The first issue is the opening, in Bedford hill in the Bedford ward of my constituency, of a hostel to house former high-risk ex-prison inmates. The second is the possible housing development on land in Heathfield square in the Springfield ward, which is at the rear of Wandsworth prison. I have written to the Minister of State at the Home Office who is responsible for prisons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) on both issues.
There is enormous local opposition to the proposed opening of the hostel in January next year. There has also been an appalling lack of discussion with local people. The first real information about the project and its purpose came from the local press. We are given to understand that the hostel will house men who have been convicted of rape and offences against children. Is it any wonder that there is local opposition to the project?
I am appalled by the lack of any meaningful consultation. I, the local Member of Parliament, have not been informed about this project by anyone. I deplore the way in which an issue that we all know is sensitive in all constituencies has been dealt with. I shall comment in greater detail about that in a moment.
The area in which it is proposed to open the hostel contains a number of schools and nurseries. One has to ask whether the people who run those establishments were informed about the proposals for the hostel. When one starts to make inquiries, one finds that little information is available about the day-to-day running of the hostel. We do not know who will decide who will be allowed to reside in it, how it will be supervised or how risk assessments will be made of people who have been in prison, served their sentence, and are to go to the hostel.
I accept that there comes a time for prisoners to be released, but these people have committed very serious offences against society. We do not even know the long-term aims of the project because, sadly, we simply have not been informed by anyone. Against that background, the clear opposition and concern arose.
Local people in that area of my constituency take a clear view that the authorities have deliberately sought to keep quiet the purpose to which the hostel will be put. The local residents whom I represent are reasonable and tolerant people, but many of them have young children, and they know what can and does happen. In my view, they have already suffered enormously from the lack of information that I have described.
I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who will reply to the debate, is not responsible for home affairs. Having heard him speak in similar Adjournment debates, I can say that, to his great credit, he always responds to the points that I, and all other hon. Members, raise. I am sure that he will respond to my comments about who has been consulted.
It would be nice to know whether there has been any real consultation with. Wandsworth council. I do not know about that, but I do know, as the whole House knows, that if a local authority is not kept fully informed about this sort of project in its area, it could lead to the sort of protests that took place in Portsmouth a few months ago when it became known that paedophiles were living in a certain area. My constituents have made it clear to me that they certainly do not want that sort of action taking place in Balham; neither do I.
I have some advice for the Home Office, and for the Inner London probation service, which I believe is the real culprit behind the lack of available information. Apparently it held a meeting, but there is a great deal of confusion about exactly who attended. Certainly, no local residents were invited to attend. I, as the local Member of Parliament, was certainly not invited or even told about the meeting. Apparently, in the course of that meeting, it emerged that potential hostel residents might have committed serious offences. They might have carried out robberies with extreme violence, or been convicted of sexual abuse of children. As I said, the concern in my constituency should not surprise anyone.
I have tabled a question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about the need for hon. Members—any hon. Member, not just myself—to be fully informed when such hostels are to be opened in their constituencies. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South replied:
As part of this process, it is recognised as good practice that the hon. Member for the constituency where the accommodation is located will be informed of the development, and that the hon. Member's views on the development will be taken into consideration.—[Official Report, 20 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 217W.]
Neither of those two requirements suggested by my right hon. Friend have applied to me. No one has consulted me or asked me my views about the proposal.
We should now consider the matter most seriously. Until there has been proper discussion with the local community, the local council, schools, churches and other local organisations, the proposed hostel should not open. It is as clear as that. It should not open because we do not know about so many aspects of the hostel—what sort of supervision will be in place, for example. We have been given a clear indication of the type of person who will reside in it, but we do not know whether there will be 24-hour or seven-day supervision. I have the duty to voice in this House the real concerns expressed to me both by phone and in the large number of letters that I have received from my constituents, who are deeply troubled.
I hope that the Minister will convey to the Home Secretary the fact that the hostel must not be opened until local people have been given the right to full consultation, which has so far been denied them. They must be allowed to voice their views about the proposals for the hostel, but I say that it should not be opened at all. The hostel was formerly used for ex-offenders, and my constituents accepted that, because there are people who have been in prison and served their sentence, and are not a threat to society. However, I am not talking about that; the problem is that, because it was already a hostel, no planning application was needed for a change of use. That is what concerns us so deeply. I ask my hon. Friend to convey those feelings to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
The other issue that I wish to talk about also involves the prison department. According to the Home Office, land at the rear of Wandsworth prison is now surplus to its needs, and there is a proposal that that land should be used for housing development. As with the previous issue, there is great opposition to that development taking place. If it were allowed, it would spoil the whole local environment, because it is a large open space used by local people of all ages, especially young children.
In fairness to the Home Office, I should say that, unlike the other issue, there has been consultation on that issue. Wandsworth council has presented a public consultation document, a public meeting has taken place, and the issue will go before the council's planning committee. I accept those procedures, as we all do. Although those procedures are necessary, it is also crucial to listen principally to the views of the people who live in the area. It is no good the authorities—whether the Government or local authorities—telling the community, "This land belongs to us, and we will do whatever we think appropriate with it." They should listen to the people who live in that environment to discover to what use they want the land to be put.
I have received an enormous number of letters from local people, and many of them have come to see me at my advice service, but to date, only one person has written to me in support of the Home Office proposals for housing development on that site. Those who live in the area are truly a local community. Their youngsters play in the area with their friends. The area is used for a great many activities during the year. Parents feel very happy for their children to be in that environment, away from the mass of traffic that circulates in the area. They can easily see their children, and can be with them in few seconds if necessary. If the housing development is allowed to take place, that environment would be lost to local people.
When people write to me and when they see me, they tell me that children love the area; it is peaceful, quiet and away from traffic, and a wide range of sport—football, cricket and badminton, for example—is played there. We are repeatedly told in the House that those are the very things that that young people and adults should be involved in, which is why that open space is so important. A great deal of wildlife can been seen there. People see foxes, birds and hedgehogs. It is all part of a community that is growing up in an environment in which people are happy to live, and they want to continue to live there; they enjoy it.
The green, as it is known locally, has existed for more than 100 years. The prison governor of the time dedicated it for use as a recreation and leisure facility for prison staff and their families. That is still one of its uses, because it is adjacent to Wandsworth prison, and many of those who are most vehement in their criticism of the loss of that open space to housing development are prison officers. We all know that their job is very difficult and stressful. The working environment can be pretty grim at times, but immediately in the area where they live, they have an environment—an open space—where they can relax, and where they and their friends, families and neighbours can enjoy themselves. We are totally opposed to that delightful open space being turned into a housing development and lost to the local community.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. I have raised two local issues of great importance to my constituents. I beg the Home Office and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who has responsibility for prisons, to listen carefully to my comments. The issues are totally different, but they are very important to the people whom I represent. Like all hon. Members, I have a duty to raise such concerns when given the opportunity, and I have certainly done so today.
I shall speak about an issue that, I hope, is of concern to colleagues and hon. Members—the House itself. The issue is typified, in a sense, by the fact that the shadow Leader of the House is on the Opposition Front Bench, but the Leader of the House is not on the Treasury Bench. For three years, I was parliamentary private secretary to Lord Wakeham when he was Leader of the House. It was inconceivable that the then Leader of the House would not be present to respond to such a debate. It is a great pity that this debate has been downgraded. Although I obviously respect the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), it is also a great pity that the Leader of the House will not respond to the debate.
I want to speak briefly about an important issue, but I do not expect that it will receive any coverage in my local newspapers or in tomorrow's national newspapers, because it is not worthy of a soundbite. My concern is the way in which the House is being dumbed down by the Government and the fact that Parliament, as an institution, seems to matter less and less. We see that not just in the way in which the other place has been stripped of its independent powers, but in the way in which the House is treated. We also see it in the way in which Government Back Benchers seem not to appreciate that calling the Government to account is part of their role.
When I was a Minister, I found a number of my Back Benchers a complete pain in the neck, but I loved them dearly. They served an important constitutional role, and one Nick Budgen was, on occasion, worth 10 placemen. If the House is simply full of placemen and placewomen, it ceases to have any effect; we need grit in the wheels for it to work. We have an unwritten constitution, which has developed and evolved over the years. It is like an English wood; it did not appear suddenly in the aftermath of war or revolution—like the American or French constitutions—but it works.
My concern is that the Prime Minister seems increasingly to want to enhance his powers so that they become almost presidential. He seems to have forgotten that this is a parliamentary democracy. I would be very disappointed if I were a new Labour Back Bencher. Judging by the Prime Minister's voting record, I suspect that the opportunities for Labour Back Benchers to talk to him are pretty limited. When I joined the House, the then Prime Minister was in the Division Lobby every night, but I have to say to my constituents that the present Prime Minister is not in the Division Lobby every night; he votes in only about 10 per cent. of all Divisions.
In the whole of this Parliament, I have never yet seen the Prime Minister in the Tea Room, whereas, when I joined the House, the then Prime Minister was often there, taking an interest in every one of us. When I was a junior Minister, the one thing that I was wary of was seeing the Prime Minister bearing down on me in the Division Lobby, wanting to understand what I had—or, more important, had not—been doing that day on a particular policy issue. We seem to have moved away from all that, which is desperately sad.
We have witnessed the decimation of the House of Lords. By that, I do not mean the removal of the hereditary peers. Intellectually, one can see why it was difficult to defend hereditary peers, but in a strange and quirky way, the system worked. It was independent. When the Conservatives were in government, our concern at being defeated in the House of Lords frequently made Ministers adjust their policies. We frequently had to compromise with the House of Lords, and the system worked.
The House of Lords was the one institution of Parliament that had an element of independence, and that element has been removed. No one fully understands where the Government are going with their proposed reform of the House of Lords. In fact, one suspects that they have no idea where they wish to go with it. There was much debate about the new people's peers, but the proposal is a great cynical exercise. It is merely a commission to appoint Cross-Bench peers. I suspect that, at the end of that exercise, all that will happen is that 10 Cross-Bench peers—worthy individuals such as vice-chancellors of universities or past presidents of the Royal College of Physicians—will be appointed by that commission.
We have no idea what the Labour party proposes to do with the House of Lords to make it an independent institution again. The Prime Minister has appointed more life peers to the House of Lords in three years than Conservative Prime Ministers did in the previous 18 years. That is the extent of the patronage in the House of Lords. It is no longer an independent body, and no longer a body with any grit in the system.
There seems to be an implied understanding, as far as Labour Members are concerned, that if they have a majority in the House of Commons, they should also have a majority in the other place. If that happens, the system will become an "elective dictatorship"—the concept about which Lord Hailsham expressed concern some years ago. We hope to gain a clear understanding of how the House of Lords can, again, become a body that will ensure that the House of Commons and the Executive are kept in check.
We are also concerned about the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has a strange view of this place. He has attended only about 10 per cent. of Divisions during this Parliament, which is distressing because it seems to indicate a state of mind in which scrutiny is not important. Furthermore, dissent in this place has almost entirely disappeared. I appreciate that eliminating dissent is good news from the point of view of the Government Whips, and from the point of view of business managers such as the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who has a duty to get the Government's business through with the least possible difficulty. However, eliminating dissent is not good news for. Parliament.
I shall come to that issue in a moment. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point, but I do not wish to detain the House for long, because I appreciate that many other Members wish to speak.
The concept of modernisation has been about altering hours and changing voting arrangements and the times at which voting takes place. Nothing that has happened so far, supposedly in the name of modernisation, has enhanced the ability of elected Members to hold the Executive to account. The opposite is the case: nothing that has happened in the name of modernisation has enhanced by one jot the ability of Back Benchers on either side of the House to call the Government to account. Instead, we have witnessed some elegant moving of the furniture. However, the ability to vote 10 times in one minute on a Wednesday afternoon in the Division Lobby does not enable me to hold the Executive to account any more ably.
This Parliament has seen the fewest rebellions by Back Benchers of any Parliament since the second world war. By this stage in the previous Parliament, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was Prime Minister, there had been almost two thirds more Divisions in which Ministers had been confronted with dissent from their own Back Benchers. Of course, that was an irritant for us—it was often a complete pain in the neck—but it made the system work. One was accountable to one's own Back Benchers and to people at the other end of the Corridor. That made Ministers think. This Government have the most compliant group of Back Benchers since the 1940s. They might think that having everyone on message on their pagers is good news, but it is not good for Parliament as an institution. It is sad news, because such practices tend to be passed down from generation to generation.
