On this last day before the Christmas recess, may I wish you, Madam Speaker, a very happy Christmas? Some of us believe that you do an excellent job in the Chair.
The Leader of the House may recall that, during the Prime Minister's speech on the Loyal Address, I raised the issue of the amount of money and effort that Labour and Liberal Democrat local authorities were expending to put forward arguments, when votes are taken at schools, against their opting for grant-maintained status. The Prime Minister said that the matter would be looked at. What steps are being taken? In the county of Devon, there is constant proof that the local education authority and county council employees are making a considerable effort to urge and support those who wish to resist grant-maintained status. Examples in Devon of the great success that grant-maintained status has brought about include Colyton grammar school. It is not right that ratepayers' money should be used for the political purpose of resisting grant-maintained status.
Will the Leader of the House discuss with the Secretary of State for Education and Employment whether the Government have considered the possibility that, where sums have been expended for that purpose, they should be surcharged against the councillors for unnecessary expenditure that does not form part of a local authority's normal expenditure? The matter is of considerable importance. I need not spend more time on it, and I should be pleased if, in the period before the House reassembles, it could be looked at much more fully.
In the spirit of Christmas, may I too wish you, Madam Speaker, a happy Christmas and new year? If next year I sometimes feel that I am not catching your eye, I shall bear in mind the fact that I wished you a happy Christmas at the appropriate time.
I wish only briefly to mention what occurred last night: once again, the Government were defeated and humiliated. It is important, however, and it would be useful, to have a proper statement arising from that defeat. So far, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has merely made an inadequate statement on a point of order. The Government must now work on the assumption that the political arithmetic is going against them. They would be wrong to work on any other assumption, as their majority is likely to go down next year, and they will be faced time and again with the same difficulties as last night.
How much better it would be if the Government resolved that matter by going to the country and letting it decide, rather than trying to linger on until the last possible moment, despite all the setbacks and humiliations. It is time for a general election, and I hope that it will come sooner rather than later.
Conservative Members have often told us that that was unfortunate and undignified, and that the Labour Government should have gone to the country. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has said the same. Regardless of what happened in the 1970s, surely it is time for Conservative Members to practise what they preach, given that we have been lectured so often by them. Let the country decide sooner rather than later.
I must raise two other matters before we go into the recess. Not long ago, I applied under Standing Order No. 20 for an emergency debate on cold weather payments, especially for those pensioners on income support. It was not successful.
It is extremely unfortunate that, despite the extremely harsh weather that we have been experiencing, so few pensioners who would have been eligible to receive what is only a modest sum—£8.50 a week—have received it. I checked the latest information with the Library. Out of 55 weather stations—I do not know how the country is divided up and why there are 55, but so be it—the trigger mechanism worked in only seven. What conditions are necessary for it to work?
The Leader of the House will understand all this, because he was involved with the appropriate Department for some time. The weather has to be freezing for seven days and seven nights continuously. If it is intensely cold or freezing for three, four or even six days, as it has been in many parts of the country, but there is then a change in the weather, the payments are not made. It is a daft scheme, which deprives so many elderly people on the lowest incomes of extra money to keep themselves warm.
In the main, it is rare for pensioners to get into fuel debt—that applies as much to other Members' constituents as to mine—simply because they are frightened of receiving a bill that they cannot afford to pay. They do not keep the heating on as much as they should, or as we would do because we have the income to do so. They might heat only one room, or go to the library or some other public place during the day to save fuel. It is a terrible situation, and that is why I applied for an emergency debate and why I have kept on about the subject.
As the Leader of the House is aware, I am sure, percentage-wise more elderly people die here in the winter months than in many other European countries. One can only come to the conclusion that, because elderly people on low incomes suffer so much misery and hardship, they put their health at risk—they risk hypothermia and related conditions. The emergency payment should be made to all those who would otherwise be eligible. As I said, out of the 55 weather stations scattered around the country, the mechanism has worked in only seven.
Finally, the Leader of the House may be aware that, following the terrible tragedy of the headmaster who was knifed to death, I asked at the first opportunity in the House—on the following Monday—whether it would be possible for the Government urgently to consider legislation to toughen up on knives. They have responded in some ways. I am not merely criticising; I am pleased with that response.
A private Member's Bill—the Offensive Weapons Bill—has been tabled, and there is no reason why I, along with my hon. Friends, should not support it. Obviously, we will have to wait until Second Reading and the Committee stage, and I hope that the Bill receives a Second Reading. The Bill and the response of the House are the attitude that the general public want.
In a dignified and courageous statement last weekend, Mrs. Lawrence, the widow of the head who was murdered, gave an interview to the Press Association. She spoke of her family's deep sorrow, for her children and herself. She also said that she would like it to be more difficult for knives to be purchased.
At business questions last Thursday, I asked whether, rather than the Home Secretary taking a confrontational attitude to the Opposition over this—although the Leader of the House denied that that was the case—the Home Secretary could meet my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) before the Second Reading of the Offensive Weapons Bill to find out whether any agreement could be reached on the purchase of knives.
I understand all the counter-arguments—what would happen about bread knives, and would one stop people buying knives for legitimate sporting purposes?—but we should be aware that there is a knife culture among youths in certain areas. It is almost as if a knife is a part of their dress when they go out. Fortunately for the safety of the general public, the knives are not usually used, but their use for criminal purposes is increasing.
At about the time that Philip Lawrence was knifed to death, a security officer at an Asda store in Newcastle was also knifed to death when he courageously went to the aid of two female employees. We should not forget him, either. Those two men exhibited the highest courage. They could have saved their own lives by acting differently; instead, they lost their lives.
The Government must understand that, yes, we want to tighten up on sentencing, for which there is a strong case—hence my support for the private Member's Bill—but that there is scope to make it more difficult for knives to be purchased, despite all the difficulties. Fortunately, unlike the United States, we have pretty tough restrictions on guns. In some respects, I would like them to be tougher. Fortunately, one cannot simply purchase a gun.
I hope that the Home Secretary, with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, will be able to find out whether there is scope for tightening up the sale of knives, and will take legal advice and so forth, so that one will not be able to buy the most ghastly knives in shops in central London or by mail order. The weapons might not be intended for criminal purposes, but what guarantee do we have of that? I hope that the Leader of the House will pass on my views to the appropriate Ministers.
May I join colleagues on both sides of the House in wishing you a happy Christmas, Madam Speaker. I hope that you will take my word for it that no analogy is intended in the fact that I intend to begin by mentioning the royal yacht. I often likened my wife, when I married her, to a sleek racing craft. After 26 years of marriage, I now say that the cargo has shifted a bit.
Yes, it has in my case, too, as my hon. Friend so rightly points out.
I have a slight sense of déjà vu, since we began the year with a campaign for the royal yacht—or I certainly did—and I seem to be ending the year with one. Having said our prayers for the royal family, what more appropriate way is there to start?
The BBC is running a programme on that magnificent vessel tonight. As she is a riveted ship, I do not understand why we cannot keep her in commission for many years to come. She is quite capable of being repaired and kept in good order and, although in her present state she requires a large crew, the manning levels could be reduced with modern machinery.
I hope that I may yet win that important battle because, as has been said many times, the yacht is very much part of the fabric of our nation. There could be no finer sight than the Heads of State embarking on that magnificent vessel to celebrate the D-day landings. One Head of State, the President of the United States, chose not to travel on the royal yacht, and went aboard a grey-funnel ship of his own nation—it did not look the part. If Heads of State of the major countries throughout Europe voted with their feet and stayed aboard the royal yacht, that would be a good way of influencing the Government.
I should like to keep with the slightly salty flavour, and mention last night's fishing debate. I was rather surprised to receive a letter from the Liberal Democrat-controlled council of the Isle of Wight asking me to vote against the measure. In the right-hand corner of the council's notepaper, there is a silhouette of the Isle of Wight, over which it says that it is a "region of Europe".
The Liberal Democrat Members seem to have gone off to Christmas rather early. I wonder if some of the Opposition Members who are present could search behind the Benches to see if there are any Liberal Democrat Members in the Chamber—it seems rather bereft of their presence. Perhaps Liberal Democrat Members have decided that the United Kingdom has become a region of Europe; they are so Brussels-barmy that they have probably gone there for the day.
It is extraordinary for the Liberal Democrat-controlled council on the Isle of Wight to tell everyone that the Isle of Wight is a region of Europe. It even went to the extent of minting its own coins, on the back of which it said that the Isle of Wight ecu would be introduced in 1996. That same council says that we should vote against the fisheries policy of the EC.
I went to the trouble of telephoning the chairman and secretary of the Isle of Wight fishermen's association, who also approached me about last night's debate. I asked them what had changed since I last voted on the issue in the House. Fisheries policy is, of course, a contentious matter, particularly for Members of Parliament who represent fishermen who fish in the western approaches. The chairman and secretary could not tell me what had changed in terms of the Isle of Wight, but they suggested that I contact a fisherman named Ray Hayles.
I telephoned Ray Hayles, and asked him what had happened. He said, "It is the general conservation view—we are concerned that there are more Frenchmen and Spaniards, and fewer fish." I told him that I understood that, but that the Government had reduced the number of fishermen who can come from the rest of the EC into British waters. I said that I wanted to know what had changed in relation to the Isle of Wight.
I took the trouble to ask staff in the House of Commons Library what had changed, and they more or less confirmed that nothing had changed. There is an incredible perception that hon. Members were voting to determine a policy, but the vote was taken on the motion to "take note", and had little influence. The vote was not, as many fishermen thought, on a motion to take Britain out of the EC fisheries policy. The vote did not make one ha'p'orth of difference to the fishermen of the Isle of Wight. As all hon. Members have long since realised, reality and fiction in the House are certainly not bedfellows.
One of my favourite subjects, which I first raised when I entered the House in 1987, involves light dues. The Government have done remarkably well in abolishing the dock labour scheme. There has been a fantastic increase in the amount of trade to our ports, which were privatised under the trust port legislation. The one remaining problem is the considerable cost of light dues when bringing a ship to Great Britain.
Even more pernicious, all constituents pay tax to the Treasury, but my constituents in some parts of the Solent also have to pay a tax to Trinity house for travelling backwards and forwards to the Isle of Wight. The position is anomalous: in the eastern Solent, the buoyage is controlled by the Queen's habourmaster—the Royal Navy—and no light dues are charged, but in the western Solent, Trinity house controls the buoyage, and has to charge light dues on the ferries coming to and from the Isle of Wight. Just outside Cowes harbour are two buoys which do not contribute to safe navigation in and out of the harbour, but their presence means that the red-funnel service to Southampton from Cowes has to pay light dues for the buoys, as do all day-trip vessel operators, both on the island and travelling from the mainland.
There was a recent inquiry in the western Solent, because Associated British Ports wanted to take over that section of the Solent, the channel up from the Needles, which is unregulated—there is no authority for it, which is extraordinary. ABP proposed that it should become the navigation authority, and I thought that, with some qualifications, that would be an ideal way of easing Trinity house out of the Solent.
Associated British Ports has offered to take over the buoyage in the Solent from Trinity house, but the proposal has been rejected for a variety of reasons. I find it difficult to understand why my constituents should be placed at a disadvantage compared with those of the rest of the United Kingdom by having to pay an additional form of taxation just because they live on an offshore island.
