I must say that I am disappointed that the House is adjourning without a proper debate on Iraq. Last month, the UN Security Council extended the mandate for US and UK troops to continue in Iraq for another year. It had been due to expire at the end of this year, after the recent
There has been no debate in the House of that decision or of the UK position on it either beforehand or afterwards. Barely any proper debate has been allowed in the country's media about the central policy question of whether the troops should stay or go. The BBC tells me that it has "reported on Iraq enough", but reporting events and atrocities is not the same as facilitating policy discussion on such an important issue.
The Security Council extended its own mandate on the basis of a letter by the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, saying that the Iraqi armed forces should be ready gradually to begin taking over from coalition forces by the end of 2006. There is no rush, then, and the foreign presence is envisaged to go on and on. The non-occupying powers on the Security Council—France, Germany and Russia—have other concerns and interests to tend and saw no diplomatic sense in confronting the US and the UK on the matter: the allies can stew in the mess of their own making. The concession that they satisfied themselves with was that the mandate should be reviewed in June. The decision that the troops should stay—which I oppose—means that the atrocities, the killing and the bitter conflict, which are preventing Iraq from settling down and developing, will continue for many more years.
The hon. Gentleman talks about Iraq in general, but does he accept that there are three regions in Iraq, and that the northern region under President Barzani—the Kurdish region—has shown great advances economically, politically, in human rights and in social development? At least it is safe there, and that could provide a model for the other two areas of Iraq. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in hoping that those will proceed in the same way?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I remind Members that there is a 15-minute time limit on all speeches? I apologise for the fact that I forgot to do so earlier.
I acknowledge the progress in the north, but the people there did not have the same sanctions as the rest of the country, because they had an exclusion zone. I am not in favour of Iraq being broken up, and I shall come back to that point later.
The coalition military presence fuels the insurgency, which is viewed by many in Iraq as a war of national liberation to end foreign occupation. The activities of the overseas forces—such as what happened in Abu Ghraib, torture, the use of white phosphorous, extraordinary rendition, and even destroying police stations with remote detonators to free soldiers dressed as Arabs—alienate the Iraqi people, and are recruiting sergeants for the insurgents.
I want to share with the House some extracts from the brilliant Glen Rangwala's November paper "What would disengagement mean?", because it puts the argument extremely well:
"The reduction in Coalition troop numbers to significantly lower levels than at present"— that is being mooted at the moment—
"would reduce the . . . casualties of Coalition troops simply by virtue of there being fewer Coalition personnel in the country to attack. The Coalition draw-down plan is not conditional upon an abatement in the overall level of violence, despite their occasional public claims to this effect: indeed, the reduction in troop numbers over recent months has occurred alongside a heightening of the insurgency, with a level of attacks that has been greater than at almost any point since the invasion occurred: 92 attacks occurred on average per day in early November 2005, compared with 52 per day in June 2004 or 70 per day in May 2005.
One possibility is that the reduction of Coalition troop numbers will take away the primary reason for the insurgency. That is, if US troops were not so visible on Iraq streets and roads, the Iraqi population—particularly those who have actively supported the insurgency in the past—will no longer consider themselves as living under occupation, and thus be less hostile to the Iraqi government and more readily drawn exclusively into the peaceful political process . . . This, at least, is what the optimists within the Coalition have been arguing during most of 2005 ."
I am aware of the work of Dr. Rangwala, who did a splendid job when he exposed the dodgy dossier, but I find the logic of that quotation hard to follow. If the number of troops is reduced, the number of attacks on them will not necessarily diminish, nor will the number of casualties necessarily fall because there are fewer troops on the streets. The number of attacks would be just as likely to increase, because a sign of weakness would have been shown, so the number of casualties could rise.
Indeed; the Russians discovered that in Afghanistan. By the logic of that argument, the hon. Gentleman wants more and more troops, because if we start to take any troops away, that is "weakness".
I think that Dr. Rangwala's argument is well made. Let me continue with it:
"However, it is more likely that a reduction in the overall level of political violence, committed either by the military forces aligned with the Iraqi government or by the insurgents, would depend on the extent to which the Iraqi state and the political process had become—and were perceived to have become—the possession of all sectors of the Iraqi people rather than that of a foreign power or segment of the Iraqi population."
That is the key to any solution.
Here is a good factual passage in the text of the paper:
"The Coalition retains both direct and indirect control over Iraq's armed forces at present. Through the structure of the Multinational Force Iraq (MNF-I), the overall command of all military forces in Iraq is delegated to a US commander, at present Gen. George W. Casey . . .
The commander of MNF-I also acts as the senior security advisor to the Iraqi prime minister. The Coalition also provides a number of advisors to each Iraqi ministry, including the ministries of defence and the interior. These advisors are in effect making policy still on behalf of their Iraqi counterparts, particularly given the limited expertise available to the Iraqi ministries after the processes of de-Ba'thification . . .
In addition, the US and UK have large training teams embedded within nascent Iraqi forces, whose overt task is to educate, advise and monitor those forces, but whose actual role is better characterised as being that of commanding Iraqi units. The Coalition military retains the only operational communications network within Iraq, and thus acts as the liaison mechanism for Iraqi units with each other and with the operating bases."
In reality, the coalition is in total control of the Iraqi forces, and there is very little movement away from that.
This is my last quotation from Dr. Rangwala:
"One argument for retaining the engagement of Coalition training facilities for Iraq's armed forces has been that Iraqi personnel need to be re-trained so that they no longer act as a repressive agent within Iraqi society as they did under the ancien régime, but instead observe human rights and humanitarian law in their practice. A similar argument is made about the re-training of Iraq's police force. This argument presupposes that Coalition training is enhancing the good practice of Iraq's military and police forces. Given the actions of Iraqi armed forces in Tal Afar in September 2005, in which there was the widespread killing of civilians, and other recent military operations, this is far from clear. Coalition personnel have been complicit in many of the human rights abuses committed in post-invasion Iraq, from the torture practiced at Abu Ghrayb and routinely conducted during interrogation, to the use of napalm-like MK77 firebombs and white phosphorus, to the mass arrests of individuals kept without due process of law. The argument that Coalition training inculcates human rights-observant practice in Iraqi officials rings hollow when compared with the scale of the human rights abuses in modern Iraq."
Dr. Rangwala goes on to say that the coalition policy has already bolstered rather than demobilised party militias, and that there is unlikely to be any growth in militia power, because instead of adopting the policy of developing a unified non-sectarian armed force for Iraq, we have helped Iraqi forces become more sectarian. I recommend Dr. Rangwala's paper. The rest of it is as scathing as the passages that I have quoted.
What we are seeing is not portents of progress or peace, and the coalition alliance is overwhelmingly to blame for that. It wants to pretend that it is phasing down its occupation and handing over authority, whereas it is doing no such thing. It remains overwhelmingly the determinant of all major policy and involvement in the killing fields.
Of course, like other Members, I welcome the recent elections in Iraq, and the Sunni population's participation in them. A proper Iraqi coalition government must now be formed, and the sectarianism curtailed, not exacerbated. Real authority must be handed over to such a government, but the portents for that are not strong. All the major Shi'a and Sunni elected parties had two central policy platforms: the unity of Iraq—maintaining its sovereignty and its not being broken up—and the withdrawal of foreign troops. Democracy is not just about voting; it is about implementing what the people voted for.
I realise that I have already read a lot of quotes into the Hansard record, but I want also to quote some key points from an article in last Sunday's edition of The Sunday Times by Hala Jaber, the journalist who recently re-entered Falluja. As the House knows, Falluja was subject to a massive assault by US forces, which we were assisting, in November 2004. She said:
"When I finally reached the city, I was reminded of a remark by a US officer in Vietnam who claimed he had to destroy a village to save it. Falluja has indeed been destroyed. But I found nobody there who thinks it has been saved."
She goes on to refer to that Operation, Phantom Fury, and points out that
"the insurgency continued elsewhere. Yet what I found in Falluja last week was even more dispiriting. It is not only that promises to reconstruct the city and restore normality have manifestly been broken. The bitter truth is that the actions of US and Iraqi forces have reignited the insurgency. Anger, hate and mistrust of America are deeper than ever."
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way again, especially as he is not now getting injury time. Was it not also reported at the weekend that al-Zarqawi himself was in Falluja at that time, and that he was arrested but not recognised and inadvertently released? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if that mistake had not been made, the assault on Falluja might well have had a profound effect on the insurgency?
The assault on Falluja would still not have been worth it, even in those circumstances, because masses of innocent people were slaughtered in the attack.
Hala Jaber continues:
"City officials warned that hardships and detentions were intensifying hostility to the Americans. The Falluja-based Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy has claimed that 4,000 to 6,000 people were killed during Phantom Fury, most of them civilians.
Stoking the anger has been the slow pace of compensation payments, despite the allocation of $490 million by Iraq's interim government last year . . . 36,000 homes and 8,400 shops were destroyed in the US onslaught. Sixty nurseries and schools and 65 mosques and other religious establishments were wrecked. Falluja's mayor, Dhari abdel Hadi al-Irssan, claims that only 20 per cent. of the compensation promised has reached the city . . . Only 170,000 people, half the original population have returned. They live in difficult conditions with 4,200 American Marines and 5,000 Iraqi troops enforcing a curfew from 11 pm to 6 am."
"With so many institutions damaged, those that remain are under intolerable pressure. School buildings are being used by three or four schools holding classes in shifts. Electricity and water are severely limited . . . A dire petrol shortage compounds the frustration . . . Yet even these deprivations pale by comparison with the fatalities Falluja families claim to have suffered at the hands of occupying forces. Witnesses spoke of American Marines dumping bodies in the Euphrates just after the offensive and of mass graves where hundreds are allegedly buried . . . It was made clear to me that most of Falluja's residents are alienated from authority. My conversations repeatedly revolved around stories of the dead and allegations of new killings by pro-government forces. Last month the Pentagon confirmed it had used white phosphorus, a chemical that bursts into flames on contact with the air, causing horrible injuries. 'There is now hatred and anger against the government and the forces representing this government,' the mayor said."
That shows that for the bludgeoning coalition forces, the Iraq war is not a war of hearts and minds. We need to change our policy. If the troops are going to stay, a policy that I resent and oppose, we should try to make the winning of hearts and minds much more important than the violence that the coalition forces—including their private contractors, who often also operate militarily—are very much a part of.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to put these matters on the record. I wish that we could have had a proper debate on Iraq, and perhaps even a vote, before we continue with this killing policy. I conclude by wishing a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all those who have suffered so abysmally in Iraq.
It is a great delight to see so many right hon. and hon. Members here and to realise that the House does not adjourn until this evening. This is a splendid opportunity to raise constituency issues, and the one that I have raised in the past eight years in debates such as this has been Frome Victoria hospital. I am very happy to say that I do not need to raise it this year because we are now to get the new Frome Victoria hospital. That said, we are still somewhat worried that the Government's messing about with the health authorities might put the new hospital at risk, but our plan to deal with that is to get the foundations built as soon as possible, in the hope that even a change in NHS structure will not leave a new hospital in Frome half built. We look forward to its opening.
We had an excellent debate yesterday on police restructuring—a debate that was wrung out of the Government by continuing pressure from the Opposition. It was clear that without such pressure we would not be able to make the points that many of us felt we ought to make on our constituents' behalf, and with that in mind I want briefly to address the issues as they affect my constituency. I wholly reject the concept of a regional police force that stretches from the Scilly Isles to the north of Gloucestershire and to the east of Swindon—a region the same size as Belgium, which appears to be the international measurement for these things. To put the issue in context, the north of Gloucestershire is nearer to Scotland than it is to the tip of Cornwall.
I have always been against regionalisation of the police—a policy that has been knocking around the Home Office for a very long time, and which has been rejected by some others in the Chamber in previous incarnations. Regional police forces have always been a Home Office aspiration, but there are four problems in that regard, the first of which is the loss of the desperately important sense of community policing. So far as I am concerned, the tradition of the police being of, with and for the community that they serve is essential, and as soon as we lose that we lose something precious in how our police operate. That is quite apart from the fact that people, particularly in rural areas, will feel increasingly remote from the police who serve them. Nothing will persuade people in rural Somerset that they will even get the same level of service as they currently receive—and we get enough complaints as it is that Bristol, understandably, absorbs a great deal of Avon and Somerset police's resources.
The second problem is that I have heard not a single argument in favour of the efficacy of the new proposal compared with other ways of achieving the same ends. I have argued for a long time that the changes in patterns of crime need a response. International and national crime cannot easily be faced with the traditional police forces, which is one reason why I was so strongly supportive of the concept of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and, indeed, why I argued that it should have a wider role and greater resources than it has. The obverse is that local police forces and chief constables are left to deal with what they should be most concerned with: local crime and keeping the peace in our towns and villages, which is often forgotten. Even within the constraints on existing forces, an awful lot can be done in sharing resources and co-operating that has not yet been done.
Thirdly, the transitional cost of reorganisation is massive. Hon. Members may wonder why Avon and Somerset police retain that name long after the demise of the county of Avon. The answer is simple: when I was chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority, I refused point blank to change, at enormous cost, every cap badge and every decal on every police car in the force when that money could be spent on providing more police. Those would have been lost costs—they would be gone for ever—and the priority of the local community is having more police.
The fourth point is that the Government offices for the regions bear no relationship to the patterns of crime. Dorset does not get its criminal activity from Bristol or from Plymouth; it gets it from Portsmouth or Southampton, or from the south. Dorset relates to Hampshire rather than to either the far south-west or Somerset and Gloucestershire.
Will the hon. Gentleman clear up some of the confusion that has arisen over the past few weeks? The Liberal Democrats say that they oppose the regionalisation of the police forces, yet for many years they have been proposing regional government. Is he speaking from the orange book or the yellow book today?
I wish, first, that the hon. Gentleman had been listening to what I was saying and, secondly, that he had not tried to inject what he obviously thought was a clever point into a serious issue about policing in the south-west. We have always said that, given that there is a regional tier of government in this country, it should have democratic control and accountability. I do not think that that is an unreasonable request. Clearly, the police boundaries do not follow those regional boundaries, which were set up by a Government who, I believe, the hon. Gentleman supported.
I find it incredible that the Government, through crass mismanagement of the service, have produced the first strike by officials of magistrates courts in over 800 years. We should be seriously concerned about that. These are not people who are prone to industrial action and they are not prepared to take such action without a great deal of soul-searching; they are very loyal servants of the Crown. Yet all over the country today they are taking industrial action due to insensitivity on the part of the Government, a lack of understanding of the role of court officials and a readiness to make promises prior to a reorganisation that were not kept later.
We also saw today the publication of the report by the Law Commission into the offence of murder. Without going into detail on this very complex subject, I am deeply disappointed that some commentators, even before reading the report, have chosen to entertain a knee-jerk reaction to one of the most difficult and complex areas of law. We all agree that the crime of murder is uniquely repugnant and has to be dealt with exceptionally.
Equally, I hope that we all agree that there is a vast range of circumstances—this is recognised in many jurisdictions—in which murder and the taking of a life unlawfully can take place. All 51 American jurisdictions recognise the differentiation and, in a common law country such as ours, it is right and proper that we at least see what the Law Commission has to say and whether there is merit in its proposals.
Harry Cohen was absolutely right: it is extraordinary that we have not had a debate on Iraq in Government time —I have made this point repeatedly at business questions—and it is now well over a year since we last debated Iraq. I was against the war from the start and have not resiled for one moment from the position I took then, as I believe that later events have proved me right. However, given the circumstances and the complex political decisions that need to be taken, surely this House ought to be debating a British Army in the field and a political situation that has the capacity not only to destabilise an entire region but to create the circumstances in which we can expect an enhanced level of terrorism in our country. Those are serious issues and the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to bring them up.
Neither do I apologise for bringing up again the issue of extraordinary rendition, which has been brushed aside by the Prime Minister and his colleagues as if it were something only an obsessive would worry about. It is not. In this country, we have a right to be told if our airspace and airports have been used for reasons that are, in the eyes of the law and of many people, wholly improper. If there is nothing to hide, let us have a clear indication of that. I have to say that every response from the Prime Minister and others increases the suspicion that there is, and has been, something happening that we would not condone.
The Government should think carefully about this issue over the Christmas recess, come back and make a clean breast of what has been happening and not try to pretend, as the Prime Minister did at his last Question Time, that it was absurd that we should know why American Government flights should be landing at British airports. It is not absurd. It is required knowledge when foreign Government planes, whether from our dearest friends or our bitterest enemies, are using our airspace and landing at our airports. I do not think it unreasonable to be asking those questions.
During our corresponding debate last year not one Member could have foreseen the terrible events of the tsunami on Boxing day. I hope, of course, that we will have a peaceful and prosperous new year without any such events, but I hope also that we have learned from that experience—and, indeed, from those of Pakistan and India—and that we develop the international will to have robust contingency plans in place so that we know where the resources are to deal with emergencies of this kind. Such emergencies will recur; we know that. Disasters happen and, during a period of climate change, it is almost certain that we will have more of them. We must be ready for them and be ready to act appropriately.
There are many issues on which the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and the Conservative party are united, such as the environment and, more latterly, Iraq, where we both want our troops out as soon as possible and democracy to be working smoothly. Might I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his party to join us where they support us and where we agree?
I always welcome support from the Conservative Benches when it is forthcoming. Sometimes, over the last few years when we have been opposing the Government, it has been forthcoming; sometimes, the Conservative party has decided that it prefers to support the Government. That has been one of the tragedies of the lack of real opposition from the Conservatives during that period. However, I think that he has a point. His colleagues in the European Parliament are deeply concerned at being asked to sit with Ms. Mussolini, Mr. Le Pen and the others in that ragbag. I would not be so crass as to ask them to join the Liberal Democrats, but they might like to submit entry application forms to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group in the European Parliament. It would be a shame for the Conservatives to lose all their chairmanships and influence in that Parliament, even though that is what they seem determined to do by joining the wackos on the extremes and thus making themselves a fringe element. Until the Conservative party understands the basics about how to make opposition count, I am afraid that it will hold little attraction for Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Gentleman is an acknowledged expert on human rights, so does he agree that to urge Conservative MEPs to join the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament would infringe their human rights on the grounds that it is a cruel and unnatural punishment?
Some would say that simply being in the European Parliament was cruel and unnatural, but I am not one of them. I am sure that MEPs do a lot of excellent work.
That is probably an appropriate point at which to end my comments, as I do not want to exceed the 15-minute limit that would have been my lot if I had been speaking from the Back Benches. However, I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker a very happy Christmas, and I extend the same good wishes to all hon. Members who will take part in this very important debate.
I want to turn the thoughts of hon. Members to those who are less fortunate than ourselves at this Christmas season. This Government have done more than any previous Government to tackle poverty and deprivation, and the social exclusion unit's pioneering work has transformed the way that those problems are tackled.
Nearly 2 million pensioners and 750,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, and there are 2 million more people in work. Using the new definition of social exclusion, which deals with people suffering multiple disadvantages, there are more than 1 million fewer socially excluded adults. That is a proud record, but everyone recognises that there is much more to do. I want to use this opportunity to ask Ministers to consider the position of my constituency in Swindon as the Government move forward with tackling social exclusion.
Targeting resources where they can be most effective in tackling such complex issues is, inevitably, difficult, and requires different instruments. Programmes for individuals, both universal and targeted, play a central role. For example, tax and pension credits, significant increases in child benefit and the state pension, as well as the winter fuel payments, have all played an important part in tackling disadvantage under this Government. So too have programmes aimed at groups.
Like many hon. Members, I recognise the motivation behind the benefits system and the complex regime of tax credits and means-tested benefits. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that vulnerable and elderly people feel pressurised and stressed by the need to work out how the system works before they can make a claim?
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is obvious that he has not talked to many of the people who operate the system. Had he done so, he would have been aware of the simplicities that we have introduced to make it easy to understand. The aim has been to facilitate processing for people who need help. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand the stress and distress caused by 18 years of Conservative government, when vulnerable and disadvantaged people had no such help available. I suggest that he contact those of his constituents who benefit from tax credits before he makes another intervention along the same lines.
The Government have also introduced programmes aimed at groups of people who are at risk of exclusion, such as disabled children and drug misusers. Rightly, a lot of investment has gone into the most deprived local authorities. Although that focus is understandable, there is a risk that smaller communities that are in need can be missed by such targeting, especially if they are located within more prosperous areas. I welcome the Government's recognition of that risk, and the announcement that the focus will move from the most disadvantaged local authority districts to 903 individual wards, to ensure that effort is more effectively targeted. That must be a good thing, and it will help target deprivation in Swindon that otherwise might be missed by Government programmes because it is diffused throughout a relatively prosperous town.
Moreover, that problem is not confined to Swindon. Using the new geographic unit of super-output areas devised by the Office for National Statistics—at their lower layer, the areas are smaller than wards—I have drawn on the excellent work done by Adam Mellows-Facer and the House of Commons Library in mapping deprivation, for which I am much indebted. From those data, it appears that half of the most income-deprived people do not live in the 20 per cent. most deprived areas.
In the index of multiple deprivation compiled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Swindon local authority is ranked at 171 out of 354—more or less in the middle. However, 11 of Swindon's 119 super-output areas are in the least deprived 10 per cent. of SOAs in England, and seven of its SOAs are in the most deprived 10 per cent. of such areas in England.
Variations and complexities exist even within those areas. The SOA that covers part of the Gorse Hill and Pinehurst wards falls within the 10 per cent. most deprived areas on the overall index of multiple deprivation. It does better than that on employment deprivation, falling within the 16 per cent. most deprived areas, but it does significantly worse on education deprivation, falling within the 2 per cent. most deprived areas. That poses particular problems for front-line professionals.
