constituency, we have found that, week in week out, month in month out, a number of problems have been caused: water works exploding, electricity cut off, people's cars blocked in—all manner of problems. Although I am delighted that United Artists has its eastern headquarters in my constituency, with all the jobs that that has created, I do not think that the House looked carefully enough at that legislation and its impact on the lives of our constituents. I am less than happy with the way in which the contractors in my constituency have carried out their work.
I must tell my colleagues on both sides of the House that when cable companies come to their constituencies—if they have not arrived already—they should learn by the mistakes from which my constituents have suffered over the past year. There was a public meeting in my constituency last Friday and a lively exchange between United Artists and my constituents. I hope that there will not be further problems.
The second constituency matter that I wish to raise is housing. My constituency has been privileged to sell the highest number of council and commission houses in the country. That policy was fought line by line by the two socialist parties—the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Of course, when it became popular and we won in 1983 and again in 1987, they changed their policy and became in favour of the sale of council houses. Then when we had the economic slump and mortgage rates increase, they decided that perhaps it was not such a good idea. Conservative Members have been entirely consistent on the sale of council and commission houses. It sickens me that socialist councillors in Basildon are running around the town at the moment, before the local elections are held on 4 May, trying to claim credit for matters for which they do not deserve any, and trying to pass on to other people criticism for which they are entirely responsible.
Thanks to our excellent Conservative-controlled district council in Basildon and the Department of the Environment, money has been put into the estates. Work is being carried out to fit new roofs for the Vange, Crudons and Five Links estates. Later this afternoon, I very much hope to have a successful meeting with a Minister from the Department of the Environment, because, although the Government gave a great deal of money to redevelop the Crudons estate, there has been what I would describe as uneven treatment between the people who still rent and those who have purchased their properties. I was told yesterday that 29 home owners will have to pay for their new roofs. That is totally unfair. I also believe that the Department of the Environment must do all that it possibly can to enable the Five Links estate to be redeveloped.
The final constituency point that I wish to raise concerns socialist-controlled Essex county council. It is interesting that, two years ago, the electorate in Essex were deceived into voting socialist. They were led to believe that both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties had become respectable—in other words, that they were capitalists and that socialism had been put by the by. The past two years in Essex have been a shambles because of the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition. They are socialists through and through and have caused absolute chaos in my constituency and the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink).
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the vulnerable people in Essex who are suffering most because of the shambles caused by the socialist control of Essex? The old people and the disabled people are having their home care withdrawn. Because of the socialist control in Essex, £8.5 million was lost in the past year from the social service budget because the council was following politically correct policies.
I could not agree more. Two weeks ago, when Essex county council submitted its budget, the alliance did not have the stomach for what it had been doing, so it pulled out of the arrangement. A Conservative budget has rescued Essex county council. Quite wickedly, the socialists in Essex absolutely devastated care in the community, which had been carefully worked out. As a result of their wicked, cruel policy, our hospital waiting lists were growing, our accident and emergency queues were lengthening and it was taking much longer to have an operation. All that was the result of socialist-controlled Essex county council.
The socialists also caused chaos in education. They brought in, without any consultation, a policy of nursery education. I would have liked the issue of rising fives to have been addressed before they introduced that policy, causing great distress because of the differences between the schools that do not have nursery education and those that do. I congratulate the Conservatives on Essex county council who, as a result of their budget, have restored the Labour-Liberal alliance cut of £1 million. Primary education in Essex was going to be cut by £1 million. Care in the community has been restored as a result of the Conservatives. There will be no cuts in the fire service. That is all due to the Conservatives on Essex county council.
Two years ago, the general public in Essex were deceived by a new type of socialism, which I have seen change dramatically ever since I became a Member in 1983. On Monday, an historic debate took place. Every year, the University college of London holds a president's debate; it has done so for 166 years. The motion is that this house has no faith in Her Majesty's Government. Only once had that motion been defeated in the 166-year history of that debate, until last Monday. I am delighted to say that that motion was defeated and a great many young people who attended that debate had their eyes well and truly opened as to the reality of socialism, which is very much alive.
I wish to associate myself with the difficult speech that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), at the start of the debate. I thought that she put the case for mercy on behalf of her constituent very well.
I shall concentrate mainly on the answer that the Secretary of State for the Environment chose to give in the form of a written answer, instead of a statement, to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) yesterday about charging for water. The Leader of the House will know that, on several occasions since last September, when the water industry put its points in a well-worked-out document to the Minister, I have asked in the House when the response would be made and when we would have a debate on the issue.
I was, therefore, surprised and extremely disappointed that the Government's response crept out in a written answer the day before the Easter recess. The only good thing is that it is clear from the announcement that to extend the use of rateable values beyond the year 2000 will require parliamentary time after Easter. By raising the matter today, I seek to ensure that proper time will be given for a debate of the issue after the recess because everyone feels strongly about it.
As the Minister knows, the only region where there has been a drive towards widespread metering is the Anglian region, where it caused so much public antagonism and outcry that Anglian Water, concerned about its deteriorating public reputation, decided to drop its policy of compulsory metering and, along with companies throughout Britain, to start to offer a choice to its customers. We want to ensure that there is no element of compulsion, for owners of new or of old properties, in yesterday's written answer. That is by no means clear at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) was correct when he described the provision of water and sewerage as one of the most essential public services in Britain, not to be confused with a commodity that can be bought and sold by the pound or the pint.
