Before the House of Commons adjourns for the Easter recess, I want to raise a matter relating to the manner in which we conduct our proceedings, particularly the manner in which legislation is now being progressed through both Houses of Parliament. On
"We have had a very full debate on the issue in public".—[ Hansard, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 811.]
With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is the House of Commons. We debate issues in the Chamber, and I do not think that it is satisfactory for the Prime Minister or, indeed, any other Minister to tell the House that we have had a full debate "in public"—what does that mean, is it the public bar of The Bull and Bush?—rather than on the Floor of the House, which is where debates relating to contentious issues upon which there are strongly, deeply and honourably held opinions on both sides should be held.
Looking at what actually happened, we can see how fully the matter was debated. Sexual orientation was not debated at all during the passage of the Equality Act 2006 through the House of Commons. It was not debated in Committee or on Report or on Third Reading in the Commons, because it was only introduced as the subject of an amendment in Committee in the House of Lords. That introduction caused what my hon. Friend Mrs. Laing referred to later on the record as "anomalies". I think that we can fairly say that the regulations are pretty anomalous. As the implications of the regulations became clear, public concern was widely expressed. To that extent, the Prime Minister was right—there was a public debate outside the House—but still there was no opportunity for a full debate in the House of Commons.
Those highly contentious draft regulations were laid on
The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Meg Munn, who was taking the business through Committee and, to be fair, the Leader of the House, who dealt with the matter subsequently when it was raised in the Chamber, both said in terms that the Conservative Front-Bench team could have requested that the business be taken on the Floor of the House, but they chose not to do so. That is slightly disingenuous. The fact of the matter is that no offer was made, but of course, it is open to the Opposition to make a request. I understand that a request was not made, and the conclusion that we are invited to draw is that the Opposition consented to the manner in which the regulations were taken through the House.
"has had representations from the official Opposition that this matter is not suitable to be dealt with by means of statutory instruments, and that it should be dealt with instead as primary legislation. We offered to facilitate that task and to help the Government deal with it in a smooth and sensible fashion."—[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Legislation Committee,
Let us be absolutely clear: the Government were offered the co-operation of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition to take the business, as it properly should have been taken, through the House in the form of a short Bill as primary legislation. That would have given the House the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly, to remove from it what my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest described as anomalies, and to produce a good and workable piece of legislation to send to the upper House for its further consideration.
Following that dawn hearing of the statutory instrument, we raised the matter at business questions later in the morning with the Leader of the House. I believe you may have been in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether, at the very least, we could delay that business and the vote on it until after this debate, the Easter Adjournment debate, when hon. Friends might have had the opportunity to make their views known on the record. That request was denied.
There was, as we now know, on the following Monday, in a half-empty House when the business was one-line business which collapsed early, an early evening vote which, not entirely surprisingly, was carried by a considerable majority. A number of Members—on both sides of the House, to be fair—who regard the regulations as pernicious simply did not have time to return to the House from constituency business in their constituencies in time for that vote, which was held at about 7.30 pm, whereas ordinarily it might have been expected to take place at 10 pm. I am not suggesting for one moment that that was deliberately orchestrated, but it is a sad fact that not only were Members denied the right to speak on the issue, but they were effectively denied the right to vote.
The legislation was railroaded through the House of Lords on
"have taken the view that gay rights trump religious rights"—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1298.]
That has led to circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, the shadow Attorney-General, referred to in the Statutory Instrument Committee, when he said that we will
"promote a great deal of litigation and money for lawyers. . . The procedure is a nonsense—it is not suitable to deal with this matter by way of statutory instrument. We have written to the Government to explain that in moderate and sensible terms."
Following that, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, correctly, from the Front Bench that the legislation
"would have commanded far more respect from its opponents had they had a better opportunity to put their arguments."—[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Legislation Committee,
The public expected a proper debate on the matter. They expected and had a right to expect from their elected representatives considered legislation from which the flaws had been removed. Instead, we have on the statute book a squalid measure that is illiberal and ill considered and that will lead to legal challenge. That was not necessary.
"the Government are venturing down an unconsidered path" and that they will
"enshrine in legislation a new sub-category of those whom it will be legal to discriminate against. Rather than levelling the playing field for those who suffer discrimination, an aim I"— the Archbishop of York and I myself—
"fully support, this legislation effects a rearrangement of discriminatory attitudes and bias to overcompensate and skew the field the other way."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 21 March 2007; Vol. 690, c. 1309.]
In the second part of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone on
"we can, if we are sensible, find a way of preventing discrimination against gay people, while allowing Catholic adoption agencies to carry on doing the excellent work that they do. It is a difficult balance to strike, but I believe that we have struck the right balance, and I think that most sensible people would agree with it."—[ Hansard, 21 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 811.]
What the Prime Minister was actually saying was, "We'll give you some time to adjust to this new situation and you no doubt will be able to overcome that." That completely ignores the fact that five days, five months, five years, or 500 years would not affect the issue. We are not dealing with something that is negotiable. We are dealing with principle, and five millennia would not make any difference.
The regulations are so skewed that Catholic adoption agencies will in fairly short order probably close and certainly face discrimination, as do now members of the Catholic and other Churches who feel strongly about these matters. By the way, I myself am an Anglican, not a Catholic. While that is going on, regulation 13 of these carefully thought-through regulations exempts gay welfare groups from the provisions and allows them to reject approaches from heterosexuals, so they can put a notice up on the door saying, "No heterosexuals". Forgive me—that sounds to me just a tad like discrimination. It is not necessary.
The Archbishop of York said in his excellent speech that we must be liberal and we must learn to listen. The Government have not listened. The House wanted to debate these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said in Committee:
"Until the House cottons on to the extent to which" the regulations mark
"a profound change between tolerance and enforcing a new form of orthodoxy, we will fail to grapple properly with the problems that these regulations pose."—[ Official Report, 12th Delegated Committee,
To conclude, a fundamental concern has been expressed in both Houses of Parliament from both Front Benches, by—dare I say it?—the Chair and by Back Benchers that the public are disillusioned with Parliament. People outside this place feel that they are not heard and that we do not properly reflect the manner in which their business should be handled.
We voted—some of us voted—earlier this week a not inconsiderable annual sum of money for communications. The thesis behind that was that we need to communicate better with those we serve so that they understand better what we are doing. I do not believe that the people whom I represent will ever understand the way in which this House of Commons and this Government put the sexual orientation regulations through the House, knowing that they were contentious and that they required debate, without giving the elected representatives of those people the chance to have their say. I fear that until we return to parliamentary democracy and reassert the primacy of this Chamber, ordinary people will feel that Parliament is, as it is at present, irrelevant to their lives.
I begin by welcoming Paddy Tipping to his new position. It is a pleasure to see him on the Front Bench. He occupied the position once before and returns to the Front Bench, I understand, as an unpaid post, so presumably this is one area where we will see good value for money. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. When he previously held the post, and when he summed up these debates, he always did so with courtesy and respect for the House and for Members. I am delighted to see him back in the Government. I want to use today to raise several issues which directly affect my constituency. I raised some of these matters in the Christmas Adjournment debate, and I want to consider how they have moved on.
I want to touch on a real crisis for the countryside. Hon. Members who represent agricultural constituencies feel incredibly worried about the position of dairy farmers. Approximately 10 years ago, a dairy farmer would get 26p a litre for their milk. Today, the figure is 18p a litre. It has been estimated that on average dairy farmers today are losing in the region of 4p a litre, and they cannot go on losing money on their main product without going bust.
The Government must take a serious look at the matter. This morning, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee issued a devastating report on the Rural Payments Agency. I remember earlier warnings from the Select Committee that the RPA was in serious danger—I think that the Deputy Leader of the House was a member of the Committee at that time—and I also remember Lord Bach saying that the Committee was wrong and that it had misunderstood the whole position. Who was wrong and who was right?
The devastation caused to the farming industry has been fundamental, and the Government's reputation has been seriously damaged. It is no good saying that the Secretary of State has apologised, because the situation is continuing. On
Without the farmers of this country, there would be no countryside. As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, my constituency is very attractive, and 20 million people a year visit the Peak District national park. The visitors come to see the natural beauty of my constituency, but if the land is not farmed, it will not hold its beauty.
"One of the problems that it highlighted when it published its interim findings a short time ago was that it had not had many complaints from farmers."—[ Hansard, 8 March 2007; Vol. 457, c. 1657.]
Following that comment by the junior Minister, I received a letter from a farmer, which stated:
"Most of us see our job to be producing crops and livestock. This is what provides our income. Anything that takes us away from that work tends to be seen as waste of time. In recent years we have been straight jacketed with paperwork from people sitting in front of computers who to justify their existence have to think up new schemes and forms to complete. It is not the fear of reprisals that stops the ordinary farmer from contacting you. Most will have asked question, 'Will it do me any good?' Experience says no. To provide you with evidence each of us has to search through our mountains of paper. And we just don't have the time".
I hope that the Government will take on board the proper concerns of the dairy industry, and of the agricultural industry, in our country.
The next issue that I want to discuss is the resurfacing of the A50. The A50 is a new road that has been built through part of my constituency, and it has become known as the Doveridge bypass. Traffic volumes have grown dramatically on the bypass. Indeed, it is a mistake to call that part of the A50 the Doveridge bypass, because following work in the Stoke area on the A500, it has become the M1-M6 link road. The Government published a 10-year plan—I think that we are now at the stage of five-year plans—and the then Secretary of State for Transport, who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, wrote to reassure me that the 10-year plan included resurfacing some of the concrete roads in our country. He said that the A50 was in that particular scheme and that it would be done. Surprise, surprise, the 10-year plan never reached expectations, and I have been told that that road will not be resurfaced in the immediate future.
I have tabled written parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Transport, and I have written to the Highways Agency. Just the other day, I received a letter from the Highways Agency that contained some very disturbing news:
"As you know the current policy with regard to funding all works on the motorway and trunk road network is entirely dependent on safety and maintenance needs. Concrete roads are designed to have a life of approximately 40 years, but the condition of all roads are regularly assessed for safety and maintenance. Therefore under current procedures it is unlikely that the A50 will need resurfacing for some time."
The goes against the assurance that I was given by the then Secretary of State for Transport.
The condition of the A50 has damaged the quality of life in Doveridge. When the bypass was built, people were pleased, but they did not expect one problem to be replaced by another, namely consistent noise in the daytime caused by the concrete road.
The A30 Honiton-Exeter road exactly mirrors that situation. The Prime Minister came to Exeter and personally promised that that road would be resurfaced. I share my right hon. Friend's concern, because it looks like that will not happen for at least 20 years.
Exactly the same situation exists on the A303 in my constituency. In 2004, I was told that work would start to lay a low-noise surface on the A303 to relieve noise in Wincanton and the villages along the road, such as Holton, Maperton, Compton Pauncefoot and South Cadbury. That has not happened, and there has been no indication from the Highways Agency when it will be done.
Assurances were given in the past. Particularly in the summer months, the noise from those roads means that people cannot go out in their gardens or enjoy the countryside in which they have purchased houses.
I first raised the issue of quarrying in the Peak district some 10 years ago, when I was very concerned about Longstone Edge and Backdale quarry. After 10 years, a public inquiry has just taken place. I do not expect the Deputy Leader of the House to comment on that public inquiry. I once asked the Library for a briefing on the subject, and it sent back a note stating that it is "a rather complicated matter"—one can ask the Library for a brief on nuclear weapons or treaties, but if one asks for a brief on Backdale quarry, it states that it is "a rather complicated matter". That is an underestimation, and I will not go into all the issues around the quarry application, but I will say that the issue has been ongoing for more than 10 years.
I hope that when the planning inspector reports, whatever he says, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to whom I have written about this, will call in and investigate the whole process. The amount of money that it has cost the Peak park planning board and the quarry operators in legal fees, and the amount of officers' time that has been spent, must be incalculable, and it has not been the most effective way of dealing with the matter.
If the planning inspector's decision goes the right way, I should like to think that that might be the end of the line, but I fear that we are still going to have to spend a lot of time on this application, which has been incredibly controversial. After all, we are talking about a national park that is visited each year by millions of people who come to see it and enjoy the activities there. I am joined in that view by the former deputy leader of the Labour party, Lord Hattersley, who lives fairly near to the site.
Another issue that is causing a great deal of anxiety to my constituents is the proposed closure of Stoney Middleton school. We now have a new process for school closures whereby they ultimately go to a school adjudicator. It used to be possible for us, as Members of Parliament, to make representations directly to the Secretary of State before a school was closed, but no longer. Stoney Middleton is a fairly small village but it is on a very busy road on which schoolchildren will have to travel if the school closes. That alone should be a reason to think again. In its motion, the county council considered proposals to "discontinue" the school. I suppose that that is a new kind of language and that it really means "close". Closing the school would take the heart out of the village. I hope that whenever the school adjudicator comes to a final decision, he or she will say that the county council's case has not been made. The school is providing an excellent educational service for its pupils, and it should be allowed to continue to do so.
When I spoke in the Christmas Adjournment debate, I said that I feared that Darley maternity unit would be proposed for closure by the local trust. I am afraid that those fears have come to fruition, so today I shall turn most of my attention to Darley. It is a small unit run by midwives with a wealth of experience. Indeed, my wife was given first-class service when she was there, almost 17 years ago, on the occasion of the birth of our second child, Clare. Having provided that service for people in the north Derbyshire area for a very long time, it is now threatened with closure. That is completely unacceptable.
The way in which the trust has gone about this, in not being open and honest about the figures, is nothing less than an absolute disgrace. In its consultation document, it says:
"The community maternity service review has shown the unit would need substantial extra investment to meet the required standard of clinical practice and bring it up to safe staffing levels. This extra equates to more than £300,000 a year."
When I met officials from the trust, together with Paul Holmes, I challenged them on that figure. To say that their response was dismal would be kind. To say that they could not justify it in any way, shape or form would be to underestimate their inability to reply. It was a disgraceful episode. In the 20 years that I have been in the House of Commons, I have never had a meeting with officials that I would class as being so bad. I am still unable to get from them a proper figure for their costs as regards the unit, because every time they are asked a question they come up with a different figure. At the meeting, they started by saying that the unit needed an extra two nurses. I said, "Two nurses don't cost £150,000 each, so what is the rest of the money for?" After a slight pause, they said that it needed an extra five nurses. That is typical of how it went on—it was unbelievable. If trusts are going to make such proposals, they must be told that they need to be honest and open with the people they are dealing with.
I have had many representations from my constituents about the wonderful service that the unit provides. Mrs. Smith from Wirksworth says:
"At Chesterfield for my first baby, I had an appalling birth; no consistency of care, the consultant in and out of the room giving instructions to various midwives without consulting me. I felt totally disempowered I was stitched afterwards by a junior doctor who did not even introduce himself. I had to wait on a trolley for an hour after the birth, unable to move or control my bladder because of my epidural. An auxiliary mopped up my urine without speaking to me. It was like Victorian times. The next day, I was transferred to Darley. I received empathy, support, and debriefing, explaining why my delivery had been so difficult. When I became pregnant again, I booked in to Darley. I can not fault the care I received during labour. I felt supported throughout. Unfortunately, in the final stages, the baby was stuck and I was transferred to Chesterfield in an ambulance. However, the midwife from Darley came with me, held my hand, reassured me. I still felt in control, because I was part of the decision to transfer me. I can never thank the midwives at Darley enough—they saved my sanity. Surely this unit should be a flag ship."
