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I wish to refer to the issues covered in early-day motion 1466, on the fire service national procurement strategy, which has been signed by 63 Members from all political parties in the House and which, in my view, cannot be regarded as a political issue. It is causing deep concern among highly respected companies that manufacture safety equipment for fire services in this country and for export. More than 200 UK companies are involved in the industry, which employs many thousands of people.
Deep concern centres—
I thank the hon. Gentleman most sincerely for drawing that matter to the attention of the Chair and the House—clearly, the end of term is creeping in. That matter will be corrected—immediately. [Laughter.]
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
There is deep concern about the block on major procurement that the Government have imposed. This has gone on for more than nine months, and despite repeated requests to meet Ministers to discuss Government policy on the purchase of equipment, regrettably, no such meeting has taken place. As a result of this lack of consultation and involvement, business has been lost in this country and abroad, and deep concern has been expressed about the future of the industry.
I understand that there could be a new national procurement strategy, under which, I suspect, there could be advantages. However, no Minister from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has met representatives of the Federation of British Fire Organisations to discuss the issue. That has not been for the want of trying to arrange such a meeting. In April, the all-party fire safety group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend Mr. Clapham, and of which I and many other Members are members, organised a seminar in the House to discuss the concerns that exist. Sadly, no Minister attended the seminar, and neither did any senior civil servant attend who could have informed the Minister of the deep concerns that existed then and that still exist. We have a right to ask why that has been allowed to happen. The Government set up two forums last year to consult those who work in fire safety. Neither of the groups was asked to consider the issue of procurement strategy, and nor has anyone involved in the manufacturing of safety equipment been involved, or had their view sought.
I have referred not only to the home market but to the export market, which is suffering because of this uncertainty. We all know, however, that there has been a joint CBI-TUC productivity group, which has clearly said that the export capabilities of companies should be taken into account when placing tenders for public spending work. We welcome that. We cannot, however, allow this lack of real involvement and consultation by the Government to continue, for the reasons that I have given. There is a very real need for consultation to take place as soon as possible.
Some very well known people in the fire safety industry are highly respected and trusted to listen to concerns and clearly to express them at the highest level—to Ministers. I refer to two people in particular: Mrs. Pamela Castle, and chief fire officer Alan Doig. They are knowledgeable and command great confidence within the industry. They could start to rebuild the trust and confidence of all who are involved in the industry.
I accept that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who will reply to the debate, cannot fully answer the points that I have made, but I am sure that he fully understands the importance and the urgency of this matter. Therefore, I request that tomorrow he clearly informs the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of my remarks and requests that an urgent meeting be arranged. The fire safety industry would welcome that and, as I have clearly stated, both Mrs. Pamela Castle and chief fire officer lan Doig should be fully involved in discussions. I ask my hon. Friend to assure me when he winds up that my views will be conveyed to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister tomorrow.
Earlier this year, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I failed to catch your eye to speak in an Opposition day debate on post office closures. If I had done so, I would have drawn attention to the failure of the Post Office to appreciate the impact on frail, elderly constituents of the removal of their local post office, which for them has always been a vital lifeline, especially where there are no banks or cash points nearby. I would have described the consultation period as inadequate, the consultation process as shambolic and my intervention on behalf of my constituents as treated with disdain.
I applaud the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services for telling the House that in hindsight the Post Office did not handle the closures with sufficient sensitivity. Unfortunately, the changes that he announced in the consultation procedure will not reopen post offices in my constituency, which have, in my view, been wrongly closed.
Today, I fear that British Telecom might be emulating the Post Office with its plans to remove public pay phones throughout the country. In April, BT wrote to tell me that it proposed to remove 162 telephone boxes out of a total of 949 in my county of Dorset, including 21 in my constituency of Bournemouth, East. I assume that many Members have received similar letters relating to their areas. The proposal to remove two specific boxes in my constituency alarms me particularly, as they serve two distinct communities: Holdenhurst village and Wick village, both of which are conservation areas and located beside the River Stour, one upstream, beside which fishing and walking are popular, and the other where boating is an all-year-round activity.
In response to my question in the House about what consultation BT is obliged to undertake before it removes public telephone boxes, the Minister referred me to the industry regulator, Ofcom. Its chief executive wrote to inform me that the local planning authority must be notified, and that notices must be prominently displayed in the boxes concerned, telling users that they have 42 days to make representations to the authority. I wrote to Bournemouth borough council, the planning authority, with my objections, and it appears that mine has been the only letter received. That is not altogether surprising, as when I asked residents in Holdenhurst village whether they knew that their only telephone box was under threat, they said that they did not and would certainly have objected if they had known.
I am informed that a number of senior members of Bournemouth council were consulted by officers in response to BT's notification, and that disappointment and concern at the impact that the loss of 42 payphones would have both from a social and safety point of view was expressed to BT. However, there has been no report to elected members and no debate in the council on the proposed removals. Indeed, I doubt very much whether most of our local councillors know that telephone boxes are to be removed from the wards that they represent. I am not encouraged by the reported comments of the cabinet member responsible for community relations, Councillor Andrew Garratt:
"we have not been asked to consult or inform local people . . . and have no obligation to do so."
Nor am I encouraged by the reported comments of the leader of neighbouring Poole council, Councillor Brian Leverett:
"we are not involved in any consultation . . . however we, as a local authority, would like to be consulted."
I appreciate that the mobile phone revolution has led to far fewer people using public payphones and that BT cannot indefinitely maintain those that are becoming increasingly unprofitable. Nevertheless, there remain some people, including me, who do not have mobile telephones and rely on finding a public telephone—often, regrettably, in an emergency. BT is a universal public service provider designated as such by Ofcom just one year ago. From the two examples of the proposed removals that I have given—Holdenhurst village and Wick village in my constituency, and there may be many more of equal gravity—it seems to me that BT is abandoning its social responsibilities as a provider. It is also clear to me that the local authority has not given proper consideration to such proposals, which should be required by Ofcom, and may even be expected by Ofcom.
I do not know whether Ofcom monitors the consultation that BT undertakes and I am waiting for a reply to find out. In my view, consultation with senior councillors by officers is not enough. Every councillor should have been informed and given the opportunity to respond on behalf of the local residents whom they are elected to represent. It seems to me that that has not happened, so the consultation that BT is obliged to undertake is not being fulfilled in Bournemouth. My hon. Friend Sir John Butterfill fully supports my concerns.
I look forward to the response of the deputy Leader of the House and any assurance that he can give that BT will not be allowed to remove any public telephone boxes that serve distinct local communities or areas that attract visitors until such proposals have been given proper consideration by the entire local authority.
In conclusion, I believe that all of us here have been badly let down by the Post Office, a public service provider, closing branches without consultation. I do not want the same experience with BT's removal of vital public telephone boxes. The Government should not ignore what is happening, because it is with them that the buck should stop.
It gives me great pleasure to rise to make my maiden speech and to follow Mr. Atkinson. I welcomed his comments about the challenges of the mobile phone industry—a subject about which I have learned much in the past week. I am especially grateful to be given this opportunity to speak only 48 hours after being presented to the House. I hope that hon. Members will not see this as unseemly haste, but my constituents, like most people in Birmingham, like to get down to business, and they will appreciate that I have been given the opportunity to do the same.
I am grateful to have some conventions to honour this afternoon. They are conventions with a good cause. I can think of no better place to start my contribution to the House than with a celebration of the achievements of my predecessor and a celebration of my constituency.
Hodge Hill has been served well by Terry Davis, Mr. Mackay and Roy Jenkins over the past 50 years. They are all people who have served not only their constituency but their country with distinction. But it was the achievements of Terry Davis over the past 25 years that we celebrated at the Birmingham Council house this weekend past. To those who knew Terry and worked with him it came as no surprise to learn that the representatives of 45 countries had asked him to become their leader of the Council of Europe for the next five years. It is truly the crown of a career, as Lord Tweedsmuir once put it.
We were not surprised, because those of us who know Terry know him for his compassion, his principle and his iron-cast determination to get things done. Once upon a time, Terry Davis was the man who was known as one of the very few people in Birmingham who could get the window of a council house fixed. Over the past two and a half decades, Terry Davis went on to serve 17,000 families in Birmingham, Hodge Hill and before it Stechford—two for every day that he served in office. I am very proud to say that he is now not just helping the families of a constituency but helping the families of an entire continent. I know that he will serve them with the credo that he expressed in 1979 in a letter that he wrote to constituents in Stechford. He said:
"We cannot judge people by the colour of their skin. Race hatred does nothing to keep prices down, increase wages, provide more jobs or improve our living conditions. It sets worker against worker and it sets neighbour against neighbour."
They are words that have inspired many on this side of the House and words that inspired me during my campaign to win the confidence of the people of Hodge Hill over the past three or four weeks.
Just as Terry Davis epitomised what is great about British political life, so the constituency epitomises so much about what is great in Britain. That is exactly why it is the sort of place that any party with aspirations to govern must win. Over the past three weeks, many hon. Friends were able to join me walking, and sometimes running, up and down the streets and roads of the constituency. Many were able to join me in the west of Hodge Hill on the busy Alum Rock road and Washwood Heath road bustling with vibrancy, commerce and trade. Many people joined me on the streets of Saltley. Many people joined me outside Ward End park. Many people joined me at the great LDV plant—a symbol of Birmingham's enduring excellence and of our enterprise in manufacturing.
Many hon. Friends were able to join me on the walk eastwards towards Hodge Hill and Stechford—towards the Fox and Goose, where many people were able to join me for lunch in the Beaufort Diner. A few others were able to join me for a drink in the Beaufort Sports and Social Club. I was proud to tell them about the historic tradition of the northern border of Hodge Hill, along which once stood the factories that produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that defended these islands in one of its most dangerous hours, and which today power our exports with companies such as Jaguar.
Many hon. Friends joined me in Shard End and Tile Cross south of the River Cole and in Kitts Green, visiting great hubs of community life such as Shard End community centre and the Royal British Legion, where we were able for a while at least to put politics aside and talk among friends.
More important than the places that we visited together were the people whom we met together—great community servants such as Marj Bridle, Margaret Greenaway, Ian Ward and Margaret Byrne in Hodge Hill; Mike Nangle, the first Irish-born Lord Mayor of Birmingham city; Anita Ward and John Clancy in Hodge Hill; Ansa Ali Khan and Mohammed Idress in Washwood Heath. Together we met spiritual leaders such as Tasawar ul-Haq, Susdar Hussain and Qari Mohammed Shoid. Together we met great public servants—people who were serving the people of Hodge Hill day in and day out. They included men such as Lee Richards, the force behind the Sure Start project which is making a difference to so many young families in Hodge Hill; and women such as Anne Cole, the power behind Saltley school, our first specialist school focused on science. These are the people I now wish to work with, with a new resolve and a new partnership to fight crime and antisocial behaviour and to bring a new prosperity and pride to Birmingham, Hodge Hill. That is why I have welcomed so much the statements made by my right hon. Friends to this House over the past few days and weeks, especially the statement made on Monday by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The plans that he announced will make a real difference to the lives of people in Birmingham, Hodge Hill. The new resources—£50 million announced for police community safety wardens—will make crime fighting that much easier on the streets of Hodge Hill. New strategies to support witnesses will mean that we will convict those whom we catch. New plans to put the sense back into sentencing will mean that those who do wrong will be punished.
There are of course great challenges in Hodge Hill. There are great concerns about teenage gangs who make life a misery for others. Too few people in Hodge Hill have the qualifications that they deserve. Half are without qualifications—one of the highest proportions in the country. Fewer than one in 10 have the chance to go on to higher education, one of the lowest proportions in the country. Some 42 per cent. of our children are entitled to free school meals.
However, the image that one takes away from the by-election campaign in Hodge Hill is not one of challenge; it is one of promise. Like many places in Britain, Hodge Hill faces a future that is brighter than it has ever been, because the people there have never been better educated, better resourced, better equipped or better connected with the best ideas in the world wherever they might be. But that promise will not be unlocked if left only to the tender mercies of the marketplace. To unlock the promise in Birmingham, Hodge Hill will take a Government determined to work hard with the resources that we have agreed to share, and it will take people, public servants and politicians who are determined to pull together to make a difference in the best traditions of the city of Birmingham.
People have asked me about my priorities in Hodge Hill. My priorities are simple—to crack down on crime and to bring new jobs. In other words, I want to help to deliver in Hodge Hill a prosperous place, with streets that we are proud of and neighbourhoods that live in peace, not in fear. I will also redouble my determination to fight the prejudice that prevents so many people in my constituency from contributing to the progress of this country.
As I begin work, it is with two images in mind. The first is of a young mother and her child, whom I met on the second day of the campaign in a Sure Start facility. The mother was enjoying the new services and resources that have made a difference to her life and that of her child. The second image is of another mother, at a Shard End residents' meeting, who talked about the fear in which she lived and her sense that when she called for help, nobody came. So as I start work it is with the knowledge that we have made great strides in the past seven years, but that a great deal of work lies ahead. I am delighted to conclude my first contribution to the work of this House with that third image—of progress made, but great work ahead.
It is a great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Mr. Byrne. He paid warm tribute to his predecessors in the seat, and Conservative Members are especially grateful that he remarked on the contribution made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay, the former Member of Parliament for Stechford. The hon. Gentleman also paid warm tribute to Terry Davis, which is also echoed on these Benches. We wish Terry well with his new duties: he was a well liked and assiduous Member of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman gave a measured and thoughtful speech. I am delighted to be associated so closely with a by-election victor—it does not happen to me very often. If he would see me privately afterwards to pass on some tips, I should be very grateful. The hon. Gentleman spoke warmly of those with whom he had so recently been on the streets and whom he will endeavour to serve. The images he painted of his constituency and the evident sincerity with which he spoke of his forthcoming work on his constituents' behalf will serve him well. He comes here with the reputation of being fearsomely bright and hard-working. He will, of course, live that down sooner or later and be accepted among his colleagues as a valued Member. [Laughter.] His contribution showed plainly that he was a worthy victor in the by-election and the whole House will look forward to many contributions in the same vein from him.
The quiet people of North-East Bedfordshire are well into their summer. The carnivals of Sandy and Biggleswade are now over and the villages have had their local fetes and church fairs. Summer is in full swing, but there are stirrings beneath the surface of community tranquillity. Constituents have asked me to raise a number of issues in the House before the summer Adjournment.
First, I wish to convey my constituents' continuing mystification at the absence of the report on the fire and disturbances at Yarl's Wood in February 2002, some two and a half years ago. The House will recall the loss of half the centre, £100 million cost to the taxpayer and, more importantly, the threat to the lives of those detained and working there, not to mention those of the brave public service workers who went to help. I have repeatedly requested the publication of that report and the need for it was thrown into sharper focus this week by the disturbances at Harmondsworth. The report on Yarl's Wood might well contain information about the way in which detainees are held and brought to centres, and about picking up trouble spots at an early stage and noticing increases in tension. All that might have been helpful in the Harmondsworth situation. If it really was a priority for the Home Office, we would have had the report by now. I should be grateful if the Minister would convey my remarks to the Home Secretary and, at the same time, ask whether a pilot programme for tagging asylum seekers and detainees will be introduced at the end of the summer. If so, what effect will it have on Yarl's Wood in my constituency?
Apart from that specific matter, what has grated most on the minds of my constituents—and what they have asked me to raise—is their frustration at being thwarted by various barriers that are put in their way when they try to achieve something, either in their voluntary efforts or their business life. I do not usually bang on about the burden of red tape and regulation because that can get a bit routine, but I have had cases brought to me in the past few months that exemplify the frustrations of people in so many different walks of life. I offer them to the Minister and to the House as an expression of concern and with the sense that we must be able to do something to make life easier for people who are simply trying to get on.
Two schools have approached me in connection with the New Opportunities Fund for PE and Sport, because they have sought to finance new sports halls. Sharnbrook upper school is a successful school that covers a rural area in the north of my constituency. It is the former school of Paula Radcliffe, so it knows a bit about sports. It made an application to NOF for PE and Sport, which was set up in November 2001 under the national lottery, with a budget of £581 million. By mid-2002, Sharnbrook had completed the county assessment process and begun to work on its application to NOF. By March 2003, the school had made its first submission.
It is now July 2004. No money has appeared. The head, Peter Barnard, has spent nearly £30,000, used reams of paper, answered requests and resubmitted information. He has seen his original budget for the application wiped out by the time it has taken, and still no money has appeared. He wrote to Sport England on
"NOF has promised £225,000. However their massive and quite unbelievable bureaucracy has been a source of constant delay, severely endangering the school's cash-flow. None of the promised money has reached us from this source . . . I estimate that the NOF bid process has cost the school £30,000 in administration and the NOF contribution, although welcome, falls very short of what is required. Their failure to deliver promised funding on time means that I have a cash flow problem and have had to cut back funds within the school."
The head of Lincroft middle school originally raised the issue with me and I tabled some written questions on his behalf. As I have said, the NOF for PE and Sport was launched in November 2001 with a budget of £581 million. By April this year, its actual expenditure was £10 million. No wonder local schools are frustrated by a process with such an outcome.