We have also encountered problems over the years with dredging for aggregate in the Solent. I am pleased that both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Crown estate have given me a guarantee that in future there will be no renewal or extension of licences for the dredging of aggregate in the Solent.
It is remarkable that one of the objections to ABP's proposal, which included maintenance dredging in the Needles channel, was that it should not be allowed to dredge. That objection came from the Isle of Wight council—the same council that refused to support me against New Forest district council dredging the, shingle bank to replenish Hurst spit. That is an extraordinary example of environmental double standards, which seem to infect not only Isle of Wight council policy but some of its councillors.
There have been difficulties in Solent waters in recent years due to sewage pollution. One oyster bed has been closed in the western Solent this year. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has kindly agreed that we should meet the fish experts at Weymouth, which we shall do in the new year. When we have done that, we shall go to see the Environment Minister to discuss the problem of sewer outfalls. Southern Water tried hard to get the Solent waters redesignated; I am pleased to say that Her Majesty's Government resisted that proposal.
All the requirements of the urban waste water directives will have to be met. That will involve building a new sewerage plant with a long sea outfall at Sandown. Local fishermen and the tourist board are rightly concerned that there should be a cast-iron guarantee that the effluent will not wash up on the beaches to create the problems that have occurred in other parts of the country. It is proposed that the sewerage plant and outfall system should serve the whole of the Isle of Wight—or at least a great proportion of it. I hope that the Lord President will take note of my remarks, as it is a tortuous problem; we have suffered for many years from the inadequate Victorian sewerage system around the coast of the United Kingdom.
As a result of water privatisation and EC directives, there has been a massive investment and clean-up. We won some blue flags for our beaches on the Isle of Wight. However, one problem is that the scheme for Ventnor has been delayed; Ventnor has a serious problem, because it has an inadequate system. It was to have a new system, but that has been scrapped because of the redesignation of the seas off the north side of the island, the Solent. I hope that ministerial pressure will be exerted on Southern Water to ensure that it gets on with the scheme, and to guarantee that it is effective.
I now turn to the subject of education on the Isle of Wight and our standard spending assessments. The capping limits for the Isle of Wight council have been raised, and in March a whole series of bids will come in for various functions of the new unitary council. However, a substantial body of opinion on the island is encouraged to believe that the Government have not properly funded education on the Isle of Wight. I take great exception to that, because the settlement we have just had is more than adequate, taken with the savings made by having a unitary authority that we expect from—indeed, were promised by—the Isle of Wight council. The settlement should be more than adequate to ensure that we have a quality education service on the island. We understand that it is more expensive than most other education authorities, because it is a three-tier system. Given the small size of our population, education will always be more expensive per capita.
I support, and align myself with, the chairman of the education committee on the council. The council should spend all the money available on education in the island, which is mostly good. Obviously, education is our future, not just for the Isle of Wight, but for our nation, too.
On the island, we have had a serious problem with the British Medical Association. It has, on three occasions, run some serious scare stories about the island's health service. The most recent was last week—the suggestion in a television programme that St. Mary's hospital was to become a cottage hospital, and that the single-handed specialties were to be removed from the Isle of Wight.
The story suggested that, in future, we would have to travel to the mainland to have those surgical operations that have hitherto been available on the Isle of Wight. In fact, those operations have been available on the Isle of Wight only since the funding improvements and the general expansion of the health service by the Government.
On Sunday, with my wife, the chairman of the Isle of Wight council and the high sheriff, I toured St. Mary's hospital. We started at 9 am, and my wife and I finished our tour just after 6 pm. I was told by the chief executive that there was absolutely no truth in the programme on the BBC that emanated from the BMA. The chairman has written to the single-handed specialists in ophthalmology, oral surgery, and ear, nose and throat to say that the suggestion in the programme is not true, and that he is awaiting the results of an advertisement for a cardiac consultant on the island.
We have had problems, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know, with community care and its funding on the Isle of Wight. I was shocked to be told on my rounds on Sunday that there was a proposal for the closure of the Totland ward. That ward is operated by the Isle of Wight Community Healthcare NHS trust, and a little lady there told me how much it meant to her for respite care.
The Leader of the House is ideally qualified, because of his previous ministerial offices, to understand the great conundrums one faces in trying to deliver community care. For example, Margaret Condon, who was a patient in that ward and is a great supporter of mine, was worried that she would no longer receive assistance from that facility. The hospital is trying to contract out the service to private nursing homes, because of the numbers involved and the staff ratios. The next person I spoke to, whom I had never met before, was Alfred Chapman, who is 91 and blind. His wife is blind as well. He told me that he thought the time was coming when he and his wife might need a little assistance at home from social services.
Those two examples show the diversity in people's needs and requirements of the health service. That chap of 91, blind and living with his wife, has hitherto been completely independent at home, and has come in for respite care because he had a problem with his chest and was feeling down. On the other hand, Margaret Condon, who is considerably younger, relies on that type of care all the time.
We will have a unitary authority, and we have some sense of realism about the delivery of community care on the island. We also expect the decision—which I have long campaigned for—on the amalgamation of the Isle of Wight Community Healthcare NHS trust with St. Mary's Hospital (Isle of Wight) trust. We are told that that will save nearly £500,000 per annum.
I hope that the council will not continue to insist on running an entirely separate organisation, but will join in one mutual organisation with shared services, so that we can ensure the greatest efficiency and the most money for patient care. In the meantime, I hope that the Leader of the House will support the staff and the rest of us to ensure that Totland ward does not close.
There is concern about the target formula from the Department of Health—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not the House suffering a selfish abuse of the procedure? The understanding is that these Adjournment debates are limited to three hours and that each of us should show some kind of restraint. Parading constituency problem after constituency problem is not a proper use of a Wednesday morning.
Order. I would have intervened had there been repetition. I imagine that the hon. Member who is speaking will notice how many other hon. Members wish to contribute.
If the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) had had the courtesy to intervene, I would have given way to him. I hope that he would have accepted—because he is reasonable—that I have a cogent explanation for my speech this morning.
Since I came to the House in 1987, I have never made an entire speech about the Isle of Wight. I am the only Member who represents an entire county in its own right, and we have a number of problems. Not least, I am the only Member who represents more than 100,000 constituents, and this is the first occasion on which I have endeavoured, and am endeavouring, to make a comprehensive speech about the Isle of Wight. I am sorry if Opposition Members find it tedious: I am sure that my constituents do not. I can tell the hon. Member for Linlithgow that I do not intend to have a similar marathon in the future, having made this speech.
However, I have a number of other, separate points that I intend to raise this morning.
The tut-tutting from Opposition Members would be more reasonable if they understood the considerable pressure and work load that having more than 100,000 constituents brings. I shall continue. Sadly, this week, a policeman was stabbed on the Isle of Wight. I am pleased to say that his injuries will not cause him to be off work for long, but I am sure that we wish him a speedy recovery. I am pleased that the House is addressing the subject of the carrying of knives in public places. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has already—and rightly—raised that subject this morning.
There is considerable frustration on the Isle of Wight that we cannot get our local authority to take seriously the installation of closed circuit television cameras in public places. I am not suggesting that the island needs to be blanketed by them—fortunately, we have a considerably lower crime rate than the rest of the United Kingdom—but many people on the island believe, and I am sure it is a universal opinion, that CCTV can make a major contribution to reducing crime, particularly petty vandalism in public places.
I am pleased that the Chancellor made provision for that in the Budget. We do not seem to be making much progress on its installation on the island, although I believe that the council, in conjunction with the police, will submit a bid for CCTV shortly.
We have the highest level of seasonal unemployment in the United Kingdom, which is another reason why I feel fully justified in taking up the time of the House this morning. In the past few days, however, we have benefited from the single regeneration budget.
There is a feeling on the island that glad tidings are about to come to us from the Government in the form of the assistance that they will give us. The business link has been established, and it is beginning to extend its tentacles throughout the island to draw together all the agencies of Government. I am sure that it will grapple with the intractable problem of seasonal unemployment, from which the island has suffered for so many years.
I still wonder why the Department for Education and Employment, the Isle of Wight council or business link has not conducted a survey of the number of people who commute to work from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. My constituency has one of the highest unemployment rates of all Conservative constituencies, and it seems extraordinary that a contingent of people commute to the Isle of Wight to work. We should endeavour to address that mismatch.
This week, the island's citizens advice bureau received the largest grant of those given throughout the south of England—more than £300,000—to assist its work on the island. I am particularly pleased about that, because our CAB has had problems in obtaining funding locally in the past. I am sure that that funding will ensure that it gives an efficient service to all my constituents throughout the island, and not just those in Newport, as it did hitherto.
The Isle of Wight's roads are notorious. When one drives off the car ferry, there is, for some reason, a large sign, erected courtesy of the council, which says, "Island roads are different", and indeed they are. They are rather corrugated. One former Transport Minister, who knows the Isle of Wight extremely well, said that the island's geological formation is a road maker's nightmare.
We have some serious traffic problems on the island. We have conducted some experiments, such as removing double yellow lines, to try to improve the lot of local traders who have suffered from the arrival of large supermarkets on the island, which have absorbed a considerable amount of the traders' business.
Like other hon. Members, I am concerned that my council continues to pursue traders who operate on the pavements. Given that the Isle of Wight is a holiday resort, I think such trading is perfectly reasonable and acceptable, and adds to the holiday atmosphere. I am sad that that trading practice is frowned upon where the pavement is wide enough to allow it.
The island recently received a substantial grant from lottery funds for its housing advice centre. I backed that bid, and I am pleased that the Department of the Environment has also given the centre money. My right hon. Friend might like to know that the Liberal Democrats opposed the allocation of that money, on the ground that the centre was also receiving income from Shelter.
That centre has made a considerable improvement to the advice that young people and those threatened with homelessness receive. It has also assisted them in finding accommodation. The centre is greatly trusted by all parties on the island, because of the excellence and professionalism of its advice. It has made great strides, and its professional, specialist advice has helped to lessen the work load of the CAB. I should like my right hon. Friend to pass on my thanks to Ministers at the Department of the Environment for their support in the early stages of establishing the centre.
The Isle of Wight has a number of bids in for the millennium fund. My own proposal, which I hope will be accepted, is for the establishment of a national civil war museum on the island. As everyone in the House is aware, at the other end of the building lies the arrest warrant for King Charles I, which was served at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight.
Although it is understandable that no nation would wish to celebrate a civil war, sufficient years have now passed, and we should try to draw together all the artefacts and historic memorabilia from around the country in one national museum. People could visit it to learn about the incarceration of King Charles 1, and how that affected the island. In due course, I hope that that museum could become a national centre of excellence, as well as an archive of that remarkable period of history.
I do not want to antagonise the hon. Gentleman, because I hope that he will support my private Member's Bill. I have already spoken, so I have no personal motive in asking the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the fact that this is a time-restricted debate. He has spoken for half an hour, and if he continues to speak he will deprive many other hon. Members, Conservative and Labour, of the opportunity of speaking. I have no motive in saying that, other than that I think he is being extremely unfair. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that criticism in the spirit in which it is intended.