Derek Draper, a former lobbyist and adviser to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), observed that only 17 people nowadays count. Practically none of those people is an elected Member of Parliament. I want us to try to work out ways in which elected Members of the House of Commons will have greater opportunities to call the Executive to account.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition set up the Norton report under the chairmanship of Lord Norton of Louth. It made 90 interesting suggestions, including the restoration of Prime Minister's Question Time to twice a week, which would give us a greater opportunity to call the Prime Minister to account. The report also called for more Question Times and shorter debates with more opportunities for Back Benchers to speak. Shoving us all off into Westminster Hall—a sort of empty cavern—does not assist us in calling Ministers to account. We need to strengthen Committees, and to improve the opportunities of Select Committees to make representations to the House.
We should improve the way in which European legislation is monitored in the House. I was the Minister responsible for fisheries in the previous Conservative Government, and I find it extraordinary that we did not have a debate on the Fisheries Council meeting this year. Every year, we used to have a full day's debate on the Council's proposals, which would enable colleagues from fishing constituencies to express their concerns and to vote on them. There has been no such debate this year. Indeed, at best, the relevant documents were referred to a Committee to be scrutinised. That is no way for the House to perform.
Part of our agenda for 2001 must be to strengthen the institutions of Parliament on a cross-party basis. As an increasingly tubby and gnarled Back Bencher, I do not believe that the work of the Modernisation Committee is strengthening accountability and democracy in this place, no matter how much I may or may not support breast-feeding in different parts of the Palace. What has happened in the name of modernisation is nothing other than a matter of convenience for the Leader of the House and business managers. Nothing has enhanced and increased the ability of Back Benchers on both sides of the House to call the Executive to account.
If we allow Parliament to continue in that way, we will become increasingly irrelevant. We are moving towards an elective, almost unaccountable and uncheckable dictatorship, which would be to no one's benefit. As we go further into this century, I hope that Parliament as an institution can start to apply its mind to ensuring that we modernise in a way that restores the checks and balances that have evolved for centuries, but which seem in danger of disappearing.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the importance of urban forestry in our towns and cities, and the threat that it faces. I originally raised the issue in a similar debate in March 1999. At the time, a national newspaper described Wolverhampton as one of the country's greenest and cleanest cities. It was not quite right, because at that time Wolverhampton was still a town—albeit a town that was enthusiastically bidding for city status. As the House knows, earlier this week we received the good news that it is to become one of the three millennium cities. When I left Wolverhampton on Monday morning to catch the train here, I left some very happy people behind. The celebrations are already under way.
I want to put it on the record that we are delighted that that special distinction has been conferred on the town. We take the matter seriously and it is a boost to the town's confidence. However, a slight shadow has been cast over the celebrations. Although the debates on it are not meant to be partisan, I was a little disappointed to read the front page of The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday morning which reported an Opposition Front Bencher as malting churlish remarks about the award of city status. We must bear it in mind that the Queen ultimately grants the distinction.
On reading other papers, I discovered that some members of the media had decided that the award was another excuse to air unfounded prejudices about Wolverhampton. The Times and The Daily Telegraph contained the most amazing amount of breath-taking drivel about Wolverhampton that I had ever read. It was based on pure ignorance of the town, or city as it now is, and its past achievements. I have one thing to say to those critics: visit Wolverhampton, stay for a while, accept the extremely warm welcome that will be given by Wulfrunians and take the time to find out what it has achieved in its 1,000 year history, because for more than 1,000 years it has contributed significantly to this country's economic, social and cultural life. If any town deserves city status, it is Wolverhampton.
If the critics of the new city take time to discover what Wolverhampton is really like, I guarantee that they will be pleasantly surprised because all strangers invariably leave saying that it is much better and nicer than they thought it would be. Having got that off my chest, I shall return to the substance of my speech.
When I spoke in March 1999, I highlighted the importance of urban woodland, in particular, mature street trees, to our towns and cities. In addition to making places look more pleasant, trees also benefit areas by improving air quality, reducing the risk of flooding, which is very relevant these days, and increasing biodiversity. I am not the only Member of the House who believes that. In June this year, I tabled an early-day motion that was signed by 173 Back Benchers from all main parties.
The early-day motion called on the Government to ensure the protection and promotion of urban trees and woodlands by developing a national strategy. We expected the Government to set out their polices in the urban White Paper, which was published last month. It refers to the importance of looking after the urban environment, to improving air quality, to coping with climate change and to improving the quality of life in our towns and cities by promoting wildlife and environmental initiatives. To sum up, it promotes environmentally sustainable towns and cities. However, to do that, the relevant Department—the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—will have to produce a coherent and co-ordinated urban forestry strategy, and it does not have one.
The headquarters of the National Urban Forestry Unit is in Wolverhampton. Its staff are experts in developing urban forestry strategy. The unit has been operating for six years and receives considerable funding from the Department to carry out its work. That funding ceases in March next year and negotiations have been under way to secure future funding so that it can continue its good work and, hopefully, help the Department to formulate the strategy that it needs.
The Department has admitted many times that the work of the unit is valuable and it is acknowledged as extremely effective. Despite that, a press release nearly two weeks ago said that the Department would probably not provide the unit with any more funding from the end of March next year. I understand that negotiations might be under way or will resume in the new year, and I hope that the Department can be persuaded to rethink its decision. It will be a pity if it does not.
Several environmental organisations "plant trees", as an official of the Department put it, including Groundwork, the Tree Council and the Forestry Commission, but they are unique and do different jobs. It is a mistake to think that the work of the National Urban Forestry Unit can automatically be taken on by another organisation.
Powerful lobbying has taken place behind the scenes. The unit has conducted schemes in at least 50 other constituencies. I hope that negotiations will continue. If they do not, and the unit's future is threatened, I am not convinced that the Department will be able to produce the coherent strategy that it needs to take urban forestry seriously.
I want to send the message to the Department that it should keep on talking to the National Urban Forestry Unit. An important issue is at stake. The urban White Paper recognises that we need to pay much more attention to urban forestry. Although I will retire from the House at the general election, I must remind Ministers that I have several months left to table questions and early-day motions, and to keep a close eye on what Ministers are doing.
I think that I have used up my allotted time. I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House a merry Christmas and a happy holiday. This year, we in Wolverhampton will enjoy very happy and very special new year celebrations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) referred to our late colleague, predecessor to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones). I admire Wolverhampton and I am glad for its people in their rejoicing at its becoming at city. I had not realised that the hon. Lady was to retire; I shall be doing the same myself and I hope that her retirement is as pleasurable as I hope mine will be. I also hope that, in yet another place from the one down the Corridor, the hon. Lady's predecessor is smiling at the subjects that she feels should delay our rising for Christmas.
It is in the nature of recess Adjournment debates that the subjects most likely to be on our minds are those that might be called real time stuff—current issues that have been running strongly in the weeks before we rise and in relation to which Parliament's temporary pause might work against our scrutiny of the Executive. Examples that I might have cited in arguments to delay our recess are the letting of the new lottery contract and the state of the Metropolitan police.
To his credit, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was present in the Chamber at 1.45 am on Tuesday 19 December, when we debated two national lottery orders. However, he has gone to ground since Lord Burns announced his commission's decision on the letting of the new lottery contract later that day. Even the Delphic oracle, that most ambiguous mistress, would have agreed that there were questions to be put to the Secretary of State about the process and its outcome, including, as I understand it, questions asked by Sir Richard Branson himself. However, at business questions today, in response to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) speaking for the Liberal Democrats, the Leader of the House opined implicitly that her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must be allowed to hibernate after his labours in the small hours of Tuesday, and that urgency in dealing with the matter would not be appropriate in the aftermath of a process that had already taken 12 months.
The issues relating to the Metropolitan police are more urgent, whatever the Government have chosen to say about the interest shown in them by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. In the recent Commons debate on policing in London, in which I suspect the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) also participated, I alluded to concern about police numbers in London being a constant refrain at every recent meeting I had attended in my constituency, whether of amenities societies, residents' associations, police-community consultative groups or sector working parties. The issue is not one that has suddenly surprised the Government, but, as is so often the case with the current Home Office Ministers, their answer has been simply to blame their predecessors.
The most dramatic consequence of the initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was the markedly more conciliatory tone adopted by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), on the "Today" programme this morning. In addition, the length of the Prime Minister's final answer to my right hon. Friend yesterday clearly indicated that he did not have a killer fact with which to end the exchange—it appeared that the right hon. Gentleman did not know how or where to stop. The issue will not go away during the Christmas recess, but perhaps that which we have so far received is all that the Government can generate at present.
A matter on which I shall dwell briefly is one to which I referred in business questions last week as
the ambiguities in the current European defence imbroglio. [Official Report, 14 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 810.]
I asked why the Secretary of State for Defence, after being absent from the Queen's Speech defence debate, was not to come to the House before it rose to clarify those ambiguities. The Leader of the House explained that confusion existed only in the minds of Conservative Members. Leaving aside the philosophical question of how anyone knows what goes on—or does not go on—in the mind of another, at business questions today I asked the Leader of the House whether her answer last week was a subjective remark of her own, or an objective remark on behalf of the Government. She replied that it was the former. Therefore, the possibility must exist that there are ambiguities in current European defence matters that extend beyond the minds of Conservatives. However, it is clear that the Government perceive no obligation to address those ambiguities. Given what they are committing us to, the matter seems sufficiently important to delay the House rising for Christmas.
I centre my remarks on a remark that the Prime Minister made in his statement after the Nice European Council. In the context of an EU-led operation to which he had just alluded, he said:
Any significant operation will require NATO assets and any such operation will be planned at NATO by the planning staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe—SHAPE.—[Official Report, 11 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 349–50.]
Later, in response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Prime Minister said:
There is no way in which the force will be a rival to NATO—
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether it was better to develop our defence capability inside NATO … That point has been made by our American allies … Bill Cohen did not take the opposite point of view. He said exactly what we have been saying, which is that, provided that the force is not an independent military capability and a rival to NATO, its establishment is in America's interest.…[Official Report, 11 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 365.]
When, last month, the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement on European defence co-operation, he made no reference to planning, save to say:
It is a planning process to ensure a more effective defence effort by European forces.…[Official Report, 22 November 2000; Vol. 357, c. 314.]
In advance of the Nice European Council, President Chirac had said…I quote in English:
European defence must of course be co-ordinated with the alliance, but it must, as regards its preparation and implementation, be independent of SHAPE: co-ordinated, but independent, and that is the best way to reinforce the whole Atlantic alliance.
That message was reiterated in a statement from the Quai d'Orsay of 15 December, reprinted by Associated Press, which stated that leaving all planning to SHAPE would
leave it under US control. After Nice, on 13 December, Agence France Presse reported that EU leaders had called for "guaranteed permanent access" to NATO planning and had maintained that
the Europeans would have their own smaller planning capability, based mainly on British and French expertise.
On the same day, Associated Press reported Mr. Cohen, the United States Defence Secretary, as saying:
The European Union will erode NATO and US security ties if it insists on separate operational planning for its new rapid reaction force.
The Government may take the view that they are not responsible for what President Chirac says, but there is little doubt elsewhere that the French Government have been the main motor in the European defence initiative. The Government cannot dismiss the draft presidency report on the European security and defence policy, especially annexe 7 to the presidency conclusions, which treats on consultation and co-operation between the European force and the NATO alliance. In particular, I cite a quotation from page 9 of the draft presidency report. It reads:
The European Union will call on NATO for operational planning of any operation using NATO assets and capabilities. When the Union examines options with a view to an operation, the establishing of its strategic military options could involve—
I emphasise could—
a contribution by Nato's planning capabilities.
Leaving aside the discretionary nature of the second statement that I have quoted, it has necessarily to carry the implication that the European defence force will have a military planning capacity of its own.
I have gone back to the ipsissima verba that underlie the issue. The various statements that I have quoted cannot be squared as being mutually consistent with one another, except in an ambiguous and confusing manner which is the precise antithesis of successful military operations.
One of my retired constituents appears as an expert witness before Select Committees on transport issues. In retirement, he devotes much of his time to military history, including visits to a series of scenes of military engagements abroad. I asked him once how he chose his campaigns. "Cock-ups", he said. I can hope only that the European rapid reaction force will not elicit his attention in future.
A week ago, the Leader of the House resisted my request that the Secretary of State for Defence should come to the House this week to clarify these issues. The right hon. Lady was confident, as the deputy Leader of the House knows, that no confusion or ambiguity existed in the mind of the Government. I am only sorry that she is not present now to resolve my anxieties. By definition, from her own lips, she believes there to be no confusion.
