Whitsun Adjournment

Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:34 pm on 25th May 2006.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn— [Jonathan Shaw.]

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 1:35 pm, 25th May 2006

I am delighted to take part in this debate, especially given that the earlier statement on pensions makes this an important day for all of us.

I want to speak about four matters that are important to my constituency, but I shall begin with an international problem that has not yet received a sufficient airing in this place. I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who is on the Front Bench this afternoon, will refer it to his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and in the Foreign Office.

Last Monday, the European Parliament decided to allow the fishing deal between the EU and Morocco, which involves the waters off the western Sahara, to go ahead. As an issue, it does not arouse the same level of interest or raise the same hackles as the many and varied conflicts in the middle east, parts of Africa, south-east Asia or South America. However, the UN promised people in the western Sahara that there would be a referendum on their territorial independence. They have waited a long time, and it still has not happened. That is a disgrace.

To rub salt into the wound, the fish in the sea around the western Sahara—one of the area's most important resources—are about to be gobbled up by trawlermen from Spain and other EU countries. Thankfully, it is unlikely that British trawlermen will be involved, as we have so few left. The people of the western Sahara feel that they have been sold out.

I and other hon. Members have asked questions about the matter, and I have been dismayed to discover that the Government seem to take the view that, as long as the deal did not break international law or make a huge impact on the numbers of fish in the sea in that part of the world, there were no grounds on which to object to what the EU was planning.

Another problem has to do with the advice given to British Members of the European Parliament. I do not want to be party political, but Labour MEPs either did not vote or chose not to vote against the scheme, even though the vote represented an opportunity to express the clear position that the Government have adopted in respect of the western Sahara. Unless I am mistaken, that opportunity was not taken. The people in the western Sahara have been sold out by the international community for a generation or more and, as well as speaking words of support for them, we should put those words into action.

I turn now to the four local issues that I want to raise. I shall be brief, as I know that there are lots of other hon. Members who want to speak in the debate. First of all, there is currently a lot of talk about how we can make greater use of renewable energy sources. I am a great advocate of renewables, but the idea of building a barrage across the river Severn has recently been put back on the agenda by the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly. He is a member of my party and a friend of mine, and has said that it is time for the scheme to be reappraised. I do not mind a review of the decision made some years ago.

The original feasibility study started in the 1970s and carried on until the 1990s. I tried to struggle through all the different papers and the volumes of evidence, and I have two quick comments to make. First, there were strong environmental downsides to building a Severn barrage. The colossal proposal might cater for about25 per cent. of our energy needs, but not least of the downsides was the irretrievable damage to the flora and fauna of the river Severn. Secondly, I am a strong supporter of the so-called nuclear option, as hon. Members may know, but in some quarters it is ruled out as being the wrong approach because of its sheer scale and the fact that it is designed to pump electricity into the national grid when what we want is microgeneration. I agree that we need microgeneration. The Severn barrage is a colossal scheme, paid for not necessarily by the public sector, but largely by the private sector. The come-back of that will be massive development, largely of housing, which will have a big impact on Stroud.

Local government reform is back on the agenda. We may all be tempted to yawn at the prospect of ritual sacrifice and to believe that whatever we say and do, nothing much will happen. I hope that on this occasion something will happen, because it is about time that Gloucestershire moved to some sort of unitary arrangement, especially given that those areas with unitary arrangements seem to have better, simpler local government. I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to pass my views on to the new Department for Communities and Local Government. If we are to be serious about local government reform, please can we make sure that the proposals are properly aired and that we consider the benefits, not just the faults, of the proposals? A return to the status quo is unacceptable.

I see advantages for Gloucestershire becoming a two-authority county, although there are arguments for one authority. The current arrangement of six districts and one county lead to great confusion. We must ensure that that confusion is put to bed once and for all and that we give people the service that they deserve. Health cuts mean that that requirement is greater than ever, because we desperately need to clarify the relationship between social services and health provision.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman talks a lot of sense, as he always does. Does he share my despair at the removal of democracy from local people? Does he want democracy taken to the lowest level and to stop regionalisation?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Of course I do. Double devolution is a trendy term. As a town councillor for the past 18 years, I strongly believe that the first layer of government has a part to play, but we do not need three layers of government. We need two layers of largely local government. We need to empower urban areas so that they have that first layer of community, neighbourhood government. We need to see that through as quickly as possible with a democratic mandate. The Government talk about leadership, fitting with the local authority and value for money. I am happy to have that debate, but I am not happy to end up with the same fudge.

We need to sort out our rail service, especially the status of the line between Kemble and Swindon—that is the London line for me. In my constituency I am in the fortunate position of having a north-south line and an east-west line. Many years ago someone had the bright idea to single-track the line between Kemble and Swindon, and that was to extend all the way to Cheltenham. Whoever came up with that was hardly looking to the future because it is now the cause of significant delays. When trains run late other trains have to wait for the nine to 10 miles of single track to become clear. We are not talking about the usual cattle train moving people backwards and forwards; we are talking about 125s and a mainline service.

When I was first elected, the CBI said that its most important objective was to have a first-class rail service—in terms of service, not tickets—from London to Cheltenham. We have not seen any investment to achieve that, but that line has to be re-signalled in the next decade or two, so we may see it yet. I should like to see that front-ended and brought forward as a matter of urgency. I think that I am able to call upon the support of the Great Western, which has now won the Greater Western franchise. It seems interested in how we could redouble the line and get trains moving much more easily, frequently and without lateness being built in because of the lateness of other trains.

Finally, I congratulate the Government on doing what I think is right. I was very pleased with the Affordable Rural Housing Commission last week when it made important statements on how we need to get more affordable housing into our ruralities. It offered ideas of how we might do that, such as changing the planning system, investing more money and showing more inclination to make sure that when houses are built we build more affordable and social housing. Pleasingly, there was a particular mention of an idea that some of us in Stroud have been pioneering on community land trusts or what is technically called locally, Gloucestershire Land For People. We hope to do a deal with English Partnerships on the Cashes Green hospital site, which will yield many benefits. I am sure that many hon. Members now know something about community land trusts. The one great advantage is that the asset value is locked away so that people, while sharing in the appreciation of their property value, cannot sell the land. The land remains in communal ownership. The idea sounds rather socialist in principle, but is widely used in the United States, where there are good examples of community land trusts, and many other parts of the world. We are looking for an early decision that that would be the preferred bid for that site—I am about to become a director, so I should declare an interest. The people behind the bid have been given encouragement and resources. That would be a model for the rest of the country, so this is not just about Stroud getting a bit of a lift. We would be doing something that could be adopted more widely to provide the sort of answers that we need in order to provide affordable housing.

My hon. Friend has plenty to think about from me. I am sure that other hon. Members have views to share. I wish everyone a happy Whitsun.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities 1:48 pm, 25th May 2006

I, too, have one or two issues to raise in this Adjournment debate. Although they are based on constituency examples, each one is part of a national trend. I am sure that hon. Members present will nod in recognition of the issue that they too have in their constituency. They may disagree on how to deal with the problem, but almost everyone present will share it.

The first one is in connection with the national health service. Tomorrow I have my usual Friday afternoon constituency surgery. One of the people who has booked in to see me is a ward sister from Chesterfield's Royal hospital. She is one of 133 people in her position at the hospital who were summoned in on Tuesday last week to be told by hospital management that their jobs were being restructured and that they could all reapply for them, but that over the next few months one third of them would lose their jobs. In short, 43 ward sisters are going to be made redundant. The hospital is well run, and hopes to manage the process without too much stress and pain by absorbing the cuts in its normal nursing staff turnover of 8 per cent. a year, through natural wastage and turnover rather than compulsory redundancies, although in the end that method may have to be used. None the less, 43 ward sisters will lose their jobs in Chesterfield over the next year.

The hospital is undertaking a similar exercise by making an analysis of other staff sectors to try to shed jobs to save money. The House can imagine the trauma facing 133 ward sisters who have been told that a third of them will lose their jobs and that more job cuts will follow in other parts of the hospital.

Why is the hospital in that position? It seems to have done everything that the Government wanted since 1997. The hospital became a trust. I do not support trusts; I opposed the hospital's move to trust status at the time, for the same reasons as I opposed the concept of school trusts in the Education and Inspections Bill. Introducing free-market, cut-throat competition is not the way to improve or deliver health services or to educate our children. However, my local hospital became a trust, as the Government wanted, and it has been incredibly successful.

In each of the past three years, the hospital was awarded three stars by the Government—the top rating. Last year, it was also commended as the top hospital in the east midlands—the best in five counties. Since 1997, it has done everything that the Government wanted, so the job losses that are being imposed are not the fault of the hospital management nor of the excellent NHS staff who are hitting every target, even after the introduction of competition. The chief executive told me recently about the worry of losing patients to NHS providers elsewhere and to private sector treatment centres such as the one at Barlborough, just outside my constituency.

The hospital has made further improvements in departments that were already doing extremely well, such as ophthalmology. It can now treat more patients, to the benefit of the Chesterfield Royal but at the expense of other hospitals in the area which will lose patients and income, and thus face even greater problems, which is why I opposed trusts in the first place.

The hospital has done everything it was asked, and done it extremely well, yet now people will have to be sacked, and services for the people of Chesterfield will be reduced. Why? The hospital was expecting a cut of 1.7 per cent. in the tariff for providing medical services; in effect, that was the Gershon efficiency review saving that public bodies in general, including my local council, were expected to make on a yearly basis. However, at the last minute the calculations were abandoned and the Government told the hospital that the tariff reduction, or the cut in funding, would be2.5 per cent. Even worse than that last-minute increase in the deficit, the hospital was told that there would be a special technical adjustment to the tariff of another 2.5 per cent. In the space of only three or four weeks, a good, well-funded, well-organised and efficient hospital went from planning for a managed efficiency saving of 1.7 per cent. to trying to cope with a 5 per cent. cut in its funding.

That situation has been mirrored across the country, on a much bigger scale in some areas. Figures released today show that 12,000 job losses have been announced in the NHS since 1 March alone, which makes the 43 announced so far in Chesterfield look quite small, although it is no comfort to those who are losing their jobs in Chesterfield that health trusts elsewhere, including areas close to Derbyshire, are suffering much greater losses imposed at only a few weeks' notice.

The situation is the result of the Government's rushed introduction of market-based competition and their insistence on hospitals hitting centrally imposed targets on waiting lists, whatever the financial cost. Trusts are reaping the whirlwind because they have overspent in various sectors to enable the Government to hit their targets. Reform has been forced through at breakneck pace to hit the appropriate media headlines and to help create the Prime Minister's legacy.

The same is happening in other parts of the NHS, such as dentistry. A stream of people have visited my constituency surgeries or written to me over recent months to tell me that it is impossible to find a dental practice in Chesterfield that will take on new NHS patients. After the introduction of the new contract, several dentists have completely opted out and no longer treat NHS patients. About half the people of Chesterfield were not enrolled with an NHS dentist and the figures have got worse over the past two months. It appears that they will get even worse over the next year. Again, that situation is common throughout the country.

It is time for a long-term, sensible planning regime in the health service, rather than emergency cuts. We should put a brake on this disastrous process and pause a while to consider what is being done to the NHS. Meanwhile, NHS staff in Chesterfield and elsewhere need reassurance about the job losses they face at present, and those in the pipeline for later in the year, which threaten them even though they are absolutely blameless and have done everything asked of them by the Government.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments about the NHS tariff. Does he think that there should be a common tariff across the country or should the costs of operations vary from one hospital to another? It seems sensible to have the same costs throughout the country. Does he agree?

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

There are different costs in different parts of the country, although there is weighting in the system to take account of wage rates; for example, in London and Derbyshire. There must be some variations. The point I was making is that NHS reforms must be carefully planned to ensure stability. In Germany, where the health service took a similar road, the process took 18 years, yet we are trying to do it in no more than 18 months. To make the NHS—the largest single employer in Europe—a more efficient organisation, we need to look at local accountability and decision making rather than jumping at the behest of centrally imposed targets from Whitehall. That is not the way to run the health service, the police service, the Home Office or many other Departments of State.

Council housing is a major issue in my constituency, as it is in many parts of the country, although it takes different guises, because, as a result of Government policy, many councils no longer control it. Every week, people contact my surgery or my Chesterfield office about the problems of finding social housing. Two age extremes typify the problem. There are young families with children who want a house. They may be living with parents or friends and as children come along the situation becomes impossible. They may be living in one-bedroom council flats on the first or second floor, which is wholly unsuitable for children, so they want a family house. They cannot afford to buy or rent in the private sector so they want a council house.

At the other age extreme are pensioners or people approaching pensionable age. They may be living in council flats. I know one couple who were the first occupants of a brand new flat on a new council estate in the early 1960s. They still live there, but their flat is on the top floor, so what was suitable for them when they were young—they had no children—is no longer suitable now that they are in their 70s. They suffer from arthritis and they have noisy young neighbours with a different lifestyle. They want to move to an old people's bungalow.

The problem for the council is that it no longer has bungalows or family houses to offer. Were it not for the right-to-buy policy, Chesterfield would have 19,000 council properties; there are actually fewer than 10,000 and the number is falling each year. I have never objected to the right-to-buy policy. I was elected to Chesterfield council in 1987 and was a member of the housing committee. Labour councillors were furious about Margaret Thatcher's right-to-buy policy, which had just been introduced. As I said to them, I could not understand why they were so angry. If they had thought of the policy of using public money to build social housing and allowing people who had lived in those houses for five, 10 or 15 years to cash that in as a discount and buy a house—something that those people would never have been able to afford to do under normal conditions—I would have seen that as a good piece of socialist engineering to give people access to the property market and property ownership. I have been told since—I discovered this only this year—that the Labour party was considering that in the late 1970s, but ruled it out of the manifesto as being unacceptable. How things have changed.

The problem with the right-to-buy policy from the 1980s and now is that the money is not invested back into providing more social housing. In Chesterfield, for example, 75 per cent. of the money from each right-to-buy purchase is taken away by the Government to spend elsewhere—or disappears into the Chancellor's coffers—rather than being invested in providing more social housing. Since 1997, there have been 600,000 right to buys across the country and the waiting list for council housing has gone up by—hon. Members have guessed it—a nice symmetrical 600,000 to the nearest round thousand. Those seem the social housing provision polices of the madhouse. Right to buy can provide social mobility and access to the property market, but the money must be reinvested if we are to avoid major problems.

The Government's answer is to force tenants across the country to leave the tender mercies of the council and have a registered social landlord, a housing association or a private finance initiative landlord—in other words, to privatise in one form or another. That costs more in the long run—just like PFI builds for schools and hospitals—because taxpayers foot the vast bulk of the bill and because people in the private or semi-private sectors borrow more expensively. However, it gets the money off the public sector borrowing requirement. It is a nice piece of voodoo economics or voodoo accountancy to massage the public spending figures. It is a piece of nonsense that is sold to us as choice.

When I have raised the matter in debates, in Prime Minister's Question Time and in private meetings with Ministers, I have been told over and over again that I should celebrate choice. I do celebrate choice. One area where I part company from some of my fellow members of the Defend Council Housing group in Parliament, of which I am the vice-chair, is that some of them would say that there should be no privatisation or opting out of council properties. As a teenager, I grew up on one of the biggest council estates in Europe, in Sheffield, and I can see that some council tenants in some parts of the country might well feel that their council has made such an appalling job of running their estate that they would rather have a different landlord. However, the vast majority do not feel like that and the vast majority of councils that have moved over to this system have done so because the Government put a gun to their head or because they faced Hobson's choice. Essentially, the decision is sold as, "You privatise, or you do not get your house repaired." That is the choice that is being presented. I cannot understand the logic of a Labour Government who go down that route.

Of course, once one has gone down that route there is no going back. If the people of Chesterfield do not like the way in which the council is running the 10,000, 12,000, 15,000 or 19,000 council houses at any one time, they can change the management. They did in 2003: they elected the Liberal Democrats. People can change the situation; that is what democracy is about. However, once they have gone down the road of having a housing association or a PFI landlord, that is it. There is no coming back. There is no accountability with those landlords, especially when a small housing association merges with another and another and becomes a big national organisation instead of the small, local, friendly, housing association that was sold to people in the first place.

Then there is the limited amount of money that the Government allow to be distributed into social housing via councils. What happens in that case? This has been mentioned in meetings we have had with Ministers. Of course, there is a limited amount of money and it is rationed. However, it is not rationed fairly according to which councils have the greatest need. The Government basically say, "Well, in the case of the hundred or so councils where tenants have voted not to privatise, that's tough. You do not get anything. You have voted and made your choice and we are going punish you. You don't get the cash." The ones that go half way down the road and have an arm's length management organisation will get what limited cash is still available via the Government.

That is no way to allocate the limited funds that are available for public sector housing through council provision. Of course, money is always short and has to be rationed and spent over a number of years, but that money should be allocated on the basis of the need of places such as Chesterfield, Birmingham, Cambridge, Camden and the other areas that have said that they do not want to privatise. The money should be allocated according to need, not according to whether people are willing to have an ALMO or whether they take the democratic choice to stay with the council.

What happens to rents in some parts of the country? In Chesterfield last year, not only did the Government take £6 million away from Chesterfield council tenants in right-to-buy receipts that went off into the Chancellor's coffers, they took £3.2 million from their rents to spend in other parts of the country. When I raised that with the Minister, he said, "Oh, but we only do that to affluent Tory shires." I had to point out that Chesterfield is not an affluent Tory shire. It is a working class coalfield community, except that, since 1992, there have been no coal mines left. It is a working class community that had lots of engineering and steel works—except they have almost entirely gone, as well. It is a community that had much higher than average unemployment. That is coming down, but it is still higher than average to this day. It has many social problems. It is not an affluent Tory shire. However,£3.2 million is taken away from council tenants' rents in Chesterfield every year—last year, the year before, the year before that, and next year—to spend elsewhere.