It is Christmas, so I will. I also think that it is extremely unfair that Opposition Members get the same allowance for office costs as I do, when, after the next election I shall have almost half as many constituents again as the rest of them. I make no complaint about that, however, because it is a great privilege to be here. I must repeat that I have never been selfish since I was elected in 1987, and I am coming to a conclusion, but I have just two more points to make. Under the Budget, the relief on capital gains tax was not extended. The yield from CGT has been considerably reduced because of the roll-over reinvestment available on unquoted shares. To combat that low yield, I suggest to the Treasury that, if the relief was extended to allow for investment in housing associations and external loans for investment in private housing schemes for renting—a Budget proposal—the yield from CGT would not alter, but it would be targeted at the private housing market and give it the oomph it needs.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Evening Standard has recently run an effective campaign about the problems of long leaseholds and landlords who take advantage of them. We have a lot of Victorian property on the island which has been converted into multiple-occupation housing and sold on long leases, so we have had problems with leases in the past. I was interested to note that the Evening Standard mentioned companies that were in a similar location to some that had caused me and my constituents considerable problems.
The cry for more legislation goes up yet again. If the Department of the Environment were to join with the Department of Trade and Industry, their combined weight against a company which is sailing very close to the wind would prove a very effective force. They could apply pressure to the directors of the company, and perhaps make public the organisation's activities. That would be much more effective than again opting for primary legislation, and it might well prove a more speedy solution.
That brings me, finally, to the question of deregulation. As hon. Members know, I am the Chairman of the Deregulation Committee, and it is a matter of personal regret to me that we shall not be able to dance on new year's eve—which falls on a Sunday this year—as dancing is prohibited in this country on a Sunday. I had hoped that the deregulation order would be passed to allow people to celebrate the new year, but the other place decided that that was an inappropriate use of a deregulation order. Therefore, I know that this year our constituents throughout the United Kingdom will sit at home cuddling a cup of Bovril instead of dancing. That is very sad.
In the new year, we should examine deregulation proposals and consider giving local authorities the discretion to exercise some of the powers they used to have. In my keenness to vote in the House for a unitary authority on the Isle of Wight and the Local Government Commission, I was surprised to learn that we were also voting for the commission to consider the issue of parish and town councils. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the old days, if a proportion of the local population—I think that the figure was two thirds, but I may be wrong—declared that they required a parish council, the local authority would put that proposal to the Secretary of State, who could then allow it.
I am now told that that is impossible without a complete review by the Local Government Commission. That band of wandering minstrels rumbles around the country while local communities, that would desperately like to have a parish council are no longer afforded that option. A deregulation order could be brought before the House to deal with that situation, and return that power to local authorities.
If that cannot be done, my noble Friend Lord Mottistone in the other place is in the early stages of producing a Bill with the Government that will allow East Cowes to have a parish council. The Local Government Commission envisaged in its report that the Isle of Wight should have a unitary authority. In his capacity as Lord President of the Council, I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that all Government Departments give full force to my noble Friend's proposals, if that is the only alternative open to the people of the Isle of Wight.
Hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have wished Madam Speaker a pleasant Christmas and a happy new year, so I think that it is appropriate to extend the same sentiments to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the many people who serve Members of Parliament in the House. I refer especially to those in the Refreshment Department and in the tearooms, who provide a valuable service and who are never fully appreciated for the work they do.
St. George's hospital, Tooting—one of the major hospitals in south London—is located in my parliamentary constituency. It serves Wandsworth, Merton and Sutton, and no doubt people from other areas attend the hospital for health care and other services. I do not question that it is an excellent hospital which offers good health services and employs a very dedicated team of doctors, nurses and other health service workers.
However, like so many other hospitals in London and in other parts of the country, St. George's faces more and more difficulties in its service provision. I am sure that all hon. Members have read in today's press, and have heard on this morning's radio broadcasts, reports about the problems that many hospitals in the United Kingdom have providing accident and emergency care. That is certainly the case at St. George's hospital.
I visited the St. George's accident and emergency department some months ago at the request of senior doctors, and both doctors and nurses told me about the problems they face. The hospital does not have the provision to meet patients' needs. While St. George's has difficulty finding beds for patients, whole hospital wards are closed. The difficulty of providing home care services in adjoining boroughs for patients who are about to be discharged adds to those problems. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved since my visit—and, in the case of elderly people and those who are most at risk, it has worsened.
John Millard, the consultant physician at St. George's hospital, sent me a letter shortly after my visit to the hospital. In the letter, dated 21 September, he says:
Many thanks for your letter of 15th September. I am so glad that you were able to come to St. George's and see both junior and senior staff who have to work in the system. I will certainly pass your message on to them.
My message was to express my appreciation to the staff for the services they provide in the community. Mr. Millard continued:
I hope your discussions with both Lambeth and Merton are fruitful. Getting elderly patients home, when they no longer need high-tech medical care is a major problem".
I think that that comment clearly outlines the problems at the hospital. However, it is only one aspect of the difficulties that it faces.
Week after week, the Prime Minister and other Ministers cite figures to justify what they believe is happening in the national health service. I do not doubt that money is being spent, but doctors, nurses, local people and Members of Parliament with hospitals in their constituencies know that many Government changes have created a two-tier health service. I put it to the House that London has suffered far more than other parts of the country. Year after year, successive Secretaries of State have told us that there are too many hospital beds in London. In recent years, 2,500 beds have been closed in the Greater London area.
Hospital admissions in the Wandsworth area are much higher than the national average. The number of admissions for elderly people in Wandsworth is in the highest 10 per cent. of the national figures. Against the background that I have outlined, we have seen funding taken from St. George's and allocated to areas far away from London, which is having a disastrous effect on our health services. That is not only my view, but is the view of senior doctors and administrators at the hospital. The Wandsworth health authority loses money every year. Since 1993, our budget has been cut by some 24 per cent. The continuing reduction in expenditure cannot continue without the serious effects that we are now experiencing. I have discussed the matter with the chief executive, senior administrative officers, doctors and nurses at the hospital. They all accept that this is happening, and it will continue, as will their complaints to me and to the Secretary of State for Health.
Regrettably, a major hospital in south London that provides hospital care for in-patients and out-patients has closed wards, and nurses are about to be made redundant. We all know that it will lead to the cancellation of operations and cuts in services for out-patients. Senior doctors rightly complain to me, and we should give them credit for voicing their complaints about those matters, which ultimately will affect patients.
I sought this morning's short debate because the hospital is still set to have its funding cut in the coming years. Where is the sense in following such a policy, when it is roundly and repeatedly condemned by the very people who are seeking to run the services in that hospital?
My speech is not about the national health service in the United Kingdom; it relates solely to one hospital—a very important hospital that meets the needs not only of my constituents but of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Local people share the deep concern of the hospital administrators, the chief executive and senior doctors at the hospital that there is no sense whatsoever in closing hospital wards that are needed and making loyal members of staff redundant because, sadly, insufficient funding is available to that hospital.
It is no good for the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House, as they do week after week, to say how marvellous everything is in the national health service. One only wishes that was true. Sadly, it is not. It is now time for change. That is what people really want, not some time in the future, but with an urgency to face the need to change policies which are having such a regrettable, indeed disastrous, effect on the standards of that hospital—especially for the people in that part of south London who go there for their health provision.
I welcome these Adjournment debates, as they give us the opportunity to raise matters of specific concern to our constituents. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Lord President would address two points when he replies to the debate, as my constituents are interested in them.
The first concerns the incident involving the chief inspector of prisons at HM prison Holloway. There has been much talk about the conditions in that prison, and I would be interested to know what my right hon. Friend has to say on the subject. I hope that he will bear it in mind that my constituents have scant sympathy for those serving prison sentences, as they have clearly offended against society. While we should ensure that our prisons are sanitary, they should be spartan, and not have conditions which are not available in our youth clubs and elsewhere.
Secondly, I should like to raise the vexed subject of Mr. Peter Davis, the national lottery regulator. As I understand it, he used free flights in the United States which otherwise would have been paid for by the taxpayer. He has a reputation as a dry accountant but a person of the utmost probity. Having been in business, I know that there is always pressure to save on one's expenses. If that is the context, it is to be commended, but I should like some assurance from my right hon. Friend on those points.
The debate was opened by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who was concerned about the pernicious campaign against parents when they are asked to decide whether they wish to back the decision of the board of governors for a school to become grant-maintained. It struck a strong chord with me, as I represent a Kent constituency.
Only yesterday, Gravesend received a magnificent Christmas present. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced her approval of the application for grant-maintained status from the Gravesend grammar school for girls. We have been dismayed at the delay in that approval, as the parents voted for that change by an overwhelming majority last July.
Eight out of nine secondary schools, and three of the primary schools, in Gravesham are now grant-maintained. The process has been a remarkable success. St. George's Church of England comprehensive school, the first school in the borough to become grant-maintained, has achieved wonderful results by redeploying 100 per cent. of the resources, balancing the staff against other spending, and getting value for money.
I commend to the House the comments of the chairman of the governors, the Rev. Joe King, who is a well-known Labour party supporter. He makes it clear that he values the school's new freedom and has considerable scorn for so-called specialist support supply by Kent county council.
Meopham school in my constituency, a rural secondary school that was under threat of closure from the county council, is now absolutely thriving. Those involved have used great imagination to make the school the core of the community campus in the village.
Only a few years ago, Southfields school in my constituency had the unenviable status of being bottom of the league of schools in Kent. It is now moving steadily away from the bottom as the school rallies round, using all the discretions available to grant-maintained schools. It is all most encouraging. The grant-maintained schools system is so successful that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the Opposition spokesman on education, is already well on the way to implying that it was all their own idea in the first place. We know that the Leader of the Opposition scorns his council schools in Islington, and has taken his young son right across London to a leading grant-maintained school. It is all positive. We want parental choice, and other schools to follow the great achievements of schools in Gravesham and in so many boroughs throughout the country.
We should consider the action taken by the Labour party in respect of grant-maintained schools. There have been 12 ballots in Gravesham, and in every one the parents voted by an overwhelming majority in favour. However, they have done so against a background of rumours, falsehoods and the spending of £100,000 of council tax payers' money by Labour-Liberal-controlled Kent county council. It is really dreadful.
There has been a great deal of messing about by the county council. There have been land grabs and disputes over land on campuses and equipment. There have even been problems over the delivery of pay slips and P45s to the teachers in the schools concerned.
The Labour party fought and won the county council elections two years ago on the basis that the borough of Gravesham needed more nursery schools. To date, not a single new one has been provided. When there was one such proposal from a grant-maintained school—the Holy Trinity Church of England school—the Labour-controlled county council opposed it. Having said that Gravesham needed more nursery units, it voted down one such proposal because it came from a grant-maintained school. Thanks only to the action of my hon. Friend the Minister, we now have a new unit serving youngsters in Gravesend.
Gravesend grammar school for girls is now going ahead with grant-maintained status. The delays have been caused by the bogus objections of Kent county council, under the inspiration of the Labour party. One of the objections was that the governors arrived at their decision in only 15 minutes. On investigation, we found that they had held two lengthy meetings to discuss the whole matter, and had deferred the second meeting only so as to allow the KCC area education officer time to confirm the exact details of his offer of an admissions policy for the north-west Kent area.
Another bogus objection which was particularly patronising and insulting to my Sikh constituents was the allegation contained in the following KCC letter:
The ballot documentation supplied by the Electoral Reform Society was made available in the English language only. In an area with a substantial Asian languages speaking population, this will have had the effect of disenfranchising a proportion of the electorate on racial lines.
