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Before the House adjourns for the recess, I ask it to reflect on the Government's handling of the London underground and to consider committing itself to a future debate on the subject.
I have four tube stations in my constituency, so the matter is of considerable concern to my constituents, who are also the main users of a fifth station. When I read the letters in my postbag and meet people on the streets of Leyton, Leytonstone, Wanstead and Snaresbrook, I am aware of increasing concern about the Government's handling of the underground. They promised billions of pounds of investment before the 1997 general election, but Londoners, who have been very patient, are still waiting for it to come to fruition. There was a reason for the delay: legislation had to be introduced to establish the Greater London Authority, and we had to elect a Mayor who, we were promised, would have power to improve the underground. There is now no excuse.
The Government have received a hostile press regarding the underground, but that is a little unfair, as their intention is genuine. They have promised to invest big money—£13 billion over 15 years—but the way in which they are dealing with the matter risks jeopardising much-needed improvements to the tube. The public perception is that the underground system is at risk of becoming a dog's breakfast because of the method of financing that was chosen and the obfuscation of clear management responsibility.
Before the election, I wrote to Bob Kiley, the Mayor's choice to take over the tube as Commissioner of Transport for London. I asked him about the public service comparator that will be used to check the financing for the two types of bid. Bob Kiley has a splendid record of managing underground systems around the world. His sacking this week by the Government, for their purposes, should not detract from his outstanding record.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who knows much about the subject. In view of his remarks about Bob Kiley's record and professionalism, did it not concern him greatly to hear Mr. Kiley talking about the possibility of loss of life occurring on the underground as a result of Labour's policies?
Safety is a clear issue and is tied to the need for managerial responsibility and clear management lines. I shall deal with that point in due course.
I asked Bob Kiley about the public service comparator that is used to check methods of financing to ensure that the taxpayer—especially the London council tax payer—will get the best value for money. In reply, he stated that the comparator would be used as
"the basis for LUL's selection of its preferred bidders".
The system of preferred bidders has been attacked in the past week or so by the European Union, which has called it anti-competitive, but that is a matter for another day. Mr. Kiley went on to state:
"I felt that LUL's action was unduly hasty because, aside from the safety concerns that arise from the scheme, the financial case for PPP was not proven despite the positive verdict given to the bidders.
We have always stressed that the eventual contractual proposals for the Underground would have to meet the PSC test. However, the preliminary National Audit Office (NAO) report into the Government's application of PSC raised a number of serious questions. For instance, the performance standards for the Infracos were proposed to be measured against a level of service worse than today's. On the other hand, the PSC assumed that public sector performance would remain constant in spite of the improvements that were being proposed. Furthermore, it was accepted without question that financial risk would be transferred, wholesale, to the private sector"
—that is part of the Government's case—
"when in fact this would not be the case."
Clearly, some of the risk will stay with the public sector. Bob Kiley continued:
"It was the view of the NAO that these factors undermined the ability of the PSC to deliver an accurate answer with regard to the future performance of the bidders."
He went on to say that, before considering the public service comparator,
"we have been more immediately concerned with the full value for money analysis".
His conclusion was not that different from the Government's position. He stated that,
"we can find an integrated solution to the future management of the Underground that takes advantage of private sector expertise, but recognises and provides for the risks that must continue to be borne by the public sector."
I raised obfuscation of managerial responsibility with the Leader of the House at business questions yesterday. Confusion exists and could continue. London Regional Transport and London Underground Ltd. currently run the tube, but they will eventually be subject to the control of Transport for London. The Leader of the House did not appear to know that; he did not say that in his reply to me yesterday. Although the Government have sacked Bob Kiley, provided that he remains Commissioner of Transport for Transport for London, he will take over running the tube if the plans go ahead.
I presume that, if the board members are unsatisfactory to Bob Kiley and the Mayor, their days will be numbered when the transfer goes ahead. Confusion therefore exists about the role of the current LRT board and London Underground Ltd. There is a great deal of secrecy about the infrastructure companies, which are responsible for maintenance and repair and are supposed to contribute money, too. We do not know the details of their role—for example, the sort of risks that they will take. We do not even know their identity. I presume that Transport for London will run the whole system; at least, it will have a co-ordinating role. However, it will have no impact on the maintenance and repair functions.
The hon. Gentleman has graphically described the current confusion about the future management structures and the process for dealing with London Underground. Does he share my anxiety that months are passing, yet we are further away than ever from any genuine improvements to the underground? I believe that the process will drag on for years.
There is no need for the process to drag on for years. Delay is a serious problem, which I shall discuss shortly.
I want to consider managerial responsibility, because the Government are setting up the system and will therefore be responsible for the future running of the underground. Yet there is a risk that they will not answer the questions of London Members of Parliament on the subject. They may claim that the tube is the responsibility of Transport for London, the Mayor and the infrastructure companies and that they are not therefore answerable. That would be a serious abuse of the House when the Government have such a hand in establishing the system.
I have read the Government's briefing, which states that the proposed system for London Underground Ltd. is not the same as that for Railtrack when the Conservative Government privatised the railways. I support the Government on that, but I am worried about the obfuscation of managerial responsibility, which continues to be imported, albeit in a slightly different form, into the Government's system. That is unacceptable; it is not a decent way in which to run a railway.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's excellent contribution. Is he aware that one of the Government's defences is that they must have some control over London Underground because £13 billion is being invested in the system? It is unclear how much of that comes from public sources and how much will be raised through a private finance initiative. Does not that negate the principle of devolved government for London? We will end up with no one being accountable.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which shows that confusion exists about future managerial arrangements and accountability. I do not know whether the Government said that they will have some control over the system; I believed that they were going to hand it over to Transport for London. That reveals the confusion about the current position.
Cost and delay pose a problem to the proposed new system. The Evening Standard reported this week that £80 million had been spent on consultancy fees on the Government's public-private partnership. That money would have been much better spent on the trains. The Government appear to believe that, because they have spent such large sums, they have to go ahead with the consultants' recommendations. That is a problem.
Let us consider the rate of return for the infrastructure companies. There is great secrecy about that, but I have read that it is likely to be some 15 to 20 per cent. per annum on the capital investment; perhaps we will find out later this year. If the figure is correct, it would be cheaper to finance the tube publicly.
The public-private partnership means vast extra expense simply because the international institutions and the Treasury follow the unnecessary ideological dogma that private is good and public is bad. That is simply not the case, especially for the tube. We could lever in private funds, but at a lower cost than is proposed. Even managers who are responsible for private finance initiative systems and public-private partnerships do not believe that the Government's proposals for the underground make sense.
The International Project Finance Association, which represents the interests of private sector companies involved in project financing, conducted a poll of its members on the PPP deal. It asked three questions. The first was:
"Do you think the Labour government is correct to pursue a PPP scheme for LU?"
The result was that 78 per cent. voted yes and 22 per cent. voted no. The second question was:
"Do you believe that the proposed PPP structure for London Underground is the correct structure to use?"
The result was that 37 per cent. voted yes and 63 per cent. voted no. The third question was:
"Do you believe that the PPP scheme will be implemented successfully and ensure LU is modernised and updated to the expected standards?"
Forty per cent. voted yes and 60 per cent. voted no. The Government are not even winning in the constituency that one would expect to support them.
The Government rightly embarked on a programme of devolution, which applied to London. A Mayor was elected to run the underground. The Government should let go and let him get on with it. He is directly elected and Londoners will hold him accountable for his actions on the underground. The Government are confusing matters by keeping their hand in and obfuscating.
I wish to make two final points. First, big players in the Cabinet have been dealing with the underground for a long time, but they are not Londoners; even the Minister for Transport, who has responsibility for the underground, is not a Londoner. There is a growing feeling among Londoners that those big players have little knowledge, care or regard for London. That is a serious problem, which could hurt the Government.
Secondly, there has been much talk of grudges between some of the big players and the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. I do not mind their having political differences and spelling them out in detail, but they should not use London as a playground, because the underground suffers. Londoners should not be the subject of a feeble political feud.
There is a strong case for a full debate on the underground, and for the Government to think again about the public-private partnership and to start working with the Mayor of London so that we can get the best of what they both want: the big cash investment that the Government want, and the clear managerial responsibility that the Mayor wants. I call for that debate.
I am delighted to follow Harry Cohen. He and I became Members on the same day. We have nothing whatever in common politically, but he has always been a very straightforward politician.
Before the House adjourns for the summer recess, I wish to raise a number of points, the first of which concerns mobile phones. I am sick to death of them. The nation is obsessed with mobile phones. As I drove here this morning, there seemed to be a mass of people walking along the embankment with bits of plastic stuck to their ears. Worse than that, everyone seemed to be on the mobile phone in their cars, completely oblivious to the fact that that represents a danger to other people.
During the general election campaign, the issue of mobile phones was raised continually on the doorstep. I am sure other hon. Members found the same thing. I found myself scaling great heights to look at some of the very ugly antennae that are stuck on top of buildings. I would be grateful if the Government would get their act together when we return in the autumn, and tell the House what they intend to do about the Stewart report. My constituents still have doubts about the danger of radiation and cancer. We want a lead from this rotten Government. We want to hear what they intend to do about the planning laws; local authorities and the Government cannot bounce responsibility back and forth. Someone must take responsibility.
I hesitate to hold up the hon. Gentleman in full flight, but is he aware that there is provision for local authorities not to grant planning permission for mobile phone masts, and certainly not to allow them to be placed on council buildings? Many local authorities—perhaps even the hon. Gentleman's own—are trying to make a great deal of money out of putting them on local authority buildings.
This is the joy of the summer Adjournment debates. I am delighted to take an intervention from another straightforward politician. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right in part of what he says, but my local authority would say that if it turned down an application, a huge amount of money would be expended when the case went to appeal and that it would get absolutely nowhere. I want the Government to give us some straight answers on this matter.
A few weeks ago, a huge articulated lorry went into the side of the vehicle that I was driving, which had my children in it. The lorry driver was completely unaware that he had gone into the side of the vehicle, because he was on the phone. I gave chase when I eventually recovered. The lorry was so filthy that I could hardly read the registration plate, but it was from somewhere in the north of England. We need some leadership from the Government about the dangers of people driving vehicles while talking on their mobile phones.
My second point is on education.
I am reluctant, as are most people, to interrupt the hon. Gentleman as he races through the streets of Basildon, or wherever, in pursuit of northern lorries. Will he remind the House of the fact that the last Conservative Government, of whom he was such a distinguished supporter, so deregulated the planning process in relation to mobile phone masts that they were allowed under permitted development without a smidgen of public consultation? Did the hon. Gentleman vote for or against those measures?
I am delighted to take an intervention from my fellow co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary scout group, who is another straightforward politician. However, I have to ask Labour Members to get a life. This is their second term in office and if they do not like the law, they have a huge majority with which to change it. We heard nothing in the Queen's Speech about changing the law on that issue.
Before I was interrupted, I was about to talk about education. Last night, I had the privilege to be at a presentation to the deputy head teacher of Eastwood school who was retiring after 37 years. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who gave me a hand-written note to give to Mrs. Jackie Howarth. When it was presented to her, it meant a great deal. In years to come, such occasions will no longer arise, because no one will serve as a teacher for 37 years.
There is a crisis in the teaching profession. In Southend, we have 22 vacancies in our secondary schools, and 14 in our primary schools. I am advised by Essex county council that there were 318 vacancies in January; the figure has now risen to 388. There is an absolute crisis in education, as hon. Members will know from having canvassed in the dreadful general election campaign. Will the Leader of the House or his deputy tell us what the Government are going to do about it?
The graduate training programme has been a success, but I want to ask the Government to look at the minimum age for the programme, which I think is currently 24. When I met teachers last night, I could not believe what they told me: 16 teachers were leaving from one school, and 25 from another. This is a crisis. Will the Government reconsider the minimum age, and perhaps reduce it from 24 to 22? Will they also consider reducing the time that classroom assistants have to spend training from three years to two?
On law and order, all hon. Members know from the dreadful general election campaign that their constituents are disappointed with the way in which crime is being fought. Policewomen and policemen in my constituency do a fantastic job, but they are under establishment. We have all these cameras up and down the country. I do not know whether they have films in them.
My hon. Friend says that they have. We now have a wheeze involving unmarked cars with lights flashing at us. That is all wonderful, but my constituents think that there are not enough police. What is the good of us meeting here in Parliament and making laws, if there is no one to enforce them? It is a complete waste of time. Look at all the laws we have. This morning, people were riding their bikes on the pavements, dogs were fouling the footpaths and people were dropping litter. There is not a chance of the law being enforced.
Chief constables might say that they are going to have a purge on a particular issue, but if someone gets caught, they say that it is unfair and that they were jolly unlucky. Since 1997, when this rotten Government came to power, police morale has sunk to rock bottom. In 1979, the Conservatives had to sort out the mess left by Labour and we implemented the Edmund-Davies report. This is all about pay and conditions.
If any Member of Parliament feels that the health service is delivering a satisfactory level of service to their constituents, I do not know who they are talking to. There has been a huge drop in morale in the health service throughout the country. We do not have enough nurses. For the first time, general practitioners will be going on strike. During the election campaign there was a meeting of GPs who have small surgeries. They are up in arms about what is happening. In our area, there has been a complete breakdown of the mental health service and two centres are closing. We are left with only one consultant psychiatrist who is looking for a job elsewhere. There is an absolute crisis.
Last night, I asked one of the graduate teachers, who is 27, what he did before going on the programme. He was a paramedic, so I asked why he had left the job. He said, "Because the pay was absolutely appalling." According to him, paramedics start on one level and 25 years later, apparently, they receive the same pay. [Interruption.] That is what the chap said last night and I do not think that he is a liar. I am a member of the Health Committee and I hope that it will consider the issue. There is an absolute crisis in our health service and the Government must address it.
A constituent has written to me about the amount of credit being advertised, and I hope that we address that.
I also hope that the Government do something about care homes. Morale has broken down because of all the different regulations and homes are closing right, left and centre even though we have an ageing population.
The Government must also do something about the community health councils; that issue will not go away.
I love Parliament and the new Leader of the House tells us that he loves Parliament, but if Members want to know why only one person in four voted for the Government, I shall tell them—Parliament has been completely diminished. There is a great cry for modernisation, but modernisation has not encouraged people to come out and vote. What happened with the Select Committees is an absolute disgrace and if the stories in the newspapers about my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh not being approved as Chairman of the International Development Committee because he is a Catholic—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office shakes his head. I am saying that if that is true, it is an absolute disgrace and Members should be ashamed if they took that decision.
I hope that when the new Leader of the House considers reforms, he will bring power back to this place. General elections are all about voting for people who can produce good law, so it is outrageous that spin doctors who no one voted for have been given power even though they were never entrusted with it by the British people. It is also outrageous that the media continue to hear about matters before the House does.
We have a rotten Government. There are good women and good men in that Government but overall, they have no strategy and half the time we debate a lot of rubbish. During the long summer recess, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends reflect on our position and that we get away from the obsession of having a career in Parliament, because Members should concentrate on their job as constituency representatives. We must unite and fire all our guns on the Labour and Liberal parties.
Whether Members spend their summer recess in Mexico, Scarborough or Southend, West, I wish them, Mr. Speaker, his three deputies, the Leader of the House and officers of the House a happy time and I hope that we return reinvigorated.
I hardly need tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or any other Member how overawed and inadequate I feel. It seems that the eyes of the world are on me, even though they probably are not. I am bearing in mind the one piece of advice that all the wise old stagers have given me, "Remember, this may be a big moment for you and your mum, but it is of no interest whatever to anybody else."
In these dying hours before the summer recess, I feel embarrassed to inflict my clumsy first stab on a House accustomed to much better. Nevertheless, I am glad of the chance to say a few words about my distinguished predecessor, Robin Corbett, who, having entered the House almost 30 years ago, has a lot of friends here. Happily, although they have to make do with me as his replacement, they have only to walk to the other end of the building to find the noble Baron Corbett of Castle Vale in all his ermine finery and splendour.
Robin Corbett is a good man who served our community in Erdington admirably for many years and, as well as much else, did great service in the House as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. Since I took over from him, he and his wife Val have been extraordinarily kind and helpful to me and I have no doubt that those who visit the other place will find him sticking up for our part of Birmingham with the same vigour and valour as he displayed here for so many years.
Erdington is a place worth sticking up for. I grew up in the adjoining constituencies of Perry Barr and West Bromwich, East, the northern parts of which melt into Erdington and Kingstanding, and those places are special for the same reason—their people. I shall not pretend that my constituency is the most conventionally beautiful corner of England. As it happens, I love Spaghetti Junction, which is lucky, because I live almost directly under it. But that is okay—I am a Brummie. I was raised among the concrete and the canals, so I feel the same way about contraflows and flyovers as did Priestley about the Pennines and Ted Hughes about the corncrakes, the kittiwakes and all that country malarkey that I am not au fait with.
I cannot pretend that Erdington is bucolic, but it has its graceful nooks and crannies. At Rookery House, Peter Hulse's beautiful gardens are an oasis of tranquillity and peace, but I must take this chance to call on Birmingham council to ensure not only that Rookery House remains the great amenity that it is, but that it is developed into an even better amenity, with the house itself brought into full public use.
My point, despite the delights of Rookery House, is that people are Erdington's great strength. This nation's second city is, unusually, its most patronised and least appreciated. There is almost no aspect of Brummagem that escapes the attention of comedians from elsewhere, but I am glad of the chance to assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we really do not care about that. We can easily live with all the jokes about our shopping centres and our accent, because we have an indomitable sense of who we are and where we come from.
I am not at all embarrassed to describe the people of Birmingham as the very backbone of this country and that is true not just because of what we do or what we make, although that is still what we are most famous for, and rightly so. In Erdington, we make the S-type Jaguar, which is a beautiful British car that is keeping alive a great British brand. We also make some of the world's finest machine tools at Cincinnati, the overwhelming majority of which are exported. At Valor heating, we make the famous old gas fires that still keep Britain warm in winter. Members will not be astonished to learn that, at Dunlop Aircraft Tyres, we make an extraordinary variety of aircraft tyres.
