Whitsun Adjournment

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:24 pm on 24th May 2007.

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

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac PPS (Caroline Flint, Minister of State), Department of Health 2:18 pm, 24th May 2007

It is a privilege to be the first Member to speak in today's recess Adjournment debate. In my time in the House, I have usually been the last Member to speak in such debates. It is encouraging to see the number of people in the Chamber; the faces are certainly familiar. We must set up a recess Adjournment debate club to promote this wonderful opportunity to raise local issues. I shall pick up on some of the themes that I mentioned in the last such debate, because the issues are ongoing.

The first subject that I want to mention is the problems regarding the A180 in north and north-east Lincolnshire. The road is constructed of concrete, and as a result is one of the noisiest in Britain. We have managed to get some sections resurfaced with low-noise materials, and that has brought phenomenal benefits to residents, but large sections have still not been resurfaced. I want to work with the people who are suffering from the noise pollution to put pressure on Transport Ministers to see whether they can find some funding to complete the resurfacing work. It is two years since the first section was resurfaced with low-noise material, so there has been an unacceptable delay for the residents who are still suffering from noise pollution.

Increased traffic movement is another problem. Immingham is one of Britain's busiest ports, and it is growing fast, but many heavy goods vehicles go through the town centre. That raises noise levels, causes noise, pollution and disturbances, and heightens concerns about safety. I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will have a word with Transport Ministers to see whether something can be done in the short term to alleviate the problems. There are plans for a bypass, and I hope that the Government will look favourably on any proposals from my local authority, but we all know that such plans take many years to come to fruition. It is unfair that residents must suffer in the meantime.

Immingham is one of Britain's busiest ports, so a lot of goods pass through it. One of the major commodities is coal, and there is also a large iron ore quay that supplies the steel works in Scunthorpe. There are many other industrial sites in the area, with the result that coal and iron ore dust are deposited on window sills in the town on windy days. The dust is thick and black and looks disgusting. In the recent council elections, it was the major issue mentioned by residents.

The dust also covers windows, and people tell me that the laundry that they hang on the line before going to work ends up filthier than before they washed it. I also heard a lovely anecdote about a beautiful, fluffy white cat: if it went out on a windy day with the dust settling on the town, it would come back a mucky shade of dark grey.

The problem is serious. I am working with Associated British Ports and North East Lincolnshire council to resolve it, and tomorrow I shall meet representatives from both organisations to try to find a solution. The association tells me that the coal piles are sprayed to keep the dust down, and that other measures are taken to alleviate matters, but the problem is still ongoing. It has been suggested that the firms that operate in the docks could go beyond the requirements of their licences in a bid to make the environment better, healthier and less polluting for the residents of Immingham. I hope that the proposals get Government backing and, given people's increased awareness of environmental issues, I believe that it may be time to look again at the operating licences, which were drawn up some time ago—another matter that I shall take up with Ministers.

Whenever I contribute to a debate, whether it is on transport or not, I always mention the tolls for the Humber bridge. Today, I want to talk about them in connection with health care. The local reorganisation of health services means that people on the south side of the river—in Grimsby, Immingham. Cleethorpes and Barton, for example—who need cancer treatment have to travel to Hull to get it.

Everyone knows that cancer treatment can be difficult and tiring, and that it can cause nausea, yet people in my area who need it have to make a lengthy round trip, and to pay a very high toll. Many residents, especially those on low and fixed incomes, tell me that they pay more than £5 a day every time they go for cancer treatment. That is unacceptable.

A cross-party group of local MPs has been lobbying on the matter. We want to see whether there is a way to alter the Humber Bridge Act 1971, or to work with local health providers so that the people who need cancer services—and their families, and others—can get some sort of discount when they have to cross the bridge.

I now turn to police community support officers, and antisocial behaviour. I brought those matters up in the Adjournment debate before the Easter recess, and I am glad to say that, perhaps due to the influence of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, the topics that we raise do not merely fall on deaf ears. However, we are still experiencing problems recruiting PCSOs in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. We are struggling to get people to take up the jobs, even though the salary is good and the work worthy.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Mr. Coaker, has told me that he wants to visit the area to see what assistance can be given to the drive to recruit more PCSOs. That is excellent news for my constituents, who support the idea of PCSOs.

I still feel that the local authorities, police and other organisations in my area are not using to the full the powers available to them to deal with antisocial behaviour. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that we do not have all the PCSOs that we need. I recently visited Immingham school to speak to the head teacher. Not long ago, the school came out of special measures, and the fact that its results are improving is a good-news story. However, it is plagued by gangs who hang around the gates, intimidating and threatening children on their way into school.

That is not good enough. We need something like a dispersal order to tackle that example of antisocial behaviour. It cannot be right that children on their way to school, perhaps to important exams, should suffer intimidation like that. When we talk about problems with gangs and young people, we assume that the victims are adults, but it should be acknowledged that often the victims are other children.

Cleethorpes salt marsh is a wonderful habitat, but its growth is causing worry in the area. I have had discussions about the issue, and English Nature has asked the council to monitor the situation and see whether a solution can be brokered, but we still need ministerial involvement. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House had a word in the right ears, so that I could bring a delegation to meet Ministers and discuss this environmental issue.

I am very pleased to have been the first Member to speak in the debate. I shall stay and listen to the other speeches with great interest. As I have said, this is one of the most marvellous opportunities Members have to raise constituency concerns: it is democracy at its best.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:29 pm, 24th May 2007

I welcome the opportunity to raise two issues of importance in my constituency. I raised the first with the Prime Minister yesterday during Prime Minister's Question Time: the link between learning disabilities and educational difficulties such as dyslexia, and criminality.

Two Fridays ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited by a remarkable woman in my constituency, Jackie Hewitt-Main, to visit Chelmsford prison and observe a unique project called "Mentoring 4U". In a voluntary capacity, rather than as an employee of the Prison Service, she had come up with a scheme involving her interviewing all 452 prisoners between the beginning of February and the end of April this year. She discovered that 104 had been to special needs schools or received private tutoring during their educational years. Significantly, 224 of the men—it is a male prison—had learning disabilities. She found that 185 suffered from dyslexia, 30 from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—15 as a result of head injuries—four from learning disabilities, one from dyspraxia and one from Tourette's syndrome. As part of the wider educational scheme, she established that 324 men had not passed their driving tests—which I must confess surprised me—and 276 had been excluded from school.

The trouble with dyslexia is that until relatively recently many people did not recognise its existence. When I became a Member of Parliament 20 years ago my county council, Essex, would not acknowledge the condition. If a condition such as dyslexia is not recognised, there is obviously no provision to help dyslexic people to minimise or overcome their educational difficulties. All too often, owing to a failure or refusal to recognise the condition, people were written off as stupid or thick. That is hardly a productive or sensible way to try to help people. Fortunately, things have moved on. There is now a greater recognition and understanding of the problems, and a desire to provide help.

The mentoring project in Chelmsford prison, run by that remarkable woman Jackie Hewitt-Main, not only identifies prisoners who suffer from dyslexia or other learning disabilities, but—using other people in the prison environment—helps them with literacy problems. It guides and mentors them to ensure that they can make progress.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Many parents look for smaller schools when they realise that their children suffer from dyslexia. Should not local authorities try to provide some form of mentoring or extra assistance for dyslexic youngsters in larger schools, so that they too can be helped?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the problems of dyslexia and special needs education in mainstream schools. When it is decided that a child requires a statement, it is crucial that local education authorities ensure that it is done swiftly rather than being put off for what are effectively money-saving purposes. When a statement recommends help and extra tuition, that recommendation should be honoured, and again there should be no delay as part of a cost-cutting exercise. It is crucial that, during school years, children are provided with the help and the aids that they need.

One should not rely solely on what the state provides through the education system. Parents within the home environment should also back up what the schools are doing with extra education, including special needs education. They should provide that when children do their homework and, at weekends, and encourage them to read and to do extra writing lessons and spelling to help to minimise the problems.

The project in Chelmsford prison takes that work beyond the school environment. It is gratifying to go into a prison to see not only dedicated people offering their services to provide that help, but how they have reached out and involved other prisoners, who give their time and experience to help mentor and advise prisoners who suffer from dyslexia. It is an important scheme not only for the immediate benefits that it will bring to individual prisoners, but because, if it can help to minimise prisoners' educational learning problems, it will encourage them to get a better start when they leave prison. However, that depends on help being provided once they are released back into society, having served their sentence.

The trouble facing the scheme is that, first, it is, to my knowledge, the only such scheme in the country. I think that what is going on in Chelmsford prison should be analysed and introduced in other prisons, so that other prisoners can benefit. Secondly, there is, in effect, a cut-off. When prisoners finish their sentences and go back into society, they have no way of being able to continue the work they have been doing and the help they have been receiving. More should be done to ensure that they can access help, including continued educational help, when they are released. That will help to enhance not only their self-esteem and self-confidence, but their ability to integrate into the work force and society. It will also help to minimise the possibility of reoffending and their returning to prison. I urge the Minister to urge his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to see what can be done through practical aid to ensure that the good work that has been generated by the project in Chelmsford is not lost completely following the release of a prisoner and whether such projects can be extended to other prisons for other people to benefit.

I was heartened by the answer that the Prime Minister gave me yesterday. Not only is he aware of that matter but research has been commissioned across the area of learning disabilities and criminality. He gave a commitment that, when the work had been completed and studied—presumably by Ministers in the Ministry of Justice—it would be released. It will be interesting to see the conclusions and results of that work. I hope that more attention will be given to the matter to ensure that we can build on it.

The Prime Minister, when in opposition, both as shadow Home Secretary and as Leader of the Opposition, created—with, I think, the help of the Prime Minister-elect—the catch-phrase "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." We can be tough on the causes of crime by identifying a problem of which many people will have been oblivious, because they think more about mainstream problems with criminality and so will not have given the matter much thought.

Secondly, I would like to raise another—I fear, rather more controversial—issue, although I am nervous about doing so because I see Keith Vaz in his place. He criticised the Minister for Industry and the Regions for her comments last weekend about the allocation of social housing in our constituencies. I want to raise it because I believe that it is an important issue, but I do not raise it with the same nuance as the Minister did. I want to make a simpler point, which is that there is a problem in many local authority areas with the length of time individuals have to wait before they can expect to be offered social housing.

In my own local authority of Chelmsford, we have 4,940 households on the housing waiting list, of which 3,900 live within Chelmsford and 1,040 live outside the area. If Chelmsford had a surplus of housing to provide to individuals for social housing reasons, there would be no problem. Sadly, however, as I suspect applies to almost every other local authority in the country, it does not have a surplus. Thanks to the Deputy Prime Minister, current house building in the mid-Essex area is considerable and 35 per cent. of it is social housing. Those are the guidelines laid down, so one cannot argue that no extra social housing is being provided in the Chelmsford local authority area.

Someone brought up in Chelmsford, who has always lived there, who is now single and 21, but for a variety of reasons cannot afford either to purchase a house or to rent privately, would go on to the housing waiting list. However, I can guarantee that, because of the waiting list, such a person will not be offered social housing in Chelmsford for a significant number of years. Let me explain what puzzles me. Why are a significant number of people on the Chelmsford borough council housing waiting list living outside the area? Why are all the allocations of housing stock—with a few exceptions, because we cannot have 100 per cent. inflexibility and rigid rules—not given exclusively to people who live within the borough until there is no longer a demand?

Chelmsford borough council rightly has a rule within its criteria that a person has to have a connection with the borough in order to get higher up the list to be allocated housing. It also has access to about 50 per cent. of nominations through housing associations. Again, it operates a scheme whereby people must have a connection by living in the borough or relevant area, which will provide extra points to enable them to get on the list. However, 50 per cent. of allocations from the housing associations do not operate that rule, which is where, I suspect, most of the non-residents of Chelmsford are getting their allocations to housing in Chelmsford. That creates a number of problems, not least among those who have lived all their lives in Chelmsford and have to wait a significant amount of time before being considered for housing. Those people are getting frustrated and they find it incomprehensible that someone who may live in another part of the country can come and live in Chelmsford while they still have to wait elsewhere, or continue to live with their parents or in overcrowded housing because they do not have enough points. The Government should look at that matter again.

This is not a criticism; I am trying to be conciliatory. Changes that were made in 2002 have led to this becoming more of a problem, especially in the home counties and elsewhere in the south-east. The pressure on housing there is so great, and the average cost of housing has risen so dramatically that people, especially young first-time buyers, find it more and more difficult to make their first housing purchase in an area so close to London.

