As we move on, maybe this is the time for me to talk the talk and wish all hon. Members and staff working at Parliament a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2013. It would not be a Christmas general debate without a contribution from Mr David Amess, so let us start with Mr David Amess.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, there are a number of points I wish to raise. Members are familiar with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. A number of constituents have raised with me the fact that they think it perverse that they cannot have the name and address of the person who raises the FOI inquiry. I agree with them; I think the law should be changed.
In October, I met Paul Atkinson, from Prysmian Group, who is very troubled by the state of electrical cables. He fears that safety regulation of imports is not currently strong enough, and that this is causing fires, as well as the loss of British jobs. Having recently met fire officers in my constituency, I think this is a real problem.
Earlier this year, I secured a debate on the lack of burial space. There were excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), and a very good reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mrs Grant. I hope that further work will be done on this issue because, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, the only things we can be certain of in life are death and taxes.
I have long campaigned in this House on the role of the Iranian resistance movement. There have been gross violations of human rights in Iran and the sharp rise in public executions continues. Her Majesty’s Government need further to support democracy and change in Iran, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran must be recognised as a legitimate opposition movement.
A few weeks ago, there was a power cut in my house and that of my next-door neighbour. I complained to E.ON, with whom I settle the bill, as did my neighbour. It was passed on to UK Power Networks, who passed me on to the energy ombudsman, which was an absolute waste of time. No one seems to be responsible for these matters, and my neighbour and I want compensation.
One of my constituents is particularly worried about postal vote fraud. To prove a point, he put five fictional names down at his address to register them as voters, and received postal votes for all of them. The census was obviously not checked to verify the residents in the property. He was arrested for electoral fraud, but the police brought no charges. We are both anxious about what appears to be a very lax system.
Last month, I visited Broadway Opticians in my constituency to see at first hand the different enhanced eye care services that optometrists and opticians can deliver. Community optometrists offer patient-centred, cost-effective quality eye care services in convenient, accessible locations. A key benefit of implementing those enhanced services is a reduction in referral rates to GPs and A and E units. These services are very patchy in our area. I ask what plans my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has to make sure that these enhanced services are available across the country.
No doubt the whole House would like to see driving become safer—according to my wife, if anyone drove with me they would see why. I was contacted by the Association of British Insurers, which is seeking to change the law on learning to drive. It wants a minimum one-year period for learning to drive and a ban on intensive driving courses. At the same time, it would like to allow teenagers to start learning to drive at 16 and a half, although as a politician I am not so sure about that.
On an issue of great concern to senior citizens, constituents of mine have been informed that their pensions will no longer be paid into the Post Office, but instead will be paid into a bank account. The letters informing them of the change came from Her Majesty’s Treasury, not the Post Office. This change is very difficult for many senior citizens to manage, and I urge Her Majesty’s Treasury as well as the Post Office to think through this change very carefully.
Another constituent of mine has raised with me his issues with Wonga, the pay-day loans company. He is particularly concerned about its television advertising, which does not mention the annual percentage rate of 4,214 applied to loans. It is worrying how easily one can obtain money from such companies. Its website guarantees quick decisions and money delivered swiftly. Any company making such quick decisions on loans can hardly be spending much time considering how the loans might affect the person’s life or how it could be paid back.
Dredging is damaging the environment in my constituency. It is affecting the cockle and the fishing industries, and is fundamentally changing the Southend coastline and affecting Southend pier, the longest in the world. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. There has been a huge reduction in the amount of mud on the foreshore in Southend and Leigh. The pace of change is very dangerous. I have mentioned it in the House before, and I will continue my ongoing campaign to look after the Southend coastline.
Yet another constituent met me recently to discuss the creation of the supermarket watchdog, which is part of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, introduced in September. Supermarkets can treat suppliers badly without fear of any consequences. Although supermarkets are clearly beneficial to society, we must be careful to protect their customers and suppliers. I congratulate ActionAid on its long campaign and look forward to seeing the watchdog ensure fairness for producers, supermarkets and customers.
A constituent of mine, James Price, who belongs to the Plymouth Brethren, has been in contact with me on a number of occasions regarding the Charity Commission’s plan to remove charity status from the Brethren’s gospel halls. Not only should this group be able to keep its current status, but I am worried about the implications if it cannot do so. I was pleased with yesterday’s ten-minute rule motion on this subject. What is to say that other religious organisations, such as the Church of England or my own Catholic Church, will remain safe if the gospel halls are not?
The final subject that I wish to raise is art. Art is wonderful and should be cherished. Southend West is a centre of cultural excellence. I enjoyed hearing the inaugural concert of Southend youth orchestra and was particularly delighted to hear from David Stanley’s group, the Music Man Project, which offers a unique service for people with learning disabilities. It is absolutely wonderful. David and the orchestra deserve a national audience, and it was my joy to go to No. 10 Downing street yesterday and present the Prime Minister with the DVD. Furthermore, I will be organising an event called “Southend’s Got Talent” on
This year, my mother turned 100, and we enjoyed the diamond jubilee and the Olympic games. I do not know what can top it next year, but some of us will be celebrating 30 years in Parliament. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all the staff a very happy Christmas, and everyone else good health, peace, prosperity and a wonderful new year.
Mr Amess is always a difficult act to follow, but it is always a pleasure to do so, and I look forward to hearing the result of his talent contest.
I wish to inject a serious note, because I am asking the Government to rethink their consultation paper, “Judicial Review: proposals for reform”. I speak as someone with experience working for the previous Government on judicial reviews. Yes, they come in thick and fast, but in my view they are a necessary safety valve for society and uphold the rule of law. They are the foundations of our democracy. What is a judicial review? It is a review of a decision by a public authority—a review of legality, unfairness or reasonableness, or of whether there was a personal interest in any decision taken by a public authority.
My first concern is about the consultation period. The paper was published last week, and, in my view, the consultation period is not long enough. I have been in many judicial reviews where judges have expressed concern that there has been little or hardly any consultation. This consultation is taking place over the Christmas period. It is not even the length of a legal term. It will last for six weeks, at least two of which will be taken up by Christmas and new year. That might even be grounds for a challenge. What is the case for change? Page nine of the document states that judicial review has developed far beyond its original intentions. That is not a proper reason based on evidence; it is an opinion.
We are dealing with old powers that go back centuries. Some of the remedies have Latin words such as certiorari, mandamus and even habeas corpus. They have been exercised more extensively, because there has been much more legislation, and that is my second point. The Government are concerned about the growth of judicial review, but, because there is more legislation, there will be more challenges. When decisions are made and discretion goes beyond what Parliament has laid down in legislation, of course there should be challenges. These proceeding are not brought before the court lightly. Judges take very seriously the use and abuse of the court process and do their best to filter out vexatious claims.
My third point is that the Government want to change the process for granting permission to bring judicial review proceedings. Their own evidence shows that permission hearings—first on paper, then orally—are a good filter of cases, so what are the figures? In 2011, 7,600 applications were considered by the court, but only one in six was granted. That makes 1,200. That, to me, shows a court doing its job. It is one gigantic filter. Furthermore, only 300 permissions were granted for an oral hearing.
The oral permissions are important, because they are about getting a fair crack of the whip—to use a judicial review term—and it is right that those cases that have been filtered out get a second chance, because there might be new evidence. Even when they get to the stage of a hearing and an appeal, judges, particularly in immigration cases, are now ordering that the appeal can be pursued from abroad. I am astounded at the suggestion on page 11 that a victory in a judicial review is only a pyrrhic victory. It is a victory in terms of court. It is referred back to the original body for consideration, either because the decision was exercised unlawfully or unreasonably, or on one of the other grounds of judicial review. That is a proper victory within the grounds of judicial review.
I am also concerned about the timeliness aspect. The Government say that judicial review cases take a long time. These are not cases in the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce mould. Where is the evidence that there is delay beyond the three months? Most cases are dealt with in a timely fashion. There is a pre-action protocol that allows information to be exchanged before a case goes to court to be settled. The Government want to reduce the time limit from three months to six weeks in planning cases. That will not make them go away or get dealt with any quicker. What has to be looked at is the listing for a hearing. That is where the delay is. I have said before in the Chamber that we need more judges and more court time. The fact that some of the cases have been heard outside the Strand—in Cardiff, Manchester and other areas where the administrative court sits—is taking cases away from London, and that is a good thing.
My next point concerns fees. The Justice Secretary said that judicial review was being increasingly used by organisations for public relations purposes, but increasing the fees will not make them use it any less. Those organisations can afford it; it is the individuals or the residents groups who will not be able to afford the fees and therefore will be denied access to justice. If we remove access to justice, we remove one of the important parts of a democracy. In my view, the Justice Secretary has not made the case for reform. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to ask the Justice Secretary what discussions he has had with those who drew up the civil procedure rules about these changes, and what representations he has had from the judiciary, lawyers and others who use the administrative court stating that there is a need for reform.
The case for reform is flawed. As Tom Bingham, the eminent judge, wrote in his excellent book, “The Rule of Law”, judges review the lawfulness of administrative action taken by others; they are the auditors of legality—no more no less. If we are to live in a democracy, we have to expect decisions to be made in cases which are not acceptable to the Executive or Parliament. We would not wish to have a judiciary that agrees with everything the Executive or Parliament does. Judicial review is one of the pillars that hold up a just society. Unforeseen consequences of legislation and the exercise of discretion can be tested in the courts through JR. We not only have great expectations but—in JR jargon—legitimate expectations that the safety valve for society that is judicial review will remain intact. In judicial review, judges exercise a constitutional power that the rule of law requires them to exercise. That is the way it should be.
May I add my voice to others in wishing everyone a merry Christmas and a happy new year and in thanking the staff for all their hard work over the year? Let me also say, on this auspicious day—20/12/2012—that I hope everyone’s dreams come true.
I do not intend to take up anywhere near my allocated time, Mr Deputy Speaker; instead, I hope to be punchy and pithy.
Everyone in this House will remember the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on
Belarus and Ukraine, where most of the charity’s work is focused, received more than 70% of the radioactive fallout from the nuclear explosion. As a result, thousands of children are still born every year with, or go on to develop, thyroid cancer, bone cancer or leukaemia. The charity does much work to help these children. It provides ongoing supplies of multivitamins and basic health care products to the children, having delivered thousands of tonnes over the last two decades. The charity helps children too sick to travel by providing chemotherapy medicines to children’s cancer hospitals in Minsk and Gomel, as well as other regions. It provides support with medicines and equipment to babies’ homes in Minsk and other orphanages around the country. When needed, the charity brings children to the UK for long-term medical care and education.
I want to speak about the charity’s work in bringing child victims of the Chernobyl disaster over to the UK for four-week recuperation breaks. More than 46,000 young children have been brought over to stay with UK host families since the breaks started in 1992. Traditionally, for the last 16 and a half years our Government have provided gratis visas for these recuperation breaks, like every other country in Europe. The breaks help to prolong those young children’s lives and give them good clean air and good living for just four weeks of their lives. The gratis visas are due to cease in March next year. The charity will have to find an additional £89 per child to bring them to the UK for four weeks’ recuperation.
The visas are currently paid for by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from a budget of £250,000, but the actual cost is only £130,000. The money is transferred to the UK Border Agency for the service it provides. I have received a written reply from the Minister for Europe who has explained the reasons why the visas will cease. The money will apparently keep one of our smaller embassies open, it equates to full-time equivalent staff whom the FCO does not have to make redundant, and he feels that he gave the charities enough notice of the FCO’s intent when they were advised of the change back in November 2010.
I would ask my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House whether a solution can be found, because this charge, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Home Office, is just that: a charge. There is no physical product, apart from just the process. The true cost of providing the visas is much less than the budget spent on them, and given the 0.7% of GDP that we spend on international aid, the amount is so small that it is almost embarrassing that we should be cutting support for those young, dying children. May I also ask my right hon. Friend whether, rather than giving a blanket no, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will please seek a solution with the Home Office—and perhaps even the Department for International Development —to ensure that we continue to do the morally right thing and help this and other charities to prolong these young lives?
Mr Deputy Speaker, may I, like others, take this opportunity to wish you and the whole House—Members, staff and their families—a wonderful Christmas and an incredibly peaceful new year?
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your now traditional role of the Speaker’s version of Santa Claus, giving presents to the Back Benchers. I hope that next year we will see you enter into the spirit a little more, with something less sombre than your morning suit—perhaps a pair of antlers, a red nose or some such. We look forward to that with great expectation.