I have two further examples. On Saturday morning I visited the multiple sclerosis centre in the constituency of Mr. Hall, which also serves my constituents. I spoke to Val Woods, who has run the centre successfully for 20 years—until the National Care Standards Commission decided that it needed to be licensed and registered. She has spent the past two years going through that process. Several issues have emerged. The centre used to treat children in its hydrobaric therapy facility. New rules require that even those volunteers who operate the machinery and have no contact with children must go through two-day child protection training courses. They are not willing to do that, because they see no point in it. A paediatric nurse must be on hand, which is an extra cost that the centre never had to meet before.
When Val Woods was talking to a commissioner one day, she was asked, "What is your complaints procedure like?" She described it. The commissioner then asked, "What is your procedure when the loo rolls run out?" She said, "I'm sorry . . . " The questioner repeated, "What is your procedure when the loo rolls run out? You must have a procedure for that." She burst out laughing. She could not understand why, after 20 years of successfully running the centre, her standards and her licence depended on whether she had a written protocol for dealing with the absence of loo rolls. That is the sort of thing that frustrates people. That centre can continue to look after children because it has resources, but smaller centres throughout the country cannot carry on.
Mo Catlin runs a successful and popular garden centre in Milton Ernest in my constituency. She set up the business herself, it is not an empire, and she runs it very well. However, she has recently been plagued by a series of requests for information from the Office for National Statistics. For example, under the Statistics of Trade Act 1947, Mo has been asked to supply her stock levels month by month, but a stock-take, done properly, takes two days. She must comply or she is subject to a criminal liability.
Mo has been asked to take part in a monthly wage and salary survey. Why is that information not taken from her annual accounts? There is an annual business inquiry, which asks for the value of certain elements of her stock, including gloves—curiously, not gardening gloves. She has also been asked to take part in a new earnings inquiry relating to a named individual, picked by the Government. She is being asked confidential questions about that person, but has anyone spoken to him? Why must she do all those things? In addition, there is VAT, health and safety, auditing and everything else.
I produced those examples not because this is a familiar subject of rant for me, as I said earlier, but genuinely because constituents have expressed those frustrations to me. They ask, "Can you not make life easier?" They are trying to run schools or businesses. They are volunteers, trying to help people with multiple sclerosis. Barriers are being put in their way. Somewhere, somehow, somebody must make life easier for those people. It is our responsibility to try to do that.
As we go into recess, I draw the House's attention to the fact that people in my constituency are being consulted on the possible closure of the accident and emergency unit and the consultant-led maternity unit at St. Helier hospital—all in the name of bringing people more local services. However, the real driver for that possible change is the power of the royal colleges to determine training places and curriculums and the working hours of junior doctors. I am concerned that health inequality and health needs are not paramount in considering the location of those units.
There is no hospital in my constituency; half my constituents use St. Helier, the other half use St. George's hospital, yet no one from my constituency serves on the board of either hospital, or on the boards of the primary trust and the strategic health authority. Where is the input from my constituents? Apart from getting involved in whatever consultation process the health service decides to undertake, how can they voice their concerns about the possible closure of those facilities?
I am concerned that the consultation process will involve only the motivated and will not reach the people who may need the services most. Will the Government take on board the need for health inequality and health need to be paramount in any consultation on changes in the provision of health facilities?
In my patch, we have the lowest level of general health: 25 per cent. more people do not enjoy good health and the highest number of people report long-term limiting illness. We have the highest number of children aged nought to nine; the highest population in the age bands 20–34 and 35–39, and thus the highest demand for a maternity unit; the largest number of teenage births and the largest number of mums who smoke. We have the largest number of black and ethnic minorities and of people with the least access to primary care services. We have the poorest socio-economic profile; the residents of St. Helier ward are half as likely to be in the professional classes as those in Epsom.
People in the area surrounding St. Helier hospital are 50 per cent. more likely to be on benefits and almost twice as likely to have no car. More than 2,200 people living in each postcode area surrounding the hospital attended the accident and emergency department. In some of those areas, the number was more than 5,000. The number of people attending A and E from each postcode area around Epsom hospital is never more than 2,200 people, even though the geographical area is greater than that covered by St. Helier.
We are concerned that those facts are not given the priority they need. We are also concerned that the possible closure of the A and E unit at St. Helier will be disastrous for St. George's in Tooting. Anyone with an interest in health care provision in south London and who read the star ratings published recently will see that St. George's is a two-star trust, prevented from gaining three stars because it could not meet its A and E waiting time targets. If the people in the five council wards currently served by St. Helier A and E could no longer use that facility the pressure on St. George's would be so great that it, too, would have to close through force of numbers.
My plea is that we should consider where health needs are. There is a feeling outside this place that when changes to health services are being considered more gets more; that, in general, those who live in areas where there are more articulate and wealthier people get the health services. In the consultation process in my constituency, I hope that the needs of people who need their hospital are considered first.
I hope that Siobhain McDonagh will understand if I do not follow her on the local issues that she raised. However, I want to pick up a point that she made about star ratings and hospitals.
The House should address three issues before we rise for the summer recess, all of which have an impact on my constituency; they concern the Learning and Skills Council, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, following the Secretary of State's announcement yesterday.
I start with the Department of Health. Yesterday, as the hon. Lady said, the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection published its NHS performance ratings for 2003–04, allocating three, two, one or no stars to all the trusts. I have no difficulty in principle with monitoring the performance of trusts, but is the methodology robust enough to withstand the weight that is now imputed to it?
One of the acute trusts in my constituency is Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare NHS Trust, which last year had a three-star rating but, yesterday, had dropped to one star—after the Department had encouraged it to apply for foundation status. My subjective judgment is that the hospital is probably better today than it was a year ago—not least because it has a new diagnostic treatment centre. However, during the reference period, while the hospital was being assessed, it underachieved on total times in A and E—like the hospital referred to by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden—and so it was knocked back. I hope the Minister will confirm that the star rating regime is itself under review, as I am not sure how many stars I would give it at the moment.
On a related point, I should not be doing justice to my constituents if I did not mention the continuing difficulty of trying to find an NHS dentist in North-West Hampshire. Yesterday my constituent, Mr C, a 76-year-old pensioner in Tadley, sent me a copy of a letter he had sent to the Secretary of State, which ended, fraternally:
"And I have voted Labour for years".
However, to judge by the rest of the letter, he may not be doing so again. Along with many other constituents who had access to an NHS dentist for all the years when we were told that the service was underfunded by the Conservatives, he has been told that his dentist is leaving the NHS. There are real unresolved problems about access to NHS dentists in Hampshire, and despite all the protestations, the position is worse than when the Government took office seven years ago.
My constituent, Mr. T, needs some complicated civil engineering work done on his gums, which involves negotiations with the NHS. I shall quote from the postscript of his letter to me:
"Got a call this morning, 19th, from the Royal Berks confirming that it is at least a four month wait for the initial chat with the consultant then at least a five month wait before the start of any treatment. What a state this bloody country is in!"
That was a less than fraternal ending to the letter, but a reminder to Ministers in the Department of Health that they should be cautious in their boasts about the achievements of the NHS in Hampshire, because real difficulties confront trusts: they are running at a deficit and are having to reconfigure services; and the funding formula does not really do justice to the pressures on the service.
Turning briefly to the Learning and Skills Council, Andover, with a population of about 40,000, is the main town in my constituency. It has no cinemas, but it has one theatre located in Cricklade college, which comes under the umbrella of the Learning and Skills Council. For the last 28 years, that 270-seat theatre has been the primary venue for all dramatic, operatic and artistic societies in the area—the Andover Music Club, the Andover Operatic Society and a host of other organisations hold their functions there. I have a soft spot for the place, because the final selection for the Conservative candidate in 1995 took place there, when I spent an anxious half an hour in a dressing room with my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow.
It is just as well that my party is not choosing another candidate, because a press release from Cricklade college asserts that the Learning and Skills Council will no longer allow Cricklade college theatre to be used as a community theatre. When the current refurbishment work is completed, it cannot reopen as a community theatre and can be used only by students. All the organisations that have booked events for later in the year are desperately trying to find other venues, none of which is as suitable as Cricklade theatre. That is patently absurd.
We need a breathing space to sort out the bureaucratic muddle. I am sure that the Government's policy is that schools and colleges should be outward looking and encourage the community to come in and that they should not be introverted, limited institutions. I hope that the Minister will draw my remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and invite him to open a dialogue with the Learning and Skills Council to see whether they can find a way to allow Cricklade college theatre to continue to be used for the purposes for which it has always been used—I know that Test Valley borough council would participate enthusiastically in such a dialogue.
Finally, I turn to the Ministry of Defence. The Minister will understand that hon. Members up and down the country are anxious on behalf of their constituents about the impact of yesterday's statement. Today is not the time to debate whether that statement got the balance right between this country's obligations and the resources available to meet them. I want to touch on one aspect of the statement only, again with a local focus.
The Defence Logistics Organisations is one of the largest parts of the MOD, and it employs some 28,000 staff and has a budget of £8 billion. It has successfully supported a range of military challenges over recent years, and many of its staff work in the DLO in Andover. Those staff are, of course, concerned about the proposals to cut nearly 3,000 DLO posts and to move some of the jobs from Andover to Abbey Wood in Bristol. We know from the White Paper that
"unfortunately some will need to be made redundant".
It might well be the right strategic decision to refocus resources towards the front line—I have been offered a meeting with the chief of defence logistics, which I shall attend—but the staff do not want uncertainty. Will the Minister pass on to the Secretary of State for Defence my heartfelt plea that the uncertainty should be ended as soon as possible and that those who must go should be given all help in finding a new career?
Finally, will the Minister confirm that we can return to the broader issues raised by the White Paper when we return in September, with a full-day debate in Government time?
May I say what a pleasure it is to speak in the same debate as my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne, who made an excellent maiden speech today? I had the pleasure of spending some time in Hodge Hill, and, if nothing else, the knowledge that I gained qualifies me to become a taxi driver in Shard End.
Further proposals to combat antisocial behaviour in our society were announced this week, and those changes are welcome. This week, we digested the proposals, asked a few questions and moved on to other things, but people who live with antisocial behaviour day in, day out have no such luxury. Their lives and the lives of their family and friends are blighted by the actions of a few uncaring individuals or gangs, who see it as their role in life to wreak havoc and make the lives of law-abiding citizens a misery.
Antisocial behaviour is a term that we use to cover a whole range of crimes, from drug-related activities to graffiti, drinking on the streets, vandalism, noise and verbal and physical abuse—the list is endless. Some people call it low-level crime, and it may be considered as such on a national basis, but people who experience it certainly do not think so. Furthermore, antisocial behaviour is not a one-off crime; it is an ongoing crime—a series of events and actions. Even when the individuals concerned are not being antisocial, the people who live around them always fear that those individuals' criminal activity will reoccur at any time.
The proposals announced this week are another step on the road to fighting antisocial behaviour, but we as legislators can only provide the rules and the finance to enable the police, local authorities and community-based groups to tackle the problem—in the past, some have been more willing than others to pick up the tools to do the job. The use of antisocial behaviour orders has varied dramatically across the country, but I contend that where they have been used, they have had a great impact. No one argues that ASBOs are a magic solution, but they are a way in which to influence and change the behaviour of some of the worst offenders.
ASBOs have been used on a large scale in Greater Manchester to combat some of the worst antisocial behaviour. To date, nearly 400 ASBOs have been issued in Greater Manchester, which is considerably more than anywhere else in the country. Issuing ASBOs is one thing, but are they having the desired effect? Well, if Greater Manchester is anything to go by, the signals are quite positive—it is claimed that 65 per cent. of ASBOs are not breached, which is a considerable achievement. However, ASBOs must be part of an overall programme to change people's behaviour and, importantly, keep that behaviour changed and keep people on the straight and narrow.
In my experience, and I am sure many hon. Members' experience, fighting antisocial behaviour is a priority for many in our communities. My county council, Flintshire, received more than 1,200 complaints relating to antisocial behaviour last year, and this year's figure could be 1,500. Flintshire county council issued more than 25 per cent. of all acceptable behaviour contracts in Wales in 2003, which is far more than any other local authority. Flintshire set up its antisocial behaviour unit four years ago primarily to enforce tenancy agreements, and individual housing officers, who deal with the lower level instances of antisocial behaviour, support it.
Neighbourhood watch, the police and the local authority have formed the joint action group partnership, members of which meet each month to examine complaints and take specific action, whether it is on vandalism affecting a school or neighbours from hell.
In September—this is long overdue—neighbourhood wardens will be introduced for the first time, and they will come under the banner of the antisocial behaviour unit. Those are all positive ways in which Flintshire is tackling antisocial behaviour, but one can only do so much with the resources at one's disposal, and local authorities need more resources if they are to carry out that vital work.
Victims of antisocial behaviour often feel that no one cares or that those who do care cannot do much. Filling out nuisance sheets and reporting every incident to the police is clearly important, but people only feel that there is a purpose in doing so if something comes of it in the end. How many times have hon. Members heard people tell us that they have done all that has been asked of them, but the council or the police seem powerless to act?
When one rents a property, whether private or social housing, one agrees to abide by a tenancy agreement. If one breaches that agreement by acts of antisocial behaviour, one should lose the right to remain in that property—it is as simple as that. None of us wants to see people turfed out of their homes, but as citizens we have responsibilities as well as rights, and it is clear that a number of individuals in our society are not prepared to act in a responsible manner. Many people will no doubt argue that removing people from housing is not the answer, because all we are doing is moving the problem from one area to another. Indeed, I am sure that all councils are faced with the dilemma of what to do with the most difficult tenants in our society.
I agree that we must do everything we can to change people's behaviour, but a hardcore few will not change, and we must examine alternative strategies to deal with them. Why should the people who live in a perfectly happy street or community have their lives turned upside down by antisocial individuals being moved into their area? I would not like it, and no one should have to put up with it. However, on quite a few occasions, I have been able to predict the outcome of certain individuals being moved into certain areas. Everyone deserves a second chance, but some of those people had had a second, a third, a fourth and many more chances, but they still continue to behave in a way that destroys the communities around them. For that minority, we need a new approach. We cannot continue to place them into the community, knowing that they will carry on with their behaviour as before.
For people who fail to change their behaviour, we need to consider more secure sites and units where behaviour can be monitored more effectively and, I hope, changed in the longer term. The Dundee project, although expensive, has delivered some positive results. Although to some that may sound draconian, in the very few extreme cases, it may be the only answer. For the majority, however, with the right resources for policing and support services, I am sure that we can make progress. It is no coincidence that communities with the lowest aspirations suffer the greatest level of antisocial behaviour.
In Wales, with the support of the Welsh Assembly, the "communities first" programme is making a difference in helping to regenerate deprived areas. In Higher Shotton, Lesley Hughes, the "communities first" co-ordinator, is helping to build spirit in the community and to assist people to gain the skills and support that they need to build their lives. However, we need to tackle another problem: the availability of affordable, social housing. In Flintshire, 8,000 people are currently on the waiting list for accommodation. At every surgery that I hold, I see people who are desperate to get a place of their own.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer's announcement in the spending review that the Treasury has set a target of an additional 10,000 affordable homes, with an extra £430 million channelled into low-cost homes, but we need to do more not only in building new social housing, but in investing in the housing stock that councils currently own. To achieve that, we need to give more financial freedom to councils to enable them to invest the money that is so desperately needed.
This year, Flintshire expects to pay more than £1 million in dealing with our homeless problem. In Britain, more than 100,000 families are registered as homeless. In many areas, including my own, registering as homeless is seen as one of the only ways to get a property, at least in the short term. The problem of homelessness will continue to grow, despite the increasing wealth of our economy and society, unless we are prepared to address the need for more affordable housing.
It is no good builders just wanting to build yet another development of five-bedroomed luxury homes with double garages if the majority cannot even think about paying the prices that are being asked for those properties. We need a balance and at the moment—particularly in areas of high economic growth, such as my constituency—that balance is not there. We need to build communities where people want to live and, importantly, can afford to live. Above all, we need to ensure that, wherever we live, we are free from the fear of the tiny minority who fail to take a responsible attitude to life.
I hope that I shall see the clock stop—yes, it has—because this is a Front-Bench speech, so that enables me pay a rather more lengthy and generous tribute to Mr. Byrne. I say that most sincerely: I know what it is like to make a maiden speech in the House. He did so with sincerity, eloquence and obvious, very considerable knowledge of his city and constituency. We all respect that. Indeed, I think that he will find not just from this debate, which is a bit unusual—I shall come to that in a moment—that all hon. Members respect others of all parties who genuinely seek to be good representatives in the House. That is what Parliament is all about. We welcome him very sincerely. We look forward to hearing a great many contributions from him in the future.
I, too, walked up and down Washwood Heath road. I did not have the pleasure of the hon. Gentleman's hospitality at the various hostelries to which he referred, but I was struck by the welcome that was paid to all of us by his fellow citizens. I very much welcome the fact that he referred not just to his immediate predecessor, who was held in high regard in the House, but to predecessors from other parties—indeed, to my very close friend, Roy Jenkins, who served his city well when he was a Member for that constituency.
