I welcome this opportunity to speak, I promise very briefly, about three important constituency matters: the proposed closure of more post offices, the troublesome state of postal deliveries and the new arm's-length management organisation that will in future be responsible for the majority of public housing in the area.
Approximately 18 months ago I raised in the House the matter of the closure of a Crown post office in North End road in Fulham. I predicted that it would be a disaster for the community and said that I had no confidence in the public consultations that Royal Mail would purportedly carry out. Despite the strongest possible objections from the local council, the community at large, Postwatch and myself, the closure went ahead. Sure enough, we have been proved right and the closure has been appalling for the area. The queues at the so-called alternative post offices in the area are unacceptably long, and pensioners have not been signing up for direct debit. It is hard to imagine what has been gained by the venture, except for a poorer service in the area and a deeply sceptical attitude among local people towards Royal Mail and the Post Office.
There has also been the closure of the Richmond Way branch, also in my constituency, in August 2003, the implementation of which was nothing less than a farce. I wish that I could say that I am astonished that the Post Office is doing that all over again, but I am afraid that I am not at all surprised. That will not, however, keep me from registering my continued grave concern for its actions in my constituency and pointing out the huge number of representations that I have received from local people who are very angry about it.
There are now proposals for the closure of a further two branches, in Brackenbury road and Fulham Palace road. Although I understand that those two branches are not in the same league as the North End road branch, being sub-post offices rather than Crown post offices, there seems to be a wanton disregard on the part of the Post Office for the local communities that these closures necessarily hurt. If the proposals do go through, and I fear that they most certainly will as they are effectively a fait accompli, that will amount to the closure of five post offices in my constituency in less than two years. Although the Post Office continues to assure us that there are easily accessible alternative post offices for individuals to use, it consistently fails to acknowledge that the closures have been carried out in some of the most deprived and vulnerable areas of London.
Another matter of concern for my constituency is also, unfortunately, related to Royal Mail and the Post Office. Royal Mail's recent restructuring, which involves the merging of the two mail deliveries into a single daily delivery, has been ruinous and caused untold grief and chaos for individuals and businesses in Hammersmith. Those cost-cutting measures resulted in almost 20 per cent. of the work force at the Hammersmith sorting office being made redundant, and the use of temporary workers has added to the general confusion and negligence. That is supposedly all an effort to boost productivity, increase efficiency and cut costs. To add insult to injury, I have now been advised that the local sorting office will have to hire another eight staff.
I have already had two meetings with the relevant local managers, who have done their best to be helpful. They have advised me that they are sure that the situation will get better, and I have to say that services are improving. However, I am advised that a similar scheme will be introduced in Fulham in the near future, and I have little confidence that it will be pulled off smoothly. The failure to implement the scheme efficiently in Hammersmith was partly due to a general disregard for the specifics of the area, such as productivity, targets, staffing and the like, and that seems to be an endemic failure in Royal Mail at large. Whereas each community has particular needs and requirements, Royal Mail has a tendency to favour the one-size-fits-all method. The only logical explanation for the new arrangements is that they are an attempt to save money and stuff the consequences for what, after all, is supposed to be a public service. The reality, though, is that extra resources have been spent on redundancy costs and the employment of many casual staff, whose productivity and quality of service has understandably and inevitably been extremely poor. As with post office closures, we must continue to be very wary of further geographical extension of these changes, and I strongly urge the management of the Post Office promptly to review the new arrangements before we have yet another debacle on our hands in other local postal districts.
I would just like to say a few words about the new arm's-length management organisation that will in future be responsible for providing housing services for 14,000 tenants and 4,650 leaseholders in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
In the past, I have expressed disappointment in the Chamber at the Government's insistence that the local authority set up an ALMO. Hammersmith and Fulham has an excellent housing department that was recognised by the Audit Commission in a comprehensive audit assessment of the service. It awarded the department a three-star rating and, in the light of that award, the Government should not insist on the setting up of an ALMO before they have provided the necessary investment to meet their own decent housing standard.
The council set up its own housing commission, composed of tenants and leaseholders, under an independent chair, and it carried out a detailed investigation of the housing department. The commission's unanimous view was that the council should be allowed to remain as the landlord and that the normal routes of stock transfers or ALMOs should not be compulsory for Hammersmith and Fulham. It also took the view that if change was essential to secure money from the Government, the ALMO route was preferable to a stock transfer or any other option. Eventually, the council agreed to an independent ballot of all leaseholders and tenants, and there was an overwhelming majority in favour of setting up an ALMO.
Next week, on
A number of other hurdles need to be successfully negotiated. We expect to hear in September 2004 the funding allocation for 2004–05, following the outcome of the Government's comprehensive spending review. There will also be an inspection of the new arrangements in November, and the new company must be awarded a two or three-star rating for funding to be triggered. I wish to put on record my thanks and congratulations to all the tenants and leaseholders, the members of the ALMO board, and all the staff who have worked so hard. In the ballot, 81 per cent. voted in favour of the ALMO and, like me, they look forward to the new funding, which will bring new windows, kitchens, bathrooms and many other improvements to local people, who have waited for those upgrades for far too long. In conclusion, I urge the Government to make a speedy decision to fund in full the ALMO's excellent bid to meet the decent housing standard for tenants and leaseholders in Hammersmith and Fulham.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to our debate. I very much appreciate the fact that the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons will secure a ministerial response to issues raised in these Adjournment debates, which are among the most useful parliamentary occasions, as regulars in the Chamber today will agree. We can raise constituency matters and more general concerns in the knowledge that we will get a thoughtful response. If that were always the case, the electorate might hold the House in more respect.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this occasion allows us to raise issues that are relevant to our constituents, and helps us to re-engage them with the democratic process? God knows, that is very much needed.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates something that I was going to deal with a little later. First, however, I want to use the speech of Mr. Coleman as a case in point. Although he spoke about his constituency, I suspect that every hon. Member can identify with the points that he made about, for example, urban post offices. I am sure that, like me, hon. Members on both sides of the House have precisely the same experience of the way in which a Government-owned company—the Government still have the majority holding in the Post Office—treats them as representatives of the community and the general public. Post Office Counters Ltd. has an important responsibility to consult, which it does not always fulfil.
To take up the hon. Gentleman's point about the Royal Mail, we heard today that the group has made profits again. Surely, this is the moment to expect better quality and standards of service. A few minutes ago, however, we heard that such is the Government's respect for the Royal Mail in one area of the country that they do not even trust it to deliver ballot papers in the north-east. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Leslie, did not respond to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Heath, but in his statement he said that in the north-east ballot packs have been passed to the Royal Mail and other deliverers. This must be the first time ever that the Government have had to go outwith the Royal Mail network because they simply cannot trust it to do the job adequately. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham is right to be concerned about the reliability of Royal Mail deliveries in his local area, and we are all entitled to know how it will improve its service to the public.
There are important issues that we need to address before we adjourn for the recess. To return to the point made by Bob Spink, this week, the constitution unit, led by Professor John Curtis, published research demonstrating that the collapse of public respect for politics and politicians owed more to perceptions of artificiality, politicians' mixed motives and alleged sleaze than disappointment with Government delivery. It also suggested that there was not a great collapse of trust in all institutions, so we cannot use that as an alibi for lack of respect for Parliament. It also dispelled the notion that that lack of respect can be ascribed to the prejudices of the tabloid press. To misquote Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars, let alone The Sun, but in ourselves.
Contributing to the perception of expensive, self-serving irrelevance is the way in which the House has failed to represent the true state of the body politic in Britain. For example, despite the decisions made in 1997 and 2001 by the electorate—the people who send us here and give this institution the reason for its existence—the House of Commons still operates as if it is a bipartisan body politic. It is not. The "Buggin's turn" approach to political debate and decision making has one last hiding place: the Chamber. Such an approach is not necessarily taken throughout Parliament, but it is certainly taken here. For example, there is an extraordinary arrangement whereby a large sum of state funding is awarded to the so-called official Opposition—it is not as if there are only two parties in the House. The leader of the larger Opposition party and his colleagues receive £0.5 million of state funding. The latest Library briefing shows that the Leader of the official Opposition received a salary of £124,277 per annum. I make no comment about whether he is worth that or not; that is what he receives. In an interesting comparison, the Speaker receives only slightly more, as do Cabinet Ministers. The Opposition Chief Whip, who is not here this afternoon, receives £95,281 per annum, and the Deputy Chief Whip and the Assistant Chief Whip each receive £81,809. The total package is worth more than £0.5 million of taxpayers' money. Let us imagine that, after the general election, Opposition party B has 150 Members and Opposition party C has 149. During the Parliament, a Member from party B decides to change party. They will carry on their back £0.5 million.
I shall hold the hon. Gentleman to his forecast. However, at the drop of a hat, there would be an extraordinary situation, with a transfer bonus of £500,000 or £600,000 a year. Someone could be encouraged to make such a change, demonstrating the odd way in which this House operates and the fact that it has not caught up with the views of the electorate at large.
To give another example, there is no proper provision for the allocation of Opposition debates. It is ad hoc, arbitrary and pays no attention to parliamentary arithmetic, which, I remind the House, depends on the votes of the electorate.
The electorate send us here. They must expect in this place reasonable respect for the way in which they express party allegiance. My colleagues and I often complain that representation in the House is not as accurate as we would like. We accept that in Committees, for example, there is a careful allocation by party arithmetically, but that does not apply to the allocation of debates.The timing of these debates is entirely in the hands of Government Whips, for goodness sake, which is obviously ridiculous.
I am interested to hear a Government Whip agree from a sedentary position. It is extraordinary that a Buggins's turn approach applies, particularly between the Whips' Offices. Members will recall that when we tried to release the nomination of Members to Select Committees, there was an unholy alliance between the Conservative and the Labour Whips' Offices because they wanted to hold on to that. I suspect that there is a suspicion on the Government Benches, but particularly in the Government Whips' Office, that one day they might be in Opposition again—the pendulum might swing—so they would like to protect the position of the Official Opposition.
Does the hon. Gentleman remember that at one time the Liberal Democrats used to represent all the minority parties when it came to Select Committee selections? The minority parties have rebelled and no longer wish to be under the Buggins's turn arrangements of the Liberal Democrats.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is severely misinformed. We were enthusiastic for the Government to take on that responsibility. We might make recommendations, but ultimately it was in the Government's hands. The minority parties and the Liberal Democrats were at one in thinking that if the Government wanted to take responsibility, we were only too delighted for them to do so.
The number of days for debate is still effectively not represented in Standing Orders in a way that reflects the arithmetic of the House. What is more, the picking of the days remains in the Government Whips' hands. We complained when the Liberal Democrats were not allocated a day during the long period when the situation in Iraq was unravelling, because the Government were fearful that we would raise that issue and there would be substantial Government Back-Bench support and a major Labour rebellion.
Even in this debate, the situation is odd. On previous occasions, I have spoken towards the end of the debate and been able to respond, as I should like to, immediately before the Conservative spokesman and the Minister, to the interesting contributions from other hon. Members. Because of the way in which these matters are organised, it is still as though there are only two parties in the House.
All those examples and many more simply contribute to the public perception that we do not catch up with the real life of the body politic. Three major parties were represented in this House in 1997 and it became obvious that it was not just a flash in the pan, although I must confess that even some of my colleagues wondered whether we would come back after 1997 in such numbers. After 2001, it became absolutely apparent that, despite the inadequacy of the first-past-the-post system, the situation in the House was different. The voters buried the two-party system in 1997 and they danced on its grave in 2001.
There is a tendency when in government—perhaps some Members still hanker for those days—to think that it is all very simple and that somehow or other there are only two sides to every issue. I remind the House that the big issues of this Parliament have not been simply between the two Front Benches. Distinguished Conservative Members voted with me and my colleagues against the invasion of Iraq, together with a substantial number of Government Members. On tuition fees, foundation hospitals and so many issues there is no longer a two-way stretch in the House. There certainly is not in the country.
Other parts of the building have adapted. Members who have had the interesting experience of speaking in Westminster Hall have found that Ministers are probed, questioned and chased as often by their own Back Benchers as by Opposition Members. On the whole, we have a much livelier discussion in the round.
I do not believe that the pendulum will swing again as it used to in my youth. It is absurd for the Government to think that if it does, they must hold on to the cash and privileges that presently attach to the Official Opposition, in expectation of that day. What a confession of weakness from the Government if they think they are about to reoccupy the Opposition Benches.
As was said earlier, this place does not enjoy the respect that it should. There are a number of reasons for that, but I have had time to touch on only one. Certainly, another is the extent to which we are an anomaly. Outside is a multi-party world that recognises three major parties, but this place has been left behind.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. While some fellow Members have understandably disappeared to their constituencies, the remainder are free to wax lyrical on subjects close to their heart. In short, while the three-line Whip is away, Members can, to some extent, play.
An issue close to my heart is how to get people involved once again in the political process and directly in politics. It is about persuading people that politics matters, grabbing people when they are young and instilling in them the habit of getting involved in politics and the importance of making a difference. I shall not simply go over well-trodden ground in my arguments, nor focus on the importance of worthy but well-worn phrases, such as "democratic engagement". My appeal today to the House and those happy, select few who may chance upon these words is that we all have a responsibility to make politics sexy once again.
By sexy, I am not referring to Members' alleged or real extra-curricular activities in times past in some of the more colourful, late-night London establishments. Nor am I referring to the way in which members of the press sometimes focus on, for example, the footwear of Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons. Nor am I referring to the fan website of Mrs. Liddell, which describes her as
"by far the most glamorous doll in British politics since Baroness Thatcher was put out to pasture."
Nor am I referring to the popular preoccupation of the parliamentary estate and the fourth estate to engage in practices akin to political flagellation where we criticise ourselves to the nth degree for failing to use language that people understand, failing to dress cool or bling so that the youth vote can identify with us, or perpetuating in our strange parliamentary traditions that are deemed to turn people off. While all those issues have validity, they are constantly discussed and we return to them again and again masochistically. Valid as many of them are, they are essentially about style, not substance. They are about how we behave and conduct ourselves, not about what we do and can achieve.
In my brief contribution I shall focus on the substance. Politics itself, the seemingly dry and dusty business of this place, is inherently sexy. If we scratch under the spin of presentation, what we do when we do it well makes a real difference to the lives of people in the United Kingdom and across the world. Some would say that politics described as "sexy" is an oxymoron; I would argue that it is not. Members of this House and the media are generally responsible for making it seem like an obvious oxymoron, whereas the two words are in fact complementary. Sometimes we make ourselves feel guilty for talking about politics and for talking up politics. I shall be bold and state on the record for posterity that politics is something to be proud of and that politicians should be proud of their vocation.
If we asked a hundred people on the street what words and phrases they would use to describe politics and politicians, like the old quiz show that Les Dennis used to compere on television when five answers would appear on a screen, I suggest that the following would appear high on the list:
"I'm not interested in politics"; "It's all men in grey suits"; "Nothing to do with me"; or even, "Frankly, I can't be bothered".