There is only one large minority in Gravesham—Sikhs from the Punjab, who speak the Punjabi language.
Most of the Sikh community are now second or third generation. The school itself already offers parents a translation service for general education matters, and not one parent has ever felt the need to take it up. Furthermore, not a single student in the school, of Sikh or any other origin, needs English language support on the ground that English is their second language. So this was yet another pernicious example of playing the race card.
Another bogus objection came in the form of the suggestion that the public meeting for parents was not balanced. That cannot be true; the co-chairman of the education committee, a Labour county councillor, attended and spoke at the meeting. Is it thought that parents are so stupid that they cannot hear out a Labour councillor and then make their own minds up?
This was all, of course, a fatuous waste of time, but it delayed the process for five months and endangered the 1996 intake of girls to the school, at a time when parents were facing anxious decisions about the future of their daughters' education. The fact is that the Labour party issues soundbites of approval for GM status, but the reality is quite different.
Our schools in Gravesham have to cope not just with this sort of trench warfare but with other ridiculous nonsense to do with school funding. Last year, Kent county council was given another 2.1 per cent. funding in terms of actual cash, but passed on only a 1 per cent. increase to the budgets of schools—after considerable pressure had been exerted. That resulted in a shortfall of £3.4 million across the county. Weeks later, it was found that—possibly owing to mismanagement—the council had underspent for the previous year by £19 million.
The solution that was obvious to parents and anyone else of sound mind was to put £3.4 million from the £19 million into topping up schools' budgets to the amount that they should have had in the first place. Such a proposal was made by Conservative county councillors, but it was voted down by the Lib-Lab pact, whose members wanted to keep up the party political pressure on parents. Speaking as the parent of three youngsters in state schools in Kent, I do not believe that our youngsters' education should be played around with for party political purposes.
This year, the Government increased the funding for Kent county council by 4.38 per cent.—significantly more than inflation. As education is the top Government priority, the percentage applicable to education is even higher. But what is the prospect of that money getting through to the schools?
A meeting has just been held by Kent county council with the chairmen of governors of schools. At the end of the meeting, just as the Conservative leader of the county council opposition left the hall, up jumped the co-chairman of education—this time a Liberal Democrat—to tell the assembled chairmen of governors that there had been no increase whatever in Government funding. That is game playing of the most inaccurate and damaging kind. What on earth will these councillors do with the budget if their starting point is so inaccurate?
I should like to have spoken on Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, but blocking tactics were used to stop me being the last speaker in the debate, organised by the Labour Whip, the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). Hence my sympathy in respect of certain recent comments is somewhat thin. Nevertheless, I want to put on record two points that I was unable to make at the time.
I have some personal experience of immigration racketeers. They charge large fees for smuggling immigrants into this country. In Kent, we see immigrants who cannot speak English wandering around the lay-bys of our motorways, where they have been dumped by these miserable intermediaries. Some immigrants have even been suffocated while hidden in the backs of lorries. It is vital that the problem be dealt with soon. There are also unscrupulous immigration brokers. Time and again, immigrants have been to my surgery to tell me that they have been led on by so-called advisers who charge huge fees. They take their clients through the mass of regulations, and then try to exploit our generous asylum system.
Worst of all are the immigration marriage brokers. They ruin the lives of young constituents of mine. I give the House the example of a 20-year-old British-born Sikh girl who used to work in a large office. One afternoon, she went to her boss and asked for half an hour off. He asked her why she wanted to go out. She replied that she wished to get married, but would be back in half an hour. The boss wondered what was going on. She said that there was a register office just across the road. So she went off and got married, but she did not much like the look of the man who was to be her husband—and then realised that he was an illegal immigrant.
The girl came to see me: could I do something to prevent her having to go through the religious ceremony? It seems that a marriage broker had arranged the marriage with her father and brother; she alleged that money had changed hands for that purpose. She had only one way out—to flee her home and the borough in which she had been brought up. She had to pack her personal belongings in her suitcase, which she had brought from the office, and flee to London that very weekend—a disgraceful episode.
The marriage broker concerned also happened to be the chief executive of the Gravesend Commission for Racial Equality, formerly the Gravesham community relations council, which had a valuable and long-standing record of service to the borough. The Gravesend CRE branch suddenly closed down. The secretary came to me at my surgery to tell me that she had been dumped with no redundancy money and to ask me whether I could help. I approached the chairman of the defunct CRE, a Labour councillor, who told me that there was nothing he could say. I then approached the one-time honorary president of the CRE, another Labour councillor, who was equally unable to help.
It is odd that this marriage broker and former chief executive of the defunct CRE, a Mr. Gurdev Singh Talwar, was also a Labour councillor at the time. For some months now, the Labour party has been throwing allegations of sleaze and secrecy across this Chamber. It is time that the Opposition cleaned up their act and came up with an explanation of what went on in the cases to which I have referred. I also hope that the press will turn to some investigative journalism to shed light on these scandals.
Another aspect of the Asylum and Immigration Bill—
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot talk about a Bill which is already before the House. There will be other occasions when he can talk about it, of course. Meanwhile, he can talk freely about the problems of Gravesham, but not about the Bill.
My Sikh constituents, largely because of their origins in the Punjab, depend for their livelihoods on labouring jobs—they work in construction, on roads, in market gardening and so on. For two or three years, they have been telling me that the pay for their jobs is being undercut by people who will work for very much less. They specifically asked, "What are the Government going to do about it? We know that these people are illegal immigrants and bogus asylum applicants." In fact, the Government are acting, and I support them.
Denton, in my constituency, received a good Christmas present from the Government. It has received nearly £2 million from the challenge fund to support project Denton. Moneys from the single regeneration budget will go to a very old part of the borough. It is an area of small streets, in which a new factory has developed. The factory provides 250 jobs in an area of high unemployment. Comma Oil mixes and bottles lubricants and other fluids for the vehicle industry.
Heavy goods vehicles have rumbled through the old streets of Denton to reach the factory, to the distraction of residents. The clear solution was to build a new highway on the other side of Denton. We have never been able to implement that solution, because the local highway authority, Kent county council, has been resolute in not including it in its programme, despite the fact that the Labour co-chair of the relevant county council committee is the local ward councillor.
As a result of wonderful co-operation between the public and private sectors, a deal has been put together that includes a new road. It also includes training and youth opportunities, as well as anti-crime improvements. The deal is a considerable success. It will ensure that the factory will remain in the area. It was going to go elsewhere. I can now disclose that it would have gone to Huntingdon. I could not admit that earlier, because, if the proposed move to that particular constituency had been known about, there might have been a temptation not to approve our grant! Comma Oil is to stay on the site, and there will be an additional 50 jobs. The opening up of other land will create another 250 jobs.
The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) stirred a memory for me. He talked about parishes and a local population, virtually without exception, wanting to create a parish council. That is the position at the village of Vigo in my constituency, which is currently part of the parish of Meopham.
All the residents—I know of no exceptions—wish to establish a parish council in their own right. The mechanism is to go through the Local Government Commission for England. Unfortunately, given the vast amount of work that the commission is undertaking, it will not get on with the job. I hope that the matter can be re-examined, with a view to finding a simplified way of allowing populations, if they wish, to establish a parish council. They should be able to do so.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) should not be suspicious on every occasion about people who nip out from work to get married. Mrs. Banks and I did precisely that. We married and went back to work the same afternoon. She is not, as far as I am aware, an illegal immigrant.
There seems to be a practice—it has almost become a tradition—of Members presenting the House with compilations of their favourite speeches, or perhaps of speeches that they did not make, during these Adjournment debates. I suggest that letters to Ministers or local press releases might be equally appropriate ways of drawing attention to the points they want to raise.
I do not wish to be churlish, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I join all those who have wished you a happy Christmas. Long may I catch your eye, Sir. You might have a happy Christmas, but after the vote last night, I doubt very much whether the Prime Minister will be able to enjoy his Christmas. I am sure that he would like to wake up on Christmas morning to find all the heads of his Euro-sceptics in his Christmas stocking. He would then, of course, find that his parliamentary majority had disappeared. He is not, of course, able to rely on some Conservative Members these days. I endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who said that the country desperately needs a general election. I suspect that parliamentary arithmetic will force one sooner rather than later on the Prime Minister.
I was not going to be here this morning. I had intended to travel to Zurich for a Council of Europe meeting. Unfortunately, being a practised wally, I left my passport at home. When I reached Heathrow, I found that the British immigration service was more than happy to let me leave the country. I do not know whether that tells me something of which I should be aware. British Midland was superb in arranging things. Unfortunately, those at the Zurich end refused to let me into Switzerland. Who would wish to impersonate a British Member of Parliament these days? That would be outrageous. This episode takes up the theme of illegal immigrants that the hon. Member for Gravesham introduced.
I would not fancy the chances of young Master Tell if I were to shoot at the apple on his head this morning. He would end up looking rather like King Harold.
The debate gives me the chance to raise the case of Mr. Mark Votier. He is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey), who is a good friend of mine. She knows that I am raising Mr. Votier's case, and supports me in doing so.
Mr. Votier is a freelance journalist. He was commissioned to film a Japanese whaling expedition in the Antarctic. He was so shocked by what he saw aboard Japanese whaling ships that he released the footage of his film to journalists throughout the world. We saw examples of that footage in newspapers such as the Independent and The Guardian earlier this month. As a result of releasing his film, he is being sued by the Japanese Government's Institute of Cetacean Research for £60,000-worth of damages. Total costs will be another £200,000.
The Japanese are killing minke whales in the southern ocean sanctuary. This year, they will kill no fewer than 440 whales. Mr. Votier went to the area as someone who was not passionately committed to the preservation of whales. If he had been, he probably would not have wanted to go to the area to see what was going on. There are, of course, brave people who are supportive of the anti-whaling movement who are prepared to expose themselves to both dangers and horrors. However, Mr. Votier saw things that appalled him.
Mr. Votier found that 50 per cent. of the minke whales that were caught were only wounded by the harpoon, not killed. The Japanese butchers then put into the minke whale a lance through which they passed an electric force. The force is not sufficient to kill the whale instantly. On average, they took at least eight minutes to die. On one occasion, Mr. Votier saw a minke whale thrashing around for 23 minutes waiting to die while the Japanese put an electric shock through it. That is a whale dying in agony. The Japanese have no right to do this.
We should make a strong protest to the Japanese authorities. The British representatives at the International Whaling Commission met in May. They attempted to use examples of Mr. Votier's film to demonstrate that so-called scientific whaling is butchery by the Japanese. The Japanese vetoed the attempt. They said that the film that the British representatives wished to use—it was shot by Mr. Votier—was illegally obtained.
When Mr. Votier was commissioned, he was told that he must exclude from his film all unsightly tasks—in other words, the sort of things that tell us the truth about what the Japanese are doing to whales in the southern ocean sanctuary. He was told that his film would have to be submitted to the Japanese authorities for censorship.
A spokesman for the agriculture and fisheries division of the Japanese embassy in London denied that whaling was unscientific. He said:
We need to gather scientific data on the age, sex and population of the minke whales in the antarctic.
He claimed that 400 whales had to be slaughtered to satisfy statistical best practice.
