May I take the opportunity presented by this traditional recess Adjournment to say a few words about an important subject for south-east London—the reconfiguration of the hospital and health care arrangements in that part of the world. Speaking as the MP for Orpington, I am especially concerned about the impact on my constituency, as well as on the constituency of Bromley. As the Minister will be aware, the Secretary of State for Health has made some momentous decisions in recent weeks and days, which will have a major impact on the provision of health care services in the area.
What were those decisions? First, the Secretary of State accepted the findings of the review by the independent reconfiguration panel of the proposals for changes in the location and delivery of health care services under the "A picture of health" programme. The major changes will apply to the area's three big hospitals: the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust, the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Greenwich, and Queen Mary's hospital, Sidcup.
Secondly, as well as looking at the provision of health services, the review looked at the whole business of the trusts and their arrangements. Of the three already quite sizeable trusts, one new trust has been created: the South London Healthcare NHS Trust. That came into being on
The third aspect, which I would like the Minister to draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health or other Health Ministers, has not yet happened, but will begin to happen over the next six months. I refer to the financial restructuring of the new trust, which must accompany its creation and the reconfiguration of services in the area. That is mainly a matter for the London NHS, but none the less, since the money is huge, I am sure that Ministers will play a role—and I certainly hope they do.
The financial situation that the new trust has inherited is indeed dire. The total deficit is likely to exceed £200 million in the not too distant future. That is a huge deficit for any NHS hospital trust to have. In addition, the trust continues to have an operating deficit year by year. It amounts to a financial position that I would suggest is almost unprecedented in the history of NHS trusts. How it came about is something that I have sought to explain in previous speeches. I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on
The Government have a financial obligation to provide a proper financial basis for the new trust in order to get it off to a good start. My understanding is that the management are now working on a financial plan and that it should be delivered over the summer for final consideration in the autumn. I hope that the Government will monitor the position carefully and keep it to plan. The management will obviously have to accept tough targets; they cannot simply be given the money without making serious attempts to meet considered targets. It is to those targets that I now wish briefly to turn.
The Government have a sort of bird's eye view of the local circumstances, but I want to present, if I may say so, a worm's eye view. It goes from the bottom up, which is equally important to the top-down view that will influence the Government: both are necessary in order to produce a balanced viewpoint. With the aid of the worm's eye local perspective—that of local users and local patients—I would like to make three or four points.
First, let me deal with staffing. With the financial mess that we have seen, the staff of these hospitals have gone through a very difficult period. It is to their great credit that they have turned in such an excellent performance, particularly when some have simply not known what is going to happen to their local hospital or even their job. I pay tribute to them for what they have put up with during this period; that needs to be said. The difficulty for an outer-London hospital is that its consultants, doctors and nurses do not get inner-London weighting, so the hospitals are always at a disadvantage in competing with inner-London hospitals for staff. Understaffing has been a real concern and, in some areas—I do not want to name them—it is potentially dangerous. One of the objectives of the merger, and of the creation of this huge trust, is to provide a proper career structure with more pay bands to overcome the disadvantage of having no inner-London weighting and to attract good staff. I certainly hope that that happens.
It is also important that the staff are better consulted than they have been in the past about the proposed reconfiguration of services. The report by the reconfiguration panel says that the future of Orpington hospital should
"be clarified urgently and hospital staff be fully involved in all further considerations."
That is important, because the hospital is well loved in the area. It is part of the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust, along with the Princess Royal University hospital. The staff have not known what will happen, and they must now be given some indication of future planning. That has not happened in the past, but it should happen in the future.
Physical access to hospitals is never given sufficient attention by hospital planners. People need to get to hospitals without wasting time or paying too much. When I recently visited my local hospital, the Princess Royal University hospital in Farnborough, it took me half an hour to find somewhere to park my car and in the end, I had to park illegally—I hope that that admission will not be held against me—to get to the hospital on time. If that happens to me, it must also happen to many of my constituents, and something must be done. I have no answer to that problem, but it is a problem. It is said that people can use public transport, but in the real world, people use their cars to get to hospital, especially when public transport is not very good. It has improved a bit in the area, but it could be better.
It is, and the hospital in question is a long way from the areas of greatest need in my constituency. People from that area need to take three different buses to get to the hospital, and that is unacceptable for people on limited means and who are not very well.
The problem will be worsened by the expected reconfiguration, because the accident and emergency department at Queen Mary's hospital in Sidcup is likely to close, and that is the one that serves the Cray Valley, the area with the least good health in my constituency. I recently went to a meeting about health problems in the Cray Valley area, convened by Mr. Harold Barker, a well respected local resident, and there was clear concern expressed about this issue. I ask the Minister to ensure that when the reconfiguration occurs, proper consideration is given to the need for people in that area to have good access to other accident and emergency departments. If their nearest accident and emergency centre is closed down, they will have to travel much further. There are other aspects to health issues in the Cray Valley, and I noted that at the meeting the primary care trust gave an undertaking that it will report back to the neighbourhood group by July on what is happening. The area certainly needs extra health care provision.
The third issue is cleanliness, and the situation is patchy. I get differing reports—some good, some very worrying—about attitudes to cleanliness in hospitals, some of which are reported to be casual, uninformed and poor. The hospital group does not have an especially good record on MRSA or clostridium difficile, and that is part of the problem.
Fourthly, the medical side of the matter—whether people will be properly treated—is a fundamental issue, but I do not want to comment on that in this debate. We will have to look at that after the reconfiguration and after the trust has done what it thinks necessary to improve the situation.
Finally, I want to say something about consultation with the local health community, by which I mean the relevant scrutiny committee of Bromley council, the Local Involvement Network—LINk—which is the public side of the trust's board meetings, and the dissemination of information to the public either directly or through the local press. The new huge trust has three LINks to deal with, so it is becoming a more complicated issue. Public involvement went badly wrong under the previous management of the trust. In particular, the consultation on the future of Orpington hospital was badly handled, as was the issue of the future of Global house. It is an administrative building owned by the PCT, but the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust paid a fee for its administration staff to use it. The poor handling of those issues created suspicions among those interested in health matters locally, but that could have been avoided by more openness.
In addition to the poor handling by old management, the new management have not got off to a good start in relation to statutory consultation. The LINk is a statutory body, and individuals who represent it have a right to be heard in the public section of board meetings. That did not appear to be properly understood at the recent board meeting of the trust. The LINk representatives were not treated with the respect that their position deserves. Not only that, but the board has failed to produce papers and agendas with sufficient time for them to be absorbed and understood by attendees. As we all know, the NHS is full of jargon and some of the papers are incomprehensible unless one has time to work them out. It is incumbent on management to give those who want to understand the time to work out what the reports say. In that respect, I draw the attention of the management to the NHS code of practice on openness and the code of conduct for NHS boards. I hope that the board will read, learn and inwardly digest—as we used to say at primary school—those documents, because I will hold it to account on its adherence to them. I hope that the Government will do the same.
Leaving those issues aside, the management of the huge new trust are also new. They may have stumbled in their consultations to begin with, but they should be given a chance. It is important not to hark back to the past, but to look to the future and how we can improve patient care in Bromley and adjoining boroughs. It is also important to look at the results of health care, rather than the process. We can spend too much time worrying about whether processes have been adhered to: it is important that people are treated properly and get well soon.
Last week I attended a seminar on NHS management. There is concern that, although many people want to become managers in the NHS, they are often put off by the stressful situation inherent in those jobs. NHS managers today have a plethora of targets compared with similar private sector jobs. They are subject to scrutiny by this House and other politicians. There is also often huge opposition to change—even necessary change—and that is not always responsibly conducted.
The South London Healthcare NHS Trust has an opportunity to plot a new way forward for the benefit of my constituents. I hope that the Secretary of State will monitor the situation closely: it is imperative that he does so.
MPs have deluded themselves that they have power. We swallowed the mythology of parliamentary sovereignty. Real power actually exists in Government, who control Parliament lock, stock and barrel, even down to setting the minutiae of Parliament's daily agenda. It is Government who are as responsible for Parliament's current position just as much as weak MPs. Instead of Parliament being a strong, independent partner, Government's steady attrition has made us a rubber stamp for decisions made in Whitehall. Our role, in the words of Gladstone, is
"not to run the country but to hold to account those who do".
That birthright has been sold for a little status and some chickenfeed allowances, and even they have been stripped away from us in recent days.
So where do we go from here? Amazingly, we have been given one last chance to rescue our self-respect as Members of Parliament. MPs can elect a new person to speak for us and for our Parliament. Rather than having the preferred candidate of the Government, or alternative Government, as has happened in the past, we can for the first time make our own choice in a secret ballot about who we want to be the Speaker of this House. That is the most important decision that any of us will make in our political careers and about the future of Parliament. There will be no one else to blame, no excuses and no anxiety about being seen voting by the Whips in the wrong Lobby. It is a secret ballot, a private decision of conscience for all Members of this House, a vital choice and a tremendous responsibility.
It will also set a powerful precedent. The secret ballot is the enemy of undemocratic institutions abroad and at home. In this case, under threat is the tyranny of a leaden-footed and visionless system of government. The secret ballot is the longest established and most highly potent instrument that can be the salvation in the face of that tyranny and can lead us towards building a new Parliament under a new Speaker.
The secret ballot should be used not only in this forthcoming election for the Speaker, but should be extended by this House for use in Parliament to liberate two pivotal areas. First, it can be the means by which Parliament can take back control of its own affairs and be wholly responsible for its own actions, independent of Government, rather than being the victim of someone else's decisions. MPs can take back control of our own agenda from Government by electing, in a secret ballot, our own Business Committee, so that Members of Parliament rather than the Government can agree the agenda. Of course, any sensible group of Members would seek to find time for appropriate Government business, but the responsibility would be ours. The selection of people on that Committee would be the responsibility of Members in all parties, and we would be taking back control of our destiny.
Secondly, we can take back responsibility for holding Government to account if we elect, by secret ballots, all our Departmental Select Committees. MPs can choose to elect to those Committees colleagues who command the respect of their fellow MPs, rather than those who are responsible to the very Government whom we are meant to be holding to account. Those MPs—some new, and many who would be returned to the Committees of which they are already members—would do so with added legitimacy and independence, completely free from the taint of Government or party patronage. The secret ballot could deliver that incredible prize to this House, returning the ability to hold to account the Government of the day and those who wish to be the Governments of future days.
I agree wholeheartedly with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he aware that there are moves—from Frank Dobson, I believe—to try to get the secret ballot abolished? That would be an absolute tragedy, given that we have had this opportunity.
If that is indeed the case, it is extremely misguided. Such opportunities for MPs do not even come once a Parliament; they come once a generation. We have the opportunity to remake the democracy in our country, and members of all parties should seize that opportunity.
Only a new Speaker can establish democratic decision making for MPs, and only then if it has been a clear part of the platform on which they have stood to seek our vote. The all-party group, Parliament First, is asking each of the candidates not only where they stand on this issue, but to demonstrate strong leadership over the next few weeks. That would lead to a debate about the need to strengthen the principle, which has now been broached, of getting a secret ballot into this place, because of all the benefits that would flow from that if it were extended in the two ways that I have suggested.
The leaders of the two main parties, and those of the minority parties, also have a chance by endorsing the secret ballot to be seen to be on the side of creating a genuinely independent Parliament. Instead of twisting in the wind and reacting to the latest crisis, they can be part of a new settlement for our Parliament and for our democracy. Have they the courage to do that? I certainly hope so.
