Before I call the first speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, which will operate from the beginning of the debate.
I raised the case of Cyprus in Adjournment debates on
Perhaps, only for a moment, about a month ago, it seemed as if there might be a glimmer of hope that Cyprus might join the European Union as a united island on
Who are the opposition to whom he referred? The simple reality is that they are the Turkish Cypriots who want to join the EU with their Greek Cypriot counterparts. But who are those on the side of the Turkish Cypriot Mr. Denktash? A people imported from Turkey who, over the past 29 and a half years, have totally changed the demography of the occupied territory and were given voting rights in that somewhat dodgy election. The outcome of the so-called elective poll was deadlock, and it now seems highly unlikely that the occupied territory will be able to accede to the EU with its Greek Cypriot republican counterparts.
Although the Turkish Cypriot pro-EU side won slightly more of the vote last Sunday, the electoral system is complex enough to have given both sides 25 seats. It is equally important that if no coalition can be formed, new so-called elections must be held in mid-February 2004. Even worse, if the pro-EU side were to win a re-ballot, it is now too late for Cyprus to join as a united island. However, I am sure that President Papadopoulos of Cyprus will continue to do his utmost to find a solution.
There are other complications. Many people, including me, believe that the real power over the occupied territory lies in Ankara, and particularly with the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr. Erdogan. As the Minister is aware, Mr. Erdogan visited the occupied territory on
Indeed, the European Commission, in its regular annual report on Turkey, identified a "serious obstacle" to Turkish hopes of starting formal accession talks with the EU if no settlement is reached over the divided island of Cyprus. The report says:
"The absence of a settlement could become a serious obstacle to Turkey's aspirations".
At present, the Government, like previous Governments, remain convinced that Turkey is fast becoming a healthy parliamentary democracy. I do not understand or agree with that blinkered view, in relation not only to Cyprus but to other major problems in Turkey.
Turkey has indeed started on ambitious reforms, but very few of them, so far as I can see, are being, or have been, implemented. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to convey again to our Foreign Secretary and other Ministers that I, and many of my colleagues in the House, want real changes to be implemented in Turkey in practice for a considerable time, and a proper settlement in Cyprus, before even contemplating allowing Turkey to commence accession negotiations.
I am glad to contribute to this debate. Unusually, I want to raise an issue of considerable importance to my constituency and one special family in it, but I think that the issue will be of concern to every hon. Member.
During the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence last Thursday, I listened with growing incredulity. He made a tiny reference to the National Audit Office report, published that morning, and to the Ministry's own report, entitled "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future". His Conservative opposite number also ignored evidence of serious inadequacies. In the course of nearly 30 minutes of exchanges between the two Front Benchers, no hard evidence was given about the serious equipment shortfalls that were apparent from the reports. However, my hon. Friend Mr. Keetch was present and made a brief reference to the subject.
On Monday, there was another exchange about the NAO report, but the Secretary of State again attempted to play down the significance of detailed findings of mistakes and failures in his area of responsibility. This is more than a theoretical, logistics problem: it was and is a matter of life and death, as in the tragic case of Sergeant Steven Roberts from Wadebridge in my constituency.
Sergeant Roberts was the first British fatality in Iraq. He was shot during a confrontation with Iraqi dissidents on
The report summary sent by the casualty visiting officer on behalf of the Ministry of Defence last week to Mrs Roberts states the conclusions with stark and tragic simplicity:
"During the course of enquiries it became apparent that Enhanced Combat Body Armour (ECBA) had been issued and then withdrawn from Sgt. Roberts. An issue/withdrawal sheet proving that Sgt Roberts had been provided with full body armour prior to deploying to the Gulf, and its subsequent withdrawal, has been recovered. The ECBA incorporated a cover with pockets front and rear for protective plates and included the required filler and protective plates.
However, the ECBA was withdrawn as 2 Royal Tank Regiment Battle Group (2 RTR BG) were short of 300 sets therefore the CO, having considered all options, deemed it necessary that dismounted Infantry soldiers had the ECBA protection and therefore ordered its redistribution. This left Sgt Roberts with Combat Body Armour (CBA), which is a temperate cover (not designed to house ceramic plates)."
I am sorry to have to repeat all that in full, but obviously the document has not been published; it has been made available to me by Mrs. Roberts and the family. It went on:
"To determine if Sgt Roberts would have survived had he been wearing the appropriate issue ECBA with protective plates, enquiries were established with the Defence Clothing Integrated Project Team (DCIPT) who provided details of the testing and procurement of ECBA. In essence the ECBA cover provides no protection, but is designed to house High Velocity (HV) plates front and rear to cover the heart and aorta. The inner is for fragmentation protection only and the HV ceramic plates are designed to defeat a NATO ball or tracer 7.62mm round at 50 metres. However, experience suggests that there is a very high probability, greater than 90%, that such a bullet would be defeated at 10 metres or less.
This statistical data was examined and considered by a Consultant Forensic Scientist who agreed with the specifications and protective properties of the HV plates.
A reconstruction was conducted under the direction of a Forensic Pathologist in consultation with evidence of the Consultant Forensic Scientist and their findings indicate that . . . The ceramic plate insert would have covered the entry wound site upon the front of the centre of the chest of Sgt Roberts. This was calculated by examination of post-mortem photographs, transposition of coveralls worn by Sgt Roberts at the time of his death compared against measurements taken at post-mortem.
Taking this into consideration with the protective properties of the HV plates, both the Forensic Pathologist and Consultant Forensic Scientist concluded that had Sgt Roberts been wearing ECBA with the protective plates correctly fitted at the time of shooting, the 7.62mm tracer round that struck him in the centre of his chest and ultimately killed him, would have been defeated."
It also states:
"The Forensic Pathologist also expressed the opinion that Sgt Roberts would have survived the second injury to his abdomen assuming appropriate medical assistance had been provided."
I am sure that every hon. Member can anticipate the reaction of his widow and family on receiving that news just before Christmas.
The NAO report was presented to the House last week and reported a very specific finding under the heading "ECBA" :
"Doctrinally, the Department only intended to issue Enhanced Combat Body Armour for peace-keeping operations, for which the Department already held approximately 30,000 sets. These included 690 desert pattern covers, which were increased by 49,000 sets for operations and a further 31,500 sets for sustainability. 23,700 pairs of armour plates were also contracted, to supplement the 16,000 pairs already in service. The delivery deadline for items was set at
21,759 covers and 32,581 pairs of plates were issued into the supply chain by
The Ministry of Defence prides itself on its audit trail on all equipment. How can the NAO report to the House that 200,000 sets seem to have disappeared, months afterwards? I find that extraordinary.
The NAO report continued:
"The Team questioned whether items should, therefore, be issued as part of an individual's personal entitlement for which they would be held accountable.
Despite these efforts, insufficient numbers were distributed in-theatre, largely as a result of difficulties with asset-tracking and distribution."
The Ministry of Defence's own report, which examined its own proceedings, said:
"Enhanced Combat Body Armour provided personnel with significant levels of protection. Initial analysis of data from the operation by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has indicated that body armour reduced the number of US forces killed in action from torso wounds by at least 50 per cent. (possibly up to 90 per cent.), and those killed in action overall by over 20 per cent. (possibly up to 32 per cent.). Although data was not available to conduct an analysis for UK soldiers, the results can be regarded as indicative."
In other words, Sergeant Roberts may not have been alone in being denied proper protection—critically so, in his case.
In chapter 8, the Ministry's report repeated the NAO criticisms of late delivery and accuracy of distribution of ECBA. The inevitable conclusion must be that Ministry of Defence incompetence, or inadequate preparations, despite the very long build-up before hostilities began, led to an entirely avoidable death in the case of Sergeant Steve Roberts. Faced with that irrefutable evidence, one can only dimly imagine the added trauma faced by his widow, his mother and his family.
The second question that arises is who fired the fatal shot. Immediately after the tragic events of
"terrible shock to the Regiment and to his many friends".
He went on to say that
"it would appear that he was killed during an assault by an Iraqi Militant. Steve fired his pistol in self defence but the rounds failed to stop the man. In an attempt to help, one of the other commanders fired at the assailant killing him. Tragically, Steve was also hit."
That leaves in the air the uncomfortable possibility that he could have been killed by "friendly fire". That point has still not been clarified, despite my attempts to obtain an explanation from the Ministry of Defence. In the first awful shock of their loss, the family did not recognise the potential alternative interpretations of that last sentence—that it was a stray bullet from his colleague that caused Sergeant Roberts's fatal wound. Was it yet another case of friendly fire? In order to dispel that dreadful idea, I am still asking Ministers for an explanation. To this day, to my knowledge, the family have been given no explicit assurance on that aspect of the confused events of
The final question is whether Sergeant Roberts's weapon malfunctioned. The investigation report from the Ministry, sent last week to Mrs. Roberts, includes a reference to tests of Sergeant Roberts's weapon:
"Further ballistic tests on Sgt Roberts' pistol have yet to be completed. Tests that have been undertaken on the weapon show . . . It was serviceable prior to deployment . . . Following the shooting two faults that might have contributed to a stoppage were identified; a tripping lever incorrectly chamfered and a stiff tripping lever plunger. In addition, the frame was fractured at the locking lever recess.
It is worthy of note that prior to this inspection the pistol was re-issued to a Staff Sergeant and a Corporal, both with 2 RTR, who did not experience any difficulty with the weapon, but did not fire it."
Again, that has worrying implications. It would seem to imply that there was no test of the pistol before it was reissued. The statement that those using it did not experience any difficulty hardly reassures his family or the rest of us, as it also states that they did not fire it.
What conclusions can we reach? Those are the facts, as far as the family have been made aware of them. Sergeant Roberts was a very brave man, doing his duty for his country. Those who serve in the armed forces on our behalf know the dangers that they face. Tragic mistakes are an inevitable feature of all hostilities, however sophisticated the technology may become. But—and it is a big but—his widow and family are naturally devastated by that information, dragged out of the Ministry of Defence after eight long months of waiting and worrying. I believe that they are entitled to expect better.
Mrs. Roberts has told me that she wants to be absolutely sure that such awful mistakes can never happen again. She wants to be certain that no other family will be similarly, and unnecessarily, bereaved. I do not expect the Minister this afternoon to be able to offer comfort and reassurance to that family. However, the very least the Secretary of State should do is to agree that I should bring Mrs. Roberts, and other members of Sergeant Roberts's immediate family, to meet him. Then, perhaps, the family will at last have the consolation that some small good can come out of that terrible tragedy. Those who serve us in the armed forces, and their families, are entitled to know that Ministers are on their side and that they will take seriously the lessons of that unnecessary tragedy.
I express my good wishes for Christmas to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other colleagues, and I hope that we can agree that a family who have been so tragically and unnecessarily bereaved should receive that message, at Christmas, from the Secretary of State.
I take the opportunity of this debate to raise an issue that was raised earlier this week—the White Paper on the future of air transport and the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on Tuesday. All hon. Members with an airport in or near their division came to hear the statement with some trepidation. Some were greatly relieved, and those who represent constituencies in north Kent will have been greatly relieved that the cloud that hung over Cliffe was finally dispersed. There were those of us who thought that Cliffe was a red herring and that there was no realistic prospect of the proposal ever being moved forward. Indeed, all of us would say that that was right and that Cliffe should not have been chosen. There were so many environmental and heritage arguments for not in any circumstances contemplating putting a major airport on the Cliffe marshes that that option was rightly dismissed.
Those from areas with other airport facilities, in particular Heathrow and Gatwick, at first breathed a sigh of relief, but on contemplation and consideration of what was said realised that the cloud was not lifted from them. The prospect may have been put a little further into the future, but it is still there, and will be an ever-ready prospect for some time to come.
One place did not even have the privilege and benefit of looking into the future and saying, "Not yet." That was Stansted. I have the privilege of representing a constituency close to Stansted, which is in the constituency of the Chairman of Ways and Means. Mr. Heald, who will speak for the Opposition today, is also geographically close to the proposed site.
Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that local opposition to the proposal is almost unanimous. I know of a certain Australian writer who occasionally delivers pieces in national newspapers about how much she welcomes the fact that this monstrosity is a few miles down the road rather than next door. Not everyone who lives in the area has sufficient financial resources to move away with ease and profit, if the proposals come to pass.
Stansted is in the strangely named district council of Uttlesford, which undertook a referendum in which the turnout was higher than that at the last general election. Of the votes recorded—again the number was higher than in any parliamentary constituency, at least in modern times—89 per cent. were against the proposal and 11 per cent. were in favour. Uttlesford covers a vast area from close to the airport site to many miles further away. That underlines the extent of the opposition to the proposal.
The local authorities are also united. I am not an expert on Hertfordshire local authorities, but I suspect that they are opposed. Certainly Essex county council is opposed on a tri-partisan basis. Uttlesford district council, which was formerly Conservative controlled and is now Liberal controlled, has been completely opposed in both phases. Braintree district council, which was formerly Labour controlled but is regrettably now Conservative controlled, has been united in opposition to the extension in both phases.
What is the position? At present there are about 19 million passengers going through Stansted airport. Some Members may have travelled on those flights. The most incredible bargains imaginable are offered. My constituency assistant, who comes from Ayrshire, regularly travels back to see her relatives for about £17 return. Frankly, that is a ludicrous price. It is almost as expensive to travel from Braintree to London as it is from Stansted to Ayrshire and back. I am told that some of the flights are valued at £1 to the company. No doubt all sorts of other sums come into the equation that make it worth while for the airlines to operate in what, on the face of it, is amazingly uneconomic mode.
One of the advantages of being a person of increasing years is that one has seen things before. There used to be an entrepreneur known as Freddie Laker who brought cheap air travel to the millions. Mr. Laker is no longer flying aeroplanes, or rather his company is not. That passed away. Whether flights at giveaway prices can be maintained in the long term is for the market to decide. While the market makes up its mind, there may be devastating effects on the people who live near entrepreneurial experiments.
The number of passengers at the moment is about 19 million, having increased from about 7 million only a few years ago. Now there is permission to increase to 25 million, and as the airport stands, without any more runways, it has a capacity for 35 million. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced a second runway, which will extend capacity to 47 million passengers per annum.
People mainly travel to Stansted on the motorways. It is difficult to travel by train, although it is possible from London. The line from Braintree was taken out many years ago. Most travel by road. Whizzing—or, in due course, crawling—along the motorway, one may not appreciate the nature of the countryside surrounding Stansted. It does not have the splendour of Ben Nevis or Snowdonia or the picture postcard charm of the Lake District, but it has a particular character all of its own— England as it used to be in the eastern counties. There are low rolling hills, streams, copses, woods and quiet little villages. There are literally hundreds of historical and listed buildings. Great Bardfield, which is in the Braintree division, is an amazingly picturesque old village. It should be a town, as it used to have a quarter session. It attracted a colony of nationally renowned artists in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, who settled there because of the scope it offered them to paint, draw and express themselves in art.