I could read from many others, but I will not because time is limited and other Members want to speak.
The late Professor Brian Williams was tragically killed just 10 days ago in an awful accident where he was again, as so often, helping the community. He was a professional social researcher and a lecturer at De Montfort university. At an earlier stage, when the trust first came out with its consultation document, he explained that the trust questionnaires broke all the rules that he set down for his students on preparing such documents, because asking such closed questions produces biased results. He said of the questionnaire in the back of the document that is being circulated by the trust:
"The only way for people who do not agree with the perspective presented in the report to express their views is to ignore or delete the closed questions and write answers in one of the boxes—but people tend not to do that, they tend to get irritated and discard the questionnaire. This, of course, would further bias the responses received."
Just to help the issue along, and before we have the new communications allowance, I produced my own document, which I circulated to my constituents urging them to ensure that they have their say before the final decision is taken on
When people see and hear the Prime Minister telling us how much extra money and resources have gone into making the health service better, as we do every week at the Dispatch Box, they wonder why we are losing the services that we have enjoyed over many years. It does not look that way, even if we want to take the Prime Minister at his word. I find that difficult to do when I consider what is happening to the Darley maternity unit. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House can respond to that.
Given that the Deputy Leader of the House attended a meeting with me a few weeks ago at Ripley, where we met David Coleman, the chief constable of Derbyshire police, I want to consider police funding and the new formula that the Government have introduced. I am not asking for extra money but for the formula to be distributed in the way in which the Government originally intended. The hon. Gentleman, along with me and other east midlands Members, heard a first-class, impressive presentation. Thankfully, we got rid of the disastrous plan to merge all the police forces in the east midlands, but the presentation described the way in which the forces work together effectively on serious and organised crime. We were taken through the financing and I do not want that element of the police's work throughout the east midlands to be put in danger. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House does not want that and I hope that he can examine that matter, too.
Today's debate is an important opportunity for colleagues to put on record some of the things that are going wrong in their constituencies or matters about which constituents are concerned. I have not picked all the issues from my constituency but I have chosen some of the most important. They are causing anxiety and I hope that the Government will tackle them.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. McLoughlin, who became a Member of Parliament when I did 20 years ago. He spoke with enormous passion about several key issues that concerned his constituents. I am glad that he did not raise them all; otherwise the whole Adjournment debate would have concentrated on West Derbyshire. However, I hope that he is successful in his campaign to keep his local maternity unit open. I ask him to take the Prime Minister at his word, because I have the same problems in my constituency. There has been massive investment, but those who deliver on the front line need to be careful about the way in which they use public money and they need to be accountable. I hope that he gets satisfaction from his local health trust and that the wonderful maternity unit that gave us his daughter, Clare, and others will remain open.
I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping on his reappointment as a Minister. He has returned to the post that he held six years ago and I gather from the Opposition Chief Whip that we get him at a discount because of his long service. When my hon. Friend occupied the position previously, he always listened carefully to the views of Back Benchers. I have watched him in the past 15 years or so take up issues of concern to his constituency, and one of the iconic television pictures of the 1992 elections was of my hon. Friend dancing—it looked like banghra dancing—at his count on gaining the previously Conservative seat. I do not say that he has been dancing ever since, but I am sure that he did a little jig on his reappointment this week. I wish him well in his role as Deputy Leader of the House.
On police co-operation, my hon. Friend represents a constituency in Nottinghamshire, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire represents a constituency in Derbyshire and I represent a constituency in Leicestershire. We did not need police reorganisation for the police forces of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire to co-operate. Unfortunately, I missed the meeting to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but I know that that co-operation is important.
I want to raise two main matters. It is the first time I have participated in the Easter Adjournment debate for some time. I have been unlucky in the ballots so far and have not been able to find parliamentary time to discuss the two issues. I hope that my hon. Friend will give me a positive response and that we get some movement from the Government on both matters.
The first relates to my constituent, Rafiq Gorji, whose case I have raised on several occasions in business questions. He is a widower with three children. Like more than 50,000 British citizens, he went on the pilgrimage to Saudia Arabia to perform his Hajj in December last year. He was on a coach with his wife, Zenab Ali, on the Madinah-Makkah highway near Dubaiyah when it overturned. It hit a central reservation and Mrs. Ali died at the scene of the crash. Mr. Gorji suffered severe burns to his hands and back. Two other British nationals died in the coach crash and many more were injured.
I have met my constituent on several occasions and seen the burns on his body. They remain visible even though the crash happened a few months ago. The crucial point that he makes is that the coach driver was extremely tired. He had been driving for more than 18 hours before the crash. He had been swerving the coach when he was driving Mr. Gorji and his wife, and the coach passengers urged him to stop. They offered him refreshments and asked him to rest because they feared that, if he continued on the journey, the coach would crash. That is exactly what happened.
The crash highlights the problem that many British Muslims, some of whom live in my constituency, suffer when they go on the Hajj to Saudi Arabia. The Leader of the House set up the Hajj Committee when he was Foreign Secretary and my noble Friend Lord Patel of Blackburn chairs it. It does a great job, but it cannot control the activities of the Saudi Arabian Government. So far, we have been unable to bring to the Saudi Arabian Government's attention with sufficient force an understanding of the problem that continues to occur with those who drive my constituents and those of other hon. Members in Saudi Arabia. The Hajj has to be performed there because the holy places are there.
Rafiq Gorji eloquently made the point to me and the Saudi Arabian authorities that the people who are employed by Saudi Arabia to drive the coaches do not necessarily come from that country. Many come from Libya and Syria. They are not paid a huge amount of money for the task and they are made to work for many hours to get that money. That is why they continue to drive even when they are tired.
The incident was perfectly preventable and that makes it especially sad. Had the man not driven, had he stopped and rested, Mrs. Ali would be alive today and the three children who are still grieving for their mother would have a mother, Mr. Gorji would have a wife and the family would be content.
Mr. Gorji made many complaints to the Ministry of Hajj, which is responsible for licensing the coaches and the drivers, but it has been reticent and reluctant to give us any information. It was months before Mr. Gorji received a copy of his wife's death certificate. All her personal effects have been lost, including her copy of the Koran. To this day, we have still not received a copy of the police report.
I telephoned Sherard Cowper-Coles, our very good ambassador in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh and asked him to intervene personally in the case. I want to place on record my appreciation and that of my constituent for the work of Sherard Cowper-Coles, the consulate general in Makkah, and all the other people involved there. The embassy has been absolutely terrific.
We could not go any further, so I did what I normally do when dealing with a foreign Government, which was to make an appointment to see the Saudi Arabian ambassador, the prince who has recently taken over the role here in the United Kingdom. He was unavailable, so I met the deputy ambassador. I took my constituent with me, and I said that we wanted a police report because my constituent could not make progress unless he knew exactly what had happened.
I was a friendly Member of Parliament—I was born in the middle east, I chair the Yemen group and I am a friend of the Arab community—asking a friendly Government in a friendly way for a simple document. I would have thought that that document would be easy to produce, yet I was told that I had to go back to the British embassy and speak to my ambassador, who would then ring the Ministry of Hajj, and that we would then get the police report. No sympathy was offered to my constituent at that stage. So we did that, and we received the response from our man in Riyadh that this was really the responsibility of the Saudi Arabian Government.
In normal circumstances, one might seek to raise such an issue with a Member of Parliament, but as we know, the political situation in Saudi Arabia is slightly different. Approaching the Government was therefore perhaps the best way to get a response. They are, after all, a friendly Government. We have heard the Leader of the House, the Solicitor-General and the Foreign Secretary tell us from the Dispatch Box what a good friend Saudi Arabia is, what a close personal relationship we have with it, and how it is our ally in the region. I would have thought, therefore, that if a British citizen asked for a police report, it would be a simple thing to obtain. To this day, however, we have still not received it, so my constituent cannot take the issue forward.
I have raised the matter twice with the Leader of the House, whom I admire for his great skills and his ability to deal with Back-Bench Members of Parliament. He always came back to me very quickly whenever I raised issues with him when he was Foreign Secretary. He promised to raise this matter with the Foreign Secretary, who would presumably raise it with her Minister of State, who would then raise it with the Saudi Arabians. It is only a matter of a police report, after all. We did the Saudi Arabian Government a great favour recently when we stopped the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office on the ground that it was not in the public interest. I would have thought that it was in the public interest for information such as the police report on this incident to be given to a British citizen.
I was subsequently contacted by the parliamentary liaison officer at the Saudi Arabian embassy, Prince Sultan—not "the" Prince Sultan, but another official called Prince Sultan—who was actually very helpful. He came to see me at the House and told me that he felt that I was right, and that this was a simple thing to ask for. He said that he would go back to his Government and try to arrange it. Four weeks after meeting him, however, absolutely nothing has happened.
Why should a Member of Parliament have to raise this matter constantly in the House of Commons? It concerns a British citizen whose wife has died. Why am I not getting a response from the British Government? Of course, in the end, the matter is the responsibility of the Saudi Arabian Government, but they are on good terms with us. I expect to see action from the British Government in support of a British citizen. I can give my hon. Friend the Minister many examples of British citizens abroad being helped. I remember when a number of nurses were being held in Saudi Arabia. The case attracted massive publicity and our Government moved heaven and earth to assist them. Why have the Government not taken a similar course of action in this case?
I want this matter raised, please. And I want an assurance that when the Foreign Secretary talks to her Saudi Arabian counterpart about all the arms that she is selling to Saudi Arabia—of course we sell them arms—she will raise Mr. Gorji's case. I also want it raised by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he sees his Saudi Arabian counterparts. I want Mr. Gorji's name to be on the lips of every British Minister until we receive the police report on the death of his wife, and I will not stop harassing my newly promoted hon. Friend, or the Leader of the House at business questions, until that happens.
That is only the start. My constituent still has not visited his wife's grave in Saudi Arabia. She had to be buried, according to Muslim rites, almost immediately after she died. He wants to go there, and I want the help of the British Government to ensure that he can do that. Let us be caring of British citizens who face problems such as these abroad, and let us do something about this. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend for a response. He is sitting there very calmly and not intervening. I am not having a go at him; he knows that. However, as the Conservative Chief Whip said, this debate is our opportunity passionately to put forward a cause.
My second subject concerns the problems being faced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, which I last raised at Prime Minister's Questions on
My hon. Friend the Minister was parliamentary private secretary to the Leader of the House when he was at the Foreign Office, and he will know that this is an issue that Britain needs to be involved in, because we are partly responsible for it. Britain gave Sri Lanka independence 60 years ago and, as we did in so many parts of the world, we drew the borders. We created this situation, and we have a responsibility as honest brokers to help. In 2002, the Norwegian Government brokered a ceasefire which was agreed by both sides: the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In response to my question on
I am asking for British involvement in the Sri Lankan issue, to ensure that the two sides get together. Like other hon. Members, I have Tamil people living in my constituency. Some came here as refugees, and some have settled here. They are British citizens whose communities have a hinterland abroad. The continued violence against the Tamil people has to stop. I ask the British Government to do something about it, and to make a statement calling for a ceasefire so that the killing can stop, so that people do not have to leave their homes, and so that we can have peace on that beautiful island.
I have arranged a meeting on
We had a statement today about Home Office reorganisation. I favour the creation of a ministry for justice, and I was surprised to hear Mr. Clegg scolding the Home Secretary over that, because it is Liberal party policy.
To clarify, we have always advocated a ministry for justice, and want to see one, but we are unconvinced by the Home Secretary's desire to have a sort of anti-terrorism tsar, which we think is a role best played elsewhere.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have been making the response to the statement, but at least I am now clear about the Liberal Democrat stance.
I am in favour of a ministry for justice, which should have been introduced four years ago, but my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett put a stop to it because he felt that it would cut into his empire. I give the Home Secretary full marks for giving up part of his empire without squealing—he has said, "Here is my portfolio; please have it."
I want the Home Office to concentrate on sorting out the immigration and nationality directorate, because it is still a complete mess, as will be shown by the number of people who come to my surgery tomorrow. Letters go unanswered, passports go missing and decisions are not made. Asylum seekers are told that the reply is in the post. Four years later, they are settled with families. That is what happens sometimes—people come to this country, fall in love and get married, and even the Government cannot legislate against that yet—and as a result, they are settled people. After four years, however, they are told that it is time to go, and that is why they come to see us as MPs—the Government have cut legal aid, so they cannot go to see solicitors. The focus on that area deserves a hooray.
I am concerned, however, about the position of the Attorney-General. We have a good Attorney-General, and some of the burden placed on other Departments—relating to human rights and others issues—should be transferred to his Department. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, under the chairmanship of Mr. Beith, is considering that point. If we come up with a better solution to the carve-up of the Home Office, I hope that Ministers will consider it carefully. The issue will not go away and I hope that we will have an early statement from a Constitutional Affairs Minister about the effects. I realise that the Lord Chancellor has made a statement in the other place, but we want to ask questions on the matter here.
I wish right hon. and hon. Members a happy Easter and Mr. Amess a happy birthday for last Monday.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman shows admirable attention to detail.
Listening to Mr. McLoughlin speak earlier, I felt that there must be some sort of spiritual affinity between his constituency and mine. My contribution could easily repeat all the issues that he covered. I intervened on him to refer to the resurfacing of the A303, which is a serious issue in my constituency because of the effect of that road on the environment of many villages and on the people who live there. He also mentioned quarrying, and I represent the biggest quarrying area in the country—the east Mendips. I wondered whether he would refer to our concerns about the aggregates levy, and the use of funds raised by it. The levy was set up to alleviate the disbenefits of the quarrying industry, but those funds will now apparently be distributed across the country to areas that do not suffer from such disbenefits, which is entirely contrary to the original intention of the levy.
We have an opportunity today, however, to discuss a matter that hardly ever gets properly debated—the point on which the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire started—which is agriculture. Agriculture has been airbrushed out of parliamentary debate. Ever since the foot and mouth disaster, we have not had the opportunity to debate in Government time the difficulties faced by agriculture, which is a significant industry in West Derbyshire.
Agriculture is also a significant industry in my constituency, but that will come as a surprise to the Home Office, because in a written answer that I received from it last week, in reply to a question about passport interview centres, I was told that Somerset is not a rural county. I invite the Minister responsible to put on her wellies and stand in a field in Isle Brewers, Kingsbury Episcopi, Leigh-on-Mendip or Rudge, among the cows, and then say that Somerset is not a rural county. Because of our settlement pattern, however, with lots of small villages only about two or three miles apart, and without big empty spaces, we are not deemed to be a rural county. I reassure the House, however, that we are very much a rural county, and that agriculture, particularly dairy farming, is still very important to both the environment in which we live and the enterprises that underpin our way of life. Although agriculture employs far fewer people than it used to do, nevertheless, as we saw during the foot and mouth restrictions, it is fundamental to a lot of downstream industry.
