I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Heal a very happy Christmas, and I extend the season's greetings to all Members and all servants of the House.
The local government pension scheme is close to the hearts of many of my constituents, and because I want to be certain to get what I have to say about it absolutely right I shall be very dull and read out my speech.
Previous difficulties regarding the well-being of the individual local government pension schemes were in large part due to employers of all political complexions, but particularly Tories, taking "contribution holidays". In many cases, those pension contribution holidays meant that for long periods—10 years or more in some instances—many local government employers paid little or nothing into their local pension fund. Those contribution holidays, together with the downturn in the markets several years ago, have directly led to the fund deficits that have caused problems in recent times. The local government pension scheme needs to be improved and brought into line with other public service pension schemes, not downgraded to the extent that employees pay more for a worse scheme to pay for their employers' past mistakes, while their employers share neither the responsibility nor the pain of remedying matters.
The employers and the recognised trade unions are currently engaged in detailed negotiations and they need to be allowed a reasonable period of time to reach agreement on the terms of any revised scheme. If those negotiations fail to lead to an agreement being reached, the Government will need to amend the current draft regulations so that the trade unions can consult their membership on revised proposals that they have at least a possibility of being able to recommend.
On employer contribution, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the added pressures on many local authorities that fought hard to protect jobs and to keep them in-house is the additional burden that they have to carry in respect of single status?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
The amendments that should be made in the circumstances that I have mentioned are as follows. First, there should be an increase in the protection period for existing scheme members from 2016, as is currently proposed, to 2020, which is what has been agreed in Scotland, or even 2025, as proposed in Northern Ireland. Secondly, there should be no cap or limit on the employers' contribution rates; to limit the employers' contribution rate would, in many cases, be a reward for poor management and past mistakes. Thirdly, the employees' contribution rates should be determined after the draft regulations are laid and the formal consultation period has expired; however, a number of options could, and should, be proposed and consulted upon. Fourthly, the ill health retirement provisions should be improved in line with provisions of other public service schemes.
The vast majority of the amendments that the recognised trade unions are seeking are not costly items. However, even if they were costly items, by allowing more of the savings from the proposed changes to be used, they could be made on a cost-neutral basis at the very least. Unlike other public sector pension schemes and the LGPS in Scotland, the LGPS in England and Wales has provided for only 50 per cent. of the significant savings—achieved by extending the normal retirement age to 65 and so forth—to be used to improve the scheme or provide protections. In the other public sector schemes and in Scotland, the full 100 per cent. of the savings is being used to improve the scheme or provide protections.
I have made most of the points that I wanted to make. Reading out that part of my speech might have made it fairly dull, but a lot of my constituents will be very pleased to know that I am taking an interest in matters to do with retirement and ill health insurance that are close to their hearts.
Angela Browning talked about her local hospital, and I shall now briefly talk about my own, Airedale general hospital. It lies in the heart of my constituency—in the Aire valley near Eastburn—and it is an institution that is much loved by all my constituents. It is the biggest employer in my constituency, employing 1,000 people, and it is well regarded, and I am happy for it to continue as it has thus far.
I do not like ideas about, and talk of, modernisations; when I hear about modernisations, I start to get a bit worried. I do not want services to flow away from Airedale hospital to centres such as Bradford and Leeds. I am sure that Bradford and Leeds have excellent hospitals. However, I like to think that I have an excellent district general hospital that can provide for my constituents in accident and emergency situations—and many forms of chemotherapy are also carried out there, and many sorts of surgical operations. As I have said, my constituents are very pleased with the hospital. The people who work there do an excellent job. I do not want any of the services at my hospital to be moved away. I want to put on record my support for the hospital and its staff.
In June 2001, Sir Herman Ouseley, now Lord Ouseley, produced a report on Bradford—of course, my constituency forms one fifth of the Bradford district—in which he talked about the problems arising from a lack of integration and cohesion in the Bradford district. He put a great deal of the blame for that on the fact that only 50 per cent. of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community in the Bradford district spoke any English at all, let alone excellent English.
That was a difficult issue to touch on at that time, but because of Lord Ouseley's comments I felt brave enough to raise then the subject of the need for English speaking within my Asian community. I talked about the need for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to use English in the home, which is a rare thing in Bradford. I suggested that, although that would not necessarily lead to their children speaking English, it would at least make them aware that such a language existed and enable them to go to school with some knowledge of it. When I raised this issue, I was called "a linguistic imperialist". I was quite impressed by that title, which is an excellent one to have.
Thanks to the comments of just one or two of the louder-mouthed members of my Asian community, the point was reached whereby some councillors suggested to the then general secretary of the Labour party that I should be expelled from it because I was little more than a racist. Of course, that was quite wrong. I have three half-Indian grandchildren and one half-African step-granddaughter, so I am hardly a racist. As I said, this was a very difficult subject to raise at that time, and I am pleased to say that the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett, supported me by virtually repeating what I had said on the Floor of the House. That support was needed, because it was a frightening time for me. I was very worried and felt quite intimidated by comments about expelling me from the Labour party and my being a racist.
Five years on, the problem remains that very little English is spoken in Asian households in Bradford. Two weeks ago, I visited a school in my constituency that is 95 per cent. Muslim, and I was told that 95 per cent. of its children enter school at three or four not just with no English, but with no knowledge of the language. In many cases, they have never even heard it being spoken. When I made those comments five years ago, most Muslim children were at least watching various BBC children's programmes, so they had an idea of what English sounded like. Now, in these modern times, most members of my Muslim community have satellite dishes and get the majority of their television programmes from Pakistan, so the children go to school at three or four having heard no English.
I do not often say flattering things about the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, but two weeks ago, he made a speech from No. 10 Downing street in which he mentioned many of the things that I am talking about today. He said that there was a great need for a move away from segregation, and toward integration and cohesion. He was also brave enough to say that there was a need for English, and that, in order to follow that through, we will establish a requirement for English before a person can gain indefinite leave to remain. I hope that that comment will indeed be followed through. At the moment, a person can obtain indefinite leave to remain without having any English whatsoever, so they do not bother to learn it. In fact, many young Asian girls who have come to Keighley as wives are actively discouraged by their in-laws from learning English, because once they know English, they know their rights and have the wherewithal to look after themselves. So many Asian in-laws in Keighley do not want their girls to learn English.
I am therefore very pleased that the Prime Minister suggested that, in order to get indefinite leave to remain, incomers will have to have English. I should point out that at the moment, people have to have English in order to obtain citizenship, so the situation will not be that different; this is not a great breakthrough. People have to have been here for five years before they can obtain citizenship. However, many people in my constituency are not all that bothered about getting citizenship, so they are not all that bothered about learning English. What they are bothered about is getting indefinite leave to remain.
I thank the Prime Minister for raising this issue. I hope that we will go through with the proposal and that people will need to have English in order to obtain indefinite leave to remain, and that more money will be put into our further education colleges, so that we can enable those people to learn English as a second language. I am afraid that FE is the poor relation of education, so if we are going to make this change and be fair to people coming to this country, we will have to put a great deal more money into teaching English as a second language in our FE colleges. I look forward to that happening.
It is always a great pleasure to listen to and follow Mrs. Cryer, whom many Opposition Members find always speaks a great deal of sense. I particularly agree with her concluding remarks about the search for what binds and unites us as a country. As someone whose own brother is a teacher of English as a foreign language, I can say that English is of course a fundamental component in that regard. What the hon. Lady said was tremendously welcome; it needs to be said more often and I commend her for saying it.
I want to raise—briefly, as a number of Members want to get in—four issues brought to me by my constituents and two of wider interest. First, I want to put on the record my support for Bedfordshire primary care trust's revised bid for a community hospital in Leighton Buzzard, in my constituency. Various Members have expressed concern today about the scaling back of health services such as community hospitals in the areas that they represent. Leighton Buzzard is one of the largest towns in the whole country without any form of hospital facility—if not the largest—so I am very pleased that Bedfordshire PCT is putting forward a bid for a community hospital there. I was with the PCT on
My constituents have waited a very long time for some form of community hospital in Leighton Buzzard, and we are naturally cautious—seeing will be believing. When we see bricks going on other bricks, we will know that we have reason to celebrate. I am heartened by my last meeting with the primary care trust and wish to put on record my full support for bringing the project to fruition.
My next point is about transport and especially the journeys faced by constituents who live in Leighton Buzzard and the wider commuter hinterland around it. The capacity of the railways was much touched on in Transport questions earlier. Leighton Buzzard is growing fast and is scheduled to grow much faster still, but it has nothing like enough jobs to support its working population. Indeed, that is a feature of the whole of my constituency and at least 55 per cent. of my constituents commute out of the area to work. I was therefore very concerned recently to receive a letter from Silverlink, the train operator, dated
I also have reason to believe—it has been said to me by several senior local authority figures in Bedfordshire—that since the announcement about the Olympics those of us in other areas of the country have sensed a movement of money towards ensuring that we can put the games on successfully in 2012. I wonder whether large parts of the Government's sustainable communities plan are not fully feasible because of how much money will have to be spent on building the Olympic facilities.
The third issue that I wish to raise is the exclusion of children from lessons, which can be quite an emotional subject. I have mentioned before—not least recently in the excellent Adjournment debate instigated by my hon. Friend John Bercow in Westminster Hall on children with speech and language difficulties—my concerns about children who are physically restrained by teachers or learning support staff in schools without their parents being made aware that it is happening. Parents have a fundamental right to know what is happening to their children in schools, certainly as far as physical restraint is concerned. I see parents as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
In my surgery last week, I had a mother and father who told me about the experiences of their young child, who was being regularly excluded from a substantial part, or the whole, of periods in the school day. The parents were not being told that that was happening. I look at such issues instinctively. I do not reach for a party handbook and see what the line to take is, but instead react as a human being and father. I think about how I would feel if that happened to my own children. Frankly, if a child is excluded from a whole or substantial part of a lesson, the parents should be told that that has happened at the end of the school day. I am not saying that the parents should be told immediately, but they should be told by the end of the day, because—I repeat—parents are part of the solution. Education is not a linear relationship between the school and the children, but a triangular relationship in which the parents are fundamental.
I was surprised to find that such exclusions were happening. I know that the situation varies in different schools and local education authorities, but I am concerned about it and wish to place my views on the record.
The next issue I wish to raise is training, especially for those no longer in the first flush of youth. A constituent came to see me recently who is 44, as I am, and is on incapacity benefit. He wanted to train as a plasterer—an excellent idea, as we have a shortage of plasterers in the area. However, the plastering course that he was considering lasted three years. For young people who live with their parents and so do not have expensive accommodation costs it may be fine to go on a training course for three or four years. However, for people in their 30s or 40s, perhaps with a family, a training course of that length is impossible to complete. I suggest that such courses should be held, to the same standard and as rigorously, on a much more intensive basis. Students would work for longer during the day and perhaps over weekends so that the courses could be completed in six months or so. More people on low incomes or benefits would then be able to complete a course and gain a skill with which to earn their living. The plastering course was three years, as was the plumbing course. A qualification in health and safety took four years, and the electrician course took three years with one year of on the job training. We need to consider the duration of such courses and I have raised the issue with Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills.
Like every other hon. Member I have been shocked and appalled by the events in Ipswich in the past few days. I read the biographies of the five women who were so brutally and horrifically murdered and I cannot have been the only one to be struck by the fact that they were all heroin addicts. It is a problem that affects all our constituencies—there will not be a single Member of Parliament who does not have a heroin problem in their constituency. Given that we know that 90 per cent. of the heroin on UK streets comes from Afghanistan and that we have a major military presence there, it is extraordinary that we cannot do more to stop the poppy crop ending up here. I know that right hon. and hon. Members have raised that issue with Ministers. I recall that Mr. Field and John Mann, to name but two, have done so. Not so long ago under the common agricultural policy we were able to buy up crops in the European Union, although the regime has since changed. The Minister looks at me quizzically, but my question is: why, given that heroin can have legitimate medical uses, cannot we buy up the Afghan heroin crop and use it around the world for pain relief? That would stop it flooding into this country illegally. We need more serious thought about that issue. The UK was charged with overall responsibility for the opium issue in Afghanistan and it is a subject that has been raised with Ministers by my Front-Bench colleagues recently.
Finally, I wish everyone a happy Christmas, as is traditional for hon. Members speaking in this debate. We have had a healthy debate about the very words "Happy Christmas" this year, with a satisfactory outcome. I am pleased by the work of the Christian Muslim Forum, which involves Muslims and Christians working together. Many Muslims have said that they are not offended by the celebration of Christmas in this country or by people wishing them a happy Christmas, just as I as a Christian am not remotely offended if someone wishes me a happy Diwali or happy Eid. A few days ago, I saw an e-mail from the Hindu Council of Britain saying that this country's Hindu community was absolutely happy with the celebration of Christmas in this Christian country. I was also especially struck and impressed by the card from Mr. Malik. He is a Muslim, but his card to me and the other hon. Members on his extensive Christmas list very clearly wishes us a merry Christmas. That is an excellent example, and one worth raising in this debate.
I have been keeping a little list of the people who have sent me cards with the message "Season's Greetings". There are far too many such cards from people in Bedfordshire who should know better. I agree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury, who made it clear that, as a Muslim, he was wishing us a happy Christmas. In that spirit, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the staff of the House and other hon. Members a very happy Christmas.
I have a cunning plan, Madam Deputy Speaker, that might appeal to the rest of the House. I suggest that, at the last minute, we should decide not to adjourn today. If we did that, then we could creep up to the Press Gallery tomorrow and see whether it was like the Mary Celeste. If so, we could telephone the news editors and inquire where folk were. They would probably say, "Well, they told me they were down the Commons, clearing their desks and so on." Given how often our friends and brethren in the Gallery write about MPs going on holiday, we should try to spring a trick like that on them sometimes. However, I hope that we will keep the plan secret.
Another good reason not to adjourn is the fact that many hon. Members have a lot of unfinished business. I want to pursue the many parliamentary questions that I have put down that so far have not received a reply, even though a response from the Government is long overdue. One such question, to the Home Office, arose from press reports that the Government had abandoned defending the Prison Service against compensation claims from prisoners taken off illegal drugs in prison and offered detoxification programmes as an alternative. To my astonishment—and that of constituents who have raised the matter with me—the Prison Service is being sued by those prisoners. That is incredible, but my parliamentary questions on the matter have received no reply. I cannot understand why the Home Office has not been able to give me a swift response.
Similarly, the National Audit Office has been investigating the handling of grievance procedures involving Foreign Office staff. The Foreign Office has stonewalled scrutiny for months, but the NAO adjudication has now been received. Under pressure from me, the Foreign Office promised that the report would be made available on its own intranet, and that a copy would be placed in the House of Commons Library.
I have not yet seen the NAO report, but I expect it to be highly critical. As far as I can ascertain, it is not yet available to be read by Foreign Office staff or Members of Parliament. In my view, the Foreign Office has a record of very poor stewardship in matters to do with what is now termed human resources, and the present position is very unsatisfactory. I hope that it will make sure that a copy of the report is available in the Library tomorrow, as I shall be there looking for it.
This debate allows us to raise various matters to do with our constituencies. I want to remind my area's train operator, c2c, and Network Rail about Tilbury Town station and the parlous state of access to it for disabled people, mums with prams and the semi-ambulant. The station has the town of Tilbury on one side, but no residences on the other, southern, side, so people who want to travel to London must negotiate an appalling footbridge.
Earlier this year, money was made available under the Access for All programme to improve access to railway stations nationally but, to our disappointment and irritation, Tilbury Town station lost out. That is unacceptable: Ministers at the Department for Transport and those with responsibility for disabled people must work with representatives of the bodies to which I referred and revisit the problem. Indeed, the same accessibility problem at Tilbury Town is also familiar to people in South Ockenden and elsewhere along the same line and, as a matter of fairness and equality, it needs to be addressed with some expedition.
I am very proud of the Thurrock marshes in my constituency; it is a site of special scientific interest that is of critical importance to wildlife and to bird migration. However, it is threatened by the motorbike fraternity and the extensive use of quad bikes. People are entitled to have a place in which to pursue their sport or enthusiasm, but the marshes are the scene ofa clash of two legitimate interests. I want the Environment Agency and Natural England to review the matter with some urgency, to see whether they can work with the local planning authority to protect what is an invaluable site of national importance. The threat is continuing as we speak, and I have no doubt that it will increase over the holiday period.
One of the flagship elements of the current Labour manifesto is the promise to make the Thames Gateway area a nice place to live and work, where people can have all sorts of recreational opportunities and where commerce can expand. I wholeheartedly supported the establishment of the Thurrock urban development corporation and, although I have been disappointed that the development has been slower than planned, there has been some movement lately that I welcome very much.
Ministers often talk about joined-up government. The objectives of the Thurrock urban development corporation include providing both relatively low-cost homes for rent or purchase and some very valuable properties that will enhance the area and add to the social mix. If those objectives are to be achieved, the development corporation needs to be able to offer employment to people moving into the area, and to those who live there already. In addition, proper skills training will be needed in the development to the west that includes the Olympic site.
That is the policy that I espouse, and I guess that it is shared by those Ministers who are responsible for the Thames Gateway. However, there is a quango—I forget its name—that is the Government organisation for the east of England. I do not know the names of the people who are its members, but I am sure that they are very busy. They claim that the Lakeside basin retail area should not be allowed to expand, on the grounds that it is not a regional shopping centre. That is an incredible and fantastic thing to suggest, but apparently that designation is critical to the area's ability to expand. Clearly, people and interests across this east of England, of which by accident we are members, are frustrating the Government's policy. I want to see joined-up government, and I want Ministers to tell these people to get real. We need this development to pump-prime all the other worthwhile initiatives that are planned by Thurrock urban development corporation.
In parenthesis, anyone who knows Thurrock knows that, but for a decision taken at 3 o'clock in the morning in the Committee stage in the House of Lords in 1963 on the London Government Act, we could have been in London. We are London people; we have London's river, we have London's port; we work in London. To put us in the same pot as Norwich and Yarmouth is bonkers, but that is what is happening. I just ask for some common sense to prevail in the corridors of Whitehall.
To rub salt in the wound, my constituency is still required to absorb London's waste. You see these wonderful barges, Madam Deputy Speaker, passing the House on the river. They are about the only bit of river traffic there is. They are heading for Thurrock with London's rubbish, and with it we will not put up much longer. We are not having it. It is unacceptable that my constituency should take London's waste.
I refer in particular to a place called the Mucking site, which is situated on the borders of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Angela E. Smith. Our constituents have had to put up with the tipping of waste for decades. We have been promised time and time again that the life of the Mucking site would come to an end, but recently Cory waste management company sought planning permission to extend even further the life of the tip so that more barges can go down the river and deposit London's waste. It is unfair, it is unacceptable, it is bad environmental policy and we have had enough.
A planning permission was granted and then snatched back by Thurrock UDC, which is now the planning authority for these matters. It granted permission about a week ago, only to find that one of the persons who sat on the planning committee was disqualified from so sitting. I welcome that, because it allows a rethink on the approval. It should not have been granted, first from an environmental point of view and, secondly, from a statutory point of view, because one of the people who voted— voted in favour, I am told—should not have been there at all.
I do not know whether the offending waste management company knew when it hatched its plan that it would be violating the boundaries of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but if it did not, it certainly knows now. Would it not be wise to recognise that it has met its match and should give up the unequal struggle?
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to say that. I have been pursuing the question of the tipping of waste in my constituency and elsewhere for the almost 15 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. The tipping of waste is particularly offensive, and I will do everything that I can to frustrate it, especially now that, almost by accident, this irregularity has arisen. I should make it clear that I do not think that there was any intended malevolence in the irregularity, but serious irregularity it was. Now it has been discovered, it allows the people who make the decisions to think again and reject the application.
I know that many other hon. Members want to speak so I will conclude on a seasonal point. Hon. Members will have coming to their constituencies every week people who have genuinely faced some of the most traumatic personal experiences. They may have seen loved ones murdered or experienced other atrocities against loved ones or themselves. It is not adequately conveyed in the press that there are large numbers of people who have rushed here having endured the most awful and real persecution.
It occurred to me when I was at a church service this weekend that we should remind ourselves that 2,000 years ago a little Jewish boy with his mummy and daddy fled mass genocide and went to Egypt. We do not know whether the tabloid press of Egypt of the day said, "All these Jewish carpenters coming and taking our jobs," and so forth. It is just possible that the good people of Egypt were a shade more compassionate than some people here are today. As we are in the period of Christmas, it is important that we as legislators—who are probably sensitive to the matter, whatever our views about immigration, asylum and refugees; there are some genuine debates—should state that we have been confronted in our constituency surgeries with the stark reality of persecution. We need to remind others that that is so. While there may be arguments and debate, this country has a proud tradition of harbouring people who have endured persecution, and we must not ever give that up.
It is always useful to be able to raise one's own constituency items in such debates, and there are a few of those to which I particularly want the attention of the House to be drawn before the House rises for its Christmas Adjournment.
In October I secured an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on Backdale quarry and Longstone Edge. In my opening remarks I pointed out that this was the second debate that I had had on the subject. The first was some nine years earlier, when we wanted the Government to explain why one of the sites on Longstone Edge was being quarried without the new planning procedure having been followed. It was causing great concern in the Peak District national park.
When I first raised the matter with the Minister, I was told that it was a local matter—but the quarry is in a national park. This is not a local issue; it is a matter of national importance. In the light of various planning decisions that have been changed in the courts, I emphasise yet again to the Government the importance of this area.
Longstone Edge is a spectacularly beautiful area at the moment, but with the amount of quarrying going on in unregulated circumstances, it is in grave danger. I received a letter just the other day from the British Mountaineering Council, which says:
"The anomaly that at Backdale and Wagers Flat the activity proceeds unabated prior to any decision— by the planning inspectorate—
"is in itself bizarre: that such action could take place in a National Park which relies for its economic well being on recreation, tourism and the opportunity for quiet enjoyment is frankly mind boggling. There must surely be scope for a moratorium on all irreversible destruction until the forthcoming Planning Enquiry has determined the meaning of the disputed 1952 planning permission 1898/9/69. The material value of the asset in question would in no way deteriorate since it would remain to be extracted if that were deemed to be legal. And if the current activity is found to be outwith the remit of the permission further infringement would have been avoided.