I said just now that I would refer to the way in which the debate is unusual, as the hon. Gentleman will discover. On these occasions, we get an extremely interesting mix of non-party, in the main, contributions about constituency problems from hon. Members on both sides of the House, yet what is so interesting is that there is always a replication, a resonance, an echo from those on other sides of the House. That was true not only of some of the issues that he raises, but of the issues raised by other hon. Members. Surely, that is something very special about such debates—it should happen more often—but it is also intrinsic to the nature of Parliament that, on occasion, we can see in other hon. Members' experiences of their own special circumstances things that are of importance to us as well, and I want to refer briefly to some of those.
I refer, first, to the contribution made by Tom Cox, who is a regular on these occasions, although he does not always speak about the expertise in all parts of the House on fire safety equipment. The lack of attention that, all too often, successive Governments pay to that all-party expertise is very unfortunate. I hope that his words have been listened to with care.
I very much share the concerns expressed by Mr. Atkinson, not just about post offices—that is serious enough—but, as he rightly said, about the attitude of British Telecom, which is doing precisely the same thing in my constituency as in his and, I suspect, other constituencies. The expectation that everyone should have a mobile phone—that, too, had a resonance in Birmingham—is simply wrong. There is an age group of people, very often those who most need to get to a pay phone for emergency purposes, who are unlikely to have mobile phones. The criteria that are being used by British Telecom are not practical.
In my constituency, and I am sure in those of every other hon. Member, there are circumstances in which pay phones will continue to be important. The lack of consultation—here we go again—is symptomatic of an attitude of a privatised public utility. Let us be duly warned: the Post Office could so easily go the same way. Indeed, some would say that it is already going that way. Those two situations are very similar. It is true, I fear, that BT does not consult local authorities in the way that it should as a public service. I endorse very much what the hon. Gentleman said.
I turn to the contribution made by Alistair Burt. Obviously, I do not know the circumstances of the Yarl's Wood centre, but we remember the incident. It was many months ago, and I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman and local people have not yet been given an opportunity to hear precisely what lessons have been learned. I want particularly to take up his more general point about excessively complex and onerous red tape. Yes, all hon. Members are concerned about red tape. The problem is that, as we all know, it is a balancing act, is it not? For everyone who wants to control something that they do not like very much or thinks is a loophole in the tax system, there is someone else who feels that it is onerous and unnecessary. That balancing act should be a preoccupation not just of the Government, but of the House.
A number of hon. Members give special attention to deregulation, but it goes much wider than that. The work that the Modernisation Committee is currently undertaking on ensuring that our scrutiny mechanisms for European regulations and directives is extremely important in that regard, not least because of gold-plating, of which we are all aware. So often, the proposals that end up in law in this country do not derive from anything that has been said or done in Brussels, let alone in the European Parliament; they derive from Whitehall.
A former Minister told a Select Committee in the other place not that long ago—I felt that this was just so apposite—that, when he came to office, he insisted on a very simple chart whenever anything came before him that was said to derive from Brussels. He wanted to know what the original proposal was; he wanted to know what his own Department had added to it; he wanted to know why; and he wanted to know whether he could still change it. He told that Committee—I was appearing with him on that occasion—that, within two days of his leaving office, the Department scrapped that simple, little way in which a Minister could know what was going on. That does not speak very well of the way in which we deal with over-regulation and onerous red tape.
Siobhain McDonagh also, inevitably, echoed concerns that we all share about the national health service in our own areas and the extent to which it seems to be immune to local consultation and input from people who actually know the practical results of what is likely to happen if changes are made. I sometimes go to local meetings to find out the views of the people in Cornwall who are interested in such matters, and ask whether any of them know who represents them on the area's strategic health authority. No people put up their hands, so I say, "You're absolutely right—nobody does. They are appointees; they are not elected." We Members of Parliament have to take a fallback position, but there is often no opportunity to make such a contribution. I know from experience that the accident and emergency department at St. Helier hospital is a classic example of something on which consultation would benefit all concerned.
Sir George Young echoed many of our concerns. I was especially struck by his point about NHS dentistry, although it must be said that as a Secretary of State in the previous Government, he was partly responsible for what happened to NHS dentistry. The tearing up of the contract with dentists dealt the most devastating possible blow to the service. It is an extraordinary anomaly that we and our constituents pay national insurance contributions and think that we will get normal medical services from our local primary care trusts when we need them, yet the situation for dentistry is a complete postcode lottery. It is extremely difficult to access NHS dentistry in many parts of the country.
The right hon. Gentleman made a valid point about the use of publicly funded buildings under the auspices of learning and skills councils. We, as taxpayers, have invested in those buildings, so local communities should use them to the maximum extent.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about an issue with which many of us are grappling: the detailed local impact of yesterday's statement by the Secretary of State for Defence. I acknowledge, as I am sure that we all do, that it is inevitably impossible to go through all details at the Dispatch Box. Indeed, if I had thought that the Secretary of State had not been interested in exchanging information about the details and intended to cut through the consultation programme by saying immediately, "This is what's going to happen", the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and I would be complaining about the situation to the same extent as he understandably is about lack of decisions and, thus, uncertainty. I would love to know precisely what is intended for RAF St. Mawgan, but I would much rather get the right answer a bit further down the track than to receive a snap answer now without proper consultation with all concerned. There is a genuine dilemma.
I acknowledge precisely what Mark Tami said because many of us are in a similar position regarding antisocial behaviour and the prevention of types of crime that are not of minuscule importance to those most affected by them. I pay tribute to this country's victim support organisations, but more regard must be paid to the victims of crime.
I was delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman giving his support to the continuation of the neighbourhood watch network because that is an important part of the equation. He will know that the Home Secretary appears—I use the word "appears" because perceptions are important—to want to try to take away the voluntary nature of the network and impose something very different. That is unfortunate because the volunteers in our communities who make a major contribution should not be treated in such a way. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the matter both in the Chamber and directly with the Home Office, so I hope that there will be time to think again.
Before I conclude my speech, I wish to make a point of my own. [Interruption.] I shall be brief, and if I had the opportunity to respond to everyone at the end of the debate, I would be even briefer. Before the House adjourns, will the Deputy Leader of the House secure a firm statement of the Government's response to the independent inquiry headed by Lord Lloyd on the illnesses suffered by British troops following their service in the 1991 Gulf war? Many hon. Members' constituents are veterans who still suffer chronic illness following their service in that operation.
Some hon. Members will recall that during Prime Minister's questions last Wednesday, I asked the Prime Minister:
"Will he now insist that appropriate Ministers give evidence to the independent inquiry under Lord Lloyd, so that the appearance of secrecy surrounding this issue is dispelled once and for all?"
The Prime Minister said:
"I am afraid that I have nothing to add to what Ministers have already said on the subject. Of course, it is a serious issue, and we investigate it continually. I will discuss with my colleagues the issue of giving evidence. It is important that we make progress on the basis of the actual evidence."—[Hansard, 14 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 1405.]
All of us who are concerned on behalf of veterans would welcome it if we could have an explicit statement before the end of the debate on whether the Prime Minister has had that conversation and, if so, on its outcome. I gave evidence to the inquiry yesterday, and by that stage Lord Lloyd had not received any specific response following my exchanges with the Prime Minister.
At the Adjournment debate before the Whitsun recess, I congratulated the Deputy Leader of the House on the way in which he had secured responses from appropriate Ministers, but sadly the specific questions that I raised on that occasion have not produced such responses—I am sure that that is a momentary lapse in his normal efficiency. He might recall that I said then that the voters had buried the two-party system in 1997 and danced on its grave in 2001. Recently, of course, the electorate have continued that dance. This place, however, sadly still seems to reflect the two-party system of the past century.
I apologise that I will not have the opportunity to respond to all hon. Members who contribute to the debate at its end, but I am sure that they will be with me in at least this: wishing not only the staff and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but all of us, a relaxing recess, and a reinvigorating re-encounter with our electorate.
Like most hon. Members this afternoon, I shall raise a few constituency issues. I talked about school closures on the Floor of the House some time ago. The Conservative-run authority of my borough of Havering has recently had a fairly shambolic run during which it has put various primary schools under the threat of closure. First, it threatened the R. J. Mitchell primary school. It then threatened Ayloff primary school and Suttons primary school, while the closure threat to R. J. Mitchell was withdrawn. It then withdrew the closure threat to Ayloff primary school and put R. J. Mitchell back under threat once again. It has now withdrawn any closure threat in my constituency or elsewhere in the borough, yet it has managed to create concern and worry—verging on panic—among staff, governors, teachers and everyone connected to the schools, especially parents and children.
At the end of that process, what has changed? Absolutely nothing. There was no change whatsoever, so there was no need for the authority to introduce the panic measure. All the schools remain open, but although the closure threats have been withdrawn, those three schools and others in the borough are left with the worry that the Tory council might come back with further threats of closure. I do not think that that will happen—partly because the authority will not be allowed to get away with it—but we should introduce a measure into education legislation that would allow the Department for Education and Skills at least to call for inquiries into local education authorities that behave as irresponsibly as Havering. I blame not the officers but the political leadership, which handled the situation ineptly and started a process that created, at best, worry among almost all people connected with the schools.
The second issue that I wish to raise arises from my regular discussions with local groups that represent disabled people, especially the Havering association for people with disabilities and Havcare, which is a borough-wide group. Two key questions arise from those discussions, the first of which relates to the introduction of the Mental Capacity Bill, which was the draft Mental Incapacity Bill—the title has changed during its consideration in Parliament. The Bill has been widely welcomed by almost all relevant organisations. One of the key aspects of the Bill is that it will allow people who do not have the capacity to advocate their own cause or case to appoint advocates on their behalf. The Government have not yet answered a question that has been put to me, although I am sure that they will: how will advocacy be accessed by those people who need it? For instance, will any costs be incurred, especially by close relatives? A Mencap press release of
"Millions of people with dementia, autism, a learning disability and mental health problems will be better off under the new Mental Capacity Bill, but the Bill will be 'toothless' unless it ensures the availability of advocates, a coalition of 39 charities has warned."
That coalition is the Making Decisions Alliance, which represents 39 charities and voluntary groups.
My second question relates to the requirement for a proportion of carers in homes to have a qualification at, or equivalent to, national vocational qualification level 2. That is probably a desirable change, recently introduced by the Government, but are grants available to achieve that? As far as I know, they are not, but they probably should be. In this context, I am talking about small care homes, some of which face genuine difficulties and have done so for the past few years, although those have been exaggerated by press reports to some extent. If a grant is available to those people who have to attain NVQ level 2, it will help smaller care homes to deal with their problems.
The third issue that concerns me is the use of fireworks and recent legislation on fireworks. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Tynan for piloting the Fireworks Bill through Parliament. It is much needed. I get reams of complaints every year because of the antisocial use of fireworks. The Bill answered many of the pleas that I get in my mailbag, and I am sure that other hon. Members receive the same pleas.
I refer the Deputy Leader of the House to early-day motion 1513 in my name. Although many of the Bill's provisions are welcome, it appears that the original proposal to license all premises that sell fireworks at any time of year is being watered down. That is a central plank of the legislation. I have discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South and he agrees, and it was his Bill, after all.
If, as seems likely, the Government are going to abandon that licensing system, it could neuter the Bill. Many of its other elements are commendable and badly needed, but if we abandon that licensing system, we are abandoning a main plank of the Bill. The provision is necessary during October, November and December, when fireworks become a particular nuisance—although these days they are a nuisance almost the whole year around. I have a pile of letters in my office from various constituents, including one from the Rev. Bob Love, the vicar of St. John's in my constituency, whom I know well because I have surgeries at his church. He highlights the importance of licensing premises.
My final concern relates to antisocial behaviour and drunkenness. Although my borough recently had a substantial increase in the number of police officers and police community support officers—the PCSOs were introduced in the past few months—the big problem is that daft decisions by the local council in the past have meant that Romford has a nightclub capacity of between 12,000 and 14,000. That is the biggest nightclub capacity in the whole of the south-east outside London's west end. It is an enormous capacity and draws in people from all over east London, Essex and further afield across the south-east. It has obvious law and order implications that were not thought through when planning permission was sought and granted for various nightclubs, which were then issued with licences.
What tends to happen is that on Friday and Saturday nights police strength is drawn from other parts of the borough. The increase in police strength means that the problem is not as bad as it used to be and has been mitigated to some extent. However, we still need to draw some police officers from other parts of the borough. The Government could help by introducing a regulation to control the practice of happy hours, which sometimes go on for two or three hours, in nightclubs. Drinks are very cheap and, as a result, there is widespread, and sometimes serious, intoxication.
I go out on patrol with the police on a fairly regular basis and see the result of those happy hours around Romford, especially late at night. Happy hours reflect the irresponsible behaviour of certain breweries and nightclub owners. If we cannot regulate happy hours, I have another solution. It is a bit of an old Labour solution. If it were up to me, I would nationalise the breweries. Bringing the breweries into public ownership worked in the first world war, why can it not work now? We sorted them out then and we can sort them out again. We could regulate, control and ensure that the problem does not arise in the future. Of course, it would have the added advantage that we would not have to tax the breweries because all the money would come to us anyway.
It would also give us an opportunity to test out the theory, which we have always had, that the Government could not organise a **** in a brewery.
I will ignore that.
Nationalising the breweries would be advantageous. All the money would come into the Treasury. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer could use it to invest in schools, hospitals, police and so on, and antisocial behaviour would be controlled as a result.
It is a great pleasure to endorse everything that my hon. Friend Alistair Burt said in tribute to the maiden speech of the newly elected hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne). I am sure that he has a promising career in the House.
It was good that the hon. Gentleman spoke so warmly of his predecessors, most notably the late Roy Jenkins, my right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay and, of course, Terry Davis, who, like my hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson, has given most distinguished service to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This country and its delegation can be proud that he is now its Secretary-General.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill wound up his speech with reminiscences about happy walks to the Fox and Goose—no doubt many of us empathised with him at that point—and talked about the industrial performance in Birmingham, the great city's commitment to manufacturing, and what it did in world war two by providing Spitfires and Hurricanes for the front line of the Royal Air Force. His remarks and those of the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday lead me to follow my right hon. Friend Sir George Young in referring to the mini White Paper on defence, inappropriately named "Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities". That is a misnomer if ever there was one. I do not believe that it would be doing justice to our servicemen and women for the House to wait several months before delivering a considered verdict on it. It was based on false assumptions.
The Secretary of State said yesterday:
"We measured numbers of people and platforms in the cold war because we were preparing for an essentially attritional campaign, holding back Soviet forces."—[Hansard, 21 July 2004; Vol. 424, c. 343.]
We were doing nothing of the kind. Throughout the cold war we maintained forces vastly inferior in number to those of the Warsaw pact countries. We had enough troops in place to hold the line for 48 hours or, at the very most, 72 hours, at which point we were bound to give way or to invoke nuclear retaliation. The fear of nuclear retaliation provided the deterrent that kept the peace. It is false logic to suggest that we do not need adequate numbers now on the basis of the argument that during the cold war we needed large numbers of forces. We need, of course, a balance between numbers of well-equipped forces, capabilities, mobility, flexibility and firepower, which in part the Secretary of State is delivering, but which is not fully achieved because of the dictates of Her Majesty's Treasury.
The forces' morale will be gravely affected by the cuts that the Defence Secretary has introduced, and they are cuts. No one can suggest that reductions in the Royal Air Force of 7,500, the Army of 1,500 and the Navy of a similar number do not constitute cuts—they most certainly do. To withdraw the whole of the RAF's Jaguar force, its offensive support aircraft, currently based at Coltishall, before the tranche 2 Typhoon is even ordered, let alone available, is highly irresponsible because the capability that they provide ensures that our forces on the ground can do their job effectively, with the minimum of loss. It is, however, in line with what the Government have done before: the withdrawal of the Sea Harriers from service with the Fleet Air Arm, some eight years, at best, before the new F-35 JSF aircraft come into service.
The Government are happy to allow our armed forces to be vulnerable; indeed, they accentuate that vulnerability, as they are doing by reducing the Nimrod force from 12 to eight maritime patrol aeroplanes, just when the Dutch are completely abandoning their maritime patrol aircraft. For us to reduce this capability is most irresponsible.
It is irresponsible also to conjecture about reductions in the helicopter force. We need the mobility that the helicopter force provides now more than ever in this age of uncertain threats and global terrorism. Likewise, it is most unwise for the Government not to have placed an order for the new tanker aircraft, the A330–200, which the RAF is banking on. It is also irresponsible to eliminate the air defence capability of the RAF Regiment at a time when protecting from attack the few aircraft that we do possess is crucial. I also find absolutely extraordinary the idea that, when terrorism is all too rife, one can put all one's transport and tanker assets on one base, by closing RAF Lyneham and putting everything at RAF Brize Norton.
The Government are letting the country down and they are letting the armed forces down. What a way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar next year—by cutting the fleet by about a quarter and happily allowing the French to have a much larger navy than us. The United Kingdom should have the biggest navy in Europe; we should be proud of the fact, because it is concomitant with our interests as a global trading nation.