Once the election of the Speaker is over, the pressure from Government to return to business as usual—the micro-management of Parliament—will be immense. So, hopefully with the consent of the party leaders—but without them if necessary—this issue must be moved forward by those who are centre-stage, through the debate and campaigning surrounding the election of a new Speaker. After the election, it must be moved forward without delay. The longer there is a delay, the less likely that it is that the precedent can be extended to democratise our politics in this House and in our country.
Government control of Members of Parliament has led this House and its Members to our lowest ebb in living memory. Now, Members have only one chance—only one—to put it right. We have one chance to cast aside our chains. We should do so by supporting a Speaker who will extend the secret ballot and give Parliament and parliamentarians a role in life and a fresh start.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Allen. He expresses not only the desperation felt by so many right hon. and hon. Members at the state of our Parliament and our parliamentary democracy but our dismay at the extent to which this House has been trodden through the mud in recent weeks. People like me, who consider that it is an enormous privilege and honour to be a Member of Parliament and to be able to stand in this place and say what we want to say on behalf of our constituents, feel that our position—our vocation, if one wishes to call it that, and I think that it is a vocation—has been sullied by the actions of a few and by the almost irreparable damage to our reputation. That cannot be right.
We should be proud to be in this place and to do the job that we do. We are not entitled to the respect of our fellow citizens, but we need to be able to earn it. As I said earlier today, we can do that by dealing with the sordid issue of our expenses and the way that some Members—although not all—have chosen to interpret the rules. However, the issue goes much wider, because we also have to look at the whole system of democratic accountability.
From what she said earlier, I think that the Leader of the House has got it, as I think has the shadow Leader of the House. There is a realisation among those who think about these matters that we cannot go on like this; equally, however, I know perfectly well that there is a ballast of Members who, sadly, do not share that interest. They will obstruct proper reforms of the sort set out by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, and they will be bullied and coerced by the Whips.
The Whips have no business in this area of our work. They can butt out of our election of a Speaker—it is not their issue. They need to understand that, because too often the influence of the Whips of all parties has got in the way of realistic reform. When Robin Cook was proposing his far-reaching reforms, he was defeated by a coalition of Whips. The then Leader of the House defeated by other elements in the Government—that cannot be the right way to deal with the problems that face us.
We need to be a little careful about blaming the Whips. On the Government side, they are the paid servants of the party leadership. The Whips of the Opposition parties are also very close to their party leaderships. They are surrogates for the decisions of the Government and the alternative Governments, and special views are not conjured up in the respective Whips' offices. The Government Whips' Office is the largest department of state, and we should not disown what goes on by saying, "This is just the Whips." We should be clear that they express the Government's view, and that needs to be smoked out as such.
I accept that entirely. I am simply identifying the agents of reaction—the ones we sometimes see glaring at Members at the entrance to the Aye or No Lobby when they feel that those Members are not doing what they have been told to do.
We need to address exactly the issues that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has set out. For instance, he mentioned a business committee: how long have we been saying that it is for this House to decide the business, and not the Executive? The Executive put Bills before the House for approval, and it is our job to scrutinise them. It is not the House's job to help and assist the Government to whisk a Bill through the House before it can be properly scrutinised. Proper scrutiny can take place only when the responsibility for setting the business of the House has been taken from the Executive. That is not their business: it is ours, and we should take back responsibility for it.
There are many things that we can do to make the House better able to hold the Government of the day to account, but I would go further and say that the problem is not confined to Parliament. There is a real crisis throughout this country's democratic structures. People increasingly feel disaffected and disconnected from the political process, and that is getting more pronounced every year. They feel powerless, and believe that their MPs either do not represent them properly or are incapable of changing decisions taken by unseen bureaucrats and agencies. They feel that local councils do not have the powers to make local decisions on their behalf that they believed were invested in them because—again—such decisions are so often matters for an agency or a Government Department, at either regional or national level. As a result, councils find that they are being second guessed when it comes to their administrative responsibilities.
Very often, things happen that are entirely contrary to the wishes and needs of local communities simply because someone who is unaccountable says so. Nobody appears able to change such decisions.
Both my hon. Friend and I were leaders of local councils before we came to this place. Does he agree that, after 12 years of a new Labour Government, local communities have less say over what goes on in their area than they did before 1997?
I am absolutely sure that that is true. I used to be the leader of a county council, and I can point to things in Somerset that are there because I agreed with council committees that they should be. Increasingly, however, the restrictions placed on local government mean that councils are no longer able to take such decisions. As I say, more and more decisions are being taken at a level that is not accountable to the man or woman in the street, and people have no way of connecting with those who make the decisions.
For example, my son is taking his driving test this afternoon. Whether he passes or fails remains to be seen, but just to take the test he is having to go to a town that is 30 miles and more than an hour distant from our home. That is because someone who is not accountable to local people or this House has decided to close the test centre nearer to our community in the interests of service efficiency. That is what suits the bureaucrats, and so local people have to make the longer journey that I have described.
The problem is not confined to the day of the test. Everyone who has taken a driving test will know that driving lessons have to be conducted in the streets where the test is to be held. Over recent weeks, my son has had to have three-or four-hour sessions with his driving instructor—at great expense, I might say, with some passion—of which two hours is spent getting to and from the town where the test is to be held. That is not what local people want, and it is not serving the local public.
The same problem arises with tax offices, which are being closed all across the country. The Bristol tax office is well over an hour's travel from where I and my constituents live but we have to go there because the one in Frome, which used to be on the doorstep, is no longer open. What sort of service is that for local people with an inquiry about which they need to consult the tax man? Never mind about the inconvenience of travelling to the centre of a city, what about the environmental consequences? That cannot be in the interests of local people.
I was just about to refer to the hon. Gentleman. I shall do so first, and then give way to him. Earlier, he gave examples of the unaccountability of so much of the health service to local needs. Some local health services are very good indeed, and they do listen to local people. Others, however, are hopeless and simply could not care less about whether the service that they provide suits the local community. All that concerns them is that they tick the boxes specified by the Government and, again, that cannot be right.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is great lack of consultation in the health service, but the other example that I would give to back up the point that he is making is the Government's remarkable plan to close a large number of jobcentres just when unemployment is rising. It is astonishing, and my own town of Orpington has been badly hit by the closure of the jobcentre there. The Government did not think ahead. The jobcentre in Bromley, which people all have to go to now, does not have enough chairs or enough toilets—enough of anything—to cope with all the extra people who are going there, despite the fact that notice was given two years ago that this might happen.
The hon. Gentleman has heard me speak at length about the roads in my constituency, and I will not go through them all now; but let me mention one, which provides a clear example of lack of understanding. Until a little while ago the A303, which some Members know, was termed the second strategic route to the south-west. It is the alternative to the M4-M5 corridor. Somebody, somewhere, decided that it should no longer be the second strategic route to the south-west, so in the south-west regional spatial strategy it is downgraded to a "road of regional significance". It carries an enormous amount of traffic—not least the holidaymakers trying to make their way to the south-west peninsula each year—but because of that downgrading it will not get the improvements that it needs, which were promised over 12 years ago. It will not get the dualling that was required to make it effective and safe because somebody, somewhere—not the local council, not even the Secretary of State—has decided at a stroke of a pen, that to downgrade the main road to the west country. That is simply unacceptable.
I have done my best for the road in recent years. I have repeatedly stated the need for these improvements, but my voice is not heard in this place by Ministers—by the people who take decisions—because there is somebody out there who is unaccountable, who says, "Oh no, Minister. I don't think we need to worry about this. This isn't a priority." Well, it is a priority; it is a priority for my constituents, and they expect people to hear what they say.
I do not want to go any further on this subject. I simply say that we need a massive programme of reform—of democratic renewal. We really need a crusade that makes people understand that actually democracy is precious, and that we are in danger of losing our credentials as a democratic nation simply because people no longer have any confidence in the system. It starts in this place—getting this place right, getting it working. Then, it must apply to our wider constitution—making that more effective. It must then widen to empower the individual—it is a cant phrase, but a necessary phrase—so that they know that their voice is heard, that they have a mechanism by which they can articulate their hopes and fears, and that somebody will listen. At the moment they believe nobody is listening, and that is what is wrong with our democratic processes.
Before we break up for the recess, I should like to highlight some of the issues in my constituency, the Isle of Wight.
The island suffered a terrible blow last month. The UK's only wind turbine blade manufacturer, Vestas, made the decision to close its plant on the island. That has led to the loss of 600 skilled jobs. The pull-out could also cost the island potential jobs, as Vestas was planning to expand its operation into a new site at Newport.
The island has relatively high unemployment, so this is especially bad news during a recession. It is a personal tragedy for the skilled staff who are losing their jobs. It is just as much a tragedy for the island's economy. It is also a blow for the emerging market in renewable energies in the UK. The whole affair rather spoils the Government's energy strategy, which aims to
"provide more support for low-carbon technologies".
Vestas proposes to move manufacturing of its turbine blades to the United States of America and China, where, of course, it would be carried out at a lower price. The Government have failed to ensure the right conditions for investment in renewable energy. They have also failed to protect the whole economy from the worst effects of the recession.
Vestas has since said that it may reopen a manufacturing plant in the UK somewhere, sometime in the future. I fear it may be too late for those losing their jobs on the island. I hope that the economy recovers swiftly, and that skilled jobs return to the island. Meanwhile, 600 islanders and their families face a bleak future.
A subject that has been causing concern to farmers on the island is the disposal of fallen stock. The island does not have facilities to incinerate fallen stock, which is, I understand, the preferred method. Since 2003, the Isle of Wight has not been covered by the national fallen stock scheme. As the name suggests, the scheme facilitates the safe disposal of fallen stock. During that period, with the approval of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but without derogation, farmers on the Isle of Wight were unofficially allowed to bury fallen stock on their land. That practice, however, was not in compliance with DEFRA regulations, leaving island farmers in a vulnerable position.
One woman was taken to court for burying fallen stock. She was subsequently found not guilty when it became clear that the unofficial derogation was not legal. That led to a hiatus of around three weeks, when burial was suspended. Since the changes to the rules earlier this year, Ministers agreed to award the island official derogation. That allows farmers to continue the practice of burying fallen stock on their property. However, it is not a long-term solution. DEFRA's own website explains that
I am also concerned by the concept of fallen stock being buried near local water sources, for obvious reasons. In addition, there is the likelihood that the unpleasant sight of dead animals being buried may be seen by holidaymakers out in the countryside.
Ideally, this hazardous waste should be incinerated as soon as possible. DEFRA regulation states that the owner of the carcase is responsible for its disposal. I am reliably informed that the cost to ship one fallen bovine to the mainland for incineration is around £450. Clearly, the cost is prohibitive to the average farmer. There needs to be a long-term, safe and sustainable solution. I am no specialist in the matter, but I know that burial should not continue indefinitely.
As Members may be aware, I campaigned for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the three car ferry services to and from the island—those being Ryde to Portsmouth, Southampton to East Cowes, and Lymington to Yarmouth—and passenger ferries. There has not been an investigation of its kind for almost 20 years. The results of that investigation are due any time now. I, and I am sure my south coast colleagues and, of course, residents of the island, will read the findings with great interest.
Finally, I should like to say something about hospital waiting lists in the Isle of Wight primary care trust and on the mainland. One consequence of waiting excessive periods for the treatment of illness or injury can be an increased risk of defaulting on a mortgage, failing to meet the rent or even unemployment. Such worries are of particular concern during a recession.
Of course, for sufferers, the most pressing aspect of long hospital waiting lists is the physical and psychological discomfort that the delays exacerbate. In the past few months, I have noticed a steady stream of constituents coming to me with stories of long periods between diagnosis, referral and treatment. One constituent in his 40s is suffering from kidney stones, and has been left in agony, and out of action, for weeks with no date for an operation. Needless to say, that is putting his business at risk and seriously degrading his quality of life. Another, a widow in her late 70s who suffers pain while eating and swallowing, has been left for almost 26 weeks—that is, six months—without treatment. The recognised period between referral and treatment on the island should not be more than 18 weeks.