Recently, I have spoken to two young men and one woman who wanted to get into politics and had aspirations to become Members of this place and even to become the next Prime Minister. If I paid any heed to the current and consistent view of politics and politicians, I would be tempted to draw on Noel Coward for inspiration and say to them—I will not sing, the House will be pleased to know—"Don't put your daughter into politics, Mrs. Worthington. Don't put your daughter into politics. The profession's disreputable, the job is pretty tough, and admitting that she wants to change the world is not enough. She's a nice girl and though her heart's in the right place, I wouldn't want to see her in despair or in disgrace. So I repeat, Mrs. Worthington, sweet Mrs. Worthington, don't put your daughter in this place." My apologies to the author.
At least we can say that the mood of modern politics is truly international. The US author and commentator, Jedediya Purdy, believes that the common mood of cynicism in modern culture undermines the possibility of meaningful civic engagement: public service. Purdy argues that this mood of irony and cynicism, which one can even see in popular American television programmes such as "Late Night with David Letterman" and "Seinfeld", exemplifies the notion that it is impossible to take life seriously, and that all things are open to mockery and derision. Purdy observes that this seam of cynicism runs deepest among the better educated, which is especially damaging because these "cosmopolitans", as he calls them, are thus persuaded to strenuously avoid careers of public service.
Yet, despite this gloom, Purdy, unlike many of his peers, insists that politics can be a territory where depth and moral courage can thrive and the common good can be promoted. At the risk of presenting myself as a self-righteous, sanctimonious prig, which is always a risk for politicians, I agree with the Purdy thesis. Let us call it, for the purposes of this speech, the Purdy principle. Politics can be a force for good. Politicians can be a force for good, too, and we should not be ashamed of standing up and saying that.
Politics matters. Cynicism is sometimes deserved, but increasingly cynicism is a downright lazy approach to public affairs by those who report on or observe our efforts. The reality of a politician rarely being able to deliver absolutely everything that he or she promises mutates into "They promise everything but deliver nothing", and then into "They're all a bunch of self-serving so-and-sos". The reality that there are occasionally politicians who may lie or cheat, just as there are bad apples in every walk of life, becomes "You can't trust any one of them an inch". The reality that we occasionally get things wrong becomes "They're all about as much use as a chocolate fireguard".
The first line of my job description says, "Must have broad shoulders". The second line says, "Must be able to laugh at himself daily and hourly". The third says, "Must not read the papers or watch politics on television, for fear of taking things—or himself—too seriously". Is politics so bad, so shameful, so deplorable? Should Mrs. Worthington send her daughter into the profession, or would she be better advised:
"Get thee to a nunnery",
Hamlet-style? Should my wife and sons change their surname to avoid ridicule in the streets? I do not believe so, and I shall explain why.
Politics can, in many small ways, change lives. I would not be here if I did not think so. Let me give the House some examples of why it is worth suffering Hamlet's
"slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".
The examples are based on real people with real problems in my constituency.
An elderly man comes to see me, very dignified and very reluctant to approach the MP. He explains that he has never sought the advice of the MP before. So what has happened in the 84 years that he has kept himself to himself and now brings himself to my office? It is a humbling experience simply to sit and meet such people. He is a former miner, one of a generation of south Wales men who, if they were not lucky enough, as some were, to get a scholarship, go away to university and pursue a different profession, spent their lives digging coal out of the rich but complex seams in south Wales.
In some ways the man has been fortunate in his life, because he has seen many of his friends into the grave. He has sung at too many funerals to remember. Because of a compensation scheme introduced by the present Government, the largest industrial compensation scheme in Europe and possibly in the world, he is able to apply for some payment for the chest disease that is a direct result of his time underground. Eventually he gets the payment. It is not a great amount, but he appreciates it. More importantly, his children and grandchildren will see the benefit of it. Politics has made a difference to that man's life.
That is not the end, however. The solicitor who handled the compensation case for the former miner—a solicitor based in the south of England, with whom I am very familiar, who has no relationship with coalfield areas and no knowledge of miners, their families or communities—has deducted 15 per cent. of his compensation payment in what, in truly lawyerly fashion, he calls contingency fees. "Contingent on what?", I ask. It is not contingent on any risk to the law firm because the firm is guaranteed its payment under the generous Government compensation scheme. It is contingent on nothing. It is a fabrication of lawyerly words that masks pure unadulterated greed. The Government have already paid the solicitor's fees, regardless of whether that former miner is due compensation or not, but the law firm comes back for more. Not satisfied with a pound of flesh from the taxpayer and the Government, it wants a pound of flesh from the miner himself.
We battle. The Back Benchers battle. The Government are on our side and enlist the support of the Law Society to tackle those legal vultures. We battle again. The firm resists. We persist. The firm gives in and gives back the money. It is only a few hundred pounds, the price of a good night out for the solicitor and his wife in London. But they will not have it at the expense of my constituent—not at the expense of someone who has dug coal out of the rich seams of the south Wales coalfields. Not for the benefit of that solicitor has he done that, and not for the benefit of that solicitor is he living with chest disease for the rest of his life. So politics matters. Politics makes a difference to our lives.
When I ran for election in Ogmore, I remember knocking on doors in a council estate in the Ogmore valley. Council housing was one of the great achievements of successive Labour Governments, but we must recognise that despite many good examples, sometimes the quality of that housing or the management of the estates left much to be desired. There have always been council estates where the sense of community and pride in the housing were something to behold. The estate I visited was not one of them.
Outside a particular flat, grim and depressing, was a battered pram. The door was open and the child had just been lifted out of the pram and taken inside, out of the drizzling rain that had begun to fall. It rained for 30 days during that by-election, I remember.
Indeed. The alley to the flat was strewn with rubbish and debris, and when the mother came to the door, her face said it all. It bore an expression of misery and despair. How could things get this bad? How could any decent society fail her and her child in that way? There were numerous reasons, but the council had also decided that enough was enough.
Unable to fund the repairs, renovations and demolitions necessary to renew its housing stock, the council advocated a new way forward—an ideologically challenging way forward for a Labour authority—stock transfer, passing the ownership and management into the hands of the people themselves. It happened. It worked. That mother, whom I subsequently met, and all the residents of that estate and many other estates throughout the borough are now living in smart, high-quality brick-built terraces with their own front and back gardens, and most importantly of all, with a sense of pride in their home and community.
My message is that in many ways, in many lives, politics makes a difference for the better. The lifting of children, pensioners and low-paid working families out of poverty shows that politics makes a difference. The statements and policies that make neighbourhoods safer places to live in, with better amenities and a better quality of life, are evidence that politics makes a difference. The teaching of civics in schools, the recognition of the role and the rewarding of the voluntary sector, and the direction of lottery funds towards poorer communities, are more evidence that politics makes a difference time and again. The 84-year-old who walks into his MP's office for the first time in his life and asks for help is further proof that politics and politicians can make a difference.
No hon. Member should ever apologise for the job that he or she does or the importance of politics. Politics is what makes the world go round. It is the grease that oils the engine and it is the engine itself. As such, it is sometimes messy, sometimes dirty, sometimes noisy and confusing.
Hon. Members may disagree about the direction in which we should travel, but without politics and politicians, there would be no power to drive in that direction. Policy sets the direction, but let us never deride politics because it is the power that can change society for better or worse. Politics is the engine room of our society—let us disagree on direction, but let us agree on the worth of our work.
I congratulate Huw Irranca-Davies on his cameo speech, which moved me so much that I shall use it as a defence against attacks from people who do not like politicians—the whole House enjoyed it.
I want to raise a number of points before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess. More than 18 months ago, Jackie Cox and other members of The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust came to my surgery to discuss obesity. I raised the matter in the Health Committee, where I was delighted to find that I was pushing at an open door. Members of the Committee agreed to an inquiry, the report of which has been published today. The three-volume report on obesity is magnificent, and all 11 members of the Committee are proud of it. We do not intend to allow it to gather dust; we intend to campaign for action. Sadly, a leak occurred during the deliberations on the report—that matter is being dealt with—but I was delighted by the huge media interest at this morning's press conference.
As far as I am concerned, the bottom line was the Committee's visit to America. In America food is very cheap, and it is practically given away with no regard to fat or sugar content, and with the option to "size up" portions for 30p. We were all shocked by food suppliers' irresponsibility, and that is the problem. As a Conservative, I favour voluntary agreements, but I hope that hon. Members keep raising the issue until food suppliers behave more responsibly and limit temptation.
TOAST inspired the Health Committee to conduct its inquiry, but its funding has been withdrawn under section 64 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968. It had tremendous plans to build a centre of excellence, the TOAST house, to run a mobile drop-in centre and to produce the "TOASTbites" journal to help people—mainly ladies—who, despite dieting and other measures, simply cannot lose weight and need help badly. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will do what they can to persuade Ministers to examine TOAST's funding.
In the Easter Adjournment debate, I raised the subject of crime and praised the Yellow Advertiser for supporting the "more feet on the beat" campaign—in particular I praised the editor, Graeme Allen, and the journalist concerned, Luke Walsh. The newspaper invited readers to submit coupons calling on the Home Secretary to provide sufficient funding for 10 extra police officers to patrol the streets in the Southend police division, and nearly 2,000 coupons have been returned.
I used to represent another constituency, where I was first elected in 1983 and which had one police station at that time. When I left that constituency it had three police stations, but I seem to have had the reverse effect on my current constituency, Southend, West. When I was elected three police stations were in operation, but one has been closed, another is hardly open and the third is open on a part-time basis.
The general public pay for the police and they are not happy with the availability of local police stations. For instance, Leigh police station is open on Monday to Saturday mornings and is completely shut on Sundays. Westcliff police station has closed, and Eastwood police station is hardly open. Local residents feel strongly about that campaign and intend to continue campaigning. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons will pass on my comments on police strength in Southend.
Many hon. Members have raised the issue of mobile phone masts, on which the House appears to be agreed. One week ago, my Telecommunications Masts (Need and Safety Test) Bill achieved an unopposed First Reading. Although little time is left in the Session, it seems to me that the measure can go through on the nod, because everyone agrees that the spread of mobile phone masts is dangerous.
I praise my local newspaper, the Leigh & Westcliff Times, which, led by Mr. Michael Guy, has campaigned on the issue from an early stage. My Bill places the onus entirely on operators. In future, operators would have to prove the need for a mobile phone mast to local authorities, thus saving local authorities the huge expense of dealing with the matter. The Bill also places the onus on operators to prove to the council committee that there are no health risks.
I tried to organise a public meeting under the auspices of the Mobile Operators Association. We all know how such organisations enjoy public meetings—they are delighted for MPs to deal with the issues, but they place certain restrictions on the nature of the meeting. I followed all the requirements of the Mobile Operators Association, which eventually wrote to me two days before the meeting, stating that, given the circumstances, it could not attend. Of the five operators that make up that organisation, only two, O2 and Orange, which have 26 million users between them, attended the meeting, where they listened to the general public's concern, with which the House is only too familiar.
The House legislated to make it unlawful to drive a car and use a mobile phone—like Sir William Stewart, who compiled the Stewart report, I believe that, depending on the thickness of the skull, the excessive use of mobile phones is worrying. Does any hon. Member think that that law is being enforced? It is a complete sham. We have cheered ourselves up with the thought that we have dealt with the matter, but laws do not work unless they are fair and there is good will. It is nonsense to suggest that an army of people are stopping cars because the general public are using their mobile phones. Government figures make it clear that accidents and fatalities have increased as a result of people driving and using mobile phones.
The hon. Members for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned post offices. Here we go again—every hon. Member, regardless of their party, is upset about post office closures. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you and I were in the House when it voted on Sunday trading, to which I was totally opposed. I knew that, as a consequence of Sunday trading, supermarkets would grow, which has had an impact on our local communities and local stores, and similar arguments relate to post office closures.
I represent a tiny urban area. The Post Office is marvellous at sending out letters telling us that we will be consulted.
The Post Office told me that it wanted to consult me and my constituents about the possibility of closing five post offices. We all protested, and the five post offices closed. Last week, by recorded delivery, I got another letter from the Post Office, telling me that it wants to consult me and my constituents about another five post office closures—this in a tiny area where there is a huge number of senior citizens. Out of all 659 constituencies, Southend, West is No. 1 in terms of people aged between 100 and 112. For many of my local residents, post offices and all that they offer are extremely important. I hope that the Government will reflect on that.
I agree with my hon. Friend about Sunday trading. Does he agree that the Government have created further problems for post offices by changing the method of benefit payments to phase out the order book and by providing money through the urban reinvention programme that is available only if a post office is closed, not kept going?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Automatic credit transfer has had a huge impact. Having visited all five post offices that are faced with closure—I think that I will be left with only eight or nine in the whole constituency—I am sure that they would reinforce my hon. Friend's point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's preventing the Post Office from providing full banking services, including direct debit discounts on utility bills, is making it less and less viable; and that when a post office closes, people lose not only that post office but the support that it gives to the whole shopping parade, so that the whole area starts to crumble?
My hon. Friend and neighbour is entirely right. When I had those conversations in the post offices, I also called in at the parade of shops, where people said exactly the same thing.
The hon. Gentleman should have learned by now not to listen to the shadow Leader of the House. The truth is that millions of pounds are going to post offices in rural areas to ensure that they stay open. Millions of pounds are also going to post offices that stay open to help them to improve their facilities. Many of my constituents are worried about the facilities that are provided in existing post offices and would like to see, for instance, disabled access.
I represent an urban constituency—I make no apology for that—and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is badly affected by what is happening at the moment. I have a high regard for the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, who was a splendid leader of Newham council, but he has got it wrong on this issue. His hands are probably tied.
I shall move on to a matter that was raised by a constituent of mine. On
The issue of abortion is rarely raised in the House of Commons these days. I was delighted that three weeks ago a news broadcaster was brave enough to show "The Silent Scream". I hope that it had an effect on those hon. Members who saw it.
In recent weeks, the abortion issue has returned to the news. I wish to highlight two cases, the first of which involves the courageous action of the Reverend Joanna Jepson, who sought a judicial review of the refusal of West Mercia police to prosecute the doctors involved in a post 24-week gestation abortion for cleft lip and cleft palate. Some of us can remember how we voted on that particular issue when the House was given an opportunity to form an opinion. Thanks to Joanna's persistence, West Mercia police recently announced that they are to set up a new inquiry into this case. However, that should not be the end of the matter. Let us not forget that in the United Kingdom we have some of the most liberal abortion legislation in the world. An abortion can be obtained on the grounds of disability up to term, which is nonsense given that special baby care units can save babies at 22 and a half weeks. Disability rights groups have expressed concerns about the discriminatory impact of our abortion law. I entirely agree with them, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on my comments to the Department of Health.