Of course, her confidence has been such, extending to the entire Government, that I know in advance that the deputy Leader of the House will be able to set my anxieties at rest and enable me to enjoy the Christmas recess without these issues to worry about. However, he will not be able to do that with soft and soothing words, which would sharpen my anxieties. I am looking forward to resolution of the contradictions that the statements that I have quoted engender by a robust and rigorous textual analysis and a detailed explanation of how the European force's military planning will be carried out.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). We all remember that he found the right form of words to start the peace process in Northern Ireland. He chairs the Select Committee on Northern Ireland, of which I am a member, and does that in an excellent way that is a credit to the House and an assistance towards continuing the process. I wish him well when he leaves the House, as I do my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner).
I shall raise two constituency items. I had intended to raise only one, which is a matter that I have talked about previously and have raised at every opportunity. That is the closure of the former Biwater (Clay Cross) Ltd. works, with the loss of 700 jobs, and the devastation surrounding that. That is the main item on which I shall concentrate.
I was contacted a couple of hours ago by one of my constituents, Kevin Stevenson, from Wingerworth, whose wife went into the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital, and was sectioned five weeks ago. She got out of the hospital, and is now being looked for through co-ordinated police action with helicopters and divers at Stubbin pond at Wingerworth, her spectacles having been discovered nearby. We are fearing the worst but we are hoping for the best.
I stress that it is the Government's responsibility to examine the means by which Nichola Stevenson was able to leave the ward and the hospital, and put herself in an extremely dangerous position. There are some shortcomings at the hospital. It is being said that she had been released from the ward to go to Menzies, the stationers, in the hospital. If that occurred, that is disgraceful. She was sectioned and needed to be supervised. The matter must not be missed. A formal complaint has been put forward by Mr. Stevenson, and it must be ensured that there is a thorough investigation.
Unfortunately, a previous thorough investigation did not come up with the result that some of us had hoped for. It is the hospital which Anita Froggart attended. She, too, is one of my constituents. She had a breast removed in error, the wrong diagnosis having been made. The hospital has recently had a report produced by the Commission for Health Improvement, which points to shortcomings in that area. The Commission's role was to seek to improve standards. In other areas, the hospital has an excellent record and one to be emulated by others. The excellence of its accident unit is stressed in the report. However, there are shortcomings that need to be addressed.
When the Department of Health studies the clinical governance review, I hope that it will also consider the other serious matter that I have raised. As I speak, divers are searching the pond.
The main item about which I shall speak is the one that I have raised at every opportunity since we came back from the summer recess. Apart from contributions in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and two other questions in the House during that time, I have spoken in the House exclusively about this matter.
I was closely involved in the campaign to save the jobs, because we believed that the decision was wrong. The plant was viable; 80 per cent. of its production was for the export market. Serious job losses have occurred. The matter should have been referred to the Competition Commission, in an attempt to prevent the closure. It is a matter about which I have been in dispute with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and with the Director General of Fair Trading.
Now that the closure has occurred—there is a further stage tomorrow, after which very little will remain—we must move on and consider how to bring about the regeneration of such a devastated area. The problems are massive.
A valuable survey has been produced by Derbyshire county council, which shows that the figure for male unemployment in the area must take into account not only the redundancies, but the other jobs lost in service trades—many have already been lost in scrap yards, for example—and in the community, in shops and so on.
In Clay Cross, South, the ward in which Biwater is situated, as a result just of redundancies, male unemployment has risen from 8.2 per cent. to 14.5 per cent. In Clay Cross, North there has been a similar increase, from 8.5 per cent. to 14.7 per cent. In the surrounding area—Clay Cross plus Grassmoor, Holmewood and Heath, North Wingfield, Pilsley, Tupton and Wingerworth—the male unemployment figures increased by almost 60 per cent. because 75 per cent. of those who have been made redundant live within a five-mile radius of the plant.
The closure has been devastating. The area has not overcome past economic problems. It supplied many miners to the pits in north Derbyshire, and some former miners later worked at Biwater. An indication that the area was facing economic problems even before the closure is provided by the proportion of vacant shop units. In 1987, the figure was 5 per cent, and this year it is 18 per cent. The figures refer to virtually the same number of units.
Those figures give some indication of the plight that the Clay Cross area faces. Everything must be done to ensure that the area is regenerated. Some three weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I met the Prime Minister to discuss the situation. At that stage we were still hoping to save the plant.
Although the Prime Minister did not accept that our objective could be achieved, he stated:
We have to work up a Task Force approach as the alternative and I will co-operate in any way I can.
The Prime Minister supplied me with access to officials at No. 10 Downing street to try to work up a co-ordinated approach. The problem is that there are little bits and pieces and different types of legislation under which moves can be taken to improve an area. We need a clear overall strategy to be worked out and co-ordination to achieve it. There are Government agencies for doing that, such as the Government office of the east midlands, which I met this week to discuss these matters. However, at this level, the Prime Minister's office is very much at the centre in seeing that action is taken across all the different areas.
I want to mention one or two possibilities that can be acted upon. At the moment, a rapid response fund is operating and there are attempts at tailored training plans for the workers, although there is some dissatisfaction about how they are run and the agencies that are employed to operate them. Indeed, the agencies sometimes seem to benefit from their operations, rather than the workers themselves. There are also employment services and tax breaks. Coalfields taskforce money is available and bids can be made to the Coalfield Regeneration Trust in an attempt to change things. There is an argument about whether an enterprise zone should be established in that area. However, there have been job losses in surrounding areas in the east midlands, such as those at Coats Viyella, so everyone may be trying to go down that road. However, there is strong case for attracting firms in using tax breaks and other methods.
The district council has set up a Clay Cross regeneration project and is looking at several matters, such as re-opening the station at Clay Cross. What will happen to the former Biwater site, where a peculiar deal was in operation? Biwater kept hold of the land and the buildings, and Saint-Gobain, the international firm that came in to knock out a competitor and take over its order book, had only the plant, those orders and the work force. We do not yet know what Biwater has in mind. We need clarification of its ideas, and action is being taken to achieve that. We do not want a waste disposal operation of an objectionable environmental nature to be established. However, things could be done with the site that could help employment in the area.
Several schemes are already in place, as Clay Cross needed schemes to provide welfare advice services and tackle health issues, security measures, drug control and so on. The council has been involved in a development at Coney Green, and several measures that are being developed in surrounding areas, such as the reclamation of Avenue coke works. However, there is a need to centre on matters such as the single regeneration budget and enterprise and regional selective assistance grants, which will attract firms to make applications for them. There is the question of whether to establish an urban development corporation, which would have Government funding and operations behind it, but which might take over some of the district council's functions. We must also overcome existing problems, including poor funding for North East Derbyshire district council and Derbyshire county council. I have argued about that in the House for more than decade, so I will not go through all those arguments again. Under the Green Paper, it seems that we will now have to wait three years before those matters are put right. However, that indicates that something needs to be done.
The loss of objective 2 funding is another problem involving the Department of Trade and Industry. Objective 2 funding has gone from Clay Cross in those circumstances and the area also receives a lower share of lottery funding. What is required is the drawing down of best practice elsewhere, and the Prime Minister's office and others can help us to achieve that.
The local strategy on which people are working must be picked up and worked on nationally. When the Prime Minister says that he will do whatever he can, we want it to become reality. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that he would do whatever he could to save the plant, but that did not work and we must now ensure that we get the proper responses. It is important for that to be put on the record before the recess.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I point out that a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House want to participate in the debate. It will, therefore, be helpful if hon. Members can keep their remarks as brief as possible.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). Indeed, it is reassuring for Opposition Members to know that some Labour Members listen with scepticism to the words uttered by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his hard work to achieve a positive result for his constituents. When I was a Minister with responsibility for housing, I paid a pleasurable visit to Clay Cross. Indeed, I still have a picture on the wall to remind me of the occasion.
I want to harangue the Government again about the increasing administrative inefficiency that is experienced by the constituents of all hon. Members. Such inefficiency adds to the burden of bureaucracy, as well as to the burden placed on Members of Parliament and their secretaries. It also creates additional cost.
I should like to give five examples from my constituency of the effects of administrative inefficiency. Recently, the pension of an elderly lady was abruptly withdrawn because it was suddenly decided in officialdom that she was no longer alive. It has been a nightmare for her to try to get her pension restored. She now has to walk around with her birth certificate—indeed, she almost needs a doctor's certificate saying that she is alive—to try to obtain the benefits to which she is entitled.
Another example of such problems arose in the past month. A doctor who had paid his national insurance contributions for some 40 years reached his retirement, but did not receive notification of his pension, so he applied for it. About three months after doing so, he received a claim form. He sent back the form straight away, but the Totton benefits office disputes that he ever did so. The system and its bureaucracy, for which the Government are ultimately responsible, are treating the retired doctor and his wife, who posted the letter, as if they are liars. They are also behaving as if every aspect of their organisation is thoroughly efficient. That is intolerable. The doctor has to write to me and I have to write in turn to the Department, the Minister and so on. All that wasteful bureaucracy results from inefficiency.
Another of my constituents is a war pensioner who travelled all the way from Christchurch to Exeter last August for a tribunal hearing. When he arrived in Exeter, he found that the War Pensions Agency had not given the full papers to the tribunal, which ordered that a rehearing should occur straight away. However, he is still waiting to be notified of its date. I telephoned the War Pensions Agency last week and was told that the matter was in the hands of the tribunal. I then spoke to the tribunal, but was told that it might be February before the case was reheard. I remind hon. Members that the previous hearing has already been adjourned.
Another recent case is that of a constituent who was the victim of a car accident. He eventually succeeded in badgering the Crown Prosecution Service into bringing a prosecution. On doing so, however, the CPS failed to warn the witnesses and the case was consequently dismissed by the magistrates. In terms of his insurance, my constituent is left up the creek without a paddle.
Finally, the media studies A-level paper of the best performing pupil at Ferndown upper school was marked with a C, rather than an A, solely because his marks were not added up correctly. The school complained, but, unfortunately, it took until the end of September to add up the marks correctly, by which time the pupil had missed the opportunity of pursuing the university course that he wanted to take. I took up the issue with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and this week received from it a letter that is far too complacent. The letter says that
the number of changes to awarded grades needed in the light of checking remains very small … 0.3 per cent. for A level and about 0.1 per cent. for GCSE.
That means that the results of three in every 1,000 A-level papers are wrong, which is intolerable and appalling. The QCA suggests that my constituent take legal advice with a view to seeking redress. What a waste of time. He does not want to engage in such a long process; he wants the system to be put right, and he would not have minded an apology rather than a letter of justification from the examination board.
The issue of delays in ministerial correspondence is one to which we return frequently in the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) made the point that the Government often appear to treat Members of Parliament with contempt. On 18 October, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Social Security on behalf of a man concerned about war widows' pensions. I have not yet received a reply, but my constituent has written back to me to say:
I am afraid your effort on my behalf in respect of the Secretary of State (DSS) on October 18 has so far brought no response, so I will be most grateful if he could be given a reminder.
During my service in the headquarters of a government department, the receipt of all mail was acknowledged by return of post and the contents dealt with in a prompt and respectful manner, whoever the writer and whatever the subject. We were never allowed to forget that the Taxpayer picked up the bill for our salaries!
There is a pensioner with some old-fashioned values. Is it not about time that the Government inculcated some of the same thinking in their administration and the way in which they deal with correspondence?
Due to the limited time available, I shall not regale the House with descriptions of all the other letters to which I await replies, but they cover the whole range of Departments. The Government talk about better government, but people know that they are experiencing worse government. That is not the only example of the Government saying one thing and doing another. Education funding is a hot topic in Dorset, and in the past month I have received more than 100 letters about the injustice of the funding formula. That matter dates back to the area cost adjustment.
The Minister will remember that, before the general election, the Prime Minister went to Cambridge, which had been adversely affected by the area cost adjustment. He led people there to believe that he was sympathetic to their cause and would do something about the injustice of the area cost adjustment as soon as he got into power because it was arbitrary and unfair. I do not have to remind the House that absolutely nothing has happened. Therefore, the F40 campaign has been started, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who is behind it.
I am a member of the campaign because my constituency contains one of the worst-funded local education authorities in the country. Indeed, in the recent settlement, Dorset received the lowest funding increase per primary school pupil and the second lowest funding increase for secondary schools. In a letter, the hon. Member for Stafford writes:
The formula for distributing the Revenue Support Grant to local authorities remains unchanged. However, data changes have been incorporated in the usual way. The important data change this year relates to the 1999 earnings data. Outrageously, the data benefits those authorities already gaining from the Area Cost Adjustment— so that gap between "them" and "us" widens.