The area does not suffer from high unemployment. Unemployment is effectively nil. Therefore, employees to service increased passenger numbers will have to travel into the area. As Members can imagine from my description, property prices are not on the lowest rung, so employees at the airport will find it difficult to afford houses, even if they are suffering from blight. That means that they will have to travel in, thus creating further environmental difficulties, which have not been fully analysed for the White Paper.
The White Paper admits that certain things will have to change. It talks of the need for a thorough environmental assessment before the change is undertaken. I hoped that a thorough environmental assessment might take place before we had the announcement in the White Paper. The White Paper states that capacity needs to be considered on the west anglia mainline, the M11 and M25, and on local roads. None of that has yet been assessed, but the announcement has been made, with all the consequences that will follow.
If the second runway is built, we face the possible loss of 1,000 properties, two scheduled ancient monuments and 29 listed buildings—to say nothing of the devastation of the countryside and the inconvenience and distress caused to local people within a huge radius, way outside the acquired land. A general blight will fall on this historic part of Essex for many years to come. The White Paper talks flippantly about the new runway being expected to be in operation by 2011–12. That might have been possible at one time, but in these days of endless consideration and looking into things, I cannot see anything happening as early as that. The longer the consideration, the longer the blight, and the longer the distress to people who may have spent all their lives in that area and now fear what is to come.
The Government accept that it is for the airport operator to prepare a scheme to address the problem of generalised blight. Airport operators are not social institutions or foundations with charitable status, and, with all due respect to them, I cannot imagine that that will be high on their agenda for next year. The problem will therefore persist.
The White Paper seems to have made the situation even worse with regard to the second runway because of where it has been placed. One would not favour this, but the second runway could have been placed within the present boundaries of what is already an enormous airport. It could have been placed relatively close to the present runway, but that has not been done. The White Paper places the new runway almost as far away as possible from the present runway and from the boundaries of the airport. It concedes that extensive acquisition of land will be required in order to achieve that.
That raises two points. First, how many other runways can be slotted in between the first and what people fear will be the fourth: will there be four rather than two? The other matter is the sheer increase in expense of the whole operation and the greater uncertainty and damage to countryside and buildings and the great undermining of people's domestic security.
I have no idea what the cost will be. I do not think that the Government have said what it will be, and when I questioned to the Secretary of State on Tuesday, he replied:
"As with any airport development, the private operator must finance airport construction, and, in the case of Stansted, BAA must make such a commercial judgment. I understand that it will say something further in the next few days, but it must decide whether it thinks the figures stack up commercially, and the Government will not step in and do that for it."—[Hansard, 16 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1445.]
To use a phrase from the 19th century, the whole thing is very much a leap in the dark. We do not know what it will cost and are waiting for the private operator to say what it will cost. Meanwhile, the concern and anxiety continue.
I appreciate that it is sometimes tiresome for Members who may know little about these places to hear people speak about them at length, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. There is great concern and fear among people who live in that part of Essex and in Hertfordshire. The sooner the whole thing is resolved, the better, and preferably that will be done in the negative sense that the proposal does not go ahead because it does not stack up and exists only because of cross-subsidy from Heathrow and Gatwick, which will soon become illegal and will have to be lifted if the proposal is even to be considered.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to contribute to the Christmas Adjournment debate, which gives a great chance to all Members to raise a multitude of local, national and international issues that are important to them and their constituents. I intend to take the opportunity to raise a number of concerns with which many of my constituents agree.
First, this is a Christmas Adjournment debate. Many people in my constituency, like many hon. Members, are concerned by ongoing efforts by some individuals and, I am sad to say, by Government Ministers to downgrade the importance of Christmas. A lot of people have expressed disgust at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which published a Christmas card that bears no relation to the celebration of the Christian festival of Christmas. Not so in Romford, where our schools, churches and community organisations have organised and hosted a range of magnificent Christian celebrations and activities over the past few weeks, welcoming people of all religions and including everybody in what is a Christian but also a national celebration for all British people.
I pay tribute to the schools that I have had the privilege of visiting over the past few days, which have organised concerts, nativity plays and similar activities. In particular, St. Mary's Hare Park Catholic primary school and St. Peter's Catholic primary school organised wonderful nativity plays and concerts only last week. My own ex-junior school, Rise Park, held a nativity concert involving many pupils, and I was privileged and proud to be present. Parklands infant school and St. Edward's Church of England primary also held events. Members will be pleased to hear that I have also been active on my recent Saturdays in visiting every school and church Christmas fair in the constituency. I have visited 21 Christmas fairs in the past month, including those at Crowlands school, Squirrels Heath school, Nelmes school, St. Alban's church, St. Andrew's church and, last but by no means least, Havering Road Methodist church. Christmas is a wonderful Christian festival, and I hope that hon. Members—indeed, Ministers—will remember that in future.
This has been a great year in many ways in Romford, but it has been the greatest in my memory because Her Majesty the Queen visited my constituency for the first time. She visited Romford market and my local church, St. Edward's, in the marketplace. The people of Romford are very proud of their heritage of being British. We uphold the traditions of our country with great pride, and we were very proud to welcome Her Majesty on
Early-day motion 239 is about the national anthem. I hope that we will not be afraid of playing the national anthem more often, and I mean not just playing the national anthem of the United Kingdom, but, proudly, playing the anthems of the countries that make up the nation—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We must be proud of the traditions of all parts of the United Kingdom, and that means being proud to fly the flag of our country, too, not hiding it away as if it is a shameful emblem. It is a flag of unity, and I hope that the British Parliament will follow the example of Her Majesty the Queen and fly the flag from Victoria Tower, just as the Queen does every day at Buckingham Palace, unless she is in residence, when the Royal Standard flies.
I hope that the Government will be proud of our traditions and fight to defend the rights and freedoms of this country and reject any reheated Brussels constitution that may come to us at a later date. My hon. Friend Mr. Cash will be at the forefront of opposition to any attempt to impose such a constitution on the British people, and he will have the support of my constituents and everyone on the Opposition side of the House in that.
I want to turn quickly to some local issues. Romford is in the London borough of Havering, and hon. Members will have heard me say before that the borough is terribly underfunded by the existing system of Government grant. We are not given a fair deal by central Government, whether Labour or Conservative. My constituents need a fair deal. How can it be right that neighbouring boroughs get vast extra resources although they have very similar populations? How can it be right that outer London boroughs such as Havering continue to subsidise inner London in a range of areas? My hon. Friends the Members for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), as outer London Members, will agree that outer London is fed up with subsidising inner London. We are tired of paying for the Greater London assembly, which has been a complete waste of money.
I hope that the Government will consider giving those in outer London boroughs the opportunity to vote in a referendum to opt out of the GLA, allowing us the chance to rekindle our historical links with the counties on the edge of London. I draw the House's attention to early-day motion 220, regarding the historic counties of our country. I hope that they are restored as soon as possible.
Policing in the London borough of Havering is under-resourced. Once again, we pay for police cover; we do not get it. The police are sent to inner London. I hope that the Government will find a fairer way to ensure that all boroughs are adequately covered by police resources.
It is important that we defend community facilities and things that are for all our people to enjoy, such as local parks. I commend the Friends of Rise Park who have fought for a number of years to restore Rise park to the family-friendly place it used to be—equally so, the Friends of Cottons Park. Both parks are in my constituency and both groups are working very hard to try to get funding to ensure that those parks are restored, so that they become the places that we all remember as children. It is sad when parks turn into havens for vandals, thugs and people who take drugs, turning what should be places for families and communities to enjoy into unsavoury areas that people simply wish to avoid.
I also ask the Government to consider allowing much more local control over matters such as planning. We are fed up with Governments of all parties overruling local authorities, so that we end up changing the nature of our town centres. My constituency, Romford, has the second largest number of nightclubs in London. Well, we do not want any more nightclubs. We want to ensure that local communities are for the people of those communities and that we do not turn our towns and cities into mini Sohos.
On road safety, I am very sceptical about speed cameras. However, they have their use in certain places. One of those areas is Havering-atte-Bower—the historic village in the north of my constituency that overlooks greater London—where we need a speed camera, but rules dictate that the local council cannot install one. Once again, such things are decided on a London-wide basis, and I hope that local control can be given over them.
I pay tribute to a new local community organisation that has been established by Mrs. Cecilia Shoetan, whose daughter sadly died from a condition known as sickle cell disease, which will be familiar to many hon. Members. Mrs. Shoetan lives in my constituency. Not too many people in my borough suffer from that condition, but Mrs. Shoetan's daughter Lorraine died in tragic circumstances, and she is quite rightly fighting to ensure that we receive resources so that local people in my borough who suffer from that condition can obtain help. I pay tribute to her for fighting and working so hard to establish the sickle cell support group in the London borough of Havering.
Two days ago, I had the privilege to visit Clarence house, where His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales hosted a seminar for Members of Parliament to highlight the excellent work that he is doing with the Prince's Trust, the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Architecture and the Built Environment and the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health, among a number of other charities and causes in which he is involved.
At that seminar, I was very pleased to meet a young person, Kevin Johnson, who spoke passionately about his life as a youngster growing up in Glasgow. He managed to get himself hooked on cannabis when he was eight. By the age of 12 or 13, he was on heroin. He told us how the Prince's Trust has helped him to get back into a way of living that we would all hope all our young people would enjoy. In front of the Prince of Wales, he asked all the Members of Parliament who were present at Clarence house, "How can you MPs even consider liberalising drugs of any sort? I know the devastation that they cause to people of my age and others. Please do not weaken the drug laws." I hope that Ministers will remember that plea in future.
I wish briefly to speak up for people who are not represented in Parliament—the people of the British overseas territories and the Crown dependencies. They have no Members of Parliament, despite the fact that we make laws that affect them. They have no representation on any Select Committee or in the House of Lords. Let us remember those people, particularly the people of Gibraltar, who next year will celebrate 300 years of being British. I hope that all hon. Members will celebrate that great occasion in the history not only of Gibraltar, but of the United Kingdom.
Let us remember the people of Montserrat, which has been devastated by a volcano and needs more help; the people of St. Helena who desperately need an airport; the people of the Falkland Islands who are still concerned about the renewed efforts by the Argentine Government to gain sovereignty; the people of the Cayman Islands who are fed up with the European Union interfering in their affairs when they are not part of the EU; and, similarly, those of the Isle of Man and the channel islands, in which the EU is also interfering. Let us also remember the British Indian Ocean Territory and its people who were shamefully ejected by the British Government in the 1960s. They have a right to return eventually to their homeland.
In wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the staff of the Speaker's Office and the Officers of the House a very happy Christmas, I wish to make a final appeal as we approach Christmas: please read early-day motion 202, which I have submitted, regarding the importance of remembering that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. I hope that all hon. Members will remind their constituents that if they purchase a dog for Christmas, it is a lifetime commitment, not a short-term one that leads up to Christmas and then gets forgotten about.
I hope that, in 2004, all of us can help to restore the bulldog spirit of this country that has been so lacking since
Earlier this afternoon, the Leader of the House condemned what he termed the rising tide of anti-Semitism. I believe that the House should not adjourn until it has debated the important issue of the role Islamicist organisations play in inciting racial hatred in the United Kingdom through propagating anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. I wish to make it very clear that criticising the policies of the Government of Israel is not anti-Semitic. However, demonising Israel and Zionists—those who support Jewish national self-determination—by invoking images of disproportionate conspiratorial power is indeed anti-Semitism.
It is time that the spotlight fell on the Muslim Association of Britain, particularly the key figures, such as Azzam Tamimi, Kamal el Helbawy, Anas Al-Tikriti and Mohammed Sawalha. All of them are connected to the terrorist organisation Hamas. The Muslim Association of Britain itself is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—an extremist fundamentalist organisation founded in Egypt in 1928, and the spiritual ideologue of all Islamic terror organisations. It is militantly anti-Semitic and always has been.
In June 2003, the Muslim Association of Britain organised a series of meetings with an American imam, Anwar Al Awlaki, as guest speaker. That gentleman is reportedly wanted for questioning by the FBI in connection with the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Azzam Tamimi often appears in the media, representing the Muslim Association of Britain. He is an adviser to Hamas in the middle east. In 1991, when he lived in Jordan, he was the official spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front. He worked for the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood between 1989 and 1992. When he came to London, he continued his activities. He openly supports Palestinian suicide bombers. In July 2002, Azzam Tamimi spoke at a conference on Palestine in South Africa at which he said:
"Do not call them suicide bombers, call them Shuhada"— martyrs. He continued:
"They"— the Israelis—
"have guns, We have the human bombs. We love death, they love life."
He argues consistently that jihad is the only way forward for the Palestinians. He has said:
"For us Muslims, Martyrdom is not the end of the things but the beginning of the most wonderful of things.
He told a conference in Vienna that after Israel is destroyed and replaced with an Islamic state, the Jews should
"sail on the sea in ships back to where they came or drown in it."
I heard him speak at a Palestine Solidarity rally in November 2002 in this very building, and I heard him say:
"Listen Israel and Jews around the world, unless you change there is no future for you."
This is not a man of peace. He and his arguments incite hatred against Jews. He speaks regularly on behalf of the Muslim Association of Britain. Will the Muslim Association of Britain dissociate itself from him? Messages put out by that association and other Islamist groups, together with the far right—the traditional anti-Semites—continue to incite growing violence against Jews in the United Kingdom. The Community Security Trust, part of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been documenting those attacks. It reports that
"in the 1st quarter of 2003, there were 89 anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, a 75 per cent. rise on the 1st quarter last year when 51 incidents occurred. This follows a 13 per cent. increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2002 on the previous year. There were 21 anti-Semitic incidents in January and 25 in February 2003. Eleven of the incidents in the first quarter took place on university campuses."
The situation in the rest of Europe is even more serious. In Paris, a school has been burned down. The Chief Rabbi of France has warned men not to wear head coverings in public for their own protection. We are all too aware of the bombs in Istanbul that claimed so many lives. The situation is so serious that the European Union commissioned a report on anti-Semitism. Sadly, it tried to suppress the findings of that report because it showed the link between anti-Semitic attacks and some elements of the Muslim community. It is tragic that the holocaust cannot be taught in some French schools because pupils dispute whether it happened. The situation is growing, and it is too serious to ignore.
We should not underestimate the impact of anti-Semitic messages beamed into this country from the Arab world. During Ramadan this year, Hezbollah satellite television, Al-Manar, broadcast thirty episodes of a Syrian production called "Al- Shatat". According to the Syria Times on
"Syrian TV series recording the criminal history of Zionism."