The United States, using the Pelly amendment, has censured Japan for its so-called scientific whaling, and Japan is now 90 days away from having sanctions imposed on it. Incidentally, the sanctions will not affect electrical equipment or cars exported by the Japanese—I wish that they did, because that might concentrate their warped little minds. The sanctions will relate only to fishing, but they are still worth imposing, which is why I am asking the British Government to do something.
I have tabled an early-day motion that has been signed by 113 hon. Members, asking for the strongest protest to be made to the Japanese authorities. The case in Tokyo, which involves a British citizen, has been adjourned until 23 January. It is likely to be postponed again for procedural reasons until 20 February, when a decision is expected.
I ask the Lord President to pass on, through the Foreign Office, our strong feeling that the case against Mr. Votier should be dropped. He should not be prosecuted; he should be thanked by world opinion, although not, clearly, by the Japanese. I hope that the Lord President will bear in mind my remarks, and ensure that the necessary pressure, in defence of a British citizen who was doing his job and informing world opinion, is put on the Japanese authorities.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise three issues. However, before doing so, I put it on record that I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) on some matters. I share his views on animal welfare and agree that an international railway station should be located at Stratford, but we disagree about football—he supports Chelsea and I support West Ham.
I was reflecting on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who mentioned the education of the Leader of the Opposition's child. I was flattered when the leader of the Labour party and his deputy chose to mention me in their speeches to the Labour party conference, but my family is still smarting from the Labour party's delightful comments about me and the education of my own son. The attack was led by a former Labour Member of Parliament, supported by my defeated Labour rival in the general election for whom no handkerchief is big enough to blub into. However, I do not intend to go into detail about the conduct of those people. I shall wait until the leader of the Labour party and his deputy are present and then put a number of questions to them.
The first matter that I want to raise relates to the Solicitors Complaints Bureau. A number of my constituents are worried about the speed and effectiveness of the bureau. I have often passed on complaints which then meet inordinate delays. I know that the Law Society's new president believes in self-regulation, but I doubt whether self-regulation is in the best interests of our constituents. I am also concerned that the majority of people who sit on the bureau are solicitors. That seems bizarre; I should have thought it was fairer to have a majority of lay people.
Secondly, I wish to draw attention to the Raoul Wallenberg appeal. Some years ago, I introduced a Bill under the ten-minute rule procedure for him to be declared an honorary British citizen. The Bill was not successful so I introduced another, the object of which was to set aside a piece of land so that a suitable monument could be erected to honour him, even though there is still some dispute as to whether he is alive or dead.
I am delighted to be able to say that great progress has been made by the appeal committee under the chairmanship of Sir Sigmund Sternberg, aided by Mr. Lionel Altman and others. Next year, or certainly by the spring of 1997, a monument will be erected to Raoul Wallenberg.
As I am sure the House knows, Raoul Wallenberg was a brave Swedish diplomat who, in 1944, risked everything and saved the lives of more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews. He designed the Schutzpass, a fake document that effectively entitled the bearer to the same protection as that afforded by a Swedish passport, which the Nazis accepted. He did a very brave thing, and I am delighted that a splendid bronze sculpture, to be done by Philip Jackson, is to be erected in the crescent of Great Cumberland place in front of the Marble Arch synagogue. However, in order for that to happen, £100,000 has to be raised, to pay not only for the sculpture but for its maintenance.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will, through the best endeavours of his office, try to secure from the Department of National Heritage a substantial contribution on the nation's behalf to that magnificent sculpture, which is to be unveiled in the not too distant future.
Finally, I deal with local government. Yesterday, the Local Government Commission announced its findings on unitary status for Basildon, Thurrock and other parts of the country. For my part, I have always believed in unitary authorities and very much regret that we have not set about introducing more across the country. I very much want Basildon to be given unitary status. When we examined the matter in the early days, I should have preferred large unitary authorities. It might surprise the House to learn that, although Basildon was very happy to be joined up with other areas, some parts of Essex were reluctant to join up with Basildon. I very much hope that next year we shall make the firm announcement that Basildon has—perhaps as part of a larger authority—been given unitary status.
In Essex, there is a phenomenon of Liberal and Labour party pacts. The Labour and Liberal parties share a bed on Essex county council, Basildon district council and Southend district council. When the phenomenon first developed, both parties were anxious to see the back of the Conservative party but, since the two socialist parties joined together, they have had something of a falling out.
It is the old story: Opposition parties are adept at articulating problems but they have difficulty in coming up with solutions. When they get power and find that they have difficult decisions to make, there is a falling out.
On Essex county council, Labour and the Liberals have made a complete mess of social services, and care in the community has not been conducted as it would have been under Conservative control. Matters are in such a shambles that the Government have announced an inquiry. On education, Labour and the Liberals have done all that they possibly can to undermine the position of grant-maintained schools in the county. We recently received a letter from the leader of the Liberals on Essex county council, asking the 16 Essex Conservative Members of Parliament to vote against the 1p off income tax announced in the Budget. The Labour party bravely abstained because it worries about votes and about whether such action might make it unpopular and reduce its so-called lead in the opinion polls, but the Liberal Democrats bravely and courageously encouraged us not to go ahead with the penny off income tax.
On extra funding for education, I very much hope that it will be better understood that the Government have put in, as a result of the Budget, a substantial amount of extra money, which will go to education specifically to reduce the size of classrooms. It would be dishonest of any Labour or Liberal politician in Essex to try to deny what the Government have achieved.
What is going on in local government in Basildon at the moment is extraordinary. One is given the impression that the three parties in Basildon are sharing power and agree on everything, but the reality is that Labour and the Liberals vote against the Conservative party on everything. For three years, the Conservatives controlled Basildon district council and sensibly managed our finances so that people's council taxes would not be put up in the future. It has not taken the Labour and Liberal parties long to start wasting that money. Once again, they are setting up area offices. The most extraordinary thing is their handling of local government officers. Everyone in the House believes that local government officers should do their job professionally and not be signed up to any political party. The last time that we had a Labour council in Basildon, the chief executive disappeared, for whatever reason, with no details given of how his removal from office was conducted or, indeed, how much he was given to leave the local authority's employment.
I now find that since the Labour and Liberal parties have controlled Basildon district council, the chief executive, yet again, has disappeared, and his deputy has taken his job—no word of explanation or details about the money that local residents in Basildon were asked to fork out to make that happen. It gets worse. I learnt this week that the previous excellent director of housing in Basildon is no longer employed by the local authority. Instead, someone who I understood was sacked by the local authority has got his job.
I am not prepared to see those matters swept under the carpet. Given that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats believe in open disclosure, I trust that Members of Parliament will have a word with the local councillors in Basildon to ensure that local residents know precisely what is going on in relation to the conduct of local officers in Basildon.
The country and the world will be celebrating Christmas on 25 December, but I wonder whether there is any profound realisation of what Christmas day is all about. Does it demonstrate that the country and the world believe in God? I hope that the real meaning of Christmas will be better understood by the whole of the population, because if the true spirit of Christmas is understood and followed—not just for one day in the year but for 365—the country and the world will truly he a better place.
Before the House adjourns, I seek clarification on two matters, notice of which I gave to the Lord President's officials, I thought prudently, at a quarter to 10: first, the expulsion from this country of Khalifa Barzelya, the head of the Libyan interests section; and, secondly, the veracity or otherwise of the very remarkable presentation in The Guardian of Saturday 16 December by Maggie O'Kane, which relates to the Gulf war. The article forms the foundation of a programme that is to be shown an Channel 4 on 3 January. It raises very important questions of truthfulness or otherwise in relation to the Gulf war.
First, on Khalifa Barzelya: because of Lockerbie, I have come to know him over the past three years relatively well. I really am astonished that he should be considered to warrant expulsion from this country. In the light of the dreadful murder of a Libyan business man, it is the opinion of Scotland yard that Mr. Barzelya was in no way related to that matter.
I must remind the Lord President that, at Heathrow tomorrow evening, a group of relatives will meet in the airport chapel for the seventh anniversary—they meet every year on 21 December—of that dreadful night when the Pan Am Clipper "Maid of the Seas" came down. They are as determined as ever to get to the truth. It is their view, as they know him, too, that Mr. Barzelya has been greatly helpful. My estimate is that he has tried to improve relations between Britain and Libya, and to help the Libyan students that we still have—although not as many as previously—in this country. I ask, therefore, why he is being expelled. When I ask him, he says that he really has no idea; he thinks that it may be because he has been developing associations with a number of academics and, indeed, politicians. I have to say that the politicians are "undesirables" like the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) on the Conservative Benches and myself on the Opposition Benches.
If such contact is really creating trouble for the Foreign Office or the security services, it is outrageous that no explanation has been given. Therefore, I make a suggestion to the Lord President. We have a statutory committee on security. Could Mr. Barzelya's case be referred to it? I know better than to ask that I should be given some explanation from the security services, but that presumably is why we set up the committee, which is a non-House of Commons body, as I understand it, under the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King).
I would be quite satisfied if the right hon. Gentleman were to say, "My Committee and I have seen the evidence and, on the basis of the evidence, the Government are quite justified," but, really, one does want some kind of objective assessment, because let us be clear about how damaging it is. Of course, tit-for-tat, David Hawkes has been told to get out of Tripoli. The Government should remember that there are some 5,000 of our citizens earning their bread and butter in one way or another, mostly in the Cyrenaican desert and mostly for firms such as Brown and Root. They want some kind of presence in the British interests section of the Italian embassy in Tripoli.
I could go on and on about the damage to British industry and to one of our traditional markets. The managing director of Babcock made it very clear that he would not have had to pay off some 400 skilled people in Renfrew the other day had we still had the traditional Libyan order.
No doubt I will be contradicted if I am wrong, but I fear that this has something to do with the on-going Lockerbie business, and the feeling that certain elements in the Government want an easy excuse not to hold a trial in The Hague with Scottish rules of evidence and under a Scottish judge. After seven years, any Government who wanted the truth would surely compromise to some extent, and go along with what has been offered. I have to say that I believe that the last thing that the British Government want is any kind of trial that would bring these matters to a head.
The second issue that I wish to raise relates to the article that appeared in The Guardian last Saturday. I want to ask three questions. First, are the satellite photographs from the Soyuz Karta genuine? If not, what happened in connection with the massive build-up on the Kuwaiti border about which we had been told? When I did my national service with the Royal Scots Greys, now the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, we were taught to read aerial photographs. I am no great expert, but it appears that the aerial photographs that were so crucial during the Gulf war do not show the build-up that served as the justification for that war.
Secondly, let me refer to specific statements that were made in The Guardian about dead babies. According to the article,
Dead babies are nothing new. During the German invasion of Belgium in the first world war, stories circulated in Britain and France of Belgian babies being butchered by German soldiers wielding bayonets. There's always a dead baby story. The story of how Iraqi troops, in the first days of the invasion, went into al Adan hospital, tore the sick babies from incubators and left them on the cold floor to die, was graphically told to Congress in November, 1990—before a crucial vote—by Niyirah al Sabah who, unknown to her audience, was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. In her tearful testimony, she said she had witnessed the Iraqi troops' brutality when she worked as a volunteer in the maternity ward.