Headlands secondary school serves Pinehurst ward and has gone through great turmoil in recent years. It now has new leadership, and the new head, Jan Shadick, and her team are working extremely hard with governors and parents to turn the situation around and make progress. I hope that Ministers will join me in commending all their efforts and achievements, but they know that there is a lot more still to do and they need more support.
It is not just a question of money, although that always helps. Bold and imaginative action is also needed to tackle the root causes of disadvantage. Much has already come into Swindon and the areas that I have mentioned as a result of Government action. For example, the communities now have a successful Sure Start scheme, and I pay tribute to Liz Evans and her team and all the parents of Pinehurst and Penhill who are doing such good work.
However, there is still a lot to do. Jan Shadick, for example, talks eloquently of the need to break the cycle of cultural deprivation. She wrote to me recently and her letter is worth quoting, as it illustrates problems that can lie among some of this country's most advantaged communities. She wrote:
"This cycle of cultural deprivation has built up over the years and desperately needs to be broken. The fact that many of the schools in the area have been in special measures in recent years and the fact that the population remains predominantly stagnant has meant that the opportunities to break it have been missed and it has spread into another generation.
Low aspirations dominate the area. There is work in Swindon and people will find jobs. They will have money coming into the family. Children therefore have the mentality that they don't need qualifications as they will get a job. They are right but these jobs are not well paid and there is no aspiring to managerial positions and positions of responsibility.
This process has occurred over a number of years and the mentality is passed from generation to generation. Parents are therefore not aspiring for their children. They often lack basic skills such as literacy and numeracy as well as the social skills required to take full responsibility in the world. This deprivation is passed on to their children and there is low value placed on education.
The high teenage pregnancy rate in the area ensures that this cycle of deprivation continues and can present insecure family structures. Many of our children lack positive role models in the home.
With all of this there is a fear of education from parents. A fear that they are inadequate to support their children, a fear that the school will judge them and a fear that their children will grow up to want more, will change and move away. This fear is stronger with secondary schools which are larger and perhaps seen as less welcoming and results in an unwillingness to engage and an unwillingness to help their children as they feel inadequate."
I hope that this Government continue to take heed of the needs of Headlands school and the community that it serves—and of the needs of all the other similar schools and communities that are surrounded by relatively prosperous areas. From my perspective in North Swindon, if the Government do not help them, it does not look as though anyone else will.
Conservative-run Swindon borough council has received huge help from central Government in recent years. Funding has increased by 30 per cent. since 2001, and officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have been seconded to sort out the acute managerial problems that the council could not sort out on its own. Yet the council seems oblivious to problems of deprivation and exclusion right in the middle of our town. Cuts are made by the council that tend to fall most heavily on the most vulnerable. Last time round, it butchered the Berkshire advice service, which served the most disadvantaged people in Swindon. This summer, it grandiosely launched a vision for Swindon in 2010 with 50 promises—50 of them. It is a shame that not a single one mentioned tackling poverty or deprivation or disadvantage, but that is modern Conservatism.
The ceaseless efforts of councillors to help their communities in the most disadvantaged wards in my constituency—Pinehurst and Penhill—are routinely ignored by the council. Those communities desperately need support in tackling deep-seated problems, and it would be a tragedy if, just because they are in a relatively prosperous town, they were to be overlooked in the wonderful measures that the Government have taken to tackle social exclusion. As islands of disadvantage in a sea of prosperity, they are always in danger of being overlooked. I hope Ministers will be able to reassure me and the people of Swindon that those communities will continue to be remembered.
I am grateful to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to speak in the Christmas Adjournment debate. It is the first time in many years that I have spoken in this debate—indeed, in any debate in the Chamber—and I apologise to colleagues for being a little rusty. My right hon. Friend Mr. Forth has promised me some intensive teach-ins on how to speak in the Chamber, if I turn up on Friday mornings in future. I apologise to the Minister for rattling through a list of subjects. It is not because they are unimportant but because there are so many that I should like to touch on that, if I do not, I shall rapidly run out of time.
First, I raise the state of the Cumbrian economy, which, believe it or not, is dire. Most colleagues will think of Cumbria, if they think of Cumbria at all, as the Lake district—that beautiful stretch of mountains and lakes—but our economy is dying. From official Government statistics, we find that between 1995 and 2002 the Cumbrian economy grew by only 13.2 per cent. The region of the north-west, including Liverpool, Manchester and areas that once were terribly depressed, grew by 38 per cent. The national economy grew by 44 per cent. When indexed against the gross value added per head, the Cumbrian gross domestic product in 1995 was 92 per cent., but in 2002 it had fallen to 74 per cent.
Today I am not going to attack the Government for letting that happen; there will be ample time in the next few years to do that. Today I want to make the point that an economy that has in the past few years shrunk from 92 per cent. to 74 per cent. is in a dire state. And that is on the latest statistics, to 2002. We believe that when the 2003 statistics are released, the Cumbrian economy will have shrunk to 71 per cent. of GDP, and Cumbria will qualify for objective 1 funding. I make a strong plea to the Minister to pass that fact on to his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry. We must have objective 1 funding in Cumbria.
The Cumbrian economy is in a worse state than Liverpool was when Liverpool was in its pits. It is in a worse state than Cornwall was when it qualified for objective 1 funding. It is in a worse state than those parts of Scotland that got funding. Yet not many people realise that that is so, because we still have the wonderful image of the Lake district, which seems such a nice, pleasant, wealthy place. I am afraid that it is not.
We are calling on the Government to seek objective 1 funding urgently for Cumbria. These issues must be addressed by a considerable package of UK and European funds, which must be dedicated to the whole of the NUTS 2 area of Cumbria, to be managed and delivered locally. The funds should come from the EU's regional competitiveness and employment fund, which is the new objective 2 of the structural funds. The funds should come with a derogation allowing a certain broadening of scope to target them at a wide range of activities in accordance with the structural needs of the county. We ask, too, that the funds be accompanied by assisted area designation under the regional aid guidelines as an article 87.3(c) area to enable higher investment in companies. I am sorry if that latter part sounded boring and technical; it is, but we are nevertheless losing industries hand over fist and do not have many new high-tech industries. We desperately need smaller, added-value companies in our county.
This is not a plea about the state of farming, which is also in decline, but in decline around most of the country. It is a plea for industry and our economy. We cannot continue at the present rate. If the Government's plans to run down and close Sellafield were to be enacted tomorrow, as opposed to over eight years, another 15 per cent. would be taken out of the Cumbrian economy. I hope that a time will come in the near future when I shall be able to address the issues of the nuclear industry. Let me say simply that I hope I shall be able to congratulate the Government not on running down the nuclear industry and Sellafield but on restarting it. We need the technology at Sellafield, and we need it in Cumbria. I hasten to add that I think we need it producing our power in the rest of the country, too.
That leads me to my next point, which is on wind farms. Energy prices have more than doubled in the past few months. On Friday, I visited a small factory in my constituency which makes polythene bags and a range of products from plastic. Its electricity bill has gone up more than 100 per cent. since May. The Government keep saying, and rightly, that our electricity prices have historically been the lowest in Europe. That was the case, but since May and June it is the case no more. The whole of that firm's last year's profit margin has been wiped out by this year's increase in electricity prices.
Because of that increase in electricity prices, the Government insist on maintaining the carbon tax and the renewables obligation. That obligation has long passed its sell-by date. It has resulted in Cumbria's being afflicted by hundreds and hundreds of applications for giant wind farms in the wrong place, which would despoil what is left of our economy, bring no new jobs and contribute only a fraction of the electricity that this country so badly needs. My next plea to the Government is that if they wish to pursue a wind farm policy, they should consider big ones offshore. They should not try to dump wind farms on the Lake district and other areas of outstanding natural beauty. They do not contribute to our electricity needs, and they are destroying our countryside.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that I am president of the Country Guardians, which is opposed to the ill placing of wind turbines. Does he know that 21 wind farms are currently under construction, a further 68 have been given consent and 160 are under planning consideration? People have had enough of these unsightly, inefficient wind farms blighting our countryside, and it is about time that we had a proper energy policy.
My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way, and admirably well. I applaud what he has said. Wind farms are blighting our countryside. Many of the applications are a mass try-on: companies apply for wind farms en masse, knowing that they will lose some, but hoping to gain most of them, which they can then sell on for someone else to build. The Government must look urgently at the whole policy of wind farms on land.
I want to speak, too, about community hospitals. I suspect that the Conservative pairing Whip did not entirely believe me when I said last week that I should like a day off to help lead a protest march through Penrith to save our community hospitals, which are up for closure. I have been able to produce the evidence, and what surprised most people in Cumbria was that 2,000 others from around the county turned out on a protest march, something those people have never done before—indeed, do not quite know how to do. Those people came from all parts of north Cumbria and from all walks of life. In fact, as the admirable Fred Wilson, the photographer from the Penrith Herald said, the last time that 2,000 people marched through Penrith was in 1745, and they did not get as warm a welcome from the local population as the Scot leading them this time. Three cheers for Bonnie Prince David.—[Laughter.]
The strategic health authority's plans to close four community hospitals in my constituency, plus two in the neighbouring constituencies of Labour MPs, are not properly thought out. They are based on back-of-the-fag-packet calculations. In place of the service offered by the community hospitals, the health authority has scrabbled together an idea for a 24/7 travelling district nurse, backed up by enhanced GP services. I am happy to say that if the professionals in the health service—doctors, nurses and others—had come together, asked how they could improve rural health and, over two years or 18 months, produced a plan involving travelling district nurses 24 hours a day and enhanced GP services, and if they had consulted on that and properly costed it, and if it would deliver more benefits, I could not resist it. But this plan has not come about in that way. It has been devised because the SHA way down in Preston has said, "You're in deficit. Cut your budget." When asked for a steer on what should be cut, the SHA apparently said, "We don't have community hospitals in Preston. Get rid of your community hospitals."
So a plan that will supposedly save £15 million overall is targeting our community hospitals to save £2.4 million. That will be devastating to our rural areas and it will be bad for the acute hospital in Carlisle, because it will lead to bed blocking on a massive scale. That is the nonsense of Government accounting. If the NHS gets away with this scheme, it will save £2.4 million. We will then have to build 120 nursing home places to take the people who are not capable of going straight home from the acute hospital.
The community hospital beds are not a luxury. No Government would have kept those hospitals open if they were unnecessary. We have them because there is nowhere to put people who have been discharged from the acute hospital but are not fit to go home. They need a week or 10 days of intermediate care. But if the health service saves on its budget, the cost of building 120 nursing home places outweighs it. Those mostly elderly people will be shoved into those places and, probably, stay there for evermore. When an elderly person goes into a community hospital for intermediate care, they are there for a week or 10 days and then they come out, but once they get a place in a nursing home—at enormous extra cost—they will be there for the rest of their life. The health service may save £2.4 million, but the county council and the social services budget will increase by at least £4 million. But that is a different budget head, so no one cares.
I hope that the Minister will tell the Secretary of State for Health, in the words we used at the rally, "If you persist with this, you have seen nothing yet." If 2,000 Cumbrians can be stirred up to join a protest march to save our community hospitals, I can tell the Government that they will see protests on a massive scale throughout north Cumbria. People will protest as they have never protested before, because we will not tolerate the closure of those essential services. There are other ways to save money in the health service. Indeed, there are other ways to use those hospitals more efficiently, but the scheme, cobbled together in a desperate attempt to save some money on a budget and targeting rural areas in the hope that rural people are so quiescent that they would not squeal, is wrong and doomed to failure.
My penultimate point is about the state of agriculture in my constituency and, indeed, in the whole of Cumbria, in the particular area of hill farming. I am concerned that the three-tier payment system discriminates against hill farmers in Cumbria. I know that in some parts of the country, such as the Peak district, hill farmers benefit more from the new single payment system. But because of the way in which the three tiers have been designed, hill farmers are suffering. I am not suggesting any more money overall for farmers, but I am suggesting that the Government revisit the three tiers and consider a possible rebalancing between them.
I urge the Government to explore urgently the recent National Trust report. It contains detailed research and suggests some ideas for rebalancing the three tiers to give different support levels to farmers. The concern that we have in the hills is that farmers will stop farming. To put it simply, if a farmer is to get a single farm payment for not farming animals, why on earth should a hill farmer go out at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers and all year round, to look after some yows on the hillside? It is not worth doing, especially if the payments are only £2,000 or £3,000 a year. The National Trust is concerned, as am I, that farming will cease in large parts of the Lake district, and then all the other parts of the landscape that we value—the walls, the fields and the hedgerows—will change fundamentally. That is the National Trust's fear, and I think it is justified. I urge the Government to consider the report carefully.
My final point is that the heart is being torn out of my county now. The administrative heart of Cumbria is going. Already, our fire service control has been moved out of the county to a regional centre at Warrington. The ambulance service told me this week that it will amalgamate with another in the political region. If the ambulance service in Cumbria were to amalgamate sensibly with a neighbour, it would be Northumberland, but that is not allowed because it is across the political border. We had an excellent debate on policing yesterday and I agree with much of what Mr. Heath said about it. His words apply equally to Cumbria. There is no need or justification for the Cumbrian force to be amalgamated with Lancashire or Liverpool or into a regional structure. If the Cumbrian police should amalgamate with any other police force, again it should probably be Northumberland. But of course that is ruled out, because it is in the wrong political region. The excuse that every force in the country needs to be up to the same level of anti-terrorist expertise as the Met is barking and incorrect.
We are losing our fire service, our ambulance service and our police service. The Border regiment was extinguished last week, and the Government decided not even to keep its name in the new Lancashire county regiment. Part after part of my county is being stripped out. In a few years' time, why should business come to Cumbria when it has no headquarters of police, fire or ambulance, no learning and skills councils, and no regiment? My message to the Minister is, please give us the regional funding that we need, stop the nonsense of closing our hospitals, and do not tear the heart out of my county.
I wish to address two issues—crime and antisocial behaviour in my constituency and the consultation process on building schools for the future that will take place after Christmas in Hull. The policing of crime and antisocial behaviour is a key issue for all Members of Parliament. The police force that covers Hull is Humberside, which has recently had a somewhat chequered history, including an unfortunate involvement in the Soham inquiry, a chief constable who got into difficulties with the then Home Secretary and a poor result in the police performance assessment that was published recently.
I therefore come to the debate on police restructuring with an open mind. At the moment, Humberside police force is not necessarily serving my constituents as well as it could. We had an interesting debate on the issue yesterday, but it was unfortunate that we had no speakers from Yorkshire on what should happen in that county. Hon. Members will know that Yorkshire has four police forces at the moment—Humberside, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and North Yorkshire.
As I said at the outset, crime and antisocial behaviour are key issues for almost every constituent in the country, and I am proud that measures to deal with them have been high on the Government's agenda. Police numbers have increased; there are 14,000 new police officers on the streets. A range of antisocial behaviour measures has been brought in and the use of closed circuit television has been expanded.
The attempt to modernise the police force is a key factor. We are looking at the jobs that we ask police officers to perform to see whether some of them can be undertaken by civilians or police staff, which is right and proper. We are considering more practical measures, such as the use of non-emergency telephone numbers so that the public can contact the police without using 999.
For a short period, I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and I was keen on the work being done by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, to devolve to neighbourhoods through local policing teams. He did well in that and I wish him every success in the future. Police community support officers played an enormous part in providing that neighbourhood policing. As a member of the MPA, I learned to pay heed to what the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner was saying about the threat of terrorism not only in the City of London, but nationally. That is of particular importance to me now, as the port of Hull and the Humber estuary could be major targets for terrorism.
Against that background, having regard to what Sir John Stevens said about terrorism and to what was said in the debate yesterday about level 2 crime, I am keen that we ensure that our police force is fit for purpose. Yesterday, I listened carefully to the comments about the report "Closing the Gap", produced by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. Humberside police force is made up of just over 2,000 officers and about 1,000 staff, so it fits the criteria in the report for the optimum size—4,000 officers and above—to meet area policing needs. I am persuaded that Humberside's current operational level does not give the force the capacity to deal with major incidents and the cross-regional crime that comes into Yorkshire. If it came to pass that the port and the Humber estuary were a target for terrorist activity, we would not have the resilience we need. As all Members are aware, abstractions from our local policing teams are far too frequent, so I am persuaded that we should change the structure in Yorkshire.
Two options are being discussed: a south Yorkshire and Humberside force of about 5,500 officers, or a regional Yorkshire force of about 12,000. On
It is important to the people of Hull, North that they have the local neighbourhood policing that they deserve. Police community support officers are effective in London, but I am sad to say that our previous chief constable in Humberside did not like the idea of PCSOs and we were the last police force to introduce them. There are only 22. Our new chief constable, Tim Hollis, believes that PCSOs have an important role to play in policing Hull and the general Humberside area and is moving towards the employment of 285 of them by March 2007. I am sure that everybody in Hull will welcome that. The Government have made available £340 million to increase the use of PCSOs across the whole country, and the target is about 24,000 in the near future.
Community wardens have been amazingly successful in Hull. The scheme is run by a community resource team at the Goodwin centre, which shows how the voluntary sector—the third sector—can get involved in providing services that really meet the needs of our communities. Our wardens have won awards and they train wardens throughout the region. I am proud that they are based in Hull.
Neighbourhood watch and victim support schemes also have an important part to play in ensuring that our streets and areas are safe. The whole police family has a key role—be it uniformed officers, PCSOs, community wardens or victim support and neighbourhood watch groups. The Home Secretary gave reassurances yesterday about the localised nature of policing, keeping the basic command unit strong and accountable to the local community. That is the right way to go, while recognising the need for a more strategic role—if there is a Yorkshire-wide police force—to deal with level 2 crime.
Of course, restructuring will be difficult. We have to acknowledge that, but I am convinced that Humberside, which has not done terribly well in the past, will benefit from the advantages of working with other police forces in Yorkshire. There will be savings from ending the duplication of human resources and payroll departments and headquarters. I look forward to seeing the nitty-gritty of what those savings will mean. A regional force would give staff more opportunities to develop specialisms, so that their careers can advance without their needing to move to other police forces.
I want to say a few words about centres of excellence. When I was member of the MPA, I was very impressed by Operation Sapphire, which was an attempt to concentrate resources and effort to deal with sexual assault and rape. Money was put in, on a partnership basis, to build and develop havens for victims, where they could be interviewed by the police and receive medical treatment and counselling. It was not like going to a police station, which can be a difficult experience for a victim of sexual assault.
There are two havens in London. The Humberside force has looked into setting up a haven, but has neither the specialism nor the money to do so. With a regional police force, we might be able to develop centres of excellence and set up havens in Yorkshire. I would very much welcome that.
In the debate yesterday, many people talked about the accountability of police forces, especially strategic police forces. I hope that the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will ensure that the voices of people who are not often heard on policing issues, especially young people, get a hearing before any new structures are set up. They are the most likely to be victims of crime, yet often they do not have the chance to contribute to debates about resource allocation.
Finally, I want to talk about building schools for the future in Hull. We were lucky enough to be allocated £180 million and in January consultation will start on proposals for building new schools. Newland school for girls is the only single-sex school in Hull. It has an excellent head teacher and a good reputation. It is based at the centre of the campus of Hull university, which provides an excellent role model for young women and girls to further their education at university.
The school, which has been open for almost 100 years, is under threat of closure. One proposal is to close it at the existing site and move it to east Hull. I have received many representations about the need for single-sex schools. There must be choice in education and if parents want a single-sex school, they should have that choice. In particular, the growing ethnic minority community in Hull very much wants the school to continue. We do not need to close old buildings; we can remodel them. The school can be extended, to make it fit for purpose.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise those two constituency issues, and I wish everybody a happy Christmas.
I am conscious of the fact that these debates, as hon. Members who regularly attend them will know, can turn into a bit of a Christmas whinge, but I am hard-pressed to bring glad tidings of joy from the wonderful county of Devon this year, because we have so many issues that I need to bring to the Minister's attention.
I want to reflect a little on what my right hon. Friend David Maclean said about the large rural parts of this country, particularly of England, which seem to be ignored and overlooked by the Government. Like his constituency, the far south-west, particularly Devon and Cornwall, is a very beautiful part of the country that is famous for its tourism, its coast and its river valleys, such as the one that I represent, but that does not mean that it is just a picture book. Real people live there. Real people have to run businesses and earn their living there. We have a younger generation growing up, and we want them to stay in Devon and feel that they have a future there, not elsewhere.
Every time I look at the way in which the Government address Devon's needs, however, I find that the rural parts of this country apparently have a different set of rules from the others. At the beginning of this year, I saw a map of what the Government regarded as the strategic road network for this country, only to find to my astonishment that anything west of Bristol—including the M5, which runs from Bristol to Exeter—was not regarded by the Government as a strategic route. In fact, there were absolutely no strategic road routes in the south-west peninsula west of Bristol at all.
My first port of call was to contact the chief executive and the chairman of the regional development agency—after all, I understood the Government's regional policy to mean that the RDA would look for the inward investment and economic regeneration of an area. When I asked what representations the RDA made to the Government in reaching the decision that there was a total wasteland west of Bristol, I was told that the RDA was not consulted at all.
All credit to the RDA. Over recent months, it has knocked on the Government's door, and I now understand—although no one has received any official notification of this—that the M5 from Bristol to Exeter is apparently now regarded as of strategic importance. However—one must be grateful for small mercies, particularly at this time of year—the rest of the road network that serves my constituency and the far south-west is totally neglected.
We were told that regional assemblies would have a strategic role in considering housing and infrastructure. Indeed, when the regional assembly sat down to consider road and rail infrastructure, it was officially told halfway through its deliberations to forget the railways because there was no money for them. It therefore dropped the railways from its agenda.