The second case is that of Melissa Smith. I hope that all hon. Members were shocked by that case, in which an abortion was arranged for a 14-year-old schoolgirl by a 21-year-old school health worker without the girl's mother's knowledge or consent. That is absolutely outrageous. If ever a case captured the smugness that we have seen for 30 years on this issue, that was it. When Melissa needed an operation for appendicitis, two signatures from her parents were required, but when the abortion was carried out, no opinion was sought from them. Perhaps the saddest comment came from Melissa's boyfriend Dwaine, the father of the aborted child. He told reporters that he and Melissa believed that an abortion was their only choice. What counselling had they received from those marvellous organisations, Brook, Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service? Are they truly independent and non-directional? For many years, the response of successive Governments to the rise in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections has been more of the same contraceptive-rich, value-free education. Traditional values inside and outside the House are mocked. Melissa's case illustrates the tragic consequences of our irresponsibility. I hope that the Government will act on those matters.
I hope later to present a petition to the House on behalf of my constituent, Maajid Nawaz. The Foreign Secretary has been very helpful in relation to that case, and has met me, parliamentary colleagues and family members to discuss it. As some hon. Members know, on
It is a delight to speak this afternoon after another Welsh Member, my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies. I have always been amused by the name of his constituency because when I first typed it into a Word document, the spell-check came up with "Gomorrah".
I want to concentrate on an issue that my constituents have raised more frequently than any other, although some people might consider it ephemeral and trivial. It is broadcasting. Public service broadcasting is as important to democracy as this House. In this country, we have enjoyed for many decades a public service broadcasting ethos based on independence of thought and journalistic enterprise, and we have enjoyed an independence of journalism for many centuries.
Public service broadcasting is important not only because it provides an oasis of independence away from commercial pressures, thus enabling better quality television programmes, but because one has only to consider a country such as Spain, where there is a different understanding of public service broadcasting, to realise the dangers than can exist in a democratic system. Last year, the Spanish public service broadcaster, Radio Television Española, produced a series of news programmes in the run-up to the general strike that tried to avoid mentioning it, except to suggest that it would be dangerous to go out on the streets, terrifying to take part and that many violent protesters might be involved. None of that was true. When the trade unions subsequently took the public service broadcaster to a tribunal, it found against the broadcaster, which had to issue a public apology. That was when we began to see the cracks in the edifice of public service broadcasting as state broadcasting in Spain.
We saw the real evidence on
On the Saturday evening, the night before the general election, the Spanish public service broadcaster devoted a whole evening to the problem of ETA, thereby trying to support the Spanish Government's insistence that the bomb was nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Although the concept of kid-gloves interviewing of Ministers might appear attractive to the Deputy Leader of the House, the way in which such broadcasting in Spain has undermined real democracy, which we all support, is frightening. It is perhaps no surprise that, when the people of Spain felt that the wool was being pulled over their eyes, they turned out in substantial numbers to vote to change the system. It is good news that, despite the temptation to seize the propaganda tool of the Spanish public service broadcaster, the socialist Government in Spain intend to institute reform so that the public service broadcaster is more independent, and run more along the lines of the BBC.
Independence does not only arise in public service broadcasting. It is well known that Reuters had the whole story on the Thursday afternoon of the attacks and refused to run it because it believed that a conservative Government under the Partido Popular would be re-elected and that it would suffer retribution if it ran the story. It is therefore vital to have a publicly funded, public service broadcaster that understands itself to be not a state broadcaster but a genuinely independent upholder of truth in a democracy.
It is also important that a public broadcaster is not simply a tiny part of the broadcasting market, as some would like it to be. I do not believe that it should be simply Shakespeare, Schiller and Shostakovich. To use Greg Dyke's term, it should be an 800 lb gorilla. It is important that it is not simply like PBS in the United States of America, which is no more than a pimple on the back of the American broadcasting giants. If we are to ensure that democracy thrives, it should be a hefty body that can create world-breaking television and radio programmes.
Of course, there are dangers of the BBC being too big, developing a culture of its own and believing in itself so intrinsically that it can never accept that it might occasionally get things wrong. It is interesting that the BBC now employs more staff than the number of British people living in Gibraltar. We therefore need a strong, large and independent public broadcaster that must also be humble.
I want to focus on some issues that are relevant to Wales. It is commonplace to say that the broadcasting market has changed more rapidly than ever in the past few years and that significant change will happen again. That is nowhere truer than in Wales. The statistics are startling: 54.5 per cent. of homes in Wales have digital television, which is well ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, for which the figure is 40.5 per cent.; and 68.9 per cent. of people in Wales have multi-channel televisions, which is more than two out of three, as opposed to 54.5 per cent. in the rest of the United Kingdom. Two out of three people in Wales have not only S4C but Channel Four. My constituents have clamoured for that for a long time. The reasons for the more rapid take-up of digital in Wales are obvious. People wanted Channel Four as well as S4C, especially in the English-speaking areas such as my constituency. The topography of Wales makes it difficult to get good reception throughout the country for the basic channels that everyone else takes for granted. The English-based broadcasters are not good at putting rugby on television and we have had to make our own special provision.
One of the most significant differences between the Welsh broadcasting market and the rest of the United Kingdom is that nearly all the people who have gone digital have done so through satellite. Forty-three per cent. of homes in Wales have digital satellite, only 6 per cent. have digital terrestrial television or freeview, and only 6 per cent. have cable. Again, the reasons are obvious. There is little cable and freeview in Wales. Only 60 per cent. of Wales is covered by freeview, which is not available in my constituency. That is a source of intense irritation, especially when people go to Dixon's or Curry's in Pontypridd, buy their set-top box and hear the shop assistant confidently assert, "All you have to do is plug it in and it will work"—only to find that it does not, because freeview is unavailable in many valleys constituencies.
People say, "I pay the same licence fee as everybody else. Why can't I get BBC 3, BBC 4, BBC News 24 and even BBC Parliament?" It appears unfair and it is one of the major issues that the BBC will have to tackle in the coming years. I am also worried that four out of five people who have gone digital in Wales have had to do so through Sky. In other words, Rupert Murdoch is being given a virtual monopoly of digital take-up in Wales because we have a lower penetration of cable and digital terrestrial television. That is worrying. No single person should be able to determine which channels are where on people's television sets and be able to hoover up the digital future. We must tackle those issues.
Enormous challenges arise from all of this, including one for the whole broadcasting ecology. That is a term that people who have worked as lobbyists in the BBC and other organisations love to use, but it has some relevance. There is an enormous temptation in Wales simply to produce lots more local channels and local programmes, and of course that sounds nice. If people talk to their MP about these matters, they will almost certainly say, "Oh yes, we want more local programmes and channels."
In Wales, however, that means that instead of getting BBC 1, we get BBC 1 Wales. So, providing that I manage to get home to Wales tonight, instead of being able to watch "Question Time" at 10.35—the single most popular news and current events programme in this country, which reaches between 3.5 million and 5 million viewers—I shall have to watch "Dragon's Eye", which is probably one of the least popular news and current events programmes in the country. We do not get "Question Time" until considerably later, when, even though many Welsh viewers might have wanted to watch it, it will be well past their chapel-goers' bedtime.
We do not get BBC 2 on digital in Wales; we get BBC 2W. That will mean that, tonight, instead of the excellent "One Day of War" which BBC 2 is showing—a programme about war all around the world, which has had loads of publicity throughout the country—we shall get "Sara Edwards' County Set", whatever that may be, followed by "Ivor the Engine"—[Interruption.] I can see that I have lost the argument; everyone would obviously prefer to see "Ivor the Engine".
Actually, I think that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has that responsibility.
Programmes such as "Ivor the Engine" and others that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are very popular. Why should his taste take precedence? Certainly, when I visited the National Assembly for Wales recently, there was great enthusiasm for programmes with a particular Welsh content.
It would be difficult to argue that "Sara Edwards' County Set" was the most popular programme, or, for that matter, that "Dragon's Eye" would be more popular in Wales than "Question Time". It would certainly not be right for me to inflict my taste on everybody in Wales. However, I suspect that Wales would be better off trying to be more ambitious about the programmes that it makes, instead of adopting a policy of putting a leek and a daffodil into every television programme shown there.
I recently went to the BAFTA Cymru awards in Cardiff, and I was hard-pressed to see a single programme that won an award that night that had been shown anywhere other than in Wales. That is a problem. It has not always been the case, however. When the Culture, Media and Sport Committee went to the United States of America a couple of years ago, I was delighted to see, on our return flight, that two of the films that we were offered had been filmed in the Rhondda: "Very Annie Mary" and "Solomon and Gaenor", which are both excellent films. The truth is, however, that the tendency at the moment is for the BBC to invest too much in too many small programmes—partly because it has a great deal of money from the licence fee settlement, much of which has been devolved to the regions, which is great in itself—and the danger is that, instead of broadcasters enabling us to see a wider world, we are being made more insular and inward-looking. That will be a problem for us, culturally, in Wales.
It was nice to see that the latest BBC bodice-ripper, "He Knew He Was Right", was a BBC Wales production, but I could not see any Welsh talent, Welsh scenes or Welsh writers on the programme. Yet we have significant Welsh talent—we always have had—in the form of actors and singers, for example. I do not need to go through the list, but an example would be Sir Stanley Baker—he was from my constituency—who was one of the great actors and who appeared in "Zulu" among many other films. We ought to be ensuring that our broadcasters in Wales attract an international audience for all that great talent, rather than just a home-grown one.
A specific challenge faces S4C, the Welsh language channel. Its audience figures for the last few years show that, in 2000, it had a 7.7 per cent. share of the viewers in Wales. In 2001, it had 6.3 per cent., and in 2002, 5.2 per cent., which means that it lost one third of its audience in only two years. S4C therefore finds itself on the edge of a precipice. Even its reach—illustrated by the number of people who turn to it for at least 10 minutes a week—has fallen from 65 per cent. to 48 per cent. It is now reaching an audience of about the same level as that of Channel 5, despite the fact that 30 per cent. of homes in Wales cannot get Channel 5 at all, and that every home can get S4C.
S4C therefore faces a real problem of audience figures, which brings with it a problem of money. Two years ago, 200,000 people in Wales watched "Big Brother" on S4C. S4C broadcasts not only Welsh language programmes; it carries 36 hours of such programmes a week and about 10 hours of English language programmes such as "Big Brother", along with "Friends" and some of the other American imports. Last year, however, only 100,000 people watched "Big Brother" on S4C—the figure had halved. That is not because fewer people in Wales watched "Big Brother", but because people can now watch it on Channel 4.
That causes a financial problem for S4C. Selling the advertising time around the programme provided a lucrative market, because 200,000 people were watching it, but that market has now greatly diminished, because the audience has halved. As we go into a digital future, in which everyone in Wales has Channel 4 and S4C, it is likely that S4C will lose those programmes and the money that it was getting from selling the advertising time around them.
The Tories did not help S4C either. The Broadcasting Act 1990 set the amount of money that the channel would receive each year at 3.2 per cent. of national television advertising revenue. In 1996, however, they let S4C down by changing the formula to one in which the 1997 grant would increase each year in line with inflation. If we had stuck with the old formula of 3.2 per cent. of advertising income, S4C would have received £84.1 million in 2002. However, because of the Tory funding system, it got only £81.4 million, despite the fact that 2002 experienced one of the greatest recessions in television advertising revenue.
The hon. Gentleman might not have noticed—although most people have—that since 1997 Labour has been in power. If the formula is as wrong as he suggests, why is he not leading a campaign against it and doing something to change it? It has nothing to do with the Conservatives.
The hon. Gentleman might not have realised that that is exactly what I am doing by making this speech. The formula for S4C does need to be changed, and the Government are instituting—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is wittering from a sedentary position, but the truth is that the Government have instituted a review of S4C, although there has not been a debate about it in the Chamber. I am trying to contribute to the debate.
S4C, in its digital future, will have to discover a new identity. It will no longer be good enough simply to be a channel for Welsh-speaking Wales. It needs to rediscover an identity for the whole of Wales, including my Rhondda constituency, and not just by putting subtitles on Welsh language programmes. One of the questions that a young person asked me the other day was, "Why is it that all the bands on S4C are Welsh-speaking bands? Why don't the music programmes have a Welsh-speaking band followed by an English-speaking band?"
Does my hon. Friend share my frustration with S4C that, despite the many good things that it does, its excellent political programmes are singular exceptions in failing to be subtitled in English? Many of my constituents who would want to enter the political debate cannot engage with it on S4C.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the most scurrilous elements is that sometimes we find out that what the Plaid Cymru politician has said on a Welsh language programme is not exactly what he said on an English language programme. Without the subtitling, those such as me who do not have any Welsh find it difficult to know what is going on. Equally importantly, I do not understand why S4C is quite happy to interview French politicians in French, with subtitling or translation, but is not prepared to have its own Welsh English-speaking politicians, artists or dramatists appearing on the programme.
Will my hon. Friend also note that S4C is more than willing to interview English-speaking Welsh athletes and rugby stars on its sports programmes, because it feels that they have something important to contribute, whereas English-speaking politicians cannot get a foothold?
Absolutely, although this is starting to sound a little self-serving, so I cannot pursue the argument much further.
Of course, it is only right and proper that we should have a hefty Welsh-medium public service broadcaster, not only because the people of Wales for whom Welsh is their first maternal tongue deserve to be able to pursue their political, democratic and cultural life in their own language, but because Wales's growing bilingualism is an important contribution to a stronger society. I want S4C to play a role in encouraging that bilingualism, and not just encouraging Welsh.
I should not delay the House for many more minutes, but there are some challenges for other broadcasters, particularly Channel 4, which has an enormous audience in Wales and should recognise that. Channel 4 should have more of a Welsh remit. For instance, it should be able to interview people in Wales, whereas at the moment it has no provision to do so. The quota for programmes that must be made by Channel 4 outside the M25 is 30 per cent., but only 1 per cent. of those programmes are ever made in Wales. That should rise to 2 per cent., and I hope that Channel 4 will work closely with the independent sector, such as Pop Factory in my constituency, or Boomerang TV, to try to encourage more programming in Wales that gets on to network television via Channel 4.
There are also challenges for BBC Wales. Most importantly, it must get more good, strong Welsh programming on to the network. It is not good enough that Scotland has "Monarch of the Glen", and Northern Ireland has "Ballykissangel", but Wales has remarkably few programmes that manage to get on to network television. BBC Wales also needs to be much more engaged with the independent sector in Wales. It needs to promote more of a commercial sense in Wales of what it is trying to achieve.
We also need a decent BBC Wales website. It is outrageous that at the moment one cannot find out from the BBC Wales website who is contesting which seat in the local elections on
Above all, BBC Wales must show all of Wales—not just Pontcanna, Cardiff, Swansea or Newport. It must show the valleys, but not in the stereotypical way such as when there is a drug-related problem or an antisocial behaviour order problem. It must show the fullness of Wales.
There are, of course, challenges for the Government. Everybody in Wales needs a free-to-air option in the digital era. We cannot hand it over to Sky. We need to make sure that the electronic programme guide enables viewers in Wales to find the channels that they want rather than the ones that Sky wants them to find. Above all, digital switchover should happen first in Wales, because we have made the biggest progress towards digital take-up anywhere in the world.
May I start this debate where I left off in the Easter Adjournment debate on
On average, adult hospices in this country receive about 20 per cent. of their funding from the Government—the figure might be a little less—and children's hospices receive a miserly 5 per cent., which is simply too low. The Conservative party has a policy of funding both adult and children's hospices at 40 per cent.