It is also unwise to leave totally sacrosanct a quarter of the British Army in Germany. No one wants to see a reduction of the infantry battalions—they are overstretched already, and they are rotated on to operational tours all too frequently—but that the Army should maintain about a quarter of its strength, static, in Germany, expending vast sums to the benefit of the German economy when it is the British economy that we should be sustaining, I find decidedly odd, especially when, in the second Gulf war, it did not appear that the Germans were even on our side. They seemed to be militating against our efforts rather than supporting us as good NATO allies should.
Our Government are embarked on a European security and defence policy, and we all wish that well because it is in the interests of our continent and our nation that it should succeed. The European Union is to take over NATO's peacekeeping role in Bosnia at the end of this year. However, I wonder whether, in the event of a major commitment such as Iraq and a serious crisis, not just peacekeeping, in the Balkans or Northern Ireland, with the reductions that the Defence Secretary has outlined we will be able to meet both, or other multiple, obligations. I doubt it very much.
I return to the theme of irresponsibility, which is at the heart of the defence White Paper that the Government have put before us. We can play a role, not only here, but collectively with parliamentarians of like mind on the continent. I am pleased that the French are maintaining increased defence spending and I admire the way in which they are cocking a snook at the stability pact, which many of us thought was ridiculous and voted against at the time that the Maastricht treaty was going through the House.
The European security and defence policy needs to be scrutinised. Collectively, we must ensure that we in Europe make the best use of our common resources for defence, and to do that national parliamentarians need to engage together. I suggest that we do so through the Parliamentary Assembly of the Western European Union, whose 50 years of existence we shall celebrate in October. The assembly has done its job magnificently because national parliamentarians provide the Defence Ministers and the defence budgets which make the European security and defence policy possible. However, the latest defence review ensures that making the European security and defence policy possible for the United Kingdom will be much harder. For this reason, I believe the White Paper to be irresponsible.
I join others in congratulating our new hon. Friend Mr. Byrne. He spoke extremely warmly about his predecessor, our right hon. Friend Terry Davis, who has left Parliament to become Secretary General of the Council of Europe. I served with Terry Davis for five years on the Public Accounts Committee; even though we were Opposition Members then, Terry was a master of holding the Government's senior accounting officers to account for the projects that the Committee examined. We shall miss Terry, but he has been replaced by an hon. Friend who, judging by his maiden speech, will make an excellent contribution to Parliament.
My hon. Friend told us about his constituency, but most of us know it from the time that we spent there during the run-up to the by-election. I spent a couple of afternoons delivering leaflets on his behalf, and I am delighted that my efforts contributed to his success. He also spoke eloquently about the history of his fascinating constituency and the illustrious people who have preceded him as MP for that part of Birmingham. He has a tough act to follow, but the challenges that he has set for himself in representing the people of Hodge Hill are entirely right and I am sure that he will meet them extremely well. I look forward to many more speeches from my new hon. Friend.
I have four local issues to raise, but may I first ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to find out, perhaps through the Modernisation Committee, whether it is necessary for the Liberal Democrat spokesman to join in debates such as this one by commenting on all the speeches made before his? I am only glad that Mr. Tyler spoke before I did.
As I said, the issues I wish to speak about are local, but they have a bearing on national Government policy. The first is a recent decision by one of my local authorities, Vale Royal borough council, which is Tory and Liberal Democrat- controlled, to introduce changes to its refuse collection service under the guise of meeting Government recycling targets. The local authority rightly conducted a vigorous consultation exercise asking people whether they would be willing to participate in a system that recycled more rubbish from the domestic waste stream via kerbside collections. Of course, the response was an overwhelming "Yes". However, the local authority did not clearly spell out—it was mentioned only in the small print—that the ordinary domestic refuse collection service would be reduced from a weekly collection to a fortnightly one.
There is uproar in my constituency about the decision. Concerns have been voiced about health and safety. We are beginning to experience problems associated with the summer months, such as the smell from bins, and there have been reports of infestations of maggots and flies in bins. My constituents have raised their concerns with the local authority, but it says that it will not respond to letters of complaint or register phone calls as complaints because my constituents are raising nothing new. That is the wrong way for the local authority to approach the problem: instead, it should try to explain to the people living in Weaver Vale and the Vale Royal borough council area why the new system will be put in place. However, its explanations so far have been confusing and, in some ways, downright dishonest.
First, the local authority said that the Government are demanding that by 2007 the authority must meet stringent recycling targets. That is true. Secondly, it says that if the local authority does not meet the targets it will face a fine of £120,000 a day or £44 million a year. That is abject nonsense: no fines are imposed under the scheme. The Government have said that if recycling does not remove the amount of material going to landfill, the price of landfill may increase, and if a local authority overtips its quota, it may have to pay more money. By no stretch of the imagination will that result in a fine of £120,000 a day.
When those explanations were challenged, the local authority said, "We have to do this; otherwise we will have to go back to a weekly recycling collection, which will cost us an extra £1 million." Therein lies the answer to the problem: the authority has cut the domestic refuse collection to save money. It now says that if it returns to a weekly service, people will not recycle. What nonsense! The local authority should say that it will look again at the issue.
When a bin is put out, the authority will not collect any surplus rubbish that is placed in black bin bags, which is termed "side rubbish". Section 48 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires a local authority to collect domestic waste without charge. Will the Minister explore with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether there is an obligation on a local authority to collect side rubbish—domestic rubbish placed at the side of a wheelie bin. When it is left, it attracts vermin and it is spread across the neighbourhood. That leads to a greater incidence of fly-tipping, and we have an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
I shall move on to another issue that I have raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of Transport. For the past two years, in the Northwich part of my constituency we have held an event called the Thundersprint, which is a motor cycle extravaganza. Motor cyclists from throughout the country arrive at a car park in Northwich to demonstrate their motor cycles, which can be vintage all the way through to formula one. There is a great carnival. This year the two-day event attracted about 70,000 visitors and brought a huge sum of money into the local economy. It is a fantastic event. No incidents were reported to the police and there were no health and safety issues.
The event has to take place on a car park because even if we closed a section of the highway to demonstrate the motor cycles, they would not be allowed on it because they do not comply with current road traffic Acts. I have been pressing the Department of Transport to see whether a way can be found round that problem, so that next year's event can take place on the public highway, which would be closed to other traffic. So far, that has proved difficult.
We cannot use the car park at Northwich for the next five years because the Government, following my insistence, have provided £28 million to stabilise the town centre because of problems that we have with salt mines. I hope that the Minister, on my behalf, will press the Department of Transport with a view to resolving the problem.
I wish to take up an issue that I have raised already in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall—I raised it directly with the Minister of State for Transport. It concerns a section of railway line that is commonly known as the Halton curve, which, though not disused, is used only once or twice a year. The reason for that is that to close a railway line it is necessary to go through a rigorous public inquiry procedure. It may even be necessary for legislation to be discussed on the Floor of the House. Over the past few years, the line has had one or two services a year. They run on a Saturday morning and no passengers are picked up. The service goes along the line so that it stays open. It is known as the parliamentary train. This year, the Strategic Rail Authority decided, in its wisdom, to do a head count on this strange service to see whether it is being used. Strangely enough, it found that the answer is no.
The SRA has written to me to say that it is thinking of closing the Halton curve. If it does so, it will be a passive closure. I have yet to find out what that means, but I have asked. This is nonsensical. If the line were resignalled and some investment were made in it, trains could travel in both directions and it would be the final piece in the north-west railway jigsaw. It would link north Wales to Liverpool without people having to use the west coast main line, and would allow north Walian traffic to go through Liverpool and on to the north-west and the Lake district. It would connect with the Allerton interchange on the Merseyside light railway, thus completing the circular network, and it would link that network to Liverpool John Lennon airport. Stakeholders across the north-west are all in favour of the development, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to tell our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that we ought to look at ways of keeping the line open instead of closing it and ending the potential for future developments.
I shall conclude with something that I raised in last year's summer Adjournment debate—the merger of Halton and Warrington hospitals. When my hon. Friend Derek Twigg and I agreed to that merger, we did so on the grounds that there would be no reduction in services at our hospital. The clinical director of North Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust took unilateral action more than 12 months ago and, without consulting clinicians or senior management at either hospital, decided to close the intensive care unit. It remains closed following that decision by Dr. Mwanji. Mr. McMillan of Whiston hospital produced an independent report, and the Bishop Auckland report says that the beds should remain open. The Commission for Health Improvement said that there was no threat to health services. The only person standing in the way of the unit reopening is Dr. Mwanji, the clinical director. Even the chairman of the British Medical Association said that those beds should be reinstated, so I advise my hon. Friend the Minister that the clinical director of Warrington hospital should be sacked.
I congratulate Mr. Byrne on his impressive maiden speech. Having been elected for the first time at the last election, my own maiden speech is fresh in my mind, and I remember what a nerve-racking occasion it was. I admire the hon. Gentleman's stamina. After fighting a stressful by-election he looks very fresh indeed. I once fought a by-election with considerably less success, but I recall what a stressful and tiring experience it was.
I wish to raise some matters affecting my constituency, which is a remote rural area comprising a large part of mainland Scotland and 26 inhabited islands. It is a beautiful place in which to live and work, but its remoteness and the cost of travelling to and from the islands present challenges to people who run businesses there. The cost of parcel deliveries is a frequent source of complaint among my constituents. If they place an order through a mail order company, they almost invariably have to pay a surcharge. Parcelforce has drawn a line across Scotland from Arrochar on Loch Long to a point on the North sea coast near Banff, and the cost of sending a parcel anywhere north of that line far exceeds the cost of sending one elsewhere in the country. It is a large surcharge: it costs almost double to send some parcel weights across the highland line. That imposes an extra burden on businesses in the highlands and islands, particularly those that rely on mail order deliveries.
The Government should extend Royal Mail's universal service obligation, whereby it must deliver letters to all parts of the country at the same price, to Parcelforce. When I raise the matter with Ministers, the standard reply is that Royal Mail delivers parcels at a uniform price to any part of the country. However, as with letters, parcels sent via the standard Royal Mail service are not signed for on delivery. Mail order companies want a signature on delivery, which involves an extra cost. The Royal Mail parcel delivery has a weight limit; it is therefore of limited value to them and, in addition, there is no guaranteed delivery time. However, Parcelforce parcels are signed for on delivery and the service offers a guaranteed delivery time. Businesses want to use Parcelforce, but highlands businesses are deterred from doing so by the extra costs. That is discrimination against a small part of the country and it should end.
Dairy farming is an important industry in the Kintyre peninsula. Ever since I was elected, farmers have been telling me that the farm-gate price for milk is nowhere near enough to cover their costs. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently investigated milk pricing in the United Kingdom and found that farmers' comments are correct. The report states in paragraph 24:
"Average farmgate prices are . . . not high enough to cover the farmers' costs" and goes on to say in paragraph 26:
"UK farmgate prices are not only inadequate to recompense farmers for the cost of milk production, they are also consistently below the EU average."
The Select Committee investigation also reported, at paragraph 42, that the
"dairy market is not operating as it should" and at paragraph 55 that
"processors' costs appear improbably high".
Clearly, more investigation by the Government is needed into milk pricing. A regulator should be appointed to oversee the dairy industry; only that will enable us to find out why the market is not working as it should. The market should operate with greater transparency and we need an investigation into the Select Committee's belief that
"processors' costs appear improbably high".
We also need to look at UK competition law. Its practical effect appears to be to prevent milk producers from forming large-scale co-operatives. That is not the case in other EU countries, where large-scale dairy co-operatives have been formed. It means that in the UK the small farmer is fighting an unequal struggle against the big supermarkets and the big dairy companies. A regulator would be a good step forward.
I turn to vehicle taxation. The price of petrol on the islands is often about 15p more than the price at a city petrol station. On one occasion, having started the day in Glasgow and gone to Mull, I found that the cost was a staggering 20p more at a remote filling station on Mull, compared with Glasgow. The extra price has a devastating impact on the economies of island communities. It is also rather galling that in areas where there is no public transport alternative, the price of fuel is highest. The logic for high fuel prices is to encourage people to use public transport, but the illogicality of the present system is that the price of fuel is highest where there is no public transport alternative.
One short-term fix that I would support is a reduction in the duty on fuel sold at island filling stations. That would create a level playing field for island businesses. In the longer term we need to move from fuel duty towards a system of road pricing. That would be more sophisticated and would enable higher charges to be levied on roads where there was a public transport alternative, compared with remote rural roads where there is no such alternative.
Fuel duty is rather a crude way of taxing the motorist. In the past it had the beneficial effect of encouraging vehicle manufacturers greatly to improve the efficiency of their vehicles. That has certainly been effective, but I suspect that we are now at the point where further technological advances are unlikely to make much impact on fuel efficiency. The time is right to move to the more sophisticated system of road pricing.
Finally, I turn to a matter that various hon. Members have raised this afternoon—yesterday's defence statement. My constituency's local regiment is a well-known one, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It is a famous regiment with more than 200 years of service to the British Army. The clear intention of the Government's defence review is to merge the regiment with other highland regiments.
Yesterday's statement from the Secretary of State for Defence announced the loss of a Scottish infantry battalion. However, the Government's plans to reduce infantry numbers are short-sighted. The Army is already overstretched. The Government's plans appear to assume no new commitments for the Army. I should have thought that one of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan was that while all the high tech might be very good at winning the war, the difficult task of winning the peace requires highly skilled and committed soldiers on the ground. That is a part of the battle that the British Army has proved to be very good at. It has carried out the task of winning the peace far better than the American army. It is important that we keep our infantry strength at its current level, because as well as fighting wars and peacekeeping in many parts of the world, the Army has to deal with unexpected matters at home such as foot and mouth and firefighters' strikes.
Recruits want to join local regiments with a long and proud tradition. Merging the Argylls into a new regiment called, say, the North Scotland regiment, is bound to have a negative impact on recruitment compared with keeping the famous, long-standing name of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I remind the Government that 30 years ago a previous Government tried to abolish the Argylls. A massive campaign to save the regiment succeeded, and the Government gave way. I advise this Government not take on the Argylls, because I suspect that, like their predecessors, they will buckle under the weight of the subsequent campaign.
I start, as have several colleagues, by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne on his speech and on the way in which he presented it. He paid tribute to his predecessor, Terry Davis. I echo his tribute and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Hall, who, like me, worked closely with Terry over many years. We were all struck by the calm assurance and wit of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill. When he said that his predecessors had served Hodge Hill well, I think that all hon. Members immediately thought that he would follow in that tradition.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill talked about education, and said that people in his part of Birmingham had never had such good educational opportunities as they do at the present time. I hope that my hon. Friend continues his interest in education, because the changes that the Government have made in that respect have been among their greatest achievements and will produce long-lasting and significant consequences in terms of opportunities for all our young people in the future.
I am particularly proud of what has happened in education, from the Sure Start places, which are a breakthrough development helping youngsters and their parents, to the changes at primary level, including the significant impact of reduced class sizes. In Dewsbury, we have also seen significant improvements at secondary level. Many schools have achieved specialist status, there has been a new level of co-operation between some schools, and, although there have been a few hitches, school buildings have been significantly improved through public-private partnerships.
We have experienced many improvements in education locally, but despite all the good work that has been done and all the investment that the Government have put in, two problems have recently arisen. I am glad that today sees the publication of the report by the Select Committee on Education and Skills entitled "Secondary Education: Schools Admissions", because I want to say a few words about admissions in Dewsbury and the problems that have been created by the Lib Dem council's decision to review its admissions policy. Although I accept that that is not an easy matter and there are no easy solutions, one school in Dewsbury has received 50 appeals, 22 of which are from parents trying to get a child into the school to join their brothers and sisters. The constituent who first brought that to my attention, Tracie Kilburn, already has a daughter and son at the school, and her youngest child wanted to go to there too, but that is no longer possible because of the change in approach by the Lib Dem council. The Select Committee report suggests one or two ways forward, including that the House should be more prescriptive about admissions policies. It is not easy to get them right but I do not believe that the council should have changed the siblings rule and left so many young people and their parents in a difficult position.
My second reason for speaking about education is a problem that has got worse through the success in recent years of education in Dewsbury. We have a tradition of under-achievement; we have no tradition of staying on at school and going into post-16 and higher education. Nowadays, there is a significant increase in youngsters who do well at GCSE and throughout their school careers. The problem is critical after GCSE because we have so little traditional post-16 academic provision. Dewsbury college is very good for much non-traditional, non-AS and A-level work, but the majority of youngsters in Dewsbury have to leave the town for their post-16 academic education.
We have a Catholic high school, which has a limited number of places and gets good results. We also have Mirfield Free Grammar school, which, I am glad to say, is a comprehensive school down the road that takes some youngsters. However, the academically gifted of Dewsbury mostly have to go to Huddersfield and sometimes Leeds and Wakefield for post-16 AS and A-level education. They have to travel a long way—some take three buses—and that requires great commitment. We therefore need local, quality AS and A-level provision. All the heads of the high schools in Dewsbury agree about that. They tell me that many youngsters are put off staying in education because they cannot face the extra hassle travelling such a long way. They are achieving more and they want to achieve more, but such provision on our doorstep would enhance the staying-on rate and provide much greater opportunities.