To my horror, I discovered that some of that money is going via the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister,as was, to provide infrastructure in London forthe Olympic games. Why are council tenants in Chesterfield seeing their rents go into that sort of spending? If Chesterfield borough council were allowed to keep half that money every year, it could provide the old age pensioners' bungalows to allow old pensioners to move out of family council houses, which would free them up for young people with children.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has just said, because it suggests to me—I hope that he shares my concern about this—that Ministers are making decisions on matters that affect people's lives not on the basis of need, but according to stereotypical views of what the area is like and, by the sound of it, whether the council is controlled by the Conservatives.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I am not sure that Ministers would go down to the wire on that. As that was said in the meeting that I attended, it was a sop to the Labour members of the Defend Council Housing group who were there. It was as if they were saying, "It's okay. You don't need to worry. It's for a good reason." I am not sure whether, if one followed the small print, that would be how the decision was justified. As I say, it seems inexplicable that, last year alone, Chesterfield lost £9.2 million from its council tenants—from right-to-buy money and from rents. If Chesterfield borough council had half that money every year, we would not have a problem with housing people in Chesterfield. Instead, the waiting lists get longer. Whenever that is explained, people cannot understand the logic of a Labour Government following such policies. I know that many Labour Members agree with what I am saying.

There is a fourth option, which is Liberal Democrat policy and Labour party policy. The Labour party reaffirmed the policy of equal access to funding for all councils and council tenants at the last Labour conference and the one before that. However, the Labour Government have reaffirmed each time that they will take no notice whatsoever of their own members or their own conference, and will carry on with their divisive, iniquitous and socially unfair set of policies.

I could bring up many other issues, but I have an eye on the time and bearing in mind that there are lots of other Members who wish to speak, I will not. I will mention one issue in passing. I had the privilege of taking part in an Adjournment debate on Tuesday, which was held by Mr. McLoughlin, on the forced, compulsory merger of police forces to make an east midlands police force. I do not need to go into the details again because I went through them on Tuesday. I will simply summarise and say that we are seeing the merger of five county police forces into one super-force. That is happening all over the country. There was a sham consultation that was carried out to a ridiculous timetable. On 7 April, the five police authorities in the east midlands told the Government that they did not want to merge voluntarily. On11 April, they were told that they were going to merge anyway. What was the point of the whole sham process that started last autumn when the Government knew what they intended to impose in their first place?

The changes are not going to be funded properly in any part of the country—certainly not in Derbyshire and the east midlands. Paying for the reorganisation will lead to reductions in the number of police officers on the beat. Above all, the change will lead to a loss of local responsiveness and accountability. I know the chief constable of Derbyshire. I can call on him easily. His base is not far away from Chesterfield. I know the chief superintendent of C division, which covers Chesterfield, and I am meeting her tomorrow to discuss all sorts of issues. How will I go on if the chief constable is in Northampton, or Leicester, or Nottingham? That will be just impossible—it is a nonsense.

Since a new set of Ministers has taken on most posts in recent weeks, I hope that we will hear some answers that suggest that the Government are going to change their inexplicable policies on these matters, although I fear that I hope in vain.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 2:09 pm, 25th May 2006

I wish to raise one constituency matter and two international matters. The constituency matter on which I shall address the House is gun, knife and gang-related crime. The whole House will have read in the newspapers last week about the tragic stabbing of Kiyan Prince in north London. We in Hackney are familiar with the aftershock of such crime because in 2004, 16-year-old Robert Levy was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old.

I wish to say a few words about the matter because the problem with both gun and knife crime is that, when there is an especially spectacular incident, it is all over the papers for a day or two, but then people forget about it. However, the problem is ongoing. There is a rising tide of incidents in the inner city. The problem does not just affect London, because the number of incidents of gun, knife and gang-related crime is increasing in urban areas throughout the country.

We need to be aware that knife crime and knife homicide is a schoolboy's crime because the peak age for knife crime is between 14 and 21. The idea of playground quarrels that would once have resulted in a bloody nose ending with someone bleeding to death in the gutter, like Kiyan Prince or Robert Levy, is tragic. Such tragedies are also avoidable.

I praise the Government for the work that they have already done on knife crime. We are going to raise the age at which it is legal to carry a knife from 16 to 18. We will also give teachers more powers to search schoolchildren for weapons, and there is talk of experimenting with metal detectors in schools. All those measures will be important and helpful, but I stress that we will not have an impact on knife, gun and gang-related crime in the long run unless we address the youth culture in our inner cities. The saturation of that youth culture with music, videos and video games, all of which are riddled with violence, lies behind some of the shocking incidents, such as the stabbing of the young man in north London a few days ago. Welcome though law enforcement measures are, they will not alone solve the problem.

In Hackney, in the aftermath of the stabbing of Robert Levy, the police and community made a tremendous effort to address the situation. The police went into schools to teach young people about the dangers of knives and set up all kinds of mentoring schemes to give young people alternatives to their malign role models on the street. Very often, young teenagers are mentored in the ways of violence and crime by older men, so the police in Hackney are targeting those people so that they can get them behind bars. Meanwhile, the police are trying to work with young people and support their parents so that they can be given a different value system from that of the street, violence and MTV. The Government need to address the problem through not only law enforcement measures, but resources for such long-term work with young people and parents, whether that is done through local authorities, or through partnerships among the police, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

It is easy for hon. Members from other parts of the country to say, "We don't have the problem in my constituency. It is a localised thing in the inner city, so why should I concern myself with it?". I would say to that that we are seeing the type of gun crime that was once a feature of areas such as Brixton and Hackney in Nottingham, Yorkshire and as far afield as Aberdeen, so what those hon. Members see in the city of London today, they will see in other urban areas tomorrow.

Some of the wards in London with the most serious problems relating to gun and knife-related crime are on the edge of what will be the footprint of the Olympic park. The idea that we will bring millions of people in 2012 into an area that has systemic problems with gun, knife and gang-related crime on its fringes could—I say only "could"—prove embarrassing to all of us. For the sake of the mother of Kiyan Prince, the parents of Robert Levy, a whole generation of young people growing up in our city and this country's reputation, we cannot afford to let gun and knife-related crime be only the stuff of a few days' headlines before we all move on. We need sustainable work—both law enforcement and community work—that will help to save a generation of young boys who are being sucked up into a malign, lawless and violent culture.

I want to raise the international issue of Guantanamo Bay. Hon. Members might say, "It's been there since 2002, so why should we talk about it again?" However, it is important to put it on record that, in the past week, important benchmarks have been set relating to the debate on Guantanamo Bay. First, the UN Committee against Torture has investigated Guantanamo Bay and concluded that the conditions there constitute torture. The Committee has also called for the camp to be closed down as soon as possible. We have also heard in the past few days that four detainees at Guantanamo have attempted to commit suicide, which gives the lie to the notion that there is nothing wrong with the regime there. Last but not least, our Attorney-General has taken the serious step of making a public speech saying that Guantanamo Bay should be closed as a matter of principle. Lord Goldsmith was swift to say that he was speaking in a personal capacity, and we must accept that, but when someone in his position with such a distinguished legal career steps up to condemn what is happening in Guantanamo, the House must listen. The Attorney-General is not the only person who has called for the closure of Guantanamo. The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has called for that, as have Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The problem with Guantanamo is partly what happens inside it, partly the dubious legal basis on which the Americans are holding the people and, finally, the negative effect that its very existence has on the war against terror. The Americans would argue that they are entitled to hold the people indefinitely without due process, as that would be internationally recognised, because they are at war. When it is suggested that, if the people are prisoners of war, they should be subject to the Geneva convention, the Americans refuse to accept that, but they cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that they are holding the people because they are at war, yet refuse to accept that the Geneva convention applies.

The Americans try to say that the conditions are fine and that the complaints of ex-detainees are unfounded, yet even the UN officials were not allowed to meet detainees without signing confidentiality agreements. Once the detainees actually leave Guantanamo—as did the British detainees, thankfully, due to the hard work of Lord Goldsmith and others—the stories that we hear about the treatment that they have endured are horrifying.

As my hon. Friend Keith Vaz said earlier this week, the Government should facilitate a visit to Guantanamo by a delegation of British MPs. The Government should also do more for British residents who are not necessarily British nationals who find themselves interned in Guantanamo. I know that it is not the practice of Britain to offer consular services to people who are just British residents, but it is also not the practice of Britain to stand on the side while people are undergoing torture. International institution after international institution, culminating in the UN Committee against Torture, have said that conditions in Guantanamo are tantamount to torture.

Tony Blair has to take advantage—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Lady is an experienced Member of the House and knows that we do not address our colleagues in that manner.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

My profuse apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Prime Minister should take advantage of his special relationship with George W. Bush to raise the issue of Guantanamo in more emphatic and public terms than he has hitherto. The House recently debated the report on the 7/7 bombings in this country. As a House of Commons, we talk about anti-terrorism measures and legislation, policing, enforcement and law and order to ward off the threat of terrorism. However, as long as young Muslim men and women, wherever they might be, including in this country, see the camp at Guantanamo and people held outside the law, and hear the allegations of torture, it undermines both our fight to get community cohesion and the war against terror. We need to demonstrate that when we talk about civil liberties, freedom and enduring international values, it is not just talk but something that we mean. There is much more that our Government and Prime Minister can do to close down Guantanamo once and for all. That would represent an advance in the war against terror.

The second international issue that I want to raise is the situation in Nigeria. It is a special country to me. I have one of the largest Nigerian communities in London and I have been privileged to visit it twice within the past 12 months. A horrible disaster took place in Nigeria in the past few days that was not been as well reported as it might have been. A pipeline explosion killed more than 200 people on the outskirts of Lagos. More than 100 blackened corpses were strewn on the water's edge. The Lagos state police commissioner said:

"You can see the corpses. Some are burnt to ash. Others are remnants. We estimate" that more than 200 people died. Those people died not as a result of a natural disaster, but because they were tapping into a pipeline that runs close to Lagos to take away petroleum in jerry cans to sell. No more dangerous activity can be imagined, but the idea that there are people who are desperate enough to make money from such an activity points to some of the social and economic dislocation in Nigeria.

Oil has been both a blessing and a curse. It has been a blessing because it could make Nigeria a prosperous country, but it has been a curse because, as is the case in so many oil-producing countries, it has brought with it corruption and an undue reliance on the oil production sector. It is not just that people die from tapping into pipelines. One of the other tragedies of oil production in Nigeria is that, although the Niger delta produces some of the highest quality oil in the world and makes billions, the Nigerians who live there exist not only in the most abject poverty, but in an area that has terrible oil pollution. The water is polluted. They cannot fish or farm, and they do not have access to fresh water. The situation has been going on for years. The huge profits made in Nigeria have not helped the people of the delta.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Does the hon. Lady agree that there needs to be far greater transparency in the payments made by extraction companies to developing countries? The brutal truth is that most of the money does not go to benefit the general population, but enriches a small elite.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I agree absolutely and wholeheartedly, and I shall come to that point because it is at the heart of my remarks.

The natural gas from oil extraction is flared night and day, which means that villages are illuminated night and day. That shows the crudeness of the oil industry. It does not bother to use the natural gas as a resource in itself because the profits to be made from oil are so vast. Who benefits from that? As the hon. Gentleman said, there is no transparency in the payments made.

The last time I was in Nigeria, we had a meeting with Shell. When I asked about oil pollution, the senior person in the company said that it was all caused by people tapping into its pipelines. I said, "Are you saying that there was never any oil pollution in the delta until people started tapping into pipelines?" She said, "No." I then asked, "Does Shell take no responsibility for the lack of infrastructure and schools, and the desperate plight of the people?" She said, "Well, no. We give money to the federal Government and local politicians. Our responsibility ends there." It is not good enough for a company with such strong British links to have that attitude to the environment and poverty reduction.

We have worked with Nigeria on debt relief and governance and we all welcome the return to democratic elections. However, we need to work with Shell and other oil extraction companies to tell them that it is not enough for them to wash their hands and to say, in effect, "We have paid off federal and local officials. What more do you expect us to do?" Shell bears a big responsibility for the plight of ordinary people in the delta. It is time it faced up to that responsibility. Anything Her Majesty's Government can do to help them do that will be important.

When I was in Nigeria, we heard about attempts by President Obasanjo, who is in his second term in office—in fact, he did another term as general in the long period when Nigeria was under military rule—to change the constitution so that he could have a third term. Fortunately, the Nigerian Senate debated that and voted his proposal down. That is a victory for democracy in Nigeria.

This Government have a proud record on raising concerns about Africa and trying to work with it on debt reduction, most notably with Nigeria itself, but we need to go further. The Chancellor recently made a speech on corruption, but we need to go further still. We need to impress on a country such as Nigeria, which has the potential to be very wealthy, that there are still outstanding problems with governance, transparency, and the fact that the people of the Niger delta and across the country live in such poverty when the region is Shell's most profitable area for oil production.

I make no apologies for raising Nigeria in the Chamber. Africa has so much potential. To visit Africa and see its raw materials and the potential of its people being wasted because of governance problems is tragic. I am grateful for the opportunity to draw those things to the attention of the House.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury 2:28 pm, 25th May 2006

For me, this is undoubtedly the blackest day since I came into the House 23 years ago. Today, the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust announced the loss of 600 NHS posts. One of the consequences of that is that it will almost certainly undermine for ever the viability of the Horton general hospital in my constituency to perform the role of general hospital. The posts have been lost because the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust had a £33 million cut imposed on it at the beginning of the year. It was told at the outset of the financial year that it had to make savings of some £33 million.

The House should pause for a second, as that means that 600 people have lost their jobs. Some of those posts will be lost as a result of natural wastage, but there will be 300 to 350 redundancies, affecting consultants, nurses from the Royal College of Nursing, ancillary workers, professionals allied to medicine, clerical staff, administrators and receptionists. They will lose their job because the way in which NHS funding works is desperately unfair to Oxfordshire and the Thames valley.

NHS reference costs for 2005, which were published by the Department of Health in April 2006, provide an efficiency profile for hospitals, and they show that the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust is the most efficient general hospital trust in England, with a turnover of more than £300 million. However, it has to abolish more than 600 NHS posts, largely because of the way in which funding is allocated. Thames Valley strategic health authority receives the lowest allocation of any SHA in the country: each person in my constituency receives an average of £1,125, while the English average is £1,138 a head. That difference may not appear to be very great, but the overall difference between Thames Valley SHA and the next SHA on the list is £120 million. If we moved closer to the national average, that would remove the need for the £33 million cut imposed on the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

Everyone in the House will sympathise with my hon. Friend's constituents. Is he aware that in west Norfolk my local hospital has just announced a major redundancy package? Does he agree that that flies in the face of the Secretary of State's recent statement that all redundancies would be achieved by natural wastage or by delaying appointments? She has some explaining to do, as there is mayhem in some hospitals and PCTs.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Secretary of State said that last year was the "best year ever" for the NHS, but her words ring hollow for people in Oxfordshire. Sadly, the fact that an acute hospital trust has lost 600 posts does not merit a single mention in any of today's national newspapers. Such is the loss of NHS jobs in recent months that it is regarded as commonplace. That is what the Government have managed to do to the NHS.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend and I share the Horton hospital, which is part of the Oxford Radcliffe complex. Does he not agree that the cuts are worrying? Given the proven efficiency of that hospital grouping and the fact that, as he said, the fundamental problem is its overall unit funding compared with that for other bodies, what hope is there for the others?

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I still believe in democratic principles, so perhaps public pressure and the petitioning of Parliament and the Government will have an impact. Ministers appear to live in a parallel universe, as they do not understand that NHS performance will be ratcheted down, year on year. The £33 million that Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust must find is additional to the £17.3 savings that the primary care trust—effectively, there is a single PCT in Oxfordshire—must find. Services in Oxfordshire are being squeezed in two ways: the acute hospital trust must make cuts, and the commissioning authority cannot provide as much money.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson), and I have written to the Prime Minister. We sought to summarise our concerns:

"These cuts are the result of a staggering £33 million debt in the area's NHS. The debt crippling our health services could be wiped out if Oxfordshire's NHS were funded at the national average. It is not. Instead it is underfunded by twenty per cent. No NHS Trust in Oxfordshire was to be funded at the national average this year. The Government's own figures reveal that Oxfordshire receives the lowest funding per patient in the whole country. The Government's own audit shows that the Oxford Radcliffe NHS Trust is the most efficient hospital Trust in the whole of England and Wales. These are not our figures, they are not the Trusts; they are the Department of Health's own. This blatant bias is reinforced by the fact that your constituency"— our letter was addressed to the Prime Minister

"is funded per patient above the national average by almost the same amount Oxfordshire is underfunded. NHS staff should not pay for the Government's unfair funding system and nor should patients. Job losses will set back mental health services including Witney and Banbury, witness the loss of community hospital beds across South Oxfordshire, and leave the John Radcliffe struggling to deliver operations. Oxfordshire now has fewer qualified nurses than we did four years ago."

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Labour, North Swindon

I accept that these are difficult issues, and the hon. Gentleman is making the case for his constituency extremely well. However, can he remind the House of how much funding his area received in 1997, and how much it receives today?

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

The hon. Gentleman is welcome to come to my constituency. On 19 June we are holding a public meeting in Banbury, which he is welcome to attend. Indeed, I would invite any Minister to visit Oxford or Oxfordshire, as they are notable by their absence. It is a great pity that when the Prime Minister summoned NHS chief executives to Downing street to talk about the crisis in the NHS he deliberately excluded Trevor Campbell Davis, the very competent chief executive of the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust. There is no way in God's creation that the hon. Gentleman or his ministerial colleagues can persuade my constituents or the people of Oxfordshire that a service lacerated by cuts is better than the service that the Government inherited in 1997, when the Horton was a vibrant general hospital.

Let me explain the impact of the cuts. As my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell can confirm, it is not just a matter of losing a general hospital. Banbury has for a long time been at the centre of a catchment area called "Banburyshire". It includes most of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry and a large part of the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Maples. Those villages and market towns have looked to Banbury as their natural centre for facilities such as medical services. Indeed, the general practitioner of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry is a Banbury GP.

For over a century we have had a general hospital serving that community, and it has been part of the identity of Banbury and the surrounding area. With the loss of the general hospital, we will be forced to look to Oxford, over an hour away, for many services. The loss of the general hospital will have a serious impact on the sense of identity of the area. From villages north of Banbury, such as Boddington, Oxford is a very considerable distance away.