I urge the Government to look again at this growing problem. I have deliberately not talked about who might be coming to live in Chelmsford, because there are no hard and fast rules, and because to do so would be irresponsible and foolish and it would be difficult to identify accurately the groups or individuals involved. They will be from across the board, but their common denominator is that they have no connection with Chelmsford. The parliamentary answers that I have received from the Minister for Housing and Planning show that, three years ago, 20 per cent. of the housing allocation went to people from outside the borough who had no connection to it. Two years ago, the figure had fallen to 14 per cent., but last year it had gone back up to 19 per cent. Given this relatively scarce resource, those figures are significant.

The problem is putting a strain on the local community. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on this message to his colleagues in the Government, and that they will look into the matter and try to come up with a reasonable, sensible solution without pandering to other political groupings on the fringes of respectable mainstream politics.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 2:47 pm, 24th May 2007

It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Burns, and I appreciate the measured way in which he has put forward his views on the housing situation in his area. It is possible to debate such issues using appropriate language and examples of the problems that we all encounter at our Friday or Saturday constituency surgeries. Our constituents are often concerned about the lack of housing available in particular areas. I will not comment again on the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions, because I have not given her notice that I would raise those issues in the House today, and because I have said all I want to say about the points that she made.

I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. It is a matter for the Government, working with the local authorities, to ensure that we are all able to give proper, adequate explanations to our constituents, and that the overall level of housing stock is such that, when people apply for council housing, they do not have to wait months, years or, in one case, at least a decade to be re-housed. I am glad to support the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate the measured way in which he put forward his arguments.

My hon. Friend Shona McIsaac raised a number of local issues in her speech, as is traditional in debates of this kind, but I come to the Chamber with great news: I will not be raising local issues today. That is partly because since our last recess Adjournment debate we have had a terrific result in the local elections: the Labour party has regained Leicester, ending four unhappy years of coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I shall give way. Have you won in Cleethorpes as well?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac PPS (Caroline Flint, Minister of State), Department of Health

I just wanted to ask my right hon. Friend whether he was aware that four years of Conservative rule in North Lincolnshire ended earlier this month, when Labour took control of that council.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

Marvellous! This is a good news story for our Whitsun Adjournment debate. We have won not only in Lincolnshire but in Leicester. In my constituency, we have won seats in Hamilton and Humberstone, and in Evington, which we have never won before. We are very pleased with that.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I do not want to pour any water on the wonderful party that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady are having, but do they not realise that there were 912 overall gains for the Conservative party that day, mostly at the expense of Labour, with a couple of hundred at the expense of the Liberal Democrats? It was a pretty bleak day.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

Why does the hon. Gentleman wish to spoil our party? We are here to talk about the positive results, not the negative ones to which he has referred. We did well; good news stories are coming from my hon. Friend and myself and bad news stories are coming from the hon. Gentleman. I wish well Ross Willmott, the new leader of the council, Mary Draycott, the deputy leader, and the rest of the council. They won with a huge majority. The Liberals were reduced from 24 members to six—quite a reduction. The Conservatives remain at seven or eight. When one has a majority of that kind, one has to govern responsibly, and I hope very much—I do not, of course, interfere in local matters—that my colleagues in Leicester will govern responsibly. Judging by what they have said so far, I am sure that they will.

I want to raise three issues. The first is in relation to the Ministry of Justice, which was formed shortly after the debate in which we welcomed the reappointment of my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping as Deputy Leader of the House. At that stage, I and other Labour Members said how pleased we were that the Ministry of Justice was to be created. I have been campaigning for one for many years. Obviously, there were going to be teething problems in bringing together the responsibilities of criminal justice and the Prison Service under the auspices of the new Secretary of State for Justice, and in taking away those responsibilities from the Home Office and giving it new responsibilities for security policy. Of course there were going to be difficulties, but nobody envisaged the outrage on the part of our judges. I say "outrage" because that is political spin on what is more than the raising of a judicial eyebrow. Normally when senior judges raise their eyebrows, we get very concerned because they do not normally do that. However, it appears that their wigs are on fire; I do not wish to alarm the Clerk of the House. [L aughter. ] They are really upset with what is going on.

As only judges at that level could do, they came to express their upset at the most recent meeting of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. We have not caught up with the Government and changed our name, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House can tell us when we can do so, so that we are a Select Committee scrutinising a Government Department. Lord Phillips, the former Master of the Rolls, and Lord Justice Thomas, the senior Court of Appeal judge responsible for the negotiations, were alarmed at the way in which they had been treated. At the core of the argument is the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the ring-fencing of the courts' budget under a newly merged and reinvigorated Department of Justice. It is vital that the Government respond to the concerns of the judges.

The Committee had before it the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who has changed his title on so many occasions that we have forgotten what all of them were. I pay tribute to the noble Lord Falconer, who has been an absolutely great Lord Chancellor. He has been a reforming Lord Chancellor and has modernised our system of justice. He has done it with the ability to get on with people in all walks of life, whether they be judges or consumers of the Courts Service. That is why I was so surprised that when he came before the Select Committee we had reached a situation where the judges were concerned about what was going on.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Does my friend agree that the judges were outraged because they were not properly consulted, which is on the record?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend; they were not consulted. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, referred to an article of 19 January in The Daily Telegraph—not the usual journal to which we would turn to learn about such things—in which the Home Secretary announced that the Home Office was to be split in two and that the Ministry of Justice was to be created. It was only after that that he had a discussion with the Lord Chancellor. Contrary to what is often said about the Lord Chancellor being a great friend of the Prime Minister and therefore knowing everything that goes on, even the Lord Chancellor said to the Constitutional Affairs Committee that he was not aware of the matter until he got a call from someone—a high-level source—to say that the Home Secretary was about to announce it the next day. Therefore, it is clear that my hon. Friend is right: the judges were not consulted.

What has happened since? A working party has been set up, consisting of judges and officials from the former Department for Constitutional Affairs—now the Ministry of Justice—to try to resolve two fundamental issues. The first of them is the budget issue. There is concern that if there is a crisis in the Prison Service or in criminal justice, resources will be moved from Her Majesty's Courts Service to deal with that. The recommendation is that the Courts Service's budget should be ring-fenced. The second issue is how to protect the independence of the judiciary. The recommendation is that there should be an inquiry so that it can be properly considered.

The Government have finally got the message. I urged the Lord Chancellor to intervene personally in the negotiations. I told him not to leave that to his senior officials. I said to him that it was good to talk, and I suggested that he should get in touch with the Lord Chief Justice and begin that dialogue. I am not saying this because I or my colleagues on the Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended that, but I was pleased to learn from The Times today that Lord Falconer has picked up the phone and had a good chat with the Lord Chief Justice and that they are beginning to talk about resolving the issue, because it would be a terrible indictment of the modernisation programme that the Government have properly engaged in if, at the 11th hour, we left the judiciary on the sidelines. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has created a sub-committee on courts and the judiciary so that we can keep monitoring the situation and how the courts and the judiciary are dealt with. I am glad that there are ongoing discussions, and I hope that we can be given some good news about them in this debate.

One related issue is the call by the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, for a written constitution. I put that matter to the Lord Chief Justice on Tuesday. There has been a lot of discussion about whether we should have a written constitution. I am in favour. Now might be the time to begin that process. As we have a new Ministry of Justice and we are to have a supreme court, which will be housed in a new building opposite the Houses of Parliament, we might have the opportunity to discuss whether we should have a written constitution that entrenches all the rights and responsibilities of the citizens of Britain.

My second point concerns the upcoming European Council meeting on 21 and 22 June. Sadly, it will be the farewell European summit meeting of our Prime Minister. He has taken the lead on a number of key European issues, especially enlargement. I hope that the final summit will provide an opportunity for us to talk about the reform agenda now that the EU constitution has been defeated in a number of referendums. I know that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is keen on pushing the idea of a new constitution. The Government have rightly said that now is not the time to discuss that because the issue has been dealt with. That leaves the issue of reform. We cannot proceed with a Europe of 27 countries—which we now have—and with the possibility of constructive negotiations with Balkan countries about getting them into the European Union if we do not reform how the EU operates. I hope that at the Berlin summit we will have a short statement of aims and values, as well as a practical assessment of how we might continue reforming the EU.

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting again the Prime Minister of Belgium, Mr. Verhofstadt, whom I first met when I was Minister for Europe. I recall his pivotal role at the Nice summit in 2000, when he spent some of the time locked in a kitchen adjacent to the summit room, trying to negotiate how many votes Belgium should have in the new treaty that was to be entered into as a result of the arrival of all the eastern European countries. His view of the constitution was different from ours. He thinks—and he said this to me yesterday—that we should return to a longer document. That is certainly the view in other parts of the EU, but the position he set out is the right one. The constitution is dead, let us move on and continue with the reform agenda, because that is what will drive the EU forward.

My final point—it is appropriate to comment today as the report has just been published—is about the way in which Channel 4 dealt with the "Big Brother" programme. I raised the issue in business questions and, as usual, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was spot on in dealing with that question. What I most admire about my right hon. Friend is the way in which he responds so eloquently and quickly to the key issues in the public domain. In particular, no member of the Cabinet is better at championing and expressing the concerns of the ethnic communities than he is. He was right to suggest to the Channel 4 board that it should consider the contents of the report very carefully.

I remind the House that 46,000 citizens complained about the programme. At the time that the complaints were made, the chief executive of Channel 4, Andy Duncan, appeared at the Oxford media conference and ducked the issue. He refused to apologise for the hurt that had been caused by the comments that had been made to Shilpa Shetty. Worse, he did not take the opportunity to condemn racism on television. The arrogant, complacent attitude from Channel 4 was rightly condemned today in the Ofcom report, which found that there had been serious breaches of the code. Ofcom has decided that Channel 4 is to make an unprecedented apology before the next series of "Big Brother" starts next week.

What concerns me is the reaction of Channel 4 to that serious and important adjudication by the regulator. First, it has made no apology to the victim, Shilpa Shetty. Secondly, there have been no resignations by anyone associated with the programme or the company, even though someone clearly should resign, whether it be Mr. Duncan or the editor who knew what was being broadcast. One simply cannot pursue the matter as they have and assume that nothing went wrong.

The third issue that Channel 4 has not addressed is the need to bring forward the untransmitted feed from the house that it originally said could not be found. The regulator subsequently discovered that it was indeed in the possession of Endemol, but it was not shown to the regulator. Nobody here has seen that untransmitted material, but if it were looked at by the broadcasters it would give an impression of what they saw at the time.

The report has important implications, not only for the way in which we discuss such issues, but for the way in which reality television should be broadcast in the future. Channel 4 has said that it is a good thing to discuss racism on television, and I wholeheartedly agree, but the debate has to be equal: I, for example, must have an opportunity to put my views across and those who disagree with me must also have that opportunity. In that programme, one minority view was displayed to millions of people in this country and throughout the world, and no alternative view was put forward. I hope that lessons will be learned, although judging from Channel 4's reaction, I do not think that they will be. However, Channel 4's board has to consider the matter, and I hope that it does so very carefully. It will make a great difference to how we conduct ourselves in future.

Channel 4 knew about the matter and continued to broadcast. It pushed up its ratings and made considerable profits out of the programme—probably 10 per cent. of Channel 4's entire revenue comes from that programme. It is important that even greater consideration is taken of these issues, and we should be told what happened to all those profits.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has campaigned vigorously on this issue and I hear what he says about Channel 4's failure fully to apologise for what went on in the programme. I am not a fan of the programme—I know that the right hon. Gentleman is—but the one thing that we can all applaud is the fact that its sponsor looked at the public reaction and decided to withdraw immediately, so Channel 4 has at least been hit in the pocket for allowing the programme to be transmitted. Is there not a lesson for all broadcasters that the public are so opposed to racism in any shape or form that they will not tolerate its being broadcast, even in the likes of reality television?

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to pinpoint the role of the sponsors, The Carphone Warehouse and PepsiCo. One withdrew advertising, and the other sponsorship, so there was responsibility on their part. He is right, too, to highlight the fact that broadcasters have a serious responsibility. We do not all have our own television stations—I am sorry that we do not. Broadcasters therefore have great power. This issue damaged our relations with other countries. What was good about it, however, was the reaction of the public, and not just the 46,000 people who complained, who have now been vindicated by what Ofcom has said. Hats off to Ofcom for the excellent and speedy way in which it conducted its inquiry before the next "Big Brother" begins next week. Hats off, too, to Shilpa Shetty, for the very dignified way in which she has conducted herself, although she has been a victim throughout these proceedings.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to those three issues, and I wish everyone a very pleasant Whitsun recess.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 3:08 pm, 24th May 2007

It is always good to follow Keith Vaz. I intervened on him on one issue so I will not return to that. However, he also mentioned the EU treaty, and I want to pick up on that.