Episode 20 shows a Christian child kidnapped by Jews, his throat cut, his blood collected in a metal bowl, and the blood then used to make Passover matzo. That is classic anti-Semitic blood libel of medieval Christian origin, but propagated more recently by the Nazis. I have viewed the footage, which is gruesome, revolting and an incitement to racial hatred. I call on the Government to make strong representations to Syria about that series.
I, like many, seek a peaceful solution to the tragic Israel-Palestinian conflict, based on a secure Israel with integrity as a Jewish state, and a viable Palestinian state beside Israel as a homeland for the Palestinians. A solution based on the division of land is realistic. I support the Geneva accords, which show a way forward, and I was pleased to participate recently in the Rabin peace seminar, which brought together members of the Israeli Knesset with leading members of the Palestinian Authority, at which I saw that there was a way to peace. Preaching hatred against Jews, however, is a handicap.
Preaching hatred of the sort that we are now hearing and seeing will undermine reconciliation and threatens community relations in the United Kingdom. It is already igniting anti-Semitism with potentially dire consequences for community relations in this country and in Europe as a whole. This must not be ignored. The Government are making valiant efforts to bring about peace in the middle east and to support good community relations in this country. I ask them not to ignore mounting anti-Semitism and to take action against it, from wherever, it comes, before it is too late.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this Christmas Adjournment debate.
Earlier, the Leader of the House said that we should all suggest names of people to be honoured in the forthcoming honours list. I thought that I would start the ball rolling and suggest my mother. She is an absolute heroine and a tremendous lady. There is one problem that worries me, however, and it may be the stumbling block to her recognition: she does not support the Government. She is not a Labour voter, she always votes Tory, and, for whatever reason, she does not like the Prime Minister. Given what I have read in the Sunday papers about the vetting of people who are suggested for honours, I wonder whether they have to be supporters of the Government. That would disturb me greatly. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that that hurdle will not be put in front of my mother and others who happen not to support the Government. As to the suggestion of sexing up the list with those whose names people can recognise, as opposed to those who deserve honours, I hope that that is not true. I hope that people included in the list will be there on their merits and for no other reason.
I want to endorse what my hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell said about Gibraltar. It is its 300th anniversary next year, and I hope that we will all celebrate it. I am proud of our attachment to Gibraltar and the support that it has given us over the centuries. I hope that the celebrations will take place throughout the country, and that the Government will get behind them. I know that there is some feeling that we might offend the Spanish if we are seen to be over-rejoicing in the fact that we have a close association with Gibraltar, but they should not be so sensitive. It has been a British territory for 300 years—the first 300 years, I hasten to add—and we should rejoice in it. In a referendum held this year, the people of Gibraltar showed overwhelmingly that they wish the current association to remain. We should respect their wishes, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will do so. Let us celebrate that 300th anniversary, and I hope that the Government will soon announce a number of things to help us celebrate it in this country—perhaps even an announcement that the Prime Minister will visit Gibraltar next year will give some support.
The Government need to look urgently at council tax because, in April, as we know, bills will be dropping through people's letter boxes. We have seen in the Daily Express a campaign that relates particularly to pensioners on fixed incomes who live in big houses, perhaps for historical reasons such as having raised a family there, and who wish to remain in them. We all understand that, but the increases in council tax that they have had to face over the past seven years have been horrific—about 70 per cent., including the increase this year, on typical band D homes, and most band D homes are now subject to bills of well over £1,000. I therefore hope that the Government will be more honest about the funding of local government. We know that there has been a lot of rigging in terms of the way in which money has been moved around the country.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £400 million to dampen the effects of this year's increase, but in many areas it will still be more than 10 per cent., while the inflation rate is about 2.5 per cent. Nobody apart from MEPs got a 10 per cent. pay increase this year. That £400 million will therefore not keep council tax low, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should have told local authorities what increase would be unacceptable before capping is introduced. We need to know that figure, but an increase that is four times the rate of inflation is unacceptable.
In business questions, the closure of post offices was mentioned twice, by Members on both sides of the House. I, too, know of a few post office closures in my constituency this year. We do not want to receive letters about branch closures in our offices, but, sadly, we do. I congratulate all postmen and women and postmasters and mistresses on their hard work and dedication throughout the year, but particularly at Christmas time. We must value the post office network. I am the first to concede that there were hundreds of closures under the previous Government as well, but this year about 205 branches have closed, and, from what we have heard today, the number seems to be escalating,. The network consists of about 17,200 post offices. Every Member of Parliament values the post offices in their constituency and our constituents are aware of their importance. The post office is the only shop in many villages and, apart from offering post office services, they sell goods. There are a number of such post offices in my constituency but, as I said, they are under threat. If people lose their post office, it is unlikely that they will ever get it back.
There have been a few closures in my constituency including, last year, Grindleton post office, which was the only shop in the village. Sometimes when we receive letters about a closure, the Post Office asks whether we can suggest anyone who is prepared to come in and run the local post office. We must acknowledge that post offices sometimes are not economically viable. Even with all the goods that they sell in addition to stamps, postal orders and so on, and even if the postmaster runs a convenience store too, post offices, particularly given the salary that is paid, may not be economically viable. The profit margin on a number of goods sold in post offices is extremely low. For example, it is about 4 per cent. on phone cards, which are high-cost items.
If the Government value our post office network, they must do something to save it. Clearly, this year's initiative to get people to have their benefits paid directly into bank accounts has not helped. The Government say that people have a choice in relation to the way in which they receive their benefits, but some elderly people have received phone calls when they have said that they wish to carry on receiving their benefits in the post office trying to persuade them to have that money paid directly into a bank account. A lot of people are being badgered into changing their mind and agreeing to direct payment into a bank account. That does not help the post office network in any way whatsoever, so I would be grateful if the Minister would give us an assurance that people will have genuine choice with regard to the way in which their benefits and pensions are paid, and will not be badgered or forced into opening a bank account.
As for support for the network, the Government must be more imaginative about the ways in which they protect those post offices. There may be a rural subsidy or some other form of recognition to keep post offices open. Without such payments, the system may not be viable. People who work in post offices work long hours under enormous stress. They have to be accurate in all their work because, in the main, they are dealing with money. One postmistress who worked part time told me that it was not worth it—people who worked in McDonald's were getting a higher hourly rate than she was for a job that entailed a great deal of stress and responsibility. In the end she chucked it in, and that facility has been lost in one of my villages, which is very sad indeed.
We must acknowledge that working in a post office entails long hours. It is not at all an easy job, so we must provide support. Post offices are the lifeblood of the community. People know the postmaster and mistress and the individuals who work in the shop. I know of one post office where, if someone did not come in one week to get their benefit, the staff would go round to their house to see that they were all right. With the best will in the world, that does not happen at Asda and Tesco. We must recognise the importance of the job that those people are doing.
About 400,000 people get relatives or friends to pick up their benefits for them. They would not be able to get them to nip into Barclays or some other bank to do so. We must stop the rot—we must work out how we can keep our post offices viable and keep the network going as far as possible. I pay tribute to all the postmen and postwomen, and to my own postman, Trevor. I thank him for all the work that he has done delivering letters to the entire village and me—we are extremely grateful.
In conclusion, I wish the House a merry Christmas and a happy new year. We look forward to 2004, when the people of the north will vote no to regional government.
I should like to raise our constituents' ability to gain justice when a wrong is committed against them or a member of their family. I shall give two different examples of circumstances faced by my constituents in North Durham over the past year. Each constituent was let down by the system, and left angry and disillusioned with the legal system.
The first case concerns Mrs. Ann Stevens of Annfield Plain in my constituency. In October 2002, Mrs. Stevens was involved in a road traffic accident. The other driver collided with Mrs Stevens's car but fled the scene of the accident. Her car was a write-off and she was hospitalised. The police arrested the other driver, a young man, who was brought before the local magistrates court and found guilty. Mrs. Stevens was awarded £150 in compensation but, even so, she was severely out of pocket. Her car, worth over £500, was written off, and she could not claim against her own insurance. The other driver had no insurance at all. In addition, Mrs. Stevens had to pay £105 for her vehicle to be recovered. Not only was she several hundred pounds poorer but she had to go to hospital and was left traumatised by the experience of the accident.
My constituent received payments for a few months, but nothing has arrived since
I also question the administrative costs in the case. Those costs include making deductions from the other driver's benefit, writing cheques to the recipients of compensation, and posting them off. The only winner is the person found guilty of the original crime.
"The enforcement of financial penalties is a priority. On
Those are fine and tough words, but they are little help to Mrs. Stevens, or to other victims still waiting for compensation. It also misses the main problem: what is the point of imposing fines and compensation orders if they cannot be enforced? The Minister, like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, seems to want to be tough by imposing fines, but it is clear that in some cases alternatives—such as community orders and other sentences—need to be found. They may appear softer, but they are much more effective when it comes to securing justice.
Since I raised the case with the Minister, I have spoken to the Durham magistrates committee. It appears that the problem is not that the magistrates are unwilling to pursue defaulters, but that it is hard to collect the money because of evasion and the difficulty in tracing offenders. Also, repeat offenders incur mounting debts that become unmanageable.
Some 67 per cent. of offenders receive state benefits. The present system means that the Government are recycling their own money in a very inefficient way. Fines do not punish the guilty, and do not help victims. In poor areas, there are many people on benefit, and collection is very difficult. That means that the recovery rate for fines can be as low as 40 per cent., and the costs of recovery are disproportionately high. The system needs to be reviewed. To prevent the evasion that is clearly going on, fines and compensation orders should be made only when courts have full personal details about the people involved. We should stop wasting everyone's time by imposing fines on people receiving state benefits. Those fines cannot be collected, and the inefficient system does not help taxpayers. The task should be to ensure that fines and compensation are imposed only when they can be collected. Where alternatives are available, they should be pursued.
The other issue that I want to raise is the fight for justice by constituents who worked, or whose families worked, in the coal mining industry. Many people contracted debilitating lung disease from their exposure to coal dust, and many died slow and agonising deaths.
I congratulate the Government on putting in place the handling agreement that means that people are now being compensated. In North Durham, more than £10 million has been paid out to victims and their families—something that has been achieved because a Labour Government are in power.
However, I want to speak in particular about the unjust and unfair fees levied by solicitors and claim handlers on claimants and their families. Some of them act like vultures as they take a cut out of claimants' compensation, on top of the fees already paid to them by the Department of Trade and Industry. They exhibit nothing short of greed when they take money off the people and families for whom it was meant. Those people include many who are dying, as well as poor and aged widows.
In North Durham, I have been made aware of the activities of one particular firm of solicitors—Mark Gilbert Morse of Grey street in Newcastle upon Tyne. My constituents Mrs. Greener and Mrs. Elliott of Stanley agreed that the firm should handle their late father's case after a leaflet was pushed through their doors. Both recently received interim settlements of their claims, and in both cases just over 21 per cent. of their claim was deducted by the solicitors in fees. Last week, an 83-year-old widow came to see me who had had £8,000 deducted in the same way. In the cases of Mrs. Elliott and Mrs. Greener, the irony is that the fees were deducted before their case has been completed. The letter that was sent to them clearly stated that under the conditional fee agreement into which they entered, up to 25 per cent. of the damages could be deducted.
That is nothing short of unjustified greed. Mark Gilbert Morse will have been paid its fees by the DTI, but not content with that it is eager greedily to plunder the compensation of my needy constituents. I have written to the Law Society about the firm and raised it with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend Mr. Griffiths. I congratulate him on the strong line that he and the Government are taking against such companies in insisting that 100 per cent. of the compensation should go to the claimants. I issue a challenge to Mark Gilbert Morse to pay back to claimants the money that they have deducted. My hon. Friend Mr. Clapham has, on behalf of his constituents, made similar charges against a firm in Doncaster called Beresfords, which has agreed to pay back the money. I understand that Mark Gilbert Morse is dealing with thousands of claims in the north-east. If it refuses to pay the money back, the Government should seriously consider withholding any further payment of fees until there has been a full investigation of its activities.
Another problem in the north-east is that vulnerable people are being exploited by claims handlers, who are not solicitors and have no legal qualifications, but act as middlemen in sorting out claims. Last week, I heard about an horrendous case from a solicitor who was approached by a claims handler with several thousand cases on his books and asked if he wanted to buy them. I fear that next year, when the cut-off date for claims arrives, many people who think that they have submitted claims to firms of solicitors will find that they are languishing in the hands of claims handlers. I would urge my constituents, or anybody else, to avoid claims handlers like the plague. Action against those rogues is urgently required. Decent, hard-working people are being ripped off and having money that they justly deserve taken away from them.
In closing, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity to wish you and your family, and the rest of the House, all the best for Christmas and a prosperous 2004.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish that you had been in the Chair to hear the speech by Mr. Hurst, who eulogised the beauty of the countryside around Stansted, which you, Sir, know so well. He speculated as to why the proposed new runway that the Government have approved in principle should be so far from the existing one: that is a good point.
We benefited enormously, too, from the courageous speech by Mrs. Ellman. How right she was to warn us, at this time of peace, of the danger to community relations that is posed by Islamic fundamentalist fanatics who preach a hostile gospel against Jewry the world over.
Last, but by no means least, I must mention my hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell, whose speech was a masterpiece of its kind. Most of us feel accountable to our constituents and are content to leave it at that, but he rightly feels that in all his doings in his constituency he is answerable to this House. He enjoined us, at least implicitly, to do something that, candidly, I have been unable to do as yet—that is, to attend a school in the constituency for every day of Advent. I believe that this is admirable. He rightly made it clear to those who might have thought from his election literature that a bulldog was just for election time that a bulldog is not for an election or for Christmas but for life.
I wish that the Secretary of State for Transport—and for Scotland, for he is both—had presented his White Paper on civil air transport much earlier in the year. If he had done so, many of our constituents would not have appalling blight hanging over them this Christmastide. Parliament could have held a proper two-day debate on his strategic framework for air transport and reached considered conclusions. The planners could have progressed with all that was necessary to put in place airport and related facilities for developing civil air transport in our country for the next generation. Instead, there is grave uncertainty.
If I am fair to the Secretary of State—I try to be—I must say that there is some merit in his White Paper; it is half sensible. I suppose that one would expect a half sensible document from a half-time Secretary of State. I have no cavil with its basic premise that civil air transport is crucial to this country. I applaud the way in which he has fought off those, probably mostly in his party, but perhaps some Liberal Democrat Members, who are instinctively hostile to air transport and mainly want to tax it.