I start off with dairying because it is the predominant mode of agriculture in my county. The dairy industry is still in desperate trouble, as the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire said. Farmers are still only getting about 18p a litre for milk, and that farm-gate price does not allow for any sort of profitability—quite the reverse. It means that farmers are making a loss on the raw material that they produce. If primary producers are making a loss, that is not sustainable. Dairy farmers are going out of business every week because they conclude, rightly, that there is little point in continuing a business that is very hard work—when they can otherwise realise their often substantial capital assets—if they are making a loss.
Effectively, there is a classic oligopoly on the buying side: the big supermarkets take 50 per cent. of the liquid milk in the country, apply a limit to the amount that they are prepared to pay, maintain high profitability in the supermarket through the retail price of milk, but do not pass that on to the primary producers, who are in a much weaker bargaining position. I hate to be apocalyptic, but until we address that, it will be hard for dairy farming in this country to have a future. We are exporting the industry abroad. Once dairy farms are lost, they will not be reconstituted.
That does not just mean the loss of liquid milk production, but of all the higher-value dairy products. I am proud that my constituency makes some of the finest cheese in the world—I do not dispute that other good cheeses are made around the country, but that is a fact. Why would this country want to run down one of our most effective, efficient and best industries and export it abroad? That, however, is happening.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. To carry on with the coincidences relating to his and my constituency, the king of cheeses, Stilton, is made in Hartington in my constituency. Farmers are disturbed that while they are getting 18p a litre for milk, it is being retailed at 52p. Where is that difference going?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will not get into a quarrel with him on the relative merits of Stilton and Cheddar—they are both very good, and we can enjoy them. As he says, it is not the primary producers who are making the profit.
Even the supermarkets have not thought the situation through. I have never been convinced that consumers buy milk on the basis of price when confronted with a supermarket shelf of milk. They buy a volume of milk and they pay the price. Therefore, if supermarkets must maintain their current profit level—we all know the great profits that they are capable of making—it would be sustainable for them to do so by increasing the retail price of milk. There are some small signs that that is beginning to happen, at least from the assurances given by supermarkets. However, we have had those assurances before, and they have not been sustained. I am afraid to say that I do not believe that that will be achieved by voluntary arrangement. At the end of the day, there will have to be Government intervention in what is effectively a false market in milk. That is why everyone is waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the Competition Commission report, although I am not entirely optimistic about that. We saw what it did last time when, as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, it examined vertical integration in milk in the context of Milk Marque. We saw then what it said about the relationship between the producer and the supermarkets. If we ask the wrong questions, we get the wrong answers. The fact that it is saying that it does not have evidence of a distorted market when the distorted market is there for anyone to see in the price of milk, does not fill me with confidence.
Nevertheless, we will have to go beyond a voluntary code of conduct into something that is on a firmer basis if we are ever to see the rescue of the dairy industry. Some people would be happy for the dairy industry to contract and, in their eyes, be made more efficient by the 1,000-header herds owned by an agricultural conglomerate, but the traditional dairy farm run by a family is the building block of British agriculture. It is what is best for this country in terms of both produce and our environment. I want it to be maintained.
The second issue in farming is the ongoing problem with Mycobacterium bovis—tuberculosis—in cattle. The Government are ducking the problem. They have consulted, and the consultation has finished, but they are still not prepared to come to a decision. I know it is a difficult decision to make. It will be very unpopular—almost any decision that they are going to take will be unpopular. However, we cannot have a continuing growth of the spread of TB among the bovine and badger populations. The welfare of cattle is important; the welfare of badgers and other wild species that carry the bacterium is important. We need swift decisions on what is to be done. How do we attack the reservoir of infection effectively? We must also deal with the corollary issue—the profitability of farms. It is devastating when a herd tests positive for TB. It is even more devastating if the recompense—the table valuations—does not recognise the actual value of the stock that is culled. That needs addressing.
There are also opportunities in agriculture. Climate change should provide a massive opportunity for diversification into new crops and new ways of doing business, yet I do not see any joined-up thinking between those who are involved with agriculture, with the environment and with trade and industry, in particular those who have the energy brief. I see no evidence that they understand how those are linked and how we can open up new opportunities for agriculture.
I do not see the incentives for young farmers to come into the industry. That is a serious problem. Farms in my county—I am sure that this is typical of many parts of the country—are often run by people in middle-age to late middle-age whose children are not interested in carrying the farms on. Younger people cannot see a future in farming and are leaving to do other things. That is their right, but we need those who want to make their living from the land to have the opportunity to come into the industry. That is not available to them.
Is not part of the problem with farming that many young people who are set to inherit farms realise that it is so difficult to make money out of farming that it is far better, although less desirable, to sell that farm on to a City stockbroker who simply wants an amenity farm—a sort of leisure centre?
The hon. Gentleman is right. That happens. Farmhouses—detached substantial buildings in the countryside with nice views—are sold off as houses without land. There is an increase in horsey-culture. There is nothing wrong with horses, but the more prime agricultural land that is sold as pony paddock, the less there is available for farming. It worries me that if agribusiness takes over all the land, it will be run entirely on a balance sheet rather than with any consideration for the land and the communities on that land. If the profitability is down, the agribusinesses will leave and reinvest elsewhere. That is a worrying possibility.
A further common problem is over-regulation. The farming industry is still massively over-regulated, with far too much red tape. I welcome the Davidson review of over-implementation of EU regulations. It is a continuing problem. In addition, we have duplication of inspection. There is the view that the man from the Ministry is always around the corner, trying to find fault with what the farmer is trying to do. It is a one-way street: the farmer makes one mistake and he loses out; the Department can make any number of mistakes and they are rectified in the next month. We need ways to allow organisations to share information so that we do not have duplication. We need more straightforward implementation of regulation and far less paperwork.
Regulation is important. We know that from the experiences of the epidemics of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth. However, it must be done in a way that is constructive and supportive of the industry. It should not be put in place in ways that appear to make things difficult.
We need clear labelling. It is one of the long-standing problems in this country that people cannot identify good British food produced by good British producers from the labels, which are often grossly deceptive in terms of foodstuffs that are produced abroad, repackaged in this country and sold as British produce. That cannot be right.
There are many other things that I could say on farming, including the cuts in scientific research, which are concerning. To meet its budgetary requirements, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has cut back massively in the veterinary science organisations for which it is responsible, which could have a disastrous effect. However, my last point is about the Rural Payments Agency. We cannot ignore what the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said today about the RPA. It has produced a devastating report. The overview says:
"This was a catastrophe for some farmers, and a serious and embarrassing failure for Defra and the RPA. A key part of the Government's sustainable farming policy was in collapse."
It goes on to say:
"This is not the first time that a major public sector business change or IT project has failed."
It can say that again. Lastly, and importantly, it says:
"A culture where ministers and senior officials can preside over failure of this magnitude and not be held personally accountable creates a serious risk of further failures in public service delivery."
That is as devastating and as uncamouflaged an attack on a failure of Government service delivery that I have ever heard from a Select Committee, which has, of course, a Government majority.
The RPA has been a disaster for the Government, but even more of a disaster for those working in agriculture who have found themselves in extraordinary difficulty because of the failure to deliver what is rightfully theirs in terms of payments over such long periods. As we heard, the problems of two years ago and last year are being repeated. We still have difficulties with the administration of rural payments. Those difficulties will continue until the Government get to grips with them.
I agree with the Committee: heads should have rolled. It is not satisfactory that Ministers can walk away from a fiasco like this and be promoted as a result, rather than taking ministerial responsibility. It is not good enough, and it must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
There are many other issues in agriculture, but this is not the time to go through them all. I can only leave the House with the thought that there ought to be an opportunity for us to debate both agriculture and rural issues regularly in the Chamber, with a Minister with responsibility on the Bench to listen. That does not happen. It is left to individual Members to secure Adjournment debates. I have initiated two such debates on the dairy industry in recent years, but debates are not held in Government time, although the issue affects huge swathes of our country and our countryside and, without such debates, goes unremarked.
The problems of agriculture are just one symptom of the malaise in the countryside. We could talk about post offices, rural services, transport and the difficulties of maintaining a decent standard of living in many of our rural areas—which means decent housing over our heads, the ability to work, the ability to find medical treatment and the ability for small schools to be maintained. Those are all important issues; the problem is that we do not have enough opportunities to debate them. This is one such opportunity, and I have taken it today.
I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to ensure that some of my comments, and those of others, are clearly communicated to the Ministers responsible. They have to hear what people in the countryside are saying, and what they are saying is that things need to change.
Devon is at its most glorious at the moment. The woodland floors are covered with an abundance of primroses, the tall Devon banks are still covered in daffodils, and the hedgerows are just starting to turn that wonderful pale green. I thoroughly recommend glorious Devon to anyone who has not yet made arrangements for the Easter break: it is looking absolutely wonderful, and I am looking forward to going home tomorrow.
Despite the rural idyll of glorious Devon, however, we have lower than average wages, higher than average house prices and a large retired population. However good the view from the window, the quality of life for my constituents in Tiverton and Honiton is under increasing pressure from numerous directions, not least as a result of the council tax. But today I shall focus on what is becoming another real financial burden, which we have borne for a long time but for which there seems to be no relief. I refer to the charges imposed by South West Water.
The peninsula of the south-west features a third of the nation's beaches that have had to be cleaned and brought up to standard. Those of us who live in the south-west fully understand the requirement to do something about the old Victorian sewerage system, because the way in which sewage was being discharged into the sea was clearly a serious health hazard. A great deal of money has been invested in raising the standard of those discharges to an acceptable level, at a cost to those of us in the south-west who pay water charges, particularly those on lower incomes or in retirement.
In the coming financial year, water charges will rise by 12.5 per cent. for those with meters and by 16 per cent. for the rest of the population. That is a massive hike. I know from my postbag and from discussions with those who seek to represent water charge payers how disappointed people are that neither the regulator nor those officially appointed to speak for the water charge payer have been able to use their influence to ensure that the prices are brought under control. As we know, many people on low incomes qualify for tapered council tax relief. I feel we must now consider a similar arrangement for water charges, because I cannot see the present position improving.
Secondly, the chief executive told me that South West Water faces a five-year programme to refurbish a third of the drinking water mains. Just as one programme starts to tail off and we think there might be a bit of relief in the future, another comes along. The reason for this particular clean-up is a mystery to me. When I go into supermarkets I see people loading bottled water into their trolleys. They stagger under the weight: they can hardly carry the load. We seem to have become a nation that drinks only bottled water, although we have invested enormous amounts in improving the quality and safety of the drinking water that comes out of the tap. For some extraordinary reason people feel that they must buy bottled water, yet regulation upon regulation comes down from on high requiring South West Water to spend more and more on cleaning up the drinking water mains.
There is a serious point that I want the Deputy Leader of the House to convey to his colleagues. Most of the regulations dealing with the costs applying to South West Water originate from Europe. I should like the Deputy Leader of the House to do two things. First, I should like him to ask whether we really need higher and higher quality. There needs to be a standard—we should all feel relatively certain that drinking water is safe and clean—but how far does it have to go? Why, when standards are higher than they have ever been, must we face a five-year programme?
I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has launched a consultation process. The privatised water companies are having to consider taking on financial responsibility for all the unadopted sewers in the country, of which we have a great many in the west country. Who will pay for that? It looks like even more expenditure for the water rate payer in the south-west, and when that is added to the other costs that I have identified, it becomes unbearable and unacceptable.
We have engaged in many cross-party debates about the issue, and there is complete consensus among the parties in the south-west about the unfair burden that is being imposed on water rate payers. We have also had many debates in the Chamber. Now is the time for the Government to do something. I believe that without Government intervention of some kind and some mitigation of the problem, at least for those on lower incomes, there will be a huge impact not only on people's quality of life but on their incomes.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady was present earlier during Treasury questions, when my hon. Friend Julia Goldsworthy made exactly the same point about South West Water to prove the point that this was an all-party issue. I am afraid that the Economic Secretary's response was simply to talk about tax credits. That does not do a great deal for those who have been penalised by South West Water bills.
That is exactly right. Often things such as water rates do not appear in the retail prices index and the other formulae used by the Government. I ask the Minister to relay to his DEFRA and Treasury ministerial colleagues that this issue is causing a great deal of hardship, and it looks like it will get worse.
Given the relative quality of tap water—a very good product of which we can be proud—is it not curious, or perhaps even obscene, that people are paying more for a bottle of water at their supermarket than they pay for a bottle of milk?
It is bizarre. We all sit down in restaurants and order a bottle of wine and a bottle of water. It is almost second nature—
A jug of tap water; very good. One can get a jug of tap water here in the House but some restaurants look askance when one asks for a jug of water. The hon. Lady's point is extremely good.
Mr. Heath rather wisely stopped discussing the question of who has the best cheese. If we were asked what the worst cheese was, I would say those large pale things with big holes in them; nothing produced in this country, I can assure the hon. Gentleman. Bottled water is another of those continental habits that we have adopted, when we could simply turn on the tap to get a glass of safe, high-quality water for which we have paid an enormous amount.
On that very subject, I come to the issue of how small businesses pay their water rates. The chairman of Tiverton chamber of commerce Mr. David Westwood wrote to me to say:
"Our own offices in Tiverton share our office building with other businesses. The Ground Floor and the first floor are paying in excess of £3,000 a year in water rates. It is more extraordinary that the ground floor has no inlet or outlet water supply. The previous tenants...may also have paid unnecessary rates."
I had not realised, but it transpires that business rates are assessed based on the old rateable value, whether or not there is a water supply. Of course there will be a communal washroom that is shared with other businesses, so at some point there is a mains inlet and a shared waste disposal system. But that has no relevance to the amount of rates that different businesses in the same building might pay, purely because there are differentials in their traditional rateable values.
This is grossly unfair. Nobody minds paying for the service; if those mainly small businesses share the services that the water company provides, nobody is suggesting that they do not pay. However, this is a licence to print money on the part of the water company. The chamber of commerce has taken the matter up. Water companies have confirmed that the Government have allowed all water companies to continue raising charges based on rateable increases. So every year when the rates go up, businesses pay more and more for their water, irrespective of the number of people in the office; it may be a sole occupancy or they may be only a couple of people. However, they will pay an increasing charge for a restricted service.
In the example given to me, a bill charging £549.91 was calculated by multiplying the rateable value by £99.12 for water and £223.58 for sewerage despite the fact that in the office concerned there is no water or sewerage service. I know that the Minister will write to his ministerial colleagues about my concern about the domestic ratepayers. Will he also pick up on this matter? Small businesses are under pressure.
The Budget's changes in the burden on small businesses as a result of the rise in the small companies' rate from 20 per cent. to 22 per cent. will mean that the Treasury brings in £820 million of additional revenue. If the Chancellor is looking for a way to bring some relief to those small businesses that are paying excessive amounts for water services because of the formula, that would be a good place to start.
I come now to another small business case, in which I will refer to a constituent as Mr. E. The case could go into the legal domain; in fact, that is now being seriously considered. I do not want in any way to prejudice a case that may at some point be considered in a court. The case concerns the way in which HMRC has interpreted the Taxation of Chargeable Gains Act 1992. Mr. E and his wife ran a shop in the high street of one of my market towns for many years as a family business. They lived above the shop in a flat. On his retirement three years ago, he disposed of the shop and the flat at the same time. His accountant prepared the final accounts for the Revenue, and they were agreed and paid.