I have been grappling with Ruth Kelly's letter to you of
This is continuing to cause great upset in a national park, which has some 20 million visitors each year to explore the natural beauty of the area. The controversy surrounding the planning permission has been going on for more than nine years, which is simply not acceptable. I think that the Government should take urgent action on what I believe is a national issue.
I want to raise another concern. Over the past10 years, the Government have told us about their commitment to education—to "education, education, education" as we heard the Prime Minister say before he was elected to office. That rings fairly poorly at the moment in the area of Stony Middleton. Its school, which serves an important local community, is threatened with closure. It used to be the case that if a school were threatened with closure, an MP would be able to take a delegation to see a Minister to make the case for the school not to close. That has changed, as the Government have removed that right. I very much regret the lack of access to the Secretary of State, as I would like to explain why we believe that the local education authority decision is wrong. It is a retrograde step made by the Government, who have removed the final right of appeal of MPs to Ministers. As I said, I very much regret that. I hope that the local community, which is trying so hard to save the local school, will be successful and manage to save it.
As Members of Parliament, we should have the right to appeal directly to the Secretary of State when schools in our constituencies are threatened with closure. I was able to do that about 15 years ago when Muddington school in another part of my constituency was being threatened with closure, but since the Government have changed the law, we are no longer able to do so.
I have also raised on a number of occasions the issue of the resurfacing of the A50, which is a brand new link road—linking the M1 and M6 and passing through a village called Doveridge. When it was constructed, it was built on a concrete base and I had assurances from the then Secretary of State for Transport—now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—that the road would be resurfaced. That assurance has now been reversed: we are told that it will no longer be the case and it will not be resurfaced. Quality of life and the environment are important to people, and the amount of noise coming from the concrete surface is unacceptable. I still try to hold the Government to account for their original promise to resurface that particular section of roadway—a promise given from the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State, which the Government have, I am afraid, gone back on. Perhaps it does not surprise me that much, as we have had so many Government promises on these issues and so many of them have not come to fruition and not been fulfilled.
We have heard a lot about the national health service over the last few months. The Whitworth hospital in Darley Dale in my constituency has a maternity unit operated by the Chesterfield Royal hospital. It has been a vital source of community care in the area, particularly in the rural parts of my constituency. It provides a very important local community service. At the moment, because of an incident that happened a few months ago, it is closed. Coinciding with that closure is a review by the trust of the whole future of maternity services in north Derbyshire. I personally believe that the current closure will actually lead to a permanent closure, which would be a terrible loss of a very good local service.
Let me tell the Minister that it is no good for the Government to keep telling us how much extra money they are putting into the health service, when so many people are seeing services in their communities withdrawn. If we lose the maternity unit service at the Whitworth hospital, my constituents will not say, "Isn't it wonderful that the Government are putting extra money into the health service?"; rather, they will ask, "Where is all this money going, when we see such a reduction in the services that we value so much in our local areas?" I very much hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to reassure us today that the consultation will not lead to a reduction in service. If the Darley Dale maternity unit closes down, that is exactly what will happen.
A constituent, Nicola Smith, came to see me at my surgery on Friday. She wrote to me, saying:
"I am currently training as a midwife at University of Huddersfield, and due to qualify in March 2007...The Government is paying a fortune each year to train many midwives on both the 3 year direct entry course and the18 month conversion course from nurse to midwifery (which I am currently undertaking). If newly qualified midwives do not get jobs on qualification, then all that money has effectively been wasted. It saddens me to think that all my hard work and effort over the last 4 and a half years may have been for nothing. I have worked for 4 and a half years to pursue my one passion, a career in midwifery, to be able to provide the standard of quality of care that every woman and her family deserves, in a safe, secure woman centred environment where women can be properly supported by midwives to birth their babies."
She is coming to the end of her course, but she is concerned that she will not be able to get a job. It is ridiculous for the Government to spend huge amounts of money on training people if the jobs are not there for them to pursue at the end of the training. We all heard this morning about the case of physiotherapy nurses who, after a long period of training, also face the possibility of being unable to secure a job.
I am very concerned about the future of the Darley Dale maternity unit, which is why I have raised these concerns today. I very much hope that my fears of closure are premature and that it will not happen.
Last week, we heard a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the future of the Post Office. I have already seen a number of post offices close in my constituency, and I fear from his statement last week that we are going to see many more close, including some in my constituency. The Government say that that has nothing to do with them at all. We are told that the Government have supported the Post Office and the problem, as the Prime Minister tells us, is all to do with people deciding not to use post offices. I find that to be an insensitive and insulting comment from a Prime Minister who has taken vast amounts of work away from the Post Office so that post offices cannot survive.
The Government say that they have to respond to the problem, but they forget to say that part of the reason for the problem is the Government's deliberate desire for people not to use the Post Office. Ministers tell us that the BBC's decision was taken independently, but we are often told that we have joined-up government in which different Departments talk to one another. I greatly fear for the future of the rural structure of the Post Office in my constituency. We have already seen approximately 17 to 18 closures over the past 10 years and I think that, as a result of the Government's decisions, we are going to see many more.
I have read much about the next issue that I want to raise, and I have met many people who are worried about it, although it may not have had the airing in the House that it should have done. I refer to the future of the rural economy. People often pay more for a bottle of water than they pay for a bottle of milk now, so milk producers now face serious problems.
When people go my constituency to enjoy the beauty of the countryside, the landscape that they see does not exist because of nature, but because farmers look after and maintain it—because farmers love the countryside in which they work and operate. More than 1,000 milk producers are going out of business each year, and we will see more of that. At the end of the day, this country will be much sadder and less attractive if our agriculture is not looked after and supported. The very fact that farmers get less for milk today than they did 10 years ago, and that the wholesales are making a lot more profit on milk, is very bad news indeed. I do not believe that the Government really care about the countryside or agriculture at all, but they ignore them at great cost to the natural environment of this country.
I wish every hon. Member, all the staff and all those who provide us with our security and food in the House a very happy Christmas and restful new year.
I also felt that my constituents would have a happy Christmas—I attended a celebration last Thursday evening of a Eid, Hanukka, Diwali and Christmas joint event in the integrationist-minded Muslim community centre at Eton road in my constituency—but on Friday morning, I attended a meeting, also in my constituency, with the local health bosses of the four primary care trusts, two acute hospital trusts and mental health trusts and representatives of the London region of the NHS to discuss a programme called "fit for the future". That was referred to in passing during last night's Adjournment debate on the fantastic new Queen's hospital in Romford, which is a great tribute to the record investment, which has increased from 7 to 9 per cent. of gross domestic product under this Labour Government. But plans are now afoot that will make health and hospital provision in my constituency seriously worse for many of the poorest people if the plans that are envisaged for the "fit for the future" team are not stopped.
I want to spend some time dealing with that issue because I am very conscious that people all over the country raise their concerns about changes in the health service, but I am doing so in a context where we do not have static population in east London and we do not have changes in technology that can be used alone to justify changes in provision. A massive increase in population could take place just when significant reductions in hospital provision are planned in my constituency and across Ilford.
The four PCTs in outer north-east London—Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Redbridge and Waltham Forest, each of which is borough-based—plus the Barking, Havering and Redbridge acute hospital trust, which has two hospitals, the new Queen's hospital in Romford, which has taken over the work of the old Oldchurch and Harold Wood hospitals, which have been closed, and the King George hospital in Ilford, which was a new hospital, built and opened in 1993 in my constituency to replace an old 1920s facility, plus the Whips Cross university hospital, which is based in Leytonstone and is principally a collection of 1920s and 1930s buildings, and the North East London mental health trust, which covers the whole of those east London boroughs, are discussing those proposals in detail.
Those involved have come up with five options. Given what I was told on Friday, it is clear that they favour what they call option 4, under which the accident and emergency department at King George hospital, Ilford, and the children's accident and emergency department will be closed and all elective work in the hospital will be ended. Although a new independent sector treatment centre is just about to open, it has a five-year contract for a minimum number of operations. It will be there for five years, but not necessarily for much longer.
Over recent months, we have had a series of what the local NHS bosses call stakeholder workshops, run by a firm of management consultants called Finnamore. They have taken the circumstances of a few dozen local people supposedly to model various options with various weightings, which are then supposed to give an objective outcome of choice. They have had problems with their process. They were supposed to make the proposals public by the end of the year. They now intend to put them to the boards of the four PCTs in January. If they are approved, they will then go to the London NHS in February. A public consultation exercise to rubber-stamp the process will then be run for three months, presumably from March until the end of June or July.
But in my opinion, on the information that I have, that whole exercise is rigged, flawed and unacceptable. Why do I say that it is rigged? I do so because London NHS is not asking every area in London to undertake similar exercises; only four areas in London are doing so, and neither of the neighbouring boroughs, Newham and Hackney, nor the areas of Essex—where, for example, Harlow hospital is located—is undertaking a similar exercise. The exercise is constructed simply to look at patient flows and the local health economy of outer north-east London.
What is very interesting is that those involved have come up with proposals designed to reduce the services in some hospitals in my area, while no consideration is given to the neighbouring boroughs. We have discovered that there is, in effect, a preconceived agenda: as the new hospital is built up and established at Romford, it is a fixed point, and they are trying to create a situation where either the Whipps Cross hospital in Leytonstone or the King George hospital in Ilford is significantly downgraded.
The whole basis of the process is designed, of course, to create rivalry between neighbouring Members of Parliament and neighbouring communities. In those circumstances, it is very difficult to take an objective look at the overall situation. Those involved are failing to take account of the facts. I got these figures from the Library last week, and the facts are that the population of my borough, Redbridge, based on natural factors—fertility, demographics and the movement of people in, not additional house building—will increase over the next 25 years, from 2004 to 2029, by a total of 46,300. Havering's population will go up by 14,700, and Barking and Dagenham's by 12,000. Yet there is no provision for any new hospital facilities; on the contrary, there is a reduction.
At the same time, let us take account of proposed house building. My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay referred to the Thames Gateway. At present, 1.5 million people live in the whole of that area, from east London to the south of Essex and north Kent on the other side of the Thames. Over the next 10 years, until 2016, something like 128,500 new homes are going to be built in that area. In just 10 years, the population is going to increase by15 per cent. That will mean 275,000 additional people in the Thames Gateway area. A large proportion of that increase is in the Thames Gateway area of the east London boroughs and alongside the Essex part of the River Thames.
In 2004, before the North East London strategic health authority was abolished and merged into the new London NHS, it said that, in the 10 years, there would be increases in population of 100,000 or 51 per cent. in Tower Hamlets; 99,000 or 40 per cent. in Newham; 7,000 or 3 per cent. in Havering; 17,000 or 8 per cent. in Waltham Forest—although that is outside the Thames Gateway area—and 21,000 or 9 per cent. in Redbridge. Most significantly, it said that in Barking and Dagenham, which is where people go from to King George hospital in Ilford, there will be 44,000 additional people—a27 per cent. increase in the population—in the next10 years.
There are no plans to build any new hospitals in the Thames Gateway whatsoever. From the Newham general hospital and the Royal London hospital right the way through to Basildon there are no new hospitals. Yes, there is the fantastic new state-of-the-art Queen's hospital in Romford. However, it is proposed to take out of the equation several hundred beds from either the King George hospital in Ilford, or the Whipps Cross university hospital in Leytonstone. The way that decision is pointing is that the beds will be taken out of the hospital in Ilford, in my constituency. That is being done because it is argued that there are financial deficits, which is true. The Barking, Havering and Redbridge Hospitals NHS Trust has a 4.8 per cent. deficit of £16 million on a turnover of more than£334 million. The neighbouring Whipps Cross university hospital has a deficit of £15.8 million on a turnover of £182 million, which is 8.7 per cent.—one of the largest in the country.
I am concerned, however, that if facilities in my constituency are closed, there is no guarantee that there will be improved primary care facilities proportionate to the closures that will be announced. The ongoing deficit at Whipps Cross will have to be financed. In answer to questions at the meeting on Friday, it was admitted that that deficit would take at least five years to eliminate. The Waltham Forest primary care trust has a deficit of £1.884 million to cover as well. We are facing a situation in which there is disinvestment in some services in Waltham Forest and disinvestment by Waltham Forest council in some of its social services spending. We in Ilford will presumably make a contribution in the form of the savings that the primary care trust will make overall by reducing services in Ilford.
I am conscious of time. I do not wish to go on too long, but I want to make an even more serious point. There is something bizarre about the process. On
"radical thinking about how to deliver services" across London. That is to be published in spring 2007 and a final health strategy for London will be published in the summer. That seems bizarre and absurd: one starts the process to carry out cuts in services in one part of London and then one decides the strategy for the whole of London. It is bonkers. That is the wrong way round. I cannot understand why the NHS does not say, "In view of the decision to set up this work by Professor Ara Darzi, we need to look at London as a whole and then look at the sub-parts of London—the particular boroughs, outer London north-east, south-east London and west London," rather than doing things this crazy way round. There is something seriously wrong with the way in which the matter is being approached.
The other thing that worries me is that the local "fit for the future" team seem to have given only cursory consideration to the impact of the changes that they are making on the neighbouring areas. I have already referred to Newham and Hackney, but there is also the possibility of movement of some patients to other hospitals in London, such as the North Middlesex university hospital. We were told at the meeting on Friday, which was attended by five Members of Parliament, that those involved had written in October to ask for information from those neighbouring hospitals, but the people had not got any detailed information to give us. It does not seem that there is any sense of co-ordination, particularly given the massive increases in population that are going to take place in Newham and Tower Hamlets as a result of development in the Thames Gateway.
Those involved have also done an odd exercise with regard to consideration of travelling to hospitals. I asked, "Have you done detailed studies of how a woman with four young children and a pram, who does not have access to a car, will get to the hospital in Romford or Whipps Cross university hospital from the south of Ilford or even from Barking and Dagenham?" I was told, "Well, we've done some simulation exercises of journey times." However, the information is not public and I suspect that, as with everything else in this case, there is a preconceived outcome and a rigged process.
I asked the Library of the Commons for some data on travel times and the number of households that do not have access to a car. Interestingly, the wards in my constituency furthest from the hospitals are the ones with a higher number of people who do not have cars. It is odd, because the document produced by the "fit for the future" team says that "fit for the future" is supposed to be "addressing local health inequalities". Yes, it is true: it does address local health inequalities—it addresses them and makes them worse. Some 38 per cent. of households in Loxford in my constituency do not have access to a car. In Valentines the figure is also 38 per cent. and in Clementswood it is 35 per cent. The figures are slightly higher in the wards in the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham. However, in leafy Monkhams, in the constituency of Mr. Duncan Smith, which is up near Whipps Cross university hospital, only 16 per cent. of households do not have access to a car.
If services at King George hospital are run down and decimated to make it available for ambulatory care—as it is called—only, people may well have to amble there, travelling several miles, and then find that they have a more serious ailment and be rushed by ambulance to another hospital several miles away. It is a ridiculous situation. We need to stop the process. Either the London NHS should stop the whole process now or the boards of the primary care trusts—particularly Redbridge—should vote down the proposals so that they cannot go through and are referred back. Alternatively, if we go through this exercise, I hope that tens of thousands of local people throughout Redbridge, Barking, Dagenham and elsewhere will come out and say loudly, "No, we do not want King George hospital to be closed." If that does not work, Redbridge council's scrutiny committee should refer the matter to the Secretary of State so that we can deal with this nonsense.
I believe passionately that the Government have done a lot of good things to improve investment in the NHS, but we have a set of self-serving, bureaucratic, accountant-minded managers who are coming up with proposals that are not in the interests of the poorest people in the poorest communities, including those in my constituency. These mad proposals have to be stopped.
I would have thought that the passionate pleas of Mike Gapes for proper health care in his constituency do not sit very easily with the Secretary of State for Health saying that this is the best year yet for the national health service. The hon. Gentleman might want to read yesterday's Hansard and reflect on the totally inadequate response of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Lewis, to the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell. I wish the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee well in his endeavours, but I think that he will have a lot of persuading of his ministerial colleagues to do.
We will today adjourn for the Christmas recess and go back home to be with our loved ones and families. That is very different from what will happen to a large number of young men and women serving in our armed forces, especially those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I want to draw the House's attention to yesterday's inquest into the death of Sergeant Steve Roberts, at which the coroner, Andrew Walker, said:
"To send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those in Government".
You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that back in March 2003, Sergeant Steve Roberts died because he did not have lifesaving body armour, which had been denied him by the then Secretary of State for Defence. Mr. Walker went on to say:
"Sergeant Roberts' death was as a result of delay and serious failures in the acquisition and support chain that resulted in a significant shortage within his fighting unit of enhanced combat body armour, none being available for him to wear."
The coroner had requested that the then Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Hoon, come to give evidence at the inquest. That did not happen. Instead, the Ministry of Defence sent David Williams, who is its director of capability, resources and scrutiny. Mr. Williams said that buying large numbers of body armour sets would have
"obviously indicated the department was pressing ahead with preparations for war when negotiations were still firmly at the diplomatic stage".
What an unbelievably cynical and outrageous remark to make. Does that mean that if we ever order more bullets and guns, we are telling our enemies that we might be about to engage in conflict? That was a totally inadequate response.
I found it amazing that the current Secretary of State for Defence did not come to the Dispatch Box today to make a statement in light of the coroner's remarks. It was quite unacceptable that the right hon. Member for Ashfield delayed for eight weeks before agreeing to the request that the body armour be made available. The right hon. Gentleman should be seriously considering his position. Frankly, having spent 25 years in this House, I do not see how he can remain as a Minister—you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the right hon. Gentleman still serves in a non-Cabinet capacity as Minister for Europe.
The other place is considering the Government's Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. I would suggest that if this was the real world and the private sector, the right hon. Gentleman could well be up on a charge of corporate manslaughter. Part of the Bill, which will soon return to this House, says clearly that a person who has left their job and moved to another position has no excuse—that person can still be prosecuted. When the Deputy Leader of the House makes his winding-up speech, I hope that he will, at the very least, give us some assurance that the current Secretary of State for Defence will report back to the House when we return in January and that he will convey the concerns of many right hon. and hon. Members to the right hon. Member for Ashfield and ask him to consider his position.
The situation in both Afghanistan and Iraq is grave. Many of us have been deeply uncomfortable with the fact that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have not been prepared to come to the House to brief us adequately in recent weeks. I am sure that you would agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the first duty of the House is to ensure that the people in this country have confidence in us and that we reflect people's real concerns in our debates, questions and proceedings on statements in the House.
You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Prime Minister immediately flew to Washington—quite rightly, in my view—to be with President Bush straight after Secretary Baker published the Iraq Study Group report. The report is hugely significant. It could change the way in which we are conducting war in Iraq and it might have grave implications for our fighting men and women in Iraq. The Prime Minister saw fit to take questions at the press conference in Washington, but after returning to this country on the Friday, he made a speech in Birmingham on a completely unrelated subject. He was not prepared to come to the House to make a statement on developments following the publication of Secretary Baker's report. That is quite unacceptable.
Although I have huge respect for the Leader of the House—I realise that he was in a difficult position earlier in the week—I gently suggest to him, through his deputy, that to say rather vaguely that there will be a debate on Iraq some time before the end of January is just not good enough. When hon. Members questioned him about that debate and said, "Presumably, of course, the Prime Minister will open that debate," the Leader of the House gave the clear impression that the debate would be opened merely by the Foreign Secretary. Again, I would suggest that that is not good enough. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey that to both the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister.
This is an extremely awkward time in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I have already mentioned. I do not think that the House can ignore today's Chatham House report, which says not only that it was a terrible mistake for us to go into Iraq, but that the Prime Minister was woefully negligent to take so long to realise that the Taliban were resurging in Afghanistan. Most of us accept that the redeployment of allied troops from Afghanistan to Iraq at the time of the invasion of Iraq gave the Taliban a wonderful opportunity, which it has exploited to the full, to the huge detriment of the people of Afghanistan and our brave men and women who are fighting out there.
I conclude by suggesting to the Deputy Leader of the House that he, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister take a long, cool look at the report thatDame Pauline Neville-Jones and her team published yesterday, which is a constructive critique of foreign and security policy in this country. Their conclusion was that it was high time that with our foreign policy and diplomacy there was a little humility and patience. That has been sadly lacking. It was particularly lacking in the characteristically arrogant remarks of the Foreign Secretary, who dismissed the Chatham House report of Victor Bulmer-Thomas as
"threadbare, insubstantial and just plain wrong".
Chatham House is a hugely influential and respected institution, which is totally non-political and unbiased. To have its report dismissed in such petulant, damning terms by the Foreign Secretary frankly says more about the Foreign Secretary than it does about Chatham House.
I start by wishing a merry Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Speaker, the staff and the Members, particularly those who have stopped here for the graveyard shift this afternoon. I especially want to wish a merry Christmas to my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay. I hope that he has a nice day here tomorrow; I certainly intend to be getting off a train in Durham before 10 o'clock tonight.
I want to return to a matter that I first raised in the House in the summer recess Adjournment debate in 2005. I expressed genuine concerns about plans that had been put to Gateshead borough council to allow a local contractor to mine open-cast coal from a site in my constituency known as Skons Park. I do not intend to recall all the points that I made on that occasion, but I want to state on the record that the issues raised that day are at least as relevant now as they were then. To some extent, this is an update, but for the vast majority of people in my area, it is an update that they would rather not have.