Among the services that will be lost are the 24/7 children's services. To take up the point made by Mr. Wills, the reason why we have 24/7 paediatric care at the Horton is a consequence of the tragic death, way back in the mid-1970s, of a little boy called Ian Luckett. As a result, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, Barbara Castle, set up a public inquiry, which deemed that there should be 24/7 paediatric services at the Horton hospital. Opening the inquiry, the chairman said:

"The reason there has been this third enquiry is because it is recognised by the Department . . . that there should be the fullest enquiry to ensure such a thing"— the death of a child—

"does not happen again."

The inquiry recommended that

"only severely ill children, fit to travel, should be admitted directly to Oxford hospitals."

The history of the matter is set out in an Adjournment debate that I held on 17 March 2004.

However, now we are to lose 24/7 paediatric services at the Horton. In other words, in my constituency we will have a worse health service than existed under Labour, under Barbara Castle, in 1974. We will not lose paediatric services alone. We will also lose obstetric services, out-of-hours emergency services and the special care baby unit. From now on, we will have only a midwife-led maternity unit. We have had a vibrant and viable maternity unit until now. Midwives do a brilliant job, but as all hon. Members know, any GP looking after an expectant mother where there is a scintilla of a suggestion of any complication will now suggest to her that she go to the John Radcliffe hospital, rather than the Horton general hospital, to have her baby. By undermining maternity services,we will lose obstetric services and undermine gynaecological services as well.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I ought to declare an interest, in that my wife bore all three of our children in the Horton maternity unit. Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is to be a midwife-only service, if any complications that have not been anticipated develop, it will be extremely difficult to get access to specialist care within the necessary critical time?

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Everyone in the House must recognise that even in the best conditions, it takes at least an hour to get from Banbury to Oxford.

We face a complete unravelling of services. Paediatric services, maternity and obstetric services, gynaecological services and surgery will all be undermined. What did the manager of the hospital say this week when he was challenged? He said that he looked to improved on-site care for the elderly and provision of community beds. Within a couple of weeks we have gone from having a general hospital with all the services that we have always expected a general hospital to give, to some super-community hospital with a collection of services at the whim of whoever is running the trust.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

In relation to the loss of maternity services and services such as paediatrics and obstetrics, does my hon. Friend share my concern that that is a pattern that we are seeing across the country? For example, Wycombe hospital has lost its maternity unit, and the special care baby unit is now at Stoke Mandeville in Aylesbury, which means that my constituents have to travel even further for that service. The same has happened in Bury. Across the country, people are losing services locally and losing choice.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. There are a smaller number of acute hospitals such as the John Radcliffe, and the Horton's viability as a general hospital will be undermined. Worse, when I met the primary care trust's acting chief executive the other day, it was made clear to me that the commissioners oppose community hospitals because they are so strapped for funds that they will move anything they can from the acute centre to social care, for which there is a means test administered by the county council. Community hospitals and community beds will, therefore, also disappear and acute services will be under great pressure.

One has only to look at the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust website to realise that one of the consequences of the cuts is that £38 million will have to be saved in surgery. That means that no one will get an operation for at least six months. The whole point of managing surgery becomes trying to ensure that, to save money, people wait for the maximum time, but are treated just within the Government target.

The position is bleak. As recently as Prime Minister's questions on 19 April, the Prime Minister trumpeted an expansion of cardiac services at the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust. The consequence of the cuts is that cardiac ablation therapy to control an irregular heartbeat—the treatment that the Prime Minister received—will no longer be available to most patients at the John Radcliffe hospital.

General hospitals such as the Horton are being undermined, the John Radcliffe has to reduce its services substantially, the acute hospital trust has to make massive cuts in surgery and NHS skilled staff are being made redundant. That is crazy. My constituents and the people of Oxfordshire find it insulting when Labour Members try to pretend that that constitutes an improvement in the NHS or in services for my constituents. It demonstrates that Ministers and Labour Members are increasingly living in a parallel universe. I partly understand the reason for that. Ministers will not visit hospitals such as mine. Their officials wheel them out simply to see showcase improvements, so they get a false sense of what is happening.

The funding formula is skewed against counties such as Oxfordshire so unfairly that I suspect that many Labour Members are genuinely misled into believing that there is more money in the NHS than is the case. However, they should reflect on the fact that so many of the cuts are being made in London and the south-east.

My constituents will try to respond through every possible democratic means. We have started a petition, which appears in today's newspapers such as the Banbury Guardian and the Banbury Cake. People can sign it online at www.saveourservices.com. When, on one day, approximately 155 beds are lost at the Churchill hospital and 30 beds at the John Radcliffe, and we learn that Oxfordshire will have fewer qualified nurses than in 2002, I am sure that hon. Members understand why today is, for me, the blackest day since I became a Member of Parliament. I hope that the Government will reflect and realise that what they are doing to the NHS is unacceptable, and that the people of Britain will not accept it.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Labour, North Swindon 2:48 pm, 25th May 2006

I should like to take the opportunity of the debate to consider a much longer-term vision for Swindon, the town that I have the honour of representing. Swindon's existence and prosperity are a tribute to the power of vision. In its first incarnation as a great manufacturing town, it owed everything to the great engineer and entrepreneur, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When the railways, on which Swindon's prosperity was based, began to decline, the vision and foresight of a post-war Labour town council prompted it to buy a lot of land and to make the town very attractive to businesses. At a time when it was not a fashionable occupation for Labour councils, it wooed businesses to come to Swindon, and that has been the basis of our prosperity for many decades.

We have been open to the world economy, however, and we now face very particular challenges, from which there is no hiding place. Chinese exports to Europe have increase 100 per cent. in three years, for example, and up to 5 million European and American jobs will be outsourced in the next 15 years. Moreover, many people now realise that we face competition not only from low-wage and low-skill economies. Every year, universities in China and India turn out 4 million graduates.

Nowhere can escape change. Each of Swindon's major employers has experienced radical restructuring, including W.H. Smith, Asda and Zurich, and Motorola is now consulting on further redundancies. Even the most successful companies in our town are having to face these challenges. Swindon is a prosperous town at the moment, but that prosperity cannot be taken for granted. We must remain attractive to the employers who are going to bring in the high-skill, high-value-added jobs on which our future prosperity depends. That means not only that we need the right skills base but that the town must have an attractive environment.

The employees on whom those employers will depend are highly mobile, not only within the United Kingdom but throughout Europe and across the globe. Their skills are highly in demand and they can move anywhere, so we have to make the town attractive to them. If we do that, we will have a better chance of attracting the employers on whom the town's prosperity depends. I made this case strongly to the Government a few years ago, and I was able to persuade them to bring in an urban regeneration company, now known as the New Swindon Company. It is regenerating the town centre with that vision very much in mind, and about £1 billion worth of redevelopment will take place in due course. The University of Bath is planning to locate a major campus in Swindon, which will also be crucial to providing the basis for the high skills on which the town's prosperity depends.

We have to get the vision right, and we have to do so now, while these decisions are being taken. This not a party political issue. I represent the Labour party in North Swindon, but the town council is now Conservative dominated. However, all these decisions will have an impact long after everyone who is now active in local politics has departed the scene. We have to get it right. That is our duty as local politicians. But these crucial decisions are being made, primarily by the town council, without sufficient ambition for the town. We have to compete with other towns not only in the United Kingdom but in Europe and across the world. We have to be more attractive than towns elsewhere, but the town council does not seem able to grasp that vision. I want to explore this point in relation to cultural regeneration and to more general environmental concerns.

The town council has a vision for the town centre, working with the New Swindon Company, that will undoubtedly result in a significant improvement on what he have now. Any hon. Members familiar with Swindon town centre will know that that would not be hard to achieve. However, when the town council talks about building a desperately needed new library, why does it not talk about building one of the best libraries in Britain or Europe? If we consider the example of Tower Hamlets, we can see what an imaginative borough council can do. There is a wonderful new library there called the Idea Store. It is visionary and exciting, bringing in local people in a way that no one would have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. But Swindon does not think in that visionary, imaginative way. Swindon borough council has to learn from elsewhere, and to think about how it can compete with Tower Hamlets and everywhere else in Europe. We are also talking about building a new concert hall in the town, but we are not talking about a concert hall that would be capable of attracting world-class performers. We should be.

The Swindon local area agreement has just been signed off, and it represents an important step forward for the borough council. It is an improving council with a great deal of support from central Government, and the local area agreement brings together many local agencies in a worthwhile way. I have been urging the borough council for a long time to have a visionary theme to underpin its work, but what did it come up with? It came up with, "Swindon—the UK's best business location". Any town is likely to want to be that, but we must look a little more deeply to avoid a bland and meaningless phrase.

There is nothing in the local area agreement to suggest why Swindon is going to be the best business location. I very much hope that it will be, but we have to work at that, not just assert it and assume that it will be true. We have to produce the infrastructure and resources that will make it the best business location. The targets in the local area agreement are, of course, good and will improve the position on the ground in a range of different ways, but they are not very ambitious. They are, for the most part, pretty much in line with targets that the Government have set centrally. All that the local area agreement is doing is mimicking those targets. It is good, but not good enough.

For three or more years, I have been begging the council to develop a green vision for the town and to make it the centrepiece of the local area agreement, but I am afraid that I have been ignored. Everyone accepts that, in climate change, we face one of the greatest problems in the history of our species and that if we do not tackle it now, the consequences for our world will be incalculable. We all have to make a contribution: it is not just a matter for international agreements and national Governments; we have to act personally and in our local areas. We have opportunities to do that and other towns are doing it.

A Conservative council in Woking is doing fantastically good work in energy conservation. Why cannot the Conservative council in Swindon mimic what a Conservative council in Woking is doing? I am not sure that Swindon council is even aware of it. There is absolutely no evidence that it is on its agenda at all. Reykjavik, to take an example from Europe, is already piloting running its buses on hydrogen. When we are having a major regeneration and re-sculpting of the town centre, why cannot we find something as imaginative and visionary as that in Swindon? When Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the town, he had a wonderful far-reaching vision, which now seems to have been ignored.

I shall conclude with an example of how difficult it is to persuade Swindon borough council to be more ambitious for the town. Nearly two years ago, I held a meeting in the House of Commons, to which I invited the then leader of Swindon borough council, its officers and various other local dignitaries, as well as a distinguished galaxy of representatives from some of our leading cultural institutions. We had an interesting lunch, in which these distinguished representatives of some of our leading, world-class institutions came up with their ideas about how to transform Swindon with a cultural vision based on lots of exciting and stimulating concepts. No one would expect the town council to take ideas away from the lunch and implement them, but with so much expertise and incalculably valuable advice being freely offered, one would expect it to explore some of those ideas.

After the meeting, I wrote a note summarising some of the ideas that were proposed and sent it to the borough council. I asked how it would like to proceed and how I could help it, but to this day I have received no reply and, needless to say, none of the ideas has been pursued. A truly ambitious council would have taken those ideas and run with them. All the decisions facing the town now—what to do with the town centre, the new university, the redevelopment of a big site owned by the Science museum in Wroughton in the south of Swindon—desperately require a bold and ambitious vision if the town is to compete successfully with other towns in the UK and across the world.

Time is running out, as the important decisions are being taken as we speak, and the town stands to benefit from them, but it will not necessarily be good enough. We are not ambitious or competitive enough in Swindon. I am desperately worried that, unless the borough council wakes up now and realises that it is competing throughout the world with similar towns that are ambitious and competitive in their approach to the great challenges of the future, our prosperity may soon become a distant memory.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:59 pm, 25th May 2006

I am pleased to be able to participate in this Whitsun recess Adjournment debate and to raise some important issues that are of major concern to my constituents in Bexleyheath and Crayford. Those mainly concern crime, antisocial behaviour, vandalism, graffiti, juvenile drunkenness, gangs and the availability of knives across the constituency—in fact, across the borough of Bexley.

Those problems, which mainly affect town centres in our borough and in my constituency, particularly Bexleyheath, Crayford and Welling, have spread to residential areas. There is an increasing problem—an epidemic—which is the No. 1 concern of residents in our borough of Bexley. People feel that not enough care and consideration are being given to those issues by national Government and that their quality of life is being affected.

The police, the national Government and the recently defeated Bexley council all said that they were concerned and talked a lot about the issues, but people locally feel threatened by behaviour of the sort I am describing—in the streets, the shopping centres and their homes—and that the Government have not addressed it.

The Prime Minister raised the respect agenda, but many in my area feel that it is just another gimmick. We have two good local free-sheet newspapers. This week, one, the Bexley Extra, has a headline "Boy, 15, Stabbed Opposite Church". The other, the News Shopper, has a headline "Teenage Rampage: Knife-Wielding Youths Riot on the Streets". Those are the things that worry and anger people in the borough of Bexley.

I listened with interest to the speech made by Ms Abbott, particularly the first part, which was about Hackney and the knives and the culture there. I endorse an awful lot of what she said, because we have the same in south-east London. It has already spread out, as she highlighted, to the suburbs, where there is great concern of a similar nature to that which she raised. I commend her views on the fact that we need things for the young people to do, role models and so forth. She made an important point and I am grateful to be able to follow that part of her speech.

I was also interested in remarks made by my hon. Friend Tony Baldry, who is no longer in his place. He thinks that the Government are out of touch with what people on the ground feel about those issues. People feel that there is endless talk and no solutions. While there are certain areas of great improvement—we accept that there are more police and more community support officers—there is still fear of crime among people and concern about the consequences for their lives. It needs to be addressed much more seriously by the Government.

On the doorstep in the recent local election campaign, one reason for the unpopular Labour council being soundly defeated at the polls in Bexley was that people felt it had not addressed those issues of local concern. Of course, other issues were involved, such as the huge council tax increase of 40 per cent. over the last four years, which did not help. The Conservative campaign looked at positive policies to deal with those issues of disorder, crime and antisocial behaviour.

When I was a Member of the House 10 years ago we were concerned about other issues, such as noise nuisance, neighbour disputes and lack of concern. I was heavily involved in the peace and quiet campaign, which one of my constituents, Val Weedon, did so much to lead. The campaign is now called the Noise Association. We managed to get some action taken—action to raise awareness and to get environmental health officers, housing associations and central Government to realise that quality of life issues matter.

The quality of life issues at that time were noise nuisance, inconsiderate neighbours, bad behaviour and so forth, but now we have moved on. In our area, there is intimidation, graffiti and fear of groups. That is a tremendous worry for all sorts of people. Pensioners in particular no longer want to go out in the evening.

Bexleyheath has some good restaurants and pubs, as well as bingo and all sorts of interesting evening entertainment, but pensioners are frightened to go out because of the gangs, the youths and the drunkenness. Of course, the Government's new licensing laws have not made that easier. In Bexleyheath, binge drinking has increased and has become a culture. I am afraid that gangs of truants from school are also around during the daytime, intimidating pensioners on buses. There are many serious issues in the borough that are causing concern.

I want to mention a few areas where there have been particular difficulties. The Hadlow road area ofSt. Michael's ward has had seven years of unrelenting problems with youths on bikes and motorbikes, and of incidents involving damage to plants and other features in people's front gardens. The police and the ward's newly elected councillors are looking to have a police station in a local shop to provide a police presence. One of the problems in the past has been the inability of the police to respond, as they have been diverted to other areas of the borough or into town when a need arose. Local people have therefore been without their local neighbourhood police.

However, with community safety partnerships and community teams of police officers and community support officers in each of the wards, the picture is not all negative. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House will take note of the fact that we have had more police and community support officers. We must make sure, however, that they are dedicated to the wards in question and that they deal with the problems there, rather than being diverted elsewhere, as in the past. I hope that the residents of Hadlow road and its environs will see an improvement in the near future with the rolling-out of the neighbourhood teams.

Hampton House in Colyers ward is a troubled area where people feel insecure when the pubs empty late at night, leading to a lot of noise and nuisance, especially involving youngsters who are sometimes, regrettably, under-age. Residents have their doors or windows knocked on by people passing. While none of that is criminal, it is a quality of life issue, as people feel intimidated. Young mothers, families with young children or pensioners find such situations distressing, and more police need to be visible on the beat throughout the day and particularly in the evening.

Bexleyheath is a great centre and has facilities not just for pensioners but for many parts of the community. However, gangs of youths milling around are still a problem, and they sometimes come quite a distance, because, as we know, when a town has decent pubs or clubs, it attracts a lot of people. By the same token, there must be the transport to get those people home. Regrettably, as we have not been given the right number of buses and other transport facilities to get people home, the trouble carries on.

Recently, Crayford town centre, which is not an area that has had problems before, has suffered from gangs having car rallies or races around the local car parks. Again, that is intimidating and worrying and creates noise and nuisance. It frightens residents and causes disturbance in the evenings in a nice, quiet town. One could go on about such concerns. There has been wanton damage to parked cars in certain areas. Those issues must be addressed. The area now has an excellent new council under Conservative control, and Councillor Ian Clement, who is very much a community man, has already considered certain measures that he wants to implement.

I am sure that both the Minister and my right hon. Friend Mrs. May agree that we should adopt a zero-tolerance approach. We should say that we will not put up with the current situation, and that a range of measures are needed to deal with it. We may need more parenting courses, because parenting is a difficult task in today's society. It is difficult to bring up children when there are so many pressures on individuals, including children. Of course we want parents to be responsible for their children, but what is so worrying is that sometimes they do not know where their children are. My wife and I regularly tried to find out where our children were when they were teenagers. That was very important to us: we cared. I often had to rush home from here to pick up my son from some party, or rave, or whatever it might be.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am a child of the sixties. I liked Motown and Dusty Springfield. That was in a different age, though.

We also need the police to be more user-friendly. In the past, people have been unable to contact them because a mobile phone is not answered or they cannot get through to the police station. Bexley is fortunate in having a good police force under Robin Merrett, who is doing a tremendous job, but it is vital that people can contact the police when they need to. When they feel concerned because there are yobs outside, for instance, they should be able to contact their community policeman. They should be able to find someone at the end of a telephone line to whom they can talk.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington: we must ensure that there are things for youngsters to do. It is no good telling them what to do, because those of us who are a bit older had different interests and wanted to do different things when we were growing up. They need to be consulted. Bexleyheath has a first-class dance centre and a youth centre where people work tremendously hard, offering kick-boxing and many kinds of sport, but there are not enough centres such as that. There are not enough different opportunities for youngsters to do something constructive rather than milling around in groups, possibly drinking.