It is a pleasure to follow Craig Whittaker, who uses these debates in the way they should be used by Back Benchers. He had great support in all parts of the House as he spoke. We commend him on the resilience he has shown in looking after the interests of the children from Chernobyl. In a way, that shows the value of these debates and, indeed, the Backbench Business Committee, which some colleagues who are new to the House might rather take for granted. Those of us who have been here a little longer know what a hard fought campaign it was—including on our side of the House, through those on our own Front Bench—to get the Backbench Business Committee and give Back Benchers the voice they deserve in their own legislature. I hope we will soon add the other half of the brace that was recommended by the Wright Committee, which is to have a House business committee—the promise is to do that this year—which will allow this Chamber some measure of participation in setting the business of the whole legislature, rather than leaving it entirely to the Government. I hope that colleagues will join together in progressing that over the next year.
I would like to place on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for announcing yesterday that medals will be awarded not only to Bomber Command, but to the Arctic convoys. I have followed this issue for the best part of two decades. If I can be blunt, I think it was a stain on the record of the last Government that so many of us had to work so hard—and fruitlessly—and that by the time the Prime Minister announced this recognition yesterday, so many of the brave men and women who fought in the Arctic convoys, Bomber Command or elsewhere had sadly passed away. Only their families will now have the honour and admiration from all of us for the sacrifices those men and women made. I hope that the Ministry of Defence, which is notorious for its bureaucratic ways and failing to recognise the sacrifice of service people, will have learnt a lesson and will now act expeditiously where the needs of servicemen are raised by colleagues in this House, from whichever part of the House they come.
It is important for those who served in Bomber Command and survived—it had the highest attrition rate of any theatre of combat in the second world war—get the full recognition they deserve. Finally the Arctic convoy veterans have got it. They have been honoured effusively in the former Soviet Union—what is now Russia—and indeed continue to be, in a way that we had to struggle for in our own country.
Having said that these are valuable moments for Back Benchers, let me raise a number of constituency and Back-Bench issues that are sadly all too familiar in my constituency. The first concerns the treatment of disabled people in my constituency. Many who are applying for incapacity benefit have to go through work capacity assessments with the Department for Work and Pensions through its stand-in, the French firm Atos, which colleagues in all parts of the House will have had experience of.
The waiting time for a disabled person in my constituency to be refused what they regard as their rightful entitlement because of their incapacity is 57 weeks, in some cases. It is unacceptable in a civilised society that they should have to wait that long for a decision on appeal. That is not the way we should treat our disabled people. It would not be good if it happened to just one person, or even if it happened to 10% of the people who appeal and who get what they deserve at the end of the day, but in fact, one in three cases are overturned on appeal. Those people need their incapacity benefit to live their lives effectively. The situation is unacceptable, and I have recently written to the Justice Secretary to express my concern. I was assured, in a letter from him dated
I have a constituent named Susan Goldsmith who had her assessment in August 2011. She heard in October that she had failed. She felt aggrieved and immediately appealed. She lodged her appeal with the Tribunals Service in November and, following interventions by me, her appeal was finally heard this month. The judge took only a few minutes to decide to allow her appeal and to dismiss the opinion of Atos. My constituent, who needs her incapacity benefit, had experienced a delay of 54 weeks. I have had many similar cases, as have colleagues throughout the House. The system is a shambles, and I hope that colleagues will continue to write in about it until we get this right and start to treat our disabled people with the respect they deserve and to deal with their cases in a timely manner.
There are more than 500 young children in Nottinghamshire who are deaf or have a degree of deafness, and the National Deaf Children’s Society has asked me to raise a specific issue that is pertinent to them. I am going to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and ask him to look again at the personal independence payment that will replace the disability living allowance on
Another group that I would like to talk about came to visit us some time ago—
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for presiding over our last debate before Christmas. I have one specific subject that I want to raise, and a couple of very little things that I shall mention at the end.
A lot of my constituency casework—about 40%—relates to the Home Office and to the UK Border Agency, and many of the cases involve people who are here legitimately and who want to renew their visas. The process is simply not working, and we need to sort that out. All sorts of people are affected, including people who are working here and need to renew their visa in order to carry on doing their job, and people who came here as spouses and need to renew their status to be able to continue to live with their wife, husband or partner.
People can choose how to apply to renew their visas. They can apply by post, or in person after booking an appointment online. The applications are not free. The minimum cost is about £300 and the maximum is about £2,000, so people are making a significant contribution. Both application systems have problems, and they are causing my constituents, and those of many other colleagues, severe inconvenience. It is possible to use the premium same-day service, and it costs between £300 and £400 more to apply in person than to apply by post.
My constituents tell me that the system often releases new appointments at midnight, which is inconvenient, and because everyone logs on to the website at midnight, the system regularly crashes. The website also has basic technical errors. One constituent, a friend of mine named Selcuk Akinci, found that it was offering appointments only for 2020, which was not particularly useful. There are rarely any appointments available within two months, although that fact is not advertised anywhere. Most people, quite reasonably, think about applying to extend their stay only one or two months before their current visa is due to expire. Many therefore find that they cannot get an appointment before their leave expires. They then have to apply by post, which often means a six-month wait without being able to travel. People will not have expected that, and it can cause real problems for them, especially if they need to visit family regularly or if their work involves frequent travel. This problem can often prevent people from doing their job, if they need to travel for work.
Appointments can be made at any of the seven public inquiry offices in the UK. The system tells people where the next available appointment is, and they might find that they have to go from south London to Glasgow or Birmingham. Many people have to travel a long way for their appointment. When they arrive, even if they have booked the premium same-day service, there is no guarantee that the application will be processed on the same day. If the UKBA decides that further checks are necessary, the application is taken out of the premium service queue and put into the postal applications queue, which means that it could take up to six months to process. There is no refund of the premium fee in those circumstances.
People have no way of knowing whether their case will require further checks, which can be triggered by many different factors. There can be genuinely good reasons for carrying such checks out. For example, the person’s name might generate a hit on the police national computer, they might have used a different identity in the past, or they might have no leave to remain at the time of their application. However, further checks are sometimes triggered for bad reasons. Whatever the reason, the person concerned is not allowed to talk to anyone. They are taken out of the premium application process and told that their case has gone into the postal system and that they have to go home and wait, perhaps for more than three months. The case is placed in a kind of “cannot process it today” queue and sent away to a casework centre.
Cases are sometimes referred for further checks for illegitimate reasons. My senior caseworker, James Harper, deals with such cases every day in our Bermondsey office, and I deal with them often. For example, a person’s records might not have been properly updated on the UKBA database. In a recent case, a Ghanaian couple travelled all the way to Birmingham so that the husband could apply to extend his marriage visa in the normal way. However, Mr Kusi’s records had not been properly updated on the Home Office system to show his existing leave to remain. It therefore appeared to the officers at the inquiry office that he had no right to apply, even though he did, and the couple were turned away and left with only three days to apply by post before his existing visa expired. The couple pleaded with the officers to ring the visa office that had dealt with the original application, but were told that that was not possible and that they would have to leave. This is really unacceptable.
In a further case, an Iranian woman in my constituency was applying to extend her stay as the wife of a British citizen. Her case was referred for further checks because it was believed that she did not have high enough English language test scores: level 4.0 on the IELTS—International English Language Testing System—scale in reading and writing. In fact, this was a misinterpretation of the rules, as level 4.0 is required only in speaking and listening. My constituent qualified and her case was sent on, but it was subject to a long delay; only after we intervened did the UKBA admit that an error had been made and then refund the additional premium fee.
This is quite unusual, but I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman for the second time in two weeks. In the spirit of Christmas, may I offer him another minute?
I am grateful, and I hope there will be a lot of common ground on these issues.
When people apply by post, the system often takes far too long. We need a system whereby people have certainty, because they are trying to organise their lives, and UKBA gets its act together.
I offer some suggestions for a solution. First, if someone has paid the premium fee and gone to the office but a question arises, they should not automatically be told, “It’s going off to the casework centre.” A real person should speak to the individual and seek to resolve the question there and then—it cannot be beyond the wit of people to sort that out—as with any other normal customer service operation.
Secondly, when people have paid a premium fee, they are entitled to expect a quicker service than if they had applied by post without paying the premium fee, even if their case is referred for further checks. That does not happen, but it should do, and I hope UKBA will change it, as such cases should not just go into the same pool as the postal applications. Lastly, if it emerges that somebody’s case has been referred for further checks in error, as is frequently the case, there should at least be a partial refund of the premium fee, if not a total refund.
I hope that this part of the UKBA operation, which is clearly not fit for purpose, can get its act together. I will be grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend Tom Brake, for taking this matter away with him, passing it to the Home Office and, hopefully, getting it sorted soon.
To finish quickly, I entirely endorse the comments of Valerie Vaz: the Government should be very careful about reducing the judicial review system. We have developed administrative law in this country for a purpose. There are many more
Government decisions so we need to be careful about taking away people’s rights to challenge administrative decisions. I shall certainly put in my submission, and I hope that the Government will pay heed to it.
I join in the congratulations to the Government on at last and belatedly announcing the honour for the Arctic convoys veterans. I have regularly raised the issue with Ministers, and constituents have regularly raised it with me. These brave people, who went through the most difficult circumstances to make sure that the lifeline between us and our Russian allies was kept open, did a phenomenal job. They rightfully deserve to be honoured. Thank God some of them are still alive to enjoy that honour.
This year has been not only jubilee year and a fantastic Olympic and Paralympic year, but the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. I end with a quote from him:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and keep it all year.”
Thus said Dickens, who had big Southwark connections. To that, I add greetings to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to all my colleagues, and my thanks to House staff for looking after us so well. I also give my particular best wishes to two people: the oldest woman in Britain, a constituent of mine who became 113 on
It is a pleasure to follow Simon Hughes, who spoke so eloquently about issues relating to the Border Agency.
I would like, if I may, to raise four issues before the House rises. The first is about a constituent who was recently subjected to a serious assault in his own home. There had been a dispute between neighbours and the perpetrator came round and head-butted and assaulted my constituent, leaving him with a broken nose and requiring ongoing treatment for post-traumatic stress. He obviously had to have his broken nose repaired, but he also had to attend a head injury clinic.
It is regrettable, to say the least, that as a result of the changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, my constituent is no longer eligible for compensation, despite all the trauma he has suffered. It is worth pointing out that under Scots law, the serious assault charge brought against his neighbour is the second most serious of all after attempted murder. I hope the Minister will say whether the Government will reconsider such important cases.
Secondly, it is right that we have heard such eloquent words across the House about the Arctic convoy and Bomber Command. Some men and women will not be spending their Christmas with their families and their loved ones because they are serving our nation, often in very difficult and dangerous places. Not the least of those places is Afghanistan, but we have personnel around the world who are away from home in Germany, Cyprus, the Falklands and elsewhere.
Thirdly, I want to raise the issue of the financial challenges that many of those personnel face. I shall use the example of one of my constituents who is posted in
Germany. This soldier is now a sergeant, and she has been in the Army for going on for 20 years. When she was first deployed to Germany in 2009, she received £650 a month from the living overseas allowance. At that time, she was mother to one child. While she was a single parent, she received the married/accompanied plus one child element and one “get yourself home” claim for her and her child each year, amounting to £180 for a flight or a ferry. As a result of changes introduced by the Ministry of Defence in the last year, she now receives just £350 a month in allowances, although she now has two children and is married. She is more than £300 a month worse off.
Frankly, there is little difference between the rate of support my constituent receives in comparison with what a single soldier receives. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether the Government view that as entirely equitable. She receives slightly more in travel allowances with three “get yourself home” payments, but each one has dropped in value. Rather than getting £180 for her and her children, she gets £150, which anyone travelling will know does not really cover the cost of travel from Germany back to Scotland. As she rightly points out, this makes it difficult for service personnel to serve our country overseas. It is particularly difficult for those with young families to volunteer for service in places such as Germany.
On the issue of housing for ex-service personnel, we greatly welcome the military covenant as a step in the right direction. Like Sir Bob Russell, I had the privilege of serving on the Armed Forces Bill Committee, which took the legislation through the House of Commons. I welcome the fact that many local authorities are now doing more to support service personnel who are leaving the military. I would like to praise Councillor David Ross, convener of housing in Fife council, as he has taken a particular interest in this matter.
We have a problem, however, in that someone from Scotland whose last posting was in England, Northern Ireland or Germany, will not, on leaving the Army or the other two services, go to the top of the housing register. Such people are effectively at the very bottom. Despite giving perhaps 18 or 22 years of service to this country, such people are treated iniquitously. I hope the Minister will talk to his Ministry of Defence colleagues and write to let me know whether the MOD is going to work with English local authorities and the three devolved Administrations to ensure that, no matter where someone’s last posting is—in the UK or overseas—they will receive equal treatment for housing. That is the least we can do for our servicemen and women.
Finally, I want to raise the issue of the regulation of postal services. The Royal Mail continues to be regulated by Ofcom, as you will be aware, yet its rival services do not have the same level of regulation. Local representatives of the Communication Workers Union have met me, as they have done right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, to flag up this concern. The current position allows a firm such as TNT to cherry-pick its services. Whereas Royal Mail has to deliver on six days a week, come wind, rain or—certainly in Scotland—a bit of snow, other companies are not subject to such regulations. The CWU has therefore rightly asked Ofcom to consider taking on a regulatory responsibility for the rival services. They should not be subject to any additional burdens, but they should have the same level of regulation as Royal Mail. Will the Minister write to me, outlining what he is doing to correct this anomaly?