Only recently, I received a consultation document about the main rail routes in and out of the south-west. Again, I was absolutely astonished to find that, although we are to have a new town in my constituency, just east of Exeter, and that the main line from Exeter to Waterloo will go through that town and that there will be a new freight depot, supposedly bringing a lot of investment and jobs to the new town and to my constituency, freight is barely mentioned in the consultation document on the future of the railways in the south-west.
In fact, when I asked how freight could be hauled to that depot on what is a single-line track with a 1:32 gradient between Exeter St. David's station and a new station, which will be built in the new town, I was told that there was no money for rail infrastructure, that no one will be able to dual the track or do anything about the gradient and that half a load will be hauled twice a day.
Where is the planning in any of this? Where is the Government's strategic involvement? They seem to ignore the regional assemblies and RDAs that they have set up. Is not the Deputy Prime Minister's personal agenda really to divide England into bite-sized chunks, however the map is drawn. We heard from Mr. Heath how our region—the south-west region—stretches from Swindon to Gloucester, down to the Isles of Scilly and along the coast to Bournemouth. It is an enormous area, yet the Government, having arbitrarily divided up the country, do absolutely nothing to recognise the area's needs. Likewise, as other hon. Members have also mentioned today, there is a regionalisation of our public services, particularly the police force, the ambulance service and the fire and rescue services, all of which seems to be done to fit things into a Government agenda regardless of how the services will be delivered to people on the ground.
Hon. Members who represent sparsely populated areas—there are three moors in Devon and Cornwall—know that services for people in very remote, isolated areas will go almost completely off the map. We heard about the delivery of health services. I am concerned that we will have a pan-Devon primary care trust. That is too big. I know what will happen because it now happens in just about every other area, whether in relation to public services or the delivery of grants for sports. People come along with a clipboard and a check list. If certain things on the check list are ticked, the area gets some inward investment and people get some help, but sparsely populated areas do not have the critical mass, so the things on the list are not ticked and the people get nothing at all.
I should like to tell the Minister that it really is about time that we saw what the Government trumpeted as their main ambition for this country—something that comes near to fairness and justice. I can remember that, when they first took office, almost every other speech by a Minister said that they wanted to govern with fairness and justice. There is no fairness and there is no justice for people who live in sparsely populated, rural communities because the whole system has been geared not to devolving things down to local decision making, but to taking them away from local decision making, so the services or the inward investment is not tailored to the needs of specific communities. Everything is decided from a central point, further away from the point of delivery, purely to fit an agenda that is political, arbitrary, unfair and unjust. That is how I see my constituents being treated by the Government, and they are not unique.
Since the Government took office, we have been asking, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will know, for a second strategic route in and out of the south-west servicing the coastal ports from Weymouth and Poole and on to Kent. Such a route would be important for our businesses, for inward investment and especially for industries such as tourism. The Government kept kicking the plans into the long grass. They eventually said that we could not have a second strategic route, but that they would put the money into some other road. They have not produced the money for the other road. There is no money. There is no inward investment anywhere. One can look at the south-west from Bristol down and see that we are treated like second-class citizens, and I tell the Government that that will not do.
Let us forget the political representation, whether by a Conservative or Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. I realise that the Government do not have too many MPs in the south-west. In fact, only about one in 100 people voted for the Government in the south-west, but that is not the point. The point is that, when people govern, they should govern for a nation, not for selected parts of a nation that happen to share their own party political prejudices.
As this is surely the Labour Government's last throe, given that the Prime Minister is running out of time to make his mark as the great man of Europe or whatever—all those things that he wanted to tick off and be remembered for in the history books—let him get back to basics. Let him get back to what he said on the day that he took office. Let him at last in this Parliament deliver fairness and justice for the whole country, not just selected bits of it.
I am sorry that my speech has not brought you a great deal of light-hearted joy at this time of year, Madam Deputy Speaker, but these debates give us an opportunity, for which I am grateful, to raise issues that really matter to our constituents and communities. I hope that the Minister will take on board what I have said and make my views on behalf of my constituents known to Ministers, especially those in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Despite the democratic vote in the north-east that showed clearly that people in this country do not want regionalisation, the Deputy Prime Minister is pressing on with it none the less. He does not have a mandate for it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said of Cumbria, we will not have it in the west country. We will not have this dictatorship of a Government imposing things on us and running the west country in a way that is to the detriment of the people who live there.
May I wish everyone a very happy Christmas? I wish an especially happy Christmas to the staff and Officers of the House and thank them for the work that they do for us throughout the year, for which we are all extremely grateful.
May I send my season's greetings to the people about whom Angela Browning just spoke?
I would like to take the opportunity of using the last debate before Christmas to talk briefly about a matter that has been brought to my attention by members of the Swansea bay asylum seekers support group. The organisation provides support, advice and practical help to asylum seekers and refugees in my constituency of Gower and other constituencies in the Swansea area. The group does tremendous work, often in distressing circumstances, so I am glad to be able to pay tribute to its enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers.
The specific matter that has been raised with me and other hon. Members is perhaps especially appropriate to this of all seasons if we regard Christmas as a time for families and especially children, as most of us do. I want to consider the impact of section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 on families and children, and the possible future impact of the section throughout the country.
Some hon. Members will remember that section 9 was the focus of much debate during the passage of the Bill, which received Royal Assent in July 2004. It created a new category of people called
"failed asylum-seeker with family" and made provision for those people to lose their entitlement to financial and material support under our domestic social welfare schemes. The provision means that an adult failed asylum seeker with a dependent child or children who is regarded as having failed to take reasonable steps to leave the UK can have their entitlement to support from the state ended. That is achieved if the Secretary of State issues a certificate. Clearly, the expectation is that the measure will encourage families with children to leave the UK after their asylum claim has been decided. I am not here to argue against the Government's intention when applying and enforcing their asylum policy, but to draw attention to the consequences of the provision and its possible effects in the future.
It was argued during the passage of the Bill that became the 2004 Act that section 9 would allow children to be used as a tool to coerce families into doing what the Government wanted them to do. It was thought that the failure to view refugee children in such circumstances as children first and foremost could breach the Children Act 1989, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UN convention on the rights of the child. Frankly, I do not have the legal knowledge or specialist expertise to assess whether that is the case or not, but there is growing evidence that section 9 is having a negative impact on children's safety and well-being in some cases, but not achieving the Government's objective.
Perhaps because of the controversial nature of section 9, it has been piloted in three areas: central and east London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. It was applied to a group of 116 families from several different countries with 36 adult dependants and 219 children. In all cases, the families' appeal rights had been exhausted before December 2004.
Soon after the pilot began, Barnado's, with the support of the Refugee Children's Consortium, started an assessment by working with local authorities that were involved in the implementation pilot and some that were not. Interviews were held with local authority practitioners and the findings of the research were illuminating. Every local authority that was interviewed believed that section 9 of the 2004 Act was incompatible with the Children Act 1989 because that Act requires local authorities always to put the interests of the child first and says that unless there is likely to be physical danger, the best place for a child is with her or his family. However, section 9 requires a local authority to take away the means of supporting a child and then decide whether to take that child into care to ensure that he or she has food and shelter. No local authority staff had received any guidance from the Government on how to undertake human rights assessments. That is important because the withdrawal of support can be prevented only if there is a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.
The research found that the approach of different local authorities varied enormously. Local authority staff who were responsible for working with families from which support had been withdrawn thought that they did not have the necessary training or experience to balance child welfare and human rights considerations with the imperatives of immigration control. Local authorities were all worried about resource implications of section 9 and some felt that there had been a deliberate shift of resourcing from the immigration and nationality directorate to local authority budgets.
Apart from engendering a sense of dismay and uncertainty in social services departments throughout the country, what else has the experience of the pilots taught us? What happened to the 116 families involved? I do not have an absolutely up-to-date picture, but I can give a snapshot of the situation in the autumn. Some 27 families had reached stage 4 of the process, 17 of which had had their support withdrawn under section 9. A further 26 families had had their support withdrawn for reasons other than section 9. Although the pilot began in December 2004, not one family had returned to its country of origin by the following autumn as a direct result of the implementation of section 9. On the other hand—this is the bit about section 9 that worries me most—35 families had disappeared altogether, thus losing contract with the services with which they had been working. By definition, of course, we do not know what has happened to those families, but it is clear that they have made themselves and their children acutely vulnerable and open to all sorts of exploitation. Those families represent 30 per cent. of those in the pilot.
There is good evidence that families involved in the pilot did not really understand their situation or options. Halfway through the pilot, the Refugee Council in London and Leeds and Refugee Action in Manchester sent translated letters to section 9 families involved in the pilot. The families were invited to attend advice sessions or to call telephone advice services so that it could be discovered whether they understood their position. It turned out that many families had not received letters relating to section 9 and that few of those who had received a letter understood it.
The thinking behind section 9 is clear and understandable. Why should the British taxpayer continue to support asylum seekers who have come to the end of the appeal process? I know that many of our constituents support the logic that if we take away such asylum seekers' support, they will go. However, it is hon. Members' job to look beyond that straightforward rationale and to examine the effect of the policy.
It is clear to me that the pilot demonstrates that section 9 has not achieved its objectives and that it would be extremely unlikely to do so if it were rolled out throughout the country. It has created legal and practical problems in the local authorities that have been involved in the pilot and have tried to combine the implementation of section 9 with their child welfare and human rights standards. That situation would be reflected throughout the country if the scheme were extended beyond the pilot areas. Rather than encouraging families to leave the UK, the fear of eviction or separation have driven them to disappear. They are presumably living on the margins of our society, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Surely that cannot be an acceptable outcome of any policy. If section 9 is rolled out throughout the country, thousands of children would be put in such a position through—whatever one thinks of their parents' decisions—absolutely no fault of their own.
The children's policies that we adopt must take precedence over our asylum objectives if and when, as in this case, they appear to conflict. The children of asylum seekers and refugees are first and foremost children. All of our policies should protect the interests of children as a matter of first principle.
I shall quote from a statement that was put out jointly by the four UK children's commissioners last Friday, which expresses a number of their concerns about the treatment of asylum-seeking children and young people. It identifies, as a particular concern, the withdrawal of welfare from asylum-seeking families and children following a final negative asylum decision and exhaustion of appeals, including the power to separate asylum-seeking children from their families. The commissioners say:
"The Commissioners call on the Government to ensure that asylum-seeking children and young people are treated as children by all those involved at every stage of the asylum process, from arrival in the UK through to removal to their country of origin, and their special needs and rights recognised."
"want to express their disappointment that no-one seems to be listening to what the children themselves have to say or to be considering the impact that their experiences before and since coming to this country may have had on them. The Commissioners in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will also be making representations to their own Parliaments and Assemblies about the effects of current policy on children and young people in their area.,"
Let us listen to our children's commissioners. Let us listen to people who are working in this area, such as Barnardo's and the Refugee Council. Let us listen also to our directors for social services, and let us just dump section 9.
I begin by paying tribute to the campaigners for the Make Poverty History campaign and the trade justice campaign in my constituency and throughout the country. We should reflect on the success of those campaigns: people were motivated throughout the country and young people, especially, were seized by those projects. That has had a great deal to teach all of us in terms of a political campaign.
I say that with a tinge of regret, having listened to today's statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the deliberations of the World Trade Organisation in Hong Kong last week. It is unfortunate that it was not possible for the Government to secure proper reform of the common agricultural policy earlier during their presidency. We know from parliamentary answers that the Minister for Europe did not even start to have serious negotiations with our European colleagues on the CAP before October. If we had been able to sort out the CAP and arrive at some sort of proper agreement earlier this year, there would have been a real chance for us to secure a far better outcome at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong. As a result, hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people would have received a much better outcome.
It is glib and easy to talk about poverty and the Make Poverty History campaign, but what does that mean? I was impressed recently by the work of the UN World Food Programme, based in Rome. We must remember that some 6 million children die every year through malnutrition or disease. Those children are loved by their parents and are just as special to their families as are UK children to their families. I note what we have just heard about Hong Kong with a great sense of regret. Of course some progress has been reached, but it is a pity that we could not make real progress under the British presidency to secure CAP reform.
I want to reflect on what the House heard yesterday from the Prime Minister about the European budget negotiations. It is curious that only two weeks ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to the House, on
The Prime Minister said yesterday that it was all about supporting the new entrants to the EU, and there is much sense in that. However, it is curious to find that Ireland, which has a higher per capita income than the United Kingdom, is receiving more per head than Lithuania, Slovakia and Poland. It would be possible, however, to support the new entrant states properly with a budget that was fair and ensured that money went to the poorest nations and not to some of the richest nations.
These are serious issues. As Members of Parliament, our prime duty is to hold the Government to account and to be the guardians of taxpayers' money. It is extraordinary that this matter has not come anywhere near the House; instead, it will be debated in the European Parliament. We are talking about huge sums. I understand that £7 billion is more or less what the Government spend on policing in England and Wales.
That brings me to the next part of my speech, which is the reorganisation of the police service. If we spoke to most of our constituents about police restructuring, they would probably look slightly blank. When I speak to my constituents about policing, they say that they would like the police station, for example, in Houghton Regis to stay open later in the evening. The same thing could be said about the police stations at Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable. People in villages in my constituency say that they would like to see a police officer more often.
Many of my constituents, like those of all other Members, suffer from the scourge of antisocial behaviour. It is appalling that, in some cases, such behaviour continues for two, three and sometimes three and a half years before those suffering from it are able to get relief. These are the real issues that our constituents want us to answer when we discuss the police service.
The Government's reorganisation of the police service raises the question whether the proposed changes are likely to address the concerns of our constituents better, or whether the situation will become worse. I have a great concern that larger forces will shift the focus from those local policing concerns that our constituents want the police to deal with.
The chairman of the Association of Police Authorities says:
"we are not convinced that policing which is controlled from remote centres which are out of touch with local communities is the right answer when other ways of getting the same result more quickly and cheaply have not been given even a cursory look."
Members on both sides of the House are happy to work with the Government to consider how to save money within the police service and to spend money more efficiently. We have grave doubts, however, about the way in which the Government are proceeding. In my own area, Bedfordshire police say that the set-up costs of a regional east of England force—one of the options proposed by the Government—are £70 million with net savings of only £10 million. The cost of the east-west option that will merge Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire forces or the north-south option that will merge Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex is £66 million to set up the new force, with savings of only £6 million a year. There is therefore a 10-year payback period, which is quite a long time in which the police service must borrow to fund start-up costs, possibly having to make cuts in front-line services before those costs are recouped. Nationally, the Government need between £500 million and £600 million to bring about the changes. We can all think of better ways of spending that money to put more police officers on our streets without resorting to reorganisation.
I accept that, in some respects, the Government have a point. Do we need 43 directors of finance in our police forces, or 43 directors of human resources? We could easily centralise functions such as finance, human resources and purchasing to save funds. There are many ways in which we could achieve the economies that the Government seek without a massive amalgamation of forces.
Accountability is key for the police, but it is stretched to the limit. My constituency is at the bottom of Bedfordshire, and the county town of Bedford is a 55-minute drive away. It is not as far as the distances that colleagues in larger counties have to travel, but it is still a significant distance. We need accountability in terms of the BCU—the basic command unit—of the police service, but chief superintendents do not have a structure of accountability. They look up to the chief constable, and the police authority covers the area in which the relevant police forces operates. Chief superintendents who manage police divisions should be made accountable to local representatives, who know very well the concerns of the people whom they represent.
Bedfordshire, too, has been told that any merger plans must fit within the region covered by the Government office for the east of England. Bedfordshire police considered the option of merging with Thames Valley police, who are next-door to us and with whom we share some functions, but we were told that that was not possible because they were in a different Government region. Like many hon. Members, I can confirm that our ambulance and fire and rescue services in Bedfordshire operate on a regional basis. Our strategic health authority is heading in that direction and important planning decisions are effectively made on a regional basis. It appears as if our police force is heading that way, too.
Finally, on behalf of Bedfordshire police may I reiterate the point made my hon. Friend Alistair Burt yesterday? Bedfordshire police have been asked to pay the full security costs of policing Luton airport, which is a national facility used by planes from across the United Kingdom, Europe and further afield. It is not right that £400,000 should be taken from our police budget to provide security so that people across the south-east can fly safely. That does not happen at Gatwick or Heathrow, so I urge the Government to end that discrimination and give that money back to the people of Bedfordshire.
May I begin by sending my good wishes to everyone who works in the House, not least people in less highly regarded areas such as the Whips Office? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey would pass on those wishes to his colleagues.
A week today, on
The simple facts are as follows. Asphalt producers have used RFO as a fuel to provide the heat to dry stone for more than 30 years under strict emissions control arrangements without any apparent detrimental effects to the environment. That is largely due to the fact that the emissions from plants using RFO are environmentally more benign than plants using alternative, so-called virgin fuels. There is substantial evidence to underwrite those claims. However, the Environment Agency is adamant that RFO is a waste when bought by the quarrying industry and, because burning it constitutes disposal, it must now comply with the WID. The Environment Agency's arguments are based on rulings by the European Court of Justice that are quite irrelevant. Without significant, technically difficult and costly—in other words, impractical—changes to plants, the quarrying industry cannot meet the WID criteria, and will have no alternative but to stop using it from
The revision of the European waste framework directive, which will be published tomorrow as it starts to proceed through the European Parliament, redefines "recovery" so that RFO purchased from members of the oil reprocessing association is now classified as fully recovered and will no longer be a waste. Above all, the Environment Agency decision flies in the face of the Government's own sustainable development strategy, and waste prevention objectives, as the use of RFO, which is mainly derived from old motor vehicle engine oil, replaces an equivalent volume of virgin hydrocarbon fuel of about 4 million litres a week.
Bearing in mind that the new classification of the period at which a waste ceases to be a waste will be in the public domain tomorrow and that it will be clear for everyone to see that RFO, as bought by industry, is recovered under the new definitions, it is inconceivable that the European Commission should commence infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom if the UK allows the continued use of RFO by the quarrying industry after
May I take a minute or two to outline the case that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? The roadstone coating industry currently uses approximately 200,000 tonnes of recovered fuel oil annually, which is about half of the UK's entire consumption. Roadstone coating plants burn RFO to dry and heat stone before bitumen is applied to make asphalt. The burning of RFO in roadstone coating plants significantly reduces the consumption of virgin gas oil by the roadstone coating industry, which preserves natural resources and avoids energy consumption in the production and refining of virgin gas oil, and it decreases emissions across a range of substances in comparison with the burning of virgin gas oil, which is perfectly lawful.
The market for RFO creates an economic environment within which the waste oil collection and treatment industry can thrive. Since the costs of waste oil collection and treatment are effectively underwritten by the end user of RFO, so-called producers of waste oil have every incentive to dispose of their waste oil responsibly and lawfully. The use of RFO by roadstone coating plants in my constituency is therefore of significant environmental benefit. No alternative option currently exists, and no viable alternative has been proposed that would guarantee the same environmental benefit as that received from the established pattern of RFO use by roadstone coating plants.
In my view, the use of RFO by roadstone coating plants is the best practical environmental option, and the Government should fully support it. However, DEFRA and the various waste regulators appear to think that the burning of waste-derived fuel is either a waste-recovery operation or a waste-disposal operation, and that as a consequence all waste-derived fuel must be waste. That is an over-simplification of the legal principles determining when something derived from waste ceases to be waste. As a consequence of that approach, the use of RFO as a fuel in roadstone coating plants is being considered as the co-incineration of non-hazardous waste under the waste incineration directive, and operators of such facilities are obliged to submit applications for permits under the pollution prevention and control regulations by
The industry has continued to co-operate with DEFRA and the various waste regulators in all aspects of the regulation of roadstone coating plants. Indeed, it has an excellent environmental track record, which I have observed because of my regular visits to plants in North-West Leicestershire. However, DEFRA has not yet replied to the industry's concerns about what will happen if RFO is no longer considered as a waste.
Although I am an accountant and not a lawyer, I have seen the legal advice and assessed the status of RFO under the applicable waste law. In my view, the facts justify the classification of RFO as a completely recovered product, in which case the waste incineration directive does not apply to it. The purpose of my contribution is to demonstrate that that argument is well-founded both in law and on the facts, to seek acknowledgement via the Minister from DEFRA and the waste regulators that that argument is well founded and to encourage DEFRA and the waste regulators urgently to work on finding the most sensible resolution to the issues.
Extensive comparative emission and product trials have taken place over the past few months at four asphalt plants around the country using different suppliers of RFO, different types of stone, different fuels and different ages of machinery. The fuels used were RFO and the primary hydrocarbons—gas oil and light fuel oil—to which I have referred. The quarry industry can demonstrate unequivocally that emissions from RFO are more benign than those from so-called natural alternatives. I encourage DEFRA to inspect and respond to those results. Indeed, if the quarrying industry were to stop using RFO next week, the environment would suffer two blows: not only would the quarrying industry have to use more virgin fossil fuel, but one of the most efficient used-oil collection regimes in Europe would be jeopardised.
Adherence to the waste incineration directive will not help the environment in this case. I urge DEFRA to defer the requirement for asphalt plants to obey the letter of the directive until it has had the chance to examine the arguments thoroughly and pragmatically and to read the final rewrite of the waste fuel directive, which disapplies the incineration directive in such cases. To do as I request would not compromise environmental protection, but it may avoid causing irrevocable and avoidable harm to the quarry products industry, which is a crucial employer in North-West Leicestershire.
In summary, the quarry industry and those who work within it seek confirmation that there are circumstances in which it is legitimate to regard waste-derived fuel as a fully recovered product that has ceased to be waste; that the production of recovered fuel oil is the production of a product that has ceased to be waste; that the burning of recovered fuel oil in roadstone coating plants is not the incineration or co-incineration of hazardous or non-hazardous waste; that operators of roadstone coating plants in North-West Leicestershire and elsewhere do not need to apply for PPC permits that incorporate the requirements of the waste incineration directive, which takes effect a week today; and, finally, that roadstone coating plants can lawfully continue to burn RFO, provided that they meet the emissions standards generally applicable to the burning of fuel products.