The delivery of water and sewerage cannot properly be measured by quantity in that way. The industry recognises that the treatment plants, piping and sewage plants account for approximately 85 per cent. of the industry's costs in delivering the water and sewerage service. A minimal amount—15 to 20 per cent.—is related to the volume of water and sewage that goes through a system. Therefore, water is not like other utilities. Metering is inappropriate for water and sewerage.
With regard to conservation, the National Rivers Authority is concerned, first, to reduce leakage; secondly, to install more water-saving devices in people's homes; and, only then, to cut usage by metering, and it recognises that that has the disadvantage of putting pressure on families who are particularly hard up.
I tabled a question, the answer to which will appear in Hansard today, asking how popular metering is in areas such as Northern Ireland where it does not exist at the moment. The answer was that not one household in Northern Ireland has asked for its water supply to be metered. That should be borne in mind. If there is choice, people will choose to have their water and sewerage priced on the valid basis on which we have charged for water and sewerage for more than 150 years—property values.
The water industry, in its submission to the Government last September on property values, stated:
It is clear that a linkage to properties must remain.
Why have the Government refused to listen to the industry's clear argument and, indeed, rejected it? The policy is clearly put forward by the industry because it leads to immense administrative savings. Every metered bill has an individual charge which has to be measured and which may result in an argument about the amount on which it is based. A property-based charging system offers administrative savings by cutting the overheads of the water industry. That is what we all want. We do not want expenditure in the water industry to be wasted either on top salaries or on unnecessary administrative overheads.
I hope that the Leader of the House will draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for the Environment early-day motion 72, which was signed by no fewer than 210 hon. Members from all parties, recommending that probably the best way forward for charging for water and sewerage would be through an amended form of council tax bands, and saying that many finance officers in English and Welsh water companies are at a loss to understand why they cannot follow the lead set by Scotland in that regard.
The reason for that is that the regulator of the Office of Water Services and the Government have almost an obsession with water metering which is leading them against the principle of consumer choice, and that will cause problems for them.
In my area, Yorkshire Water took the step, endorsed by the board and the regional Ofwat customer services committee, of moving right away from compulsion, offering people in new and old properties a choice when it came to charging for water. That was popular in Yorkshire.
The director general's reaction was to write to every other water and sewerage company expressing his disappointment at what Yorkshire Water had done and saying that he would ensure that its policy was strictly time limited so that a property-based system opted for by one householder would not apply to any subsequent owner-occupier. That is a rigid and unnecessary interpretation of a rule leading down the road of compulsory water metering.
The Government missed a big opportunity yesterday to put charging for water on a sensible basis for the future. The only thing in favour of the Government is that yesterday's statement is strictly time limited. It has neither relevance nor credibility, because the water industry, its customers and the country are waiting rather impatiently for, first, the retirement of the water regulator and, secondly, the Government's defeat in the next general election. Only then will water and sewerage be brought firmly into public control where it rightly belongs.
As one who is associated with the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) in the all-party water group, I hope that Ministers will take account of their concerns—although I cannot associate myself with some of their comments, particularly the hon. Lady's final observations.
I also admired the powerful speech of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell)—not for the first time. Some years ago, I agreed with what he said about the rights of grandparents. I hope that the Government will not be shy of moving in the direction that he suggested; after all, if Opposition Members can be rigorous about such matters, we do not want to be outbid by them.
I wish to raise several matters relating principally to local government. The first—of which I gave notice to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House during Thursday's business questions—I do not wish to pursue at length; I should prefer the issue of demographic assessments and their implications for housing developments in the regions of the south-west, particularly the counties, to be debated in one of our excellent Wednesday morning "subject" debates, so that a number of my hon. Friends who are equally concerned about it can participate. Nevertheless, I question here and now the assumption by demographic experts that the drift of employment to the south that took place during the 1980s and previous decades will continue into the next century. The recession, which is now ending, has made that a doubtful assumption.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to remind the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that I await the satisfactory outcome of a proposal to which it has objected, because it involves the use of grade 1 land—the proposal involving Longforth farm, in my constituency. The community actually wants a housing development there—which is more or less unique nowadays—because it would bring infrastructure benefits to a town that faces considerable problems.
Let me also put down a marker for legislation next year. I read in the press that legislation to abate noise nuisance may be postponed until the publication of the general election manifesto. I hope that that will not happen, because such legislation is badly needed. It irritates me that environmental health officers can go around bullying small shop owners because they have broken certain food hygiene rules, but can do nothing to stop noisy neighbours who make the lives of my constituents—and, no doubt, other people—absolute murder.
We have debated the implications of the local government settlement for education on various occasions, but the picture is changing. The capping criteria were confirmed yesterday. We should remember that each local authority's circumstances are different. A limited agreement has been reached in Somerset between my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) and me, and members of the leading group on the county council: they have agreed to take funds from other budgets and put them into education, and we have agreed to support their action in exceeding the cap by 1 per cent., provided that that money is also put into education.
If those councillors keep their side of the bargain, I shall certainly support them; but that does not mean that I agree with the way in which they are using their resources in other respects. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Carlisle) is not present, because he would warmly agree with me. The councillors are spending what will probably turn out to be hundreds of thousands of pounds on litigation, taking their case through the High Court to the Appeal Court and possibly further: they want to ban hunting on the Quantock hills, on the border between my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater. However we may feel about the issue—I know that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) disagrees with me—we must agree that that is not a sensible use of council tax payers' money, and it will not help Somerset's appeal to the Secretary of the Environment for more resources.
