Debate on the Address — [First Day]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:55 pm on 13th November 2002.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Liberal Democrat, Teignbridge 8:55 pm, 13th November 2002

I hope to be brief, but I wish to address four items from the Queen's Speech. It says that university reform proposals will be published to improve access and build on excellence. No one can disagree with that, but I hope that we will build on excellence in the broader sense than just a narrow academic sense. In education, we tend to consider a narrow definition of academic success. For example, in primary education, some parents try to prime their children for early-stage exams. Children are hot-housed, but that can often lead to them burning out. If we define excellence in universities too narrowly, we are in danger of losing much of what is good in various universities.

I have an example in my constituency. The university of Plymouth is an excellent university, but it currently proposes to close its colleges in outlying areas. That would affect a college in my constituency at Seale-Hayne, which was established in the 1920s as an agricultural college. It has always been a centre of excellence and in recent years it became part of the new University of Plymouth, since when it has developed several other courses such as land management, rural affairs, food and other subjects. The proposal is that the college be closed and all the students moved to the main campus in Plymouth. The argument is that a greater critical mass is needed to achieve greater academic ends, and it is difficult to argue with that.

I have talked to the students at the college, and they say that size is not everything. They learn other things by being at the college, which is a particularly pleasant place to study. Where better to study rural affairs or tourism at an academic level than in the heart of the countryside in a tourist area? The students can learn as much from being there as they can from their academic studies. The location of the college broadens their understanding more than a purely academic focus.

If the colleges are all moved to one campus, that will also undermine the part that the university plays in the regional network. In Oxford, they used to have riots between the students and the local people, because they had little contact. If we lock our universities away on to one campus, they lose the ability to relate to the wider community.

The second aspect of the Queen's Speech that I wish to address is the reference to speeding up the planning system. Several hon. Members have already mentioned that point and expressed fears, which I understand, that if the process is speeded up, consultation will be cut out. My background is in architecture—I spent many years in various architectural practices—and I can assure hon. Members that the planning process for most people can be speeded up. For instance, local authorities have devolved powers to parish and town councils. That was brilliantly done in the district of South Somerset, whose town council was Yeovil. When dealing with a planning application for a client, we received the first response within four weeks, which enabled me to go back to my client to describe the problems about which the town council was worried. Within another four weeks, we submitted an amended application, and we received a final decision in favour of my client.

Under the straightforward committee system, people are lucky to get a decision from most district councils within eight weeks, which is supposed to be the statutory period within which a decision must be made. Up and down the country, the architect, surveyor or whoever makes the application will receive a letter after eight weeks—other Members will know this and have complaints about it—saying, XDo you mind? We wish to extend our period of consideration of your plans." Of course, everyone says yes to that. In some areas, particularly in inner London, I recall such consultations going on for 16, 20 or 30 weeks, without going further forward. A lot of that nonsense involves getting strung up on committee systems, which could be streamlined if we considered who could make decisions and the level at which they are taken.

I give a constituency example—the Kingskerswell bypass. A lot of my constituents say that they do not want the bypass; a lot say that they do. The process is strung out over a long period and it involves the initial plans drawn up by the county council, the consultation period and the resubmitted plans. Following resubmission, plans go out to the planning process and, eventually, the Secretary of State would hold a public inquiry. Ultimately, the decision would rest with the Secretary of State. If anyone is telling me that there is not some duplication in that process that could be cut out to achieve a speedier decision, I would like them to explain.

We could compact the beginning of the process—the local authority planning stage and the public consultation, which take place before the start of the public inquiry—and bring forward the dates involved by at least two years, if not three. We are talking about seven or eight years, so there would be a significant benefit to the people of Kingskerswell. They do not know whether they will get their bypass or not. On the one hand, those who want it would see the benefit once it was built; on the other, those who do not want it would know that there is to be no bypass, so they could develop their land or do what they liked on the land that adjoins and abuts the possible site.

Thirdly, the Queen's Speech says:

XA Bill will also be introduced to help ensure that local authorities support older people awaiting discharge from hospital."

I find that wording quite extraordinary. From what we have heard from those on the Government Benches, they do not mean support. They mean that they will penalise local authorities if they have difficulty in placing the elderly people from the hospital in a care home or a nursing home.

We in the House keep using the term Xbed blocking". May I ask hon. Members not to use it, as it sounds as if the poor person in the bed is to blame? They are not at fault; the system is. We could use the term Xbed locking", as I am sure that patients would much rather be out of the hospital than in it. It sounds almost as if they are chained there, but they are not unwilling to move.

It is not easy for a local authority to place people if there are no care homes to move them to or if those homes are struggling financially and, as in many cases, under threat of closure. It is not easy to place people if the Government, through fines, are taking away the money for the provision of the service and transferring it to the NHS. It would be far better if the Government recognised the economic realities of social services departments, and the need for them to invest more so that the elderly care sector has the funds that it requires.

The Government will say that they provide enough money for that sector. What they do not do is provide enough for child care. Local authorities throughout the country—Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and under no overall control—have to divert money from the elderly to make legal provision for child care and child protection. We must end that. It will require another #400 million or #500 million. A year ago, our director of social services said that about #1 billion was needed. Although the Government have been generous, providing #400 million and then #300 million, that still does not amount to #1 billion—and, of course, time has moved on.

Moreover, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that bringing care homes up to standard would require #1 billion on top of the #1 billion mentioned by the director of social services. If that money is forthcoming, most of it will almost certainly have to come from the Exchequer. I ask the Government not to hit the donkey if the donkey is struggling to carry the load, because that will only break its back.

There is a proposal to abolish fixed pub opening hours, and to introduce a range of measures to reduce the amount of antisocial behaviour. I approve of the wording, but the legislation is much overdue. I hope that it has not been included just because the Government have been getting a lot of stick for not introducing it, having promised all the young people they texted before the last election that they would do so. I hope that it will have been enacted a year from now.

I also hope, however, that the licensing laws will remain with the magistrates. The industry fears that if they go to local authorities, they will become more arbitrary and will be subject to numerous pressures other than the basic question, which is XAre these people fit to run a licensed premise, and do they run it in a good way?" I think that the police and magistrates are better able to judge that than are local authorities, with all their politics. I am not disagreeing with what was said by Sir Teddy Taylor about the need for local authorities to have a say on the hours during which pubs can stay open. That is a separate debate, and I will not venture a view now. It is important, however, for licences to be granted fairly, and for that to be seen to be done. Furthermore, if there are problems with antisocial behaviour, it is the police who will know about them.

I hope that other aspects of the present licensing legislation will be included in the new Bill. One of the early-day motions with the most signatures concerns the campaign for a full pint, which I am sure is supported by all parties and all political complexions. I also hope that the Government will review their decision to abolish the beer orders, which I fear would open up all the problems we experienced with breweries in the past. It would get rid of the guest-ale provision for chains of more than 2,000 pubs, and introduce covenants to prohibit the use of premises as pubs in rural villages.

I hope that the Government will see the broader picture, and consider some of my suggestions.