Although I consider the current methods of quality control employed by the oil reprocessing industry to be adequate to demonstrate the complete recovery of a product, the quarrying industry would be happy to work with DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the oil reprocessing industry to produce a quality protocol if that is necessary for reinsurance purposes. The industry is aware of a US quality standard—ASTM D6823—which relates specifically to the production of RFO. That could provide valuable assistance to speed up the finalisation of any UK RFO quality protocol.
The industry has every intention of maintaining its excellent track record in co-operating with DEFRA and the waste regulators to address any concerns that it may have prior to giving the formal acknowledgement that it seeks. In order for it to do so, I urge the Minister to ask his colleagues to explain any objection to the arguments that I have presented.
This is an urgent economic and environmental matter. I hope that the Government will address it before they depart on a well-earned Christmas break from European controversies and turn to resolving domestic disputes, which we all anticipate with great relish.
As I approach the end of my first year as a parliamentary apprentice, I see this House as a place of contrasts. Sometimes kindness is directed towards Members, while at other times there is cruelty when Members are in full flight after some hapless Minister like a pack of hounds. When I see how Members behave towards each other, I sometimes wonder where the anti-cruelty vote came from.
There can also be a contrast between tedium and drama, as you will have experienced on many occasions, Madam Deputy Speaker. Going through the detail of a Bill with very few Members in the Chamber can be tedious, yet sometimes we see the drama of close votes and Back-Bench revolts. One of my favourite occurrences took place in July when Meg Hillier had decided to speak against her own party. It was late at night, thunder was pealing outside and, just as she reached her main point, lightning flashed around the Chamber. My hon. Friends were impressed that the Labour Whips had such power, as we had thought that it was reserved to the leader of our party.
Over the past few months, I have found several contrasts between the Government's attitudes towards issues in England or in the international sphere and towards similar issues in Northern Ireland. I want to raise with the Minister the Government's contrasting attitudes to terrorism, because my constituents want answers on that. Not so long ago, a lone protestor outside Downing street was arrested for reading out a list of names of soldiers murdered in Iraq. Yet this weekend the case was dropped against members of Sinn Fein who were in possession of lists of policemen and prison personnel, many of whom had to leave their own homes, at a huge cost to the taxpayer of more than £30 million, as a result. Sinn Fein has tried to turn that into an intelligence scandal by saying that it is terrible that the police and MI5 were recruiting informers from within the IRA and Sinn Fein. Many in this House would be appalled if the security forces were not trying to recruit informers and gather intelligence. The spotlight seems to have been directed towards the police or the Government, whereas the real questions must be answered by Sinn Fein. Why did it have those lists? To what purpose did it intend to put them? Why were the fingerprints of some leading Sinn Fein members all over them? How can people in Northern Ireland trust Sinn Fein?
The question that my constituents want the Government to answer is this: if those people abuse their position in the Stormont Assembly and use their offices to capture information that could be useful to terrorists, why on earth are the Government pursuing an agenda that will put those same people back into their offices and back into office? Of course, such people are not to be trusted, and there is not the required level of trust.
Another contrast in the attitudes to terrorism was shown in the revolt by Labour Members not long ago in relation to holding terrorist suspects for more than 90 days without charge. Within a couple of weeks, however, those Members were tamely trotting through the Lobby to support legislation that would allow terrorists in Northern Ireland, who have charge lists as long as one's arm and have been found guilty of some of the most heinous crimes, to walk off without even appearing in court, let alone spending 90 seconds in jail. That Bill has been considered in Committee in the past couple of weeks, and the Government must bring back amendments that deal with the serious issues raised by Members in all parts of the House, including Government Back Benchers, and by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the police and others.
Secondly, there is a contrast in the attitudes to education. The White Paper presented to the House will afford schools in England new freedoms in deciding on their admissions criteria. Despite the hysterical reaction from the Secretary of State—which, of course, we understand, as she must placate her Back Benchers, and it now seems that she must placate some Cabinet members—there is no doubt that those freedoms will enable schools to match children to the type of education to which they are best suited. We can call that academic selection or whatever we want, but it allows schools that freedom. I have no difficulty with calling it academic selection, common sense or whatever; I believe that it is right, and schools in England will benefit from it.
The contrast is that while the Government are introducing those freedoms to schools in England, they are removing them in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that teachers, schools, parents and the public, in consultation after consultation, including Government consultations, have widely supported continuing to match children to the school that they attend through an assessment of their educational needs, aptitudes and abilities. Last Friday, I met several principals who serve schools that take a large number of my constituents. They are all baffled as to how the Government can continue to fly in the face of public opinion in Northern Ireland on this issue. Unfortunately, a White Paper that will be introduced to the House in the new Session will remove in Northern Ireland the very freedoms that the Government intend to introduce—for which they will probably seek our support—in England. The Secretary of State must explain why the two parts of the United Kingdom are treated differently.
Thirdly, there is the attitude to the economy. The Chancellor has problems with the UK economy. Growth rates are half what he predicted in the Budget last year, public finances face a huge gap and a black hole, and the golden rule is in tatters. The Chancellor has rightly tried to talk up the economy, as he does not want confidence in it to be lost. What a contrast that is with the attitude of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who flies off to New York to meet investors and tells them that the Northern Ireland economy is unsustainable. The Chancellor of the Exchequer talks up a flagging economy in the House of Commons, while the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland talks down the economy of which he is in charge.
I understand that there are problems with the Northern Ireland economy. Our dependence on the public sector is too great, and the private sector is too sluggish. The private sector faces all kinds of problems, what with uncertainty and organised crime—by the very people, incidentally, whom the Secretary of State hopes to get into government in the next year—and the planning delays caused by the bureaucracy of the planning system, which has not improved. That has affected a number of projects in my constituency—major, multi-million-pound projects. I hope that the planning delays will be dealt with, so that the £80 million investment in Magheramorne quarry, and the investment in the village of Glenarm and in Carrickfergus are not held up.
There is also a contrast in the attitudes to finance. Only yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House that he had secured a great deal when he gave away £7 billion to the European Union, although he had not achieved any reform in the common agricultural policy, or even any promises of reform, and although he had promised that he would not renegotiate the rebate, period. That largesse towards the EU presents a contrast. When my hon. Friend Mr. Dodds asked at the end of the statement who would pay for the additional money that would go into the EU's coffers, he did not receive an answer.
I note that my constituents in Northern Ireland are already bearing a heavier tax burden because of a 19 per cent. increase in the regional rate, a promise of new water charges in the new year, and cuts in both the general and the waste management grants to councils. To my constituents, that means that the general grant to Larne, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus councils will have been cut by 50 per cent. as a percentage of their budgets since 2002, and the waste management grant will be cut by 33 per cent. this year. All that, at a time when the Government have increased the regional rate, means that councils will have to increase the district rate. It is another way of passing on cuts and financing that through additional local taxation, which of course makes it more difficult for new private-sector firms to find their feet.
I also see a contrast in the attitude to international issues. David Taylor mentioned those. I have attended lobbies in the House when constituents have come to speak to me about making poverty history in Africa. I have met representatives of schools. I have also have spoken in schools in my constituency, where youngsters have written letters and carried out projects, and teachers have done a great job in raising awareness of the unfairness in the distribution of wealth across the world and the impact that it has.
The Prime Minister has, I have to say, done an excellent job in raising awareness of African issues through the Make Poverty History campaign, the Commission for Africa and everything else. At the same time, however, that contrasts with the lack of action on getting rid of the inequities within the common agricultural policy, which have led to the destruction of many African and other economies through heavy export subsidies that favour the rich world rather than the poor. Those contrasts must be dealt with and we must have answers to questions about them.
I trust that, in the new year, we will have some answers and perhaps a change of heart, and I hope that some of the issues that I have raised this afternoon will be dealt with. Meanwhile, I hope that Members and the Minister will take note of the contrasts that I have highlighted. In closing, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all members of staff a happy Christmas.
I represent a large rural constituency with 26 inhabited islands. The geography of the constituency clearly means extra costs and difficulties when it comes to the delivery of public services, so I want to raise some issues about that today.
I will start with Royal Mail—clearly an important public service in a vast rural area. It is inevitable that, when the delivery services are opened up to full competition next year, private mail companies will enter the market, but they will obviously concentrate on urban areas. I cannot envisage any private mail company wanting to deliver mail to houses up a long track on a distant island. The future of the Royal Mail's universal service obligation is therefore vital.
The Select Committee on Trade and Industry has just published an excellent report, which points out how vaguely the universal service obligation is defined. It is important to define the USO clearly. We must have a proper definition of the services included, and it should embrace first and second-class letter mail, a standard parcel service up to about 20 kg, a registered mail service, redirection, international mail and a bulk mail product.
It is important that as postal services evolve over time the USO is frequently reviewed. I hope that we have learned some of the lessons from the privatisation of the telecoms industry. The universal service obligation imposed then related solely to voice mail services, but as telecoms services have rapidly evolved, certain developments such as broadband are no longer part of the USO. We must not make the same mistake with mail services, so we should leave it open for the USO to evolve.
Another important issue raised in the Select Committee report is the need for a universal service compensation scheme—a fund though which private mail operators contribute towards the costs of providing a universal service. It is no good waiting until Royal Mail gets into financial difficulties before setting up such a fund. It is important for it to be set up soon. It must be set up in order to compensate Royal Mail for the extra costs that it incurs in delivering to the remote rural areas that private mail operators would not consider serving.
I am also concerned about the future of rural post offices. Often, the post office is part of the only shop in a village, and without the post office income and extra footfall generated, many of those village shops would not survive. Rural post offices benefit from social network payments of £150 million a year, but they are guaranteed only until 2008. It is important for the Government to commit soon to funding the rural post office network beyond 2008. Unless they do so, it is inevitable that some rural post offices will be forced to close. I am already aware of circumstances in which some postmasters or mistresses wish to retire, but when Royal Mail explains to applicants wanting to take over that the social network payments will continue only to 2008, many of them understandably pull out. Without any long-term business plan, they are unwilling to take the risk. It is important that the Government give a commitment soon.
The Government have already caused a great deal of damage to rural post offices by transferring many pension and benefit payments to the banks. They should try to give rural post offices more business, and they could help smaller post offices by, for example, allowing more of them to issue vehicle licences.
Another area of concern in my constituency is the recent announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions of job cuts in the Jobcentre Plus offices in Oban and Campbeltown, which will have an impact on the local economy because in small towns alternative employment is often hard to find. The work is being transferred to large call centres, and we already know that benefits call centres are failing miserably to carry out their work. Recent figures have shown that as many as one in three calls to them go unanswered. That is simply unacceptable, as is the fact that people have to wait several weeks to receive their benefits when they become unemployed.
Transferring yet more work to failing call centres is not the answer. Many people want face-to-face contact, and many benefit applications could be processed much more efficiently in face-to-face interviews with local staff who understand the local circumstances than by conducting the interviews down a telephone line to a distant call centre. I ask the DWP to rethink its job cuts plans and to keep those jobs in Oban and Campbeltown.
A large proportion of my postbag, like that of many other hon. Members, consists of complaints about the Child Support Agency. It is obvious that the CSA is in a state of chaos. I could cite a long list of statistics to show that it is failing, but I shall restrict myself to a few. More than £3 billion owed to children remains uncollected, more than 35,000 compensation payments have been made for maladministration over the last few years, and there are hundreds of thousands of cases in the queue waiting to be assessed. The average wait for those unassessed cases is 448 days, and many parents are in a state of despair over their dealings with the CSA.
I think that the solution is for the Government to scrap the CSA and transfer its functions to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The Revenue already holds information about family incomes and children, so is well placed to take over the assessment of child maintenance. Because of the information that it already has about incomes and where people work, it would be more effective than the CSA has been at chasing people and collecting money.
Another area of unfairness that I want to raise is the Government's decision to exclude women between 60 and 64 from the one-off council tax refund of £200. Those women are of pension age, and they should receive their £200 discount, like any other pensioner. Ideally, council tax should be scrapped and replaced by a local income tax, but if the Government want to stick with council tax, we should at least be able to expect equal treatment for all pensioners, regardless of their sex.
It should not be assumed that the different pension age for men and women always works in favour of women. One constituent who wrote to me had been on incapacity benefit, but when she became 60 that was replaced with the state pension, which was lower than the incapacity benefit. Then, to add insult to injury, she heard that she would not receive the £200 council tax discount. She wrote to me pointing out, correctly, that had she been a man she would have continued to receive incapacity benefit until she reached 65, so she would have been better off. Until retirement ages are equalised for men and women, all benefits that accrue to pensioners should accrue to all pensioners, including women between 60 and 64.
Another important issue in my constituency, particularly on the islands, is the high price of petrol. When I visited the isle of Coll in October, it was staggering to find that the price of a litre of unleaded petrol was £1.26, far higher than anywhere on the mainland. When the Office of Fair Trading investigated the high costs, it found that there was no profiteering either by oil companies or by local garages; the high price was simply a result of low turnover. A local non-profit-making company runs the petrol station. Without such non-profit-making community involvement, there would be no petrol for sale on the island.
The Government could help by charging a lower rate of fuel duty on islands. This issue has been raised before with the Government, who have always argued that if they did introduce a lower rate, it would be difficult to know where to draw the line. That argument may apply to remote mainland areas but it does not apply to islands, where such a line is obviously easy to draw. The high cost of fuel impacts on all freight and, therefore, on all goods sold on islands. The Government could help greatly by introducing a lower rate of fuel duty on islands. The loss to the Exchequer would be minimal.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in other European countries such as France and Portugal the derogation has already been taken advantage of? There is a precedent for applying EU law in exactly the way that he describes, and derogation could be extended not just to islands but to remote parts of the mainland highlands of Scotland, such as those in my own constituency.
My hon. Friend is right: other European countries adopt such a policy to help their islands' economies, so there is absolutely no reason in European law why our Government could not do the same here.
I turn to the problems associated with identity cards. I am opposed to the Identity Cards Bill in principle but I want to draw the House's attention to those parts of it that could cause many problems for islanders. One clause gives the Home Secretary the draconian power to order any citizen to attend a specified place at a time of his choosing, in order to be photographed and to have fingerprints taken, and to provide any other biometric information that the Home Secretary chooses.
The Government want to have 70 ID card registration centres throughout the UK. Pro rata per head of population, that would give Scotland about six centres, but it should be noted that it can take those who live on an island a considerable time to get to any part of the mainland. For example, according to the winter timetable there are only three sailings a week from the island of Colonsay, so it would take at least three days for a Colonsay islander to visit the mainland to have their details taken and then return home. That is clearly unacceptable in terms of both time and expense. If the Government insist on going ahead with the Identity Cards Bill, they must provide mobile registration centres and take them to the islands and to remote parts of the mainland to allow people to register.
The final issue that I want to raise is tax credits. We all know that many of our constituents get into severe financial difficulties because they have been overpaid, through no fault of their own, and are then told by the Inland Revenue that they must pay the money back. On
"we will not seek to get the money back if the error is on the part of the Inland Revenue."—[Hansard, 22 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 798.]
However, the tax credit office's code of practice provides an addendum:
"and you could reasonably have thought your award was right."
The Prime Minister did not mention that subtle addendum, which adds another test: that the recipient has to understand how this complicated system works, and to be able to judge for themselves whether the award was reasonable. It is clearly ridiculous to expect people to work that out. The code of practice should be the same as the Prime Minister's statement: overpayments as a result of mistakes made by the Revenue should not be reclaimed.
Finally, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, other Members and the Clerks and staff of the House a very merry Christmas.
May I start by wishing everybody a merry Christmas and a happy new year? I thought that I would do my speech backwards just to confuse everybody, and certainly me. I enjoyed, and agreed with every word of, the speech of Sammy Wilson. There are so many topsy-turvy things here, which is why I started by wishing everybody a merry Christmas. Because of political correctness, people are supposed now to say "happy holiday" and not use the word Christmas. Christmas lights and Christmas trees have been renamed winter lights and winter trees. What a load of rubbish.
I take joy in the fact that I will be singing Christmas carols at the Swan with Two Necks on Thursday with a number of other parishioners at that local pub, having already sung carols last Sunday. Indeed, I will be having Christmas lunch with my family and, like a number of people throughout the country, I will be looking forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
I wish everybody good luck for 2006; a number of issues that have been mentioned today will be very important next year. We had a statement on the Hong Kong summit earlier. The hon. Member for East Antrim mentioned Make Poverty History and, at the last election, I was buoyed by the fact that so many people raised that as an issue on which we should do more. People say that charity should begin at home. If so, in my constituency—and, no doubt, in many others—home begins with the world. They see the world as part of their home.
People do not want to sit by idly and watch as parts of our world are ravaged by poverty, HIV/AIDS and deprivation, when things could so easily be altered. I was distressed to hear the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry talking about some of our developed neighbours acting as a block to progress. We have to do more with France and Germany, and we should have a united European front on this issue so that we can negotiate with the United States on an equal basis to do something to alleviate poverty.
I have been to Africa on a number of occasions and have seen for myself the deprivation there. I have also been made chairman of a working party on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association dealing with HIV/AIDS. Certainly, Africa is a nightmare as far as that is concerned. Three million people will die next year and, even more distressingly, 5 million others will contract HIV during that period. That is distressing for all of us. We ought to be doing more to ensure not only that antiretroviral drugs are made more readily available to far more people, but that education is provided so people do not contract HIV.
It is not just a question of sub-Saharan Africa; 5.1 million people in India have HIV. Even within this country, the figure has quadrupled in recent years, simply because a number of people with HIV have decided to settle in this country. There is not a single country where HIV does not exist and we ought to be doing far more to help to ensure that fewer people contract it. We all know the misery associated with HIV, including the orphans created throughout the world. The economically active people in a society are those who tend to get HIV, so it hits the economy doubly.
I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend David Maclean, the former Chief Whip, making his first contribution to the Christmas debate for a long while. He talked about one of my pet subjects: wind turbines and energy generally. Yes, we want far more efficient supplies of energy, and some of us look at the middle east states and worry about the certainty of future supply and the price we will pay for it, but we must not pay lip service to wind power at the expense of far more viable forms of energy. I hope that the Minister will mention the timetable for the Government to say yea or nay to nuclear power. The last thing we need is more dithering. Literally hundreds of wind farms are coming on stream. Wind farm turbines are bigger than Nelson's column, so do we really want such things to litter and pollute our country? The answer has to be no. We must do something about the problem, and I hope that the Minister will say something in response.
Another issue that has motivated me over the past few months is the way that our representation abroad is being diminished. That is happening in Commonwealth countries and in nations that have been friends of the UK for a long time. The Foreign Secretary announced recently that a number of missions were to close—in Vanuatu, Tonga, Kiribati, Paraguay, the Bahamas, Lesotho, Swaziland, Madagascar and East Timor. Each closure is worrying, but the list that I have given is in addition to various other missions that have either closed or been merged.
It is risible to think that we can run our representation in Vanuatu, Tonga and Kiribati from Fiji. We cannot retain our influence on countries when we close our missions: every time we lower the flag, we reduce our influence in the world. However, the vacuum of influence will be filled by other countries, such as China. That country is increasing the number of missions that it has around the world and in Gabon, for example, it has built new schools and a new Parliament building. Closing down our missions will save a few pounds, but the price will be all the influence that is lost.
In addition, this country has made an investment in the work that has been done over many years by high commissioners and ambassadors. All that is being cut away, and I consider that to be a sacrilege. It is ridiculous for this country to pull out of Tonga, for example, given our long association with that country and its royal family. I therefore hope that more consideration will be given to our representation abroad.
The Foreign Secretary says that we are increasing the number of missions in certain countries in the middle east, and that is good, but we are also closing some of our consulates in the US. One reason for having consulates throughout the US, and not just restricting our representation to the embassy in Washington, is that their presence helps many of our constituency businesses to carry out trade. If we want to increase trade between the UK and the US, why are our US consulates being closed? In that connection, I remind the House that some consulates in Germany have also been closed.
I hope that the Foreign Office can find another way to maintain representation around the world. Even if any new system might be different from what we are used to, at least some representation would be better than none at all. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point as well.
I shall finish with one more impassioned plea, this time about the NHS in my area. At health questions earlier today, Mr. Prentice and I asked about the merger of the accident and emergency units at the Burnley general and Queen's Park hospitals. The Minister knows the Ribble Valley area well, so he will be aware that much of it is rural. The availability of hospital facilities in Burnley and Blackburn is important to my constituents. It already takes a long time for people in my area to get to those hospitals, whether they go as patients or visitors.
However, we know that the word "merge" is a euphemism for "cut". The Government do not want to say that a facility will be closed, so they prefer to say that it will be merged. In this case, the accident and emergency departments will be merged at one site—not in Burnley, I suspect, but in Blackburn. The excuse that has been given is that all the experts in the area will be gathered under one roof, but the same argument could be used in connection with all sorts of services that hospitals offer. Any merger or closure of facilities could be explained away by referring to the greater throughput of patients that could be achieved by having all the relevant experts working from one hospital.
I want to ensure that the level of service that we had when I came to Parliament in 1992 is still provided today. I know that the Government have invested more money in the national health service, which is why I scratch my head as to why my local hospitals have bigger debts than they have ever had and are cutting back services. That makes no sense to me, and I hope that the Minister will be able to shine some light on what is going on.
Some jobs in politics require an optimistic temperament, and the Deputy Leader of the House is the occupant of one of those jobs today. For large parts of the debate, he has had just himself, with a solitary Whip for company, his party having run out of speakers on the Christmas Adjournment some three hours before its end. That seems a statement of the condition of the modern Labour party, even considering that it won a general election victory earlier this year.