Ministers are sympathetic to the cause. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis talked to heads and was impressed by their proposals. We have more post-14 co-operation between those schools and they all say the same thing: we need quality provision. The sixth form colleges in Huddersfield are of high quality and would be interested in providing satellites in Dewsbury, but unfortunately the Liberal Democrat council will not support that approach and is currently blocking such progress. It is inhibiting the opportunities of young people in Dewsbury. Given all the successes that we are enjoying in education, we must improve young people's aspirations and make it easier for them to stay in education and not block their hopes, as the Liberal Democrat council is doing.
I congratulate Mr. Byrne. I have fought several by-elections and the major difference between us is that he won his. Another difference is that he gave an excellent maiden speech and mine was rubbish. It was on Maastricht—need I say more, apart from "Sorry"?
I should like the Minister to take up several matters before we adjourn and I am sure that, characteristically, he will agree to them all. One is on regional government. We know that the Government are minded to change their view. Harold Wilson said that a week was a long time in politics but we now know that a night is a long time in politics. I do not especially want the referendums but if we have to hold one in the north-west, why cannot we go ahead on
Telephone boxes were mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson. BT has announced that it wants to close 25 in my constituency, all of which are in rural areas. Hon. Members who know my constituency will know that some of the villages involved—Pendleton, Dunsop Bridge, Bashall Eaves, Chatburn, Rimington, Twiston, Bolton by Bowland, Slaidburn and Mitton, for example—are very small indeed. They are in rural areas and they rely on their telephone boxes. BT tells us that "It's good to talk". Well, some of us need telephone boxes to be able to talk, and they are essential in an emergency. There is a universal obligation involved here, and BT should be forced to ensure that all those telephone boxes remain open.
Conversations about speed cameras always get people going, whether they crop up in a pub or over tea somewhere. People get very frustrated by the way in which speed cameras have been abused. That is certainly the case in Lancashire, where the number of speed cameras rose last year from 206 to 297. The number of fatalities also increased during that period, so something is going wrong there. In the village of Grimsargh, I witnessed one of the mobile speed camera units with all four wheels on the pavement. That was completely wrong, and I have asked the police to look into the matter, because I think that the vehicle was illegally parked. The police should have booked themselves. I hope that they will look again at the case of anyone who was booked on that day by that vehicle, and rescind all the fines that were imposed. The people who use those cameras need proper training to ensure that they do not break the law while trying to enforce it. If those vehicles are parked at accident blackspots, as they should be, there should be proper signage so that motorists will realise that it is a blackspot and check their speed accordingly. We do not want accidents, do we?
Another issue that crops up is that of wind farms. We are very lucky in my constituency in that we do not have any, but my goodness me, they are everywhere else. The Government have certain targets and are looking to wind farms to help them to meet them. I would ask them please to look again at other sustainable forms of energy and, indeed, at nuclear power, if that is going to be necessary. I know that the Government have also considered siting wind farms offshore, and permission has just been given to site one outside Swansea, near Porthcawl. That will scar a tourist area, and a number of people are already complaining about it. I have not spoken to one local resident who likes the fact that the wind turbines will be visible from the shore in an area in which tourism is vital. If we spent only a fraction of the money that we spend on subsidising these wind turbines on energy conservation, we would conserve more energy than they can produce.
I have often mentioned post office closures in the House, and I did so again at Prime Minister's questions just over a week ago. I wish that the Government would look again at their policy on this. The post office network is vital, particularly in rural areas but also in urban areas. A couple of post offices have just closed in Clitheroe, resulting in difficult journeys for many people who want to use a post office, particularly if they are disabled. We ought to look again at the issue, and cherish the fact that we have this network. We do not want to be saying, in 20 years' time, "Oh gosh, if only we'd saved the post offices! How valuable they were!"
People have also mentioned the defence cuts that were announced yesterday. I have the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in my constituency and I received a number of letters, prior to the announcement, from people saying that they wished to retain the regiment as a regiment in its own right. It has a proud history that stretches back 300 years, and more battle honours than any other regiment. This is not a party political point; I know that a number of Labour MPs want the Queen's Lancashire Regiment to retain its identity. There will be a campaign to save it, and I hope that the Government will show as much flexibility on this issue as they did on changing the referendums in the north-west. I ask them please to think again. If we want people to join these old, historic regiments, we must retain them and we need to think about how that can be done.
I was at the Farnborough air show yesterday, looking at the Eurofighter Typhoon. What a superb aircraft it is! Part of it is produced in my constituency, and I call on the Government to ensure that they support the military manufacturing skills that we have in the north-west by announcing their commitment to the second tranche as soon as possible, to give some security to the people in my constituency who work on that project.
Another point is that we are now going into a recess, which lasts about six weeks, before we come back for that useless couple of weeks in September, and then we will be off again until just after the party conferences. We cannot table written questions during that entire time. I know how hard working Ministers are, as they were under previous Governments, and they work during the recess. Why cannot we table written questions during the recess, with the proviso that it may take a bit longer for the responses to come back? We are all working—it is not as if we are not doing anything for that period. Would the Government consider, as part of the modernisation programme, the possibility of introducing written questions during recesses, which can be answered during a certain period, whatever that happens to be?
Mr. Reid mentioned fuel tax. Let us be cautious about a shift to a tax on mileage. The figure of £1.30 a mile has been bandied around in newspapers. I represent a rural constituency, where even a fraction of that would be hugely expensive. We all know what will happen: it will be introduced at one rate, which is fairly low, and people will think that it is not too bad, but two or three years down the line we shall all be pleading, in Adjournment debates such as this, for it not to be put up to £1.30 or £1.50. The car is essential in some rural areas.
The road pricing system that I would like to see would involve no extra taxation on the motorist. The total take would be the same, but it would avoid the present system whereby people in remote areas pay more per mile because of higher fuel tax.
We have all heard of neutral taxation before. The temptation for Chancellors of the Exchequer—this one and others—to slap on another stealth tax whenever possible will be too enormous to resist.
The Deputy Leader of the House and I have bandied words previously about regional television. We both know, as we represent north-west constituencies, how important regional news is. Richard Frediani is leaving ITN to be head of regional news for Granada Television. I am sure that he is an excellent journalist and will do a great job there. It is important, however, that we stress the importance of regional television and regional news to all Members of Parliament to enable us to get our message across. We want to get more people voting at general and local elections, and the way in which we can influence them is to get our messages, and our campaigns, across on regional television.
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will reinforce the message that regional television is vital to Members of Parliament in getting our message across to constituents on some of the campaigns that I have mentioned in my all-too-brief speech this afternoon. I wish everybody a happy, eventful and effective recess.
May I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill—[Hon. Members: "Where?"] I am sorry. May I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne on his maiden speech? I am sure that I was in the right place. The eloquence of his contribution made it worth while travelling up to Birmingham.
In my Hastings and Rye constituency, I have the honour of representing around 1,600 civil servants. Not surprisingly, recent announcements have caused alarm and despondency. I therefore want to make a few brief comments on behalf of this much-maligned group of public servants.
My constituents work mainly in the Child Support Agency, and the Department for Work and Pensions' jobcentres, which are both vital services in delivering the Government's agenda. The Government rightly strive, and have an obligation, to increase efficiency in delivering public services, but we do not need to undermine the confidence and self-respect of employees to achieve that end.
I therefore want the Government to distance themselves from the Opposition's characterisation of civil servants as pen-pushing, bowler-hatted, time- serving bureaucrats, and to recognise that, in the main, they are hard-working, dedicated public servants, deserving of respect just as much as nurses, doctors and teachers. Folk such as Eddie Fleming, Anita Brown and Jacqui Ottley—some of my constituents who have visited me recently—are de-motivated when they perceive that their efforts are not valued. Those civil servants, frequently referred to as back-room, often deliver personal services to some of the most vulnerable citizens—lone parents, pensioners and the disabled.
Of course, the Government have a right and duty to improve delivery where that is possible, but I want to make four brief cautionary points. First, we have come up with a figure of 80,000 or so back-room redundancies, but where is the detail? What particular services will be delivered in a different way? At present, many of my so-called back-room civil service constituents are overworked, doing no more than we have asked them to do. What jobs do we not want done? When claimants are waiting, as I am told, 14 days for a ring back, that is clearly not overstaffing.
Secondly, if the perceived answer is technology, beware. Almost no large-scale Government computer programme has proved successful. I am not luddite in my belief that technology can provide efficiency savings, but in practice it is not happening. I am told that the current DWP computer programme for registering claims loses records and makes bizarre calculations, and it is not simply human error. We cannot lose jobs until the technology is proven.
Thirdly, our benefits systems are now so complex that to reduce the work load on civil servants we need to make life simpler. Sometimes rough justice is preferable to no justice when the complexity of the system gets things wrong. I believe that a system should always provide that a claimant knows whether they are eligible for a benefit and whether the system has provided the right answer. In many of our systems now, that simply does not happen.
Fourthly, in seeking to change the work force we must surely treat them fairly. They already feel unrewarded and undervalued. I do not wish to comment on pay rates generally—to some extent, that is a matter for the market, although I support equal pay for equal work. However, I consider that the DWP future reward strategy proposals are bizarre. In fact, they are a complete horlicks. I am told that what they mean is that wage rates will not be based on merit alone—the claim made for them—but on a competitive assessment which means that only a few can succeed. I reckon that we would not be that pleased if such a proposal were implemented in the House.
I come to my plea. My constituency of Hastings and Rye is an area of regeneration. The Government have done a brilliant job with the direct investment made through the South East England Development Agency, which in turn has cut unemployment in my constituency by some 1,600. We remain, however, the blackspot for unemployment in the south-east so public service jobs are vital to our local economy. I would welcome an assurance that, whatever changes are made, the Lyons promise still holds, namely, that areas such as Hastings will not lose civil service jobs simply because they are in the south-east and, better still, that jobs from the capital will be relocated there.
Before we adjourn for the summer, I wish to raise a number of points quickly. Unfortunately, since the previous of these Adjournment debates, this House—the mother of all Parliaments—has been further sidelined. Time after time, matters that should be brought to the House first are shared with unelected representatives such as members of the media or local authority officials. I very much regret that. We have had two important reports recently. The first was such a laugh that a new brand of paint has been brought out as a result of it. The second was critical of everyone but no one was to blame. Then the gentleman who runs all this fiasco, who occupies No. 10 Downing street, comes to the Dispatch Box on Tuesday and admits to the House that he has made various mistakes. Yet nothing is done. If ever there was a resigning matter, what we were told on Tuesday was certainly a reason for the Prime Minister to resign.
It was brass-taking nerve for this rotten Government to announce a five-year strategy to tackle crime. The Prime Minister was elected Labour leader on the slogan, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". He is now in his eighth year of trying to tackle crime and the Government have the nerve to come out with a five-year strategy to tackle it. What is wrong with law enforcement in this country is all to do with management. The two people I blame for the mismanagement are the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary must wake up every morning thinking, "Now what can I next make an offence?" What is going on at the moment is laughable. All Members of Parliament realise that there are serious matters to be dealt with.
I am delighted that my local newspaper, the Yellow Advertiser, launched a campaign called "More Feet on the Beat", which called on the Home Secretary to provide sufficient funding for an extra 10 police officers. The newspaper encouraged its readers to send in coupons and I was delighted to present the Prime Minister with more than 2,000 coupons yesterday and to present a petition to the House. The newspaper, its editor Mr. Graeme Allen and reporter Luke Walsh, should be commended for the campaign. I am delighted to tell the House that after four months the campaign has had some success. There is a more visible police presence across Southend, West and one of the three police stations—Eastwood—is now partly open. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will do what he can to take the issue further.
On several occasions I have mentioned the tragedy of my constituent, Maajid Nawaz. He was jailed for five years on
Many Members of Parliament have mentioned the nightmare of post office closures. I represent a tiny urban area, but yet another five post offices—Bridgewater drive, Earls Hall, Eastwoodbury lane, the Ridgeway and the West road—have been suggested for closure. Local residents are very upset about the proposal because there are so many senior citizens in my constituency. I have complained to the Post Office, because its consultation process is a farce. I hope to present a petition on the issue later.
In May, I presented a Bill that would have put the onus on the mobile phone operators to prove to local authorities that there was a need for mobile phone masts and that they had no health implications. In June, I asked the Prime Minister about the matter. I am sure that he more than anyone constantly uses mobile phones. My concern is that phones have real health risks if overused, especially by young children. The Prime Minister replied that he would proceed "very carefully" and based on the "scientific evidence". In this case, it has become clear that the words "very carefully" translate into the Government doing nothing. The status quo remains, which is totally unacceptable. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has told me that it has not commissioned any research in the area. The only real research that I can find—the Stewart report—goes back four years and it recommends the precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technology. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to consider the matter and see what the Prime Minister means about proceeding according the scientific evidence, when no such evidence is being gathered.
The subject of abortion recently came to everyone's attention when Lord Steel of Aikwood, who introduced the original Bill, said that he now thought that we should look at it again. Many of us have been saying that as babies born at 22 weeks can be saved in special care units that help them to breathe independently, the law is an ass. The ultrasound pictures of an unborn child taken by Professor Stuart Campbell stunned us. The recent increase in the number of under-16-year-olds having abortions shocked us, so will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that we reconsider the matter when we come back in the autumn?
Leigh creek badly needs dredging. It has been the lifeline of the port of Leigh for centuries, through its shipbuilding days to its current existence as a fishing and cockling port. The creek has been silting up for several years, with a shorter and shorter time between high tides when boats can leave and return. The course of the creek was changed, without permission, about 15 years ago, but as Leigh town council is still desperately grappling with the problem, will the Minister find out whether any money can be found to help with dredging the creek?
Finally, it occurs to me that some Members may not yet have booked their summer holiday. I implore them to come to Southend, where we have the greatest number of hours of sunshine in the UK. If that does not attract them, Southend museum has a display of finds from the burial chamber of a Saxon king, uncovered in recent roadworks. The exhibition will be transferred to the Museum of London.
I join all Members in wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone a very happy summer.
It is always a delight to follow Mr. Amess. I have been to Southend before; that is why I shall not be going there this summer. May I tell Mr. Tyler, for whom I have a warm regard, that whenever he rises to his feet many Members feel that the clocks have stopped? Mr. Wilkinson is a doughty fighter for the armed forces. I associate him most readily with the Royal Air Force, for which I, too, have great feeling. My father served 15 years with that august institution, including all the second world war years. According to my mother, I was born in the back of a squadron leader's car at RAF Gutersloh, so I retain the highest regard for the service.
I want to mention three items briefly. I realise that many Members want to speak so I shall cut back my remarks as much as possible. Furthermore, I do not want to antagonise the Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Woolas—old and sad as he now is, compared with little and sad when he first came to this place.
I welcome the statement made by the Secretary of State for Transport on Tuesday, especially as it relates to future rail developments in London. Although much of the detail still has to be finalised, the Crossrail project is making progress. In my part of south-east London, we warmly welcomed the announcements about the east London line. As I have been campaigning for its southern extension for well over 30 years, I am delighted that the funding has at last been allocated and that work can proceed.
Mr. Bob Kiley, the London transport commissioner said of the Secretary of State's announcement:
"This groundbreaking agreement means that London, for the first time, has the opportunity to make long-term decisions on planning major capital projects without the fear that funding will be withdrawn in future years."
That is good for all Londoners.
The head of finance and planning at Transport for London said:
"The Olympic projects we will now take forward include extending the East London Line (to Dalston Junction, West Croydon and Crystal Palace), expanding the DLR and new transit projects in East London and Greenwich."
The Clapham junction extension will have to wait. I do not mind those projects being described in relation to the Olympic bid, although the case for them exists whether or not we make a bid for the 2012 Olympics. I have a reputation for being slightly more sceptical about the bid than other London Members or some of the other Members in the Chamber. The southern extension to West Croydon station involves the least cost, minimal engineering work and the highest cost-benefit for the investment, and we look forward to progress on that.
Sadly, we received less encouraging news in my constituency yesterday, when the star ratings for the acute trusts were published and the rating for University hospital Lewisham went down from three stars to two stars. At first sight, that might seem a diminution of service, but when one examines the reasons, one finds that the trust achieved eight out of nine key targets, that it underachieved on only one of the nine key targets and that it significantly underachieved on none of the key targets.
On clinical focus, four indicators were in band five, no indicators were in band one and the trust was placed in the middle band for performance. On patient focus, it had two indicators in band five, no indicators in band one and, again, was placed in the middle band for performance. On capacity and capability, it achieved two indicators in band five and no indicators in band one, putting it in the top band for performance. Paradoxically, although it lost a star—the press release states, "Hospital just misses out on top rating"—it missed out by one point, and that was for out-patient activity. The clinical services to people in the hospital have improved markedly.