Until recently, we made the tyres for Concorde, but under the Concorde safety review, the contract was unilaterally and disgracefully awarded to a French tyre company, even though there is no reason to believe that its product is any safer than Dunlop's. Even though that happened before I was elected, the inability to do anything about it already feels like my first failure as an MP.
By any standards, the recent efforts of those and other Erdington companies have been outstandingly impressive. Neither the strong pound nor the weak euro is doing any favours to exporters, but those companies are soldiering on because they have a solid mixture of good management and progressive trade unionism, which is the bedrock of modern manufacturing and will continue to be so.
As I keep saying, it is not what we do but who we are that makes me proud to represent Erdington, Kingstanding, Pype Hayes, Castle Vale and our other communities. What is special about us is how normal we are. By "normal", I mean what normal normally means, not what Norman—or should that be normal—Tebbit means by normal.
Yes, I mean normal. What is normal about my constituents is that, whatever else they are, they are ordinary, decent, straightforward people who work hard and play by the rules. They do not want special favours or extravagant deals; they know only too well that the world does not owe them a living. They do not expect to be cosseted and cuddled from the cradle to the grave; all they ask is a fair crack—a reasonable chance of a reasonable job, a decent education for their children, decent health care and housing, and streets that they can walk without fear.
To many people, that does not seem like a particularly ambitious prospectus; it hardly seems like too much to ask. Yet we have failed to provide those things for generations. As a partisan politician—which we all are—I believe that much of the blame for that failure lies at the door of the Conservative party. However, the Labour party, too, has made its share of misjudgments. During the 1980s, in particular, we let people down too. My point is that the whole political class should share responsibility for failing to satisfy such basic aspirations. It is hardly surprising that people do not trust us when we consistently fail to deliver such fundamentals.
By the same token, and with reference to what Mr. Amess said earlier, it is hardly surprising that people do not bother to vote. Perhaps a low turnout is a symptom not just of our failure to engage, connect or other such vague words, but of politicians' consistent failure to deliver the basic things to which people feel entitled. Voter turnout in Erdington on
My worry is not that the average age of a Member of Parliament is 50.3. There is nothing wrong with that; some of my best friends are 50.3. My problem is that I am 32—
Yes, it may. None the less, on the doorstep I was struck by how incredibly old and out of touch I seemed to those young people, who subsequently, sure enough, did not vote. I have no magic answers to this problem, but I truly believe that it can be solved. The fact that we have not done so thus far is not fundamental, systemic and unchangeable, but simply a function of the fact that we have not tried hard enough. It may sound as though I have a naively simple faith in our ability to change people's behaviour, but it is nothing more than a simple faith in democracy, which is another way of saying a simple faith in people. We all know that politics does make a difference. We must convince our younger constituents of that. I am convinced that we can do so if we try harder.
I would not like older Members—for want of a more gentle phrase—[Hon. Members: "More experienced Members"]—and more experienced Members to take this youth manifesto as a slight on their seniority. I have been touched by the generosity with which old hands have given me wise counsel and warm friendship, without treating me too much like an irritating son-in-law. Continually being taken for a researcher is becoming a little wearing, although it beats being barred from the Terrace, as I was a couple of weeks ago, on the grounds of my uncanny resemblance to a member of the press.
As my wife was supposed to give birth a week ago but has not—I do not blame her, any more than I blame hon. Members for being old—I probably should not quote the line from Jimmy Baldwin:
"all the sons I might have had mean nothing, for I have a son".
It expresses exactly how I feel about becoming a Member of Parliament.
Whatever we may have done or been before, being elected to this place for the first time presents the most arduous challenge and the most awesome responsibility. After only six weeks, I am already well aware of how much harder this job is than it looks. I only hope that, in a couple of years or so, I may start to get the hang of it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I congratulate Mr. Simon on his first speech, which I found interesting and humorous. I wish him well in his constituency and hope that his wife delivers shortly. Given what he said, I hope that she has a daughter and that he enjoys the experience.
In standing before the House for the first time today, I am reminded of the comment that there are only two things more difficult than making a short address: the first is trying to climb a wall that is leaning forwards; and the second is trying to kiss a girl who is leaning backwards.
Needless to say, it is a great honour and a privilege to be addressing the House and I thank the voters of Billericay and district for sending me here. As we all know, the first duty of a Member of Parliament is to be a good constituency Member and I shall do my utmost to serve the interests of all my constituents, regardless of how they voted or whether they voted at all. I also thank my family and friends in the constituency for all their support, without which I would not be here. In addition, I thank Thalia, my wife, for being by my side for the past 10 years.
I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor. Teresa Gorman represented the Billericay constituency diligently and effectively after becoming its MP in 1987. Essex is known for the independence and entrepreneurial character of its people, and Theresa earned the respect of many by not being afraid to make up her own mind on things and speaking out on what she thought was right. During her time here she championed a wide range of worthwhile causes, including those of small businesses and the self-employed. She battled against trade union closed shops, the Post Office monopoly and the creeping loss of our sovereignty to Brussels and the European Union. Theresa was never afraid to stand alone and challenge conventional wisdom. I am sure that the House joins me in wishing her and her husband Jim all the best for the future.
I am fortunate to represent the Billericay and district constituency. It is a diverse constituency, comprising four townships, broadly one in each corner of the constituency: Billericay, Wickford, Laindon and Pitsea. Each has its own character and sense of community. In the middle is beautiful greenbelt land and green fields, which is part agricultural but includes villages of various sizes, such as Crays Hill, Ramsden Bellhouse, Little Burstead and Great Burstead.
My constituency has some of the most interesting churches and listed buildings in the land. It also has some excellent markets—in Pitsea and Wickford there are always bargains to be had. Indeed, with its four townships, my constituency is a shopping paradise, with its wide range of merchandise for sale and its excellent pubs, inns and restaurants.
As for Billericay itself, the town has historical connections with the Pilgrim Fathers. Christopher Martin, who led the expedition, and his family left Billericay to sail on the Mayflower in 1620. That journey is symbolised in Billericay today by the many references to the Mayflower—for example, Mayflower school, the Mayflower and Pilgrim pubs—and by the numerous small businesses that include the word "Mayflower" in their name. Christopher Martin road is on the edge of my constituency. There are several towns in New England itself called Billericay, and one called Billerica, which is the original spelling. Those men and women were escaping the heavy hand of government, which at that time would not allow people to worship or lead their lives as they saw fit.
I should like to take this opportunity to make the Government aware of one of the key issues concerning many entrepreneurs who live in the constituency today: that is, the rising burden of regulation and taxes on small businesses and the adverse consequences that flow from that for my constituents and for the country as a whole.
One of the main reasons why I am a Conservative is that I believe the relief of poverty should be one of the main objectives of politics. But this can better be brought about if we foster personal freedoms within the rule of law, if we encourage enterprise, and if we allow businesses, especially small businesses, to breathe and thrive. Such an approach will create a more prosperous economy and more wealth from which the Government can take their rightful share in order to help the truly disadvantaged in society.
That will not happen, however, if Government pile regulations and costs on to business, because that will hinder enterprise and, eventually, our ability to help those most in need. Yet this Government continue to make life difficult for entrepreneurs. During Labour's first term, red tape costs increased by £15 billion according to the British Chambers of Commerce. Regulations such as the working time directive, the working families tax credit, the data protection directive and student loan repayment have all contributed to those increased costs. And the burden of red tape always falls disproportionately on small firms. Figures from the Institute of Chartered Accountants show that the cost to small businesses of implementing new legislation doubled in the period 1990-2000. Such a cost is meaningful to small businesses.
As for tax, the Confederation of British Industry has calculated that overall taxes on businesses have increased by about £26 billion since Labour came to power. Examples of that include IR35, the climate change levy and the highest fuel duty in the European Union. The many self-employed in my constituency, and the 3 million across the country, also pay more tax courtesy of a national insurance regime that has become more onerous since the 1999 Budget.
The Conservative party has pledged less regulation, and would exempt small firms from a raft of regulations, including the working families tax credit. We have pledged to abolish IR35, to cut fuel tax, to abolish the climate change levy and to reduce business rates. I believe that we should go further in reducing the overall level of taxation, especially for the self-employed, whose level of income tax and national insurance contributions is far too high. I ask the Government to consider this issue, which is causing concern to a large number of my constituents.
I would also ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the Government's attitude to two further issues that are troubling my constituents, and which also show how the heavy hand of government can adversely impact on individuals and local communities in their daily lives. The first relates to greenbelt and greenfield development. In short, the Government seem determined to force Essex county council to build 5,200 houses a year for the next 15 years. That will put tremendous strain on our already overburdened infrastructure. My party believes that local authorities and local communities should decide on the right level of local development, not politicians sitting in Westminster. I urge the Government to consider that proposal.
The second issue relates to incinerators. There is strong evidence that incinerators emit dioxins, which can cause cancer, yet the Government refuse to match the Conservative party's policy to instigate a moratorium on the building of new incinerators. We believe that they are a health hazard until proven otherwise. Would the Government please reconsider that proposal, as that would help to ease the concerns of many of my constituents?
There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of hon. Members, regardless of party, are here because they want to try to improve society. We differ on the method of achieving that goal. The Conservative party has greater faith in the individual than in the state, believing that politicians can sometimes be the problem not the solution. That is so whether the issue is freeing our entrepreneurs from stifling regulation and costs, allowing our local communities to make their own decisions about greenbelt development and incinerators, giving our local police forces more say in how they police their local communities, allowing our local doctors and nurses, governors and teachers more say in the running of their hospitals and schools, or guarding our country's sovereignty against the unelected politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels.
We must guard against an overpowerful Government who tend to encroach on the personal rights and freedoms of individuals, and instead encourage individual initiative and enterprise, which will benefit society as a whole. I am conscious of my constituency's historical link with the Pilgrim Fathers. I look forward to playing my part in achieving that goal in the years ahead, and hope that no one has to set sail from my constituency while I am the MP.
Controversy is raging in the columns of my local papers about whether Ilford is or should be part of London or Essex. As someone who was born in London and who may or may not be an Essex girl, I welcome Mr. Baron and congratulate him on his interesting and thoughtful maiden speech. I am interested in history, so I was fascinated to hear about his constituency's connection with the Pilgrim Fathers. He paid deserved credit to his famous, feisty predecessor, Mrs. Gorman, who was one of the House's great characters. With no disrespect to her successor, I am sorry that he is an Essex man and not an Essex girl.
In response to the hon. Gentleman's concerns about regulation, let me say that I believe that not all regulation is bad. It is often necessary for accountability, safety, fairness and justice. I have a constituent whose monthly income has almost doubled as a result of the working families tax credit, and she told me how much that had helped her and other people she knew. Their lives have been transformed by the extra money.
I pay tribute to the self-deprecating and humorous contribution of my hon. Friend Mr. Simon. I share his concerns about low voter turnout. My solution would be compulsory voting, but there is still quite a debate to be had about that.
I want to focus on a couple of matters of concern in my constituency. When I was elected as a local councillor 12 years ago, I was warned that the most difficult problems to be resolved were those involving planning applications. Not only did that prove to be the case, but the complexities of the issues and the high emotions generated by planning matters have pursued me, and I am sure many other hon. Members, into the House.
The first matter of concern is an application by Wiggins plc to build a horseracing course on Fairlop plain, which is a greenbelt area on the borders of London and Essex. The 124-hectare site at present comprises public open space with a country park, a golf course, a sailing lake, an indoor children's amusement and activity centre and a bar-restaurant. It is part of an extensive open area directly linked to other open land to the east stretching into the rural areas of neighbouring boroughs and districts in Essex.
The proposal is to redevelop the land to provide an all-weather racecourse, grandstand, stables, health and fitness centre, a hostel for grooms, veterinary facilities, enclosures, parking for cars and coaches, internal estate roads, landscaping and alterations to the public highways. On
The application was rejected on the grounds that it was contrary both to national policy guidance in PPGs 2, 9 and 13 and to a raft of policies in the council's own unitary development plan, and as an inappropriate development in the metropolitan green belt. A particular objection was made to the proposed grandstand, whose proportions are 37 m high and 320 m wide according to current projections. Because of its design, mass, height, prominence and position, together with the associated buildings and so on, it was felt that the grandstand would have an over-dominant and intrusive visual impact on the open landscape of Fairlop plain, as well as a serious and adverse effect on the amenities of nearby residential properties.
The council also believed that the proposed development would be likely to encourage unrestrained car use and would generate unacceptable levels of road traffic, thereby increasing congestion on local roads. Furthermore, there was great alarm about the threat to a site of nature conservation importance, where there would be a direct loss of habitats, including grassland and water, as well as an indirect effect on remaining habitats owing to increased activity, noise, disturbance and light pollution.
The developers mounted an appeal and a public inquiry was held this year, from
My evidence concentrated on the unrealistic expectations of the developers with regard to access by public transport. I was especially interested in the comments about the underground made earlier by my hon. Friend Harry Cohen, as the development relies on several thousand racegoers using the last-but-one station on my branch of the Central line. Several thousand people would have to exit from a small suburban station over short periods during the evening peak and late at night. The impact on rail and bus services and the increased traffic congestion would be horrendous.
As the local MP, I received, and continue to receive, a large number of objections from constituents—more than 100 to date and the number is increasing. As a local resident for nearly 30 years, I share their concerns about the potential damage to the environment and nature conservation, as well as the grave traffic and transportation consequences, should the application succeed. As the planning inspector is now preparing his report for the Secretary of State, I want to draw the attention of the House to the strong feelings among my constituents about the proposed development.
The other matter that I want to raise in my contribution has already been referred to by Mr. Amess, who is unfortunately no longer in his place—[Interruption.] I see that he has crossed the Floor—temporarily, I expect.
I always enjoy the contributions of the hon. Member for Southend, West on these occasions. Although I have not previously contributed to the summer or winter Adjournment debates, I always read the report of the speeches. The hon. Gentleman manages to raise many issues—about 10 last time. They are always matters of concern and on this occasion I share his concern about the controversy over the siting and possible health effects of mobile phone masts. That concern was shown throughout the last Parliament in a series of early-day motions and a constant stream of parliamentary questions, which have continued in this Parliament, requesting information and updates on Government action on the planning and health-related aspects of those masts. During the last Parliament, my hon. Friend Ms Shipley introduced a ten-minute Bill on the subject, and I tabled a parliamentary question on
I have had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry since 1998 and am pleased to be able to continue to serve on it. When it was suggested that the Committee should take evidence on mobile phone masts, I strongly urged that we should do so, because of the concerns that had been expressed in my constituency. We produced a report on
"explicit guidance as to what weight to give to anxieties over the possible health effects of masts."
The hon. Member for Southend, West asked what the Government were doing about those concerns. The report of the independent expert group on mobile phones was published in May 2000, and I am pleased that the Government have accepted Sir William Stewart's recommended precautionary approach. They have introduced a range of measures, including the publication of leaflets about mobile phones, base stations and health to give people the latest information and advice, which is most important. A national database has been set up with details of base stations, to ensure that all base stations meet the international exposure guidelines. An audit is being undertaken of mobile phone base stations and masts to assess emissions, focusing on schools, about which there was particular concern. That came across in the evidence taken by the Select Committee.
Some comfort may be drawn from the information provided by the Under–Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend Ms Keeble in response to inquiries I made on behalf of a large number of residents who were concerned about the proposal to erect a mast in Clayhall avenue in my constituency. In her letter of
In a further initiative, the Government set up a £7 million joint Government-industry research programme. That was announced in December 2000, but I understand that the first group of research proposals is not due to be undertaken until October. Both Sir William Stewart's report and a statement by the World Health Organisation in June 2000 refer to gaps in our knowledge of the assessment of health risks. The WHO states:
"None of the most recent reviews have concluded that exposure to the radio frequency fields from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequences."
However, the statement also notes:
"It will take three to four years for the required radio frequency research to be completed and evaluated and to publish the final results of any health risk."
That is an extremely long time, given that people are so concerned about these issues. I urge the Government to expedite our own research programme so as to address the real and immediate concerns of our constituents.
I associate myself with the remarks of Linda Perham in welcoming the maiden speeches of Mr. Simon and of my hon. Friend Mr. Baron. In respect of my hon. Friend's contribution, I suspect that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—especially the Whips—will be hoping that he is not as idiosyncratic as his predecessor. However, both he and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington made robust speeches; the House enjoyed them and we look forward to hearing many more speeches from both hon. Members.
I want to say something about the health service in my constituency. I want to identify at least three points at which the health service is breaking down in a grave manner. Those examples are intended to illustrate that, on the ground, there is a serious problem in the delivery of the national health service to our respective constituents. I do not for a moment pretend that the Government and Ministers are exclusively to blame for what has happened, but they are now in a position to address the problems and therefore the responsibility is theirs. It is right that we should look to them to bring about solutions.
I shall focus on three issues within the NHS. The first is beta interferon. The second is the fact that in my constituency, particularly around Sleaford, it is impossible for my constituents to get on to the national health service dental list. Lastly, my constituents are waiting 68 weeks to get an appointment to see a consultant neurologist after referral to Pilgrim hospital. None of those things is right, and they point to a serious deficiency in the service.
Many hon. Members have constituency problems to do with beta interferon and will be familiar with them, but the House should know the problem in my constituency. Many patients from my constituency are suffering from multiple sclerosis. Beta interferon has been prescribed by their consultant clinician but they are not getting it. The reason why they are not getting it, it is said, is because there is not enough money. The health service has set aside £200,000 per annum to fund that particular drug, and once that funding has run out there is no more available.
I have a letter, from which I will quote in part, from Professor Blumhardt, who is a man of great distinction at the University hospital Queen's medical centre and who has been made responsible by Lincolnshire health authority for dealing with patients from my constituency and, indeed, from others. He has written to me many times but I shall quote from a letter of
"Since July 1995, I have been screening at the specific request of Lincoln Health, all patients referred from their Region for this treatment. There have been 99 referrals of whom 44 were unsuitable for this therapy. 55 referrals were suitable and in my clinical opinion needed this treatment as soon as possible. Lincoln Health"— that is, Lincolnshire health authority—
"provided funding for 11 of these patients, ie. only 1 patient in every 5 . . . In my clinical opinion as a consultant neurologist, I have prioritised all 55 for treatment. It should be noted that it is not possible to prioritise patients within that 55, as we cannot predict who might respond better or who might be in greater need of this therapy outside of the current evidence base . . . Many of the 44 patients who are untreated have continued to deteriorate for variable lengths of time between 1995 and the present. They have suffered from unpleasant disabling neurological attacks, sometimes requiring hospital admission and have undoubtedly accumulated further disability and are at higher risk of significant progressive disease in future years as a result of not being treated.