There has been a tight financial settlement for local government in the coming year. I hope that every local authority—Somerset probably has a better reputation than many others in this respect—will concentrate its resources on front-line services rather than on bureaucracy and other matters to which I have referred. I hope that Somerset has been dissuaded from setting up county council offices in all the small towns. I also hope that we shall have a better overall settlement next year, as do my hon. Friends, and that the Government will give serious consideration to the area cost adjustment.
In the mean time, as well as considering the way in which resources are allocated between different budgets, we must constantly ask whether schools are using their money effectively. I was delighted to read in The Times on Saturday that at long last—heaven knows, it has taken long enough—we are beginning to see certain reforms in schools. According to the article,
National tests for 11-year-olds are triggering a revival of traditional teaching methods in state primary schools … Multiplication tables, spelling bees, public gold stars rewarding children's progress and dividing classes by ability for some subjects … are making rapid returns as teachers revert to more formal techniques to prepare classes for government tests … Government inspectors have identified the sector"—
the primary sector—
as the weak link in state education and last year reported that one third of lessons for children aged eight to 11 were unsatisfactory.
I am delighted by that sign of improvement. National taxpayers and council charge payers who are paying for education, and for other local authority services, want the best possible value for money. I hope that we shall use the breathing space offered by the coming year's tight budgets to ensure that electors and children are given that value for money, before returning—I hope—to happier financial circumstances.
I bet the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) that Somerset charge payers would consider pursuing hunters on the Quantock hills and securing a ban on hunting an excellent use of council money. No doubt I shall be able to debate the issue with him at some future time; but in the five minutes allocated to me I, too, shall speak of value for money. I refer to the value for money—or lack of it in my view—provided by the sale of county hall, the riverside building that was the subject of a recent National Audit Office report, which has now been sent to the Public Accounts Committee.
The building on the other side of the river is now in the hands of a Japanese company, Shirayama Shokusan. As the report admits, it is difficult to obtain details of the sale because of the confidentiality clauses inserted in the contract. Shirayama's original offer price was £60 million; but when the London School of Economics, which was also in the market for county hall, was forced to withdraw, Shirayama tried to force the price down.
The report describes the negotiations that followed. Eventually Shirayama paid the London residuary body £50 million, the extra £10 million being deferred. That £10 million was to be paid in instalments out of profits from the development of county hall, which Shirayama said would become a hotel. The payments would begin in 1997 and end in 2012. Amazingly, Shirayama's statement—quoted in the report—reads as follows:
Consequently, the family has no such illusions or expectations in making any profit from this investment—even for more than two decades.
I do not believe that London will ever see the deferred sum of £10 million, and that strikes me as a pretty rotten deal for Londoners.
What is this Shirayama organisation that now has possession of one of London's prime sites? It is a private company. No independently verifiable information was available either to the Government or to the London residuary body: it is all in the report. No bank guarantee was offered for the purchase price, and other than county hall the company has no known assets in this country. Despite all that, however, Shirayama's offer and its accompanying proposal were accepted gratefully by a grovelling London residuary body, supported by the Government.
What is Shirayama going to do with the building? Proposals reveal that it now aims
To develop facilities that are both exciting and unique for London itself—an attraction for the family such as a family entertainment centre. A more leisure and education orientated concept in comparison to having just a 'Hotel', which would comprise mainly of guests just sleeping over.
That is not the only thing that people do in hotels, as the House found out recently, but the original proposal for which planning consent was given was for a hotel. The company is now changing the proposal.
In November 1994, the concept of a hotel was dumped. Shirayama started talking about a Pacific Asia centre and suspended development pending a so-called London referendum on the use of county hall—what a way to handle a building on one of the prime sites of London, right opposite the Palace of Westminster. What sort of a deal is that for Londoners, who have been robbed by the London residuary body and that peculiar organisation called the Shirayama group, which is controlled by a family? Even the word "family" has a certain resonance in this context. It is not the nuclear family we hear about in this House; it is more like the family we hear about in the Mafia lands of Italy.
There is a public interest in the disposal of county hall that has been totally ignored. The way in which it has been handled by this second-rate, shoddy, incompetent, unimaginative bunch of Ministers must contrast with how Paris would have handled it. If Jacques Chirac had been responsible for the development—and he is a right-winger—what would he have done? Would he have handed it over to the Japanese? Of course he would not. The building would have been used imaginatively and it would be something of which all London could be proud.
Who can have any confidence in the Shirayama organisation to redevelop county hall, either in terms of a concept because it does not have one, or in terms of its future financial backing? The Government could still do something about it by extricating Shirayama from the deal, which I am confident will never turn into a proper development.
If the Government will not do so, I say to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that, as nothing will have happened by the next election, there is an opportunity for the next Labour Government to take back county hall and use it for the purpose for which it was constructed—as the home of a Greater London authority.
The House should not break for the Easter recess without recording our congratulations to the parents of Gravesend grammar school for boys who voted by 70 per cent. to become a grant-maintained school. A number of my hon. Friends representing Kent have tabled early-day motion 962 recording that fact.
It was a successful campaign led by the chairman of the governors, Eric Hammond, who the House will recall was general secretary of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union. He led a successful campaign that was best described in the Evening Standard on 14 March, when he was quoted as saying,
It is not in our interests to be tied to an expensive bureaucracy.