Finally, may I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, your colleagues and the whole House a very safe and prosperous Christmas and new year, and may I also thank all those who support us, including the Hansard writers who turn our utterances into something a bit more coherent, the Doorkeepers, the Clerks and in particular those in the private office of the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House, who do so much good work on our behalf, and who have helped the Deputy Leader in getting his responses right for today?
It is a pleasure to follow Thomas Docherty. He talked about the military covenant and, as it is Christmas time, I wish to carry on that theme and remind Members of what is happening to our soldiers in Afghanistan. I shall talk about current operations there. We have lost 438 people so far, while 2,000-plus have been very seriously injured, and a considerable proportion of them are triple or double amputees. This year alone, we have lost 43 men killed in action.
The enemy in Afghanistan—the Taliban—is deadly and skilful. When we first went into Helmand in 2006, the enemy took us on very strongly. The Taliban tried to take us on conventionally, face to face. We had our troops in what were called platoon houses, which were isolated and unsupported. That was a mistake. The Taliban surrounded them and tried to take them out in bitter slugging matches. Some of our troops had to spend very long periods in stand-to positions—their sentry positions—and even had to sleep in those positions. In the case of several platoon houses, it was touch and go whether they would be taken out, and only massive bombardment—which was not good, as it destroyed so much around the bases—prevented that. In the end, however, through the long summer of 2006, the Taliban were defeated.
The Taliban then changed their tactics. They turned to improvised explosive devices and hit-and-run tactics—guerrilla tactics. That proved devastating, because our vehicles were not equipped to take hits from land mines. More important, we did not have the helicopters to fly in and get our men when they were hurt or resupply troops. After a while, however, we again got our response right: we got better vehicles and more helicopters.
The Taliban’s tactics therefore changed again. Now they are coming in close to us, using uniformed Afghan national security forces personnel, some of whom are Taliban, but others might just be people with grudges. They are coming in close to our soldiers, who are trying to mentor the Afghan forces to get them as good as possible, so that when we leave they will be in a great position to carry on and secure their country, which is in our interests. Nine of the 43 men killed in action this year were victims of what is called insider murders or, euphemistically, green on blue attacks. We are paying a very high blood price, therefore, and the people responsible are hiding among our friends.
The situation is very difficult for our soldiers, but they have an incredible generosity of spirit. I have spoken to a number of them and the vast majority say, “We can’t do anything else, because if we don’t mentor and keep close to the Afghan national army and police, we will not be doing our duty by them and we will not be supporting our friends, because the majority of the people who come to kill us are not the people we work with. They are usually strangers—strangers in uniform.” Most of our soldiers say, “We’ve got to continue with this dangerous activity. The dilemma is that if we stay close to the Afghan army and police to mentor them, we stand a much greater risk of being killed, but if we leave them, they will think we are deserting them, and we will fail in our objective, which is to help the Afghan national security forces get up to speed.”
I have the privilege of serving on the Defence Committee with the hon. Gentleman. On the issue he is discussing, I recently had some correspondence with the Minister for the Armed Forces and I would be happy to share that with the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him that those responsible for these attacks are a tiny minority of the population. Does he agree that we should recognise the incredible bravery of the men of the Afghan national forces, as many of them face intimidation for having joined up?
Yes, I agree. In the last month, some 700 members of the Afghan national security forces have been dismissed as they are considered unreliable, and the Afghan forces are taking a very high casualty rate, which is greater than our own.
It is extremely tricky to withdraw from a military operation. There are two years to go now, and I am sure our Army will be up to it, because we are good at tricky operations. I want our soldiers to leave with their heads held high, feeling that at least some of the sacrifice has been worth it.
When we went into Afghanistan in 2001 and again in 2003, the mission was simple: to stop the threat that emanated from that country against our country and our allies. Other missions that have been talked about—bringing democracy, countering drugs, improving the lot of women, education—are extremely laudable, but they were not the mission our soldiers were sent into Afghanistan to achieve.
I want us to leave Afghanistan having got it into a condition whereby it will never hurt our country or our allies again. That is the mission I want us to achieve by the time our soldiers leave. If we do that, we will have achieved something. If we do that, at least it will be some compensation to those 438 families who have lost their loved ones. If we do not succeed in doing that, it will not be the fault of our courageous and gallant sailors, airmen and soldiers who have fought this bitter conflict for 11 years. We must not blame them if we do not succeed.
I want to end by sending my personal best wishes to our soldiers, sailors and airmen who are fighting at the moment. On behalf of everyone in this House, I wish them the very best at Christmas. When we go on recess, their job does not change. They are still mentoring the Afghan national police and Afghan national army, they are still patrolling and they are still putting their lives at risk. I spare a thought also for the families at home who remain terrified that the people from their family who have been sent, at our behest, to do their duty in Afghanistan might not come back or might be hurt. God bless them all, and merry Christmas to them.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow Bob Stewart and say to him how much he epitomises the benefits to the House of having people with so much experience and so much to contribute to our understanding of military matters?
I wish to talk about the economic situation of my constituency. Some 100 years ago, the north-east was the main driver of economic development not just in this country, but in the whole of the British empire. Today, the north-east is still the most successful exporting region outside London. That is because it has the largest car plant in Europe; it has the largest chemical plant in the UK; it is leading in electric vehicle manufacturing; it is at the centre of sustainable energy innovation; and it can lead in the new industry of offshore wind. So I wish to pose the question: in this Government’s quest to restart growth, why do they not look to the north-east?
In order fully to develop the north-east’s potential, we need a region-wide approach that brings together the public and private sectors; concentration on those industrial clusters where the region’s university research and development can be translated into innovation; skills and retraining for adults and young people, so that people losing jobs in public administration can reasonably take up new opportunities in the private sector and so that young people are given a fair chance; a fair share of the Government’s infrastructure spend, particularly to improve transport and connectivity; and investment in housing and place making.
Unfortunately, what the Government have delivered to the north-east is massive cuts. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the scale of the cuts in 2010 was huge—in 2010 it came to £2.8 billion, which was 7% of the value of the regional economy. The cuts were also unfair; the cuts to the north-east’s local authorities were three times the scale of those in the south-east. In other words, the Chancellor of the Exchequer took £1,000 from every man, woman and child in the region. The cuts in the north-east are even larger than the cuts being faced by the Spanish people.
I had some new analysis undertaken by Oxford Economics on the second-round effects—the knock-on effects on the private sector—to see why we have such a high level of shop closures on the high streets in our region. Its analysis showed that there had been a further £1 billion in lost output; that is a 10% drop in the size of the regional economy. If the International Monetary Fund is right, the second-round effects are even greater, at £3.5 billion.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech, and I accept that difficult struggles lie ahead. However, on skills, does she not accept that the number of apprenticeships has doubled in her area? On infrastructure, does she not accept that this Government have done the A1 strongly, all the way to Newcastle and potentially beyond? The north-east also had the third largest increase in employment in the whole country in the last quarter.
I am afraid I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. I was about to point out that last year, of the £40 billion infrastructure budget put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the north-east received 0.03%. As a consequence, unemployment in the north-east is the highest in the entire country at 9.9%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that public sector job losses so far are already at 45,000 and Oxford Economics projects that total job losses will be 68,000, whereas 46,000 new jobs will be created. So, in 10 years’ time, we will be left with a jobs deficit of 20,000.
The Government talked a lot about rebalancing the economy but have tipped the scales further against the north. Given the opportunities for growth in the north-east, that is at the whole country’s expense. [Interruption.] If I may say so, it would be more polite for the Deputy Leader of the House to listen to my speech rather than to the chuntering of Guy Opperman.
How did the Chancellor of the Exchequer use the chance he had in the autumn statement? On
Let us look at the other measures taken by the Chancellor, which will dwarf that capital spending in the long run. Yesterday, we heard that he had taken another £42 million from councils in the north-east, not just next year but every year. He also introduced the strivers’ tax on people on low incomes, which will take £25 million from people in the north-east next year, £90 million the year after that and £180 million in the third year.
At the same time, of course, the Government are giving millionaires a tax cut. What does that do? It puts £40 million into the economy of the north-east and £640 million into the economies of London and the south-east. That is not simply unjust; it is foolish. The north-east is contributing all the time to the savings the Chancellor of the Exchequer demands, but it is not receiving its proper share of investment.
What is the justification for those disproportionate cuts when the north-east economy plainly has so much to offer? Could it be that the Chancellor thinks the political battleground for 2015 will be the marginal seats in the east and west midlands? The Government appear to be playing politics with public money.
I am calling for a one nation approach in which the assets of the north-east are valued and nurtured, in which there is a fair funding formula for public services based on need, and in which investment in infrastructure is based on economic potential not political calculation. I hope very much that the Deputy Leader of the House can pass those messages on to his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It merely remains for me to wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the whole House a very happy Christmas.
I want to thank and salute many hundreds—possibly even thousands—of people in my constituency who make a huge contribution every year to the communities in which they live, often on a voluntary basis. I know that it is very fashionable nowadays to suggest that communities are constantly under pressure, disintegrating, transitory or being disaggregated in one form or another, but I am here to reassure the House that in Central Devon community is alive and whole.
It is invidious to single out individual organisations and individuals, of course, because for every one I mention there are many I will not have time to mention. None the less, some have been particularly special to me as a Member of Parliament over the past couple of years. I want to start with a gentleman called Brian Warren, who has run an organisation called Farm Crisis Network for the past decade or so. It provides pastoral support to our farming community, which, as you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, has been under considerable pressure over many years. The foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 had its epicentre in Hatherleigh in my constituency, and many of us still remember to this day the pyres burning, the burning cattle and the pall of black smoke that filled the skies above Devon. It was a very difficult time. We are also aware of the difficulties associated with bovine TB and the challenges of milk prices, which are under pressure from supermarkets. Brian has done an extraordinary job with his colleagues on an entirely voluntary basis, providing compassion to many farmers in my constituency who have much needed it.
I want also to thank all those who are involved in the 125 town and parish councils that I have scattered across my 550 square miles of Devon. I can assure hon. Members that I do not manage to get round all of them on a regular basis—there are too many—but many people give up a great deal of their time, and that is much appreciated. I particularly thank the town clerks of my larger towns—Judith Hart in Buckfastleigh, John Germon in Ashburton, Terry Westwood in Bovey Tracey, John Carlton in Chudleigh, Martin Maggs in Crediton, and Don Bent in Okehampton. For all the people they serve, a big thank you.
I have had quite a lot of involvement with the Royal British Legion this year. It does an extraordinary job for many well deserving men and women and the families of those who fight on our behalf. We have heard much about Afghanistan this afternoon. The Royal British Legion is not just the custodian of remembrance. It also provides practical help to individuals and families, and I am particularly grateful to the Royal British Legion in Ashburton. I should like to thank Maurice Mann, David Lewis, Kath Pugh and Bob Shemeld for the support they have given to the legion locally.
I thank Sandra Coleman, who has looked after the museum, the Valiant Soldier, which was a pub that was closed in Buckfastleigh in 1965 and has been preserved exactly as it was the day that it closed, including the coins and the change in the till. In addition to looking after the museum, Sandra has started a project to preserve and archive the history of the town. I was privileged to have been present when she was awarded the freedom of the town of Buckfastleigh in July this year.
I salute Sue Eales, a lady who had fostered many children in and around Ashburton. She provides them with the love, happiness, respect and security that we would all like to see our children receive. She is a very special lady, one of those great unsung heroes, and I am very proud to be able to mention her in this debate. I mention also Deborah Sterling, who has fought hard for youth services in Ashburton, especially a new skateboard park, and her son, for his imagination in designing the park.
Peter Mallaband, who lives in New Park near Bovey Tracey, has assisted me a great deal in the work that I and many others in the House have done in respect of park home legislation and in trying to improve the rights of park home owners. Peter has always been immensely generous with his time, not just to me, but to other local residents in other local parks in my constituency, including those who live in Buckingham Orchard in Chudleigh Knighton, who have had a particularly difficult period over the past few years.
I thank Wendy Brown and Sue Goode, who run the Crediton food bank and whose services will be much appreciated and in many cases much needed this Christmas. I thank Chris Gibbs, who has done a huge amount to support his community of Tedburn St Mary, so much so that he was in the vanguard of that village being voted the best village in England and Wales some years ago on the strength of its community cohesion and the vibrancy of the community there. I was privileged to work with him in fending off a proposed permanent road closure that would have much inconvenienced the local villagers.