There it is, from a Labour Member of Parliament. He has said that, despite the Prime Minister's promise about doing away with the area cost adjustment, the injustice of it has been made worse by his Government.
The concessionary fares scheme is another example of the Government's saying one thing and doing another. They announced that there would be centralised funding for concessionary fares and said that they would put into local government more money than the cost represented by the additional burdens of such fares for all pensioners. It just so happens that two authorities, one of which is East Dorset district council, have not received a penny of extra funding because they are outside the grant mechanism.
The Government will not listen to those authorities, despite the fact that more than 25 per cent. of the residents of East Dorset are over retirement age. In order to meet the new minimum statutory requirement, it is likely that East Dorset district council will have to increase its council tax sharply, which falls disproportionately on pensioners on fixed incomes who are expected to benefit from the new concessionary fares. That is a ludicrous situation.
Finally, I shall highlight the consequences of another example of the Government's systematic deception of the people. In the pre-Budget statement on 8 November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced new arrangements for vehicle excise duty. He said:
All those who have a car from 1200 cc to 1500 cc—that is, an extra 5 million cars—will be entitled to £55 off their annual licence fee from today. In total, 8½ million existing cars—one in three—will now pay £55 below the standard fee.—[Official Report, 8 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 324.]
A constituent who phoned me on Monday said that he had received his renewal notice and was expected to pay £155 rather than £100. He had been on to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which said that it had received more than 1,000 telephone calls that very day on this subject. My constituent was not the only person who had been grossly misled by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The new system does not come in until July next year, when it will be backdated. However, if my constituent changes his car between now and July, he will not benefit from any of that backdated duty. As a result of trying to be too clever by half with their spinning, the Government have misled the people. That has created an extra burden for the DVLA and additional correspondence for Members of Parliament. The Government have the gall to suggest to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that we would not substantially streamline administration, improve efficiency and save billions of pounds when we got back into government.
I hope that my constituents have a merry Christmas, but it will be in spite of the Government's policies rather than because of them.
I am aware of the time constraints, so I shall try to restrict my remarks to 10 minutes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Thank you. In case I forget at the end, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all the hon. Members who have managed to endure the debate to the very end, a happy Christmas.
I shall raise two points briefly and two others in slightly more detail. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), as I have a redundancy problem with a well-known manufacturer in my constituency—Lister-Petter, the last independent diesel engine manufacturer in the country. It is a depressing scenario, but I have worked with others to achieve something of a recovery. Rather than lose all the jobs, we have managed to salvage 400 or so, but there are still 270 redundancies. That has brought it home to me how hard the redundancy process is and what should be done to ensure that all workers who go through that awful process are treated in the best way possible.
We have managed to put together a taskforce, and it is pleasing that the south-west regional development agency has become fully involved, and has given money to help the company and to buy the site. There ought to be manufacturing on that site, and if the Department of Trade and Industry comes up trumps in the next few days, we hope to pull together what has been a desperate situation. I hope that there will be a silver lining in the end.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire will share my concern that we spend a lot of time talking about help for agriculture—I spend much time defending farmers—but only a disproportionately small amount of time working on an industrial policy, with manufacturing at the forefront. We all know about the problems with the pound and the long-term under-investment in that sector, but that is no excuse for not trying to come up with a coherent strategy. We as a Government must bear some responsibility, although I hope that we shall try to do much more.
That idea is linked to my second point, which is about the need for a coherent energy policy. Again, the Government have been somewhat slow in that regard, but I pay due respect to them for beginning to produce the makings of what may be not only the right approach, but an approach that takes into account the producer, the consumer and the environment. It is in that context that we set so much store by renewables.
I must declare an interest, in that my biggest local employer is Berkeley, acting for British Nuclear Fuels. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary "come out" last Friday on "Any Questions" in support of nuclear power. I do not think it will be long before we must bite the bullet, and realise that a policy for effective energy production in future must involve a raft of different means. One will be nuclear energy; another will be renewables. There may also be a declining role for fossil fuels.
This week the Government responded to public examination of the south-west regional planning proposals made at a policy conference held last year, and also earlier this year. Such documents are always fairly opaque: it is necessary to read between the lines. At this point I must declare another interest, as a member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I think we are disappointed that the housing provision figures were not entirely satisfactory, but the document also draws attention to some good signs. For instance, up to 50 per cent. of the increase in the amount of building is expected to extend to brownfield sites.
Such development is much more difficult in the south-west, because we have not the same number of such sites as areas elsewhere in the country, but a promising start has been made. Moreover, it has at long last been recognised that in my county of Gloucestershire, the core of any future development must involve the Gloucester-Cheltenham area. I do not want to be seen as dumping on my colleagues in the area, but I must say that, for all sorts of reasons—which have lain below the surface while both county and districts have reached their different planning policies—there has been a studious failure to realise the obvious, which is that where there is already a built-up area, it is necessary to start there and work outwards.
I personally favour a further dispersal of houses around the area concerned, rather than a concentration. However, I feel strongly that there should be a link with jobs and transport, and that planning should be more effective than it has been. Everyone seems to feel that it is now less about people than about developers, and less about doing what people want, than about imposing things on them, to a degree.
The Government should do something about that. They have made many good moves in initiating the monitoring of planning and design and ensuring the right levels of provision, but we must keep moving away from "predict and provide". Numbers tend to determine outcomes, which should be borne in mind by those who try to decide the most satisfactory way in which to operate the planning process. Surely that process is about building homes that people want, rather than homes that they apparently do not want, sucking in those who live elsewhere and encouraging them to commute many miles. We must grasp the nettle, and make changes for the better.
I want to spend slightly longer on my last point, although I shall no doubt be told if I go on too long. It relates directly to what appears to have been "the" debate of the end of the year: the debate on policing and law and order.
I shall make no particular comments about areas other than my own—I cannot speak from experience about what is happening in London, for instance—but I take a great interest in policing, and law and order, in my area. I have watched what has happened to police numbers, and it is very pleasing to see that in Gloucestershire, we are recruiting and beginning to put the people back on the establishment. Nevertheless, in the short term, numbers have decreased.
hohoho … more police officers.
Although I am not sure what the posters mean to the general public, I know that it would have been helpful if those who put them up had checked the planning
regulations. Enforcement action is being taken against the local Conservative party, which seems to have broken those regulations. In view of the police time that it takes to deal with such matters, perhaps those party members could themselves try harder to maintain law and order.
Policing is a real issue. When one goes out on patrol with police, as I do regularly, one sees policing in the raw, and what needs to be done not only to provide the right number of police, but to build their morale and ensure that they have all the right equipment.
The last point with which I shall leave my hon. Friend the Minister perhaps explains why I become so disdainful of attacks on the Government about policing. Of course there is a problem with budgets and a need for more resources. My own police authority has needed a sizeable increase in its precept. Consequently, last year, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and I visited the Home Office to explain why a rural sparsity factor was necessary. Ministers not only listened, but they introduced a rural sparsity factor in the settlement, which enabled us to recruit more police officers.
The underlying problem, however, has remained the same for many years. We have to deal with a serious problem created by the previous Government, who failed to deal with the consequences of police retirement policies. Police budgets have been heavily skewed by retirement costs. In Gloucestershire, about 19 per cent. of the police budget is immediately top-sliced to pay for retirement. Indeed, I should broaden that point to address an issue about which I get quite wound up—early retirement.
I believe that early retirement is as big a scandal as the way in which the state earnings-related pension scheme was handled, and the pensions mis-selling scandal. The early retirement scandal will haunt us for generations. Although it was a nice idea that people could be bought out of their jobs and go early—indeed, people fairly close to me did go early, from teaching, social work and the police—it was a bit foolhardy to expect that 10 years after they retired, they would disappear off the face of the earth. Although it is good that we now have a greater life expectancy, the increase in life expectancy has had a ratcheting effect on pensions, continually increasing pension costs.
Therefore, I take some of the attacks on the Government over policing with a pinch of salt. The matters that I have outlined are the real story, and the real reason why our police budgets are insufficient. Nevertheless, it is up to the Government to deal with that legacy. We have to try to deal with it. My comments are not an attack on police personnel, who make big contributions into an unfunded scheme. The message has to be spread abroad that that legacy is why police budgets are often depleted.
I wish to raise various issues and ask various questions before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, and it would be a wonderful Christmas present for residents in Southend, West if the Minister would gee up Departments to give us straight answers to them.
I am delighted for Wolverhampton, Inverness, and Brighton and Hove, but I am very disappointed that Southend has not been declared a city. It deserves to become a city, and I hope that that will happen. I know that Her Majesty the Queen enjoyed Southend when she visited us the year before last.
We have a real problem with staffing at Southend hospital. The problem is not unique to Southend, but is similar across the country. It is no good the Government saying that the problem is all down to the Conservative Government. A press release from the Royal College of Nursing states that
extra pay rises for senior nurses will help, but staff nurses will be disappointed by basic uplift.
In the past few days, I had cause to visit Southend hospital. I witnessed magnificent staff struggling under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. That is especially true of staff in the intensive care unit, who, if they were working about eight miles nearer to London, would get more money for the same, very specialised work. All the beds are occupied, and there is a crisis in Southend. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, who will wind up the debate, will have a word with the Secretary of State for Health to see if he can do anything to help. The present initiatives are a disaster.
Postal services are also a problem. Mail delivery in the area has been terrible. It is no good writing letters, as they take three weeks to arrive. The whole thing is a shambles. I have a letter here from the Essex chamber of commerce which states:
Excuses for unacceptable levels of performance have been offered following the introduction of new technology and "improved" automation at various centres throughout the County. The experience of business in the performance of the Royal Mail has been universally unacceptable. Local businesses want the Royal Mail to enter into dialogue.
Recently, union and then management representatives came to the House to see me. Sorting operations were moved from Southend to Chelmsford and then to Romford. The bottom line is that people are not getting their letters as they used to. Many people, especially elderly people, depend on the service.
The unions put the problem down to the European Union working time directive, and management put it down to new practices. The Minister for Competitiveness used to work for the postal union, and has an inside track. The Royal Mail does not offer the service that it used to. It would be another wonderful present for my constituents if he could sort out the problem.
Lady Diana Brittan, the chairman of the National Lottery Charities Board, recently visited Southend and said that the town's
arts and music programme is very impressive and I can see that huge efforts are being made to make Southend a bit of a cultural capital.
I hope that Southend will hold an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall entitled, "I do like to be beside the Seaside". However, Lady Diana had to tell local residents that there was a problem with legislation when it came to applying for grants from the board. For example, she said that she would have to disappoint people about projects such as installing a lift in the local naval and military club. It is not that the board does not want to help local charities, but that the legislation needs to be examined. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have a word with his relevant colleague.
The Consumers Association has told me that the lack of a consumers Bill in the Queen's Speech was a gaping absence. One had been promised, to reform the Fair Trading Act 1973, but it did not materialise, and neither did legislation to ban mortgage insurance tie-ins. None the less, I want to put in some special pleading.
The Select Committee on Health visited Cuba a few weeks ago. We flew with British Airways, which was privatised under Lord King and which I always considered to be first class. I was sceptical about complaints about its service. However, a number of Select Committee members ate the food on offer, and became ill. I was one of them.
There is no time to go through all the correspondence between the British Airways chairman, Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, and myself, but the company's response was totally unsatisfactory. It is not good enough for a Member of the other place to write to a Member of Parliament saying that we must have had the germs before the trip, that the food had been cooked at 72 degrees, and all the other codswallop that he expects us to believe. I am sure that such problems would be addressed if the Government were to introduce a consumers Bill.
Earlier in the year, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), visited Southend to inspect the circumstances surrounding asylum seekers. It was a wonderful visit, and all sorts of assurances were given. We were very pleased. However, all that has fallen apart.
I am advised by the deputy mayor of Southend that apparently the dispersal programme has not been disbanded, but it has been abandoned, because the Government are ceasing to fund it. The regional assembly has agreed to keep it going without funding until April— a fat lot of good—in the hope that the Government will change their mind. In April, there were 470 known asylum seekers in Southend, and an indeterminate number of unknown ones. The known figure is now 619. The London boroughs are sending many people to Southend without the necessary resources, and now the Government, having said that they would help us, have washed their hands of the problem.