My mind goes back to the happy, but false, dawn of 1997, when Labour swept in with all those new faces, all those bright and shiny people and all those wonderful ideas of modernisation. I remember speaking after perhaps three or four months to a new Labour MP, who is sadly no longer in the House, who had a particular interest in defence. I asked whether he would speak in that afternoon's defence debate. "Oh no, Julian," he said, "I can't do that as I would use up my speech allocation." I asked what was his speech allocation, and he said it was four speeches a year. Those were the days, the Deputy Leader of the House must be thinking. Back then, the Whips had to ration their people to four speeches a year; now they are lucky if they can get anyone to keep a debate going.
Another person who is a born optimist is my right hon.—indeed, very gallant—Friend David Maclean. One would have to have been an optimist to become Chief Whip of the Conservative party in 2001, but he was equal to the task and did it very well. During his speech today, when he talked of his experience with his community hospitals, four of which are under threat, I was irresistibly reminded of what is happening in New Forest, East, in New Forest, West and in Romsey. Five community hospitals are under threat, and we, too, had a 2,000-strong demonstration, the first of its sort in many a long year in our part of the world. The primary care trusts have indeed apparently retreated on their threat to close the hospitals. One, in my constituency, remains closed, but we have been promised that it will at least be considered for reopening in the next financial year. We shall watch like hawks to make sure that that happens.
One of the most frightening parts of that campaign was the way in which the figures bandied about were so suspect and the analysis on which they were based so shallow. We were told at one point that only 16 per cent. of people in beds in our five community hospitals needed to be there. We challenged the arithmetic, and straight away the figure shot up to 24 per cent. I am still awaiting further explanation of how a raft of other occupants in beds seem mysteriously to have dropped out of the calculations; they would probably take the 24 per cent. up to about 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. When the PCT finally gave way, it found—surprise, surprise—that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border observed in his case, lots of people would end up blocking beds in the general hospitals if the community hospitals closed. What a surprise that was. However could it not have guessed that, if it had given a little thought in advance?
The trouble with many health issues is that cases are put forward, for change or inaction or not doing that which should be done, on bogus grounds, and on rationalisations caused fundamentally by a shortage of funds. That leads me to the case of my constituent, Mr. Brian Jago, which I have briefly raised once before. He suffers from multiple myeloma, which hon. Members may know is a cancer of the blood. It is a cancer for which there is no cure. The conventional forms of radiotherapy and chemotherapy may work for a little while, but there will always be a relapse.
However, as I have recently discovered because of my acquaintance with this case, there have been some breakthroughs. In particular, there is a new drug, Velcade, which has been licensed in this country but not yet given its guidelines by NICE—the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. When Mr. Jago came to see me, he explained that a bed had been booked by his consultant in the local major hospital in Southampton for him to start receiving Velcade, only for it to be decided by a body called the district prescribing committee that it was not prepared to prescribe the drug for him. I thought that that was a strange state of affairs, because the drug was not being denied to him purely on cost grounds, but because there was insufficient evidence of its efficacy.
Considering that Mr. Jago was being treated by top consultants in Southampton, who are among the world's leading experts on that particular medication, I wondered how a committee of people who are not world experts in such medication can effectively countermand the advice of the consultants. One would have thought that the consultants would be in the best position to know. So I wrote to the chief executive of the Southampton hospitals trust to request that if the issue was money, the committee should say so. Then, at least, Mr. Jago would have the opportunity to borrow the £15,000 that he needs and perhaps get it back, perhaps not in this financial year but in some future financial year when the guidelines have been issued and the treatment is available.
To my surprise, I received a reply that stated that
"there were concerns about the complexity of the trial's statistical data, the lack of quality of life data, the relatively small clinical advantage seen over dexamethasone"— the more conventional chemotherapy—
"and the relatively high cost of the medication."
With a little help, I did some research on the issue. I shall not bore the House with too many details, but in June 2003, the conclusions of the specialist journals were that
"Bortezomib"— the clinical name for Velcade—
"a member of a new class of anticancer drugs, is active in patients with relapsed multiple myeloma that is refractory to conventional chemotherapy."
By September 2004, the journals were reporting that
"bortezomib provides a cost-effective treatment option and the best value (in terms of cost/life-yr gained) among the currently available therapeutic options for relapsed, refractory myeloma."
By June this year, the results of a major study concluded:
"Bortezomib is superior to high-dose dexomethasone for the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma who have had a relapse after one to three previous therapies."
An editorial in the leading journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, stated that the take-home message of the trials was that
"bortezomib is an effective therapy against relapsed myeloma: a fact to which anyone who has used the drug can attest. It is a much-needed additional tool against this devastating disease."
Why is it then that a district prescribing committee in a regional health authority thinks that it knows better? I think that it has something to do with the fact that the Government have repeatedly stated that the absence of NICE guidelines for Velcade should not be taken as a sufficient reason not to prescribe it. Therefore, the committee has had to cobble together some pseudo-medical guff as an explanation for refusing to prescribe it. Once the guidance comes in, the committee will be in a very difficult position if it wishes to prescribe that drug.
There are a number of anomalies. If Brian Jago lived in Scotland or Wales he would be able to receive that treatment purely on the say-so of his consultant. There would be no question of a committee of that sort standing in his way. The advice I have had to give him is to live in another part of the country for a time, get himself registered with the NHS locally and try his luck to see whether that will save his life.
Another aspect of the contradictions in the situation is that the treatment that the consultant is being prevented from prescribing—on grounds of cost, I am sure—is less expensive than giving Mr. Jago another bone marrow transplant, which the consultant could do on his own authority and which would cost about £10,000 more than the £15,000 for Velcade.
Finally, although I do not want to cast aspersions on people or groups in the community who suffer from any disease, it is a fact that if someone were in the country illegally and was horribly stricken with AIDS, the medication that they would be given—given—by the same hospital trust would be more expensive than the medication that my constituent, who has paid into the NHS all his life, is being denied.
There is something terribly wrong with that situation. It may be put right in about six months' time when the guidance comes through, but that may be too late for Brian Jago. Although we are busy wishing ourselves a merry Christmas, it will not be a very merry Christmas for him and people in a similar situation.
Several weeks ago I invited fellow Members to visit Shropshire and I invite them to come with me on a journey to Shropshire today. I am concerned about the state of Shropshire, in particular my constituency. Why?
Over the past few years, there have been several thousand job losses. People may say that that is contradictory because the Government talk about full employment, but there has been an outflow of jobs from my constituency, from the defence, manufacturing and public sectors. In the six months since the general election, unemployment has risen by 7.9 per cent. in my constituency alone.
The defence training review will probably come to a decision in July. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will ask Ministry of Defence officials and Ministers not to delay that announcement until the day before the summer recess, so that Members can have full discussion of the outputs and outcomes of the DTR. It is important that we give RAF Cosford a level playing field with St. Athan. It would be wrong for St. Athan to be given taxpayers' money by the Welsh Development Agency to promote itself while RAF Cosford did not have the same opportunity.
RAF Cosford has a proud heritage and history of serving Her Majesty's armed forces, and I hope that that will continue. It currently employs 2,000 military and civilian staff. It is home to the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering, and I hope that the Government will find in favour of RAF Cosford and bring an additional 2,000 much-needed jobs to Shropshire and my constituency.
I also hope that, in the context of the defence industrial strategy that was announced in the House last week, the Government will tread cautiously when outsourcing defence manufacturing to foreign companies. Yes, it is absolutely right that we should have more private and public sector partnership in defence—that has gone on for many years and under the last Conservative Administration—but the important issue of national security must not be overlooked or dismissed as scaremongering; it must be put at the very heart of the defence industrial strategy.
If the public sector offers the best value for money, while offering national security, it is perhaps the best place to keep some parts of the defence industrial strategy. That might seem strange coming from a Conservative, but no Conservative Member has ever said that the private sector is always right. We have never said that the public sector is always wrong. We must consider each case on its merits, and on occasion, the public sector will offer the best value for money.
I argue that, in defence, the Government are rushing headlong into privatisation. They have more of a machismo doctrine of privatisation than the Conservative party ever had, but such things must be considered on their merits and on a case-by-case basis. The Government should consider what is in the national interest, as well as what is the most effective and efficient outcome for Her Majesty's armed forces. In that context, I have concerns about the closure of ABRO.
We are about to deploy troops to Afghanistan, and those hon. Members who know of ABRO's history understand that its workers are dedicated and work long hours. They work overtime, often unpaid, to repair armoured fighting vehicles that have been damaged on the front line and send them back to the front line to protect our troops. If the turnaround time for those armoured vehicles is increased, lives could be put at risk in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places around the world. Yes, we can work in partnership with the private sector, but will the Deputy Leader of the House please tell his colleagues that they should ensure that the public sector retains some elements of the defence industrial strategy?
In my introduction, I mentioned the large number of job losses in Shropshire and my constituency. Two weeks ago, the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust announced that 280 jobs would go at the local hospital. Significantly, the statement said that that would inevitably include doctors and nurses. Yet, week in, week out, when the Prime Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, he does not hesitate to remind the House of the amount of money going into the health service in answer to virtually every question on health. That is fine—we accept that—but the question in Shropshire that is put on the airwaves of local radio stations, in letters columns and to me, as a local MP, is where has all the money gone. Where has all the money gone? No Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box in the past six months and answered that fundamental question. Doctors who have trained for many years are being put on the dole. We have nurses who have trained for years, some of whom have given 25 or 30 years' dedicated service to the national health service, yet they are being put on the dole. At the same time, the Government say that they are improving patient care.
It was interesting that my right hon. Friend David Maclean said that he was open-minded about change to his local health service as long as things were put in place to address what was taken away. I am not saying that we should not change the way in which health care is delivered locally, but when my strategic health authority says that it wants to cut children's services at the Princess Royal hospital, which is in my constituency, and perhaps remove its consultant-led accident and emergency unit, one must begin to question the logic of such action if there is nothing to replace those services.
I am quite open-minded. A Minister could come to the Dispatch Box and tell me that although the Government will make major changes to the Princess Royal hospital, they will first put in place cottage hospitals, because we do not have them, ensure that there is a thriving independent sector and put money into local GP practices so that they can grow and offer more services, become more specialised and treat more patients. If those things were put in place, I would be more relaxed about the proposed changes to my local hospital. However, those services are not in place and, more worryingly, there is no proposal to put them in place or any money to pay for them. The clear message from my constituents to the Government is, "Keep your hands off our local hospital until you've put in the money and the health infrastructure to replace the services that are under threat."
I also want to talk about agriculture and sugar beet reform—this will be just a quick one, really. I hope that the much-trumpeted compensation that the Secretary of State has mentioned to the House in the past week or so will be passed on to farmers. There are more than 200 sugar beet farmers in my constituency and more than 600 in Shropshire as a whole. If we are to keep agriculture alive in Shropshire, East Anglia and other parts of the United Kingdom, it is important that the compensation attached to the new reforms is passed on to farmers.
I am mystified about why the Government have not moved more quickly on biofuels. Some farmers might be forced out of sugar beet production, yet sugar beet could be used for biofuels. We would have a win-win situation because the Government might meet their climate change targets while providing a new market for an important cash crop for rural farmers in Shropshire at the same time.
I would like to mention energy briefly. I had the privilege of visiting Denmark and Finland in the past couple of weeks to look at wind farms and nuclear power plants. I was struck by the fact that wind farms have a place, but that place is offshore, where they cannot be seen and there is plenty of wind. They do not have a place onshore, where they would be seen and could kill approximately 50,000 birds of prey. Onshore wind farms would create blight for not only home owners, but parts of Shropshire that are reliant on tourism.
I hope that the Government will bring forward more wind farms. We have to have them. We must move to an energy mix that has more renewables. However, there must be a balanced mix and a balanced provision, and that needs to take into consideration the points that I have raised along with those raised by other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Mr. Evans, who did so far more eloquently than myself.
I place on the record my thanks to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to all those who work in the Speaker's Office and to all Officers of the House, including those who are not seen on the Floor of the House—the administrators. Without administrators in hospitals throughout the land, in schools, in Whitehall and in the public and private sectors, the country would grind to a halt. I hope that in the spirit of good will at this Christmas time we can all applaud administrators. They get a tough time in this place. Yes, there is a place for rationalisation, as there is a place for cutting democracy, but I want to champion the cause of administrators today.
I shall touch on three issues. First, I will take the opportunity to discuss mental health in Northern Ireland, and specifically the promotion of good mental health. I shall also mention child and adolescent services later, if time permits.
The mental health review, chaired by Professor David Bamford, is continuing in the Province. One of its working groups has suggested the formation of a mental health promotion directorate to oversee and co-ordinate the entire area of this work. In Scotland, £24 million has been allocated over three years to establish the mental health improvement and well-being directorate. The resourcing of mental health promotion in Northern Ireland should reflect the cost of mental ill health and the potential savings from achieving an improvement in the mental well-being of individuals, families, organisations and communities. Undoubtedly, several millions of pounds would be required. That seems like a lot of money for something that will not be deemed as acute care. However, given annual costs, it represents good value for money in the longer term.
There is a growing body of research on the effectiveness of mental health promotion, with a robust evidence base on specific interventions. The focus of much mental health research is on mental illness as opposed to good mental health. The promotion of positive mental health is necessary at all life stages. Early intervention for children and adolescents has been proven to improve resilience. Older people—an ever-growing population group—have their own specific needs. There is strong evidence to show that mental health can be promoted in a range of settings, such as schools and the workplace. Further education colleges and rural areas are also crucial.
The effective delivery of mental health promotion in all sectors and settings in Northern Ireland will depend on building knowledge, expertise and capacity. This should include training, information and guidance, and research.
In Northern Ireland we have an extra dimension to the causes of mental ill health. The fabric of many communities has been destroyed by the legacy of more than three decades of terrorism. Communities need to grow and to develop, enhancing levels of trust, a sense of belonging and potential for participation to promote emotional well-being. Although some progress has been made towards this vision, much still needs to be done.
Spending on mental health services has mushroomed in recent years. For instance, in 2003, £150.8 million was spent by trusts in Northern Ireland, an increase of more than 31.3 per cent. on four years previously. It comprised £85.6 million for hospital services, £25.4 million on community health services and £39.8 million for personal social services. It does not include £34.1 million for GP consultations on mental health or £44 million for psychiatric drugs last year. Furthermore, the cost to our economy of lost output and the quality-of-life impact on individuals cannot be underestimated. The Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health, in "Counting the Cost", attempted to calculate a monetary figure to reflect the impact of mental illness across all sectors of our society. Costs not generally considered include formal care from family and friends, loss of earnings through sickness absence, non-employment and premature mortality as well as mental health care provision by the private sector or voluntary and charitable organisations. The sum that the study reached represents the savings that would be made in Northern Ireland if there were no mental illness. Its final estimate of the total cost of mental illness to society in Northern Ireland in 2002–03 was £3 billion—a figure greater than total spending on health and social care in the Province for all health conditions. That £3 billion is, of course, an artificial figure, as the eradication of mental illness is not possible, but it highlights the extent of benefits that could be achieved by limiting the prevalence and severity of psychiatric illness.
The cost of mental health affects everyone, as escalating increases in Government spending impact on taxes and access to public services. In a response to a recent parliamentary question, I was informed that spending on mental health promotion in the Province has increased from £50 million to £600 million in the past four years. Those totals have raised eyebrows among mental health professionals, and I have submitted further questions to seek a detailed breakdown of the way in which the totals were arrived at.
In reviewing progress on mental health promotion in the Province, a number of initiatives have emerged as crucial to the achievement of effective delivery, including the prioritising of key at-risk groups, and cross-sector co-ordination and co-operation. To achieve strategic, co-ordinated, cross-sectoral and multi-agency action on mental health promotion in Northern Ireland a regional mental health promotion directorate should be established. It should be part of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and should have responsibility for mental health and disability rather than become part of an overall health promotion structure. Another option, given that good mental health crosses many sectors, would be to include the directorate in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
A fully resourced directorate would increase awareness of mental health promotion, facilitate the achievement of existing targets, and set new targets in future. It would provide greater permanence, leadership and sustainability to drive mental health promotion in the Province. It would assume ownership of mental health promotion across all sectors and relevant agencies. On a related matter, a suicide prevention strategy, separate from any mental health directorate and based on United Nations and World Health Organisation guidelines, should be properly resourced and developed in the Province with an identified action plan, target dates and responsibilities. There is a great deal of concern about the large number of suicides in Northern Ireland, particularly among young men. After heart disease and cancer, suicide is the third largest contributor to life-years lost in the Province. To highlight the personal cost of mental illness, I should like to raise the case of a constituent whose family recently approached me. Their 39-year-old son suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He has undergone cognitive therapy but, unfortunately, to little or no effect, and he remains on a high dose of a drug with significant side effects. He sits in his flat all day in torment, unable to go out, to mix with people and to lead a normal life. He is a qualified dietician, and he knows and understands only too well the details of his condition.
Provision for OCD is limited, and the family have pinned their hopes on his being taken by one of a couple of units in London. OCD sufferers face agonising torment, and they struggle alone in silence. That man's mother is concerned that he will eventually commit suicide, because of the hopelessness of his condition. His story highlights the impact of mental ill health on an individual and on their livelihood, lifestyle and family. It is essential that we do everything that we can to provide the best services and work to promote mental well-being. Greater community and voluntary sector involvement is required, more resources need to be invested and extra training should be provided for professionals. Better co-operation between schools, youth organisations and health bodies would be useful, too.
With the increasing popularity of television and the internet, people are living more solitary lifestyles. The sense of community has been diluted, and individuals have less contact with their families and neighbours, which means that they have fewer people in whom to confide. Bereaved families say that little help is available in the aftermath of suicides, which is a crucial deficiency that must be addressed. Families often feel personally guilty following a suicide within the family unit. Much more needs to be done to tackle the stigma of mental illness and to increase public awareness of mental ill health and the risk of suicide, and that will require substantial funding.
The increasing prevalence of suicide among young men is not confined to Northern Ireland. The same pattern is reported across the rest of the United Kingdom and in many other countries. There are numerous pre-disposing factors for suicide, which is more common among impulsive and aggressive personalities. A large majority of those who commit suicide have mental disorders at the time of death. Chronic ill health can contribute, and many individuals have a history of alcohol or drug misuse. Binge drinking is increasingly common across our society, and suicide can also result from the transient mood swings associated with alcohol consumption.
We must also consider the role of the media. Hawton et al showed in 1999 that suicide rates increase after television programmes about suicide, and Eisenberg in 1986 and Gould et al in 1990 showed that the means and timing of suicides are influenced by earlier suicides that attract attention within local communities or receive media publicity.
Mental health crisis response and assertive outreach teams have proved successful, and their introduction across the Province should be encouraged. Despite a high number of suicides among teenagers, children and young people in the Province can wait for up to four years for an initial psychiatry out-patient assessment. There are huge disparities between the duration of waits across different trusts, but even the shortest wait is several months.
Social and cultural factors have led to more young people requiring assessment, and drugs, sexual abuse and difficult domestic environments also contribute. Many more behavioural conditions and autistic spectrum disorders are being diagnosed than previously, and the totals will continue to grow. Planning for future resources must take into consideration the changing demands of the specialist field. We need to invest in more child and adolescent psychiatry staff, including not only consultants but junior medical staff, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, psychologists and psychotherapists, because existing resources are overstretched.
I want to raise a second issue—I know that I shall not get to my third issue. In March 2004, the Prime Minister's strategy unit published, "Net Benefits: A Sustainable and Profitable Future for UK Fishing", yet little has been seen in the fishing villages of County Down to lead anyone to believe that anything positive is being done to assist the industry after years of EU-promoted decline. Year after year, the fleets of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel are subjected to increasingly repressive directives that have now begun to affect the processing industry, with the recent loss of Middleton Seafoods in Portavogie.
It appears that this groundhog day is to be repeated in 2006, as information coming through from the EU Fisheries Council in Brussels today indicates that the Northern Ireland fishing industry is once again to pay the greatest price. As a result of the yearly attack on the Irish sea's white fish stocks, prawns now represent the most important catch for Northern Ireland fishermen. News from Brussels today indicates that the prawn total allowable catch for the North sea is to increase by 39 per cent., while there will be a 31 per cent. increase in the west of Scotland. The Irish sea is to have its nephrops TAC reduced by 12 per cent.
While all this has been going on, English and Scottish fishermen have been represented at the Fisheries Council by their respective Government officials, but Northern Ireland has been cut adrift by its Minister with responsibility for fisheries. If that Minister could not be available despite the fact that this date was known for months in advance, he should not be in office and I would ask that he resign.
I want to raise concerns over the powers of the Audit Commission, which need to be strengthened if it is to do the job that Parliament had in mind when it approved the Audit Commission Act 1998.
An investigation by the Audit Commission into the accounts of Colchester borough council for the financial year 2003–04 has shown that the commission's powers are woefully inadequate. The 1998 Act needs to be amended, as suggested in early-day motion 1002, which I tabled and which has secured the cross-party support of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. It reads:
"That this House recognises that the Audit Commission is an independent body responsible for ensuring that public money is spent economically, efficiently and effectively; regrets, however, that its powers do not allow it to comment upon nor challenge property valuations which a local authority has obtained from a qualified valuer, particularly when the person is employed by the local authority; cites as an example the purchase by Colchester Borough Council of a property at auction for £755,000 and its subsequent sale privately to a developer for £650,000; and urges the Government to amend the Audit Commission Act to enable the Audit Commission, in situations where concerns have been raised, to obtain a valuation from two other valuers so that it can be satisfied that public money is being spent economically, efficiently and effectively."