About 100 yards from the front of the al Adan hospital in Kuwait City is a white two-storey building which houses about 50 nurses. Nurse Myra Ancog-Cooke is a Filipino nurse. Six months after the war ended, I found her still working in the hospital. She poured tea and told her story—a story which for me sowed the first seed of suspicion about the tales and half-truths that marked the build-up to
the Gulf war. A staunch Catholic, she explained that it was her duty and God's will that she stayed to care for the sick. She was assigned to the children's ward and took it in turns with the other Filipino nurse who stayed behind, Freida Contrais-Naig, to sleep in the incubator room with the babies.
'I remember someone called and said, "Look at CNN, they are talking about us." We watched and it was strange seeing that girl telling them about the Iraqis taking the babies out of the incubators. I said to Freida, "That's funny, we've never seen her. She never worked here." We didn't think very much about it really. We were more excited seeing our hospital on the television.' Later, Amnesty, who had also been duped by the testimony, admitted they'd got it wrong. Andrew Whitley of Middle East Watch described it as a fabrication, but it took months for the truth to come out.
Meanwhile, President Bush mentioned the incubator babies in five speeches and seven senators referred to them in speeches backing a pro-war resolution. Subsequently, Hill and Knowlton were unabashed that the media worldwide, the UN Security Council and the US Congress had been deceived by a 15-year-old girl who had been 'trained' by a public relations firm. Lauri Fitz-Pegado of Hill and Knowlton, who prepared six witnesses who corroborated the incubator story to Congress, told John Macarthur, author of The Second Front, a book on censorship in the Gulf War: 'Come on John, who gives a shit whether there were six babies or two. I believed her.' The invading Iraqi army did rape, kill and torture in Kuwait, and that's what the world wanted to read.
Highly exaggerated reports of thousands of deaths were accepted uncritically, as the PR firm, using Kuwaiti contacts inside the country, smuggled 24 videotapes to hungry and unquestioning mass media. The tone was set, and the tide was running in the Kuwaiti Government/Hill and Knowlton direction—war.
That raises serious issues in relation to the role of public relations firms in general, and Hill and Knowlton in particular. In considering our role in the Gulf war, the British House of Commons is entitled to ask the Government whether what was published last Saturday, and what I understand is to be shown on 3 January, is true or false. I have given the Minister's officials some warning, and I hope that the Minister will give at least a preliminary reaction in his winding-up speech.
Let me ask my final question. According to the logs, the British, French and Soviets also detected chemicals flowing down wind from the Iraqis' chemical and biological stations, which had been bombed. This is not the occasion for me to go into detail about the problems of some of our constituents who may have suffered from the effects of chemical weapons; let me simply ask the Government whether they propose to give a considered response once they have seen the film, which goes to the heart of the truthfulness of the statement that has been made by Maggie O'Kane.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak. I shall break with tradition—not, I hasten to add, with the protocol or the great traditions of this place. I intend to speak briefly about a subject about which I have not spoken in the House before, although it has been pretty close to my heart for many years: sport.
If the House will indulge me for a few minutes, I shall set the scene. I feel some concern—in fact, "concern" is probably too strong a word; I feel some nervousness—about one aspect of sport that has been highlighted in the past year or so. Governing bodies in sport—and, probably, the House at some stage—may wish to consider it, especially in view of the forthcoming passage of the Broadcasting Bill. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that sport is important—it matters.
In 1989, just before I left the Sports Council as its vice-chairman to throw my hat into the political arena—obviously, I did not crave job security at that stage—I commissioned some work on its behalf by the Henley research centre, which identified two or three key statistics on the way in which sport was valued in this country. In the late 1980s, about 22 million people identified themselves as being involved in sport regularly at one level or another. I have no reason to believe that that number has decreased; in key sectors, it will have increased. That is getting on for roughly half the population. It is probably one of the most popular activities that could be identified in such statistical terms.
In economic terms, by the end of the 1980s, sport was about the fourth largest employer. It employed more than the car and petrochemical industries and the agricultural sector put together. It accounted for about £3.5 billion-worth of high street retail sales, which had it alongside, and in some areas outstripping, electrical goods and even, for a time, cassettes and other audio equipment.
That is a long-winded way of saying that sport matters and that people recognise that it matters. There is no hon. Member sitting in the House today who does not have sports clubs in his or her constituency. They are either closely attached to such clubs or recognise their work, whether they be in rural areas or in inner cities.
One of the key arguments that has always raged within sport, sports administrations and sports governing bodies—it raged especially during my time at the Sports Council—involved sports funding and whether the funds that were available, through the private or public sectors, should be distributed towards the excellence end of sport or towards its participation end, remembering that the Sports Council's royal charter specifically gave it the remit to increase participation in sport. We recognise that those were and remain key arguments.
Throughout a number of years in sports administration and certainly as a competitor, my belief has been that, in relation to participation and excellence and funding, we cannot have one without the other. We recognise the old pyramid argument that one needs a firm base through which the Daley Thompsons, Steve Ovetts, Steve Crams and Paul Gascoignes emerge. One also needs, however, specifically to target sport at the excellence end, either through our national sports centres or possibly through the development of an academy of sport—a whole range of issues exists here.
We recognise that some countries have targeted specifically and very well. The Swedes produced Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg; the Germans, in exactly the same way, identified what I suppose one could describe as a niche market, through which the Steffi Grafs and Boris Beckers emerged. There is, therefore, a gentle and fairly subtle balance in all that.
The landscape of sport in relation to its public face has changed dramatically, even since the time I was serving at the Sports Council. I wish that I had had available to me in the late 1980s the sort of budget that is now available through the mechanisms of the national lottery and the Sports Council grant. At that time, basically, the public face of British sport was run on about £40 million a year, which was significantly less than the Arts Council grant, but I do not wish to revisit old griefs.
"Raising the Game" is probably one of the best pieces of political thought that has gone into sport since 1945 and is something that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree should be welcomed. In the development of sport, whether with regard to competition in school, the maintenance of school sport, linking clubs—where there is now probably more coaching expertise than in schools—with schools and ensuring that funding is appropriate and resources are available as and where they are genuinely needed, "Raising the Game" was probably the single most important contribution that this place and Government have made for many years.
The general populace's access to top-class sport concerns me. We are not all likely to turn up at Wimbledon and lie in our sleeping bags for three days to obtain tickets for Centre court. We recognise that the majority of people who watch sport at the highest level do so through their television sets. I wish that more people turned up and actively supported sport, but that genie is not likely ever to be put back in the bottle. We must recognise that the main vehicle for sports promotion is television.
One of my concerns is that, if we are to maintain participation levels and excellence, we must maintain people's maximum access to sport on television. That difficult issue must be confronted, given the nature of some of the contracts that are being drawn up between sports governing bodies and television, the balance of terrestrial television and satellite television in particular, and the advent of pay-per-view, which, for the majority of sports fans in the United States of America, remains the most important access that they have to television sport.
Back in the 1950s, we produced a protected list of events. It was ostensibly to ensure that there was no likelihood that one of the key events—the World cup, the Olympic games, the English FA cup final or Scottish FA cup final—was protected from a monopoly broadcast. The protected list was put together to ensure that the majority of people had access to sport at that level. Satellite television is now in the arena, looking to and making hard progress towards the sort of exclusive deal that is likely to cause hon. Members concern in relation to access to some of the more traditional sports.
I was interested to be a bystander—a seated bystander, I hasten to add—at an Adjournment debate some months ago when hon. Members on both sides of the House spoke passionately about the deal that was being struck between Sky television, the Murdoch organisation and rugby league. Your colleague, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Sir G. Lofthouse), is well known for his strong rugby league background. One of my more cherished memories of that debate is of the hon. Gentleman trying to hold back his anger about developments in a sport that hon. Members on both sides of the House, and especially those with northern constituencies, recognise as causing concern.
I hope that we do not deprive the average sports fan of access to top-class television sport. In a few months' time, the Broadcasting Bill is due to be considered by the House and, when it does, perhaps we can visit that issue. Perhaps we could debate it in terms not of strong or tight prescriptive measures on governing bodies or television, but of how they might develop negotiations with satellite or terrestrial television authorities.
One issue that we could visit relates to highlights packages. In a few months the World cricket cup competition will be held in India and Pakistan. The agreement between Sky television and the world cricketing bodies was for exclusive coverage, but the original discussions agreed that the highlights package would be available to the BBC. I understand that that package will not be available and that means that, for large parts of the year, a generation of young cricket fans will have limited television access to their sport. Of course, domestic test matches will remain on the protected list, but we shall have to make sure that highlights packages for overseas tours are available.
In their negotiations with satellite companies, the governing bodies should carefully consider entering into contractual agreements that preclude terrestrial television showing such packages. It is in the interests of the governing bodies to have the maximum number of people wanting to take up their sport, whether that is badminton, cricket, football or track and field. Numbers are their life blood and, if they are limited, the ultimate price to be paid is that people will turn away from sports to which they do not have ready access on television and will find other sports. I gently suggest to governing bodies that might be negotiating at this moment that, if they are not careful, they may slaughter the goose that lays the golden egg.
Sport is important and it should remain accessible to as many people as possible. It has gained a political status in this place that most of us who were working in the vineyard in the 1980s did not think would come about so quickly. I am grateful for that, but I am still nervous about the other issues.
Order. There is just under half an hour to the winding-up speeches. Five hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate and I ask for short speeches so that all five may take part.
I appreciate this opportunity to take part in the debate. This is the season of good will, but on the first Christmas people were too busy with their own interests to care about others, and there was the murder of the innocents. I do not say whether the person who was murdered last evening in my constituency was innocent, but that murder reflects the issue that we must keep before us—there can be a tendency in society to excuse certain events because people might have deserved what happened to them. The House should give a clear signal that lawlessness in any guise is unacceptable in a democratic society. I know that we will sympathise with the widow and children who in this Christmas season have the harrowing experience of such a tragic loss.
Just before the House rose last Christmas I had an Adjournment debate on traffic flows in Belfast. Is the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland serious about dealing with some of the road congestion that remains? One of the blights in my constituency that affects housing and health is the Broadway roundabout for the west link and the Donegall road. Is it the Department's policy not to have flyovers? If it is, it has never been stated publicly. Is the Department concerned about the topography and geology in the area: I understand that there are two underground rivers there? There is also an electrical cable and that causes similar problems. We have constantly been told that the delay in taking action is due to lack of finance. Are there other reasons that the Department is not prepared to reveal?
I should like to speak about the problem of vetting procedures, especially as they affect people from Northern Ireland. One of my constituents went to Edinburgh university and volunteered for the officer training corps and encouraged one of her room mates to join. The room mate was accepted, but because my constituent had a Northern Ireland background she had to be vetted and, despite letters to the Minister about the issue, she has not been cleared.
I understand the need for vetting, but I also understand the deep hurt that is felt by my constituent's father, an Englishman who served in the Royal Navy for 18 years, and by her grandfather, who served in the Royal Ulster Rifles for more than 30 years. They are dismayed that she is so vetted that she cannot take her place with her friends. The same pattern was evident in a London constituency when the granddaughter of a former councillor and high sheriff of Belfast, who never lived there and whose father was an Englishman, was subjected to long vetting procedures simply because of the Northern Ireland connection.
A colleague engaged an aide in his constituency office and sought to get him a pass so that his bona fides were acceptable here. Although that aide had 30 years' service in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, vetting took three months. I am not sure whether it is a matter of job protection or whether some people with cosy jobs, even part-time ones, do not realise the impact of such vetting. Perhaps they do not give the matter the attention that is necessary, although I am convinced that much of the vetting is unnecessary.