By that, he meant Lib-Lab controlled Kent county council. He continued:
Like Mr. Blair, we are putting the interests of the children first. I would like to see the Labour party becoming wholehearted in its support for grant-maintained schools.
Gravesend grammar school for boys will join nine other schools in the borough of Gravesham that have become grant-maintained and have made considerable progress. St. George's Church of England school has put a great deal of money and effort into improving the site and Northfleet high school for boys said that freedom to
allocate its resources has allowed it to invest in its curriculum, its buildings and better staffing and to transfer resources from administration to the curriculum.
Southfields school, which, sadly, under Kent county council control was at the bottom of the performance tables, has increased its staff by two, reversed and eradicated its deficit, put new furniture in every classroom and provided a new computer network for pupils, and its results are improving all the time. It is extremely encouraging.
The decision is notable because of the hostility of the Labour and Liberal-controlled Kent county council. When that unholy alliance took control of Kent county council, it immediately diverted £100,000 of education funds to fight grant-maintained schools. I have asked the council for the figure that it has spent so far on fighting grant-maintained schools, but it would not tell me. I have calculated that it is already up to about £250,000.
Last Wednesday, we had a debate on education cuts, during which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), speaking for the Opposition, alleged that
under the Conservatives, in the late 1970s, Kent county council undertook a major study of the impact of the voucher system in nursery education? Kent spent £9 million of public money on that experiment, and then abandoned it.
That was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) and the hon. Member for Brightside went on to say:
Yes, it cost £9 million to undertake a prolonged experiment in one part of Kent. The fact that Conservative Members do not know what happened is a good reason why they should start to listen and to learn, instead of talking about inflicting vouchers on the rest of Britain".—[Official Report, 29 March 1995; Vol. 257, c. 1037.]
Yesterday, on Radio Kent, the hon. Member for Brightside withdrew that allegation. He has been asked to apologise for misleading the House, but so far he has refused to do so. I must admit to a certain amount of sympathy for the hon. Member for Brightside because he received those allegations from the Labour group on Kent county council. They turned out to be bogus allegations and they have embarrassed the Labour party education spokesman in the House.
I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Brightside because now he knows how Kent parents have felt over the past few months as they have been fed a series of bogus figures by the Lib-Lab controlling group on the county council, which claims that Government funding has been cut when in fact it has been increased by 2 per cent. The Lib-Lab pact has imposed a 5 per cent. increase in its council tax demand in Kent and simultaneously is cutting school budgets in real terms, underfunding the teachers' pay settlement, slashing adult education funding by 20 per cent., cutting out discretionary grants to students and hitting many other services.
I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) whose county of Essex is suffering the same unholy alliance of Labour and Liberal Democrat. He told us that when it came to cutting the education budget—a proposal by the Lib-Lab pact—the Liberals lost their nerve and ran away, hence the Conservative budget, which would have preserved the budgets of schools, has been retained in Essex. I wish only that Kent had had typical Liberals who run away from hard decisions, so that a Conservative county council budget could have preserved education spending in our county. The people of Kent now have to watch their schools being under-resourced because the Labour party wants to make some cheap party-political point.
I join hon. Members who condemned the manner of the Secretary of State's announcement yesterday about the future of London hospitals. It is a great pity that she did not listen to her Cabinet colleague, the Secretary of State for Wales. I should like to speak about two aspects of her announcement yesterday: first, her decision in relation to Guy's hospital and, secondly, her decision in relation to the kidney unit at Dulwich hospital.
This morning, like other hon. Friends, I received a letter from the Minister for Health. He says, by way of explanation for the decision yesterday:
In reaching this decision she"—
the Secretary of State—
has taken account of the concerns and views expressed during consultation, including those from local Community Health Councils and MPs".
Let me make it clear that, in the course of the consultation to which the Minister of Health refers, the health commission received 52 letters in favour of its proposals, the majority of which were from staff directly or indirectly associated with St. Thomas's hospital. It received 542 letters and 3,000 postcards against and the House received a petition presented by a number of my hon. Friends which comprised 1 million signatures pledged by people up and down the country in support of Guy's hospital.
The Minister's letter continued:
Guy's will continue as a major hospital, especially geared to the needs of local people.
It cannot do so without its accident and emergency department and the necessary in-patient beds to support the work of that department. Indeed, the proposals have been condemned by consultants at Guy's as being clinically unsafe. They do not believe that it is safe to conduct minimally invasive surgery without intensive care and other back-up facilities on site. It will put patients' lives at risk to shuttle them, as proposed, between Guy's and St. Thomas's if something goes wrong.
It is also important to remember that primary care in that part of south-east London is among the worst in the country. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us whether she intends to put in the £28 million that the health commission said would be essential to ensure that improvements in the quality of primary and community health services could be achieved.
The Minister's letter refers to the accident and emergency department not being closed until alternative and related services are fully equipped to provide improved services for patients. We want to know whether that £28 million will be invested, as without it those improvements cannot be achieved.
I want to raise the issue of the Dulwich kidney unit, which is to be moved to Guy's hospital in the face of opposition by every member of staff and every patient at the unit. The Secretary of State should never again come to the House and say that the national health service reforms are about patient choice. If they were, patients at the kidney unit—all of whom suffer from long-term and disabling diseases—would have been listened to and their unit would not have been tampered with.
