Debate on the Address — [1st Day]

Part of Outlawries Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 3rd December 2008.

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Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 6:50 pm, 3rd December 2008

On the night that Mr. Mitchell was elected, Labour lost a mining constituency in the midlands because almost every miner there hated the then Labour Government for the things that they had been doing. From his election to this House to the 1979 election there was industrial unrest, with people fighting the police in the streets; life was not the cosy little life that we are led to believe we have under Labour.

Many in this House think it will be up to the Conservatives, when we come to power, to put right many of the things that have gone wrong under the Labour Governments. Not everything that they have tried to do is wrong, not everything that they have done is wrong and not everything that they propose in this Queen's Speech is wrong, but the idea that on the red side it all goes well and on the blue side it is all wrong is a total misreading of things. Someone examining the condition of people's lives between 1979 and 1997, especially in the five years after 1992, when the years of continuous growth started, could look at the record and say that there was good to be said about both sides and things that each party could have done better.

I want to turn to the pressing problem of what will face our constituents in business and in their personal lives during the next year or so, and perhaps even after that. Even when we start to come out of the recession, many in the churn will lose their jobs and will face insecurity where they thought they had security. I shall not spend my time discussing the changes in the pension arrangements that the former Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, brought into effect, because there are other times to discuss those.

I wish to discuss two examples in the world of business. We have heard a lot of talk about banking, in terms of both the Bill that is to be introduced and the Government's involvement in the banking industry during the past few months. Let us pretend that I am in partnership in a good business where my partner and I work hard, produce a stream of revenue and have been paying back the bank loans for our premises. Let us suppose that we have done those premises up and, by doing so, we have provided building work and helped the economy to move around. Let us suppose that my partner wants to retire and that I made an application to a bank less than a year ago, telling it that buying out my partner would cost a certain sum and asking whether we could negotiate a loan. Let us suppose that the bank said yes in principle, but when I wanted the money six months later, because I plan in advance, the bank just flatly said no. I pursue it, but the bank sends another letter saying that things have changed.

Someone in such a situation was told that

"there has been a dramatic and unforeseeable change in the financial markets and this has changed the Bank's lending criteria. Regrettably we are no longer in a position to consider your request."

If one of the major banks in this country says that it is not prepared to consider a request from someone in a business that has a good future, a good past and a good present, what chances do businesses that are less likely to put forward such a good, bankable case have? The person involved in the case I mention was also told that they could complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service if the bank had not given them satisfaction. No one wants to go to the Financial Ombudsman Service for that; they want to have banking arrangements in this country which mean they do not just get sent a letter.

The person involved in this case wrote to me saying:

"I had a meeting with another bank manager today, who stated that the government is asking banks to lend at last year's are the Government policing this? I still think that as a small business if I am not helped, who will be? Due to the predicament we are in at present we are doing everything to rein in spending, both as a business and at home."

That is the only other way the money could be found. The letter continued:

"If this is the general case for all small businesses how is that going to help the economy?".

I invite the major banks that wish to consider an application in this instance to let me know, and I shall pass on the details to the people who are really experienced in this area.

I turn to another, larger example. Let us consider a business where there was a management buyout in 2002. Let us suppose that I and my fellow shareholders borrowed £1.4 million and that over the past six years we have not only paid back as we said we would, but we have paid back the loan notes in half the time that we originally agreed. In such a situation, we would not only have been meeting our obligations month by month, but we would have been doing better than that. Let us suppose we face the problem of losing a month's cash flow because of the Government-imposed and Parliament-imposed regulation and we subsequently decide to expand our premises and take out another loan for that. Let us suppose that we make every single payment on time, be it for the management buyout loan, the regulatory changes loan, the loan notes loan, the moving loan or the computer equipment loan.

