I beg to move,
That this House
has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.
I wish to raise a number of issues before the Easter Adjournment and I will try to get through them as quickly as possible so that the 16 Members who wish to speak all have equal time.
I was on the Select Committee on Health for 10 years and am still very interested in a number of health issues. One is a genetic condition that causes high concentrations of cholesterol in the blood and therefore significantly increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease from a young age. It is known as FH, or familial hypercholesterolaemia, and affects one in 500 people but only 15% have been formally identified or treated. However, it is possible to make improvements to this rate and I am asking the Deputy Leader of the House to suggest that, as the cardiovascular disease outcomes strategy for England includes an aspiration to diagnose and treat 50% of causes of FH, the Health Department considers establishing a national programme for FH that features a dedicated network of health care professionals, nurses to roll out the cascade screening process and a UK-wide patient register and database.
Melanoma cancer is something of which all Members of Parliament are only too aware. I recently had the privilege of meeting Gill Nuttall, who founded the charity Melanoma UK. It is the most serious form of skin cancer and each year more than 2,000 people in the UK die from the disease. It disproportionately affects young people and patients are often of working age with young families. It is absolutely devastating. The present treatment is dacarbazine, but that does not have a high survival benefit so I am asking the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on to the relevant Department the fact that the drug ipilimumab can be a life-saving treatment for some patients, whose survival is inhibited by late access to the treatment. I am advised that on
I am the chairman of the all-party group on hepatology and we recently produced what I shall brazenly call an excellent report into liver disease, called “Liver Disease: Today’s Complacency, Tomorrow’s Catastrophe”. It is about improving outcomes in liver disease and is a wake-up call to the nation. I do not know how many people realise that liver disease is the fifth greatest cause of death in the UK and that about 11,000 people die each year as a result of it. The report made many recommendations and I hope that the Government, the NHS and Public Health England will work together to create a national approach to preventing fatalities from liver disease. A meeting with the Minister responsible for public health would also be extremely useful.
The drug treatment strategy interests us all. National guidance from the Department of Health and NICE clearly recommends that all patients treated for opiate addiction should receive a comprehensive assessment and that the treatment provided should be tailored to their needs, yet according to the results of the largest survey ever carried out into drug addiction across 10 European countries, published in 2012, treatment in the UK might often not be optimised to the individual patient’s obvious needs. In this country we have one of the highest levels of heroin addiction, so I hope that the Department of Health will work to implement the NICE technology appraisal on drug treatment options, TA114, and put a monitoring system in place to ensure that every patient is assessed and offered the safest and best treatment to enable them to recover.
Thalidomide used to be mentioned regularly in the House, but recently I was shocked to learn that justice has still not been served after all these years. Most Members of Parliament might still have one or two thalidomide victims in their constituencies, but in cases in which the pharmaceutical company Grünenthal was not the licensee, thalidomide victims did not receive a penny from either the German Government or the manufacturers. In other European countries where thalidomide was marketed the victims have received financial assistance from Grünenthal and the German Government. I am asking our Government to turn exploratory talks into formal negotiations to assist with funding the health needs of those who suffer from the effects of thalidomide. Italian, Swedish and Spanish MPs are asking their Governments to do likewise. I hope that our Government will take the matter seriously.
I am the chairman of the all-party group on maternity and I was totally unaware of tongue-tie in breastfeeding. As we all know, if mothers can do it breastfeeding is the best possible way to nurture children, but tongue-tie is very upsetting for new mothers. The diagnosis is not fully recognised, but when it is discovered early on, treatment is usually quick and straightforward. I am advised that specialists can perform a simple snip of the tie with scissors, often without even an anaesthetic. The National Childbirth Trust has received communications from many mothers describing their experience of tongue-tie, and it seems to be an issue that needs to be addressed. It is concerned that diagnosis of tongue-tie can sometimes take weeks or months, which is very upsetting for a new mother. One mother says:
“Both my children were tongue tied and in both cases the professionals failed to identify it. Due to unacceptable waiting times I felt I had no option but to pay for private tongue tie division. I went to hell and back on my feeding journeys because of tongue tie.”
This is something that we need to improve.