Following my debate and with the support of thousands of people in the area, the local council, in unanimous agreement, threw out the application in March 2006. The relief and joy at that decision was shared not only by thousands of people living in and around the Derwent valley, but by the National Trust, which owns the nearby Gibside estate, of which more later. Gateshead council, Derwentside council, Durham county council, English Heritage, local political parties, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Wildlife Trust, the Woodland Trust and Friends of the Earth were all opposed to the application.
Special mention should also be made of the campaign run by the group DRAMA, Derwentside Residents Against Mining Application, led by local man Eddie Stringer, and the Derwent Valley Preservation Society, led by Alderman Pitch Wilson, a man with a hugely impressive track record in defending our corner of this green and pleasant land going back well over 30 years and, coincidentally, in that time seeing off nine open-cast applications.
Sadly, the relief and joy that we felt was short-lived. I wrote to contractors asking them to accept the unanimous decision of Gateshead council, to reflect on the massive public outcry backed by the various bodies I have mentioned and not to pursue their application. But there is coal in them thar hills, and the contractors want to get their hands on it. More worryingly, local campaigners are convinced that Skons Park is nothing less than the thin end of a very thick wedge—a wedge that would see the exploitation of the land in the valley and open-cast pits popping up the length and breadth of one of the most important green areas in the north of England.
The Derwent valley is one of the green lungs of an area that has at one end the foothills of the north Pennines and at the other the A1 western bypass, the biggest shopping mall in Europe and the whole Tyneside conurbation. It is a genuinely green lung, feeding our region in a way that all the promises from the contractors of successful reclamation will never achieve. We are convinced that if the planning inspectorate in its wisdom overturns Gateshead's decisions, and if the Secretary of State accepts that position, our valley will become a Klondike for open-cast coal operators.
I believe that if the inspectorate and/or the Secretary of State applied in full the principles of sustainable development as laid out in minerals planning guidance note 3 regarding national land use policy considerations, they could not overturn Gateshead's decision. From the so-called evidence put forward so far by the contractors, I do not see that they can show, as the document states, that their proposal is environmentally sound or that it can ever be made so. Likewise, hardly anyone in the local community believes that the proposals would in any way outweigh the detrimental impacts inherent in the scheme.
Further, we have as yet seen no acknowledgement from the contractors of the very existence of a site of special scientific interest, let alone any details of how they would intend to meet their obligations in regard to the SSSI at Leap Mill burn. However, this is the main lesson of my steep learning curve in trying to make sense of planning policy in this country: any organisation can make an application to exploit a piece of land which would have a drastic impact on the environment, on the rapidly developing tourist industry, on an intricate web of interlinking wildlife areas and on one of the great historical treasures of our nation, and it can do so without putting forward real evidence to deal with the genuine concerns expressed by local people and organisations committed to the region.
Companies go through the initial stages of the process, and I cannot for the life of me begin to understand why we allow them to make such serious applications without having full and detailed evidence to back up their claims at the local council level. The fact that companies effectively view the application process at council level as little more than an inconvenience that has to be put up with before they give the real story at a national level is an insult to local people, a massive burden on already overstretched public sector workers and a massive waste of public money.
Let me be clear: if contractors cannot produce high-quality evidence at a local level, they should not be allowed to proceed further. If it is good enough for the inspectorate, it should be good enough for the council and local people. The situation also means that any persons or organisations wanting to resist the application are playing catch-up in their attempts to find and challenge the applicant's evidence.
I use as an example the submission of a case put forward by the National Trust. As the National Trust states:
"It is our duty to protect our holdings for ever, for everyone."
That is a very strong remit. I firmly believe that no organisation or contractor should hold back facts or evidence or be slow in coming forward to give information in relation to any planning application that may impact on National Trust property, but the following quotations about the Gibside estate and the hassle that the National Trust experiences in meeting its commitments show that, sadly, that is not the case.
The National Trust says:
"The information the Trust has been provided with by the appellant to date has been an initial Scoping Report, which did not refer to the impact of the proposal on Gibside Estate; The planning application was accompanied by an Environmental Statement...However, the Environmental Statement did not provide sufficient information to satisfy the Trust that there would not be an adverse impact on the Gibside Estate. Nor did it provide enough information for the Trust to be able to assess the possibilities for mitigation, since no adverse impact was identified.
The appellants then submitted supplementary information documents, which did not provide evidence to clarify any of our initial concerns.
At the time of preparing this statement, no further information has been provided to the Trust by" the contractors
"despite the fact that we have, from the outset, asked for proper, detailed information to enable us to fully assess the impacts of this proposal.
Our case at present, in some areas (in particular, hydrology, noise, vibration and dust) is difficult to clarify due to continued lack of information.
We are unable to make a sound judgement on a proposal which provides insufficient information on impacts and mitigation.
The Trust will demonstrate that due to lack of information provided by the appellant, it is impossible to judge the impact of the proposal...on site, and therefore off site.
The Trust will demonstrate that there is not enough information to ascertain the impact on hydro morphology of the area, and therefore, not enough information to judge the impact on the surrounding ecology on the Gibside Estate, including the SSSI, the Leap Mill Burn, and other spring fed and groundwater systems.
The Trust will refer to (given the lack of information provided) the detrimental impact the restoration scheme would have on the Gibside Estate".
On noise, the trust had to report that
"The information supplied by the appellant...has, to date, been insufficient to allay our concerns" and it said:
"The Trust do not have enough evidence to satisfy ourselves that there would not be a detrimental impact to...Gibside Estate".
That was the position as of the date on which the National Trust had to make its statement of case. Surely that is not on—the system is supposed to be an open, democratic, accountable way to make serious decisions about the future of our country. There should not be any last-minute gamesmanship, in which contractors pull rabbits out of the hat, and evidence should not be produced so late in the process that there is no time to evaluate it properly.
To reiterate, if in relation to the evidence supporting the claim the application is not strong enough at the initial stage, the application should not go further.We will continue to campaign against the proposal, because it is the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the wrong thing because it will havea detrimental impact on people who live in the surrounding area. It will produce much heavier traffic on already overburdened roads, and it will lead to disruption to people's daily lives. It is in the wrong place, because it is very close to one of our glorious historical treasures. The place has undergone a transformation, and it currently has record numbers of both visitors and employees. The company has so far failed to give evidence that assures the National Trust that its land and property will be safe, especially from flooding, vibration and noise.
Finally, it is the wrong time, because the north-east is redefining its natural areas, as that is the key to developing its economy for the future. After centuries of putting up with the negative impacts of coal exploitation, both human and environmental, we have turned things around, and we are attracting young people and modern businesses to the area. At long last, we are developing a sustainable tourist industry. For example, in my constituency, red kites have been reintroduced after an absence of 160 years. That is a concrete commitment to preserving our heritage, and we are using our heritage to develop our future. We do not need to destroy our land and way of life for a capful of coal. The project would produce less than 500,000 tonnes of coal in three years.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and the sympathy of the House is with him on the issue, because everything in the system is geared for people who wish to rape the countryside—that is what we are talking about—and it works at the expense of the people who live there. Does he agree that there oughtto be a better balance, so that local people and organisations are listened to, and does he agree that the power of appeal should be taken away from people who only want to make money from the application?
I certainly agree. As a result of the process, I have learned that, month after month, the contractors got away with not having the information. They could have done the necessary work beforehand; they should have the information when they come before the inspectorate, and when they come before the council. That way, local people could make decisions with all the information before them.
As I say, the project would produce 500,000 tonnes of coal in three years, which is a pittance when we consider collieries in the USA, which now produce1 million tonnes of coal a month. People will accuse me of nimbyism, and I plead guilty. Our backyard led the world in the industrial revolution, and we are plagued with the scars of sand quarries, steel mills, landfill sites and pit heaps, dating as far back as Elizabethan times. We want to move forward, and the development of the biggest shopping centre in Europe, the opening of world-class concert venues and art galleries, the siting of the icon that is the angel of the north and the planting and expansion of the Great North forest are a testament to our new way forward.
I fervently hope that the inspectorate will see the sense in our case, and will not give in. We will lobbythe Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if the inspectorate does not rule against the decision, and we hope that she shows the same grit as her predecessor in the 1970s, when he overruled the inspectorate's decision on the application that was the first foray by coal speculators in the Derwent valley. I hope that we can expose the charade that is being acted out in the name of planning in this country. Local people have to live with the outcome of the decisions, and applicants should be forced by law, if necessary, to produce real evidence at the local stage of the process.
May I start by wishing you a happy Christmas, and season's greetings, Madam Deputy Speaker? I should like to put on record a brief Christmas reflection on recent events, particularly those affecting our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Let me say at the start that I am not an expert on international relations or the middle east, and I am not gifted with any special insight into foreign affairs. The issue of our relationship with the Saudis has followed me, not vice versa.
I first became aware of the problematic character of that relationship when I was contacted by a constituent who had been blinded in a terrorist outrage in Saudi Arabia, and was then charged with blowing himself up. Although released, he asked me to intercede on behalf of other Britons similarly charged, at a time when Saudi Arabia was frankly in denial about the extent of al-Qaeda activity in that country. I believed that Britons were wrongly charged and were forced to confess to crimes such as causing explosions, which were committed by others, probably terrorists. The Britons were convenient and unfortunate fall-guys.
However, the moment that I began to ask questions, I was seen by officials at the Foreign Office—Mr. O'Brien, now the Solicitor-General, went out of his way to see me—and they warned me off pursuing the matter. However, I did pursue it, as did other hon. Members and the press. We are critical of the press from time to time, but in connection with this affair they did precisely the right thing. The Government refused to criticise the Saudis, and the relatives of those concerned remained unhappy with the performance of the Government. After further bombings, it became manifest that al-Qaeda was indeed alive, organised, and well-equipped in the kingdom. By then, the British prisoners were no longer a cover, and were instead an embarrassment. A delegation of MPs went to the Saudi Arabian embassy, and met Turki al-Faisal. I left the meeting with a positive impression of the depth of Arab pride and civilisation. The prisoners, thankfully, were released as an act of clemency. No view was formed on their guilt or otherwise, or on whether the charges against them had been wrongly placed.
The Foreign Office tried to mute criticism, but when a former British prisoner, Ron Jones, tried to take action through the British courts, the Foreign Office intervened against him and for the Saudis. The case yo-yoed its way up to the House of Lords, and on the day when the verdict was delivered, I watched, together with Saudi observers, as British justice was delivered. Ron Jones lost his case, unfortunately—his case was that he had been tortured in the kingdom while wrongfully arrested—but the verdict was probably right on the point of law.
A year on, I joined the Public Accounts Committee and was approached by a journalist inquiring about the National Audit Office report on the al-Yamamah deal. I was puzzled by its non-publication and its immunity from scrutiny, and I raised the issue of its publication—its unique non-publication. There then followed a confidential meeting of the PAC attended by some eminent people whom I am not allowed to name. It was made clear, first, that only a vote of the full House could end the report's secret status; secondly, that no living MP has or can have access to it currently; and thirdly, that only the author of it may now read it. Completely blocked out, one waited none the less for the Serious Fraud Office investigation to conclude. That might have brought some matters to light, except that it has not and it will not.
There is only one conclusion that can be fairly drawn: what the Saudi Government do not like, we generally do not do. There is only one rational explanation for that: we fear the loss of their trade, or of their strategic support, or both. At this point, people divide into two camps. There are the pragmatists, some of whom are present. They argue in a utilitarian fashion that the harm caused to trade on balance outweighs compromises that we make over human rights, judicial process, transparency and ethical trading. Then there are the absolutists, and some of them are present as well. They condemn any such compromise as wrong in principle and disastrous in the long term. The pragmatists are accused of being unprincipled, and the absolutists are accused of being unworldly and holier than thou.
I have to accept that both are serious moral positions. Neither side takes the view that the world of international relations should simply be left to moral anarchy, or that pure realpolitik should prevail. But whether one is a pragmatist or an absolutist, one must be consistent. What worries me about the Government's current position is that it is not that. One cannot drop principles to serve one's understanding of the national interest, and then object when other regimes do precisely the same.
That was the point ably made in the Chamber by my hon. Friend Norman Lamb and on Monday in a well-thought-out article in The Guardian by its economics editor. That approach does not work. It harms the pursuit of good governance world wide; it gives succour to the Mugabes and the Burmas about whom we constantly complain and gives credibility to their offensive rhetoric; and, like the illegal invasion of Iraq, it renders hostile propaganda plausible and thereby weakens us.
Just as in an individual's life there may be no conflict between the path of virtue and the road to happiness, there may be no ultimate conflict between the national interest and true internationalism. After all, it is the countries that are dominated by the rule of law with which, by and large, we wish to do business. Sadly, and perhaps briefly, the pursuits of international virtue and national interest have diverged a little lately. Perhaps we should accept that we have too narrow a concept ofthe former, and possibly an insensitivity to cultural circumstances elsewhere. Perhaps we have too narrow a concept of national interest. However, just as our predecessors in this place made the risky idea of democracy plausible, workable and sought after, we should try, with all the attendant risks and hazards, to make true internationalism similarly attractive.
It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Pugh and also Mr. Anderson, whose speech showed the passion with which he represents his constituency. I, too, could speak with passion for mine, but I shall focus on one challenge among many facing my constituency in the London borough of Hillingdon—the task of caring for and funding asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the UK.
Andrew Mackinlay is right. We must think long and hard about that, especially at this time of year. I know the subject is of interest to many hon. Members, but it particularly interests us in Hillingdon because of the strategic location of Heathrow within the borough. Having spoken to the officers of the London borough of Hillingdon, I know that they do not resent in any way the responsibility that we have to look after those people. The local authority provides crucial support services for some extremely vulnerable people, some of whom are fleeing persecution and others who have been forced to travel to the UK for illegal purposes.
Our particular problem with Heathrow relates to the unaccompanied children coming in, whose care involves schooling, accommodation and disability support. The children arriving in Hillingdon have suffered traumatic experiences. Many have travelled to Britain to become involved in drug trafficking, prostitution, domestic service and so on. Hillingdon social services receives dozens of calls each week from the airport authorities, asking them to come and collect unaccompanied children from the airport. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the local authority and its staff, who are doing tremendous work in caring for these vulnerable people.
The Government's new mantra for children is "Every Child Matters", and I applaud those sentiments. However, it is time to remind Ministers that that includes asylum-seeking children in Hillingdon. It has become apparent that despite providing those vital services, Hillingdon council receives inadequate funding support from central Government. That is placing a huge financial burden on us. The council is effectively being punished for implementing the Government's own policies on asylum. As I said, I know that this is common to many areas, but Hillingdon's situation is unique because no other local authority has a comparable gateway, particularly for the children.
The budgetary pressures have been caused by recent Government decisions. Most worrying to the local authority are cuts in funding for post-18 asylum seekers who are leaving care but require ongoing support. Previously, boroughs supporting more than44 asylum-seeking care leavers aged between 18 and24 received between £100 and £140 a week from the Department for Education and Skills to provide support services, with the first 44 being provided for entirely by the local authority. However, in October last year and January this year the Government issued circulars stating that that would fall to £100 a week for boroughs with more than 25 asylum-seeking care leavers. Certain local authorities with a handful of asylum-seeking care leavers might benefit from that move, but for Hillingdon it has caused acute budgetary challenges. The problem was compounded by the fact that the cuts were to apply retrospectively. This was announced at a time when Hillingdon had already set its budgets and planned council tax levels. It must be incredibly unsound and unjust to set out grant rules that significantly change practice some 10 months after the financial year has started.
The impact of those Government cuts was substantial and unplanned for. Hillingdon had to find an extra £1.6 million for the financial year 2004-05 and £3.7 million for the financial year 2005-06, and there will be an estimated ongoing future annual impact of £4.8 million. I must stress that that money was already set aside for other services. As a result, earlier this year the council was forced to set its budget and council tax levels for 2006-07 with the above deficiencies in its budget, and it is now having to do exactly the samefor the forthcoming year. The council faces several unpalatable options, including a significant number of staff redundancies, all of which are being caused by the disingenuous approach of the DFES. Interestingly, and rather worryingly, the Minister formerly responsible for the matter refused to meet council officials to discuss it.
I am pleased to say that the council is not taking this lying down, and has successfully applied to the High Court for permission to proceed with a judicial review, which we hope will take place in January. The issue attracts cross-party support locally, with the leader of the Labour group and both Liberal Democrats supporting the Conservative administration's stance. John McDonnell and my hon. Friend Mr. Hurd, who is in his place now, share my concerns. They, like me, will have heard from their constituents about the strain that the underfunding is placing on local support services.
A significant number of people living in Hillingdon have been through the official asylum process but were rejected and have subsequently exhausted all appeals. The Government have decreed that such people should no longer be living in the UK. However, arrangements for their removal lie in the hands of the Home Office, and until it undertakes its responsibility in that regard, the burden of financial support remains with thelocal authority. The London borough of Hillingdon currently supports, at an annual cost of £1.2 million, some 155 asylum seekers who have exhausted all appeals. Officers have told me that as a result, pressure is already being placed on services such as refuse collection, libraries, parks, street cleaning and housing. Ultimately, it is the local council tax payers who are having to pay, because the Home Office is not doingits job.
What galls me particularly is learning that officialsin the Home Office contacted council offices in Hillingdon in September asking for a full list of those asylum seekers who had exhausted all appeals. It seems incredible that the Home Office did not know who those people were or where they lived. Three months down the line, no action has been taken. The fact that the Home Office had to come and ask the local authority who those people were, and where they were, gives me little faith that it has any idea at all what itis doing. It is just incredible. I want Ministers to understand and recognise the unfairness of the situation. As long as the Home Office has problems dealing with that group of people, Hillingdon should be reimbursed for the full cost of providing support services.
The most worrying aspect of the issue is the threat to community cohesion. I have lived in Hillingdon all my life, and we have a proud tradition of good community relations, which everyone is keen to retain. However, if we see council tax rises or service cuts in Hillingdon, I am afraid that certain people may try to attribute them to the cost of those asylum seekers. Underfunding from central Government is to blame, but extremist parties may wish to exploit the situation. The dangers of walking blindly into such a situation have already been seen in Barking and Dagenham, with the election of 12 British National party councillors. I do not want to see the BNP or the National Front doing anything in Hillingdon.
In May, National Front candidates stood in two wards and received considerable support. Thankfully, they were beaten convincingly by the Conservatives, but in Harefield ward, the National Front came second to the Conservatives, beating the Labour candidates, who had held the ward in previous years, and the Liberal Democrats. I do not want to overplay the threat of extremism, nor should we understate it. It is one of the reasons why we have a strong cross-party consensus in Hillingdon. I hope that Ministers will recognise and understand those concerns.
Government cuts are not the only pressures onour budgets in Hillingdon. The financial crisis in Hillingdon primary care trust, which has had a staggering five executives in 18 months, is putting health and social care services in the borough at risk. The Government's insistence that the PCT balanceits books within a short time scale is making it increasingly likely that the recovery plan will impact on the extent and quality of local health and social care services. In addition, it is clear that the PCT is attempting to shunt a lot of the NHS costs on to the local authority, on the highly questionable basis that the support being provided to extremely vulnerable service users could be regarded as social rather than health care. That course of action is being followed despite the fact that those costs have been met by the NHS for many years.
Given the huge scale of the problem at Hillingdon PCT, it is clear that the cost shunt being sought by the PCT will run into many millions of pounds. That impression is confirmed by our contact with the PCT, which has stated that a PCT cut of at least £3 million per annum is required in jointly commissioned services for people with learning disabilities. A similar cost reduction appears to be the aim for a range of other patients with continuing care assessments, as the means of transferring historical NHS costs to the local authority.
The PCT has also cut £500,000 from its grants and voluntary agencies, which provide essential support to people with significant health problems. As many of those services are preventive and supportive in nature, the council will have to pick up some of that funding liability, thereby avoiding further demand on primary health and care services.
All that represents a considerable cost pressure, which could amount to between £5 million and£10 million per annum if simply transferred to the local authority. That would be completely unacceptable to council tax payers in the borough and to the local authority, which cannot afford to meet a cost pressure of such magnitude.
I am sorry to bring such a tale of woe from Hillingdon when we should be looking forward to Christmas and the new year. However, because at heart I am basically an avuncular and jolly person, I have some good news, too. The council's excellent record of sticking up for some of the most vulnerable members of our community was proved again only last week when Hillingdon became the first London borough to announce a council tax discount scheme for pensioners. The proposal, for a 2 per cent. reduction in next year's council tax increase for pensioners, was approved by the council's cabinet at its meeting last week. Those aged 65 and over will be eligible for the discount, and there are approximately 18,500 such households in my borough. My admiration for the scheme is only increased by the fact that it was achieved when the council faces the budgetary challenges that I described.
It cannot be right that the London borough of Hillingdon—my rate payers and my fellow residents—are being penalised for implementing the Government's asylum policy. I am sure that Hillingdon and the Government can work together on that. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to take note of my points and pass them on to the appropriate Ministers. I can assure them that I and my fellow MPs in the London borough of Hillingdon, with a cross-party consensus, will not give up our campaign to get fairness for my fellow Hillingdon residents.
On that note, as a retailer who has mixed views about Christmas, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and a prosperous new year.
It is always a privilege to follow Mr. Randall because we share a great love—that is, of course, a love of rugby league, as there is no better sport.
We received the sad news that late last night, Lord Carter, a Member of another place, died. Denis was a great friend to all political parties. He was Chief Whip in the Lords. May I say how saddened we all are to hear of his death? I had the privilege of knowing Denis over many years. My father was a Whip in the Lords—well, that was my father's decision—and I got to know Denis very well. He was a farmer with a great reputation within the farming industry for knowledge. He brought that to the Lords. Most people say that not many Labour Members know about farming, but Denis Carter was an exception. He also knew everyone. He will be missed as a friend, and our sympathies and prayers go to his wife, Teresa, who is left because, tragically, they lost their daughter not many years ago and their son as well. We all extend our heartfelt sympathies to her.