I have no intention of delaying the House. I have made my points succinctly but definitely, and I seek clear answers.
I wish Madam Speaker, her three deputies and all the clerks and servants of the House a very peaceful Christmas and a happy new year.
In the short time available I would like to say a few words about Britain's relations with Europe. Britain is a European country, but it is very different from its continental neighbours. It is a maritime country. Our world interests are far-ranging and go back a very long time. Britain is a pragmatic country. Our common law is built on practical decisions made by judges in actual cases throughout the years, step by step—not for us the grand design, the "code Napoleon".
The exchange rate mechanism was a very good example of European grand design that ended in disaster. Instead of trying, as we would have done step by step on a pragmatic basis to build up a system of aligned currencies firmly based in the economies of the countries concerned, the imposition of an artificial structure from above with deadlines and timetables was attempted, and it collapsed under its own weight, as most of us knew that it would. It was rather like fiddling with the oil pressure gauge on a car instead of attending to the engine. Market rates cannot be rigged, as King Canute would have told us if he had still been here. Perhaps it is not insignificant that King Canute was a Dane.
Britain has had to go to the rescue of Europe three times in recent history—in 1815, 1914 and 1939—and, throughout the ages before 1815, Britain's policy has always been to maintain the balance of power in Europe. We have not been pro-French or anti-German. We have not been pro-German or anti-French. We allied with the French if the Germans began to get too powerful, and with the Germans if the French began to get too powerful. It worries me that such a strong Franco-German alliance is developing in Europe and I worry about the future balance of power in Europe. That ought to worry the French, the Germans and all the other Europeans too.
As for external security, it has not been the European Union that has protected us from war since 1945 but NATO, and the involvement of our American allies. Let no one ever lose sight of that or ever think that the Western European Union could take the place of NATO.
We are good Europeans and, as such, it is our duty to advise, to warn, and, if necessary, to say no. A single currency is a matter of enormous political significance. It is being sold to people on the basis that they will not have to pay exchange costs when they change their money. If they think that the banks will not find another way to extract that amount of money from their pockets, they are very naive.
The single currency would prevent us from setting our own interest rates, tax policy, public borrowing policy and exchange rates. Since the economies of Europe would not be able to move in relation to each other by shifting their exchange rates, massive subsidies would be required. It could all end in tears, just like the ERM.
We fought a civil war in this country 350 years ago to place in the hands of the elected representatives of the people the control of the purse strings, and we should not lightly allow that control to slip into the hands of bankers—who have not covered themselves with glory during the past 20 years—and certainly not foreign bankers.
The opt-out that the Prime Minister negotiated for us at Maastricht was one of his greatest achievements. It may well be that if other countries decide to go ahead and form a single currency, we might be better off outside it—no one can tell at this stage. The City of London is used to dealing with all manner of currencies; it would not matter to the City whether we were in or out of a single currency. What matters to the City is the cost of doing business in London—the cost of regulation.
The questions that the Prime Minister put in Madrid were pertinent, and we need answers to them before we can decide whether to take this momentous step. It would be very foolish to rule in or rule out Britain's membership of a single currency at this stage, as the Prime Minister is often urged to do. Although it seems almost inconceivable that we will join a single currency in the foreseeable future, it is a constitutional principle in this country that no Parliament can bind its successors. Therefore, even if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wished to rule out Britain's membership of a single currency within the lifetime of the next Parliament, he could not do so.
I am concerned, too, about the activities of the European Court of Justice. It proceeds by virtue of the civil law tradition, not the step-by-step, pragmatic approach of our common law judges. Continental judges adopt what is called a purposive construction. Put simply, it means that, by basing their judgments on general principles, they can make the treaties mean anything they want them to mean, which is very dangerous. It means that we are forced to comply with rules to which we would never have agreed had they been spelled out in the treaties.
For example, we would never have allowed the European Court to interfere in relations between the Ministry of Defence and serving soldiers, whether male or female. The European Court of Justice must be put on the agenda of the forthcoming intergovernmental conference, and some effective way must be found to clip the wings of these judicial legislators.
I am also concerned about the European Court of Human Rights, an organ not of the European Union but of the Council of Europe. We signed the European convention on human rights just after the second world war to protect the peoples of Europe against gross abuses of human rights perpetrated by fascists and communists. We did not sign that convention to allow foreign judges to interfere in every nook and cranny of our national life, so that we could be told whether we could cane schoolboys in our schools. There are hon. Members on both sides of the argument on caning, but it is a matter for this country to decide. This Parliament is perfectly capable of deciding such matters and it is no business of European judges to tell us whether we can cane our schoolboys.
It is also no business of European judges to tell us whether our courts martial system can continue. It has been the basis of our military discipline and, partly as a result of it, we have some of the finest armed forces in the world. Defence is entirely outside the competence of the European Union and I do not know how it could be argued that the European Court of Justice has any right to interfere in defence matters in relation to pregnant service women or anything else.
There is no such prohibition, however, in relation to the European Court of Human Rights and therefore it is entitled, if it so wishes, to tell us what we can and cannot do in relation to courts martial. I believe that we should make it very clear to the judges of the European Court of Human Rights that Britain will not tolerate interference in defence matters. If the European Court of Human Rights will not restrain itself, we may have to exercise the right conferred on us by article 65 and withdraw from the European convention on human rights altogether. I fear that our own courts are also getting into bad habits. They are being led on by the European courts to make much more use of their powers of judicial review than they ever did before.
Democracy depends on a delicate balance between the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary. British and European judges must resist the temptation to trespass too far into the field that the people have entrusted to their elected representatives.
I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to wish you a merry Christmas. I wish a successful new year to all my colleagues who have remained in the Chamber, although I think that we might define success in different ways.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to return to an issue that I first raised when the House resumed after the summer recess on 15 October. It may be fitting, on the day before we break for Christmas, to highlight it again. It is the tragic and fatal mining accident that occurred on 12 October at Thoresby colliery in Nottinghamshire.
We were promised an inquiry into the accident. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), said in written replies and correspondence with me that an inquiry was under way. I have also been in touch with the director general of the Health and Safety Executive, who has confirmed that an inquiry is taking place. So far we have merely had a press statement, which the Health and Safety Executive released at the end of October, confirming what we already knew: that there was an inrush of gas, oil and water and one man lost his life. We have not yet had a detailed report on the causes of the accident.
It is essential that the men who work in the industry and the wider community know the cause of the accident so that precautions can be taken and best practice can be put into operation.
Rumour and speculation abound in Nottinghamshire about the accident. Some say that it was caused by old oil industry boreholes, while others maintain that the evacuation procedures were not properly followed. Men who work down the colliery persistently complain that, before the accident, there were severe smells—worse than normal—in the pit.
On the day of the accident, R.J. Budge (Mining), which now operates the pit, did not contact all the mining unions. I remind the Leader of the House that Sir Bernard Crossland's inquiry into the Bilsthorpe colliery accident stressed the need for all unions to be involved because pit safety is a matter not just for management but for all those who work at a pit; no one should be denied the knowledge about the cause of an accident.
It is now two months since the accident and we are still waiting for a report. It is essential that we have one, but it is equally vital that a wider look is taken at pit safety. This is the first year in which the deep-mine coal industry in Britain is operating under private ownership and the record for major accidents appears to have deteriorated. It is common knowledge in the mining community that the number of major incidents has increased over the year. I am told that, at the end of October, the number of incidents was 64, compared with 42 in the previous period when the industry was controlled by British Coal. It therefore appears that major incidents have risen by 50 per cent.
When I wrote to the director general of the Health and Safety Executive asking whether the figures were correct, he could not confirm them. That gives rise to serious concerns because the HSE was set up to prevent accidents and promote good practice. It is not satisfactory that it should be unable to come clean about those figures. It clearly has the figures but will not release them. That is bad practice because working in the deep-mine coal industry is still a dangerous activity. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is a matter of life and death. Men's lives depend on examining accidents and propagating the knowledge gained so that precautions can be taken to stop them occurring again.
I hope that the Leader of the House has listened carefully to my complaints and will use his best endeavours to ensure that the report that we have been promised, which is now two months overdue, is soon put into the public domain. Most important, I hope that he will read early-day motion 165, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and others, which states that mining records should be kept on a pit-by-pit and company-by-company basis so that we can identify what is going wrong. Those of us associated with the industry know that accidents will occur in pits, but we are determined to ensure that, when a tragedy occurs, we learn from it.
I wish to raise the case of a young constituent of mine, Neil Edwards from Creswell, who has suffered a serious accident. I promised that I would draw it to the House's attention in view of the bizarre circumstances that surround it. It is a story about declining safety standards in industry, fraud by an employer, lack of regulation and a dereliction of duty by the Health and Safety Executive.
Neil Edwards found a job advertised in a jobcentre to work at a sawmill in Clumber park, Worksop. He had been a building worker and had been laid off, so he took the job. The sawmill was owned by a fellow called Philip Gray and was run on land owned by the National Trust. Neil Edwards had been working there only since 9 September 1994 when he suffered a serious injury. All kinds of logs were lying on the ground and he slipped on one. As no proper guards protected employees from the machinery, his hand went into a machine and he was lucky to escape with his life. He was given emergency treatment and extensive surgery at hospital but lost part of his hand and fingers.
Neil Edwards' employer did not even report the serious accident under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1985. As a result, the Health and Safety Executive was not informed of it and Neil Edwards' mother had to inform the HSE herself. It then examined the accident but did not prosecute, despite the fact that, only a few years previously, another employee, Mr. Ryan, had lost three fingers at the same sawmill.
As Neil's employer had not even paid sickness benefit, Neil Edwards decided to claim compensation from him under common law regulations. His employer told him, "Here's a few quid, kid. Keep your mouth shut," but young Neil refused to take the money. He decided that his employer was acting contrary to the law and took action to try to claim compensation. Despite the fact that wealthy people such as Roger Levitt and the Maxwell brothers were granted legal aid, young Neil Edwards was at first refused it. He would obviously never be able to work in the building industry again so he tried to get a few bob for having lost part of his hand, yet he could not even claim legal aid. I intervened and managed to get legal aid to take up the case.
I attempted to get common law payments. As former miners for a number of years before we came to this House, you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would simply have taken action through the responsible lawyers and, as a result, the National Coal Board or British Coal would have had to foot the bill. In this case, there was no money because the employer had not even taken out compulsory liability insurance. He did not pay sickness benefit, did not have liability insurance, had not guarded the machinery correctly and had broken the law because he did not even report the case to the Health and Safety Executive.
The HSE was informed that liability insurance had not been taken out. It could have fined the employer, Philip Gray, £1,000 per day. Under this tawdry Government, who seem not to care—they are against regulation and all the rest of it—the Health and Safety Executive did nothing. It did not even rap him over the knuckles. It discovered that Mr. Gray had no assets, or said he had not, although he has been running a business, making a profit and doing so for several years. The legal aid lawyers said that they were unable to discover whether the man had assets that they could claim against so that Neil Edwards could get proper compensation.