Two years later, the Revenue revisited those accounts and decided to challenge the apportionment of capital gains tax that Mr. E had paid and that the Revenue had agreed on the disposal. The reason was that although the flat was his prime home, and had been for 20 years, because he had disposed of the shop and the flat at the same time on retirement, the Revenue regarded that as a single asset. In looking at it as such, the Revenue argued that although he was of course able to offset the CGT liability on the flat—none of us has CGT liability on our prime residence—the taper relief that would have applied to the disposal of the business premises was affected. Therefore, the higher rate of CGT was applied to the business disposal, rather than the tapered relief that had previously been calculated. Without wanting to disclose too much about my constituent's personal details, the differential was in excess of £30,000 liability.
I have had correspondence with my constituent, his accountant and Treasury Ministers on the matter. I am astonished that the Revenue should be interpreting the Taxation of Chargeable Gains Act in that way. It is quite clear that, for all other purposes of taxation, when a person lives above a shop in that way, the two items—the flat and the shop—are treated separately for taxation. They are separate assets for council tax and business rates purposes.
The question has been put to me: was that what Parliament intended at the time? I have done research into the case and I am absolutely sure that it was not what Parliament intended at the time.
I sought some explanation from the Paymaster General, and I got a rather strange reply:
"the rate of taper relief is assessed by looking at the use to which the whole asset has been put."
That is pretty clear. It is a domestic flat with its own entrance and a garden at the back. She goes on:
"This rule might at first glance appear to produce an anomalous result"— it certainly does—
"However, it is the whole of the asset that is being disposed of, even if part of the gain on it is exempt."
Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you owned a shop but had a domestic dwelling somewhere else, or if you let out the flat over the shop as a business proposition, the measure would not apply. As we all understand, different tax rules would then apply.
We are getting very close to this being a test case. I and small business organisations will be assisting my constituent to pursue the matter as far as he needs to pursue it to get the right result. There are big implications throughout the country for every shopkeeper who lives above the shop and has an anticipation of what the tax liability may be.
If hon. Members—we are, after all, the legislators—look at the detail of the case, as I did, I am sure that they will agree that that is not what Parliament intended when that legislation came on to the statute book. In anyone's language, it is pretty clear how the measure should be applied to ensure fairness of the tax system.
It is to small business and the water rates that I have particularly addressed myself this afternoon. I add to colleagues' comments about the Minister. I know that he will take the matters that we raise today seriously and convey them to colleagues. In a previous existence of my own, he and I shared many an end-of-term Adjournment debate across the Dispatch Box. He was extremely diligent in the way he listened to Members' concerns, particularly when they related to their constituency.
I wish everyone—Members and the staff of the House—a very happy Easter, and do come and visit us in God's own county.
Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, there are a number of points that I wish to raise. I thank Keith Vaz, who is not in his place at the moment, for his best wishes for my birthday on Monday. I am not a national figure, so it was hardly a significant event, unlike his 50th birthday celebrations.
Just to show the Deputy Leader of the House how things have changed, when I first became a Member, mine was the only birthday of an hon. Member on
Is it really six years since the Deputy Leader of the House occupied that position? As he can see, I am still here. His predecessor, Nigel Griffiths, did a splendid job. The whole House respects and understands his decision to resign from the Government, but, like my hon. Friend Angela Browning and my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin, we all welcome back Paddy Tipping. When we were a little more pressed than we appear to be this afternoon to cover all the subjects, he diligently used to write to us to give us some real responses to the issues that we raised. May I gently say to him, and through him to his officials, that they need not faint at the number of issues that I intend to raise today. I will raise them quickly and perhaps in due course he could write to me about them.
This is the first occasion on which I am able to address the House as a member of the Westminster Lions club. Last night, there was an historic dinner and the Palace of Westminster Lions club was formed. It is the first parliamentary Lions club to be formed in the northern hemisphere. We have 22 members so far, and Mr. Speaker will be given an illuminated address. I hope that other colleagues will join, and we intend to have a charity event.
I am pleased to hear that, but can my hon. Friend enlighten me on this point: what about the lionesses?
My hon. Friend makes a good case. There are a number of lady members of the Lions, but we might look into that. I will refer the issue to my hon. Friend Mr. Francois, who has been installed as the president of the organisation. [Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker also appears to be keen on the idea.
The parliamentary period between Christmas and now has been overshadowed—it is a very long shadow—by the terrible mistake we made by engaging in a war with Iraq. Every Wednesday, the Prime Minister has to give sympathy to the relatives of loved ones. I voted for the war, which I will always regret, and I feel increasingly strongly that those lives have been lost in vain in one respect.
However, I and a small group of others have consistently spoken up about the threat from Iran, and we now find ourselves in an impossible situation in respect of that country. The last thing anyone in our country wants is to be involved in a war with Iran, but we are in a terrible situation. I say gently that the British Government's policy of appeasement has got us into a bit of a mess; sadly, the Government's current opinion of the President of Iran is not the same as it was a few years ago. It is a disgrace that the POMI—the People's Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran—is still a proscribed organisation, despite what has been decided in Europe. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House reflects on that matter and responds on it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the disastrous catastrophe that Iraq has become, and our involvement in that, have grievously undermined the case for liberal democracy all the way from Morocco to Indonesia, and that that has therefore put us in a weaker position as a world power to deal with rogue states, such as Iran, that are a serious risk to stability?
Sadly, my hon. Friend is right. One of the tragedies of the current situation is that our country's significance on the world stage is diminished. Other countries do not listen to us as they used to.
Before I move on to the specific subjects of my speech, let me say something about the Budget. I remember being present in the House when Conservative Chancellors, perhaps thinking that they were being rather clever, produced Budget flourishes. When the current Chancellor came out with the big wheeze at the end of his speech that 2p would be knocked off income tax—despite always saying, "We would never bribe the electorate with tax cuts"—I was not looking at Members of my party, but at the Labour Benches. Labour Members were cock-a-hoop; they were thrilled to bits and were waving their Order Papers. They had probably been a little nervous because the opinion polls had not been good, but yesterday's opinion polls appear to offer encouragement to the Government's supporters. However, the Chancellor—who is soon to be Prime Minister—will regret that Budget. I shall be the first to say that, just as the current Prime Minister's nemesis has been the war with Iraq, this Budget will be the downfall of the next Prime Minister.
I want to raise the issue of east coast fishermen—the Deputy Leader of the House has some expertise in this area—which my hon. Friend Bob Spink will also doubtless hope to catch your eye in order to discuss, Madam Deputy Speaker. I attended a meeting on Monday with the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, and as ever he was very courteous. He was asked a number of tough questions about what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing to rectify the situation and to save the UK's inshore fleet from ruin. Having reflected on that meeting, I am not sure that we were satisfied by the answers.
The southern North sea inshore fishermen's association and the Kent and Essex sea fisheries committee are battling against ill-thought out regulations produced, in the name of conservation, by DEFRA and the European Fisheries Council that have brought the UK inshore fishing industry to near collapse. This year, the EFC introduced by-catch limits of 25 per cent. on skates and rays. That quota is far too restrictive on individual catches and means that small-scale fishermen such as those in Leigh-on-Sea are legally allowed to land only a couple of those fish per day, which is hardly enough to make a living. The Minister put a different spin on matters, but I believe that there was no consultation whatever on the regulations. Many fishermen continued to fish illegally for six weeks, without even realising that they were doing so.
I welcome the recent DEFRA initiative whereby we exchange some of the British quota of North sea nephrops for German North sea sole, but what a crazy way to do business—swapping to try to deal with what turned out to be a crisis! It was also brought to my attention that it is not just the imposition of quotas per se—for example, 14 different species of skates and rays are classified as one group, ignoring the fact that each species is more abundant in some areas than in others—that is threatening our inshore fleet. Current fishing regulations treat radically different fishing techniques in the same way, which is very unfair. For example, long-lining is subject to the same regulations as beam-trawling. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to have a word with his colleagues and I urge the Government to press the EFC for a quota management review as soon as possible. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point if I have completely ruined his speech. This latest saga is yet another example of how important it is that the UK be properly represented at meetings. It is an absolute disgrace that these quotas were ever agreed to in the first place.
I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Southend United community and educational trust. Last year, I congratulated Southend United on their imminent promotion to the championship, and this year is the 15th anniversary of their magnificent community programme. They have organised after-schools coaching, holiday soccer weeks and recreational activities for senior citizens, and received all manner of awards, locally, regionally and nationally. I thought this a good opportunity to praise a football team. The team have actively engaged in the debate on obesity, encouraging children to take part in increased levels of physical activity. They specialise in girls-only coaching—that will doubtless meet with the favour of my hon. Friend Angela Browning—and they have organised body care and healthy living programmes that give children a better understanding of how to keep their bodies healthy. They have also introduced programmes such as "getting on with the blues"—actually, that is not a bad slogan for my party—and they target antisocial behaviour and support activities that assist local charities and voluntary groups. So Southend United are doing a splendid job, and I am quietly confident that we will retain our place in the championship.
I do not remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you were in the Chair during the Christmas Adjournment debate, but I mentioned that the centenarians in Southend had set a world record. I am delighted to tell the House that this week that was formally recognised by "Guinness World Records" and I received a certificate on behalf of the centenarians. They participated in the largest ever gathering of centenarians. The previous record was 21 and we have now pushed that up to 23. The way that things are going in Southend, I am confident that we will be able to beat that record later this year. People are living much longer. In 1850, for example, people lived to 40 on average, but now it is no longer surprising to knock on a door—as we will all be doing in the local elections—and have it answered by a person of 90, 95 or even 100 years.
We should have more investment in several areas to ensure that the sight, hearing, mobility and general health of elderly people is maintained. That is why I am delighted that my party is leading the way in the national debate on the quality of life. If the Government accepted that agenda, it would reduce the demand on care services. For instance, age-related macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness and visual impairment in the UK. However, early diagnosis and prompt treatment can prevent the rapid loss of vision.
I am closely associated with the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, which has drawn to my attention the postcode lottery that many rheumatoid arthritis sufferers experience when trying to gain access to treatment that would improve their condition significantly. Despite the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence approving anti-tumour necrosis factor-alpha therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in 2002, many primary care trusts refuse to fund its use adequately or they put a cap on the numbers of patients that can be treated. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass that message on to the Health Secretary.
The report by the Communities and Local Government Committee on small coastal towns was published on
I recently visited Princes Avenue school and was greeted by the excellent head teacher, Mrs. Sandy Fletcher, who sadly retires today, and her deputy, Miss Judy Kaufman. They drew my attention to a survey of 5,863 people, which found that 38 per cent. of parents had taken their children on holiday in term time. All hon. Members realise that that happens because families can save £500 on the cost of holidays, but it disrupts schooling. More and more people are doing it, and the Government recognise that. The Association of British Travel Agents comes out with a lot of codswallop about responding to market forces, but I would like to see a little responsibility being exercised. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers blames parents. I am not brave enough to blame parents, but there must be a way round this—I will not call it a third way—and I hope that we can find a solution.
Another success for Southend is the fact that the YMCA has won the community impact award presented by the Prince's Trust for its short film entitled, "Killer in a Can". Despite having no knowledge of how to make a film, a team of 11 young people decided to raise awareness of the dangers of substance abuse after learning about the subject. They raised £800 to make the film by themselves. It has been shown on national television and used by Essex police. Is not that a good reason to celebrate the excellent work of our young people?
I make no apology for quickly mentioning buses again. We do not have enough buses in Southend, particularly for our elderly people. Why not? It is because 20,000 people were left off the national census in Southend, and so we have no funding for 20,000 people. I hope that a bus company that does not need a subsidy will come forward to provide extra services and that some generous individual or company might come forward with some money to subsidise those services.
Leigh-on-Sea town council is wonderful and is working hard with local businesses to get CCTV installed in a shopping centre. We cannot afford the capital cost of installation and, again, I hope that a benefactor may come forward.
A constituent, Gareth Rogerson, suffered 70 per cent. burns—they are full thickness burns—following a terrible car accident. He is a remarkable person and his family are very proud of him. His hands melted, so he has no hands. Some of us were privileged this week to meet Simon Weston, who suffered 46 per cent. burns—so we can imagine the bravery of this chap. He has friends in Limehouse whom he goes to meet. On a number of occasions, he has been stopped on the train for not being in possession of a valid rail ticket. Prosecutions have been mounted, but I will not name the organisation. The issue is being dealt with. I assume that Gareth is not the only person in this situation. I know that it will be said that he should buy the ticket in advance and have it hanging on a piece of chain around his neck, but surely, given the extreme circumstances, can this not be dealt with differently? How anyone could bring the matter to a magistrates court hearing is beyond belief.
Finally, as it is Easter, I come to badgers. The badgers in our area have got together and decided that they like all sorts of back gardens in Southend. I spoke on Third Reading of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which made badgers a protected species. I regret none of that but, 20 years on, I must confess that I had no idea of the impact of that legislation. To move badgers humanely from gardens is an issue. They are into the foundations, garages are collapsing and people cannot go into their back gardens—and I am not exaggerating. We all love badgers, although we should not stroke them, because they have powerful jaws and teeth. The issue needs to be dealt with.
I end by wishing everyone a happy Easter.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who raised some important points. I believe that my constituency has the largest urban badger population in the country. I am delighted that some of them are going on holiday to Leigh-on-Sea, and I wish them well. I have about seven badgers and their young in my garden. I enjoy that; I feed them and watch them, and people come to my house to see them. They are beautiful, wonderful animals, but we must make sure that humans have rights, too. We must get the balance right. It is in the badgers' best interests that we move them as quickly as possible when there is a conflict in an urban environment, as there often is in my constituency. There are plenty of places to which we could move the badgers where they would be much better off. That would be better than allowing that conflict to get out of hand; I assure hon. Members that that is very bad for the badgers.
The safety of my constituency is threatened by the proposal of Calor and Centrica to put a massive liquefied natural gas importation plant on Canvey Island. They wish to offload LNG from ships in an increasingly busy Thames. It would then be stored in two massive tanks and fed into the gas national grid. The Health and Safety Executive highlighted the project's potential lack of safety and Calor's application was rejected. Calor has appealed, so the matter is before Ministers. I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions, and I have obtained an undertaking from Ministers that a public inquiry will be held. Most importantly, it is to be held on Canvey Island, so that local people have direct and easy access to it.
Local opposition is strong. Canvey people have, in their thousands, signed Canvey Island Independent party's petition, organised by Dave Blackwell, which I presented in the House. As always, I put local politics aside, and congratulate Dave Blackwell and his team on their important and helpful initiative. Top marks, however, go to George Whatley and his People Against Methane team. They led the battle throughout, and organised a very professional referendum. They are true stars. We all got very wet doing the footwork on winter afternoons and evenings, but it was well worth the effort. The referendum results were astounding.
As I say, it was a very professional referendum, with sealed containers. People could vote, in private, however they wanted—either for against. The turnout was 68 per cent. of the total voting population of Canvey Island. That is much more than twice the amount who would vote in any local government election, which shows that the issue has gripped people. The result was even more remarkable: of those who voted, 99.6 per cent. voted against the LNG plant. Two of the people who voted for it filled in their referendum forms with me. They were operators at the plant, and they apologised to me for how they were casting their private vote. Of course, they had no need to tell me how they voted. The result certainly cannot be challenged; it has great credibility, and it cannot be ignored.