I would like to mention Sally Hordern, who lives in the village of Exbourne and has fought very hard to get a new community store there ever since the village store closed just over a decade ago. She fought through all the obstacles. I had the privilege earlier this year of opening that extraordinary store, which is partly underground. It has a beautiful design and is a great monument and tribute to her and all those who worked on the project.
I would like to pay tribute to the people of Kennford and Buckfastleigh, who endured some of the worst flooding the country has seen recently, and I was grateful that the Prime Minister was able to come down to Buckfastleigh to meet some of the residents. One of the things that struck me was that, although it was an absolute tragedy, particularly for those affected, it was also an opportunity for the community to come together, and they did so magnificently.
I would like to salute Mary Stephenson, a constituent who has done a great deal regarding prisoner rehabilitation and looking after families whose loved ones have gone to prison. I spent some time with her at Channings Wood prison earlier this year and was much moved and impressed by her project and by her work and dedication and that of her colleagues.
I would like to thank Paul Dobbie, who runs the Room 13 youth facility in Okehampton, a vibrant and positive place, and Chris Marson, who lives in the small village of Northlew in the west of my constituency. He has managed to improve the broadband connection significantly by employing ingenious new technologies, which has helped the village a great deal, and he has also furthered the new community store there.
It remains for me finally to thank the staff in my office, Chris Yeo and, in particular, Dominic King and Mike Knuckey, for supporting me and all my demanding ways. I also wish to thank my family—
I will thank my hon. Friend in due course.
I thank my wife Michelle and my three daughters. I also wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, your family and, indeed, your millions of admirers up and down the country a very happy Christmas and hope that I have many more speaking opportunities at your behest in 2013.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that will be the case and that Mrs Hoyle will be very impressed.
I think that Mel Stride has reduced the number of Christmas cards he needs to send this year—the rest of us have taken note for next year. I congratulate him on his remarks.
Many hon. Members have seen fit to talk about our armed services this Christmas and to help us reflect on those serving abroad. It is right then, as I begin my contribution, to recognise that Christmas is a time when families come together and people often drink quite a lot. In those circumstances, we should also reflect on the police service, because sadly there are accidents on our roads, scenes in our clubs and bars and, as is sometimes the case in family life, there are domestic disputes, which increase over the Christmas period. Our police will absolutely be on duty this year, as they always are.
Sadly, in the past two years London Metropolitan Police Service has lost 16% of its work force. Thanks to the coalition Government’s cuts of 20%, the Met faces a £148 million shortfall over the coming year, which is equivalent to 2,690 officers. Of great concern to Londoners at the moment—indeed, it is in this afternoon’s Evening Standard—is the fact that London looks set to lose many of its police stations, moving from 133 24-hour police stations across the capital to 71.
Hon. Members will recognise that some London boroughs are very large. The idea that in a London borough such as Lambeth, or Hackney, or Haringey, which stretches from Highgate and Muswell Hill right across to the corner of Tottenham, Edmonton and up to Finsbury Park, there could be only one 24-hour station is hugely alarming. I fear that the Mayor’s understanding of helping to reduce crime might be helping to reduce the ability of the public to report crime, which is what will happen if this set of closures goes ahead.
In fact, it will be worse than that, because the London borough of Haringey, which has a population of about 250,000, will have one 24-hour police station. My hon. Friend will understand the concern in my constituency, which was the epicentre of riots in August
2011, when my constituents watched their homes and shops burn in front of their very eyes. She will recognise that in the days following those riots, the big thing that people in London and, unfortunately, other cities were saying was “Where are the police?” It is deeply worrying to tell them that there will be a diminution of police stations on this scale, as well as fewer police officers.
Boris Johnson was in my constituency last week, and he said that the police station in Tottenham would not close. However, we want to drill into the detail, because on the basis of the figures that have been presented to us, with borough commanders touring their MPs’ offices with proposals, it looks as though in fact it will close. Even if it does not close, it is possible that no police will be in it, because there is a difference between those who run the police property services, and therefore the police stations, and those in charge of actually marshalling the police. It is outrageous that we could be in a situation in Tottenham where there are no police officers in our police station.
You, Mr Deputy Speaker, and others will have seen in the newspapers the discussion about access points, points of contact and pop-up shops. Yes, of course we want to make our police station accessible, but constituents who come to me to talk about gang crime, and are worried about the young man they know is in a gang and want to report it quietly, do not want to negotiate with someone having a latte in a coffee shop or with someone in Sainsbury’s. We need to be very careful about access and contact. What people understand, all over the world, is a police station. People know what it is and they know that the police have a freehold on the building so that when they move into the area it will still be there in five years, 10 years and 15 years. They have seen these neighbourhood offices but know that so many of them have the shutters down because there is a short-term lease and it could be gone next year. That is not what they want from the police service.
The Mayor’s office has palmed off the task of stakeholder consultation to borough commanders, many of whom are finding themselves in deeply politicised budgetary decisions. The deputy Mayor, Stephen Greenhalgh, has deigned to visit every borough as part of a public consultation process in the new year, and we should be grateful for that, although I am deeply concerned that he might find himself embroiled in an inappropriate situation. I hope that he will spend more than just an hour in Tottenham discussing this very important consultation.
This is happening at a time when we see not only a threat to our police station but to our fire station—the second-busiest fire station in London—which is facing closure under proposed budgetary cuts. The fact that closing or, at least, halving the capacity of such a vital fire station is even being considered shows how uninformed, ill-judged and reckless is the way in which these efficiencies and cuts are being handled.
My right hon. Friend will know that the fire brigade in London has requested that the Mayor review the strategy to see how quickly fire appliances can get to fires. It believes that, at present, the strategy is inadequate, but the process has been put back by a couple of months, so the public are not able to review it. Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the ability of appliances to reach fires in time?
Order. The clock does not tick during interventions, so they have to be short. When a Member intervenes, somebody will have to have their time cut at the end, and for those who have already spoken to intervene afterwards is unfair on other Members. The Member who will speak next will be very upset if I put him down the list. We can all work together; it is Christmas, so let us have a bit of good will.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. People are deeply concerned about the ability of the fire service to get to fires. When serious flames stretched on to the high road in my constituency and went on for hours, we needed our fire service. Even during that incident there were concerns, given what was happening, about the ability of fire services to get to those fires. This is serious. We are seeing the decimation of the London fire service. No fewer than 17 fire stations are earmarked for closure across the capital.
I am conscious that other colleagues want to make important contributions, so I will end my remarks. Over the Christmas break, which is a serious time, we will see how important our emergency services are, and that is always the case. This House will need to return to the subject. I hope that the Mayor will go into the detail of what is being proposed in London, because I am deeply concerned that, over the coming months and years, many Londoners and, indeed, many in this House who might need to rely on the police or fire service will find that they are not there for them in the way that they require.
Why is it that, 65 years after 55,000 of them—young men of Bomber Command—gave up their lives for our freedom and national survival, they are still waiting for a medal? If not now, when so few of them are left with us, when?
May I take this opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker, to wish you and, indeed, all the officers and servants of this House the season’s greetings and the very best for Christmas and the new year?
It has been a privilege this year to attend the 25th anniversary of the Brent pensioners forum in my constituency. The forum has been led and championed by Vi Steele.
The hon. Gentleman knows the forum well from his time in Brent. It has done a fantastic job over the past quarter of a century, fighting for elderly people and ensuring that their voice is heard.
The impact of fuel poverty on people such as members of the Brent pensioners forum has led me to consider the UK’s energy policy, which focuses on three things: first, how to drive investment of £110 billion into our electricity infrastructure and £200 billion into energy as a whole; secondly, how to avoid the cliff edge of 2016 to 2018, which Ofgem has characterised as a period when reserve margins will be dangerously low, or, as other people say, when the lights might go out; and thirdly, how to tackle fuel poverty.
We—the Government and Parliament—have been like industrious phlebotomists transfixed by the diseases of the blood, but ignoring how the blood supply contributes to the health of the whole organism, which is the UK economy. Energy is the lifeblood of industry and manufacturing in this country. It should be seen as an integral part of a wider industrial and economic policy. Where this Government have gone wrong is to treat energy policy as ancillary to—or, if one believes the Treasury’s rhetoric, sometimes even running counter to—our wider economic goals. The key question that we should ask about the Government’s Energy Bill, therefore, is not about the strike price or whence the single counterparty will get its money, but how it will promote sustainable growth and jobs in the UK.
The Committee on Climate Change was established to act as an adviser to Government to present coherent proposals about future energy policy that meet our need for sustainable growth, while respecting the cross-party commitment to reduce CO2 emissions. That was intended to depoliticise energy policy as far as is possible. Earlier this year, the Committee on Climate Change recommended three things in its report to Parliament. It said that
“a carbon objective should be set and a process put in place to ensure that this objective is achieved”.
That target is not in the Bill. It said that
“it is important that technology policy objectives are set to resolve current uncertainties about the future for less mature technologies.”
Those objectives are not articulated in the Bill. It said:
“There should also be a clear statement as part of the Government’s planned Gas Generation Strategy that there will not be a second ‘dash for gas’”.
The Chancellor has given what amounts to a clear statement to the contrary and the Department of Energy and Climate Change is banking on 27 GW of new gas capacity. The Energy Bill is an unprecedented and wholesale rejection of the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change. Politics has been given primacy over evidence.
This year, hopes ran high that we would see the go-ahead for the Don Valley carbon capture and storage for coal scheme. The European Commission had rated it one of the top 10 most attractive schemes in Europe. Even though £3 billion of the original £4 billion budget was cut, the Government still had £1 billion earmarked for a coal-fired CCS pilot. The other day, when the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Gregory Barker was asked why his project had been ditched by the Government, he replied that what the UK really needs is CCS for gas, because it fits better with our future power mix. Insanity! The International Energy Agency projects that at current rates, the world will be burning 59% more coal in 2035 than it is today. Even if every country were to fulfil its mitigation pledges, the rise in coal burning would still take it to 21% above current levels. Gas CCS might help the UK to reduce its emissions during the dash for gas that the Chancellor wants to foist upon us, but the future of the UK economy lies in developing the technology for coal CCS that we can export around the world.
I am an environmentalist. I believe that the world must move to decouple growth from carbon emissions. However, I understand that coal is the major world fuel and will continue to be so for many decades to come. To have a sustainable future, therefore, we must sequester the emissions from coal in the medium term. It must be part of our integrated energy, climate and industrial strategy to develop CCS for coal. Was the £1 billion ever really there? I do not know. Was this a project that we should have prioritised? The answer is clear: yes it was.
The recent report from Cambridge Econometrics has tried to link energy policy with wider industrial strategy. Its findings are significant for a Government who appear to be determined to move us away from renewables and into gas. The report shows that although offshore wind currently costs more than gas, it also creates more jobs in the UK and has a bigger beneficial impact on the UK economy. The trouble with the new dash for gas is that it will limit the capacity for investment in other technologies that ultimately may be more important for both our energy policy and our industrial policy.
It is important to recognise two things. Gas is an essential part of the energy mix in the UK, as it has the flexibility to cope with intermittent peaks and troughs in the supply from renewables, and the peaks in demand from industry and the public. Gas is being proffered as a solution to the 2016-18 cliff edge, when electricity demand could exceed supply. But it is not a solution. Even the gas stations that already have consent will not come on stream quickly enough to meet that potential shortfall. A possible solution is to make the capacity mechanism available to coal-fired power stations in the short term and use them to provide the load that we need. That might also help to stop the loss of jobs and the closure of pits, and avoid the building of numerous new gas-fired power stations that will lock us into much higher levels of fossil fuel emissions in the long term, while making us feel virtuous in the short term as coal emissions fall.
The recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change to include carbon targets in the Bill is important because this is about the long-term certainty and stability that business and investors need. The Government argue that the legally binding targets for 2050 are still in place, but few of us in Parliament or business will be in our current positions in 2050. Business needs not just a 40-year aspiration, but clear staging points and standards in 2020, 2030 and beyond, to ensure that our energy infrastructure is invested in and properly structured so that it can deliver our emissions reduction targets by 2050.
It is a pleasure to follow my near neighbour and constituency MP, Barry Gardiner, in this debate, and I join him in celebrating the 25th anniversary of Brent pensioners forum, and that of St Luke’s hospice, which is on the border of our two constituencies.
May I pay tribute to the late Betty Geller who sadly died in the early hours of Sunday morning? Betty was a leading light of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Harrow East Conservative association and, most particularly, the campaign for a fitting tribute for Bomber Command and its veterans. Sadly, her husband died some 30 years ago—a premature death that was probably as a result of strain put on him during the war. I was privileged to attend Betty’s funeral on Monday morning, and it is fitting to pay tribute to her in the House. Sadly, she did not live to hear the Prime Minister’s announcement that, at last, her husband and all those who put their lives on the line to allow this country to be free from fascism are to be honoured.