In other words, there is no way that we can clinically justify treating 11 patients out of the 55 prioritised cases in Lincoln. There is no rational way for me or any other clinical neurologist to choose patients from within that 55 that I have . . . found to be eligible."
In a subsequent letter, he summarises the position:
"This means that the current unmet need for interferon over this period of several years amounts to 81 per cent. of the patients for whom I wished to prescribe this effective treatment."
Eighty-one per cent. of the patients for whom that distinguished clinical consultant has recommended treatment will not get it. That is a scandal. I find it extraordinary that, in a civilised country, 81 per cent. of patients who have seen the clinical consultant responsible for their cases should not be treated.
My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. I will raise the matter in my own speech, but does he recognise that it is a fact that the earlier the treatment is given, the more likely it is to be successful, and that if treatment is not given early, irreparable damage and disability can follow from the delay? Will he say a word about the delay by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which the Government have allowed, in bringing forward its recommendations? It has been considering the matter for two years. Surely the rule should be that beta interferon can be used while we wait for the recommendations to be made. We should not have to wait for those recommendations.
I agree that if the treatment is not administered early, it is likely that damage will be done to the patients and that they will suffer. I also agree that the delay in receiving the NICE report is too long. I believe that we will receive it in the latter part of this year, but it is a long time since it started work.
There are two points of principle in any event. First, why is it that in Lincolnshire patients are getting a worse deal than in many other parts of the country where beta interferon is more readily available? Secondly, why should Lincolnshire health authority, by cash-limiting the budget, frustrate the recommendations of the clinicians to whom it has entrusted the task of distinguishing the patients who need it from those who do not? I am very worried about the situation.
The second issue covers much the same ground: dental services in and around Sleaford, where it is impossible—I mean impossible—for persons who are not on NHS dental lists to get on to them. There are no vacancies on any NHS dental lists in and around Sleaford. A few months ago, the health service was bullied, by me inter alia, to establish an emergency clinic. It is using a retired dentist. I do not say that in any critical sense—I am grateful to him for providing his services—but the clinic will be open one day a week and for emergency only. The advice given to my constituents who want to be on an NHS list for routine treatment is, "Get it out of county." What kind of service is that, in God's name? My constituents are simply being denied what they have a right to expect: NHS dental facilities for ordinary treatment.
I do not want to be unfair to the health service. A clinic in the adjoining village of Heckington will be opened, I hope, at the end of this year, but for months and months and months the service has not been available. I have written to Ministers and to the health service many times. I get told about emergency schemes, initiatives and this and that, but my constituents still cannot get on to NHS dental lists. I suspect that the reason why they cannot is because the Government are not prepared to put the money into the remuneration of dentists. Whenever I have talked to dentists about why they are not willing to come to Sleaford, it comes down to fees. That is the responsibility of the Government.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the NHS employing many dentists as salaried practitioners would be one way out of the problem of dental treatment being unavailable on the NHS? At the moment, many private dentists do NHS work only if they cannot get enough private work to keep them going. Is not the issue one of asking a dentist to work for the public as a whole through the NHS?
I have suggested to Lincolnshire health authority that it should contemplate engaging dentists on a salaried basis in order to provide routine NHS work until such time as other practices can be established that are willing to do NHS work, so to that extent the hon. Gentleman and I agree. There may well be a need for salaried NHS dental practitioners in order to provide routine treatment. That is a suggestion that I have made to the health authority.
My next point is on consultant neurology, and specifically on two constituency cases that I have encountered since the last general election. One particular person, whom I shall call Mr. H as I do not want to be more specific, had a heart complaint. He went to Pilgrim hospital, in Boston, which is the hospital that services my constituency in some important respects. Staff there identified the fact that he might have Parkinson's disease, and consequently that he required an appointment with a consultant neurologist.
Mr. H sought an appointment with a consultant neurologist. He was told, however, and I have the letter to hand, that it would be 68 weeks—17 months—before he would be seen for his first appointment. He is not the only person in that position. I have another such case—someone to whom I shall refer as Mrs. H is in a similar position. In the past three weeks, therefore, I have encountered two constituents who require access to a consultant neurologist but who have been told that they will have to wait 68 weeks before being able to see one.
"The vast majority of neurology outpatients—about 95 per cent.—are seen within 26 weeks and the average waiting time in England is 11.04 weeks. More than 58 per cent. of hospitals are able to give appointments within 13 weeks."—[Hansard, 16 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 71W.]
But in Lincolnshire, the wait is 68 weeks.
I wrote to the consultant to express surprise at the delay. I do not want to be unfair to him; he may have thought that I was trying to bounce one constituent ahead of another in the queue, which is not what I intended to do. He may have misunderstood what I was doing. I want to make that clear because of what I shall now say about the reaction that I received. That particular gentleman's response was to suggest that he did not particularly like to spend his time replying to that type of complaint. I got the very clear impression that the clinician to whom I wrote did not feel that he had to account for that type of delay. As a matter of fact, he blamed the delay on funding, and he may well be right about that.
My point is that professionals are indeed obliged to account for things. The day has passed when professionals, whether they be legal or medical, can simply say that they are living in a tower and should not be approached and obliged to account for their behaviour. As a member the Bar and as an hon. Member, I have to account for my behaviour, and I expect doctors and surgeons and the like to do so as well. When I write on behalf of my constituents, I expect a prompt, full and courteous reply. When I do not receive one, I want to know the reason why not.
I have one other point to make on Pilgrim hospital, and it is again not a very happy situation. Another constituent of mine was suffering from secondary cancer. He attended Pilgrim hospital and was referred to Leicester for a consultant's appointment. After a rather long wait, he went to Leicester. When he arrived, he found that Pilgrim hospital had not provided his medical records or X-rays. Consequently, the appointment was a complete waste of time. It could not be conducted, and another appointment has to be made.
People like me are not experts in the health service and I do not pretend that I am, but I can draw the lessons from what people say to me and what is disclosed to me in correspondence. The service is breaking down. Beta interferon is not available; national health service dental facilities are not available; 68 weeks to wait to see a consultant neurologist—intolerable; and papers and X-rays not furnished at the appropriate time.
There needs to be a proper grip on the health service. I do not dispute that it may be in part a question of money, but by God it is also a question of management. We need to have that service managed properly. If that involves introducing private sector management schemes and new means of funding, I am in favour of it. Above all, we have to make it absolutely plain to the Government that our constituents are not receiving the service that they require. The Parliamentary Secretary and other Ministers are responsible for delivering that proper service.
My hon. Friend Linda Perham and Mr. Hogg rightly congratulated the two maiden speakers whom we have heard today. All hon. Members know that making a maiden speech is something that we have to do on being elected to the House, and we fully understand that regardless of the experience—which we shall learn of in coming years—that those two speakers bring to the House, one's first speech in the House is an ordeal.
Mr. Baron paid tribute to his predecessor, Teresa Gorman, with whom many of us served in Committee. She was a very outspoken lady and, whether or not one agreed with her, always lively and controversial. As a London Member, I have some knowledge of the part of Essex that the hon. Gentleman represents. He glowingly described many of Essex's villages. He also mentioned small business. Regardless of whether they are in government or opposition, all hon. Members have many small businesses in their constituencies, and our constituents raise with us many of the small business issues that he described. We shall listen to him with great interest.
My hon. Friend Mr. Simon paid warm tribute to Robin Corbett, whom many of us have known and worked with for a very long time. I am delighted that Robin is now in the other place. My hon. Friend also mentioned that he represents our country's second city. Those of us who have been privileged to be Members of this place for many years know that, some distinguished Members on both sides of the House, have represented Birmingham constituencies. My hon. Friend described the various professions and occupations in his constituency and made it clear that his roots are there. He really does know the area that he represents, which will be greatly beneficial both to him and to his constituents.
We welcome both new Members to the House, and we shall listen with great interest to their speeches.
I also extend a warm welcome to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who is held in high regard by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Many of us have worked with him on an issue that we, like him, hold very dear—Cyprus. Even now, there are in the Chamber hon. Members on both sides who have a deep commitment to that issue, but none has a commitment deeper than his.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has already discovered the depth and variety of our debates on matters to be considered before a forthcoming Adjournment. Although they are fascinating debates, an attempt was once made to stop them. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that that does not happen.
I agree with my hon. Friend that these debates are important. Does he recall that there was a time when Back Benchers could apply for and be granted debates on motions to be debated and voted on in the House? They gave considerable power to Back Benchers. Does he hope that the reforms ahead of us will again make possible such debates?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the Front Bench for quite some time this morning, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to that point. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House attach enormous importance to these opportunities.
I recently asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary
"if he will provide extra financial resources to Wandsworth prison for improvements."
Wandsworth prison is in my constituency. It is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom and I am aware that over the years large sums of money have been spent on it, but like all old buildings, it requires a great deal more and the works are extremely expensive.
"Wandsworth had received an additional £511,565 from the Spending Review 2000 for a range of measures against drugs, and . . . for specific purposes."
I welcome that. The reply continues:
"However, as part of the SR2000 settlement, the Prison Service has to make cashable efficiency savings of 1 per cent. per year in its baselines, and Wandsworth's baseline has been reduced to contribute to this."
I very much regret that part of the reply.
In February, I initiated a debate on Wandsworth prison. I paid a warm tribute to the governor of the prison, Mr. Stephen Rimmer, to the members of the board of visitors and to members of the Prison Officers Association for their commitment to the major changes being introduced there. Those changes are continuing. Wandsworth prison is now a very different establishment and has lost the image that it had for so many years. That shows that leadership and commitment enable meaningful changes to be made in penal establishments.
I have quoted part of the reply that I received to the question that I asked on
"There is no prospect of future changes in Wandsworth's financial allocation this financial year."—[Hansard, 11 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 534W.]
I deeply regret that. There are several reasons why I think that it is wrong and that Wandsworth prison should be allocated extra funding. The governor, the Prison Officers Association and the board of visitors at the prison attach great importance to education. Sadly, prison inmates throughout the system, be they men or women, often have poor educational backgrounds. People serving prison sentences in prisons with modern educational facilities are generally encouraged to make use of the opportunities. Hon. Members who have prisons in their constituencies know that if there are no modern educational services in a prison, prisoners will not make use of what is available. We need to develop a wide range of courses because all the evidence shows that prisoners make use of educational opportunities.
Ideally, when someone is discharged from prison they will have a job to go to and not return to prison. However, the figures on that score are not very hopeful. They show that more than 60 per cent. of young people in prison had left school before they were 16 and that, when they leave prison, some 60 per cent. of prisoners are ineligible for more than 90 per cent. of jobs. Sadly, prisoners often have speech or communication problems, which is yet another reason why a prison such as Wandsworth, which has had an on-going commitment to building a modern, efficient education service for inmates, should be entitled to extra funding to develop that work.
It is estimated that it costs about £20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. That is yet another reason why we should try to keep people out of prison. If we provide modern facilities to educate prisoners, we will have the chance to achieve that aim.
During the debate in February, I also spoke about asylum seekers. At the time, Wandsworth was awaiting the first of the asylum seekers to be sent there, and it now has some 50 of them. In February, I spoke of the pressures and strains that that would put on the prison and the need for specific funding to be allocated to Wandsworth and other prisons where asylum seekers are being held.
I pay the warmest tribute to the chair of the board of visitors, Mr. Akerman, and to all on the board of visitors at Wandsworth prison, for their great commitment week in, week out and their involvement in the day-to-day running of the prison. Mr. Akerman has told me that the arrival of asylum seekers at Wandsworth prison has indeed placed additional pressures and strains on the prison.
Sometimes I wonder whether the people who are involved in making decisions, including Government Ministers and senior civil servants, really understand what happens when asylum seekers are sent to penal establishments. Although those men and women may indeed have immigration problems, we must remember—and I hope that the Home Office remembers—that they are not criminals. They have not been convicted, nor are they on remand for a criminal offence. They are being detained for immigration reasons, and come from a wide range of countries. Many of them speak different languages and have a limited knowledge of English. Clearly, they need advice and help with their cases. Sometimes they need help trying to find or keep in touch with their families at home. They also need to build a relationship of trust with the prison officers.
I pay the warmest tribute to the people from the Wandsworth Refugee Council and similar organisations who regularly visit prisons and give enormous help to people detained because of immigration irregularities. The Government, the Home Office or the prison authorities could not provide such help.
Many of the 50 asylum seekers in Wandsworth prison were abused or persecuted in the countries that they fled. One can understand how people who have suffered abuse, often in prisons or detention centres, must feel when they are again imprisoned. They wonder what will happen to them. Thankfully, little if any abuse takes place in our prisons, but detainees would not know that and would be enormously fearful.
To their credit many hon. Members on both sides, take an interest in the welfare of asylum seekers in prisons, but we do not know what checks are made regarding their background and why, and for how long, they are detained. Wandsworth has well over 1,000 inmates. It is impossible to run two systems in such a major prison: one for the vast majority who have been convicted or are on remand, and one for those who have not been convicted of anything.
The chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, has repeatedly said that he does not believe that it is the Prison Service's role to hold asylum seekers in custody. He said:
"Asylum seekers will come under prison rules, yet have committed no criminal offence."
That puts great pressure on governors, wing governors and prison officers. It is time that the whole thing stopped.
People being questioned about alleged immigration irregularities should not be in prison, but if they are, it is intolerable that no extra funding should be allocated to offset the additional costs faced by the authorities. I realise that this is not the Minister's department, but I hope that he will convey my deep concerns, and those of many others, to his Home Office colleagues.
Sir David Ramsbotham is soon to retire. He has criticised aspects of the regime in Wandsworth. I am pleased to say that his recommendations have been followed. Those of us who take an interest in prisons and have studied his reports know that he always gave his honest opinion, whether it pleased the Home Secretary of the day or not. He spoke of improvements that were needed not only for the inmates but for the staff. He has done an excellent job and will be a very hard act to follow. I pay him the warmest tribute.
All those involved in running prisons say that we cannot keep sending more and more people to prison while continuing to cut prison budgets. The policy has no credibility, and I am sure that many of us hope that it will cease. Proper funding must be made available.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Baron and Mr. Simon on their maiden speeches. I made mine no less than 31 years ago, so I took to heart the latter's remarks about youth and age. Perhaps in 31 years' time he will reflect on this occasion as I now do on my maiden speech.
I am glad that we have heard from different parts of the country, including Birmingham and Sleaford, as the London area tends to dominate these occasions. We have heard about a huge number of subjects, although not everyone contrived to cover every subject in one speech, as my hon. Friend Mr. Amess did.
What has been notably absent is any contribution from the Liberal Democrats. Given how they boast of their prowess and assiduity in our constituencies, it is remarkable that they are entirely absent from this important and traditional part of our parliamentary year.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West covered so many subjects, I will restrict myself to one—a self-denying ordinance, perhaps. It is a subject on which my constituents feel extremely strongly and it has been of particular concern over the past few months: commuting, and the state of the railway lines running into and out of London, which is an extremely important part of many people's daily lives.
I am especially concerned about safety and overcrowding. The problems that we face are a microcosm of all the problems faced on railways throughout the country.
Safety is a particular concern in my area. Only a couple of weeks ago, there was a serious near miss just north of St. Mary Cray when, it is thought—there will obviously be an inquiry—a driver passed a signal at danger and nearly collided with a train travelling the other way. That happened at about 5 o'clock in the evening; there were 200 or 300 people on both trains and the situation could have been extremely serious. Fortunately, the driver realised his mistake and the other driver also put on his brakes, so a collision was avoided.
That was only two or three months after a similar incident at Hither Green further up the line, again in the rush hour, when the trains did collide. The accident was not serious, but it resulted in huge chaos throughout the day, with people being stuck in trains and having to walk along the line. Those two incidents in short succession could have been extremely serious had it not been for the quick action of those involved.
As a result, I asked various questions in the House about the number of recent SPADs and I spoke to local railway people, in particular Olivier Brousse, managing director of Connex South Eastern, and the manager of my local railway station, Dave Chapman—both outstanding men who are fighting hard for better conditions for passengers travelling regularly in and out of London.
The statistics provided by the Government in response to my questions showed that SPADs have decreased in the past three years, about which I am glad, and, in particular, that Connex South Eastern has improved its record. I also learned from Olivier Brousse that the number of serious SPADs had been halved during the past 12 months, all of which is excellent.
One reason for such an improvement is that railway companies in my area have introduced a simulator, which enables drivers to understand the problems. It is astonishing that drivers can pass signals at danger. If a car driver were to pass a red light, it would be a serious incident, and for it to happen so frequently on the railways is a matter of concern. However, good management practices and new techniques have improved matters.
In addition, a train warning system should have been installed by 2004. Its installation for the complete system is some way off and I hope that in the meantime real progress can be made, but that is to be welcomed. Railway safety is being tackled reasonably seriously, at least in my part of London.
The situation on punctuality and reliability is more mixed. For example, the regular commuter watch report in the Evening Standard shows that punctuality on trains in and out of London is still poor, but clearly there have been significant improvements since the dreadful days after the Hatfield accident on the east coast line. There has been something to shout about there, but there is still considerable room for improvement.
The real worry is overcrowding—an enormous problem of which those of us who commute regularly are well aware. It is unpleasant and tiring to stand throughout a journey, and for even longer in the event of a breakdown. Commuters who are packed like sardines wonder what would happen to them in the event of a collision or near-collision if they were so jammed in that they had no means of exit. That weighs on people now in a way that it did not in the past.
Having talked to train companies, local railway managers and Railtrack, I see no prospect of improvement in the years to come; indeed, there may be a worsening. The new 375 stock that is being introduced on many lines in my area, and no doubt elsewhere, can accommodate fewer passengers. There is a crumple zone at the end of each coach for safety reasons, which I welcome, and there is improved access for disabled people, but that has led to the loss of about six seats from each coach. The modern coach has certain advantages, such as closed circuit television, and the coaches are brighter and more comfortable, but they have less capacity than the existing slam-door coach.