Irrespective of what is now being discussed behind closed doors—we know what the French and Dutch said about the original EU constitution—the fact is that the British people were offered a referendum on the issue. We do not know what will come about. We know that Angela Merkel wants to push on with the constitution, and we know that Nicolas Sarkozy, whom we congratulate on his presidency, agrees with her and wants some form of constitutional treaty. What is in a name? A number of the issues included in the original EU constitution will be introduced in the constitutional treaty through the back door.

Our current Prime Minister—Prime Minister A, as I refer to him—has said that the British people are to be denied a referendum. I hope that Prime Minister B, when he takes over, will not listen to him. Prime Minister B ought to be negotiating the constitutional treaty, because he is the one who will have to pick up the tab. He ought to let Prime Minister A know that if he, Prime Minister B, is not happy with what is suggested, he will not accept it as a fait accompli but will allow the British people that referendum. There is a health warning for the current Prime Minister.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

We disagree on some issues, but I think that we agree that, after the referendums in France and other countries, the constitution has gone. Surely, however, the hon. Gentleman agrees that the EU still has to reform. We simply cannot have a situation in which 27 Heads of Government sit down together at a summit and each wants to make statement. There must be reform of the decision-making process, which does not necessarily mean that we need a treaty change.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I think that we are talking about fundamental changes as far as the constitution is concerned. I agree that change is needed, as we have made dramatic progress since the days when there were 12 or 15 countries. There are now 27 countries, and Croatia is waiting in the wings, along with other Balkan states, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. There is even the possibility of Turkey acceding to the European Union, so it is a different animal from what it was a few years ago. Of course, procedural changes must be made to the way in which the organisation works, but finally it comes down to the sovereignty not just of Parliament but of the British people, who should decide whether they are happy with those changes. It is not something that should be cobbled together behind doors. If they are common-sense measures, the common-sense population in this country will endorse them. However, if things are being pushed through the back door in an underhand way—behind the smokescreen of trying to make things better, huge chunks of sovereignty are being transferred from sovereign Parliaments to the EU—the British people should decide if that is the way they wish to go.

I shall talk briefly about three other issues. The first is related to my last point, as it concerns efforts to preserve our way of life in rural villages and communities. The issue of post offices is relevant, but the subject that I want to address does not relate to the recent announcement of 2,500 post office closures, because my views on that and the huge impact it will have on the rural way of life are well known. BT has announced that it wishes to give discounts to people with direct debits, whereas people who pay by cash or cheque at the post office will be penalised. That is a fact of life. People will receive a lower bill or money off as long as they set up a direct debit. That does nothing to help to preserve the fabric or network of post offices, so I hope that BT and all the other utilities will look at their responsibility to do more to help the one shop left in villages and small towns have a future. On some utility bills people have to look very hard to discover that they can pay in the post office. One has to be Inspector Clouseau to find any mention at all of the post office on those bills, so I hope that the utilities will not only stop charging people who use the post office some sort of fine, but make it plain that they support the network of British rural and urban post offices by making it far clearer that people can pay their utility bills in post offices.

Secondly, I must declare an interest as the owner of a small retail store in Swansea before addressing the amount of shoplifting that goes on. The British Retail Consortium has lobbied strongly for the retention of custodial sentences for repeat offenders. It says:

"Ninety per cent. of shoplifting offences are carried out by repeat offenders...Crime costs shops more than £2 billion each year and the number of shoplifting offences has risen by 70 per cent. since 2000."

Taking a soft line against people who repeatedly go into retail outlets and shoplift must not be tolerated. The crime has cost retailers more than £13 billion since 2000—as I said, the number of offences has risen by 70 per cent.—and, importantly, the BRC says:

"Sixty per cent. of violent incidents that happen in stores occur when staff attempt to detain criminals or protect property from theft."

As Members may remember, when I was working at the convenience store on Christmas eve several years ago, I detained someone trying to shoplift a crate of beer and he turned violent on me. The vast majority of workers in retail outlets tend to be female these days, and the last thing they want is to confront violence from someone high on drugs or inebriated. I hope the Government will accept that there can be no soft line on retail crime.

Finally, I want to speak about agriculture, which is vital to my constituency, as it is to others, including that of my neighbour, Mr. Prentice. Farming is like any other business and if farmers produce a product that does not make money, and costs more to produce than to sell, their business will not last long.

In Ribble Valley last Friday, I chaired a debate on the future of British farming on behalf of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Many issues were raised, but one that was raised time and again by farmers and others was food security. It is amazing how little regard is paid to food security. Most people are used to a plentiful supply of food. Under the old EU, there were food mountains and everybody was disgruntled at the huge costs of maintaining them. Nowadays, however, when we go to supermarkets we are disgruntled not only about the extra packaging but about the origins of some of the produce.

The food miles that accumulate on products are a cause for concern. Although imports help farmers who live many thousands of miles away, they do not help local farmers in areas such as Ribble Valley. Recently, there has been a reduction of food miles for organic products sold in supermarkets, but the rate is not as good as it could be. The Soil Association's latest figures, for 2006, show a marked improvement. Waitrose and Marks and Spencer source 89 per cent. of their organic products from the UK. Tesco has improved dramatically—the rate has gone up to 78 per cent., while Asda's rate is 69 per cent. Although the improvements are welcome, why cannot all supermarkets at least do as well as Waitrose? If supermarkets source their foods locally, it gives a huge boost to farmers.

One of the speakers at the conference was Chris Dee, head of purchasing for Booths, one of our regional supermarkets, a community spirited, family-owned chain. He said that at least 75 per cent. of the fresh meat and 42 per cent. of the bread products in Booths stores are sourced from Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire or Yorkshire, which is where the stores are located. There is a proper link between the supermarkets and local growers, which is extremely important, but not all supermarkets appear to think in a similar vein.

I suspect that some consumers are quite happy that the price of some products has barely changed for 20 years, but that situation cannot continue in the long term. If their salaries had not improved in real terms for 20 years, those consumers would be very angry. They have received real increases in their salaries over the past 20 years—farmers have not; indeed, the incomes of some farmers, in particular dairy producers, have actually gone down. We shall not encourage new entrants to farming if they see no future in the industry and no income for their families. If we want new entrants, we have to ensure that they a have worthwhile job to do. Many people from towns and cities come into rural areas and marvel at how wonderful it all looks. That is only because there are working farms in those areas. It does not happen by accident.

In the recent report from the all-party group on dairy farmers, Mr. Hoyle stated that

"in some cases dairy farmers are being paid between 16 and 17 pence per litre, a sum which is totally unsustainable if dairy farming is to have a future in this country".

Chorley neighbours my constituency as well, and the hon. Gentleman has many dairy farms in his constituency, as do I. Booths sources much of its milk locally and has got the producers to form a consortium, Bowland Milk. Booths has shown that as a result of proper marketing and brand recognition, people are prepared to pay a little more for that milk, in the knowledge that more is going to the farmer as well. Not only has Booths' share of liquid milk sales gone up by 10 per cent., but the premium to farmers has increased dramatically by 15 to 20 per cent. I hope that we can look again at how we can assist farmers.

In the Budget there was reference to 4x4 vehicles and the increase in the tax on them. I state again that although in Sloane square they are "Chelsea tractors", they are working farming vehicles on the farms in and around the Ribble Valley, so I hope we can give some support to farmers who find it essential to have those vehicles on their farms.

As Shona McIsaac said, these debates are always a good opportunity for us to range far and wide, and to speak on matters that have been pent up in us for many weeks, without the straitjacket of a formal debate on a specific subject. I always find these recess debates useful. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you get a good week's rest before we come back early in June to carry on in the last few weeks of the current Prime Minister's reign.

I would be interested if the Minister could say something about what we can expect over the next few weeks and after 27 June, and how much, if any, taxpayers' money will be involved if the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and deputy leader of the Labour party are divided. As someone who wants good value for the British taxpayer, the Minister will no doubt want to ensure that if the two jobs are split not a penny goes to the deputy leader of the Labour party and we get better value from the new deputy Prime Minister.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 3:22 pm, 24th May 2007

I am glad Mr. Evans got that off his chest.

I shall speak briefly and pick up one or two of the points made by my friend Keith Vaz in a thoughtful speech. He spoke about the reorganisation of the Home Office and the creation of the Ministry of Justice, and reminded us that he is a member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and also a member of the Sub-Committee that has been set up to look at the courts— [Interruption.]—forgive me, Chair of the Sub-Committee that will keep an eye on things. He told us that there would be an inquiry into how the independence of the judiciary can be protected. That is what I jotted down.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

The judges have asked for an inquiry. It has not yet been conceded.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I thank my friend for clarifying that. What a state of affairs, that the judiciary should be compelled to ask for such a thing after the creation of a new Ministry, the Ministry of Justice. The judges were not consulted at all. They were completely sidelined. It was a disgrace that the Lord Chief Justice found out about the proposals from the pages of The Sunday Telegraph. What on earth was going through the minds of the people who took that decision, that made them think they could split the Home Office, create a Ministry of Justice, but not tell the judiciary? Being macho is not mucho. They should have talked to the judges.

My friend the Member for Leicester, East has talked about the fact that we do not have a written constitution. We are virtually the only Parliament among the so-called mature democracies that gives Ministers huge, untrammelled powers completely unstrained by a written constitution.

I speak as a loyal Labour Member of Parliament who always supports the Government when they are right but who can be a bit critical when they lose their way. When proposals that are cavalier, that have not been thought through and that are capricious are introduced, it is as well that Government Members speak out rather than leaving it to the Opposition. It was not only the current Lord Chief Justice who said that what happened was—this is my word, not his—scandalous, but the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who said that the proposals

"raised concerns about our liberty".

He also told the BBC that

"We should work it out beforehand and not wait until we have created the change and then somehow or other try to scramble to get it into place."

That is exactly what happened. The whole thing has been a complete farce.

In an editorial on 10 May this year entitled "Whitehall farces", the Financial Times stated that

"A strong and costed case is needed before reorganisations".

The editorial stated that the Home Office-Ministry of Justice split

"has been pushed through in just six weeks from announcement to execution. It is full of loose ends, lacks a business plan and carries real risks that some of the difficulties that made the case for a smaller Home Office in the first place may be compounded."

Yet we have waved through the proposal, because the present Home Secretary told us that the Home Office is not fit for purpose and that something needs to happen. The proposal was waved through, and the people who should have been consulted were not consulted.

The reorganisation culture is almost Maoist. We have had endless reorganisations of the national health service and have gone round in a circle. There have been endless reorganisations of public bodies and in Whitehall. The historical figures are interesting. Twenty-eight Departments were created between 1960 and 1979, which was a long time ago, and by 1981, 13 of those Departments had been wound up. Since 1997, we have had musical chairs. We have had the Department of Transport, the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who disappeared in a puff of blue smoke, and now we have the Deputy Prime Minister's Office.

When the Government were elected in 1997, we had the Department of Transport, which morphed through two or three subsequent creations and has now become the Department for Transport. It was the Department of Transport; 10 years later, it is the Department for Transport. The Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry lasted for 24 hours, when the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry did not like the idea and ordered the permanent secretary to get a workman to take down the plaque that had been attached to the front of the building in Victoria just along the road. That tells us that such things are not thought through. It is capricious, and sometimes we should say, "Stop and think."

I raise the matter now because we are shortly to get a new Prime Minister, and in the way of these things we will get more reorganisations. I have here a cutting from the Financial Times of 10 April, when its readers were told:

"Gordon Brown is 'seriously considering' creating a super-ministry covering energy and the environment, which would pave the way for the...break-up of the Department of Trade and Industry, according to Whitehall insiders."

On 15 May, we were told:

"Mr Brown has mooted the possibility that energy policy could shift from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs."

On 18 May, again in the FT—I read it religiously—we were told, under the headline "Brown at work on Whitehall shake-up" that he is

"looking to merge energy and environment policy and create a new ministry of science and technology."

Watch out for that one. Then, just a few days ago, on 20 May, in The Sunday Times this time, we were told:

"No final decisions have been made on how to reconfigure departments".

I would put money on it that we are going to see a big flurry of activity and a huge shake-up of Whitehall, and I am not entirely sure that in the long run it will make much difference to how services are delivered.

This reconfiguration of Whitehall is carried through without any reference to Parliament whatsoever. The powers derive from the royal prerogative and are used extensively. Way back in 1989, the Labour party said of the royal prerogative that we recognise the need

"to ensure that all actions of government are subject to political and parliamentary control, including those actions now governed by the arbitrary use of the Royal Prerogative to legitimise actions which would otherwise be contrary to law".

In 1993, the Labour party said:

"It is where power is exercised by government under cover of royal prerogative that our concerns are greatest...Here massive power is exercised by executive decree without accountability to Parliament and sometimes without its knowledge."

We know that to be the case. In 1994, my friend the Leader of the House said:

"the royal prerogative has no place in a modern western democracy" and that it has been

"used as a smoke-screen by Ministers to obfuscate the use of power for which they are insufficiently accountable."