I congratulate my Front Benchers on their foresight, and hope that they will stick with that policy when we win the next election—and the policy is yet another reason why we should and will win it.
Even the figure of 5 per cent. is generous compared with the 1.5 per cent. that Little Haven children's hospice in my constituency receives from the Government. That is far too little, and I implore the Minister to convey the message to the Department of Health that it should lobby heavily the strategic health authority and the primary care trust that provide the hospice with its funds, to ensure that it receives at least the average received by other children's hospices.
Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I should point out that in his speech he forgot to mention the great contribution to Welsh culture made by Max Boyce through Treorchy working men's club at the top of his valley. I hope that he will redress that oversight.
I congratulate all who work in the hospice movement, particularly the volunteers who do so much to raise funds across the country. Those in Castle Point have to work harder than volunteers in any other constituency, because they have to raise 98.5 per cent. of the funds for their hospice.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the hospice movement, but he seemed rather nervous about the possibility that, come the general election, his Front Benchers would change their policy. Is that because he is not sure whether the spending cuts might fall on hospices?
I agree with my hon. Friend about children's hospices. He will recall that in the last Conservative manifesto we pledged to increase funds for them, and we will do so again.
That is one of my reasons for being a Conservative.
The issue of post offices has been covered extensively today, and I shall not repeat the arguments. I presented two petitions last night opposing the closure of two post offices in my constituency, and—with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I shall present another opposing the closure of a third. I congratulate Castle Point councillors on doing such good community work in fighting for their post offices.
This morning I received a letter dated
"Not an Epistle from one of your usual nutters".
I part company with him there, because I do not have any nutters in Castle Point. I have only courteous, kind people who, admittedly, write to me in great volume. That, however, is the only aspect of his letter on which I part company with him. Let me proceed to the serious point that he makes:
"I am most concerned over the proposed closure of our local Post Office situated at 18A High Road, South Benfleet. To give an example of just one hardship among very many, one of my elderly parishioners with a limited income, and one who has recently had both hips replaced, collects her pension from the above branch. If she were forced to go to Hope's Green, this would entail a bus journey with all its attendant difficulties, or the expense of a taxi. Will you please make every effort to help the community to keep these operating?"
That puts it more eloquently than I could, so I will leave it at that.
I am sure that the Government are getting the message. The closure of 3,000 post offices is the result of Government policies on the payment of benefits and pensions and their decision to prevent the Post Office from running full bank accounts. They are financially supporting the closure of post offices, but not the post offices remaining open. Those policies are not being well received in our communities, and post offices are very much part of the fabric of our communities.
It is important to fight the modernisation philistines who threaten to make changes in the Palace without proper consultation, particularly in Westminster Hall, where the proposal is to introduce a glass compartment and to change lighting levels. Those changes will affect our heritage negatively. The modernisation philistines say that the proposals may cost £5 million or a bit more. I do not know of any other organisation that would be allowed to go ahead with multi-million pound proposals without properly and rigorously costing them.
There are many reasons why I resist those proposals—in particular, the fact that they have not been subject to proper consultation, not least through the House, although I have spoken twice in the House on the issue, as the Minister knows.
I represent a wonderful area in south Essex. Castle Point has some remarkable heritage. We have Hadleigh castle, the St. Mary's conservation area, the Canvey Island Dutch cottages and the beautiful ancient church of St. James in Hadleigh. One of the buildings in Castle Point that is well worth preserving is the much loved Canvey Island heritage centre, a key landmark building in my constituency. Sadly, its outside structure needs significant work to ensure its preservation.
I shamelessly congratulate the excellent Heritage Lottery Fund on its work. Its employees are all dedicated and I hope that they will continue to receive good support from the Government, which they are receiving now—I congratulate the Government on that—so that they can continue their excellent work, not least by supporting the Canvey Island heritage centre, which is well worth preserving. I will meet representatives of the Heritage Lottery Fund there in a few days. I hope that it will help to preserve that important building.
I congratulate the Heritage Lottery Fund on preserving more than just buildings—it is aiming to preserve memories and culture. The way to preserve culture is to preserve memories and local knowledge. I am delighted with the Heritage Lottery Fund's involvement in a project to preserve the memories and history of the 1953 flood that swept across the south-east coastline, costing many lives, not least on Canvey Island in my constituency, where more than 50 lives were lost. I congratulate the Heritage Lottery Fund on preserving the history and memory of that event.
The Health and Safety Executive also does excellent work. It seeks to reduce accidents and is currently targeting major causes of accidents, including falls from height. New regulations on working at height that flow from EU directives will be coming through.
Where access is needed via an opening at height—for example, on a building site where lift shafts are being provided—the openings are a source of risk. Sadly, they have been a source of many accidents, including some fatal accidents; there was one this year. Traditionally, Heath Robinson lash-ups have been used to protect these accesses and block them off. Those have obvious disadvantages. For example, they do not allow access to be gained and resealed professionally. What is needed is a safe, professional, reliable, flexible and low-cost means of making the openings at height safe while retaining controlled access where necessary.
I am pleased to congratulate a company in my constituency that has now developed such a contraption, the Fallgate system. Obviously, I have no pecuniary interest in that whatever. My only interest is in giving our dangerous building industry a reliable system that safely secures openings at height, thereby stopping unnecessary serious accidents—and, by the way, promoting employment in my constituency in the process.
I turn to c2c, which runs trains from Southend to Fenchurch Street that serve Benfleet in my constituency. It plans to remove from service five four-coach 357 train sets in September. That will move us down from 12-carriage to eight-carriage trains. When those trains arrive at Benfleet station, they are often full, and my constituents get a poor deal because they have to stand. There is overcrowding, which leads to a lack of safety. If those trains are moved in September, there will be less flexibility to replace a train set that is broken down, so train sets will have to be used more. Therefore, there will be less reliability and less flexibility, and cancellations will probably increase. The long-suffering passengers, who often even today, with the 12-carriage trains, have to stand and endure overcrowding for the 40-minute journey into London, will suffer even more.
That is happening at a time when the Government's policy, absolutely rightly, is to attract more people on to the trains and off the road. I therefore do not see the sense in the move. I know that the Government are not making the decision, but I hope that they will speak to the various authorities and put pressure on c2c to ensure that those trains continue to run on the Fenchurch Street line. We should not be cutting capacity on that line but increasing it by extending the use of longer trains and by extending train platforms. That would make environmental and economic sense for our country.
I turn to a more happy subject, because I do not want my speech to sound like a bit of a rant. I want to be balanced and reasonable, because there is far too much yah-boo in politics today. Let me offer a word of praise and thanks to our excellent, dedicated and often undervalued teachers and school staff and to national health service staff at all levels, whether nurses, cleaners, doctors or even managers—they, too, deserve this praise. I also praise police officers, who are often under-resourced and hard-worked, and who are suffering from more and more bureaucracy, and the hard-pressed council workers and the councillors themselves. Those people often work for lower pay than they could command elsewhere, and do so from a sense of vocation. They deserve more help and support from us politicians. They deserve more understanding of their lot, and they need us to get off their backs and let them do their jobs without the dead hand of bureaucracy and regulation that is being pressed on them more and more by this control-freakish, centralising Labour Government.
Now back to the yah-boo. My next section is extremely justified in the circumstances. I want to address the scourge of street crime and yob culture, which now seems to be a growing plague in society. I was astounded by the bare-faced audacity of the Prime Minister. His brass neck beggars belief. The Daily Mirror—yes, I still read the Daily Mirror—last Friday reported the Prime Minister's speech to the drinks industry in London. He said:
"There's a clear and growing problem on our town and city centre streets on Friday and Saturday nights—and other nights too."
The Prime Minister, of course, wants the police to make full use of their new powers, and said so. He went on to say:
"New powers are there—they need to be used. As a society we have to make sure this form of what we often call binge drinking doesn't become a new sort of British disease."
I spoke of the Prime Minister's "audacity" because it was he who, through the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, removed from the police the power to confiscate unopened cans and bottles of alcohol from the kids on our streets, who were consuming it and causing this nuisance. He seems to have a very scanty memory. I acknowledge that, following my private Member's Bill of last year, which drew attention to this issue and forced the Government into another embarrassing U-turn, they gave those powers back to the police through the Licensing Act 2003. They did so as a result of pressure from Conservatives—and, admittedly, from the Liberal Democrats—and from the police themselves.
I cannot allow my Prime Minister to be attacked in that way without leaping to his defence. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and we all share the objective of stopping binge drinking. I acknowledge his efforts in that regard, but it was a court judgment on the interpretation of the power to confiscate alcohol on the streets that exposed the loophole, which we were then happy to close.
I am grateful for that explanation but, whatever explanation the hon. Gentleman gives, it was this Government who had removed from the police the power to control underage drinking on the streets.
I think that I have made my point, so I shall move on to overdevelopment, which is another scourge and a real issue in the south-east. Our green and pleasant constituencies are being ever more threatened and concreted over. Such overdevelopment is particularly damaging when it is linked, as it always seems to be, to a total lack of provision of suitable supporting infrastructure. That puts the existing infrastructure, which is already under stress, under even greater stress, and it damages our constituents' quality of life.
I continue to resist all major new development proposals for Castle Point because that is the rational and correct thing to do, given the circumstances. Castle Point has a target of building another 2,400 homes in the next few years. The planning period is more than half way through, yet only 700 to 900 homes—not even half—have been identified and built. But in recent weeks, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has forced the target up from 2,400 to 4,000. That is simply not sustainable, and there is not even a hint of any new supporting infrastructure.
Canvey Island must get its additional access route and the A13 congestion problems must be solved before we go down this route, which would devastate our communities. The East of England Development Agency and those in charge of the Thames gateway are part of the problem. They could and should be good for our communities, but they seem intent on pushing for more and more development without the necessary infrastructure. However, it is not too late. I call on the Government to change the emphasis and to make sure that we establish the infrastructure before, or at least at the same time as, such development takes place. This is an extremely important issue for our constituents' quality of life.
I end on a very happy note. I want to put on the record the tremendous civic pride that the people of Castle Point rightly have in the achievement of Canvey Island FC, who this year gained promotion to the Conference and who reached last Sunday's final of the FA trophy. We lost to Hednesford Town, and to put it in colloquial terms, "We was robbed and the referee was blind." In fact, the referee was quite good.
We still had a most wonderful season. The club has strong community links and supports its youth teams well on Canvey Island. It is a source of great pride and joy to the whole community. The club has brought the community together, and I congratulate the players, the staff and the manager, Jeff King. Most of all, I congratulate the supporters who, along with me, Saturday after cold, wet Saturday afternoon go to all the ordinary games as well as the cup final.
Following on from earlier speeches about post office closures, I want to mention—as I have mentioned on two previous occasions—that in my constituency four post offices face the threat of closure. The argument that is being used, as it probably is with regard to post offices in all constituencies, is that the business levels have fallen to such a point that the post office is no longer sustainable. That is in many cases an accurate argument, although not in all cases. The Government have to bear responsibility for the fact that the reason why business levels have fallen so low is that there has been a massive shift to direct payments into bank accounts. That has happened because of encouragement by the Govt.
Senior post office managers have told me that it has been made clear to them that when three options for the payment of benefits or pensions are publicised, the post office option always has to be No. 3. It is usually put in pretty obscure terms at the bottom or the back of the publication. Hence the levels of business drop and for obvious reasons post office closures come along. It is often pensioners who are at the receiving end of that, certainly in my constituency. I have a high proportion of pensioners in my constituency—they are the ones who use post offices and who tend to suffer when they close.
It is not good enough for Ministers to say that this is an operational matter for the board of Royal Mail or for regional Post Office managers. The Government are the 100 per cent. shareholder in the Post Office and Royal Mail, and they bear responsibility, at least to some extent, for what has happened.
I wish to raise a couple of other issues. The first is steel prices, which have received a lot of attention, especially in the financial pages of the press, during the past few weeks. The rise in steel prices is clearly causing problems for many businesses. In Rainham, in the south of my constituency by the river Thames, there are a lot of small firms, particularly engineering, light engineering and building firms. The rise in steel prices is starting to have a serious impact on their effectiveness and ability to compete and continue to do business. That comes after enormous rises, especially in professional indemnity insurance premiums. Often 9/11 is used as an excuse. In the past couple of years, we have seen premiums for small and medium businesses go through the roof. However, 9/11 is not a reason. It is an excuse for an insurance industry that is engaging in profiteering. Some small and medium businesses have gone under because the insurance industry has decided to take advantage of the general insurance and economic climate to increase premiums.
Next door to my constituency, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas, is the massive Ford plant, which is still a considerable works and employs about 5,000 people. It surely has to be a matter of time before the rise in steel prices starts to have an effect on even the big trans-national companies such as Ford, which operate on a massive global scale. I probably have about 400 or 500 constituents who work at Ford Dagenham even today.
Bob Spink mentioned antisocial behaviour issues. Such issues have probably started to face all of us in our constituencies during the past few years. It certainly has in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which is providing the police with some of the tools that they need to tackle the problem.
In particular, I have seen recently that the British Transport police—along with my local authority, Havering, and the local police force—is applying for a dispersal order for the eastern end of the District line, which runs up to Upminister and goes through three stations in my constituency. That line has been the victim of antisocial behaviour, some of which verges on criminal damage. That behaviour is obviously frightening for a lot of passengers travelling home late at night, and I have regularly seen it, too. There have been previous attempts to tackle the problem, and although the phrase "dispersal notice" has an unfortunate ring, as it sounds like something that would be used during wartime, the application of those notices should have the kind of effect that we all want—I certainly do, as I often travel back late at night.
The final local issue that I want to raise relates to St. George's hospital in my constituency. It was the hospital that served RAF Hornchurch, which has now gone, although it covered a large area of my constituency until 1963 and was part of the ring of steel during the second world war. Probably all the greatest fighter aces of the second world war flew from RAF Hornchurch at one time or another, and a lot of injured pilots ended up being treated at St. George's hospital.
St. George's hospital comes under the aegis of the local primary care trust. There are several options for its future because it requires a lot of investment. Unfortunately, one of the options is closure, which is unacceptable to me—and I know that it is unacceptable to the vast majority of my constituents, as I have talked to and communicated with a large number of them. If the hospital closed, the facilities would be moved to Harold Wood hospital, which is a long way from my constituency, especially the southern part around Rainham and Elm Park. A lot of elderly people, who have similarly elderly relatives in St. George's hospital, particularly recovering from strokes and other illnesses, would have to travel, perhaps using two or three buses, to Harold Wood hospital and back again. That journey would take all day and it would be impractical for elderly people who live in Rainham and similar areas. Some sort of health facility must be maintained on the St. George's site, partly for historical reasons, but principally because we need a health facility for the elderly people who live in the south of the borough.
Lastly, I want to touch on an issue that hon. Members raised earlier: voter participation in the democratic process. The idea seems to be put around these days that if we modernise Parliament—I put that phrase in quotation marks—somehow voter turnout would magically rocket. The Liberal Democrats, in particular, latch on to that idea. We could change the language and procedures used in the House. We could even flatten it and build some modernist structure in steel and glass.