If platforms are the same length and signals are at the same point, a train cannot carry more coaches, and so has less capacity but the same number of people trying to board it. Ultimately, overcrowding will be more of a problem than it is now. It is true that new coaches are being introduced slowly at off-peak times, but despite their many advantages they will not solve the problem of overcrowding.
Overcrowding on commuter trains can be dealt with only by further investment in the railways to increase the length of platforms and to re-site signal boxes so that trains can have 12 coaches rather than eight and so have the capacity to deal with an increasing number of passengers. Hundreds of thousands of commuters travel into and out of London, which is the backbone of the economy.
During the past two years manufacturing industry has declined, and unemployment is declining only because the service industries are expanding. The biggest service industry of all is the City of London and the west end, which provide many jobs. London is the heart of the economy, and if transport conditions deteriorate further there will be serious consequences for London as a major centre of the economy and the quality of life for the many who work here. That is a serious matter.
I hope that the Government will consider the matter carefully. Will they say clearly what investment can be made? Not a lot of money is needed to lengthen platforms and improve signalling. For example, on my line the figure is thought to be about £100 million over several years. There is to be a meeting in September between those involved in such changes and the Strategic Rail Authority.
I hope that Railtrack will consider such investments seriously, but the problem is how it can raise the money. It has been almost completely destroyed by the Government over the past four years, and is no longer the vehicle for raising money that was envisaged four years ago. Given its current share price, it can no longer do that.
There is a real problem in raising finance through the private sector via Railtrack, so the Government must clearly put something into the system. We do not know what the Government intend. The figure of £60 billion over 10 years has been bandied around, but we do not know what that means in terms of a strict timetable and what projects will be given priority, so we need to hear something specific from the Government in the short term.
I hope that the matter will be considered during the recess before Parliament resumes in October, and that some clear decisions will be made to the benefit of my constituents, perhaps at the meetings in September. I want the companies to improve their management to deal with incidents of signals passed at danger; I want the train protection and warning system brought in more quickly and more thoroughly than is at present intended; and I want the Government to reconsider the investment issue and make it plain, with a timetabled allocation of resources, exactly how they can contribute to more investment to deal with the severe problem of overcrowding, which affects my constituents every day of their working lives. I will want clear answers when we return after the recess.
A popular call there, Madam Deputy Speaker. I accept that I was a fraction late, and it was appropriate that I came in during a speech about public transport, which was the reason why I was slightly late. My hon. Friend Mr. Simon will no doubt agree that a distinguished, vintage—rather than old—Member can be allowed a little flexibility in addressing the House. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to do so.
It is always good to participate in the summer Adjournment debate. We have heard a couple of good maiden speeches today, but usually one sees the usual suspects lining up for this end-of-term whinge. Indeed, it is often referred to as whingeing gits day, and I hope that it will long remain so. As several hon. Members have observed, such opportunities to raise matters about which we and, we hope, our constituents feel strongly are important to us as Back Benchers, as those opportunities are so often missing from the business of the House.
There is a down side, but there is also an up side: that means that there are more opportunities for us to get in, so we should encourage the Liberals to stay away from our proceedings for the day.
I shall raise two issues, both of which are close to my heart. The first concerns animal welfare; the second, sport.
Following that debate a press release was issued by Lehmann Communications, a City-based public relations agency, which was headed "Japan accuses pressure group funded MPs of misleading the House during whaling debate". It stated:
"Masayuki Komatsu, Japan's Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) today issued a stinging rebuke to MPs Tony Banks, Jeremy Corbyn and Peter Bottomley for misleading the House of Commons during a debate on whaling on Wednesday."
The press release continued:
"These MPs who are all funded by the radical animal rights organisation IFAW have simply fed the House of Commons a diet of misinformation and untruths about whaling. They trotted out the same old animal rights falsehoods about whaling that the general public is beginning to see through."
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on the debate in Westminster Hall and his speech today. I take the opportunity to put it on record that the press release issued by that company is disgusting and totally inaccurate. I have never been funded by any organisation such as the one mentioned. My views on whaling are my own, and I am sure that those of my hon. Friend and Peter Bottomley are their own. It is important that that should be put on the record and that company dealt with appropriately.
I am glad to have been able to give my hon. Friend that opportunity. In effect I, along with my two colleagues, was accused of lying to the House and having financial links with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which were not declared prior to the debate and—far more seriously, had that been the case—were not included in the Register of Members' Interests. I make it clear that I do not tell lies in the House and, like my hon. Friend, I have no financial links whatever with IFAW. Such allegations are intolerable and unacceptable, and I have instructed my solicitors accordingly. I trust that Sue, Grabbit and Run will make sure that Lehmann Communications never forgets what it has done.
It is a serious matter to accuse Members of Parliament of lying and of having interests that they do not declare. I am not being pious or righteous, but I feel extremely angry about this. Such accusations might pertain to other legislatures around the world but never, I hope, to this House. Through the House, I inform Mr. Komatsu, who I understand is in London attending the IWC meetings in Hammersmith, that he should not judge hon. Members by his own corrupt standards. Bribing members of international organisations might be okay in Japan's book, but it is not acceptable here.
The same Mr. Komatsu said on
"The minke whale is a cockroach in the oceans."
That is what he said, live, on radio in Australia. I do not know where that places Mr. Komatsu in the great chain of being, but I find such comparisons odious and ludicrous. They sum up the arrogant and venal approach so often adopted by the Japanese towards the world's animal resources.
It is true that Japan is a great and powerful nation, but that does not give it the right to dispose of the world's living creatures as though they belonged to the Japanese alone. The moratorium on commercial whaling was effected to prevent countries such as Japan and Norway from driving the great whales into extinction. Having saved them from that fate, it would be criminal madness to resume the process of commercial whaling now. Commercial whaling must never be allowed to re-commence, and we should move further to end the practice of scientific whaling used by the Japanese and the Norwegians to get round the moratorium on commercial whaling.
Mr. Komatsu went on to say that he believed that the whales were killing too many fish. It is over-fishing by industrial fishing methods that is causing the serious depletion of the world's fishing stocks. It is stupid to describe the great whales or the seals as being responsible for something for which we alone are responsible—over-exploitation of the world's resources.
The Japanese commissioner to the IWC also linked whaling with the rights and cultural heritage of Japan and asked us to respect them. Of course we respect other people's cultural heritage and their rights, but butchery can never be part of any country's right or cultural heritage. In the past, the United Kingdom and the United States of America slaughtered far more great whales than the Japanese ever did, but we would not use a plea of cultural heritage or rights as a justification for resuming commercial whaling. History shows that we have far more rights in that respect, although others would say, as would I, that what we did was a crime rather than a defence of our rights. We cannot allow some spurious claim by the Japanese that it is part of their cultural heritage as the basis for them to resume commercial whaling. I trust that at the IWC the Government will support those who are trying to defend and maintain whales, a great species that has a right to live with us in peace and not be slaughtered, as they have been in the past and, regrettably, as they are at present.
On the Olympic games and Wembley, I offered on behalf of the House of Commons congratulations to Jacques Rogge, the new president of the International Olympic Committee, and to the citizens of Beijing on being selected to host the 2008 Olympic games. Many people were worried about the human rights aspects of China being selected to host the games, and one can understand and respect the views of those who said that the games should not have gone Beijing. The question of whether the awarding of the games will improve human rights in China is a close call. I believe that it will, but that it will be a close call.
The critical eyes of the world will be on China and the issue of human rights for the next seven years. Once the process has started, it will be difficult for the Chinese to reverse it and we should support them. We should be critical and warn them that if there are any more human rights excesses such as another Tiananmen square, God forbid, the games will be boycotted. The Chinese understand that and we must give them a chance to improve their human rights record.
The decision to take the Olympic games to Beijing means, effectively, that London comes into the frame as a possible host for the 2012 games. I support the call for London to make that bid, but we must learn from our errors. We cannot drift into a bid; that would be the worst thing to do. There must be the widest possible debate. There are arguments for and against any city hosting the massive event that is the Olympic games. In the end, we must be certain that our decision was the right one, based on the fullest debate and consultation.
The role of the Government is critical. A bid would involve billions of pounds of expenditure. We do not want the Government just to say that it would be a good idea for London to bid. London can bid only if the Government are prepared to stand fully behind the capital city in making that bid. That means not just moral support, but financial support; without that, the bid will not work. That is how it has worked successfully in other countries, most gloriously in Sydney in 2000, where the games had enormous support from the state and federal Government. That is how it will work in Athens in 2004, because I know how closely the Greek Government are involved in the process. If we bid and are successful in the selection process, a Cabinet Minister must be appointed to oversee the arrangements.
Clearly, there are questions about where the event should be hosted. Wembley, as the site of the national stadium, is the obvious choice, although other locations have been discussed such as Stratford in my constituency or the dome site. When I was a Minister, I went to see both Ministers who were in charge of the dome to say that it would be the perfect legacy for the dome if the site were to be used for the Olympic games. Unfortunately, I received no support but we could still come back to this arrangement in future.
I believe that the national stadium ought to be at Wembley and that athletics ought to be included in the national stadium. The delay over constructing the new stadium is a perfect example of how not to do something. We have had Government interference, but no Government money, over a number of years, which means that the project has still not even commenced.
When I stood down as Minister in July 1999, I thought that we had a done deal over Wembley. I thought that we had a national stadium incorporating the design potential for athletics with the deck proposals. We all thought that was the answer. Indeed, my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith, the then Secretary of State, described it as a stunning design. He was right. It was and remains a stunning design.
My right hon. Friend is a close personal friend of mine. I warned him throughout the process that people were whispering in his ear and behind his back and that they were misleading him in respect of Wembley and the potential for athletics. They said that the design was unsatisfactory for athletics: it was not. It remains satisfactory and I suspect that we will come back to it again, and all we will have done is to waste two years.
The people who were whispering in my right hon. Friend's ear and behind his back had their own agenda and they are responsible for something that is now approaching a scandal in respect of the national stadium at Wembley. I believe that Picketts Lock will not happen and that we will return to the plan for a national stadium at Wembley, having lost two years. That is a terrible thing, but at least if we get the process started we can forget the errors of the past and produce something that is fitting for the great national game of football and provide the potential for hosting the Olympic games in London.
The process of selecting a city for the Olympic games is invidious. We saw corruption over Salt Lake City and all sorts of dodgy practices. It is not satisfactory and has dragged the great Olympic movement into the mud. I hope that Jacques Rogge can restore the image of the Olympic games, which are an inspiration to the whole world and have been ever since the modern games were started at the end of the 19th century.
We should consider adopting a different method for issues such as human rights and whether a city can afford the games, bearing in mind that only the richest cities in the world can afford to host the games. My preference is to establish a permanent Olympic site that all the countries of the Olympic family can endow. The site should obviously be in Athens. That would link the ancient and modern games in a way that would restore the image of the Olympic movement and avoid the excess, commercialism and corruption that so often now pervade that great movement. I hope that it is possible to get support for this idea from the Government and we could perhaps send back the Parthenon marbles as our seal of approval.
We look forward to the recess not least for these debates and the classic performers who take part in them. We had the end-of-the-pier show from my hon. Friend Mr. Amess. However, he did not speak about the pier this time but about a range of important subjects which are of great concern to his constituents. That has been the theme of the debate. Harry Cohen made an important speech about the London underground. The situation is important to his constituents and those of many other hon. Members from London and the country as a whole.
My hon. Friend Mr. Horam referred to the state of the railway system, and we are grateful to him. His constituents suffer intolerable conditions in their daily commute to London, as do mine.
I was moved by the speech of Mr. Banks about whaling; the House is indebted to him for his conscience on the matter and for his words on the importance of a national stadium at Wembley. I back him wholeheartedly on his clear message that sport in this country and the possibility of London attracting the Olympic games depend on the construction of the national stadium at Wembley. Of course, good surface transport links will also be needed, and the improvement of the tube is of central importance.
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg spoke with great eloquence about the dire state of the national health service in his constituency. We share those problems in my part of London, but they are especially acute in my constituency. My hon. Friend Mr. Baron and Mr. Simon avoided controversial subjects in their maiden speeches, which were impressive and made with circumspection and tact, but if they had been more forthright, they might have admitted that their constituents, too, are worried about the state of the national health service. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, whom I welcome back to the Chamber, spoke about the basic aspirations of his constituents. We are all moved by such aspirations, as we feel how far short we fall of meeting them. I have that feeling not least in relation to the national health service in my part of north-west London.
A few days ago, we celebrated the 21st anniversary of transplantation at Harefield. It was a grand occasion. All those who work or have been patients there, as well as local people, took pride in the fact that Harefield has been a pioneering centre for transplantation. It has carried out more heart transplants than any hospital in the world, and yet the Government are prepared to allow it to close in favour of a new hospital that will be opened at vast cost in the most congested and polluted part of London—Paddington basin.
How will we get to that new hospital? We all know about the tube. Should heart patients in my constituency have to strap-hang their way to central London, any more than those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington? Even the hale and hearty ones cannot easily endure going into central London on the train. What about road-service charges? I presume that patients from the south-east and their relatives will have to pay road-user charges—and where will they park when they get to the new hospital? Harefield hospital is in idyllic rural surroundings. It is easy to get to and has an outstanding track record.
I urge the Government to think again, especially as the economy is clearly starting on a downturn. I forecast that, by 2006, when the new hospital is due for completion, the resources for such vast capital spending will not be available. It would cost only some £20 million to modernise Harefield, as opposed to a net cost of some £135 million to build the new hospital at Paddington.
Just before the end of the previous Parliament, I attended a very interesting meeting. It was addressed by Rosie Varley, who is conducting a review of cancer services on behalf of the NHS in the eastern region. It occurred upstairs and was attended by a dozen or so hon. Members from various parties, all of whom represented areas served by Mount Vernon hospital's cancer centre. It was most instructive to all of us, including Rosie Varley, to learn that we agreed unanimously that the best location for their cancer services was not some greenfield site in Hertfordshire—a proposal that is currently being considered by the NHS in the eastern region—but the wiser and more cost-effective Mount Vernon option, which is also under consideration. Co-located at the Mount Vernon hospital are research facilities of incomparable international repute: the Gray laboratory, the Macmillan centre for cancer care and Michael Sobell house, which is a wonderful hospice.
I put to the House the important issues of quality of life that affect my constituents' basic aspirations. I believe that, with imagination and good will, the Government can meet those aspirations. I ask them to think long and hard during the recess about the issues that I have raised and to give us the right answers, when we return in the autumn, regarding modernisation of the tube and encouragement of the further development of Mount Vernon and Harefield hospitals.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to speak in this end-of-term debate—or morning's whinge, as my hon. Friend Mr. Banks called it. First, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Simon and to Mr. Baron for their maiden speeches. The latter follows a great anti-European and DIY enthusiast who certainly made her mark in this House. I am sure that they will do the same.
I intend to speak about a couple of constituency issues, but before I do so, I should like to deal with a point made by my hon. Friend Harry Cohen, who spoke about the proposed public-private partnership for the tube. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House feel strongly that it was just not good enough that the announcement that sneaked out a couple of weeks ago was not made on the Floor of the House, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was not present to answer our questions about one of the most momentous announcements on London transport that has been made for a long time.
There are grave questions about the viability of the PPP. The biggest single fear at the back of people's minds is that it could, to some extent, replicate the disasters of railway privatisation under the previous Government. No clear line of management responsibility was established when the railways were privatised. Contracts can fly all over the place, so there is no bottom line. However, when it comes to safety, a clear line of responsibility is exactly what is needed. If that is not achieved on the tube, we could witness the replication of some of the problems that have arisen on the railways. I would like the former Ministers who privatised the railways to be called before a public tribunal of inquiry to explain exactly what they were doing and tell us why they privatised the railways in the way they did.
I should like now to deal my two main constituency issues. First, I want to speak about mobile phone masts—a controversial matter for many hon. Members. Mr. Amess expressed grave anxiety about his unplanned erections. He was very excited about them. Who can blame him? Two days ago, I attended a protest at St. Mary's Catholic primary school in my constituency. Approximately 100 parents and teachers turned up to protest about a mobile phone mast, which is being built roughly 50 yards from the school. Neither BT nor the local council undertook any consultation; that is not good enough. The entire process flew in the face of the findings of the Stewart report and the recommendations of the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in March. Both the report and the DETR made clear it that it was not acceptable to build mobile phone masts close to primary schools. The skulls of children under the age of 12 are not sufficiently developed to withstand the impact of the radiation that mobile phone masts can emit.
The Stewart report and the DETR proposals recommended that the normal rules for planning permission should be applied to mobile phone masts below 15 m as well as to those above 15 m, as currently happens. Clearly, the recommendations have not been followed in the case of the mast near St. Mary's school. It could have been resisted; consultation could have taken place. Consultation is not compulsory, but there is nothing preventing a council or BT from engaging in a consultation exercise that would at least give parents, residents and the school some warning. I intend to work closely with the head of St. Mary's, parents and local residents to try to reverse the decision.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the previous Government—to be fair, he was not in Parliament at the time—weakened planning legislation to make it easier for big companies to build such masts. However, I agree with him. Councils should have the power to resist. They currently have limited powers, but they should be extended. I suspect that the big companies such as BT and Orange are building the masts as quickly as possible because they fear that the Government will introduce regulations to make it tougher. They want to build even the third generation masts now, so that they do not have a battle in 18 months' time. It is highly likely that the Government will introduce regulations in the next few months. I hope that they will do that as quickly as possible. The big companies will have to begin consulting and local councils will have the power to prevent such developments.
Secondly, I want to consider capital investment in schools. It is a matter of record that investment in schools has increased sharply under the Government, especially in the past two years. However, there was under-investment for a long time and the fabric of many schools was allowed to deteriorate. That problem is reflected in constituencies throughout the country. In my constituency, lack of investment has caused all sorts of problems.
Two schools in particular spring to mind. Edwin Lambert primary school in Hornchurch stands on a quadrangle. On one side, the school is Edwardian, but the other side was burned down in the 1960s. It was replaced by a typical, flat-roofed 1960s building, which is now crumbling. There is no capital to replace it.