I also applaud the Secretary of State's measured, incremental approach to developing the industry in an uncertain world in the next 20 and 30 years. I am sure that this is wise. We do not know how terrorism will affect the industry or the impact of ultra-large aircraft such as the A380. We do not know the extent to which high-speed rail will compete in our continent and domestically, although Eurostar's share of passengers who previously travelled by air to Paris and Brussels is surely significant. I have outlined reasons for the Government to be cautious and I welcome the Secretary of State's incremental approach.
I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman's appreciation of the importance of air transport for regional development and his emphasis in the document on the importance of developing regional airports. I leave Scotland to him, but I shall comment on England because England and our English economy, not least in the south-east and London, make fundable those matters that the Scottish Executive cover. I have no quarrel with his aims for developing regional airports. An additional runway at Birmingham; the extension of Liverpool's runway and those at Newcastle, Teesside and Leeds-Bradford; and the extensions at Bristol and at Luton are wise and sensible measures.
The fullest use of minor airports in the south-east of England is important. They include Southend, which is an admirable airport. I used to instruct there—and at Stansted too in the good old days before the little hangar from which we used to operate was submerged under a terminal.
However, sentiment is not a basis on which to evolve a strategy; the Secretary of State must be decisive. He has failed in that because he has put off important decisions. The only significant decision that he has made is that there will be another runway at Stansted. When we get the debate on the White Paper, that is bound to go through because of the majority that the Government enjoy. That is an arithmetical fact.
However, great uncertainty remains about the two principal airports in the London system, namely Gatwick and Heathrow. In my judgment, the Government are fundamentally wrong about Heathrow. The main reason why they are unwilling completely to commit themselves to another east-west runway there, between the A4 and the M4, is that they are frightened of the European Union—the only body that makes the Government take fright and take notice. They are wary of infringing the directive on air pollution, particularly in relation to nitrogen dioxide emissions. On those grounds, they seek to say that all the environmental conditions have to be met, particularly on air pollution, but the main environmental condition is that it is a wholly inappropriate place to build another runway.
Why are the emissions so high there? Because it is a built-up, congested area that already has an enormous amount of air traffic and motor traffic—the M4 is part of the nearby motorway network. A lot of aircraft taxi around, and with a fifth terminal and the possibility of mixed-mode operation for at least part of the day, the level of emissions is likely to increase, even if the Government seek to impose higher landing charges on the more polluting aircraft.
The Government have therefore ducked the basic environmental issue, which is that this is the wrong place to put another runway. The airport's potential should be fully realised within the existing geographical confines of Heathrow. British Airways is to concentrate its services at the fifth terminal, rather than dividing them between the first and fourth terminals, which is all to the good. We also know that its domestic and European services will continue to decline because of the competitive impact of low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. That being the case, I am not certain that the build-up of traffic at Heathrow is going to be quite so large as the Government anticipate.
Furthermore, the Government have assigned to the European Union what should be a basic national right: the right of any sovereign state to decide air service agreements and negotiate them with other Governments. I fear that the consequence of that will be that Brussels will decide that Heathrow is too preponderant on the north Atlantic routes, and that it will seek increasingly to grant air service agreements to carriers on those routes and other long-haul routes, stipulating Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Brussels as a gateway to the European Union, rather than Heathrow.
The proposed site for the new runway is on green-belt land on the edge of Harmondsworth village, where my hon. Friend Mr. Randall and I recently had the privilege of attending a carol service in the great barn alongside the mediaeval church, by virtue of an invitation from John McDonnell. That village would be appallingly blighted by the new runway, as would Sipson. That part of the green belt is a crucial lung between highly developed Heathrow and the communities of Hayes, West Drayton and Uxbridge. I speak as the president of the Green Belt Council. It is an unpaid appointment, but I should declare my interest.
I urge the Government to think again about this proposal. There are also purely technical aspects that militate against it. There would be an inordinately long taxi from the central area to the new runway, for example. Aircraft would have to cross the more northerly of the two existing east-west runways to get there. Furthermore, movements on that northern runway will be impinged upon by departures out of RAF Northolt. The White Paper agrees that this is the case. In answer to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, the House was told that flying operations out of RAF Northolt—a core station of strategic value to the country, as the White Paper admits—would impinge on the departure pattern of the most northerly of what will be three runways at Heathrow, if the new one is built. That, too, has not been thought out. Of course, there is a need for a sixth terminal alongside the new runway with parking facilities. High-speed transport links would have to be put in—who would pay for those? That question has not been answered. When the inspector recommended that the fifth terminal at Heathrow should go ahead, he said that in his judgment it should be conditional on there being no further runway development at Heathrow.
The Government have said in the White Paper that if the runway at Heathrow does not go ahead, another should be built at Gatwick. In my judgment, if aviation professionals at the Department deem it sensible that there should be another runway at Stansted, another one at Gatwick is even more overdue because there are already two terminals there. Of course, there is a covenant or arrangement whereby this should not come into operation before 2019, but it is admitted that if another runway were built at Gatwick, the environmental impact would be less than at Heathrow. There would be less noise disturbance and fewer problems from pollution emissions, and those considerations ought to be taken into account.
To conclude, the White Paper is good in parts, but as far as the overall equation in the London area is concerned, the basic decisions have been ducked. There is more potential at Luton—particularly with its new transport links and extended runway—than is recognised. Luton has a great future. There is much more potential at City airport, and if we make more use of places such as Southampton, Manston and Southend in the south-east, we can take the pressure off the London system. That should be the way forward. We should certainly not build a third east-west runway at Heathrow.
In my contribution to this year's Christmas Adjournment debate, I will take the opportunity to comment briefly on the Government's proposals for funding higher education, and in particular their intention to allow English universities to levy variable tuition charges on graduates from those institutions.
I would like to make it clear at the outset that I share and support the Government's objectives of raising standards and widening access to higher education. I also welcome the significant funding increase that the Government are committed to over the next three years. The proposals to scrap up-front tuition fees and require graduates to make a contribution towards the cost of their courses are also a step in the right direction. However, I do not believe that that contribution should depend on which university a graduate has attended, or on the subjects they have studied. Such a crude attempt to introduce market forces to our universities is totally unacceptable, and I will oppose any Bill that contains such a measure.
The fact that our universities are desperately in need of additional funding is undeniable. After decades of underfunding, much of their infrastructure is overcrowded, outdated and crumbling. We must provide students with safe laboratories, modern classrooms and well-stocked libraries, as well as up-to-date IT facilities. It is equally important that we address the problem of university staff pay. Pay increases for both academic and support staff in universities have significantly lagged behind those in the rest of the economy during the past 20 years. There is ample evidence to suggest that staff are leaving the higher education sector in ever increasing numbers. Many have taken up better-paid posts abroad. There is an urgent need for a modernised pay structure for university staff that provides rewards in terms of pay levels and opportunities for advancement that will enable universities to recruit and retain the best possible staff.
It is clear that even the huge investment that the Government are making in higher education will not be sufficient to plug the hole in our universities' finances caused by the many years of underfunding. It is also obvious that if the damage caused by underfunding is to be repaired and universities are to be expanded and improved, additional resources must be found.
It is wholly appropriate that students who benefit most from higher education and become graduates make an increased contribution towards bridging that funding gap. However, I fundamentally disagree with the measures that the Government intend to adopt to raise the additional charge. First and foremost, the proposed system of variable tuition fees is flawed and unfair. It is heavily biased in favour of high-profile universities, and the £3,000 ceiling is far too high.
There is no doubt in my mind that universities such as Oxford and Cambridge will be able to charge the maximum fees with impunity, and thus gain the greatest financial benefit. It is to those very institutions that many of the brightest and best students aspire to gain admission. To my mind, there is something perverse about a system that rewards those who have achieved a standard of excellence in their studies by imposing the highest charge on their higher education.
Although graduates from the poorest families may not be adversely affected financially by the maximum charge, all those further up the income scale will be. Those from families with incomes in excess of £31,231 per annum—who can hardly be described as rich—will have their fees almost trebled. It is true that the Government will relieve them of the need to pay up-front tuition fees, but I am sure that even the slowest student will be able to work out that swapping an up-front charge of £3,375 for an inflation-linked £9,000 debt is not that much of a bargain. I firmly believe that increases of that magnitude in tuition fees are unfair and cannot be justified. Indeed, it is only the Government's insistence on introducing variable tuition fees that makes the contemplation of such huge increases necessary.
As for the proposed system of bursaries and remission of fees for those graduates who meet the financial criteria, I am opposed to both those measures in their current form. Students who have the appropriate qualifications to gain a place at a university and who would currently qualify for full fee remission should not have to shop around for a bursary. We must not introduce a bursary system that could act as a cap on the number of students from poor backgrounds taking up places at the universities of their choice. I believe that it is the responsibility of the state, not the universities, to ensure that such students are adequately supported.
I can see no case for continuing the system of remission of fees, which should be abolished and replaced by maintenance grants. The Government are proposing that tuition fees be recovered from graduates once they are earning a minimum of £15,000 per year, at a rate affordable to each individual. It surely follows that the recovery process should apply equally to all graduates regardless of background. The Government have argued that a flat-rate increase in tuition fees would be wrong and unfair to some students who would have to pay more than they would pay under a variable fees increase. I have no recollection of any such concern being expressed by Ministers when up-front tuition fees were introduced a few years ago. Nor do they have much to say about the extortionate fees that many graduates will have to pay for the more popular courses at all universities under a variable fees system.
In one respect, however, the Government have a case in arguing for flexibility in university funding. I refer to the need to attract suitably qualified people to study unpopular yet vital subjects such as physics. I believe that the difficulty could be overcome if universities were allowed to offer grants or other incentives.
Let me summarise my view. I think that tuition fees should be levied on all graduates on a flat-rate basis, irrespective of which university they attend or which subject they study. I also think that any increase in fees should not take the total amount above £2,250 a year, double the current rate. I believe that the proposed bursaries for students and remission of fees should be scrapped and replaced by maintenance grants of equivalent value, payable at the start of each year.
I think that my suggestions offer graduates a fairer deal: universities would have the additional funds that they so desperately need, and would have the flexibility to respond to their individual difficulties. I sincerely hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey my views to his colleagues.
It only remains for me to wish a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to you and your family, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all Members and staff of the House.
It is a great pleasure to follow Geraldine Smith, who is known for speaking her mind in a principled way. She is right: the Government should have another look at their misguided plans on university fees.
I do not know whether, during his visits to his local school, my hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell has heard the story of the Member of Parliament who, looking at pictures of a seasonal nature, noticed one of an aeroplane. When he asked what it had to do with Christmas, he was told that it depicted the flight to Egypt. He asked, "And who is that?", and was told, "It's Pontius the pilot." I make no apology for returning to the subject of the aviation White Paper.
My hon. Friend Mr. Wilkinson has already made a very good speech about why we think the Heathrow third runway option is wrong, and Mr. Hurst has spoken about Stansted. I share his views, and his disappointment. The decision was indeed disappointing for those of us who are in the shadow of Heathrow. We thought that the environmental problems were insurmountable, and we still think that. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the advent of a fifth and possibly a sixth terminal, with a runway, and the introduction of mixed mode—which is also a possibility—would lead to many more flights and many more associated traffic movements. Levels of nitrogen dioxide would be likely to rise rather than fall.
People have been in a downbeat mood because of that, but yesterday, along with my hon. Friend John McDonnell, I attended a meeting at Heathrow school in Sipson. Given that I have already caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have no ulterior motive in saying this. Those at the meeting began by saying that their thoughts and prayers were with those living in the Stansted and Gatwick areas as well. We know what they are going through, and what it means when hundreds of people have their homes and communities threatened in this way.
Morale at the meeting was initially rather low, but after a while we realised that, although this might be regarded as a stay of execution and that we were still on death row, the alternative—execution—was probably worse, generally speaking, and that we could now work for the reprieve that my constituents and I feel we deserve. Although it may yet take a few years of hard-fought battle, we will eventually walk free from the threat of losing homes, and of our health being affected by the toxic fumes of traffic and aviation in our area.
By the end of the meeting, morale had risen so significantly that we finished with a rousing chorus of "Jerusalem". That is unusual for a meeting held in the constituency of my hon. Friend—on this occasion, he is my hon. Friend—the Member for Hayes and Harlington. I know that "Jerusalem" was written by a good socialist, but these days it is not normally regarded as something with which to finish a meeting of, say, the Campaign group.
As the chairman of the meeting pointed out, if it had been a rugby match, the scores at full time would have been level, with the environmentalists and residents having exactly the same number of points on the board as the aviation industry. As he also pointed out, however, both the 1966 football World cup and the recent rugby World cup were won by England in extra time. Singing "Jerusalem" has spurred us on, and we know that we will achieve the same result.
I should like to add my name to the list of those who are calling on the Government to establish a rugby foundation similar to the Football Foundation, which has done so much good work for that sport. Such a foundation would be able to upgrade stadiums, thereby providing decent facilities for rugby throughout the country. As recently as today, I received an e-mail from a young lady who runs a summer university in Tower Hamlets; in fact, it has proved so successful that it runs virtually throughout the year. She wants to organise some rugby, but it is proving very difficult to find pitches in that part of the world. That is exactly the sort of initiative that is needed. Given the huge tidal wave of interest and good will following our success in the World cup, we ought to be able to get a grip on this problem.
In case I am accused of jumping on the bandwagon, I should point out that I have been a member of Uxbridge rugby club for many years, that I am a Saracens season ticket holder, and that my son plays for Ruislip rugby club. I wish those teams extremely well over the Christmas period. I should tell anybody who is going to watch Watford over Christmas that they have a couple of difficult matches coming up. I should also like to pay tribute to Richard Hill, the Saracens player who will be captaining England in their match against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday. Richard Hill is very much an unsung hero of England, and I wish him and the rest of the team well. I should further point out that Taine Randell, the captain of the Barbarians, also plays for Saracens. Although his spelling of his name is a little mistaken, he is a very fine player.
Before I upset even more of my constituents than I normally do, I should also wish Uxbridge football club well in their match against Yeading. At that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington will revert to being the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, as Yeading is in his constituency.
On a more serious note, while many of us look forward to a pleasant, comfortable and warm Christmas, many people cannot do that, and I shall take the time I have left to talk about a forgotten area of Europe. In the wake of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have often been told what a great success the campaign in Kosovo has been. However, I have a feeling that the truth about Kosovo is somewhat different, and that the plight of many people in that area has been rather forgotten, despite the fact that Kosovo is part of our own continent.
Nominally, Kosovo is still part of a country called Serbia and Montenegro. Hundreds of thousands of people who used to live there cannot return to homes that are sometimes only a few tens of kilometres away, so they are in refugee camps, although because they are still in the same country, they are called internally displaced people. They live in awful conditions, and have done for some time. That applies not only to people from Kosovo but to people from Krajina, which is part of Croatia.