That must change. If my friend the Leader of the House becomes Deputy Prime Minister, as we read in the press, I hope that he will be true to his word, even though it is a decade old, and do something about the use of prerogative powers.

It is perfectly possible to bring those prerogative powers into Parliament and to establish them by statute. We have done it before, for example, in the Interception of Communications Act 1985, the Security Service Act 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994. It is therefore possible. The powers to organise the civil service and reorganise Whitehall Departments derive from prerogative. I believe that they should be given to Parliament through a civil service Act.

The Government acknowledged that there should be a civil service Act but have done precious little to advance that. The Public Administration Committee published a draft Bill and the Government consulted on a civil service measure, but they have not introduced it or published the details of the consultation that they conducted in 2004. The measure has been put on the back burner, with Ministers saying that they agree in principle with a civil service Bill but that it never materialises because there is no legislative time and so on for it.

Not only Labour Members—and not only me and my friends on the Public Administration Committee—believe that there should be a civil service Bill. When the shadow Foreign Secretary appeared before us a year or two ago, he told us that the US Congress and our sister Parliament in Ottawa—which is almost a mirror image of this place—must approve all major Government reorganisation. So it can be done. We do not want to turn government into a sclerotic business whereby it is impossible to get things through, but in major reorganisations—not the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, which lasted 24 hours, but splitting the Home Office in two and creating a Ministry of Justice—we should have a say. It is a scandal that we do not.

Consultation papers were published on the reorganisation of the police force. That, too, has gone on the back burner, but at least consultation took place. We did not have a consultation on reorganising the Home Office. Not only judges say that it is time to change how things are done. The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler of Brockwell, appeared before the Public Administration Committee recently. He said that his views had changed and that he believed that there should be a debate in Parliament. He went on to suggest,

"maybe hearings before a select committee and the Government to make its case and to take time to consider."

Many people argue the same case. Lord Butler talked about the costs of reorganisation. He said:

"More than you think. They are very expensive."

That applies not only to the one-off costs, but opportunity costs and transitional costs. They are huge.

I tried to raise such issues on 30 April when I asked the Home Secretary a straightforward question. I have the relevant copy of Hansard before me. I asked him whether he would issue a consultation paper setting out the advantages and disadvantages of dividing the Home Office in two. He chose to ignore the question. A big event was happening that day. The fertiliser bombers had just been sentenced to life imprisonment and the Home Secretary used my question as a vehicle to talk about something completely different. In my supplementary question, I said that the Home Secretary had not answered my question but he disregarded it again and went sailing off to discuss the fertiliser bombers. I hope that I am in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I raised the fact that the Home Secretary had not responded to my question with the Speaker on a point of order, and in subsequent correspondence, the Speaker said that I could raise the matter in today's Adjournment debate on the grounds that the Home Secretary had not properly replied to my question. I spoke to the Clerks on the subject, and it is a parliamentary procedural curiosity that it is impossible to hold an Adjournment debate on matters that fall within the remit of the Prime Minister. Although I wanted to speak about the things that I have just spoken about, I could not secure an Adjournment debate, because although the Home Secretary was the frontman, it was the Prime Minister's prerogative powers that were being exercised.

I have drawn up early-day motion 1396, in which I ask the Procedure Committee to address the anomaly whereby Adjournment debates cannot be secured on matters that fall within the responsibility of the Prime Minister. In it, I suggest that the Speaker could nominate a Cabinet Minister or another appropriate Minister to stand in for the Prime Minister in those circumstances. I have left that issue with the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Mr. Knight, and I hope that something will happen. There is a real lacuna, and it means that over the next few months a lot of debate about reorganisations of the kind that I have mentioned will be stifled.

That sounds a nerdy point, does it not? [Hon. Members: "No!"] I stand up at the end of term and talk about machinery-of-Government issues, and most people, I am sure, are not interested, but the subject goes to the heart of the way in which we are governed. Do we want a system in which the Prime Minister of the day—I am not talking about the current Prime Minister or the next one—has unfettered power to do what he or she wishes? That is what the current situation amounts to. I would like a situation in which Parliament could assert itself. It should not act as a brake on the Executive unduly, but it should cause them to think twice before they embark on a huge change.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:43 pm, 24th May 2007

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, not least because earlier today I did not expect that I would get here, as I was taking part in a charity football match at Stamford Bridge to help raise money in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. I should like to thank Chelsea football club for hosting the event, and all the former professional footballers who took part in the game and showed us members of the parliamentary football team why we never fulfilled our ambition of becoming professional footballers. I would also like to say a great thank you to Neville Southall for letting a ball go straight between his legs, which meant that I got to score a goal at Stamford Bridge this morning.

I want to raise two issues of considerable interest and concern to south Manchester, namely the proposed sell-off and redevelopment of part of the Marie Louise gardens in Didsbury in my constituency, and Trafford council's decision to cut funding for the Mersey valley warden service. The Mersey valley borders my constituency, and in fact part of it is within my constituency boundaries. The Marie Louise gardens are an open public space in West Didsbury that was bequeathed by a Mrs. Silkenstadt to the people of Manchester back in 1903, in memory of her only child, Marie Louise, who died young. Several years ago, part of the gardens behind the lodge were used by the gardeners for greenhouses and sheds in which to grow plants, and as a maintenance depot. Over time, the council has allowed the area to fall into disrepair, and it has been unused. A covenant had been placed on the land that restricted its use to public gardens for the enjoyment of local people, but Labour-run Manchester city council, which neglected the gardens for many years, now wants to sell the section behind the lodge for development.

I am sure that the House can imagine how local people have reacted to the plan. The West Didsbury residents association has launched a campaign to save the gardens from development and, as of yesterday, nearly 2,500 people had signed a petition against their sale. Last month a protest picnic was held in the gardens. Even though it rained all afternoon, in excess of 400 people turned up. The council tried to scupper the picnic by claiming that people did not have permission to gather in the gardens, but the event went ahead anyway.

The West Didsbury residents association has also spent a considerable amount of time looking for living relatives of Mrs. Silkenstadt. It has found support in Jan Silkenstadt, who is now involved in trying to enforce the covenant on the land. The campaign has also received sterling support from West Didsbury's three local Liberal Democrat councillors, and in Parliament, where I have tabled early-day motion 1263. I urge hon. Members to support that EDM.

Unfortunately, the protests have fallen on deaf ears so far. The council seems determined to go ahead with the sale, claiming that the area involved is not part of the original gardens but merely a maintenance depot, although photographic proof shows clearly that it is part of the gardens and therefore subject to the covenant. The council's dodgy dossier of evidence is full of errors, but at least the new executive member for leisure has agreed to review the evidence. We hope that the council can be persuaded to change its mind.

The case has highlighted the inadequacies of covenants, which, all too often, are not worth the paper that they are written on. Perhaps we should wonder how much land would have been gifted to local authorities over the past couple of hundred years if the benefactors had realised that their bequests would end up being sold to the highest bidder. At a time of increasing pressure to build on every available piece of land, it is vital that our parkland be retained and looked after, so that it can continue to provide quality open space. Selling off part of Marie Louise gardens sets a dangerous precedent.

Another serious threat to services in the area is Tory Trafford council's decision to cut funding to the Mersey valley warden service, which is a partnership between Manchester city council and Trafford borough council. Without even discussing their plans in the joint committee, Trafford councillors decided to slash the borough's contribution to the budget by more than a third. There was no consultation with the public.

I wrote to the Tory leader of Trafford council, Susan Williams, asking her to reconsider her plans. Unfortunately, her response was very negative, and her only explanation for the cuts was to blame them on the council's lack of Government funding. She offered no solution to the problem of how vital local services might be retained.

So much for the Conservatives' commitment to the local environment. They slash budgets and cut services, but what does that mean for the Mersey valley? At present, we are cannot be sure, but at the very least the result will be cuts in jobs or services, with the visitor centre in Sale a probable target. One thing that is certain is that the council's plans for the Mersey valley have aroused as much opposition as did their proposed sale of Marie Louise gardens. Thousands of people have signed a petition against the cuts, and many have voiced their opinions and concerns on various websites.

I shall read out a couple of quotations from residents in my constituency. Steve Connor of Chorlton wrote:

"Greenspace is in far too short supply across Greater Manchester—we need to cherish and nurture the Mersey Valley and pump investment into it, not pull out! This is a HUGELY important resource for thousands and thousands of people."

Zoe Power wrote

"A reduction in funding to the Mersey Valley is a disappointingly short-sighted decision by Trafford Council and illustrates the current lack of priority they place on our environment."

I pay tribute to the work that is being done by "friends" groups across the Mersey valley in opposing and trying to reverse the cuts. Let me mention particularly two of my constituents, Dave Bishop and Tracey Pook, who run the two friends groups in my constituency. Without the sterling work of the friends groups, Trafford council will never change its mind.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 3:50 pm, 24th May 2007

I believe that this is the first time I have spoken in an end of term Adjournment debate of this kind, and I am very pleased to be doing so. I apologise for having been out of the Chamber during some of the debate. The speeches that I have heard have been interesting and illuminating. I do not intend to concentrate on local issues, although I may touch on one or two at the end of my speech. I want to focus on an issue of fundamental importance to everyone in the Chamber, and indeed everyone in the country who cares about the integrity of the electoral system—which I hope means most people.

Following the debacle in Scotland, which we debated in the Chamber yesterday, it was revealed that more than 140,000 votes were discounted. No one knows how many electors were involved, because it is impossible to calculate how many were behind those 140,000 votes. That must surely make everyone in the Chamber deeply concerned. I was most interested to hear many Labour Members from Scotland in particular call for a restoration of the first-past-the-post system in Scotland to replace the convoluted, complicated and confusing system that has been imposed.

Students of history—I am a former student of history, so I hope I get this right—may recall that back in the 19th century, the great Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, along with other measures, established this country as the parliamentary democracy in which we have grown up. In the days when the British empire covered a quarter of the globe, those reforms allowed this country to be considered a beacon of democratic integrity. It was used as an example by a huge number of other countries, at a time when not many countries had a democracy like ours.

I can also tell the three Labour Members who are present that it was the reforms of the 19th century, which were not carried out by any one party exclusively, that allowed the rise of the Labour party. I would probably have been among the wicked Tories then—as I am now. Those reforms meant that employers could not breathe down the necks of their employees while they cast their votes. They established free, fair and private voting, so that no one knew how anyone else had voted. They also got rid of the Hogarthian scenes of treating that could be seen at every election before 1832. Rotten boroughs ended in 1832 as well.

The beauty of the system that was in place until 1997 was that it was simple. Everyone understood it. You went to the polling booth, put a cross on a piece of paper and walked out of the booth. No one knew how you had voted unless you wanted to tell them. The system worked well: I do not think that any party, except possibly the Liberals in the past, had any reason to complain about it, and certainly the Labour party in 1997 had no reason to complain about the way in which that election had gone. We did, but I do not complain about the way in which people voted.

I first became aware of the undermining of the integrity of our electoral system in 2005, in the run-up to the general election, when, as a shadow Defence Minister, I discovered that service voters had been largely disfranchised because they were not on the register following changes introduced by this Government. I especially remember seeing a group of people in Basra, where soldiers were serving this country and in grave danger of being wounded or worse. I believe that I spoke to 12 people, only two of whom were registered to vote. One told me, "We're not allowed to be registered to vote if we're in the Army, are we?"

I raised the matter endlessly in January, February and March 2005, and I have to say that it is not to the credit of the then Defence Minister, Ivor Caplin—who is no longer in the House—that he said

"the situation is not nearly as bad as it seems"—[ Hansard, 20 January 2005; Vol. 429, c. 1002.]

Well, it was. Less than 40 per cent. of service personnel were registered to vote. It is difficult to find out how many of their families were registered. They move a lot, and the electoral registration officers were not catching up with them under the new system. When I was in the Army, I registered once and that lasted me 15 years. Actually, that is not quite true, as I moved, so I had to register twice.

I am glad to say that some changes have taken place, and the situation is better than it was. The Electoral Commission has moved, although it was pretty slow. I found it depressing that the Government at the time, as I have said, were not very interested in ensuring that people had the vote, which is bizarre.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

My hon. Friend will recognise that, as members of the Council of Europe, we sometimes lecture other countries about how they should conduct their own democracies, including ensuring that every citizen above the age of 18 is able to vote. Those countries will be looking at some of the antics in this country, including the lack of service voters, and the problems with postal votes. Perhaps he is aware that the Council of Europe is conducting an inquiry into the shambles of some of the postal vote frauds that we have had in this country.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I was not aware of that, but I am delighted to hear it. As my hon. Friend rightly says, this country used to be somewhere that could be shown as an example to others. I fear that that is no longer the case.