I thank my hon. Friend.
If we were to do all that, it would not affect voter turnout one iota. That is not what affects people's voting intentions and patterns. Two factors among many have affected voter turnout, causing it to drop through the floor in the past 20 years, particularly at general elections. I get the impression that people have a feeling that they no longer have the power to shape their own destiny. There is an inaccurate but widespread feeling that they no longer have the power to shape the future. That is part of a process that has led to the alienation of the democratic process from the voters. Without any shadow of a doubt, one key factor in that is the European Union's role, and supporters of the euro and the European constitution, such as my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, have to face up to that.
The idea that power will not leach away to Brussels if we adopt the euro and sign up to the European constitution is nonsensical. The argument is whether we agree to power being handed over to undemocratic institutions. The reason why I oppose the euro and everything that goes with it, such as the growth and stability pact, is that it is about taking power from democratic, elected institutions and handing it over to institutions that are unelected, unaccountable and undemocratic. We have no control over those institutions.
My hon. Friend will be surprised to know that I do not think that he is quite right. What makes people wonder whether our parliamentary system is right is when five votes in this Chamber provide enormous majorities in favour of a complete ban on fox hunting while the Chamber at the other end of the Corridor fails to go through the proper processes, or actively obstructs the processes, and overturns that decision. In those circumstances people think, "Hang on; who's in charge?"
That is a fair comment, which is surprising because I thought that I was going to get a load of drivel about the European Union. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that.
On my rather more important point, if we enter the euro, we transfer power over interest rates to an unelected group of people who sit around in a boardroom in Frankfurt. If we go further down that path, we will have to hand over some of our power to set the rate of taxation. That would be inevitable for two reasons. First, a common currency cannot exist, and has never existed, without a central tax-gathering mechanism. Secondly, it is necessary to have the economic clout that goes with a single currency. That was highlighted by the MacDougall report in 1974, which predicted everything that is happening, such as cuts in regional funding. In addition, the Maastricht treaty, the basis for the single currency, makes it clear that the European Central Bank will have power over taxation.
If we go down that path, in 10 or 15 years time—perhaps longer—all parties, whether Labour, Conservative or the Liberal Democrats, will be in the position of saying to people, "We want your vote not because we can change things fundamentally, because we can't; we've handed over all the power to Brussels and the European Central Bank. We can't do anything about the public spending crisis or the economic crisis because we can only fiddle about at the margins." People's reaction to that will be, "Well, stuff the mainstream. We'll move to the fringes—the British National party and the extremists." That will be the consequence of going down the path for which many argue.
I will always resist that. I am not a nationalist or a flag-waving little Englander, but I oppose the euro and the constitution because we must keep decision-making powers in democratic hands and make decisions for ourselves.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise several issues that concern my constituents.
I have received a large postbag on Iraq. I voted against going to war. However, since Britain and America took part in the invasion, we have a legal and moral responsibility to keep the peace and maintain law and order until we hand over power to an elected Iraqi Government. We must also assist in Iraq's reconstruction.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Defence say in his statement that the extra troops for the British-controlled zone will not be sent to the American-controlled area. If British commanders on the ground say, as they have done, that extra troops are needed to carry out our existing legal obligations in our sector, the Government should accede to the request, as they have done, and send more troops. However, I should not like British troops to be under the control of American commanders and used to further the American strategy in the American zone because their strategy is totally wrong. It is far too heavy-handed and therefore counterproductive.
I am also worried about the apparent contradiction between the views of the British and American Governments on the situation after
The anomaly between the British and American views on the control of coalition forces after the handover has to be cleared up. If we have British and American forces operating under different conditions that could be a recipe for disaster, and the practical consequences on the ground could lead to a great many operational difficulties.
I come now to Europe. Having voted twice in the Division Lobbies in favour of a referendum on the proposed European constitution, and having been on the losing side on both occasions, I was delighted by the Government's U-turn and to hear that, after all, there will be a referendum. That is, of course, provided that agreement is reached on the constitution and that it is not derailed by other countries voting no before we have the referendum in Britain. I believe that a constitution is necessary to enable a Europe of 26 countries to function, but it is important that it is endorsed by the British people in a referendum. However, I would like to see a greater commitment to subsidiarity in the constitution. Europe, while needing a constitution, is certainly far too centralised, which is why people in Britain are turning more and more against it, and there is a risk that the referendum will be lost. I hope that the final draft of the constitution will contain a greater commitment to subsidiarity.
I want to refer to areas where I believe that subsidiarity is important. The first is fishing, an industry of great importance in my constituency. It is clear that the European common fisheries policy has failed, but we need such a policy because fish swim across the boundaries of countries' territorial waters. It would clearly be ridiculous if, as soon as fish swam outside the territorial waters of a country with a policy of conservation, they swam into those of a country with a policy of scooping up everything in sight—the first country's conservation policy would be pointless. We need a common fisheries policy, but not one that is run by national Governments.
Why is the hon. Gentleman against the United Kingdom asserting control over its own fisheries up to a 200-mile limit or, where there are nearby EU states, up to the median line? Is it not the case that Norway and Iceland have conserved their fish stocks exceedingly well, and that has been to the benefit of all concerned in the north-west Atlantic?
I simply say that there is little point in one country having control up to the median line if the country on the other side of the line has a totally different policy. Fish swim the seas; they do not stick to one country's territorial waters.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in 1972, when Britain applied to join what was then the common market, Norway also applied. Norway withdrew its application because the CFP was rushed through at the last minute, and Norway still has a powerful fishing fleet, whereas we have a fleet that has been decimated because of the CFP.
Norway enters into negotiations with the EU for agreements on fishing because even the Norwegians recognise that what the EU does in its own sector impacts on the Norwegian sector.
Is it not a fact that while conservation of fish under Norway's national control has been pretty good, conservation of fish under the CFP has been absolutely disastrous? Would it not be better to level up by taking our own national control, rather than staying levelled down under the CFP?
I agree with part of what the hon. Gentleman said: the present fisheries policy has failed, as I said. We need a policy that is managed by regional management committees, composed of fishermen, scientists and Government representatives, which would have control over a particular zone of the sea. The zones in which fish swim do not conform to national territorial boundaries.
The European Union has already divided the seas around Europe into different zones. Subsidiarity should not just mean giving power to nation states or devolved Governments within those states. In fishing, for example, it could be best implemented by giving power to organisations based on zones of the sea. Some zones may be under the control of one country, but others such as the North sea would need to be under the control of a management committee consisting of representatives of countries with historic fishing rights in the North sea. The annual last-minute Council of Ministers compromise, however, is not working, as landlocked countries have exactly the same voting rights as countries with a large fishing industry. Subsidiarity in fishing should mean devolving power to regional management committees so that they can manage zones of the sea.
The European working time directive is clearly causing problems for the health service in rural areas, including the ambulance service in my constituency. We would all support the principle that workers should not be forced to work excessive hours, but the directive has resulted in a court ruling that time spent on call counts towards the 48 hours. It is perfectly reasonable in private industry to create fair competition between all European countries by introducing common rules, but in the health service, which is clearly not in competition with other countries, there is no need for European-imposed rules. The NHS in rural areas will get worse if the Government do not seek a change in the European working time directive so that health service on-call work does not count towards the 48-hour total.
We need to keep animal diseases out of Britain. The foot and mouth epidemic three years ago cost the country billions of pounds. In view of the huge amount of money that another epidemic would cost the country, the Government should do more to prevent meat from being smuggled into the country illegally. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that the total amount of illegal meat entering the country every year is 7,431 tonnes. However, in its annual review, the Department notes that in 2002–03, the last year for which figures are available, only 31,000 kg of illegally imported meat were detected. Customs is detecting only a fraction of the meat smuggled into the country. I am sure that the figures for 2003–04 will show an increase in the amounts detected because more resources have been devoted to the problem, but that will only be a fraction of the total.
In its report, DEFRA notes that the Government are making £6 million available in the financial year 2003–04 to tackle illegal imports, but that is only a fraction of the billions of pounds that another epidemic would cost, so far more resources are required. Customs and Excise has only six sniffer dogs to detect smuggled meat, although four more are being trained. Ten dogs, however, are not enough to cover all the ports and airports in Britain. Insufficient use is being made of X-ray technology, which was trialled last summer. However, when I raised those trials and their results with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. Bradshaw, who is responsible for animal welfare, in a debate on illegally imported meat at the end of April, he was not aware of the results.
I tabled a written question to the Treasury about the problem, and I am pleased that the Government are now using X-ray technology. However, in response to my question about assessment of its effectiveness, I received an unhelpful non-answer:
"The effectiveness of current equipment is continually assessed."—[Hansard, 25 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1510W.]
There is therefore little information about the use of X-ray technology, which is designed to stop criminal activity.
One of the most important factors in preventing criminal activity is the fear of capture. Criminals will not have much fear of getting caught when there are only 10 sniffer dogs, there is only limited use of X-ray technology and, according to official figures, only a fraction of illegal imports are detected. The Government have to do much more and must publicise more the efforts that they will make to deter illegal imports because that will act as a deterrent to criminals.
Bob Spink referred to the working at height proposals. Whereas I support what he said about the need for improved regulations for buildings, I am concerned, as is the outdoor activity industry in my constituency, about the way in which the Health and Safety Executive has framed the draft regulations. Any court will interpret them as applying not only to building sites, but to hill climbing and mountaineering. If the draft regulations become law, they would eliminate paid guides working on mountains and hills. Insurance would become impossible because they would have to comply with regulations that in the original European directive were clearly meant for buildings, but which the HSE wording could apply also to mountains.
One of the most ridiculous proposals is that all edges require edge protection. Under the current wording that would apply to the crags on mountain tops. I have had several letters from the outdoor activity industry in my constituency, which I have submitted, with my support, to the HSE as part of the consultation process. When the draft regulations are reworded after the consultation exercise, I hope that it will be perfectly clear that they apply only to buildings, not to mountains. Otherwise, paid mountain guides will cease to be a viable profession and people will go out on to the hills without paid guides.
Finally, I come to post offices, an issue which has been raised often enough before. Members have spoken about the effect of Government policy on urban post offices. I am concerned about the impact on rural post offices. The Government propaganda is persuading pensioners to opt for a bank rather than a post office. Clearly, a great deal of business will be lost to post offices, which will inevitably mean rural post office closures in years to come. I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to change their written leaflets and the script of the Government call centre to give an unbiased description of the various payment methods available, so that people can make a fair choice between a post office card account and a bank account.
I am pleased to have had this opportunity to raise these issues on behalf of my constituents.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates and not only put forward the views of one's own constituents, but learn so much about other constituencies.
Today I want to discuss the provision of maternity services in Braintree town, particularly those based at the William Julian Courtauld hospital. The name Courtauld may well be familiar to hon. Members. Braintree was once a mill town of East Anglia and one of the mills belonged to Courtauld's, together with Warners and other manufacturers.
They were great benefactors, and one of their gifts to the town was a community hospital named the William Julian Courtauld hospital, which the working people of the town supported by subscription and which has served the town since just after the first world war.
For 80 years or so, the women of Braintree town had been able to give birth in the maternity unit at the William Julian Courtauld hospital. I thought the matter had been secured some seven years ago, when the then health authority, the North Essex health authority, undertook an ironically entitled consultation called "Taking the Initiative". The consultation's aim was simply to close down community hospitals across the part of Essex that I have the privilege to represent. Unsurprisingly, there was a public outcry not only in Braintree, but in other towns that would be affected. Ultimately, the health authority recanted on those proposals and the hospital was secured, along with the maternity unit. That was much to the credit of the people of Braintree, who marched, petitioned and harangued until that was achieved.
There was good reason why that should have remained the case. In the period after the second world war almost up to the early 1990s, orthodoxy in the health profession stated that, in the main, babies should be born in large general hospitals, and the element of choice for the mother went out of the equation. Hon. Members will be familiar with the work of the Select Committee on Health chaired by Sir Nicholas Winterton in the early 1990s, and thereafter the inquiry under Lady Cumberlege, leading to the report, "Changing Childbirth". To summarise, that recommended that the mother should have a choice about where the baby was to be born—in a specialist unit, at home, in a small community hospital or in a more general hospital. William Julian Courtauld hospital is a community hospital with all the friendly backing and support that such a hospital can provide.
I have often thought about the words of T. S. Eliot, who said that
"the same time never comes twice in the life of one man".
Those were wise words, but unfortunately they do not seem to apply entirely to what is happening in Braintree at present. The maternity unit at the Courtauld hospital was temporarily closed last October. The health officials assured me that the closure was due to illness and maternity leave among the midwives and other staff at the hospital. I accepted that, and being a chap who wants to believe everything he is told, I went on local radio to try and assuage any fears that people might have that the closure was a result of a long-term policy.
Indeed, the hospital has re-opened for maternity services, but it has not re-opened on what is usually called the status quo ante. Before October, the service was midwife-led and the hospital was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A mother could go in, stay a whole day or two or three days, and accustom herself and her baby to the situation. As it is now being operated, the maternity hospital is open only five days a week, Monday to Friday, between 9 am and 5 pm.
Of course, babies are not so well planned, and they sometimes give an indication that they may wish to be born outside the prescribed hours. It is fair to say that provision is made for that, provided the midwife knows that she can go and get a key, open up the hospital and let the mother in so that the baby can be born out of hours. But there is a strict proviso that they must be out of the premises six hours after the birth. Two hours is encouraged, but six hours is the limit of the stay. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, but I think that may be taking efficiency and speed of operations a bit too far. The people of Braintree want a proper maternity service provided for the town again, as we had before October last year and for the 80 years preceding that.
As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the people of Braintree are very reasonable, and they are not given to making harsh judgments if harsh judgments are not required. We have two hospitals in the town: I have mentioned the Courtauld hospital; the other is St. Michael's hospital, which was formerly the workhouse and is now predominantly for older people and for out-patient appointments.
The proposal, which Braintree people do not oppose, is that the two hospitals should be combined and a new community hospital built. Of the two sites—the Courtauld, which was founded by a benefactor and public subscription, and St. Michael's, which was the workhouse—one would have thought that the public affection would be for the Courtauld hospital, which is true. When the logical case was put to the people of Braintree on the best site for the new community hospital, however, after reflection the overwhelming majority of them, including some of the most active health campaigners, said that they saw the logic of putting it on the less attractive site in terms of human history, but the more realistic site in terms of location. Braintree people are reasonable, and they will listen to a case and accept it, if it is good.
However, we cannot expect the young mothers of Braintree to accept a nine-to-five hospital with the door on the latch. As the service has been scaled down, numbers have fallen. So far, 24 babies have been delivered at the Courtauld hospital in this calendar year. Last year, 122 babies were delivered, but if one goes back seven years, 350 babies were delivered. One fears that the service is, to use a cliché, withering on the vine, and local people are concerned that, if that process continues, the service will eventually cease to exist.