It is a privilege to speak in Adjournment debates and I want to touch on some issues that affect our constituencies, none more so than post offices. We all have deep concerns about what is happening to them. I represent an urban and rural constituency, and I fear the announcement on closures. I understand that something will come out on Thursday. Tragically, it might have been better had that announcement been made while the House was sitting so that we could have debated where those closures are taking place and who will be affected by them.
There is great speculation about that announcement. Unfortunately, a local councillor, Councillor Malpas, has gone about telling us that we are going to lose swathes of post offices in Chorley. That is sad because it puts post offices under pressure and it is silly to speculate. I hope that he learns the lessons from his earlier mistakes. At the last general election, he campaigned to tell us all that the general post office in Chorley was closing. I must remind hon. Members that it is still open.
I worry about post offices. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House should be aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House share my deep concerns. We all respect post offices. They ensure that pensioners or younger people who use them are guaranteed a quality service. Those people also know that by speaking to someone who runs a sub-post office, they are dealing with someone whom they can trust. It would be wrong for huge swathes—thousands upon thousands—to disappear. They are at the heart of the community. We must support post offices, both rural and urban.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way with characteristic generosity. He is making some excellent points. Does he agree, in a cross-party spirit, that while the Government have devoted tremendous financial support to maintaining the post offices as far as they can and should continue to do so, they should also reconsider their policy of removing public business from post offices, which is the root cause of their failure? Should they not consider reversing the decision on the Post Office card account, and put public business back into post offices?
Of course I agree. I cannot disagree. I do not shy away from the fact that when television licences were taken away, post offices lost good business. There is talk of Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency business being taken away from post offices as well, although I remind the hon. Gentleman that that does not affect all rural and urban post offices, as only a select few can deal with road tax.
I recognise that part of the problem has been caused by business being moved away without new business going in. The question mark over the post offices means that those in charge of them must decide whether to pack up and retire when they reach the age at which they would like to do so. No one will buy a business when there is uncertainty. That uncertainty must be lifted, so that new business can go into post offices and they can be revitalised.
We should not think solely in terms of closures. We should think about new post offices in new areas, because we have seen new growth. In my constituency a new village with up to 3,000 houses is being built in Buckshaw, a former Royal Ordnance site, but there is no talk of a post office. We should be saying to the Government "It may be reasonable to close a post office in an area where no one is using it, but please think about areas where there is no post office footprint". We must think more seriously about placing a clear footprint across the country, so that post offices serve the people whom they should be serving.
My constituency is one of those with large rural hinterlands, and I feel that we must deal with the problems of farmers. It is not just the turkeys that are being stuffed this Christmas; it is the farming industry in general. How on earth can people produce a litre of milk for 16p or 17p? They need a dairy industry that is sustainable and will be there in the long term. Dairy farmers need to receive at least 21p per litre to ensure the long-term viability of dairy farming. It is important for us as a Government to defend the rights of the farmer against the supermarkets and the producers, and for all sides to unite to that end. All that supermarkets and producers want to do is continually to force down the price. There is no benefit in that. Those who shop in supermarkets do not receive the benefit; the profits go to the shareholders. They are the only people who gain from attempts to drive down prices in the farming industry, and that is not good. We must guarantee a minimum farm-gate price. We must see that the countryside is looked after, and the people who do that job are those in the farming industry.
As if all that were not enough, we learn today that in France there is another question mark—over avian flu. Some dead birds are to be tested and scientists are examining the situation, which places a question mark over the poultry industry. The viability of poultry farming is in deep trouble; meanwhile, European legislation is bringing more red tape and burdens to the industry. Quite rightly, the industry—including the egg industry—and the National Farmers Union are saying that imposing new legislation is one thing, but imposing the cost directly on poultry farms is unacceptable. The industry has asked for a three-year deferment to allow it to recover without that extra burden of cost. I think it only right to ask the Government not to impose the burden now, but to decide in four years' time whether it needs to be imposed.
Other European Union countries accept the legislation, but do not pass the burden to the poultry industry. Far from it: their Governments soak up the cost. We are putting our poultry industry at a huge disadvantage. We must recognise that we must look after people when they are in trouble, and these people are in trouble. We need the farming industry to get back on a proper footing. It has suffered so much from one crisis to another. We must let it put those crises behind it, and allow the industry to create a sustainable future. Those who can help are those who can put pressure on supermarkets and producers by guaranteeing a fair price.
I move on to the subject of overseas territories. I chair the all-party group on Gibraltar. It is rightly one of the biggest groups in Parliament, and it has had a strong voice. We have a Government who recognise that they got things wrong in the past. It took them quite a while, and we have had many disagreements with Secretaries of State and other Ministers—they seemed to come and go, but the Gibraltar problem continued. However, it has at last been recognised that Gibraltar should be given a clear future—that it should be allowed to become a grown-up overseas territory. That is right, and I am pleased that the Government have recognised that. The endorsement of the people of Gibraltar ensured that there is now a new treaty; we are devolving more powers to the people and Government of Gibraltar and they will be responsible for themselves. That is good.
Other overseas territories will face similar challenges. Bermuda has almost got complete powers. It is not independent—it is one of the overseas territories—but it has huge powers. Gibraltar also has huge powers. Rightly, other overseas territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, are looking to such examples. The British Virgin Islands are saying, "What is good for Bermuda and Gibraltar must be good for us." The Turks and Caicos Islands are asking for more powers, as are Montserrat and the Cayman Islands.
Who are we to deny democracy? Who are we to deny such powers? We cannot have it both ways. Our Government say to people in Iraq, "You must have democracy," and at the same time they try to say to those in the overseas territories, "No, you cannot have that; that's far too much democracy for you." Instead, we say that we will give them a choice: "No more democracy, but you can be independent." They know, however, that they cannot be independent, so that is unfair. We must allow the skills of democracy to be developed in overseas territories. The Falklands also want more powers, and they should have them. If their people wish for independence, it should be up to them to choose that. We ought not to restrict them by stopping them making their own decisions. There is much more that we can do in respect of overseas territories, and I hope that we will take things forward.
Transport questions were debated today, but as I was unable to attend I thought that I would raise the following matter now. The Manchester to Blackpool line has overcrowded trains; many Members know about overcrowded trains. We need more trains. More importantly, we talk a lot about the environment, and the electrification of the Blackpool to Manchester line will clean up the environment. We need investment in that. We need more trains, but I plead with the Secretary of State for Transport to look at putting more investment not into more rolling stock, but into more electrification, which is also better for the environment. It is a plus that we can do that, and it is great that I can raise the issue in this debate.
In Chorley—this is also to do with the Manchester to Blackpool line—I hope that we will get a new railway station. I was talking about sustainable villages. The fact is that villages such as Buckshaw in Chorley should have a new railway station, and a post office. That village has been built on some of the 1,000 acres of brownfield site that used to be part of a Royal Ordnance factory; tragically, it has almost gone. We need that new railway station on the Blackpool line, and we might as well have electrification as well. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.
On Buckshaw village, the factory that used to be on that site was a main source of supply for the Ministry of Defence; it produced initiator caps and boxer caps for all explosives. I have said before that nothing goes bang without Chorley; tragically, things will now have to go bang without Chorley, because BAE Systems made the cowardly decision to close that site. A lot of empty gestures were made, as were promises of engineering jobs remaining; none of them has been kept because BAE wants to realise the land value. Decisions have been made purely on money grounds. Unfortunately, MOD Ministers, including Secretaries of State, have allowed that to happen. We are now incapable of producing a single bullet or a single shell in this country without the help of either France, the United States of America, Germany or Switzerland. We no longer have security of supply in this country in producing our own ammunition. That is a very sad state of affairs, and I hope that somebody will take this issue seriously, before the machinery is stripped out of Chorley. There still time for BAE Systems to change its mind.
Worse still, not only does BAE Systems want to close the site down and to produce ammunition elsewhere; it wants to store the ammunition in Chorley without providing a single job for the people of Chorley. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it, Mr. Deputy Speaker! So BAE is taking all the jobs away from Chorley and producing the ammunition elsewhere, yet it wants to store it all in Chorley's facility because we still have an explosives licence. In other words, we are to be exposed to the entire risk, but given no jobs. BAE Systems should get its act together and start listening to public opinion. It should recognise that, just as the Government have a duty to this country, it has a duty to produce ammunition in this country alone, and not to be dependent on components from abroad.
I turn to Home Office issues. As we all recognise, closed circuit television has made a real difference. I would like more grants to be provided for CCTV, so that we can all benefit from that important technology. I am also fully behind the introduction of police community support officers. We have provided a huge amount of funding for CSOs, who are making a real difference, but we should not allow local authorities to cut back on community wardens. They are saying, "As you're providing more CSOs, we will reduce the number of wardens," when in fact, we should be seeing a bigger uniformed presence. People recognise that if more officers are visible on the streets, our streets will be safer. I hope that the Government will ensure that the provision of CSOs will not lead to a reduction in wardens, which appears to be happening at the moment.
Members have touched on Iraq, and it would be wrong of me not to mention the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, which is a new regiment. Unfortunately, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment was merged with the King's Regiment and the King's Own Royal Border Regiment, so the QLR has now become the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. The second battalion is serving in Iraq, and I wish them well for Christmas. They are putting their lives at risk, along with all our other people serving in such places overseas—be it the Royal Army Medical Corps or the Royal Marines. Indeed, I had the privilege of meeting the latter through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. They are risking their lives on the basis of decisions taken in this House, and I wish them all well for Christmas. They go beyond what we ask of them, and their capability is secondto none. However, we must recognise that troop overstretch is an issue; there is a question mark over how much they can deliver. This is a real problem, and we must recognise that, if they are short of equipment, it should not be lacking. If they need more, we should meet their requirements. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises the importance of the role that our troops play overseas.
Chorley and Royal Preston hospitals are great hospitals that serve the people in our area well. I do not shy away from the fact that it was a Conservative Government who decided to spend money on a new hospital in Chorley; it is important that we recognise that. It has been a tremendous facility for the people of Chorley, and this Labour Government have built on that by providing huge amounts of funding, which is good to see. We now have a dialysis unit and a renal centre of excellence, from which home renal services can be provided. Many other services have been added to the Chorley site, which is a great facility, working alongside the Royal Preston hospital.
However, all that has been put at risk. We now have clinical assessment, treatment and support centres, as they are known, which can refer people to independent treatment centres. Of course, bringing down waiting lists makes sense, but I do not like the idea of taking work out of hospitals, because doing so will put them at risk. We must recognise that training is done within the health service and in those hospitals. The training of our future doctors, consultants and nurses will not take place if those hospitals do not exist. We cannot take the basics away from hospitals, because people have to be trained in the basics before becoming specialists. The problem with these independent treatment centres is that, through their use, we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
If these centres are to be guaranteed 60 per cent. of such work, and if general practitioners are going to be instructed that everybody must be referred to the private sector, there will not be a national health service and there will be no hospitals left such as Chorley and Royal Preston, which are doing an excellent job. Yes, I recognise that the private sector has a role to play, but it ought not to be taking work away from hospitals, thereby reducing their future training capability. There is a big question mark over that, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of what I have said. I notice that he is scribbling quickly. We should not shy away from that issue. I believe that we have got it wrong and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is listening, because we need to review our policy and ensure that our hospitals are safe under this Government. I will campaign to ensure that nothing is taken away from Chorley hospital and that it has a strong future. I am sure that Ministers will listen and ensure that that hospital has a bright and rosy future.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Hoyle, who always makes a wide-ranging contribution to our debates. I join him in his tribute to the late Lord Carter, whom I found to be a courteous and thoroughly decent man to deal with when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords during the difficult time of Lords reform. I send my condolences to his family given the news that we have heard today.
The hon. Gentleman spoke with passion about the issues affecting rural communities and I join him in expressing some of the sentiments of those rural communities, because the issues affect communities represented by Conservative Members as much as they do Labour ones.
In the spirit of the occasion, I also wish to extend a hand of friendship to Andrew Mackinlay who, alas, is not in his place. He made reference to being bundled with Norwich, so I extend an invitation to him and his delightful wife, whom I know extremely well, to come and sample the pleasures of Norfolk, so that when he next mentions that great county in this House he is better informed. If that invitation could be passed on to the hon. Gentleman, I would be most grateful.
Nothing evokes the spirit of Christmas more than the music of the season. As well as the traditional carols and hymns, there are more contemporary songs that have become as much of a Christmas tradition as mince pies and Christmas trees. In many cases, the voices that bring us the songs are as unique and important as the lyrics themselves. Who could forget Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas", Nat King Cole singing
"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"—
No, no. Who could forget, either, Judy Garland's extraordinary rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"? However, had those songs been issued in the UK, the vocal artists would long since have ceased to receive any royalties for their efforts.
One could argue that none of those artists lived long enough to benefit from a copyright term in excess of50 years, or indeed, needed the money that an extension would bring. Perhaps more recent examples of songs that are not yet out of copyright might be more appropriate, such as "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day", which—as we all remember—was a terrific hit for Wizzard, a pop group that otherwise had limited success. I shall not sing that one either. Why should they not receive remuneration for their efforts after the passage of an arbitrary term of50 years after publication?
An extension of the copyright term would not, as some have argued, simply make rich artists richer. For every Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney, there are a host of less well known singers, so-called one-hit wonders and backing singers for whom the revenue derived from their copyright royalties is essential. People buy records at this time of year for the singers. Why should those who have had enduring success not receive adequate remuneration for their efforts?
Artists such as Dame Vera Lynn, whose songs have endured the test of time, are also deeply affected. Should not she, and others like her, at least for the course of their natural lives, be entitled to benefit from their talent and phenomenal success? Why should others grow rich from the sound of their singing while they are left with nothing? Because of an EU decree, British vocal artists are not entitled to the same protection as those producing similar material elsewhere in the world or those in other creative industries. They even cease to enjoy the fruits of their labour long before the protection given to composers—currently set at life plus 70 years—expires. I submit that the creative talent that gives us some of our best-loved music, and the voices that are synonymous with the songs that they sing, are as unique as the lyrics and tunes of those songs. They deserve equitable protection under the law.
So let us spare a thought for those artists at this time of year. I urge the Government and the Minister to support the campaign "Fair Play for Musicians", whose petition I have here. It is supported by 3,500 record companies—
Order. I am loth to intervene on the hon. Gentleman's lyrical remarks, but visual aids are not encouraged in the Chamber, as the Official Report cannot really report them.
It may also prejudice any repeat performance—although I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the petition got stuck on my finger when I responded to your advice just now.
However, the petition has been signed by 3,500 record companies and 40,000 performers. If a few of the performers in this House could support it, many more people around the world would benefit from the wonderful music of our great artists. They would also be assured that their future was secure, because they would be getting the royalties that they deserve.
In this important debate, I want to concentrate on the role of communities in international development programmes. My recent experience in that regard has had a profound effect on me and on my constituents.
In November 2003, I travelled to Sierra Leone as part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation, at the behest of Win Griffiths, who was then MP for Bridgend. He said that it was absolutely vital to have a woman in the delegation, because there had been so many problems with the development of women in Sierra Leone. At the time, I knew nothing about the country, but I agreed to go—probably one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
Sierra Leone is the second most deprived country in the world, as became evident to us as soon as we arrived. Most of us are accustomed to airports that are well lit and reasonably equipped, so Lungi airport is quite an education. One is entirely focused on ensuring that one still has one's bags on leaving, but that is understandable in a country where 90 per cent. unemployment means that everyone is seeking any opportunity to make money. Moreover, that figure hides the fact that nearly 100 per cent. of young people are unemployed, which may explain why the country found itself in the grip of a civil war, with rebels in control for 13 years.
Many of those who fought in the war were child soldiers, who saw the war as a ready source of income. Who knows what any of us would do when there is no money to be had anywhere? Finally, Sierra Leone took advantage of its colonial past and called on the British Government to help bring that terrible war to an end.
In this debate, much time has been spent talking about the British Army's intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is present in at least 120 locations around the world and it undertakes all sorts of different roles. If I were able to take hon. Members to Sierra Leone today, everyone in that country would want to express their thanks, from the bottom of their hearts, for the work that the British Army did in bringing that terrible civil war to an end. They are immensely grateful, given the unique nature of the conflict that they endured. Apart from bringing the war to an end in 2002, the British Government set up a special court with the American Government. It is now taking testimony and has ordered the arrest of eight of the worst perpetrators of war crimes in Sierra Leone. Six of them are currently being held there.
Hon. Members may be aware of an individual called Charles Taylor, a notorious man who perpetrated the most appalling abuses. He was given sanctuary in Nigeria, but when the new President was introduced in Liberia last year, her first request, much to her credit, was to ask Nigeria to return Charles Taylor to be tried in a special court. There was a small problem in Nigeria when he escaped, but he was captured on the border and subsequently brought back to Sierra Leone. When the helicopter carrying Charles Taylor was circling over Freetown, people were crying in the streets.
The nature of the war crimes that Charles Taylor committed is unprecedented in the view of the advisers to the special court, who have knowledge of the trials in Nuremberg and elsewhere in Europe, and in Rwanda. It goes beyond my imagination and the words that I possess to describe the type of torture that the people of Sierra Leone have been exposed to as a result of the fighting rebel factions. Taylor's penchant was skinning people alive. He was not unique in that. There was much work done in amputating people's limbs. The common question asked was, "Do you want long trousers or short trousers. Would you like long sleeves or short sleeves?" When we remember that most of the people involved in the war were children under 12, it is an horrific experience not just for them but for humanity that in this day and age such activity is still undertaken.
So I found my visit to Sierra Leone debilitating. I understood quite well how little effort by our Army could bring about a revolutionary change in people's lives. The country has been rescued from a terrible civil war, but it is now economically moribund. It was originally designated one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but with assistance from the British Government procedures are being put in place to allow the finances of the Sierra Leone Parliament to be more transparent. That is vital if the country is to benefit from third-world debt relief. At present it is not the beneficiary of debt relief and it needs to be. It needs currency to develop its services and facilities for its people.
As I said, Sierra Leone is economically almost moribund so it depends on aid agencies and Governments such as ours to intervene. However, we all know here that aid agencies and Governments come and go. As others have said today, the organisations that stay for ever are voluntary. They are groups of people who get together for common purpose and do not recognise political cycles or budgets. They do it because they believe that they have a role to play and they are passionate about the interest of a particular group.
When I came back from Sierra Leone, I went to my constituency and asked whether it would be possible for us to twin with a town in Sierra Leone called Waterloo. I have a Waterloo in my constituency. The general consensus was yes; that we would like to do this. I took home films and photographs and everyone was moved by what they saw. I represent by and large an affluent constituency. When constituencies were giving in response to the tsunami, mine was one of the biggest providers per head in the country.
I am immensely proud that I represent a Liverpool constituency, as we are known for our philanthropy and our charitable giving. It was no surprise to find that my constituents had given a great deal. Quite frankly, many of them want to give more than money, as they want to give of themselves, so how do we release the need to give? How do the Government harness that great desire to give of self? Most people know that money is transient, but friendships endure. Many of my constituents wanted to give of themselves, go to Sierra Leone and actually help.
That sounds absolutely great in principle and we would all commend people who did that, but, in reality, it is immensely difficult, particularly in respect of countries like Sierra Leone that are either in a conflict or post-conflict. I am immensely proud of the people I represent because they had the courage to go to a country that had just come out of a civil war—some tanks were still running round the streets—and they felt that they had a role to play.
Our first visit would not have been possible without the support of our high commission and the British Council. High commissions and the British Council in different countries do a great job generally, but they are not normally used to dealing with voluntary groups. They are more used to dealing with businesses and schools, but not with groups of people who want to come and do good. I shall expand on that comment later.
Members of my community wanted to twin all our schools, all our churches and faith groups, our Scouts and our Brownies, and they wanted to send business people over to Sierra Leone. More importantly, they wanted to underpin the relationship with a 20-year commitment, as they wanted to tell the people of Sierra Leone that they would not be involved only for the short term. The Government have already agreed that they have to stay in Sierra Leone until 2012. Quite frankly, they need to be there. Anyone familiar with this particular region of west Africa will know that Sierra Leone is flanked by Liberia on one side, Côte d'Ivoire on the other and Guinea to the north—all very unstable countries, all at a tipping point almost all of the time. Getting one country stable and keeping it stable is therefore very important in that region. I am delighted that the Government have made it clear that they are going to stay there: they need to; if they withdraw, further problems will quickly arise in that area of the world.
Following our first visit, I took with me four members of our community, who came back and made the commitments that I have just outlined to the House. We decided that we had to make all that a reality and we had to work with a number of agencies to deliver a programme of twinning. The British Council has a fantastic scheme for facilitating links between British schools and schools all over the world. If hon. Members are not aware of it, I encourage them to have a look at it and advertise it in their constituency's schools.
My constituency has a population of 99.8 per cent. white people. This scheme has meant that, for the first time, we have been able to partner with people from an entirely different culture, which is immensely important to us. It is a fantastic privilege for us to have developed an association with a country in another part of the world and to learn at first hand about that community's experiences. The first programme of learning between our two schools will concentrate on conflict prevention. Conflict is an issue that many people in Liverpool will know intimately through relationships in Ireland, but they will find it immensely beneficial to have the opportunity to work with and learn from a country that is just coming out of a conflict process.
The school twinning programme starts in great earnest next February when I take 10 teachers from my constituency on their first ever visit to Africa. They are going to Sierra Leone. I am very nervous about that because I just do not know how I will explain the absence of water in four-star hotels, or the absence of food or roads, or the sewage flowing through the streets, or the fact that the mortality rate of the under-fives is the highest in the world. It will be a great shock for them. However, they are trail-blazers for many other people in my community.
Next year, we will take out a group of engineers, because the people of Waterloo in Sierra Leone have said that they want a library and my engineering colleagues have said, "Yes, we're interested in that. We will go and help build a library in Sierra Leone." We did not know when we agreed to do so that it would be the biggest library in Africa, but it will be and it will contain 100,000 books.