I believe that the Government's decision to award contracts directly to private landlords is a negation of their duty to the residents of the receiving towns. It is outrageous that they should bypass the local authorities who have the responsibility of care. I hope that the Minister will sort that out.
The decriminalisation of parking has been welcomed by some local residents and not others. A number of people in Southend are concerned that the maximum penalty charge notice is too low. In London the maximum is £60, but outside London it is £40. Moving to a decriminalised system will be costly, and a higher penalty charge may make the transition easier financially. Other concerns come from traffic wardens who are worried that they will lose flexibility if they become council parking attendants.
We all know that traffic wardens are not that popular with the public. I visited some of them recently and was deeply moved by all the activities, other than the issuing of tickets, in which they are involved. They deal with tax disc offences and abandoned and stolen vehicles. They carry out crowd and traffic control, and represent the police force. There is no doubt that we have fewer police than ever before in Essex, and in Southend in particular, and these changes will mean that we lose the good will of the traffic wardens. That simply is not good enough.
I was less than happy with the way in which the serious and important subject of cloning was dealt with by the House on Tuesday. I wonder whether right hon. and hon. Members are aware that a group of cross-party peers, together with a cardinal archbishop, an archbishop, an imam and a rabbi, wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a meeting. Four times they wrote to the Prime Minister, and he never agreed to a meeting. The Prime Minister said not so long ago that he was contrite, and willing to listen. Why, then, was he not prepared to listen on an issue that the whole House agrees is of huge importance?
A pearl is formed when a piece of grit gets into the oyster. The Prime Minister might not agree with what the religious leaders were going to say to him, but he should at least have been prepared to listen. If we do not let the grit in, we will never get the pearl out.
My final point is about animals. I hope that people will think carefully about purchasing pets this Christmas. Every year, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other bodies have to cope with abandoned pets. If any Members are thinking of acquiring a dog, they could do no better than contact Miss Pamela Townsend of the Willow Tree sanctuary in Great Yeldham, or Mrs. Mary Scully of the Enfield dog rescue centre. They have any number of rescued dogs and would be delighted if right hon. and hon. Members gave those dogs a good home. The Amess household has a black labrador, and we are seriously considering having a rescued dog over the Christmas period and beyond.
I hope that all animals, all human beings and all those who work in the House will have a very happy Christmas.
Returning to planet earth, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want briefly to raise some transport issues that relate to my constituency. The first is the local railway—the London, Tilbury and Southend railway—which has been in the area for a long time and was one of the first lines to be privatised.
Since privatisation, we have been promised new trains and, for the past three years, class 357 trains. We have been told that their arrival was imminent. A few months ago, the trains began to be put into service and promptly broke down. Unfortunately, the parent company of London Tilbury and Southend Rail, c2c—known as carriages too crowded—had scrapped much of its old slam-door stock, which was about 40 years old, so when the new class 357s were taken out of service old stock had to be reintroduced. As there are not enough trains, there is further diminution of a service that has become steadily worse over many years.
As an illustration of how the railways are seen by people in outer London and Essex, it will come as no surprise to hon. Members to hear that, a few years ago, when one of the Essex radio stations organised a poll to find the most unpopular person in the county, the then managing director of LTS finished second—just behind Saddam Hussein. It would be interesting to take another poll to see whether the present managing director could shove Saddam Hussein into second place.
The railway crosses my constituency at Rainham and I was a founder member of the Rainham rail users group—superb campaigners who put pressure on c2c and LTS, unfortunately without much effect. Rail users have shown immense patience and forbearance. One member of the group informed me recently that she had taken to travelling in the guard's van because the carriages are so crowded. On one occasion, she counted 36 people who were crammed into the guard's van of a four-car train when there should have been at least eight cars.
Trains are becoming dangerously overcrowded, yet the directors of the parent company, Prism Rail, recently made tens of millions of pounds by selling the company to National Express—money that should have been invested in the railway. Meanwhile, my constituents—like those of other hon. Members—continue to suffer overcrowding, delays and late and cancelled trains. That is the result of the privatisation process planned by the previous Conservative Government.
We all know that the whole London tube system has suffered a long history of under-investment and has been deteriorating for a long time, but recently the District line has become much worse. The line runs through three stations in my constituency—Elm Park, Hornchurch and Upminster Bridge. Recently, delays and cancellations have increased. There has also been a tendency to indicate that trains are going to Upminster—the end of the line—when in fact they are being stopped at Barking. That is becoming quite dangerous. Many people, especially women travelling home alone late at night, are abandoned on the platform at Barking for lengthy periods waiting for an Upminster train. Some of the women who work in the Palace have had that experience.
We all know the problem—underfunding during a long period—as the managing director of the underground network, Derek Smith, and the Mayor, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), have made clear. My objection to the current situation is that we should be getting on with investing in the underground. Everyone knows that the fault lies with the previous Conservative Administration, but we have been in government for three years and we are still talking about how to make that investment—we should be doing it now.
The 324 bus—on a former Green Line route that runs from east London into Essex—serves Wennington, a hamlet in my constituency and Rainham itself. The bus service was run by Town and Country Buses, which was taken over by Arriva. The problem is that Arriva does not have enough buses or drivers to service the route, so it drafts in buses from other parts of the country. There is a Heinz 57 varieties bus livery—with no correct signs on the front of the buses.
That is dangerous. There are many elderly people in Wennington and Rainham. When an unnumbered bus with the Aylesbury and The Vale livery arrives at a stop in Essex, it is slightly confusing—especially for people with poor eyesight.
There are also fewer buses on the route—if one can see them.
London Transport has been pretty appalling. During the summer, I made it clear that I wanted a new timetable published and that I wanted to get my hands on it so that I could distribute it around Wennington and the south of Rainham. I asked by letter, by telephone and again by letter, but so far I have had nothing from London Transport. It simply is not good enough for it to fail my constituents in Wennington and Rainham, many of whom are elderly and many of whom are in a very difficult position because of the decline of the service.
I ask the Minister to relay to Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions the points that I have made about the transport service in my constituency.
As time is short, I shall keep my remarks as brief as I can.
I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, with whom I have debated on many occasions. He has always treated my remarks with great courtesy and I am grateful to him for it. However, the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) struck a chord with me.
This debate is important. It is, after all, an occasion when many of us could be doing other things, and we come to the Chamber for one specific reason this late in the day—because we believe that something matters sufficiently to our constituents to cause us to go through the fiction, and it is a fiction, of postponing the moment when the House of Commons adjourns for the recess.
I cannot imagine that any Member of the House, other than in a dire emergency, would allow his constituency surgery to be conducted by anyone other than himself. A researcher could do that work, but it would not look or feel right. The constituent would not understand it. In previous years, and certainly under the previous Administration, I could always say that I knew that when I raised a matter on the Christmas Adjournment a member of the Cabinet—the Leader of the House, the President of the Council—would be there, listening carefully to all the deliberations. That may be a fiction, but it is a necessary fiction and a courteous fiction. I believe that the Leader of the House should have been present today. Although I have not the slightest doubt that the Minister will do an excellent job in her place, appearances do matter.
Today, I want to bring before the House the subject of the Kingskerswell bypass. It is not the first time that I have raised the subject in the House of Commons; I should like to think that it might be the last time, but I fear that it will not.
The Kingskerswell bypass, as anyone who knows my part of the world knows, is the four to four-and-a-half mile stretch of road that runs between Newton Abbott and Torquay. It is the last remaining link—the missing link, if you will—in the M5. Indeed, if one was giving a person in the west of Scotland directions to Newton Abbott, one would say, "drive south until you come to a roundabout, and if it is the summer, wait there for half an hour and turn right." That is the problem with that part of the world. There is a missing link.
My research has shown me that there has been a Kingskerswell bypass in prospect in Devon since at least 1951 and it was probably mooted some 15 years before that. Once upon a time, it would have been a bypass to bypass the old village of Kingskerswell. Now, because of the increase in housing, that stretch of road virtually cuts the village in two. It produces huge traffic flows. In 1998 I gave the House the figures; I shall not quote them in detail today. I was able to say on that occasion that some 35,000 vehicles a day used that road.
Usually, when one mentions the need for a bypass, the figures for traffic flows increase in the summer and drop off for the rest of the year. Interestingly, in this case there is at most a differential of only 10 per cent. This is such a logjam that it is there all the year round. It condemns the people who live in the area to having their community subjected to extreme traffic pollution. It produces extreme inconvenience for people travelling to and from work, shopping or school.
The logjam causes more than inconvenience in every sense of the word. It also affects the potential for economic regeneration. Whereas most bypasses merely squeeze the paste down the toothpaste tube, as it were, and push the bottleneck on, if this bypass was built the whole of south Devon would be opened to economic regeneration, because it really is the last link.
No less an authority than Edward Chorlton, who is the county environment director for Devon and a national figure, said:
The Newton Abbot to Torquay corridor already experiences severe congestion throughout much of the day and … is directly affecting the locational decisions of local businesses, with a number of companies having relocated away from Torbay as a consequence of difficulties experienced in maintaining a reliable and predictable means of highway access …
From the above it can be appreciated that the Newton Abbott to Torquay corridor is not only of great importance in terms of accommodating movement within the area but also of strategic importance in terms of providing the principal connection between Torbay and the wider area of Devon and the rest of the Country.
It is also crucial to ensuring that the development potential of the area is unlocked.
In no sense can that be said to be disputed, let alone to be a matter of party political dispute. When I raised the issue at far greater length in April 1998, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), said:
Traffic flows through Kingskerswell have increased considerably in recent years, from 20,000 vehicles a day in the mid-1980s to nearly 35,000 in 1995. Growth on such a scale is unsustainable, and shows graphically why we must tackle such problems with new policies and attitudes.—[Official Report, 1 April 1998; Vol. 309, c. 1230.]
What could have been done, and what can be done?
For many years—in what was, frankly, a fiction—the Kingskerswell bypass was reasonably high up the programme, but was never going to be achieved. In 1995, I think, the Government said that that was nonsense and that only bypasses that stood a chance of success in competing with other projects should be included and, therefore, the Kingskerswell bypass was taken out of the programme. However, the outcry and the strength of the case was such that my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the then Minister with responsibility for the west country, specifically had the rules on the private finance initiative altered so that a local authority could use them. He did so with all-party support, and Devon county council was entirely in favour of it. The council was legitimately concerned about how the funding for the necessary work could be secured, but there was a consensus.
In 1996, when my right hon. Friend visited Kingskerswell, there was every prospect that work on the bypass would begin by the beginning of 2001. As I speak, even if matters were expedited far more efficiently than some people think they might be, it would be five, six or even seven years before work could start. After the Government's moratorium on any form of road building, they now say that any schemes under the private finance initiative can proceed only when every other avenue has been explored. In short, the PFI route, if it is used, will take a long time.
The infuriating fact is that almost everyone locally agrees that the bypass is needed. Usually, on such occasions, the lesser crested aphid springs out of the undergrowth, saying "It may be tarmac to you, my son, but it means extinction for me and my species." Nothing like that has happened in Kingskerswell, where there is a complete unanimity of view. Time and again, local people ask what they can do.
On one occasion, it seemed as though the PFI represented the only way forward. It is grinding its way slowly forward, but we find that the Government—as a sinner who repents at least in part—now realise that sometimes bypasses are not an environmental blot, but an environmental necessity; they improve the quality of life. We hear that, after all, the money is available to build bypasses. So it may be, but there is not much money available to build them in Devon, except in north Devon, where a small bypass will be built near Barnstaple according to the recent local transport capital expenditure announcement.
Once upon a time, the Kingskerswell bypass was the premier scheme in Devon, but the other one is now at the top of the queue. Of course, even a long time in politics has not yet made me a cynic, and I say that with all the insincerity at my command. I accept, therefore, that it is entirely a coincidence that that bypass is in the seat of a Liberal Member of Parliament and that the leader of Devon county council, which is controlled by the Liberals, also lives in that part of the world. Perhaps other hon. Members will have something to say about that. I do not accuse the Minister of being part of that chicanery, but I want the Government to tell me what they think my constituents should do. How long will it be before there is some prospect of the project being expedited?
As I understand it, there is some hope to be found, buried deep in a letter written to the chief executive of Torbay borough council, announcing the 2001–02 local transport capital expenditure settlement. It states:
The level of resources the Government has provided through the 10 Year Plan means that we are able to fund many more schemes than was usual in the past.