I urge the inspector who will eventually consider the matter to give as much weight as possible to that formal measure of public opinion. I do so respectfully, because I know that the inspector will deal with the planning issues carefully and professionally, as he must. I have absolute confidence in his judgment and his great courtesy in dealing with good, local people, who will represent themselves, while the big business will, of course, employ expensive barristers and professionals to represent it. I know that the inspector will be careful to strike the right balance in the inquiry.
If the proposals go ahead, the Canvey site will become one of the very few control of major accident hazards, or COMAH, sites in the UK. Shona McIsaac, who is present on the Labour Benches, has one in her constituency, too. In the USA, such sites have a 6-mile residential homes exclusion area around them if they involve LNG. They provide that exclusion area for good reason. The incidents in Port Hudson and Cleveland, Ohio, show just what can happen when an uncontrolled vapour cloud detonation takes place. That is a risk with which Canvey and Castle Point people would have to live, and there is no six-mile limit, as is mandatory in the United States—not even a one-mile safety zone—for Canvey people. The plant is literally within spitting distance of homes and schools, as it is only a few hundred yards away.
Let me paint a true picture of the risk posed. An LNG escape would freeze everything in its path. The Health and Safety Executive and the fire service have confirmed that there is no way of controlling such a spill. Indeed, I am having another meeting next Monday morning with the local fire service. At atmospheric pressure, LNG would vaporise and form a massive, growing cloud that would float and blow around in the wind, combining with air to form an unstable and highly combustible mixture. On ignition, it would explode and flash into a high-temperature fire that would destroy everything in its path. Ignition could take place simply if a car passed through the area or if someone flicked a light switch within it. The direction of such a cloud would be indeterminate beforehand, and the effects on homes and schools would be indiscriminate. Unlike at Buncefield, where the emergency services could use foam to control and contain the fire because it was fuel oil-based, not LNG-based, there is no effective firefighting strategy for an LNG incident. It would be a question of watching and following the fire, and clearing up the carnage afterwards.
Detonation may happen on Canvey Island, but it could also take place on the mainland in Benfleet or Hadleigh. A cloud could even blow over to the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Amess in Leigh, where the ground is higher, and ignite there. This is not just a Canvey Island problem—it is a south Essex issue. There are many other causes for objection. The terrorist threat is significant, although I will not go into it too deeply. The main threat, however, is from an accident. Flixborough and Buncefield were thought to be totally safe the night before they went up. We know what happened there. Indeed, the HSE Buncefield report states in consultative document CD211, section 6, "Wider implications for other major hazard sites":
"The implications...for major hazard sites need to be considered... Clearly, we have poor scientific understanding of the mechanisms which led to the vapour cloud explosion at Buncefield, and we accept that installations storing other substances could present this type of hazard, for example, bulk LNG".
There we have it: proof positive from the HSE, no less, that we cannot declare the Canvey Island plant proposal safe.
There is only one conclusion—the appeal should be rejected, to avoid unacceptable dangers to schools and homes, not only in my constituency but elsewhere. Neither the HSE nor the Government have a policy on the safe siting of a COMAH plant, for which I have been asking for months. The inspector therefore has no formal standards against which to measure the application that he is considering. I urge the inspector, therefore, to disallow the appeal on that point alone. However, there are many other reasons to reject it, including the dire implications of flood risk for the site, and the difficulty of building the massive tanks on stilts. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West smiles, but that is a requirement for new build on Canvey Island, which is in the flood plain and, in some places, is 6 or 8 ft below sea level.
Shipping and navigation safety is an important consideration. The environmental implications are significant, too. Just for the record, the plant would confer very little local benefit on my constituents—not that that is a big issue, because there is a national need. However, there are many other effective sites for the importation of LNG that do not give rise to conflicts with other interests and that are not sited close to homes and, in particular, schools. Let there be no mistake: the application is not about national need but about corporate profits. There is nothing wrong with that, but I told Calor and Centrica at the outset that if there was a safety issue—if safety was compromised in their application—I would fight them tooth and nail. Safety is compromised, so I will fight them with every ounce of effort to stop that ill-conceived project.
The conclusions are clear. There is ample evidence of the devastation that could be caused by an incident at such a plant. There is also irrefutable evidence from the HSE, no less, that the operation of the plant cannot be guaranteed without the risk of an incident—it cannot be made fail-safe or totally safe. The Environment Agency has also confirmed that there are serious flooding risks on the site, which is another reason to reject it. There is no separation of homes and schools from the plant; there is no COMAH safe siting policy against which the inspector can measure the application and make a judgment; and there are more appropriate sites to meet the national need and the national interest. The inspector will consider all those matters very carefully. I say, with due respect to the inspector's independence in making the decision, that I hope that the proposal is rejected.
I am pleased to welcome back the Deputy Leader of the House, who is an excellent Minister—I actually congratulated him on his return last night. Will he confirm that the Trade and Industry Secretary's new policy to speed up the planning process for large scale energy sites will not be applied retrospectively to the Calor application, which is now being appealed on Canvey Island? I see that the Deputy Leader of the House has nodded, which I appreciate.
On the separate but related matter of flood defences, Canvey Island suffered more than any other community in the 1953 floods, when 58 people were killed on the island. Parts of the island, such as the Calor site, lie below sea level protected by sea walls, sea gates and, in some areas, simple earth banks. We all saw what happened last year in New Orleans, where the substantial levees were swept away in moments. That community was devastated last year, as Canvey was in 1953.
"Canvey was left to the mercy of raging tides which threatened to engulf it on Sunday after the Environment Agency failed to close two flood barriers, it has emerged. Barriers at Benfleet Creek and East Haven on Canvey island were left open as surging tides breached low-lying shores in Benfleet".
This time it was not on the scale of 1953, thank goodness, but that was due to divine intervention rather than Environment Agency planning or judgment. Rather foolishly, a spokesman for the Environment Agency was quoted by the Echo as saying:
"It is just one of those things."
One of my constituents described that comment as "complacent in the extreme". Another e-mailed me only yesterday to say that that demonstrates
"An enormous degree of incompetence and disinterest".
I respectfully ask the Secretary of State to undertake an inquiry into the incident and to give me a report, because I must protect the interests of the people on Canvey Island whom I represent.
Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will let me know what steps have been taken to prevent the recurrence of that unacceptable failure. That is an issue on which firm and speedy action is needed, as the House will understand. I congratulate Christine Sexton of the Echo, who is the chief reporter for Castle Point, on her efforts on behalf of Castle Point people on that and other matters.
I turn to one of my traditional themes, the national health service. In the Christmas Adjournment debate, I argued that in many fields, such as hepatitis C and coronary heart disease, the NHS should make sensible preventive investments. If it were to do so, the pay-off would be enormous in terms not only of improved health and quality of life, but of cash returns for the Treasury. The Chancellor, who prides himself on prudence, should not miss such an obvious mechanism to maximise the output from the extra £8 billion that he plans to put into the NHS in 2007-08, which I welcome and on which I sincerely congratulate him. However, what matters to patients—our constituents—is output, not input. We need to ensure that we make best use of the extra money that we have been putting into the health service for some years now.
The 2006 Department of Health report, "The Musculoskeletal Services Framework", is one of the Government's better efforts. It acknowledges the scale of the problem, with 8 million to 10 million people in the UK suffering from arthritis and 206 million hours every year lost to the UK economy, at a cost of £18 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West referred to rheumatoid arthritis in his excellent remarks. We are mirroring each other's speeches fairly closely; I am afraid that that will continue. The report states:
"early diagnosis...would be very cost-effective, especially if it resulted in people being able to remain in the workforce as long as possible."
It goes on to say, however, that
"typically, a diagnosis was made approximately 18 months after symptoms first appeared" and that people with musculoskeletal conditions
"have endured some of the longest waiting times for hospital care".
It recommends structural change in the NHS to speed up progress for arthritis patients through "fragmented and incoherent services". It also pays tribute to the
"significant developments in inflammatory arthritis treatments" in recent years and concludes that
"multiple cost-effectiveness studies have now been performed to suggest that anti-TNF antibodies should be cost-effective."
Yet we find that inconsistent postcode rationing or prescribing is a serious problem for people with this disease, of whom there are many.
It is, in many ways, an excellent report that proposes dramatic improvements in treatment, with Treasury revenues as the potential prize for that forethought. However, no one has charge of delivery. We still have patchy provision of the cost-effective drugs that would cut in-patient time and reduce human suffering. The Secretary of State for Health must stop shilly-shallying, get a grip of this, and implement the recommendations in the report as soon as possible, for economic and quality of life reasons.
I will not detain the House for much longer, but will return, if I may, to one of my old chestnuts—Europe. I sincerely apologise to hon. Members who must occasionally listen to my rants on the subject; this will not be the last time, I am afraid. The Berlin declaration—a Trojan horse for the EU constitution—has provoked widespread criticism, including from my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson, who is sitting next to me. One reason for that criticism is the unilateral procedure used by the German Chancellor. The declaration was discussed in secret with EU member states. The Czech Republic envoy explained that the consultation consisted only of a single bilateral phone conversation with the German authorities, followed up with an e-mail giving the declaration's very scant content. Neither national Parliaments nor the European Parliament had sight of the wording.
That conspiratorial, smoke-filled-room approach is no way to run a chicken shed, let alone a group of countries. No people of any member state have been consulted, even though a new EU constitution has major constitutional implications. Where that is the case, it must be for the people, not the politicians, to decide such matters.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his traditionally robust approach to issues in Castle Point and beyond. Does he share my concern that we have not yet received an unequivocal commitment from the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe that the Government support a referendum on any major changes in respect of the constitution?
My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. I share his deep concern about the matter. The Government have implied that they do not believe that the German Chancellor's watered-down new proposal for a constitution should be put before the people of this country. I shall revert to that shortly.
The federal Government of Germany state that they will compel ratification of the lightly modified and previously rejected EU constitution. The Prime Minister will do as he is told by the Germans, just as he did as he was told by Bush—look where that got us. The Germans are trying to sleepwalk Britain into the new constitution without a referendum and without consulting the people.
The Germans perceive the EU constitution as creating an EU President and a Foreign Minister. It robs Britain of its voting rights on home affairs and justice matters. It will be signed off by the Germans, the Commission and the European Parliament, but not the other 26 member states. It will not be put to the people of those states, including the people of Britain. Hon. Members should listen carefully to the British people, whom they represent, show stronger leadership, and stick to clear principles on those matters.
EU membership is a massive burden to Britain. The Government want a constitution without troubling the people with a referendum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said. However, the facts are clear: Europe is incompetent, inefficient, corrupt and unwilling to tackle that corruption. It cannot even get its accounts signed off.
The common fisheries policy is a nightmare, which has devastated our fish stocks and virtually destroyed the UK fishing industry. It discriminates especially against local, small, seasonal inshore fleets such as those that operate from Essex and Kent, including Canvey Island and Leigh-on-Sea in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. I shall not repeat his comments—he made the case more eloquently than I ever could. The relevant Minister has arranged this week to swap some of the quota to fill the gap, but that is not enough. We need another meeting with the Minister soon to discuss, for example, the massive Belgian and Dutch boats, which take in more than 2,000 tonnes of fish each year from Britain's six-mile and 12-mile limits. My fishermen are worried about the legality of that—especially of where the fish are landed and eventually sold—and the control on the catches that are taken. That is destroying our fish stocks, as we have experienced in the past two decades.
The EU damages the developing world through the redundant common agricultural policy and its selfish, backward-looking, protectionist policies. Labour Members do not even challenge the EU's failure to deliver international aid effectively. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for International Development said:
"The EU water initiative has been pretty patchy."—[ Hansard, 28 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1482.]
He is right. Multilateral aid through the EU is neither as effective as supporting the voluntary sector nor as giving bilateral aid, whereby this country can control the use to which the aid is put and monitor its effectiveness in helping the poorest people in the world.
I am rattling on for too long. I simply emphasise that if mainstream parties will not tackle those tough issues, the public will increasingly support fringe parties to do the job. None of us believes that that would be good for democracy. Britain should revert to a trading relationship and commonsense co-operation in Europe. Getting out of Europe would help UK jobs, our economy and our border controls and it would return our sovereignty. That is what the British people want.
I wish everyone a happy Easter and tell them not to get too sick on their Easter eggs.
It often falls to me to be the tail-end Charlie of the recess Adjournment debates. I am a political book-end, a humble spear carrier in the drama of British politics. I want to pay tribute to the fantastic community and charity work that is undertaken in my constituency. In no particular order, I pay tribute to Energy for Paston, the Salvation Army in Bourges boulevard, the Greater Dogsthorpe Partnership, Werrington Neighbourhood Council, the Westwood and Ravensthorpe Trust and the wonderful Sue Ryder Care charity. This will be the fourth year that I have been on the fundraising committee for Sue Ryder Care, and we are hoping to exceed last year's total of £36,000 raised for local people who are resident in the hospice.
I also wish all the luck in the world to the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus—ASBAH—which is based in my constituency. I hope that, by the time we hold our next Easter Adjournment debate, it will have achieved one of its key objectives: the fortification of foodstuffs with folic acid. That would reduce the incidence of spina bifida and the heartache that afflicts so many families as a result of that disability. It would also have an impact on the hundreds of thousands of elective terminations related to the condition. I pay tribute to everyone involved with ASBAH.
It would be remiss of me not to join hon. Members across the House in welcoming Paddy Tipping to his new position. If he has just an ounce of the integrity, decency and commitment of his predecessor, he will be doing a superb job. We welcome him.
I would also like to pay tribute to my own local authority, Peterborough city council, which has managed to announce only a 1.4 per cent. increase in council tax this year, the lowest for any unitary authority in the United Kingdom. It has been able to combine excellent council services with value for money, and I pay tribute to Councillor John Peach and all his colleagues.
Parliament has been through a tumultuous period since Christmas, and sparks have been flying. It is an honour and a privilege to be a Member of Parliament and to represent our fellow citizens in this place. I felt that particularly when I read the transcript in Hansard of the wonderful debate that took place on
I want to talk about the criminal justice system, a subject that is only loosely related to a constituency interest. Suffice it to say, however, that Peterborough has one of the newest prisons in the country. The former Home Secretary once famously said that if no other prison were built in England, one would be built in Peterborough. It is a state-of-the-art prison, and its director general, Mike Conway, is doing an excellent job. It is a prison for male and female prisoners, with 840 beds on the same site. One might not think that it was doing such a good job, however. As a result of the Home Office's mismanagement of the methodology and of the data management system at the prison, it is unable to tell us how well the prison is doing because the computer system cannot cope with having a male prison and a female prison on the same site. The system therefore defaults the performance indicators to place Peterborough prison almost at the bottom of the 130-odd prisons in England and Wales. That is a simple example of how the Home Office is not working.
Hon. Members will know that, in a named-day question on
The crime and justice review launched by the Prime Minister earlier this week was described in The Guardian on
"The level of detail and micromanagement by Number 10 of these Home Office policy areas suggests that even after 53 criminal justice bills in a decade, Tony Blair is leaving office deeply frustrated at the slow pace of reform of the police, prisons and probation services."
We have also seen some reheated, rehashed policy initiatives, such as the concentration on prolific offenders, which was first announced by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Blunkett, more than three years ago.