In Scotland earlier this month, we had the e-counting fiasco. I will not go through all the details because they were much rehearsed in the debate yesterday, but it was appalling. Someone thought, "Let's bring in e-counting. It sounds marvellous." We all know that new Labour likes modernising. We have had a lot of that. What it meant was that more than 140,000 votes were not allowed.

We have had e-voting pilots. I have not followed those very closely, but why are we having those pilots when everyone, including the Electoral Commission, is saying that e-voting will be less safe than anything we have now? I can use the internet, just. I use e-mail, despite my advanced age.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend.

I do not know how to hack into systems, but some people do. If the Pentagon can be hacked into, the Blaby district council website on conducting elections can be. It is as simple as that. No one in the House has any idea what it could lead to if we go down the route of e-voting.

We are talking about all-postal voting pilots. Postal voting is not a panacea. I would have thought that everyone knew that. I have known Mr. Prentice for some years. He will probably agree that postal voting on demand has been a disaster. For years, Members of Parliament have had postal votes. People could get a postal vote if they really needed one. Now, people have been encouraged to take postal votes. What has happened? As we know from the case in Birmingham not two years ago, we have been reduced to the status of a banana republic.

I do not know how many hon. Members read The Sunday Times insight team report about three weeks ago about postal voting in Leeds. The inquiry was conducted by a couple of under-cover reporters. I do not particularly like to quote under-cover reporters because from time to time some of them are pretty dodgy people, if I can put it that way without being too unkind. The report was about Labour activists, and the reporters went around with them. The result was shocking. The activists were going around helping people to fill in postal votes and then collecting them. They were deliberately getting round the systems that the Electoral Commission had tried to establish to ensure that postal voting was not corrupt. I am afraid that it is corrupt, and we should have no more truck with postal voting on demand. Of course we want people to vote, but is it too much to ask people to wander down every couple of years or so to a polling station and put a cross in the box?

After the chaos in Scotland and the corruption that has been identified in postal voting, one would think that we would want to move on, and that hon. Members on both sides of the House would say that we must revisit the integrity of our electoral system. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.

Let me turn briefly to proportional representation, which has been introduced in Scotland and Wales. If my memory serves me correctly—someone will correct me if I am wrong—I believe it was the d'Hondt system in Scotland and Wales, and now we have the single transferable vote for local government elections in Scotland. It is obviously not a simple system because, notwithstanding what one Scottish Labour Member said yesterday, I do not think that the Scots are any less intelligent than others. I see one Scottish Member in his place, so I will say that I am quite sure that they are not. However, they found the system pretty baffling, and I am not surprised.

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

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the STV system for local government actually produced very few spoiled ballot papers, because the electors understood it perfectly and knew how to work it. Equally, the additional member system, used in 1993 and 2003, produced very few spoiled ballot papers. The difference this time was that Labour introduced a new form of ballot paper for the 2007 parliamentary elections, which was very confusing in that people had to mark two Xs on the one paper. That is what caused the problem—not the system, but the badly designed ballot paper.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I read that the ballot paper was badly designed, though I did not actually have one because I am not registered to vote in Scotland. However, I understood that until the beginning of the month, Scotland was run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, or have I got that wrong?

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

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that for the last eight years Scotland has been run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, but the design of the ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament elections is a reserved power for the Westminster Government, and it was designed by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I understand that the Liberal Democrat party did not register an objection and said that the paper was fine—whereas the Conservative party, to its credit, failed to reply at all! That is often the best answer.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Is it not the case that the decision to run the two elections together—for the Scottish Parliament and for local government—was taken in Holyrood and not here?

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Indeed. I thank the hon. Gentleman. As I said, I have known him for a long time, and we have even agreed from time to time. He is absolutely right. Responsibility lies both in Westminster and in Holyrood.

What was proportional representation meant to bring about? The new Labour Government could certainly say that it was not meant to bring about an SNP Government in Holyrood. I suspect that some people on the Treasury Bench are scratching their beards wondering whether that was what they thought they would achieve when they voted for PR. In Wales, through the so-called reforms for the Welsh Assembly elections, we have achieved chaos. There is still no Government there. It is 24 May, and if my memory serves me correctly, the elections were exactly three weeks ago today.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Yes, it is a complete shambles and I cannot believe that that is what the electorate want. We have chaos in Wales, chaos in Scotland, and proportional representation is being revealed for what many of us always thought it was—a disaster. As I said, I was struck by how many Scottish Labour MPs in yesterday's debate called for a return of first past the post for Scottish Parliament elections.

How have the Government responded to this chaos? The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Bridget Prentice, who I believe is responsible for these matters, has said that the important thing is to ensure that more people are voting, and more people are registered to vote. Actually, as we have seen, the number of people voting has reduced dramatically over the past 10 years—in general elections, at least. The turnout in 2005 should give us all cause for grave concern. I understand, of course, that that was nothing to do with proportional representation. Nevertheless, it was with extra postal voting and all the rest of it—part of "modernisation", to use the Government's favourite term.

When the Electoral Commission and others put forward the idea of individual voter registration, the Under-Secretary said from the Treasury Bench—I am allowed to quote her; I am not attacking her in any way—that when it was introduced in Northern Ireland, the number of people on the electoral register went down. Surely that is the point—because the people left on the electoral register then were bona fide electors, whereas when I was young, and until very recently it was always said in Irish elections, particularly Northern Ireland elections, "Vote early, vote often," because people had more than one vote. The electoral system in Northern Ireland was certainly corrupt until quite recently.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The Electoral Commission argued strongly for individual voter registration, yet the Government insisted on household registration. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the correct response of the Electoral Commission would have been to threaten to resign en masse? That would have forced the Government to rethink, and to try to justify their position.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There has been criticism recently. In Sir Alistair Graham's last report on standards in public life, he criticised the Electoral Commission. He was, of course, appointed by the Government; no one could accuse him of being a wicked Tory. He said that the commission had not been robust enough, and that it had not pursued the policies that it should have done.

I hate to say it, but I find the Government's reaction strange. It is almost as though they do not care about the way in which our electoral system and our democracy have been undermined. That is deeply worrying. Where would we be if there were chaos similar to that in Wales and Scotland at a general election? I hope that that will not happen, because we have not yet changed the system for elections to Westminster, although I suspect that some people might wish to do so, and not just the Liberal Democrats. We would be left looking like the banana republic to which that judge so rightly referred two years ago.

The hon. Member for Pendle tempts me to talk about the Electoral Commission. I do not especially want to criticise Sam Younger, but I naively thought that the commission was appointed not only to police the electoral system but really to get a grip on it, and ensure its integrity. I have had this discussion with Sam Younger in the past. It seems to me that he and his commission are much more interested in e-voting pilots and all that kind of nonsense than they are in establishing an electoral roll that is entirely trustworthy, for the benefit of democracy in this country.

Fortuitously, the Electoral Commission's corporate plan arrived this morning. Yes, it talks about a complete and accurate electoral register, and about well-run elections, but it seems more excited about party election finance. Of course that is an important subject, but surely the most important thing of all is that the only people who vote in our elections are those who have the right to do so, and that everyone can trust the results of those elections, whether we like them or not; often we do not.

I have spoken for quite long enough, but I want to make two brief local points. I have been in correspondence with the Department for Transport for some years about the noise and pollution problems on the M1 between Narborough and Enderby. The M1 is probably used by many hon. Members; I suspect that the hon. Member for Pendle uses it occasionally. The housing on that stretch is very close to the road; it was built before the road became the M1. There is therefore a terrible noise problem, although we have had some resurfacing. There is also the problem of the pollution from the traffic going by.

This is not an easy problem to solve. The Deputy Leader of the House may rest assured that I do not blame the Government for all the noise and pollution on our roads. It would be helpful, however, if he could ask the Minister with responsibility for roads to come to my constituency and meet the motorway action group for Narborough and Enderby, which has wanted to meet him for some time. That Minister's predecessor, who used to sit for Plymouth and whose name has briefly escaped me—

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

David Jamieson came to the area—but unfortunately, only as an election stunt during the general election campaign in 2005. He was slightly put off because I was there when he got there. Never mind; these things happen. I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House could pass on my invitation, however.

My second local point is about post offices. I know that the issue is hardly unique to my constituency. I represent a largely rural constituency in which post offices are greatly valued. Many have now closed. It is true that some of them closed before 1997, but the rate of closure has now accelerated. Following the recent pronouncement, it is obvious that there will be more closures in my constituency and in others. The Government have shown a paucity of imagination in their treatment of the Post Office. They may have spent money on it, but they have not given sub-postmasters—all of whom are small business people—the freedom to operate that they should have. At the same time, the Government have been taking away the business that post offices have had from the Department for Work and Pensions. I hope that in the next few months the Government will take steps to free up postmasters—although I have to say that I rather doubt whether they will.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is being suggested this afternoon that during the recess, the Government will take ownership of the report into the seizing of British service personnel by the Iranians. Mr. Speaker has said on a number of occasions that when reports are awaited by the House, it is quite wrong for informed speculation or leaks to appear in the press ahead of the House being told. Through your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could the Government be made aware that it would be unacceptable for any information from the report to appear in the press ahead of the Select Committee or the House seeing it?

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

Obviously, these are extremely important matters, and I am sure that the responsible Ministers will want to report to the House of Commons at the earliest appropriate moment. The Deputy Leader of the House is here today, and I am sure that the point made by Dr. Fox will be transmitted through the usual channels.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:11 pm, 24th May 2007

May I echo the point of order made by Dr. Fox, with which I entirely agree?

First, I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the House for being out of the Chamber for the early parts of the debate due to my duties elsewhere in the House. I am glad to have returned and to have heard some excellent speeches.

I agree with Mr. Prentice that changes to the machinery of government should not be made at the whim of a Prime Minister, written on the back of a fag packet and presented as a fait accompli to the House. They should be properly considered and properly costed. We should be clear about the expected advantages of any changes to the structure of government. The best way of doing that is to produce a considered White Paper, present it to the House, let it be scrutinised and proceed with implementation.

That is the exact reverse of what happened with the creation of the Ministry of Justice, which I support. I do not, however, support the fact that it was done without any prior consideration. As a result, we now face the prospect of the Lord Chief Justice making a statement to Parliament under section 5 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 because the judiciary are so dissatisfied with the way in which matters were handled. The hon. Member for Pendle is absolutely right.

I was also interested to hear the points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Leech about the Marie Louise gardens in his constituency and to hear that he scored a goal at Stamford Bridge this morning. I was asked to play in a charity cricket match at Lord's today, but I had to decline the opportunity as I had to be here for this debate. I am happy to be here, but I am sure that had I been at Lord's I would have made a considerable score—I don't think.

My final preliminary remark concerns Mr. Robathan, who made a number of comments about the integrity of the voting system, some of which I agreed with and some of which I did not, as he will readily understand. I shall start with the point on which he closed: post offices. The hon. Gentleman's constituency, like mine—both are rural areas—will bear the brunt of the post office closures, and I am extremely concerned about the consequences of the closure programme. We are being asked to regard the closure of 2,500 post offices as a blessing—as a reprieve for the post office network. It will be nothing of the kind in areas such as mine. It will lead to the closure of many of the small post offices that serve the many small communities in my constituency. There are about 120 villages in my constituency, not all of which have post offices as many have closed.

A wide variety of business is transacted in the remaining post offices. For people who rely on their post office, that is essential. If post offices close in areas such as mine, people cannot simply catch a bus or walk down the road to another post office; often there is no bus, and sometimes there is no road. Such closures can be extremely difficult for people—especially the elderly and the disabled—who do not have access to private transport. Sometimes members of young families with children do not have access to private transport either, as the breadwinner travels to work in their car. It is hard to see how such people will manage without their post office.

The post office is much more than simply a place to buy stamps, or to collect pensions or benefits; it is, as we have said many time, a focal point for a village community. Often, it offers a wide range of services—a range far wider than the scope or the imagination of the Post Office. It is an integral part of its community; it is its heartbeat. It saddens me that that heartbeat is to be extinguished in many of our villages.

The Government's response to the consultation ignored the 4 million signatures raised in petitions against the proposals—it ignored the campaigning activities in which many of us have been engaged. I have presented petitions on this matter to the House on behalf of my constituents; I have also presented a petition on behalf of parish councils in my constituency. They made similar points about the social, environmental and economic impact of the closure of small post offices.