The second school is Parsonage Farm junior school in Rainham, in the south of my constituency not far from the River Thames. That has a problem with demountables, which are crumbling. Again, there is a lack of capital resources to replace them and do a proper job.
I support public investment in schools, not part-privatisation or private finance initiatives. I have no objection to genuine partnership with the private sector because local government has always had such partnerships. However, we need to be careful that we do not adopt partial or full privatisation of parts of health or education.
The finance house, Capital Strategies, believes that outsourcing from local education authorities to the private sector will increase from £1.6 billion today to £5 billion in five years. We must be careful about that, and consider what has happened in America. In Baltimore, nine schools were handed over to a private sector company called Education Alternatives in an £85 million contract—a pretty big contract, by any standards.
This has all been documented by Nick Cohen in The Observer newspaper. I know that a warm glow will envelop those on the Treasury Bench at the mention of his name, considering all the paeans of praise for the Government that he has produced. He documented what happened in Baltimore with Education Alternatives. The company took a large chunk of public money to run nine schools. Within a few months, it was claiming all kinds of miracles on behalf of the schools. It claimed that they were cleaner and better run, that the results had improved and that truancy levels had gone down.
Then, over the following year or two, more and more facts started to emerge as to what had actually happened in those schools in Baltimore. Truancy levels had increased, not gone down. The new technology was not there. The company was sacking teachers—it got rid of 25 per cent. of them—and crowding 40 children at a time into classes. Baltimore's The Sun then exposed the fact that Education Alternatives was falsifying the figures for exam results, which were actually getting worse rather than better. That is the kind of thing that is happening.
A second example is the Edison Project. This will be known to some hon. Members because it is run by a man called Chris Whittle, who is already trying to get his slimy claws on the British education system. Like many of the companies that have become involved in the American system, he thinks that he can make a lot of money out of this. He was a pioneering figure in American education, in that he managed to get his television channel, Channel One, beamed into primary schools. It was loaded with adverts but had a very limited number of educational programmes.
The Edison Project's British salesman is a man called James Tooley, who was once hired by Chris Woodhead. Now that is a rich irony. This bloke James Tooley apparently approves of American primary school children watching Marilyn Manson videos. That is one of the things that used to be beamed into their classrooms. For the benefit of more senior Members, Marilyn Manson is a band fronted by a man who tends to eat live bats on a stage that is awash with blood. All the members of the band are named after particularly notable serial killers. So that hard right-wing Daily Mail sort of figure, that figure of morality, James Tooley, thinks it is all right for primary school children to watch that kind of nonsense. He was hired by Chris Woodhead, another hard right-wing Daily Mail sort of figure.
I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's comments about rail privatisation and his belief that the Ministers responsible should be brought before a public tribunal. Does he think that any Minister who follows the United States course that he has just described and introduces private companies to our schools should also face a public tribunal?
So far as I know, no one has been killed in British schools. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I was talking about two accidents, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield, which resulted in deaths. That is why there should be a public tribunal. I do not recall anyone being killed in British classrooms so far. In any case, the issues that we are discussing here are in their infancy, so we cannot really discuss them in those terms.
I have a son who is already in education, and my daughter starts primary school in September. It worries me that companies such as the Edison Project and Education Alternatives might start to get involved in British education. They are certainly eyeing our schools and education authorities extremely greedily. I want to see proper public investment in schools, not privatisation.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak. Before I discuss the area on which I want to focus, I must tell Mr. Banks that he is not alone in the House in his concerns about whaling, which are shared by Conservative Members. We would encourage the Government to take the strongest possible action to ensure that the trade is not revived.
I follow in the wake of my hon. Friend Mr. Amess in bringing to the Minister's attention the issues that face far too many of our schools: the huge teacher recruitment problem and the great challenges in meeting basic curriculum levels in the term ahead. Yesterday, a head teacher in my constituency told me, "I have never seen a situation as chronic as this before." That is after more than 15 years in the profession.
It is worth echoing the comment of my hon. Friend Bob Spink that it is surprising, to say the least, that we have no support today from the Liberal Democrats, despite the concerns that they continually raise about education. They should be here to echo the comments being made by the real Opposition.
There is growing alarm in my constituency and across Surrey about the teacher recruitment problems. Let me talk the House through the example of a school in my constituency. As of today, it lacks a No. 2 in its English team. It lacks a No. 2 in its maths team as well as another maths teacher. It lacks two technology teachers, which means that pupils will not be able to receive technology classes next term. It lacks a geography teacher. It has a new music teacher. The head told me that that person has never taught a class before, but was the only option for next term.
Let me share with the House some of the head's comments about his situation: "We can cobble things together, but it will not be satisfactory. I can no longer guarantee consistency of teaching. We are now having to downgrade our targets for next year." That head's predicament is shared by his colleagues across Surrey and, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, across the south-east of England, as well as many other parts of the country.
The situation has become so desperate that Surrey's director of education has sent parents a letter expressing his concern and warning of what lies ahead. I shall share some of the letter with the House:
Media coverage of the national shortage of teachers will not have escaped your attention. The situation this year is the worst I have ever experienced. In common with schools throughout the country, Surrey schools are finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacant posts. Here, we have the added factor of high housing costs, which deter many teachers from living and working in Surrey.
Throughout the summer period, the local education authority will continue to support our schools in seeking to fill all current vacancies. However, it would be unrealistic to expect all posts to be filled by the beginning of the new academic year—there are simply insufficient teachers to meet all of our needs. Schools will respond to any staff shortages they have in different ways and, probably, at short notice. It may be necessary to make changes to the way classes are organised, the number of subjects offered and even the length of the school week.
I do not wish to be alarmist, but I do want to be open and realistic with parents. Next term is going to be a challenging one for us all and I ask you for your understanding and forbearance in any action your Headteacher and Governors may need to take."
That is the reality of education in Surrey today.
The Surrey county council education department has put as much pressure as it can on the Government in asking them to help. The director of education wrote to the Secretary of State a few days ago to draw her attention to the extreme problems being faced, such as nearly 500 vacant full-time posts for next term:
"Part-time schooling is looking inevitable for several Surrey schools."
This is, in all senses of the word, a crisis, and the Government need to address it as a matter of priority, not simply when we return to this place in the autumn but immediately. Why is the crisis happening? Head teachers tell us that the first and most obvious reason is that too many good people are leaving the profession. One told me that he had just lost a couple of people who had said, "We have just had enough. We want to get a life."
Teachers face huge amounts of unnecessary paperwork. I served for a few years as a school governor and remember being bemused by the amount of unnecessary forms, documents and initiatives with which we had to deal. Most of those landed on the head teacher's desk. On one bizarre occasion, a letter from the LEA read:
"In order to cut down on unnecessary paperwork, would you please fill in the attached form?"
In addition, teachers tell us that there have been constant changes to the curriculum, and those changes continue. Too often, the changes are ill-managed, as we have seen in the case of AS-levels this year. One teacher told me, "We warned the Government that this would be a mess. No one listened, and now it is a mess."
An unsatisfactory situation is developing in respect of key stage 3 tests, too. Most schools in Surrey are asking for their papers to be re-marked because of the extraordinarily erratic nature of the marks. They have called into question the availability and quality of markers. Teachers who have worked all year to get their pupils through those tests, and who see erratic marking that calls into question the quality of teaching that they have been delivering, are bound to feel that their morale is being undermined.
It is often said that it is simply a money issue, but in reality it is much more. The head of one school in my constituency told me that he had been looking for an English teacher for months and had advertised three times, increasing the financial package each time. He had yet to receive a single application.
One extraordinary discovery that I have made since my arrival in this House is that, until now, the Government have done no research on why teachers are leaving the profession. A couple of weeks ago I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State on the subject. Happily, there is some money in the Budget in this financial year to do that research, but I want to know why it was not done years ago.
In the past three or four years, the rate of departure from the teaching profession has increased by 30 per cent. More people now leave the profession in the middle of their career than retire at the end of it. That cannot be right. In my constituency and in the south-east generally, one of the biggest problems is housing. There are no easy answers to the housing problems of the south-east, but schools are losing young teachers because, as one head teacher told me, they no longer want to live with their parents. The Government need to understand, when considering housing policy for key workers, that whereas previous generations had council houses, that is no longer enough. Teachers do not want council houses. A much more careful and thoughtful approach is needed to real shared ownership for key workers.
The Department for Education and Skills has stated clearly that there is no crisis in the teaching profession, yet every teacher and head teacher in this country knows full well that there is indeed a crisis, and that it will get worse. One head teacher told me that even the supply of supply teachers is drying up, and that those who are available are of a lower quality than in the past and cost heads more money.
The only comment that I have heard from the Government in that context is the usual, "We shall be spending more on this in the years ahead"—spending promises for the future—and the usual attempts to blame the Conservative party. Let me read the end of a letter from a community college in Sussex—it is not in my constituency—which concluded:
"The situation is a clear contrast to the situation five years ago when we were disappointed if we received less than twenty applications for any post, and averaged over fifty."
Today, that college is still looking for staff, and it receives virtually no applications.
The Prime Minister was first elected on a platform of education as his number one priority. If I am not mistaken, he is now in his fifth year in office. When will the Government do something about this problem? When will they find a strategy to put teachers back into our schools? What do they intend to do this autumn to support head teachers, who are at their wits' end trying to work out how they can deliver the teaching that pupils need and deserve?
I congratulate Mr. Baron and my hon. Friend Mr. Simon on their fine maiden speeches, and I look forward to their future contributions. Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to his predecessor, Robin Corbett, who is now in the other place. I have known him for more than a decade, and he has been a good friend and a great campaigner on many issues. I am sure that he will make the same contribution in the upper House.
I want to say a few words about the operation of the planning and licensing system, and how it has affected a democratically elected councillor in Teesside. I am aware that proposals have been made to look into the operation of the planning process and the court system, and especially to consider how to streamline the appeal process and how to make the court process more effective.
Last year, a major retailer, the Safeway group, applied for a liquor licence on a site in Low lane, Middlesbrough, on the boundary line of my constituency. The application raised strong objections in that pleasant residential part of Middlesbrough. There are a number of schools in the vicinity: Acklam Grange secondary school, King's Manor secondary school and St. David's comprehensive school. Further afield there is Coulby Newham secondary school, whose catchment area is affected. All those schools had concerns about the increased ability of their pupils to access liquor. Local residents were also unhappy about the proposal.
The proposal was for the sales point to be a mini-market on the site of a large garage and filling station. Many people felt that having an outlet for alcoholic drink on a site almost solely accessed by motorists drove a coach and horses through any attempts to cut down on drink driving. In their initial hearing, the magistrates took those objections fully on board, and the application was refused. Safeway, as is its right, lodged an objection to that refusal. That was when the fun began.
My colleague and friend on Middlesbrough borough council, Councillor John McPartland, had represented his constituents faithfully in their objections. He formally asked to be an objector, and to be allowed to speak at the appeal hearing on his own behalf and on behalf of Kader ward community council. He was to appear at the hearing with Mr. John Bate, the head of Acklam Grange school, as his key witness. There was an exchange of correspondence between Councillor McPartland and the solicitors acting for Safeway, Messrs Cartwrights of Bristol.
In that exchange, the spectre of a possible application for costs against Councillor McPartland as an individual was suddenly raised by Cartwrights. That naturally alarmed Councillor McPartland, and in my view he correctly took advice from the Court Service, which was bleak and to the point. The Court Service itself took advice from His Honour Judge Fox QC, who stated:
"Mr McPartland may continue to object, and in addition to giving evidence himself, may call the other three people as witnesses with or without them having given notice of what they may say, although it would be fair and courteous to the appellants so to do.
Alternatively, all four people may object afresh, in which case they should notify the appellants of their objections.
The principal difference would be that if they were separate objectors and the appeal were allowed each could be liable for the appellant's costs. If only Mr McPartland objected and he lost, he could be ordered to bear the whole of the appellant's costs."
On receiving that advice, Councillor McPartland withdrew his objection. As he put it in a letter to me:
"This potentially placed me in a position of possibly facing bills that I couldn't pay, as I am a retired teacher living, principally, on my teacher's pension. But of course that is not the real point. The real disgrace is that an elected Councillor was unable to represent the people who elected him because the present state of law in the country could make him pay dearly for that privilege, in opposing the commercial plans of a massive concern such as Safeway".
The practice of applying for costs is well established both in courts and in planning appeals. It serves as a deterrent to a planning committee or licensing body so that they do not make decisions that are frivolous or that fly in the face of established and agreed plans and policies. However, on the occasions when such applications were made and granted, they were against a corporate body, such as a local council or planning committee, but not against an individual. In all my years of political experience, I have never before come across such an implicit threat to an individual objector.
This matter should be re-examined in the review of the planning and court procedures that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. To remove such a threat against an individual, while retaining it for a corporate body, will not lead to the appearance of a flood of frivolous or malicious litigants mounting cases against a planned development or a liquor licence. It will mean that a councillor such as John McPartland can represent his or her constituents adequately and fully with the fear of punitive costs banished from their mind.
We are talking about the balance of forces between massive multinational corporations and the individual: the balance of forces and resources between highly profitable companies with deep and well-lined pockets and local people who do not have the comfort of such institutional, financial and legal backing. That means that all must be equal before the law, but that is not the case at present: some are far more equal than others. I want the Leader of the House to take up that point. It needs to be addressed and I hope that it will be considered when our Government undertake the proper review of the planning and licensing system.
I look forward to an outcome that will satisfy Councillor John McPartland and others in similar situations, and indeed everyone who wants to ensure that the ordinary man and woman can have their say at the bar of public opinion.
I am sure that the House welcomes the presence of the Leader of the House at this debate. It shows that he attaches proper importance to such occasions. He and the House shared a great treat when we heard excellent maiden speeches from my hon. Friend Mr. Baron and Mr. Simon. Both spoke with insight and wisdom, gave vivid descriptions of their constituencies, and paid generous and courteous tributes to their predecessors—as indeed they should, because their predecessors were excellent. We are in for a treat when those two hon. Members speak again. I look forward to it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise several important issues that affect my constituents in this Adjournment debate, the first that I have managed to speak in since my re-election to this place. I shall start with a word about education, and that is right because education is the key issue in society today. It is an investment in our future. It affects all our futures. If we get it right, we will create the ability to resolve all our other problems. If we do not get it right, we will be for ever firefighting.
My hon. Friend Chris Grayling spoke with great force about teacher shortages, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Amess. We have teacher shortages in my constituency too but I will not add to their arguments. I simply associate myself with their comments. I am delighted to have been given the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, where I can perhaps help to guide the Government as they seek to develop education policy.
I shall also raise health, the environment and our road infrastructure. I would like to speak about many other issues but time will deny me that pleasure. For example, Mr. Cox mentioned the problem in Cyprus and the need for a solution. I will work with him and hon. Members on both sides of the House to find a just solution to the Cypriot problem. I hope that Cyprus's European Union membership can be a catalyst for resolving it.
Last night, I attended the Canvey schools partnership awards evening. Eighty-seven children from 15 schools on Canvey Island were there to receive awards. Hundreds of parents and many dedicated teachers and head teachers were there to celebrate the effort and achievement of Canvey children as a whole as well as the 87 Canvey children who received specific awards. We saw an excellent array of talent and potential, as Paul Lincoln, director of learning services at Essex county council, rightly said.
The Canvey schools partnership is a local initiative. I congratulate those who thought of it and who have carefully advanced it a considerable way. The 15 head teachers in particular must be congratulated on working together to raise the issue of education on Canvey Island. We on Canvey Island should all be working together with the three local sixth form options—Furtherwick school, King John school and Seevic college—to drive up recognition of the importance of education.
Like the parents, I was proud, and indeed a little humbled, to see so many bright, positive and cheerful children receiving their awards. I congratulate each of them, particularly those who had overcome adversities during their years in education. I recognise that, like all the children in Canvey Island, they benefit from excellent and dedicated teachers and staff in their schools, whom I congratulate.
I emphasise the part that parents play in their children's education. Many factors influence outcomes in education. Perhaps one of the most important is the involvement, interest and encouragement that parents can give to their children. The Canvey schools partnership is a good initiative. The awards evening was a worthwhile event. I hope that it will be repeated to help to reinforce the importance of education for all my constituents.
I wish to raise an important health issue. Multiple sclerosis is a very difficult disease that afflicts many people. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg mentioned it earlier, and I shall not repeat the points that he made with more eloquence than I could emulate. He raised the matter with great passion.
A number of people in Castle Point suffer from multiple sclerosis, including one of my constituents who is a young lady, very young to get the disease, and to whom I shall refer as Miss A. The clinical evidence shows that treatment with beta interferon can help to arrest the disease. In certain circumstances, the growth of demyelinated plaques can be slowed if beta interferon is used at an early stage. Beta interferon is particularly effective when used early in the course of the disease, and any delay can result in irreparable damage, which is a cause of great concern to Miss A. She fits the criteria for beta interferon use that the Multiple Sclerosis Society has established, but she has been denied the right to receive the treatment.
I do not know when the Government will get their act together on the issue and start focusing on helping patients in need. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence report has been delayed for about two years, and now it is not expected until November, but it should be made available more swiftly if possible. Even an interim report would be welcome. Regardless of that, I do not know why we have to wait for the NICE report to allow the use of beta interferon. There is enough clinical evidence showing that it gives real benefits and it should be used now.
The continued Government delay is disgraceful and is more about NHS rationing than about clinical decision making. It is about saving money for the Government. Ministers are acting irresponsibly, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will address that issue in his reply. I shall seek every possible way of raising the issue in future.
Another important issue is Pitsea tip, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is also dealing because it is in his constituency, although it is largely my constituents in Benfleet and Canvey Island who live in its shadow and suffer its effects. I shall work closely with him on the matter, and we have already tabled 10 to 15 questions to try to hold the Government to account on it. That is a job that we shall do. So far, except for one question, we have received only holding answers. Suddenly, as the House rises for the summer recess, one answer slipped through. The timing raised some suspicions in my mind. When I read it, I realised that the Government have something to hide.