I want to focus on prisons in particular. There was some discussion last week of the Conservative party's fox being shot. I must say that my fox has been shot slightly because my hon. Friend Philip Davies beat me to the crease in securing a Westminster Hall debate yesterday entitled, "Prisons (Crime Reduction)". He will therefore have covered some of the points, so I will not labour them. However, there are some important points to be made about prisons, crime prevention and rehabilitation, which I hope that an incoming Conservative Government will consider carefully.
Conservative Members are thinking hard about the penal system and the criminal justice system. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Malins, who is concerned about the problem of illicit drugs in prisons, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (John Bercow) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) who are considering the issues of drugs, alcohol and rehabilitation in relation to prisoners.
The problem is that there is a liberal orthodoxy—a settled view—of prisons. According to a liberal, elitist view, driven by criminologists, civil servants and academics, prison does not work and is wrong. That view approaches a cultural disdain for the idea that we, as a civilised society, should send people to prison. I could not disagree with that view more strongly. Prisons are not necessarily bad. The entrenched consensus in the Home Office, and no doubt in its successor bodies, is wrong. Prisons can be made to work. I commend to the House the book, "A Land Fit for Criminals", published last year, and written by David Fraser, who draws particular attention to what he calls the criminal justice elite.
At the moment, prisons are not working, but they can be made to work. Last year, 53 per cent. of prisons were overcrowded, and the figures were even higher at the beginning of this year. Prisoners have been kept in police cells—Operation Safeguard only concluded at the end of December—and prison numbers reached 79,627 by Christmas. I welcome the Government's decision to build two more prisons—one in the Woolwich area near Belmarsh prison, and the other on Merseyside—and to bring on-stream a further 8,000 prison places over the next five years. That said, that is within the context of a short-sighted decision by the Treasury to cut or at least freeze real terms funding for the Home Office over the next few years, which I regret.
The criminal justice proposals, as articulated by the Prime Minister, are a swansong crime review. As my right hon. Friend David Davis has astutely put it, they are an admission of failure. He says:
"In any event, even the sensible proposals in this document are fatally undermined by the Government's failure to provide the necessary prison places to make them work. In fact, this document barely mentions the crisis in our prisons."
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley comprehensively demolished the myths surrounding prison, crime reduction and recidivism. The most potent of those myths is that we "lock too many people up", and that compared with other European countries too many people are in prison and we should focus on non-custodial sentences, which are better. I completely disagree with that because it is not good enough simply to look at prison numbers; we must also look at those compared with the rate of crime committed. That measurement, rather than just the prison population, compared with the level of recorded crime shows that the proportion of the number of people we put in prison is almost the lowest in the western world. The rate in the United States is high, at 166 prisoners per 1,000 crimes. We incarcerate just 13 prisoners per 1,000 crimes.
The other myth is that prison does not work in terms of recidivism rates. That is true: 75 per cent. of tagged young offenders are reconvicted within 12 months and a study in 2003 showed that 61 per cent. of prisoners jailed in 2001 had reoffended within a year of release. Surely, though, we should be looking at the likelihood of being incarcerated as a key determinant of whether someone commits a crime. Evidence in the United States shows a causal link between the fact that it has the highest per capita number of prisoners but the lowest crime rate.
A comparative study of crime rates between 1981 and 1996 by Professor David Farrington of Cambridge university demonstrated that as the risk of being imprisoned increased, crime fell. That was in the United States, but during the same period in England and Wales the crime rate increased as the likelihood of being incarcerated reduced. We currently have the highest rate of crime in burglary, assault, robbery, motor vehicle theft and rape than in the United States. Its rate is only higher in murder.
It is a matter of public record that my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard reduced crime in the period after 1995 by taking a tough line and challenging the liberal orthodoxy then prevalent in the Home Office. I have to say that that reduction continued until 2003, and rose thereafter.
There is empirical evidence that if we put more police on the beat—if we recruit and train more police and put them on to the operational front line—we will also reduce crime. The number of police officers per capita in the United States, which is tracked by the FBI and reported annually, increased by 60,000 officers, or roughly 14 per cent., in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 2001, that accounted for a 10 to 20 per cent. decline in overall crime in that period.
We all have local anecdotes on the effectiveness of policing. I visited the headquarters of the northern division of the Cambridgeshire constabulary a number of months ago and met Chief Superintendent Paul Phillipson at Thorpe Wood in Peterborough. He showed me mugshots of the 22 most prolific and persistent offenders in the city, and estimated that crime would be reduced by perhaps as much as 50 per cent. if they could be permanently excluded from the community. We need to think hard about that.
Overall statistical evidence from the United States shows a disincentive to commit crime if the likelihood of going to prison increases. There is surely a strong economic argument for more prison places. In 2004, the cost of keeping the average prisoner on the prison estate was £27,320 per year. Today it costs us £2.7 billion to maintain 139 prisons, but crime costs us £60,000 million—£60 billion. That constitutes the entire school budget and two thirds of what we will spend on the national health service in 2008. We could spend just £7 billion on doubling the number of prison places to 160,000—which, incidentally, would amount to only 0.4 per cent. of the adult population. Surely such an opportunity cost is worthy of proper examination. Even by fiscal Conservatives such as me, prison can be seen as a bargain.
And, of course, there are the human tragedies. We routinely ignore the many thousand parole board failures that lead to such tragedies, the terrible murder of the City banker John Monckton being the most obvious and infamous example. As any good economist will confirm, unless objectionable behaviour carries a demonstrable cost, that behaviour will not be altered, and will prevail.
It cannot simply be said that prison does not work. It can be made to work. According to the Home Office report "Re-offending of adults: results from the 2003 cohort", published in November 2006, the recidivism rate among those who had served at least four years in prison was 35 per cent., compared to 70 per cent. among those who were jailed for up to 12 months. We need to move from deterrence and incapacitation to rehabilitation. It is perfectly possible to believe in two complementary concepts: the concept that prison works, and the concept of necessary rehabilitation.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley that it is offensive to my constituents and his that 1,500 prisoners have access to Sky television—although I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Sutcliffe disagrees with that. It causes them anger and annoyance. That, however, does not mean that we should not focus on rehabilitation. It is not necessarily a question of being liberal, lily-livered and non-judgmental.
I stand four-square behind my party's manifesto commitments of 2005—scrapping the early-release scheme, mandatory minimum sentences and more prison places—but we need to focus on drugs, on rehabilitation, and especially on education. Some facts are inescapable: for instance, 70 per cent. of female prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders while 44 per cent. of male sentenced prisoners suffer from three or more, and the numbers are much higher among young offenders. It is also time that we focused on the one third of prisoners who have clearly been failed by the care system.
We all know of the endemic effects of alcohol and narcotics abuse across the prison estate, as well as the unacceptable levels of bullying. Two thirds of prisoners are affected by those issues. As a civilised society and for the sake of our own financial well-being, we have a right and a duty to tackle them and to rehabilitate the individuals whom we choose to incarcerate.
Although rehabilitation is vital to reforming criminals and reducing the risk of offending, we must make a decision about spending. We must consider the opportunity cost. There have been some successful schemes in the United States, including the Key-Crest 12-month drug programme in Delaware. After three years, only 31 per cent. of those on the programme had reoffended, compared to 61 per cent. in a control group. In the United Kingdom, there are just 4,700 drug treatment programmes across the whole estate. Prison-based vocational training and employment is important, too. A study in the United States found that prisoners who had been on that programme had a 35 per cent. less chance of re-offending than those who had not.
A particularly innovative scheme is in Florida where prisoners are taught basic skills and manufacture goods such as optical instruments and car registration plates. They are paid a decent wage and given self-respect and hope for the future. Some of the money that comes from selling those goods is put back into the prison estate and to victim support schemes so that prisoners understand the consequences of their actions.
It is our duty and responsibility as parliamentarians to look at giving prisoners hope for the future when they have finished their sentences. It is perfectly possible to believe that we need to jail people longer to prevent crime and that people can be reformed and rehabilitated. I thank hon. Members for listening and I wish all Members, Officers of the House and members of staff a restful and productive Easter break. With that, I look forward to the next recess Adjournment debate.
I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate and to address this packed House of Commons. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping on returning to the Front Bench as Deputy Leader of the House. I have always found him to be helpful to Back Benchers and I am sure that he will take up all the issues that have been raised today with the appropriate Ministers.
Bob Spink mentioned developments on Canvey Island. Cleethorpes conjures up the image of a wonderful British seaside resort, which it is, but, geographically, it is a very large constituency. On the Humber bank we have one of the highest concentrations of COMAH—control of major accident hazards—sites in the UK. Several years ago, there was an explosion at one of the oil refineries in the constituency, which impacted on neighbouring villages and towns. I was in my office in Immingham, about two to three miles from the refinery. When the explosion happened, the shock wave bent the glass in the window. I can appreciate the concerns of the constituents of the hon. Gentleman, who also mentioned Flixborough, which is near Scunthorpe. I believe that we have two full-time fire stations because of the number of COMAH sites—refineries, power stations, inorganic chemical works and so on. I understand that given its size Immingham would not even warrant one part-time fire engine if it were not for the COMAH sites within the area. That always has to be looked at in relation to those hazardous developments.
The hon. Lady is starting her speech in an excellent fashion and I congratulate her. The problem for me is that the COMAH site on Canvey Island will be a liquefied natural gas site, not a petrochemical site. With LNG, it is much more difficult to fight the fire. In fact, it is impossible, because it vaporises and floats as a cloud in the air until it meets an ignition source. We cannot use foam, as we can on a petrochemical fire, as happened at Buncefield, for example. Essex firefighters went in and fought that fire and many of those firefighters were trained to protect my constituency.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. There are many different types of COMAH sites around the country. On the Humber bank, many of the factories have in-house fire crews with specialist equipment. Given the number of COMAH sites within my constituency, I understand the great concern that his constituents have.
Mr. Amess is perhaps an hon. Friend in relation to the subject that I am going to mention next, which is seaside towns. He mentioned the report that had been published. I wished to mention it, too. It details the poverty that can exist in seaside towns and the problems with infrastructure due to their remoteness. Those are serious issues to which the Government need to pay more attention. Those issues were covered by the hon. Gentleman, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those points in his closing remarks.
Like the hon. Member for Southend, West and others, in previous Adjournment debates in the House, I have raised many issues. I recall standing here mentioning the subject of East Ravendale school in the Lincolnshire wolds in the constituency, and the fact that it still had outside toilets and other problems. I spoke in the House about getting funding to build a new school. I am happy to report that the new school building is under way. The children are in their temporary classrooms and are looking forward to going into their new school as soon as possible.
I have mentioned in these Adjournment debates before the issue of nuisance from fireworks. We have seen progress on that issue with the passing of private Member's legislation, but we need closely to monitor that issue because, although there have been improvements, it is clear that there are still problems and there is still misuse.
I have mentioned the resurfacing of the A180, one of the noisiest roads in Britain. I know that other Members here would probably claim that their roads are noisier. In our trunk road network, we have an awful lot of noisy concrete-surface roads, which are causing disturbance and annoyance. Some of the A180 was resurfaced, but the programme has stalled, so many of my constituents are still disturbed by the level of noise from the road.
I urge my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to put pressure on the appropriate Ministers to complete the resurfacing work. It is ludicrous that, in travelling to Grimsby and Cleethorpes, one is literally rattling around on that concrete-surface road. One can almost feel one's bones juddering and the car falling apart. The noise is dreadful. The newly surfaced bit is only a short section. The quietness is astonishing. It was only when it was resurfaced that residents and I realised how extreme the problem was. After the short section, we go on to the old surface again. The port of Immingham is growing. Year on year, there is more HGV traffic coming off the container ships. We need to be able to do something as regards those roads. It is not fair that residents continue to be disturbed by vehicles on that road as the traffic on it increases and the port grows.
That leads me on to another urgent local issue to do with Immingham, which is both a town and a port. Although Immingham has the A180 and two very good roads that lead from the east and west dock gates to the main dual carriageway, far too many heavy goods vehicles go through the centre of the town. I have written to local firms saying, "Please can you make sure that your drivers do not go through the centre of town," and they have assured me that their drivers do not do so, but we have monitored the traffic and we have seen them going through the town. That happens week on week, month on month. It is not only the traffic coming out of the port that is increasing; the traffic going through the middle of what is a residential town is also increasing. That is unacceptable. The local authority is consulting on having a bypass so that the majority of HGVs no longer disturb Immingham's residents. However, as we all know in respect of all such major road projects, that will not happen in the short term. Any solution will be put in place only in the long term. Therefore, there must be some short-term solutions to the problem. I shall continue to press for a weight restriction on the main residential road through Immingham.
Other Members might have come across similar problems in their constituencies to do with my next subject; if so, I would be interested to know of them. I have found that there is a great problem to do with satellite navigation in HGVs. It does not matter whether we put up weight restriction signs at the beginning of certain streets, because if their satellite navigation system tells them to go down such a street, they will go down it. I do not know whether much can be done about that. I fear that it will increasingly become a problem throughout the country, unless satellite navigation can be programmed to inform of weight restrictions on specific roads and to say that no vehicle over a certain weight should travel down them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. I think that that Adjournment debate was held this week. [Interruption.] Apparently, it was an earlier debate. I shall certainly take a look at it, and if there is more that I can do on this issue, I will certainly do it. I will join other Members who are campaigning to stop the "sat nav" invasion of our residential streets. I do not suppose that I shall get any free satellite navigation systems in the post after having said that—besides, I much prefer using a traditional map. Angela Browning talked about water earlier; I would rather have a traditional jug of water with my meal, and I prefer to use a traditional map than satellite navigation.
Sadly, Immingham has a large landfill site on the outskirts of town, and unfortunately, because it is in a particularly flat part of Lincolnshire, that site is probably the highest bit of ground for miles around. I noticed that under the Budget there will be increased landfill taxes. That worries me because, sadly, my area is still not recycling as much as it should be. Given that the increase has been announced, I hope that the local council takes on board more initiatives. I have many ideas for initiatives to reduce the amount of waste that our area generates and the amount of it that goes into landfill, thereby reducing some of the blot on the landscape that the residents of Immingham have to live with.
I want to move on to a couple of other issues that are causing residents in my constituency some concern. I have raised them in the House before, off and on. I warn my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House that I shall continue to do so until Ministers kindly get the message, give way and try to come up with solutions to these problems.
The Humber bridge is a marvellous, superb piece of engineering; unfortunately, the level of toll that people have to pay each way to cross it is not so marvellous. Because of the way in which health services in my part of the country have been reorganised, thousands more people who live in the towns and villages on the south bank of the River Humber have to travel north to the hospitals in Hull for essential treatment, particularly cancer sufferers. It is a very long journey, which is always problematic for those travelling for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. On top of that, there is this added charge. Because of the way that the benefit system works, although those in a certain income group can get recompense, those just above that threshold—that includes a lot of pensioners—cannot get any assistance. As those who have to travel for such treatment or to visit someone in hospital regularly know, it costs a lot of money to cross the Humber bridge.