Another constituent, suffering from serious back problems, was referred to a hospital on the mainland and was made to wait for months for a scan after the first was cancelled. Yet another constituent, again in his 40s, is suffering from a back problem, and has been bounced from one hospital to another on the mainland, with long gaps between referrals. He has had to chase up most of his appointments, and feels like he has been lost in the system. His job, too, is under threat because of the delay in receiving treatment. Those individual cases paint a wider, rather grim picture. We really need to know whether there are significant numbers of cases in which a significant amount of time is wasted. I hope that the position can be improved. In the meantime, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Opposition and even the Government a very happy and pleasant week's holiday.
The Leader of Her Majesty's official Opposition, Mr. Cameron, came to my constituency on
Colchester is the only part of Essex that does not have a Tory council. I had hoped that the Leader of the Opposition would listen to local people on the biggest local issues in the town, but he did not. I hoped that he would persuade the county Tories that they were wrong, but he did not. The real losers in all that are not the Conservatives, although that would be a welcome by-product, but the people whom I have the honour of representing. Like it or not, national and local politics are part of the same fabric. They are interwoven. National decisions and policies affect local decisions and policies. Of course we must try to separate the two as much as we can, but the realities of life, so far as the Conservative party is concerned, were confirmed by the Cameron Direct visit to Colchester.
Actually, I quite like the right hon. Gentleman as a person. We are on first-name terms. That dates back to when we served together on the Home Affairs Committee, notably on our inquiry into drugs. His views on the subject were far more liberal than mine, as the official record confirms. It also goes back to when, along with the shadow Chancellor, we met regularly in the mornings, here in the House of Commons, to discuss the issues of the day. Indeed, I recall providing helpful advice and encouragement to the right hon. Member for Witney when he decided to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party.
One of the great delights of this place is the Members' bathroom, which is best described as a posh version of a typical sports changing room. It has a communal area, but separate baths and showers. It was here that we exchanged banter and political observations. Two of the policies that I suggested to the right hon. Gentleman as part of what he billed as his "compassionate Conservative" agenda have been adopted by him, although he has never given me the credit. Sadly, since his elevation to party leader, both he and his shadow Chancellor have stopped that early-morning visitation to the Members' bathroom; presumably, they have even grander surroundings to go to.
It was thus in a spirit of comradeship that I sent the leader of the Conservative party a briefing about the political situation in Colchester. I sensed that perhaps the local Tories would not be frank about how, in May last year, against the national tide of Conservative victories, they managed to lose five seats on Colchester borough council and, with them, control of the council—the only place in the east of England where such a disaster for the Tories occurred. The huge rejection of the Tories in Colchester was due not to national issues but to local ones; I thought it would be helpful if I explained that to the right hon. Gentleman. He subsequently thanked me. Unfortunately, he ignored my helpful briefing, and endorsed the very policies that last year saw his party humiliated in Colchester. The front-page headline in the following day's Colchester Gazette read: "David supports school closure scheme". That is very helpful to my party, but a huge disappointment to the people of Colchester who are overwhelmingly opposed—the figure is 96 per cent., according to Essex county council's own consultation—to the closure of two secondary schools in my town and the reconfiguration of the five that remain, all of which will have to expand dramatically. The whole so-called public consultation was a farce.
It is not only the people of Colchester whom the Leader of the Opposition let down by backing the plans of his Tory chums on the county council. The leader of that council, Lord Hanningfield, is one of his Front-Bench spokesmen in the House of Lords. Every Conservative borough councillor in Colchester is opposed to what their Conservative colleagues at county hall are proposing. There is a massive split in the Tory party in that part of Essex. Instead of backing the people of Colchester, however, the Leader of the Opposition chose to support the county Tories, based 30 miles away in Chelmsford.
Colchester is one of the fastest-growing areas in Britain. In terms of population, it is the country's second-largest borough, with some 175,000 residents. There are many unitary councils with a smaller population. If Colchester had a unitary council, the two secondary schools—Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley—would not be shutting. The borough council proposed alternative measures that would have meant retaining both schools. At December's borough council meeting, not a single Tory councillor backed both closures; they proposed a merger with a new academy on a new site, but at least they recognised that there needed to be a secondary school somewhere in the south of the town, where more than 2,000 new houses are being built on the site of the former Colchester garrison. Mr. Jenkin, some of whose constituents go to Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley, also supported the concept of a merger and an academy.
I have just praised the hon. Member for North Essex. We are united in opposition to Essex county council's proposals to shut the two schools; we just have a difference of opinion on how we should go forward. There is a world of difference between praising a Member and criticising him.
The majority on the council were in favour of what became known as option 4—the federation of the two schools with the Stanway school, under the executive headship of the inspirational Mr. Jonathan Tippett, who is already in overall charge of the three schools, and who has produced impressive outcomes since he took the helm of all three. A local solution for a local situation—something, one would have thought, that fitted the Tory agenda of so-called localism, of giving more powers to schools and heads, and of removing the dead hand of education authorities and officials. The reality, as demonstrated by the overbearing arrogance of county hall's leadership, is somewhat different. The county council's own consultation revealed that 96 per cent. of people opposed its proposals, but when the remote county Conservatives, only one of whom lives in my constituency, sought to justify what they were doing, they dismissed that. They said that that was not representative of the silent majority. That is the language of those who lead despotic regimes.
The Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition knows that those who run Essex in the name of his party do his party an ill service, yet he has chosen to ignore it. As was reported in the Colchester Gazette, he told the Colchester audience:
"It has to be up to the county council and people in Colchester to decide."
The people of Colchester have, at every opportunity, opposed the closure of the two schools; notably, its 60 borough councillors oppose it, too. The rhetoric of Cameron Direct is different to the reality of what his party in Essex is doing 30 miles away at county hall.
Until May last year, the proposal from Essex county council was to close both Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools, and create an academy for the whole of south Colchester on the TLA site. County officials gave compelling reasons why that should happen, and successive education portfolio holders argued that it was the only way forward. The local community disagreed, and I pursued the matter at parliamentary level. The case against the county proposals was overwhelming.
"Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision, but only as long as there is genuine improvement in all three schools".—[ Hansard, 19 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 3.]
There has been genuine improvement: Thomas Lord Audley has achieved its best results in 50 years, exceeding the target of 30 per cent. GCSEs at grades A to C, and Alderman Blaxill has come out of special measures. On
Sadly, that was not to be. Clearly angered by what had happened, Lord Hanningfield, in addition to being a shadow Minister in the other place and leader of Essex county council, took over the education portfolio insofar as it related to Colchester, and has personally driven an agenda to close not one but both schools. His costly vendetta will result in millions of pounds of public money being spent on new building projects, rather than money being invested in the existing buildings in the communities where the children live. Children will be bussed out of their communities, and there will be a reduction in parental choice.
County officials, who only weeks earlier were arguing one thing with professional passion were told what Lord Hanningfield wanted. To their lasting shame, they have concocted a case, made up as they went along, to seek to justify closing both Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools. I call on the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to honour what he told the House on
The proposals to shut two schools in my constituency were not the only reason why the Conservatives did so badly at the ballot box in May last year; another was their general financial incompetence at the town hall. They put £12 million into Icelandic banks. The new administration, led by the Liberal Democrats supported by Labour and Independents, got that down to £4 million before the Icelandic banks crashed—thank goodness it was not the £12 million that the Tories had put there. Then there was the matter of the £6 million pay-off to a private housing maintenance firm, which the new administration inherited from the Conservatives.
In the eyes of the public, however—and this is where national politics blends with local politics—the single most important issue of financial shambles which really angered the good people of Colchester was the folly of an unwanted art gallery that has been foisted on the town, even though people overwhelmingly did not want it. The original cost was put at £16 million. The gallery is now two years late, all work has stopped—again—and the cost has soared to £25 million. The visual arts facility, to give it its official name, has been funded primarily by the national taxpayer, with the largest sums coming from Arts Council England, East and the East of England Development Agency. Essex county council is a major player, too, with Lord Hanningfield personally driving the agenda from county hall. Colchester borough council's capital financial contribution is smaller, but at about £3.5 million, it is still a sum that Colchester residents would have preferred to spend on other things, such as upgrading the bus station, which was closed by the previous Tory council to provide a site for the visual arts facility.
It has been revealed that, although there is sufficient land for the bus station to be repositioned, the previous Conservative borough and county administrations entered into an agreement to prevent that from happening. I have been told, however, that the details cannot be published because of commercial confidentiality. How can it be commercially confidential, if two local councils are involved? The estimated annual revenue subsidy that the new arts venue will require has been put at £600,000 from the public purse, of which £300,000 will come from council tax payers. A major feature of the VAF will be the display of contemporary Latin American art. It is worth observing that Arts Council England is planning to spend more money on contemporary Latin American art than it does on promoting England's traditional folk culture. Surely Arts Council England should put our national heritage before modern art from south America.
The past two weeks have been the worst I have ever known for MPs—we have all been tarred with the same brush. Although it is clearly unfair, that is life, and we have to put up with it, right or wrong. What is not acceptable, however, is the abusive phone calls that Members' staff have received. My office has received only a couple of such phone calls—there have also been three abusive e-mails—but I am aware that for the staff of some MPs it has been a very nasty ordeal. I therefore wish to place on record my appreciation to all staff—not just the staff in my office—and register my regret that some people have been abusive to them.
There are, of course, two Houses of Parliament. Yesterday, in the other place, two peers were suspended for serious misconduct. One of them, Lord Truscott, used to be a Labour councillor and organiser in Colchester. The regulations in the Commons have been found wanting, and have been exposed over the past fortnight. However, I suggest that the public want a complete overhaul of both Houses of Parliament, not just the Commons. For the financial year 2007-08, a total of £25,654 in overnight and day subsistence was claimed by Lord Hanningfield, which is more than the highest claim made by any MP. The official records show that Lord Hanningfield attended on 120 days out of the 164 for which the House of Lords sat, although he was present for only 29—
I have not done so, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was aware only of the fact that we have to inform Members of the Commons. If I am not allowed to read from the official records from the other place, I will obviously abide by your ruling. However, these details are all on the record.
I accept your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will seek an Adjournment debate so that I can put the matter on the record. I will inform the noble Lord of the matters, which are in the public domain and which I have sought to draw to the attention of the House because they are of interest. I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall therefore conclude my speech.
There are a few matters relating to my constituency that I wish to address. Before I do so, however, as a new Member who joined the House in 2005, I want to say how shocked I am by the way in which Parliament works, and how democracy is often thwarted here, rather than advanced. Perhaps I was simply naive before I came here and knew very little of politics so did not see the reality, but I hoped that my belief that the House was the seat of people who come here to stand up for things and fight for truth and justice was right. Like everyone else, I have been horrified by the revelations over the past few weeks, but if there is any silver lining, it is that it sometimes takes something of seismic proportions to shake the corridors of history in Parliament and to change things for the better. I hope that all hon. Members—and I was listening to Mr. Allen, who made a good contribution—will consider how the House must handle the future so that we can regain the trust and confidence of our constituents. I was very proud and privileged to become a Member of Parliament, and I hope to feel that way again very soon.