I remember debates in the House many years ago on gender selection abortion when I was reassured by the Minister that that would not happen. Unfortunately, 4,700 girls are missing in the UK due to sex-selection abortion, which is disgraceful. A growing body of anecdotal evidence proves that gender abortions are taking place in this country despite the assurances many years ago that that would not happen. There is a need to clarify the law on sex selection. The Department of Health interprets the law as saying that sex selection abortion is illegal. The head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service says the opposite. The Abortion Act 1967 requires two doctors to form the opinion in good faith that continuing with the pregnancy risks damaging the mother’s mental or physical health. In a situation where a woman might suffer abuse as the result of bearing a girl, as has unfortunately been the case in some minority communities, it is quite conceivable that sex selection abortion would meet the Act’s criteria. The Department of Health proposes non-binding guidance to solve this problem, but that is not good enough. I want the Secretary of State for Health to consider bringing forward regulations under the powers conferred on him by section 2 of the Abortion Act to make gender abortion explicitly illegal, as we were told many years ago that it was.
Assisted dying regularly rears its head, perhaps not in this Chamber but in the other place. I ask only that when the matter is raised again there will be a genuine free vote on it in the House. The Prime Minister touched on the issue of abortion yesterday, but I hope that there will be a genuine free vote on euthanasia.
More than a month ago in Westminster Hall, I raised my grave concerns about mental health services in south-east Essex. I told the Minister of State, Department of Health, Norman Lamb, that I was totally unhappy with past and present management, and he promised me a meeting. A month has gone by. I am ready, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will ensure that his hon. Friend will quickly make arrangements for me to have the meeting with him, because the complaints are endless.
I am pleased that we are to reform the probation service. I have been critical of the probation service in Essex, so I am horrified to learn that its chief executive and his staff are thinking of reinventing themselves under the auspices of a mutual. There is no point changing the probation service unless it is under new management.
I was privileged to be part of a delegation to Saudi Arabia, and we are to have a meeting with the Foreign Office Minister later this afternoon. The development of our relations with Saudi Arabia is interesting. It has been a reliable ally of ours for more than 100 years, but we might be missing out on some trade opportunities. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will continue to nurture good relations with Saudi Arabia.
I am the chairman of the all-party British-Maldives parliamentary group, and after some controversy over the election, at long last we have a settled President. I very much hope that we will facilitate a double taxation treaty and a bilateral investment treaty, reduce the air passenger duty and make student visa applications more accessible for young talented students from the Maldives to travel here to study at our excellent academic institutions. We could certainly do more to encourage business links between our two countries—after all, it was a British protectorate. The British high commissioner, John Rankin, has agreed to visit the global green city project, a fantastic project that aims to create a safe, serene and spacious environment with huge economic potential for the citizens of the Maldives. I want British businesses to enjoy some of the business opportunities there.
I recently became chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for democracy in Bahrain. I did not initially realise that it was a controversial all-party group, and I simply say that I hope that the Government are looking seriously at the further complaints about torture.
Quilliam is an organisation that deals with online extremism. Last month, I was reunited with a former constituent, Maajid Nawaz, whom I last saw when I visited him in an Egyptian prison some 10 years ago. He has been on an incredible journey. Having been a former member of an Islamist revolutionary group, and spending five years in a prison in Cairo, which was a little like “Midnight Express”, he then had a complete change of heart, transformed his life and started the anti-extremism organisation Quilliam.
Quilliam has just finished the most comprehensive report to date on online extremism, and it will be published shortly. The issue was raised in the counter-extremism taskforce set up after the Woolwich attack, so it is important to consider it carefully. Quilliam’s research has found that negative measures of dealing with online extremism, such as blocking or censoring, which have previously been suggested, would be both ineffective and counter-productive. It instead identifies seven other ways that action should be taken to counter online extremism, including the promotion of positive measures, such as developing counter-extremist content and popularising online initiatives that fight against extremism, as they are much more effective in challenging extremist ideologies; and the establishment of a central body that offers seed funding and training for grassroots online counter-extremism initiatives. When we went to Saudi Arabia, we visited a facility that tries to deradicalise people. I hope that all hon. Members will look at the views of Quilliam if they have the chance.
My constituent went to Westcliff high school for boys, and I am delighted to say that Westcliff high school for girls has been judged to be the second best school in the country, and it is a state school.
In March, I visited Seetec and met some of the staff of one of the UK’s major providers of training and employment services. It does a wonderful job. It has been in existence for 30 years, and I congratulate it on all that it has done.
Like many people, I am not very pleased with the work of spy cars, and I support the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in his endeavours to have them scrapped.