The investigation, which was regrettably limited by the terms of the 1998 Act, was into matters that I drew to the attention of the commission. The commission accepted that the concerns that I raised over several property transactions in the St. Botolph's area of Colchester were such that they treated them as a valid objection. However, the terms of the Act meant that the investigation was limited, and aspects that I am convinced would have thrown more light on to the full picture could not be pursued. The jigsaw could not be completed because those doing the investigation did not have all the pieces and did not have the powers to look for them.
I have no regrets, and make no apologies, for the action that I took, which led to the lid being lifted on the secret way in which Colchester borough council has been engaged in property transactions in Queen street, Vineyard street and Osborne street that are associated with the council's plans to close the bus station, build a contemporary visual arts facility and redevelop the St. Botolph's quarter. The council is pursuing a planning mentality more akin to the 1960s than what should be expected from today's custodians of Britain's oldest recorded town. In the current issue of Private Eye, Piloti's "Nooks and Corners" feature takes Colchester council to task on this very matter. He describes councillors as "blinkered, self-defeating and stupid." It should be noted that English Heritage and the Victorian Society are dismayed, but the council's predominately rural-based Tory councillors are ignoring the views of the town's residents whom I represent.
It is my contention that the potential loss to Colchester council's taxpayers caused by the way in which the council has bought and sold property, and what will flow from it, will over time run into several million pounds. The law states that each year, for a short period, local councils must make their accounts available for public inspection. I acted on that in September last year because I was puzzled about what was happening in respect of property transactions in Queen street. My inspection of the books for the financial year 2003–04 showed deals between the council and a property company based in Yorkshire—CFK Developments—which prompted me to ask the Audit Commission to look very closely at what had been going on. I am content to let Colchester's council tax payers be the judge of whether the findings of what was done in their name by the council were in the best interests of the town and its residents.
In my opinion, the conclusions of the Audit Commission are such that there should be an independent investigation into all matters relating to the closure of the bus station, the building of the contemporary visual arts facility and the redevelopment proposals for the St. Botolph's quarter. In the public interest, I believe that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should hold an inquiry. It would appear that the overwhelming majority of borough councillors were not aware of the property deals between the council and developers. The information was certainly kept from Colchester residents, businesses in the area and the local media. It is only because I have used my democratic rights as a local resident to inspect the council's books that I have been able to expose the following.
The council bought the Kwik-Fit premises in Osborne street for £755,000, having put in a bid at a public auction, but later sold them to CFK Developments, or CFK Investments, for £650,000—a paper loss of £105,000. Property prices have not fallen in Colchester; they have increased. Indeed, only today, a local company of property valuers told me:
"The main driving thrust of commercial property has been upwards in the investment market over the last five years, and this is due to amongst other things the lowering of Bank Rate which has made commercial property investment more and more attractive."
However, since the borough council had on both occasions received the advice of a qualified valuer—employed by the council—the Audit Commission had no powers to challenge it. Some might argue that the council's valuer had a conflict of interest, as his full title is head of social and economic regeneration. Early-day motion 1002 addresses the need, in such situations, for the Audit Commission to obtain a valuation from two other valuers, so that it can be satisfied that public money is being spent economically, efficiently and effectively.
My observations today need to be read in conjunction with what I said in the Christmas Adjournment debate last year at columns 2112 to 2115. That referred to other property transactions by the borough council involving the same Yorkshire-based developer, CFK Developments, and the subsequent formation with the Caddick group, also from Yorkshire, of a new company called Vineyard Gate Developments Ltd. Since last year, it is said that the Caddick group has acquired CFK's interests in Vineyard Gate Developments Ltd.
Today, I will concentrate on matters relating to the Kwik-Fit premises—the phrase "quick fix" is perhaps more appropriate. The strategic purchase of the Kwik-Fit premises meant that there was an immediate increase—an uplift, I am led to believe, of at least 25 per cent.—in the value of the council's existing Vineyard street car park site, which it adjoins, and which is earmarked for a major commercial redevelopment. The enhanced value, however, was immediately lost when the council sold the Kwik-Fit premises at a reduced price—and a nearby site in Vineyard street—to the Yorkshire property company, which, at that time, I believe, did not own any property in the Vineyard street-Osborne street area.
The enlarged site owned by the council would have had a much greater value for the redevelopment now being discussed. Selling the Kwik-Fit premises—and a site in Vineyard street—was not only to the immediate financial disadvantage of council tax payers but weakened the council's position in subsequent development negotiations and the financial benefit to council tax payers in years to come. The council did not offer either the Kwik-Fit premises or the Vineyard street site on the open market to see if better prices could be achieved. I am sure that Members will agree that they are under the impression that local councils have an obligation to seek the best price possible when selling sites and buildings. The manner in which the borough council has engaged in property transactions with a single company, not put public assets up for sale, and not sought competitive bids for a major commercial development of an important part of Colchester town centre, leaves a lot to be desired.
It is not only the Audit Commission Act 1998 that needs strengthening. Changes also need to be made to the Local Government Act 2003 so that where there is a substantial level of objection to what a council proposes, its citizens should have the power to petition for a referendum. Parish councils are currently required to hold one when as few as 10 residents request it, yet district councils can ignore such calls regardless of how many residents make the request. A daft feature of the Local Government Act 2003 is that the council chooses whether to hold a referendum. As the saying goes, turkeys do not vote for Christmas.
The property transactions to which I have referred relate to the urban regeneration of what has been dubbed the St Botolph's quarter of Colchester. It includes plans to erect a £17 million contemporary visual arts facility, which will require a subsidy from the public purse of around £650,000 a year, and the closure of the town's bus station. There is massive local opposition, but the Tory-controlled borough council, most of whose members do not live in the town, is ignoring the wishes of the town's residents. Indeed, only last month the Tory councillors—supported by their fellow travellers, the so-called Independents—voted against Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors who had called for the issue to be put to residents by means of a local referendum, as set out in the Local Government Act. The Act needs to be amended so that if, say, 10 per cent. of those on the electoral roll petition for a referendum, the local council is required to hold one.
I hope that Members on both sides of the House agree that when a council submits a planning application to itself, involving its own land and from which it is the beneficiary, and when the application is in breach of the council's own adopted local plan which has emerged through the statutory planning process, the application should be subject to a public planning inquiry. That is the only way in which to restore public confidence and remove suspicions that the planning process is being abused by local councils, as is clearly the case in Colchester.
I sometimes wish that those who occasionally chide Members of Parliament about what they do and how they do it could spend a little time at these Adjournment debates. They would then have a chance to observe the breadth of subjects that my colleagues cover, and the passion with which they speak. A perfect example was the speech of Mrs. Robinson, who spoke with knowledge and passion about mental illness in Northern Ireland and illuminated the matter for all of us, but a number of Members who have spoken could make the same claim.
Let me start by wishing everyone the very best for Christmas and the new year, and making one or two brief comments to my hon. Friend Mr. Evans. As chairman of Christians in Parliament, I find no difficulty in wishing friends and colleagues a happy Christmas in all the fullness of its meaning, and find no difficulty in professing a faith. I have noticed concern this year about the use of the term "Christmas"—although it is not new; it comes up from time to time.
Perhaps I could offer a gentle word to non-believers. This really is not a problem. I have never come across anyone who professed a faith who was in any way concerned about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Regardless of one's faith background, the person of Jesus Christ is respected and revered in most religions. I think those who are responsible for such celebrations can relax. I also think that sometimes it is those who have no faith at all who feel most concerned. I hope that this year, after the fuss, people will learn that Christmas is something to be celebrated by everyone, and will lose their embarrassment and timidity about it.
I should be grateful if the Minister—whose fortitude throughout these events can only be described as praiseworthy—would be good enough to pass on to his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister the request from a cross-party group of Bedfordshire Members who seek an opportunity to make representations about the local government settlement, particularly in relation to highways. The council had sought a meeting early in the autumn but was turned down, and when MPs sought a meeting a little later they were turned down as well. During last week's questions to the Prime Minister and the ODPM, I noticed that Labour Members from the north-east were being given an opportunity to make representations to Ministers. I think it only fair for the same to apply to us. I should be grateful if the Minister would convey to the ODPM the urgency with which the cross-party group seeks a meeting to discuss the problems facing a county that is absorbing an awful lot of houses at the Deputy Prime Minister's request.
My second point relates to tax credits. I do not think that the Government should ever get away with an Adjournment debate without realising the pain and damage being inflicted on so many people through the workings of this extraordinary system. My constituents have had to bear similar problems to others, with a third of cases going wrong and 1.9 million people expected to repay something in the order of £2 billion. That amounts to a catastrophe. I know that the Government are considering no longer requiring repayments of overpayments from next April, but I wish that they would bring that date forward. It would be an appropriate Christmas gift to all those affected by tax credits if the Government said now that overpayments would not have to be returned.
My constituent, Anna Craig of Risley, a single mum, bravely went on television a couple of weeks ago to explain the problems that tax credits can cause. Someone came to my weekend surgery and spoke about the problem of living on incapacity benefit of £85 a week, from which £26 a week was being deducted. That put the person well below benefit limits, while £500 of tax credits had to be repaid.
Mrs. H of Biggleswade does not have a repayment problem, but is owed money because of the failure of a tax credit department to pay her what she was due. She is claiming back money relating to a period of longer than 93 days—the statutory limit. Eighteen months ago, she asked to be paid over a longer period, but during those months the department had still not received guidance as to whether it was able to repay her for the earlier period. I cannot understand how she could have been kept waiting for legal guidance for such a long time.
I tried to find out how many complaints had been made about tax credits in my constituency and tabled a written question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Unfortunately, I was told that such information was not available at constituency level, so I cannot enlighten the Minister as to how many of my constituents are in this position. I have a database, like many other colleagues, of some 40 to 50 cases that I am dealing with now. It is, as I said, a scandal and the Government should have done much better. An appropriate way of concluding the Session would be for the Government to start the concession on overpayments right now rather than wait until next April.
I shall try to speak for no more than four further minutes, but I want to raise the difficult subject of the Yarl's Wood detention centre in my constituency. I pay tribute to Mr. Caton for his eloquent speech: I understand that the issue of asylum seekers is not always an easy subject to debate, but it is important to do so, as someone has to be a voice for the most vulnerable people who lack a voice elsewhere.
My particular concern is the operation of the largest detention and removal centre in Europe, which is located in my constituency. I make no bones about supporting the immigration system—that is now effectively consensual in the House—which sometimes means turning people down and returning them, in due course, to the place that they came from. How precisely that is done, however, is terribly important and I should be grateful if the Minister would pass my comments on to the Home Office for consideration. I am in regular contact with the relevant Minister, who is unfailingly courteous and timely in his responses, but some issues remain outstanding and should be considered further.
The length of time that certain people have spent at Yarl's Wood is now becoming a serious issue. Some women have been there for more than a year, yet we have no policy for keeping people in detention for that length of time. If they have not been returned to their countries during that period, they should not be kept in Yarl's Wood, but be allowed out. Why are people being kept there for so long? I tabled a written question to find out how long people have been there, but it is difficult to get the right answer to that question. Some people have undoubtedly been there for a long time and I am worried about the legal basis for that.
Secondly, there is increased frustration at Yarl's Wood because appropriate legal services and advice are not available. The inspector of prisons, Ann Owers, said in a report earlier this year, under recommendation 3.7:
"All detainees should have access on site to independent, qualified legal advice and representation."
That report appeared in the summer, but no action has been taken. The frustration about that has caused additional problems within the centre. There has been an increase in cases of self-harm and in the number of people refusing food and being on hunger strike. The chaplain, Rev. Larry Wright, wrote to me saying:
"I wholeheartedly support the need for good, independent legal advice in detention centres such as Yarl's Wood . . . Good, independent legal advice would assist those who have been badly served by previous advisors"
I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that matter as quickly as possible. That service needs to be provided.
We are now hearing of some families who have been resident in the UK for many years, who are picked up, detained for 48 hours at Yarl's Wood and then returned to their home countries. A family from Wigan were returned to Uganda, and a family from north London with four children including a boy in a wheelchair, who had been in this country for some four years, are among those who have been detained for 48 or 70 hours and then removed.
That cannot be right, and there will be a specific Adjournment debate on the policy early in the new year. Again, I have asked how many people there are who, having been in this country a long time, are given a short time scale in which to leave and then removed. I am not against their being asked to leave, but a short time scale causes real problems, and I believe that there is more of that going on than the House is aware of.
Increasingly, there are problems with the medical services at Yarl's Wood. The services provided there are under great pressure and the staff work extremely hard, but a series of issues have arisen concerning diagnoses, and what is in the best interests of detainees. Those who have been on hunger strike have to be carefully dealt with when they come back from hospital, and there are problems with their treatment.
Questions have been asked, particularly about one woman, Sophie Odogo, who came to Yarl's Wood in April mentally fit, well and able, yet by September needed acute psychiatric care because her condition had deteriorated so much. There is an argument about what happened to her. According to the Minister concerned, the Healthcare Commission had been asked to conduct an investigation, but the people from the commission itself said to a medical adviser that they did not think that it was doing that.
What Yarl's Wood badly needs is a panel of independent medical advisers available to detainees' representatives, to refugee groups and to Yarl's Wood itself, so that when there is doubt and uncertainty about the treatment being offered, there are people to turn to who are independent, and accepted by all parties as neutral. That job is now being done by one or two selfless individuals who get themselves heavily involved in cases, but whose judgments are not always accepted by the medical authorities. It is all a mess, and it needs to be tidied up.
I am grateful for the time of the House, and glad to have had the opportunity to raise those matters. I conclude, as I started, by wishing everyone all the best for Christmas and the new year.
We have heard a lot today about Christmas traditions, and one Christmas tradition in my household is that we all catch a cold for Christmas. I am pleased to report to the House that I have delivered early on my pledge, so I hope that you will excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I splutter and cough my way through my speech.
It is also our Christmas tradition that at this time of year we remember those less fortunate than ourselves, and I would like to highlight several issues in my constituency. As we all know, the Government have been spending a lot more money. They call it investment—but unfortunately, not all the money is going to the right places. For a substantial number of my constituents it is merely building interference and failure into their daily lives and interfering with their quality of life, as their interaction with big Government bureaucracies brings worry, stress and hardship. Sadly, that Government failure is happening where Government intervention and action could make a positive contribution and a real difference to people's lives.
Since being elected in May, I have been appalled by the fact that services meant to help the most vulnerable in the community of Reading, East are being run in the most inefficient way. Instead of giving support and a helping hand at the most difficult of times, the Government are providing what is at the very least a barrier to opportunity, and at worst, poverty and heartache.
I have taken up many cases of unemployed people who have applied to Jobcentre Plus for benefits. They are desperate for help when they come to me, because instead of help they have found an impenetrable bureaucracy that does not serve the customer, and seems to be there just to serve itself. Some of my constituents have been underpaid benefits, or have not been paid them at all for months on end. They are not the richest people in my constituency and when they ask for help, they need it quickly. It is often the poorest who are failed the most by big government bureaucracy, which seems not to work.
Immigration and asylum accounts for more than 50 per cent. of my casework and many of those whom I see are not allowed to work. Some have relied on the charity of local organisations to feed and support them. Does the system help? No: it takes months, sometimes years, to get a decision or even to get an intelligent answer from the bureaucrats. One gentleman in my constituency was told by the Home Office in early September that a decision had been made on his application for leave to remain, yet he was not told what that decision was until late November. That left him frustrated and stressed, and he was in almost daily contact with my office. This is not the joined-up and efficient government that we were promised back in 1997; it is bureaucracy and it is having a detrimental impact on people's lives.
However, the problems do not end there. Any independent examination of the Child Support Agency, tax credits and local authorities will demonstrate that the entire system is a giant mess. It is often MPs and voluntary organisations who have to try to pick up the pieces. I am fed up with sitting in my surgeries week in, week out, as people come to me in desperation and at their wits' end, often breaking down in floods of tears. I do not know how other MPs feel, but I find that very difficult. If the bureaucracies were set up and run intelligently, such situations would not arise. My worry is that they are the result of wasting money—of a system that is force-fed money, and which is trying to think how to spend it.
Despite the many problems, I want to take this opportunity to praise some of the public servants in my constituency who are doing fantastic work. Among the many fine officers in Thames Valley police, our local area commander, Dave Murray, stands out. He will shortly be moving on thanks to a promotion, but he has had a huge impact in terms of reducing crime in the communities that I represent. A Reading man through and through, Dave Murray is a fine officer and he will be sorely missed in the town. I also want to pay tribute to Superintendent Dilip Amin, who has been a very positive role model for the community-focused policing that I thought was long forgotten and that we would not see again.
Thames Valley is a well-respected force that has built a good reputation after the last round of mergers from which it was created. It covers three counties and 2,200 square miles, and has some 5,000 officers, who police a population of 2.1 million residents and 6 million visitors per year. I do not, therefore, support a further merger with Hampshire and the Isle of Wight or any other combination. Thames Valley is already a large and strategic force—larger than the 4,000 officers that the Government report deems necessary. However, the Government's budget settlement is placing enormous pressure on Thames Valley police. I fear that it is designed so that the council tax payer ends up footing more of the bill. Following the huge police precept and council tax rises in recent years, that would be wrong and local people would not stand for it.
I now turn to the services delivered by my two local authorities. Three issues of enormous concern to me are education, housing and transport. My local education authority has consistently failed the children of the borough. Despite the best efforts of parents and teachers, in recent years many Reading schools have been on special measures. The latest Ofsted report, published in January of this year, stated:
"Reading LEA remains satisfactory, but by the finest of margins."
"The performance of secondary schools overall at General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is below the national averages on most measures, with some widening gaps. Attendance in secondary schools is well below the national average."
This performance is not "satisfactory" to me; it is an abject failure.
Thankfully, Reading borough brought in an excellent director of education, David Williams. The Ofsted report recognised this:
"In a short time, the new director has secured widespread support and confidence from schools and other partners".
Yet after only eight months in post and just when he was beginning to make headway, he will shortly be gone. This is nothing short of a disaster for Reading's children. I have had my differences with Mr. Williams but I have never doubted either his ability or his sincerity. Schools in Reading found him to be extremely supportive. With a failing local education system, Reading cannot afford to lose such talented people. My constituents are asking themselves why we are losing such high quality people. Dilip Amin had engineered a responsive local policing service, thus cutting crime. David Williams had set about turning around our appalling local education authority.
Where do we think the problems arose? Which people made it intolerable for those high quality professionals to carry out their work? There are people in Reading who are roadblocks to progress and they need to ask themselves questions before we lose other high quality professional people. With David Williams gone, I do not yet have confidence that the LEA will continue to move forward. Ofsted will need to have another look shortly at how things are developing. The only reason Reading was not a failing LEA was David Williams; now he is going. It will take time to replace him and there is still no school improvement officer in place. Does not this give the dangerous impression to parents that school improvement is a low priority?
The striking thing is that Reading has enormous potential for improvement. One fine example is Highdown school, a specialist maths and technology school. When head teacher Tim Royle arrived eight years ago, the school was massively underperforming. In recent years he has turned the school around through high quality leadership. He is supported by Trevor Keable, his governors and local parents, and the children are now performing strongly. Last year, the exams were the best ever with a 100 per cent. pass rate at A level, beating the two excellent local grammar schools. The pass rate A* to C at GCSE was 63 per cent; it was around 20 per cent a few years earlier. This shows the potential for improvement in Reading that can be achieved with the right leadership and by removing LEA interference.
The knee-jerk rejection to the new White Paper by local Labour politicians shows what we are up against. The White Paper does not go far enough but it is on the right road to enable schools to turn around. The idea that it will disadvantage poor children is absurd; it will do quite the opposite. I strongly recommend that people in Reading, East read the minutes of the Education Select Committee from yesterday, which show where Labour in Reading is going wrong. Wokingham district council, by contrast, is, to quote Oftsed,
"one of the lowest funded LEA's in the country" and yet
"standards of attainment in most national tests and examinations are well above national averages".
The second area of concern is housing. I have many constituents with concerns about their housing, but the greatest problems have been experienced by the hundreds of council tenants who have been the subject of the North Whitley PFI project. I have been touched by letters from residents in their 70s and 80s who have described being without kitchens and bathrooms for days or even weeks. A few even had holes left in external walls in the middle of last winter.
A good deal of the blame must lie with the contractor, but I am also concerned at the apparent lack of oversight by Reading borough council who commissioned the contract. Local Labour councillors are whingeing that the contractor, Affinity, did not listen to them. I am not surprised; they have been incredibly ineffective in representing their local ward.
The third and final area of concern is transport. Reading is fortunate to sit at the hub of road and rail links and to be within a short distance of one of the world's major airports at Heathrow. I will not go into detail now as, fortunately, I have a Westminster Hall debate on this subject next month, but I would like to focus on Reading Buses, which remains wholly owned by Reading borough council and receives considerable subsidy to run its services.
The ruling Labour group in Reading likes to trumpet the "social services" element provided by the bus company and has in the past subsidised a number of routes in order to keep them running. It is therefore disappointing to see services cut and changed in several areas to the detriment of elderly and low-income families. At the same time as services have been cut, prices have been massively increased. Since 2001 there has been an approximate doubling of ticket prices. Pensioners retain free travel on the buses, but the value of this is diminished every time a bus route is cut and the network becomes less accessible to the elderly.
I know that time is pressing, so I will cut my remarks short and finish by wishing everybody here a happy Christmas.
I want to start by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and everyone in the Palace of Westminster, a very happy Christmas. This is essentially a time for children so, bearing in mind the way that my hon. Friend Alistair Burt began his speech, I hope that I will be allowed to read out a letter that I received from a little girl in my constituency. On
I guess that she thinks I am Bob the Builder—
"I am 8 years old and I go to South Benfleet Primary school. My friends say that father Christmas is just made up but I don't think so. What do you think? How does he know where we live? I know you are busy, but Mum thought you would know the answer.