An addendum to the letter goes on to state:
We note your intention to continue assessing congestion problems on the A380 corridor. We welcome the Partnership working that has been demonstrated, in particular, the development of a long-term strategy for the Northern corridor through the use of consultants and cross boundary working with Devon County Council. We are keen to understand the full range of difficulties experienced along the corridor and to explore an Integrated Transport package to reduce congestion, increase accessibility and assist regeneration in Torbay. We look forward to working with you and Devon County Council on this in the future.
I do not quite know what that means. It might be a realistic formula expressed in Whitehall jargon, saying that relief is on the way, or it might be the most shameless
pack of waffle. If hon. Members want to know what is going on, they can read the debates that have taken place in the House over the years, or take a day off some time and go down there, sit in a traffic jam and see for themselves.
I shall tell the Minister what I want him to do today. It would be churlish in the extreme for me to ask him to tell me now what is happening. It is not his job to know that. However, the reason that I am here now when I could be elsewhere is to ask him for an assurance that he will write to the relevant Minister—I assume that that is the noble Lord Whitty—to ask him to write to me and tell me what the Government think should happen. At the moment, many people think that nothing is happening. The case for this bypass is overwhelming on every ground possible, not only for my constituency and neighbouring constituencies, but for the economic regeneration of south Devon. What do the Government think about that? I ask for only one assurance from the Minister—but I do ask for it.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) and the citizens of Wolverhampton on their city status. I say that as the Member representing St. Albans, which has had city status for several hundred years, so I know the feeling that that status gives.
Two weeks ago, I met all the St. Albans secondary school head teachers. They are very concerned about the problem of recruitment and retention of teachers. Each head teacher detailed unfilled vacancies that had little chance of being filled. Advertising and re-advertising elicited, at most, one application and often none at all. That process is expensive and time-consuming, and leaves school managers with an almost intractable problem.
In the past, there have been shortages in certain subjects, typically the sciences. Now, there are shortages across the board. In one school, a parent is providing the tuition so that the school does not have to send a class home. The use of supply teachers is in the same sorry state, with a complete shortage in all specialities. Three reasons are given for that. The first, and most important, is the exceptionally high cost of housing. The second is the low morale and low self-esteem of the profession; the third, the sheer volume of paperwork that now forms part of teaching.
The provision of key worker housing must be pursued with some vigour by the Government and by local authorities. Chris Holmes of Shelter said recently that if we did not address that problem, we should affect the very economic success and stability of our country, particularly in the south-east. Each local authority district plan must enshrine a target and plan for implementing the provision of a substantial amount of key worker housing. In addition, funding must be set aside by local authorities and the Housing Corporation for the provision of such housing. Only through positive action shall we begin to address the problem.
I mentioned the morale and self-esteem of teachers earlier. I salute all of them. They work exceedingly hard, are dedicated professionals and are responsible for inspiring and educating our most precious possession: our children. My friend and colleague, Christine Hood, the regional secretary of the National Union of Teachers, tells me repeatedly of teachers who just want to teach. They feel undervalued and blamed for all the problems that are connected with children.
I want to pay tribute to Bob Hawkes, the head teacher of Verulam school in St. Albans, who retires today after 35 years as a teacher, the last 12 of which he spent in his present post. He has a well-deserved high reputation and students who were taught by him were fortunate indeed. His retirement marks a sad loss to education in Hertfordshire.
On transport, 17,000 of my constituents travel by Thameslink into the city each day. Travel has been exceptionally difficult since the Hatfield disaster. Overcrowding on our trains, which is usually quite bad at peak times, has been made worse by travellers from Hatfield and Stevenage using the service. I use it regularly and travelled in today by train, and I am pleased to report that the service was almost back to normal. I regularly meet train operators to ensure that the levels of reliability, service and safety are as high as possible.
Travel by bus within St. Albans is hampered by the narrow streets of our old city and by selfish parking. We are also disadvantaged in Hertfordshire by not quite qualifying for a substantial rural bus subsidy, and we have no large towns to support a large city bus service. In addition, we do not qualify for the new market town subsidy because the population of our towns is too large to qualify. Our economic success means that people need to be able to travel across Hertfordshire, as well as north to south. Many Hertfordshire residents would use public transport were it better provided. One local operator, Sovereign buses, has made a huge investment in a new fleet of kneeling buses, which are more easily accessed, comfortable and fuel efficient. We need more such investment.
St. Albans took the lead in the virtual bus, which originated in my constituency and was launched in St. Albans by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) when she was Transport Minister. That model of good practice is now being used in many other places.
St. Albans has the lowest unemployment in the United Kingdom. We welcome the extra spending on pensions, health and education, in particular the money that has gone straight to schools. St. Albans prospers well under the new Labour Government.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who is warm-hearted and sincere in speaking on behalf of his constituents.
One local issue is of fundamental importance in my constituency—the proposal by Associated British Ports to build a huge container port at Dibden bay, on Southampton water, which is on the edge of the New Forest. The distribution of population in my constituency is unusual. The area is largely taken up by the heavily protected forest region. More than 80 per cent. of my constituents are compressed into the long line of villages from Calshot and Fawley in the south, along the Waterside, to the town of Totton in the north. Planning restrictions in the forest mean that housebuilding is overwhelmingly confined to Totton and the Waterside corridor. As so many of my constituents live in that narrowly restricted area, the impact on their lives of the closure of strategic gaps between the villages, and of extra burdens placed on road and rail links, is disproportionately heavy.
When I became acquainted with the Dibden bay proposals in 1995, it seemed obvious that the adverse effects that they would have on people who live in Totton and along the Waterside would decisively outweigh any possible advantage. Therefore, it was also obvious that those people who proposed to build the huge container port would have to produce an overriding national economic case if the development was to have a chance of proceeding.
ABP briefed me at least three times in 1996 and 1997. The nub of its argument was that each of the small number of major container companies will use only one port of entry into the United Kingdom and that, unless Dibden bay were built to expand Southampton's container capacity on the other side of Southampton water, not only would Southampton fail to obtain the extra business, but it would lose its existing business to competing ports. On the face of it, that seemed to be a strong argument in ABP's favour.
However, more than a year ago, the picture was dramatically transformed. The prospect arose that the redundant oil refinery site—a brownfield site—at Shell Haven in Essex might become a new container port on a scale substantially larger than Dibden bay. That prospect was welcomed, with appropriate provisos about local concerns, by the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who, by a fortunate coincidence, happens to be in her place at this very moment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in alerting me to the fact that he would be mentioning my constituency and me. I put it to him that, although many in my constituency warmly welcome the proposed development at Shell Haven, which would create up to 10,000 jobs, there are significant and genuine environmental, traffic and social concerns. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that those should be taken into account.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It has been a pleasure working with her in past months to try to resolve these matters to the mutual benefit of both our sets of constituents. However, the balance tips overwhelmingly in favour of the development taking place in her constituency, provided appropriate ameliorating measures can be taken to safeguard people living nearby. I am sure that she accepts that, in my constituency, there would be huge effects that could not possibly be ameliorated in any circumstances.
When the Shell Haven proposals were first mooted, I was astonished by the way in which ABP in Southampton derided the practicability of building a container port at Shell Haven and then tried to claim that, even if it were built, it would make no difference to the overriding national economic case in favour of Dibden bay. It became clear to me that ABP was wholly bent on pushing through the scheme, irrespective of the existence of more suitable alternatives. Later, I shall mention one possible motivation for the company's rigidly blinkered approach. When Shell Haven was first mooted, ABP objected on the grounds that the traffic outflow would be too heavy for the M25 to cope with, and that excessive dredging would also be involved. Such claims sounded strange coming from a company that tried to tell my constituents that the mere A326 could cope with massive container traffic and that Dibden bay would be capable of receiving the new generations of large container ships that it would face during its years of operation.
Shell Haven will be larger than Dibden bay, and it is possible that it will come into service sooner than Dibden bay. In addition, I have been assured authoritatively that Shell Haven by itself will be able to absorb all the projected additional container traffic for the south-east for the next 15 to 20 years. So confident of that is the Port of London authority that it anticipates Shell Haven opening on a staggered basis, a few berths at a time, as and when the extra capacity becomes needed over the next two decades. That fact alone must be sufficient to destroy the argument that Dibden bay must be inflicted on the residents of Totton and the Waterside in the national economic interest because of the lack of any viable alternative.
The story does not end there. We now know that there are to be substantial expansions in container capacity at no fewer than three additional sites: Harwich, Felixstowe and Tilbury. In addition, further development at Thamesport remains a possibility. None of those options involves the destruction of a natural habitat, the overwhelming of inadequate A-roads, or the bisecting of towns and villages such as Totton and Marchwood by endless convoys of lorries and railway wagons, all of which would be inevitable were Dibden bay to come on stream. Yet, according to ABP, all that extra capacity makes no difference to its case that the Dibden bay development is essential. One wonders how gigantic the extra capacity being created by ports around the south-east and east of England would have to be before ABP allowed such expansion to have any effect on its fixation with developing Dibden bay—now that the company's rubbishing of Shell Haven as a container port has itself been discredited.
ABP claims that it is not planning to transfer its existing smaller container operation on the other side of Southampton water to Dibden bay in order to sell off the existing container port location for vastly profitable property development, as has happened to other parts of Southampton port in the past. It claims that that could easily be prevented by the Secretary of State. However, how could the Secretary of State—or anyone else— possibly know what the directors of ABP will do in 10 years' time if Dibden bay is up and running? Nothing would prevent the existing Southampton container port from being closed down and the land being used to make fortunes for those running ABP.
That explanation alone supplies logic to ABP's position. If the real objective is to free up expensive land in Southampton to make a financial killing, that would explain why the opening of Shell Haven and all the other new container facilities would, in the words of ABP, "make no difference" to the need for Dibden bay. Indeed, the existence of new container ports elsewhere would make it easier to argue in 10 years' time that the old Southampton container port had to be closed and developed precisely because there was not enough trade to keep it busy, as well as the new Dibden bay terminal.
It is preposterous to say that there is an overriding national economic requirement to build on the unsuitable site at Dibden bay regardless of the fact that other sites are to be constructed or expanded. I believe that ABP would continue to argue for the development of Dibden bay even if 50 new ports were being built or expanded. Its determination to develop Dibden bay has little, if anything, to do with a genuine need to meet future increases in necessary container capacity.
There are no proposals from ABP currently to turn the pitifully inadequate A326 even into a dual carriageway, although it used to say that it would do that. Perhaps that is being held back as a great concession to be made to the community in due course. I have always taken the view that nothing less than a prefabricated tunnel under Southampton water would do, connecting any container port to Southampton's major road and rail links. Even then, the light pollution, never-ending noise, unsightly container stacks and cranes at the edge of the New Forest and environmental destruction would add up to a vision of hell for the thousands of people unfortunate enough to live nearby.
A few years ago, before Shell Haven and the other facilities came on to the scene, and before it was apparent that there were alternatives, it might have been arguable to inflict all this suffering on our communities in the constituency of New Forest, East. There is now no case for it. I urge the deputy Leader of the House to convey that message in the strongest possible terms to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, because he will have the final say.
It is always a pleasure to be called in the final end-of-term Adjournment debate, if I may call it that. I am always glad when my Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), addresses the House, as he usually does on these occasions. I am sorry that he is not in his place now. I hope that the House agrees that he excelled himself today. By my count, he mentioned 10 different subjects, to say nothing of his gastric problems on the way to Cuba. If I was unfortunate enough to miss any of the subjects that he raised, I know that I will be able to read about each of them in the local newspaper when it appears next week.
These debates are great opportunities for raising a number of issues, and I do not wish to be over-frivolous. I usually stick closely to the confines of Braintree or Essex. Today, however, I shall speak about international matters. I refer neither to Suffolk nor Hertfordshire when I say that, but to events that have occurred on the other side of the Atlantic.
I am not certain to what extent the events in the United States during November and December have been discussed in the House. However, I think a few minutes to enable us to pause for thought about the implications for us, and perhaps our own constitution, would not be unhelpful.
I refer, of course, to the American election. If one were teaching civics to those unfamiliar with the workings of democracy, it would be difficult to explain how the candidate who had the most votes was defeated and the candidate who had fewer votes won, but we should keep clearly in our minds over the coming three or four years the proposition that the loser won and the winner lost.
I understand that the United States constitution is different from ours and that, for reasons that may have been pertinent some 200 or more years ago, it was right to preserve the autonomy of states in the selection of the federal president. There may well have been a case for that then. It would be impertinent of me to tell the Americans whether there is a case for it now, or whether they should reconsider the matter. I should have thought that they would certainly contemplate it.