I was first alerted to the problem of Pitsea tip by the Evening Echo. Within one hour, I had raised the issue with Mr. Speaker, and within two hours I had raised the matter on the Floor of the House with the Leader of the House. One of the questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs requested the dates when deposits of poisonous ash at Pitsea tip were first suspected and when they were stopped. The Secretary of State replied:
"deposits of mixed bottom ash and precipitator ash at the Pitsea landfill site began in early 1998 . . . the Environment Agency became aware of the use of this ash to provide temporary cover for household waste. The Agency estimated the dioxin levels in the mixed ash to be 735 ng/kg."
That is a remarkably dangerous level of contamination.
The Secretary of State continued:
"the Agency wrote to the licence holder in July 1998 instructing them to cease using the mixed ash as cover material . . . acceptance of the ash for disposal at the site ceased by the end of 1998."—[Hansard, 18 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 292-3W.]
So there we have it. The timing is critical to my constituents in Benfleet and Canvey Island who live in the vicinity of the tip and have been exposed to dangerous deposits and contaminated poisonous ash for a year longer than they should have been—from early 1998 to the end of 1998 when the disposals were stopped—even though the Government were aware of the danger.
The responsibility for this is clear. There was a Labour Government in 1998, a Labour Member of Parliament for Castle Point and a Labour borough council. I want to know why no action was taken. I took action within an hour—not a day, a week or a year. I want to know why Castle Point people were not told what was going on and who they can hold to account for that lapse. If the Labour Government told the Labour Member of Parliament for Castle Point and the borough council, why did they not make the information public? If the Labour Government did not tell anyone, why not? It is clear that Castle Point people have been betrayed by, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West says, a rotten Labour Government who put spin before people's safety.
There must be an inquiry into who knew what, when they knew it and what has been done to ensure that action can be taken now to minimise the risk that we have lived with for too long in Castle Point. Dioxins are nasty substances; they kill people and they damage our environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay and I still await assurances that action will be taken to remove the risk. We also await answers to the rest of our questions, which were tabled some two weeks ago under the priority written questions rule, for answer within three days. We have a duty to protect our constituents and we will work together to do that.
I now turn to the third road for Canvey Island. This is not just about congestion and convenience; it is about safety, access for emergency services and escape in the event of, God forbid, another flood. We all know that the tides are getting higher every year. Last week, Canvey Island was blocked off by a simple damaged sewer pipe that brought much of Benfleet and the whole of Canvey Island to a standstill for several hours.
There used to be an ambulance station on Canvey Island, but Essex ambulance services now proposes to move the ambulance off the island and station it on the mainland. If someone collapses with an asthma attack, anaphylactic shock, a heart attack or a stroke, the speed with which an ambulance can get to them and then get them to an accident and emergency department at Basildon or Southend hospital is critical to their chances. If the ambulance first has to get on to the island and then get back off it, that will create problems and may result in my constituents suffering damage that they would not otherwise have suffered. Some may die. I will continue to fight to keep the ambulance on the island. The roads to the island are often completely blocked, so if the emergency services were stationed on the mainland they could not even get on to the island, let alone back off it.
Councillor Ray Howard, known locally as "Mr. Canvey", is the key champion of the third road. This week, he rightly said:
"The Government needs to sit up and take notice of Canvey, otherwise we might never get our third road. Labour Government Ministers are the key to the third road decision."
Neighbouring authorities are also key players, and they have been a bit protectionist, obstructive and nimbyish. I think that they are a little misguided. Thurrock has consistently refused to accept a route to Corringham from Canvey, and Basildon has also been obstructive. We in south-east Essex must work together for the benefit of the community at large.
There is now a real chance to make progress. There are three factors that can help us. The first is the Thames gateway regeneration project, which can help to provide funding for the infrastructure. The second is a positive attitude from Ministers, whom I thank and commend for taking the time to go to Canvey and see the situation. I hope to invite them again and again, until we finally get our third road. The third is a commitment of all the local communities and authorities to work together for the benefit of the wider community in south-east Essex. Those three ingredients, working together with synergy, might provide the answer that has been long sought.
"I can understand the problem Canvey residents have and we will have to sit down and look at any proposals carefully and see if we can come up with a solution."
He has shown courage and foresight in making that offer. I hope that he means what he says. We must be able to find a solution that fairly balances people's needs and the importance of our infrastructure development. I welcome John Potter's generous offer to talk, and hope that the talks can now take place.
The public will not forgive any political party that holds up progress on Canvey's third road. The Basildon Labour party must think carefully about that, and I hope that it will decide to put nimby instincts aside and work constructively for a solution for Canvey's third road.
Let me say how much I have enjoyed my return to the House. I know that I have much to learn and to re-learn before I can match the skills of those who sit on the Benches around me, on both sides of the House.
We have just been through a general election, so it seems appropriate to talk about electoral issues. There are questions that, in logic, should precede the questions that people traditionally want to debate, such as proportional representation versus first past the post, poor turnouts and compulsory voting, and which candidates people should vote for. Those are morally important questions, but we need to discuss other matters that, although they are procedural, should be first on the agenda—they need to be got out of the road first.
First, there is the need for full electoral registration on registers that are convenient for people and enable them to exercise their franchise rights. The Representation of the People Act 2000 went some way towards achieving that objective by introducing rolling registers, but in our highly mobile society, advanced technology should enable us to do more. We have started out down the road of rolling registers, but they are still slow and halting. We need a system that quickly picks up people who have moved and ensures that no one is missed.
I have often argued for the registration of homeless people. The ideal solution would be to have no homelessness and so no need for special registration for such people. The Representation of the People Act introduced certain measures and, in terms of technical provision, we have done well in advancing the case for the registration of the homeless. It is now for those organisations that assist or comprise homeless people to ensure that such measures are used. Perhaps other techniques could also be used to search out the homeless and ensure that they are registered.
People who are part of the society in which they reside should be on the electoral register, so I am not in favour of overseas registration—the expat vote—and I certainly do not support the current periods involved. Such people have become part of the society to which they have moved.
Britain should allow registration of all foreign nationals resident here. They are part of this society and that facility should not be available only for people from the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth. Others who reside in Britain are equally part of our society and should be taken into account.
The exclusion of prisoners from registers is no longer relevant. Such people are members of society and should have a vote. They will not dominate the electoral game and they are serving a sentence for their crime, so the franchise should not be taken away from them.
As a result of my attitudes to electoral registration, I have concluded that those aged 16 and over should be enfranchised. Britain should move to an identity card system and the time for identity cards and electoral registration is when people move out of schools into higher education or jobs. Those approaching 16 should be involved, despite a possible low turnout, as we experienced among 18 to 21-year-olds. Practical steps, such as civic education in schools, might provide a way forward.
Even if all those matters were dealt with, a problem still exists for a particular group. Even with full and proper registration, there is a gap in the arrangements. I refer to access for disabled people to polling stations. Even if disabled people have the same rights as everyone else to be on the electoral register, they have a serious problem if they cannot get into polling stations on the same basis as able-bodied people.
The Representation of the People Act extended the facilities for postal and proxy votes to everyone—able-bodied and disabled people alike—and certain returning officers may have thought that that solved the problem of disabled people. However, disabled people should have the same right as anyone else in society to turn up at a polling station and exercise their rights. If they decide to arrange a postal or proxy vote, that should be on the same basis as anyone else would decide to do so—they may be off on holiday, or there may be family reasons or other inconveniences that make it difficult for them to vote. It should not be a matter of their disability. They should still be able to get into the polling station and exercise their right. Indeed, they might turn up at a polling station to exercise the proxy of one of their friends or relatives.
For most people, voting at a polling station is still the proper exercise of their franchise rights. It gives them the chance for a last-minute change of heart and the opportunity to share in the atmosphere of what should be an important public occasion. The more we detract from that, the less people will be inclined to participate in the electoral process.
The 2000 Act made only minor but nevertheless welcome changes to assist disabled people to vote. It contained provisions for equipment at polling stations to enable the blind and partially sighted to vote unaided, and gave people who cannot read the right to have a companion to vote on their behalf. Physical access to polling stations has not yet been tackled in legislation, apart from some weak provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. No measure applying specifically to disabled people has been adopted in representation of the people legislation.
Scope recently published a third report entitled "Polls Apart". The first report revealed the extent of the problems following the general election in 1992. The second report dealt with the situation in 1997. The third report refers to the recent general election and is based on a nationwide survey of 1,965 polling stations. It revealed that, despite improvements since 1997, only a third of the polling stations covered were fully accessible.
The survey covered 474 constituencies. Common problems were steps, dangerous ramps and slippery floors. In some cases, disabled voters had to vote in the street or have their ballot papers marked by others. Some were simply turned away and disfranchised. At a polling station in Streatham, a notice stated, "If you need assistance, please ask someone to fetch one of the poll clerks."
That is not adequate. It reminds me of Lady Olga Maitland, who said, in opposing civil rights legislation in this House, that a bell outside a shop was an advance in disability provision. She has now gone, and that may have been one of the reasons. I do not know how much access her constituents had to polling stations, but I would think that disabled people made considerable efforts to get into the polling stations where she was standing.
Draft legislation is available to introduce full access to polling stations. I proposed two private Member's Bills when I fell lucky in the draw and had time on a Friday to pursue them. The first was the Representation of the People Bill 1993, which had the access to polling stations provision added to it. The Bill referred mainly to the rolling register, but I thought that that was not enough.
I fell lucky again two years later, and proposed the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill 1994, which was debated in 1995. Again an improved version of the access proposals was included in the Bill. During discussions on the Representation of the People Act 2000 on
I can claim some prime ministerial support for those of my proposals that were included in the 1993 Bill. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was shadow Home Secretary at the time, and he sent a note to Labour Members, saying:
"The second reading of the private members Bill from Harry Barnes MP on improvements to the process of electoral registration is scheduled for debate on Friday 12th. It is vital that there is a maximum turnout of Labour MPs for this debate as there is likely to be a sustained boycott by Tory MPs."
I will not read the rest of the letter. This does not quite amount to a Whip, which would have violated the requirements of private business. It was an encouragement. If it was a Whip, it was notoriously unsuccessful. John Smith, as leader of the Labour party, and the bulk of the Shadow Cabinet turned up. We had a great attendance from the top end of the party, but not enough Back Benchers turned up. The closure motion was carried by 78 votes to nil and, as the House knows, we need 100 people in the Lobby for a measure to proceed.
On the next occasion, the Bill containing the access to polling stations proposal was carried by about 176 votes to nil, but was sidelined in Committee by the then Government. The person who led for the Government and blocked the measure was Mr. Hague.
Any of us could at any time face disability. Potentially, we all belong to the group of disabled people. I have been through the experience. In the House of Commons on
I join in congratulating the hon. Members who made their maiden speeches today. Mr. Baron has a hard job in following Teresa Gorman. Obviously, he will not step into her shoes—at least, I hope that he will not do so—although he has wrapped himself firmly in the Eurosceptic flag. The other maiden speech was made by my hon. Friend Mr. Simon, who made an extremely witty contribution. He was also perceptive, as he described Birmingham as the second city of the country; obviously, he recognises that Leeds is the premier city. However, his contribution had one slightly depressing aspect: he bordered on ageism by telling us that the average age of Members of Parliament was 50.3. Unfortunately, I fall on the wrong side of that divide.
I am not quite sure.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about a key Government objective: the introduction of measures to improve standards for pensioners. As about 50 per cent. of social security expenditure—approximately £100 billion—is spent on pensioners, it is clear that this subject is one of the major considerations that exercise the minds of those in government, as well as those who want to be in government one day.
Organisations representing pensioners have correctly told us that older people are not a special interest group with unique demands and interests. I agree entirely with that view. Older people share with others the hope of living in a stable society in a nation at peace. They want an economy that offers a high quality of life to all. Along with the rest of us, they are interested in education, health, transport and law and order. They are full citizens of this country and their voices must be heard whenever decisions are made that affect them. We must have structures for participation and the Government must be committed to listening to their concerns.
The achievement of independence and security for older people requires a basic pension that offers all of them, in all circumstances, an adequate and acceptable standard of living. The quest to deliver that desired outcome will be accompanied by even greater pressures as the years go by—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington will share them—and our country grows older. There are now 12 million people over the age of 60 in the United Kingdom. By 2030, there will be 19 million, which represents about a third of the population. They will outnumber adults aged under 40.
In my experience, pensioners are very assertive in putting forward their views, especially in my patch in Yorkshire. They also show a greater tendency than other people to take part in social activity and what we class as civic society. The fact that they have a higher rate of participation in voting in elections is a point of interest for politicians, whether aspiring or otherwise. We are all aware of the phenomenon of grey power, which was first identified in the United States. Indeed, one or two of its proponents might be sitting in the Chamber now.
I am always glad, as I am sure my colleagues are, of the chance to meet pensioners in my constituency and to discuss the issues that concern them. I am very lucky, as I am always welcome at the pensioners' federation that meets at the King Edward VII working men's club in my home village of Allerton Bywater. Discussions with that group help me to keep my feet on the ground and understand the issues that they regard as important. To that end, I started meetings at the club to publicise the minimum income guarantee and encourage our local pensioners to opt into the big take-up campaign that the Government organised. I organised similar meetings in my constituency, in such exotic places as Swarcliffe, Swillington and Micklefield.
As hon. Members know, the minimum income guarantee is specifically aimed at the 2 million or so poorest pensioners who have missed out on the rising prosperity that the rest of the nation has experienced. It is right and proper that the Government's first significant action for pensioners was to concentrate on that poorer group. It is an excellent example of redistributive politics; some might call it socialism in action. Meetings, discussions and correspondence with pensioners showed that the Government's aim of targeting the poorest pensioners was not initially greeted with widespread enthusiasm. That resulted in a vigorous exchange, which became a learning process for us all.
We all had to study some history. I had to find out when pensions were first introduced. No doubt other hon. Members could say immediately that the first state pension was introduced in 1908. It was a means-tested scheme for those aged 70 and over. In the 1920s, pension provision was widened slightly. It is interesting to note that, when the state pension was first introduced, only one third of those born 65 years earlier were still alive. Today, the amount is three quarters, and by the middle of the century 90 per cent. will still be alive. Demography shows that we have a problem in future.
I do not want to go on for too long because several hon. Members wish to speak, but the next date in the history lesson is
The group considered changes in the 1950s and 1960s, and the growth of second-tier pensions. The state earnings-related pension scheme was introduced in 1978. We held a key debate about the Conservative Government's decision in 1980 to break the link with earnings whereby the pension had been uprated for some four years. I could go on but there is a limit to people's capacity to absorb historical facts and figures.
During our meetings we have had vigorous discussions about the relative value of flat-rate increases and means-tested or targeted support. I am pleased that many common assumptions in both arguments were challenged. I was made aware that many pensioners in what I would class as the middle third group—not the middle way—were aggrieved that a small occupational pension disqualified them from receiving additional state help. Many pensioners in my constituency have built up those small occupational pensions through mining, engineering and tailoring; reasonably regular employment and, I stress, good trade union organisation helped them to do that.
I would class those people not as being in the top 20 per cent. of well-to-do people, but as hard working and respectable. By building up a small occupational pension and saving, they have managed to provide a little extra for themselves on top of the state pension. Like many colleagues, I listened with sympathy to the case of those pensioners because I understand their point. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and various Ministers and asked them to take up the case. No doubt many other colleagues in the House did so as well. I am happy that, perhaps as a result of that pressure, the pension credit is to be introduced in 2003.
I welcome the introduction of the pension credit because it will clearly help to address the unfairness—perceived or otherwise—that the middle third group of pensioners feels that it experiences. It will address that unfairness in several ways. It will maintain guaranteed minimum incomes for pensioners, which will be raised in line with earnings over time. It will ensure that no pensioner will get less than the decent minimum that they need to live on. The pension credit will abolish the minimum income guarantee capital rules. Pensioners will have their entitlement to support assessed on their income, from whatever source—state pension, state second pension, building society interest earnings and so on—but not on their savings.
The pension credit will end what is often classed as the intrusive weekly means test. Pensioners' incomes tend to vary less than those of people of working age, so longer-term assessments of pension entitlements can be made—more like those made under the tax system. The pension credit will reward those who, because they have saved for their retirement, have a small or moderate income from savings or a private or state second pension in addition to the state pension. As things stand at the moment, it is projected that all single pensioners with an income below £135 a week, and all pensioner couples with an income below £200 a week, will benefit from the introduction of the pension credit.
Although I warmly welcome the pension credit, I would like to highlight three caveats that I hope will be taken on board, if one can take caveats on board. First, as the minimum income guarantee is, quite correctly, going to be uprated in line with average incomes, the differential between the guarantee and the pension credit will need to be maintained so that the guarantee remains a worthwhile addition to a pensioner's income.
Secondly, the pension credit policy needs to be explained in a simple and effective manner to ensure its success. Thirdly, many pensioners keep their savings in banks and building societies that do not yield as much income as they might. Could National Savings be encouraged to offer income bonds at advantageous rates to pensioners, so that those on pension credit could maximise their income from all sources? I hope that Ministers will consider those points carefully. Putting the pension credit in context, along with the minimum income guarantee, one can see that the Government have acted seriously and decisively to combat pensioner poverty, and to address the concerns of what I referred to earlier as the middle third group of pensioners.
When we consider that, in addition to those highly significant measures, the Government have raised the winter fuel payment, reduced VAT on heating bills, introduced free television licences for the over-75s, restored free eye tests and given one of the biggest-ever rises in the basic state pension, we can honestly say that we are making a real difference to pensioners. Anyone who talks to pensioners knows that. Several pensioners came up to me during the election campaign and told me that, for the first time ever, they had been able to start saving. It was wonderful to hear them making such a statement. I look forward to this Labour Government building on the excellent work that they have done for pensioners, and I hope that, in addition, they will consider three fairly simple measures that I would like to see introduced.
First, could we reduce the age at which pensioners qualify for free television licences? I would like that age to be brought down so that more pensioners could benefit from that extremely popular measure. Let us see whether it could come down to the age of, say, 70 at the next Budget.
Secondly, could we consider speaking to the public utility companies about abolishing the standing charges that pensioners have to pay? Many utility companies are offering a reduction in, or an abolition of, standing charges at the moment, in an attempt to win people over to their product. Let us get in touch with those very profitable public utility companies and see what their commitment to the public is.