The British Council was founded in a library and has proselytised about the use of libraries and the development of economic activity. When we asked the people of Waterloo in Sierra Leone what they wanted, they did not say, "Clean water"—unfortunately for me, because I am an engineer, and clean water would be easy to deliver—they said, "We would like a library." I find it remarkable that people with truly absolutely nothing at all could ask for a library. When we asked, "Why a library and not clean water?" they said, "A generation of our children have never known school, and school is all. Education is all in allowing our country to come to the fore again."
Getting the involvement of companies in such projects is also very difficult. Our Government could play quite a role in encouraging British companies to outreach into countries such as those in Africa. I have raised a tremendous amount of money for the library, but money will not build the library; intellectual capacity and experience will do so, and Sierra Leone is very short of that. I have approached many British companies to talk to them about where Africa fits into their corporate social responsibility programmes, and I have been told very clearly that Africa does not fit. There is no money in Africa, so it does not fit into the psyche of British companies. I find that deeply regrettable.
I am very proud of the engineers who have agreed to help us with the library project, but there are very few of them, and they are all very young people under the age of 26. It is a credit to our young people that they want to be involved with that project, but they have not got access to the money or the technology to realise such projects in Africa.
I said earlier that I want to touch briefly on developing the role of the British Council and the high commission. It strikes me that the high commission is geared to deal with companies that want to carry out inward investment. It is looking for companies to invest in countries, or it is looking for export opportunities for companies that exist in-country. However, in developing countries, inward investment will not be on the agenda for many years, and it might not be on the agenda simply because there is no stability in the country to allow companies to have the confidence that, if they make an investment, it will be secure.
In the absence of inward investment programmes because of the lack of stability of the country, I ask that we consider finding ways to support the voluntary sector and its engagement in the development of the country. If we could replicate across the UK the work in which my very small community in Waterloo has been able to engage, we would change so many of Africa's communities. If we were to convert their time, effort, knowledge and commitment into pounds, it would be worth an inordinate amount of money, and they need the high commission to help them to gain access to the very people whom they can help. That is also true of the British Council, which is offering huge opportunities to young people to leave a country and to take on an excellent education here. That is desperately required, because technical knowledge is almost negligible in some of those countries. However, I would like to see the remit of the British Council extended so that not only are people sent to our country, but people are brought from our country to other countries that desperately need expert support, because, although we may bring one person out, if we bring a lecturer from this country to another country, the number of people who can benefit is obviously far greater.
Countries such as Sierra Leone have benefited enormously from our intervention, but they will slide again into civil war unless there is economic resurgence. Economic resurgence cannot happen when there is no technical capacity in place. We have to address issues about developing technical capacity in third-world countries. I am quite sure that there is a body of people in this country, outwith Government, who would very much want to be part of that exercise if our Government were to facilitate that relationship.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas highlighted in her speech one of the roles that perhaps we overlook sometimes. The Army plays a role not just in high- profile areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but in many other parts of the world, bringing peace and stability to those areas. Unlike Andrew Mackinlay, I do not have a cunning plan. He seemed to have adopted the role of a parliamentary Baldrick. I listened to what he said about having been joined to Norfolk and wishing that his area had been part of London instead. I do not know whether that would be a cunning plan: he would be under the domain of Commissar Livingstone, whereas he could stay with my hon. Friend Mr. Fraser.
I want to raise a couple of issues. As a party, we support the calls that many Members have made for a debate during this Session or the next Session about the situation in Iraq. At a time when there are complaints about the lack of equipment and when it appears that the Government are looking for new supporters in Iraq—including two of the countries that appearto have been supporting the insurgency—and are prepared to give evidence to the Baker committee in America, but not to bring those issues before the House, thus diminishing the role of Parliament, it is important that there be a debate. That does not mean that we are undermining those who have gone out to do a difficult job. If anything, it would show the people who are doing a difficult job that those of us who represent the constituencies in which they live across the United Kingdom are concerned about the conduct of the war, the equipment that is available and the direction in which the Government are going.
People in Northern Ireland feel that parliamentary vacuum even more, because much of our business is carried out in this House in a way that does not offer a proper opportunity to scrutinise Government. So sloppy have the Government now become in Northern Ireland affairs that over the past month the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been in court three times—or he will have been by the end of this week. In fact, somebody back home remarked that the Secretary of State is in court more often than Tim Henman. He has been in court over lack of consultation, the way in which the Government have handled legislation and the way in which major decisions have been made. Whether in relation to the sexual orientation legislation, water charges or public appointments, we find that some of the Secretary of State's decisions—and the way in which business is being handled—are, increasingly, subject to judicial review.
Although we are working towards devolving to Northern Ireland many of the issues that are currently dealt with here, nevertheless there is a requirement that, if devolution does not come about, Northern Ireland business be dealt with in a much more democratic and accountable way in this House. However, that will not stop people in Northern Ireland working to try to resolve their difficulties and to get devolution. Given the attitude of Sinn Fein towards the policing issue, many of us despair of the deadlines and the requirements set by this House for devolution in Northern Ireland being met by
I want to raise two or three issues, but I shall try to keep my contribution to 10 minutes because I know that many other hon. Members want to speak—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I knew that that would get applause, because it was a populist thing to say.
The first issue concerns teacher training in Northern Ireland. Over the past few years, the number of people leaving teacher training colleges and finding a job has diminished rapidly from 82 per cent. in 2001 to 22 per cent. this year, if the teaching unions' figures are to be believed. The most recent Government figure we have relates to the year before—it was 62 per cent.
We are talking about people who have invested in their own education, paid their fees and put themselves through teacher training college. They have acquired the necessary skills, yet they find themselves coming out at the end without any prospect of employment. If they do not find employment in the first year, many of them find themselves barred from jobs in subsequent years, because they do not have the necessary experience.
That is taking place against the background of an increasing number of people taking early retirement in the teaching profession and then walking back into supply teaching or part-time teaching jobs, perhaps the very next term. Such jobs may not be on a full-time or permanent basis, but they could have been made available to trainee teachers to give them the opportunity, at least, to gain some experience.
The Department of Education in Northern Ireland knows about the situation, which has taken place against a background of fewer teachers being required because of falling rolls. The teacher training intake has been kept the same, but schools have been given no firm direction to give opportunities to young trainee teachers, rather than bringing back those who have taken early retirement. The relevant Minister needs to address the issue urgently, otherwise many people will become cynical about the opportunities available and the outcome for those who obtain a teacher training degree.
The second issue that I want to raise concerns health. Ministers here tell me almost every week that waiting lists have been falling in England and on the mainland, but in Northern Ireland they have remained stubbornly high. The length of time taken to get care in hospitals has not fallen there, despite huge sums being poured into the health service. While those who get through the process of seeing a consultant can quickly get into hospital, a back-loading has taken place, whereby, in order to ration places, operations and so on, the period taken to get to a consultant to find out what work is required has been lengthened. Rather than taking account of all the experience that a patient goes through, things appear to have been divided into little chunks, so that targets can be met in one place by delaying things in another. That problem must be addressed.
The other big recent health issue in my constituency has been the decision to close Inver House, all that remains of a local hospital in Larne. The situation affects two wards where people could go for palliative care and where people who were recovering from operations could be looked after locally. All of that has been centralised, and the argument is that the care will take place in the community. However, no evidence has been provided that resources will be placed there.
There are many other issues that I could raise, but I promised that I would keep to 10 minutes. I will keep that promise because the DUP always keeps its promises. I will not, therefore, deal with those issues, other than to say—
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess there are a number of points that I want to raise that relate to the subjects of democracy and justice. We live in extraordinary political times. Earlier this week we saw the Prime Minister visiting our troops in Iraq. The troops were taking photographs of the Prime Minister on his mobile phone. I very much hope, and I know that I speak for all colleagues, that we do not lose any of those troops in the war.
I will regret until the day I die that I voted for the war with Iraq. I believed everything that the Prime Minister told the House. That was a grave misjudgment. I would hope that most hon. Members who voted for the war with Iraq now accept that. It seems to me that there is one person, and one alone, who does not accept that the war was a terrible mistake, and that is the Prime Minister. And still the British people do not stir.
The Prime Minister is now in the middle east, accompanied by one of his colleagues, a noble Lord. Both those gentlemen have been interviewed by the police regarding the difficulties over cash for honours. I understand that it is the first time that a Prime Minister has been interviewed by the police. And still the British people do not stir.
It seems to me that the Conservative Governments of 18 years are judged by entirely different standards from those by which the Labour Governments have been judged for the past 10 years. The reality is that we no longer live in a democracy. When you and I first came to this place, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it was the mother of all Parliaments. In the time that you and I have been Members of this place we have seen our powers gradually and steadily seep away. This is a pale shadow of the place to which I was originally elected in 1983.
In those days, we Members of Parliament could get things done; we could make a difference. For instance, I stopped an accident and emergency unit being closed, prevented a maternity unit from moving to another hospital and stopped two schools being closed. I even have two Acts of Parliament in my name, and that was as a result of getting my colleagues to shut up. I managed to persuade a Minister to repurchase 3,500 homes that had originally been purchased through the sale of council houses. It cannot be that my power has been blunted just because I sit on the Opposition Benches. But, I say again, still the British people do not stir.
The country today is governed by quangos. It was the leader of the Labour party who said in 1997 that quangos would be consigned to "history's dustbin". Well these quangos have been recycled. They are now rebranded as non-departmental public bodies. An NDPB is
"a body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm's length from Ministers."
Well, since 1997, more than 300 of these quangos have been set up. Basically, what they do is take away responsibility from Ministers. Quangos used to cost £79 billion, but they now cost in excess of £124 billion—and still the British people do not stir.
For two years, I have been trying to get a Minister to intervene in a local issue to do with badgers. A Minister eventually agreed to see me, but he was moved from his post. His replacement fell ill, and since that time, things have changed, and he no longer has any power over the issue. The power now lies with a new Government agency called Natural England—and still the British people do not stir.
I should like to point out an injustice. I had the privilege to sponsor a function for children with arthritis. More than 10,000 children suffer from arthritis in this country, and that is a greater number than those with diabetes or cystic fibrosis. A young lady called Lauren Vaknine addressed the gathering. She was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of two, and it affected her knees and ankles. It gave her uveitis in her right eye as a result of the inflammation in her body, which was controlled through herbal treatments and eye-drops until she was 16. Most Members of Parliament are surprised that there are so many children with arthritis. A postcode lottery operates in this country, so although the children desperately need drugs to help them, they do not get them. And still the British people do not stir.
My constituent Nicholas French, who is 34, was badly injured in a motor accident in 1999. He suffered a brain haemorrhage and has nerve problems. His left foot is paralysed and he is epileptic. He applied to the Department for Work and Pensions for disability living allowance, and his mother filled in the application, as he cannot hold a pen. A delightful neighbour videoed him, and he is currently the subject of an investigation. He works at a call centre at Southend hospital. Most colleagues would salute that gentleman, who has met so much adversity, yet it is seriously considered that he is claiming the benefit illegally. And still the British people do not stir.
A sheltered home in my constituency, Burleigh Court, which has 49 residents, has been told by the local authority in Southend that it no longer meets Government requirements, as rooms are two inches too small and corridors are too narrow—all colleagues have heard it before. Southend-on-Sea borough council has no money, because as soon as the Deputy Prime Minister assumed his job in 1997, it was payback time for the "prosperous" south, and the north of the country was to get more money. We have no money at all in Southend; the local authority has to go along with what the Government tell it to do, and it has very few powers. Can you imagine the situation that the residents face, Mr. Deputy Speaker? They include a woman of 103, people who are in their 90s, and people who are disabled, but they have to vacate Burleigh Court within 18 months, or wait until someone dies in another home. There is no space on which to build in Southend—and still the British people do not stir.
In Southend, there is a revenue and tax headquarters building, and it has just been announced, as a pre-Christmas present for local residents, that 340 workers in that Inland Revenue building will be made redundant. Obviously, those people are concerned about the sort of Christmas that they face. They have been told that the Treasury is downsizing the operation in Southend. The redundancies will leave the Inland Revenue in Southend with fewer staff to complete the same large work load. The service will obviously suffer as a consequence—and still the British people do not stir.
Order. I am loth to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it would be helpful, not least to me and no doubt to others, if he would not use initials the first time. Perhaps we could all know what the initials mean, and he could use them thereafter, if he wishes.
I refer to an Iranian movement which is concerned about the President of Iran and everything that goes on in that country. It seeks justice for the people in Iran. There was a hearing at the European Court of Justice on
My final point is about a chap called Raf Islam. Mike Gapes and I have been trying to get that gentleman freed from Chelmsford prison. He and his brother were brought from Bangladesh in 1993 aged 10 and 11. Their mother had already died. The father died and they were left with their stepmother. They came home from school one day and found that the stepmother had disappeared, taking with her their passports and visas. The older brother looked after his younger brother, who has never been in trouble with the police, but unfortunately the older brother has. He has served his time and should have been released on
It is a scandal that this chap, who has been in care looking after his brother, is facing deportation. I say to the Minister, who may get a note from one of his officials when he winds up the debate, that the huge number of people to whom I and the hon. Member for Ilford, South have spoken are very nice and are all sympathetic, but the fact remains that Raf Islam is still in Chelmsford prison. My wife will visit him there on Christmas eve. What a wonderful Christmas present it would be if that visit was not necessary.
I am delighted that West Ham United beat Manchester United on Sunday, following in the footsteps of Southend. I hope Southend thrash Spurs on Wednesday. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and everyone else a very happy Christmas, peace, prosperity, good health and a wonderful new year.
I, too, extend my good wishes to everyone for Christmas and hope everyone has a wonderful new year, especially the staff, and especially those in the Members Tea Room, who are marvellous. They serve us all year round and never complain, so I wish them a very happy Christmas.
When the House adjourns, we will all go home tonight to our families. In my house, we are all in excited anticipation as we await the arrival of my mother, who could be described as a cross between Ma from "Bread" and Hyacinth Bucket. At least my mother will be with us for Christmas and we will enjoy her company.
Unfortunately, there are many people in my constituency who will not be spending time with their loved ones over Christmas, and many people who are in particularly difficult situations. That is due to a hospital superbug known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Let me give the House a little background information. One in nine people who go into hospital contract MRSA, and of those, 13 per cent. die and the remainder can lose limbs or have their lives blighted.
A constituent of mine has with her at home her 83-year-old mother, who is desperately poorly and needs to go into hospital to be cared for. However, the family has been faced with a decision. They have been told, "If your mother goes into hospital, it is almost certain, because of her immuno-suppressed state as a result of her illness, that she will catch a superbug and will not come out again, but if you keep her at home, we can try to do our very best to ensure that she recovers." My constituent's mother will therefore spend Christmas being nursed in my constituent's home, receiving not the full health care that she should be receiving but only the best that can be given to her at home.
As an ex-nurse, I would say that we could take people who are sitting in the Public Gallery to a hospital and ask them how to clean it. It is not brain surgery to know that we need to go back to wet mopping. It is not clever to know that we need to start using anti-bacterial disinfectants and handwashes. We need to wash down lockers and beds. Beds need to cool down. One of the big problems is that Government targets mean that as soon as a patient leaves a bed another patient goes straight into it. It is called hot-bedding—patient out, patient straight back in again. Staphylococcus aureus grows and survives on warmth, so it loves a warm bed. We need to start laundering uniforms on site and to stop staff wearing their uniforms to go home. In a previous debate, I mentioned having seen a nurse with a toddler in her arms leaning over a fruit and veg counter picking up produce. Was she going to work or coming home? Where had that uniform been worn, and what bacteria was on it? We need to limit visiting time, as we used to. There must not be free visiting, with anybody walking into hospitals whenever they want to. We should go back to restricted visiting so that a proper cleaning routine can be put into wards, people know who is going in and who is going out, and the number of bugs going into the ward is minimised.
When I spoke to a previous Health Minister about this, particularly about laundering uniforms on site, she said, "We just can't do it—it's too expensive." The Minister is gesticulating wildly at me as if to imply that uniforms are laundered on site, but they are not. Years ago, when I went to work as a nurse, I would go down to the basement, where my uniforms would be hanging up, choose my uniform, go and get changed and go on to the ward. Later on, I would go back down, dump my uniform in the dirty laundry bag, get changed and go home. It was as simple as that, but apparently it is unaffordable.
Some £36 billion has been spent on an NHS computer system called Choose and Book, which was devised to give patients choice. I went into a GP's practice to watch it working, and I will run hon. Members through the scenario. Patient comes in with inguinal hernia. GP clicks on the computer, which takes ages to get going. GP says to patient, "Right, I can give you four choices of hospital, four dates, and four consultants—which would you like?" Patient says, "Which one would you choose, doctor?" GP replies, "I'd choose Bedford hospital, because your wife's in her 70s and doesn't drive, and she could get there bybus." Patient says, "Okay, doctor, I'll go to Bedford hospital." That cost £36 billion.
I could have bought the argument that the system might be working elsewhere, but this week the headline on the front of Pulse, GPs' in-house trade magazine, was "Exposed: referral system in disarray". ADr. Marchant talked about the serious distortion that exists in the system because of friction between the Government, with their patient choice agenda, primary care trusts and hospitals, who cannot agree between themselves on how it should be used. Billions of pounds have been wasted on a computer system that is not working, is being distorted, and is having hospitals taken out of it so that patients get no choice at all—and we have people dying of MRSA as it increases year on year.
The hon. Lady is entitled to some cross-party support on MRSA. There is no doubt that the Department of Health—particularly the officials, but through them, Ministers—is in denial about the seriousness of MRSA and about what can and should be done. I associate myself with the hon. Lady's remarks, and tell the Deputy Leader of the House that she is quite correct. The sooner Ministers send down a message that staff will be seriously disciplined if they do not adhere to basic standards, the sooner the carnage will stop.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support; that is fantastic.
I do not know whether hon. Members saw a newspaper article yesterday referring to a possible solution to the problem that I mentioned a second ago—that doctors should not wear ties. That is a gimmick. It is easy to say, "Don't wear ties to work, doctor, because you've got MRSA on your tie." That takes no cost and no effort. Telling doctors not to wear their ties to work is a complete and utter gimmick.
We do not need gimmicks. We need the Government to look at where the money is being ploughed into the NHS. I know what patients would prefer—they would prefer to come out of hospital alive. My constituent would rather have her mother nursed in hospital. People would like to know that when they go into hospital, they are not putting themselves at greater risk. They want that much more than they want a computer system that does not really give them any choice whatever.
I should like to talk about something else in connection with MRSA, which I discovered just today: the bacteria pass as freely on the air as by touch. Even as a nurse, I thought that they were transferred only by touch, but they are also airborne. Apparently, as many of the bacteria are transferred in the air as from hand to hand. I do not know what the figures are, but I would imagine that it would cost nowhere near£36 billion to fit every hospital in the country with an air filtration system. We have air filtration systems in operating theatres where we do orthopaedic operations. The bacteria are taken out of the air there, so why can we not have filtration systems all over hospitals?
There are a lot of people who would have liked to have their loved ones at home this Christmas but cannot. I, too, have lost someone from MRSA, who went into hospital with a minor heart attack just before Christmas last year and did not come out, and I have two constituents who have lost limbs. This is carnage, and it cannot carry on. This is a debacle. People must go into hospital to be made better, not worse.
I know that that is a sour note to end on, but I should still like to wish everyone a very merry Christmas.
The best Christmas present that I can give hon. Membersis to stick to 10 minutes, so I shall talk aboutChristmas at the end of my speech rather than at the start.
One of the issues that has been raised with me over the past year is the regulation of the medical profession, which is a complex matter. The role of the General Medical Council is to prevent people who are a danger to patients from practising. We also have the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence to back up the GMC. With the GMC losing its medical majority, it sounds as though everything is going the right way. However, all is not well in the sphere of medical regulation. The GMC is effective in preventing doctors from forming intimate relationships with their patients, and it also does a good job when it is clear that someone is totally incompetent. However, the GMC fails substantially when it comes to protecting patients from harm caused by doctors.
One of the challenges in regulating any sphere of human endeavour is how to handle conflicts of interest, which arise particularly in the sphere of medical research. For a doctor involved in research to obtain the respect of his or her peers, papers based on original research are needed. They lead to international conferences and being fêted on the world stage, but patients just want good health. Josef Mengele's activities during the second world raised serious questions about medical research ethics. He performed a lot of experimentation on unwilling human subjects that was not in the interests of the patients concerned, and did them harm. The challenge for medical regulation is to ensure that the interests of the patients come first, but sadly, over the past 20 years it has failed to do so.
The best example of that comes from the research of Dr. David Southall. Dr. Southall has done much research on sudden infant death—an important area of research, given the numbers of children who have died without a clear diagnosis. Perhaps the biggest project was known as protocol 85.02. Dr. Southall looked at the response of babies to asphyxiation, shortage of oxygen and the presence of carbon dioxide. The experiments were known as sleep studies, and started with about 7,000 babies born in the mid '80s at Doncaster and Rotherham hospitals.
Phases 1 and 2 of the experiments were quite reasonable. Phase 3, however, involved choking babies for 10 sessions of 10 seconds, depriving them of oxygen by giving them only 15 per cent. oxygen rather than the normal 21 per cent., and then giving them too much carbon dioxide. Parents were not asked for their consent to the experiments; they were merely told, in writing, that they would happen, without any details.
A large number of brain-damaged babies were born in Doncaster in the 1980s. However, the records showing which babies were in the experiments were not in the medical files, because Dr. Southall kept secret files, known as special case files. Although compensation was paid, the causation was not entirely clear. The process expanded with the Office for National Statistics providing details of all deaths from sudden infant death syndrome—about 12,000 cases—so that Dr. Southall could continue his research with the siblings.
It is not clear how many of those children were subjected to sleep studies, or what the outcome was, but what is clear from the experience of Karen Brenchley and Davina Hollisey McLean is that their children were forced into the experiments, and probably suffered brain damage as a result. Dr. Southall did much of the research at the Royal Brompton hospital—the focus of other concerns about brain-damaged babies that were raised by the Mayor of London when he was a Member of this House, and by Mr. Bacon more recently.