I want to take this opportunity to mention some of the problems caused by the use of pre-packed sales when companies enter administration, and the related pre-packed phoenix companies that can be created. It is right to encourage and promote entrepreneurship in this country. Indeed, in this tough economic climate we desperately need entrepreneurs who will put their spirit and creativity into protecting jobs that the UK needs. In some cases, however, it appears that the law is being abused by unscrupulous company directors for their own purposes at the expense of hard-working employees. I have heard of a number of examples of that, and it gives me no pleasure to note that one such case comes from my own constituency.
I am able to say that with confidence because on
Although I have no details about the second and third companies, I can provide greater insight into the first. Many of its 55 employees spoke English as a second language, and that lack of proficiency in English made it easier for the directors to make excuses and avoid explaining why wages were not being paid. My constituent, Mr Pacey, was an employee of Medi-Vial who went to great efforts both during and after its liquidation to obtain justice for him and his colleagues. It is worth noting that he went to a list of agencies and individuals as part of his campaign. He won an employment tribunal relating to the compensation of his earnings. He also took the matter to the police, the Insolvency Service, my predecessor as MP, the Serious Fraud Office and others.
None of those institutions could offer any remedy whatever—hon. Members can imagine how frustrating that was to Mr Pacey and the other employees, who obviously had a problem seeing their previous employers go on to operate a new business just one month later, in the same practice, on the same premises, using the same equipment, employing the same management, using the same suppliers and having the same customers. The only difference was that the employees had all lost their jobs.
I have previously brought the matter to Ministers’ attention. In January, the then Minister with responsibility for employment relations, consumers and postal affairs, now Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, informed the House:
“Having taken account of all the issues…the Government will not be seeking to introduce new…controls on pre-packs at this time”.
He continued by assuring the House that:
The overall benefits of pre-pack sales are doubtless genuine and substantial. Statistics show that all employees are transferred to the new company in 92% of pre-pack cases, compared with 65% of employee transfers in a business sale. That is to be welcomed, but we must not turn a blind eye to cases in which directors deliberately abuse the process.
In those circumstances, insolvency practitioners are required to report the directors’ conduct to the Insolvency Service and suggest that they should be disqualified from being involved in the management of the company, but that system does not appear to be working, as is suggested by declining disqualification rates in the past decade. In 2002, 45% of reports from insolvency practitioners resulted in a disqualification, but by 2011, only 21% did.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has said that legislation is not the right option for solving the problem, but will the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills explore other measures? It is largely a matter of ensuring that we prevent those who abuse their position from doing so, but in order to protect the benefits to the system, I suggest that extra resources are needed so that the Insolvency Service can concentrate its efforts on disqualification. It could introduce an electronic system so that insolvency practitioners can submit reports online. In making those recommendations, I am conscious that we should not attack those who, through no fault of their own, place their companies into administration and wish to carry on their business—on the contrary, I have every sympathy for people who seek to create wealth and jobs—but the key point is that we cannot allow people to abuse their position and their employees.
I conclude, Mr Deputy Speaker, by wishing you, the staff of the House, all colleagues, the staff of my office, and Members who have given me support in the past few days, and, in particular, my wife, who has been long-suffering for many years, a very happy Christmas. I wish everyone a happy, peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year, and trust we can look forward to returning to the House and enjoying many such debates in future.
I wish to draw attention to the mismanagement and—some fear—worse of contracts by Hillingdon council and to call on the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to send in commissioners to take control of the council, clean up its affairs and restore confidence in local government in my area. For some time, I have raised in the House my constituents’ concerns about the administrative competence and probity of Hillingdon council, but recent events have confirmed the need for more serious and urgent action.
The recent background is as follows. Two years ago, I learned of Hillingdon council’s proposal to demolish a residential home for the elderly in my constituency called Triscott House and to rebuild it as a modern elderly care facility. The elderly residents were decanted to other establishments, and the new facility was to open in September 2011, but the unit was not ready. Many of the elderly people who had been allocated a place in the new residential home were promised that there would be only a short delay. Ten months later, in July 2012, the home was still not open, and I was contacted by the families of the elderly people who were promised a place. The situation was extremely distressing. A lady in her 90s, with all her belongings packed in packing cases, was waiting to move, in tears. She had been promised, month after month, that her move was imminent. Others in their 80s and 90s were equally upset at the delay. I made representations to the council on behalf of them and their worried families. I, too, was promised that the situation was being resolved and each month told that the move was to take place. Eventually, the new facility opened, after a 14-month delay and dreadful distress caused to my constituents.
Rumours were flying in the area about the delay, and I called for an independent investigation into the catastrophic failure of the council to deliver the new facility on time. The council refused. There was coverage in the local press, and after that I was sent anonymously information on the cause of the delay. Information is difficult to retrieve from Hillingdon council because the administration places any reports that expose failings or poor administration—or worse—in the secret element of its cabinet meetings. It argues that this is done on grounds of commercial confidentiality, but it is certain that it is to cover up incompetence and possibly worse. In this case, the information I received confirmed that the delay to the new elderly care facility was because of a dispute with the contractor for the project.
The contractor was a company undertaking another contract for the council that required additional expenditure. The contractor was told to load the cost of that additional work on to the bill for Triscott House, the residential home for the elderly, and then told to charge the amount as “design fees”. Effectively, this was laundering money from one contract to another to the builder. Other works were undertaken by the contractor on other sites, it appears without contracts, and also charged to the Triscott elderly care home account, again as design fees.
Major contracts are approved either by the leader of the council or a cabinet member, and the responsibility for overseeing the performance of council officers in relation to such projects lies with the leader of the council or cabinet members. The question I have been asked by residents is what those people were doing when all this was going on.
After the exposure of the Triscott House fiasco in the local press, the floodgates opened, with information being sent anonymously or by residents about other council contracts. The information revealed that the new swimming pool leisure centre, recently constructed in my constituency at a cost of £30 million, began construction without a contract, only by exchange of letters of intent. Now the centre has sprung leaks, and without a contract the council is exposed to the cost of repairs.
Five years ago, and again in 2010, I raised the disgracefully poor performance of the council contractor with regard to the repair and refurbishment of Avondale flats in my area, which resulted in one of my constituents, Mr Bernard Fagan, being injured and then compensated by the council. It has now been revealed that, as we suspected, there were irregularities in the award and administration of these housing maintenance contracts. They do not comply with council standing orders.
Complaints have repeatedly been made about the delays to adaptations funded by the disability facilities grants. Concerns have now been raised that there were irregularities in the process for awarding those contracts. Another Hillingdon resident has contacted me because he has challenged the council over its expenditure of £1.17 million on three consultants since April 2010, which the council legal services department has now confirmed was without tendering, with no specification for the works and with no contracts.
I have raised these issues with my local councillors in the ward I live in, but they are unable to respond to me as virtually all these issues have been forced on to the secret part of the cabinet agenda by the ruling councillors. My local councillors have been threatened with the criminal law if they discuss matters with me. However, my ward councillor has informed me that he has written to the chief executive, the borough solicitor and the leader of the council to urge that the district auditor and the police are now brought in to investigate these activities. So far he has received a truculent reply from the leader of the council, claiming that it is an attack on staff. It is not an attack on staff: it is an attempt to hold councillors and senior well-paid officers to account.
The situation has gone beyond anything that is acceptable. Up to £50 million of work and contracts are now associated with irregularities in Hillingdon. My constituents and local tax payers are suffering now and cannot wait any longer for redress. At meeting after meeting, residents are alleging backhanders, brown envelopes and various fiddles. I have no answer for them. We need action now, and that is why I am urging the Secretary of State to send in commissioners to clean up this mess. Before I came to this place, I was in local government for 20 years. I have not seen anything on this scale since the 1980s, when some activities caused so much concern in local government. There may be reasons why contracts were not awarded and why a £30 million swimming pool was done with a letter of intent. If those reasons are valid, then fair enough. However, my understanding is that they have opened up the council to real risk. The scale of mismanagement is appalling.
People know me in this House for my independence of mind. I do not care whether this council is controlled by Labour, the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. If this was happening under any political administration, I would be saying the same thing. We need action now. We cannot rely on the existing administration to tackle these issues. That is why I think the drastic step of the Secretary of State sending in commissioners to clean this stable out, which I have never called for before anywhere, is absolutely essential if we are to retain any confidence in local government and local administration in my community.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these end-of-term Adjournment debates. Their value has just been aptly demonstrated by John McDonnell, who has sent a chilling note through the Chamber, and a warning call that I hope the authorities will listen to. It is always a great pleasure to hear my hon. Friend Mr Amess, with his tour de force of constituency issues. Sadly, I can take no pleasure in having to raise in this House access to flood insurance and support for flood-hit local authorities yet again.
Last night, we saw torrential rain across the south-west cause considerable damage to businesses and homes, and disruption on many key travel routes. In my constituency, the villages of Par, Bugle, St Blazey, Gorran Haven and Mevagissey have been flooded again. Across Cornwall, other communities in Polbathic, Altarnun, St Keverne and Gunwalloe have all been hit too. This is not uncommon for the people of Cornwall—just four weeks ago we were hit with flooding. The House may remember that shortly after the general election in 2010 Cornwall was hit with serious flooding too, occasioning the Prime Minister to join me in some of the communities I have just mentioned.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks and give praise to the work of the emergency services overnight—the firefighters, the police, ambulance workers across Cornwall and the south-west, and the 100 Cornwall council staff—who were out all night helping people to move to safety, and trying to minimise the damage to properties and to life. However, we are not out of the woods yet. The Met Office and the Environment Agency are predicting continued severe weather in the south-west. The EA currently has 19 flood warnings and 52 flood alerts across the region—stark warnings about large swathes of the south-west being at imminent flood risk due to the saturation levels already in the ground.
It is clear that we cannot always build flood defences that will protect people against all eventualities. I am sure that if Barry Gardiner was in his place—he is an assiduous campaigner on environmental issues—he would agree that with climate change we will see increasingly unpredictable weather across our country for years to come. However, we in this House should be able to ensure that everybody has access to insurance when the worst happens. That sounds very simple, but the Government, flood groups and insurers have been grappling with the problem for a long time and seem no closer to resolving it. The typical cost of flood damage to a home is approximately £30,000, and approximately 200,000 homes are at risk of flooding.
The last Government agreed a statement of principles—a five-year agreement—that meant that flood insurance had to be included in house insurance. It was a worthy goal and a good step forward, but it was not perfect. For example, it did not apply to homes built after October 2009 and, more importantly, made little attempt to help those in the severest flood-risk areas, which was bewildering, frankly. Despite that, however, that statement of principles was a worthy effort to ensure that when flooding hit a community, people were able to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, it expires next June, and at the moment the House is yet to see any concrete proposals for how this important issue will be dealt with after that point. Communities across the country, including those that I represent, are already struggling to get affordable flood-risk insurance, even though it might technically be available. I urge my right hon. Friend to look into this issue and ensure that the proposals come forward in a timely way and can be adequately debated by the House.
I have raised before my concerns about the Bellwin scheme—the threshold at which central Government support comes in to help local authorities hit by flooding. In Cornwall council’s case, the existing Bellwin scheme has a threshold of 0.2%, which is currently £1.41 million, as the amount it must defray before any assistance is forthcoming from central Government. This scheme is outdated and does not seem to make any allowance for the new unitary authorities. If Cornwall still had a two-tier local authority system, that threshold would be just £58,000. That, coupled with tight rules limiting funding to the additional costs incurred in dealing with the immediate emergency only, basically means that the likelihood of an emergency incurring eligible expenditure greater than the threshold is now significantly less than if the two-tier were still in place. We need to modernise and update the Bellwin scheme. Cornwall is also a fire and rescue authority, but the scheme does not factor in those parts of the country where the principal local authority is on a unitary basis and also the fire and rescue authority.
I turn to the final reason why I would like my right hon. Friend to investigate whether the Bellwin scheme can be reconsidered. Why is the dedicated schools grant used in the calculation of when a threshold is reached by a local authority? It is another instance of where the Bellwin scheme has not kept pace with the change in how local government across our nation is administered. At the moment, Cornwall council estimates repair costs of £2.5 million on the highways alone. When flooding occurs, it is not only a threat to life, but it destroys homes, wrecks businesses and leaves a significant clear-up operation in its wake, and that operation often falls to the local authority to fund.
The biggest Christmas present for all those across the country facing flooding risk would be to ensure that, as we go into next year, flood insurance is available and affordable, and that, when floods hit, local authorities have the support they need from the House and the Government to ensure that the clean-up can happen in the swiftest possible way.
Northumberland has much that it could teach the rest of Britain. My constituency is home to a vast number of civic groups, charities and volunteer organisations and people who give up their time to get involved, help their communities and improve people’s lives. They are passionate about the place in which they live. From the team in Tarset who organised the first oil-buying groups, pioneered a bastle trail and created the famous Murray henge, to Joan Russell, who runs her fantastic community allotment in Prudhoe, and Tom Martin, who led the creation of a community orchard in Wylam, there is a real sense of engagement, of getting involved and of local people creating the community they want.