From Martha. . .
PS. do you know why there is only 28 days in February?"
I do not know where that last question came from, but I should like to read out part of my reply. I wrote:
"My Dear Martha,
Thank you so much for your lovely letter.
Father Christmas is as real as he always has been. He is as real as the love that your family have for you. He is as real as the generosity of people who care for others or do good work, in what ever way they can.
As you grow older you will find that, although your views may change, the spirit of Christmas and the joy of Father Christmas will live on for you and for your children.
There is too much cynicism and too many horrible people in the world today. But Christmas is and always will be a time of optimism, a time of great joy and of love, because Jesus Christ was born that day and came to save us all."
I turn now to the funding of children's hospices. Can any of us imagine having a child with a life-limiting disease in a hospice, especially at Christmas time? I know that the whole House will pay tribute to all the staff, volunteers and fund raisers at hospices for both adults and children. They give love and care to very sick children and to adults with terminal illnesses, and to their families.
I started a campaign to get fair funding for children's hospices in 1993, in my first year as an MP. I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister, and in the past few weeks have sponsored early-day motions 1050 and 1051 on the subject.
I thank Basildon's Evening Echo newspaper for its campaign to secure fair funding for children's hospices. A similar campaign called "Help Our Kids' Hospices" is being run by the online version of The Sun, under the leadership of the excellent Dave Masters, to whom I have spoken on the telephone. So far, about 9,000 readers have signed up to the campaign, and anyone interested should look at the website, at www.thesun.co.uk/kids. The newspaper is right to raise national awareness of the indefensible fact that, as it notes,
"some units caring for the country's sickest children are getting just 2 per cent. of their budget from the authorities."
I shall give the House the facts, yet again. Adult hospices get an average of about 30 per cent. of their funding from statutory sources, and children's hospices get about 5 per cent. Little Havens children's hospice in my constituency gets 1.8 per cent. of its funding from statutory sources, which leaves 98.2 per cent. to be raised locally by voluntary means. That is a betrayal of our very sick children.
The Prime Minister always claims that it is not his fault, saying that the Government give money to the PCTs and that how they distribute it is up to them. That response is not good enough: the Government have to accept responsibility in this matter. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote to me on
"My officials are currently working with the Department of Health who, in turn, meet regularly with representatives from the hospice sector in order to clarify what" full cost recovery
"means for hospices, with two aims. Firstly, to arrive at a common understanding of how Government should fund those crucial services which hospices deliver. And secondly, to improve individual funding relationships between PCTs and hospices, which is what we would all like to see."
The Deputy Leader of the House is a caring and able gentleman—I see him nodding at that; I thought he might. Will he take this matter to the responsible Department on my behalf and on behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House? Will he ask the Government to accept responsibility for the funding of children's hospices? Will he try to help me to ensure that Little Havens children's hospice gets at least the average of 5 per cent. of funding from statutory sources next year? That would be a jolly good start, although I shall not end my campaign for fair funding for children's hospices until they receive 40 per cent. of funding from statutory sources.
My hon. Friend Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke eloquently about the "Make Poverty History" campaign, and I shall not repeat what he said. I pay tribute to those who made the campaign so successful, particularly in Essex and in my constituency. People have written to me often and assiduously on that matter, and the solution must begin with the removal of protectionism by America, Europe and the industrialised nations. We need the total scrapping of the common agricultural policy: it is long past its sell-by date.
We need more town councils. I think so, and so does the Minister of Communities and Local Government, who is responsible for the matter. Let me treat the House to some of what he has said, all of which I agree with as I think he is a great guy. He said recently that people feel remote from the town hall, as well as from Westminster. He called for power to shift much closer to the people and to specific communities. He said many people in communities feel disconnected and that power should be as close as possible to communities so that people can reconnect with politics and feel that their views are being properly represented. He said people should feel in control rather than being controlled by politicians. Good for him. He will soon have an opportunity to put into practice what he is preaching, because Canvey Island wants a town council, and that will cross his desk early in the spring. I hope—in fact, I know, since he is a good man—that he will listen carefully. The people of Canvey have shown great support for the idea of having their own town council. They are a totally separate community and feel remote from the mainland council, distanced from it by the cold, deep waters of the Thames and by culture.
A Canvey town council could do a lot for Canvey people. It could influence planning, toilet provision, community halls, children's playgrounds and many more important things. It could help to campaign with me for a new access road for Canvey Island, which is much needed. More than 3,000 people have petitioned for it, and although some borough councillors are opposed to Canvey Island's wish for its own town council, I hope that they will rethink that position when they deal with the matter on
Finally, I want to talk about the rail line. The line that serves my constituency is c2c, and rolling stock was removed from it and given to another line a year or so ago. That rolling stock was due to be returned. We need it on that line because people have to stand for 40 minutes on the train journey from Benfleet to London. More than 3,000 people use the service and they have to stand. It is not good enough and the rolling stock must be returned soon. The Government got the emphasis wrong on passenger travel, but I do not have the time to go into that.
Before I sit down, I remind the House of the young men and women whom we send to Iraq and other dangerous places to do an important job. We sincerely send our good wishes to each and every one of them and thank them for the wonderful and professional job they do. We wish them Godspeed and it is our duty to ensure that we get them back to their families as soon as possible.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise several points that all turn on the issue of justice. First, I agreed with Sammy Wilson when he said that the Labour leader got a lousy deal for us. He will never be forgiven for the budget rebate and the weasel words that are now being used will not wash.
This is a time of year when families come together, but that will unfortunately not be the case for some of my constituents. As the Minister knows, I have mentioned the case of Maajid Nowaz on several occasions. He was sentenced to five years in prison in April 2002 for supposedly belonging to a terrorist organisation that sought to overthrow the Egyptian Government. It is ridiculous what has gone on. Mahjid, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst are still in jail in Cairo and I have been out to see them. I am grateful for Ministers' efforts on this case. I have met with current and previous Ministers—the last meeting was on
The second case is that of my former constituent Phillip Collings from Westcliff-on-Sea. On
The Solicitor-General admitted that the CPS and the police had made mistakes. Again, my correspondence with the CPS was unsatisfactory. One letter from the CPS solicitor was of such a nature that I could not possibly pass it to my constituents. In his letter of
Another tragedy concerns Mr. Al-Ani who died aged 43, in police custody at Southend police station, on
In relation to yesterday's debate on policing, all Essex Members united to sign a pledge to
"Express our strong preference for 'Option 4' of the current consultation exercise—that Essex, as one of the largest counties in the country should stand alone as a strategic police force in its own right."
For a long time, local residents throughout Essex, especially in Southend, have been dissatisfied with policing generally. We have now appointed someone whom I regard as the finest chief constable in the country, so for that reason alone I do not want to lose him.
I took advice from the Clerks about how to raise my next point and I have been advised that I am in order. A constituent visited my surgery last week to tell me that they had paid £500 for a trial transcript. I was shocked by an exchange that had taken place during the trial, when the judge made remarks that clearly showed political bias. If overlooked, such conduct would set a dangerous precedent, but the Clerks have advised me how to pursue the matter in another way. My constituent is rightly upset about the exchange that took place in Chelmsford Crown Court.
The House has heard before that Southend has faced many difficulties with local government finance. Last year, the council had to make cuts of £14 million. The cliffs have slipped and Southend pier has been set on fire for the third time—I need not continue. The Minister for Local Government has been as helpful as possible. I am pleased that he is meeting representatives of the council, and my hon. Friend James Duddridge and I hope that he will be able to help us.
Cuts in the bus service have devastated the town. There have been many cuts in the local service, which has been deeply upsetting for local residents, especially those living in the Belfairs area of my constituency.
Another problem that was brought to my surgery concerns a constituent who is a single mother with three children, two of whom are severely disabled. I just could not believe that that remarkable woman, who has battled with one of her sons who is 17 and very severely disabled, has now suffered a £100 a month cut in his mobility allowance. The way that the tribunal dealt with the issue is an absolute disgrace: by suggesting that that young boy was able to carry out errands for his mother. I know the family, and that would be absolutely impossible.
The last issue that I wish to raise is bird flu. My hon. Friend Mr. Randall and I are feathered-bird fanciers. He and my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell will know only too well that what happened with bird flu has caused great disquiet. A local shop trader who is a constituent of mine came to see me to tell me that she has not sold a single bird since the announcement, which was incorrect. She has been in business for 21 years. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued some sort of explanation, which covered just a tiny column on page 3 of the publication Cage and Aviary Birds on
On that note, I wish everyone involved in our proceedings a very happy Christmas and a wonderful new year.
Order. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If they can all manage to take a little less than the allotted 15 minutes, I am sure that everyone will get in.
I shall follow your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by only touching on one issue.
The matter that is most important for me to raise on behalf of a constituent of mine relates to how insulin-dependent diabetics are treated when applying for public service vehicle driving licences in Northern Ireland. The current arrangements are not only discriminatory, but inconsistent and irrational. The issue came to my attention when one of my constituents, Mr. Glen Floyd, applied for a PSV driving licence and his application was rejected because he is an insulin-treated diabetic.
The regulations state:
"The Department shall not grant a licence if the applicant suffers from diabetes subject to insulin treatment."
In essence, the justification offered by the Government is that of road safety. It is suggested that there is a greater possibility of accident and injury because of that medical condition. That Government policy may at first glimpse appear rational, and to those with little or no knowledge of the medical condition it will unquestionably have a superficial attraction, but when one considers the wider context, it is seen to be inconsistent and unreasonable.
It is not as though insulin-dependent diabetics are not permitted to drive—they are. Special arrangements are in place, with a more regular requirement to renew their licences. It is not as though insulin-dependent diabetics are not permitted to drive for the Government—again, they are. My constituent, Mr. Floyd, is presently a driver with the Department for Regional Development water service, which among other things involves him in driving people around in the course of his employment. He is not permitted do that on his own behalf in Northern Ireland, but he is apparently allowed to do so on behalf of the Government.
It is not as though people who are insulin-dependent diabetics are not permitted to be taxi drivers in Northern Ireland, as an absolute rule. Grandfather rights apply, so anyone who held a licence before 1991 can continue to drive a taxi. Clearly, the danger to the public is not so great when someone who has been driving for over 14 years is regarded as suitable. There can be no rationale behind the fact that, without any recourse to the individual merits of a case, someone making an application for the first time is not permitted to hold such a licence.
The situation becomes even more bizarre when one considers that a number of local authorities in Great Britain issue taxi driver licences to people with that medical condition. It would seem that, under the rules, people with the condition in some parts of the UK are considered safe to drive taxis on the roads while others are not. That is simply absurd. How can it be right that Mr. Floyd can drive his own car, drive passengers while doing his Government job, have a PSV licence if he has held it before 1991 and have a taxi licence in another part of Great Britain, yet cannot hold such a licence in Northern Ireland? No one underestimates the importance of road safety in Northern Ireland, but there must be a rational relationship between the measures and the dangers. A blanket rule that pays no regard to individual circumstances offends against the notion of fairness, especially when one considers the wider context.
The experience of my constituent is not an isolated case. It merely highlights the wider problem that is faced by many diabetics who use insulin. More than 3 per cent. of the UK population is affected by diabetes. More than 2 million people are diagnosed with diabetes, including 51,000 people in Northern Ireland alone. Evidence from the United States, where legislation has recently been passed to lift the blanket ban on insulin users from driving heavy goods vehicles, indicates that the accident rate for people with diabetes is lower than the national rate. There is no evidence that the accidents that drivers in that category have had are related to their condition.
A major consultation exercise in Northern Ireland on PSV licences in general has recently closed. There is thus a clear and timely opportunity for the matter to be revisited and the anomalous situation to be resolved. I am not suggesting that diabetes should be disregarded so that it plays no part when people's suitability for a licence is judged, but I am arguing that there should not be an automatic blanket ban, which is the case in Northern Ireland. Individual assessment to consider an applicant's specific circumstances must be just and the appropriate way forward.
Diabetics undergo regular check-ups to ensure that their overall general health has not deteriorated. Perhaps the holding of a taxi licence could be made dependent on acceptable health assessments. However, there should be case-by-case consideration. All people with insulin-dependent diabetes are not the same, so they should not be treated the same. There can be a wide variation in the medical history and condition of people who suffer from the problem, which will have an impact on their suitability to drive. The Government's one-size-fits-all regulation is not appropriate. If they really believed that insulin-dependent diabetics were a danger on the roads, they would all be banned, instead of just taxi drivers. Moreover, such people would be banned from driving taxis in every part of the United Kingdom.
It is widely accepted that if a diabetic's condition is well controlled and their doctor believes that they are safe to drive, there is no reason why they should not be issued with a driving licence. Dangers can be judged on their merits and compliance with strict requirements should be used as a road safety measure rather than the banning of those living in certain areas. Measures should be proportionate to danger and directly related to a problem. Such a discriminatory ban is not justified when there is a more tailored and less restrictive way to deal with the problem.
There is no good reason why there should be a variable standard across the United Kingdom. That is especially ludicrous in Great Britain, where a driver could get a licence to drive a taxi in one specific area, yet in the course of his work enter an area in which a different set of criteria apply. A nationally organised system with clearly defined criteria and the capacity for individual consideration would be fair, consistent and safe.
Organisations such as Diabetes UK have done a lot of good work on the matter and have taken a responsible and measured approach. It is in no one's interests to have people on the roads at all if they are not capable of driving safely, but, equally, it is unjust to prohibit someone who can drive safely from doing so. I urge the Government to take advantage of the opportunity that the recent consultation process presents and to allow people such as my constituent, Mr. Floyd, to be judged on their own circumstances, rather than summarily rejected without individual consideration. At a time when discrimination on the grounds of disability is high on our political agenda, it would be wrong to deny someone employment and perpetuate discrimination on a basis that is neither fair nor consistent.
I join others in wishing everyone in the Palace of Westminster a blessed Christmas and, I hope, a peaceful new year.
I shall speak on three items. Several Members have raised the issue of the reorganisation and reconfiguration of both our local police and our health services. I shall speak particularly about the proposed reconfiguration in Greater Manchester, and especially about the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS trust.
During health questions earlier today, Mr. Gordon Prentice raised the issue of the closure of the accident and emergency unit at Burnley hospital. Rochdale hospital faces a similar situation, as well as the loss of its maternity and paediatric services. Such loss of services will have a dramatic effect on people in my constituency and also on those in the Rossendale valley, because they will be faced with a journey to Blackburn or to Oldham. In dangerous situations where minutes count, that is not very good.
The friends of our hospital—a group that has been set up and chaired by Father Arthur Neary in my constituency—and the local newspaper, the Rochdale Observer, are campaigning against these changes. I hope that once the consultation starts in the new year we will begin to see the Government listening and taking note of the real concerns that are felt by my constituents.
Secondly, there is the issue of housing. Like many Members, I receive many requests for re-housing and so on. I was shocked this week when I received a statistic telling me that every council house in Rochdale is being chased by 34 people. I never thought that I would see the day when it would be impossible for people in Rochdale to get a house when they needed one. However, many people are sleeping on floors and living in extremely unsatisfactory conditions.
I know that Shelter recently organised or launched a campaign to convince the Government that they need to increase the availability of socially rented houses that are being built. No doubt we will be told by the Deputy Leader of the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his recent statement, announced some changes. However, those changes are too little and too late, and will not meet the real housing crisis in Rochdale, across the borough.
My hon. Friend Mr. Heath talked about the tsunami, and we are approaching its first anniversary. I know that a statement was issued last week about the arrangements for memorial services. I was off the island of Phi Phi at the time of the tsunami. I know that I am very lucky to be here in this place. I know also of the devastation that was wreaked by the tidal wave. I am still concerned by the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—I know that many of the relatives of those who lost their lives feel this—in offering support to those who were injured and to those who lost loved ones.
There has been a joint National Audit Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on the matter. A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the subject. I know that many of the relatives are extremely dissatisfied by the response and support offered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am referring particularly to the support that was offered in Thailand. It is a fact that the Government chartered only one plane and sent it to Bangkok and not to Phuket. Given the support that was offered by many other European Governments, a stark contrast is to be drawn. I see that the Minister is shaking his head, but at no stage was I offered any support or help. Thankfully, I and my friends were safe, but I know of others who were suffering. What arrived, arrived late—days after the help that came from other countries. Many people were left to make arrangements for themselves whereas they could and should have had support offered to them by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Having read the report, I know that the Department says that it has learned the lessons. I certainly hope so, because the services that were offered were not very helpful.
I pay tribute, however, to the Thai Government, who were very helpful, and assisted us in finding alternative accommodation. They also helped many of the injured. As I said, I hope that the British Government have learned lessons from the disaster. Like many others, I shall go to the area in a few days' time, and I hope that people remember those who lost their lives.
Christmas is a time for children, and I should like to begin by raising the issue of children's health services, particularly maternity services.
Last week, a constituent came to my surgery to complain about the level of care that he and his wife had received in the run-up to the birth of their child—a week or two that, as a young parent myself, I know can be a nerve-wracking experience. My constituents were concerned that they had seen a midwife only once throughout the pregnancy because antenatal care services had been scaled back. They were told that they could obtain a video if they wanted to know more about the birth, but they had to go to the surgery to pick it up. That heavily pregnant mother therefore travelled to the surgery by bus to collect the video so that the couple could prepare properly for the imminent arrival of their child.
I raised the scaling back of antenatal care services with the local hospital trust, which says that it is suffering problems because of
"the increasing number of births compared to the number of midwives providing acute care and . . . we do have to concentrate on the more critical areas of the service".
In other words, the service must concentrate on mothers who are giving birth. I raised the issue with the Minister of State, Jane Kennedy, who accepted that services had been scaled back and that there was a loss of such provision. However, she said that the decisions had been weighed in the balance by the local primary care trust.
The knock-on effects for postnatal care are worrying. My constituents were concerned that parents would not receive a check-up by a midwife at home, and would have to go to the surgery for such a service. That is not the quality and standard of care that one expects to receive. The last thing that we want to do to mothers who have just given birth is to force them to leave their homes, particularly in the cold weather at this time of year, and make them to go outside with a newborn baby. They would normally expect a midwife to visit them at home to make sure that they and their child are all right. There are concerns, however, that that service, too, will be scaled back because of pressures on local health services and the availability of midwives and the service that they offer.
That raises issues in the context of the national service framework for children, young people and maternity services. I appreciate that there must be some decision making at the local level, but services should be consistent with the national service framework, which specifies that expectant mothers should receive good-quality care during the course of their pregnancy, and are entitled to a visit at home by a midwife. I therefore seek an assurance that the national service framework is being properly implemented across all PCTs, because the situation is stressful for young parents such as my constituents.
The infant feeding survey 2000 shows that 87 per cent. of first-time mothers in higher occupations attend ante-natal classes compared with 54 per cent. of women in lower occupations and 27 per cent. of women who have never worked. If classes for parents are scaled back, it will result in inequality, in which case the better-off will receive a high quality service, whereas those who are less advantaged—poorer—may not get the preparation that they expect and require to prepare for the birth of their child. I appreciate that the Deputy Leader of the House cannot address that point specifically, but I hope that he will take it up with his colleagues in the Department of Health, because such services are key to young and expectant mothers. We must also ensure that people from less advantaged backgrounds receive good quality care in the run-up to the birth of their children.
Resources are important in all issues involving the health service, and the construction of new primary care services is one issue that concerns me. Next year, Oldchurch Park hospital will open in Romford, and I hope that it improves the quality of care for people living in my constituency and in neighbouring constituencies, too. However, I have concerns about its capacity, whether all services will be maintained on that site and whether my constituents will have to travel further to access services when the new hospital opens. I am positive about the hospital, which will open on time next year and benefit the local health service, but its capacity depends on the provision of high-quality primary care facilities at the local level. The number of beds has been scaled back on the basis that health services can be accessed locally rather than in an actual acute hospital.
The PCTs have got certain local improvement finance trust projects, which are similar to public-private partnerships, whereby the PCT enters into an agreement with the LIFT company to lease the new primary care facilities. New facilities have been constructed in the London borough of Havering in Harold Hill and in my constituency in south Hornchurch and Rainham. It is great to see the new buildings, but they have not been occupied, because although the PCT entered into its lease with the LIFT company, it did not enter into back-to-back agreements with GPs to get them to move into the new facilities once construction was completed. The situation is strange, because buildings have been constructed, but they are sitting empty.
I have raised the matter with the PCT and the strategic health authority, which say that all the appropriate protocols were followed. The PCT followed the guidance set down by the SHA, but a teething problem cropped up because the LIFT project was one of the first to get off the ground. The matter greatly concerns people in my constituency, who want high-quality primary care. Buildings are sitting unoccupied, and the GPs who could move into them are not doing so.
Is money being spent efficiently within the health service? We are constantly told about extra spending, but if the money is being spent on buildings that lie empty, which appears to have happened in two cases in my constituency, it could be spent on other things, such as the maternity services that I have highlighted. Any structural problem about the commissioning of the new facilities needs to be examined very closely. I can think of two examples in my constituency, which suggests that this is not an isolated case and that other problems of this nature may be occurring elsewhere. How much public money is being wasted on paying lease payments to LIFT companies that are just sitting there and not being properly used? I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take that issue back to his colleagues in the Department of Health.
New health services are key to the regeneration of the Thames gateway, which lies in the southern part of my constituency in Rainham. The regeneration of that area is dependent on infrastructure investment in transport, hospitals and schools. But proper regeneration—the urban renewal that I want to see—is heavily dependent on ensuring that the area is properly planned and developed.