With regard to the fair funding of schools in my constituency, if I say that per pupil Hackney receives £6,170, Camden £6,161, Islington £5,812 and Haringey £4,987, the House will realise that the children in my constituency receive more than £1,000 less, which is £32 million less per year. Because Hornsey and Wood Green has all the characteristics of those three inner-London boroughs, it has to pay its staff inner-London salary rates, which are much higher than the outer-London rates that it receives, and that is unfair. Children face being taught in larger classes and schools have difficulty in obtaining teachers and equipment, and that has a deleterious effect. I have raised this in Prime Minister's questions and he was kind enough to acknowledge that that was an anomaly, and I have met the Minister for Schools and Learners twice. A review is under way that will report in 2011, on which I have been refused a representative to make the case for Haringey, and I have received no assurance of any day of reckoning that will reckon in a way that I might wish to see it reckoned. Today I bring to the House another request that the children in Hornsey and Wood Green should not continue to receive £1,000 less per head than neighbouring boroughs when we face some of the worst poverty and deprivation in the country and when we have for so long received so much less than comparable boroughs.
I have lost five sub-post offices in my constituency and since those closures the queues have grown horrendously. People have to wait up to 50 minutes and the average wait is 12 minutes, which is quite a long time given that it includes those occasions when there is no waiting time at all. I have been working with the Crown post office in Muswell Hill, which has put every effort into reducing its very long queues, and by adopting queue management techniques and other methods it has managed to reduce the waiting time to three minutes. Highgate used to have two sub-post offices, one at the top of the hill in Highgate village and one at the bottom by Highgate station. The one in Highgate village was closed, making it difficult for older people and parents with buggies to get to the other one. People who receive those little slips saying that the postman tried to deliver something while they were out, which is a great nuisance but it happens to all of us, have to go to the Highgate station office, which is always impossibly busy, and if they go at 12 noon on a Saturday when everyone who works during the week goes, the queues extend out into the street and are incredibly long. I am sorry—but not that sorry—to have to pillory that office in the Chamber, but it is a small, dirty, badly kept sub-post office where it is incredibly unpleasant for people to wait, and it is far too small to cope with the overspill that has resulted from the closure of the other office in Highgate village. There has been a devastating knock-on effect from the closures. I should like the Government to reconsider this and to re-open the Highgate village office, so that the elderly, home workers and mothers with buggies, who are all having a difficult time, do not have to queue for the length of time that they do currently. That goes for Alexandra post office too.
I come now to one of the most serious issues that has arisen in my borough during the last year, and that is the tragedy of baby P, an issue on which I have spoken in the House a number of times, but I wish to raise it again. As the lead agency and the most to blame, Haringey council was rightly the first in line to get it most fiercely in the neck, and the consequences of that are well know through the media. There have been a number of sackings and a great revolution with the bringing in of a new director of children's services and new systems.
In the last few weeks attention has been drawn to the health services, which I have sought to raise and put on the radar. I have always felt that the children's health services that led to the tragedy were a mirror image of what went on in Haringey council. In the last few weeks, the investigative journalist, Andrew Gilligan, from the Evening Standard has exposed the failings within Haringey PCT and Great Ormond Street hospital. I have raised this matter in the House before, but it did not receive the same attention then that it did when it appeared in the Evening Standard. Four paediatric consultants worked in the children's health services, which were commissioned by the PCT to Great Ormond Street, and I had often wondered why there was a locum. On inquiring, I found that since 2006, of the four consultant paediatricians, two had resigned, one was off sick and one was on special leave, so the locum, who so famously failed to recognise the broken back and ribs, was incredibly overworked. That is no excuse; obviously she was a dreadful doctor to miss such serious injuries. Nevertheless, that makes one think. What has been exposed in the past couple of weeks in the Evening Standard includes the staffing shortages, which rather than being addressed have been denied by Great Ormond Street.
Unfortunately, one of the results of the righteous indignation of the nation over Members' expenses is that those very important stories have not resulted in pressure being applied to the NHS management that I might have wished, but it is now carrying out a proper investigation into what was going on in health services.
The spotlight passes from one agency to another and I am still pursuing a public inquiry because many issues have not yet received the full glare of public scrutiny. I have campaigned for the publication of serious case reviews. It is such secrecy that has kept events under the radar. When concerns are raised, whether by politicians, whistleblowers or whomever, ranks are closed and secrets are kept, and the only victims are the children whose problems are not resolved, while the defensive nature of such agencies is turned on the bringer of bad news. The baby P tragedy is the tip of the iceberg because of all the cases beneath the radar that never receive such publicity.
We also need a public inquiry to look into what part the budget played. Ofsted has almost got away scot-free, yet it was Ofsted that gave Haringey a clean bill of health with a three-star rating while all this was going on. When the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families instructed it to go in again, it gave a one-star rating. Something is going on. Inspection agencies must be pure and above board and not be influenced in any way by the political situation or governance. There are issues around whistleblowing, secrecy, gagging orders, the budget and opposition politics. What should someone in a responsible position in a borough such as Haringey do if they cannot get any of the scrutiny processes to take on board an examination of child protection in the borough? Famously, Sharon Shoesmith told the overview and scrutiny committee, "My department is not in need of any scrutiny. I commend it to you." We know what happened shortly after that, so a mechanism that triggers an early intervention must be introduced to the political process, too. There is no use in being so defensive. The argument follows on from what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said: we must get all our processes right. The issue is not just about the House or expenses; it is about how we do politics. So I am still campaigning for a public inquiry.
I shall briefly touch on another issue on which I have campaigned. Will Pike, a British citizen, was hideously injured as he tried to escape the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Terrorists were walking up and down the corridors in his hotel in Mumbai, looking for British and American citizens to kill. As far as the terrorists were concerned, it was a war. Mr. Pike escaped by climbing out of a window, but the sheets that he had tied together broke and he fell. He will be paralysed and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His father is a constituent of mine, and I am working with him.
The expenses furore also hid a story in the news about the campaign to secure compensation in this country for British citizens who are injured in terrorist attacks abroad. If one is injured in this country by a terrorist attack, one is entitled to compensation, and our argument is that if it happens to someone somewhere else in the world, they are still our responsibility and we have a moral obligation to ensure that they come home and are looked after. I have asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister, but I have not had a reply yet. If I do not get one soon, I am going to contact Joanna Lumley to help me. [ Laughter. ] Well, she seems to work the miracles!
I shall briefly touch also on mental health issues in my constituency. St. Ann's hospital is our local mental health institution, and it has been consulting on closing one of its in-stay wards. We do not have the capacity to cope with the number of people who need admission to mental hospitals, and I met a series of service users who are absolutely desperate, because their loved ones need to go into hospital, but they cannot get in. When I brought all their considerations and problems to the attention of the management, I was told, "We're going to improve care in the community. We will put in the underpinning and enable them to live in their own homes, because, of course, it would be preferable for them to live in their homes."
However, such consultations ask people whether they agree with the principle, "Is it better if you can keep someone in their own home?" The same philosophy exists for older people. In principle, if the safety net were gold-plated and one could be sure that people would be looked after properly, having not just their medical health and mental health needs attended to, but their socialisation needs, one might be tempted to agree. However, the reality in Haringey and Hornsey and Wood Green falls far short of what people would need if such services were to exist, and I am scared that the process will go ahead regardless.
The consultation has nothing to do with the real needs and desperate situations of those people and their families. I wanted to bring the issue to the Government's attention, because I am sure that Hornsey and Wood Green is not the only place in which mental health facilities are not adequate to cope with the great needs that people have. I want to get that point on the record, so that Barnet, Enfield and Haringey mental health trust sees what I have said about it, stops consulting, just listens and, I guess, does what I say.
That is what he tells me, and I believe him.
I shall turn to the middle east, because the heart of the Stop the War movement is in my constituency. It was born in Muswell Hill, and it is a very powerful movement. There is also a reasonably large—not huge, but sizeable—Jewish population in my constituency. I am constantly lobbied by pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis to take their sides, but I have always held the view that there is only one solution: to move forward and go for a two-state solution. The blame for past events—who did what—gets us nowhere. If I have learned one thing from watching events in Northern Ireland, it is that the only way is forward. We can go as far back in history as we like, and one side or the other will have done something dreadful. However, both will have been at fault.
I went to Israel and the west bank when I was shadow Secretary of State for International Development, and people there want peace and need their leaders to lead them to peace. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that there should be a regional solution; I do not see how we can solve it without having the key players at the table. However, the Government seem to go quiet when there is nothing immediate in the news. During the Gaza war, we were jumping up every day to discuss such matters, but now that the war is over, things have gone very quiet. I am sure that the Minister will assure me that things are going on all the time which are not reported, but I am anxious that not enough goes on when the issue leaves the media headlines. The blockades that prevent food and aid from entering Palestine are a humanitarian issue and should not be a political issue. I therefore simply call on the Government to move the agenda forward, not to go sotto voce, and to keep the issue at the top of the agenda. Only peace in the middle east will bring peace to the wider world, and then I would not have to stand here begging for compensation for constituents when they are victims of terrorist attacks abroad.
Lastly but not leastly—
Okay, sorry. Last but not least, I shall turn to beer tax. I simply want to say that we all like going to the pub. I certainly like going there, even more in times of depression. I have been there quite a few times recently.
The above-inflation increases in duty on beer are crippling local pubs, but they are the heart of our community. I must declare an interest, because my constituency office is on the first floor of a pub called the Three Compasses, on High street, Hornsey. It is a very good place to have a constituency office. It is secure, because I am not alone—people are there until late at night, so to speak.
Did he? Well, anyway, the British Beer and Pub Association said that 2,000 pubs closed last year. Tax is 33.5 per cent. of the price of a pint of beer and drinking is lawful. I simply call for a fair tax. I do not want to see that mainstay of British society, the pub, go out of existence.
Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to raise a number of points. When I spoke in the Easter Adjournment debate, I said then that it would be the last Easter Adjournment debate before we had a general election, and, obviously, this will be our last Whitsun Adjournment debate before a general election. Much has happened since Easter, and we have only to look at the Chamber at the moment to see that all is not well with the House.
Before my party leader called for an election, I felt that the paralysis that we in Parliament are suffering from was simply not tenable. I cannot conceive how the House can limp along—with little or no business at all and Members, for whatever reason, feeling more and more disillusioned and stressed—until April next year. Without being political, I should say that the country needs to be governed and the House needs to address very serious issues at the moment. For all sorts of reasons, I doubt whether Members can concentrate their minds fully on those issues. That is why we need a fresh mandate. Furthermore, given Mr. Speaker's decision to stand down, it is right that a new Parliament, with some new Members, should elect a new Speaker.
I want to say something about expenses. When I was first elected to the House in 1983, it sat for five days a week; we were always here on Fridays. The first Bill on which I sat in Committee was the Rates Bill. Members may be appalled or they may laugh, but one of our sittings lasted 48 hours. It is always fine to be wise with hindsight, but the time to change the arrangements on second homes was probably when the House changed the hours that we sit and how we work. In those early days, I represented Basildon, which was even nearer this place than Southend, West, but I could not get home to my constituency at 3, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. With hindsight, I wish that I and others had spoken up when we decided to change our working hours and that we had dealt with the issue then. It is a sorry state of affairs, and I cannot see how we can continue in this way until April next year.
I apologise for having been late to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker; I had given Mr. Speaker notice of that. I was at Westminster cathedral for the installation of the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols. I took the right decision in leaving halfway through, because the two-and-a-half-hour service does not end until 2.30. It was a privilege to be in a packed church. Throughout his nine years as cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has done a splendid job given all the difficulties faced by any Church at the moment.
Sometimes I am guilty of nodding off during a priest's sermon, but I listened carefully to the sermon given by the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols. His message was that we should listen to one another; I do not know whether that always happens in this place, but his message was to a wider audience. He also spoke about faith schools, an issue that the House has considered. Furthermore, he said that just because people have strong views on certain issues, they should not simply be derided as bigots. His message was strong.