Of all the places in the country that would engage in the concept, spirit and actuality of localism, this is the place. Indeed, when the previous Labour Government wanted to get rid of the district councils and move to a single unitary authority, the people robustly said that they would like to keep Tynedale and Castle Morpeth. The Labour Government famously held a consultation, complete with referendum, lost it and pressed on regardless. As a result, we now have Northumberland county council in its current form.
The Conservative party manifesto in 2010 promised specifically that
“people in each neighbourhood will be able to” choose
“what kind of development they want”.
In 2010, I found that that commitment to localism resonated loud and clear with local voters, who wanted a better kind of local politics. Very rarely if ever do Government know best on local issues. For the first time since Queen Victoria sat on the throne—not dissimilar to you, Mr Deputy Speaker—this Government’s Localism Act 2011 saw real power going from Government back to the people, putting into reverse gear 100 years of centralisation. My simple phrase is: “Trust the people”. The Localism Act 2011 did just that.
Planning is the key aspect of the 2011 Act. It is most welcome for its transformation of the process that people have to deal with. We ripped up the previous top- down regional spatial strategy, which was a Westminster-enforced, target-driven system, which in any event failed to produce any houses, with the lowest house building since 1929. To deliver the change, a local development plan is required from each local authority. The plans will be crucial to deciding planning applications. The Government guidance is that local plans must be in accordance with section 20 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the national planning policy framework. The only mandate is that the authority must complete a plan. Already, 48 local plans have been adopted since May 2011, and more than 65% of councils in the country have published a plan for public consultation. Those are accompanied by more than 100 smaller neighbourhood plans. The vast city of Manchester, for example, went from start to finish in less than 18 months, finishing in the summer of 2012.
The process of local plans is key for local people participating in democracy. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite wrong for any councils to drag their feet on this, postponing the process of getting democracy into planning at a local level?
I entirely agree. It does not really matter which political party is in charge of the local authority. I am criticising Northumberland county council, which happens to be Liberal Democrat in its persuasion, but I would still be criticising it if it were Conservative or Labour. It is a question of competence and leadership, organisation and logistics; it is not about money. Lots of authorities up and down the country have been able to sort this out over an 18-month period—we should bear it in mind that authorities have up to three years to do so. Otherwise, 65% would not have gone down this track.
Everybody knows that the plans have to be completed by spring 2013. Indeed, I was present when the then Communities and Local Government Minister, my hon. Friend Robert Neill, came to Stannington in Northumberland in August 2011 and met NCC planning officers and developers. He stressed the need for NCC planning officers to press on with their plan. It is not as if the local authority has not been warned. It appears certain that Northumberland will now not complete its plan by the March 2013 deadline. I have had that confirmed to me in person by senior councillors and it is an open secret at county hall. Indeed, it appears that the situation is worse: the plan might not be produced and finalised before 2014.
The county council’s failure to deliver the local plan will be an unmitigated disaster for Northumberland. The law is absolutely clear. If a planning authority has an up-to-date local plan, with identified sites to meet five years of objectively assessed need, it has all the powers it needs to resist speculative applications for development. However, if an authority does not have a plan in place or even a draft plan containing an objective assessment of housing needs and identifying five years of developable, deliverable sites, it runs the risk of speculative planning applications from developers and its decisions being overturned on appeal. As the Minister with responsibility for planning, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, told the House on
The Liberal Democrat county council’s failure will, I sadly suggest, be a green light for developers to run amok—in Ponteland, in Darras Hall, in New Ridley, in Ovingham and possibly in the west of Hexham. All those applications are mooted and the list is growing every month. Nor do we have minerals or renewables plans as part of the local development plan. That makes it hard to resist applications to do open-cast mining on green belt land, and our landscape is being affected by the random development of wind farms with little consideration of the cumulative impact.
I am not against development; far from it. I see the need for more houses. I have supported developments at the police headquarters in Ponteland, on the Prudhoe hospital site, and in villages such as Allendale. I must be the chief advocate for house building on the redundant Stannington hospital site. I even brought the developer to Westminster to meet a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to try to make it more likely that that development could happen in a sustainable way.
In the past, I have been harsh in my criticism of developers and big business seeking to cash in on the council’s slow progress in delivering a local plan. Perhaps that is just the old socialist in me, but I do not believe that the market always knows best. However, I am all too aware that Northumberland county council is the architect of all our problems. By failing to create a local plan, it is failing Northumberland. I do not blame the staff at county hall, who are as bright and capable as those at any county hall in the land. I do not blame the squeeze on council budgets, as more than 50 other councils have delivered a plan. A comparison with the other authorities shows that that is not the issue. This is an issue of competence, leadership, management and organisation.
The situation is not satisfactory; it is divisive. Worst of all, it creates a sense that democracy is not working, that big business holds all the cards and that the protector of local people’s rights, the local authority, is failing them. I am helping local people all I can, but as the county council is stuck in the slow lane, I must ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether there is anything the Government can do to aid that incompetent administration. How can we ensure that cumulative impact is considered so that applications are not treated in isolation, creating a patchwork quilt of development with no real thought to its impact on local people? How do people challenge developers when local authorities are not prepared to fight challenges to their local decisions which are appealed?
I know that, if we had a local plan, we would have the tools to fight, and the local will to create a sustainable Northumberland, created by the people, for the people, and with appropriate development for the people. The sad fact is that there is a fundamental lack of leadership to drive things forward and get things done. To say that there was better leadership on the Titanic would be unfair—accurate perhaps, but unfair. An expedited plan would provide a way forward. Without one, I fear for my county, and I fear the sense of unfairness that local people will feel. That cannot be good for sustained locally driven development, and it is not good for democracy.
These are difficult times for local councils, and with further financial constraints confronting them, I pay tribute to the councillors of all political persuasions and officers who find themselves in ever more difficult situations. This is not an experience that I faced as a council leader, but one thing I do understand is the importance of ensuring that public money is not wasted or used for purposes that are inappropriate for a local authority or ultra vires under local government legislation.
In the hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will pursue the matter with vigour, I bring to the House’s attention the extraordinary situation involving the former leader of Essex county council, whose exploits have been much publicised in recent weeks in local newspapers and on local radio, and in some national newspapers. It has been revealed that, from March 2005 to January 2010, he spent £287,000 using the council tax payer-funded credit card that he had been issued. That equates to a rate of more than £1,000 every week for five years, all tax free. Items of expenditure included 62 overseas visits to such places as Uganda, New Zealand, China and the United States—not places normally associated with the local government activity of Essex county council—often accompanied by council officers and councillors.
I can now reveal, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request that I made to the council, that the same leader first had a credit card issued in “mid-2002”. On the assumption that his spending pattern in the years from 2002 onwards was the same as that in the five years following the first published item on
“Tory-controlled Essex County Council decided this week not to sue their disgraced former leader…for the £287,000 of ratepayers’ money he spent flying around the world with cronies and dining in style. This is a rash move. In four and a half months, the council is up for re-election. I am appalled that Essex Tories have such a cavalier view of financial accountability. Anyone who votes to put them back into office next May is mad. Did they take this view…because some of them, too, have things on their conscience?”
Simon Heffer may say that; I could not possibly comment.
In fairness, the current leader is a breath of fresh air. He was issued with a credit card on taking over in May 2010, and it was cancelled in August 2011 having never been used. That shows how much the previous leader abused his position and took Essex council tax payers to the tune of circa £450,000 to fund his expensive tastes and lifestyle. It is also fair to say that a new broom at county hall has ensured that new procedures will not allow such a situation to happen again, but it is not enough to clear up the stables—although pigsty might be a more appropriate description.
What has happened needs to be investigated. As the council is not prepared to have an independent investigation—I believe that is important; otherwise all county councillors will be tarred with the same brush—it must be for central Government to do so. Unless there is an independent inquiry, the stench will remain. That is not in the interest of Essex county council, its councillors and officers—a whitewash is not acceptable.
It is difficult to believe that the former leader was able for eight years to live the life of Riley paid for by Essex council tax payers, without others knowing. After all, many of the credit card bills refer to the leader being accompanied more often than not by officers and councillors. Why did the internal audit not notice the monthly credit card payments and ask questions? Why did the external audit not notice and ask questions?
“All employee expenses are subject to audit and public scrutiny”— but not, presumably, those of the former leader. How is it that the entire finance department and line management within it, leading in due course right into the office of the chief executive, did not notice and draw attention to it? Or is it the case, as has been put to me, that some people did try, but that there was a climate of fear and bullying at county hall? People were afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. This attitude was not confined to the leader, as some councillors and some senior officers were involved. Only an independent inquiry can get into that barrel of apples to identify any rotten ones that are still in place.
I have been advised by a lawyer that he is prepared, at no personal cost to himself, to look at the paperwork and help draft a claim against the council and its officers for an apparent, and I quote,
“breach in fiduciary duty to Essex ratepayers who are owed the opportunity to see these matters rectified.”
It is said that the credit card records from 2002 to 2005 have been destroyed, but I believe the council’s records should still show the total credit card sums claimed by the former leader, even if the individual items cannot be listed. Perhaps the credit card company’s records exist, which an independent inquiry could look at.
The roll-call of countries visited by the former leader between 2005 and 2010 could well make him Britain’s most travelled politician. At 62 visits, that is probably more than the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, and it is certainly not what one would expect of the leader of a local authority. Usually with at least one officer, his Cook’s tour reads as follows: United States of America, eight times; Belgium, 15 times; Poland, twice; Croatia and Sri Lanka, twice; Cyprus, Bulgaria and Austria, three times; France, three times; Slovakia and Italy, three times; China, six times; Hungary, Germany, Holland and India, three times; Australia, New Zealand, Uganda, Hong Kong and Finland, twice; Vietnam, Albania and the Bahamas, ending with his last overseas trip to Canada. In December 2005 Essex council tax payers funded the leader, a councillor and an officer to attend the winter Olympics in Italy at a cost of circa £1,400.
Perhaps an example of the leader’s extravagance is a visit he made, accompanied by a council officer, to Hungary on
Other interesting entries, completely contrary to local government rules and expenditure legitimacy, relate to the council leader using his credit card to pay for attendance at Conservative party conferences for himself and up to three officers of Essex county council, including their travel and hotel accommodation costs. One of his popular watering holes was an establishment in Chelmsford called Muddy Waters where in December 2007 he treated county officers to a meal, paid for by council tax payers, which came to £736. In July 2008, he claimed £42.94 for a Little Chef breakfast. I know that the Little Chef Olympian breakfast is good, but I think customers can get four for the price he paid, as he pigged himself into some sort of record book. Another interesting item is the £327.50 he paid for
“gifts purchased for Transformation Awayday” from the Crooked House gallery in Lavenham, Suffolk.
That list surely in itself comprises an appalling betrayal of the people of Essex by the then leader of the council, but I must now refer to a further abuse. Throughout this period, the leader was also based at another establishment for which five full-time employees of Essex county council had security passes. A sixth, listed as his secretary in the directory of this other establishment, was actually based at county hall, and taxpayers paid all the office costs. When not on council business, the leader was frequently chauffeured here and there at all times of the day and into the early hours by a car and driver provided by the council. The five council officers were providing services that were not part and parcel of the leader’s position with Essex county council, but the council tax payers of Essex were paying all the costs. It is difficult to estimate what they amounted to over what was an eight-year period.
Order. Mr Gilbert, you knew when you rose to intervene that your colleague’s time had almost run out. You have already spoken, and I hope you want other colleagues to have a chance to speak as well. I do not want to have to shave a couple of minutes off other Members’ speaking times. I think you would agree that that would be totally unfair.
I agree with what my hon. Friend said.
As I was saying, it is difficult to estimate what the costs amounted to over what was an eight-year period, but staff salaries and all associated costs would easily take the sum over the £1 million mark, excluding the approximately £450,000 costs incurred through the leader’s credit card, to which I have already referred.
What has happened in Essex brings all local government into disrepute, which is unfair on hard-working councillors and officers, including those in Essex. Only a full independent inquiry into the stewardship of the council from 2002 to 2010 will serve to draw a line under this most disgraceful period since Essex county council was established in 1889.
I rise to celebrate Christmas. In particular, I want to celebrate Christmas in Dover, where we will have a new hospital built next year, after a decade in which our hospital services were decimated and progressively withdrawn. It is therefore great that health care will be moving forward.
I also rise to celebrate the fact that Dover has won the lottery. A £1 million grant has been awarded to Dover for the betterment of the community.
Most of all, however, I rise to celebrate the fact that today we have had news that the port of Dover will not be sold off to the French, or whoever, but will instead stay as it is and, I hope, become a community port and a landmark of the Prime Minister’s vision for the big society.