We need less talk and more action. Under our last Labour council there were endless committee meetings, talks and discussions. As I have often said, I would sit around with a large number of police officers and councillors who would be put to better use doing something constructive, such as going out on to the streets and looking after the community. We need fewer committees, and more action.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

Young people in my constituency have told me that they have not been terribly impressed by the Government's focus on the importance of "learning outcomes" from youth activities. Does my hon. Friend agree that young people who take advantage of youth services want to relax, have fun and engage with their friends? They do more than enough learning during the week at school.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point about life is that it should be varied. We should have opportunities to relax and enjoy sport, for instance, without thinking about learning outcomes, which are complete nonsense—and I speak as a former teacher. I consider learning to be very important.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Opposition Whip (Commons)

Yes, at school.

We need determination and, obviously, a visible police force, but something else is needed. Bexley is a great place: it is the second safest borough in London. That is only comparative, however. It is no good pointing out that it is the second safest borough if people in it are feeling frightened or threatened. We must be realistic. We must accept that there are problems locally, and that antisocial behaviour has consequences such as lack of concern, lack of respect, crime and criminal damage. We have heard often in the House in recent days that crime is not as bad as it was, but crime in Bexley increased by 6 per cent. last year, which is not impressive.

I welcome the opportunity to raise these issues today, which are of great concern to my constituents. I accept that the Government have done some things to address them, but they have done an awful lot of talking, as well. There is a lot more to be done to improve the quality of life in our borough.


Member of the House, As a constituent of Bexley Borough, and a resident of Bexleyheath, I both confirm and support everything that David Evenett has said. As well as being a resident of Bexleyheath, I am also involved in Public Entertainment in the Area as a DJ in The Broadway. What I can confirm is that there is less trouble at the Western end of the Broadway, which is mainly due to the more 'mature' nature of the clientelle. This is no mistake, the venues concerned have deliberately set a policy to attract a more well behaved crowd, by not only their decor, drinks on offer, themes, security and surroundings but...

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Labour, West Ham 3:15 pm, 25th May 2006

I want to discuss the case of a constituent of mine. Earlier this year,Mr. Singh came to my surgery to discuss his long-running dispute with Thames Water about the installation of a water meter at his property and the subsequent enormous rise in his family's water charges. He told me that Thames Water was not given permission to install the meter, and that it gave him the impression in previous correspondence that a meter would enable him to save money on his water bills. That has not happened. Since the fitting of the water meter, Mr. Singh's water charges have risen excessively: from £159 per annum—the current rateable value for his house—to £469 per annum, which is an increase of almost 300 per cent.

Mr. Singh's is not a wealthy household in the home counties. There is no huge lawn to water or a swimming pool. His is a small household, consisting of only two adults and one child. The family tell me that they have always been very conservative in their use of water. They have no dishwasher, seldom run their appliances and try to make the most effective use of water by waiting a week before doing their washing. Since installation of the water meter, their usage has had to drop even further as they try to reduce their bills to manageable levels—but to no effect. With mounting bills, they now restrict themselves to the absolute minimum level of water consumption. They are genuinely afraid to turn on their taps and appliances, for fear of a further rise in the water bill. Certainly, since the meter was installed their water bills have trebled, while their already low usage has decreased. Clearly, there is a problem somewhere.

In response to Mr. Singh's complaints, I wrote to the chief executive of Thames Water to express my and my constituent's concerns about the water supply, and to request Thames Water's assistance in investigating and diagnosing the error that was clearly occurring. I also asked whether it could provide Mr. Singh with the leak detection and repair service that it claims to offer its customers. I know that the House will be surprised and somewhat dismayed to learn that as of this morning, I have received only an acknowledgment of my letter of 17 March. Perhaps it is not just water that is leaking from Thames Water's pipes.

We need to remember that Thames Water is the only privatised water company in England and Wales that continues to fail to meet its Ofwat targets for acceptable levels of leakages from its pipe system; indeed, it has failed to meet them for the past five years. I acknowledge that Thames Water has inherited some of the worst and oldest water pipes in the country, and that it is not easy to access and fix London's underground pipes, but the Ofwat targets are not excessive. Thames Water's own estimate of water leaked per year has in fact risen: from 688 million litres a day in 2000-01 to 915 million litres a day in 2004-05. That accounted for approximately a quarter of all the water leaked throughout England and Wales.

Let me be more specific. Each day, 915 million litres of precious water leak of out Thames Water's pipes. That amounts to 10,590 litres of water wasted per second. One third of the total amount piped into the water distribution system is lost.

I accept that totally eliminating water leakage is not economically practical, but Thames Water is not doing enough. Instead of concentrating its efforts and resources on reducing the waste of an increasingly precious and vital national resource, Thames Water could be accused of concentrating on squeezing further profits out of its customers. Instead of making its supply network as reliable and efficient as is practically possible, it focuses its considerable efforts on persuading householders to accept the installation of water meters, while also raising prices in an effort to reduce demand and ensure that it is able to fund dividend payments to its shareholders. Those dividend payments have been at least £130 million a year for the past six years.

I fear that Thames Water's actions will have the effect of pricing many people out of the hygienic use and consumption of water. Should that continue, it may result in a public health problem. Let us remember that consumers of water have no realistic option to change their supplier if they are unhappy with the service provided, the cost charged or quality of product. The Government have already recognised fuel poverty as a real issue that affects many low-income households across the UK, and the prospect of compulsory water meters raises the prospect of water poverty.

Despite the miserable weather that we have had this week, the south-east appears to be entering a period of drought. We are beginning to see hosepipe bans and hearing talk of drought orders being enforced. Water customers are being asked to restrict their usage, while enormous quantities of water are wasted by inefficient infrastructure. Surely something can be done to pressure water companies to increase their renewal and improvement of the pipe network. Let us remember that those companies have a statutory responsibility to supply water to their paying customers. Why should customers accept conservation measures that assist a private profit-making company which seems more interested in returning profits to its investors than in fixing leaks that waste such enormous amounts of clean, precious water?

The case of Mr. Singh raises concerns about our water companies in general, and Thames Water in particular. It is their responsibility to provide an acceptable level of service to all their customers who, I repeat, have no alternative water supplier. How can Thames Water justify relying on customers to reduce their consumption while allowing a third of the water supply to leak out of its pipes? And how can it be right to promote water metering when it hits the poorest households in this country hardest, and risks pricing low-income households out of the opportunity to use fresh, clean water in 21st century London?

As water becomes a more scarce resource, it must surely be the right time for further Government measures to improve regulation of the water industry. The water industry must get its own house in order before it can lecture its paying customers on what they should be doing to solve this crisis. The water companies must remember that they are not only there to look after the interests of their shareholders: they must balance that with the interests of the public they are there to serve.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 3:24 pm, 25th May 2006

I wish to take the opportunity today to raise a few constituency issues. I represent a large rural constituency, so transport is a key issue and will be the theme of all the issues that I shall raise. Faced with the threat of global warming and climate change, we need to use the taxation system to change people's behaviour and encourage them to use more public transport where it is available.

However, public transport is not a practical solution in many very remote areas. We need a road pricing system that allows us to vary charges, so that it would cost more to drive in congested areas where there are public transport alternatives but a lot less to drive in very remote areas where there is no alternative. Using potholed, single-track roads should cost a lot less than using busy motorways.

It is obvious that road pricing is still quite a few years away. Until it can be introduced, we need to modify the present vehicle taxation system to take account of the fact that some parts of the country have public transport alternatives while others do not.

I want to talk about vehicle excise duty and fuel duty. There is a strong argument for a lower rate of VED in rural areas to compensate for the lack of public transport alternatives. People would still pay fuel duty according to how much they use their cars, but they should be compensated by paying less in VED, which at present is a fixed charge. Moreover, we should charge a lower rate of duty on fuel sold at remote petrol stations. That would require an EU derogation that several other member states have already received. Britain did not oppose that, and I urge the Government to apply for the same derogation in respect of very remote areas in this country.

I shall give an example of why we need that derogation. Petrol sold at pumps on the islands of Mull and Islay costs about 15p or 20p more per litre than it does in big cities. The irony is that people who live in areas where they have to drive long distances, and where there is no public transport alternative, have to pay far more for fuel than do people who have to drive only short distances and who have alternatives. That is hardly fair, and a more equitable tax system would introduce lower fuel duties for a few very remote parts of our country.

Ideally, people should be able to use public transport instead of having to rely on their cars. The Government's policy is supposed to be to encourage people to do so, so it is a scandal that Royal Mail, a Government agency, should be withdrawing postbus services in my constituency. In the past month, it has announced the withdrawal of those services between Dunoon and Tighnabruaich, between Inveraray and Dalmally, and between Lochgilphead and Inveraray.

That is bizarre. A Royal Mail van has to travel those routes every day in any case, and the postbus service was based on the fact that passengers could be carried at no extra cost or damage to the environment.

The reasons that Royal Mail has given for the decision are also a bit strange. It has said that it is ending the postbus service on the Dunoon-Tighnabruaich route because it was too popular, but that the other two routes have been closed because they were not popular enough. We do not seem to be able to win—if Royal Mail wants to end a service, it will find a reason.

Royal Mail has said that the Government's move earlier this year to open up postal services to full competition means that it has to concentrate all its efforts on its core business—collecting, sorting and delivering mail—in order to survive. That is not joined-up government: surely all Government owned bodies have a duty to follow Government policy, which is to promote social inclusion and the protection of the environment. Clearly, it is a social inclusion matter if people are trapped in their homes because they cannot travel.

I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to speak to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and urge them to intervene by telling Royal Mail to keep its postbus services.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Parliamentary Secretary

The hon. Gentleman should speak to the Transport Minister in the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Royal Mail is a reserved power, and the responsibility of the Government here. The Scottish Parliament's Transport Minister has no control over it.

I urge Ministers to change Royal Mail's remit. All Government-owned bodies should have a social and environmental remit, as well as a remit to carry out their core business and balance the books.

I am concerned about the Post Office side of the Royal Mail. The planned withdrawal of the post office card account in 2010 will threaten the viability of thousands of rural post offices. I urge the Government to think again. The Government have also hurt post offices by taking away the TV licence business, encouraging motorists to renew their vehicle excise duty through the internet rather than at post offices, and by refusing to allow the Post Office to bid for the contract for conducting new passport interviews. They seem determined to close thousands of rural post offices, which will certainly be the result if those policies are not changed. The Government should be giving business opportunities to post offices instead of driving them away. Post offices fulfil an important economic and social role in rural communities and we cannot afford to lose them.

I referred to passport interviews. From the end of this year people applying for their first passport need to attend for an interview. The Government promised that nobody would need to travel for more than an hour to attend. From the proposals published by the Passport Office, for the highlands and islands that looks like being yet another broken Government promise. In my constituency the Government are opening a new passport office in Oban and there will be a set of satellite offices with webcam links to the main office, so that people can be interviewed down the webcam. Given the set of offices proposed it will be impossible for many of my constituents to reach the nearest office or webcam link within an hour, certainly using normal modes of transport, and I am sure that the Government will not be providing helicopters.

It is interesting that in setting the one hour limit, the Government were anticipating that everybody would use a car. Certainly it would take several hours by public transport to reach those offices. Even with a car, it will be impossible for people in villages on the west coast, such as Tayvallich and Achnamara, to drive within an hour to the nearest passport interview centre in either Oban or Campbeltown.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Post Office tried to tender for the contract to operate as passport offices, but was denied the opportunity to do so, denying local people the chance of a local facility for renewing their passport? Does my hon. Friend agree that that seems crazy, given what is happening to the post office network?

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

My hon. Friend is right and he anticipates my speech. I was going to mention that very fact later on. Obviously, nearly everybody lives well within an hour's journey from a post office, so the answer was to conduct the interview at the post office. That would have the double benefit of being easy for people to reach and providing the Post Office network with a valuable source of income. That is what the Government should have done, if they had wanted to keep to their promise that people would be required to make a journey lasting no more than an hour.

People on Iona will have no chance of travelling for an interview within an hour, but there is no proposal for an office there. Travelling by car and ferry to the nearest office on Mull will take well over an hour. People who live in towns and villages on the Gareloch or on the east side of Loch Long are expected to travel to the main passport office in Glasgow—a journey that will take more than an hour. The journey to Glasgow by train, taking into account the time to reach the nearest station, will take over an hour. Given the state of Glasgow traffic, driving into the centre will take over an hour. I urge the Minister to take this information back to his colleagues in the Home Office. The Passport Office certainly needs to reconsider the proposed network of offices in the highlands and islands.

Although at present only people applying for their first passport need attend for interview, if the Government get their way and introduce compulsory identity cards, people renewing their passports after 2010—if the election is delayed until then—will have to do so, too. Everybody will need to attend such offices if the Government get their way.

I have concerns about the Government's proposals for a private finance initiative contract for the joint search and rescue helicopter service, which at present is operated extremely efficiently by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It is a vital service that saves people's lives and it works well. Rescue services are not a suitable candidate for privatisation, so I urge the Government to think again. If something is working well, why change it?

Another concern is the proposed competitive tender for ferry services currently operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. The tender was forced on the Scottish Executive by European rules, but deficiencies in UK employment law mean that the tendering process will not be fair, and I urge the Government to look into them. UK employment law does not give seafarers the same rights as workers on land. The minimum wage does not apply to services outwith UK internal waters, which are not the same as territorial waters; internal waters are mainly river estuaries. Caledonian MacBrayne pays more than the minimum wage, but the rules do not apply to services from the Scottish mainland to most of the islands. The PFI opens up the possibility that a foreign-registered company could win the contract and although TUPE—Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations—would protect existing staff, the company could easily replace them as they leave over time with people employed on less than the minimum wage. There is clearly a loophole in the law.

There is another loophole in respect of vessels sailing in UK territorial waters. If the employing company is based outside the UK and does not operate in the UK, it can avoid employers' national insurance contributions. I do not understand why the Chancellor allows that loophole to continue, as he is clearly losing revenue. It also means that if Caledonian MacBrayne is to have any chance of winning the contract it will be forced to transfer all its employees to an offshore company based outwith the UK, perhaps in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. As well as the loss to the Treasury, UK rules, such as those on the minimum wage, will not apply.

I urge the Government to look into the matter. I do not understand why seafarers sailing on routes that are entirely within UK territorial waters do not have the same employment protections as workers on land.

The next issue I want to raise is the switchover from analogue to digital television. It is an exciting opportunity that opens up tremendous prospects, but we must be aware of the problems for many vulnerable people. I am pleased that the Government have promised to help such people, but under current proposals that help will have to come from the BBC licence fee, which is not an appropriate vehicle. The licence fee is a poll tax and whereas it is right for it to be used for the provision of BBC services, support for vulnerable people during switchover is a social need, which the Government should meet through general taxation. The BBC has proposed an increase in the licence fee to £180 in a few years if those costs are forced on it. That is excessive and I urge the Government to reconsider the matter.

I hope that the Minister will consider the issues that I have raised and that there will be Government action on them.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury 3:40 pm, 25th May 2006

I have been interested to hear what all hon. Members have said today. In particular, I was struck by the comments that hon. Members have made about health care in their constituencies. It has been said that Labour Members—or at least Ministers—seem to be living in a parallel universe. My experience of the NHS in my home city of Hull is very positive. Just one example is a recent visit that I paid to the Hull and East Yorkshire eye hospital. A consultant told me that the time between his seeing a person who needs a cataract operation and his operating on them is now nine days. That is in marked contrast to the months and months that people had to wait in the past.

I am also aware of the local improvement finance trust projects in my constituency—taking place through the NHS and private finance—to build community-based NHS facilities to replace some of the old-fashioned facilities that we had in the past. Hull's NHS services have been chronically underfunded for many years, so I am delighted at the investment that has gone in since 1997 and I can certainly see that coming to fruition. When I talk to my constituents, they cannot speak highly enough of the NHS.

My theme today is health and, in particular, the wider agenda in relation to public health. I am delighted that we have had many opportunities to talk about public health since I arrived in the House. We took a historic vote on smoking in public places and I was delighted that so many Members backed the ban. I was also delighted that a new Member, my hon. Friend Mary Creagh, introduced the Children's Food Bill in the private Members' ballot. I am delighted that several of the Bill's proposals were adopted by the Government, but there is still more to do. Yesterday, I was pleased to see the Third Reading of the Education and Inspections Bill, which contains provisions relating to nutritional standards in all our schools.

All those measures added together show that the Government are committed to the public health agenda. I want to talk specifically about the public health agenda in my home city of Hull. I am saddened to say that the Liberal Democrats in my home city are taking retrograde steps when it comes to improving the public health of the people of Hull. I will put the matter in context. The National Obesity Forum recently produced some figures showing that more than a quarter of English secondary school children are clinically obese. That is almost double the proportion from a decade ago. The National Obesity Forum says that a "public health time-bomb" is in the making because children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50.

I am interested in that because Hull has some poor health statistics. We are high up in the cancer league tables. The number of teenage pregnancies has been high. Our educational achievements have not been as good as they should have been. Our housing stock is not as good as it could be. The unemployment situation has not been as good as it could be, although obviously it has got better in recent years. For all those reasons, the council, the NHS in Hull, and the voluntary and community sector are thinking carefully about what they can do collectively to improve the health of young people and children in our primary schools.

By the time Jamie Oliver took up the issue of healthy school meals, Hull was already ahead of the game. People in Hull had sat down quite a while ago and looked at some proposals in relation to the excellence in cities schemes, education action zones and the children's fund moneys that were available. Breakfast clubs had been set up in schools and fruit had been provided. Things were thus already happening, but Hull was unique because it took the bold step of deciding to introduce healthy free school meals for all children in our primary schools.

Hull could do that because of the Education Act 2002, which allows local authorities to go to the Department for Education and Skills and ask to change and innovate, if they think that they can make a real difference in their communities. Hull city council approached the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke, and he agreed that we could innovate. The idea of free healthy school meals for all pupils in our primary schools thus went ahead.