Protocol 85.02 was not the only research project operated by Dr. Southall. He also gave carbon monoxide to babies with breathing problems, caused so much damage to babies in his experiments that they needed resuscitation, and did considerable damage through his experimental continuous negative extrathoracic pressure tanks, which he told others was tried and tested when in fact it was research.
The problem is that over decades he was allowed to continue to do research just as damaging as that of Josef Mengele, without proper action by the authorities. Notwithstanding many requests to his employer, the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, there has been no action to tell patients what has been happening. One of the most worrying aspects is that the records of babies who suffered sudden infant death give no indication of what was done to help them, such as giving additional oxygen to prevent the death.
Earlier this year, in Yokohama, a German doctor presented an abstract of research referring to babies being monitored during a SID. What that means is that records were kept of babies as they died. The abstract includes the words:
"One infant only began to gasp 13"— minutes—
"after the first monitor alarm", and
"The latter data were confirmed in a similar study observing gasping in 23 of 24 infants immediately preceding death."
I share the concern of the chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, in that
"I would certainly hope that gathering research data was secondary to preventing the deaths of children."
However, much as I have requested an investigation as to the provenance of the information, no investigation has occurred. That particular doctor worked for some time with Dr. Southall on projects that could have led to such measurements being taken.
In essence, what we have is evidence of a doctor managing research likely to lead to brain damage and/or death in infants. There is evidence of a substantial number of babies being brain-damaged at the same hospital. There are also records of babies dying from symptoms that could have been caused by that type of research. However, there is no detailed explanation.
The allegations are very serious, but the system of regulation wants to ignore them. After many years of struggle, the General Medical Council started to hear evidence in November relating indirectly to research. It has, however, now decided to adjourn the hearing for 11 months. What is particularly interesting is the history of the special case files. Those have been stored in all sorts of locations, and they have been involved in criminal prosecutions and in family court actions. At one stage, a parent infiltrated the charity run byDr. Southall to get access to the files. Court action resulted in their repossession.
In December 2005, it was agreed between the GMC and Dr. Southall that the files should be part of the medical records. However, he has now been allowed11 months to sanitise them. It is important to remember that there is evidence that the files have already been partially sanitised. Many of the patients are completely unaware that the files exist. I have made numerous requests of the NHS to control the files and legal proceedings are continuing in an attempt to keep them intact. However, the authorities continue to resist this, and to tolerate a major cover-up.
Floating around in the background are arguments claiming that the rules have been tightened upand what was permissible years ago is no longer permissible. The rules in the Nuremberg convention were quite clear—
Order. I am not sure of the precise situation with regard to the case that the hon. Gentleman is discussing, but he will be aware that there are very important rules about sub judice and such matters. I trust that he is staying within their bounds.
I checked, and the GMC is not covered by the rules on sub judice. Other proceedings would be if they were live, but they are contemplated proceedings and therefore not covered by the rules.
The rules in the Nuremberg convention were clear some 50 years ago. The changing of rules is no excuse for inaction.
The GMC's failings in this regard continue. I made a specific reference to the GMC about the research projects a few months ago to ensure that this particular issue had been considered. The GMC, however, has still not been capable of responding on matters when the facts are entirely clear. The argument is that the CHRE is there as the white knight in shining armour waiting to rescue patients from the inaction of the GMC. The problem is that the CHRE can act only when a fitness to practise panel has made a decision. If a GMC case examiner decides to reject a complaint, the only option is judicial review. I am aware of two cases, neither of them relating to Dr. Southall, to which that applies. It means that people with little means have almost no recourse, as the funding of judicial review proceedings is a difficult matter.
The issue relating to Dr. Southall will not go away. There has been a widespread attempt to conceal what has been done, but we cannot tolerate the turning of a blind eye to his activities. The point has been made to me that this sort of thing does not happen today, so I should not worry. However, unless we are willing to take enforcement action on what has happened in the past, no one can have any confidence that we will take enforcement action today. Furthermore, Dr. Southall has been barred only from child protection work; he can still work in other fields.
Dr. Southall's history is more complex because of the interrelationship between the unethical research and false allegations made by him, mainly in the family courts but also in the criminal courts. His secret medical files have been a key part of that. He kept the knowledge of their existence from the courts. Furthermore, the lack of action to maintain its integrity makes the national health service institutionally complicit in the destruction of evidence. Dr. Southall's ability to come up with random unsubstantiated and unreasonable allegations about other people must be second to none. What amazes me is that it has gone on for so long. I worry about what Dr. Southall does when he goes abroad.
There are difficult issues relating to medical ethics and negligence. The Bolam test is an understandable part of the process. We also need to stop trying to blame someone every time something bad happens: sometimes bad things happen and they are no one's fault. It is not surprising that people use unethical techniques to attempt to turn the finger of blame away from them when it should not really point at anyone.
It remains the case, however, that we cannot continue to cover up the history of the research projects managed by Dr. Southall. Action needs to be taken to enforce the rules. As an absolute minimum, the Secretary of State for Health must obtain and keep secure a complete copy of the special case files, including those kept at Dr. Southall's charity and any kept elsewhere. Turning a blind eye is not acceptable.
I am sorry to have rushed through that lengthy speech, but I wanted to confine it to 10 minutes. The point that I want to make about Christmas is that we in Birmingham do not wish people a happy Winterval. We in Birmingham wish them a happy Christmas—that is displayed on the Council House—so happy Christmas, everyone!
The emblem of a benevolent and sympathetic society is that we care for vulnerable people and protect them. If we can do nothing else here, we as Members of Parliament should be thinking of vulnerable people at this time of year.
I sincerely thank the Prime Minister for his help and intervention in the children's hospice funding crisis that arose this year. He gave £27 million to fill the short-term funding gap, which was a very good thing for him to do. He is also totally behind the continued review of the long-term funding of children's hospices, so that we can ensure fair funding for those important institutions.
I want to discuss two groups, the homeless and children with special needs. Homelessness is a major problem. It is timely to address it as we canter towards Christmas, with all its wonderful joy and brilliant gaiety—but for some it can be a lonely, cold, forbidding and often deeply depressing time, and we must not forget those people.
We have just seen the 40th anniversary of the BBC's screening of "Cathy Come Home". Shortly after that first screening came the formation of Shelter, a wonderful organisation with great, good and dedicated people working in it. It is time to take stock. Like Shelter, I want to focus on the key issues of concern surrounding homelessness. There has been a systematic failure to invest in social housing for rent. The main problem was not the right to buy council houses—an excellent policy that I supported—but the failure to invest the proceeds of those sales in replacement social housing for rent.
During the '60s and '70s, more than 100,000 social houses were built each year, but in the last decade only about 20,000 such houses have been built each year, which is an unsustainable level. That problem needs to be addressed. It lies at the root of Britain's housing crisis and explains why 1 million children are growing up homeless or in damp, cold or overcrowded accommodation. The evidence shows that bad housing has a devastating impact on the education, health and life chances of those children, leaving them at risk of permanent social exclusion later in life. That is damaging not only to them, but to society at large, which is often denied the positive contribution that they might otherwise make.
The Communities and Local Government Committee endorsed Shelter's campaign to persuade the Treasury to deliver at least an additional 20,000 social rented homes above the current levels being achieved. Hopefully, that will be set out in next summer's comprehensive spending review. I have been arguing for more social housing in Castle Point for10 years, but no action on that has been taken by those responsible, and I continue to argue the case for my patch. We must also take seriously the Barker review on housing. It has many important conclusions, and it provides a strategy to cut the number of homeless households trapped in temporary accommodation. We must establish policies that will ensure genuine successes and advances in that area over the next two or three years.
The current homelessness facts are frightening. More than 94,000 vulnerable, homeless households, involving 130,000 children, are currently trapped in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Homeless children in temporary accommodation miss on average a quarter of their schooling. Shelter found that living in overcrowded conditions damages children's educational prospects. Almost half of parents described their children as often unhappy or depressed, and said that their education had suffered as a result. Of course, that is common sense; it is not rocket science.
About 500,000 households, including 905,000—almost 1 million—children, are living in overcrowded conditions. That must be tackled. According to a Shelter survey,90 per cent. of families living in overcrowded conditions felt that the overcrowding was damaging their children's health. More than three quarters of the households had no member working, either because health or mobility problems prevented that, or because of insecurity in respect of accommodation, or because of the poverty trap which stops some people getting low-paid jobs. Shelter estimates that the additional cost to the public purse associated with the use of temporary accommodation is about £500 million.
These concerns must not be confused with those to do with the protection of our precious green belt, or with the defending from new threats of expensive flatland development, which is an issue in many constituencies, particularly in the south-east—such development is, of course, designed for profit rather than to tackle genuine social housing needs. We must also find better ways to bring into use those houses that are empty and not in use.
I do not seek to score any political points; homelessness is too important for that. In recent years, the Government have started to make progress in tackling homelessness, and they have done some very good things. My contention is that that progress has been a little slow and I would like them to move faster. I know that there is cross-party support for that. The Government have strengthened the legal safety net for homeless people. They have required local authorities to take a more strategic, preventive approach to reduce the number of people forced to sleep rough and to reduce the length of time that homeless families with children are placed in unacceptable bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
However, at the same time there are massive pressures from immigration. The number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has almost doubled from 41,000 in 1997 to almost 100,000 today. The average length of time that a homeless household spends in temporary accommodation before being rehoused has increased from 98 days in 1997 to 267 days now. The proportion of people who spend more than a year in temporary accommodation has increased from 11 per cent. in 1997 to 24 per cent. now. We need further action quickly.
A social exclusion unit report entitled "Breaking the Cycle" identified the number of homeless households as one of the five key factors holding back progress in tackling social exclusion. The Treasury's child poverty review also highlighted the importance of tackling homelessness if the Government's child poverty objectives are to be met. The "Every Child Matters" Green Paper also identified homelessness as one of the key factors associated with poor outcomes for our children. Christmas is coming, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the goose certainly is getting fat. We must think of those in need and resolve to do something next year to tackle the problem more firmly.
I want to make three important points about vulnerable children. First, we must ensure that those who need statementing for special educational needs get that service quickly, with minimum delay, frustration and bureaucracy. In England, the average proportion of children statemented for SEN is 2.9 per cent.; in Essex, we statement only2.4 per cent. If we had the English average, another610 Essex children would be statemented. As a decent MP, my question is: why are those children not being statemented? Are we betraying them; are their needs being denied? As I see it, there are only two explanations. Either there are far fewer SEN children in Essex than the English average, which strikes me as statistically improbable; or Essex is failing parents and betraying our most vulnerable children. If the latter is the case, it needs to be exposed and stopped. Through this debate, I am demanding clear answers from the Department for Education and Skills, and from Essex, as to why this anomaly exists, and what will be done to deal with it if we are—as I strongly suspect we are—betraying our most vulnerable children.
My second point on vulnerable children is that we must value and support, in deed as well as in word, our schools for those with moderate learning disabilities. We must make parents aware of the availability of such schools and of what they can offer special children, and we must encourage choice and referrals. Essex has again been found wanting in this regard. It is trying to strangle the county's few remaining MLD schools by stealth. In recent years, the number of referrals to MLD schools has fallen dramatically: not by half or by 75 per cent., but by even more than that. Parents are being given misleading or no information, which means that they cannot make an informed choice. Sometimes, mainstreaming is right for special children; at other times, they need special schools and MLD schools. Parents, not councils, know best what is right for their children.
As my hon. Friend is doubtless aware, I recently wrote a minority report on children with special educational needs. In the course of my research, I discovered that the figures for Essex are quite low because many children are being exported out of Essex and educated somewhere else. My hon. Friend might like to look into that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is an expert in this area, for that intervention. I am talking about children with moderate learning difficulties, who are not exported outside the county. They are certainly not exported from Castle Point, where there is a wonderful MLD school called Cedar Hall. Its referrals have been cut in the past two years to a very small proportion, compared with two years ago. That has happened not because there are fewer SEN children, but because of the policy of Essex county council. A campaign on this issue received national publicity, and the Prime Minister addressed it in the run-up to the last election—as did Maria Hutchins, one of my campaigning constituents—as my hon. Friend will doubtless recall.
My third point regarding special children is that we must get more speech and language professionals into work. The problem here is the Government, not the county.
"At present, some 7,000 therapists are on the books. It is estimated that there is a shortfall of 2,283, which...will bemet only by 2013."—[ Hansard, Westminster Hall,28 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 4WH.]
The House will see that allowing a whole cohort of children to be betrayed in that way for the next five years or so is intolerable.
So homelessness and special needs children are my main concerns as I canter towards Christmas, but I wish to make a couple of additional points. I need an answer on an important matter concerning the importation of liquefied natural gas—LNG—into Canvey island. I have asked Ministers previously, but I have not had a straight answer yet. I ask the Minister on the Treasury Bench to urge the appropriate Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry to acknowledge that there is no Government safe siting policy for top-tier LNG COMAH—control of major accident hazard—sites. Such a policy would specify details such as acceptable distances from residential homes and schools and in the absence of such a policy I cannot see how an inspector could possibly allow an appeal for such a site. If there is a safe siting policy, may I have sight of it so that I can test the policy against the dangers that my constituents would face from that unacceptable proposal? I do not think that there is a policy, and that is a problem for the Government.
A key factor is that the island has no reasonable or sustainable means of access in an emergency, be it an LNG escape or another flood. So I make my now traditional cry from the heart for another separate access to the island, which should probably be from the Northwick road area. I congratulate Councillor Rodney Bass, the cabinet member at county hall, on his consistent support for our third road.
In a debate on
"What is certain is that, if we do not invest now, we will not be able to afford the consequences of failing to tackle this epidemic".
As I pointed out in July, cost-effective treatments are available, which are recommended by NICE, so why have we identified only 23 per cent. of the carriers of that disease while Australia, for instance, has identified more than 80 per cent.?
Then there is coronary heart disease. The British Heart Foundation statistics database calculates that the overall cost of CHD to the UK economy is £7.9 billion a year. So much of that human tragedy and cost burden is preventable. Cholesterol is a factor in about half of all CHD fatalities, more than any other risk factor. Cholesterol levels can be controlled and reduced, particularly for high risk patients, by lifestyle and cost-effective treatment in primary care. But 79 per cent. of the NHS health care costs for CHD fall to in-patient costs and only 3 per cent. to the primary care sector. That proves the old proverb about a stitch in time saving nine.
While I am on the subject of the NHS, I ask whatever happened to simple common sense and decency. A little girl ended up with no limbs and a wonderful and caring community clubbed together to help her to rebuild her life—two of the people who helped to raise the funds are coming for dinner with me at the House of Commons tomorrow night. Yet we see utterly stupid and uncivilised policies that damage that little girl. Let me quote from an e-mail from my constituent Tony Simmons this week. He states that
"a lot of people raised a lot of money in this borough for"— that little girl—
"to get her on her feet. I see in the news today that she has been turned down for NHS physio because her limbs were not supplied by the NHS. Who are these toadies who make judgements like that, she is a child for gods sake. If you get a chance, put your oar in, stir up a bit of muddy water."
My oar is well and truly in, and paddling furiously. May I wish that little girl, her family, homeless people and all at the Palace of Westminster a joyous Christmas and a healthy and peaceful new year.
I shall be brief, but I want to refer to two matters in connection with the railways that Mr. Hoyle touched on earlier. The first arises from the Ufton rail crash of just over a year ago, and I must declare an interest: my house is a few hundred yards from the site of the crash, and I was there about five minutes after it happened. Moreover, land surrounding the site is in my ownership.
I want to talk about the needs of my constituent David Main, who lost his wife Anjanette and his daughter Louella in the tragedy. In a few months, an inquest into the crash will be held at Windsor's Guildhall, and it will involve representatives of the Department of Transport, the rail operators, Network Rail and the Health and Safety Executive. All of them will be well represented by barristers, and they will have all the support that they need. In contrast, the victims are being denied the proper legal representation that they need.
The Legal Services Commission recognised the problem when it gave Mr. Main leave to obtain the exceptional funding that is available in such cases. However, the Department for Constitutional Affairs has opposed the LSC award, and Mr. Main has been forced to take the matter to judicial review.
The madness of it all is that winning the case will cost the Department more than giving Mr. Main the legal representation that he needs would. Two groups of civil servants are fighting over their different pots of money, and the Minister of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs is unable to give leadership in the matter. At the bottom of the pile is my grieving constituent, who just wants to get on with his life, and who should be allowed the legal representation at the inquest that he needs.
We saw the Minister of State's irascible performance at Question Time earlier today. However, I hope that the new year will imbue in her a spirit of good will so that she will be able to say that the judicial review process is a ridiculous waste of public money and should be dropped.
I turn now to a problem to do with rail services to and from west Berkshire that affects many more people. I am indebted to my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey for tabling early-day motion 526, which has been signed by hon. Members of all parties. I urge others to continue to put their names to it, as it concerns the chaos following the introduction of First Great Western's new timetable on
A year ago, First Great Western bid for and won a franchise that included a very prescribed timetable that had been set by the Department for Transport. Its central purpose was to increase capacity from cities and large population hubs at the expense of smaller communities and commuter regions.
Earlier this year, people in my part of Berkshire ran a huge campaign that involved a petition that was presented on the Floor of the House and letters and e-mails of protest to Ministers and senior people at First Great Western. I had a meeting with the then hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, who was rail Minister at the time. I subsequently attended another meeting with the then Secretary of State for Transport, who is now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. At that meeting, I was accompanied by my neighbour and right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram, who represents an area at the end of the branch line running through my constituency that was going to be extremely badly affected.
Our experience at that second meeting was surreal. I sat on the Secretary of State's right hand side, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes sat on his left. All three of us sat on the sofa, and the Secretary of State was using Bradshaw's rail timetable to decide how many trains should stop at Kintbury, Hungerford and other similar towns. If the former Secretary of State had not had such a svelte physique, I would have said that he was the ultimate fat controller. What an absurd situation it was, with rail timetables being decided in that way.
I am glad to say that I was able to write to the Secretary of State after the consultation period and thank him for listening, because many of services to the smaller stations in my constituency that had been under threat were reinstated. However, the inconvenience that has arisen from many of the train times remains. Many people are having to spend longer commuting and changing trains, and it is taking them an awful long time to get home. We have still lost a great number of services, the most important of which is the late night train from Paddington to Newbury, which was much valued by local people.
I have discovered that, as a result of the train changes, people have changed their work patterns enormously. Previously, they decided to stay longer at home in the morning, to have breakfast with their children, take them to school and then go to work, and come home on a late train. Now, they can no longer do that. People's social lives have also been dramatically altered. Many young people used to go to Reading in the evening; they can no longer do it because we have lost the late train.
"probably been misinformed about cuts to services."—[ Hansard, 17 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 723.]
I was so incensed that I wrote to him because there self-evidently had been cuts to services in west Berkshire and the whole area. I received a wholly unsatisfactory reply.
As a result of the new timetable that came in last week we have fewer trains, longer commuting times and massive inconvenience to the commuting public, who are having to change trains. Without much warning, First Great Western has changed the rolling stock on two key commuter trains from Hungerford through Newbury and Thatcham and beyond. Instead of two Turbo trains with approximately 550 seats, it is now using Adelante trains with 282 seats. This has caused chaos and severe overcrowding.
Some of the 220-plus e-mails that I have received from the travelling public have given a graphic account of the sheer misery that has been visited on them in west Berkshire in recent days. I quote just a few of them. One says:
"The service is so overcrowded that the gangways are blocked. This is dangerous and breaks safety regulations. (from a member of FGW staff) ... I have to leave work 20 minutes earlier to get a train that serves Thatcham."
That does not sound a great inconvenience, but if it is added up over a week, a month or even a year, it is an enormous inconvenience. Another says:
"The new...service is taking significantly longer (10 minutes more in the morning and around half an hour in the afternoon".
"Since moving to Newbury in September in part to be closer to train services into London and better train/bus connections to Heathrow I have found the local service to be overcrowded, uncomfortable and local rail staff rude and high-handed. As a consequence"—
I really hope that the Minister responsible gets this important point—
"I am now driving into London and the airport more often than travel by train".
Last week we heard that Newbury had one of the most congested school runs in the country. I have been struck by how many parents and children have contacted me to give me their experience. One mother says:
"My daughter attends St. Bart's School in Newbury. She commutes every morning by train from Hungerford.
Since the changes to the morning train timetable, my daughter has to literally run to school,"— a long way, I should add—
"to avoid being late."
Another child writes to me:
"The changing of the trains has dramatically affected me getting to school every morning. I have to travel from Kintbury to Newbury every morning and have no other choice because of my parents being market traders. The train leaving Kintbury at 8.18 every morning, and me having to be in school by 8.40, causes great issues."
I am sure that it does.
I will not burden the House much longer because I want to allow other hon. Members to speak. I am indebted to the Vodafone intranet. Vodafone is for the moment the largest employer in my constituency. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston is fast catching it up, but 3,500 employees of Vodafone work in Newbury. It has done a trawl via its intranet to see the effect that the timetable changes are having on one company. I was struck by a debate that my hon. Friend Mr. Wilson initiated recently on transport infrastructure in the Thames Valley. He pointed out that Hewlett Packard was moving out of Reading due to pressure from its employees about the amount of time that it takes for them to get to work. I quote a couple of Vodafone employees. One says:
"Needless to say, I went out and bought a car and now drive to London, which is cheaper and I can come home to Newbury at whatever time I like."
Another describes his commuting experience over the last couple of weeks:
"I was sitting in a seat where three people face each other and we actually had people standing between myself and the passenger opposite ... One woman got very distressed and claustrophobic and started screaming and shouting but there was nothing anyone could do, as you couldn't move an inch."