The trust was pursuing the foundation trust bid in wave 1a, but that has been put in some doubt by its losing one star. However, four other hospitals that had three stars lost one star, but they have trust status, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health must consider those matters. In Lewisham's case, I hope that he will examine not only the quantative assessment by the Healthcare Commission, but the underlying qualitative information to see that the hospital is making steady progress and that the bid should be allowed to continue.
I have been a Lewisham resident for 53 years, and I have no doubt that University hospital Lewisham provides a better service to the people of Lewisham than it has ever done in its history. An extremely hard working and diligent chief executive and trust chair lead it, and it is a great resource for the people of south-east London. I hope that the service, which it provides so magnificently to my constituents, will continue to expand.
I wanted to mention one other matter, but in view of the time and the need to get others in, I shall leave my remarks there.
I want to raise one or two important issues in my constituency.
For some time, my constituents have been telling me about their experiences and those of their relatives in our regional hospital, the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, Wonford. At the end of June, I received a letter from a constituent, who drew my attention to his experience as a post-operative patient after undergoing eye surgery:
"To save money we were told we were shunted upstairs to Otter ward every Saturday by 2 o'clock and awakened even earlier than usual for a move on Monday at 7 am to be back on Parkerswell ward settled for the day shift to commence."
When people have an in-patient stay, it is not uncommon for them to be moved, and we all understand the pressures at weekends, when hospitals try to discharge their patients and sometimes bring a couple of wards together.
I was struck by the idea that a post-operative patient or patients should have been woken at an extraordinarily early hour in order to shunt them back on to the original ward in time for the day shift to come in. When one reads such stories, one asks oneself whom the service is for. Obviously, I wrote to the management of the hospital on behalf of my constituent, and I was astonished to receive a bland reply. It says:
"It is therefore our standard practice to group patients on to appropriately staffed wards at weekends on occasions when it has not been possible to discharge them by the time that the ward closes. This is the only ward we have within the Trust which operates on a five day basis and our practice is consistent with practice across the NHS."
My message to the Minister today is that, if that is standard practice and the way in which patients are treated—got up at an especially early hour for the convenience of the hospital process—that practice needs to be changed. I know that he will pass that on to the Department of Health. Even worse, I heard stories from people whose relatives were particularly delicate and ill when they seemed to be subject to so many unnecessary moves around the hospital.
When the story of that patient appeared in my local newspaper, I received letters from others, including some very serious cases of people who were very ill. I shall just read an extract because I will not identify the constituents for obvious reasons. A young man wrote to me:
"I would like to tell you about my mum, and this is more than I can bear, who was 69 and admitted to" the same hospital in
"September 2003. She was shunted around five times in a four week period. With bravery and good humour my mum bore this . . . despite my pleas."
She died in the first week of November. He continued:
"Cancer patients it seems too are being shunted around the hospital in the last weeks of their lives."
That is quite unacceptable.
None of those things will appear in the star ratings that Jim Dowd mentioned. No such figures appear in official reports from hospitals, but that is what is happening in them. It cannot be right that that sort of practice is allowed to continue. I am not asking the Government to create a new target for minimum moves, as part of the star-ratings system. To anyone with any fraction of compassion or common sense, that is an unacceptable practice. It does not put patients first; it does not recognise that hospitals exist to serve patients, not their regulations and processes. I hope that, by drawing the House's attention to that today, the Minister will assist me in getting that practice stopped.
Another matter on health relates to NHS dentistry, which my right hon. Friend Sir George Young has raised already. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on
The reason I bring NHS dentistry to the House's attention today is that, in trying to find any surgery for one of my constituents this week, my caseworker contacted the trust to find out where the nearest NHS surgery is and was told that a practice in Barnstaple—on the north Devon coast, some 30 miles from Tiverton—is still accepting NHS patients. When my caseworker said, "Well, it's rather a long way to go—30 miles to visit the dentist", she was told, "Well, perhaps they would like the drive."
Bearing in mind the opportunity of people travelling around the country in the forthcoming holiday period, I would agree that the journey by car from Tiverton to Barnstaple is most glorious. The scenery is fantastic, and there are many wayside inns and places to cool off and to enjoy the day, but that, frankly, is not quite what people want when they have a terrible toothache and are looking for a convenient NHS dentist. So I add my voice to those hon. Members who have called for NHS dentistry to be addressed by the Government. When we had our debate back in February, the local trust was waiting for the Government to make a decision on funding, and I urge them to get on with that as quickly as possible.
Finally, I sat through the "Patience Strong" guide to the countryside from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday, when she painted a very glossy, very attractive picture of the Government's strategy for rural areas, but I simply do not understand why small businesses in rural areas are being deprived of their enterprises agencies. In my constituency, the enterprise agencies are closing in Crediton and Tiverton. In Honiton, which has had a very successful enterprise agency, we understand that the contract to service that business community has been lost to the city of Plymouth, which is hardly rural and is at the other end of the county. So my final plea to the Minister is that, if rural communities and rural economies are important to the Government, at least keep those support services that have been seen to work, on which local businesses rely, and that deliver local services to local needs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne on his election victory and superb maiden speech. Mathematics was never my strong point at school, but a simple division of the time remaining and number of hon. Members wishing to speak suggests that I should be suitably brief.
I wish to dwell on the position of the maternity services in the town of Braintree, especially as situated in the William Julian Courtauld hospital. The name Courtauld may be familiar to hon. Members because it was the famous textile firm founded in Bocking, which is adjacent to Braintree. For many years, it had mills in both Bocking and Halstead and was a major employer of labour. The specific community hospital that I mention was endowed by William Julian Courtauld after the first world war and subscribed to by the working people of Braintree for the benefit of the town.
The hospital has provided superb personal maternity services to the mothers of Braintree for many years, although we saw a shadow of things to come in 1997 when the then health authority proposed to close down all hospital services in the town of Braintree and, not being content with that, also those in the town of Maldon. There was a tremendous local campaign against that. The consultation was called "Taking the Initiative", but hon. Members can well imagine that local people had another expression for it, which went even further than "Taking Liberties". The campaign against the closures in 1997 and 1998 was successful, so the William Julian Courtauld hospital retained its maternity service, albeit somewhat diminished, because although the service had been general practitioner-led, it was reduced to being midwife-led. Nevertheless, the service remained in place and continued to serve the people of the town.
Last autumn, the care trust that now administers the service announced that the hospital was closing for a short time owing to sickness of staff and pregnancy among the midwives. That was understandable and I made no fuss when it took place; midwives of course have the same right to become pregnant as everyone else. The hospital reopened on a most peculiar basis. It would be almost impossible to make this story up, so hon. Members must take my word for it that what I am about to say is true.
The maternity hospital opened on the basis of operating between 9 o'clock in the morning and 5 o'clock in the evening, Monday to Friday only. I do not think that we have reached a stage at which the time when babies arrive may be programmed more definitely than was historically the case—mothers and fathers in the Chamber will recall that a more common time for a baby's arrival is the early hours of the morning—so hon. Members will understand the difficulty that that has caused. If it is anticipated that a baby will be born outside the nine-to-five period, it is possible for people to contact a midwife, who will get the key and let them into the hospital.
Hon. Members can well imagine what happened as a result of the change. A mother gave birth to a baby in the hospital car park, and the town is in uproar about what has happened. Meetings and demonstrations have been held, and there was a substantial march through the town of Braintree last Saturday. It largely consisted of mothers with young children, although a few people of more mature years were present, including me as the local Member of Parliament. A descendent of the founder of the hospital, Julian Courtauld, was also there. We spoke at the end of the march, and there is a universal view in the town that the full service should be restored.
It is possible that we are making progress, and I am raising the matter today because I am sure that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will convey the state of affairs to the Secretary of State for Health. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to persuade the care trust not to be quite so insulting to the mothers and children of Braintree.
There is a light to the case, even by its own logic. The number of babies born in the hospital rose to 22 at the end of last month. That is within the target of the health trust for the number of babies it wants to be born to justify a 24-hour service. The difficulty is, of course, that if it does not open on a 24-hour basis, fewer mothers go there and it is difficult to reach the target set.
I fully understand that those who have complications or potentially difficult pregnancies will go to the general hospital in Chelmsford, which can offer more specialised services. Births at the William Julian Courtauld hospital are expected to be—I say this as a mere man—of the more straightforward kind. However, the institution has been popular and has served the town well for the best part of 75 years. I hope that it continues and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will intervene in such a way as he thinks fit.
I represent a beautiful part of the country, set on the Thames, populated by good and self-reliant people who are proud to be British and who cherish our wonderful heritage. Hadleigh, for instance, has an historic castle and the ancient St. James's church, but it needs to regain its village atmosphere. Thundersley, Benfleet and Canvey Island are delightful communities. More than anything, Castle Point needs to conserve and improve its environment and amenities, which means stopping the overdevelopment.
A year ago, Conservatives took control of Castle Point borough council from Labour. The results are starting to shine through. An Audit Commission report was produced after just eight months of Conservative administration. Of course, things do not change immediately or without a lot of effort. In fact, the Prime Minister still blames the old Conservative Government for his failure to deliver on public services, congestion and antisocial behaviour—I could go on—after eight years in power.
The Audit Commission's report sets out an optimistic picture of
"the beginning of the journey".
"Political leadership within the Council was previously weak."
That was the old Labour leadership. It continues:
"The current leader"— the new Conservative leader—
"demonstrates a determination to provide clear political direction."
The Audit Commission is right to highlight the problems that still need to be resolved. It is also right to point to the positive early action taken by councillors. For instance, it states that the new Conservative council has
"agreed a balanced budget . . . directed additional resources to priority areas . . . recognised the need for alternative forms of service provision", and notes:
"Partners are positive about working with the Council".
In addition, the council has closed loss-making facilities, outsourced services and is still in the process of radical change to drive up the standard of services for the public and the value of the money that it gives to the public. I warmly congratulate the councillors on their efforts.
We must be patient, however. Rome was not built in a day, but the seeds of success are coming through. They were sown by the council's leader, Pam Challis, and her excellent team of councillors. In particular, I thank Jeffrey Stanley, who guided the team financially. He delivered the balanced budget and kept the council tax rise in Castle Point this year to below 3 per cent., a remarkable achievement. He held firm on spending throughout the council's departments to force the necessary reforms and give value for money. Jeff Stanley did a great service to the people of Castle Point.
I must also mention the chief executive, Barry Rollinson, and his team of officers and staff, who are professional, dedicated and hard-working. They deserve the community's thanks and congratulations and its encouragement to continue down the right road of reform so that we bring back pride in Castle Point.
One major local problem is that of disabled facilities grants to enable disabled people to live in decent circumstances in their homes. Castle Point has estimated that this year it needs £600,000 to cover the demand for those grants, and that does not include any new services likely to be recommended by occupational therapists. The Government made only £90,000 available to the council, which has topped up the figure to £150,000, but that is still only a quarter of what is needed—it will probably turn out to be even less than that as the new demand becomes known. That is tragic for disabled people unable to get the simple aids and adaptations that they so desperately need.
This is not a political matter; I seek to score no political points. I do not criticise the county council, the Government or indeed the borough council. I simply and sincerely ask the Minister to look at the case of Castle Point and to write to me or meet me so that we can start to find a solution to the problem. In all decency we must do that for the vulnerable people whom we represent and who depend on us. I thank the borough council's director of health and housing, Alan Longford, and County Councillor Bill Dick, who are working hard to resolve the problem for the community.
Still on local issues, I put on record yet again the need to find a way to give Canvey Island its third access road, which must be from Northwick road. Just a few days ago, Canvey Island was completely blocked off again because of a tragic accident. It came to a standstill, and so did much of the mainland. The environmental damage caused by congestion every day is incalculable. I congratulate the local newspapers, the Yellow Advertiser and the Evening Echo, on their campaign to try to improve matters. As I hold up a copy of the latter, hon. Members can see that it calls our traffic problems "chaos". I know that County Councillor Ray Howard has fought for years to improve matters locally, and I am happy to join him and his team in that fight.
Of course, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's policy to increase the house-building target in Castle Point from 2,400 to 4,000 without giving any infrastructure help whatever will simply exacerbate the problem. It is complete nonsense, and we must fight every single inappropriate building application because more building without the infrastructure simply adds to our problems.
I want to raise a couple of police issues. I congratulate the divisional commander, John Mauger, his officers and staff on their efforts over the last year. They have had a tough time, but they are now getting on top of local antisocial behaviour, street crime and youth nuisance. They have improved those matters. There is still a lot to be done, of course, but things are moving in the right direction, and that is because of a sound strategy, good management of that strategy and excellent officers on the ground implementing it.
Nationally, the police need help. They are bogged down with bureaucracy. It takes three and a half hours to arrest someone, which stops the police responding quickly, investigating earlier crimes and walking the streets to deter further crimes. One solution must be improved IT. We need minimum, not maximum, administrative input from the police. Names, addresses and dates of birth must be entered once into a palm-top at the scene or in the police car, not many times on several forms back at the station. The police must co-operate with the Crown Prosecution Service to find ways of becoming more effective. We need mobile data units in police cars, so that officers can be linked to each electronically and can communicate with each other, speeding up their processing of crime and keeping them on the streets.
We need common sense, and we need to roll out IT solutions, hardware and system simplifications. That could save up to 25 per cent. of police time, which would mean 25 per cent. more police officers on the street. That is what the public want; indeed, it is what they deserve. By the way, it is also what the police themselves deserve because they are very hard-pressed, dedicated and professional, and I congratulate them again on their work locally.
I have spoken consistently on the European Union over the years. Briefly, I believe that we have to get out of the common fisheries policy, as I have said many times. We must now get out of the common agricultural policy, which ceased to be useful years ago. It is expensive, and it delivers problems, not solutions, to our farmers and consumers. It is increasingly inappropriate in an expanded Europe, and it damages the developing world, much to the shame of the whole of Europe. We also need to bring international development finance back under our own control. Bilateral project-based aid is much more effective and delivers better and more sustainable solutions than multilateral aid channelled through Europe.
I congratulate UK Independence party MEPs on using their position to inform the British public about the waste, excesses, corruption and stupidity of European institutions. The more the British people know about the EU, the less they like it. The EU is being driven hard towards a single federal state; our destiny is not to be consumed by that state. We must retain our sovereignty, retain the pound, stay out of the EU constitution, get out of the CFP and the CAP, bring back our international development funding to this country, and return to the simple trading relationship and to rational co-operation with Europe where that is in Britain's interests. That is what the people of this country voted for and to give them less is to betray them.
This afternoon, I shall make a serious contribution on the subject of prostitution. Last Friday, the Government published an important consultation document, "Paying the Price", which I welcome strongly. Existing laws on prostitution date back more than 50 years and have, in my opinion, long been in need of reform. In one small part of my constituency we have had a serious problem with prostitution. I do not in any way condone prostitution, but as a Member of Parliament I have had to think seriously about it.
The traditional red-light district of Bolton is a small light industrial estate covering far less than a square mile, which is connected to the road network, surrounded by car parks and close to the town centre night life. As heavy engineering industry moved out, light industry moved in and the business men began to complain about the prostitutes, who were operating from 3 o'clock in the afternoon rather than from the early evening onward, which led to women walking through the area and business men visiting it to be harassed.
Because of the number of complaints, the police had to do something. They conducted a great deal of activity in the area, but the result was to decant the problem across the main Bury-Bolton road and into a pleasant residential area, where the problems escalated. Prostitution is connected with drugs—we have had yardies in the area—but the reason that I have had to take a keen interest in the situation is that in 18 months there have been 14 suspicious deaths in that small area. Two prostitutes, Carly Bateman and Danielle Moorcroft, aged 17 and 21 respectively, were recently murdered there; Danielle was five months pregnant at the time of her death. There have also been vicious attacks and drug overdoses. The area is surrounded by Bolton community college and the halls of residence for Bolton institute of higher education—now a university—and students are badly harassed. There were real problems, so the police started to be active in the residential area, as a result of which the prostitutes are now spread over a much wider area.
However, there is good news: we in Bolton now have a prostitution forum, which was established under the chairmanship of Councillor Frank White. It offers a strategic approach to managing prostitution back into the traditional area—the light industrial estate. No one lives there, so apart from business men in the day time, no one has a serious problem with prostitutes operating in the area. Of course Bolton council, the police and the health authority are taking an holistic approach: they are trying to get all the prostitutes off the game, off drugs and into jobs, and to look after their health. I congratulate the Bolton prostitution forum on its mature approach to a difficult problem.
The police have offered a curfew time that is now well known in Bolton: prostitutes can operate in the area from 7 o'clock in the evening until 6 o'clock in the morning, and if they operate outside the area police will harass them. There are closed circuit television cameras in the area to keep the women safe, and during the curfew period the police keep an eye on what is going on. If the prostitutes do not conform to the curfew or if they operate outside the area, antisocial behaviour orders will be used. I am pleased to say that ASBOs have already been issued against two prostitutes, who are now banned from operating in Bolton. Just this evening, in the Bolton Evening News, the headline is, "Man banned from the red light zone". An ASBO has been applied to a man who is considered to be an extreme danger to prostitutes. He has become the first Bolton man to be banned, using an ASBO, from the red light area.