Thirdly, we need actively to consider ways in which hip operations, knee operations and, particularly, cataract operations, the essential operations that our pensioners really need, can be speeded up. I know that the Government will listen, and I feel confident that they will retain the support of our pensioners in the years ahead. We have tried to ensure that our pensioners live not in poverty but in dignity, not on the margins of society but at its very centre and not resented as a burden on the state but treated as truly equal members of this society that we all enjoy. If we can commit ourselves to that ideal, we will do right by all our citizens.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Baron on making an interesting and informative maiden speech. I had no idea that there was any connection between Billericay and the Pilgrim Fathers. I also congratulate Mr. Simon on his maiden speech, which was witty and enjoyable. I am pleased that he is continuing to write for The Daily Telegraph. It is good that a Labour MP is writing for that paper, because that might encourage other members of his party to read that excellent publication. Perhaps some of the common sense shown in other parts of it will wash off on them.
With only 70 minutes left before the Adjournment debate and the summer recess, at this eleventh hour I want to use a few minutes of the House's time to highlight the anger in my constituency over Northumberland county council's plan to charge sixth formers £2 a day to use school transport. As Members can imagine, it has caused considerable anger, especially as it is accompanied by a discount scheme that reduces the amount to £300 a year if it is paid in a lump sum. There is also a discount for paying quarterly, which of course militates against poorer parents.
Northumberland is one of most sparsely populated counties and my constituency, the second largest in England, has one of the lowest populations. Therefore, school transport is vital for many families. To those unable to afford the charge, the county council suggests that the education maintenance allowance, which is being paid in trial areas such as Northumberland, be used instead. That would involve parents going through the means test, but many Northumberland families that are not well off will not go through it because it is an affront to their pride that they should have to do so to get extra funding for their children.
I want to comment on the letter protesting at the charge written by Mr. Webster, head teacher of Queen Elizabeth high school in Hexham, to the director of education at county hall. It sums up the argument very well:
"The proposal to charge sixth farmers for school transport is an attack on equality of opportunity and will discriminate against students who live in rural areas. This will be compounded by the proposal to offer discounts to those who can afford to buy termly or yearly season tickets which will discriminate against poorer families . . .
To suggest using the EMA to pay for transport is a curious notion when the intention of the EMA is to widen participation."
That sums up my views and those of many parents.
I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and received a reply from the Minister for School Standards, which, far from explaining the situation, has to my mind confused it even more. The Minister says:
"Funding for post-16 transport is distributed via local education authorities as part of the Education Standard Spending Assessment (SSA). LEAs will continue to receive recognition in SSAs for this after the responsibility for funding post-16 school provision passes to the Learning and Skills Council in 2002-03."
In other words, he is saying that Northumberland county council is getting the money to fund post-16 sixth form school transport. He continues:
"Education Maintenance Allowances, which are means tested payments to the student, are being piloted in 56 LEAs."
That includes Northumberland. Furthermore,
"this money is frequently used to cover transport costs. Five of the pilots are specifically designed to address transport costs."—[Hansard, 18 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 251W.]
Is the Minister saying that Northumberland county council has been given the money, but is not spending it on transport and is using it for other purposes, or is he saying that Northumberland county council should not use the money for school transport, but should rely on the means-tested EMA available to pupils whose parents are on lower incomes?
The situation is completely confused and I have raised the matter briefly in the hope that the Minister might hear what I have to say and persuade Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills to sort it out. Most Members think that charging sixth formers to go to school is exactly the way to prevent them from staying on and going into higher education.
I assure my hon. Friend Mr. Simon that, as I rise slowly and creakily, looking around for a Zimmer frame, it is more a reflection on the fact that I have spent four hours sitting on these Benches than on any aspect of my advanced age. As one born in July 1948—an occasion sadly overshadowed by the launch of the national health service—I am delighted to learn today that I am Mr. Average in terms of parliamentary age. Equally reassuring is the fact that I am 17 years younger than the average Conservative member. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and Mr. Baron for their maiden speeches.
I wish to associate myself for the first, and possibly the last, time with the comments made by Bob Spink about the absence of the second Opposition party. In a spirit of inclusion I was minded to make a typical Liberal Democrat speech to redress the balance, but found myself in two minds about it: there was much to be said for the proposition, but much to be said against it too. Ultimately, I decided that perhaps this was not the occasion for a Liberal Democrat speech.
What I would like to bring to this end-of-term car boot sale is the experience and problems of a constituent in facing up to an organisation—an institution—which, I have been advised, one should seldom attack. That institution is regarded as almost above criticism. It portrays itself as being so much a part of the warp and weft of the national tapestry that it can never be criticised. I speak not of Parliament or the Labour party, but of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
It may seem to hon. Members that someone who represents an Ealing seat should never criticise the BBC, because an enormous number of its staff live in Ealing. Indeed, if one threw a brick from the window of the average house in Ealing, it would inevitably hit someone from the BBC. Obviously, I do not recommend that course of action.
One constituent who used to work for the BBC now works for a national digital channel, a company called Oneword. He came to my surgery with a tale of such terrifying monopolistic brutality on the part of the megalithic, licence-bloated BBC that I felt I should bring the matter to the House's attention in the sure and certain knowledge that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who is considerably younger than me and certainly far more intelligent, will bear the matter in mind.
Oneword is a national digital radio channel that broadcasts on the Digital One multiplex. It has been on the air for 15 or 16 months and is the only national commercial digital radio station to be dedicated to the spoken word, to satisfy the needs of people who like to read. Many hon. Members will know that it delivers plays, books, comedy and discussions. It is a private company that, sadly, is associated with the Guardian media group. Listeners have available about 23 hours of programming a week. On Christmas day, there were 12 hours of children's stories. The channel is within reach of 79 per cent. of the population on digital receivers, Sky channel 877, or the internet, whatever that may be. It was proclaimed as radio station of the year 2001.
Now comes the sad bit. Last September, the BBC announced plans for five new national radio stations. One of them, snappily entitled Network Z, was bruited as offering a completely new digital service. It was to be a speech-based service, built on BBC radio's tradition of offering stimulating drama, comedy and readings for all the family, including children's programmes. We were told that it would mix original programming with classics from the BBC's archive.
A remarkable similarity emerges between the existing, entrepreneurial, national digital radio channel, Oneword, and the BBC's proposed new station. The synchronicity is presumably coincidental, but still remarkably noteworthy. Oneword's original application referred to a service based on plays, books and comedy: Network Z is to be centred on plays, readings and comedy—clearly completely different.
"the BBC should provide a strong and distinctive schedule of benchmark quality programmes on all its services".—[Hansard, 21 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1239.]
The BBC governors claim to assess each proposed service against the requirements of the charter and agreement, and against their criteria for new public services. Those criteria require that, to justify licence fee funding—the BBC should have to justify its funding—its public services must, inter alia, offer a distinctive mix of programming and content. That should be their aim, but I draw the line at the word "distinctive", given that they seem to be copying a format that has been created in the bracing chill winds of entrepreneurial effort by Oneword and by my constituent.
The BBC boasts that Network Z will include innovative scheduling. I contend that the scheduling of Network Z is a clone of Oneword's scheduling. It claims that Network Z—some people probably call it Network Zee—is distinctive, but that cannot be substantiated, because it is a deliberate copy of a pre-existing station. I suggest that this new service was designed with hostile intent.
Some people see the BBC as a Grandma Giles figure, resplendent in rusty bombazine, still the subject of many people's great residual affection and respect, part of our past, and part of the great sweep of Britain's history. I tend to see it as a malevolent, bloated dinosaur, stomping across the broad-band savanna and, with a vicious flick of its forked tail, assaulting this young entrepreneurial company, of which my constituent is a proud part.
This great Jurassic Park creature that stomps across the savanna creating such mayhem in its wake may have a place in our affections, and there may be something to be said for it. A good public broadcasting system is certainly an excellent idea, and one that this country has rightly pioneered and can be proud of in the future. Public service broadcasting and the inestimable bounty of a licence fee paid by all our citizens cannot be taken lightly. With that bounty comes responsibility. I suggest that one of the responsibilities of the British Broadcasting Corporation is not to stifle, ape and emulate young entrepreneurial companies springing up in the new broad-band Britain that we have been told to expect. It can certainly work with them, and they can be the benchmark, as my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State rightly said, but it cannot and must not be allowed to stifle them.
I desperately hope that the Government will recognise that, although there is much to cherish in the BBC, equally there is a great deal to cherish in young, innovative, bright, sparky companies such as Oneword. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for having the courtesy to listen to me without yawning too obviously.
I congratulate Mr. Baron and my hon. Friend Mr. Simon on their maiden speeches. I remember my maiden speech. I had worked on it and written it out. When I was called to speak, I put my hand in my pocket for my glasses—and they were not there. Maiden speeches are difficult in any case, but I shall always remember that moment.
I have a few things to say about Cyprus, so I declare an interest as a member of Friends of Cyprus and other Cypriot organisations. I am also a member of the Council of Europe, where we recently held a three-hour debate about Turkey. Because of its human rights record, Turkey is currently under review by representatives of the Council of Europe. That debate was not supposed to deal with Cyprus, but comments were made about Cyprus—especially the fact that the Turkish Government and military had occupied 37 per cent. of the island.
The issues raised in respect of Turkey were mainly to do with human rights violations by the Government, the military and police in Turkey against the Kurdish people. It is ironic that I am talking about the Kurds, given that Lord Archer was ennobled by the then Prime Minister, John Major, for spearheading a charity mission for the Kurds—as was noted in the Daily Express today. Obviously, Lord Archer cannot be all bad.
Issues were raised about the lack of free speech in Turkey and the use of military courts for civilian cases. The question of the Ilisu dam came up again. The imprisonment and even the murder of members of the opposition and of the media were discussed—as was the closing down of the Virtue party, which occurred only two months ago, and so on. I also thought that we should discuss Turkey's membership of the Council of Europe, which is after all a human rights organisation, and a good one, as human rights do not seem to be upheld in Turkey itself.
In my constituency, there are thousands and thousands of Greek-Cypriot people, as well as some Turkish-Cypriots. They get on well. Indeed, they have a greater affinity one with the other than do the Turkish-Cypriots with the Anatolians who have recently arrived in Cyprus.
In the Council of Europe debate, we spoke about the illegal invasion in 1974—exactly 27 years ago. We spoke of the fact that there is still no news of the missing people, and that there are more than 30,000 Turkish troops in the occupied part of the island. Greek-Cypriot people have been unable to return to their homes and their land, as they desperately want to do.
More recently, the Loizidou case was heard at the European Court of Human Rights. Mrs. Loizidou has a home in the occupied territory which she has been unable to use for 27 years. Three years ago, she was awarded $900,000 in a judgment against the Turkish Government because she had not had the use of her home. The judgment was not against Mr. Denktash or against the putative rulers of the occupied territories, but against Turkey. Recently, there was the abduction of Mr. Tsiakourmas by the Turkish military from the British base of Dhekelia. He has now been freed, but that, too, was a human rights violation.
It is frightening that more Anatolians are now living in the occupied territory than Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots have left the occupied territory in their tens of thousands because they cannot stand the Turkish Government occupying their lands. On
I have, however, become more optimistic of late about the prospect of a unified and free Cyprus. There have been positive developments between Mr. Kasoulides, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State in the United States. Positive discussions have taken place. The United Nations resolutions condemning Turkey for the occupation remain. Positive European Union negotiations are going on with Cyprus, and the economy of free Cyprus is healthy and doing rather well and will fulfil the EU criteria.
I thank the Leader of the House for his role when he was Foreign Secretary, for the extraordinary help that he has given people in Cyprus to achieve a united Cyprus, and for discussing with other EU Foreign Secretaries how to take the issue of Cyprus forward. Does the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office share my optimism about the likelihood of a free and united Cyprus in years to come—in perhaps two or three years? I ask him to ask the Leader of the House to pass on some good words to the new Foreign Secretary, so that the new Foreign Secretary can be as positive about Cyprus as the Leader of the House was when he held that job.
I congratulate the two hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches during the debate: my hon. Friend Mr. Baron and Mr. Simon. We enjoyed both speeches. It is a great tribute to the end-of-term debate that they chose to make their maiden speeches during it.
I mark the presence of the Leader of the House during part of our deliberations. We have always regarded this as a day for Back Benchers, and it is particularly important that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office and the Leader of the House recognise how important it is to Back Benchers to use this opportunity to raise matters that are wide ranging, but predominantly of concern to their constituents.
We began with a veteran of these debates, Harry Cohen. He raised a matter on which there is some cross-party agreement: the need for a proper debate on the Floor of the House about the London underground, for which we have called. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will have noted that there is also a request now from the Labour Back Benches for such a debate. I hope that when the House returns that will be granted.
Another regular attendee of end-of-term debates is my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who I know has passed a note to both Front-Bench teams to say that, owing to a prior commitment, a constituency surgery, he has had to leave. He mentioned mobile phones and phone masts, a theme that was taken up by hon. Members on both sides of the House. He said that he hated mobile phones per se. I am not sure that I can agree with him totally on that. I tend to be rather fond of mine, and I hope that he has left his mobile phone number with the Whips so that he can be contacted during the summer recess.
My hon. Friend mentioned another matter that is of growing concern to people: the installation of cameras throughout the country. We all recognise that closed circuit television cameras have an important part to play in detecting and preventing crime and in controlling speed on roads. However, I had some sympathy with my hon. Friend when he was describing the prevalence of those cameras. Almost every motorway bridge now has an electronic eye, and we are told that those eyes will soon be able to track one's movements.
Some people argue that the number of cameras is increasing so greatly to enable the police to manage traffic and enforce the law on speed restrictions, and there is something in that argument, but there is clearly a balance to be struck. I think that we would all be rather concerned if we thought that the cameras were being used not only to control speed, but to monitor the free movement of people across the country. I think that the House will wish to address that issue in future.
We then heard the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, and my heart warmed to him. I felt that he was so brave to tell the House how fascinated he was by Spaghetti Junction, interchanges and flyovers. My own experience of that particular section, where the M5 leads into the M6 junction, has not always been a happy one. If, as an hon. Member, he can do anything to improve that experience, I think that he would have great support on both sides of the House. I suggest that challenge to him as a goal to achieve in this Parliament.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the great British countryside—or even to represent God's own county, Devon—think that we live in beautiful a place. Today, however, through the eyes of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington we have been able to see beauty in concrete, interchanges and flyovers. There was a touch of the Betjeman about him when he was speaking—[Laughter.]—and I do not mean a view of Slough in the rear-view mirror. I hope that in future speeches the hon. Gentleman will continue so eloquently and attractively to promote the city that he represents.
I know that, in following a lady who is my next-door neighbour, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is only too well aware that his predecessor was a doughty fighter in this place, not only for her constituents but for the causes that she felt were very important. He mentioned some of those causes, including small businesses. In her political career, those causes were always at the forefront of her thoughts. I wonder whether my hon. Friend, too, will champion the case for hormone replacement therapy—a subject that he did not mention but is of great interest to some hon. Members. Can we look to him to pick up that particular baton and run with it? I would be interested to hear his representations if he does.
We wish both new hon. Members a happy and fruitful period in the House, and we hope that it lasts for a very long time.
I was very sorry that the Leader of the House was not in the Chamber to hear the representations of Linda Perham, who talked about the need for an all-weather racecourse. I had the feeling that, had the Leader of the House still been in the Chamber, she might have received a positive response almost immediately. However, perhaps he was watching her speech on a monitor and rushed to make a few telephone calls to ensure that her comments were noted by those who feel that that racecourse is so important.
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg raised several issues regarding problems in the delivery of health services to his constituents. By raising those important issues, which affect all our constituents, he struck a chord with hon. Members on both sides the House. The case that he made for allowing the use of beta interferon was particularly strong. The delay in deciding that issue has gone on for a very long time and for far longer than can be justified by the need for NICE to investigate the issue. NICE has looked into it and then looked into it again. It keeps kicking the issue into the long grass.
As my right hon. and learned Friend said, absolutely rightly, if a consultant advises on the basis of his or her best clinical knowledge that beta interferon is the best drug for someone with multiple sclerosis, that is not something that we should try to second-guess. It is a matter for medical and clinical judgment. When we see it in writing from a consultant—as Members of Parliament often do—that this is the drug that somebody with multiple sclerosis needs, it seems criminal that the issue is not dealt with promptly, that clinical judgment is not respected, that it is a matter of pot luck determined by where one lives in the country, and that some people get the drug and others do not.
I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for raising this and other matters concerning the health service, particularly the long waiting lists for consultant neurologists which is a problem that we also experience in Devon. It is not just a one-off case and my right hon. and learned Friend has done the House a service by raising these important matters.
Mr. Cox is a veteran of and a regular attender at these long Adjournment debates and said that he was pleased that they have survived. I share his pleasure in that—long may they continue. In these days of modernising the House, it is still important for hon. Members to know that even if they are not successful in the ballot for Adjournment debates—and it is a ballot—there is always an opportunity to raise important matters as very few hon. Members are denied the opportunity to make a speech during these end-of-term debates. The hon. Gentleman raised important matters about the Prison Service and Wandsworth prison. Let me assure him that if ever these Adjournment debates are threatened, we will all champion the cause and raise the vigilantes.
My hon. Friend Mr. Horam spoke about the safety of the railways and how that impacts on commuters in his constituency. Like many other hon. Members, he drew attention to the fact that the Liberal Democrat Benches are empty. One or two hon. Members said, "Does that matter?" Indeed, Mr. Pound even considered making a Liberal Democrat speech. I am delighted that he did not, as I do not think that it would have suited him. I have never regarded the hon. Gentleman as wishy-washy or sitting on the fence and I think that he would have struggled to put that across with any conviction. The so-called self-appointed Opposition are not here and we hope that they are enjoying whatever beach they are sitting on, making their sandcastles.
Mr. Banks characteristically made an informed and passionate speech about matters that are important to him, particularly whaling. Had he not drawn to the House's attention what is clearly a most outrageous abuse on the part of the organisation that appears to have made allegations with no foundation against him and other hon. Members, many of us would not even have been aware of it. The hon. Gentleman did not simply put the record right on his behalf and that of others who were maligned in that way, but ensured that the matter was brought to wider public attention. All too often, Members of Parliament are accused of making allegations, but we also deserve the opportunity to be treated fairly and when we are not it is only right that it is brought to the attention of the House, and the hon. Gentleman has done that today. I hope that his words will not just have been noted, but will result in action being taken to put the matter right.