Finally, a great many people raised the issue of bicycles. As one said, if we are to have an integrated transport system, we need to make provision for bicycles. He thought that the sooner the Adelante trains are gone, the better, because there is not enough room for bicycles on them.
There is a major social dimension to this matter. Research in the US—ground-breaking research by Professor Puttnam, culminating in his book "Bowling Alone"—showed that for every 10 more minutes that people spend commuting, 10 per cent. less time is spent on community activities, social events, sports clubs, other voluntary work and even family gatherings. It is a major issue, not just one for rail users. It affects car users, who are stuck in greater congestion. We talk about general well-being and this is a real health issue. People are more stressed at work, it affects the economy and it affects communities.
I finish with one more quote. Alec Mellor sent me an e-mail, in which he referred to his "sum of displeasure today" as
"2 hrs standing up on top of a 10hr working day. This cannot be the quality of my life for 5 days a week. I cannot do any work on the trains any more, cannot read and am seething for the entire durations."
I wish to raise two pressing constituency issues today. The first is about the financial crisis in Brent's health service, which threatens to have a massive impact on patients and a devastating knock-on effect on local services provided by the council and voluntary groups.
In Brent as in other areas, we have watched with horror as reports of the health savings necessary have escalated from £6 million to a projected £53 million over two years. We were initially told that Brent's teaching primary care trust had a good reputation for balancing its books and that, unlike other primary care trusts in London, it finished each financial year in budget. However, the impact of top-slicing—not once, but twice—and then the failure to meet the initial savings plan, followed by a closer look at the books by the turnaround team and some incomprehensible budgeting, brought us to the extraordinary level of debt that is now reported.
No immediate solution appears to be in sight. The PCT expects to achieve only £14 million of savings by the end of this financial year, leaving a further£13 million that will be annually recurring. In a drastic attempt to resolve this crisis, countless services are set to be slashed, countless more costs shunted on to the council, and all without any eye to long-term planning or even the Government's own national preventive health agenda.
The list of clinics set to be axed includes the Roberts Court clinic, Perrin Road, College Road, Helena Road, Hay Lane, Stag Lane, Mortimer Road, Neasden and the Wembley walk-in centre. Fifteen district nurses will go, children's health services will be slashed and rehabilitation beds at Willesden community hospital shut. Services for young people with learning disabilities will be renegotiated, smoking cessation advisers cut and cuts imposed to services in the mental health arena that the mental health trust has said are impossible to achieve.
Perhaps most damaging are the smallest cuts of all—those to the voluntary sector, such as grants to citizens advice bureaux to provide outreach workersin GP surgeries. Those posts almost certainly did more to cut the consultation time with GPs than any other single thing that the PCT could possibly have done. Grants to bereavement counselling and carers groups have also been cut as they are not seen to be core NHS activities. That is the whole point, is it not? Working with the most vulnerable members of our society is not core to anybody's business, which is why those people always fall through the net.
The long-term impact will take some time to assess, as the PCT renegotiates every section 31 agreement with the council, arbitrarily assigning previous joint working as social care rather than health care, thereby shunting the costs on to the council and leaving people whose care was provided free previously to find that they are subject to means-testing and that they might be unable to afford or receive the care that they expect.
The local council has no idea of how much NHS debt it must absorb. Early discussions suggested a figure of possibly up to £21 million, but the PCT's debt has doubled since then. The PCT in Brent is in financial meltdown. Little or no communication is coming from the organisation, and it is impossible for the council to plan its long-term care provision. The PCT already owes the council about £10 million, because it has failed to pay for joint work that was previously agreed going back to 2004. Of course, it is not just the local authority that must pick up the cost of such cost shunting. Many voluntary sector groups will find themselves at the forefront of providing services for people who have otherwise been refused them.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that, as Mr. Randall said earlier, given all that crisis debt management, there is no long-term planning and no sense of incorporating even the Government's plans for preventive health. Many of the cuts will fall on essential health and social care outreach programmes, on community rehabilitation posts and on family planning, sexual health, drugs and alcohol services, as well as on help and advice for smokers or the obese—the very work that ensures that people do not need to go into hospital in the first place. If those programmes are scrapped, the burden on acute NHS services will increase, not decrease. That is idiotic—it is short-term planning—and it will not resolve anything for the long-term health of peoplein Brent. The voluntary sector—Brent carers centre, Brent Mencap, Age Concern Brent and Elders Voice—believes that those cuts will have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable members of Brent's population.
It beggars belief that financial management was so incompetent that that situation was allowed to arisein the first place; but having found that it has arisen, surely, it is ridiculous to expect the PCT to cut £53 million-worth of services in two years—or, in practice, in rather less than two years, because the cuts have been found part way through a financial year. The PCT's total budget is £400 million, so a substantial proportion of its annual budget is involved
In Brent, it is not just the PCT that is in financial meltdown; the North West London Hospitals NHS Trust also faces a deficit of about £30 million, with a projected cumulative deficit of £67 million. Those figures are quoted from The Guardian, because the figures that come from the North West London Hospitals NHS trust are rather contradictory. A variety of figures are floating around, just as with the PCT, so it is difficult for local people to understand what the implications are for them.
All patients and staff know is that the long-planned reorganisation of services across hospitals in north-west London—something that may or may not have a clinical basis—now seems to be obscured by financial crisis. Frankly, like everyone else in Brent, I do not believe a word that I am being told by hospital managers about what they are trying to do or why they are trying to do it. That is a very sad state of affairs, and it is time that everyone paid a little more attention to communication and transparency, given that the implications will be huge for everyone concerned.
Very briefly, I should like to refer to the changes to legal aid, which are of considerable concern to many hon. Members. The issue was raised today in departmental questions, and it has been raised with me extensively by constituency organisations, such as the citizens advice bureau, the community law centre, Brent private tenants rights group and the refugee legal centre—and many interested individual constituents. Their concern is that a fixed fee, regardless of the complexities of the case, will dissuade lawyers from taking on the more complicated cases. Such cases will inevitably take longer in a borough such as mine, with very many vulnerable people, often with very complex needs, who frequently do not speak English as a first language. My concern is that vulnerable people, who need legal aid most, will find themselves unable to obtain it.
The new fee system will have a particular impact on immigration cases. I will finish with an example of a constituent who I fear may find himself in difficulty. Let us call him Mr. A. He is an Iraqi. His problems are due to a failure of the Home Office to apply its own undisclosed policies to grant refugee status or exceptional leave to remain to certain categories of asylum seekers from Iraq. Following litigation in which the policies were finally disclosed, the Home Office now accepts that decisions to refuse leave to people who should have been granted it need to be reversed. There are potentially large numbers of applicants who have been asked to apply to the Home Office again, saying why they feel that their cases were unfairly treated.
Under the proposed graduated fee system, legal representatives would end up bearing the cost of such Home Office maladministration. They would have been deprived of an early resolution fee as a result of the Home Office's failure to apply its own policy in the first place. There is no provision for representatives to be paid for reviewing old cases, but that work would have to be done to remedy what the High Court termed
"the series of errors which amounted to conspicuous unfairness on the part of the Home Office".
The failings of one Department have created a financial hole for those people who need their appeals funded. That is being passed on to legal providers, who will be forced to withdraw their services from clients. The original Home Office failing still has not been rectified.
I know that the issue is of considerable concern to many Members and I hope that Ministers will listen to the representations that have been made today, both in this Adjournment debate and in Question Time. They are forcing through the changes without the necessary consultation. If we lose the experts who provide legal aid in the profession, they cannot be brought back into the system quickly. That could have a serious long-term effect on the most vulnerable members of our society, who must have access to justice in this country.
I wish you and all the staff in the House a happy Christmas, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I add my good wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hon. Members and to the staff who support us in the House. I would like to use the opportunity of this Adjournment debate and the presence of the Minister on the Front Bench to reflect on perhaps the most important issue that has dominated my constituents' thoughts on policy—and I suspect those of many others—over the past year: our local NHS. In doing so, I do not expect that 2007 will be any different. Indeed, the issues that have troubled my constituents over the past year look set to continue to dominate their lives going forward. In thinking about the NHS locally, my constituents do not share the Secretary of State's view that this has been the "best year ever" for the NHS—rather the reverse. Across the board in our health economy, we have seen cuts, question marks over long-planned initiatives and a level of uncertainty that is troubling to those of us who depend on the national health service for our livelihoods or for the sake of our health.
In my constituency, we have been waiting for a new hospital for many years. There are two hospitals that serve the constituency. One of them, in Pembury, consists of a workhouse that was built in the 1890s. I suggest that there are very few examples in the country of workhouses that are still being used as NHS hospitals. The main workhouse is supplemented by wooden huts—again, something unbelievable in 2006. The other principal hospital, the Kent and Sussex hospital, is in a congested part of my constituency, in the heart of town. Even though it is a 20th-century hospital, its facilities are out of date. For example, it has mixed-sex wards at a time when patients expect the privacy and dignity of single-sex wards.
I place on record my gratitude and admiration for the staff in the NHS in my constituency, who work in conditions that are at times intolerable and manage to deliver a standard of health care that is extremely proficient and compares well with other parts of the country. They do so because they have a vocation to provide the best health care that can be available. We owe it to them, as well as to my constituents, that they should be able to operate in the type of facilities that other constituencies take for granted.
We have been waiting for many years for a new private finance initiative hospital to replace those facilities. We received some good news today: the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust has felt able to appoint a preferred bidder for the new hospital. That bidder, Equion, will develop its exciting plans further. It should be a state-of-the-art hospital, in which 100 per cent. of the rooms will be single ones. That will address the privacy issue at a stroke and will make a major contribution to infection control. The hospital will be a beacon for the NHS and will represent best practice around the world.
Over the past year, there has been delay after delay in the original decision to build the hospital. It should have been well on the way to being built by now. We were expecting a preferred bidder to be appointed in February, but various Department of Health and Treasury reviews put that further and further back. The final decision will now be taken in March 2007 bythe Treasury and the Department of Health, based on the financial situation locally and nationally.
The case for the new Pembury hospital is overwhelming. No one could deny that the team in the local trust has put together the best possible bid and case, or that it had addressed all the questions before it. Any fair-minded person would recognise that it is time to build that hospital, and to get on with building it quickly. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to take back to his colleagues in government the strong feelings of everyone in not just Tunbridge Wells, but west Kent and East Sussex, that we need this hospital now. As time goes by, we know that construction costs are liable to increase, so time is precious.
It is not just the PFI hospital that troubles us. Unfortunately, a series of cutbacks and proposed cutbacks were announced during the past year, and decisions will be taken during the months ahead. Let us consider some of those. Antenatal classes might not be considered the most pressing need in our health service when it is cash-strapped, but the provision of parentcraft classes to new parents is of significance to first-time parents, who are understandably worried about what lies in store and have no experience of looking after a new child. They benefit from the practical help given by midwives and other health professionals on how to cope with labour and childbirth. More than that, antenatal classes provide an important transition into the early weeks and months of a child's life. Ministerial statements over recent months have told us how important the early years are to the development of a child, so increasing the anxiety and stress on parents at that time is unforgivable.
It is also important that we have established social networks, in which new parents can meet each other and give each other support, outside state provision. That is an important means of self-help, and the provision of antenatal classes is important to that. I gather from the managers of the local NHS trust that the trouble is that the new funding formula does not include a specified element for antenatal classes, so at a time when the trust needs to recover its deficit, it is easy to cut such services.
Another threat to the provision of childbirth services that is proposed by the local primary care trust is a cut of up to one third in the health visitor service. The proposal aims to focus health visits on new mothers who are perceived to be at risk. I am concerned about that, because it is difficult to know in advance whether a mother, especially a first-time one, is likely to experience post-natal depression. We know that post-natal depression strikes people down very unexpectedly, and the visit of a health professional shortly after birth can be crucial in protecting the health of the mother and her new baby. I am very concerned that the proposals may jeopardise the future health of my constituents. I am aware that the Government nationally are reviewing the provision of health visitor services, and it would be appropriate if, in different parts of the country, we benefited from the conclusions of that review before we took any decisions that might be precipitous.
Another much valued institution in the health economy of Tunbridge Wells is the homeopathic hospital, which has been in the town for over 100 years. It is one of only about half a dozen in the country. I myself have not benefited from homeopathic remedies, nor do I have any great enthusiasm for them, but many of my constituents feel that those treatments help their conditions, especially chronic conditions. The Minister's colleagues have said repeatedly in recent months how important it is to consider the treatment of chronic conditions rather than just acute care.
What is innovative about the homeopathic hospital in Tunbridge Wells is how it combines conventional and alternative remedies. It offers not only homeopathy but various other complementary remedies. The proposed savings from cutting homeopathic services are in the order of £160,000 a year, but people who are using those services will not just disappear from the system. They have conditions that need to be treated; they are likely to be treated in other, conventional ways, and will be paying more visits either to the acute sector or to their GP. It would be misguided to regard a saving of £160,000 as a realistic prospect, and it would be regrettable to lose something that is very valuable and provides choice in the health economy in the area.
Finally, we have in and around west Kent cottage hospitals that are under threat. Although there areno cottage hospitals in my constituency, those at Tonbridge and at Hawkhurst serve my constituents. At a time when Ministers have recognised the importance of community institutions in promoting health care, it is regrettable that those hospitals have a question mark over them, especially when they are among the most cherished institutions in our local communities. They have benefited from the hard work, the fundraising efforts and the voluntary activity of local people over many years.
At a time when we are spending record sums on the NHS—something that I welcome—it is galling and troubling to my constituents that across the board we have such question marks over the provision of future services and delays to some of the most longed-for changes to those services. Health will be at the top of the list of concerns for my constituents in 2007. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise with the Minister the concerns of my constituents, and I hope that tonight, or when these questions are referred back to the Secretary of State, he might be able to provide some new year reassurance to my constituents thatthe Government will think carefully about the measures proposed. In particular, I hope that they will look favourably and urgently on the Pembury hospital proposal.
We are fated, Mr. Deputy Speaker, always to rendezvous at the fag-end of any debate, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak for the first time in a Christmas Adjournment debate. I hope that the empty condition of the green Benches opposite does not signify the contents of my speech.
At the outset, when I was putting my remarks together, I had resolved to be full of Christmas cheer, but there are some important issues in my constituency which leave me rather depressed. I will mention those later, but I want to begin by making my only reference to a national or international issue. Some hon. Members have today referred to the Iraq war. I have to say that it is a dark cloud over British politics. It has done much to undermine people's faith and trust in elective politics in this country. Some Members would not agree, but I have to say that it is an obvious sign of the Government's moral and political bankruptcy. The Government will have to be held to account one day. My hon. Friend Mr. Amess said that the people had not yet spoken, but they will.
I thank and pay tribute to members of voluntary organisations and charity groups in my constituency, who do a fantastic job every week, year in, year out, to help people less fortunate than themselves. It is important to remember their contributions at Christmas. I should also like to thank people who work in public services, both in Peterborough and across the country, including ambulance crews, the police, and people in the health service, who will have to work over Christmas.
There is good news: Peterborough, which has a Conservative city council, is rightly proud of its status as an environment city, and we will entrench our environmental credentials in the new year. Environment wardens are to be employed across the city to deal with problems such as fly-tipping and littering, and we are introducing a new, innovative name-and-shame initiative, in which the photographs of suspected litter louts will be printed in the local press. I am delighted to say that support for those new initiatives comes at the same time as an extremely modest 1.4 per cent. increase in council tax, which was passed yesterday at the city council cabinet. Members and officers have worked hard, using a business transformation team, to identify savings and efficiencies. It is a tribute to the council that, six years after taking over from a Labour administration that bankrupted the city of Peterborough, it is in a position to deliver first-class services. It increased its comprehensive performance assessment rating to three stars, while cutting council tax for the 160,000 people of the city.
However, there are issues that cause me great concern, and one of them is the perennial problem of crime. The northern division of the Cambridgeshire constabulary continues to lack enough full-time police officers, and last week I learned from figures provided in an answer to a parliamentary question that Cambridgeshire constabulary has something like the fifth lowest number of police constables per capita of the population. There have been increases in violent crime and burglary, and instead of people going through the criminal justice system in the correct way, increasing use is being made of cautions and other such measures.
In 2003, my predecessor argued that the northern division of the constabulary was underfunded and should have more police officers, yet nothing has been done about the issue. There is an obsession with providing police community support officers, but they are not substitutes for full-time police officers, especially as the tapering funding is being reduced. Eventually, the burden will fall on city council tax payers. The number of urban post offices in my constituency has been reduced from 24 to 17, and the likelihood is that the number will drop to 14 or fewer under the Government plans outlined by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry last week. That is a major issue, because it is not just rural areas that suffer from the closure of post offices; vulnerable people, older people, those with mobility problems and young families suffer as a result, too.
The NHS is a major concern in my constituency, where there have been bed closures and ward closures. Posts have been lost in the city, and that worries me, too. In particular, I am concerned about the new super-hospital. There is yet to be a final sign-off from either the Department of Health or the Treasury. I have considerable sympathy with what my hon. Friend Greg Clark said about the constant waiting game to find out the fate of important facilities. In my constituency, the concern is about the £300 million Greater Peterborough health investment plan, which will mean a new mental health unit and a new acute hospital.
Call me an old cynic, but in the era of "heat maps" and the Minister without Portfolio—Hazel Blears, the chairman of the Labour party—sitting in on planning meetings with the Department of Health, I am extremely worried that large-scale investment in the NHS locally will go the same way as it did in the constituency of my hon. Friend Grant Shapps, for example, where a £500 million programme was cancelled. I await the new year with interest, and I hope that a project which has been on the books since 1995 will go ahead and that the Government will keep faith. It will be a major blow for my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Vara, who is on the Front Bench today, if the project is not to proceed.
There are many good things going on in the city of Peterborough, including the master plan, a major urban regeneration programme through the regeneration company Opportunity Peterborough, a new university centre following an amalgamation with Anglia Ruskin university, and the largest secondary school academy in England and Wales, the Thomas Deacon academy, which it is hoped will make a massive impact on the historic underachievement of secondary school pupils in my constituency. Working class families in my constituency deserve the best education, and for too long they have been let down. That is why, although it is a Government policy, I support the decision to go ahead with the Thomas Deacon academy.
With respect to the growth agenda, I do not believe we have joined-up government. Cambridgeshire is the fastest-growing county in England. Peterborough and North-West Cambridgeshire are the fastest-growing constituencies in Cambridgeshire. We do not have a coherent, cohesive plan for rail infrastructure, road infrastructure, community facilities, water supply, policing and many other services. It is time that all the Members of Parliament for the county had an opportunity to lobby the Minister responsible. He will look at the Thames Gateway, which will interest Andrew Mackinlay. Members representing constituencies in the south midlands, such as those in Corby, Daventry, Northampton, Kettering and Milton Keynes should also be involved. If we do not get it right, the south midlands and the Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough corridor will be a car park within 10 years. We will not be able to move. The huge impact on the quality of life will be negative, rather than positive.
I shall speak briefly about the Prime Minister. I was conscious of the passion felt by my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who has the benefit of 23 years' experience of serving the people of south Essex. He clearly felt some antipathy towards the Prime Minister. We have come full circle, from the glad confident morning of
The legacy exists: one third of children leaving school functionally illiterate; the incidence of MRSA growing in our hospitals; massive bed and ward closures; a pensions system bankrupted; our civil service traduced; our intelligence services and Parliament misled; the armed forces used for party political reasons; a transport system in shambolic gridlock. That is the legacy of the Prime Minister, the man who was going to be purer than pure, whiter than white. If I sound less than charitable, it is for good reason. My constituents, who have a lower life expectancy than those in Cambridge, for example, 30 miles away, who have poorer housing stock, poorer educational attainment, and worse rates of heart disease and stroke, are directly affected by the manifest failings of the Labour Government.
Putting that to one side, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, hon. Members, staff of the House and, most importantly, my constituents, whom I have the great good fortune and privilege to represent, a wonderful happy Christmas and a prosperous new year.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this Christmas Adjournment debate. I extend warm Christmas wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the staff and officers of the House, and to all Members of the House of Commons of all political parties. This is a wonderful time of year for all people to celebrate Christmas and to uphold the Christian traditions of our country.
As hon. Members will know, I am proud and honoured to be the Member of Parliament for the Essex market town of Romford. I was born and bred there, and I am pleased now to be its representative here in the House of Commons. The people of Romford have a great deal of common sense. They are hard-working and patriotic and believe in the values of this country, as I do.
In Romford we are part of the London borough of Havering, which is part of Greater London. We do not particularly like being lumped in with Greater London—we want to be part of Essex and uphold our traditional roots. Unfortunately, we are now under the reign of Ken Livingstone, who takes rather a lot of money out of the pockets of the people of Romford and spends it everywhere but in my constituency, so that we subsidise Greater London. I hope that when we consider the Greater London Authority Bill next year, Ministers will consider the position of outer London boroughs and a fairer deal will be given to places such as Romford, which subsidise inner London.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is he really saying that he would return to government from Chelmsford, with some of his constituents—retired folk—losing the capacity for free travel right across Greater London, which my constituents would very much like to have, and which is one of the privileges of being in the Greater London area? Is he prepared to surrender that important and valuable facility?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises that point. As an MP who represents a constituency outside Greater London, he probably does not appreciate the fact that the London boroughs pay into a separate fund for the pensioners travel pass—it is not paid for by Ken Livingstone. We pay a huge amount for police and other London-wide services from which we gain almost no benefit whatsoever.
I will not give way any more, because I want to cover a lot of other subjects.
Unfortunately, we are paying for the police for the whole of London. We have very few police in Romford. Collier Row particularly suffers from a lack of police. Inner London receives the funding; outer London does not. My constituency suffers terribly, despite the fact that crime is going up dramatically there.