The NATO and European Union regime in Kosovo is in some ways no better than the one that it replaced. According to all the reports, and the many people who have been there, Kosovo is still a lawless place. Only yesterday, in the debate on asylum, Dr. Tonge talked about one of her constituents, a Kosovan asylum seeker who does not want to return to Kosovo, as even now he is in fear of his life because of reprisals by the Kosovo Liberation Army, and he is still in hiding. To think that the place is all sorted out now is, I am afraid, erroneous.
The Minister for Europe admitted earlier this year that fewer than 3,500 of the 260,000 people who fled Kosovo have returned, and that many of the few who remained are still leaving because of the continued abuse and terror. Some particularly gruesome and appalling crimes have taken place there during the year. On
I hope that in the coming year the Government will take the situation seriously and grasp the nettle of Kosovo. I, and the other members of the all-party group on Serbia and Montenegro, will do what we can in the House, and we will not let the subject be buried. At this time of year, we should remember that the spirit of good will and peace on earth is not just for Christmas; it should be for life.
Today I shall celebrate Christmas by talking about health. I shall describe some of the good practice in my constituency, which has some lessons for the health service as a whole, and flag up one or two issues that have been raised with me, which the Government need to take on board if they are to fulfil their strategic objectives for the health service.
In the debate on the health service, the concentration on the acute sector is understandable—perhaps, because of the passage of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act this year, it is inevitable— but it is potentially a cause for concern. The disputes and the debate about the acute sector have obscured the real progress that has been made at primary care level as a result of the Government's investment in that sector.
I represent an inner-city area, which, in common with many others, has poor health statistics. The worst are centred in the traditional Tipton area, which consists of three wards, Princes End, Great Bridge and Tipton Green. All have high death rates from heart disease, stroke, cancer and chest disease. Other problems that are part health-related, part social include high teenage pregnancy rates, smoking and alcohol intake.
Specifically in order to address areas with acute health problems, the Government introduced personal medical service pilots, which started in 1998 in Tipton and have now been rolled out to some 30 per cent. of the population. In my constituency, the Tipton Care Organisation was set up. It covers a patient population of 37,500, with eight GP practices—one with six doctors and four with only one. It set up a board with representatives of the voluntary sector, the local community health team, tenants and local government. There is a further board consisting of local GPs, one from each practice. That structure has brought together expertise from all sectors of the local health economy and has stimulated new ways of working to benefit the local community, at both primary and acute level.
The organisation has introduced several innovations that should be singled out for their implications for the NHS. It first appointed two salaried GPs to support the existing GP coverage. Tipton, in common with many other similar areas, is under-provided with GPs. According to its population it should have 22, but at the time in question there were 18. The employment of two female salaried GPs has meant that the organisation has been able to support the practices with only one or two GPs, by providing cover for training and enabling them to reduce waiting times. It has also improved the service by allowing women who prefer to be seen by a female GP the opportunity to do so. It has considerably enhanced the GP service in several areas.
The organisation has also employed stress counsellors. In conjunction with the Counselling in Primary Care Trust and the health service management centre at Birmingham university, it has provided a specific counselling service in local practices. It is obvious that many visits to GPs are the result of stress-related or psychosomatic illnesses. By providing a specific counselling service, the organisation has improved the well-being of patients and cut the number of visits to GPs by around 29 per cent. I cannot help feeling that if such a service were introduced nationwide, the benefits of the reduced pressure on local GPs would be significant.
Another project was the introduction of an integrated nursing service for elderly patients in hospital. By assessing their needs in hospital and visiting them regularly once they had returned home, the organisation provided a level of support that has cut the average stay in Sandwell hospital by one and a half days for patients from the Tipton area, in comparison with the rest of the local area. Obviously, this has enormous implications in terms of pressure on waiting lists in the acute sector. It is a clear demonstration of the beneficial impact that investment in the primary care sector can have on the acute sector.
Other projects involve dealing with diabetes in terms of a proactive chiropody programme. The identification of no fewer than 956 diabetics who were not attending chiropody services and the establishment of a proactive chiropody monitoring service has resulted in nearly 10 per cent. being identified as requiring acute treatment. It is estimated that nine amputations were prevented as a result of the provision of that treatment. Many elderly people with diabetes do not understand its impact on their legs and feet. The setting up of a chiropody service to monitor that brings potential benefits to their health and well-being, and there is a substantial impact on the health service.
I remember that, when I was a young boy an elderly auntie who lived with us had diabetes, but did not reveal to anybody—not even her doctor—the extent of the problem with her legs. That resulted in an amputation and subsequently she died. So I know at first hand just how essential that sort of service is in benefiting individuals and the acute sector.
Another and startling approach is being made to the medical management of drugs in the community. A survey was done of people, mainly over 65 and mainly suffering from coronary heart disease or diabetes, who were taking more than four sorts of medication, to find out how effective the drugs were. To my surprise—or perhaps not to my surprise—many of those who were suffering from a range of ailments could not read the labels, did not understand the instructions, or could not access the drugs from the packet. As a result, there was a significant level of over-prescription and lower efficacy than was needed. That in turn can lead to hospitalisation or residential care. As a result of action and support for elderly people in that category, the need for hospitalisation and residential care has been reduced, as has the drugs budget.
All these programmes have been carried out as a result of the extra investment at primary health care level. They demonstrate clear cost benefits and benefits for the acute sector.
One or two concerns have been raised with me. The first is about the medium-term provision of GP services within areas such as mine. In my area, in common with many former industrial areas, the local health service is highly dependent on the first generation of Asian doctors who came here 25 to 30 years ago. They have done sterling service for the people of Sandwell in my constituency. However, many will come up for retirement in the next few years. Despite the 12,000 extra doctors, there is a real danger that these areas will not be able to attract the number of doctors needed to sustain the good work that has been begun. That is obviously a challenge for the Government.
One way of dealing with the problem is to follow the lead of the United States by training and recruiting physician assistants. The anomaly is that Tipton Care Organisation has recruited two American physician assistants. Other primary care trusts are doing the same. There is a recognised role and potential use of physician assistants, but this country does not train them or recruit enough of them. They are educated and trained to a high level, although not to the level expected of a doctor, and carry out a range of support services under the supervision of a doctor, releasing the doctor's time for more specialised purposes. Physician assistants are widely used in the United States.
Unfortunately, physician assistants do not have a professional body. Work is being done with the General Medical Council to recognise them, and Birmingham university is involved in establishing a training facility, but it needs funding. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the proposal as a way of bridging the doctor-provision gap, which may emerge over the next few years as a result of the retirement of so many ethnic minority doctors.
There is another possible source of support. It came as a surprise to me to learn that about 500 medical orderlies leave the Army services each year. Those people would not necessarily become doctors, but given their basic medical training allied with new courses to train physician assistants, they are a source of medical expertise that is currently lost and could be used within local health care economies. The Government should seriously consider recruiting and training medical orderlies to promote the Government's long-term health objectives.
My area is pioneering joined-up thinking, utilising the Government's extra investment in primary care to provide better local services and to relieve pressure on acute services. However, I am worried that that investment may not be sustained. I hope that the Government will invest in recruitment to ensure that the good work that has taken place over the past few years is not lost because of a lack of forward planning.
As this is the Christmas Adjournment debate, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all at the Palace of Westminster a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. But while we enjoy the warmth of our homes, friends and family this Christmas, let us remember those in need.
There are homeless people in Castle Point and we have failed far too many of them. We must find ways to make more housing units available to help the many worthy cases that have been betrayed by the system. I include myself, as well as the Government and the local council, in that criticism. We must treat homeless people with dignity and charity, and that should be remembered at Christmas.
My hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell mentioned the celebrations of an anniversary regarding Gibraltar. I throw in my call for decent celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Nelson's day on
"The hon. Member for Castle Point . . . confidently predicted many gains for his party in the local elections. We shall see."—[Hansard, 3 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 1154.]
Since the Minister is so interested, let me tell the House what actually happened. At the time when the hon. Gentleman made those comments, Labour controlled the council, which had just 15 Conservative councillors. After the election, the Conservatives had 39 councillors and Labour just two. I ask hon. Members to join me in congratulating all 41 candidates who won that election, including the two Labour ones. I hope that they will serve their community assiduously and with dignity over the years.
I should like to start—yes, I have not even started yet—with three good news stories in a spirit of Christmas good will. First, stopping under-age drinking on the streets and tackling youth drunkenness is incredibly important, as we all know from our surgeries. A crucial weapon in allowing the police to do their job in that respect was contained in the under-age drinking Bill, which was intended to allow the police to remove alcohol from kiddies—perhaps 16-year-olds, or perhaps even 10-year-olds. I introduced that private Member's Bill in 1997, and the police were given those powers on its enactment.
The Prime Minister then removed those powers from the police with his Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, in an act of political stupidity that is typical of this Labour Government. In fact, the Association of Chief Police Officers and communities throughout this country very much regretted that astounding move. The good news is that, following pressure from me and other hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Government did a U-turn, and in the Licensing Act 2003, they reinstated the powers that my Act originally gave to the police. I urge all police forces to use those powers fully to protect not just those in communities that sometimes feel under siege from youth street nuisance and crime, but the kids themselves, because 90-odd per cent. of first use of drugs by young people takes place under the influence of alcohol, and youngsters need protection from that.
Of course the second good-news story relates to Cliffe. An airport in the Thames estuary would cause serious quality-of-life and environmental damage to the people of south Essex and Kent, including noise and air pollution and much else that we all know about. So I thank the Government for rejecting the Cliffe proposal. My constituents will feel that I was right to give them their say—to consult them, when the Government failed to consult them on that matter—and to fight on their behalf. They will feel that we won an important battle. Can the Minister confirm whether any further scheme for an airport in the Thames estuary will be ruled out for the entire White Paper 30-year strategic planning period, so that my constituents will know that we have won the war?
While you are in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should reiterate my support for the excellent campaign against the extra runway at Stansted, which must now get off the ground, and I know that you will be leading that campaign in your usual excellent manner.
The third good-news story, of course, involves Canvey Island football club, which passes into the new year at the top of the league, with a remarkable string of performances based on great effort, fitness and ability on the pitch at Park Lane. The club looks set for promotion into the conference next year, but I shall say no more about that because I do not wish to tempt fate.
Hospice funding is very important, and I have raised the issue several times in the House, including with the Prime Minister. Adult hospices get 32 per cent. of their funding from public funds, and children's hospices receive an average of 4 per cent. Little Haven children's hospice in my constituency, however, receives only 1.5 per cent. public funding. That seems too low, and I will encourage Ministers to consider that, to recognise the care and dedication of the staff and volunteers in the hospice movement, and to recognise the generosity of spirit of fundraisers who raised the other 98.5 per cent. for Little Haven—I am thinking of the Hadleigh, Benfleet and Canvey Island Conservative clubs that, year on year, raise money for that hospice and for other local good causes. The answer is not, however, as the Government believe, to redirect lottery money from other good causes to the hospice movement. The answer is that public Exchequer funds should be made available at a rate of 40 per cent. for both children's and adult hospices, which can then move forward and provide their wonderful service to families and children at the most difficult time in their lives.
I move now to the old issue of Canvey's third road, for which I apologise to the House. With neighbouring councils changing political control—Basildon this year, and Thurrock, I hope, next year—councillors may be minded to take a more responsible, community-spirited attitude towards a third road from Canvey Island going across parts of their borough. I ask them to do that, to be co-operative and to think about the wider community interest in that.
I want to raise a few questions about the Child Support Agency. The agency wrote to me on
"The Agency began processing"— by which, I think, it means assessing—
"new cases under the new child support scheme from
My question is: why is the scheme not working well now, after almost a year of operation? Why do we not yet know that the scheme is working well so that we can confidently make sure that everybody is on an equal footing? To use different schemes to assess parents on the arbitrary date of
I now move on to an Essex county council letter that was faxed to head teachers across Essex on
I turn to the important issue of post office closures which, in Castlepoint, is as disastrous for local communities, pensioners and vulnerable people as it is in other constituencies. My hon. Friend Mr. Evans made an excellent, stirring speech about the matter, so I shall not go into further details, save to cite the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, which told me on
"Not only are people being forced change the way in which they collect their benefits . . . the Government has made it difficult for people to choose the post office based product . . . the way in which the direct payment programme has developed will undermine the ability of the national post office network to sustain itself."
As the NFSP says, Government policy is leading to post office closures, not staff retirement. If it were Government policy to make post offices viable, people would want to replace staff who were retiring. The public should not be in any doubt about who is to blame. They will, I am sure, let Labour know who is to blame at the next election.
Finally—I see that you are smiling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at that word—the House will not be surprised if I return to a familiar subject in the usual suspects' debate. Dr. Vis mentioned Cyprus in his opening contribution. I congratulate the opposition parties in north Cyprus on their success in recent elections in which they gained 50 per cent. of the seats and the majority of the popular vote. That is remarkable and praiseworthy in view of the widespread intimidation and corruption, multi-media bias and the rigging of the electoral register. Surely, however, pressure must be put on the Turkish Government to put pressure in turn on Mr. Denktash to make a settlement based on the Annan proposal so that, even at this late stage, a united island of Cyprus can accede to Europe in May 2004.
Rhodia Eco Services Ltd. is a chemical manufacturing plant in Staveley in my constituency. It employs 75 people directly but also engages drivers and contractors, so an additional 40 to 60 people are employed on an ad hoc basis. Rhodia is the successor to Staveley Chemicals, which used to be a major employer in the town.
The Rhodia site is in a prominent position near the centre of Staveley. Everyone is aware of its presence, as well as its past. Homes in Staveley are issued with an action card telling people what to do if there is an emergency at the plant. It tells them about the initial warning system and the siren that is sounded. They are told to go indoors, shut windows and doors and keep away from cellars and basements. They are told to tune into local radio stations to find out what is happening. When the all-clear siren sounds, the emergency is over. The plant did not used to have an all-clear siren, and when there was a false alarm people hid for a number of hours, not knowing that it was all over. I raised that matter with officials, and the extra signal was introduced.
There have been four incidents at the plant in the past 18 months. I shall give details of the most recent emergency, which occurred on
I shall describe the incident in detail. Recommissioning was taking place at the chlorine plant. Because of a manual disconnection, a valve was left open, leading to an escape of chlorine gas. The procedure has been corrected, and that manual operation no longer takes place, so the problem that caused the incident has been resolved.
The gas escape happened between 1 pm and 1.15 pm. No one can be more precise, as there was some confusion in the plant. Six workers were affected—two employees, and four contractors. The ambulance service was finally called, and ambulance staff triggered the proper emergency procedures. The fire service was contacted, as were the police at 1.31 pm.