What we are getting instead are small changes to the access criteria. They are welcome, but I do not believe in them. The key change is that public transport and alternative access to key services are to be taken into account. If I believed that, I would be a happy man, and my communities would be happy, too. We have very little public transport, if any. My village has one bus a week. I do not believe that that amounts to adequate public transport. If the Post Office genuinely looked at public transport issues it would not close post offices in my constituency. However, I note that all it has to do is to show that it has considered public transport issues—before, I suspect, blithely continuing with the closure programme. That is what I believe will happen.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I suspect that he will agree with what I am about to say. Eight post offices have closed in my constituency in the past three years. It does not matter what criteria the Government lay down, because the consultation process with local people and elected representatives is a joke. When the Post Office announces a closure, it is determined that it will go ahead. It does not matter how powerful a case is or whether the criteria are met, the Post Office kindly listens but presses ahead regardless.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman is right. We, too, have had that experience with the closure of small post offices and of Crown post offices. We have lost our Crown post office in Frome. The post office is now housed in the back of a newsagent. To my mind, it does not fulfil the same purpose in the town; and, as a result of that development, a fine public building in the middle of Frome is still empty, which is a retrograde step.

I have no confidence in the consultation procedure. One of the representations made was that the six-week limit should be longer, but that has not happened; another was that the abolition of Postwatch, the one body that might be thought to have a key role, should be delayed, but it will not be. The closures will happen, inexorably. Many of us will argue hard for the interests of our constituents and what the closures will mean for local communities, but they will eventually happen. Rural areas do not ask for much from the Government—we certainly do not get much—but we do ask that we have a sub-post office in the village hall. Those requests are often denied and we will end up with worse communities as a result. It will be a sad day when that happens.

If anyone labours under the delusion that the so-called outreach facilities will fulfil the same function, they are wrong. They might provide a way for people to get their pension or benefit, but that is all. Without the post office facility, the shop will die, because the two are linked. The viability of the shop depends on the post office and the viability of the post office depends on the shop. If the post office closes, the shop will go, and with it will go the social value to the community.

The other matter that I wish to raise is the strategic road system in the west country, especially in my constituency. I predict that many people will leave London today, tomorrow and over the weekend and pass through my constituency. I hope that some of them will holiday in Somerset, but the vast majority will, sadly, go on to Devon and Cornwall, for reasons that escape me. Those people will use our roads, not our railways, which are over-priced and inefficient. Great Western is a very expensive railway and South West Trains has just announced that it is putting up its off-peak rates by 20 per cent., which is scandalous.

The principal road used will be the A303, which must be the most neglected strategic route in Britain. In fact, the Government seem to have forgotten and written off the whole south-west region. My constituency has a simple request: effect some safety improvements on the A303 between Sparkford and Ilchester. Why are they needed? People have accidents and die at that point on the A303. It is far enough from London that they are beginning to get tired, and it is where the carriageway changes between single and double a couple of times. People therefore make mistakes and have accidents.

Ten years ago, we had proposals to improve safety on that stretch of the A303. They went to public inquiry in 1997, and I appeared before the inquiry. There was no significant dissent and no environmental objections were raised—unlike further down the A303 where it crosses the Blackdown hills. It would be difficult to do anything to the road there without destroying the environment. Everybody agreed what should be done to the A303 in my constituency, but then the new Government placed a moratorium on further road improvements, including essential safety improvements.

Ever since, I have been asking when the safety measures will be implemented. The answer is not before 2016 at the earliest. The Government hide behind the South West regional assembly and claim it was the assembly's decision not to go ahead. Nonsense. The assembly was told to assess all the schemes for the A303 as a single scheme. It was told that if it could not afford the schemes, it could not give them a high priority. Well, of course, it could not afford them. There was nothing like the necessary funds available for the assembly to take that decision. As the South West regional assembly inevitably has an interest in Devon and Cornwall, the far south-west, it preferred to improve the road between the A303 and the M5—the stretch that runs through the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and for Taunton (Mr. Browne)—in order to speed traffic further down the road. Safety improvements to the A303 will not therefore be made until 2016, which is scandalous.

We cannot even get the road resurfaced to reduce noise and discomfort for local people. Mr. Robathan made a similar point. Resurfacing was promised at least four years ago, but it has not been done because the money has been taken elsewhere.

We have a scandalous state of affairs not only on the A303, but on the north-south routes through my constituency. Heavy goods vehicles arrive at the south coast port of Poole and try to find their way northwards on wholly unsuitable minor roads. I say "minor"; they are officially A roads, but they are unsuitable. A couple of weeks ago I was in the village of Templecombe in my constituency where, yet again, a heavy articulated lorry had become trapped underneath the railway bridge, despite all the signs warning of the low bridge. The lorry was driven, as it happens, by a Slovenian who might have found himself on such an unsuitable road—there are no pavements in the village and the houses sit on either side of the narrow road—because he was using satnav. That happened within 20 minutes of the local primary school allowing the children out on to the road and under the bridge. There could have been a tragic accident.

Why did that happen? It happened because no one is prepared to make the essential strategic investment to provide a safe north-south route for heavy goods vehicles that takes them out of settlements such as Henstridge and Templecombe, the villages of the Blackmore vale and some villages in Dorset, about which I am not qualified to speak because they are not in my constituency. No one looks at the strategic needs of the west country because it can safely be left to one side, can't it? That always happens. Jim Knight has just come into the Chamber, and I welcome him. He will recognise some of the difficulties caused by the lack of a safe strategic north-south route for heavy goods vehicles from the south coast ports through Dorset and Somerset.

I know that the Deputy Leader of the House will recognise the concerns of many people about post offices in my part of the world and our determination to fight to the last, although some of us feel very pessimistic about the outcome. Will he pass on to the Department for Transport our concerns about the A303 and the fact that north-south routes to replace the A357, A358 and A359 have yet to be thought of, let alone implemented? Their absence reduces the safety of road users, has an environmental cost and destroys the well-being of many people in the west country.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 4:28 pm, 24th May 2007

We have certainly had many interesting speeches today, and I agree with most of what has been said. However, I want to take issue with the remarks of Mr. Robathan. He was perfectly correct in his description of the election and the count—it was chaotic and it was an absolute disgrace. I also agreed with a lot of what he said about postal voting. However, I take issue with what he said about the outcome in Scotland. There was no chaos after the count had been completed. The Administration were formed very quickly, and they were formed by the party that got the most votes in the election. If we had been operating that election under the old-fashioned first-past-the-post system, the party that finished second in numbers of votes, the Labour party, would have won an overall majority and still been in power. That would have been unacceptable. The people of Scotland clearly wanted to vote the Labour party out of office in Scotland, and they put it in second place. The new proportional voting system in Scotland gave a fair result, which the people wanted.

The party that benefits most from proportional voting in Scotland is the hon. Gentleman's party. Under the first-past-the-post system there would have been only four Conservative MSPs, but the party got another 12 MSPs through the top-up list. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has discussed the matter with his colleagues in Scotland. I will happily give way to him.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to respond. The point about the Conservative party is that we put what is good for the country before party preference, but he seems to be suggesting that it is much more important, because it is good for the Conservative party, that we get a few stupid—a few top-up—MPs than we do good government in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. We believe in good government for the people of this country, not in the preferment of the Conservative party or, indeed, of the Liberal Democrats.

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

We both agree that we want good government, but we obviously disagree on the electoral system best placed to achieve that.

I should like to take the opportunity to raise various issues that are important to my constituents. The first has been raised by several other hon. Members, and concerns the Government's plans to close 2,500 post offices. So far, the Government have not listed the individual post offices that are to close, but as there are about 100 post offices in my constituency, it is obvious that plenty of them will close under their plans. As has been said by other hon. Members, it is a disastrous policy for rural parts of the country. Post offices are the lifeblood of communities in both rural and urban areas, particularly when combined with other services such as the local shop. Often, the post office supports the only shop in the village, so when the local post office closes, it is almost certain that the shop will close, too, leaving people who do not have access to a car without anywhere to shop.

In devising their policy of post office closures, I am sorry that the Government did not take into account the true social value of local post offices. The post office is often a source of free advice to many people, particularly vulnerable elderly people, on a variety of issues ranging from filling in forms to benefits. That service is one that banks and PayPoint simply will not have the time to provide. The staff at local post offices provide that service, and I urge the Government to take into account post offices' social worth rather than valuing them purely in terms of profit and loss.

In my constituency, with the help of local sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, I organised a petition protesting against the Government's plans in the original consultation document. It was signed by more than 7,000 post office customers, which is about one in 10 of the adult population in my constituency, so there was a clear rejection of the Government's proposals.

I was therefore disappointed by the fact that there was very little change in the Government's response to the consultation. Indeed, some of the changes that were made to the criteria in the original consultation document by the document published last week make the situation even worse. In the original document, one criterion stated that in rural areas,

"95 per cent. of the total rural population" was to be "within 3 miles" of a post office. Naturally, that was interpreted by most people as meaning that within each rural area 95 per cent. of the population would be within 3 miles of a post office outlet. However, the criterion has now been replaced by two new criteria. One states:

"95 per cent. of the total rural population across the UK to be within 3 miles of a post office outlet."

The change means that there is no protection for each individual rural area, as that UK-wide target could be met while in many rural areas more than 5 per cent. of the population would be more than 6 miles from a post office outlet.

A second test for each postcode district states:

"95 per cent. of the population to be within 6 miles"— that is an increase from 3 miles in the original document—

"of their nearest post office outlet."

There is no logic in the use of postcode districts in these circumstances; it will lead to many anomalies. Postcode districts are shown in the first half of the postcode—for example, G83 in my case—and were originally drawn up by the Post Office to indicate the area served by a sorting office, so there is a town at the centre of most of them. The district often comprises a town and its surrounding rural area, which means that in many cases the 95 per cent. target could be achieved simply by counting the population of the town; many rural post offices more than 6 miles away could be closed yet the criteria would still be met.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Even setting aside my hon. Friend's valid point about the 5 per cent. of people who will not fall within the criteria, how many of the 95 per cent. could walk a round trip of 12 miles to visit their local post office—or in his constituency, occasionally swim?

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

My hon. Friend makes an excellent and valid point. Many post office customers are frail and elderly, and will certainly not be able to walk 6 miles to the post office and 6 miles home. The distances are far too long. I have some examples from my constituency. The G83 postcode covers most of the population of the towns of the Vale of Leven in the neighbouring West Dunbartonshire constituency. A few hundred people live in the small villages of Arrochar, Tarbet and Luss in my constituency, yet they could be deprived of their local post office and the criteria would still be satisfied.

Oban is in the PA34 postcode district. Most of the population live in the town, but the district covers a sparsely populated rural area that stretches many miles, from Port Appin to Kilmelford, including many islands—Lismore, Seil and Luing—so my hon. Friend's comment about swimming is apt. PA28 relates to Campbeltown, which is another example of a moderately sized town in a large rural area. The bulk of the population of the Isle of Bute—the PA20 postcode district—live in the town of Rothesay, which means that the small number of people who live at Kilchattan Bay on the far side of the island could be deprived of their post office. I urge the Government to reconsider the criteria, because they have been changed from the earlier ones on which there was consultation.

My hon. Friend referred to the proposal to replace post offices by an occasional visit from a mobile office. The Government's consultation document refers to post office outlets, not post offices, so a post office in a shop could be replaced by a van that visited once a week. That would allow people to collect their pension but it would be no substitute for an actual post office. The post office is often the only way that a shop can continue—the business may be unsustainable without the post office.

Other criteria are listed, such as public transport links, but I am worried about how the Post Office's decisions will be evaluated. Mr. Burns pointed out that the Post Office was not only making the proposals but taking the final decisions. The Government should look into that important point. The consultation document states:

"Discussions are in progress on the nature of the monitoring and review arrangements."

We need more than monitoring arrangements.

The document refers to Postwatch, which is shortly to be abolished and merged into the National Consumer Council. It is not good enough for a consumer body simply to comment on what the Post Office does. We need an independent body that will monitor the criteria and have the power to overturn Post Office decisions when it considers that the Post Office has not met the criteria. The Post Office cannot act as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. It must be remembered that the Government have set the Post Office a target of 2,500 closures, so the Post Office will not be acting independently. It has Government targets to meet and it must balance its books.

Another worry is the successor to the Post Office card account. In a written statement last week the Department for Work and Pensions said that the contract for the successor to POCA after 2010 would be going out to tender, and that the contract would specify 10,000 outlets throughout the UK. I accept that European rules require a tender. However, the Government have the power to draw up the tender specification, which should be drawn up in such a way that the successful operator has to provide over-the- counter cash outlets in all rural parts of the UK, including small islands where there is currently a post office but no bank or PayPoint outlet.

Even after the 2,500 closures, the Post Office will have more than 10,000 over-the-counter outlets, but so also will PayPoint and a consortium of several banks. They could therefore also tender for the contract, but neither the banks nor PayPoint has a rural network which could match that of the Post Office. I draw the attention of the House to the TV licence payment fiasco. The contract for over-the-counter payments to renew TV licences was taken away from the Post Office and given to PayPoint.