The scheme has been an enormous success. Children have started to eat much more healthy lunches and they are getting breakfast when they arrive at school first thing in the morning. Fruit and water are also made available during the day, so there is a whole package of measures. The university of Hull is undertaking an ongoing review to examine the effects of healthy eating in our schools. Everyone is agreed that the scheme is an innovative and exciting way of trying to tackle some of the public health problems that can start early in a child's life. If children adopt healthy eating early in life, it is likely that they will maintain it in their teenage years and adulthood.

The cost of the scheme is about £3.8 million in 2005-06, and Hull city council has been able to bear that cost. The scheme fits in with the Chancellor's view of investing to save because I believe that such investment early in children's lives will mean that the NHS will be saved a huge amount later on because it will not have to deal with the problems of obesity, given that we all know that diabetes and cancer are more prevalent among people with weight problems.

The scheme in Hull has won the Caroline Walker Trust award for promoting healthy eating to improve public health. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend Caroline Flint, who is the Minister responsible for public health, recently visited Hull and discovered at first hand how much children are enjoying the free healthy food when she had a healthy school lunch at the Parks primary school. Hull has made it clear that it is happy and willing to share the good practice that has been developed in the city both nationally and internationally. It recently hosted an international conference to spread such good practice.

I am bringing the matter to the House's attention because, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrat group on Hull city council has decided that it wishes to return to the policy that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, whereby children whose parents are on certain benefits become entitled to free school meals. The Conservative leader on the council agrees with the Liberal Democrats about opting out of the innovative and exciting scheme and has said:

"We have consistently opposed universal free meals because it perpetuates a culture of state reliance".

That is a great shame because all hon. Members probably accept that the state has a role to support and empower people who often find it difficult to manage on their own. Since we have had free healthy school meals for all children, no one has been seen as any different and all children have enjoyed the food. The take-up rates for the healthy food have increased phenomenally.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is the hon. Lady aware that some local authorities get round the problem that she identifies by giving the children swipe cards? If everyone has a swipe card, children who need free school meals can get them without identifying themselves as such, which lessens problems of stigma.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

I do not have a problem with swipe cards, but society needs to address head-on the problems of unhealthy eating in all our communities. It is not just poorer children who eat junk food. Children from better-off families often eat it, too. They might have money available to go to Burger King, or wherever they choose to go to buy burgers or fish and chips. We need to recognise that we all have an investment in our young people getting a healthy start in life, and we should do that through healthy free school meals.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Labour, West Ham

Does my hon. Friend agree that giving free school meals to all school children would help to deal with those who are not entitled to them, but whose families live on low incomes? That is one way for schools to ensure that all children have a healthy start in life, and the energy and material to think and work well at school.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

My hon. Friend is right and makes an important point about those children whose families are just above the benefit level.

On the alliance that has formed in the city of Hull between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, in the recent local elections, the Leader of the Opposition talked about "Vote blue, get green," but in Hull it is "Vote yellow, get blue." That is how it is in Hull these days. The lack of vision shared by the Liberal Democrats and the Tories—the lack of insight into what joined-up thinking can do to change the long-term health of one of our poorest communities—is a disgrace.

In the statement on pensions, the Liberal Democrats made lots of comments on how they disapprove of means-testing. I was struck by how ironic it is that they take the view that they do in the city of Hull. Perhaps that is indicative of the franchised approach that they take to national Government and local government. The two do not seem to marry.

If Hull loses the pilot scheme, we will not have the hard evidence that will come out of the project if it continues for the full three years and beyond, and we will not see the changes that can be made. Professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull university's centre for education studies is involved in looking at the project and giving an opinion on how well it is doing. He says:

"The data so far tells us that take up of school lunches among Hull's primary school children has gone up massively, from36 per cent. to 64 per cent., since being offered free to all. This is significant as eating a healthy lunch is vitally important to improving health and educational achievement."

According to researchers, early indications are that children's readiness to learn is already improving. That is certainly my experience of talking to teachers in primary schools. They have seen a real change in the behaviour and willingness to learn of some of the young people in their classes.

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, is a leading participant in the campaign for free school meals. He says:

"The lesson emerging from Hull is that improving the quality of school meals in itself is not enough. To really boost healthy eating in school the free provision of school lunches to all children is essential."

He goes on to call for Scottish Ministers to listen to the facts and follow what is happening in Hull.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The hon. Lady mentioned Scotland. Is she aware that her colleagues in the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament voted against free school meals? The Labour party is not universally in favour of free school meals for everybody.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

I am speaking on behalf of my constituency and the decision of the Labour council to introduce an innovative project and pilot to see whether we can achieve the benefits that all the agencies involved—the primary care trusts, the local authorities, and the voluntary and community sector—think will happen if it is seen through. Hull is leading the way. It is a great shame if we cannot get cross-party consensus that the pilot should carry on. We can learn a lot from Hull. It has led the way on a number of things. I could go through the list, but I will not. The Liberal Democrat council has not introduced a motion in full council, but it has certainly suggested that it will try to force through a return to means-tested school meals for children whose families are on benefits. That is a great pity, and the Liberal Democrats should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 3:55 pm, 25th May 2006

Following last year's report by the Science and Technology Committee on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a number of issues have still to be resolved. First, when will the Department of Health release its report on the reform of the outdated Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990? When will a joint Committee of both Houses report on the scientific, medical and social changes relating to abortion since 1967? Despite huge advances in the scientific understanding of foetal development and serious abuses of the Abortion Act 1967, there is no mechanism to protect the foetus.

It is nearly 40 years since the 1967 Act was passed and science has made tremendous advances. Public opinion has changed, partly as a result of huge improvements in the imaging of the unborn child. Parliament is not reluctant to grapple with the issue. A communications research survey showed that nine in 10 MPs want the abortion law to be reviewed continuously in the light of advances in medical science. There is a political will to act—in the last election, all three party leaders called for a review of the timing of abortion—so why has action not been taken? Should we wait cynically for the next election? Are human life and dignity to be held so cheap?

Thirdly, animal-human hybrids and chimeras are not science fiction. They have crept up on an unsuspecting and unwelcoming public, and have caused worldwide concern. Indeed, the issue was raised in the European Parliament last week. The Donaldson report of 2000 stated that those creations are not covered by the 1990 Act, and rightly recommended prohibition. However, some people at the HFEA and the Department of Health want to legalise them for research purposes. Dark forces are plotting to make animal-human hybrids and chimeras acceptable. In its consultation on the 1990 Act, the Department of Health asked for views on

"whether the law should permit the creation of human-animal hybrids or chimera embryos for research purposes only".

The HFEA's clinical and scientific advances group and its ethics and law committee have been asked to provide advice on the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research. I dispute the right of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to provide advice on animal eggs and non-gamete human cells or to become involved in non-fertility matters. As its name suggests, its remit extends only to human gametes and embryos. It is not empowered to play with such monstrous propositions. It would be dangerous to extend its remit, because it is an undemocratic, unaccountable and self-interested body. It is time that the House brought those three supremely important issues—indeed, they are issues of life itself—under democratic control. I urge the Minister to pass that message on to the Prime Minister and the Department of Health, and to obtain answers on those three points.

In my constituency, much is happening. A major proposal to import a full 5 per cent. of the national energy requirement would result in ships on the Thames transhipping gas via Canvey island to provide energy for the national grid. My local paper said that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was encouraging

"planning officers to consider the crucial national benefit of such schemes and to look at Britain's urgent need for gas, as well as local people's concerns."

He appeared to be putting improper pressure on our local authority, and in some ways trying to bypass the usual planning procedures. That caused great public concern.

I respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a good man, three things. First, we can accept no increase whatever in risk for Canvey people. Secondly, the matter must be brought to a public inquiry at the earliest possible moment—that is, immediately the council rejects it. Finally, we should do and say nothing that might increase the blight of our beautiful island, Canvey island, and of people's homes on that island.

I turn to the problem of antisocial behaviour. Castle Point has great kids. They are hardworking, they have great integrity, they are honourable, and their parents and our community as a whole can be enormously proud of them. They are our future, but they are spoiled by a few yobs who, fuelled by drink and with growing-up difficulties like we all had, cause mayhem for our community. They are making life for individuals miserable and intolerable.

Canvey island is plagued by antisocial behaviour and worse, especially in the King George park area. Groups or gangs of 50, sometimes 100 and, in recent weeks, 150 kids have been gathering together, showing off and causing mayhem. Cars have been badly damaged and one, I believe, written off. Fences and walls have been vandalised. There have been serious fights in the street and people have been hurt. Whole neighbourhoods feel under siege, businesses are hit hard and are suffering, the town centre is becoming a no-go area for decent people, and quality of life is being destroyed.

People feel intimidated, traumatised and afraid. People are standing in their front gardens late on a Friday night to try and ward off these gangs of youths. That is intolerable. It should not be happening. An evil racial element has again—it happened a few years ago—crept in, and must certainly be stopped.

I have been there personally on four of the past five weekends. I was there last Friday and it was pretty bad. I observed many kids with drink in their hands. I was there on Saturday. It was less bad then—not too bad at all. I patrolled the streets with the police on Saturday night, and I pay tribute to them. They are doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances. If they had better resources, they could do the job better. I pay particular tribute to Kevin Diable-White of Essex police, who is trying to organise the defence of the community and to find long-term solutions to the problem. He is doing a good job.

The statutory responsibility lies with the council and the police force. Things were very bad on Canvey island 18 months ago and a curfew order was introduced. That quietened things down, the situation improved and the curfew order was lifted. I complained at the time. Since the curfew order has been lifted, things have become much worse very quickly. Now we must get tough in Castle Point.

We need zero tolerance of yobs. We need to bring back the curfew order and try dispersal orders. The police must attend residents' 999 calls without exception and without excuse. That is not happening at present. The police must use my under-age drinking law more. Sadly, that is the most used law in the country, apart from road traffic regulations. On every occasion that the police use the law to remove drink from under-age children, they should use the whole of the law, which gives them the duty to bring in the parents and involve them. They must let the parents know what the kids are doing, so that the parents can understand and take responsibility and so that, where appropriate, the police can impose parenting contracts.

The council needs to provide decent facilities for all our kids. That may not stop the bad ones, but it will take the decent ones away from the action. All this must be done in close co-ordination with the community. As a sort of knee-jerk reaction, a teen shelter has been suggested for the King George park. Residents are extremely concerned about that. Any such decision must be made with the community rather than being inopportunely imposed on it in a way that simply exacerbates matters.

I called for a meeting of the local council, police and residents so that we can again listen carefully to residents. That should be a good start in tackling the problems, but the solutions will take a long time to develop and put in place.

Nationally, we need a deeper understanding of the cause of, and sustainable solutions for, antisocial behaviour. We cannot dismiss the fact that some kids are simply bad and need tough lessons. Of course, it cannot be denied that the prime responsibility lies with the parents, although it is difficult when there is only one. We all accept that sometimes parents can do their best and still experience problems with their kids. The Government must accept some blame for the increasing problems. Their reluctance to allow proper discipline from the earliest age has not been without consequence.

The over-focus on children's rights rather than their responsibilities from a young age is an increasing problem. The roll-out of the Government's Sure Start programme, with inadequate evidence of its impact on families, children and developing antisocial behaviour, is a specific example of bad Government policy. Another Government policy of getting mothers back to work and denigrating the role of the housewife may have wide and as yet unrecognised consequences for society. That is all part of the Government's politically correct agenda, and provides a backdrop against which the growth in antisocial behaviour occurs.

My local council on Canvey island and the mainland has been negligent because it has failed to provide and maintain a decent range of facilities for young and older children. It has removed children's play areas, forcing children, from six to 16, on to the streets and into culs-de-sac to play football and congregate simply because they do not have a park. At 4 o'clock, I have a meeting in Central Lobby with the Heritage Lottery Fund about providing two new parks for my area. One would go well in the Woodside area in Benfleet. I hope that I can make some progress on that. I will, of course, stay for the next speech.

Castle Point is a great community but we are suffering infrastructure breakdown. We experience massive and intolerable congestion on our local roads, overcrowding on our rail line and serious flooding, water, sewage and air quality problems. Residents cannot get their children into their local schools. Some live next door to a school but cannot get their children into it. Two schoolchildren who have lived in my constituency for nine months still go to school in Dagenham. That is ridiculous. What do those responsible do about it? They plan to build 1,000 more houses without any infrastructure. Our green land is under constant threat. We want local councillors to stand up for the residents, not be apologists for the developers or the Deputy Prime Minister.

We need new access to Canvey island and a new terminus railway station. Let me make a small but indicative local point: we need decent public toilet provision throughout the borough. The public toilets were closed without consultation. The council has changed its policy only after massive pressure from the public and press. It has done a U-turn—perhaps I should say a U-bend. It is beginning to reinstate the decent public toilet provision and disabled access that it took away. That is especially needed by elderly and vulnerable people. Perhaps we think that it is a light matter and we can laugh and joke about it, but it is serious for many people in our communities. I congratulate the Yellow Advertiser and especially Paul Peterson, who fought for decent toilets. The council should, as a gesture of good will, ask Paul Peterson of the Yellow Advertiser to open officially the new disabled access toilets that his fight has forced it to provide.

On a much more serious and fundamental issue, our democracy and election processes are held to be precious, but they have been damaged in Castle Point. It should be for the people, not for a small group with its own secret agenda, to decide who should represent them, and who should make vital decisions on planning, or on the sale—or the suggested giveaway—of major public assets, or on the award of contracts. Such decisions should be taken transparently in the council chamber, not in smoke-filled back rooms by a self-selected group of elected and unelected individuals. This is quite a sinister development. The public know about it, however—hence the extraordinary Castle Point election result last month, in which the Conservatives lost five of the six seats that they fought on Canvey Island. They were all safe Conservative seats in an area in which, in stark contrast, those same local people gave me the second biggest swing achieved by any Tory against Labour at the general election last year. If that swing had been replicated across the country, we would be sitting on the other side of the House today.

There is a clear message here. The people understand what is going on and they demand action from the authorities who are in control, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, whom I mentioned in the House earlier. I was emphatically elected by the people of Castle Point to deal openly and properly with these difficult matters on their behalf, and to stand above party political interests in defending our democracy and fighting for what is right. I can readily accept councillors criticising me for speaking out, but I will not stand by and do nothing. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

In Castle Point, our democracy has been abused. Our council and great political structures have been brought into public disrepute, and we must take action to regain public respect and trust. Writing in the Evening Echo newspaper this week, Tony Burnell sagely said:

"I have long advocated that politics should be taken from local government."

I have long agreed with that.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:11 pm, 25th May 2006

I should like to say to my hon. Friend Bob Spink that if he has constituents or anyone else waiting for him, I shall take no offence if he chooses to go to be with them now.

We have had our usual interesting debate on a wide range of issues this afternoon. Health and antisocial behaviour matters have been to the fore, although housing, transport and urban planning issues have also been raised, among others. I want to focus exclusively on education, however, and on what is going on in our schools, and I make no apology for doing so in a week in which the Education and Inspections Bill has dominated the proceedings of the House.

The first issue that I want to consider is the provision of schooling for children with special needs. I am aware that the Education and Skills Committee is undertaking a report on this important subject, and we look forward with great interest to reading its findings when they are put before the House. In almost five years in the House, I have noticed a real increase in the number of people coming to my surgeries to tell me that their children are on the autistic spectrum or that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or any one of a range of learning difficulties. I have discovered from talking to other hon. Members across the House that this is a common theme.

There has been a real increase in the number of children with some form of learning difficulty having problems in accessing the curriculum properly, and this is a matter of great concern for Members on both sides of the House. I remember when Mr. Clarke was the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, he made a statement to the House on the subject. He expressed his concern at the way in which parents had to battle through the system to get the right provision for their children.

It is obviously deeply distressing for a parent to have a child with some form of learning difficulty or special educational needs, and schools need to do their very best to cope with those requirements. We have a system that fairly routinely forces parents to spend huge amounts of money to represent themselves, and it can take an enormous time—in some cases, many years—to get a proper resolution. When there are considerable differences in the type of provision available in different local authority areas, I think that there is great cause for concern. Particularly in view of how long it takes some parents to sort the issues out, we must remember that children have only one chance, and that if they miss vital years of their education without getting the right support, that is very wrong indeed.

As for the costs, I know of some parents who have spent up to £5,000 or £6,000 fighting and presenting their case to the local authority in order to get the right type of education for their children. I shall mention one specific case in my constituency. I have spoken to the parent, who is happy for me to discuss her case, which has recently been flagged up on the BBC education website. The parent, Michelle Chambers, has a six-year-old daughter with severe speech and language difficulties. Although the daughter is six, she has the language ability of a three-year-old child. When her mother recently accessed the school records, she was concerned to find out that her daughter had had to be physically removed from classrooms or restrained or taken to different parts of the school on some 37 different occasions between 13 January and21 March.

I am concerned about several aspects of that case. The parents were not automatically told what was happening by the school. I understand that the local education authority, Bedfordshire county council, fully investigated the case when it was raised by Mrs. Chambers and it tells me that the correct procedures were followed. It is worrying in itself if the national guidelines for schools mean that children can be treated in that way over such a long period without the parents being informed. That is deeply wrong and unfair to parents. If they are to be fully knowledgeable and involved in what is happening to their children at school, they must know the facts about what is going on.

I know from talking to hon. Members throughout the House that language and speech problems can present real difficulties for many people. Part of the medical provision comes through the local primary care trust, but the principal authority for the child's education is obviously the local education authority. Time and again, it seems that there is a gap between the PCT on the one hand and the LEA on the other, often with considerable finger pointing going on between the two. I am concerned that vulnerable children are literally falling through that gap. In my own area, Bedfordshire Heartlands primary care trust has a£20 million deficit, which it has been ordered to rectify. It has recently had to remove one specialist, who provided help with speech and language training in Leighton Buzzard.

Mr. Wills spoke about local area agreements. When I first heard about them, I made it clear to my local authority that I would judge the success of that Government initiative on the practical basis of exactly what it would do to close the gap between the education service and the health service for these vulnerable children who have speech and language difficulties.