I am worried that Rainham continues to be viewed as a dumping ground for everybody else's problems. Rainham has had bad things dumped on it from heavy industry, and there is a landfill site there. We now face the prospect of a waste-to-energy plant. The planning application is being considered by the London borough of Havering. Although it has many positive aspects, because it is about recycling, limiting the amount of waste that goes into the ground and trying to ensure that we have more renewables, I am worried that there is no further cumulative environmental aspect. Many people in Rainham complain about bronchial problems and asthma. Unfortunately, the statistics on that are not maintained at a national level, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there are such problems. If we add to the burden with more emissions coming from the chimney of a waste-to-energy plant, there may be long-term health implications, even if the plant is efficient in helping to deal with environmental problems.
In terms of regeneration, I want to ensure that Rainham gets the benefits that it needs to provide high-quality jobs, industry and opportunities for my young constituents.
My hon. Friend is speaking eloquently about his constituency. His constituents and mine share problems related to Pitsea tip. Does he share my disappointment with the Thames gateway initiative, which seems to be all about forcing more development, whether it is industrial or massive house-building, on my constituents without any hint of infrastructure to support it?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We must ensure that we have infrastructure investment up front; otherwise, we will not get the regeneration that we both require in our respective areas.
It is true that there is a need for housing, which is one of the most important issues that I face as a constituency MP. The problem, though, is that the emphasis is on starter homes—one and two-bedroom homes. The Chancellor repeated that in his statement a few weeks ago. In fact, we need a broader housing policy with two, three or four-bedroom houses. Most of the problems that I hear about are of people stuck in inadequate accommodation who are unable to move out because the housing stock is not available. We need a broader housing policy to ease the burdens on housing stock in my area.
Rainham also faces the prospect of a motocross track coming into the area. I have tabled an early-day motion expressing residents' concerns, and stating that it will not contribute to the overall regeneration and renewal of the area. The motocross track has been in part justified because it will provide youngsters who have been riding around the parks in my constituency and neighbouring areas with something to do. The track expected in my constituency will not meet those needs, however, as it is an international professional motocross outfit. Therefore, while some people might think that it will solve problems of antisocial behaviour, I do not think that it will. I am therefore supporting my local residents in attempting to ensure that the track does not go ahead.
We do need more policing, however. One ward in my constituency, Hacton, does not have a safer neighbourhood team, and I will be pressing for that in the coming year to ensure that we have safer streets and places in which people can live and work. I am concerned, however, that the necessary underpinning funding will not be available. Comments made by the Mayor of London suggest that the safer neighbourhood team roll-out in London will not achieve, as expected, a safer neighbourhood team for every area by 2007. I hope that the police will have a quiet festive season. We wish them all success in policing the capital and the rest of the country over the festive period.
I thank Front Benchers for allowing me five minutes of their time to raise an important matter for many people in this country—the decision made today by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence about which drugs will be allowed to be prescribed on the national health service for people suffering from Alzheimer's.
As we all know, in March this year it was decided that there might be a recommendation that Aricept, Reminyl and Exelon, which, in 2001, had been made available on the NHS for the treatment of Alzheimer's, should now be withdrawn. NICE might recommend today that those will not be available on the national health service to people who suffer from Alzheimer's. More than 8,000 carers, patients and professionals have written to NICE to oppose its draft recommendation, which was made in March.
At £2.50 a day, or £1,000 a year, the price is a small one for the NHS to pay to prevent some of the worst examples of behaviour by Alzheimer's sufferers, and to relieve some of the tension and problems experienced by carers. In my constituency, sadly, I have seen people who are younger than me develop Alzheimer's in their 50s. I have heard tragic tales of people who begin to lose their way and to lose their knowledge of who is in their family, and who eventually become completely confused about where they are. For that to happen at such an early stage is extremely distressing.
How will people who have been together for 30 years—I can imagine what it is like, as I have been with my wife for more than 30 years—who have been able, because of that small contribution from the NHS, to keep their loved ones at home where they are at least lucid sometimes and calm most of the time, make the decision, if they lose that drug, to look for long-term care for someone who is still young and seems fit but is completely and utterly confused? It is an absolute tragedy.
Can Members imagine what that is like at this time of the year? My constituent, whom I will not name, said to me last week that as Christmas approached he was genuinely living in fear of NICE taking this decision and the Scottish health service following it and stopping him getting Aricept for his wife. As a result, he might see her go through Christmas confused and in fear, with the prospect of his family and the structure of his life being destroyed because he can no longer look after his loved one. That would be the outcome of NICE's decision and of the Government's decision to give NICE's advice to health authorities to cease providing those drugs. It could result in a terrible tragedy.
As Christmas approaches, I ask the Minister to take on board the plea from the heart that has been issued by my constituents, the 8,000 carers and people working in the professions, and allow a small sum—£2.50 a day—to be allocated to those who suffer from Alzheimer's, for their good and, indeed, for the sake of the good will of those in sickness and those who care for them, during this festive season.
This is the first time I have taken part in a Christmas Adjournment debate, but I pleased to be able to respond to the varied and fascinating debate that has taken place today.
The job of Back Benchers contributing to these debates is relatively simple. They are entitled to speak on any matter that they wish to raise. My job and that of the Deputy Leader of the House is somewhat more challenging: we must respond to the points made in what, in this occasion, has been a very full debate, ranging from Iraq to Devon and from road-coating product plants to wind farms.
Harry Cohen opened the Back-Bench speeches by speaking on a matter that is of great concern to him and which he has been assiduous in raising in the House: the continued presence of coalition forces in Iraq. He made two points with which I agree. He spoke of the need to win the battle of hearts and minds. I too think that that is important, and I think that mistakes were made during the aftermath of the war which made it more difficult. He also welcomed the increasing further moves towards democracy. I echo that welcome, because I feel that we must continue to focus our efforts on establishing a stable democracy in Iraq. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and all Members will want to join me in wishing a very happy Christmas to our servicemen and women serving in Iraq and their families.
Mr. Wills spoke of Swindon's needs, particularly in the context of tackling poverty. He spoke of the Government's success in improving the financial position of pensioners. I think that those who are struggling to cope with the complexities of the Government's means-tested benefits, and with ever-increasing council tax bills, will take a somewhat different view. My constituents are not struck by what he termed the "simplicity" of the tax credit system, but are appalled by its complexity, and suffer from the incompetences of the Revenue's administration of the system. That view was echoed by Mr. Reid, although I think that he was rather kind to the Child Support Agency in merely saying that it was in a state of crisis.
The hon. Gentleman also rightly raised the impact of post office closures. He referred to them in a rural context, but it is not just rural areas that suffer. Many post offices have closed in Maidenhead town, in my constituency. That has caused problems to elderly people in particular, because they have difficulties in gaining access to other post offices.
A number of Members spoke of the proposals to restructure police forces. Ms Johnson took a somewhat different view from many: she supported the restructuring of her own force in Humberside. My own view accords rather more with the views of Mr. Heath, who ably described the danger that restructuring would reduces forces' ability to respond to local needs and the potential loss of community policing that would result. As my hon. Friend Andrew Selous pointed out, we should ask at what cost the restructuring is taking place. We need more money to be spent on more police on our streets, not on new letterheads and new force headquarters.
I noted the reference by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome to the new Frome Victoria hospital. In my constituency, I am campaigning for a new east Berkshire acute hospital to be built closer to Maidenhead so that my constituents do not have to struggle to Wexham Park hospital in Slough. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that the time will come when I can report good news to the House.
Although this debate is rightly used by many Members to raise issues of particular concern in their constituencies, I was struck by the number who raised issues of wider concern relating to world matters. Tribute was paid by several Members to the work of the Make Poverty History campaign and I am happy to add my congratulations to the campaign on the important work that it has done.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire rightly linked the Government's failure to achieve reform of the common agricultural policy to the lack of greater progress at the World Trade Organisation talks in Hong Kong. As with the climate change talks in Montreal, I suggest that, far from proclaiming their success, the Government should be dissatisfied at the lack of progress made.
Paul Rowen, among others, raised the issue of the tsunami. He spoke from personal experience and talked about the impact of the Foreign Office response and the concern felt by many families about the support that the Government had given at that time.
In respect of worldwide issues, my hon. Friend Mr. Evans gave an impressive tour d'horizon of several relevant subjects, including our representations abroad. He referred to the devastating impact of AIDS on the lives of so many millions, particularly across Africa. One of the saddest aspects of that issue has been the unwillingness of the Government of South Africa to acknowledge the extent of the problem there, which means that many more people are suffering than would have been the case if the problem had been properly acknowledged.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley enjoined all hon. Members not to be backward about celebrating Christmas in the true Christmas spirit. I am sorry that I cannot join him in his carol singing later this week, but I should warn him, given my previous area of responsibility, that I hope that he has secured an entertainments licence under the Licensing Act 2003.
It is a great shame that the right hon. Lady could not share in our village carol service in Withan friary on Sunday evening. The Virgin Mary, who looked delightful, was unfortunately indisposed, so Joseph was left holding the baby—both figuratively and in reality. I wonder whether that is something that the right hon. Lady would commend.
I am always willing to welcome and encourage fathers to participate properly in the bringing up of their children and I sincerely hope that the Virgin Mary has now fully recovered from whatever it was that prevented her from being there. To those who participated in that particular event and to those who will be doing the carol singing in Ribble Valley later this week, I should nevertheless give a warning. Hon. Members may not be aware of it, but under the Licensing Act 2003, carol singers require a licence—unless they dress up as morris dancers, which are excluded under that Act—[Interruption.] I suspect that they may well do that naturally in Somerset.
A number of hon. Members spoke about the contrast between what the Government say and what they do. Sammy Wilson raised several issues relating to Northern Ireland, including education, in an impassioned speech. After the general election, the Prime Minister said that he had learned his lesson and would listen to people more in future. Many people in Northern Ireland will be wondering how that fits in with the proposals to abandon grammar schools, which are supported by the majority of the population in Northern Ireland.
The beauty of the Adjournment debate is that it is so varied. When I started listening to it this afternoon, I did not think that I would be educated about the European waste incineration directive and the operation of road-coating product plants. Indeed, I was, courtesy of David Taylor. I would certainly commend the hon. Gentleman's speech to anyone who wants to know about those subjects.
The interests of asylum seekers were taken up in two thoughtful speeches. Mr. Caton spoke about the impact of legislation on the children of asylum seekers, which I know is a matter of concern to several groups that deal with children's issues. My hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke about asylum seekers in his constituency with his characteristic care, compassion and desire to ensure that people who cannot speak up for themselves have their voices heard when matters need to be raised. He also talked about local authority funding, and his comments will strike a chord with many people both in the House and outside, including my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who also raised the matter, as well as continuing to champion the cause of his constituents, particularly those who in his view have suffered from injustice. His efforts on their behalf are to be commended, as are the efforts of my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis, who continued his valiant fight for better treatment for his constituent Mr. Brian Jago. He rightly pointed out the unfair impact of the postcode lottery in the NHS, and how much people can suffer as a result of delays in decisions by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
The issue of decisions by NICE and the impact that they have on people was also taken up in the final contribution to the debate, by Michael Connarty. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out the impact that taking away certain drugs, such as Aricept, would have on those with Alzheimer's disease and their carers. I pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by more than 6 million carers in this country; often unsung, they save the Government something like £57 billion.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East highlighted the paradox of the NHS and some of the issues involved, which were also clearly set out by my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard when he asked where all the money had gone. We might well all ask that question. How can the Government claim that all is well in the NHS when trusts have deficits totalling hundreds of millions of pounds and, as at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Hospital Trust, the jobs of doctors and nurses are being cut.
More money is being spent on reorganising strategic health authorities and primary care trusts. My hon. Friend James Brokenshire talked about hospital building, and the empty hospital wards that he has seen in his area. That reminded me of an episode of "Yes, Minister" in which, as hon. Members will remember, the Minister visited a new hospital with hundreds of administrative staff but no patients. When he asked why there were no patients, it was explained that things were a lot easier if there were no patients to deal with. None the less, I hope that in my hon. Friend's constituency the patients will be able to follow on into the new hospital building.
Mrs. Robinson also raised the subject of the health service. She spoke particularly about problems in mental health, a subject that is all too often forgotten. I pay tribute to her willingness to raise those important issues, which affect far more families than I suspect many would like to admit, and are all too often swept under the carpet.
Bob Russell raised a number of specific issues concerning Colchester council, including the proposed visual arts centre, which I know from my previous brief has exercised the hon. Gentleman's mind for some time.
It was good to hear from a neighbour of mine, my hon. Friend Mr. Wilson, who rightly drew attention to the problems of education in Reading. He also referred to policing in Reading—although I am duty bound to tell him that sadly, improved policing in Reading is often at the expense of policing in my constituency, notably in villages such as Wargrave, Charvil and Twyford.
There is always, I have to say, a frisson of uncertainty in the Chamber when my hon. Friend Bob Spink rises to speak. Today he charmed us by telling us about his exchange of letters with his young constituent. He rightly reminded us of the importance of families and children at Christmas—a point echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, who raised valid concerns about maternity services, in particular the pressures on midwifery.
In view of the increase in the incidence of diabetes across the country, Mr. Robinson was right to raise an issue of growing importance to a growing number of people—the treatment of those with insulin-dependent diabetes in the driving licence system. There is a need to address that problem and to give more attention to a proper risk assessment of the individuals concerned.
Finally, I turn to what in my view were the two most powerful speeches in today's debate: those by my right hon. Friend David Maclean and my hon. Friend Angela Browning. My right hon. Friend gave a masterly speech and I must say that he needs no lessons from my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth in that regard. While we have valued the time spent by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border as Opposition Chief Whip, his required silence in that post has been a loss to this House. His impassioned plea for the rural communities in Cumbria will have struck home to many in this House.
My right hon. Friend made a particularly valuable point when he said how easy it is for the Government to be bewitched by the superficial image of areas such as the Lake district, and to avoid or fail to see the real needs of Cumbria. I find it incomprehensible that this Government—a Labour Government—seem to have no real regional policy other than to create layers of regional bureaucracy, be it for the police, the fire service or the health service. Far from being based on regeneration, their regional policy is based, as my right hon. Friend said, on sucking jobs, services and funding away from counties such as Cumbria, and from others mentioned today such as Devon and Shropshire. The paradox of their position is that while they suck resources away from areas in the north, the south-west and elsewhere, they are forcing greater and greater development into parts of the south-east that do not want it.
That lack of a real regional policy and lack of concern for rural areas was echoed in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who defended not only her constituency but the whole of Devon. She reminded us that in their early days in 1997, this Government constantly talked of fairness and justice, yet there is no fairness and justice in their treatment of many regions of this country, and of rural areas in particular.
I want to finish by rising to the challenge that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley set to indulge in the true spirit of Christmas. I have been thinking—I hope Members will forgive me—of the parliamentary and political equivalent of a well-known Christmas song. But have no fear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not sing it. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] I once tried to sing something while standing next to my hon. Friend, but my efforts were paltry compared with his fine Welsh voice. Here we go, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, 12 Lords a-leaping, 11 Clerks a-clerking, 10 Whips a-whipping, nine Hansard writers writing, eight times six Labour MPs rebelling, £7 billion in lost rebate, six failed Government reforms, five Cabinet rows, four Lib Dem leadership candidates, three ministerial scalps, two broken Blair-Brown deals and the Prime Minister up a gum tree.
I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Mr. Speaker, all Members of this House and all the staff and Officers who serve it so well a very, very merry Christmas.
This has certainly been a most wide-ranging debate: from the Make Poverty History campaign to the tsunami; from the NHS and policing to the Royal Mail; from Iraq to hill farming, sugar beet production and fishing; from mental health to defence. Opposition has been expressed to wind farms, to police reorganisation and to tax on petrol in rural areas. The phrase "wide-ranging" does not do justice to the scope of Members' contributions.
The contribution that moved me most was that by Mrs. Robinson, who spoke out at length about the problems faced by people with mental illness. The House listened to her in some silence and with great interest. I was also impressed by the central point made by Mr. Wilson: the importance of leadership in schools and leadership from the police force and individuals. That is the key to making public services work, just as it is the key to making good companies effective in the private sector.
Since much was said about health, I thought it worth starting with that subject. Mrs. May, echoing the words of Mark Pritchard, asked, where has all the money gone? The hon. Gentleman hinted at a paradox. Let me tell the House where the money has gone nationally before I deal with individual constituencies. The money has gone on the 79,000 or so more nurses, on the 27,000 more doctors created since 1997 and on ensuring that waiting lists are now at their lowest level since 1988. It has gone on the 532,000 more operations that are done a year compared with eight years ago. That will affect some of the cases raised today, as will the 165 extra CT scanners and the almost 160 extra MRI scanners installed in the NHS since 1997.
I took the words of the hon. Member for The Wrekin to heart, so he will join me in welcoming the 221 more consultants in his constituency, the 643 more doctors and the 2,092 more nurses. Like him, I want to know from the health authority why they have not been deployed more effectively to allay the concerns of his constituents and of the hon. Member.
The same is true for Mr. Evans, who raised the problems in his area. We must ask what has happened to the 142 more consultants that Cumbria and Lancashire strategic health authority has had, as well as the 543 more doctors and the 5,400 more nurses.
Dr. Lewis stressed his concern as well, raising the specific case of a cancer patient. His authority has had 382 more consultants, over 1,000 more doctors and nearly 3,000 more nurses.
Let me tell the hon. Member about the prescription of the drug by the 1,100 extra cancer consultants that we have, a 38 per cent. increase since 1997. Locally, groups of consultants and medical practitioners are involved. Some may have drawn an inference—I am sure he did not intend this—that some sort of bureaucrat or unqualified person was taking the decisions, but they are being taken by people with some medical expertise. It is important to know that that expertise is available and to ask quite rightly what the impact of the 1,100 extra cancer specialists is.
We certainly know that cancer mortality rates have dropped by more than 10 per cent. because of those extra consultants and more effective treatment, saving an estimated 33,000 lives. We also know that, in 1997, only 63 per cent. of suspected cancer cases were seen within two weeks; now the figure is 99 per cent. All of those have helped the hon. Member's constituents.
Since the issue of cancer care and palliative care was also mentioned, I want to join all hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of the hospice movement. In my constituency, I have the Marie Curie clinic at Fairmilehead and I know that, at this time of year, the work that it does is more valued than ever.
David Maclean made an excellent contribution and stressed his concerns about the common agricultural policy and the EU budget. He asked for more to be given to the hill farmers in his area and, brought up as I was in a hill farming area, I listened with some concern to what he was saying. However, I was surprised that hon. Members who asked about the Government's negotiations during our presidency failed to acknowledge that the EU budget deal agreed under my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is some €160 billion cheaper than the original Commission proposals of February 2004. Moreover, it is certainly below the level proposed in June by our predecessor in the presidency, Luxembourg. Some speakers neglected that important fact, which should be noted.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin called for more money for sugar beet farmers and stressed the importance of biofuels. We concur: that is why, in his pre-Budget report of two or three weeks ago, the Chancellor reinforced the impetus that he has given to the promotion of biofuels.
All speakers seemed openly hostile to wind farms. I declare my support for them, both onshore and offshore. They have a part to play and I am pleased that this Government, and the Department for Trade and Industry in particular, have managed to exceed their target for making wind generators available for community centres, community housing groups and individuals. The target was to have 2,300 such generators installed between 2003 and 2006; in fact, that figure has been almost doubled, and the funding is still available.
My hon. Friend Harry Cohen raised the vitally important issue of Iraq. I want to pay tribute to all our service men and women for the role that they have played in that country. I stress to my hon. Friend that it is important to continue that engagement: more than 8 million Iraqis took part in January's elections, 10 million took part in the referendum on the constitution in October, and 15 million were registered for the more recent election there. Britain is one of 27 countries providing personnel for the multinational forces in Iraq. Those forces will remain there, at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, until that job is done.
My hon. Friend Mr. Caton spoke about the issue of asylum. Many asylum seekers are genuine, having faced horrendous experiences at home, while others mistakenly apply because they think that that will allow them to stay here, whereas they really want to be here for economic reasons. The issue has to be treated with compassion, and I stress that all Members of the House treat asylum and the plight of asylum seekers in that way.
However, I am concerned when constituents of mine tell me that they are faced with deportation and that they want to put their children in the firing line that the asylum process represents. I think that is wrong, and that is what I tell them. The appeals procedure is paid for by the taxpayer: it is of a very high and fair order, and allows people to pursue appeals or reviews after they have submitted their initial applications. Some people, once the process has been exhausted and a decision reached, say that they are not willing to leave because they have children in this country. However, that cannot deter us from ensuring that they are returned to a country that has been ruled proper to receive them.
Not surprisingly, given that we are approaching its first anniversary, the issue of the tsunami was raised in the debate. I am not dismissive of what Paul Rowen said, but the National Audit Office report on the tsunami showed 90 per cent. approval of the way that things were done. However, it did highlight some areas—the hon. Member may have witnessed them—where there were grounds for improvement, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been making sure that those improvements have been made. It was, after all, a massive disaster that claimed the lives of 250,000 people, including 149 from Britain. My constituent, Dominic, a bright young architect, and his girlfriend, Eileen, were among those who lost their lives. His family is on the way out there as part of the programme of help from the Government, endorsed and supported by all parties, to ensure that as many relatives as want to go to as close as possible to the place of the disaster can do so. We all support that.
This has been the year of "Make Poverty History", which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. We have managed, I think, to reinforce the leadership that we must all give to tackling poverty in Africa and elsewhere, and to tackling and eradicating disease. We go into 2006 revitalised, knowing that we can do more to make the world a better place.
To you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all the members of staff who have served us well and all right hon. and hon. Members and Friends, I wish a merry and restful Christmas, and a happy new year.