I know that every time I blame the Government for that a Minister intervenes to say, "It wasn't us. It was the BBC", but that excuse does not wash. The rules for TV licences are set by the Government, and the Government could easily have specified that there had to be over-the-counter outlets in rural areas throughout the UK. PayPoint has outlets in my constituency, but they are nearly all in the towns. Huge swathes of the rural part of the constituency, including several small islands, that have post offices now have no outlet where people can renew their TV licence over the counter. That must not be repeated with the successor to the Post Office card account. The tender must specify outlets throughout the rural part of the country.

If the Post Office does not win the POCA contract, it will be a disaster. People in rural areas will not be able to collect their pension, and the loss of income because of the loss of business to the Post Office will, I suspect, mean that the 2,500 closures that the Government will force through over 18 months will be dwarfed by the number of closures that will subsequently take place. We should remember that Adam Crozier is on record as saying that the Post Office needs only 4,000 outlets in order to run its core business.

The final issue concerning Royal Mail is its proposals for zonal pricing for businesses that send out bulk mail. Unfortunately, bulk mail is not covered by the universal service obligation, and a consultation is under way on a proposal from Royal Mail which would mean that businesses have to pay more to send mail to rural areas than to urban areas. It would be a scandal if Postcomm allowed that proposal to go through. People would be penalised for living in rural areas. Theoretically, the customer is the business. However, if electricity, gas and telecoms companies which send out bulk mail know that they will have to pay more to the Post Office to send a bill to a customer in a rural area, they will pass that on to the customer, and people living in rural areas will receive larger bills.

It would be inconvenient for the utility companies, too. They would have to alter their computer systems, because different bills would have to be sent to rural customers rather than using one straightforward computer run. I hope that Postcomm rejects that proposal. It is seven years since the Postal Services Act 2000 was passed, and perhaps it is time to review the universal service obligation, because certain services, such as bulk mail, that are not included in it should be.

The tax credit system is another issue that I want to discuss. The idea behind the tax credit system is excellent, and I support it. It increases the income of low-income families and encourages them to enter employment, because it makes taking a job more financially worth while. I certainly support the principle behind the system. My postbag—I am sure that this is true of all hon. Members—is full of complaints about the tax credit system, mainly from people who were given overpayments through no fault of their own. Those people spent that money in good faith, because they believed that they were entitled to it, but when a demand to pay some of it back comes out of the blue, it puts them into severe financial difficulties. The current scale of the problem is simply unacceptable. Recently published figures show that in the financial year 2005-06 nearly half the tax credit awards in my constituency were incorrect, which is typical of all constituencies throughout the country. Paying back overpayments has caused terrible hardship to many people on low incomes. The Government must examine the system and devise a less complex model.

Many constituents have come to me after being deluged with conflicting award notices sent out over a very short period of time—in some cases, conflicting award notices were sent out on the same day. Under current HMRC rules, however, the onus is still on the claimant to work out whether their award is wrong and what they are due. If people do not do that and spend the money, they can be clobbered with demands to pay some of that money back. The system automatically tries to overcome overpayments without making any effort to establish who is to blame for the overpayment or the financial circumstances of the claimant.

When the ombudsman looked into the matter a year or two ago, one of her most important recommendations was that HMRC should reverse the burden of proof in cases in which the error is caused by HMRC itself. In such a case, the assumption should be that an overpayment is not recoverable, unless the claimant was sent a clear award notice and it should have been obvious to them that it was wrong. Where an overpayment is alleged, the claimant should be sent a letter stating clearly how the overpayment occurred.

At the moment, the claimant is simply told that an overpayment has been made. Instead of that, they should be given clear details of the calculation that caused the overpayment. Instead of then demanding the money back straight away, there should be a pause, and the claimant should be given the automatic right to appeal, which would allow time for a challenge to be made and considered without the money automatically being clawed back and the onus being put on the claimant to go to their MP or a local advice centre. The system is so complicated that no ordinary lay person without proper training can work it out.

I think that those suggestions would greatly improve the system. Many people on low incomes who have been asked to repay overpayments have told me that they will never again apply for tax credits because of the financial hardship and stress that the recovery of overpayments has caused them. I always encourage them to apply, but they should never be put into a situation where they are deterred from doing so.

Also in relation to tax credits, it is clear that the adjudicator and the parliamentary ombudsman are being overwhelmed with complaints. More resources need to be given to those two offices in order for them to be able to investigate and respond to complaints within a reasonable period of time.

Finally, I want to put on record my opposition to the tactics that are being adopted by anti-nuclear protesters outside Faslane naval base in my constituency. I support everybody's right to peaceful protest provided that they do not block anyone else's right to freedom of movement. However, I utterly condemn the tactics of the protest organisers, which involve regular protests that block the road outside the base and prevent people from getting to work and children from getting to school. Not only workers at the base itself get held up. Because the road past the base is a main road, people who are going to work elsewhere get held up, as well as school buses. We have got to the situation where local people in Garlochhead are themselves organising peaceful protest marches to oppose the Faslane protesters. Those protests are perfectly legal and do not disrupt the road, but the tactics of the anti-nuclear protesters are completely unacceptable. I wish that the organisers would realise that they are not winning any support for their cause by behaving in this way, but merely alienating people, and that they would be much more likely to gain public support if they protested in a legal and peaceful way that did not block the road and stop other people from going about their lawful business.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise those issues. I wish you and other hon. Members an enjoyable recess.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:52 pm, 24th May 2007

I start my comments on a rather sad note by paying tribute to Lord Renton, known affectionately to most of us as David Renton, who sadly passed away this morning in Abbots Ripton, surrounded by his family. David was approaching his 99th year and was, until recently, very active in the other place. He served Huntingdonshire with distinction, being its Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1979, when he was succeeded by John Major. David was a true gentleman—a lovely man who will truly be missed by all of us who knew him. I am sure that I echo the sentiments of the whole House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are very much with his family and friends.

Turning to the Adjournment debate, as always we have had a number of speeches, all of which have been excellent in their own ways and which have covered a broad range of subjects, from the domestic to the international. We started off the debate with a contribution from Shona McIsaac, who pointed out that last time round she was the last person to be called and was obviously delighted that this time her ordeal was over sooner rather than later. There was nothing in her speech that she had not raised in previous debates. She was particularly keen to emphasise the surfacing and noise problems on the A180 road, as well as the tolls on the Humber bridge. It is fair to say that we all have considerable sympathy with everything that she said, and hope that some of the problems will be sorted out sooner rather than later.

My hon. Friend Mr. Burns gave a thoughtful and knowledgeable speech, with special reference to two issues. The House was brought to attention when he asked in Prime Minister's questions about the link between learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and criminality. We all applaud the excellent work of Jackie Hewitt-Main, a remarkable woman, who is a volunteer and conducts a project at Chelmsford prison. I hope that other prisons will follow the example of Chelmsford prison. He also raised another difficult but prominent issue, which affects many of our constituencies. He presented a measured and reasoned argument about the allocation of social housing. The subject needs to be tackled delicately and sensitively, and my hon. Friend did that.

Keith Vaz made his usual contribution to the recess Adjournment. As ever, he was witty as well as serious. He was right to point out that several lessons need to be learned from reality television and I hope that they will be taken on board. He was also keen to emphasise the outrage that members of the judiciary feel about the newly created Ministry of Justice. He underlined the fact that many members of the judiciary were not consulted or, if they were, the consultation was purely nominal. I hope that he will participate in consideration of the Legal Services Bill, which the House will debate on the first day back after the Whitsun recess. I would like him to be able to make some valid contributions to the debate.

My hon. Friend Mr. Evans delivered a passionate speech about the difficulties of the rural way of life. He mentioned post office closures—a subject that recurred in several subsequent speeches. It is interesting to note that, when the current round of closures is completed, one third of the post office network will have closed since 1997. He was right to point out that post offices are often the lifeblood of local communities and that their closure is a sad loss to many.

My hon. Friend also mentioned food security, which is especially serious given that many farmers are considering giving up farming or diversifying. That is an important issue, which does not get enough attention. I hope that it will be taken on board today. He also mentioned labelling foods, especially those that are processed and manufactured overseas but then tackled in some token way in this country and marketed in our shops as British produce. The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 needs to deal with that quickly.

Mr. Prentice made several points, most of them of a critical nature. He spoke with considerable passion. He discussed the lack of consultation with the judiciary and also the endless reorganisations by Governments. He reminded us that several reorganisations will happen under the Prime Minister-elect. If he will forgive my saying so, effective leadership, proper management and—dare I say it—perhaps a change of Government are required, not reorganisation.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that he asked the Home Secretary a simple question on 30 April about splitting the Home Office. It is a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward answer. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will convey that to the Home Secretary.

Mr. Leech made a passionate case for retaining the Marie Louise gardens. It is extraordinary that, despite the restrictive covenant, the local council plans to build more flats there. I hope that he will have joy in ensuring that the gardens remain.

My hon. Friend Mr. Robathan reminded us that he was speaking in his first Adjournment debate, and may I say what a welcome contribution he made? [Hon. Members: "Creep!"] I am simply telling the truth. My hon. Friend spoke of the need to maintain the integrity of the electoral system—an issue of concern not only to the House, but to all of us who value proper democracy. He raised serious points on a wide range of aspects of the electoral process. In an intervention on him, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley commented on the Council of Europe. It is indeed a sad state of affairs that the Council of Europe, which monitors elections in places such as Albania, Ukraine and Russia, should be considering monitoring elections in the UK, which is of course quite keen on telling the rest of the world about the importance of free and fair elections.

Mr. Heath spoke on the subject of post offices, too, and made particular reference to the fact that access to private transport is denied to many people who are elderly, disabled or young parents. I wish him well in trying to sort out the difficulties with the A303, which is clearly causing a lot of difficulty not only to his constituents but to the many people who drive through his constituency.

Mr. Reid also touched on the issue of post offices, and he listed an impressive number of place names in his constituency, which I will not even attempt to repeat. He rightly concluded by commenting on the tax credit system. I am sure that almost all of us in the House have strong connections with that subject, by way of the post that we receive from our constituents. He spoke of the hardship that is experienced when people have to repay sums of money that they have been overpaid, and he particularly mentioned cases in which people informed the authorities of a change of circumstances but that information was ignored. I am sure that we all have considerable sympathy with what he said.

Finally, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take on board the important point of order raised by my hon. Friend Dr. Fox. That is obviously a matter of great importance, particularly given that the recess will very soon be upon us.

I conclude by wishing a happy Whitsun recess to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to all the staff of the House of Commons, to all Members and their staff and, importantly, to the security staff, some of whom will continue to work throughout the recess.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary 5:02 pm, 24th May 2007

May I begin by reinforcing the point that Mr. Vara made about Lord David Renton? He had a distinguished career, both in this House and the other place, and that was preceded by a fine career at the Bar. He was a man who had bottom, as Denis Healey would say. He had interests outside this place, and he was extremely interested in cricket; that must run in the blood in Huntingdon, as his successor followed him in that regard. I note that Lord Renton was interested in people with a physical or mental disability, and I highlight his role as chairman of Mind for an important period in that organisation's history.

When I summed up in the Easter recess Adjournment debate, I wished Opposition Members a relaxed and enjoyable holiday, but I counselled my hon. Friends to get out and campaign for the elections of 3 May. As my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz said, we had some successes. Like him, I compliment my old friend, Councillor Ross Willmott, on all his achievements in Leicester. I would like to highlight the real success in North Lincolnshire and—let me blow the trumpet for my own part of the country—Nottingham, where the city council, under John Collins, gained five extra seats. So it seems that people heeded my words and got out on the campaign trail with some success, but as Mr. Evans will be keen to remind me, that success was not universal, either in the English counties, or in Wales and Scotland.

This has been a wide-ranging debate, moving from the colour of the cats in Immingham and the spots on washing there to a discussion about the EU. In addition, I shall of course take up the point made by Dr. Fox about the investigation into what I shall call the kidnapping in Iran.

It is interesting that hon. Members have welcomed this debate. My hon. Friend Shona McIsaac said that it was a marvellous opportunity, and called it democracy at its best. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley took the opportunity to get rid of his pent-up feelings and to escape from the straitjacket in which some of us—and especially his colleagues on that side of the House—are very keen to keep him.

Many constituency issues were raised in the debate, and some important themes emerged. I think that the House dealt in a very sensitive and thoughtful way with the question of race, which is clearly a major preoccupation in this country. Mr. Burns talked about housing allocation policy—a real issue for many hon. Members—in a very professional and thoughtful way.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East raised similar points about the "Big Brother" television programme. Channel 4 has acted in an ignorant and arrogant manner right from the beginning, when it pretended that there was no problem. Even today, its chief executive denied that any difficulties had arisen, but I hope that the channel's bosses will look at the Ofcom report very carefully and that their patronising attitude of the past will be replaced by something more humble and thoughtful.