All the local MPs have been working on a cross-party basis to find a solution to this problem. Two private Members' Bills were introduced on this issue, one by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey. As a Whip, he cannot speak in the House for himself any more, so I have to do so. Sadly, his Bill was caught by the ticking clock and we simply ran out of available Fridays to debate it. I was lucky in the draw, so I took up the measures in that Bill, but yet again we crashed into the parliamentary barriers and ran out of time. The Government have a role to play. I hope that, by bringing together all the parties concerned, we can examine the serious issue of the increasing cost of accessing essential life-saving health care.
I turn to antisocial behaviour and police community support officers. One of my local newspapers, the Grimsby Telegraph, recently ran a strong campaign on the respect agenda and tackling various antisocial behaviour issues in our towns. Sadly, north-east Lincolnshire did not become a respect action zone, which was a great disappointment to people in our area. However, on analysis, it was clear that many things on antisocial behaviour were not being done as well as they could be. I hope that, by taking on board some of the suggestions that were made, we can move forward and become a respect action zone in the next round. I will certainly support that move, and I hope to come up with some suggestions for the council—based on what colleagues in the House have told me is happening in their areas—that might speed up our application to become a respect action zone.
There is one small difficulty relating to police community support officers. I am not going to get into a debate today about numbers. However, our problem in Grimsby and Cleethorpes concerns recruitment: not enough people are coming forward to fill the places available. In the wider area, yes, we can get people to apply, but in the towns, where we want PCSOs to patrol, people are not coming forward. I hope that the Home Office—or whichever bit of the divided Home Office will be responsible—can consider providing extra assistance if an area is struggling to recruit people. Our problems may be because we were late in recruiting PCSOs. We are perhaps four years behind other parts of the country, because the previous chief constable did not want PCSOs. That time lag has created many difficulties. I have raised the issue with Ministers before, but we are trying to recruit at the moment. That serious issue must be addressed so that people can obtain some sort of relief from the hellish antisocial behaviour that can occur.
Cleethorpes winter gardens does not quite compare to the winter gardens in Blackpool, but it is still very special to Cleethorpes residents. It is the only venue of any particular size in the resort. Planning permission has been granted to demolish the winter gardens and build flats on the site. Yes, of course we need accommodation, but it must be affordable. High-rise executive flats on the sea front are not the type of home sought by most people in Cleethorpes. Some of the prices that I have seen are akin to London prices, but the average house price in Cleethorpes is well below them. I am not sure who would buy those properties.
The winter gardens is iconic to the residents of Cleethorpes, as the winter gardens in Blackpool is to its residents. After the planning permission, we had the sad sight of fences being put up around the winter gardens with "Construction Site" notices slapped on them. The guts have been ripped out of the winter gardens and sold off. However, we now hear that the sale of the winter gardens and land, to which the planning permission was linked, has fallen through. I do not know whether there is any way to save the winter gardens, but there have been marches through the town. I understand that independent candidates will even be put up at the elections on a "save the winter gardens" ticket.
Now that the sale has fallen through, perhaps the Department for Culture, Media and Sport can advise on what we can do next. We have tried to get the building listed, which might have helped, but apparently it had been altered a little too much to get a listing. However, there must be some way in which we can save the only real venue of any size in which entertainment can be put on in our seaside resort. Mr. Amess mentioned the report about the problems in seaside resorts, but we have just lost our only major venue and that will have a severe impact on the economy of the area and tourism in the resort. I hope that the matter can be taken up with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
For those with vivid imaginations, my next subject may sound a little odd, but it is referred to locally as the problem of the grass on the beach. I am getting some quizzical looks from hon. Members, but I am not talking about the smokable type of grass. I mean the salt marsh growing on the beach. The Humber estuary has shallow areas and salt marsh has grown, causing concern in the tourist industry in the area that it will eat up the whole beach and kill off tourism in Cleethorpes as we know it. If one considers the detailed botany, biology and ecosystems involved, that is not likely to happen, but we are having some battles with various Government agencies as to how to resolve the problem.
The Humber estuary is a site of special scientific interest. Further south, the salt marsh areas are excellent for visiting birds. Donna Nook is one of the biggest seal colonies on the east coast of Britain. The area is certainly attractive, yet we must get the balance between that more natural part and the more traditional beach with its donkey rides and seaside. We need Ministers to broker some understanding between the two sides to see whether we can contain the growth of the salt marsh and maintain the nice sandy area of the resort that people love.
The final issue of concern to my residents is time dependent and concerns the Humberston fitties. Ironically the name "fitties" comes from a Lincolnshire word for salt marsh. The fitties lie behind the sand dunes and are a most wonderful chalet village. The chalets are painted white and the village is the jewel in the crown of the Lincolnshire coast. It is a conservation area. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton extolled the virtues of Devon, but I will extol the virtues of Lincolnshire. The scent of wild roses by the sand dunes on east-coast Britain is a delight in the summer months and certainly worth a visit.
The chalet development has its problems. The chalets are classified as holiday homes and there are serious problems with the leases. They all vary and have different conditions. We have had fights about ground rents. The residents are paying ground rent, 90 per cent. of council tax and a service charge, so they are paying more in local charges than many local residents, yet according to their leases they may sleep there overnight for only 10 months a year. These are people's main homes, yet for two months there is a closed period. They may spend time in their home, for which they pay a mortgage, but may not sleep there overnight.
This year people have been peeping through windows to see whether residents are breaking the terms of their lease and, heaven forbid, sleeping in their own beds at night. Various residents will, unfortunately, be taken to court by the local authority. I feel that that reaction is too extreme. One resident who is being taken to court for having the temerity to stay overnight is terminally ill. The court case was due to be heard a few weeks ago, but has been adjourned until mid-April. I hope that something can be done to prevent the case from going ahead. Another person who stayed in their property during the so-called closed period passed away, so the council did not issue them with a summons. Another person has documentary proof that they were not anywhere near their chalet, but as a sensible resident they had lights on timer switches to make it look as though someone was in the chalet to deter burglars, so the council has issued a summons to take them to court. The summons is ludicrous. It was issued a couple of days before the new season started at the beginning of March and it is to evict the residents for the remainder of the closed period, which finished at the end of February.
It is ludicrous to call people to court in mid-April to evict them from their properties until the end of February. That is a complete waste of time, and it is an extreme reaction. I hope that the local authority will see sense and will stop taking terminally ill people, and people who were not in their home, to court. I hope that the authority will work with the residents of the Humberston fitties to sort out the terms and conditions of the leases and get them up to date. It could consider a shorter closed season. Nobody who lives in the fitties wants a 52-week-a-year residency, but if we could reduce the closed season to, say, two or three weeks a year, people could go away on holiday for those weeks. It is hard finding somewhere for two months. If we did that, we could avoid the silly situation that we seem to end up with every single year.
I thank the House for bearing with me while I raised issues of concern to residents in my constituency. Like other hon. Members, I wish everyone a wonderful Easter, including the staff of the House and all the teachers in our schools. I probably will not visit Devon this Easter, despite the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton extolling the virtues of her constituency. I tell the hon. Lady that despite my very Scottish name, my great-granny was born and brought up in Tiverton. I know the area well; in fact, last year I popped down to Tiverton on my way to seeing my mother, who lives in another part of Devon. I hope that the hon. Lady is able to reciprocate by visiting the wonderful east coast resorts of Britain, particularly the beautiful resort of Cleethorpes. I wish everybody a wonderful Easter.
May I start by extending my congratulations to Paddy Tipping on his reappointment as Deputy Leader of the House? Earlier, my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin commented that it would be value for money, as the Deputy Leader of the House will not get an additional sum of money. The alternative view was summarised by the Leader of the House earlier today in business questions; he said that it was all being done for the pleasure of working for the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons.
It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. There have been many excellent speeches, which have covered a broad range of subjects, both domestic and international. The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that there remains considerable concern about the absence of proper answers to written and oral questions, and given that Members have given up a lot of time to be in the Chamber today, I hope that if there are specific issues that he is unable to deal with today, he will pass them on to the relevant Ministers so that proper answers can be obtained. By all accounts, and given all the praise that I have heard today, I can be confident that that will indeed happen.
We started off with a contribution from my hon. Friend Mr. Gale, who rightly raised the absence of proper debate on the important issue of sexual orientation. The subject was recently dealt with in the House by means of a statutory instrument, rather than through primary legislation. As he rightly said, the issue was highly contentious, and there was enormous debate outside the House, but very little in it. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take those strongly expressed views on board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire covered a number of local points. He started off by discussing dairy farmers and the fact that they receive 18p per litre, which means that most of them are losing some 4p per litre. It is hardly surprising, given that those are the sorts of figures involved, that last year some 350 dairy farmers stopped operating, and that the trend is continuing. He rightly raised the issue of single farm payments, which has caused great anguish to farmers. The situation has not been helped by the fact that Ministers have made two contradictory statements. First, it was said that there were fewer than 200 farmers who had not received either their full payment, or the balance of the payment due. However, in a statement in February, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted that some 13,000 farmers were still awaiting payment. While an apology has been offered to the 200 farmers, it would go a long way if it were extended to the full 13,000 who are still suffering. It is ironic that the Minister responsible was promoted to the Foreign Office.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said that farmers were the custodians of the countryside, which is a valid point that the farming community would like to be addressed more than is currently the case in the House. My right hon. Friend rightly said that farmers have been crippled by paperwork. It is a fair point that farmers are in the business of looking after their farms, rather than sitting behind desks filling in endless papers. He referred, too, to the peak district national park planning inquiry. I agree that when the issue is resolved a review should be carried out to assess whether or not the 10 years of legal fees and officers' time was justified. He said that the local school was the heart of the village, and I very much hope that his efforts to keep that school and, indeed, his efforts to keep the Darley Dale maternity unit continue. He is quite right that it is all very well to receive the Prime Minister's assurances when the reality is somewhat different.
My right hon. Friend's speech was followed by a contribution from Keith Vaz. In his typically ingenious way, he managed to bring in and promote Bhangra dancing, which will please his Sikh community. He raised, too, the tragic case of Rafiq Gorji and the death of his wife, Mrs. Ali. I am sure that Members present will share his concern at the lack of response from the Saudi authorities about obtaining the police report so that matters can progress. I noticed that the Leader of the House went to sit next to the right hon. Gentleman and I very much hope that as a former Foreign Secretary he can exert pressure to try to resolve the issue. In my own constituency, I am dealing with the case of Craig Alden, who is still trying to secure justice in Brazil. My efforts at dealing with the Foreign Office have not been particularly fruitful, so if there are any lessons that the right hon. Gentleman can give me, I would be happy to accept them.
The right hon. Gentleman complimented the Prime Minister on the Northern Ireland settlement, and I think it would be fair if the House acknowledged, too, the contribution by a previous Prime Minister, Sir John Major, in arriving at that settlement. That needs to be put on the record. The right hon. Gentleman rightly expressed concern about the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the whole House will agree that it is right that we should try to engage in dialogue, and that can only happen if there is a ceasefire. He spoke about Britain taking a leading role, and while I agree, I am mindful of the comments by the Minister for Trade in the statement on Zimbabwe that it is important that Britain does not continue its colonial past. There is a balance to be struck—while Britain may offer assistance to former colonies, that should be done delicately and sensitively.
I am pleased that Mr. Heath assured the House of the agricultural status of his constituency, and I am sure that his constituents will be pleased that that has been put on the record. He, too, referred to the plight of dairy farmers, and he said that some supermarkets have tried to address the issue of their not receiving enough money. My understanding is that at least three supermarkets have raised the price of the milk that they sell, with the intention that the increase will go directly to the farmers. It is important that that voluntary arrangement is properly monitored to ensure that the price increase goes to the farmers, and not to intermediaries or to the supermarkets.
It was interesting that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire made a comment about Stilton cheese being made in his constituency. In my constituency, there is the village of Stilton, where every year on a Sunday we have a Stilton cheese rolling carnival. As for the connection between the village in my constituency and the cheese manufactured in West Derbyshire, I leave that for another day.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spoke about bovine TB, which is indeed a matter of concern. I understand that for the past two years it has been increasing in many herds, and the problem certainly needs to be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman referred to the farming industry being overregulated. Most of us who have farming communities in our constituency would echo the sentiment that it is time for regulations to be reviewed, with the aim of lessening them.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for clear labelling. It is a scandal that products that are made overseas or animals that are reared overseas are brought into this country, processed, packaged and sold in British supermarkets and shops as British goods. That is largely a result of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. It is high time that the Act was revisited, with a view to ensuring that the British public have properly labelled goods.
My hon. Friend Angela Browning began her contribution unashamedly with a plug for the tourist industry of Tiverton and Honiton. She said that Devon was at its most glorious now and commended it for all of us to visit during the recess. She made a passing reference to pensioners surfing, but given the activities that pensioners engage in now, I would not be surprised if a large number of them were thinking of taking that up.
My hon. Friend made the serious point about the lower than average wages in her constituency, compared with the high property prices and council tax. She focused particularly on the massive hike in water rates in her area, which she attributed to regulations emanating from Europe. I would add that it may have something to do with the tradition of gold-plating undertaken by our civil servants. It would be interesting to know how many other European Union countries are as diligent in enforcing regulations as we are.
My hon. Friend spoke of the unfairness for small businesses that are charged water rates with reference to the rateable value of properties, regardless of the number of people who may use the water in a particular business. I hope she has joy in dealing with the issue of taxation arising when the disposal of a flat and shop at the same time by one of her constituents was judged by the Revenue to be the disposal of one asset, rather than two, particularly when for all other matters—council tax and so on—they are treated as two assets. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently took on board my party's suggestion for a reduction in corporation tax, so I am hopeful that he will look favourably on the suggestion offered by my hon. Friend.
The contribution from my hon. Friend Mr. Amess was typically robust, as in previous Adjournment debates. He commented that he was rather saddened by the fact that when he entered Parliament, he was the only Member whose birthday was on
We were all delighted that my hon. Friend took part in yesterday's inaugural Lions club dinner, where we were heartened by the robust contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who questioned whether there would be lionesses, too—I was pleased to learn that there will be lionesses, although they will not be called lionesses.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the more serious topic of Iraq, which concerns many in this House and around the country and which will continue to dominate discussion inside and outside this House.
I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the regulations on fishing, and I wish him well in trying to get a review of quota management in his constituency.
My hon. Friend mentioned the elderly community in his constituency. In particular, he commented on the centenarians of Southend, who have been formally recognised by "The Guinness Book of Records" at a gathering of 23 of them. He made some welcome comments about making sure that we have effective and proper quality of life for an increasingly elderly population. The young community were not left out, however, because he followed that up by praising members of the Young Men's Christian Association.
My hon. Friend Bob Spink is also a regular contributor to Adjournment debates. He discussed the balance of rights between badgers and humans and suggested that we need to strike a suitable balance for co-existence. He pointed out that he has managed to achieve that, because he has seven badgers in his garden.
I would like to know whether my hon. Friend is sure that there are only seven. He went on to discuss more serious matters, such as the local referendum on planning permission for a plant which threatens the safety and security of schools, homes and the area generally. I, too, hope that when the inspector makes his decision, he will take note of the result of that referendum.
My hon. Friend expressed concern that the Environment Agency failed to activate flood defences to prevent flooding. He asked the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry into the matter, and I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on those concerns.
My hon. Friend also discussed health. He rightly pointed out that it is important that the NHS concentrates some resources on preventive medicine rather than trying to deal with illnesses after they have occurred. Such an approach would clearly have a major impact on the NHS budget.