It was a shock to everyone in my community when in 2009 the former Prime Minister put the port of Dover up for sale as part of his car boot sale. That dismayed my community, and it became a key issue. A key pledge of mine was that the port of Dover should not be sold off, but should remain for ever England.
In autumn 2010, therefore, we launched the alternative: Dover should become a people’s port owned by the community. Our concern was that if it were to remain a trust port, every decade or so there would be a proposal to sell it off, and we do not want the port to be sold overseas. Rather than have to face that future threat ever again, we decided it would be better for the community to come together and buy the port.
The community bid was launched by none other than Dame Vera Lynn, to whom I and the community owe the deepest thanks and gratitude. Without her support, the port and the white cliffs above it would probably have been sold overseas, and we would be waving goodbye instead of celebrating a great Christmas present.
I thank Kent county council and Dover town council for their staunch support throughout this period. I also thank everyone at the Emmaus homeless charity, which is based at Archcliffe fort in Dover. Although they have no home themselves, they are concerned about our community and our port and the stake all of us hold in our society, and they agree that Dover should remain for ever England. They supplied the stewards for our rally back in 2010 when we launched the proposal for a people’s port. I also wish to thank Unite the union—Alan Feeney and his colleagues. They are not natural bedfellows for a Conservative MP, but they came together to support us all in working together, across party, across area and across disciplines, to get the best for our community.
Together, we set up the People’s Port Trust, which is chaired by Neil Wiggins. Its president is Sir Patrick Sheehy, who used to run British American Tobacco. That is a large company, so he is an experienced businessman who knows what he is doing. We also have Algy Cluff, who opened up the North sea to oil exploration, Pat Sherratt, Councillor Nigel Collor and many others. They all came together to set up the alternative. We got funding from the city—we raised the money that was needed—and we tabled a counter-offer to the Prime Minister in November 2010. That was really important because there is no point in just saying no to a proposal; we have to put forward an alternative. Our alternative was that we, the people—our community—should come together to buy the port.
We then held a referendum, because we thought that it could not be a people’s port without the people endorsing the proposal. In March 2011, a referendum was held in the Dover parish asking:
Some 98% voted in favour, on a greater turnout than the previous district council elections. So I am pleased that Ministers have listened to our community, held a proper consultation and decided that it would not be the right thing to sell off the port of Dover overseas.
The current situation is that the sell-off will not happen under the Ports Act 1991. The real issue is what happens next. I hope that Ministers will look at the position, at how the community can come to own the port and at how we can have the big society in Dover. That really matters because it is not just the community, the local authorities, my electors and the unions who want this; the ferry companies and businesses want it, too. So we have complete unity of purpose and unity of desire across all strands of our community that the port of Dover should become a community port. This is important because a community port could be an engine for the regeneration of Dover and returning Dover to being the jewel in the crown of the nation that it once was. This could be a template for Newcastle, for Belfast and for how we can have renewal and regeneration in our seafronts and coastal towns to ensure that they can achieve maximum employment, success and attractiveness once again. I thank the Government for their decision today to chart the way ahead, and I hope that in the new year we will get great progress towards delivering the Prime Minister’s vision for a big society and the people’s vision for a community port.
It is a great pleasure to speak after my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke and I am particularly interested in the port of Dover becoming a people’s port. Interestingly, until 1528 we actually had the whole town of Calais, so it would have been a terrible shame to have sold off Dover.
I wish to discuss the situation in my constituency. Ever since the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs talked in the spring about a drought we have had nothing but rain. We have had a series of floods throughout my constituency, and I want to pay tribute to all the people who have gone out to try to protect their homes. The communities have pulled together extremely well. We have had flooding in Bampton, which has caused a great deal of problems, and in Tiverton, where the Grand Western canal burst its banks. Of course it will cost a huge amount of money to put the canal right. I ask anyone who wants to support the Grand Western canal to do so, because it a great asset to not only Tiverton but the country.
We have also had huge problems with flooding throughout the Axe valley, particularly in Axminster. There is another high flood alert today on the River Axe and we have had a lot of flooding through there. There have been problems with blocked culverts and blocks under the railway, and they need to be sorted out for the future. There has also been flooding in Uplyme and Seaton.
In the village of Feniton, we have had a real problem with a great deal of flooding. The village is like a funnel, and the water comes right down to the bottom of the village and floods several bungalows at the bottom because it cannot get underneath the railway line. Recently, an inspector’s decision has allowed more houses in
Feniton on appeal with no money to contribute towards a flood prevention scheme. It seems to be absolute madness to add to the village before we have got the water under the railway line and away. We need to consider these questions very seriously.
When the rain finally stops and we can look back on what has happened, we need to consider, despite the fact that the Environment Agency has worked well in providing flood warnings, how we manage our rivers and waterways and ensure that they are properly dredged. It is perhaps not feasible in this day and age to have staff from the Environment Agency who can go around, look at the sluices and reduce the water levels, but I do not see why an honorarium cannot be paid to individuals—farmers, perhaps, or local residents—who can reduce the water levels much more quickly because they are on the spot and can deal with the problem at that moment. We must learn the lessons from what has gone on.
My hon. Friend Mel Stride talked about the agricultural problems. Not only did we face foot and mouth disease in 2001, but we have seen the problems with TB, the weather and the high price of feed, silage and cereals. We also have a problem with Schmallenberg again, which is a disease that affects new-born lambs and calves. Even with the early lambing flocks, some 30% to 40% of lambs are being born dead. I hope that that is just happening at the start of lambing and that the situation will improve, but we have a vaccine that is being looked at and validated and I urge the Government to put it in place. It will not help with this year’s lambs, or with calves, but it will help in the future. We cannot just take it for granted that the disease will go away. It is spread by midges and last year it affected only a few sheep and cattle, but this year it has had a big effect, so we need to deal with it.
I want to raise a very interesting issue about dogs going into schools. I recently visited a charity called Dogs Helping Kids. It is run by a lady called Tracey Berridge, who trains the dogs for up to 18 months or even two years so that they can go into schools. She has taught the dogs to read. I have not gone completely mad, Mr Deputy Speaker—the dogs probably do not actually read—but I have seen the process demonstrated. The dog is shown a sign saying “Sit”, and because it is a short word the dog sits. It is then shown a sign saying “Lie down”, and because it is slightly longer the dog lies down. Every time the dog is shown a sign, it does what it says.
I am not joking—hon. Members can imagine how impressed the children are when they see the dog reading, and then sitting and lying down and so on. The children are then very keen to read more. The dog sits with the child and there is a person with them—it is not the dog talking to the child, because, as I said, I have not gone completely mad—who explains to the children more about reading. Those who find difficulty in reading react very well to the dog. In many schools children who were playing truant or had many problems at home and did not want to come to school now want to come to school because the dogs are there.
There is a serious point here. A charity such as Dogs Helping Kids is a good one to support. I have always been a great lover of dogs, as are many people in this country. Dogs can be therapeutic and useful in schools. The charity run by Tracey Berridge trains the dogs properly before they go into schools. It is no good just taking any dog into a school. If it hurt a child, that would cause major problems. We should encourage dogs going into schools, possibly as part of the curriculum, so that children learn that a relationship with a pet can be good for them. I recommend that to the House.
I am not sure I can follow that, but I will follow Members who have been somewhat critical of their local authority. I cannot compete with Sir Bob Russell, and I am usually reluctant to criticise the local authority publicly as I, like all Members, have to work with it for the betterment of the local area. However, one issue has been dominating the local media in north-east Lincolnshire in recent weeks—the closure of the Scartho road swimming pool, following a sham consultation.
The pool is approaching 50 years of age and it is accepted that significant investment is required to give it a new lease of life. I should mention that the pool is in the constituency of Austin Mitchell, who is unable to be here today but is aware of my intention to raise this matter as the pool serves both our constituencies and the wider area reaching into the Gainsborough and Louth and Horncastle constituencies.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been supporting local residents, and in particular members of the Save Scartho Baths campaign. There is overwhelming local opposition to the proposal. The hon. Gentleman went so far as to use his Christmas card to highlight the council’s folly. Members may have seen that, as it reached the pages of the national press. When we met the council leader and his deputy a couple of weeks ago, it was clear that this was, shall I say, not entirely welcome. Whether or not it will take hold as a campaigning tool for other council members, only time will tell.
In fairness to the council I should mention that it proposes to build a new 25 metre pool on the site of the Grimsby leisure centre, but this is smaller than Scartho baths and will not include a diving bay. Following the introduction of the Localism Act, I know the Government are keen to ensure that local authorities undertake proper consultation before making decisions about major local facilities, such as the one that I described. I acknowledge that it is not unknown for councils to go through what could be described as sham consultations, but the one undertaken by the North East Lincolnshire council on this issue reached a new low.
The consultation was undertaken following a public outcry, and residents were expecting to be able to indicate whether or not the Scartho pool should be refurbished. The only mention of the pool was in one of the questions which said, “The following facilities are coming to the end of their life, which would you replace? Please choose one of the following: Grimsby swimming pool or Grimsby leisure centre.” Other questions were, “Should the council continue to provide quality leisure facilities within the borough? Yes or No.” It would be difficult to answer anything but yes. Question 2 was, “Given the tough decisions the council is having to take around substantial reductions in funding, should it replace ageing leisure facilities?” Again, it is hardly possible to answer no. That is no way to run a taxpayer-funded, democratically accountable local authority.
The hon. Gentleman and I have met representatives of a company that is offering to carry out a free survey to determine whether an alternative proposal is viable, which might result in more being done with the funding available, but the council has refused the offer. The council has been contacted by another company which thinks that an alternative specification or a change of policy would give better value for taxpayers’ money, but it has again refused the offer. The council has refused to consider these alternatives. It is possible that those companies, having studied the proposals, met council officers and visited the sites, would conclude that the council’s proposal is the best way forward. It is unlikely, but it is possible. It is a disgrace that the council is denying those opportunities to deliver more for taxpayer’s money.
Campaigners have consulted a wide range of experts, and I am sure that the demand for transparency suggests that the council should at least stop and consider alternatives. It is also possible that additional funding might be available. Having spoken with the sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I believe that it is now time for the council to pause and reconsider how best to move forward with the backing of local people.
It would be difficult to summarise the situation better than one of my constituents has done in a letter to the local paper, that excellent journal the Grimsby Telegraph. My constituent states that, having heard the council state that
“this current administration is committed to investing in tourism and leisure, I find it very reassuring. My difficulty is understanding how and why they seem to be getting it so wrong. Any reader of this paper will have noticed that they are getting little or no support for their proposals. The majority of the public, especially those who use our leisure facilities, find no justification in pulling down Scartho Baths. Indeed, it is just the opposite.”
I hope that that plea will reach the local authority and further consideration will be given to its decision.
I want to mention another issue of particular concern. East Coast, which is of course a Government-operated rail service, has just published its new local timetable. It states: “This new timetable shows you all our train services as well as local train services that connect conveniently with ours.” Compared with the previous edition, East Coast has removed Grimsby and, by implication, Cleethorpes, as well as Scarborough, Huddersfield, Sunderland and Middlesbrough from the timetable. I have written to its managing director but, as the Department for Transport has some influence in the matter, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey my thoughts to the Secretary of State for Transport and that by the time the new timetable comes into force next May, Grimsby and the other towns I have mentioned will have been restored to their rightful place.
The range of subjects we have heard about this afternoon is unparalleled, from dogs that teach children to the merits of funding trips for council leaders to spa towns. I will try to respond to the individual points Members have made but, given the time constraints, will focus on those who are in still in the Chamber.
The contribution we heard from my hon. Friend Mr Amess contained an unparalleled range of issues. Were I to address them all, there would be no time left to respond to any of the other contributions. I hope that he has been able to get all his concerns off his chest. It will probably be simplest if I draw his speech to the attention of all Departments, because it contained something for them all, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I would love to spend more time on that, but I hope he will understand that time constraints prevent me from doing so.
I thank Valerie Vaz for giving me notice of the issue that she wanted to raise about judicial reviews. She said that they come thick and fast. Indeed, the Government have found that since 1974 the number of them has risen from 160 to 11,000 last year, so they are coming thicker and faster year on year. We want to address that. She expressed concerns about the consultation, but I hope that she will none the less participate in it, like my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes, who said that he would do so. The purpose of the consultation, among other things, is to hear Members’ views. The hon. Lady might simply provide it with a copy of today’s Hansardso that it can refer to the important points that she made and the experience on which she has drawn to highlight her concerns. The Government are embarking on this with an open mind in seeking to address the balance between reducing the burdens on public services and promoting access to justice and the rule of law.