Special educational needs are a very great concern. I do not think that we have it right yet, because of the fact that parents must battle for so long. There is obviously great concern about the number of special schools that have been closed recently. I was sorry that that Labour and Liberal Members were unable to back us on new clause 5 during the consideration of the Education and Inspections Bill yesterday, although it would only have ensured that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills kept special schools open unless sufficient places of the right quality were available in nearby schools. The disappearance of special provision is certainly very worrying.

The second education issue that I want to deal with is bullying in schools. Last night I saw Dame Kelly Holmes referring to that on television. I think that she is heading a campaign this week. What has struck me recently is the great difference in practice in schools' anti-bullying policies—and I am pleased to see that the Deputy Leader of the House is agreeing with me. By law, every maintained school in the land must have an anti-bullying policy—as I know, because I am a governor of a local school—but there is all the difference in the world between a policy that is perhaps checked by the school governors who look at it, ensure that it is fine and then put it back into the file, and one that is enforced as the school's central purpose with the head teacher putting life and meaning into it.

When children arrive in the schools with the very best practice, they are told from the very start exactly what bullying is. It is any form of behaviour that is distressing or causes anxiety to other children at the school. It is very far from just being physical. It can manifest itself in all sorts of ways and often happens outside lessons: in the corridor while waiting for a lesson, in the lunch queue or in the playground, and so on. Again, as a country we have not really got to grips with bullying in schools. I should like children, perhaps at the end of each year, to write down confidentially and anonymously their experiences of what bullying was like in the school. Perhaps that way, the school and the LEA would have some idea of what was really going on, and the head teacher and the governors could be presented with that information.

I should like to commend a school in my constituency—Vandyke upper school in Leighton Buzzard—for recently getting every child, bar a very few children who were concerned about bullying but who did not want to sign the anti-bullying contract for individual reasons of conscience, to sign its anti-bullying policy in front of the whole school. Signing a policy is one thing—it was a good innovation—but the real issue is whether it is put into practice and enforced.

I am disappointed by the attitude of parents when they are told that their child is bullying other children. Perhaps that is not something that schools can do a great deal about, but it saddens and depresses me hugely sometimes. If most decent parents are told that their child is bullying other children, first they feel incredibly sorry and upset about the effect on the children who are being bullied, and try to contact the parents of those children to express their sorrow and give them complete reassurance that they will do something about it. Obviously, they then work with the school to try to ensure that their child's behaviour becomes acceptable—and, of course, to get to the bottom of what it is in their own child that is causing them to bully other children.

My experience recently, however, is that when parents are confronted with the fact that their child is bullying other children, their first reaction is often to think, "Gosh, will it hurt my child's prospects? Will it damage their school report?" I am tremendously saddened when that sort of attitude is prevalent among parents. Perhaps when parents sign home-school contracts—which, again, we debated yesterday—it could be impressed on them that they have a duty to be thoroughly responsible. If their child is bullying other children in any way, they have an obligation to try to deal with it and to assist the school, thereby ensuring that our schools are safe and happy learning environments for all our children, where education can take place properly. None of us should underestimate the distress caused to children when they suffer any form of bullying.

The third and final area that I want to touch on is the level of basic literacy in our schools, by which I mean our children's ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic—the three R's, as they used to be called. A couple of weeks ago, I went round an upper school in my constituency with the headmaster and was taken to the learning support area to speak to the outstanding lady who heads that unit. The children at the school are aged between 14 and 16, and that teacher told me that in her estimation, about a quarter of them have difficulty with reading and writing. I was shocked by that statement. We have had a number of debates on the Education and Inspections Bill this week, but it strikes me that that is a national outrage.

I do not seek to make party political points here, because I do not think that things were much better when we were in power. I will make a deal with the Deputy Leader of the House: I will not blame the Government now, if he will not come back and say that it was our fault when we were in power. This issue should shock and anger us all. Here we are, the fifth largest economy in the world and a major western industrialised nation, and in some cases—

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

I will give way in a moment. I looked at the figures before the debate: Sir Claus Moser said in 2000 that about one in five adults were functionally illiterate, while Digby Jones of the CBI has said one in seven. Whatever the figures—they vary in different parts of the country—they are far too high. It is, I am afraid, an incredible indictment of what is going on in our schools that so many children cannot read and write properly.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I agree with the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is expressing. Is he aware that this country has about the longest tail of under-achievement for students leaving school at 16? It is incumbent on us all to try to understand why that is. Does he also accept that that clearly relates to social class? There is discrimination in education. Educational attainment relates to where people come from, which is unacceptable.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. If about one in five or one in seven of our nation's children cannot handle basic reading and writing and basic numeracy—in some parts of the country, the figure is even higher, at 40 per cent.—that is unbelievably serious. For goodness' sake, what have children been doing in our schools for the 11 years between the ages of five and 16 if they leave unable to read properly?

Looking at the issue from first principles, it strikes me that when such a problem is identified when children leave lower school or primary school, there should be intensive—almost exclusive—concentration on teaching them to read and write. What is the point of taking them on and teaching them history, geography, religious education and all those other subjects if they cannot read and write properly?

I gather that in some schools in the Caribbean, and even in places such as Ghana, children do not move up a year unless they have mastered the basics of that year. I spoke earlier this week to our shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Willetts, and to my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb, who has been instrumental in bringing the teaching of synthetic phonics into greater national focus. All credit to the Government, as they have taken on board many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He told me that it is possible, through an intensive 10-week course, to give any seven-year-old child basic reading skills.

Earlier in the debate, we heard about antisocial behaviour from my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Castle Point. If we cannot get these basics right in our schools, what hope do we have of conquering problems such as antisocial behaviour if children aged 16 or older leave without the basics—being able to read and write and get a job of any sort in the employment system?

Why is there no sense of anger about that? Why are MPs not picketing their local directors of education? Why are we not having tough conversations with heads outside this House? Why does this issue not dominate Education and Skills questions? The Public Accounts Committee's report last year, "Skills for Life: Improving adult literacy and numeracy", drew the following hugely understated conclusion about raising basic levels of literacy and numeracy:

"a large proportion of its resources"— those of the skills for life strategy—

"are taken up by recent school leavers, many of whom might reasonably have been expected to gain their qualifications at school."

Given all the debates that we have had this week about structure, funding, independence and involving other organisations, we must get on top of that issue. We must drive down the percentage of children who leave school at 16 without those basic skills. Unless we can do that, we will not have a hope of dealing with the problems of antisocial behaviour about which we have heard this afternoon, or of increasing our national productivity and competing effectively with other countries in Europe, and with India, China and other countries in the far east, as we need to do.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 4:31 pm, 25th May 2006

Once again, I wish to raise the issue of the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust, which provides mental health services. It is an important trust, which serves Hertfordshire and my constituency, and faces significant cuts this year and perhaps in coming years.

In case I sound churlish, let me say that the Government's record in mental health is moving in the right direction. Everyone, across the political spectrum, wants the best service delivered to some of society's most vulnerable people. Let me add the caveat, however, that the Government have probably slightly lost their way recently, especially in Hertfordshire.

As Members of the House and the wider public know, mental health problems come with a huge amount of stigma attached. One need only think of the headlines in The Sun when Frank Bruno underwent mental health problems—the headline "Frank Loono" was considered—and when Adam Ant had his problems. The behaviour of the media was disgraceful.

For that reason, I am glad that the Government are spending money on a campaign to raise awareness of mental health problems and to try to reduce the stigma—Shift. Unfortunately, that campaign receives funding of only £1 million across England, which is 2p per head. That pales into insignificance when compared with the 15p per head spent in Scotland, although that is not a huge sum of money either. I am afraid that those figures are not in the same ballpark as the money spent on smoking cessation programmes, important though those are.

The Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust was founded in 2001 and has operated since without going into deficit; it has balanced its books. This year, however, despite its good financial record, it was asked to make savings of £5.6 million—more than a 5 per cent. cut in its annual budget. I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate on 19 April, when I mentioned several of the services to be closed. I will not rehash those points today; the House is aware of them and they are recorded in Hansard. However, those closures are against the proposals in the Government's White Paper "Investing in Your Mental Health", which most Members of the House welcomed.

When I first raised the issue in that Adjournment debate, the Minister of State, Ms Winterton said:

"The Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust's total increased investment in its mental health services is £4.2 million over and above inflation for the three-year period from 2003 to 2006."—[ Hansard, 19 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 204.]

That sounds good, until we remember that although the trust had an additional £4.2 million, the Government are now asking for £5.6 million back. What they gave with one hand they seem to be taking back with two.

When I raised that with the Minister, she said


"I will come to some of the specific points that the hon. Gentleman has raised."—[ Hansard, 19 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 204.]

Unfortunately, she forgot to do so. Undeterred, I raised the same issue with the Secretary of State for Health—who, I may say, knows me by name, which is probably more than some of my own Front Benchers do, so I have a great deal of time for her. When I asked my question, she looked me straight in the eye and said:

"I shall come to that point in a little more detail in a moment."—[ Hansard, 9 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 193.]

I had absolutely no reason to disbelieve the Secretary of State. After all, she calls me Charles in the Division Lobbies and always makes time for me. Unfortunately, she too forgot to return to the point.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

What were you doing in the same Division Lobby?

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Only yesterday evening I bumped into the Secretary of State during the vote on the Education and Inspections Bill as we supported the Government against their own Back Benchers. When I suggested to her that she might want to answer the question about what was happening to the money in a little more detail at a future date, she smiled very sweetly and moved on quickly.

I am extremely disappointed that my local mental health trust faces such huge cuts over the coming year. If we are to believe Government figures given during a debate on 7 February, they account for a third of all the money being clawed back from mental health trusts in the United Kingdom. In response to a question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley, the Minister of State, Department of Health said:

"11 of 84 trusts are making expenditure reductions that amount to £16.5 million out of a total expenditure on mental health of more than £6 billion".—[ Hansard, 7 February 2006;Vol. 442, c. 755.]

Well, £16.5 million across 11 trusts does not sound a lot of money—in fact, I am sure that it is a little more than that—but my trust accounts for a third of that amount, £5.6 million, with the other 10 trusts have to make cuts of £1.1 million each. I cannot believe that that is just or fair, particularly given that the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust has never been in deficit in the five years for which it has been in operation. It has always balanced its books. What message do those cuts send to other trusts throughout the country that are struggling to balance their books? Not a very positive one.

Perhaps the Hertfordshire trust has been a little naïve. Why did it even bother to balance its books over the past five years? Perhaps it should have just gone into deficit, like so many other trusts. I am concerned about the fact that the trust is being asked to bail out other parts of the health service. That seems to contradict what the Secretary of State for Health believes. When I asked her about this—no, I did not ask her, actually; she just said it—she announced:

"we are reforming the way in which the NHS is run so that every hospital"

—I assume that she meant "trust"—

"takes responsibility for organising the best care within its budget. We will not expect others to bail them out."—[ Hansard, 9 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 196.]

That is simply not the case. As I have explained, my local mental health trust is being asked to bail out hospitals and trusts that are in deficit to the tune of £5.6 million. It is being penalised, and there seems to be no justice in the way in which it is being treated.

Of course, the Government will say that they have put local decision making in the hands of local health communities. That does not apply in this case. After all, it is the Government who fund the NHS, via the taxpayer. It is the Government who expect trusts to achieve financial balance, and demand that they do so. And it is the Government who, in this instance, are in essence asking for their money back.

I have raised my concerns with a number of charities, including Rethink, which as most Members know is a leading mental health charity. In its briefing, which was sent to Members of Parliament only a couple of weeks ago, it states:

"We believe that this is a national pattern in which wider health deficits are being addressed by shifting resources out of mental health."

That is a fairly damning and worrying statement that should concern everyone in this Chamber and at the Department of Health, and all those outside this Chamber who would doubtless like to be here now. Mental health cuts are the deepest cuts. Mental health has traditionally been underfunded, so every pound taken from it can almost be multiplied by two or three when one contrasts that service with the better-funded areas of health care, such as cancer and heart disease.

I wrote to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central to ask her whether she was aware of the scale of the cuts and of the damage that they would do to local mental health services in Hertfordshire. She kindly responded on 5 May, saying:

"In deciding what proposals should be considered, the PCTs took account of...efficiency savings that could be made and that would avoid an adverse impact on front-line services".

Well, the cuts in Hertfordshire will have an impact on front-line services—a very severe one. The hon. Lady also said that PCTs took account of

"proposals that were in accord with the principles and priorities set out in the recent consultation on mental health services".

I assume that she was referring to "Investing In Your Mental Health".

I have spoken to national charities and charities in the local health community, and they are absolutely convinced that the cuts will impact on people's health and increase the risk of suicide, and might lead to additional suicides. The hon. Lady went on to say that proposals were considered

"that did not worsen any inequality in the delivery of services across Hertfordshire."

I am afraid to say that those proposals will lead to huge inequality in the delivery of services and have an enormous impact on many people's lives.

I ask the Secretary of State to intervene in this matter. She is a decent woman, and if she took the time to look at what is going on and to consider the fact that a trust that has never been in deficit in five years is being penalised for the deficits of others, she might change her mind. As Rethink said, the Department of Health is complacent about these cuts and the impact that they will have on some of the sickest people in society—people who are ignored by, and who feel marginalised by, society. These are vital, critical services for local people, and central to their well-being.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Secretary of State (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 4:43 pm, 25th May 2006

I was pleased that Mr. Walker focused on mental health, which has always been the Cinderella service. It self-evidently deals with some of the most vulnerable people, and many of us are extremely concerned about cuts to the service.

I want to take this opportunity to raise a number of issues that are of concern to Norfolk in particular, but all of which have some wider significance. First, I want to discuss the very sad closure of RAF Coltishall in my North Norfolk constituency and the question of age discrimination. A constituent of mine, Mr. Tony Thorpe, is a civilian employed by the RAF at Coltishall and has worked there for nearly 11 years. He is 60 and was amazed to discover that the cut-off point for entitlement to redundancy payment is 57. Such employees are exempt from the normal right to statutory redundancy payments, and he was initially told that he would get no redundancy payment at 60. We should bear it in mind that, at that age, it is particularly difficult to get other work. He was subsequently told, however, that he would receive a discretionary payment of £1,500—a figure based on allowing £150 a year for each of his 10 complete years of service. That is massively less than someone who had served the same number of years but was aged 40—an age at which it is much easier to get other work. That is not an appropriate way to treat someone who has worked loyally for the RAF for more than a decade.

The law will change on 1 October, when the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 come into force under the European employment directive. The explanatory notes state that, among other measures, they will remove the upper age limit for unfair dismissal and redundancy rights, giving older workers the same rights to claim unfair dismissal or to receive a redundancy payment as younger workers. The Government will introduce those rights in October, but they are denying the same rights to someone who is being made redundant before then.

In 1999, the Government introduced a voluntary code of practice on age diversity in employment that was supposed to set out best practice principles. The Government have failed to follow their own code and are discriminating against loyal staff only months before they legislate to outlaw that unacceptable discrimination. Today, the Government accepted the argument that we will all have to work longer, so why should they discriminate against someone aged 60? I urge the Minister to pass on my concerns to his colleagues in the Department for Trade and Industry, because that injustice needs to be addressed immediately.

The next issue is a case study of what has been dubbed the "Tescoisation" of Britain. In Norfolk, Tesco already has 44 stores, but in a long-running saga it has attempted to secure a supermarket site in Sheringham, a thriving coastal town with an impressive town centre and shopping area. Last September, in the latest stage of the saga, the local authority planning committee emphatically rejected Tesco's latest proposal, voting 20 to nil against it. However, in April, councillors were forced into an extraordinary volte face. They decided no longer to resist Tesco's appeal against an earlier refusal after receiving legal advice on an agreement that had come to light on the sale of land by the council to Tesco. It had been signed by officers immediately after the 2003 district elections, when a new council had been elected but before members took their seats. The new councillors were not informed and a confidentiality clause was included that appears to have prevented them from explaining to an amazed public why they had changed their minds so completely compared with just a few months earlier. It appears that that legal agreement effectively prevented the council from pursuing any alternative proposal on council-owned land. Tesco managed to secure an exclusive right, without the public knowing, to pursue a supermarket application.

The public were amazed by the apparently inexplicable change of approach and it is untenable for local people to be left in the dark about a process that has been characterised by secrecy. I pay tribute to the council for being determined to get the full facts into the public domain, but I am concerned that years of secret negotiations between council officers and a major supermarket chain appear to have resulted in a legal agreement with a secrecy clause, leading to a volte face by the council without the public having any idea why that has happened. That is not an example of open and transparent decision-making. The whole planning process needs to be looked at to ensure that the public can have confidence in it.

Norfolk and Norwich university hospital is one of the Government's flagship private finance initiative projects. It was built immediately after the 1997 general election, and it pioneered, on behalf of the whole NHS, the new form of financing that the Government said was the way forward. The hospital now faces a financial black hole of about £15 million.

We have heard already in this debate about health service redundancies. My hon. Friend Paul Holmes told the House that his local hospital is to lose a number of nursing sisters. The flagship Norfolk and Norwich hospital faces the prospect of up to 450 redundancies—nearly 10 per cent. of its work force. That is obviously a massive concern to the people involved, but we must also be worried about the impact on patient care.

The trust has said:

"We do not believe that we can achieve the required level of cost savings to break even in 06-07 without the risk of severely compromising the ability of the hospital to deliver safe, high-quality patient care."

That is an extremely serious matter, so what caused the financial crisis? Was it chaotic management? Clearly not: we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Broxbourne that his hospital trust had met its financial targets every year, and the same is true of the Norfolk and Norwich. It has broken even every year, at the same time as implementing the sort of major change that the Government have encouraged. It is well run, but it was told about its budget settlement only two weeks before the start of the new financial year. That is a ridiculous way to plan the finances of a major hospital.

I want to highlight two issues, the first of which is the PFI contract. I referred the contract to the National Audit Office a couple of years ago, as it seemed to be very expensive and a poor deal for the NHS. Ultimately, the NAO agreed, finding that the Norfolk and Norwich hospital trust was paying an additional sum, or premium, for being one of the first PFI hospitals. When it was built, it was very difficult to secure private sector engagement, and the hospital had to pay extra.