The battle is still going on. I call on the Leader of the House to get in touch with the appropriate Government Departments, which are those that control or have some connection with the Health and Safety Executive, to ensure that it does its job correctly, to bear in mind cases like this when they talk about fraud by employees on the Department of Social Security, and to ensure that Philip Gray carries out the duties for which he is responsible.
As we all know, the Health and Safety Executive is just another quango. We have just found out that the medical wing is to be cut by 25 per cent., and that 14 senior HSE posts are to go. The story goes on and on. That may be why employers feel confident about taking risks with workers' safety. Not prosecuting criminals gives a green light to other bosses who are contemplating taking such risks. If the Government are so keen on law and order, they should look no further than the bosses whom they protect. Deregulating health and safety law for employers is a sure way of maiming more people like Neil Edwards.
Postscript: the Worksop jobcentre has just put another advertisement in the window to advertise Neil Edwards' job. The employer is carrying on. Neil Edwards has got no benefits. It is time that the Government did something about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made a powerful case on behalf of his constituent. If we had had a little more time, we might have heard more details. My hon. Friend was the 13th hon. Member to speak this morning. That demonstrates the failure of this debate, which is part of a series of pre-Adjournment debates. Normally, about 20 hon. Members manage to contribute in the three hours. By and large, it has been a tradition for hon. Members to speak briefly and to raise no more than one or two subjects—that has always been my experience. Unfortunately, two speeches ran to 55 minutes, which has prevented all hon. Members who wished to participate from doing so.
As you realise, Madam Speaker, I am the only hon. Member who has been present throughout the debate and who has been seeking to speak, but has been unable to do so. By taking 55 minutes, the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) have prevented me from speaking on the state of our democracy. It might have been useful if I had been able to make my speech, so that they could respond. Obviously, they do not act within its spirit.
My hon. Friend made the point that I was trying to make, but did so much more clearly. I hope that the Leader of the House will take that on board and that those who organise our business will do so to enable the maximum number of Members to benefit from this brief debate, which occurs only four times a year before a recess.
I cannot refer to all the speeches—I cannot even attempt to answer what amounted to an Adjournment debate about the Isle of Wight. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) made a powerful case about the difficulties in his constituency and the creation of a two-tier health service. That case has to be answered and is typical of what is happening throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) referred to the difficulties at Holloway prison.
That may be so, but I still intend to raise this point.
The hon. Member for Gravesham made it clear that he had no sympathy for the inmates of Holloway prison. If the reports of the past few days are true and all the problems at Holloway prison were raised with the Minister of State, Home Office in July of this year, the situation at the prison should have come as no surprise when the inspectors walked in. Yesterday, one newspaper reported that a pregnant prisoner at Holloway was shackled to a male officer while undergoing an antenatal examination. Is that report about the situation inside the prison and the overzealousness true? That situation is disgraceful. People have lost their liberty. That is the penalty that we impose on them—we do not impose other penalties. If that report is true, it is unacceptable.
The hon. Member for Gravesham also mentioned—and other hon. Members were planning to do so—the lottery regulator and the astonishing decision taken by the Secretary of State for National Heritage yesterday evening. As a senior Cabinet Minister, will the Leader of the House say whether it is true that senior Cabinet Ministers ganged up on the National Heritage Secretary to keep that discredited regulator in his place, to avoid adverse publicity? Clearly, the man has lost the confidence of those in public affairs, who are concerned with the good name of the lottery. It has been an outstanding success and there is no argument about that, but the fact that he appears to have done nothing to stop Camelot selling the names of winners to junk mail firms adds to disquiet about its regulation. That is unacceptable and I warn the Leader of the House that the problem will not go away by keeping the gentleman in his job just to save some adverse publicity. It will probably rebound on this accident-prone Government early in the new year and it will be their own fault when it does.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made a powerful point about the British citizen who is the subject of the vagaries of Japanese court action over the disclosure of the horrific scenes from Japanese whaling activities. The majority view in the House is that the hypocrisy of the Japanese about whaling is well known. They have always lied about the purpose of experimental whaling. It is well known where the meat ends up. The international community has not taken the matter seriously. I hope that there is no even-handedness or soft-glove treatment on the part of the Government simply because the Secretary of State for Defence is trying to persuade the Japanese to contribute troops to Bosnia. For all we know, it might be, "We'll keep quiet on this, if you help us out on the other."
No. I ask the Leader of the House to deny that that is true and to give a commitment that the British Government will take a strong and positive stand against what the Japanese are doing and the fact that they are penalising a British citizen for making it known.
Several hon. Members mentioned education. In the brief time available, I want to raise a side issue, but one that is important. In the past few weeks, many of my hon. Friends have mentioned the position of the 400 colleges of further education, which serve 2.5 million students. It is becoming clear that the 5,000 governors of those colleges are in a very uncertain position regarding their financial liabilities. I must declare an interest as I was a governor for more than 20 years. We cannot get an answer from the Department for Education and Employment about the liabilities of such governors. They are not in the same position as directors or trustees, but they are the governors of a statutory, set-up authority.
Due to the effects of the Budget, some of those colleges will probably become insolvent in the forthcoming year. There needs to be a clear statement that, in terms of public service—these are unremunerated positions, by the way—those governors will not be placed at a worse risk than trustees and company directors. The Nolan committee is considering that aspect, although it is not considering protection for those 5,000 governors. If governors are put at risk because of the refusal of the Department for Education and Employment to make a clear statement, it will ruin the tradition of voluntary public service in this country. It is no good saying, as the Department for Education and Employment has more or less said, that one governor will have to take a test case to court. That is quite unacceptable. Many hon. Members have spoken about education issues, but that particular aspect deserves detailed examination by the Government early in the new year.
Before the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) was elected to the House, many of us sat in front of our television sets and cheered him on as he ran for this country. The situation has, of course, changed since he entered the House, and today it was interesting to listen to him talk about sport—some of us thought that he might talk about fishing. I regret that you were not in the Chair at the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the hon. Gentleman, who is a powerful source for such comments, spoke about the possible television tyranny of sport—I use my words, not his—and particularly cable television's shackling of rugby league players.
The House, particularly the Government, should listen to the hon. Gentleman's warning, which has also come from other hon. Members. Access to televised sporting events will be denied to millions of people in this country, which is unacceptable. If the Government want to avoid any defeats over the forthcoming Broadcasting Bill, they had better get the Bill and the policy right. There will be support from both sides of the House to ensure that millions of citizens of this country are not denied access to top sporting events, as that would damage future generations.
There has been unanimity on one aspect of the debate: wishing the occupant of the Chair—Madam Speaker or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—a happy Christmas, but no one has seen fit to wish the Leader of the House a happy Christmas. If I were to seek to respond fully to everything that has been raised with me today, I would still be here at Christmas. I do not think that even my worst opponents in the House would wish that upon me.
All our Christmases have been brightened by the Swiss immigration authorities, to whom we owe the presence of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who made his usual vigorous remarks. I doubt whether the Japanese Government would welcome his presence here today as much as we do, but he has certainly improved the quality of our debate. I am tempted to express the hope that the Swiss immigration authorities might have let him in because, as he did not have a passport, our authorities might not have let him back in. As this is Christmas, however, I do not think that I will pursue that matter any further.
I acknowledge that I shall clearly be unable to comment on all the speeches. Various hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), raised important constituency issues and I shall ensure that those points, as well as any others that I do not cover, are drawn to the attention of the relevant Ministers.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) raised a specific point on whaling and I was slightly surprised that he did not know—I am sure that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West does—that the United Kingdom has been consistently critical of Japanese whaling for research purposes. At meetings of the international whaling conference we have played a major part in the adoption of several resolutions calling on countries to stop lethal research whaling in International Whaling Commission sanctuaries and for research on whales anywhere to be conducted using non-lethal means, except in exceptional circumstances. We have made it clear that we object to the use of the electric lance in that context. There is no doubt about the United Kingdom Government's position—that should be firmly on the record.
I understand that the legal action in Japan involving Mr. Votier is not a criminal prosecution but a civil lawsuit taken out by the Japanese Institute of Cetaceous Research, if I have the title correct. For the British Government to seek to interfere in civil proceedings in another country would not be easy—it would be difficult enough to interfere in criminal proceedings. I hope that that point will be registered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and the hon. Member for Perry Barr raised two important issues: Holloway and the lottery regulator. On the subject of Holloway, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to whom I was speaking about the issue yesterday, visited Holloway last year, and as a result of that visit action was already being taken. In October more than £300,000 was added to Holloway's budget to provide extra staff and fully trained new staff are due to join next month. Senior management at headquarters are working with the governor to set firm targets for improvements and dates by which the targets should be achieved. Yesterday, arrangements were made to send 16 staff on loan to Holloway from other establishments to help ease the immediate problems. I hope that I have been able to give the hon. Member for Perry Barr some information and some reassurance that the problem is not only recognised but is already being tackled.
On the issue of the lottery regulator, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham will have read the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage to the regulator, dated yesterday, in which she made it clear that she expects him to
maintain a proper distance from the company"—
and its constituent parts, and be seen to do so, taking all steps to guard against possible misunderstanding
of his actions.
In her letter my right hon. Friend drew attention to a number of factors, which I hope the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will, at the very least, bear in mind. The visits to America—the subject of the controversy—took place some months after the award of the main licence to Camelot. I do not think that anyone has suggested otherwise—certainly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accepted that there was no question of the regulator having sought or received personal gain from the visits that he undertook. It is important that that fact should at least be placed on the record.
In the remaining minutes I shall comment on as many issues as possible. My right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham made a number of points about local authority spending on what they regard as political campaigning in respect of grant-maintained school ballots. Regulations limit local education authority expenditure on influencing the outcome of ballots. I acknowledge that my right hon. and hon. Friends do not regard those limits as adequate. Shortly after Christmas we expect a further education Bill on grant-maintained schools and my right hon. and hon. Friends may wish to pursue aspects of the argument in that context.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I had some exchanges about cold-weather payments during, I think, business questions last week and I do not think that I can add to what I said then. I also had some exchanges in the House about knives—I cannot add to what I said then. I shall ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's support for the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and that attention is drawn to the hon. Gentleman's other suggestions.
As usual, I have improved the range of my knowledge during our debate; I am unbelievably well informed about the Isle of Wight. I know the location of every lightship, buoy, sewer outfall, school and hospital and the size of the grant to the local citizens advice bureau—I shall be unable to cover all those issues. I now know much more about light dues around the British coast: apparently, they are administered by three general lighthouse authorities, including one called the commissioner of Irish lights, which no doubt operates as close to Belfast as anyone can. Fascinated though I am by the subject, I had better not engage in it any further today.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) made a number of points about St. George's hospital —which I believe I visited when I was Minister for Health—and London health services in general. Clearly, I do not have time to rehearse that debate now. As a Member of Parliament who represents part of Essex, I know that the home counties, including Essex, have long felt that the sharing of resources between London and the home counties was not fair. I believe that the Government have been right to tackle that problem and to recognise the need to shift the resources to where the population has moved historically—to the counties around London.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), not for the first time in an Adjournment debate, made a number of references to Essex. I recognise his concerns about care in the community, and I am glad that, following the representations that a number of us made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, he has asked the social security inspectorate to consider the provision of community care in Essex.
I have made at least as many comments as I could have been expected to make in such a short time. I think I have done rather well. Even though nobody wished me a happy Christmas, I wish everyone a happy Christmas.