I am pleased with what the Chancellor of the Exchequer did in the Budget for the wine and spirits industry. However, wine duty has already increased by 54% since the escalator was introduced in 2008, and it has now been increased by another 2.4% in line with RPI inflation. That will harm the UK, so I hope that next year the Chancellor will have a look at that duty.
My final subject is puppy farming. I know that there is bid before the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the issue, and in June, there will be a mass gathering of people who feel very angry about puppy farming. I urge the Government to tighten up the legislation on the welfare conditions required to allow the sale of puppies and kittens, and to consider a total ban on their sale in pet shops where the mother is not present.
I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and everyone who supports us in this House and outside, a very happy Easter.
Last month I had an Adjournment debate about the ongoing threat to the future of my local general hospital, St Helier. A huge banner covering the front of the hospital that said, “Coming soon—We’re spending £219 million on a major development of St Helier hospital”, had just been taken down. The £219 million had been on the table since early 2010, when my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham announced that the 1930s-built hospital would be completely renovated, with new wards, single rooms to cut down on infections, and improved patient privacy, as well as numerous other improvements to bring it into the 21st century. Initially, the scheme was backed by the coalition, but it was not long before St Helier’s future was put at risk.
In 2011, the local NHS said that the Government had told it to
“deliver £370m savings each year…around 24% in their costs.”
A new body called Better Services Better Value was set up to close accident and emergency and maternity units across south-west London and Surrey. Predictably, BSBV recommended that St Helier should be one of the losers and that we should also lose our intensive care unit, paediatric centre, renal unit, and 390 in-patient beds. But thankfully, post-Lewisham, the local Save St Helier campaigners fought off the worst of these plans, largely thanks to the backing of doctors in Surrey, where Epsom hospital was also threatened. Two weeks ago, I handed in a petition to save St Helier that had been signed by more than 13,000 of my constituents. I was proud to stand alongside campaigners like Sally Kenny, who set up the lower Morden Save St Helier campaign; Mary Curtin, who for many years has run the local lunch club, Friends in St Helier; Stan Anderson, a lower Morden resident and local councillor who has fought tirelessly to keep St Helier open; and Stephen Alambritis, the leader of Merton council, who has done all he can to help. Thanks to them and all the other Save St Helier campaigners, BSBV has been wound down and the immediate plans to close services at St Helier have been shelved.
However, the threat still hangs over us. The reason I am here to speak about this again is that since last month there have been further developments. First, the local NHS has voted to bring in a new strategic commissioning group that will be led by one of the people at the forefront of the plans to shut services at St Helier, Dr Howard Freeman, who is also the chair of Merton’s clinical commissioning group. Many of us are concerned that St Helier will now see the level of services that had been commissioned from it decrease, which would seriously undermine the viability of our hospital. That is consistent with a letter from NHS England which says that not going ahead with the closure of services at St Helier and Epsom hospitals
“carries significant and unacceptable risk, both financially and clinically” and calls for “a coherent strategic plan”. Interestingly, it also points out the obvious—that people will interpret this approach as
“planning for clinical and financial failure in some of its providers.”
That is true. We are all worried that NHS England will deliberately plan for hospitals such as St Helier and Epsom to fail. Without the £219 million renovation, and without getting the full range of services commissioned from the local CCGs, they will not be allowed to become foundation trusts. They will wither, and the forces lined up against St Helier will get the outcome they originally wanted—the closure of A and E, maternity, and numerous other services. It might not happen straight away, but slowly and surely, perhaps within two or three years, we will find that we no longer have the hospital we now enjoy.
It makes matters worse that in the past month we have seen the spectacle of local Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs voting for clause 119 of the Care Bill. Everyone who supports the Save St Helier campaign is furious about that. Whatever the merits or otherwise of clause 119, campaigners believe it is nothing more than an attempt to thwart campaigns like theirs as revenge for the success of campaigners in Lewisham and a way of closing hospitals that are well run and have wide support. Last week, Merton council passed a motion condemning Stephen Hammond for betraying Merton residents when he voted for clause 119. Since then, the leader of Merton Conservatives, Councillor Oonagh Moulton, has angered campaigners even more by proclaiming in the local Wimbledon Guardian:
“St Helier Hospital has been saved”.
Given the track record of people like Dr Freeman, I do hope those words do not come back to haunt her.