Craig Whittaker raised very effectively the issue of visas for Chernobyl children. The Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair earlier was described as Father Christmas in that he was able to offer speaking opportunities to all Members this afternoon. I am afraid that I cannot bear the gift that my hon. Friend would like, which is the extension or renewal of the scheme to support Chernobyl children. He will be aware that in November 2010 the Government set out their intention to stop funding that scheme, although they have agreed to provide a total of £200,000 in the last year that it will run. I will put to the FCO his request that the Home Office and the Department for International Development liaise to see whether there is a way in which they can move forward collectively on this.
Mr Allen raised several issues, including the House business committee, a matter that is still ongoing and on which progress is being made. He welcomed the medals that will be given to those on the Arctic convoys who supported and saved our country at a very difficult time. He raised concerns about Atos Healthcare that I suspect would be echoed by many Members in all parts of the House. In his case, he focused on the length of time that it is taking to process appeals. Delays that run into 57 weeks are clearly unacceptable, and that must be addressed. He expressed concern about deaf children in relation to the personal independence payment and said that it might be a step backwards for them. Although he is not in his place, I urge him to raise that with the Department for Work and Pensions to see what its response is.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark talked about visa renewals and the so-called premium service whereby people pay a substantial sum of money to ensure, theoretically, that their visa renewal is dealt with more quickly. Unfortunately, all too often their experience is different, and if something about their visa needs further work they end up going back into the slow lane with everyone else and therefore derive no benefit from having paid a premium. He identified a solution that I will draw to the attention of the Minister for Immigration, who, I am sure, would want to draw it to the attention of the UK Border Agency. My right hon. Friend welcomed the announcement on the Arctic convoy medals, expressed concerns about judicial reviews, and finished with a quote from Charles Dickens.
Thomas Docherty raised his concern that the criminal injuries compensation scheme would no longer be available in the case of a constituent of his. I do not know whether he has asked the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority to investigate that specific case, but he will be aware that the Government have made changes to the scheme. We want to focus on the victims of the most serious crimes, which is why we have retained the maximum compensation available for a single injury at £250,000.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the local overseas allowance, the specific purpose of which is to contribute towards the necessary additional local cost of living for service personnel who are assigned overseas. It is also supposed to be flexible in order to address the different circumstances of people abroad. If he has not already done so, he could refer the details of the case he raised to the Ministry of Defence to see whether it assessed the allowance entitlement correctly.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned housing allowance for service personnel and called on the MOD to work on it with the devolved Administrations and local government. It is principally the responsibility of local governments to decide what systems they use to prioritise housing for ex-service personnel. The Local Government Association might be able to take up the issue, in order to achieve a collective, more positive local authority approach.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Ofcom and asked whether the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills could look at providing a level playing field, so that Royal Mail could operate under the same level of regulation as others in the same business, such as TNT.
Bob Stewart brought his extensive expertise on defence, which the House values greatly, to the issue of British personnel deaths in Afghanistan. I would like to take this opportunity to commend our service personnel for operating in the most demanding of environments and demonstrating immense personal courage. As the hon. Gentleman has said, 438 members of our armed forces have died while serving in Afghanistan and their loss is keenly felt. On behalf of the Chamber, I extend my sympathies to those families and friends who have lost loved ones. A much greater number of personnel have also been seriously injured or wounded in Afghanistan.
Our strategy is designed to enable the country effectively to manage its own security and prevent its territory from ever again being a safe haven for international terrorism. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s point that no one in this House will blame our servicemen and women if their mission is not successful. They have fought the battle that they needed to fight, but it is clear that many of the enormous problems on the ground are beyond their control. Their remit has also gone beyond the military remit set at the outset.
I thank Helen Goodman for giving me advance notice of her speech. She is concerned about the impact of Government policies on the north-east. At the same time, however, she highlighted that the north-east is still the most successful region in the country, with the biggest car plants in Europe and the biggest chemical plant in the UK, so in some cases things are working very well in her region and we support that. Whereas in the past there was an awful lot of focus on financial services in London, the Government are trying to ensure that we focus much more on the manufacturing industry, which would, of course, benefit her region. We are starting to see some improvements, with manufacturing exports going to the world’s emerging economies. There has also been an increase in exports in the past 12 months, so her region should benefit from that too. I could reel off other statistics if she would like, but she may get frustrated by that. She referred to the £64 million for the upgrade of the A1. There is also £61 million to build more than 3,300 new homes for affordable rent and £17 million to return more than 1,500 empty properties to use in the north-east and Yorkshire. Although the scale of Government activity is perhaps not what she would like, there are positive developments in her region, which I hope she will welcome.
Mel Stride referred to a large number of people. Other Members alleged that that was to cut down on the cost of his Christmas cards. I am sure that that is not the case. I cannot possibly mention all the people he mentioned. I say to him, however, that the risk of mentioning a large number of people is that everyone in Central Devon who reads this debate and whose name is not on the list will wonder why they were excluded. I congratulate him on highlighting a number of important community activities, including the new community school, the youth services and the fostering work of people in his area. He has put on the record his thanks to a large number of people and groups, and we would all like to echo that.
Mr Lammy, who is not in his place, mentioned first that people can drink quite a lot at Christmas. Those who attended the Leader’s reception last night will know that there was very little drinking at all. On a more serious point, the right hon. Gentleman said that we need to think about the police at this time of year because, although we may be about to go on recess and will relax over Christmas, they have the responsibility of dealing with some of the fallout of Christmas. Regrettably, as many Members will know, one of the fallouts of Christmas is an increase in domestic violence, which the police have to deal with.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the threat of a police station closure in Tottenham. He will know that the Mayor of London has said that the police station will not close. However, he is clearly concerned that the hours of operation may be different. I say to him that this issue is surely not just about the availability of a building, but about ensuring that people have a way of quickly and effectively reporting crime. Many people would want to report crime from home if they could, rather than having to go to a police station.
There are ways and means of dealing with some of his concerns that do not necessarily require the number of police stations to be maintained exactly as it is throughout London. London Members will be aware that some counters in London receive very few visits, if any. There are strong arguments for saying that police resources could be used more effectively by supporting people in other ways, such as patrolling the streets, rather than sitting behind a counter, waiting for a caller who does not come.
I certainly echo the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tottenham about fire station closures. There is a risk of closures throughout London. I am sure that the Mayor’s press office will have been following this debate closely and will want to respond to him about those concerns.
Mr Leigh made such a short contribution in relation to medals that I was not quite sure what he was talking about. I think that he was talking about the fact that men who served in Bomber Command will receive only a clasp. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence will have noted his concern that that is not sufficient recompense for the sacrifice that they made for us 60 or so years ago.
Barry Gardiner commended Brent Pensioners Forum on its 25th anniversary. We certainly join him in that, but there are other areas where I am not able to join him. He clearly feels that the Government’s energy policy is ancillary to the wider economic goals. I do not accept that; I think that the two are intrinsically linked. I hope he agrees that clarity on the investment that will go into the energy industry is as welcome as it has been lacking. I know he has concerns about the extent to which the Government are addressing fuel poverty, but a wide range of different measures are in place at a time that is challenging—as he knows and as the Government know—in terms of energy prices and because we are seeking to address a substantial deficit.
Bob Blackman paid tribute to Betty Geller and the role that she played in his constituency. He also referred to the important issue of phoenix companies, and businesses have raised concerns about that with me as a constituency MP. One business in my constituency provides insulation. It tends to go in at the end of a contract and is often not paid because it arrives at the end of the whole process. It has seen phoenix companies re-emerge with the same directors in place. The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the system is not working. If he has not already done so, perhaps he will write to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and set out the precise details of the case of Medi-Vial to which he referred, so that we can consider whether there are ways of improving the system to ensure that directors who are not fit to run companies are precluded from doing so. He made a sensible suggestion about the Secretary of State exploring further measures such as electronic systems to report problems on line.
John McDonnellmade serious allegations about the activities of Hillingdon council that have not gone unnoticed. Those allegations are now on the record and I expect the council will want to respond. If he has not already done so, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will communicate his concerns to the local district auditor, which will want to investigate those serious allegations. I am surprised if a new swimming pool has been built without a contract—
The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position whether I would like to see the report, but I trust that he has read that report carefully. If what he says is the case, it concerns me greatly. I am sure that Hillingdon council and—if he communicates his concerns —the district auditor, will want to pursue the serious issues raised.
My hon. Friend Stephen Gilbert spoke about flooding and listed villages and towns in his community that have been affected. Flooding is clearly a real and ongoing risk to his constituents, and he mentioned the 19 flood warnings currently in place and the £30,000 of damage that is typically caused to a home by flooding. The future of flood insurance is a priority for the Government and discussions with the Association of British Insurers are continuing. However, the Government do not want to comment on the detail of those negotiations at this stage as conducting such negotiations from the Dispatch Box is not good practice.
We continue to seek a new approach that is better than the statement of principles—which, as my hon. Friend said, is not perfect—and that genuinely secures affordable flood insurance without placing unsustainable costs on other policy holders and the taxpayer. The Government’s primary role is to reduce flood risk, and in recognition of that an extra £120 million was announced in the autumn statement for flood defences in England over the spending period. That is on top of the £2 billion that has already been committed. My hon. Friend raised interesting issues about the Bellwin scheme, and I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will respond to his specific point about what he believes are anomalies in the way it works.
Guy Opperman named a number of constituents whom he thought worthy of mention, and I certainly agree. He also highlighted how the Government are committed to localism and reversing the decades or indeed centuries of centralisation in this country. That reversal is probably welcomed by Members on both sides of the House, who recognise that the pendulum had swung too far. We are now swinging it back the other way.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific concerns about Northumberland, the Government have set out clearly our commitment to the protection of the green belt, ensuring that more than a third of England is safeguarded from inappropriate development. The national planning policy framework states that the Government attach great importance to the green belt, the fundamental aim of which is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.
Subject to the outcome of consultation, it remains our policy to abolish the previous Government’s top-down regional strategies, which threatened the green belt in around 30 towns and cities. We have not built enough housing for decades. Unless we tackle that, future generations will have nowhere to live. That does not mean that the countryside will be concreted over for housing. There is no Government policy on the amount of land needed for housing provision, and local councils and communities are best placed to determine how housing need should be met.
The hon. Gentleman went on to ask a number of specific questions for the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which I am sure it will want to respond.
I am afraid I did not make a note of the different countries that were visited by the ex-leader to whom my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell referred. Clearly, it was a large number of countries. Like him, I express some surprise that the ex-leader of said council has found it necessary to visit quite so many continents. He could learn about local government in some of the countries my hon. Friend named, but I suspect he took more to them than he took away. My hon. Friend needs to raise the matter with the local district auditor, as I am sure he has, so that he can investigate. I thought my hon. Friend would call at the end of his speech for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to be brought in to introduce an expenses system to keep control of expenditure at Essex county council. I waited, but the call did not come.
I should tell Charlie Elphicke how much my family enjoy visiting Dover castle, which is a fantastic destination for families. He welcomed the new hospital coming to his constituency. If I could temporarily abandon my hat as Deputy Leader of the House, I would say, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, that I would welcome a new St Helier hospital in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman referred to the port of Dover remaining as a community port. I lived in France for 10 years, so I hope he objected to the French not because they are French, but because they are not British.
The hon. Gentleman nods in agreement, so he does not object to the French because they are French. I understand why he welcomes the news that his port will be kept for local people—it is a positive development.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, Neil Parish was concerned about flooding. Many Members in flood-risk areas are worried about developments in areas that are liable to flood. He made an interesting proposal on dredging and whether an honorarium should be introduced. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might want to investigate that sensible idea of an honorarium so that local people can take responsibility for ensuring that sluice gates are open at the right time.
The hon. Gentleman referred to—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. It is not something that I encounter often in my suburban constituency. He highlighted the risk of Schmallenberg and said that it is a growing challenge for sheep farmers.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of dogs helping kids. He may not have noticed, but at that point, Mr Deputy Speaker raised a sign encouraging the hon. Gentleman to sit, which I thought was cruel.
Indeed—the hon. Gentleman ignored it. I had an interesting conversation with my hon. Friend Andrew George, who tells me that pigs are nifty football players. Perhaps there is a role for pigs in helping kids.
Last, but not least, Martin Vickers demonstrated very well the purpose of the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which is to enable Members of Parliament to raise constituency matters. He raised, very effectively, the issue of Scartho baths; as a frequent swimmer myself, I like longer pools to swim in, not smaller ones like that proposed in his neighbouring constituency. His plea for his local authority to listen is now on the record, and I hope that it will do so. He also raised concerns about the east coast main line, and I will ensure that the Department for Transport is aware that Cleethorpes has disappeared. That is significant, and I know that the Leader of the House is also concerned about that as a user of that service.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, your staff, the House staff and staff in the office of the Leader of the House for helping, supporting and advising us, and I wish everyone a happy Christmas.
I wish to take this opportunity to wish Members all the best for Christmas and the new year. I am sure that Cleethorpes will be returned. If not, those responsible will no doubt find out that they are shark bait.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.