The private partner in the project was the Octagon consortium. Two years after the hospital opened, Octagon refinanced and secured a windfall gain of £116 million, £82 million of which it retained. In its recent report on what is an extraordinary scandal, the Public Accounts Committee said that

"the benefits to Octagon's investors have soared on refinancing to levels which are unacceptable even for an early PFI deal".

The report went further, adding:

"We do not expect to see another Accounting Officer appearing before this Committee defending what we believe to be the unacceptable face of capitalism...in the consortium's dealings with the public sector."

Those are the words of the PAC's Conservative Chairman, and they are a pretty strong condemnation of what happened.

Octagon's chairman is the well respected Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, Richard Jewson. He and his colleagues should reflect on the PAC's findings very carefully. It is a major Committee of this House, and its findings must be taken very seriously by the Government and their private-sector partners. Both the Government and Octagon should reflect on the findings, and consider whether it is in their long-term interests to assist the Norfolk and Norwich hospital trust further in dealing with its severe financial difficulties. The public of Norfolk will expect nothing less than a further contribution from Octagon.

I call on the Secretary of State to intervene. Norfolk's patients should not pay the price of pioneering a new form of financing on behalf of the Government and the health service. The premiumfor this expensive PFI contract amounts to about£6.8 million a year—a significant amount.

Many hon. Members might be aware that the market forces factor is the device by which the economics of operating in different geographical areas are taken into account and, theoretically, equalised to ensure fairness around the country. The formula is a fiction. I understand that departmental officials have serious doubts about whether it is fit for purpose. It discriminates against Norfolk and Norwich hospital and results in an income reduction for it of some£5.2 million in this financial year. Addenbrooke's enjoys a 13 per cent. advantage under the formula over the Norfolk and Norwich, yet the cost of employing staff in Cambridge and Norwich is precisely the same. All areas have to pay the same, other than London, which pays London weighting. The Secretary of State has undertaken to look at the formula. I know that it affects other parts of the country adversely as well. I hope that she will report back speedily to prevent the worst impact of the cuts to which I have referred. There needs to be a fair formula.

Finally, most hon. Members will not be familiar with the construction of the BBL pipeline—a gas pipeline to Backton in my constituency. The site takes in about a third of the country's gas supplies, so is of fundamental, strategic importance. The pipeline is of enormous significance and the Government are desperate to get it built before next winter because they do not want a repeat of the gas shortages that we experienced last winter. Clearly, it is an urgent priority.

When such projects are undertaken local inshore fishermen receive disruption payments. The construction of the pipeline might have a serious impact on their work and livelihoods. According to the DTI, there is no legislation or set procedure to be followed regarding compensation payments. Apparently, it is a matter of good will. That causes me and many others serious concern. It is extremely important that the fishermen's interests be protected. If something of national, strategic importance is being undertaken, those affected by it should not be forgotten.

I have particular concerns about the process that was followed. In negotiations with the company, two people represented the fishermen, Andy Roper and David Shillings. While acting for the fishermen, Mr. Shillings was offered a payment by the company. I raised these concerns with the company, but was told that I had got it all wrong, that Mr. Shillings was a representative of the company, not the fishermen, and that he would receive a payment of £50,000. I was told that this was all set out in a legal agreement and was above board. One week later I received an e-mail from the company, apologising that it had got it all wrong and that Mr. Shillings was not a representative of the company, but was a representative of the fishermen. The company apologised for the confusion. Its explanation was literally incredible.

One person cannot represent both sides in negotiations. A representative protecting the interests of the fishermen self-evidently cannot be offered £50,000 by the company with which he is negotiating. That raises a central concern: did the fishermen who depend on the North sea for the livelihoods receive a fair deal? I have raised the matter with the Government, who simply say that it is nothing to do with them and that it is for the company to negotiate with the fishermen. However, I should like the DTI to look into the issue. If such essential projects have an impact on other people, such as fishermen, their interests and their livelihoods should be taken into account. There should be a statutory right to disruption payments and a legal framework to protect their interests.

I have raised four issues of major concern to Norfolk, but they all have wider implications. I hope that the Minister will refer all of them to relevant colleagues.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage 5:00 pm, 25th May 2006

I am grateful for the chance to contribute briefly to the debate.

My constituency is the eighth richest in the country; anecdotally, I am told that we have more PhDs per square foot than any other constituency. However, representing an affluent constituency brings its own problems, which I want to highlight. It is important that the Government understand that one of the most economically dynamic areas of the country needs their assistance as much as deprived areas.

My hon. Friend Tony Baldry spoke eloquently about the crisis facing Oxfordshire's health services. Today, members of staff at the John Radcliffe hospital have been told the number of redundancies and job cuts that will be made. I do not propose to repeat the points that my hon. Friend made about our health service; I shall focus on some infrastructure issues that cause great concern in my constituency.

The main trunk road running through the constituency is the A34. Two weeks ago, tragically, a young man was killed crossing the road. The ensuing chaos was extraordinary to behold; it was like a scene from a disaster movie. Traffic was backed up for miles and people travelling between Wantage and Didcot took four or five hours to travel just six miles.

The A34 dual carriageway is the only road linking some parts of my constituency and some of its economic areas. There are no plans to upgrade the road for the foreseeable future, certainly not for the next10 years, yet it is of major importance, taking freight from Southampton to the midlands while serving as a local road for local businesses that have a national and international imprint.

I urge the Minister to impress on his colleagues the need for the Government to take a proper, strategic look at infrastructure in my constituency. Not only does it contain some the country's most successful businesses, but it serves the south-east. We take most of London's waste for landfill and Didcot power station provides power for at least a third of the homes in the south-east. We are also due to get the Oxfordshire reservoir, of which Members who take an interest in our current water shortage will be fully aware. The reservoir site is just south of Abingdon and it will be huge—four miles wide—and will provide water for London and Swindon. The scheme has been on the cards since 1990, but there is tremendous uncertainty about the plans. It will be a national decision, taken by the Government, but it will have a huge impact on my local community. There has been no discussion and the Government have given no indication of the impact of the construction of the scheme. There has been no discussion about the additional benefits that could come to my constituency, in terms of upgrading the local infrastructure, if the reservoir were to be built.

The other great problem that I face—many of my colleagues who represent south-east constituencies also face it—is the number of new houses being built. In Didcot, the main town in my constituency, we are getting 3,000 additional homes and we are due to get a further 5,000 if the South East England regional assembly has its way. Just north of Wantage, in Grove, which is already the largest village in Europe, another 2,500 homes have just been approved, doubling the size of the village. With up to 12,000 or 13,000 additional homes in that small part of the country coming on line in the next 10 or 20 years, it will be vital to deal with the infrastructure, and particularly the A34.

Finally, the reason why the issue is so important in terms of the Government's national interest is that, thankfully for the people living in my constituency, an enormous amount of scientific investment is being made. The Diamond Synchrotron is due to come on line in the next year, representing a financial investment by the Government of some £500 million. That will ensure that Harwell/Chilton remains at the forefront of scientific innovation not just in our country, but in the world. Up the road, nuclear fusion research is taking place at Culham. With the opening of the ITER site in the next few years in the south of France, that work will continue to have enormous importance.

All that scientific investment means that we have a huge number of spin-off scientific companies such as Oxford Instruments and companies based at Milton park, which are really driving the British economy. However, when I visit those local businesses, they come back to me again and again with one point: the gradual breaking down of the local infrastructure. The road network is of poor quality and, recently, the Government, through First Great Western, were planning to cut train services between London and Didcot. We are still fighting that battle and we are gradually saving those train services. I hope that we will have saved them by the time that the revised timetable comes out in the autumn.

Essentially, my contribution to the debate is to ask the Government to sit at the table with my local politicians and local businesses to create some kind of strategic plan for my part of the world. We look after London's waste; we power the south-east; in the next decade, we are probably going to provide most of the water for London; and we have thriving, dynamic businesses. However, we receive almost no Government investment or strategic help whatsoever.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 5:08 pm, 25th May 2006

This is the third recess Adjournment debate that I have sat through as shadow Leader of the House and, although such debates are usually seen and mainly used as a good opportunity for hon. Members to raise issues that are relevant to their constituents, it is noticeable that a number of hon. Members have used today's debate to raise issues of concern outside the United Kingdom. It was good that the debate was opened by Mr. Drew with just such an appeal in relation to the recent EU announcement on fisheries in waters off the African coast—continuing his interest in matters relating to the western Sahara. He has sat through quite a lot of the debate, but unfortunately he is not in his place at the moment.

I was going to confess to the hon. Gentleman that I did not know many of the details of the announcement that he referred to. However, I felt that his comments raised an important wider issue relating to the way in which the House scrutinises decisions that are taken in the European Union. He referred to the question of what advice had been given to individual Members of the European Parliament on the fisheries issue and on how to vote on it. One of the questions that we in the House need to address is how the House can express a view before Ministers take decisions in the European Union arena, because at the moment the House is not able to express a view. Ministers take decisions and then come back with the results of those decisions. Even then, there is not adequate scrutiny.

Various other foreign affairs matters were raised. For example, Ms Abbott spoke in detail about Nigeria, a country that she obviously knows well. She talked about the need to ensure that money invested in Nigeria is used to the maximum benefit of all people in the country. She also spoke about payments by oil companies, and I would add intergovernmental support to that particular list. We need to address the aid that is given to countries more widely and ensure that it is used for the benefit of all in the country that receives it. The hon. Lady also talked about the future of Guantanamo Bay. She and several of her hon. Friends have led a principled campaign on the camp since it was first established.

The hon. Member for Stroud raised several points relating to his constituency. I noted his concerns about the environmental impact of the Severn barrage, but hope that he agrees that the Government need to broaden their policy on renewables beyond an overemphasis on wind farms, especially onshore wind farms.

I was pleased to hear from the hon. Gentleman that First Great Western was expressing an interest in improving the London-Cheltenham line. I merely caution him that First Great Western's interest in improvements does not always turn into action through which those improvements are seen, as I have discovered during my campaign to turn back the devastating cuts in services for my constituents who use Maidenhead and Twyford stations on the main line and the branch line stations of Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his campaign.

I also wish my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey well in his campaign with First Great Western on services to Didcot. Some of the services for his constituents are those that no longer stop in my constituency. His constituents are able to travel on the fast line, whereas my constituents have to take services on the slow line. The battle will continue with the Government because infrastructure is important to our parts of the country. My hon. Friend talked about the importance of his constituency, but the Thames Valley area is economically important to the south-east and the country as a whole and good train services are a key part of its economic vitality. The hon. Member for Stroud, my hon. Friend and I share a common concern in battling against First Great Western, so I hope that we will all have some success in our campaigns.

The hon. Member for Stroud also talked about access to affordable housing in rural areas. That matter was also touched on, albeit from a slightly different angle, by Paul Holmes, who spoke specifically about the need for more social housing in his constituency. Access to housing is indeed a problem in many parts of the country. Many people think of it as a paradox that under a Labour Government, the amount of social housing being built has fallen dramatically. Far from providing for those people in need of social housing, this Labour Government have left them on one side, all too often forgotten. Of course, that is a legacy of the Deputy Prime Minister when he had a job to do and a Department to run, as opposed to his position now when he has a grand title, a seat in Cabinet, a Cabinet Minister's pay, a grace-and-favour home and a car, but no Department to run.

The problem regarding the building of affordable homes in rural areas to which the hon. Member for Stroud referred cannot be addressed simply by building lots of smaller houses. Such houses can create additional problems in an area because they are often not built to designs that are sympathetic to local villages and towns. They are often built without the necessary supporting infrastructure, and, in some areas, the market means that even smaller homes are still not affordable for many. The Government need a more coherent approach on housing provision and should consider not just cramming yet more houses into smaller spaces, but the infrastructure required and support for those who are getting a foot on the property ladder. I was worried to hear reports earlier this week that the Government were pulling, or reducing, their scheme on housing for key workers, so perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will address that in his winding-up speech.

The hon. Member for Stroud also talked about local government reform. I will not comment on his specific points about the structure of local government, but simply say that history shows us that a Government who start to focus on local government reform are generally a Government in decline.

The role of local government in attracting business to local areas was raised by Mr. Wills, who gave a spirited advertisement for the town and its need to continue to attract investment and employment into the area. He argued for vision for Swindon. I suggest that he should also recognise the need for realism. However, I am grateful to him for his effective endorsement of the concept of general well-being raised in a speech earlier this week by my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition.

In addition to the international issues raised by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, she also mentioned the important problem of gun, knife and gang crime. I very much support her view that we need to look not just at the crimes themselves, but at the youth culture that leads to them. The evidence is that many young men feel the need to carry knives for their own protection. However, as long as they do that, I am afraid that such crimes will continue and will increase in number, and the culture will never change.

It is our challenge to change that culture, but it cannot be done by legislation. We have had many debates about criminal justice measures, and 43 pieces of legislation have been passed in nine years, yetthe problems remain. We have never properly debated the causes of antisocial behaviour and how to tackle the culture that leads to that criminal activity.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Of course, the Government came into office with the mantra, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." What we have is lots of legislation on crime, but nothing on the causes of crime.

The picture that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington drew was echoed by my hon. Friend Mr. Evennett in an effective contribution that painted a vivid picture of the problems in his area and the lack of activity by the previous Labour council. I congratulate the Conservative group on Bexley council on its excellent results in the local elections on 4 May.

Antisocial behaviour was also raised by my hon. Friend Bob Spink. Sadly, the problems identified by my hon. Friends are experienced elsewhere. Last Saturday afternoon, I spoke to residents in South road and High Town road in Maidenhead about the problems they experience from gangs congregating near Grenfell park and from people walking past their houses after they have left bars. They are often young people who have been binge drinking, a problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford drew attention.

My hon. Friend also mentioned police community support officers. I agree that we need more police on the streets but, failing that, we need more PCSOs. A recent petition that I and others ran in Woodley in my constituency got more than 600 signatures in favour of a PCSO there. It is only a pity that the Liberal Democrat-controlled Woodley town council has been reluctant to find the £15,000 necessary to part-fund a PCSO out of the £1 million it takes each year from local residents.

My hon. Friend rightly said that those problems are quality of life issues and that we must have zero tolerance of crime and antisocial behaviour. It is only by not accepting that sort of behaviour and by insisting that something be done about it that we can hope to overcome the problem. If we shrug our shoulders and pass on, saying, "Well, it's only antisocial behaviour," the problems are exacerbated.

Local policing will not be helped by the Government's moves to create large regional forces. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield said, those moves are often rejected by local forces. The Government's consultation on that has been shown to be a complete sham by the number of police forces that do not want to be merged and yet those mergers are going ahead.

On a different subject, Lyn Brown spoke about water supply, in particular leakages, but also the impact of increased costs on many people. There is no doubt that rises in the costs of utilities, together with rises in council tax, have hit many people hard, especially those who are on fixed incomes. She also referred to the water shortage in the south-east. Obviously, repairing those leaks would have a significant impact on that, but I suspect that she and those of us who spend part of our time in London should say a word of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who told us that his constituency is going to have a reservoir which will help to solve London's water problems.

On the subject of water shortages, last night, I visited the 2nd Cox Green girl guides in my constituency. I answered questions about my experience as a Member of Parliament, and I encouraged the girls to think about politics as a career. I was asked a range of questions, but as we sat with the rain beating against the window, one girl could not help but ask why there was a hosepipe ban.

I suspect that water shortages are less of a problem in the constituency of Mr. Reid. He raised a number of issues that affect his constituents, most of them arising from the geographical position of his constituency. It is right to remind the Government of the problems experienced by rural areas, where the considerable distances that people have to travel make it more difficult for them to access services. They must pay high petrol prices, but the Government's attempts to drive people on to public transport simply do not work in such areas because, as he pointed out, public transport is not available. As a result, people in rural areas end up paying more.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Royal Mail and the removal of the post office card account. He and other hon. Members will know that in recent months that has been raised time and time again in business questions, but the Government continue to duck the issue. May I remind the Deputy Leader of the House that the chief executive of the Post Office has said that the removal of the post office card account would result in the Post Office operating 10,000 fewer branches? The Government, however, have refused to address the future of the Post Office. They cannot continue to set their face against the issue. They must address it, as the removal of the card account will have a significant impact on the future of Post Office branches.

Ms Johnson gave us an entertaining picture of the political scene in Hull, with particular reference to school meals. May I suggest that before she worries about cross-party consensus she should try to achieve consensus in her own party? She obviously feels strongly about healthy eating, which she regards as the answer to childhood obesity. I believe that there are two sides to the problem: it is not just about what children eat but about how much exercise they take. Sadly, under the Government, there has been a drop in physical activity in many schools. For many years, children have become increasingly sedentary, whether they are watching television, surfing the net or playing computer games, so we must ensure that they take more physical exercise and run around. In business questions, I said that the cramming of houses into smaller spaces reduced the size of gardens, so children did not have much space to run around and enjoy physical activity. I am sorry that that met with laughter from Government Members, as the policy of cramming too many small houses on to a site reduces gardens and open space, which will have an impact in future.

Reduced access to public parks will have a similar impact. No recess Adjournment debate would be complete without a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, who said that public parks in his constituency were important, as they gave youngsters space to run around. Other members of the population could walk and sit in them, and their enjoyment would improve their quality of life. He raised, too, matters of conscience on which he has strong views, particularly abortion and the use of human embryos. However, he raised one issue that was new to me—the creation of animal-human hybrids—and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House listened carefully to the points that he made.

In yesterday's debate on the Education and Inspections Bill, we raised special needs education, particularly special schools, as my hon. Friend Andrew Selous pointed out. He referred to the problems experienced by many parents of children with special needs when trying to access the right provision for their children. The process means that parents often have to spend a long time fighting for such provision for their children. For some, that ends up in tribunals, and often in paying for support at the tribunal. I shared my hon. Friend's concern about the case that he raised in relation to the daughter of his constituent, Mrs. Chambers. The fact that information can be kept from parents should be a concern for us all in the House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of bullying, which is a problem for far too many children. Like him, I do not believe we do enough to prevent and stop bullying. Sadly, whereas good practice in schools can improve the situation, bad practice can at best achieve nothing and at worst can make matters worse. We must do more to identify good practice with regard to bullying and to spread that good practice.