Although the company asked the ambulance service for help, it did not set the emergency procedures in train. That happened because the company finally acted to protect six workers, and to have them taken to hospital. The siren to which I referred earlier was not sounded until 1.50 pm, but people in the community were suffering distress well before then.
Staveley hall contains the offices of Staveley town council, but rooms there are also rented out to businesses. A strong smell, something like bleach, was detected in the car park, and many rooms were later rendered uninhabitable. Some of the events to which I refer took place before the siren was sounded. Rhodia Eco Services staff were contacted, and responded by suggesting the windows be opened to let the chlorine out—even though the procedures laid down require windows to be locked.
Many people suffered much discomfort, reporting runny eyes, hair that became like straw, and reddened complexions. Two hundred people took shelter in the local Morrisons supermarket, and others hid away in local schools. There was some confusion in the schools: although some people claimed to have heard the siren, kids were kept in, particularly at four schools in the area—at Netherthorpe, Norbriggs and Woodhouse in my constituency, and at Poolsbrook in the constituency of Paul Holmes. The schools in my area were quite close to where the emergency happened, and they were visited by the police.
The siren sounded for 45 minutes, between 1.50 pm and 2.35 pm. It was switched off to preserve the batteries. People depended on local radio for information about the emergency that was still taking place. No all-clear was sounded.
At 3.19 pm, a build-up of chlorine was discovered in pipes on the plant. Things did not look good, and it seemed likely that the emergency might have to last for another four to six hours. At 3.27 pm, roadblocks were put in place in various areas of the town, including around the plant and in places where the prevailing winds had blown the chlorine. At 3.53 pm, it was decided to move children from the schools, although there were no school buses, and the 200 people were let out of Morrisons and the other shops, as it was felt that it would be better for them to get to their homes than to be locked away for any longer. It was not until 5.50 pm that the all-clear siren was sounded.
An inquiry is being conducted by inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, which, under 1999 regulations, form the competent authority for the control of major accident hazards. They need to face up to a number of problems. Should not the inquiry be conducted publicly, or at least have some public element, so that the people who were affected are in a better position to describe what occurred? Why did not Rhodia alert the emergency services when it called for an ambulance, and why did it not do so at an earlier stage? Why did emergency services follow an odd sequence of events by blocking roads, then letting people out of buildings to return to their homes, which seems to be the wrong way round? In one case, a young woman at Staveley Netherthorpe school, who lived in Wingerworth, had to walk outside the area of the roadblocks to Brimington, in another part of Staveley, in order to be collected and taken home. That led to a great deal of confusion.
The town council subsequently called for a public inquiry and for the closure of the plant. A few years ago, one could not have imagined that that would happen, because everybody's employment was dependent on Staveley Chemicals. In 1998, two incidents involving escapes of acid gas in Killamarsh in my constituency led to a massive campaign to close a similar-sized plant, which then transferred its operations. Now that plant is operated by Onyx, which took over from SARP. Chemical reclamation no longer takes place there, but new processes are operating. There might be some future for the Staveley site, but not for the processes that caused the problems and led to the situation whereby action cards had to be issued.
Of the six workers who were taken to hospital, three returned to work the following day, two returned the day after, and one was signed off work for a week by his GP. He subsequently packed in his job as he was suffering from panic attacks. I have asked, with that person's agreement, for the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency to interview him. No one has been in touch with him since he resigned, either from the firm itself or from the officialdom that is engaged in the investigations.
I shall outline my second suggestion. At SARP UK, we had a visit from the then Minister for the Environment that eased the process of change and helped with later legislative changes on environmental matters. We need a visit from the current Minister for the Environment, who is responsible for the Environment Agency or perhaps the Minister for Work, who has responsibilities for the Health and Safety Executive. A visit took place to the site when it was under previous ownership, but that happened when the Conservatives were in office, and a Conservative Minister visited.
There are moves to arrange a public meeting in the area, and I shall attend it. It would be fruitful if a ministerial visit could take place at the time of meeting. I needed the opportunity to put those matters on the record. I have also looked for others devices to do that. This is my last opportunity to raise the matter before Christmas.
Let me comment on the festive season. Some of my constituents will have a problem. They have received a letter from Serco Rail Maintenance, saying that essential railway engineering works will take place in the Clay Cross north junction area. Most of the Clay Cross railway is in a tunnel, and outside areas such as North Wingfield will therefore be affected. The letter states:
"Please be advised that essential engineering work is to be undertaken in the Clay Cross North Junction area which is located on the railway line adjacent to your home.
This work is programmed to take place between 2200 hrs 24th December 2003 until 0700 hrs 27th December 2003."
The problem is that people will have noise and disruption for Christmas. I hope that Serco Rail Maintenance, which I shall contact, will respond properly to their anxieties so that my constituents can have a peaceful Christmas, as I hope we all shall.
It is rather a coincidence that I am following Mr. Barnes because I want to raise a similar issue. It relates to a company called Cleansing Services Group, which operated—I use the past tense, thank goodness—in the village of Sandhurst in my constituency. Three years ago, an explosion happened at the works, which was a chemical works although it was not authorised to be so. It had planning permission from the county council to treat oily waste and such substances, yet the Environment Agency gave it a licence to deal with much more hazardous waste, even though it had no planning permission for that.
Many villagers warned the Environment Agency, other agencies and people that things were not right at the site. A whistleblower was sacked for various reasons and won his case at the industrial tribunal. I visited several times and warned the agencies. They took some notice, but not enough. Three years ago, the place exploded. The effects on people's mental and physical health are difficult to measure. I shall not go into the same amount of detail as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire because I want to cover one or two other issues and I have raised the matter previously.
The pressure from villagers has driven the company off the site, and that might offer some encouragement to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire. It decided that the best way in which to proceed was to sell the site, and we are all thankful for that. However, the pain, misery and effects of the explosion persist.
I want a public inquiry to look not only into that incident and into the company, although those aspects should certainly form part of its terms of reference, but into the way in which the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the county council and, to an extent, the health authority were monitoring the site. They were given many warnings about it and apparently visited it a number of times, yet they were unable or unwilling to take the necessary action. Such a public inquiry might determine that those bodies did not have enough power to take the action that we felt necessary, although I do not think that that would be the case.
My constituents, like everyone else, pay an awful lot of tax—an increasing amount, sadly, under this Government, but that is not my main point—to fund those agencies on whom they rely to look after their health and the environment. That is the agencies' job, yet in this case they have signally failed to do it. To bring justice to my constituents who live in the village of Sandhurst and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid similar situations arising in the future, there should be a public inquiry into the performance of the agencies that were supposed to be monitoring that site.
The Deputy Prime Minister and the former Minister for the Environment, Mr. Meacher, were very generous with their time shortly after the explosion. They had a number of meetings with me, and said that they would consider holding a public inquiry. First, however, they wanted to see whether there would be a court case against the company. It was, in fact, taken to court and, a week or two ago, was fined £250,000 and ordered to pay £400,000 costs. It deserves to pay at least that. My point is that that court case is now out of the way, so the Government could decide to hold a public inquiry into what went on when Cleansing Services Group was not being monitored properly and when the explosion happened, causing so many problems for my constituents.
That company is known as CSG. I now want to move on to SEN, which stands for special educational needs. I have raised this subject many times in the House, in an Adjournment debate and on other occasions. It is a big issue in Gloucestershire. The county council there is run by an unholy Lib-Lab pact—I make that point only so that it is clearly understood; it is not a party political point—which has a policy of questioning the viability of the special schools in the area. It seems to want to close them all down.
A few years ago, I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, which was meant to provide for greater inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools. I was assured by the Minister at the time that it should not be seen as giving a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools: I think that those are pretty close to the Minister's words. In Gloucestershire, however, it has had the effect of giving that green light, and the county council is trying to bring about such a wholesale closure.
The Bownham Park special school in Stroud has been closed, and I understand that two schools in the Forest of Dean have been closed, although they are to be put on the site of a new school. That has still had the effect of merging two schools into one, however. The general drift in the county is towards the closure of special schools. There is a very good special school in my constituency called Alderman Knight school, whose future is currently out to public consultation. Given the previous actions of the county council, we know what its desires and intentions are.
I have asked many times for the Secretary of State to visit Alderman Knight school; I promise that he would be made very welcome there. I want him to listen not just to the politicians, but to the teachers and the head teachers of the mainstream and special schools, who are all saying the same thing. Nor do I want him to listen only to the parents. I want him to listen to the pupils. I want him to stand in front of them, as I have done, when they break down in tears and speak of their fears of being forced to go to a mainstream school. Listen to the pupils, not me—it does not matter what I think. Listen to their fears. If all the special schools are closed, where is the choice? It is, of course, a fact that many pupils with special educational needs go to mainstream schools and do very well, which should continue. My only point is that that is not right for all pupils. If those schools close, these pupils will have no option.
The Government's intention may be inclusion—I do not generally dispute that—but those pupils will not be included in future life. They will be excluded from society because they will not have had the care and education that they need as special cases. They will not cope in mainstream schools, and they will therefore be excluded from society in future life. I ask the Minister to come to Gloucestershire and see what is going on. He should look those children in the eye and tell me whether he agrees with it. I do not think he will.
We have had CSG and SEN. Now I want to discuss the OFT. The Office of Fair Trading is another subject on which I have held an Adjournment debate. It is carrying out various investigations, as hon. Members know. The investigation that particularly concerns me is the one being carried out into horse racing. Again, I have a constituency interest. My Tewkesbury constituency contains Prestbury Park, which is the Cheltenham race course. In my view, it is the greatest race course in the world. I do not necessarily fear for it as much as for the smaller race courses—the Herefords, the Ludlows and the Southwells. Those are feeder tracks where horses, jockeys, trainers and owners may start their careers. They are very important, particularly to national hunt racing.
The OFT is investigating the control of British horse racing, and it says that the British Horseracing Board's control of the fixture list is non-competitive. Technically, I suppose that the OFT might have a point. However, despite the fact that this industry is always disunited and has more arguments and rows than any other I have ever known, the OFT has unbelievably managed to bring all the warring factions together in opposition to its plans. It may have a point: there may be things in British horse racing that need to improve. The issue as regards control of the fixture list is not the only one it has identified. There is also the sale of data rights to one buyer rather than a number of buyers, which we have heard about in relation to BSkyB. A parallel case has been dealt with in the European Union recently.
The OFT says that a number of points in British racing have to change. The interesting thing is that the British Horseracing Board—like racing itself—is not denying that it has to make changes. It is making changes, but we are very concerned that the OFT could end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater if it forces those changes through in a heavy-handed way.
Who says so? The industry says so, as I do, but interestingly the Minister for Sport and Tourism appears to agree with my points, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Mr. Sutcliffe, the competition Minister. They have been honest enough to tell me that. How can it be that the OFT is doing something that the Government and the industry do not want it to do? Somehow it has become so powerful that it can do that against the wishes of the Government and the industry. Surely that cannot be right. I know that the competition Minister and the sports Minister have made their views known to the OFT, but I hope that the Government's representations to it will be powerful enough to persuade the OFT not to drop the case entirely but to proceed sensibly and take on board points made to it by the many strands of the racing industry.
Those are the main issues that I wanted to raise. I want to finish on one point; I do not want to take up any more time. In wishing everyone in the House a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year, I echo the views expressed, perhaps differently, by other hon. Members, one of whom was my hon. Friend Mr. Randall. Many people in this country and throughout the world cannot look forward to a happy Christmas because of their personal circumstances. A year ago, I was in Ethiopia, and I witnessed the desperate poverty in that country at that time. Thank the Lord things are slightly easier this year, but countries such as Ethiopia and others in Africa that suffer from war, poverty and disease can be forgotten when we are concentrating, perhaps rightly, on Iraq or on the muddle in Europe over attempts to introduce a constitution. Many important issues may make us forget the plight of the starving people who live only to exist, and that of the children who each and every day have to walk miles to another village just to bring water back to their own village. That cannot be an acceptable life for anyone. When we concentrate on the problems of Iraq and the European constitution, we should not forget the plight of the third world.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, a very happy Christmas to you.
Thank you for calling me in this Adjournment debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have heard speeches about airport development, including those of my hon. Friend Mr. Hurst and Mr. Randall, who has fought a long campaign with my hon. Friend John McDonnell against the proposed runway at Heathrow. As a member of the Campaign group, I assure the hon. Gentleman that at every meeting—on a quiet night we may have as few as 200 or 300 members of the parliamentary Labour party—we always have a rousing rendition of "Jerusalem" followed by the blood sacrifice of a bourgeois deviationist or two, or perhaps a captain of industry or a banker. That is a joke, in case some of my hon. Friends are getting worried.
The first issue that I want to raise is a bit more prosaic than that. There are quite a few landfill sites in my constituency, and most of the operators are responsible and have due regard to the local community. However, a company called Ahern, which operates a site at Ayletts farm in Rainham, is completely irresponsible and has no consideration for the local community. For many months, gases that give rise to smells have drifted across Rainham and the houses in the southern part of my constituency. That has affected the local populace. Attempts by the Environment Agency to control Ahern and to get it to take appropriate action, such as the installation of a burner, have come to nothing. Ahern is happy to make mountains of cash out of the taxpayer, but it treats the local community with utter contempt. All the attempts by the public sector to get the company to realise its responsibilities have so far come to nothing.
I have written to the Minister for the Environment. A solution for the future, which may help my constituents, would be the establishment of a community forum on a statutory basis, so that companies such as Ahern would have to meet members of the local community, the local authority, the Environment Agency and other groups. That may enable at least an examination of the records of some of the firms involved.
I emphasise that the vast majority of landfill operators are perfectly responsible and conduct themselves properly—especially Cleanaway, which is the biggest operator in my constituency. However, a few smaller firms behave irresponsibly.
I also want to raise the issue of Sure Start schemes, which have been successful in many areas, including in my own borough. However, there is a problem, not with the schemes, but with the criteria on the basis of which they are run. They are ward based, and if it is a mixed ward and the deprivation indices are too high because there are well-off areas alongside poverty-stricken areas, Sure Start funding cannot be accessed for those areas.
An attempt was made to obtain Sure Start funds for the Mardyke estate in my constituency. Unfortunately, because the ward contained better-off areas, we could not get those funds. The local primary care trust said, in a recent report on the estate,
"the PCT has investigated the possibility of establishing a Sure Start on the Estate, but it is too small to meet the qualification criteria set by the Sure Start Unit. About half of the households are lone occupancy, and lone parent households are quite prevalent."