Roads were a major theme of the debate, and I shall certainly draw the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes about the A180 and the Immingham bypass to the attention of colleagues in the Department for Transport. Mr. Heath talked about the A303 and I have some sympathy with what he said, as the A46 between Newark and Widmerpool in my area needs to be widened. There, the debate is about whether the Department for Transport has central responsibility for the project, or whether it should come out of the budget devolved to the regional assembly.

Mr. Robathan talked about the need for noise reduction measures on the M1. I hope that he will not consider me indiscreet if I reveal that I once drove him down that part of the motorway and delivered him safely home. However, I shall draw all his comments to the attention of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman

Post offices were another theme of the debate. Mr. Reid made the point that the Post Office itself believes that its commercial network will operate through 4,000 outlets. Let me be clear—the Government do not agree. We believe that post offices have a social as well as a commercial value, and that is why we have spent £2 billion already on supporting the network, and why we are making a further £1.7 billion available through to 2011.

I hope that that money will stabilise the network. We must remember that it is run by private franchisees, who want some certainty about the future. They did not enjoy the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made, but they have welcomed the certainty about the future that it contained.

Again, we must be clear about the fact that there has been a change in the demand for post office services. These days, 98 per cent of new pensioners claim their money not from post offices but through their bank accounts.

The hon. Member for Blaby said that he was a novice when it came to the e-mail, but we are all e-mailing now, even Luddites like me. That too has its effects on the post office network. I have just renewed my vehicle licence over the telephone. It was easy. Given those changes, there will have to be changes in the post office network. We do not like it. It is painful. It will affect my constituency, and it will affect our constituents. It will be hard and difficult, but hard and difficult choices will have to be made, and they will have to be made at a local level.

The Post Office is now saying that from this summer, over the next 18 months, it will examine groups of post offices in parliamentary constituencies, 50 or 60 at a time, and make choices to provide the most accessible and sustainable network possible. I understand that that will not be easy, and that people, particularly elderly people, will lose out.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I was here when the statement on post offices was made. It was emphasised that they were losing £4 million a week. My great fear is that there will be a hit list of the most loss-making post offices, which may well be in rural areas, and that they will be for the chop; otherwise, the Post Office will not be able to save the money. It is hardly likely to prune the network by closing post offices that are not losing money.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has reminded me that the Post Office is losing £4 million a week. There are 4 million fewer customers a week than there were this time last year. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there will be post offices that do very little business. I believe that the 100 least used post offices have fewer than 30 customers a week—four or five a day at best. That is the scale of the problem.

What we must do is ensure that the time over the next 18 months is used sensibly and rationally, with the aim of securing the most sustainable system possible. We must ensure not just that the post offices that are well used remain open, but that—a point made by both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute—local communities are protected. As I have said, it will not be easy. It is a painful decision, and there is a painful path to tread, but I believe there is no real alternative to that path.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes made some other points. I hope that her discussion with Associated British Ports tomorrow goes well. Yes, there are operating licences, but big companies like that have a responsibility to act in a neighbourly way too, and it is clear that it could make a difference in the area. I also wish my hon. Friend well in her discussion with the national health service about tolls on the Humber bridge. I have used the bridge twice in the last month to go to Hull, and I understand the feelings of people who have to go to hospital and find themselves incurring real as well as personal costs.

I am pleased that progress has been made with police community support officers, and I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Mr. Coaker, is to visit my hon. Friend's constituency. I know that he will use the opportunity to remind the council that it has powers to tackle antisocial behaviour and issue dispersal orders. I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments about salt marshes in Cleethorpes to the attention of colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I hope that that will bring about the same kind of progress that she achieved before Easter.

I must tell the hon. Member for West Chelmsford—I had better be careful how I say this—that I have spent time in prison. I spent a long time in prison once.

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Instead of commenting about the Post Offices losing £4 million what value it is should be highlighted. In recent times our Goverments seem to have been hell bent on removing services which once only the Post Offices could supply. If they are closed beides creating difficulty for the elderly, many others will lose the information they give regarding cost of letters and parcel and for those unable to travel far afield who will take the parcels or large letters requiring posting

Submitted by john forsyth Read 2 more annotations

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Not long enough! "Stretch" is the word.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary

I had the keys. I could leave when I wanted to.

What the hon. Member for West Chelmsford said about the prison population was exactly right, and he was right to quote the Prime Minister's words "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The mentoring scheme that he described really is important. The Government recognise the importance of not just working with prisoners in prison, but continuing mentoring outside prison. That is why we set up the national offender management scheme. I was very interested in the points that the hon. Gentleman made, and I will talk to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, about the example that he gave. It is a good pioneering example and we can draw from it.

I have already mentioned what the hon. Gentleman said about social housing. Housing is a big issue for all of us. I remind him that the Government have made extra money available for social housing. Between 1997 and 2005, 300,000 new homes have been built. Housing investment has doubled; it is about £2 billion in the current year. I will have a little wager with him that when the comprehensive spending review is announced this autumn there will be yet more money for social housing. We all know through our constituency case loads that many young families are in real need; their needs are currently not being met.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about allocation policies. The Government have some influence in that respect, but again it is for housing associations and local councils to create sensible schemes that meet the needs of their communities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East talked about the Ministry of Justice and the work of the Select Committee. I have already praised him, so he has gone—knowing my right hon. Friend, he is already doing the press release. I followed the discussion in the Select Committee between the Lord Chancellor and Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, with interest. I note that, since the Select Committee hearing, the Lord Chancellor has been in direct touch with the Lord Chief Justice. It is important that we have a resolution to what could be an all-important constitutional point.

Those issues were also picked up by my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, who spoke about the royal prerogative. I remind him that only 10 days or so ago the Government changed their position on war-making powers and conceded that there was a need for new procedures and new conventions that more closely involved Parliament in such important decisions.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley teased me and asked me what I expected to see from Prime Minister B, as he described him. I do not have a crystal ball, but I think that we will see an increasing focus on constitutional matters. I hope and expect that we will see greater belief and greater determination to involve Parliament more in the discussions. We should all celebrate that. If one were to ask me about a written constitution, it is interesting that both the Attorney-General and the Leader of the House are talking openly and are in discussions about the need for a written constitution. I believe that the tide is changing on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle got into some debate with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley about the European Council. A lot of discussion is going on in government about our negotiating position. I do not think for a moment that we will see the birth of a new constitutional treaty. Let us be clear that France and the Netherlands, where people had a chance to vote on it, turned down the constitution. I would be very surprised if we see any more than a framework document. When we have a document and something that is extant, rather than something that we speculate about, we will make a decision about a referendum, but the promise still stands: if there were to be big constitutional changes such as that, the Government's position remains that there would be a referendum. Let us see what emanates from discussions on the Council. I remind the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate that before the Council sits and that a statement will be made after the Council meeting.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I want to refer to an article in Le Monde, if only to prove that I am better read than Mr. Prentice was in his contribution. I will return it to the Tea Room—honest. It is about Sarkozy, Brussels and the renewal that is taking place. Since he has become president, Sarkozy is clearly displaying a new attitude. My great fear is that the terms of the new constitutional treaty will go much deeper than was anticipated. For example, if we are going to have a president of the European Union who is directly elected, surely that should be a decision for the British people, if that is the way we wish to go.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary

I thought that I had just given that commitment. Let me just say that there are different forces working in Europe and it is important to be at the heart of Europe to try and influence those discussions so that we get an outcome that is in the best interest of the UK people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle talked not only about the Ministry of Justice, but about reorganisation and the mechanics of government. My view is that we are very good at making policy, but we are not good at—and we need to improve—change management. As my hon. Friend said, we must consider the dysfunctional costs of change. We may have big ideas about the future, but we need to be clear what our policies are, what our outputs will be and how to measure them. What we also need to do is not criticise public services. The people who work in public services do so because of their commitment and vision for the future. A good manager will praise people to get rewards rather than criticise them.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley made an important point about the utility companies and the fact that people who do not have direct debits have to pay more. I have been looking at my BT bill, which makes it clear that I can still pay it at the post office. It really is unfortunate that big companies—big water and electricity companies, for example—are penalising some of the oldest and most disadvantaged members of our communities by insisting that they have to pay by direct debit. I hope that those who follow our debate will listen carefully to the points that have been made across the House about that.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley also talked about agriculture. He is right to say that there is a big market for organics and local food. Booths supermarkets and others have now identified that market and are trying to buy locally, source locally and promote locally—and "taste the view" is a good example of that. He also talked about the plight of dairy farmers. I do not minimise the difficulties—they are real—but Booths and other supermarkets are introducing schemes to pay a better, increased price, sometimes for premium milk, which will help the industry. I would also like to praise the work of the women's institute. Consumers can change things and the women's institute has caused a very important change to be made as a result of its campaign.

I know that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is a bit of a Eurosceptic, but we spend about £3 billion on the common agricultural policy. I think that we will move even further from paying for production towards paying for those things judged to be for the public good. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the value of the environment and the landscape to many people and I believe that, increasingly, we will make payments to farmers to maintain that landscape and environment rather than pay them for crops, which we have not always wanted in the past.

I congratulate Mr. Leech on scoring at Stamford Bridge today—a fine performance there and a good performance here in the Commons—though I am very sorry for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who, because of his duties in the House, did not score the best century ever at Lord's today. I do not want to comment directly on the two examples of the Marie Louise gardens and the Mersey valley warden service other than to say that covenants are very difficult. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said, a covenant has to have beneficiaries and finding them can sometimes be hard. The wider issue is to take good advice on covenants. It is worth reminding all local authorities—not just those in Manchester—of the real value of Victorian parks and open spaces in urban areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have neglected them in the past.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a bit of advice, although he might not need it. At Wigwam lane in Hucknall, in my constituency, a local playing field is being sold off. The local people have discovered a covenant and taken legal advice. They have perhaps not got as far with that as they might have done, but they have been able to establish that there have been 20 years of continuous informal use and have applied for village green status. People who are interested in the Marie Louise gardens might want to investigate that option. I am delighted that there now appears to be a better relationship with the appropriate cabinet minister in Manchester city council.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned cuts in the warden scheme. I do not want to comment on that, save to say that the growing number of elderly people presents an important challenge to us all. It is one of the big policy challenges of the future. The number of people aged over 85 in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will double by 2020, and we will need to make more resources available for proper community services that meet people's needs, which can often cost more than residential accommodation. This is a big, real issue.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Blaby describe himself as a "wicked Tory". That allows me to say, "It's the same old Tories. They haven't changed their spots at all." The hon. Gentleman talked about electoral matters, including new processes and new methods of voting. It is important that we experiment with those, and that we go forward carefully with them and evaluate the evidence. We must also look carefully at things that go wrong, and things clearly went wrong in the Scottish parliamentary election. That is why there is now an inquiry involving the Electoral Commission and independent international expertise.

Rather than talking about methodology and processes, however, the important thing that we, as politicians, need to do is to inspire and excite people about politics, so that they will want to be part of the democratic process and feel that they can make a difference. It is important to recognise that in parts of the country on 3 May, only 21 per cent. of the people came out to vote, whereas 85 per cent. turned out in the French presidential election at about the same time. We need to encourage people to believe that they can make a difference.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Leeds. I have looked at the article in The Sunday Times very carefully. This is a matter for the West Yorkshire police, who are investigating the issue, but it seems to me that the electoral code on postal voting produced by the Electoral Commission has not been followed properly. However, I am not immediately convinced that an electoral crime has been committed. That is a matter for the police and the returning officer; let us wait and see what they have to say.

I am pleased to support the hon. Gentleman's call for single-Member first-past-the-post systems. One of the things that is important to us as parliamentarians is our clear link and relationship with our own areas, our own people, our own voters. I would be anxious if we were to move away from that.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute spoke strongly about post offices, and I have already addressed that issue. He also mentioned another issue that all parliamentarians are concerned about, namely the tax credit system. He acknowledged that tax credits were important for low-paid families, particularly those with children. Six million families are now benefiting from them. The amount of overpayment is coming down year on year, although more needs to be done. The disregard of £25,000 from 1 April this year will also make a difference, because it is unlikely that many people's income will vary by that amount over a year. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us, however, that we need to be vigilant and to push Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when overpayments take place. It is a difficult matter and we need to give people proper advice and confidence in the system.

This has been a good debate. I am conscious that I have not answered all the points but I am going to stop now— [ Interruption. ] I have got the message from the Conservative Whip and my Whip, my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell, who is glaring at me. We will look carefully at the points made by hon. Members and if we have not addressed them, we will draw them to the attention of the appropriate Ministers and ensure that Members get a reply.

I wish all hon. Members a very relaxing holiday and, more particularly, I thank the staff of the House and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your hard work and wish you a relaxing holiday.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Government Whip

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.