The hon. Gentleman also raised other matters that are close to his heart concerning sport, the Olympic games and Wembley. I know that it will not have been the last time that we will have heard from him on those subjects.
My hon. Friend Mr. Wilkinson raised matters involving his constituency, but they were not simply local matters as they involve the future of two very important hospitals, the Harefield hospital and Mount Vernon hospital, which serve people from all around the country. He spoke about the quality of life and he was absolutely right. We all welcome new hospitals and capital investment into our health service. I know that the Minister will have noted his concerns because those two hospitals are specialist hospitals, not just run-of-the-mill general hospitals. They are important to our national life and to health services in both transplantation and cancer care.
John Cryer, another regular at these occasions, spoke about mobile phone masts and about the tube. I hope that the Minister will have heard the request from his own side for the House to have an opportunity to consider matters relating to the tube in more detail.
My hon. Friend Chris Grayling spoke about teacher shortages, to the point at which he believes that part-time education will become a reality in his constituency unless something is done urgently. He gave us notice that he would have to disappear early, as—[Hon. Members: "He is here."] Oh yes, so he is. I am delighted. Obviously, the problem with his four-year-old is sorted out.
Dr. Kumar raised a complex constituency matter concerning a councillor involved in a planning application. I am sure that the Minister will have taken note of what is a specific case but could have a read-across to councillors throughout the country.
I am very pleased officially to welcome my hon. Friend Bob Spink back to the House. I have not had an opportunity to do so before. He spoke about Cyprus and about beta interferon—issues that have been a running theme in this debate. When he says that he raises matters within an hour of being re-elected, it shows that he has not lost his zest for prompt action on behalf of his constituents, something with which we were all familiar in the 1992-97 Parliament.
Mr. Barnes is another veteran of these occasions—I shall be speaking about ageism shortly. He spoke about extending the franchise. Personally, I could not agree with all his points, but he is absolutely right that, now that we have easier rules for proxy and postal voting, returning officers at the general election may not have taken as seriously as they should the issue of access for wheelchair users and people with disabilities.
I remember writing to my returning officer before the 1997 general election to check that access arrangements had been thought through and ramps were available, especially at our rural polling stations where access might not be all that easy. It is terribly undignified—and quite unnecessary, if some forethought is given—for wheelchair users to have to be carried in to vote. We should all remind our returning officers that they should do a proper audit of all their polling stations well before election day and ensure that satisfactory access arrangements are made for people with a range of disabilities. Sometimes, people with little or no sight need some help with ballot papers and so on.
I warmed to the speech of Colin Burgon. He made some serious points about pensions, and admitted that he was the wrong side of 53. I have to join him in that.
I am trying to resist responding to these flattering comments.
The hon. Member for Elmet talked about grey power. I have not yet gone grey—with the help of my hairdresser. I must be honest with the House: I was grey by the time I was 25, for which I entirely blame my children. There is something to be said for grey power. The youth of today is a much discussed subject; we all want to be inclusive and take account of the different generations, and for them all to have an input. But I am a bit fed up with people dismissing those in the grey power group. We are in the prime of our lives. Britain cannot afford to be without us. We have a lot to contribute both in the House and among our constituents. The hon. Gentleman did the nation a great service today by speaking up for grey power. I notice that he is not yet grey himself. [Interruption.] I do not have my glasses on and one of the advantages of getting old is that I cannot see the grey around the edges.
On a more serious note, it is a good thing that people live longer and that whereas in previous generations people in their 60s and 70s were regarded as pensioners, today such people are active and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, articulate. They have priorities and something to say and to contribute. We must ensure that we have policies which recognise that such people are not past their sell-by date.
That brings me to the Liberal Democrats, who are not here. Had they been here, they might have explained why the Liberal Democrat candidate who fought my hon. Friend Mr. Steen at the election is on the record as having described him as white haired and past his sell-by date. It did a lot for his majority because every grey and white-haired person in Totnes rushed out to vote for him, regardless of political party. The Liberal Democrats could have learned a few lessons about age discrimination had they attended today.
I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Elmet recognised the contribution, which we all appreciate, of people in that age group, their needs in terms of pension and monetary provision, and the wider context in which those in that age group are making a great contribution.
My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson made a short intervention, but an important one for his constituency, concerning Northumberland county council's decision to charge £2 for school transport for sixth formers, which will clearly have a big impact on the family budget. Children wishing to stay at school and take A-levels or to enter further education at 16 will suddenly find that they are faced with such a bill. I hope that the Minister will have noted my hon. Friend's concern and will draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Ealing, North did not attempt to be a Liberal Democrat today. He raised an interesting case. I was not sure whether he was advocating that the BBC should be subject to market forces like everyone else. I do not think that that was quite what he was saying.
I see a little cross-party support; a little glimmer here. We all recognise the problem with the BBC being funded by the licence payer and receiving financial support from the Treasury. The BBC has a responsibility and should clearly not be in a position where it can simply cherry-pick what other people have had to innovate and work up. I am sure that this will not be the last time that we hear from the hon. Gentleman on this subject.
Dr. Vis referred to Cyprus, a subject that has been raised on several occasions during these end-of-term Adjournment debates. Today he focused on human rights in Cyprus. It is a difficult matter, in which the Leader of the House will have an interest, and I am sure that the Minister will pass on the points that have been made to his right hon. Friend who is knowledgeable on the subject.
On behalf of the official Opposition, I thank all Members who have contributed today and wish everyone a happy and sunny recess.
We have had a wide-ranging and interesting debate in which 19 Back Benchers participated. We have heard about a broad range of matters, from the average age of hon. Members and of members of the Conservative party, to the relative merits of the cities of Leeds and Birmingham. I shall do my best to deal with all the remarks of hon. Members in the time available. If I am unable to respond for lack of time or information, I shall ensure that ministerial colleagues write to hon. Members.
I apologise to Chris Grayling and my hon. Friend Dr. Kumar for not being in the Chamber when they spoke. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was present and ensured that I was briefed on what they said.
I assure my hon. Friend Mr. Cox that there is no threat to the continued existence of the summer Adjournment debate, which was described by my hon. Friend Mr. Banks as whingeing gits' day. The 19 Back-Bench contributions, and the 20th, from Mrs. Browning, were far from whinges. We heard some important and eloquent contributions. My hon. Friend Mr. Pound described it as a car boot sale of a debate, and the speeches certainly covered a wide range of products.
If press reports are to be believed, this may have been the last Front-Bench appearance of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton. I am sure that I speak for hon. Members in all parts of the House in thanking her for her contributions from the Front Bench. No doubt she will be just as robust and active as an Opposition Back Bencher. She spoke about grey power. I confess that over the past few weeks I have noticed the odd grey hair on my head. I do not know whether I am on the right or the wrong side of 53—at my age, I suspect, the wrong side.
We are about to see a significant exercise of grey power when the Conservative party elects a new leader. As we heard during the debate, the average age of the membership of the Conservative party is 66, but in the light of the hon. Lady's commitment to empowering older members, I wonder whether she will switch her vote from Mr. Duncan Smith to the slightly older right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).
We are relieved to hear the hon. Lady's assurance that she will do no such thing.
I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides who raised Cyprus, especially Bob Spink, my hon. Friend Dr. Vis, who is my neighbour in north London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, who has done immense work over many years in bringing Cyprus to the attention of the House. There are many good friends of Cyprus in all parts of the House.
I declare an interest, as I represent a constituency with a larger number of Cypriots, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, than any other parliamentary constituency. I am pleased to reaffirm the Government's commitment to a just and lasting settlement in Cyprus, based on United Nations resolutions. I reaffirm that the Government use whatever opportunities they can to press human rights matters with the Turkish Government—not only human rights matters in Cyprus, but some of the other issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green. The Government have a continuing commitment to the process of accession of Cyprus to the European Union. My hon. Friend Harry Cohen referred to the tube, as did a number of other hon. Members. Like him, I have four tube stations in my constituency, at the north end of the Piccadilly line. The concern that he expressed about the tube is shared by my constituents and many others in the Greater London area and there must be an opportunity for the House to debate and scrutinise the proposals.
I reaffirm the Government's commitment to the public-private partnership, which will bring in much needed extra investment to improve the track, signalling and stations across the tube network. That is desperately needed after decades of under-investment. This is a matter to which the House will return.
Mr. Amess made a wide-ranging speech, in which he did not have many good things to say about the Government. However, he had the courtesy to inform me that he would not be here for the end of the debate. He was under the impression that it was a three-hour debate today, as used to be the case. Had he known it was a five-hour debate, he told me, he would have spoken for longer. Perhaps we could have a cross-party consensus that there are advantages to having a shorter debate.
The hon. Member for Southend, West was the first of several hon. Members to refer to mobile phones and the Stewart report. All of us will have had concerns raised by constituents, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) mentioned the matter.
Another matter mentioned by the hon. Member for Southend, West was the vote in the Select Committee on International Development. I put it on record that I do not believe that there is any truth in the press reports that Mr. Leigh was not successful in the election because of his religious beliefs. It would be unacceptable for that to be the basis for hon. Members to make such a decision. It is evident from the debates this week that hon. Members on both sides of the House want Select Committees to be able to choose their Chairmen independently. In this case, the Select Committee made the decision. We cannot be selective in our support for the principle of Select Committees making such decisions. A decision was made and an alternative Conservative chairman has been elected.
Two maiden speeches were made today. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington made a witty speech in which he talked about the people of Birmingham as the backbone of this country. He was at pains to say that his constituents were normal people but pointed out that he was not using Lord Tebbit's definition of the term. He gave a powerful message to the House about the importance of delivering the fundamentals so that we can make a real difference to the lives of our constituents.
The hon. Member for Billericay described his constituency as a shopping paradise and referred to the importance of reducing red tape and bureaucracy for small businesses, the importance of the green belt and concerns about incineration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington and the hon. Member for Billericay have replaced characters in the House, Teresa Gorman and Robin Corbett. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members when I wish both of them well and say that they will be sorely missed, although Robin Corbett is to become a member of the other place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North discussed the poor turnout at the general election and mentioned the possibility of compulsory voting. I have never been much persuaded by the argument for compulsory voting. The onus is on us, as politicians, to persuade people to vote, rather than to make criminals of those who do not. However, I recognise that strong views are held on the matter, and, in the light of the recent poor turnout, I believe that it should be debated. She also raised a planning matter regarding a horse-racing course. I shall ensure that the relevant people are aware of her concerns. She should probably be thankful that I am responding to the debate, rather than my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, who may have had to declare an interest on that point.
Mr. Hogg spoke about several serious matters that he has raised in previous debates and with other Ministers, including Health Ministers. Not least among them is beta interferon, about which I am sure that constituents have expressed concerns to all hon. Members. Anxiety has certainly been expressed to me, and others have contributed to that aspect of the debate. As has been pointed out, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has not yet issued its guidance on beta interferon. I am told that it is now consulting on the economic model and that appraisal of the drugs is under way. NICE anticipates that the appraisal committee will reconsider the evidence later this month. That evidence will consist of the new model and any other material that is made available. Unless there are further appeals, NICE expects to issue its guidance by November. That is the current position. I am well aware of the strength of opinion on both sides of the House and I shall ensure that the concerns that have been expressed are passed on to Ministers in the Department of Health.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also spoke about neurology waiting times in Lincolnshire and the difference between the experience there and the national statistics that Health Ministers have provided to him. That inconsistency is clearly a matter of concern. In particular, I support his point about the need for professionals to be open and accountable in the same way as other public officials and servants. Nobody should be excepted from that requirement.
To be fair, the right hon. and learned Gentleman made that precise point.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman's third point related to dentistry in Lincolnshire. I understand that Lincolnshire health authority and the Prime Minister's consultant facilitator for dental access met in May this year to consider plans for NHS dentistry. Various proposals are moving forward, but it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman raised a matter of wider concern, on which further progress needs to be made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting not only spoke briefly about Cyprus, but raised issues concerning Wandsworth prison and broader questions relating to education and asylum seekers in prisons. He will know that the Government had a clear manifesto commitment to improve the quality and quantity of prison education. We are committed to improving the provision of education and training for prisoners as part of our strategy to help ex-offenders to get jobs and avoid reoffending. As my hon. Friend's remarks showed, the achievement of that manifesto objective is a big challenge, but the Government are firmly committed to it.
Mr. Horam was the first to decry the absence of the Liberal Democrats from the debate. When I checked the details, I found that he has rather a small majority over them in his constituency, so I am sure that bashing them in the House makes for a good press release back there. However, he also made important points about railway services for commuters into London. As I represent a commuter constituency on the other side of the city, I am well aware of the overcrowding problems to which he referred. He mentioned the ambitious figures for investment in our railways that are contained in our transport plan. Clearly, it will be vital to ensure that that money is properly allocated in the coming months and years.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham asked about whaling and sought clarification of the Government's position. I am pleased to make it clear on the Government's behalf that the United Kingdom's policy on whaling is unchanged. We oppose it and we strongly support the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling. There is no justification for the activity, apart from some subsistence whaling by indigenous people. We should like all other forms to be stopped.
We will make our position clear in the current talks in Hammersmith. In the long term, we want the moratorium to be extended. As my hon. Friend said, it is not currently comprehensive because Norway and Japan undertake whaling operations, which are legal under the existing rules. We want them to be strengthened to prevent that.
My hon. Friend also mentioned a London bid for the 2012 Olympic games and suggested that there should be a permanent site for the games in Athens. I assume that he intends that site to be established in 2016 so that the London Olympics can take place and the games can move to Athens four years later. He mentioned several possible locations for the Olympics. He knows that Patrick Carter is due to present his report to the Government in late August, and we await his conclusions. The Government do not yet support or oppose any bid because it is a matter for the British Olympic Association. However, the Mayor of London supports a London bid, which appears to be a serious possibility for 2012.
Like other hon. Members, Mr. Wilkinson made important points about the provision of health care. He knows that the matter to which he referred is up for consultation and that the relevant community health councils have taken the case to Ministers, who are considering the details. I am therefore not in a position to comment, but I shall ensure that his contribution is drawn to the attention of Health Ministers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch talked about mobile phone masts, to which I have already referred. He also considered capital investment in schools. Substantial progress has occurred, but decades of underfunding primary and secondary schools mean that we have a long way to go. Hon. Members throughout the country know of schools in their constituencies that require attention.
I understand my hon. Friend's point of view on private contractors and private finance. However, the first private finance initiative-funded school opened in my constituency this academic year. Highlands school has so far been a successful local comprehensive that educates 11 to 18-year-olds.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell focused on teacher shortages, and the impact of housing costs on the problem. As a fellow Member from the south-east, I am well aware of the problem, especially in London and the south-east, but also in other parts of the country. It would be foolish to deny it, and greater priority should be given to the matter as we move forward with our education policy.
I apologise for missing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East. From the account that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave me, my hon. Friend described an appalling case, and I am happy to give him an undertaking that I shall refer it to the Law Officers, who can consider what action, if any, to take.
The hon. Member for Castle Point has returned to his former seat. He spoke about beta interferon and several important local planning matters. I shall ensure that he receives replies to parliamentary questions that he has already tabled and some of the broader points that he made in today's debate.
Many contributions referred to the low turnout at the recent general election. None of us can deny that there is a serious problem when more than 40 per cent. of those entitled to vote do not bother to do so. There are many theories and different points of view about what happened. However, it is a serious matter that the House needs to address systematically.
My hon. Friend Mr. Barnes has worked tirelessly over many years in the House and outside to promote the modernisation of our electoral procedures and changes in the electoral rules. Again, today, he set out several positive and helpful suggestions that contribute to the debate about how we can enhance turnout. No one in the House believes that the poor turnout was simply a product of the difficulties in gaining access to voting, but if barriers exist, as he suggested, we must do our very best to remove them. Although the rolling register, for which he campaigned for many years, represents a major advance in enabling more people to be on the electoral register in the area in which they live, more can be done and needs to be done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his positive suggestions, which will be open for debate, on questions such as reducing the voting age to 16, overseas registration, voting rights for prisoners and encouraging more civic education in our schools, which is something on which the Government are seeking to make progress. From his account of previous years, it sounds as though he has been rather lucky in the private Members' Bill ballot, in securing two private Members' Bill slots in three years. I hope that we can assist him in making progress in the areas to which he referred.
My hon. Friend referred to the new report from Scope, "Polls Apart", and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton gave further examples on that subject. Clearly, there is a fundamental principle, to which my hon. Friend referred, that there should be proper equality of access to polling stations. If people cannot get that access on an equal basis, we are undermine democracy.
I have no idea what my hon. Friend could possibly be referring to. Perhaps that is an issue to which he will have an opportunity to return after the summer recess.
I have just two minutes in which to draw my remarks to a close. My hon. Friend Colin Burgon raised some important questions about tackling pensioner poverty and the importance of the pension credit legislation that was announced in the Queen's Speech in benefiting what he called the middle third group of pensioners. He set out three caveats, then made a further three points, and I will ensure that his questions are passed to my colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Mr. Atkinson raised a matter of real concern in his constituency about sixth-formers being charged for school transport and about the advice being given to use education maintenance allowances to fund that. I will draw that to the attention of my colleagues. Of course, education maintenance allowances are a positive innovation of this Government in recognition of the fact that if we are truly to widen access to continuing education, we need to address the number of young people—particularly poorer young people—who drop out of the education system at the age of 16.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, whose maiden speech is still etched on my memory from four years ago, described himself today as "Mr. Average".
That is attracting support from the other side, but we on the Labour Benches know that he is anything but Mr. Average. He is much better than that. I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. My hon. Friend is perhaps an unlikely advocate of privatisation of the BBC, but I will ensure that the Prime Minister is made aware that Labour Back Benchers today advocated further privatisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green raised the issues concerning Cyprus to which I have already referred.
Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to put on record the thanks of all Members of the House to you, to Mr. Speaker and the other Deputy Speakers, and to the staff and officials of the House for their hard work, and to wish you, all the staff, and Members from all parts of the House—including our absent friends—a restful summer.