Recently, I made a small contribution to The Tablet, in which I said:
"We are seeing a decline in the number of people going to church and he"— that is, the new cardinal—
"needs to address that and how the Church can be relevant in people's lives. The faith of society is also changing and bringing terrible problems which the Church can have a hand in solving. He needs to show the Government that the Catholic Church and Catholic education are resources worth tapping into, and that the Church can help with a lot of the problems that the Government is currently experiencing."
I am sure that I speak for most fair-minded women and men in the House in wishing the new cardinal well with the challenges ahead.
I hate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols is not the new cardinal; Cormac Murphy-O'Connor remains the cardinal. The hon. Gentleman is wishing the new Archbishop of Westminster well.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I think that the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols will become the cardinal. [Interruption.] I am chair of the all-party group on the Holy See, and I had a word with the Pope during my audience with him last year; I have it on good authority that the Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols may become cardinal. Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is looking forward to a happy retirement. The Most Reverend Vincent Gerard Nichols is the 11th Archbishop of Westminster to be installed. The irony is that this is the first time ever that a cardinal has been given the opportunity to retire; all the rest died in office. We wish Cormac Murphy-O'Connor a long and happy retirement.
Apart from expenses, the biggest issue in my constituency is that of the proposed expansion of Southend airport. In all my time here, I have never had as many individual, handwritten letters from constituents as I have on that issue. We all get petitions signed by Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria, and people run off photocopies of petitions for us to sign. However, I am talking about individual, handwritten letters, not just e-mails. It is obvious that residents of Southend, West are very exercised by the airport issue. It would be helpful if the Deputy Leader of the House—perhaps not this afternoon, but in time—asked the appropriate Department to reflect on what I am going to say.
The consultation period finished on
Never mind house building programmes, the Government have issued papers about the expansion and importance of regional airports, and that is how the whole process started. I think that I speak for all my constituents in saying that everyone wishes Southend airport well because of the jobs that it provides for local communities. However, when some years ago the then owner suggested that the airport should expand, there was meltdown. The then manager suggested that the beautiful 1,000-year-old church of St. Laurence be put on wheels and moved so many yards to allow the runway to expand and roads to be closed. English Heritage had something to say about that barking mad proposal, which caused huge upset in the constituency.
My hon. Friend James Duddridge and I work closely together on Southend issues, but there is a huge divide about the airport issue. The reality is that the airport expansion will not affect Rochford and Southend, East. Any expansion of the facilities, particularly the runway, will impact only on Southend, West, and the aircraft will take off entirely over the area that I represent.
The local authority has been under huge pressure. It has done the best that it can to consult and engage with the general public on this issue. However, I represent the highest number of centenarians in the country, and expecting senior citizens to e-mail replies and use that sort of technology is a complete non-starter. Having gone through the consultation document, I think that it raises more questions than it answers. We have not been given anywhere near enough detail about developments such as the new railway station, which will apparently bring people to the airport so that we do not have to worry about road expansions and closures. The proposal that the increased flights should take place from as early as 6.30 am until 11 o'clock at night is absolutely ludicrous. Unless I am missing the point, that means that my constituents will have complete freedom from any noise, pollution and all the rest of it only when they are asleep. That is complete madness.
Of course, there are still many processes to go through, with the public inquiry and other such matters. Without boring the House any further, I would simply say that as the Member of Parliament for Southend, West, I will be representing the views of my constituents, as any Member would. At the moment, the overwhelming volume of responses that I have received in my office—I even have extra people dealing with those letters—are against the proposed expansion inasmuch as it was detailed in the consultation document.
I am a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust, and I recently had the honour to lead a delegation to India—we went to Mumbai and to Chennai. It was a wonderful visit in every respect. In the previous year, we had been to China—to Shanghai—so Members of both Houses have had the opportunity to see at first hand the two new emerging economies and all the opportunities that can be provided for business women and men to engage with them. This country is very popular in India; the Indians are very keen for us to trade more goods and services with them. I have already had a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, thanks to the good offices of Baroness Coussins and Lord Janvrin, who are leading the detailed lobbying following our trip, and we have had a debate in Westminster Hall. Like my colleagues on the trip, I am determined to build on the many friendships that were formed during that period.
The Indian election, with the unexpectedly solid victory of the Congress party, is a powerful mandate for an agenda of reform. We can expect greater privatisation in infrastructure development and education reforms, which will present new opportunities to British exporters and investors. The Prime Minister, Mr. Singh, has already stressed the importance of India's secular leadership over parties that had sought to stress divisions of religion, caste and language—an equitable development.
The new Government will implement a range of reforms of great interest to Britain. They have introduced into the upper House an insurance Bill allowing more foreign direct investment in the sector. There is also a banking regulations amendment, which allows for greater private participation in the banking system, and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill, which seeks to establish a regulator to push through reforms in the pensions sector. We should also be prepared for an easing of foreign ownership restrictions in the telecommunications and retail sectors, and have in place the right regulatory architecture to take advantage of those developments. Our consulates are doing a splendid job, as is the British Council, but we should be even more proactive than we are at the moment.
I want to praise Southend council's measures against excessive indulgence in alcohol by young people. In Southend, we have a very strong record of preventive work in encouraging young people not to develop bad habits with regard to alcohol. That forms part and parcel of the healthy schools programme, which we deliver in partnership with the primary care trust. A high proportion of our schools have received healthy schools accreditation because of the strength of their work in that area.
I know that other hon. Members have touched on this issue, but there seems to be a problem with the funding of our schools generally. We can talk about the formula ad nauseam, but a number of our schools are struggling with the funding formula at the moment. I was recently lobbied about it by our excellent adult college of further education, which helps people with learning difficulties.
There is certainly a funding problem in education generally, but putting that aside, Southend council has been proactive in the initiative to deal with alcohol abuse and encourage young people not to go down a particular path. Ofsted inspections of schools in Southend comment that a very high proportion deliver outstanding work in encouraging children and young people to be healthy. The impact of that work is demonstrated in what young people tell us through the so-called "tell us survey", which indicates that 5 per cent. fewer young people in Southend misuse alcohol than is the case nationally. That is quite a large percentage.
The full joint area review inspection of children's services in autumn 2007 said that a major strength was well received initiatives to prevent substance misuse. It stated:
"Initiatives to prevent substance misuse across schools, the voluntary sector and post-16 learning are good."
The 'Getting on with the Blues' project at Southend United football club—the club is starting work on its new stadium, which we hope will be available for various sporting activities during the Olympic games—is an initiative aimed at primary school age children. It is being very well received and focuses on reducing alcohol misuse and antisocial behaviour, and more than 1,500 pupils have taken part in it. Evaluations of the project have found that most pupils, and all their teachers, rated it as excellent. The SOS bus and alcohol misuse outreach work have responded effectively to alcohol misuse by young people, and the alcohol misuse outreach worker has been effective in reducing reoffending and alcohol use by young people.
Over the past 18 months, the work of our drugs and alcohol action team has strengthened further, and its work in supporting young people who need support and treatment because of alcohol abuse is now very effective. We also have further programmes to launch, so I hope that the Government are pleased with what Southend is doing in that respect.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of being at the launch of an initiative at Westborough primary school, where we have a wonderful headmistress called Mrs. Jenny Davies. It is the largest primary school in Essex, and there we launched the English schools induction service. The service was designed by Blade Education to educate children aged between four and 11 whose first language is not English about the customs and rules of the British schooling system, in their native language. It is a pioneering multilingual service that promotes social cohesion by welcoming children and their families into primary education in the language that they fully understand.
The service provides 21 informative, accessible and, most importantly, child-friendly films that are available in a wide variety of language settings. The films help to integrate children who do not speak English as their first language into our schooling system, and they provide them with a realistic expectation of school life and help them to understand what will be expected of them as they go through their years in school. It will be used in every one of our 37 primary schools in Southend, and there are plans to launch an online version in September 2009 and to expand the service to secondary schools. A recent survey conducted by Blade Education noted that numerous educators had commented on the need for the English schools induction service to be instigated nationwide, and I wish to make that point to the Government.
I have a few comments to make about the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the police force in general. I get any number of complaints about all sorts of issues involving the police. I have the highest regard for the IPCC, which is headed by Nick Hardwick. He is an outstanding civil servant, who does a splendid job. However, I have lost count of the matters with which I have tried to assist constituents. The journey through the IPCC can go on for one, two, three, four and five years. At the end of it, the IPPC's powers to gain anything, such as apologies, compensation or change in police force practice, are zilch.
In Essex, there is a high turnover of police officers, especially at a senior level. That is not a particularly good thing. They all seem to retire early, for all manner of reasons. I have lost count of the letters that I have received from senior officers, introducing themselves to me and suggesting yet another meeting, and so it goes on. That shows the difficulty in conducting IPCC inquiries.
I have the highest regard for the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing. He said in a written answer to me that the IPCC is not responsible for imposing disciplinary sanctions on police forces or individuals. As we all know, Members of Parliament are currently in the limelight and we keep saying that no one is above the law. For that reason, we must address what is going on in our police forces.
The evidence, findings and recommendations of IPCC investigations are apparently fed into the police performance and conduct systems as and when appropriate. What is the point of the IPCC if it cannot impose discipline on police officers who are found guilty of abusing their powers? When a police officer has a complaint upheld against him, he is offered "words of advice"—would not Members of Parliament like to be offered "words of advice"?—from a senior officer. What message does that convey? More important, what deterrent is that? Other words such as "guidelines" and "recommendations" are worthless and meaningless, as is the expression, "Let's have a review."
When constituents complain and their representations are upheld, what "words of advice" are given to police officers and police forces? Who monitors the police complaints? How do respective police forces implement IPCC judgments? Commissioners come and go; the personnel change all the time.
I suspect that I was one of the few Members of Parliament who responded to the consultation process to try to give the IPCC more power so that, when people's complaints were successful, at least small amounts of compensation could be paid and public apologies could be made.
The Public Accounts Committee, which my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh admirably chairs, has done a splendid job in investigating the IPCC. In its 15th report, which was published only in March, the Committee made some excellent recommendations, including that the Home Office should clarify who is responsible for monitoring the implementation of IPCC recommendations. I have been in constant correspondence with Ministers about it, and the replies are just not satisfactory. I should therefore be grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House if he could, in due course, please find out from the Home Office what progress is being made on introducing an appropriate system.
I repeat that I have the greatest regard for Nick Hardwick and the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who is responsible for the matter. I took the consultation seriously and made some suggestions, but when will genuine progress be made? There is no doubt that the whole system governing police complaints needs to be re-examined and reformed. I hope that the Public Accounts Committee report is acted on soon.
The House has been indulgent, so I shall come to my last point, which is about fuel poverty. If we go outside this Chamber, we will see that it is a lovely early summer or late spring day. On days like today we forget about fuel poverty. We wait until November, and if there is a cold snap, we get hon. Members raising the issue. That is too late. Why did I and other hon. Members invest a year of our lives in 2000 to ensure that the then Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill became an Act? Why did we charge the Government with a duty to end fuel poverty, which we now know will not happen? Five million people are living in fuel poverty.
I welcome the Government's recent initiatives to address fuel poverty, which include the community energy saving programme, enhancing funding for the carbon emissions reduction target and raising the maximum grant under the Warm Front scheme. Ofgem is finally to act on failings and unfairness in the competitive energy market, which acts to the detriment of disadvantaged consumers, although it is a serious indictment of the regulator that remedial action has been so long in coming.