The immediate threat may have been fought off, but just as secret plans were drawn up to close St Helier back in 1996, I am sure that its enemies are planning for it to fail even as we speak. I do not believe that this Government are committed to St Helier. The £219 million was withdrawn; the strategic commissioning body has been set up; clause 119 has been passed; savings have to be made; and the local NHS has been making plans to fail. Slowly but surely, St Helier is being strangled. Our best hopes lie with campaigners like Sally, Mary, Stan, and Merton’s councillors. We need to win, because if St Helier loses its A and E, 200,000 people will face longer journeys in an emergency, neighbouring A and Es will struggle with the extra workload, and millions will suffer.
I ask the Minister to say today that he agrees with the Save St Helier campaign, that he will instruct our local NHS to spend the £219 million, that it must not reduce the work it commissions from St Helier, and that it must respect the people of lower Morden and St Helier who depend on our hospital.
I would like to raise some other NHS concerns. In the transfer from primary care trusts to CCGs to NHS England, two schemes to provide new GP surgeries in my constituency have stalled. First, there is Colliers Wood and Lavender Fields surgery, a GP practice based on two sites that are more than 1 mile apart and in desperate need of updating. The practice has found it very difficult to find alternative accommodation in such a built-up urban area. A couple of years ago, it identified a site on the first floor above the local library—a building owned by a company called Crown Properties. A price was negotiated, heads of terms were agreed, and a lot of the preparation work began. The local pharmacist had already moved into a building nearby in preparation for the new surgery. However, it now transpires that somewhere in the transfer from PCTs to CCGs to NHS England, the project fell off the radar. In the meantime, Crown Properties has gone into receivership, and its receivers, Knight Frank, are backing away from the deal. They have applied for a change of use that would turn the offices into flats rather than a GP surgery, thereby jeopardising the prospect of the surgery moving. I would welcome the assistance of the Minister to find out where the scheme is and to help me secure a meeting with the receivers to discuss how much this surgery is needed by people who live locally.
Secondly, for the past seven years we have had the prospect of a new location for Rowans surgery on the former Rowans school site. In 2007, as part of a section 106 agreement on a new residential development, it was agreed that a new surgery would be built and would have a reduced rent for six years. When the property market slowed in the recession, the deal was put on hold. Now this long-standing scheme continues to await approval from the new NHS England. We are desperate to hear from NHS England as to the hopes for a new surgery. This surgery has some of the worst problems in the constituency as regards patients obtaining appointments, and more GPs and more space are desperately needed.
Finally, I would like to mention a bugbear of mine as a constituency MP—the practice of GP surgeries in charging MPs for letters about their constituents. I would be interested to hear other Members’ comments about this. Like all MPs in the House, I hold a weekly advice surgery. I often see my job as making sure that people present their cases for housing or other benefits in the best possible light, and that sometimes includes obtaining medical information to support those cases. I find it difficult to understand, morally, that a GP practice could want to charge an MP £40 for a letter on behalf of a child who is disabled or an elderly person who is vulnerable. I assure Members that this is perfectly legal. It is part of GPs’ contracts and they can do it, but it is wrong that Members should be frustrated by these charges in their attempts to support their most vulnerable constituents. The people concerned are often the least able to meet the charges and the ones who most need help and support.
I would be grateful for any assistance from the Minister and his colleagues in the Government in raising this issue. Undertaking casework is a vital part of the MP’s role and we should be allowed to contact GPs, whose primary function, I thought, was to assist their patients in an holistic sense, rather than just in the medical sense. We all know that housing and support from social services can assist people’s health as much as individual medical care. I ask for the support of all Members in respect of those charges.
It is a pleasure to follow Siobhain McDonagh and particularly my hon. Friend Mr Amess. I have always regarded these recess Adjournment debates as one of the highlights of the parliamentary Session. They give us all an opportunity to raise a variety of issues, perhaps ones that would not merit the length of an Adjournment debate in the Chamber or Westminster Hall, but which are matters that we care deeply about.
Listening to my hon. Friend as he went from subject to subject, as I shall probably do, I was reminded that the spring sunshine had brought out some butterflies, which many colleagues may have spotted. Yesterday I saw the first orange tip butterfly of the year, which is always a highlight for me as it is one of the marks of spring arriving. I saw it in a most unusual place—on the grass verge by Hanger lane on the A40, not exactly the rural idyll that one might associate it with. I thought to myself, “Shall I be like that butterfly as I flit from subject to subject, gently sipping from the flowers of the various issues?” I leave it to hon. Members to decide whether they see me as a butterfly, gently floating.