In addition to the consultation document that was offered last Friday, I hope that we may have a debate on the Floor of the House so that we can make far more serious contributions to this important subject than I can make this afternoon.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne. His speech is a tribute to the real contribution that he will make in this place. I pay tribute also to his predecessor, Terry Davis, who will make a real contribution in Europe.
I shall start with Iraq. In normal times, I think that we would be focusing on the future of that country. We would be looking at the constitutional path set out in United Nations Security Council resolution 1546. We would be concerned about the security situation, which is condemned in that resolution. It restates the obligations of states such as Syria and others to prevent terrorism. It is not "normal times" because an election is pending in the United States and there may be one in this country next year.
I could be sadly deluded that there are normal times in politics. Perhaps political debate and an objective consideration of the facts are mutually exclusive. There was certainly something wrong with our intelligence in Iraq. At first glance that is surprising when it was accurate in relation to Libya and the A.Q. Khan network. That is what Lord Butler and my right hon. Friend Ann Taylor and her colleagues inquired into. To suggest somehow that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was to blame for the intelligence failure, or the reading of intelligence, flies in the face of the facts.
The world community signed up to resolution 1441 in November 2002. Iraq was in material breach of its obligations because it had not completely disarmed. That was paragraph 1 of that resolution. In terms of the current debate, one could be misled into thinking that the concern at that time and subsequently was about whether there needed to be disarmament. It was not, it was about how to achieve that particular aim—should we permit the inspectors to stay longer. At page 112 of his recent book, Dr. Blix states:
"Looking at the material before us as a lawyer, I could not exclude the possibility that the Iraqis had destroyed both weapons and documents and that little or nothing was left. My gut feelings, which I kept to myself, suggested to me that Iraq still engaged in prohibited activities and retained prohibited items, and that it had the documents to prove it."
Even our eminent UK expert, Dr. Kelly, was of a similar view. For example, he offered his quite sophisticated knowledge to Mr. Gilligan of the BBC. It is set out in paragraphs 230 and 231 of Lord Hutton's report. Dr. Kelly also made an important comment to Mr. Gilligan when he said
"there has been proliferation—not in terms of people walking across the Iraqi border with 20 shells, but supply chain knowledge—plans."
That is important in terms of the threat that Iraq posed. Unfortunately, Mr. Gilligan did not report what Dr. Kelly actually told him.
That leads to a few reflections about the media. I do not believe that there was a golden age of media objectivity. I believe, however, that we are blessed with a media whose range and depth must be the envy of other countries. However, there is a deep culture of suspicion about politicians and their motives in the media. Ian Hargreaves and John Lloyd, in their recent books, have written about the corrosive effects of this on the body politic. As a political class, we do not always help ourselves. Accusations of bad faith or, worse, deceit, on the part of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are so casually and regularly made by some journalists and leader writers, and I find that deeply worrying. I utterly reject such accusations. In fact, I find them a personal affront.
One important issue that we should be debating is the basis on which there should be armed intervention where we have rogue or failed states. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an important speech on this earlier this year. Rhetorically, he said:
"The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights is a fine document. But it is strange the United Nations is so reluctant to enforce it."
In 2001, the international commission that the Canadian Government had established reported on criteria of legitimacy for intervention. It identified five. These were seriousness, right intention, last resort, proportionality and the balance of consequences. We should debate the issue because, in the light of Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Sudan we need clear guidance on what the international community can do.
Briefly, the inadequacies of the coroner system were brought home to me earlier this year by a case in my constituency. There was no practical way in which an adverse finding by the coroner could be reviewed at the instigation of the people who were criticised. A fundamental Home Office review chaired by Tom Luce was published in 2003. Although the system has been reviewed a number of times over the last century, nothing has been done. That system is not transparent or joined-up, and does not meet families' emotional or practical needs. Change is needed, and I urge the Government to implement the review.
Finally, I introduced the Company Directors (Health and Safety) Bill last year. The Government believe that voluntary action is the way forward, but on the basis of the published research, I believe that more needs to be done.
I should like to report on some concerns raised by my constituents and provide feedback on recent Government initiatives.
One of the most important recent announcements was the comprehensive spending review, and my constituents will certainly welcome the investments in education and health. An intermediate treatment centre will provide another 100 beds by next year, which is much appreciated by the people of Swindon. I am pleased that we have significantly reduced NHS waiting times, and that NHS dentistry has been restored in Swindon after the complete lack of such a service under the previous Government. However, there are concerns about waiting times in audiology and secondary mental health services, demonstrating that that additional investment is very much needed.
I have a huge postbag of letters from people who, while recognising that the Government have made a great contribution to international aid, urge them to do even more. I congratulate the Chancellor on announcing a deadline for meeting the target of spending 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product on international aid, which will help to save millions of lives. The additional money to tackle crime is welcome, and I was pleased to learn today of crime figures showing that Wiltshire is the second safest county in the country. Residents appreciate their improved quality of life, and thanks are due to the police, the local community, the council and magistrates, who have made a concerted effort to tackle crime. Street wardens have had a huge impact on the Parks, Walcot and Central wards in my constituency, where they act as the eyes and ears of the community, take up issues of concern and get things done. Again, that initiative is thanks to the investment of the Labour Government.
We are not complacent, however. More should be done on antisocial behaviour, particularly prostitution, which has been successfully tackled in Central ward by the community, together with the council and local police. That could not have been done without antisocial behaviour orders and Government legislation making kerb crawling an arrestable offence. An antisocial behaviour order was recently imposed on a kerb crawler in Swindon to keep them out of the area. I am sad to record the death of Matt McCue, one of the people who led that community work, but the community has vowed to remember him and is determined to continue his work. The quality of life has improved significantly in Central ward and I know that with the additional powers and those that are being consulted on, we will be able to do even more.
We should not allow tolerance zones to be introduced. When I spoke to prostitutes, they said that tolerance zones are set up on industrial estates, for example, and they are too frightened to use those places. Introducing tolerance zones will lead to official prostitution and unofficial prostitution as well. Following the example of the Swedish Government, we should say that in our society no one should pay for sex. Those who do so fuel the antisocial behaviour associated with prostitution. We should try to minimise the problems in our society that result from prostitution.
I continue to get in my postbag tragic letters from people who have suffered in road accidents, who have family members who have suffered in road accidents or who have lost family members in such accidents. We need to do more to tackle speeding. The matter has already been raised in the debate. There is still a belief that it is acceptable to speed, and that speed cameras are naughty wicked things set up by Government, rather than an attempt to reduce road deaths and injuries. But the evidence overwhelmingly shows that they do just that. Any MP who has to face somebody who has lost a family member in a road accident must emphasise that speeding is a major issue, and we need to make it as unacceptable as drink driving has become. I am working to support 20 mph zones around our schools, as I believe that is important.
Other hon. Members have spoken about maternity services, a topic that we need to draw to the Government's attention. Government policy is designed to extend choice in maternity services, but as we have heard from a number of hon. Members, it seems that choice is being reduced. In my constituency some Swindon women choose to use a midwife-led unit that is just outside the constituency in Malmesbury. That is being threatened with closure. The primary care trust there will make a decision on Tuesday.The maternity unit is extremely popular and is the only midwife-led unit available to Swindon women. It seems stupid to close it when it could be better used. Many people in my constituency do not know about it. If it were well used, it could be as economical as some of the other services or, as the evidence from elsewhere suggests, more economical.
I chair the maternity group here in Parliament, so I pick up a number of issues. My hon. Friend Mrs. Clark has tabled an early-day motion about the home birth service being withdrawn in Peterborough. It is at a foundation trust, which is supposed to respond to local communities and provide more choice, yet a midwife there has been suspended for attending a home birth. That is strange. Women have a right to have a home birth and midwives have a duty to attend home births, so the circle is not being squared. Trusts seem to have no duty to provide the necessary midwives. If we are keen to promote choice in maternity services, I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to sort the matter out. Home births on average take up less midwife time than other births, so they should clearly be supported, as recent National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidelines show.
Finally, I should like to mention the crisis in Darfur. A number of hon. Members recently visited Sudan and saw the catastrophe. They recognised the efforts made by the Government, who are already the largest donor and have promised more money. Those hon. Members also urge our constituents to dig in their pockets and give money to the emergency appeal, because they have seen people who they know will be dead by now. They have seen the hunger, the lack of shelter and so on, and they urge the Government to do more.
I hope my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will raise those issues with the relevant Departments. I appreciate the opportunity to draw them to the attention of the House on behalf of my constituents.
I have raised the case of Cyprus on many occasions, and I had hoped that by now it would be resolved amicably. As that is not the case, however, I return to it today. Let me remind the House that Turkey invaded Cyprus in July 1974—more than 30 years ago—thereby violating every conceivable international norm. Two hundred thousand Greek Cypriots fled without their possessions, 5,000 were killed, and more than 1,000 are still missing. Countless UN resolutions, debates and efforts to find a solution have been thwarted by Turkey, by the putative leader of the occupied territory, Mr. Denktash and, more recently, by Mr. Talat.
The Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights have upheld every case against Turkey, but it has bluntly refused to comply. The Secretary-General of the UN, Mr. Kofi Annan, has done his best to assist, but major failings in the advice given to him have turned the clock backwards, not forwards.
A referendum on creating a united Cyprus was held on
There are also some 35,000 Turkish troops in this small occupied territory. It was the Turks who voted yes; many Turkish Cypriots voted no. The vote in the Republic of Cyprus was a resounding no, with 76 per cent. of Greek Cypriots voting against Annan plan V. One would have thought that in any referendum 76 per cent. of people cannot all be wrong, but that is how the world reacted. The condemnation of the Greek Cypriots and of President Tassos Papadopoulos was nearly unanimous. At the same time, the Turkish Cypriots were acclaimed as friends of democracy and human rights, and as the only people really in favour of a united Cyprus. As I said, it was the Turkish settlers who voted yes. Three days ago, we received three Greek Cypriot mayors in exile. They are from the three most densely populated areas in the occupied territory—Famagusta, Morphou and Kyrenia. Their research, particularly in Kyrenia, suggests that the vast majority of Turkish Cypriots voted no.
Why did Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots vote no despite 30 years of division and a strong desire to unify? Annan plan I was put to political decision makers as the most balanced plan ever devised. Then, it was changed in favour of Turkey, and re-presented as Annan II. Again, that was described as the most balanced plan ever and changed in favour of Turkey, becoming Annan III. Annan III was of course presented as the most balanced plan ever devised, but major changes were made in favour of Turkey between Annan IV and Annan V, even giving Turkish troops the right to stay in Cyprus in perpetuity, albeit with their number reduced over the decades to 650.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots feel, rightly, that security issues have not been thought through; that human rights are not negotiable; that implementation of Annan V will take decades; that property rights have almost been forgotten; that the fate of the missing should receive attention; and that those in enclaves and everyone else should have freedom of movement. Those are all matters that we take for granted in the UK and, I should have thought, in the EU. After all, Cyprus is a full member of the EU.
The real problem with Annan V was that it had little to do with Cyprus. It was an attempt to push for a yes vote on both sides, regardless, so that EU accession negotiations with Turkey could commence in December 2004. When the full truth comes out, the world will change its mind and the EU will want Turkey to negotiate fairly before contemplating allowing it to commence accession negotiations. It will not be possible to have another vote on Annan V. The best that could happen is for all Cypriots to come together to create a solution and put it to the UN. For once, Cyprus could do without foreign intervention, which has served only to deepen divisions and make it more difficult to find a lasting solution of a united and free island.
I say to Turkey and others that Cyprus is a full member of the EU and now has the power of veto over accession. That may assist in finding a fair solution.
I want to raise three brief issues, but, first, I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne.
I stress to hon. Members who spoke about British Telecom telephones that the all-party group held a meeting with BT in which those who spoke today were conspicuous by their absence. Had they been present, they would have heard facts about the 40,000 loss-making phones and know that local authorities have an effective veto over whether they go. They would have realised that innovative councils such as Bolton had found a way of dealing with some of those BT pay phones.
I read with interest early-day motion 1496, which is about unscrupulous property developers from Bromsgrove, who divided up fields and offered plots for sale. A European land sales partnership is doing something similar in a lovely village called Bow Brickell in my constituency. It is offering a field for future homes and taking money now with a promise of a home in the future. The person responsible has bought a field for £90,000 and stands to make £3 million. There is little chance of the field getting planning permission, but the developer's information advances the growth of Milton Keynes as an inducement. As well as stressing the points made in early-day motion 1496, I emphasise to the Deputy Leader of the House that someone who has been barred as a company director is running the scheme and gets round the law by forming a partnership. I ask my hon. Friend to take up with the Department of Trade and Industry not only closing the loophole that allow scams such as those in Bromsgrove and Milton Keynes to occur, but extending the bars on directorships to partnerships.
The second issue echoes a matter that my neighbour, Alistair Burt raised. Choice is the in word, and yesterday the Public Administration Committee held a seminar to examine how choice works. One example was the direct payment scheme. There is a scheme in my constituency whereby disabled people can live as normal a life as possible. The council provides flats and Scope provides adaptations. The flats are spread over a normal estate, but treated as one unit. The Commission for Social Care Inspection has inspected them for years. However, under current regulations, they have to be treated as a care home. The warden is expected to go into each flat to inspect fridges, beds and the state of the flats. My house would not pass the test in those regulations, and I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members.
People who have lived in the flats for 20 years stand to lose their homes. That is absurd. Nobody believes that it is right, but because they do not fit the regulations neatly, the flats are being treated in the way that I described. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to take account of two issues: first, if we are serious about choice, inspection regimes and their targets should be designed to deal with diversity and choice; and, secondly, when such absurdities and red tape arise, we should use our regulatory reform procedure—no Tory Members turn up for that, but that is another story—to remedy them as quickly as possible.
A constituent, Colin Tripp, was injured at work and won compensation after a long battle. He thought that it was great until he began to receive benefits and his pension. The compensation is treated as income, not a lump sum. Consequently, the total amount that he receives in benefits and pension is considerably less than it would have been. The Department for Work and Pensions claims that it is taking nothing away from the compensation. There are genuine problems with that. Time prevents me from going into detail, but I ask my hon. Friend to pass on the case to the Department for Work and Pensions. There are many such anomalies in the benefits system, which is complex. Interaction between payments causes problems and although we have done much through the tax credit system, several anomalies still need to be examined.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating Mr. Byrne on his wonderful maiden speech and on his election. I did not campaign for him—perhaps that is one reason he did so well—because I was occupied, with the Deputy Leader of the House, in another part of the midlands.
I also congratulate my right hon. Friend Ann Taylor on another excellent speech. She spent many years on the Front Bench, but we have not heard her speak from the Back Benches on education, which is her passion. She will be greatly missed when she retires from the House next year; she is truly a great parliamentarian.
I have some holiday homework for three Ministers, in the form of three quick questions, which I hope the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on. My first question is to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In view of the excellent statement made yesterday by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, in which he and the commission came out firmly against the proposal for a single equality commission, will the Secretary of State look again at the proposals? They do not have the support of the black and ethnic minority community in the United Kingdom, because there has not been sufficient consultation on them. It is not that the communities and I are against the idea of a single commission; it is that there is no guarantee that the race issue will be given the prominence it deserves. We are not against a single equality Act, because it is important to bring together the necessary legislation. However, if we abolish the CRE, given all the work it has done over the past 30 or so years, it will be essential that the race dimension is properly represented in the new organisation. The summer recess will give the Secretary of State, my neighbour in Leicester, the time to look at what the chairman of the CRE has said, at what the 1990 Trust has said, and at what hon. Members have said on this issue, and to try to refashion the programme.
My second question is to the Attorney-General. Over the summer, will he redouble his efforts to deal with the Guantanamo Bay detainees? We hear that progress has been made, and five of the original nine detainees have been released. It is vital, however, that we continue to put pressure on the American Government, because it is wrong that British people should be held in Guantanamo Bay without charge or the possibility of a fair trial. Will the Attorney-General please press the initiative on this issue that he began more than a year ago?
The final bit of homework is for the Minister for Local and Regional Government, my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford. Will he hold a proper investigation into the way in which Leicester city council is being run by the Liberal-led coalition, which is a complete disgrace? If the Leicester, South by-election had been a referendum on the record of the council, the excellent Labour candidate would have won hands down. The fact is that council tax has been put up by 8 per cent., and £2 million has been cut from the voluntary sector budget. Vital projects such as the St. Gabriel's community centre, the Humberstone park café—about which I shall present a petition at the end of this debate—and the Morton, Northfield and Tailby tenants association are being cut by the Liberal council, which came to power claiming that it would represent the views of local people. All it has done is cut local services, causing misery and hardship to the 250,000 citizens of Leicester. May we please have a proper investigation into what it is doing? The claim that it made when it came to power that there was a £10 million black hole left by the previous Labour administration was absolute rubbish. It is important that the Liberal Democrats should be exposed for what they are doing in Leicester, and I hope that an investigation will be instituted over the summer months.
I, too, add my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne on his maiden speech. I played a small part in his campaign—the blisters on my feet have now healed—but I felt that it was well worth while when I listened to a very able new Member make a very good speech.