However, the result of raising the maximum Warm Front grant without increasing the scheme's budget is that fewer vulnerable households can be assisted. The Warm Front budget should be increased at least to maintain the number of households that can be assisted. We need a longer-term strategy to address fuel poverty through a national energy efficiency scheme to improve our entire housing stock. We need to introduce a social tariff combining consistent eligibility criteria and a degree of consumer benefit to provide certainty to vulnerable consumers and their advisers.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about fuel poverty. He is absolutely right that one should not wait until winter before one talks about it. Across the country, Eaga and the campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of the initiatives that he has mentioned work with hon. Members to encourage them to draw their constituents' attention to those schemes. I have such an initiative on
I applaud the hon. Gentleman for that initiative. It is not silly to do such things in summer. Each Member of Parliament needs to look at the situation in their constituency and try to do something now. The winter fuel payment needs to be reformed and extended to the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged non-pensioner households.
In these very difficult times, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all the Officers of the House a very happy Whitsun.
I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members, particularly those on the Government Benches, because I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is near boiling point in his exasperation at wanting to get away for the Whitsun recess. I can sympathise with that, because we had an important statement today on the Gurkhas and I had to rush out to celebrate with the Gurkhas who are outside. I am delighted that my hon. Friend Bob Russell, along with myself and a number of others, was given one of these rather marvellous scarves as a token of the appreciation that the Gurkhas feel for the vote that the House took and which the Government have now respected.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to one person in particular who has not had any credit in this whole saga, but who will, when the history is written, be seen as the key figure, notwithstanding the immense contributions made by so many other people, such as Joanna Lumley and others. That is a gentleman by the name of Peter Carroll, who picked up the campaign and ran with it six years ago in Folkestone, when the Gurkhas there went to their MP and failed to get support for their cause. Peter was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate at the time and has been involved since. He embodies the old principle that a man can achieve anything in life if he is prepared to give someone else the credit for it. Peter has given everyone else the credit for the campaign, but he has been very much the prime mover behind it. We all, but particularly the Gurkhas, owe him a considerable debt of gratitude.
Let me deal with some local issues before we adjourn for the recess. I am particularly concerned about the effects of recent Government decisions regarding the building programme of the Learning and Skills Council on both Eastleigh college and Barton Peveril college, both of which were seriously encouraged by the LSC to draw up plans for replacing old buildings and for expansion. There was an important new scheme for higher skills at Rookwood, which would be very important for higher-value manufacturing skills in our area, but all that is now on hold despite both colleges having spent substantial amounts on professional fees such as architects' fees. They have spent more than £500,000, but they are not guaranteed to get it all back from the Government. It is a complete shambles.
It is necessary to go ahead with those schemes, which would provide important benefits to future generations, and there is no reason to prevent them from happening. The principle that one can borrow to invest is well established in every soundly run business and it ought to be well established within government, but that principle is at stake because of the LSC's attitude towards Eastleigh college, Barton Peveril college and many other colleges across the country.
While I am discussing Eastleigh town, let me congratulate my local council and its leader, Keith House, on opening the first cinema complex for many years in the town centre. That is the latest step in the borough council's efforts to ensure that the town is able to survive in an age when an increasing proportion of retail sales are being sucked into the maw of the great supermarket groups—Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco are all represented nearby in my constituency, and it is an enormous struggle to ensure that there is still life in the town centre, particularly given that it was recently calculated that in one expansion Asda added the equivalent of 60 town centre shops in new floor space. Finding new ways of ensuring that the town centre stays alive is absolutely crucial to the success and health of Eastleigh. The opening of the cinema and bowling complex, and all the leisure activities that we hope will come with it, is an important step on which I congratulate the council.
Voluntary work continues to be absolutely crucial in my constituency. I commend in particular the expansion of the street pastors scheme. There was a successful scheme in Fareham, and it has now been launched in Eastleigh. I very much look forward to the scheme having an impact in the constituency by preventing young people from feeling alienated, and by ensuring that they have things to do. We have put a lot of effort into opening youth facilities in the constituency, and the street pastors have a key role to play in pastoral care and in helping to prevent the problems in town centres on Friday and Saturday evenings of which Members across the country will be aware.
A key local issue for my constituency is the proposal in the south-east plan for a new town—a special development area—north and north-east of Hedge End, effectively surrounding the hamlet of Borley Green and spreading into the Winchester constituency as far as Durley. The lack of public consultation on those proposals flabbergasts me. Constituents would have had more notice, through the planning process, of a porch being proposed by a neighbour than they have had about 6,000 new homes being landed on their doorstep in a way that will change irreparably the communities of Botley and Borley Green, as well as the surrounding countryside.
If we propose to build an extension to our home, we have to apply for planning permission, and those most directly affected will be notified directly, in writing. In this case, however, the body whose responsibility for consulting on the south-east plan is clearly set out in statute—namely, Hampshire county council—sent out generalised literature, much of which was not delivered in the areas that will be most affected by this SDA. We strongly oppose the siting of a new town in this position, particularly as there has been such inadequate consultation and inadequate work done on alternative sites.
Another example of the planning process letting down my constituents arises further south, on the Solent at Hamble. The county council is proposing to excavate a gravel pit on the old airfield. It would scoop up a metre from the surface, but the council has provided no evidence that that is necessary. Quite apart from the impact of the recession, there has been a steady reduction in the requirement for building aggregates. The effect of going ahead with this plan would be to turn a greenfield site into an industrial brownfield site, which would of course be much easier to develop for housing under the planning rules. I believe that that is the real agenda behind this plan. It is no accident that Hamble airfield is owned by a housing company, or that that company supports the building of the gravel pit. It knows that that is a back-door way of getting planning permission to build much more housing on the site in due course.
Given how stressed Hamble lane and the access to the Hamble peninsula already are, and the sensitive nature of Hamble village itself, this development would be a disaster, and we should oppose it. I very much hope that the county council will relent, and recognise that the development is not needed to provide aggregates for the county and that we should look elsewhere in due course.
I want to mention two more issues. I agree with hon. Members who have mentioned the problems afflicting local public houses. We recently calculated that public houses in south Hampshire were closing at an even faster rate than the national average. This is not merely a question of ensuring that alcohol tax increases do not rise substantially above the rate of inflation, as some Members and some lobbies have suggested, but of tackling some of the dramatic giveaways by the supermarket chains. These are loss leaders designed to bring in trade, and they involve selling alcohol at below cost price. This is an important issue that we need to deal with.
This week, I was encouraged by the support for the campaign for a minimum price for alcohol. Some hon. Members have suggested that young people in particular would oppose that idea because they would not be able to afford to buy alcohol, so I was pleased to see that the National Union of Students, among others, now backs the campaign. A minimum price would have the clear effect of encouraging people back into their community public houses. It is greatly preferable that when people drink, they do so in company, and in way that will enable their public houses to continue to be the centre of the community, as they have been in so many parts of the country until now.
Lastly, I would like to mention a pressing need that I hope the Government will address. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide us with some reassurance on the desperate need to provide local authorities with the powers to re-regulate buses. We have an extraordinary fight going on between the dominant local bus company, Bluestar, and a young, new, innovative competitor, Black Velvet, which to its credit attempted to provide a number of important new services—connecting, for example, Fair Oak, Chandler's Ford and Velmore with Eastleigh. When those services, which were greatly welcomed by my constituents, began, the dominant company, Bluestar, suddenly took an interest in the same routes and decided that it, too, would run services just three minutes ahead or 10 minutes behind those already provided in an attempt to scoop up all the business.
What happened is that the new, innovative and young competitor, Black Velvet, was driven out of these routes and had to announce that it did not have the financial resources to continue to provide these services. Then, lo and behold, a few weeks after Black Velvet had pulled the plug on the new routes, Bluestar turned round and said that it was pulling the plug on them as well. Frankly, that is outrageous, bully-boy behaviour on the part of the dominant bus company. I intend to take the matter up with the Office of Fair Trading to see whether any competition laws can prevent this sort of predatory behaviour against a smaller innovative bus company. I urge the Government to provide time to debate the issue in the House and ensure that local authorities have the regulatory powers to ensure real competition between bus companies rather than this sort of anarchy, which leads to a worse service for my constituents. Frankly, it is a scandal.
I would like to pay tribute to my local daily newspaper, The Southern Daily Echo, for picking up the issue and campaigning on it. It is an important issue, particularly for those who rely on public transport. Those who do not have access to cars—often those on the lowest incomes—want better bus services and they are not getting them at the moment. It is time to look at the whole misguided policy of deregulating the buses, which emerged under the last Conservative Government, and to find a way of running them on a much better basis.
I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate. There were perhaps not quite as many speakers as usual, but the quality was nevertheless there and a wide variety of subjects were covered—mostly local issues, but we have also strayed occasionally into the international sphere.
My hon. Friend Mr. Horam, who has a reputation for being a diligent and conscientious MP, had a strong message for the Health Secretary about the South London Healthcare NHS Trust. I am sure that we all share his concern for the dire financial state of the new trust, and he was right to commend its staff, who are doubtless working under very difficult circumstances, not quite knowing what their future might be.
My hon. Friend was also right to highlight the general difficulty of gaining physical access to hospitals. Yes, there is the issue of car parking, but public transport to hospitals is also important. I know that hon. Members who have rural areas in their constituencies will have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend, as they know how difficult it can be for people living in villages where there is no public transport. They need to travel somewhere else to get public transport in the first place and then need to change again before they eventually reach the hospital. We certainly wish the management of the new trust well in dealing with all the difficulties it faces. We hope that they will be able to come up with the right answers for my hon. Friend's constituents.
As always, Mr. Allen delivered a speech with considerable authority. He raised the crucial subject of the election of the new Speaker and in particular the role of the secret ballot. He said that this is an occasion for Parliament to exercise its own powers and not be bullied by the Executive. It is vital that we have a Speaker who will deal not only with the enormous challenges that we face, bearing in mind the current crisis, but with other issues, such as the need to reduce the number of Members of Parliament—
It has everything to do with the Speaker, because it is the Speaker who presides over the House, and his guidance would be most welcome, although any change would be initiated by the Government. It would certainly be a House matter as well as a Government matter.
Mr. Heath gave a typically passionate speech and he rightly dealt with the difficulties that we parliamentarians are experiencing. We all need to strive to sort those out and efforts are being made in that direction, but we all recognise that we have some way to go.
The hon. Gentleman told us that his son is taking his driving test today, and we hope that he passes it. He pointed out the absurdity of having to travel such an enormous distance to the driving centre to take the test, which led on to the problem that people are having in accessing so many other public services, such as tax offices, health services and job centres—as mentioned by my hon. Friend in an intervention—because they are sited further and further away from where people live.
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the A303. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make some effort to convey that message to the Transport Secretary. I have a similar problem with the A14 near my constituency. It desperately needs funds, but the date for the work keeps being put back. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will also convey my concerns.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome also spoke about the huge power that is wielded by unelected bodies. He will of course be aware that if the Conservatives are successful at the election and form the next Government, we will take a sword to powerful quangos and cut their number, and that will have the effect of also saving an enormous amount of money.
My hon. Friend Mr. Turner made a powerful speech and demonstrated that he puts the interests of his constituents first in all that he does. All of us will have had some sympathy when he spoke of the closure of Vestas in his constituency, with the loss of 600 jobs, many of them skilled. His constituents will be concerned that the company has said that it hopes to have some new jobs in due course in the UK. The failure to mention the Isle of Wight specifically carries a powerful message.
My hon. Friend was also right to pick up the issue of fallen stock and the worries and concerns of his rural community, especially the farmers. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey those concerns to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
My hon. Friend also mentioned serious concerns about waiting lists for his constituents, an issue with which many of us can identify. We wish him well in his battle to try to overcome those difficulties.