Both now and previously, I have heard health officials in Essex say that Braintree has a "Rolls-Royce service", which is a rather heartless phrase, because the ratio of midwives to births is favourable in Braintree and unfavourable in Chelmsford, which is a large town in the centre of Essex a number of miles away from us. If mothers are always encouraged to go to the large hospital with the large unit in Chelmsford, the ratio is bound to become unfavourable. I do not know what kind of Rolls-Royce health officials in Essex have in mind with regard to the service provided at the Courtauld hospital, but it is not what Mr. Rolls or Mr. Royce had in mind when they designed the ultimate luxury vehicle.
The current service is basic, and I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to convey to his colleagues in the Department of Health the need for them to indicate to local health officials that that state of affairs should not continue. My hon. Friend knows that health officials will blame the Government and say, "The Government do not give us enough money to employ the midwives." If health officials want more money for midwives—there must be a case for it because the local population is growing apace—they should make determined representations to the Department of Health, which others and I would support.
If policy has been changed in order to centralise all maternity services in a town a considerable number of miles away from us, however, the matter has nothing to do with finance and concerns social engineering, which is contrary to all thinking about childbirth in the past decade or more. I implore the Government to seek to persuade those in charge of maternity services in my area to think again.
John Cryer touched on the difficulties encountered by small and medium-sized businesses in obtaining public liability insurance, and the punitive costs that they face when they want to renew their policies. We have discussed that matter in the House. Indeed, the Chancellor made a commitment that the Treasury would examine how other countries deal with similar problems.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that insurers cite the aftermath of 9/11 as a reason why premiums are increasing. A range of other arguments is also given, including the state of the UK and global stock markets. However, it is clear that when such policies come up for renewal, many people across the spectrum of small businesses find it difficult to obtain cover, which often licenses them to do the trade that they are registered to carry out.
A further sector of small businesses that is having difficulty because of a sudden and dramatic increase in insurance cover is small independent financial services that require professional indemnity insurance. I have received a lot of correspondence on that from independent financial services providers in my constituency. One provider wrote to me to say that in the past it paid a premium of between £2,000 and £3,000 per annum with a £1,000 claim excess, but that it is now faced with a premium of £100,000 with an excess of £50,000. That represents a huge increase for small businesses, and it is likely to put some out of business and to mean that people will practice without such cover. The problem is hitting a further sector of small businesses on our high streets. The sector includes financial planners and independent financial advisers and, as we know, it has been through a difficult time for a variety of reasons. The situation is likely to affect such businesses' ability to continue to practice, and, of course, Financial Services Authority rules insist on them having professional indemnity insurance.
Only two insurers in the whole of the UK provide cover for existing IFAs, plus one or two Lloyd's syndicates. New IFAs have no problem getting cover because they have no past book of business, so they can get much more attractive and favourable terms and obtain cover at a reasonable price. It is bizarre and quite wrong that although well-established practices are almost being put out of business, people with no track record who set up new businesses can get cover.
One of my constituents, Mr. Colin Langton, has practised in the sector for many years. He is well known in the west country and runs practices in both Devon and Cornwall. Indeed, he often writes for our regional newspapers to advise people on financial problems. He has put forward a suggestion that might help the industry. He says that the
"Industry Compensation Scheme—the FSCS—should be adapted to be the first line of cover for all" independent financial advisers. At the moment, the scheme covers those that go into liquidation, which is a good thing, but he believes that it should be enhanced so that IFAs may obtain cover from it. He says that that would mean that small independent financial adviser companies would no longer be held to ransom by the few insurance providers. Given the increasing likelihood of companies operating with no cover or stupid excesses that they could not meet if challenged, they run the risk of going into liquidation or being stopped from trading altogether by the FSA. In either case, the financial services compensation scheme would ultimately pick up the bill, so giving companies the ability to access cover through the scheme would not only help to protect independent financial advisers, but offer greater protection to the general public who use their services. At the moment, businesses might not be covered and their customers would not know it.
I entirely endorse the hon. Lady's point, which has been put very seriously by the gentleman to whom she refers. Does she agree that were this to come about, it would provide a form of prevention that is preferable to the inevitable post-something going wrong cure?
That is exactly right. New legislation is required to enable it to happen. My plea to the Minister, on behalf of small businesses in this sector in my constituency and around the country, is for a piece of legislation—it would surely be very short; a tidying-up exercise if ever there was one—to bring about this necessary protection. An EU directive is pending that might precede any such legislation in this House. It is possible that several of my constituents in this very important sector will go out of business, and I hope that the Government will do all that they can to deal with the problem as quickly as possible.
My second topic is colleges of further education. I am a great fan of FE colleges, but they are often seen as the Cinderella of the education sector in terms of the lack of recognition that they receive for the huge contribution that they make, and could potentially make, towards education, training and skills. We recently received a delegation to the House of Commons from heads of those colleges who are concerned about a whole range of issues, especially their budgets in the forthcoming year. One head told me that although his overall budget is being increased, because of the change in the formula he is likely to lose most of the part that is allocated to child care, which is very important for adult students wanting to come back into education or to increase their learning and skills.
Three FE colleges serve my constituency: East Devon college in Tiverton; the nearby college in Exeter, which some of my constituents attend; and Bicton college of agriculture, which is in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Swire. Although that is a traditional agricultural college, it has expanded its curriculum and remit to cover courses based on the leisure and catering industries, and it now has a whole range over and above the core agricultural syllabus. Those colleges have served my constituency very well.
I am aware, too, of the extremely valuable work done by FE colleges outside my constituency. Most colleges of an average size have links with some 500 firms in their locality. That demonstrates the importance of such links in relation to the skills that are needed by local businesses and industry. On a more basic level, last year colleges helped about 0.3 million adults to improve their basic literacy and numeracy skills. The viability of our FE colleges, particularly those in my constituency, is a matter of great importance and interest to me. I have the privilege of being a patron of an FE college foundation—Bournemouth and Poole, which I attended many years ago.
It is worth remembering that, nationally, colleges award more than half of all vocational qualifications to some 500,000 individuals a year. An independent mass survey conducted by the Learning and Skills Council found that 93 per cent. of learners were satisfied with their learning experience in an FE college. It is only in recent years that the LSC has had responsibility for funding, inspection and standards in those colleges. I have recently seen its annual report and accounts for the year 2002–03, which produced some rather interesting figures.
The learning and skills council reported a surplus for 2002–03 of £83 million, yet in the previous year—2001–02—£202 million was clawed back from FE colleges. The budget for FE participation for 16 to 18-year-olds and the 19-plus age group increased by 3.3 per cent., yet the output in colleges greatly exceeded that.
The FE sector delivers growth of some 4.6 per cent. in the number of students that it teaches and trains, but with a 4.5 per cent. cash increase. Given inflation at 2.5 per cent. and a public sector pay settlement, with inflation of some 4 per cent., colleges have a difficult balancing act to perform. They have grown and committed to increase salaries on a real-terms decrease in their budget. They ask me, not unreasonably, why, when money has been clawed back from them and they have had to manage tight budgets, the LSC-reported surplus of £83 million has to revert to the Treasury. Why cannot they reinvest it in post-16 learning, bearing in mind that much money was clawed back from that sector? They feel sore about that.
FE colleges have a track record of managing on tight budgets, without real-terms increases. That has continued year after year, yet the way in which the LSC is managed means that the surplus cannot be ploughed back into FE colleges but must be returned to the Treasury. Given the way in which the LSC manages its budget, it is clear that its increase in spending on 16 to 18-year-olds and those who are 19 and older is only 3.3 per cent. However, it increased its budget for capital standards and other similar responsibilities by 38 per cent. One part of the LSC remit has an increased budget of 38 per cent., whereas the sharp-end money for FE colleges increases by only 3.3 per cent. Colleges have done a good job in achieving growth when they have effectively suffered a cut in their budget.
I draw the matter to the Minister's attention because, now that the LSCs have been in place for a few years, it is time to take another look at the way in which they apportion their budget. They appear to have a lot of money and to have increased their budget not for people learning but for checking up on people learning. That is wrong. I appreciate that LSCs are fairly new and have had to find their way for a year or two, but we should take a closer look at the disparity between the different parts of their budget.
We should also consider what we want from the FE sector, which can address many problems that we regularly debate in the House. There is no traditional, classroom setting in FE colleges. Courses are relevant to people's everyday lives, whether they are basic numeracy and literacy for adults or specific skills learning for young people who perhaps cannot be contained in a traditional classroom setting. We often debate what we should do with stroppy 14 and 15-year-olds, whom people find difficult to manage in traditional schools.
The FE sector has quite a lot to offer in that regard. In my constituency, the East Devon college is doing an awful lot with children who have been excluded from the traditional classroom setting.
Somehow, however, we treat FE as the poor relation when it comes to education budgets and resources. My plea to the Minister, therefore, is that he ask his colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills to take another look at what the head teachers from FE colleges have been saying to them in the last week or two. It is clear that those head teachers have not been listened to in the past, but they should be listened to. We have not yet maximised the FE sector in this country, and a lot more could be done that we, as Members of Parliament, would find made a great difference to the education of our constituents and to the viability of many of the businesses in our constituencies.
I shall begin with a specific point concerning Iraq and the operation of our forces there. Although we are what the law regards as an occupying power, our presence there is governed in the main by United Nations Security Council resolutions, notably resolution 1511 of October last year. That situation will change in the near future, but the basic principles involved will remain the same. Paragraph 13 of that resolution determines
"that the provision of stability and security is essential to the successful completion of the political process as outlined" earlier in the resolution. The paragraph goes on to state that the resolution
"authorizes a multinational force under unified command to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq, including . . . the security of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, the Governing Council of Iraq and other institutions of the Iraqi interim administration, and key humanitarian and economic infrastructure".
Paragraph 14 goes on to urge member states to contribute to the multinational force, and paragraph 16 emphasises the importance of establishing an effective Iraqi police and security force. In fact, some 30 countries have contributed to the multinational force, although the unified command mentioned in paragraph 13 is provided by the United States.
I want to draw the attention of the House to two aspects of the security provisions. First, it is obviously contrary to resolution 1511 for any group to threaten
"the successful completion of the political process" set out in the resolution, or to threaten security, particularly that of the United Nations, the governing council and other aspects of the Iraqi interim Administration or of the country's infrastructure. It is therefore unsurprising that when the president of the Iraq governing council was assassinated in Baghdad 10 days ago, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, strongly condemned the action as a tragic and criminal act. He went on to say that it was
"a bad day for the people of Iraq and all those striving to help them. In the critical days leading up to the restoration of Iraq's sovereignty on June 30th, it is all the more important for the Iraqi people to resolve peacefully their differences and rally together in a spirit of unity and dialogue to build the foundations of a new Iraq."
Let us be clear about this. It is lawful for the multinational force and the new Iraqi police and security forces to enforce security. They can take, in the words of the resolution, "all necessary measures" to do so. Conversely, those carrying out attacks on the political institutions recognised in the resolution, on the country's infrastructure and, implicitly, on the multinational force itself are acting unlawfully, whether they are remnants of the previous regime, members of al-Qaeda, other foreign fighters or Iraqis acting from political or religious motives. As Kofi Annan said, they have to resolve their disputes peacefully.
My second point is that both the multinational force and the Iraqi police and security forces must act in accordance with the law when taking "all necessary measures" to enforce security. For example, the Chair Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN Commission on Human Rights has raised the issue of detentions in Iraq, saying:
"According to the information received by the Working Group, the majority of persons in detention in Iraq have been arrested during public demonstrations, at checkpoints and in house raids."
She went on to say that she was
"seriously disturbed by the fact that these persons had not been granted access to a court to be able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 9)."
Although the UK is a party to that covenant, there is an issue as to its direct applicability to this situation. The sentiment that she expressed, however, is surely right: when people are detained their legal status must be clarified quickly, and ultimately they must be able to challenge it.
The second implication is that the ill treatment and torture of detainees is clearly unlawful, quite apart from the fact that it is both morally repulsive and politically counter-productive. The law here derives from the principles and norms of international human rights law, and in the case of persons entitled to prisoner of war status, the norms and principles of international humanitarian law as enshrined in the Geneva conventions. Yesterday, Amnesty International released its annual report. It detailed specific allegations of torture by British troops of nine men arrested working at a hotel in Basra, where weapons had reportedly been found. According to Amnesty, one of the men died in custody, and a second was admitted to hospital in a critical condition, suffering renal failure and severe bruising.
My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have given assurances that all allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners are taken extremely seriously, and that all allegations are investigated thoroughly. I accept those assurances. I am also comforted by the fact that last Friday, the Attorney-General released a statement. He announced his referral to the Crown Prosecution Service of a case of what could be unlawful killing by a soldier in the course of an arrest in Iraq. Charges had been dismissed by the soldier's commanding officer, so there could not be a court martial. The CPS is investigating whether there should be a prosecution under the ordinary criminal law. That demonstrates the integrity of the process. The Army prosecuting authority is independent of the military chain of command, and the Attorney-General is exercising his prosecutorial functions independently of Government. But the integrity of the process still depends on proper procedures and proper investigation by the military police. We still need a clear statement by the Government of what has happened in relation to those cases raised by Amnesty.
On the media, I do not wish to discuss fake photographs showing abuse by soldiers in Iraq, or fake stories more generally. Distinguished journalists across the ideological spectrum, from Michael Gove to Ian Hargreaves to John Lloyd, are on that case. It is better that journalists attempt Alpheus's work than politicians, especially those like me who are lawyers to boot. I do not wish to discuss privacy, although that is also in the news as a result of the Naomi Campbell case.
I was struck, however, by an article that appeared earlier this month in The Guardian. It was a report of the Wincott Foundation awards for City journalism, at which Paul Myners, who now chairs the Guardian Media Group, delivered the keynote address. He used it to make a strong attack on the Financial Services Authority. He referred to the Interbrew affair, in which he said that the use of the courts had a "chilling effect" on the press. He went on to say that if newspapers were forced to hand over information that might help to identify whistleblowers and the like, as he said had happened in that case, media organisations risked being perceived as agents of the state. He went on to say:
"The press has an important role to play in a democracy and it must be seen to be independent of the state and the law enforcement authorities so that it can fulfil the vital role of investigative watchdog".
The Financial Times report of that event on the same day said that Mr. Myners's speech was applauded by journalists attending the awards, including the editor of the Financial Times, Andrew Gowers, and the editor of the The Times, Robert Thomson.
The implication of course was that they supported Mr. Myners's remarks.
In my view, those very distinguished people are misguided on the Interbrew case. Interbrew is a well-known multinational brewer producing well-known brands. The case involved a survey of the market by Interbrew's financial advisers. All multinationals survey the market in the context of possible acquisitions. Interbrew commissioned a report on South African Breweries, which would obviously contain market-sensitive information. An unknown person obtained a copy and doctored it, inserting false information about the time and pricing of a takeover, and passed it to various newspapers.
When Interbrew was contacted about the report by the media, it denied that there was any specific planned takeover. Interestingly, the French newspaper Le Figaro did not publish in the light of that denial. Our press did—the Financial Times, The Times and The Guardian. A report also appeared on Reuters.