Let us suppose that there is no problem, but the bank then changes its approach and for several months this year it stalls and on the day of the news of the banking crisis, the account manager says he is leaving and the credit department says no to a request of ours. Let us suppose that when the business tracks down the replacement, they say that their predecessor never even made a request—presumably, because they had been told by people higher up that there was no point in their doing so—and there was no record of our dealing with him. Let us suppose the business resubmits the request and is messed about for a few more weeks, and that when it subsequently makes contact, a director of the bank tells the business he is sorry for what has gone before but the case is going through the formal complaints procedure again and the request would be expedited. Let us suppose that that was four weeks ago, and when contact was made again very recently the bank said that it had no money as the funding from the Government was conditional upon something that was not happening until the new year.

I know of a business in such a situation, and it told me that

"the account manager contacted us to say that not only was our request...turned down, our secondary request to restructure our existing loans was also rejected and as a sting in the tail our accounts were being passed to their 'intensive care' department."

That has happened to a business that wants to continue expanding. We know what the result will be: the business will have to reconsider the number of staff that it employs and whether to spend money on the refurbishment—a business that is profitable and doing well. That situation has happened several times in my constituency, and that can be multiplied by 630-odd constituencies around the country. Until that sort of thing stops happening, and until banks start saying that they want to take on bankable propositions, the liquidity squeeze will continue, and it will do as much to put people out of work as any major restructuring of the economy.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby was right to say that many industrial changes have taken place during his time in Parliament. One has been the taking of a lot of infrastructure spending out of the hands of the Government. For example, the privatisation of British Telecom led to a massive investment in the telecoms infrastructure and to competitors coming in. The privatisation of ports led to this country's ports being resuscitated; that was the case not only for the non-public ports, but for the former public ports. The same thing happened to British Rail's hotels, to the British Airports Authority and to British Airways itself. Leaving people free to do their own investment can lead to greater infrastructure spending and the benefits that we want. Deregulation that takes the hand of central Government away can do a lot of good.

This is the sort of speech that the hon. Gentleman would say did not have a theme, and he would be right. Let me turn to one little bit of good that we can do immediately in this Chamber. We could consider the welfare of the officials—the civil servants—who are stuck for hours in the officials' Box. I do not think this has been considered by Members, because we have not tried sitting there for four hours during a debate with no knee room and no glass of water—they have nothing at all. The House authorities should consider whether they can do something to help those in the Boxes. We should consider whether they could have some more knee room and whether they could have a glass of water to keep them going while they listen to us.

I turn from that subject to the delicate issues relating to what has been referred to by somebody as the case of the Ashford One. I am talking about what happened when the police made a request to come to a Member's office. My view is that the House made a mistake—I think that the other place may make the same mistake—of implementing the Tebbit report, which led to the Serjeant at Arms being brigaded not under the Clerk as before, but under the No. 2 Clerk. Most of the time, to most of us, the Serjeant at Arms was independent, having been appointed by the Queen. The new arrangement provides a much bigger gap between the exercise of authority and judgment.

If I may refer to something that I have read in the papers, Black Rod was reported to have had a stand-off with No. 10 about the Queen Mother's funeral arrangements. I would like to think that Black Rod and the Serjeant at Arms—whoever holds those posts and at whatever grade—have the authority to be able to say, "No, that isn't right" or "You should think about that again." That requires playing a role rather greater than that of facilities manager. The role of the Serjeant at Arms is important for this House, as is that of Black Rod in the other place.

I do not say things in private that I would not say in public, and I have not said in either a word against Mr. Speaker during the years that he has been in the Chair. None of us is capable of getting everything right, but he is an honourable person who does a good job, and we can be proud of the way he does it. It may be different from how others might do it, but we should not focus our attention on the occupant of the Chair. Instead, we should have a system whereby everyone presumes—unless there is evidence of a really serious crime or a court order that cannot be resisted—that people in Parliament have a privilege on behalf of the public and that matters to the public. It does not matter to me a great deal if I am arrested, but it matters a great deal that everybody in my constituency has confidence that they can come to me—be they a serving police officer, a civil servant, working in a bank or the health service, or unemployed—and say, "I think you and others should know about this. What should be done about it?" That is not being an alternative news service to the Government or the health authority; it is about people having the confidence to come to me, my predecessor or my successor, whoever they may be. It is about how this country works. It is not formal British constitutional theory; it is what should happen, and people should know that it happens.