Even more worrying is the electoral and then the judicial process. There is no one in the House who has not been into an election count. Before we race ahead with internet voting and goodness knows what other horror that is occasionally proposed, we might pause for reflection on some of the benefits of our own system.
I do not say this in a patronising or colonial way to our cousins across the Atlantic, but is there anything to beat a piece of paper on which appear one, two, three, four or however many names, and on which all the voter is required to do is put a cross against the name of his preferred candidate? That seems a straightforward notion. It does not require information technology—in fact, it was devised for those who were illiterate, which is why the cross is the symbol. The voter has to do nothing other than mark a cross on a ballot paper to indicate his choice.
Many of us have attended counts of votes when there may have been some uncertainty about the result, or about the vote itself. We know what happens: if the voter puts a tick instead of a cross, it is counted; if he puts only half a cross, it is counted; if he draws a smiling face, it is counted; if he puts the cross in the right box but in the wrong place, it is counted; if the mark is very feeble and frail, it is counted. We count a vote if the intention is clear for all to see.
We count quickly. Were there not six or seven recounts in 1966 in Peterborough, all of which took place within 24 hours? We could count all the votes cast in a general election in this country again and again, I expect, before the clock had gone round one more time.
The entire matter in the United States was confused. In part, I blame the media for confusing the issues. The media were blamed for calling the state of Florida before it had been counted. They based their projection on the fact that the exit polls predicted a win for the Democratic candidate, but the polls assumed that people had voted for the candidate for whom they thought they had voted, but when the votes were counted, the result was not quite the same.
The catalogue of abuses is horrifying by our standards. We have not had a corruption case since Oxford in 1924, when there was a certain amount of treating of electors by way of liquor and otherwise, and the Member was unseated. We have a fairly good record, but in the state of Florida the first move was to disqualify from voting anyone who had a conviction, even if it went back decades. The view may have been taken that people in poorer circumstances may be more likely to have convictions, but at least one of the candidates narrowly avoided one of those and presumably would have been unable to vote in the state of Florida had matters gone further than they did.
The Americans have terribly artistic ballot papers. One needs an advanced degree in technology to work out exactly where the hole should be punched. What amazes me most of all and confuses everybody is the ludicrous word "chad". I will not repeat that most people thought that that was a state in Africa. The moment that people started talking about hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads, the brain turned off. I was confused until the other day, when I was primitively using a hole punch. I hole-punched a piece of paper, but the punched part did not quite fall off and hung there. I guess that that is what is meant by a hanging chad. It is pretty clear that I intended to punch that paper and make a hole, but the punched piece did not quite fall off. The President appointed—I use that term rather than President-elect because English usage is important, and "President-elect" does not properly describe the incoming incumbent—and his supporters wished to exclude pieces of paper with chads that had not dropped off. Indeed, the dimpled chad is one in which the punch has made an impression, but not gone all the way through.
I am not making a party political point by saying that, in this country, there would be no argument from any candidates or their agents about who those votes were for, as the intention would be clear. I am not going to say whether a degree of dishonesty was involved, as that will all come out. No doubt, the votes it, the state of Florida will be counted fairly soon, and we shall know very well what happened there. However, the matter says heavy things about the United States. Some hon. Members will know that I have always been pro-American in my views on international affairs, but I am horrified by what took place. In this country, we have a spirit of respect for our constitution and, ultimately, do no allow our partisan preference to override that. If one is in an election count and a vote is clearly for one's opponent, one says that is for him or her. One does not seek to argue for the indefensible.
However, the matter gets worse and goes beyond miscalculating votes, excluding obvious votes, excluding electors from the register and having low-level riots to prevent counts. The highest court in the United States was involved in what can only be a blatantly partisan decision to grant an injunction to stop the votes being counted. When that level is reached, what is the teacher—or, as the Americans say, the professor—in a mid-western college to tell his civics class? Does he say that the USA has a system of law and separation of powers but that, if one side loses an election, it stops the votes being counted? Is that how we elect the leader of the free world?
We have to learn to be cautious about issues that we sometimes rush into without thinking. Here, whatever one may say about individual results, the judiciary is an entirely non-political body. In the course of my professional life practising law I have come across and known personally a number of judges. I know that many, if not most, of them have strong political opinions. Some stood for Parliament before they sat on the bench. I have known judges who were active communists, as well as judges who were active Conservatives. However, when they sit on the bench, those views are left behind. I would have no fear about an election dispute in this country, such as that in the Winchester constituency at the last election. It would be unlikely to go before a court because it would be judged according to the law and the ethics behind the law.
Earlier in our debate, hon. Members described what they perceive as the shortcomings of our present system. There is always a case for debate and the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who is now in his place, referred to the increasing power of the Executive. It is worth having that debate. I remember taking my history A-level in 1963, when the question on the paper was: "The power of the Executive has increased and is increasing. Should it be diminished?" That referred to the 18th century. The issue about the power of the Executive has always been with us.
We sometimes need to stand back and take pride in our constitution and, above all, in the political climate in which we operate, where we do not endlessly play the man—I use that phrase in its broadest sense—to the extent that that becomes more important than the overriding constitutional principles. I fear that events in the United States are a travesty of all the things that we hold dear and which that country has purported to hold dear, and that they create such a stain on its position that it will not be able to reverse matters easily.
We are drawing towards the end of a debate that has, predictably, covered a huge range of issues. I agree that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) managed to give us a dose of grapeshot that came in quickfire succession. If he spoke about 10 issues, they were completely seamless and flowed without any breaking for breath. As has been pointed out, however, they will all be in the papers next week.
The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made an interesting point, which I am sure will be discussed long and hard for many weeks and months to come. With regard to the comments of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) about the reform process in the House, I remind hon. Members that if we have a problem in this country, it is a lack of separation between the legislature and the Executive, as well as a lack of accountability.
If the United States has a problem, it is more serious. I refer to the politicisation of the judiciary, which permeates not only the electoral system. As a basic matter of human rights, it shocked me that, in a country that has increasingly resorted to the reintroduction and use of the death penalty, the decision on whether an execution should proceed lies with a politician who is actively campaigning for election. That cannot be fair either to the condemned person or to the politician, who will not be in a position to make a balanced judgment. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why Americans are unable to take up observer status in the Council of Europe, which is trying to achieve a continent that is free of the death penalty. That interesting development will also be discussed in the coming weeks and months.
The hon. Member for Banbury said that he did not think that enough rebellions were occurring in the House. That was a little unfair, as a couple of fairly serious rebellions have occurred, one of which related to the reduction of benefits for single mothers. The other recent example was the privatisation of air traffic control. If the Conservatives had stood their ground in the Lords on that issue, we might have been successful in stopping the Government until their decision was properly put to the electorate at the next election. As the Conservatives found in 1983, it is much harder for Back Benchers to rebel when the Government have a huge majority, as they will suffer the opprobrium of falling out with the Government without winning the vote. At least when there is a smaller majority, those who rebel may gain the satisfaction of changing the policy, which makes their decision more worth while. Nevertheless, I accept that some of the reforms are more cosmetic than real.
I think that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has left. I can only thank him for the tribute that he paid to the community politics of north Devon Liberal Democrats, which are clearly successful as they have achieved more than him in securing the roads that they need.
I should like to share some glory with the citizens of Wolverhampton. The borders of my constituency are not all that far from Inverness, which is also extremely delighted to have secured city status. Inverness is probably one of the fastest growing communities in the United Kingdom. It has doubled in size in the past 20 years, which may surprise people who do not often venture so far north.
I want to address a couple of important issues in my constituency. One of them affects all constituencies and both of them affect rural constituencies. The first is the increased cost of public and private transport in rural areas, especially in respect of people on low incomes, benefits or income support. I raised the matter in correspondence with the Chancellor, social security Ministers and the Secretary of State for Scotland. Indeed, four weeks ago I raised it in Scottish questions, but I did not receive a satisfactory answer from the Minister of State, Scotland Office, who deliberately misunderstood my question and proceeded to make a great deal of fun of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and what I believe she described as her step grandmother's association with a filling station in Inverurie, in my constituency. I did not know that there was such a being as a step grandmother, but, apparently, the hon. Lady has one. The Government have now openly acknowledged that they pursued a policy of increasing the price of fuel, not exclusively as an environmental tax, but as a revenue-raising measure, in part so that they did not have to increase the standard or higher rate of income tax—a pledge made at the general election. They admitted that they could not contemplate cutting tax on petrol because they needed the money to fund schools and hospitals, not for environmental purposes.
My point is serious and needs to be addressed—social security Ministers should consider it. Taking such a policy decision has significant cost of living implications for people on very low incomes in a way that income tax does not. Indeed, some of those people do not pay income tax, but they have to pay transport costs, especially if they live in rural areas. They must either pay increased public transport costs, because the fuel price has had to be absorbed by bus and train operators, or use a car, because there is no public transport option.
As one of my constituents starkly pointed out, although the price of unleaded petrol has eased back a bit, over the past five years in some rural areas, it has increased by nearly 30p a litre. Let us consider the example of someone who uses a fairly modest amount of petrol—in many cases, petrol is involved because the option to use public transport is not available—to drive a relatively small and economical car 20 to 30 miles a day to his place of work, where he is on such a low income that he receives income support. It is obvious that the cost involved could be an extra £5 or even £10 a week compared with that in 1995. However, the increase in basic income support for all cost of living increases over that period is less than £5.
As the Parliamentary Secretary will understand, as a consequence, the real value of income support has been seriously cut for people living in rural areas. I hope that he will draw that to the attention of social security Ministers and suggest that they review whether the calculation of those payments should take account of that. That point applies not only to people living in rural areas, but to everyone who receives income support. However, it has a serious impact on people living in rural areas.
If the Parliamentary Secretary has conversations with the Minister of State, Scotland Office, it is important that he says that my point related not to different prices of petrol in different parts of the country, but to the differential in the price of petrol now compared with that of five years ago. I shall be seeing the Minister of State later to comment on a by-election result, so I may have an opportunity to point that out myself. I openly acknowledge that that differential is due not entirely to tax, but to a combination of tax and world market prices.
Before the winding-up speeches begin, I should mention the state of British beef exports or, rather, the lack of them. I want hon. Members to take on board the fact that, although they may believe that the ban on British beef exports has been lifted—in law, that is correct—that ban is, for all practical purposes, still in place. In the present circumstances, it is simply impossible to export significant quantities of British beef because the regime and the conditions under which we choose to operate in this country make it impossible to deliver anything approaching a competitive price for prime Scottish beef of the quality that people were used to before the ban was imposed. Hon. Members may not appreciate why that is the case, so I shall explain one or two points.
I believe that the time is right for the Government to seek a Europe-wide approach to an agreement on regulations for the raising, slaughtering and butchering of beef that will apply equally to every member state of the European Union, rather than unequally as at present. The time is appropriate because it is now apparent that the problem of BSE is much more acute on the continent than had previously been acknowledged.
I take no satisfaction from the rise of BSE cases now confirmed in France. I accept that the French Government acknowledge the problem and are dealing with it. I am not suggesting that we ban French beef, but we need a regime that is safe for all consumers and fair to all producers. In all probability, on the admission of the French Government, the number of BSE cases in France this year will be higher than the number that have occurred in the United Kingdom, yet France is not required to go through the procedures that British beef producers have to go through to produce beef for export.
There are four major prime meat producers in my constituency: Kepak Inverurie Scotch Meat, Scotch Premier Meat and Donald Russell, which was the biggest single exporter of quality beef before the ban was imposed. I have a letter to me dated 6 December from
Mr. Hans Baumann, the managing director of Donald Russell, who as a matter of interest is Swiss. He says:
For a long time I have made my feelings known to you about how damaging I consider the compromise being made between the eligibility of our Beef for export and my quality criteria for the long term future of the Scottish Industry.
I have said many times that we are systematically destroying the "Brand Scotland". Our quality image, our reputation, and the opportunity to achieve a premium price may well be lost forever. My views are now being re-iterated by many of our customers.
He quotes a Belgian importer, Marie-Jeanne Cleemput of Van Engelandt, who says:
Price is the most important element, but there is also the question of quality. Scottish beef is not as marbled or mature as it was before: it is not up to the same standard and that is what our restaurants came to tell us when the import ban was lifted.
That is because we agreed to allow, beef for export to be slaughtered only in dedicated slaughterhouses, of which there are only two operational in the United Kingdom. One is in Cornwall—hon. Members will appreciate that that is a long way from Aberdeenshire—and the other is in Strathavon in Ayrshire, which is over 150 miles from Inverurie.