We then had a slight digression in terms of the tone of the debate in the speech by Bob Russell. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads his speech in Hansard, he will on reflection take the view that it was a wasted opportunity. He spent more time talking about the Conservative party and its leader than anything else, suggesting that he is a very worried man indeed. No doubt he will be issuing a local press release and a copy of his speech to his activists, but his constituents will be aware that the national media are reporting how well the Conservative party is doing and the leadership that is being shown in that direction. I am sure that his constituents will be able to make up their own minds, rather than being influenced by such a purely partisan speech.
It was rather regrettable that attention was not paid to the clear convention that we have in this House about when hon. Members are mentioned. My hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, who did not do him the courtesy of providing advance notice. That courtesy was not extended to a Member of the other House who was mentioned, too, and that point was rightly mentioned by Madam Deputy Speaker.
I have a reputation for being very willing to give way to many people, but on this occasion I shall not. The hon. Gentleman breached many conventions by not having the courtesy to give advance warning—a point that was mentioned by Madam Deputy Speaker—and so on that basis I shall not give way to him.
Lynne Featherstone gave a wide-ranging speech and spoke of the five post offices that have closed in her constituency. Many of us will identify with that situation, because many of us have lost post offices. Her plea that two of her post offices should be reinstated will probably fall on deaf ears, so I would not hold out too much hope.
The hon. Lady was also right to follow up on the tragic case of baby P and the continued failings in the health service. Again, I suspect that there is cross-party support for her efforts to try to bring about better health services and to minimise the incidence of such tragedies.
The hon. Lady spoke of the tragic case of the son of one of her constituents who was injured and paralysed in the Mumbai bombings. Clearly, there is an issue about compensation. People who are injured in the UK in such cases receive substantial compensation, but those British subjects who are injured in similar circumstances abroad do not get compensation. I wish her well in trying to get the meeting with the Prime Minister that she has asked for and I hope that he will give it to her without, as she said, the need for Joanna Lumley. I suspect that Ms Lumley has a lot of people wanting her support at the moment. I am minded to say that Esther Rantzen might be sitting by her phone, hoping that people will involve her, too, in some campaign or other.
The hon. Lady also touched on the tragedy of the conflict in the middle east. Again, there will be cross-party support for the recognition that the issue needs to be resolved, particularly as it is serving as a recruiting sergeant for many other terrorist groups throughout the world.
My hon. Friend Mr. Amess left a very important church service in order to join us, and we were very privileged to—
I am not sure that my hon. Friend is in a position to bless us. We were, however, certainly privileged to have access to a private conversation that he had with the Pope; I am sure that all those people who read Hansard will be grateful to have access to that conversation, too.
My hon. Friend was right to pick up on the fact that the Government are simply limping along without a proper or full agenda. Given that the Queen's Speech contained more proposals from the Conservative party than from the governing party, the Government have clearly run out of steam. Perhaps the time is right to have an election to ensure that those who have ideas and proper, constructive policies are given the opportunity to put them to the country.
My hon. Friend also mentioned his constituents' concerns about the proposed expansion of Southend airport. That point has certainly been taken on board and I hope that that message will be conveyed to the Transport Secretary by the Deputy Leader of the House.
My hon. Friend also spoke about his recent visit to Mumbai and Chennai. He is right to point out that India and China—he told us about his visit to China last year—are the economic powerhouses of this century. He described the Indians' willingness to engage in trade with Britain, but it is important that we do not take our historic links with India for granted. Many other countries that do not have those links are cultivating business relationships with India actively and aggressively. We must compete alongside them in the market, and not sit back and rely on our historic connections to further the trade links that we need for our own economic purposes.
I certainly wish my hon. Friend's local football club well with its initiative on young people, and he is right to say that we must not wait until winter before we debate fuel poverty. It is a very serious problem that affects many people, and it is something that we must debate whenever we can so that we can improve matters generally.
Again, we were privileged to have the presence of Chris Huhne. It seems that several hon. Members had to leave functions to attend today's debate, but the hon. Gentleman had a good reason for not being here earlier—he was celebrating the Gurkhas' very successful campaign, and I am pleased that Peter Carroll has been given the recognition that he deserves. His name is now firmly embedded in the Hansard record.
The hon. Gentleman told us about the cinema complex being opened in his constituency. That is a not unfamiliar tale. Most of us have small towns where people have few activities to get involved and engaged in. Many such towns are being destroyed because retail outlets are closing as a result of supermarkets' ever increasing power.
The hon. Gentleman described the lack of public consultation on a massive development in his constituency, and I am sure that all of us can understand how much that has upset his constituents. He said that supermarkets use loss leaders in the sale of alcohol to attract customers, and I understand that mineral water is sometimes sold at higher prices than alcohol. Clearly, that is something that needs to be looked into.
Finally, may I take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish you a very happy and restful Whitsun recess? I should also like to extend those good wishes to all the people who work for the House and for hon. Members, and to the security staff who do so much to keep us safe.
The debates that we have before recesses are very bizarre. They are a potpourri, a smorgasbord, an array of tapas, a pick'n' mix of an event to which little bits and pieces of debate are brought along. Lynne Featherstone admitted as much when, in a rather random way and after telling us about the pubs that she regularly frequents until a late hour, she said that she was going to turn to the middle east.
As I understand it, many years ago these debates were answered by the Prime Minister. An hon. Member would speak, the Prime Minister would reply, and that process would go on until the House was exhausted. On one occasion, an ageing Winston Churchill took 17 hours to respond to a pre-recess debate that ended in the small hours of the morning. He went to the Tea Room for a mutton chop, some chips and a cigar, and received a standing ovation as he walked in. I do not suppose that there will be many chops left by the time I finish my speech, and I am sure that I will not get a standing ovation.
The Whitsun recess debate is the oddest of all, I think. The vast majority of people who enjoy the holiday do not necessarily think of its religious significance. I used to be a curate and so it fell to me to preach the sermon on Trinity Sunday, which is the one that follows Whit Sunday. The concept of the trinity is a most complicated piece of theology, and very difficult to communicate to people. It was left to the curate to explain the inexplicable—not unlike what happens with these debates. I had some difficulty, since some of my own theology was a little random too; for many years I laboured under the misapprehension that the Lord's prayer began, "Our Father, a chart in heaven, Harold be thy name."
Whitsun, of course, is about Pentecost: it is when the Holy Spirit, as the shadow Leader of the House mentioned today, descends on the apostles and they speak in tongues—hence the bishop's hat is in the shape of fire on top of their heads. Of course, at the time everyone thought they were drunk; and the apostles replied that they could not be drunk because it was only 11 o'clock in the morning. That reminds me that we have had rather a lot of references to alcohol today—arguments in favour of a change in the Government's position on beer duty and a difference of views about how we should support pubs and whether we should be cracking down on under-age drinking. I am conscious that George Bernard Shaw said of alcohol and Parliament that alcohol allowed Parliament to do at 11 o'clock at night what it would never, ever think of doing at 11 o'clock in the morning.
The first of our speakers was Mr. Horam, who spoke largely on health issues relating to his constituency, particularly the restructuring of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust. I always think it slightly odd when Members refer to operating deficits in hospitals, but the hon. Gentleman spoke about the need for financial restructuring and for targets and gave us what he called his worm's-eye perspective of what is going on locally. He referred specifically to the problems of staffing in his local hospitals, and of physical access. He pointed out that it is important for people to have public transport access to local hospitals. He mentioned the issue of having to change buses. I note that he, in his political career, has changed bus once or twice. He originally stood in 1966, when I was four years old, as the Labour candidate in Folkestone and Hythe. Then he was an Under-Secretary of State for Transport from 1976 to 1979, and an Under-Secretary of State for Health in a Government of a rather different complexion from 1995 to 1997. I always think that versatility is a very fine thing.
My hon. Friend Mr. Allen is an Atlas in this House in his attempts to hold the constitution on his shoulders, and to ensure that the House stands for the highest possible standards and takes its role as a democratic body extremely seriously. I have read a great deal of what he has written and have been involved in many campaigns for reform with him; I pay tribute to him. He said that MPs have deluded themselves that they have power, because really it is only the Government who have power in the House, and he said that we ought to be doing more about that.
I agree with many things that my hon. Friend said, but in one respect I disagree. He said that the secret ballot was a very important tool. It is true that Gladstone's Reform Act 1872, which introduced the secret ballot—which, incidentally, was vigorously opposed by the Conservative party at the time—brought about a very significant change in our democracy and took away a great deal of corruption. Nevertheless, this House has rightly tended to eschew secret ballots, because it is important that our voters know how we do our business and how we voted.
I note that recently, when the Spanish Parliament had to decide whether Spain should join the war in Iraq, it had a secret ballot. If this House had gone down that route, I think that our voters would have been very angry with us.
The hon. Gentleman says that there would not have been a war, but I do not think that that is an argument for a secret ballot; I am sure he is not making that argument. I concede that there may be some areas where we should use secret ballots in the House—perhaps for elections such as that for the Speaker.
There is another area of disagreement. Several hon. Members, including the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, have suggested that the new Speaker must review how many Members of Parliament there should be. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said that a new Speaker, whether he or she, should radically reform this House. I issue a word of caution. I believe that the Speaker should be the servant of the House, and Speaker Lenthall made that point clearly. An important change took place, and although a new Speaker still has to be approved by Her Majesty—there is a procession to the House of Lords—the Speaker is the servant of this House. We cannot evade our responsibilities by expecting a Speaker to bring about the reform that we need.
I have two points of clarification to make, because I know that my hon. Friend is not trying to misrepresent me. First, I did not at any point say that the House should have secret ballots on proposals discussed on the Floor of the House, on policy matters, or even on going to war, although, as Mr. Heath pointed out, perhaps such a ballot might have produced a different result. My view is that there should be secret ballots on the three particular House matters that I mentioned, because Members would then clearly vote with their conscience, as opposed to being swayed by the Whips.
Secondly, I am not saying that the Speaker should be a superman or woman, and should attempt to reform the House radically. The Speaker should, in the Minister's words, be the person who facilitates the will of the House. Sometimes, as I am sure my hon. Friend will admit, that will has been thwarted by Government, or the alternative Government. Let the House speak freely—that is how I would put the case for a secret ballot in certain circumstances.
Of course I have no desire to misrepresent my hon. Friend. I have two points to make. First, strangely, on the occasion to which I referred, a secret ballot was held in the Spanish Parliament because the Spanish Socialist party, which was opposed to the war, thought that more people would vote against the war if there was a secret ballot. In fact, some of its Members must have voted in favour of the war because there was a secret ballot. So one can never quite prejudge how a secret ballot would operate. However, I think that we are all agreed that MPs should not seek to obscure from their voters how they intend to vote on any public policy position. It is a rather different matter when we are electing a Speaker. Anyway, the House has already made a decision about the direction in which we should move. It is important to note that when the first Speaker—Peter de la Mare, I think—was elected in the 14th century, it was really an appointment by the Crown. We have moved a long way from that, and that is an important principle.
I wish to clarify a point. Clearly, I recognise that the Government would initiate any reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. What I was trying to say is that the Speaker, by virtue of sitting in the Chair, would have to oversee such a radical change. Clearly, the initiative comes from the Government, but at the end of the day, the Speaker—a servant of the House, as we have just been told—would oversee what happens. There is a distinction, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House appreciates it.
Well, I am trying to appreciate it, but I am not getting any closer, I am afraid. Perhaps we will have to have a discussion about that at some point, without delaying the rest of the House.
I hope that I am not breaking any convention when I say that Mr. Heath—I got his constituency right, for the first time—told me, before coming into the Chamber, that he had only one word for his speech: disconnection. None the less, he managed to connect his thoughts, more or less. He said that the Commons had been trodden through the mud, and that there had been "almost irreparable damage to our reputation"; I think that those were his precise words.