There is also a lack of funding for our parks and open spaces. I pay tribute to local organisations such as Friends of Cottons Park, Friends of King George's Playing Field, and Friends of Rise Park, who have done an enormous amount of work independently of Government and the council to raise funds and attract sponsorship and grants to upgrade their local parks. I am delighted that a new group called Friends of Lawns Park has recently been launched, with my support and that of the local councillors for Mawneys ward, Councillor Robby Misir, Councillor Melvyn Wallace, and Councillor Peter Gardner.
I am concerned that again we are going to lose post offices, which are an essential part of the lifeblood of our local community. A couple of years ago, despite campaigns by myself, councillors and local people, six post offices were shut as a result of Government policy—those in Rise Park, Ardleigh Green, Gidea Park and Collier Row, as well as two in the Mawneys area. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will assure me that no more post offices will be closing in Romford.
Romford was the first local council to bin political correctness and fly the Union jack, the flag of our country, from the town hall not just for a few days a year but every day of the year. That decision has now been followed by many other councils, but it was made in the teeth of opposition from the Labour council at the time, which said that it was not the right thing to do. We now also fly the cross of St. George to represent England, and we are proud to do so. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell me why, despite the enormous expense that has gone on building Portcullis House and its flagpole, no flag has ever flown from it. How can that possibly be right?
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's diatribe, but outside my office in Tilbury, which he knows quite well, because I have thrashed him at a general election, there are three flagpoles, to one of which I have contributed a Union flag. It has been there since the time of the Ark and we are proud of it, so he cannot claim that Tory councillors in Romford and Havering are the only ones who are proud of the flag. It is simply not true, as we know from examples throughout the United Kingdom.
I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's patriotism, but it was the Labour council in Romford at the time that voted against a motion to fly the flag of our country. That is recorded as having happened and it is undeniable. It was the market traders, local councillors, local people and myself who forced the Labour council into flying the flag on the Queen Mother's 100th birthday. The flag has not been removed since. The council had to fly the flag because the people demanded it.
This has been a sad year, because we have lost one of the greatest Members of Parliament in the House of Lords—Lord Harris of High Cross, who died a couple of months ago. He was a truly great man. He was not a member of any political party, but he influenced the Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher, who led our country to the economic success that it enjoys today. He was a man who upheld the freedoms and liberties of British people, and he pioneered the free market economics that benefits all people in this country. His death is a tremendous loss to Parliament. We are all very sad that Ralph is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on, with his policies being pursued by both the Conservative party and a Labour Government.
I am also disappointed that the St. George's Day Bill, which I promoted, did not receive the necessary time this year to become the law of this country. I thank Mr. Hoyle, who co-sponsored that Bill, and I look forward to the Government recognising St. George's day, as we do St. Patrick's day. I believe that all countries should have a day that they can celebrate and support. I thank all hon. Members who supported that Bill, which I promoted earlier this year.
We also celebrated the 80th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen in 2006. What a magnificent Head of State we have—what a truly wonderful lady, who represents our country for all people and unites this country. At the end of this year, I should like to wish her many happy returns for her 80th year. We very much look forward to her continuing as our Queen for many years to come. Next year we shall celebrate the diamond wedding anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. No doubt we shall all pay tribute to them when that time arrives.
Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting Highgrove house, by invitation of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, along with a number of other Members of Parliament, to see the work of the Prince's Trust and all the charities in which he is involved. There is a lot of unjustified and unfair criticism of His Royal Highness. I hope that people will look at the work that the Prince of Wales does in so many areas, particularly for the young people, and acknowledge that he is a tremendous champion of so many good causes in our country.
Of course, Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family do not represent only the people of the United Kingdom—Great Britain and, we must never forget, Northern Ireland. She is also the Head of State of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many other countries around the globe, including the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies, which have no elected voice in this place despite the fact that other countries, such as France and Denmark, give their territories a voice. I hope that the Minister will go away with the idea that reform of the House of Lords is a way of allowing people from the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to have a voice in the Parliament of this country, which makes laws and decisions that affect the people of those great territories and dependencies. I have been pleased to visit many of them as a Member of Parliament. This year I went to the Cayman islands and Gibraltar, and last year I visited the Falkland Islands. I hope that consideration is given to allowing them an official voice somewhere in the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Next year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the people of the Falkland Islands. I hope that that will be a year of celebration as we recall the events of 1982 and the courageous actions of British servicemen who rescued those islands from Argentine aggression. Of course, we must also pay tribute to the Prime Minister of the time, whose resolution ensured that British territory was recovered and that the freedom of those people was secured. I hope that all hon. Members will pay tribute to Lady Thatcher for her courage and determination and that of her Government.
I shall end by talking a bit more about my constituency. This is Christmas, and I want to pay tribute to local groups and organisations that have celebrated this great Christian tradition, which we must uphold. I have visited about 40 to 50 Christmas events over the past five or six weeks. Many of them were held at schools and churches, and I shall mention a few of them: St. John the Divine church in Mawney road, which is a small church that needs more members, but continues to uphold the Christian tradition in that part of my constituency; the church of Christ the Eternal High Priest, a Catholic church; and the Elim Pentecostal church. I visited all those on Sunday. I started with the Catholic church, moved on to the Church of England and finished up at the Pentecostal church. All of them celebrate the Christian tradition.
I also visited the Salvation Army, which produces a wonderful concert, opening its doors to all local people to celebrate Christmas, and a number of schools: the St. Mary Hare Park school in Gidea Park, which had a wonderful Christmas nativity concert, and my own ex-junior school, Rise Park, to which I was proud to return to see its nativity play again this year.
I also attended many Christmas fairs, raising money for local charities and good causes, at Gidea Park school, St. Augustine church in Rush Green, St. Alban's church in Romford, St. Patrick's Catholic school in Collier Row, Havering Road Methodist church in Rise Park, St. Edward's primary school and North Romford community centre, which is run by volunteers who do a magnificent job for all the people in the northern part of my constituency.
I pay tribute to the Havering Singers, who cover the three constituencies of Romford, Hornchurch and Upminster and this year celebrate their 60th anniversary. They put on a magnificent concert on Saturday evening, which I was proud to attend. I also pay tribute to the Royal British Legion band and corps of drums, which this year is the national champion. Two weeks ago, it gave another wonderful concert in Romford.
Finally, I pay tribute to an organisation that is not now in my constituency but originated there. The Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary is now in the constituency of my very good friend, my hon. Friend Mr. Burns. I visited the sanctuary only two weeks ago to celebrate Christmas with a carol service in a barn full of people and animals. The animals are looked after and loved by the people at the sanctuary; it is a wonderful place.
If anyone is looking for unusual Christmas presents this year, let me recommend one or two. One possibility is sponsoring an animal at the Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary. There is Blossom, a lovely Aberdeen Angus cow who was rescued from flooded land as a calf; Marigold, a very long-eared grey donkey; Piggy, a friendly swine found wandering loose in Brentwood during the foot and mouth outbreak a couple of years ago; and Buttons the horse, rescued 18 months ago, whom I have sponsored once again this year.
I congratulate the Government on the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which was a wonderful step forward for animal welfare in this country. However, I draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 170, which I tabled, on dogs given as Christmas presents. If there is one message that we should send to people, it is, "Please don't buy a dog unless you know that it will go to a good home and be looked after properly, rather than being abandoned after Christmas." That would be a wicked and cruel thing to do to an animal at such a wonderful time of year. I congratulate the Dogs Trust on all that it does to promote dog welfare.
Finally, I wish everyone a merry Christmas. I hope that the bulldog spirit will come out in 2007 and, along with my own Staffordshire bull terrier, Buster, I extend Christmas wishes to all Members, whatever their political party. We look forward to a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2007.
It is a great pleasure for me to respond on behalf of the Opposition to what has been a very lively debate. Let me begin by extending an apology to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all right hon. and hon. Members, for having missed a small part of the beginning of the debate owing to unavoidable circumstances. Let me also associate myself with the comments of Mr. Hoyle about the death of Lord Carter yesterday. We send our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Teresa.
The debate has been extraordinarily wide-ranging. We have covered national, international and very important local issues, and we have heard a number of excellent speeches. Many have featured a unifying theme, particularly those dealing with health matters.
The Deputy Leader of the House will no doubt be aware that there is considerable concern in the House, across the political divide, about the absence of full and proper answers from the Government to various questions put by Members, both written and oral. With that in mind, I hope the Leader of the House will accept that many right hon. and hon. Members have been present for a number of hours today, hoping to make their views clear to him. While I understand that he cannot respond to all the queries, I hope that he will convey them to the relevant Ministers for full and proper answers.
The debate began with a contribution from Mr. Wills, who praised Swindon council. I wholeheartedly agreed with that praise, particularly as the council is Conservative-controlled. Then there was a performance from Mr. Heath, who rightly observed that it was time for a debate on Iraq in Government time. That issue was raised throughout the debate, and I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's comments.
We heard a detailed speech from Mr. Bailey, who is proving to be a very good local advocate for the education system in his constituency. That was followed by a passionate speech from my hon. Friend Angela Browning, who expressed concern about medical services at the hospitals in her constituency. She also said something with which I think we would all agree in acknowledging the enormous effort put in by all involved in the medical services. Those services are currently undergoing enormous difficulties, but that is not to say that those who run the service do not deserve our praise, in particular the doctors and nurses—and let us not forget all the people who support the doctors and nurses, such as receptionists, porters, cleaners and caterers.
Mrs. Cryer raised concerns about the local government pension provisions. Her concern for her constituents' pension rights can be extended nationally, and I am sure that I speak for many people in saying that there was widespread unhappiness about the Chancellor's abolition of pension tax relief in 1997, which has cost pension funds£5 billion every year. She also rightly dealt with the integration of communities in Britain. That is a very sensitive issue, and it needs to be addressed carefully, but I entirely agree that it is vital that people who come into our country speak the language of the country, which is English. That assists them in identifying with the mainstream community, but it also assists them to be a part of that community, and I wholeheartedly agree with her comments.
My hon. Friend Andrew Selous raised a number of issues, and I wish him well in his support for a hospital for Leighton Buzzard, which is being considered by Bedfordshire primary care trust. He also raised the valid point that we must make sure that there is proper training for those who are not so young any longer but who wish to take up new challenges in life. He mentioned the example of somebody wishing to undertake a plastering course; that would take three years, but that does not take into account the family commitments that the individual might have. My hon. Friend also referred to the traditional Christmas celebration. I agree that this is a Christian country; Christianity is the mainstream religion of the mainstream majority. I, for one, am certainly mentioning in my Christmas cards the word "Christmas" rather than the term "seasonal greetings".
Andrew Mackinlay spoke in his usual vigorous manner. He took up the issue of parliamentary questions not being answered. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take on board the fact that that is not a point-scoring issue raised by Opposition Members, but an issue of concern to all Members across the political divide. The hon. Gentleman also tried to make reference to a regional assembly in his area, the name of which he could not recall. May I assure him that he need not waste any time in trying to recollect or learn the name of that regional assembly, because when the Conservatives get into power we shall abolish it in any case?
My right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin spoke with passion and conviction on a number of issues. I agree that it is appalling that a planning permission controversy has been going on for nine years with regard to a national park that attracts 20 million visitors; he is right that that is unacceptable. It should be sorted out expeditiously. I also agree—as I am sure do other Members—that we should endorse the right of Members to have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills when there are representations to be made in respect of the closure of schools in our constituencies. It is bad enough that we have a Government who are not open and transparent, but it is worse still that elected Members of Parliament cannot take up issues directly with a Secretary of State. I also agree with my right hon. Friend about local maternity services. I confess that I have a personal interest in that regard, as about a week ago I was at Lewisham general hospital where my second son was born.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire also rightly mentioned the threat to the NHS and the fact that, although huge sums are being spent on services, there is the threat of a reduction in services throughout the country, instead of an increase. He then mentioned the very important and serious issue of the threat to the agricultural and rural economy which is impacting on the constituencies of many Members of Parliament and across the political divide. I very much hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on my right hon. Friend's concerns to the relevant Minister.
Mike Gapes made a very knowledgeable speech on health issues in his constituency. He was particularly concerned about authorities ignoring local considerations, and referred to the fact that consultations can often appear to be a sham. I confess that I have a similar problem in my constituency. Hinchingbrooke hospital, which is in the neighbouring constituency of Huntingdon, is used by many of my constituents. We are being told that there will be an open and fair consultation exercise, but I fear that it will be a sham and a sop to public opinion. The decision may well have already been taken, as the hon. Gentleman fears might be the case in his constituency. I suspect that the same is true for other Members and of other constituencies throughout the country.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay rightly referred to the tragic coroner's report that came out yesterday concerning the death of Sergeant Steve Roberts. My right hon. Friend raised some very important questions about the absence of body armour, and they require answers. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take them on board. My right hon. Friend also referred to the Prime Minister's being quite happy to address a press conference in the United States on the Iraq war, while ignoring the clamour for such an opportunity to question him in this House and outside it. My right hon. Friend endorsed the view, which has been expressed in various quarters, that the Prime Minister needs to come to this House and make a statement to us all on the Iraq war.
Mr. Anderson spoke of a very important planning issue impacting on a great historical treasure in his constituency. He made many powerful arguments, and I hope that they will be heard by the powers that be. Dr. Pugh made a number of points about the British Government's relationship with that of Saudi Arabia. I have no doubt that the Deputy Leader of the House took those views on board and will pass them on to his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
My hon. Friend Mr. Randall made a powerful speech about caring and funding for recently arrived asylum seekers. That problem is particularly acute in respect of unaccompanied children arriving at Heathrow airport, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Funding for them is important—indeed, vital—and I very much hope that my hon. Friend's plea has been heard by those who take important decisions on funding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge yet again highlighted the Home Office's incompetence. I entirely agree—as other Members doubtless will—that the Government's failure to deal with immigration and asylum can only fuel the arguments put forward by the extremists in our community. None of us wants the extremists' arguments to flourish, and with that in mind I very much hope that the Government will ensure that they do their duty sensitively and carefully, but also effectively. There comes a point when the Home Secretary cannot simply rely on the fact that his Department is not fit for purpose; it has to start being fit for purpose. I was delighted to learn from my hon. Friend that council tax discount will be available for pensioners in the London borough of Hillingdon. That will certainly add to their Christmas cheer.
The hon. Member for Chorley was right to address the issue of the crisis of the post offices. He also rightly referred to the suffering of the farming community.
My hon. Friend Mr. Fraser raised the enormous concern about copyright in the music industry, in a typically Christmas spirit, mentioning Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Cliff Richard. That discussion has been going on for many years and it is high time that we had a serious debate on the issue.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas made a moving contribution about the suffering of many in Sierra Leone. The torture and suffering of the people there has been immense and the point that we must take on board is that although we regularly discuss issues concerning Iraq and Afghanistan, we must not forget the rest of the world.
Other hon. Members made relevant points, but I am reminded of the time and must finish my remarks. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the whole House and staff a happy and merry Christmas.
May I congratulate the 24 right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this thoughtful Adjournment debate, and welcome Mr. Vara to his new post? I congratulate him on that, and on receiving the best Christmas present possible.
I join the hon. Gentleman and others in the tributes to Lord Carter. Denis had many friends in every part of Parliament and will be much missed. I listened to all the contributions today as I was in my place throughout the debate. I do not think that Santa has ever been asked for such a long list of presents. More than 50 items were raised, many with very expensive price tags, which I will want to pass on to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to fund.
Mr. Heath raised the issue of the Serious Fraud Office investigation that has been the subject of a statement in this House and in the other place. There has been plenty of time to ask questions and receive what I thought were very adequate answers from my ministerial colleagues in both Houses. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a National Audit Office report that is more than a decade old. Certainly when I was dealing with the NAO more recently, I do not remember Liberal Democrat colleagues calling in my presence for that report to be published. He conceded that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will have a debate on events in Iraq, as the House has rightly been requesting, and that will take place next month when we return.
My hon. Friend Mr. Anderson raised an important planning issue. It is right that we examine seriously how we can cut the unjustifiable length of time that the planning process takes. That will require support from both sides of the House. Many Members of Parliament like to write to their constituents to highlight the injustice of the planning system, and I am not sure how many of those will wish to reflect the will to cut the time taken to reach planning decisions. I certainly support a shortened time for reaching planning decisions, to provide certainty both for the objectors and for those who wish to develop property.
Angela Browning raised the issue of the South West Peninsula strategic health authority and the concerns that she has about it. As a former auxiliary nurse she speaks with some authority on such matters. She will know that there has been a considerable increase in the number of staff in her area and the resources that go with them, but I take to heart the concerns that she voiced on behalf of her constituents.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer spoke about the local government pension scheme, and I know that she has been seeking meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Many other hon. Members have made representations and come up with suggestions that they feel will show a way out of the problem, but the issue of pensions is another matter on which we will have to reach a consensus. I think that the recent White Paper was widely welcomed, and that it shows a way forward.
Andrew Selous raised a number of issues, among them a bid for a community hospital to service the growing population of Leighton Buzzard. He and other hon. Members voiced their concerns about the need to improve commuter rail links, and it is important that we build on the work that has already been done on our rail system. Last year's total of more than 1 billion passenger rail journeys was the highest on record, while spending on the railways, now at £4.3 billion, is twice what it was four years ago. However, the hon. Gentleman's remarks and those of other colleagues show that the rail system needs even more money.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the physical restraint of children, a concern that we all share. He also mentioned training and, as a former construction Minister, I am committed to improving apprenticeships. There were 75,000 apprenticeships in 1997, a figure that has risen to 255,000 now. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his pre-Budget review that he wanted the total to reach 500,000. For my part, I want to encourage excellent firms such as Musselburgh's George Sharkey and Sons, which I visited last Friday. That firm's work for young people in apprenticeships has caused it to be this year's Edge regional finalist, and I want to encourage other employers to emulate what it has done.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the terrible murders in Ipswich, and noted that heroin had played a role. I am sure that Home Office Ministers have heard before of the solution that he proposed, and I am not sure that the market value of heroin used for medical purposes is the same as that of the criminal drug.
My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay was one of those who spoke about the need for swift responses to parliamentary questions. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House shares those concerns, and reminds all Ministers of their duties in that respect. My hon. Friend also told the House that the National Audit Office was investigating concerns raised by Foreign Office staff, and I am sure thatthe Public Accounts Committee, or some other appropriate Committee, will consider the NAO report in due course.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is promoting the need for more trains with disabled access. Since 1992, 1,800 new railway vehicles have been brought into service that allow easier access to disabled people. He also spoke of his concern about the use of motorbikes on the Thurrock marshes, which is a site of special scientific interest. I shall certainly draw the matter to the attention of the appropriate Minister, as I will the issue of waste dumping.
My hon. Friend Mike Gapes stressed his constituents' concerns—which he clearly shares—in respect of the local NHS and hospital closures. Many people have to face hospital closures: for example, the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children in my constituency is to be relocated to another part of the city. That is exactly the right decision, but I recognise that circumstances may be different in other constituencies. I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the concerns that have been expressed.
Mr. Mackay spoke about yesterday's verdict by the assistant deputy coroner in the inquest into the death of Sergeant Steve Roberts. Obviously, we all need to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned, and it is important that our fighting troops have the equipment that they require. However, I know that some expert witnesses from the Army conducted a board of inquiry into the matter, with the full co-operation of the Ministry of Defence, and that the results were available to the coroner.
Dr. Pugh raised Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia, which was touched on by other hon. Members. Obviously, what happened to his constituent was unacceptable. I am glad that he took the opportunity to raise that in the House, and I will remind my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary of his concerns about it.
Mr. Randall, in what I thought was a particularly caring speech on a sensitive issue, highlighted the pressures created by the number of people claiming asylum in Britain and stressed that his council, working with Government authorities, was doing its best to cope under a great deal of strain. His concerns will be drawn to the attention of the appropriate Minister. I certainly heard his plea for resources.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle raised a number of issues. I will come to post offices in a moment. He spoke movingly of the plight of farmers. I was brought up in a rural area in the borders, and I feel strongly about the plight that he so eloquently talked about. He also mentioned Gibraltar and welcomed the fact that flights there have resumed. I pay tribute to him and to the all-party group on Gibraltar for the great work that they have done in bringing Spain, us and our Gibraltar citizens together. He also mentioned trains and expressed support for the armed forces, which we all share.
Mr. Fraser, as well as inviting my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock to stay with him—I hope that he takes him up on it—spoke of rural issues but also about the 50-year copyright rule. He made some powerful points on that. It is not just about the rich and famous. No one should deny Sir Cliff Richard his dues, but I am sure that he is fighting mainly for people he knows who have had one-off successes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas on setting up the Waterloo partnership between Sierra Leone and Liverpool. She is also a champion of engineering, and, sadly, one of the few engineers in the House. She spoke of the work of the British Council. I am a parliamentary ambassador for the British Council so I well know, as do most hon. Members, the valuable work that it does in schools.
Several other hon. Members have raised important points. Bob Spink made a plea for two areas. He referred to social housing and the need to invest in it. He at least had the decency to admit that one of the flaws in the policy of selling council houses was not allowing councils to reinvestthe money in new social housing. The hon. Gentleman also raised Essex county council's poor record on statementing, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Many hon. Members mentioned post offices. Mr. Jackson stressed his concerns about post offices. He also mentioned policing. I have a common solution to those issues. He mentioned the problems of crime and of getting police officers. May I commend to him what my Labour council in Edinburgh did? It part-funded 70 extra policemen and policewomen with the chief constable. I am afraid that that was opposed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on the council, but those police officers have made a great change in my constituency. On post offices, my advice to hon. Members is that it greatly helps if councils pay the premium to make sure that all citizens can use post office services. The city council in Edinburgh allows people to pay rent, council services bills and trade waste bills in post offices. I am afraid that in Conservative and Liberal Democrat Aberdeen the council does not pay the premium. That is why the number of closures has been far higher in that part of the country. These are the important issues.
I have had only a short time available to me, but that has allowed everyone to speak. I have not been able to cover everything. Many good things were said, and I commend the work of all Members of Parliament. Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I give you, all hon. Members and all staff of this great House my best Christmas wishes?