My hon. Friend concluded by referring to the European Union, a subject which has been debated for many hours in the House. The debate has been going on for a long time, and I am sure that it will continue. No doubt he will contribute to future debates.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jackson, whose constituency adjoins mine, discussed the new prison in his constituency, which has placed law and order at the forefront of local matters. He also considered the arguments of liberal academics who advocate fewer custodial sentences and made it clear that he favours stronger sentencing. He rightly pointed out the overcrowding in our prisons, and, like many hon. Members, he will welcome the fact that the Government have announced that two more prisons will be built. In my view, although that is welcome, we need those prisons now, and we must deal with the problem before those two prisons come into operation.
My hon. Friend touched on the balance between policing and crime, as well as the prevalence of drugs and mental illnesses among those who end up in prison. Of course, law and order is a massive, complex issue that has only been made more complicated by the changes that were proposed earlier today. The House awaits clarification on their full impact in the days and weeks ahead.
We concluded with a speech by Shona McIsaac. I confess that when she said that she wished to comment on the speeches that had already been made, I was a little concerned that the Deputy Leader of the House and I would be left without much to say, but I was heartened when she quickly moved on to address issues in her constituency. She particularly mentioned the A180, with its noisy concrete surface. I wish her well with her endeavours in resolving that. She mentioned the heavy goods vehicles going through the town and port—she was keen to emphasise the word "port"—of Immingham and the campaign to get weight restrictions imposed. Again, I wish her well with that. She is clearly passionate about the level of tolls on the Humber bridge, which she has spoken about on several occasions, and I hope that that is dealt with satisfactorily. She mentioned the planning issues involving the Winter Gardens and said that there is some uncertainty as to whether the sale has fallen through. I hope that that, too, is satisfactorily resolved.
The hon. Lady concluded by saying that she wished to promote her tourism industry. On what better note could I conclude than to say that with the recess coming, perhaps hon. Members might consider taking a few days off and going to her constituency, or to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton.
I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all the staff in the House, and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy and peaceful Easter.
It is a great privilege to be able to respond to this debate. I am delighted by the very generous—perhaps over-generous—comments that hon. Members have made and thank them for doing so.
There has been a lot of talk about birthdays. I was delighted to attend the 50th birthday party of my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz—a big bash. Mr. Amess had a significant birthday last week. I have some prescience and know that my hon. Friend Shona McIsaac has her birthday next week.
One of the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East talked about was about dancing. When I last did this job, I learned that one has to be quick on one's feet. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes talked about recycling. I feel that I have been recycled into this job; after six years, perhaps I am a bit rusty.
We heard 10 speakers cover a wide range of subjects, including international issues such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Europe. We also heard about the smaller but important question of the quality of local cheeses. I am not going to get into that, nor will I get drawn into a discussion about whether one should have jugs of water or bottled water at a restaurant. With regard to the comments of Angela Browning, I am interested in what happens to all the plastic water bottles. One of the big issues in recycling is how we can make better use of those bottles. That is being considered by the Government agency, WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme. The message must be that we should drink from the jug rather than buy the bottle.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton extolling the virtues of Devon. I know its countryside, and for a moment I wanted to walk out of the Chamber to see the banks of primroses.
I also know Donna Nook. For Members who have not been there, it is worth taking visitors in the early part of the year, when it is cold and ferocious, to see the newborn seals. Mr. McLoughlin reminded us that he has a daughter, who is now an adolescent. Adolescent girls can be difficult but my adolescent girls enjoyed their trip to Donna Nook, which I highly recommend. I commend the British tourist industry and, like other hon. Members, I took part in last week's event. Tourism is important to new investment and new jobs, especially in rural areas.
Rural communities were a strong theme throughout the debate. Hon. Members referred to agriculture, the environment—including the marine environment—and climate change. Noise pollution was also mentioned. I believe that that will become increasingly important, especially on concrete roads. That affects local residents and I believe that the local environment will increase in political significance in future.
The landfill tax was also mentioned. I am delighted that the Budget increased the landfill tax by £8 a tonne. It is important to divert waste from landfill and move towards recycling.
Let me deal with the specific comments that hon. Members made. I shall start with the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, first, because of his significance in the Conservative party—he is one of the most powerful men in the Chamber—but secondly, because I know his constituency well and visit it often. I often use the A50 to get there. He is right to remind us of the position of dairy farmers, which Mr. Heath also mentioned. There is no doubt that dairy farmers face an extremely difficult position and that something needs to be done.
I look forward to the Competition Commission inquiry. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I am not holding my breath because I have been here before. It is the third Competition Commission inquiry into the power of supermarkets. The hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of the call for evidence from farmers and producers. It is vital that people rise to the challenge and give genuine evidence to the Commission of abuse that takes place.
There should be more honesty and transparency in the supply chain in the milk industry. There is hostility between the producers, the processors and the retailers. Although I examined the matter in some depth at one time, I never really sorted out the cash flows and where the profit came in. There is a supply chain working party and we need to try to get some answers to people.
I am pleased that the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the Rural Payments Agency has been mentioned. I have read it—it is belligerent in tone and shows the difficulties of trying to make management changes while not being clear about policy. The report uses strong words. The new Secretary of State has been diligent in coming to the Chamber, apologising and ensuring that the House is kept up to date with developments. My noble Friend Lord Rooker holds regular surgeries—I have used them—which colleagues can attend to seek advice on individual cases. That is important because the payments for 2005 are not yet resolved. We are in the middle of the payment window for 2006, and 2007 is not far away. We must resolve the outstanding issues before we get into the third payment window. We need to do a great deal and there is a lot to learn from the report.
I know Longstone Edge, which the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire mentioned, the scar on the ridge and the history, which I shall not recount. However, I believe that it would be excellent if we could make arrangements with aggregates extractors not to work in national parks. I do not think that we shall achieve that, but I look forward to the result of the planning inquiry. I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman was present at the public inquiry, looking extremely smart in his country clothes. My noble Friend Lord Hattersley appeared in casual wear, and I know who had the most effect.
Stoney Middleton school is important. The rate of small village school closures has declined dramatically over recent years. Consultation exercises need to take into account the social value of educational establishments, and such considerations should also apply in the campaign for the Darley Dale maternity unit. A consultation is taking place on that at the moment. There is a debate about choice in the health service, and the Government need to be clear that if we offer choice, there will, almost by definition, be increased costs. One of the issues relating to the Darley Dale maternity unit involves costs, but there are also clinical issues involved. The unit is highly regarded, but it is also relatively small, and that needs to be taken into account in the consultation.
I liked the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the management of primary care trusts and, indeed, of the NHS. I sometimes feel that the non-executive board members of some of those organisations tend to be out of touch with local people. I suspect that that issue will be raised again in the House, and it is one that we should examine.
I would like a debate on agriculture, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested. It would give us the chance to talk about common agricultural policy reform, in which a lot has been achieved, but more needs to be done. It would also give us an opportunity to celebrate the fact that, today, at last, the English rural development programme has been announced, and that £3.9 billion has been allocated for the period from 2007 to 2013, which is double the amount for the last payment period.
We need to make decisions about the contentious issue of bovine tuberculosis, but that is not easy. In the long term, we all aspire to a solution involving vaccination, but for as long as I have been in the House, vaccination has always been 10 years away and it never seems to get any closer. One of the puzzling things is that the incidence of TB has declined, but now appears to be rising again slightly. We need to look closely at the science. There is a case for culling, but there is also an argument that culling migrates the problem. This is not an easy issue, but the hon. Gentleman is telling us to make our minds up, and he makes a strong point, of which the Secretary of State is well aware.
Biofuels offer opportunities in the countryside, and the hon. Gentleman made a case for joined-up thinking between all the Departments involved, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Treasury. I am conscious that we have not always done that as satisfactorily as we might have done.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke, as all MPs from the south-west do, about water and sewerage charges. I was with representatives of South West Water earlier this week, and I know that the charges are a hot issue in the south-west. Having such a long coastline means that it is not easy to clean up areas of sewage pollution. There are also real issues of affordability in the south-west, where water bills are relatively high compared with those in other parts of the country. As the hon. Lady knows, South West Water has a trust fund for cases where there are difficulties, and it is also involved in an affordability project. We need to come forward with some proposals on that fairly quickly.
It is important to listen to consumers' voices on water charges, and that is happening increasingly often. One of the questions that I have heard involves marginal increases in water quality: is it worth paying for that little bit extra? There is a real debate to be had in the water industry on that issue. There is also a debate to be had and completed on unadopted sewers. I have argued for many years for the adoption of unadopted sewers. The Government have finally announced that they will do it, but there will be a further period of consultation in which the issue of increased cost, which the hon. Lady rightly raises, will be discussed yet again.
I was also interested in the hon. Lady's important point in relation to water costs and business premises, and I shall draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment to that. The case of Mr. E also deserves attention. I do not want to say too much about it because, as she rightly said, it might become a test case, and might come before the courts. If I can help in any way, however, I would be delighted to try to do so.
Bob Spink rehearsed the arguments that he was going to make at the public inquiry, which, I thought, were compelling. He knew what he wanted to tell the inspector. Clearly, local people also knew what they were going to tell the inspector. I am delighted that, as he puts it, they will fight tooth and nail at the public inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of what planning guidelines will be taken into account by the public inquiry, and I am delighted that my Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is in the Chamber to hear that point. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, planning guidance will change in future to allow quicker processing of big infrastructure projects. He and his constituents need to know, when they go to the public inquiry, on what set of rules they are fighting. I will make sure that he receives a reply on that. He also referred to the recent inappropriate use of flood barriers. He deserves a proper reply, and I will make sure that he receives one.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the NHS, and I am pleased that he recognised the extra £8 billion going into the NHS next year. He is right that we must move away from investment in acute services towards investment in preventive services. To try to achieve that, a big change programme, and an education programme, need to take place in the NHS.
It is a long time since I have replied to the hon. Member for Southend, West in one of these debates. I was sorry that he did not mention the Palace theatre in Southend, which has been a running issue for many years. I hope that that matter is now resolved.
I also hope that progress can be made on the issue of east coast fishing. Looking to the future, how we control, conserve and pursue economic activities in the marine environment will become increasingly important. The House will debate the marine environment on the Thursday after it returns from recess, and a White Paper on the marine environment is out. The Government have a manifesto commitment to bring forward proposals to manage better the marine environment. Therefore the hon. Gentleman is on a winning wicket. I shall make sure that he gets an appropriate reply to the points that he raised.
I was also pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned buses. The Department for Transport is consulting on how local authorities can work more closely with bus companies on a more strategic overview of routes. At present, basically, bus routes are planned through market forces, which does not make sense for local consumers, especially vulnerable elderly people. I am pleased that the Department for Transport is consulting on the matter, and it has been indicated that there will be legislation when—as they say—parliamentary time allows.
Mr. Gale did the House a great service by raising the issue of the sexual orientation regulations. As he put it, there are strong, deeply and honourably held opinions on the matter. He will know, as he has been in the House for many years, that there are different views on different sides of the argument. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has proved difficult to reconcile those views. However, I accept his point that outside the House there was a feeling that we did not deal with the process, which he described properly and in some detail, as well as we might have. In the Government's defence, I have to say that there were discussions between the usual channels, but I accept that many hon. Members, myself included, have strong views on the subject and missed the opportunity to vote on it because the vote was early. We did ourselves a disservice by not handling the matter better.
I think that I am the only hon. Member in the Chamber who has been involved in the actual adoption process. Adoption is vital. It is important that we remember the law—that the needs of the child are paramount. We lost sight of that in the discussion, although I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is determined to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies survive into the future. It will not be easy, but I know the valuable work that they do and the difference that they have made to many children's lives. It would be criminal to see them go out of business.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East used his tremendous expertise at the Foreign Office to raise the case of Mr. Gorji and his wife Mrs. Ali. He has been pursuing that vigorously and I have heard him raise it on several occasions in the Chamber. I assure him that he will get maximum help from the British embassy in Saudi Arabia. There is already a recognition from the Saudi Government that there need to be new and better regulations on drivers. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East will pursue vigorously the point that my right hon. Friend raised about releasing the accident and police report.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned Sri Lanka, where the situation is extremely difficult. He will be pleased to know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on
I thank my hon. Friend for his words. Does he agree that the position should be that the killing of innocent Tamil people needs to stop and it needs to stop now? That is the key to getting a dialogue going. Violence is not going to achieve that.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made that clear.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East also talked about the reorganisation of the criminal justice system. He is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs. I shall ensure that those issues are pursued and that he gets replies to them.
Mr. Jackson spoke about the importance of the justice system. I have visited Peterborough prison over the years—I know it well. [Laughter.] In a former life, I used to spend a lot of time in prison, but I had the keys, so it was okay. He is right to say that prisons are an important part of the spectrum of managing crime. He went on to talk about the importance of having a sufficient number of prison places. There have been 19,700 new prison places since 1997, and a further 8,000 are planned by 2012.
The hon. Gentleman was also right to talk about the importance of police on the streets. Again, police numbers are at a record level. There are an extra 14,000 police under this Government, backed by new police community support officers, and that figure will grow to 16,000 this year.
I will pursue the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes about recruitment difficulties. She also made important points about antisocial behaviour and the need for neighbourhood policing.
The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire mentioned police financing as well. As what he said concerned the east midlands and affects my constituents and me, I will pursue it vigorously. He was right to point out that the five police authorities in the east midlands are not receiving their quota under the present formula. He and I, and others, have already pursued that vigorously with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, my hon. Friend Mr. McNulty. My hon. Friend has agreed to visit the east midlands special operations unit, where we have both been fairly recently. That will provide an ideal opportunity not only to press for funds for the unit—£8 million of Home Office grant may well disappear next year—but to press the wider issue of fairness of funding that the right hon. Gentleman raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes emphasised the importance of seaside towns. The Government have an excellent record for large-scale regeneration projects. All over the United Kingdom, cranes can be observed and the work can be seen taking place. Where we have not been so successful, and need to be more sophisticated, is in areas with relatively small pockets of deprivation. The Select Committee has produced a report, and the Government will respond in due course—I hope favourably, because seaside towns need an adequate infrastructure.
My hon. Friend also talked about fireworks legislation. We have made progress, but the matter must be kept under review, and I am keen to do that.
Winding up the debate for the Conservatives, Mr. Vara spoke of concern in the House about oral questions. The Leader of the House is pursuing that issue, and the issue of written questions, extremely vigorously. I will ensure that we try to improve in that respect, and I also undertake to write to all Members to whom I have not responded today.
Two strong themes emerged from the debate. Both the hon. Member for Peterborough and the hon. Member for Southend, West spoke of the importance of community and voluntary groups. They are vital in providing care services and a range of help throughout all our constituencies, and we cannot thank them enough. A number of Members mentioned campaign groups, in Canvey Island, in West Derbyshire and in Cleethorpes. One of the things we must do as a Parliament is connect their activities, their legitimate concerns and their voices. We must ensure that their voices are heard and responded to in this place. Unless Parliament can have greater connection with the public, we are on a slippery slope.
A number of Members also said, "Let us all have a good holiday". I hope you have a good holiday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope the staff have a good holiday. I remind my hon. Friends in particular that five weeks from today will be