As would be expected, there was a significant impact on the share price of both Interbrew and South African Breweries. Anyone with any familiarity with the financial markets would have smelt a rat—possibly an unlawful attempt to manipulate the market, or an attempt to harm Interbrew.
Interbrew applied for disclosure of the documents from the various media outlets, using two legal doctrines: breach of confidence, and something called the Norwich Pharmacal principle, which requires an otherwise innocent party to disclose the identity of a wrongdoer when that information is essential to the commencement of proceedings—in this instance, proceedings against the person who had leaked the doctored report.
Interbrew was able to show that inspection of the original leaked documents was likely to assist in tracing the leak, and that it had made all reasonable efforts to trace the leak itself. In the first instance, Mr. Justice Lightman ordered the media to hand over the material. The Court of Appeal agreed, and the House of Lords refused to interfere.
In his leading judgment in the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Sedley held that despite the protection for the media in both section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and article 10 of the European convention on human rights, the public interest in protecting the source of the leak was not sufficient to withstand the countervailing public interest in the claimant's seeking justice in the courts against the person who had leaked the documents. That was a very limited decision. Lord Justice Sedley did not pretend to extend the right to the detection of crime. He set out clear principles protective of the media in his judgment. He said that, by virtue of section 10 of the 1981 Act, the press enjoy a high level of protection, not in their own right but in the public interest. In order to redress the balance, the court must find it necessary to do so to meet a pressing social need, not an individual one. He also said that there must be no less invasive alternative, and that production must be a proportionate response.
The upshot was that despite the court order that the documents should be revealed, the newspapers refused to act. After some time Interbrew, no doubt fed up with the whole matter, walked away. The Financial Services Authority then investigated, and after obstruction it too walked away.
As I have said, the court took what in my view was a principled and moderate approach, protective of the freedom of the press. This was not a leak motivated by conscience. The source was anonymous. The report was false. It was not an instance of whistleblowing. This was done for profit, or with intention to harm. There was no public interest in the disclosure of these false documents. It was not a case of protecting a source—a source that would dry up. In fact, the source was not legitimate.
In short, as Will Hutton wrote in The Observer at the time, there was no public interest in the disclosure of the information. The press should have been more careful, as Le Figaro was, in assessing the authenticity of the documents. I quoted Mr. Myners's remarks about the important role of the press in a democratic society and I wholeheartedly endorse those remarks, but I find it impossible to endorse his analysis of the Interbrew case as an example of that particular principle.
Like many hon. Members, I have constituents who have contributed to occupational pension funds all their working life and have found that, because of the collapse of the sponsoring company, they have nothing. I was comforted by the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that people in that situation would be assisted. Of course, the Pensions Bill will provide protection in future. A lot of the devil is in the detail, but I want to raise a more general point.
There has been discussion in recent times of how pension funds should perform their functions as owners. It is a trite point that, these days, pension funds own large parts of British industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that good business needs activist owners, and that includes pension funds, fund managers and the trustees of those funds. Why is that? Because it will contribute to shareholder value. The notion is that, if one is a good activist owner of companies, over the long term, one is more likely to achieve shareholder value. There are also ethical considerations. If one has activist owners and activist shareholders, the boards will be kept in line, for example, in respect of exorbitant payments to directors.
So there is evidence that activist owners contribute to shareholder value and to good corporate governance. How is that to be attained? In relation to the relationship between fund managers and companies, one possibility is codes. A number of years ago, Mr. Myners prepared a report for the Government that suggested that the principles of activism should be a legal duty on fund managers. There have been other suggestions that there be a legal obligation on fund managers to vote. No one needs to vote their shares, and it may be a bit difficult to impose a particular legal obligation on fund managers as opposed to other shareholders, but the notion of a code whereby fund managers would become more activist has its attractions. That is recognised, for example, in the Hermes principles.
In theory, the trustees of the pension fund, who give instructions to fund managers, need to be more vigorous themselves. Mr. Myners developed the Myners principles. Unfortunately, trustees have not signed up to them. Trustees need to be familiar with the issues so that they can give proper instructions to fund managers. Most important, the beneficiaries and fund members themselves—the pensioners or prospective pensioners—need to be more involved in the process. At paragraph 86, the Myners report suggested annual reporting by all funds of compliance with the principles. In other jurisdictions such as Australia, half the trustees have to be elected by members of the fund themselves. Recently, the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States has issued a rule whereby there would be public disclosure to fund members of the voting record.
Another suggestion, by Elaine Sternberg, is that the role of trustees ought to be recast to give them more involvement.
In all those ways, we could contribute to what American academic Dr. Steve Davis has described as a new civil economy, based on a fundamental change in the behaviour of institutional investors. Trustees have to be on top of the job, and both they and the fund managers have to be more accountable to the beneficiaries—in other words, the fund members or pensioners.
I, too, rise to raise several matters on this Adjournment motion that I hope the Government might be able to address before the Whitsun recess. I start by referring to a matter that Mr. Amess touched on earlier when he referred to the publication today of the Health Committee's report on obesity, and the very compelling nature of that report. It provides a thorough critique of Government policy and a detailed analysis of the scale of the problem, and sets out 69 recommendations for action that should form the basis of the Government's programme for dealing with it. In the past 25 years, we have seen a 400 per cent. increase in obesity rates in this country. As we have found from the inquiry, we as a nation face huge health, care and cost consequences from obesity. We face the prospect of a generation of people, growing up today, whose life expectancies will be reduced to the point that they could predecease their parents. We have a growing number of people with type 2 diabetes and various other conditions of that sort.
I hope that the Government will come forward at an early stage with their response to the Select Committee inquiry, not least because it makes important recommendations on one of the key battlefields in dealing with obesity: our schools, including canteens, playgrounds and classrooms. We must do more to educate our children on good diet and food preparation, and ensure that nutrition is central to the standards for the food served up in our canteens.
Is my hon. Friend aware that until quite recently the Cornwall school governors council conference was sponsored by McDonalds? Fortunately, I was able to assist it, and this year it has been sponsored by a local food manufacturer that I hope is more to my hon. Friend's taste. It is certainly much more to the taste of the school governors. Is he aware that such entryism is quite damaging to the good sense and judgment of governors on this matter?
The Committee recommended in its report that school governors and schools should develop nutrition polices, which would address issues of sponsorship as well as such issues as the encroachment of vending machines that purvey high-sugar fizzy drinks and crisps rather than good-quality food. A grazing culture and a fast-food culture have developed in this country, which have undoubtedly done much to fuel its obesity problems. I hope that we will soon have the opportunity to debate the report further, but it is clear that there will be huge costs as a result of doing nothing to tackle this country's obesity crisis. The Select Committee has offered a range of measures and options that could make a significant difference to the problem.
I want to touch on two or three issues that are of serious concern to my constituents. The first, which five or six other hon. Gentlemen have mentioned in this debate, is postal services. I want to deal with specific issues concerning my constituency and the programme of closures rolling across urban Britain. I raised some of these concerns in an Adjournment debate in March 2003, and I am dismayed and concerned that we still have a programme that is shrouded in mystery and far too secretive in how it is going forward.
Back in March 2003, I raised in an Adjournment debate my concern at the proposed closure, on a piecemeal basis, of Oldfields road post office.
That news came as a real blow to my constituents, because just six months before its proposed closure, it had been nominated as one of the post offices that would remain open when Collingwood road post office was closed. So it came as a bit of a surprise to my constituents and me to discover that Oldfields road was next for the chop.
My criticism then was of the piecemeal nature of the closure programme, so I asked the Government to discuss with the Post Office the possibility of adopting a more strategic approach that would allow us to see the totality of plans on the basis of constituency by constituency or local authority by local authority. I was delighted when that began to happen in September of last year, and I am very keen that, as Postwatch said, local authorities should be able to engage at the earliest opportunity with the Post Office in the development of area plans for closing local post offices.
Despite Postwatch's recommending early discussions—even before the Post Office itself gets out into the field and considers which post offices might be candidates for closure—when my hon. Friend Tom Brake and I wrote to the Post Office asking that it arrange such a meeting, we were told that it was too busy and on a tight timetable. Apparently, it could not spare the time to talk to local elected representatives about their view of the way in which postal services and communities could be affected by closures.
The Post Office is now working through its proposals. It did the fieldwork in March and April, and it expects to publish its plans in July. Because the plans will be published then, they will be subject to consultation during the summer recess and throughout the summer, when many people will be unable to offer their comments on, and express their concerns about, the closure proposals. I hope that the Post Office will think again about the unfortunate timing of its consultation on proposed closures in my constituency and throughout the borough of Sutton.
It has also been suggested that we need to consider the impact of the proposals on the local community, particularly in terms of levels of deprivation and access to public transportation to alternative venues. It is not clear that the Post Office is going to do sufficiently thorough work to reassure us that post offices will be closed in a manner that will minimise impact on the local community. I therefore suggested to my local authority that it undertake its own work, using geographic information mapping systems, local knowledge and a local audit, to draw up our own local authority view of which post offices are under threat of closure. That will be a very powerful tool in the consultation exercise.
As other Members have said—it is true of my constituency and throughout the country—post offices in urban areas are often the linchpin of the economic viability of district shopping centres. If one pulls out that pin, many other businesses begin to tumble, and as a result district shopping centres lose their viability and vitality and close, to the detriment of the local community. I hope that we can persuade the Post Office, even at this late stage, to enter into meaningful dialogue with local authorities and Members of Parliament before its consultation proposals are published.
I want to talk about two other issues, the first of which is the Post Office's extinguishing of a number of postal towns, some of which are exceptionally historic. One that should be resurrected is Cheam, which is in my constituency. Cheam is an historic parish that has a very well known connection with the Tudor period; indeed, Nonsuch palace is very nearby. Those of my constituents who live in that part of the constituency identify very strongly with Cheam, and they resent the fact that the Post Office has ceased to recognise Cheam as a postal town for the purposes of sorting and delivering the mail.
The issue has provoked a very strong campaign in the Sutton Guardian, which ran a "Proud to be Cheam" campaign and generated a massive response to a petition that I undertook in Cheam village a few months ago. I received many letters on the subject—probably many more than I receive on most issues.
The Post Office says that recognising Cheam would not be a good thing, because it would cause problems for the sorters and delay the delivery of letters. Many of my constituents already feel that they are suffering delays as a result of some of the reorganisations that have been going on of late.
The Post Office went on to contradict itself in the letter that it wrote to me. It said that the inclusion of Cheam would help to avoid confusion where, for example, the address was High street, Cheam, or Broadway, Cheam or London road, Cheam. I think that we can avoid the confusion simply by recognising Cheam as a postal town, and that certainly seems to be the view of most of my constituents.
When I was challenged by the Post Office to come up with a viable boundary for Cheam, I consulted my constituents on one that would use both the historic Cheam parish boundary and the electoral ward of Cheam. That seemed to carry favour with the vast majority of my constituents. I hope that, having put the proposal to the Post Office, it will not feel obliged to go through a labyrinthine process of balloting residents to get yet further confirmation that that is what is necessary. I hope that it will listen to the public and act and, as a result, deliver Cheam back to Cheam residents.
I have a constituency case that I would like to draw to the attention of the Deputy Leader of the House, which I have the permission of the constituent to raise. Mr. Timothy North has been experiencing some difficulties with the Child Support Agency. He is in dispute with it about the amount that he has been assessed to pay. The matter has been before the courts, but it is not at the moment. He has had a liability order served against him, and in honouring and discharging it he recently paid a substantial sum of money. He then discovered that the money was not used to discharge the liability order, but was instead used to pay off an unrecoverable debt to the CSA. It surprised the courts no end when they learned about it, but nevertheless, according to due process, his liability order was increased because he had apparently not paid.
On his departure from the court, my constituent was told by the barrister to the CSA not to pay the increased liability order until he received confirmation from the CSA that it would not use the money other than to discharge the order. My constituent has been pursuing the CSA since that date—well past the seven days that he was given to pay the money—to get that confirmation. Despite his best endeavours, he still has no such confirmation. He then contacted me. I had been dealing with the case for some time before this particular matter arose.
My office contacted the CSA MPs' hotline on 6, 12 and
My final two points relate to some stories in the local press in my constituency. One is about £600,000 that was spent on what has been described as a bus shelter, but is otherwise described as a covered walkway and bus shelter in St. Nicholas Way in Sutton. It has caused great agitation and anger among many of my constituents that such a large sum of money appears to have been spent on a bus shelter.
The bus shelter comes from the transport strategy of the Mayor of London. It is part of phase 1 of the London bus initiative that the Mayor is keen to roll out across London. The scheme is intended to improve the quality of bus shelters around London. Many of my constituents think that the £600,000 has come out of their council tax, or that Sutton council has been responsible for raising and spending the money in what they consider a less than judicious way. I want to make it clear that £530,000 of the £600,000 bill came from Transport for London, the balancing figure of £70,000 came from a private developer, and Sutton council did not contribute any money directly to the project.
I cannot begin to say how shocked I am that £600,000 is small change to Transport for London. It has failed properly to manage the project in a way that gives good value for taxpayers. It has failed to deliver the project on time and on budget. The project took longer to complete than it took to build a new supermarket in the same town—quite extraordinary, but nevertheless the case.
The final point that I want to raise relates to health care issues, which are raised regularly in these debates. The proposal for the reorganisation of health care in my constituency is currently at the outline, business case stage. It involves bringing health care closer to home to ensure that more treatment is provided in local community hospitals—a very good and appropriate notion. A lot of day surgery, diagnostic and other procedures can be carried out that way.
My concern, however, is that part of the package involves a move from two general hospitals to one critical care hospital, which raises the vexed question of where that critical care hospital might go. Four sites are being offered as possible candidates, obviously including the two existing general hospital sites. There is a great deal of competition, and Members of Parliament and constituents are demonstrating fierce loyalty to their respective local hospitals.
I am anxious to put on record my concern about the threat hanging over St. Helier hospital, which serves my constituents, although it is not in my constituency but in that of my hon. Friend Tom Brake. St. Helier may well be downgraded to a local hospital and not become a critical care centre. Given its location near some of the most vulnerable, elderly and deprived people in the community that it serves, St. Helier is the most sensible option, in terms of transport and access, to provide a new critical care hospital fit for the 21st century. I hope that that will be the final outcome, and obviously plenty of lobbying on that will take place during the next few months.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister can give my constituents some comfort about post office closures in my constituency, that he can spark the CSA into action on behalf of my constituent, and that my constituents will be reassured that Sutton council is not the source of their complaints about bus shelters and covered walkways but that the Mayor of London and Transport for London ought to be in the firing line.
As usual with these debates, we have had an excellent opportunity to hear Members of Parliament take up issues on behalf of their constituents. We have heard some philosophical discussions about the role of Members of Parliament in connecting with the community outside. We have heard a range of national issues raised in the constructive way that often applies in these debates.
I hope that the House will not mind if I congratulate my constituent, Viscount Trenchard, on taking up his seat in the House of Lords today. I am particularly pleased that my constituent was able to win the by-election that was necessary to achieve that result—happily, not by postal ballot.