I wish to raise an issue that affects my constituency and those of many other hon. Members—attacks on NHS staff, and on ambulance personnel in particular. Those men and women are vital to the health service, and we rely on them at times when we fall ill or have accidents.
In the north-east, there has been an increase in the number of attacks on ambulance drivers and paramedics: from May last year to May this year, some 163 individuals were assaulted, and 58 of those assaults resulted in physical injuries. In addition, in a recent survey of 200,000 NHS staff, one in six reported that they had been physically abused in some way while carrying out their duties. I must congratulate Unison on its work in the north-east, and its branch secretary in County Durham, Ray McDermott, on highlighting appalling acts of physical violence against his members. A recent Unison survey found that some 40 per cent. of paramedics and ambulance drivers had been attacked. Obviously, those figures do not include the verbal abuse that they and hospital accident and emergency staff must put up with on a daily basis.
Many of those attacks are by people who are intoxicated, and they lead to some horrendous injuries. One north-east ambulance driver had his jaw broken and was off work for eight weeks. The sad thing was that the offender was fined only £50. Another case involved a female member of the ambulance service who was beaten up so badly that she was unable to work for two years. The perpetrator got a measly 120 hours' community service. That cannot be right. We rely on those people for protection: they are vital key workers in our health service. If they are attacked by members of the public, the courts should come down heavily on the individuals responsible.
I have mentioned Unison raising awareness of such attacks, and I also want to pay tribute to the Evening Chronicle and The Journal in Newcastle, which have highlighted the appalling cases in the north-east. The onus is on us to ensure that those cases get maximum publicity, and to call for the toughest measures against those who attack ambulance staff. I agree with the comment of the chief executive of the Commission for Health Improvement:
"More needs to be done to ensure NHS staff can go about their work without the fear of being attacked."
I know that time is short, but I want to raise two other issues, one of which was raised by Mr. Amess. Sadly, I have never been to Southend, so I must take him up on his offer one day to visit his constituency. He raised the issue of post office closures. Let me give him a good news story on post office closures. In the village of Craghead, in my constituency, which lost its post office six months ago, the local community partnership has opened up its own post office in the village hall, with support from Government. That shows that if local people get together, they can provide local services, such as post office services, in a rural village. If he wants any details of that, I will pass them on to him.
Finally, I welcome the news today that the Government are going ahead with the referendum in the north-east for a regional assembly. I have campaigned for that, with other Members, for a long time. It would give the north-east a voice that it has not had for far too long. It would also lead to the reorganisation of local government in County Durham, which is long overdue. The current two-tier system does not work. In November, I hope that the people of Durham vote for a single unitary county council and that we get away from the ping-pong between the districts and the county, which leads to some of the most inefficient delivery of public services that I have seen anywhere. That will give Durham a vibrancy that it needs, it will give a focus to local service delivery, and it will give County Durham a strong local government voice.
The new county council, however, must be different from the one that we have at the moment, which, I understand, has only four women councillors, all of whom are from my constituency. Clearly, the new county council needs to represent modern-day county Durham and be something of which we can be proud, not just for its service delivery but for championing a great county. On that point, I will conclude. I wish all hon. Members and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all the best for the summer recess.
As always on these occasions, we have had an excellent debate, with hon. Members from all parties showing their concern about local issues but also raising a range of national issues. Mr. Jones raised the important issue of attacks on ambulance drivers and those who work in the health service. Such attacks are appalling, and it is right that they should be highlighted. The Opposition support all efforts to ensure that such attacks stop and that people who commit them are treated firmly.
The problem is not just in the health service. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers is running a major campaign about attacks on shop workers. I recently sent a petition from my constituency to No. 10 Downing street. I hope that the issue will also be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
We heard an excellent maiden speech from Mr. Byrne—a constituency that we have all come to know. Although we perhaps do not all love it as much as the hon. Gentleman, we feel that we know it well. He paid a proper tribute to his predecessors, including Terry Davis, who was well respected in the House over many years. The hon. Gentleman is proud of his constituency—proud that it built Spitfires in the war—and it has some wonderful people. It is clear that he will represent them with the same power and effect as his predecessors. That is a strong tradition.
Is the Deputy Leader of the House able to give any more information about Equitable Life, which I mentioned during business questions? The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the ombudsman, wishes to extend her jurisdiction to include the role of the Government Actuary's Department in her inquiry into Equitable Life. A written statement was produced later in the day, which said that her jurisdiction would be extended, but it did not say when the order would be made. Clearly, this is a matter of urgency. It affects hundreds of thousands of people who are distressed and concerned. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us anything more about that.
There have been some great themes in the debate. We have discussed defence and the White Paper. My right hon. Friend Sir George Young was concerned about the effect of the cuts on the Defence Logistics Organisation. My hon. Friend Mr. Wilkinson, who has great knowledge of the RAF, was concerned about the deep cuts of 7,500 in the RAF, which he described as deeply irresponsible. Mr. Reid was unhappy at the potential loss of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. My hon. Friend Mr. Evans was concerned about the Queen's Lancashire Regiment—one of the oldest, if not the oldest, regiments in the country. Concern was also expressed that the Typhoon tranche 2 order should be placed and that there might be a capability gap if we get rid of a lot of our aeroplanes before the Typhoons are in place.
Mr. Tyler said—the best point that he made, I thought—that he wanted further Government commitments over Lord Lloyd's inquiry. All those points add up to the requirement for a debate, so I ask the Deputy Leader of the House, as I asked the Leader in business questions, for a full-day debate in Government time when we come back on defence and the White Paper.
Another theme of today's debate has been crime and antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend Mr. Amess, in his unique way, described the brass-taking of the Prime Minister and said that he had never heard anything like it when the Prime Minister talked about crime and antisocial behaviour. Given that there has been a 37 per cent. rise in violent crime in London, for example, one can understand my hon. Friend's point. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the Yellow Advertiser and its campaign for extra feet on the beat. He mentioned the editor, Graeme Allen, and the reporter, Luke Walsh. I am sure that we would all wish to pay tribute to pioneering journalists who stand up for law and order issues.
Mark Tami suggested that we should evict antisocial tenants and he said that antisocial behaviour orders were a huge success because 65 per cent. of them were not breached. I was tempted to ask him about the other 35 per cent. When one thinks how much effort it takes to get an ASBO and how bad someone has to be to be the subject of one, it is a poor statistic that 35 per cent. are breached.
John Cryer mentioned the concern of the Rev. Bob Love about happy hours and binge drinking in his constituency. He gave us the background of the nightclub capacity that they have there. He also said that he went out with the late night police. I too have done that and on the last occasion I was sitting in the back of the car while the officer was asking a young gentleman to help him with his inquiries. After a few minutes, the youngster asked, "And who's he?" The officer said, "Well, that's the Member of Parliament." The young fellow replied, "You've got a sauce—nicking the MP!" I am sure that we are all very concerned about antisocial behaviour, but I have always believed that feet on the beat are the answer. Our pledge is to put 40,000 extra real police officers on the beat. When the Labour party matches that, we will see some improvements in law and order.
Health was another theme of the debate. Siobhain McDonagh was very concerned by the proposed closure of the A and E department at St. Helier hospital. My right hon. Friend Jim Dowd—a somewhat unusual alliance—were both concerned about the operation of the NHS ratings system. My hon. Friend Mrs. Browning pointed out that process is often put ahead of patients and she described how some regional hospitals operate. Mr. Hurst was worried about the Courtauld hospital maternity unit. Ms Drown was also worried about the closure of a maternity unit.
All those points come together to show that it is only when our national health service is controlled and run locally and the professionals are put in charge that we will achieve the improvements that we would all like to see. I remember being a junior health spokesman and travelling around Europe with my hon. Friend Dr. Fox. We visited a German hospital and looked around a ward that was spotlessly clean. We asked the Herr Professor Doktor who was in charge why it was so clean and he said, "Why wouldn't it be?" We asked whether the cleaning was done by private contractors, and he said that it was. I asked him why they did such a good job, and he said, "Well, if it wasn't clean, we wouldn't pay." He was able, as the person in charge of the ward, to say that he would not pay if the job was not done well enough. We need to reach the point where the people in charge of wards in our hospitals can make a difference on issues such as cleanliness. That is how we will tackle the problems of MRSA and other hospital infections, which have increased so rapidly lately. It is an issue of management, and it needs tackling now.
A range of community issues was mentioned. My hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) were both concerned about the closure of post offices. The closure of BT telephone boxes was also raised, which is an important issue for isolated communities and in towns with communities where people do not all have mobile phones. Brian White supported BT. He said that there was a proper procedure and that if we had gone to the meetings of the committee, everything would have been all right. However, I did not sense that that was the mood of the House and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to answer that point.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute raised points about the commitment to a parcels service. We heard about mobile phone masts, about helping families with Sure Start and about mental health advocates. It was a really good debate of its type.
Another strong theme was red tape and bureaucracy. In a marvellous speech, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt highlighted the bureaucracy of the New Opportunities Fund, where people have to spend 10 per cent. of the money they hope to receive before they can realise their grant. He spoke about the difficulties experienced by a multiple sclerosis centre and a garden centre in his constituency due to pettifogging regulations. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire told us about a theatre that was being closed due to petty bureaucracy.
Police red tape, bureaucracy and the need for IT—a range of issues—were raised. They all come down to one central point: the Government are not cutting out bureaucracy. If we imagine the Government as a hopper bin, with money going into the top and the outputs and deliveries coming out at the bottom, we should see the hopper getting bigger and bigger. We have big government in this country. It needs tackling, and the Conservatives are the people to tackle it.
I shall not go on for too much longer as we want to hear from the Deputy Leader of the House, but I want to mention the countryside. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley and for Castle Point (Bob Spink), talked of the threats to the countryside from the Deputy Prime Minister. In my area, we have the threat of airport expansion. We should be wholly committed—as indeed I am—to fight the threat to our countryside from too much housing and too many airports and buildings. We need a balance, so that development is not all in the south-east but also takes place in the north and in other parts of the country. We do not have that balance at present. The burst of growth that the Government are going for in the south-east will lead only to disaster. It is right that we should fight for the unique environment of areas such as Essex, Lancashire and, in my case, Hertfordshire.
The debate has been marvellous, as it always is. I hope that the Minister can answer all the questions in the time allotted to him. I wish everybody a happy recess and I thank the staff of the House for all they do for us.
I shall be unable to respond to all the questions, as 28 Members took part in the debate and more than 140 issues were raised, so I shall have to cherry-pick. In all seriousness, I will try to ensure that the appropriate Ministers are made aware of the points raised, and if Members have asked for a matter to be taken up with a particular Minister I will deal with it in writing, so that they receive an answer.
Like Mr. Heald, I shall pick out some of the themes in the debate, but I want to talk about two speeches in particular. The first is the excellent maiden speech made by my hon. Friend Mr. Byrne. He has already shown the House that he will make a good Member of Parliament and a doughty fighter for his constituents. I know that he will put the same energy into his job as he put into the campaign, which was a remarkable effort. All parties can see that in my hon. Friend we have a worthy MP. He is also a family friend, so I congratulate him personally. I confidently predict that, whenever the general election comes, the swing to Labour in Hodge Hill will be enormous—as it will be in Leicester, South, too—and that we shall write new records in the books.
The second speech is that of my right hon. Friend Ann Taylor, about which other hon. Members have spoken, too. She made an important speech about education and further education in her constituency—her lifelong passion in politics. It struck me that her point concerns the problems of success. Demand for post-16 education in Dewsbury is greater than provision, and that is a problem of success.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire criticised the Government and tried to present his usual Chicken-Licken-the-sky-is-falling-in picture of Britain, before berating us for the problems of success. We need more houses and airports because we have more jobs, and we need more roads and railways because economic activity has increased. The debate shows that we are dealing with the problems of success. It is ironic that I am replying to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, because she opened the sixth-form college in my constituency, which is a symbol of her success.
Many hon. Members raised the issue of defence, and I acknowledge that some serious points were made about the future of defence. Parliament's first duty is to debate the defence of this country, and two defence days remain in the Session and the Opposition can put forward their points in an Opposition day debate. The picture that this morning's newspapers and some hon. Members presented does not reflect the reality of the comprehensive spending review that, yet again, we have a real-terms increase in defence expenditure.
The increase in defence expenditure is possible because our strong economy has resulted in an increased tax take. Unemployment has fallen because of the Chancellor's policies, which have full employment at their forefront, and the public expenditure that flows from them would not exist if we had alternative policies. Although it is right and proper for hon. Members to raise issues such as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment and other constituency concerns, it is also incumbent on us to put those things in context.
On the crime figures, The Independent did a good job of being independent this morning. Unlike some other reports, it pointed to the British crime survey, which is the best measurement of crime and which has not changed its methodology for 20 years. [Interruption.] To be fair, the Prime Minister has used the British crime survey, which shows that crime has fallen by 25 per cent.
I am not denying that problems exist—goodness me, antisocial behaviour and violent crime are the biggest issues in my constituency postbag. Both Government and Opposition Members have raised those issues—indeed, my hon. Friend Mark Tami based his speech on them. The recorded crime figures as reported by the police are exactly that—reported crime—but the British crime survey, which is comprehensive, gives us a different picture.
Crime has fallen for the past seven years. On the whole, that is a result of clamping down through the changes in the criminal justice system and the provision of extra resources for the police. I got the figures out for this debate because I anticipated that the issue would come up: there are 12,500 more police officers on the streets of this country than there were six years ago, and there are also 3,800 community support officers. Most of us can now look our constituents in the eye and say, "Yes, you see police officers on duty". We would like to see even more police officers, but the figure has increased.
Crime is also falling because economic activity and employment have gone up. Full employment is the best policy to deal with social exclusion, deprivation, crime and other issues. It is no coincidence that as employment has risen and mass unemployment has become a distant memory—hopefully, it will never blight this country again—crime has decreased. It will take generations to solve those problems, but the Government's policy is "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", and it is succeeding.
I shall mention briefly some of the health issues and reply to the specific question on the star rating system asked by Sir George Young. I can report that Sir Ian Kennedy, the chairman of the Healthcare Commission, has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the current system. He wants to improve it. It is for that independent commission to decide how best to assess the performance of the NHS, and it is developing a new approach to the assessment of NHS bodies. So I think that directly answers the question, which was raised by two or three other hon. Members.
Let me turn to dentistry. There is no denying that there is a problem. It is not acceptable that the constituents of Mrs. Browning have to drive 30 miles to a dentist. There are other examples—North Cornwall was mentioned and other parts of the country are affected. The situation is not acceptable, but more dentists are being trained and coming on stream now than ever before. Again, I have the figures with me. We have announced that we are investing—not are going to invest—an extra £368 million in NHS dentistry. We have recruited 1,000 more dentists, and by reforming the dental system to improve the long-term oral health of the nation we will make further improvements.
I remember campaigning against the closure of university dental hospitals. I remember going on demonstrations 20 years ago, when university dental hospitals and training hospitals were closed and medical places in universities were cut. The 1981 Budget took 26 per cent. from the higher education budget in one year. That had a long-term implication. The Government were chided in the debate for blaming everything on the Conservatives who were in government seven years ago. Of course it is right that the Government should take responsibility for the faults that we have caused by our own policies in that time, but no serious commentator could deny the underfunding in our infrastructure and public services that resulted from Geoffrey Howe's Budget in 1981 and the Lawson policies in the following decade. That tide is turning under the Government's programme.
I shall get off what are perhaps party political points—[Hon. Members: "No".]—but I think that I have spoken the truth. Perhaps I shall come back to a couple more party political points at the end if I have time. I find these debates fascinating. They are very good for Parliament. They are clearly good for raising constituency issues. I have a little points system in my mind: I award points for contributions. When hon. Members mention their local newspaper, it is always worth a point. If they name the editor and the local journalists, it is worth two points. If they name the local police superintendent, they get three points.
A competition for the number of issues raised seems to be going on between the hon. Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and, sometimes, my hon. Friend John Cryer. The hon. Member for Southend, West is ahead on points at the moment. There are also points for regular contributions to these Adjournment debates, but I have to award the prize to the hon. Member for Southend, West. He normally raises the hospice movement. He did so today, during points of order just before the debate, so that he could get a second bite of the cherry. I congratulate him on that.
I am so sorry. I apologise to Bob Spink. There are so many points to be awarded in these debates that I have got the wrong constituency. I am, of course, referring to the beautiful constituency of Castle Point, which the hon. Gentleman has described.
I apologise for not being able to respond to all the specific points that have been made. Important constituency issues have been raised, and I will take them up. I am reminded of a lesson from the superintendent in my constituency—to award myself a point—Dick Crawshaw, who told me about the differences in how the police treat Members of Parliament. In the old days, if we got caught out doing something wrong, they would make an exception for us. Nowadays, they make an example of us. It is right that we should take up those constituency issues.
A very happy recess to you, Sir, and to all the staff of the House and all hon. Members.
Order. I am sure that those good wishes are reciprocated and apply also to our absent Friends.
It being six o'clock, the motion for the adjournment lapsed, without question put.