I do not think that anybody in this House is labouring under the illusion that there is not a significant need for reform, and I very much hope that all parties will be able to come together to ensure that that reform comes about. The democratic process, based on universal franchise, is something that people fought for through generations in this country, and something that we all uphold. Without the opportunity to change society through the democratic process, we have no means of changing it, and we cannot even hope for a fairer or better world. The hon. Gentleman called for a massive programme of democratic reform to empower the individual, and I think that he knows from many things that I have said, both at the Dispatch Box and as a Back Bencher, that I wholeheartedly agree with many of the measures for which he has campaigned.
Mr. Turner, who often speaks in such debates, talked about the problem in his constituency in relation to Vestas, which has announced a 90-day consultation on the closure of its factory, with the loss of about 600 direct jobs. He will be only too aware of the fact that one of the problems for Vestas is that its market is not just a UK one. In fact, much of its plant supplies the American market, because the blades that it builds are the size mostly used in the USA, rather than in the UK.
The Government are keen, especially in a recession and because we want to tackle climate change, to make sure that we provide proper support for renewable energy industries. That is why there has been £4 billion of new capital from the European Investment Bank for UK renewable energy projects, and £405 million to support low-carbon manufacturing, including wind projects in the UK. We are keen to do more. I will pass the hon. Gentleman's comments on to the responsible Ministers, so that if there is anything further that they can do, they have an opportunity to do so.
Likewise, I will pass on the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the disposal of fallen stock. He pointed out that there was now official derogation for burial, but he said that there were significant worries about whether the burial of farm animals was safe and sensible, and whether there would be problems for water conduits. He also raised a series of other issues that needed to be treated seriously, and I will pass those messages on.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to waiting lists, and the need constantly to bear down on them. Some people say that it is wrong to have targets in the health service, because somehow or other that interferes with medical considerations. When I was first elected, my own experience in south Wales was that many people who regularly came to see me were suffering from serious conditions, having been told that they would have to wait three, four or five years, particularly for orthopaedic operations. Those waiting lists do not exist any more in my area. Health is a devolved responsibility in Wales, so it is not the Government's particular responsibility, but I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that if there is a long waiting list, that can exacerbate poor mental health, let alone poor physical health.
Bob Russell, contrary to what Mr. Vara said, made a rather good speech. He spent quite a lot of time attacking the Conservative party, which is obviously a sane and sensible thing to do. I do not have an axe to grind in that particular enmity, as both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit in the Rhondda and indeed—well, I will not say any more about that. The hon. Gentleman talked rather a lot about the Members' bathroom, which he seems regularly to have shared with Mr. Cameron. I do not want to go there, in more ways than one. He said that Colchester is the fasting growing area in Britain.
Well, as an area, it cannot be growing—it must still be the same size that it always was. I presume that he meant that the number of people living in Colchester was growing, or that the people were the fastest growing people in Britain. He sought to portray Essex as having had a despotic regime, and if it had a Conservative council, I am sure that he was absolutely right.
The hon. Gentleman raised several important education matters. He is absolutely right that, whenever there is a discussion about school sizes and the availability of local schools, we need to ensure that there are safe routes to school and that Every Child Matters is not just the name of a programme or a slogan, but really means something. I hope that the local council in my constituency will reconsider—again this is a devolved issue—whether to close Aberllechau primary school and to merge the two schools in Maerdy. I do not think that the proposals will end up providing precisely the kind of education that the children in those relatively isolated communities very much need
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, in her randomised speech—I do not seek to be rude; that was me seeking to be nice—as I think she herself admitted, referred to funding issues that she has already raised with the Schools Minister, and I will pass those comments on. Likewise, she raised issues regarding Highgate post offices and she referred to the average waiting time in some post offices being very lengthy, which is something that the Post Office must consider closely. In my constituency there are issues on which we have to fight. One of the difficulties, again in Maerdy, is that the local sub-postmaster has simply not wanted to continue because the business is not economic. I am glad that the Post Office is committed to ensuring that there will always be a post office in Maerdy.
The hon. Lady raised the important issues of baby Peter. All hon. Members have been very troubled by all the stories that we have seen in this regard, not least because none of us wants to enter into a culture where social workers receive all the blame for society's ills. Many of us will want to pay tribute to the work that social workers do, often in a very pressurised and sometimes under-resourced situation. The Government sought to act swiftly and I know that the hon. Lady has taken up issues directly with Ministers. If there are other issues that she wants to pass on, I am sure that she will.
The hon. Lady referred to her constituent in Mumbai, an interesting issue that I will pass on to the relevant Minister. I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question. She also referred to mental health facilities in her area. My mother was an alcoholic and made quite a few visits to mental health facilities, so I know the importance of ensuring that no stigma attaches to mental health problems. That means that facilities must not be dirty, grotty and a relic of the Victorian era, but provide the best mental health support possible. Ethically and morally, there is no difference between a mental health problem and any other kind of health problem.
The hon. Lady referred to the middle east and suggested that the Government go quiet when there is not a big row going on in the world, but that is far from the truth. Ministers are actively engaged on a day-to-day basis in trying to pursue the middle east peace process on precisely the grounds that she suggested, namely that we must have a two-state solution, which means an Israel secure and safe in its borders, and a sustainable Palestinian state. Those are difficult to achieve, but—who knows?—perhaps with the change of Administration in the United States of America, a brighter dawn might appear along the road. The hon. Lady also referred to the beer tax and the fact that she spends a great deal of time above a pub.
Mr. Amess, who, again, often takes part in these debates, graced us—I think that that is the best way to put it—with his presence having just come from His Grace. He referred to how the House used to sit for five days a week and that one sitting went on for 48 hours. I am not sure that that was necessarily a golden age or that it led to the better scrutiny of legislation, but one thing that I am certain of is that the job of a Member of Parliament has radically altered over the past 20 to 30 years. Whereas in the past it was sufficient to visit one's constituency twice a year and constituents did not mind if it was only once a year, now constituents have a completely different expectation of how much time we spend in our constituency, and, to be honest, of how much we bring up their specific concerns in the House. In the 19th century, hon. Members just did not do that, so we must acknowledge that there is a very changed environment. If we were to surrender all Fridays to being here and not in our constituencies, our constituents would find that odd.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, and I too want to pay tribute to him. I first met him in Lima in Peru in 1986 at about 11 o'clock in the evening, when I think he was imbued with the holy spirit—let me put it that way. I was an Anglican, but he was not very keen to get up for the 8 o'clock mass the next morning and suggested that he might ordain me on the spot so that I could say mass instead. I pointed out that as far as his church was concerned, I was a schismatic who had not even been properly baptised, so we did not proceed with the ordination.
The hon. Gentleman referred to issues relating to Southend airport, which I will pass on to the relevant Minister. Likewise he talked a great deal about alcohol and young people, which is a matter that many of us have wanted to address because the issues of teenage pregnancy and antisocial behaviour that flow from the large amount of alcohol that many young people in the country drink fill us all with concern.
The hon. Gentleman also raised a specific issue about which I know little, I am afraid—namely, who monitors and pursues the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I shall raise those matters, as well as the matter of the Warm Front budget, with the relevant Ministers.
Chris Huhne also graced us, finally, having spent some time with Joanna Lumley—another person whom I first met many years ago. Indeed, I met her a few weeks ago, when she fired the starting gun for the House of Commons versus the House of Lords swimming competition—which I won. She is a very fine woman, and the whole House will want to acknowledge that, today, we have made significant progress on the issue of the Gurkhas. Indeed, everybody has already paid tribute to that work.
The hon. Gentleman referred to retail sales and small shops in towns. Again, as one who has a constituency that comprises a string of smallish towns, I recognise that such facilities are absolutely essential. People need local shops and a local community. Although many people want to shop at Tesco, Sainsbury's or wherever, or to go to a big, multi-screen cinema, because they want that degree of choice, it is important to ensure that, with local regeneration, we have strong town-centre policies.
The hon. Gentleman said that a new town is to be built in his constituency, but I think that he exaggerated matters a little. I know that it is in the nature of Liberal Democrats to exaggerate, but— [ Interruption. ] Yes, he is allowed to smile. [ Interruption. ] You see? He agrees with me: he agrees that it is in the nature of Liberal Democrats to exaggerate. [ Interruption. ] No, they are all smiling now, so they all agree that is in the nature of Liberal Democrats to exaggerate. However, the hon. Gentleman exaggerated a bit when he said that people have to get planning permission for a porch. It would have to be a pretty big porch, although we have learned, of course, that quite a few MPs do have quite large porches.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the potential gravel pit on Hamble airfield, and spoke about the regulation of buses. I shall pass on those issues to the relevant Ministers.
I am developing a growing sense of fondness for Mr. Vara, my opposite number, although it was hampered this afternoon by his clear inability to understand the role of the Speaker, and by his gratuitous demand for money for the A14—when he did not choose to mention that the Rhondda Fach relief road also needs to be completed. He was a bit rude about the hon. Member for Colchester, and, although it is always fun to be rude to him, none the less, I did not think that he quite deserved it on this occasion.
Interestingly, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said, "perhaps" it is time for a general election, so the Conservative party is already sliding away from the Leader of the Opposition's formal position yesterday, when he shouted and screamed across the Chamber, demanding a general election. Now, it is only, "perhaps it is time for a general election." The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire also said that it is time for a party with concrete proposals for this country—well, if only even he himself believed that his party had such concrete proposals. The truth of the matter is that his party has absolutely no proposals—even for its own self.
No, I shall not take any more from the hon. Gentleman, because he knows that he has got it wrong. My fondness is not so extensive as to allow him to intervene again, because I want to talk briefly about my constituency.
I shall raise three brief issues. For my constituents, the single most important issue affecting them is the recession, and I think that they want us to look at how we can help them in their individual situations and ensure that people do not have their homes repossessed. I was struck a few weeks ago by somebody who came to my surgery and said that he had just passed the 13-week mark after being made unemployed and was therefore able to get support for his mortgage, meaning that he would not lose his home. We sometimes forget that the things that we change in Parliament dramatically and personally affect people's life opportunities.
The same goes for employment opportunities in my area. Historically, my constituency has had a high level of incapacity benefit claimants, so it is important that jobs are available to people, and that is why I am very supportive of one of the major projects that the Ministry of Defence still wants to advance—namely, the defence training academy at St. Athan, which I know would make a dramatic difference to my patch.
Finally— [ Interruption. ] I can see out of my left eye, my Whip, whose eyebrow is rising with expectation at "Finally". I should like to extend my thanks and those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to all the staff of the House and, in particular at the moment, because it has felt like we have been under siege over the past few days, to the police, who have been policing in Parliament square. It is very difficult to strike that complex balance between ensuring that Parliament can do its business and allowing people to demonstrate and exercise their democratic freedoms.
We also thank the Clerks of the House, whether wigged or not, the Doorkeepers and all those who serve us with food and drink. I extend my good wishes for Whitsun to all Members. Whitsun was originally always conceived of as Pentecost—as a moment for inspiration. For most people, it then became just a holiday. I should like to end by reciting "Whitsun", a poem by Sylvia Plath:
"This is not what I meant:
Stucco arches, the banked rocks sunning in rows,
Bald eyes or petrified eggs,
Grownups coffined in stockings and jackets,
Lard-pale, sipping the thin
Air like a medicine...
A policeman points out a vacant cliff
Green as a pool table, where cabbage butterflies
Peel off to sea as gulls do,
And we picnic in the death-stench of a hawthorn.
The waves pulse like hearts.
Beached under the spumy blooms, we lie
Sea-sick and fever-dry."