There has been great testimony to the work done in constituencies. Huw Irranca-Davies spoke of some of the valuable work that can be done by Members of Parliament and said that they can be a force for good, to use his words. He mentioned the miners' compensation scheme and a number of other aspects. I felt that his view and philosophy were optimistic and constructive, and the House generally warmed to his theme.
I am not sure whether the same can be said of Mr. Tyler, who took the opportunity to make a bid for more money for the Liberal Democrats. I am not sure whether that went down quite as well as the remarks of the hon. Member for Ogmore.
Many Members mentioned post office closures. Mr. Coleman raised something of particular concern in his constituency. My hon. Friend Bob Spink mentioned his concern about post office closures and referred to a letter that he had received from Rev. Galloway.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch was right to say that the Government cannot escape the blame for the situation. Coupled with the Government's decision to scrap the order book and move elderly pensioners into the modern age of the personal identification number and the card, the urban reinvention programme, which provides Government money to encourage the closure of post offices, has undoubtedly made many post offices far less financially viable.
That is absolutely the opposite of the truth. I was a junior Minister in the Department for Social Security when we decided not to scrap the order book because we thought that chaos would follow. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is usually fairly knowledgeable on welfare matters, has been so misled.
Continuing the theme of public services, colleagues on both sides of the House mentioned a number of issues. The Health Committee report on obesity is certainly important and should be debated. Mobile phone masts were also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. There is no doubt that there has been considerable concern in the House in recent weeks and months about the impact of those masts. My hon. Friend introduced a ten-minute Bill on mobile phone masts, and my hon. Friend Mr. Spring and Jim Dowd have promoted private Members' Bills on the subject. I have tabled an early-day motion on the ntl mast in Stamford avenue, Royston, which greatly concerns my constituents. I presented a petition against that mast and met representatives of ntl this week. It is time that the Government looked again at the siting of masts and whether it is possible to give councillors more control so that they can take account both of a mast's proximity to schools and of concerns about the associated health risks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West also mentioned abortion, an important issue that perhaps should be discussed more often. Chris Bryant spoke about media matters. There was an element of motherhood and apple pie about his remarks on the importance of the BBC and its independence. Most of us would agree with him, but he also commented on the Spanish Government bullying Spain's public service broadcasters, which made me recall some of the evidence from the Hutton inquiry on the way in which Mr. Alastair Campbell operated. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman did not mention that inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman also congratulated Channel 4 on its efforts to make its services available in Wales, although he thought that it should have better facilities for interviews. He did not like Sky and wanted more cable. He was particularly unfair on Ivor the Engine, and I hope he will withdraw those comments.
The hon. Gentleman failed to understand any of my points, which must be my fault, not his lack of intelligence. There is an important distinction between the Spanish public service broadcaster and the British public service broadcaster. Up until now, every new Government in Spain have sacked all senior staff of the public service broadcaster. In Britain, the director general and chairman of the BBC resigned, but the Government have no power to sack anyone in the public service broadcaster.
The hon. Gentleman makes his points in his own inimitable way.
My hon. Friend went on to make a point about yob culture and the importance of the police having adequate powers to take drink from young people in the street. He rightly highlighted the Government's failure to realise the importance of those powers as they relate to sealed containers. There is some dispute about the matter. I refer the House to the report of the proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill in Standing Committee F on
"We are worried that the power proposed in the amendment"— which would have removed the exemption from seizure of sealed or unopened containers—
"would go too far; power to seize sealed containers would bite on supplies purchased to drink at home. The power is designed to prevent drinking in public, hence the power to seize alcohol in open containers. It is open containers, glasses and bottles that are important to us here".—[Official Report, Standing Committee F,
We said at the time that that was nonsense, and so it proved. I thought that it was useful to give that reference, and I am very happy to have done so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point mentioned the joys of Hadleigh castle and the Dutch cottages on Canvey Island. I wish him luck with his lottery bid for the Canvey Island heritage centre and I hope that the reductions on c2c trains can be reversed. He congratulated civil servants, which is an important thing to do, particularly now that there are so many of them. I noticed this week that the public sector employment figures showed an annual increase of 150,000. I do not know whether the Minister has any more information about that, but I know that employment in the education sector went up by 88,000, yet the Department for Education and Skills is absolutely sure that there are only 4,000 extra teachers, so who are the other 84,000? If the Minister has found out, perhaps he will tell us.
I join in the congratulations to Canvey Island FC on their triumphs.
I am told that they lost the final, but they did get promoted, so we are entitled to say that they did pretty well.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch made an important point about hospital closures, and I should be interested to hear the Minister's reply. He said that he is strongly opposed to the European constitution. He feels that it is an important factor in the public's disengagement from politics. That may be true in part, but the bigger problem is that in 1997 there was enthusiasm in politics. We were told that things could only get better, and the public bought into the Labour party's proposal. Things have, of course, got worse rather than better. There has been a failure of delivery throughout the country, and people now feel let down by Labour. That is the background to their disengagement from politics. [Interruption.] I do not think that even the hon. Member for Rhondda would agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall that the public are disengaged because the Liberal Democrats do not get enough Short money. National political issues are the reason for the public being disengaged, particularly from the Government, who have let them down.
Many of the points made in this debate, such as those on hospital closures and the problem of the European constitution, relate to the failures of the Government. Almost every issue that we have heard about is a Government failure of one sort or another. The hon. Member for Braintree said that his hospital is now nine-to-five. It is not a Rolls-Royce service; one is almost tempted to say that it is more of a Lada under Labour.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Browning made an important point about insurance, and explained that the cost of insurance for small businesses has risen sharply. She highlighted the position of independent financial advisers, and we need to know exactly what the Government are going to do about the financial services compensation scheme. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House can tell us about the review of insurance that is being conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions. He will know that at the moment the Government are supporting a private Member's Bill that would greatly increase the penalties for not having public liability insurance, so how does he square that with the difficulties that small businesses experience in getting cover? Can he point to anything that the Government have done successfully to address the problem? My hon. Friend also mentioned further education colleges. There has been a huge increase in the number of students attending North Hertfordshire college, but it has not had a concomitant increase in funding—my hon. Friend outlined exactly the same problem.
Ross Cranston expressed concerns about Iraq, and I agree with the need to follow legal procedures and respect human rights in providing justice. He rightly welcomed the decision to refer a particular case to the Crown Prosecution Service. He gave an interesting interpretation of the Interbrew case, and concluded by talking about activism and pension funds. The National Association of Pension Funds, under Christine Farnish, has taken a robust line with companies, has argued strongly for good governance, has tried to press the case on rewards for directors and has demonstrated other examples of activism. I agree that trustees need better training, especially those nominated by members, and the Government should seek to address that issue.
Mr. Burstow raised a number of issues. The campaign for the postal town of Cheam is a good one, and the Sutton Guardian is right to be proud of the town. Good luck to Cheam, and let us hope that the campaign is successful. Last year, we had a popular campaign for Letchworth to be named Letchworth Garden City, and we succeeded, in the town's centenary year, in getting the name changed. We will have to hear what the relevant Minister says about the case that he mentioned involving the Child Support Agency, but there is a more general point to be made about the CSA. The Government have introduced simpler rules for the CSA, which have been applied to cases that are being processed now. However, a great number of existing cases have not been transferred to the new system. The Government are quite unable to say when that will take place, because their computer does not work. It would be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House could tell us when "C day", as it is known, will finally come. Many of us would like to know that the new simpler rules that the Government boast about will apply to a large part of the case load.
We have had a marvellous debate, which is typical of the occasion. In conclusion, we are lucky to have the staff of the Serjeant at Arms Department, who do so much to keep us safe and who recently have been criticised, very unfairly. We should pay tribute to them and their work, as well as to all the other staff of the House of Commons, the Doorkeepers and the Badge Messengers. I congratulate all of them on what they do for us, and wish everybody a happy Whitsun.
May I begin on a consensual note and endorse the remarks of Mr. Heald? It is a tribute to the nature of this place that even in the middle of a robust election campaign Members can come to the House and raise constituency matters. A few hon. Members were tempted to cross the threshold and made unfair criticism of the Government and their success—none of them, I add, on our side. The link between the electorate and the single Member constituency, however, was shown to be very important indeed.
We had early contributions about the reconnection of the public with Parliament. This debate is a good example of that. I endorse, too, the thanks to all the staff of the House for the important work that they do. Last Wednesday, when the incident took place, it struck me that we take it for granted that the Doorkeepers and police will eject such people. In doing so they are putting their lives in danger. For all they know they could be subject to an attack of the worst kind. That bravery should be recognised.
I shall try to respond to all of the points made. Where I cannot I will indicate what I intend to do. Post offices came up at the last recess Adjournment debate. Five or six Members mentioned post offices today and two themes have come through. First, Members have legitimate worries about the process of consultation and their ability to get information. That is of concern. The second issue is whether the Government's overall policy is correct. It falls to me to put the other side of the argument which constituency Members are often unwilling to put forward or perhaps disagree with.
Post offices have been closing for many decades. It is not a new political phenomenon; it is a response to changes in how business is done. I well remember campaigning on rural bank branches and being told that their closure programme would destroy the fabric of Britain—that the sky would fall in. In fact, where banks stayed open in unviable economic circumstances, the public stopped going into them. Instead of being centres of community activity, they became dinosaurs. The new technology of cash machines mean that more often than not people do not go into their local bank. Small businesses need banks for services, but on the whole some of the nice wine bars and bistros that have opened in old bank buildings do more to serve the community than an empty bank would. That is also the case with post offices.
We can talk about whether the movement over to banking services provides adequate provision for the post office network to compete with the clearing banks, but if we had an absolutely level playing field of the Post Office subsidised and owned by the Government in competition with the high street banks, Members, particularly those on Opposition Benches, would be crying foul about unfair competition against the banks.
We are trying to provide a strategy that ensures that we have a post office network. Perhaps hon. Members need to remember that most post offices are small independent businesses that franchise with the Post Office. If they decide in the best interests of their family and future well-being to change the nature of their business or close it, their contractual arrangements with the Post Office become very complicated. Surely it is better to have a strategy to maintain our post office network on a viable basis. People are increasingly drawing the benefits to which they are entitled electronically. We have to live with that fact.
Three or four Members on both sides of the House made the proper point about concern for the elderly.
Elderly people who have been going to their local post office, urban or rural, for years and feel secure there may be fearful of change being forced upon them. Of course we understand that. I would urge, as I am sure would my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, that that be given greater significance in the consultations than may have been the case in some of the examples put before the House.
I come to some of the themes raised by Mr. Tyler. I was grateful to him for his thanks. I try to follow up the points that hon. Members make. Perhaps we can stray over the line into party politics for a moment. The House may find it useful to know that in the past year the Conservatives received a grant of £3.5 million in Short money, trebling the amount to which they were entitled in 1997.
The hon. Gentleman, as ever, demonstrates the triumph of optimism over reality. We shall see what the British people decide.
The Liberal Democrats received a grant of £1.2 million, which is about a third of what the Conservative party achieved. In proportion to the numbers in the House, that seems a pretty fair allocation of Short money. Right hon. and hon. Members will ask on what the money has been spent. The idea is to improve policies and thus politics in this country. If I were Her Majesty looking at her loyal Opposition and the other Opposition party, I would ask myself whether the quality of the Opposition gave best value, which is the criterion we use for public expenditure, and whether the performance targets that are set for Short money were met. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House might like to consider introducing targets for the spending of Short money. That might lead to some exposure.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall spoke about the rise of the third party. It reminded me of the 1981 speech telling party members to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government. The hon. Gentleman came up with a wonderful quote, which he should have saved for his party conference, when there would have been applause rather than incredulity, as there was in the House. He said that in 1997 the Liberal Democrats had buried the two-party system and danced on its grave in 2001—a remarkably lovely quote and, like most Liberal virtual reality sloganising, I think we should put it down as the subject of an Adjournment debate in 20 years, like the David Steel speech from 1981.
To be fair, the hon. Gentleman made some serious points about the changing nature of politics. The sands are shifting. The public are less tribal than in the past, and whatever our political ideologies and philosophies, it behoves all of us to show the value of politics to the public.
My hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies made a thoughtful and intelligent speech and managed to weave a serious consensual point into some valid remarks about the successes of Labour politics and his point of view. We should all thank him for that speech.
Mr. Amess is a regular attender at these debates. On this occasion he raised seven issues. Last time it was nine. On the last occasion he mentioned his local paper three times. Today, he did not mention it once—[Interruption.] I apologise. I must not have been paying full attention. I shall respond briefly to his points.
He raised the case of TOAST, a support group, and its funding problems, which I noted. I do not know whether police stations are closing or whether he is worried that they might close, but I am told that no plans exist to close any police stations in the Southend area. If that is not the case, I am sure that he will write to the Minister concerned.
The hon. Gentleman raised general points about phone masts, which I shall try to cover. He also asked a specific question on behalf of a constituent, Mr. Frank Waters, about the Osteopaths Act 1993, which I will, of course, pass on to the Minister concerned and try to get a reply. He made some points about the implementation of the law on abortion in this country—he has his point of view, which he holds strongly. As he has done before, he raised the case of his constituent, Mr. Nawaz. I have been told that the information on that case must not be put into the public domain, but I will ensure that he receives it, because the matter is important.
My hon. Friend Chris Bryant made a comprehensive and intelligent speech showing his knowledge of the broadcasting industry and his commitment to public service broadcasting, which is a strength for this country. He is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and I know that the broadcasting organisations, which he listed, will note his remarks. It strikes me that if the Spanish situation had occurred here, Alistair Campbell would not have needed to write to Andrew Gilligan, because he could have picked up the phone and got him sacked. [Interruption.] He certainly did not try to do that.
In the short time available, I shall try to cover as many of the other points as possible. Bob Spink again raised the issue of hospices. On that issue, he may know that each primary care trust receives an average of some £42 million. There are examples of extra money going into hospices, but his general point, which he made on behalf of Little Havens children's hospice, is well made. He discussed a number of issues, some of which were consensual and some of which were constituency points. On his particular point about c2c, I understand that changes have been made following discussions between the three railway companies operating in those regions. Again, I will make the Minister concerned aware of his points.
My hon. Friend John Cryer regularly attends these debates, and he made a number of important points about the impact of steel prices and insurance premiums on his constituency, and also welcomed the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. He discussed his concerns about St. George's hospital, and put it on the record that the situation is unacceptable to him and his constituents, and Department of Health Ministers must take that point into account, which is something that they will want to do.
In general, the changes to hospitals discussed in this debate are the problems of success. The changes are the consequences of an expanding hospital programme—10 or 20 years ago, there was a hospital closure programme. [Interruption.] The changes have occurred because new hospitals are being built and older hospitals on different sites have become redundant, so we are discussing the organisation of improvement. [Interruption.] Those are facts, which are stubborn things.
Mr. Reid made a number of points about fishing policy and raised his concern about the proposed work at height legislation in relation to mountaineers. His remarks are common sense, and I shall pass them on to the Minister concerned.
I cannot answer every point, but I shall pick up on those that I have not covered. I wish every hon. Member and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a successful Whitsun recess.