My hon. Friend also spoke about basic literacy in our schools. It is a serious matter, not just because of the impact that illiteracy has on children's lives as they go through school and the fact that it holds them back in further learning, but because of the problems that it causes when they reach adulthood in getting a job and in basic living—understanding Government forms or reading instructions on convenience food or medicine bottles—let alone how it affects their overall quality of life. My hon. Friend is right: we in the House should be more angry about the matter than we are, and I commend him for highlighting it.

Quality of life was also a theme in the contribution of Norman Lamb, who spoke about a number of constituency cases, notably that of his constituent Tony Thorpe, who was not eligible for redundancy payments following the closure of RAF Coltishall. The hon. Gentleman ably set out his constituent's case and the apparent unfairness of the current regulations. He also spoke about the treatment of North sea fishermen in the context of the work on the BBL pipeline. I trust that the Deputy Leader of the House listened to those specific points.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned a Tesco store in Sheringham. I remember Sheringham from my childhood. I remember playing crazy golf on the beach at Sheringham with much joy and delight, at least to me, if not to those watching and playing with me. The hon. Gentleman's comments about the Tesco store raised important points about the planning system, particularly about negotiations between the council and Tesco.

I cannot comment on the individual case because I do not know enough about the details, but there is an issue with regard to the planning system because it depends on public confidence. All those involved in the planning process have a duty to behave in a way that ensures public confidence in the system. It is an issue that I often raise with reference to the enforcement of planning conditions. If developers believe that they can get away with breaching or ignoring planning conditions, the whole system is brought into disrepute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who squeezed his way into the debate at the end, spoke about a variety of issues. I have mentioned the transport issue. For areas of economic vitality, infrastructure is crucial. The Thames Valley Economic Partnership has pointed out that because the Thames valley is economically vibrant and doing well, transport infrastructure is not put into it. Of course, the opposite is true. If transport infrastructure is not put in, the economic vibrancy will start to fail.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Diamond synchrotron and other incredibly impressive scientific work being done in his constituency. Last week at the TVEP dinner, I had the benefit of listening to somebody from the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in his constituency, who waxed lyrical for some time about space exploration and the impressive scientific work being done there. He also told us one important fact: in 2029 an asteroid will come very close to earth. The good news is that in 2029 it only comes close to earth. The bad news is that in 2036 it may very well hit the earth. Like everybody at the dinner, those in the Chamber are probably making a mental calculation of where they will be in 2036 and whether that matters to them. I leave them to do that.

Several hon. Members mentioned the NHS. It has been raised consistently in business questions since I became shadow Leader of the House in December. The hon. Member for Chesterfield was the first to mention it in this afternoon's debate when he spoke about job losses at his local hospital, which is not a failing but a three-star hospital that has consistently delivered Government policy. Both the current and the previous Leader of the House have constantly criticised me in business questions for referring to job cuts in the NHS. I reiterate that they should get out and find what is happening in the NHS.

As several hon. Members said, real job cuts are taking place. There are 43 fewer ward sisters in the Chesterfield royal infirmary, 600 jobs are going in the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust and 450 jobs will be lost in the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust. Cuts are also happening in mental health trusts, as my hon. Friend Mr. Walker outlined when he mentioned the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust. Berkshire Healthcare NHS Trust has to save £10 million. It hopes to do that without cuts in services, but how can it without affecting services?

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne referred to his somewhat cosy relationship with the Secretary of State for Health, which he appears to have developed on several occasions in the Division Lobby. He gave the impression that he had spent rather a lot of time with her there. Although I appreciate that we have joined the Government in the Lobby on a small number of occasions recently, my hon. Friend has either been spending more time there than with us—I doubt that—or he is a fast worker. However, job cuts in the health service are a serious matter. They will affect patient care, not only the lives of those whose jobs are taken away.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield specifically mentioned financial planning and what happens when the Government pull the rug away from under one's feet half way through the system. In the Thames valley area, the rules changed six months into the financial year and it was therefore little wonder that the trusts found themselves in financial difficulties. Yet the Government keep saying that mismanagement in the trusts leads to the deficits. That is often not the case, and the Government's actions cause the problems.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Does not my right hon. Friend think it remarkable that a trust that has balanced its books for five years without going into deficit is now being asked to contribute £5.6 million to other trusts' deficits?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, I do. It is also remarkable that the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, which is the most efficient trust, has to make 600 job cuts as a result of the requirement to cut the amount of money that it is spending. My hon. Friend Tony Baldry spoke movingly about the impact of that decision, which is being made today, on not only those who lose their jobs but Horton general hospital in his constituency and services for his constituents generally.

The Government keep responding, as the hon. Member for North Swindon did today, by saying that more money is being spent on the NHS today than in the past, so everything must be all right. We all know that more money is being spent on the NHS today than in the past. Taxpayers know that, but they want to know how the Secretary of State for Health can say that it has been the best year ever for the NHS when staff are losing their jobs, community hospitals are threatened with closure and units such as the maternity unit at Wycombe hospital have been closed. That means that people have to travel further for services and their choice is being taken away from them. People have a simple question. They know that they have been paying more towards the health service, but what has happened to the money? The answer is that too much has been spent on the target culture and administrative changes.

I have been a Member of Parliament for nine years and, in that time, the structure of primary care in my constituency has been changed four times. Those changes not only disrupt services but take up money that is doing nothing to improve patient care. The Government need to open their eyes to what is happening out there in the national health service. People know that the money that the Government are spending is not going on the improvements that they were promised, and from which they believed they would benefit. This Government are out of touch and in paralysis.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Parliamentary Secretary 5:35 pm, 25th May 2006

One of the pleasures of holding this position in the House of Commons is that it gives me the opportunity to listen to so many contributions from colleagues on both sides of the House, as they speak from experience and with passion and conviction. I want to deal with as many of their points as possible in sequence, but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I deal first with what I thought was the outstanding contribution among the many excellent speeches made today.

Andrew Selous talked about the problems relating to special educational needs, a matter in which I have both a professional and a private interest. He spoke movingly of the struggle that individual families face, and I am glad that the subject has been raised. It is important that the report from the Select Committee be taken seriously and I know that its members will have listened to him and to others with expertise in this field. That will mean that they will be able to produce a very informed report.

The hon. Member also raised bullying in schools and, like him, I praise Dame Kelly Holmes for lending her considerable weight on that issue. He hinted about the way in which the issue was being tackled. I believe that this relates to leadership in schools and that the problem can be dealt with. Indeed, it has been dealt with most effectively in my own constituency by a relatively new head teacher called Donald Macdonald of Liberton high school. He takes personal responsibility for the issue and talks to parents himself, rather than delegating the task to the deputy head or to other teachers. He takes what other hon. Members have described as a zero tolerance approach.

The hon. Member also mentioned literacy levels, but I shall not respond by saying where the improvements have been made. We need to look at how the problems are to be tackled. I heard similar criticisms before I came to this role, when I was the Minister with responsibility for small businesses and construction. Those concerns are shared equally by Digby Jones of the CBI, by Brendan Barber and by the Federation of Small Businesses, among others. Although I believe that we have turned a corner on this issue, we should unite to drive up standards further, along the lines suggested by the hon. Member.

My hon. Friend Mr. Drew requested that I take up the issue of the European Union and the Moroccan fishing settlement. I shall ensure that my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign Office learn of his concerns and write to him about them. He also mentioned his criticisms of the Severn barrage. I know that that issue divides Members of Parliament just as it divides communities. He said that he was pro-nuclear and I know that he will be making a submission to the Energy Minister, who is considering that matter.

My hon. Friend also touched on local government and on his belief that the Government must implement their reform of local government, especially in his area, which has a two-tier council structure. Again, I will ensure that my colleagues who are dealing with that issue are made aware of his comments. He and other hon. Members mentioned railway lines. In his case, it was a single line that was causing problems. That must be frustrating for him, as he will be aware that we have doubled spending on the railways in the past five years to £4.3 billion, and that we now have the fastest growing railway in Europe. Last year, it carried more than 1 billion passengers, which I understand might be the highest figure on record. However, there is still more to be done. He praised the Affordable Rural Housing Commission and supported community land trusts, and I know that that will be welcome as well.

Paul Holmes raised a number of issues. I am sorry to hear that his local three-star hospital is reporting the steps that it wishes to take. The true picture is very different from the one painted in the media. There have been other reports where the number of job cuts has simply not been realised. Although the facts are not something that many Opposition Members seem interested in, let me give him some for solace. Of course, all the extra spending in the health service has gone on helping to recruit more nurses, doctors and consultants. In his own health area, the last figures that I saw indicated that there were something like 3,500 more nurses serving his constituents and the wider health area than in 1997, and more than 1,000 doctors and more than 300 consultants.

The hon. Member referred to the problems that he says are being faced in dentistry. He will know that we have increased investment in dental schools and education by more than 30 per cent., but to ensure better value for money, we have also increased the number of dental students by 34 per cent. The facts are clear: 4,600 more dentists are now practising in general and personal dental services than in 1997. Although adult registrations with dentists fell by 1 million between 1992 and 1997, under this Government they have increased by 1 million, but there are still issues that must be addressed and I am grateful to him for raising the issue.

The hon. Member spoke of people's inability to secure social housing. I chaired the housing committee in Edinburgh some years before his service in local government. I never shared the misguided support for the indiscriminate sale of council houses. I am pleased that £150 million has been spent by the Government to reduce homelessness, which is down by 70 per cent.

I thought that Mrs. May was uncharacteristically critical of the Deputy Prime Minister. If she looks at the record that I think he will be judged on, she will see 230,000 more affordable houses and a £2.2 billion budget that has gone to secure 30,000 social houses a year towards 2008. Those are important benefits, when we need to address the issue of housing for those who are priced out of the high-value housing market.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield also mentioned the police merger, but that has been the subject of extensive consultation. One thing was clear before that consultation was embarked on: there were too many police authorities. The arrangements are not fit for purpose in the 21st century and they must be reorganised, and I am sure that, at the end of the day, we will have a more effective police service in his area and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend Ms Abbott raised an issue that concerns all hon. Members: knife crime. It is important to ensure that the steps that we have taken so far are made even more effective. We have added a number of knife types to the offensive weapons list. We have raised the minimum age at which knives can be bought from 16 to 18. There is now a knife amnesty, which runsuntil 30 June. The last knife amnesty took place exactly 10 years ago, and I understand the more than 30,000 weapons were handed in. Of course, the message from us all is clear: carrying knives is an offence. They are offensive weapons. They merit penalties for possession, including imprisonment. I am glad that that was raised.

The Government have been clear and consistent on Guantanamo Bay. It would be better if the Guantanamo Bay base closed. The US Administration know our position.

My hon. Friend also raised Nigeria and the pipeline explosion that killed an estimated 200 people who she said were responsible for illegally tapping into that pipeline. Nigeria is a country in which we have taken a particular interest and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was there earlier this week. We are determined to ensure that our aid to that part of Africa and elsewhere is proportionate to our being the fourth largest economy in the world.

Tony Baldry raised the issue of the NHS trust in his area and his concerns over the reported number of threatened job losses that the acting chief executive of the trust is telling him about. It is important, again, to know that there have been several thousand additional NHS front-line staff—nurses, consultants and doctors specifically—since 1997. That is all part of that investment whereby spending on the NHS will triple between 1997 and 2008. I regret that neither he nor his hon. Friends voted for any of that additional money to the health service. I do not have to remind his constituents of what would have been the impact had the Conservative budget continued.

The hon. Member raised the issue, as did the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, who is speaking for the Opposition today, and implied that, although a lot more money may have been spent, the quality of service and delivery of services have not improved. Let me give him and the House the improvements in the two primary care trusts in his area—North East Oxfordshire and Cherwell Vale. In 1997-98, there were 6,912 operations carried out in North East Oxfordshire PCT. That figure has risen by a quarter to 8,536. The figure for the Cherwell Vale PCT was 10,847 operations in 1997-98. In 2004-05, it had risen by almost 50 per cent. to 15,152.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

May I make a request of the Deputy Leader of the House? All I ask is that we find a Minister who will come to Oxfordshire to see the reality, rather than living in this fantasy world. Will a Minister come to Oxfordshire and explain to my constituents how losing a general hospital is in some way an improvement and an advance?

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Parliamentary Secretary

The hon. Member spoiled the strength of his appeal with talk of a fantasy world and by not accepting the facts. I was surprised at the strength of his language in saying that that was the blackest day ever, in the face of such figures and a trend that I am confident will continue.

The hon. Member mentioned the reorganisation as well as the position of general hospitals and of maternity—

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because there is an issue that causes problems here. He told us how many operations there were in that PCT area in 1996-97 and how many now. Can he tell us how he worked out the number of operations carried out in 1996-97, because there was no such thing as a PCT at that time?

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Parliamentary Secretary

I looked at the same geographical area and the information covered by it. The figures will have been added up from the hospitals in operation then and divided between PCTs. That is a fair question, if I might say.

On hospital closures, I know from the major hospitals in my constituency, including the sick children's hospital, which I visited last Saturday, that the relentless pressure on technology, as well as the need for multi-million pound suites of technological equipment and for large teams of specialists, are driving the health service towards not just a more expensive delivery of service, but centralisation, because the critical mass can be achieved only by harmonising.

I recognise that that causes problems and it gives me no pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Banbury, who is genuinely representing constituents' concerns, that his constituents may have to travel for an hour to a local hospital. That has been accepted over time in rural areas, and it is a pity if people see it as a diminution of the modern health service. I am not convinced, however, that such technological development, with highly skilled surgeons, nursing teams, anaesthetists and so on, does not tend to dictate that fewer highly expensive facilities are provided that do more and more effectively. I hope that he can have that dialogue with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health. It is, however, a genuinely vexing issue.

The hon. Member also mentioned one or two other issues, and I shall not make the political points thatI might have done— [Interruption.] Can I get away with saying that, in relation to cardiology services, 2.5 million patients are now receiving specialist drug treatments compared with 300,000 in 1997? I do not know how much of that is related to extra funding, how much is related to technology and so on. Without making a political point, I am glad, as he will be glad, that 2.5 million people are receiving that treatment. Of course, since 1997, heart disease is down by 38 per cent.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

If cardiology services have improved so much, why did more than 100 patients have their operations cancelled at the John Radcliffe hospital, which is part of the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, at the turn of the year? They were not put on a longer waiting list; they were just told that the hospital did not provide that operation any longer.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths Parliamentary Secretary

I am sure that staff at that hospital did not sit down and say that they were going to consign 100 patients to some terrible condition from which they are going to die. I do not believe that modern clinicians, surgeons and cardiologists do that. The right hon. Member is using that case selectively, without appreciating the full facts. No doctor or consultant would deprive any of her constituents of an operation or treatment that they thought necessary. They are getting more funding to carry out such treatment now than ever.

My hon. Friend Mr. Wills raised a number of issues relating to regeneration. I know that he will make further representations, and I was pleased that he raised the issue of a new library, as the staff of Edinburgh's Sighthill library, which is near my constituency, have just been given a UK-wide award for best public service delivery of the year.

As Mr. Evennett warmed to his subject, he became less heated and more persuasive, having started at a pretty fierce pace. It is unusual for me to praise a Member for that. Of course, we share his concern about gangs of youths, which was also raised by other Members. We have put through legislation that is helping to control that problem, and that was acknowledged. Some criticism was made relating to whether the police could provide better enforcement, and I am sure that we all have that dialogue with our police forces when we get complaints from local residents. I know that chief constables such as mine listen and respond in relation to their policing technique. There are many more police to deal with the problem now. I will not give the figure. It should also be recognised that there have been 4 million fewer victims of reported crime over the past nine years, along with a substantial drop in the number of burglaries and cases of violent crime. We want to ensure that that trend continues. I have listened carefully to what has been said by the hon. Member and others, and I will ensure that, notwithstanding his other duties at the moment, the Home Secretary is aware of the concerns that are being voiced.

My hon. Friend Lyn Brown raised a case involving a constituent that I am sure is not unique. I should also be surprised if the chief executive did not respond fairly promptly. I know that she would not hesitate to refer the matter to Ofwat if she did not receive a satisfactory response. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will happily respond to any issues that she may wish to raise with him.

Mr. Reid advocates road pricing. I am sorry that I could not enlist his support for the conversion of the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh, who campaigned against it with environmental groups. I may refer them to him for a bit of education. I will certainly check whether the Scottish Liberal Democrat Minister responsible for transport, Tavish Scott, can intervene with a subsidy to help the ferry service about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. He may not have budgeted for it, but the hon. Gentleman issued a heartfelt plea.

There are a number of serious issues relating to the Post Office. For me, the most serious is the poor treatment that it receives from Liberal Democrat councils such as Aberdeen. Unlike my colleagues in Edinburgh, who have ensured that people can pay rent, service charges and trade waste charges in their local post offices, I am afraid that the Liberal Democrats in Aberdeen refuse to take up that service. After I raised the matter when responding to an Adjournment debate some time ago, they said that they would think about it. That was before the election, so it was at least a year and a bit ago. I am sorry that there has been no movement on that. We have shown in Edinburgh how it can be done, and that it is the best way of supporting a local service.

The best way to support the card service is to do what the Government have been doing: spending, I understand, almost £1 billion on the service over its duration, until towards the end of the decade. The service has been strongly endorsed by the Government and funded by them to the tune of the colossal sum of about £100 million a year. I understand that it is only one of 23 or 24 card and payment services that are available to post office customers, and I urge them to explore those other services as well.

The hon. Member referred to the search and rescue helicopter service. I will certainly draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The hon. Member mentioned digital changeover, and called for taxpayers' money to help. I do not know whether that is an uncosted Liberal Democrat budget promise. He raised another tax issue with his plea for a reduction in the tax on petrol in rural areas. Again, I am keen to see the costings. I am not sure whether the matter was raised in the recent Budget debate, but I will check the minutes. I am sorry that my Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh seem to have been misled, seduced almost, by the Liberal Democrat practices down in Hull that my hon. Friend Ms Johnson highlighted. She made an excellent speech about the need to tackle obesity. That sounds like a pilot project well worth extending throughout the country, and I hope that my colleagues in the Department of Health will note what she said.

There were a number of other contributions, but time is tight, so I will endeavour to—

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.