I want to refer to the opposite side of the coin from the many hon. Members who have referred to the way in which local government spends money. I want to talk about how it raises money, with particular reference to the rating revaluation and the uniform business rate. I want to raise three particular issues, but first I shall put them in the context of a constituency which, in the summer of 1993—the year in which businesses were revalued—received assisted area status on the ground of endemic high unemployment, and whose country areas are already covered by the Rural Development Commission in recognition of rural poverty and deprivation.
The first issue is tourism, which is important to my constituency, and caravan holiday parks. There has long been a debate about how we rate holiday homes. Agreement was reached in 1990, but this year the Valuation Office unilaterally threw out that agreement, with the net result of an increase in rateable value at some of the caravan parks of, for example, 130 per cent. for one farmer, of 120 per cent. and 110 per cent. for the two parks belonging to Cinque Ports Leisure, 165 per cent. for Oakley Leisure, and 200 per cent. for Shearburn.
Notwithstanding the transitional grant, it does not take a genius to work out that even at the end of five years, those businesses will not even reach their uniform business rate level by the time that they have to be revalued again. I strongly recommend that the Valuation Office sits down with the industry and works out a long-term solution to the problem of valuing caravan parks, so that businesses do not face such crippling demands.
My second point relates to the pub industry. Those of us who have followed the issue for some time know that beer orders have led directly to some very large rental increases by companies such as Inntrepreneur. I understand that, in the revaluation, the Valuation Office had to take the size of rentals into account. The only problem is that many of the pubs are now being let to holding managers—so that the companies can hang on to the licences—at rents of anything between nothing and £160 per week. It is hard when a local pub faces an average increase of 50 per cent., with some such as the Queen's Head at Icklesham and the Bridge Inn at Winchelsea facing double that. Again, I recommend that the Valuation Office takes into account the reality of pub rents in that sector and significantly reduces the valuations, taking a more realistic account of the rents being charged in Inntrepreneur pubs.
Finally, I want to refer to the discrepancies between similar businesses in similar locations. Some of the discrepancies in Hastings have been very large. I was first alerted to the problem when one business woman told me that she had had an increase of 35 per cent. in an area where, over seven years, her takings had gone down from £3,000 to £700 a week. Since then, complaints have poured in from all sectors, including manufacturing and coastal amusements. Of course, in the latter case the problem has been eased because of the provision in the Finance Bill relating to amusement machine tax. Businesses feel very sore about the valuation increases.
The differences between businesses have resulted in an average—calculated by Hastings borough council—increase of 30 per cent. for leisure businesses and 26 per cent. for commercial businesses.
My hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) wish to be associated with my remarks about this problem. East Sussex has two district valuation offices—one in Brighton, where the average increase in rateable value has been 5 per cent. for Brighton, 5 per cent. for Hove and 6 per cent. for Lewes; and one in Eastbourne, where the average increase has been 24 per cent. for Wealden, 20 per cent. for Rother, 17 per cent. for Hastings and 22 per cent. for Eastbourne. Nobody understands why there should be such a difference. The Valuation Office must investigate that fully and at least run some test cases to find out where the discrepancies have arisen and why.
In the meantime, valuation offices will be swamped with appeals, some of which started a few days ago. The problem will take years to sort out, so the effect on business cashflows will be drastic. Businesses need reassurance that the problems will be resolved, that the appeals will be heard quickly and that financial hardship will be minimised. Perhaps the increases should not be enforced until all that is sorted out.
Several hon. Members have raised the issue of education cuts. In Derbyshire, there is great anger and bewilderment about education cuts in that county, which are shared by teachers, parents and governors. I have previously explained the details of those cuts to the House.
The bewilderment arises because people do not understand how the Government can act in the way that they have with standard spending assessments over a period of time, without taking into account the position in schools. If only, somehow, Members of Parliament and others could get the ear of the Secretary of State and explain the details, perhaps, as with taking icons to the tsar, the position would be understood and she would respond. However, that is not the case. The Government understand the position, but they are unwilling to change. That fact has created considerable anger.
A number of teachers were among those at the demonstration, rally and lobby last Wednesday, when constituents presented massive numbers of petitions to hon. Members representing Derbyshire. If one had asked those teachers why they has come on that lobby, they would have said that they felt that it was their duty to be there. They never imagined that, in any circumstances, they would turn up at a lobby on educational matters, but the circumstances have forced them to do so.
Councillors and, in particular, governors in Derbyshire have been placed in the most unenviable position. The problem for governors is whether to set deficit budgets or to resign from their positions. In Dronfield school in my constituency, a number of governors have taken the resignation route. That has occurred with the entire body at Newbold school in the Chesterfield constituency. Individuals have had to make almost impossible choices. No one should be placed in the position in which parents, teachers and governors have been placed in Derbyshire. That view must be clear to the Government before we go into recess.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned disablement and the closure of the Remploy works at Alfreton, with the loss of 74 jobs. I associate myself entirely with his comments. It will be no surprise to the Leader of the House that I should like to use this opportunity to say something more about disablement and the treatment of disabled people.
The measure that all organisations representing disabled people want to become law—the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill—has been shunted away, and has had to stand in a Committee queue. Its consideration by the House is being held up. A number of private Members' Bills have been introduced. Four have already been dealt with, and the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Bill is in Committee.