Control is no longer with the meat producer. Traditionally, producers would finish the meat in co-operation with the farmers in the fields before slaughtering the beef at a local slaughterhouse. They prescribed the conditions, with the hanging and the butchering being under their control, and produced the quality product that people came to expect.
An Italian importer, Francesa Piccolini who is in north Italy, said that before the ban Scotch beef was the finest product she could find in the world. She scoured the world during the beef ban and was unable to find a quality product comparable to Scotch beef.
It is ironic that we can get that quality at home—it is available to consumers in the United Kingdom. We can get it in excellent, pre-packed form by mail order from Donald Russell in my constituency. I highly recommend it. However, our exporters cannot get it because the correct procedures are not followed. I urge the Minister to raise this serious matter with the Minister of Agriculture. It needs to be reviewed in the interests not only of British beef producers, but customers abroad who value quality Scotch beef. It is a matter of fairness and balance between safety and the needs of producers across the EU. The time is right to do that.
The French and the Germans must now acknowledge that they share our problem, and that they need the same result. I hope that the Minister will tell me that he has spoken to the Minister of Agriculture, with whom I have been asking for a meeting for three months without success.
Before I touch on some of the other important and wide-ranging issues raised today, let me say something about transport and, in particular, the road and rail network in my constituency.
My constituency contains a length of road stretching from Honiton to Exeter, a dual carriageway opened by the Deputy Prime Minister in August last year. It has a big problem, which causes my constituents great distress: it has a concrete finish. During its construction, both the Government and the Highways Agency promised me that something called "whisper concrete" would be used. Nothing could be further from the truth: the noise from the road means that people living in quite a wide catchment area cannot sit in their gardens in the summer, and must keep their windows closed when they are indoors. Following noise-level tests, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Exeter Express and Echo—which conducted the tests—and Exeter university have accepted that the noise on the road is above the permissible level.
On 8 July this year, the Prime Minister arrived in Exeter and was immediately greeted by requests from the local populace and the local newspaper to pledge to do something about the noisy road; and he did. He was attending Labour's national policy forum at Exeter university, and the Home Secretary sped to join him, with great alacrity. At that meeting, under great local pressure to say something about the matter, he promised that the road would be resurfaced with a tarmac finish.
Since then I have raised the issue on several occasions. My constituents have written many letters, both to Ministers and to the Highways Agency. However, we still await a date for the resurfacing of the road. We did not expect the work to be done immediately, but given the promises I have received from Ministers in both letters and written parliamentary answers—I was told that an announcement would be made in the autumn of this year, but, following the announcement of a 10-year plan for road building, there has still been no news—I must tell the Minister that the matter is becoming urgent in my constituency. A promise was delivered personally by the Prime Minister, and we expect it to be honoured. We now want to know the date of the resurfacing. If the Prime Minister had been encouraged to give an early response, it would be a very good Christmas present for my constituents.
I also want to talk about bypasses. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) mentioned the Kingskerswell bypass, but there is another bypass on the Devon list—the Crediton bypass, which I realise is below the Kingskerswell bypass.
In 1997, Devon county council said that a start would be made on the Crediton bypass in 2003–04. Because of the council's view that the Barnstaple bypass should be built first—for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend—Crediton has slipped down the list. This year's capital expenditure made no provision for more than one bypass.
We welcome the Government's new-found realisation that bypasses are not wicked horrible things, that those who live in rural areas need to travel in cars, and that when they travel in cars a bypass around a town such as Crediton is very helpful. Nevertheless, this is another matter that urgently needs attention. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge in saying that we should like it to be included in future planning, so that people and businesses in Crediton can have some hope that action will be taken in their lifetime rather than continually being shunted down the list.
During the coming general election campaign, the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers—and, I hope, the Minister who is present tonight—will visit the south-west of England. If they choose not to travel on our noisy roads or visit our rather congested towns, they may come by rail. We have a serious problem in that regard. There are two railway bridges in my constituency, Stafford bridge and Cowley bridge—a piece of track on the main Great Western line to the east of Exeter and towards Tiverton Parkway station. That bridge keeps being swept away by the flooding of the River Exe.
We all know about the problems of flooding, which, in this instance, have become more apparent in the last two months. The line between Exeter and Tiverton Parkway has been closed for 22 days in the past two months because of bridges being swept away by the force of the torrent caused by the flooding of the Exe. It is a long-term problem. We are very concerned that there will now have to be a bidding process to fund a major study to determine how to overcome it.
It is the main rail route between Cornwall and London, and we really cannot have such long delays with people being bussed between stations because of an increasingly greater problem with flooding on railway bridges. I hope that the Minister will pass on to the relevant Ministers the concern of people in the west country about the situation on that particular piece of track.
We started today's debate with the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who described his constituents' serious concern about planning permission for housing for people who have served sentences for serious offences. He described the anxiety that that is creating for his local people.
We heard next from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones), who rightly flagged up the importance of the city of Wolverhampton. Interestingly, she also raised the issue of urban forests—which one does not always automatically associate with Wolverhampton—based on her local knowledge of her constituency. May I also say that Opposition Members wish her well in whatever career she has chosen to follow after the next general election?
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) described the very disturbing case of Nichola Stevenson, who is missing from a hospital where she had been subject to a section order under the Mental Health Acts. We all hope and pray that there will be a happy outcome to the case. We also hope that wider lessons will be learned about people who are subject to section orders and in the care of hospitals.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) filled his stocking with several goodies. He packed manufacturing, energy, planning, policing and other local issues into his speech.
In his speech, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) also raised many issues, particularly transport issues concerning trains and buses that greatly concern his constituents. He demonstrated his great detailed knowledge of those problems in his constituency.
The hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) raised the issues of staffing pressures in education and transport in his county.
The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made an interesting speech about the American election. His speech—reading between the lines—gave me great encouragement that some Labour Members are prepared to speak up for the current United Kingdom voting system and to flag up the danger of a politicised judiciary. A politicised judiciary is a concern not only for the United States, but for the House and the United Kingdom. He made a very helpful speech in which he made some comparisons from which we can all draw lessons.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) again raised the issue of transport, this time in relation to the costs for those who live in rural areas and on very low incomes. He also raised the very important issue of beef exports and the extremely-good quality beef that Scotland can produce. In seeking to further the export of Scottish beef, he sought the Minister's reassurance that every effort will be made to ensure equity in BSE controls across the European Union. We are all concerned about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) deplored the dumbing down of Parliament, the House and particularly this Chamber, and the failure of Ministers, including the Prime Minister, to be held to account in this Chamber. We have talked about that subject before. I am a relatively new member of the Modernisation Committee. Although I think that it is an appalling Committee, I assure my hon. Friend that I shall continue to sit on it, grit my teeth and make the case that that Committee should not undermine the democratic right of hon. Members in this Chamber.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) yet again raised the issue, as he has on several occasions in recent weeks, of Ministers' failure to allow further debate and answer questions on the now very clear anomalies in planning and strategic control of the European army and its NATO interface. I know that he will persist. I hope that the Minister will grant his wish, as I am sure that he will not let the subject slip after Christmas, given its strategic importance to this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) gave some appalling examples of bungling bureaucracy. It seems appalling that young people taking their A-levels should be the victims of bureaucracy and the jobsworth mentality. I hope that the Minister has taken that on board.
The prize for the fullest stocking today must go to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). He had lots of goodies packed in, including asylum seekers, traffic wardens and cloning. At one point, I thought that he was going to suggest cloning traffic wardens, until I realised that that would be totally against his principles.
My hon. Friend ended with a rather serious, cautionary point about pets as presents at Christmas. I agree with the warning that he gave the House. I am very fond of animals, but anyone who has ever house trained a puppy will know that Christmas week is not the week for it. One has to go to bed late, get up early, and arm oneself with lots of newspaper. It is not something to be done at the same time as stuffing the Christmas turkey. My hon. Friend was wise to warn the House of the problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge spoke about the Kingskerswell bypass. My constituency is also in Devon, and I am well aware of his assiduity in making that case, to which I have already referred in the general context of bypasses in the county.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) mentioned Dibden bay. I have visited his constituency on several occasions. Regardless of the main subject about which one speaks to my hon. Friend's constituents, all the questions afterwards are about Dibden bay. I am glad that he is so well up to speed on that subject that I can always defer to him when I am in his constituency and allow him to answer the probing questions that arise on what is happening in Dibden bay. As he demonstrated this afternoon, he will not let the matter drop. He is representing his constituents in a matter that I know concerns them greatly.
We have had in the debate, 14 speakers, who have raised many matters that are very important to them and to their constituents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) put it, hon. Members have a duty to raise such matters in the House.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) asked for more revolting MPs, who put grit in the machine, as he put it. My eye immediately strayed to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer), and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) who is a well known member of the awkward squad.
I also heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) said. I think that she is getting discharge happy. She made it clear that she would make her mark in the remainder of this Parliament if things did not go her way.
A number of hon. Members asked me to pass messages in different ways. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) asked me to have a word with at least 10 Ministers. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) asked me to get the relevant Minister to write to him about the local bypass. I can promise the letter straight away, but not the bypass. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked me to convey the message about Dibden bay in the strongest terms to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and I shall do so.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) made an important speech about complaints and how we deal with them. I take a great interest in complaints. When people get things wrong they should acknowledge as much, apologise, and look at policy issues resulting from them. People should not be afraid to use a complaint to look at wider issues as a way of resolving matters. I do not think that we handle complaints well. We can do better, and we must improve public services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting spoke about constituency issues. He is already in touch with the relevant Minister of State about two points that he raised. Clearly, local residents want reassurance and information about the hostel that my hon. Friend spoke about, and they need to be involved in the process. He also mentioned a planning issue that centres on the green in his constituency. I shall take up those issues, and make sure that he gets a reply.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West spoke about the greening of the cities, and urban forestry. That is an important matter. We must improve townscapes and landscapes, and planting trees is one way to do that. I was interested in what she said about the urban forestry unit, and I shall pursue the matter on her behalf.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire spoke about the problems at Chesterfield hospital. I share his concerns about Nichola Stevenson. Like him, I hope for the best and try not to fear the worst.
My hon. Friend also talked about environmental issues. It is important that we turn coalfields into green fields. I know that his area has suffered many job losses in mining and textiles, and there is now the Biwater closure. I congratulate him on his strong campaign on this. He has won many friends in Derbyshire as a result, and the task must now be to bring new investment, new jobs and a new future to the area. I hope that we can put together the package that he seeks to ensure that that happens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also talked about greenfield and planning issues. I am pleased that the south-west regional plan is now out and that we are aspiring to a brownfield target of 50 per cent. I believe that we should focus on market towns for integrated transport and jobs. It is important to create the right kind of houses—small ones, not big, executive, ranch-style ones.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud also talked about the police, as did the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). In Gloucestershire, there is a rural police grant. In the Metropolitan police area, there are plans to recruit 2,000 extra police officers, and, of course, bringing back the housing allowance will be a big bonus in the London area.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) raised many points, one of which was about hospitals and nurses. I am pleased that we have been able to pay the wage claim in full, that it is above the rate of inflation and that the number of nurses coming back into the NHS is increasing. We need to do the same kind of thing with teachers, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) said. It is important that there are good salary structures and that we also raise morale and praise the best. We should not always criticise teachers but should thank them for the work that they do on our behalf. One way in which to help them is to cut down on their paperwork. I think that he knows that the Department for Education and Employment is monitoring the problem and reducing paperwork.
Transport has been a big issue—bypasses are back in vogue. I was pleased to be in Leicestershire just last week to announce that a bypass would open. We will have to look at the situation in Devon. I am pleased to say that the 10-year transport plan, with £180 billion attached to it over a period of time, gives us the opportunity not just to build roads but to look at public transport and invest in the long term.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was right to say that there were particular problems in rural areas. I had not really focused on his point about how that affects people on income support, but I will pick that issue up as it is important. We have done something like that with the new deal, giving extra support for transport costs for people on the new deal.
On planning, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) mentioned Dibden bay. I hear his opposition; planning issues need to be considered on their merit. I had better not say too much about it, but there are clear environmental problems and concerns not only at Dibden bay but at Shell Haven.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mentioned the United States. The lesson for me from that election is that every vote counts. I shall be putting out a leaflet with Mr. Gore's picture on it saying "Every vote counts".
The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster asked for reassurance about the European defence initiative. I have not had the benefit of the textual analysis, but I reinforce the Prime Minister's point that we see the European army as complementary to NATO, and not a rival.
It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Question, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put, pursuant to Order [19 December].