That demonstrates that the criteria are too broad. If they were based on neighbourhoods rather than wards, my constituents on the estate would benefit. That is not, however, a criticism of Sure Start, which has proved very successful in much of the country.
Mr. Rosindell mentioned the raw deal given to the London borough of Havering, which we both represent, by central Government for a long time. There is some truth in what he said, but the borough recently received £3 million from Transport for London. I hope that the money will be spent wisely, because that is not always the case with our Tory council. For instance, it spent half a million pounds on raising councillors' allowances, while simultaneously jacking up the council tax by 17 per cent. That went down like a lead balloon. It spent a further half a million pounds on getting rid of the former chief executive, while the council tax rocketed. Those are just two examples. People are deeply unhappy when they see money frittered away on pet projects while the council jacks up the tax and moans about the raw deal that it gets from central Government.
Part of my constituency is in the Thames gateway region. In the next few years, more housing is to be built on the London riverside section, which covers my constituency and principally, on the north side of the Thames, those of my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). One of the first tranches of new housing will be at Dovers Corner, a former industrial estate. It is not in good condition: there are all sorts of environmental problems. The developer wants high-level, high-density housing, but that would not be in keeping with the surrounding area, because it would be on the edge of what is still to some extent a village. It is still has a village centre, Rainham.
I want to see more housing in my constituency and in my borough. Since the right to buy was introduced in 1979, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of council homes have been got rid of and have not been replaced by more council homes, or by housing association or housing trust properties. We need more public housing to give hope to the people who come to my advice surgeries—and, no doubt, those of many other Members—and say, "Our home is overcrowded. We want a house rather than a flat, or a flat with two bedrooms rather than one." There is not much help for them now, at least in my constituency.
What we do not want is a repeat of the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, when tower blocks were built in my constituency and others. If we had our time again, we would not do that; but there is the potential for a similar mistake if high-density housing schemes are allowed to proceed in east London. There must also be proper provision of doctors' surgeries and other facilities.
I also think that development regulations should be tightened. Local people were shown plans for a branch of B&Q at Roneo Corner, on the boundary between my constituency and Romford. The plans were approved, but when the building was finished it turned out that they had been changed. Local people then found that local authority planning officers had given permission for certain changes to be made. Those changes went down very badly with the people who live in the area; there is no way that they would have approved them had they known what was happening. Of course, they were faced with a fait accompli. The development had been built, and little could be done to reverse it. It is set in concrete and cement, and in brick and mortar.
I want the regulations to be tightened, so that certain guarantees have to be provided in respect of, for example, the size of a general practitioner's surgery, access to schools and the size and height of housing. That way, developers cannot make changes after getting outline planning permission and go ahead with such building.
One or two Members—particularly the hon. Member for Romford, who is my constituency neighbour—have mentioned the European constitution. I happen to be an opponent of the European constitution. I am also the chairman of Labour For A Referendum, which takes the view that profound constitutional changes, whether introduced through the European Union or through any other body, have to be put to the people. There has to be a plebiscite on such profound changes.
I have the uneasy feeling that if the Conservatives were not in opposition, they would put through any idea that happened to emerge from Brussels, because that is their record when in government. While pretending to wrap themselves in the Union flag, they agree to anything that Brussels lays before them. In the beginning, in 1972, they took us into the then Common Market without consulting the people in way whatsoever; it took a Labour Government to give us a referendum on membership. In 1986, they gave us the Single European Act—the single biggest reduction in democratic accountability and power that any British Government in living memory have undertaken. Then they gave us the Maastricht treaty—another massive abrogation of sovereignty and power—which was duly followed by the growth and stability pact.
So I do not take too seriously the argument advanced by Conservative Members—with a few honourable exceptions—whereby they are paint themselves in the colours of the critics of the European Union and argue that they would act completely different and would give the EU a hard time. I tend to think that, if ever they did return to government, they would have a complete change of heart, as they always do.
Many excellent speeches have been made this afternoon, so I hope that mine will not prove an anticlimax. I particularly enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Hurst, who spoke eloquently in defence of his constituency, and against the juggernaut—if I may mix my metaphors—of the stupendous increase in aviation. Our policy in that regard seems to be not predict and provide, but promote and provide.
I also welcomed the contribution of Mr. Robertson, who was the first to mention the developing world. That is a particularly important issue to raise in a Christmas Adjournment debate. Christmas is many things, but these days it seems to be more about conspicuous consumption than anything else. It is in that context that I shall talk about sustainable development, which has become the catchphrase of the new millennium. "Sustainable development" are the new buzz words that define all that Government and policy seek to achieve. I want to look at what those words mean in practice, and in doing so I must also explain what those words ought to mean.
Twenty years ago, the United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1987, it published a report known as the Brundtland report, after the commission's chairman, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report defines sustainable development as
"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The report was by no means perfect—far from it—and nor was its definition, but we should contrast that definition with what the Government now use as their axiom of sustainable development: a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come. That sounds much the same as the previous definition, but there is a key difference: the word "need" has been substituted for the word "quality". Those are two entirely different things, and the change allows for a much looser, and, in my view, diminished approach to the concept of sustainable development. There is a world of difference between providing what people need, and improving everybody's quality of life.
We now have a concept of sustainable development that draws no distinction between the unsustainable quality of life of a tiny proportion of the world's population, and the life of the great majority of that population. To put it another way, as Mahatma Ghandi said when asked if India should have the same standard of living as Britain:
"It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity; how many planets will a country like India require?"
However, we march on regardless of that obvious painful truth. It is easy to see why. Nobody wants to say that we cannot carry on as we are, because if they did, they would soon be out of a job. So now we talk not about the poor majority of the world who have unmet basic needs, but about a more amorphous promise that everyone's quality of life must be improved—a promise that does not distinguish between the likes of Bill Gates and an Indian peasant, or between Rupert Murdoch and a Chinese sweatshop worker. Our new all-inclusive, wealthy-friendly policy of sustainable development admits of no exceptions.
How unfair and inequitable that is. It reflects current thinking that it is people like Gates and Murdoch who will be the saviours of sustainable development, because as the major business drivers of globalisation, they have in their hands the formula that will drive up global trade and save poor benighted countries from self-destruction. Many of those countries had first to contend with colonialisation, but that early history of globalisation is often neglected. Then they had to contend with the cold war, when many poor countries were used as pawns in spheres of influence. That is the period when many were pressed to acquire unsustainable levels of debt. Finally, they have become the beneficiaries of the post-modernist Washington consensus way of thinking, which dresses up our concerns with softer tones and kind words. Now the poor of the world are to be patronised by our business culture.
However, the massive benefits of decades of western-style development are nowhere better illustrated than they are in the United States, as opposed to the shanty towns of Mumbai or Sao Paulo. As The New York Review of Books says,
"More than 40 per cent of total income in America now goes to the highest 10 per cent. of earners, about the same level as in the 1920s and well up from 30 or so per cent. between the early 1940s and the late 1970s. The average income of the highest-earning 5 per cent. of families was nineteen times that of the lowest 20 per cent. in 1999; in 1979 it was a little more than eleven times. The wealthiest 1 per cent of households now own more than 40 per cent of all assets, including homes and financial investments (after deducting debt)—higher than in any year since 1929."
Even by the inadequate standards of current economic policy, inequality is spreading in the developed world. For all the efforts of the past 20 years, and for all the rhetoric of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation et al, inequality has worsened, not improved. The way in which developing countries are expected to ape our style of living has made matters worse, because, as Gandhi suggested, it is bound to.
I am thankful to say that new ways of thinking are emerging, and are even being considered in the mainstream. Kyoto was an example of that, no matter how diluted its outcomes were designed to be. Clearly, international resistance to this sense of global responsibility is still very strong, and no one would argue that Kyoto, even if it were ratified by all the main greenhouse gas producers, would have a huge impact on the acceleration of global warming. What Kyoto did achieve, however, was a sense of shared responsibility—the first real benchmark for the principle that public goods should have a value in the global economic system. Public goods not only cover those areas such as health and education, which governments in civilised societies should deliver, but include biodiversity, the air we breathe, the sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the oceans, among others. It is easy to see how we value the former, as we can put a price on a hip replacement or the building of a new school, but until recently nobody gave much thought to the cost of resource depletion or environmental damage.
Indeed, an environmental bad could easily be seen as an economic good if, for example, a big clean-up of pollution leads to economic growth. The sinking of an oil tanker off the coast of Spain or Alaska may knock a hole in the local economy, but if that leads to economic activity during the clean-up and afterwards, the extra spending will probably exceed the original economic loss for fisheries or tourism, so leading to economic growth. Such thinking is clearly absurd, but will continue for as long as economics are divorced from the environment. The only way it seems to me that the dichotomy can be reconciled is to ensure that the application of the theory of economic growth is forced fully to internalise all the costs involved in creating so-called economic wealth in the first place. If this were to happen, we would see some strange reversals in the fortunes of countries—those previously known as developed would be heavily in debt, while those mainly in the south would have great surpluses.
At the moment we simply take it for granted that we can obtain commodities from the south very cheaply even if, as in the example of coffee, the prices in the shops do not reflect that. But western consumers will still benefit in one way or another from the southern coffee-growing countries' hidden subsidy, through the distribution of dividends, higher pensions or better paid jobs. If we had to pay the real price for oil, through the costs of the enormous environmental damage its extraction causes, or the costs of the wars, pollution and corruption it causes, we might be a bit more anxious to change to the alternatives.
Given my recent criticisms of China's unreconstructed dash for growth, I am pleased to see that its attitudes are changing. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has apparently said that development must be sustainable, and there are plans to draw up a green index that would be created by subtracting values given to resource depletion from the standard measure of economic growth. If China perfects that system, it will probably be the first country to do so. For China, the need to achieve a more sustainable form of development is pressing, as its exponential growth has already brought some very immediate problems, as in the case of one Chinese city which is having to curb the building of skyscrapers, because of the instability of ground conditions brought on by a shrinking water table, or the incredible news that another city is banning cyclists from some roads because they are getting too congested with cars.
We might permit ourselves some wry amusement at that turn of events, but it is happening here by default. Fewer people walk or cycle to school, and more are travelling by car. Perhaps our congested roads are seen as dangerous too, so the solution is to put more cars on to the roads. Of course, the responsibility to tackle that always lies with someone else. We think, "If only other people would change their ways first," or, "If only the Government would do something about it." That I am afraid is our attitude, and I have some sympathy with it because I know that such attitudes are deeply ingrained in our culture, and that has been made worse in the last 20 years by the attacks made on society on behalf of capital, which in that example has far more to gain by selling cars than it has by encouraging children to walk to school.
The insatiable global demand for our style of living can hardly be denied to others by us unless we change our ways. So it is our responsibility to take tough decisions to lead the way out of this impasse. It inevitably means that we must reassess what we mean by wealth. But if we stick to the idea that sustainable development refers to some open-ended commitment to quality of life rather than to our needs, we will find it difficult to gain a more comprehensive concept of wealth and change the way we measure it. I hope that the Treasury will consider developing its own green index, along the lines of the Chinese proposal, as a starting point for recalculating economic growth. If that happens, we will truly be putting the environment at the heart of government.
I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, your family, all hon. Members and all the staff of the House a happy and sustainable Christmas.
We have had an excellent debate in a spirit of good will, as one would expect in such a season.
One of my hon. Friends who always speaks in this debate is absent today. I am thinking of my hon. Friend Mr. Amess. Hon. Members will know that on these occasions he almost invariably raises the case of his constituent Maajid Nawaz, who is in prison in Cairo. He is absent because he is visiting Mr. Maajid Nawaz today, and he has asked me to give his apologies to the House.
The debate has had at its core the care that hon. Members in all parties feel for others both at home and abroad. There has been a subset of issues to do with aviation and chemical escapes, but the broad theme has shown the House at its best.
Dr. Vis started the debate with some remarks about Cyprus, which were echoed in the speech of my hon. Friend Bob Spink. It is a tragedy that the island has been divided for so long. If the people can come together, perhaps in the spirit of the season, but certainly during the next months, and join the European Union, all hon. Members would think that an extremely happy outcome for a beautiful island and a friendly and hospitable people who would make marvellous members of the EU.
Mr. Tyler raised the constituency case of Sergeant Steven Roberts and shared with us the post-mortem findings. He raised the issue of equipment shortages in Iraq and suggested that the necessary body armour had not been available. He also highlighted the National Audit Office report that examined those concerns. It is good that he has been able to raise such an important issue. It is, of course, the purpose of this debate that matters that have not been raised before Christmas should be put before us. The hon. Gentleman said that in the discussion following the recent statement on the Defence White Paper, my hon. Friend Mr. Soames did not mention equipment shortages. If I may, I shall correct him, as I was there: my hon. Friend did refer to the issue.
Mr. Hurst spoke about airport capacity and the aviation White Paper, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and for Castle Point. Clearly, this has been a troubling, worrying issue for constituents in all those areas over recent years. When the hon. Gentleman spoke about his part of Essex I thought of my neighbouring part of Hertfordshire. I thought of the tracery of lanes and small roads with villages and market towns and of the rural life that has been lived there over centuries. It is heartbreaking to think what the effect of the Stansted expansion would be.
I fully understand how hon. Members from other places that are threatened in this way feel. It is so destructive. Earlier this year, a number of hon. Members attended a march in London. All the campaigners from all the campaigns against airport expansion came together and marched through London to make the point that there is a united feeling about these issues. Villages in my constituency, such as Braughing, Little Hadham and Furneux Pelham, will think the proposal for Stansted disastrous. It is wrong that an environmental impact assessment has not taken place. The local road infrastructure and railways cannot take that development, which will cause immense damage.
The description of the campaign given by other hon. Members was equally moving. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said that they ended one meeting by singing "Jerusalem". Perhaps the hon. Member for Braintree and I should try that next time we campaign against the proposals. Perhaps that is the answer. I am sure that the campaign will continue in Essex and east Hertfordshire in the new year.
My hon. Friend Mr. Rosindell told us about a Romford Christmas. He described the various events he attends and explained which schools and fairs he has visited. He also gave us the benefit of his thoughts on the UK and the EU, and how they interrelate; we heard about a useful charity in his constituency that supports people with sickle cell problems; and he ended by referring to Gibraltar. He gave us an instructive tour d'horizon, which showed how much he cares for Romford.
I am sorry that I missed the speech by Mrs. Ellman, who I understand gave an impassioned speech on anti-Semitism and highlighted the extremism of certain Islamic organisations. Every hon. Member will share her concern. It is vital that we remain a tolerant, liberal society. We must stand up for that. We all know of the desperate conditions that can occur if such extremism takes hold. She was right to raise that important issue.