The Government have had no dispute with any of those Bills. Two of them have been Government Bills and have been picked up by private Members. Despite the fact that the Second Reading of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was supported by 175 votes to nil, and despite overwhelming support across all parties for that measure, the Government have quietly pushed the thing away—we have not seen blood let on the Floor of the House, as happened in the previous year—so that it must stand in the queue in the Committee corridor. That wait must end.
I hope that the Bill in Standing Committee C will get through this morning and that, after the Easter recess, we will be able to move forward with the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Much must be done in connection with that Bill, given that it fills the gaps in the Government's Disability Discrimination Bill. I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to ordinary hon. Members' concerns that the measure that they strongly supported has not been given the proper consideration that it should have received.
May I say how grateful the House is to my right hon. Friend Leader of the House for being here for the debate? He sets a standard that will be difficult for his successor to follow, and he has covered most Government Departments.
Having served both as a junior Minister and, while the Chief Whip allowed, as the parliamentary private secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), I am reminded of the two words used in memorial to his father—fairness and integrity. Those characteristics are common to his father, to him and to the Secretary of State for Health.
There are two sides to the health issue. One involves the revelation in today's Daily Mail that the Labour party does not propose to spend new money, that it wants to use tricks, and that it thinks that the health service makes a minimal contribution to the health of the nation. That issue deserves a debate by itself.
On the changes in London, for some time, I have been campaigning to persuade the Ministry for Defence to let go of the Queen Elizabeth military hospital in Woolwich, which it said that it would need until the end of the century. I said that it would change its mind. I also told the local health commissioning agency and the Greenwich Healthcare trust that they should try as hard as they can to bring most of Greenwich district hospital and Brook general hospital services across Shooters hill to the Queen Elizabeth military hospital site. I am glad that yesterday's announcement confirmed that.
Although arguments persist about the neurosciences and neurosurgery—they have been going on since before I was a Member of Parliament and I first heard them in 1974—it is right to move in the cardio-thoracic services, although, over the decades, many campaigns have taken place to keep regional services outside the centre of London. I suspect that, in time, the commissioning agencies will allow neuroscience departments to be based further out from London, whether at Queen Mary's hospital, Sidcup, or further out on the line from Maidstone to Guildford.
I have talked to doctors in Greenwich and those covering my constituency of Eltham. They want decisions to be made. When I ask them whether Guy's and St. Thomas's acute services are duplicated, they say no. I understand that the medical staff at Guy's and St. Thomas's agree that those services should not be duplicated and that, whichever site is chosen for the main acute hospital, people will benefit if they are brought together. The longer the delay, the more resources are sucked out of the region between inner and outer London—the location of my constituency—and the worse services become.
Secondly, I wish that the media and Members of Parliament would say more about the development of primary and community services. In my constituency, the Feathers project, the Hilltop nursery at Memorial hospital and the developments in general practitioner services have made an immense difference to people's lives.
I do not want to get into a vendetta with the Evening Standard. However, I was rung up by one of its journalists this morning who said that it was conducting a survey into whether Tory Back Benchers would vote against the Government or with the Labour party on a debate on London's health service. I asked what the question was. He said that it is all about Bart's, so I said that some concerns existed in relation to Bart's, but that that was not the issue that most people were getting excited about.
The journalist then said that the question was not about Bart's but about something else. I said that I was not capable of commenting on such matters, but that I could tell him that yesterday's announcement in a written answer about developing community, primary and hospital services for people in my constituency was much to be welcomed, and that I would give my loyal support not only to the Government but to the practice of developing medicine, which had a continuity going back even to the last Labour Government.
I shall be as brief as I can. I know that most people blanch when hon. Members say that, but I shall try to stick to that promise.
On yesterday's announcement—if that is what it was—on changes to acute service provision, particularly in our part of south-east London, I endorse what other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), have said about the validity of the process. A distinct feeling exists in my part of Lewisham that yesterday's announcement was simply the latest stage in a conspiracy to reduce hospital provision in south-east London, and London generally, which was launched pre-Tomlinson, and which has been unaltered by anything that has happened.
I served on an area health authority—the Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark area health authority—in 1976. I went on to serve on its successor—the Lewisham and North Southwark district health authority. In 1976, at least 16 hospitals existed in south-east London alone. Today, there are but four, so it is not the process of change that people in south-east London are worried about; it is the nature of that change.
The old area health authority had to be suspended by the then Secretary of State, Patrick, now Lord, Jenkin, because of its refusal to support the closure of St. John's hospital in the early 1980s. That hospital has closed. Therefore, the process of change in health care acute provision in south-east London is nothing new.
It is the third time in precious few years that a major consultation exercise has taken place in Lewisham and in my part of south-east London. The first was on the establishment of the then "flagship" Lewisham and Guy's trust. The second was after that was dismantled and Lewisham was set up as a separate trust and Guy's and St. Thomas' were put together for other reasons, and the third has been on the future of those plans since. On every occasion, there has been overwhelming opposition but it has counted for nothing at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) detailed the figures involved and the petition that was presented to the House.
Most of the responses to the health authority's most recent consultation document came from people in my part of Lewisham, apart from those which came from people in the area immediately around Guy's hospital itself, which is understandable. That was largely because those people use Lewisham and King's predominantly for accident and emergency services and know that those hospitals cannot cope as they are, let alone if the accident and emergency department at Guy's were to close.