Someone asked me what I do in Parliament, and I said that I spend quite a lot of time trying to anticipate problems and giving people warnings about them. Two years ago, we revised the law on the health service and changed the system of public involvement in health. Community health councils had been abolished, and the system has been changed four or five times by the present Government. It is still not right, and I think it would have been better if we had kept CHCs, as has happened in Scotland and Wales. There are no particular problems there, and there would be none here.

Another health service issue is the training of doctors and what this House allowed the Government to get away with in that sphere. Many doctors and some Members, including me, tried to tell Ministers that modernising medical careers, and the computerised application service, would have perverse results. Ministers said that everything would be all right, but we ended up with a system in which a clinical PhD in a relevant subject was worth less than 150 words written on leadership—which was probably downloaded from a website in any case. It was a disaster and remedial action was required, but we cannot yet be sure whether that has worked reasonably well.

Several people warned of major problems with the NHS IT system, although some can be put right. In Worthing, our hospital was forced to have a system that meant that, up until two or three weeks ago, relatively simple things could not be done. A consultant could not, for example, transfer a patient to another consultant without wiping all the data and having to re-enter them. Lists of patients could not be printed for shift hand-overs three times a day by condition, by doctor or by bed—three simple requirements. It took a week's programming, and it took a year to get it agreed. Once it was agreed, it was at least done fast.

We need a more reactive system. When people provide warnings, they should be heeded. When they suggest ways to help, they should be taken up fast. Our system should work through the interaction of the experience of MPs, Ministers, civil servants, administrators, computer experts and the like. We could reduce avoidable waste and increase well-being by making systems work. Legislation can help, but it is not always the answer.

My wife would call my next point an example of my "me, lovely me" approach, but I recall starting a programme to cut road deaths, which has worked very well—although not well enough. They are down from 5,600 a year to under 3,000. Welcome progress has been made, including during the past 11 years. However, we could save three times that number a year through abdominal aortic aneurysm screening. If men—it is a male problem—were screened at 60, we would know who had a problem and who would be clear until they reached 75. That could save 7,000 unnecessary deaths a year. Ministers rightly reacted when they saw a demonstration from the Vascular Society, and the faster progress is made, the better. We should have such screening within a year for everyone who qualifies and is willing to take it up.

The Queen's Speech should have included the revision of freedom of information and data protection. If I were a diabetes doctor working in a hospital and seconded to a community education programme, funded by the primary care trust and subject to the NHS confidentiality agreement, I should be able to invite patients to it whom I thought would benefit—perhaps from a particular ethnic group—without being disciplined, sacked or referred to the General Medical Council for taking a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers and asking my secretary to ring those patients and invite them. That is the kind of disproportionality that gives data protection a bad name. I ask the health service, Ministers and all Departments, if they find examples of such disproportionate action, to send them to the Information Commissioner. We need more guidance on this, or a change in the law that would give people protection when they are trying to do something clearly in the public good but have made a technical slip. Such people should not be exposed to the worst kind of crisis.

My final point relates to the marine and coastal access Bill. We established a basic right to roam through recent legislation but, because of a court decision perhaps a hundred years ago, we do not have a right to use rivers. We have a right to use inland waterways and canals, but I cannot take my canoe on some rivers without getting the agreement of every person with an interest in the land on either side of the bank from the beginning to the end of my journey. It is not an issue of how I gain access to the water, but of passing down the river. It is as if I could take my horse on to a bridleway only with the permission of the people who owned the land on either side of it. We would regard that as ludicrous, although my horse might disturb birds. We accept people using bridleways and footpaths, and we are likely to accept coastal access rights. We should therefore introduce the same rights to the use of rivers in England as exist in Scotland.

I went to Scotland with the British Canoe Union and the Scottish Canoe Association and spoke about negotiating with landowners to obtain access to the water. Most canoeists are careful about spawning grounds in rivers and about anglers' interests. We could incorporate access rights in the Bill, and if there are anglers who think that that would lead to serious problems they should talk to Scottish anglers about their experiences. We need to get rid of that prohibition, which is relatively recent, and give people the rights that they should have.

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