My hon. Friend Mr. Evans wanted an honour for his mother and complained that she would never get one because Labour has been fiddling with the honours system. He mentioned Gibraltar, council tax—for which we no longer have a level playing field—and post office closures. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried about post office closures. What has not come through sufficiently, however, is that the closures are the Government's fault. They have changed the benefit payments system and reduced the footfall in post offices. As a result, post offices are uneconomic and have to close. The Government decided to pay benefits directly and are stuck with the problem. They say, "Oh well, we are paying a little bit of money here and a little bit there towards the urban reinvention programme," but the scale of the closures is massive. The problem will continue throughout the new year and the Government must take much of the blame for it.
Mr. Jones raised a constituency case about Mrs. Stevens, who was involved in problems arising from a car accident and compensation for it. He made a more general point on compensation fees for coal-mining cases and explained that some solicitors are behaving unscrupulously by taking part of the award, even though the fees are set by the Department of Trade and Industry, which is prepared to pay them. He is right to raise that issue. Again, that campaign will continue.
Geraldine Smith was against variable fees for students. I agree that the expense of important courses, such as medicine and law, run by prestigious universities, is a barrier to poor people. They might want to take advantage of those opportunities, but will be more frightened by the prospect of the higher debt that they will incur if they have to pay those higher fees. Her point was that that will create a permanent barrier to using education as a ladder, so that people can go from the bottom of our society to the top and get into careers where a great deal of money is made. She asked for her views to be passed on to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and I hope that he will listen to them, because the same point is being made on both sides of the House.
I shall quote what the Labour party manifesto says on that point: one can understand Labour Members' nervousness on the subject when one reads:
"We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them."
If that is the case and one stood for election on that manifesto as recently as 2001, one can understand the nervousness involved in telling all the young people and parents in a constituency, "Oh well, actually, we are going to introduce top-up fees and the legislation to prevent them is being repealed." Let us hope that the Secretary of State will think further about that.
In addition to his remarks about airports, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge referred to the appalling conditions in which some refugees find themselves in Kosovo and Krajina. That issue has been raised in the House often recently, and it needs further investigation. I should be interested to hear what the Deputy Leader of the House has to say about that. Certainly, a promise that he will raise the matter with the Foreign Secretary would be welcome. My hon. Friend also mentioned rugby, and it is right that, as we approach Christmas, we should celebrate the fact that we won the rugby World cup, and the achievement of Richard Hill.
Mr. Bailey raised some health issues, particularly in relation to Tipton, and he has some interesting ideas about using salaried general practitioners to fill gaps and about using physician assistants. No doubt the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on those ideas to the Department of Health.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point raised a range of issues, such as housing needs and the 200th anniversary of Nelson's birthday. Perhaps in that context I can mention the fact that Letchworth garden city, which is in my constituency, celebrated its 100th birthday this year. We have had a marvellous year. The Duke of Gloucester opened the new Broadway gardens. We have had firework displays, and a new green lane has been opened all around Letchworth. It has been a marvellous anniversary. Let us hope that we can do something very good indeed for Nelson's 200th.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point has a long campaign behind him, and no doubt to come, on youth drunkenness. I remember that he introduced a Bill on the subject in the 1996–97 Session. His Bill was enacted, and the Act was not repealed without a fight. I remember leading for the Opposition when debating the Criminal Justice and Police Bill in 2001, when we fought the repeal of that measure, so it is good to see it back. I congratulate the Government on that successful U-turn.
The Child Support Agency is another thorny problem that comes up regularly in the Chamber. Of course the problem is the computer. New cases have been working on the new computer system since March, but Ministers always say, "Well, look, we can't bring the old cases on until the computer is working satisfactorily." Hon. Members will remember that we delayed the new cases for about two years because the computer did not work. It is time that the Government managed to get some of those computer projects working. Almost every computer project seems to be delayed, to be subject to criticism and to experience problems. I could list a dozen or so Government computer contracts that did not work, so perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on the message that we hope that the CSA computer will be in better health next year than it has this.
Mr. Barnes raised a concern about a chemical company in his constituency that involved four emergencies in a short time. Clearly, that is a very worrying situation, and no doubt the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us whether the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be able to go to the public meeting that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
My hon. Friend Mr. Robertson mentioned another chemical company and the problems with it. He also mentioned special schools—many Members feel that they should not be closed and that there should be adequate school facilities—the Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the British horse racing industry, which is a complicated issue, and Ethiopia.
John Cryer told us about a tip with gas escapes—Ahern's tip. He also mentioned Sure Start schemes, and made a point with which I have a lot of sympathy about how the system is ward-based. It is a problem across the south-east of England that a ward can exist that has within it an area of valuable property and obvious prosperity, and right beside it an estate with all the indicators of deprivation that one would see in a totally deprived ward. Those who live there, however, cannot access some of the schemes that are designed to help people in their situation. That is a good point, which will no doubt be relayed to the Minister.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch also criticised us over Europe, which did not surprise me—it is a family tradition. Having said that, many Members on both sides of the House were very enthusiastic for the European project—I certainly was at one time: I went campaigning for Europe with Lord George-Brown in 1975. Over the years, however, we have come to see a different kind of Europe from the one for which we hoped. The hon. Gentleman will say that he always imagined that it would be just as it has turned out. Many of us, however, had hoped for something that was more a group of nation states co-operating together on issues of importance such as trade and the environment, and we feel that it has gone beyond that. That feeling exists not just in this country but more widely across Europe. If the EU does not come to appreciate that its peoples feel that they are not very close to the superstate that is developing, it will not survive. It is therefore important for Europe to try to move in a direction that takes it closer to its people.
Finally, Mr. Challen made a speech that ranged widely, but on important issues. He talked about sustainable development. I followed him to a certain extent, but when he described the problems of capital and pollution, and environmental problems, I was forced to think about whether in the east of Europe, where there was socialism, there were not a lot of environmental problems. I seem to recall that there were, so it strikes me that talk of the cost of resource depletion and the polluter pays principle goes so far—it is right that we should address those issues—but we cannot say that it is all the fault of the capitalists. There were plenty of socialists making a filthy mess.
In saying happy Christmas to everybody, including you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in thanking the staff of the House, in all departments, for all that they do for us, which is tremendous, may I quote the words of Disraeli when he met a constituent on
I thank Mr. Heald for his typically polite, kind and open-minded remarks in winding up the debate. It is a particular pleasure to wind up this Christmas recess debate. I find myself in the perhaps enviable position of being the only person standing between the House of Commons and a drink in the bar—[Interruption.] I was going to offer to pay for the drinks, but I am pleased to see that the House has filled up recently, so perhaps we can restrict ourselves to halves.
The House of Commons and Parliament is subject to intense criticism—some would say cynicism—in the modern world of public debate. On behalf of the House, I want to say that an enormous amount of valuable work and public service has been done by Members on both sides of the House in the past term. I have done some background work on this Session. The House may be interested to know that since the Queen's Speech just a few weeks ago, Ministers have given 161 written statements on a broad range of subjects; there have been five oral statements; Select Committees, which are increasingly engaged in public debate, have provided the House with 16 full reports; and, of course, there was the important decision to introduce pay for Select Committee Chairmen, which bodes well for the future and may herald other changes. The House of Commons now has more than 250 all-party groups, which engage in debate with large numbers of pressure groups, carry out their own investigations and express points of view. Parliament and the House of Commons remain at the centre of public debate and public life in this country. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate that the main purpose of changes introduced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as well as other changes that we will debate in future, is to strengthen the role of Parliament in public life. Some of the changes were contentious and led to disagreement, but I hope that we all agree that they were intended to make the House of Commons the centre of public life and strengthen it in the eyes of the public. There is a balance to be struck between respect and relevance, but we are determined to achieve that balance.
To respond to points made in our debate, my hon. Friend Dr. Vis raised the important issue of Cyprus. He does so regularly in Adjournment debates, including at Whitsun and in the summer. I commend his single-mindedness, and hope I can offer reassurance by reminding him of the statement made by the Foreign Secretary on
"A majority of the Turkish Cypriot people has voted for a Cyprus settlement and EU accession. The will of the Turkish Cypriots has been clearly expressed albeit by a narrow margin—despite the widespread concerns expressed by many about the way in which the campaign was conducted. It is important that this desire is fully respected."
I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that confirmation of Government policy.
Mr. Tyler raised an important issue on behalf of one of his constituents—the case of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who was killed on
My hon. Friend Mr. Hurst and several other Members raised the important issue of the future of national airports in the south-east at Stansted and Heathrow, as well as of regional airports. I remind the House of the purpose of the White Paper and the debate that has been launched. The Government should be commended on taking a long-term view. Planning for the position in 20, 30 or 40 years' time is important in the field of aviation but, in the past, both Conservative and Labour Governments have failed to put in place long-term plans to develop aviation. It is a telling fact that, in the time that we took to conduct an inquiry into the expansion of terminal 4 at Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle airport doubled its capacity. Governments must take heed of developments at Frankfurt, Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and other major hub airports.
The aviation industry directly supports about 200,000 jobs, and indirectly supports up to three times as many. Aviation contributes £13 billion a year to Britain's gross domestic product, and one third, by value, of our visible exports go by air. Air freight tonnages have doubled since 1990, and are expected to double again by 2010. Also, two thirds of the visitors to this country travel by air.
However, I want to reassure hon. Members who have raised concerns about Heathrow, Stansted or elsewhere. The White Paper is statement of national policy. It does not authorise specific developments, which remain matters for the planning system. It will be for airport operators to bring forward planning applications for airport developments in the normal way. The White Paper attempts to provide a clear policy framework for individual decisions. In other words, much debate and discussion must still take place.
It is right and proper for hon. Members to raise constituency issues. That reinforces my earlier point about the House's value residing in the fact that it is a public forum where such debates can be held.
Mr. Rosindell made his usual impassioned and patriotic—some would call it nationalistic—speech. I began to think that the debate was being led by hon. Members from Essex, as there were a large number of contributions from that county.
The hon. Gentleman says that Essex Members of Parliament are assiduous. He spoke about the need to reinforce Christmas as a Christian festival. I am happy to confirm that that is the Government's view, regardless of the mischief in some of our media. I am sure that that is all good fun, and I can tell the House that only last weekend I visited the famous traditional Christian carol service celebrated on horseback at an equestrian centre near Saddleworth. I was not on horseback myself, but that might happen in the future.
I was surprised that the hon. Member for Romford criticised the number of nightclubs in Essex. I am not certain that that will be popular with younger people in his constituency, but he made a serious point about the nature of his town centre. He also reminded the House about early-day motion 239, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Pope. It deals with the English national anthem, and it prompted many comments in the debate.
The hon. Member for Romford said that he wants to retain "God Save The Queen" and that he did not want "Jerusalem" to replace it, as the early-day motion proposes. However, one of the most famous sons of his constituency is the late and great Ian Dury, who wrote "Reasons To Be Cheerful". Perhaps that should be adopted as Romford's anthem—although "Hit me with your Rhythm Stick" might cause me to stray beyond where I am willing to go.
The hon. Member for Romford also talked about his early-day motion 202, which concerns the "a dog is for life, not just for Christmas" campaign. I am pleased to inform the hon. Gentleman that my briefing sheet says that the Government support that early-day motion. Being a good, dog-loving Government, we endorse the Dogs Trust campaign for responsible dog ownership. We are reviewing animal welfare legislation, and one of the review's aims will be to increase owners' responsibility for their animals. We want to reduce the number of animals abandoned every year, and Christmas is a good time to reaffirm that.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman made what was perhaps the most impassioned speech in the debate, and the House will agree that its subject—anti-Semitism and the dangers of extremism—was the most important of the afternoon. The Government believe that to equate anti-Zionism and attitudes to a particular Israeli Government with anti-Semitism is both erroneous and dangerous. As the length of time that has passed since world war two and the holocaust grows, we all should redouble our efforts on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I know that hon. Members of all parties are involved in that. We must heed my hon. Friend's warning that, unfortunately, anti-Semitism seems to be on the increase.
As I am sure my hon. Friend agrees, it is not only Jewish people but ordinary Muslim people who most strongly condemn and fear the extremism and intolerance of Islamic extremists. Islam is not an exclusive faith, but a faith of tolerance. It is worth reminding ourselves that, given the nature of the extremists to whom my hon. Friend rightly drew the House's attention, the tolerance that is a great characteristic of our country may be a bit naive. I think the Government will respond in that vein to my hon. Friend's comments.
Mr. Evans managed to congratulate his postman.
He also did a bit of creeping towards his mother. I hope that his turkey is a good one; I am sure it will be.
The hon. Gentleman had a pop at the Government about council tax. When Conservative Members talk about council tax, they never say that it was not only introduced to replace the disastrous policy of the poll tax, but was paid for by increasing VAT—a regressive tax that punishes the less well off—from 15 per cent. to 17.5 per cent. They call for the devolution of powers to local councils, yet scream blue murder when it is given. They perpetuate the myth that the Government have taken money off the southern councils and given it to the northern councils. Many of my constituents up north would disagree with that. I remind them that since 1997 all authorities have had above-inflation increases in their grant.
It does no such thing—it says that there are flaws in the local government finance system, which the hon. Gentleman's party introduced. It is obvious to anybody who is involved that as we are giving extra grant to councils across the board, it is unfair to say that we are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
But I must move swiftly on. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley accused us of fiddling the honours system, but this Government are introducing an independent appointments system for the House of Lords that his party in the other place is dead set against. I find the hon. Gentleman's accusation unfair, given our track record, but perhaps we can have a bit of point-scoring at Christmas.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jones raised important constituency issues on behalf of his constituent Mrs. Ann Stevens, in relation to the miners' compensation scheme. I am pleased to be able to inform him that my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and Enterprise is going to write to all firms involved, including Mark Gilbert Morse, to ask for confirmation of its charging policy. It is worth pointing out that, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, it was this Government who introduced the scheme in the first place.
My hon. Friend Geraldine Smith, who is another regular participant in Adjournment debates, raised her concerns about university fees, which I will of course bring to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, if he does not know them already. I look forward in the new year to a robust debate on how we can ensure that half our teenagers get the university degrees that will secure the graduate skills base we require in order to succeed in the modern industrial world.
My hon. Friend Mr. Bailey made important points about the NHS and confirmed his view that reform is necessary to improve it. I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the specific ideas that he put forward, and I welcome his contribution to the debate.
Bob Spink raised what seemed like dozens of issues in a wide-ranging speech. I shall pick on one, and assure him of support for Nelson's day. The Leader of the House has a model of Victory, Nelson's flagship, in his office, as hon. Members who have been involved in the consultations on the hours of the House know.
My hon. Friend Mr. Barnes again raised the case of Staveley Chemicals. We shall write to him again about it.
I wish the House a happy Christmas.