Even if the money earmarked for improvements at Lewisham, for example, were spent, it would be enough only to bring that hospital up to an acceptable standard. At a recent meeting with the regional health authority, one of the officials admitted that the department was undersized. When I asked him what that meant, he said that it was too small and inadequate. I hope that there will be opportunities for the House to debate and vote on these matters, which is the least that the people of south-east London deserve.
We have had a useful morning of speeches, which has proved the wisdom of moving this debate to Wednesday mornings. The fact that 20 Back Benchers have contributed is probably a record, and it is important that we maintain this sort of opportunity for hon. Members. I should like to comment on as many as possible of those speeches, but 20 is a lot so I may have to be brief. I congratulate the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) on setting us off to such a good start by proving that a very strong case can be made in a short and concise speech.
The point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the way in which the death warrant for Bart's has been issued in an answer to a parliamentary written question is one that should concern the whole House. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House share his concern not only about the decision that was made yesterday but about the way in which that decision was announced to hon. Members. We should not underestimate the importance of abiding by the appropriate procedures in such cases.
Several hon. Members raised the question of health care in London and the decision by the Secretary of State for Health yesterday. The points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) as well as by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) will have to be taken on board. It is important that the House has a full opportunity to come back to the issue.
As my hon. Friends have said, it is a question not just of the Secretary of State not consulting but of deceiving people and pretending that the Government are listening to patients when, in fact, they are depriving patients of choice and not creating the localised hospitals that the Secretary of State for Wales advocated just this week. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West said, it is not the process of change that alarms people but the nature of the proposed changes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) made a very sensitive speech dealing with the difficult issue of her constituent Nicholas Ingram, who is awaiting execution in the United States. Every hon. Member should be worried about that case, and the silence in which my hon. Friend was heard demonstrates that we all understand the difficulties facing her constituent and his family. I hope that the Prime Minister will hear of her comments and take heed of her request.
The right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) raised again the subject of construction contracts, which was raised in a similar debate before the previous recess. We share many of his concerns about the future of the construction industry. I hope that, as well as noting the points that he made, the Government will take on board the need to release the capital receipts of local authorities, which would do much more to boost the construction industry and quickly counter problems such as unemployment. I do not understand why the Government refuse to act upon that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) raised another problem which concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House—the dangers of joyriding and the tragic deaths that have occurred in his constituency and, I am afraid, in all too many of our constituencies. Many of us are extremely worried about that. It is a fact that, compared with 1979, we now have twice the chance of becoming victims of car crime and three times the chance of becoming victims of burglary or violent crime. Many people do not understand why crime has risen so dramatically under the Government or why the Government do not take those problems more seriously.
The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) raised points about local government with which I do not want to deal in detail. However, with any local government reorganisation, there is always the problem of balancing decisions made on the basis of numbers with decisions about what constitutes a local community. I do not think it should be just a numbers game.
The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry), who I am glad to see here, raised some very real problems associated with the travel industry and in particular those affecting our constituents who think that they have got a good deal and discount only to find that they have not got all that they expected because of the ties that go with the deal. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that, while I share his concerns, some of which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), it would have been wise, especially today, for the hon. Gentleman to have mentioned his interest in the travel industry, if only to say that his comments were not based on any self-interest.
Would the hon. Lady like to specify what self-interest I am supposed to have? I have been in the House quite long enough to know that I must declare any interests. I have no interest in the travel industry. Would she substantiate that challenge or kindly withdraw it?
I was simply referring to the fact that the Register of Members' Interests says that the hon. Gentleman is associated with the coach industry and with the Sally Line. I am not saying that he was speaking on their behalf but it would have been wise to declare that interest to show that he was not.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The interest, which relates to advice given to the Sally Line and to some coach operators, is nothing whatsoever to do with the advertising of air fares or holiday insurance. That surely is stretching the argument about interest far too far. If we are going to get that kind of jibe from members of the Opposition Front Bench, perhaps it is time that some of us got back at some Opposition Members who are taking money and not declaring it in the Register of Members' Interests.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think that if the hon. Gentleman has any such information he should contact the Registrar of Members' Interests.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned job losses at Remploy in his constituency. Many of us are concerned about the long-term future of Remploy and understand the difficulties that face many disabled people working in those situations. I know that travelling to appropriate places of work is particularly difficult for disabled people. I also share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) that the Government's unwillingness to consider his Bill further and give it time is causing difficulties for many people.
I found incredible the comments of the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) about education. I found his speech incredible. He made many attacks on teachers for taking Baker days which were, of course, introduced by a Conservative Government. More incredibly, he criticised pupils for not learning enough and tried to blame teachers. He made the strange suggestion that there were more teachers now than there had been. I have checked the figures. In 1979, there were 425,000 full-time equivalents in England and Wales. In 1993, the last year for which figures are available, there were 365,000—a drop of 60,000. That means that class sizes are increasing and that there are now more than 1 million children in primary classes of more than 30. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the quality of education, he should pay more attention to the need to reduce class sizes.
No because I have no time.
The issue of the water industry was raised this morning. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) have ably outlined the difficulties that will face us if the Government try to impose on the regulator an instruction to introduce compulsory water metering. During their time in the House, both my hon. Friends have highlighted the problems of the water industry, and are to be congratulated on that.
If we have compulsory water metering or any forced extension of water metering, it will be hard on many people, including those who can least afford it, but who need the service. The water industry was developed as a public service because of public health considerations. If we go down the wrong track and if people are unable to afford this vital service—it is not a commodity—we shall create many problems for ourselves.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough has had much success in her campaign on water, not least getting Yorkshire Water to abandon its approach to compulsory water metering. I hope that other water companies will follow suit. Compulsory metering is not the answer to conservation problems or to the problem of pricing; my hon. Friends are right. I have learnt with interest that the water industry itself—both the Water Services Association of England and Wales and the Water Companies Association—has criticised the decision by the Secretary of State for the Environment. It says:
We hope this doesn't mean the thin end of the wedge towards universal compulsory metering for all domestic customers. We would certainly fight that on behalf of our customers very hard indeed.
Even the industry does not agree with the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose announcement yesterday was worrying.
This has been a useful debate despite the limited time. I congratulate right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part and I hope that we can use such occasions equally well in future.
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for allowing me a few precious seconds from his time to enable me to record, as I am sure the House would like me to do, my thanks to not one, but three Secretaries of State for the Environment for the introduction, on behalf of all my constituents, of a unitary authority—the first in the United Kingdom—which met on Monday this week. Does that not show that Conservatives believe in a lighter touch on the tiller of government? At a stroke, the Isle of Wight has gone from being the most over-governed constituency in the United Kingdom to one of the least governed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), for whose words I am grateful, has increased to 21 the number of people who have spoken from the Back Benches in this debate. That is a record, certainly during the three years in which I have wound up these debates, and amply justifies the combined efforts of myself, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) which succeeded in reinstating, in the new form of "matters to be considered", what used to be known as the recess Adjournment motion.
Most hon. Members, recognising that I am likely to be under some time constraint by the end of the debate, have kindly acknowledged that what they are principally asking me to do is to ensure that their points are passed on in the appropriate quarters. I immediately give that undertaking. There is, however, one additional point to insert which enables me, I hope with absolute justification and courtesy, to avoid commenting on four or five speeches.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) by now will know, and as the world will know shortly through the annunciator, his private notice question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been granted for this afternoon. There will, therefore, be opportunities for my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and the hon. Members for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), and for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) to raise further the matters they have sought to raise with me today. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is alerted to the points that they have raised with me.
I shall briefly deal with as many of the speeches as I can comment on in the seven minutes remaining to me. Like everyone who has spoken in the debate, I understand and respect the reasons for the way in which the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) referred to the case of her former constituent, Mr. Ingram, and his situation in the United States. Hon Members also have every understanding of the efforts that Mrs. Ingram is making. The hon. Member for Cambridge referred to the letter the Prime Minister had written to Mrs. Ingram, of which I have a copy. My right hon. Friend concluded:
With the deepest regret, there are no proper grounds for the British Government to intervene with the state of Georgia.
I cannot add to that from the Dispatch Box, but I will, of course, ensure that the hon. Lady's remarks this morning are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his return from Washington later today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) spoke about the Latham report to which, as he knows, I have adopted a sympathetic approach. I can tell my right hon. Friend, as he probably already knows, that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is prepared, in principle, to consider legislation on contractual matters relating to the construction industry and that he intends to issue consultation papers shortly. In my capacity as the person responsible for the legislative programme, I can tell my right hon. Friend that I have taken careful note of his remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) referred to a number of aspects of education in Bedfordshire and made points about parents, teachers and the county council. He will not expect me to be able to cover all of them. However, I make the point that the updated parents charter launched in June 1994 makes a significant contribution to, and underpins, the efforts of parents in taking the interest in education that my hon. Friend is rightly anxious to see.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) attracted sympathy from all hon. Members with his remarks about joyriding and about crime generally. I say, gently, that the hon. Gentleman might have referred, in calling for the Government to take action, to the fact that it is only three years since the Government took speedy action and introduced the Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Act 1992. The Act significantly increased the penalties available for the kind of joyriding that the hon. Gentleman described. More recently, we ensured that secure training orders, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, would apply to persistent joyriders between 12 and 14. I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party abstained from the vote on the proposition, and therefore did not support it.
The Government have acted significantly to increase the penalties for causing death by dangerous driving. Fourteen to 17-year-olds can be detained under section 53(2) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 for up to the adult maximum of 10 years. That Act was affected by more recent legislation concerning the adult maximum. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the problems have been, and will continue to be, taken seriously.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) made some points about local government in Devon which he wanted me to pass on. Some of the points were made directly to me only last weekend or the weekend before when I undertook engagements in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). I am getting representations about Devon from all directions; I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is aware of them.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made a number of points about Remploy. I hope that he will acknowledge that the Government give substantial support to Remploy—about £90 million a year out of a total support of employment programme of £140 million. The Government cannot, of course, entirely insulate Remploy, any more than any other company, from competition, although they are working with the company to tackle the current downturn in textiles and are helping it with diversification programmes. On Alfreton, the hon. Gentleman might have acknowledged that in the proposals currently under discussion—the merger date has been postponed until the discussions with the employees and the unions have been concluded—the company would intend to ensure that transport was available for those who needed it and would meet any additional transport costs. If the proposal were to be adopted, at least some of the hon. Gentleman's objections would be met.
In the remaining minute, I clearly do not have time to cover the subjects of water charges, education and other matters in Kent and Essex, population growth in Somerset, county hall and the like. I have taken careful note of all those points and I shall ensure that they are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends.
Although we have a few more hours to go, I shall conclude by wishing the Chair and the House a happy Easter recess.