On the subject of the wildlife world, I should like to raise two important matters that impinge on the European Union. The first concerns vultures, which I have always been very fond of. That predates my time in the Whips Office by a long way. Vultures have had a tough time both in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, mainly as a result of a drug called diclophenac, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory used in veterinary treatment. Unfortunately, one of the side-effects is that it is a lethal poison to vultures. Animals in Africa or the subcontinent that have been treated with the drug die and as the vultures feed on the carcases containing the drug, they are killed. The vulture populations in both areas have almost been wiped out.
In India, Pakistan and Nepal, diclophenac was used regularly in the 1920s. A lot of work has been done on the subcontinent and the drug has largely been banned. I was distressed to read the other day that the EU has authorised its use on domestic animals in Italy and Spain, where 80% of European vultures live. This is a backward move and sends a poor message to countries in Africa, which we are trying to persuade to ban the use of the drug. Four species of vulture are commonly found in Europe, none of which has brilliant populations and some of which are very threatened, chiefly the bearded vulture, with which I feel a certain empathy. We need to be aware of the problem. I hope the Government will raise the issue at various EU opportunities.
While the Government are on the subject, they should raise another matter. One of the EU states, Malta, has a derogation to allow spring hunting and the shooting of birds. This badly affects turtledoves, which are in decline all over Europe and especially in Britain, and quail. All the migratory birds that we are beginning to see coming into the country face a battery from hunters in Malta. It is time the practice was looked at. I say to the Maltese people that theirs is one country in Europe that I have no interest in visiting while the practice continues. Despite their heroics in the second world war—I have always been a great admirer of the George Cross island—such behaviour is no longer acceptable in the 21st century.
We must be careful not just to point out what is wrong abroad. We have problems here. I am pleased to support wildlife trusts in their campaign to save our grasslands, which are rapidly disappearing, and support wide biodiversity. I was lucky a couple of weeks ago to visit a commercial farm in Leicestershire called the Allerton project, which is run by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. I was impressed by the ability to show how a farm can be commercial, but also aware of its conservation and wildlife responsibilities. I recommend to any Member who has an interest and to officials of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who I know go there, to visit the project and look closely at it as it is doing very good work. I was shown around by Professor Chris Stoate, who impressed me with his knowledge and his love of the subject.
In the past Session I have been rather busy as a member of the Joint Committee looking at the modern slavery Bill that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has, with a great deal of passion, brought into being. We reported only a couple of days ago. It is going to be a very important piece of work. I hope the Home Office will study our recommendations seriously. It is an opportunity for the House and the country to be a world leader in combating a modern-day abomination, yet sadly something that most people do not know about. I urge every right hon. and hon. Member at any opportunity, when they are speaking to constituents or organisations, to raise the subject, because until the public know that it is happening in their midst, in their streets and in their towns, we will not get as much action as we would like.
I have been lucky enough, if one can use that expression, to talk to victims—the men and women who have been slaves in the modern era. Anyone who speaks to such victims will find that their lives change and they are not able to rest easy until they have done something to try to help. On that subject, I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 1257. Having not been able to sign early-day motions, I have found that I can exist in life without them and I am not a great fan of them, but I did notice this early-day motion on the 175th anniversary of Anti-Slavery International on
Having raised a rather grim subject, I now want to be positive: the sun is coming out, so I think my sunny disposition should start shining through. Earlier this week, I attended the reopening of Uxbridge central library in the London borough of Hillingdon. I can still clearly remember getting my first book out of the old Uxbridge library with a great deal of excitement about 50 years ago. Books have given me a great deal of pleasure over the years and it distresses me whenever I hear that libraries in many areas have suffered cuts and generally seem to be going slightly out of fashion.
I am old enough to remember—everybody present is much younger than me—when Boots the Chemist had a lending library. When it finished, the books were sold off and I still have some at home. Those interested in nostalgia might like to know that they have a little green shield-shaped sticker on them.
I want to be as unpartisan as possible, but the London borough of Hillingdon has been brilliant. It has put the residents first and it is a pleasure not just to be a resident of the borough, but to be its Member of Parliament, because I experience relatively few problems with my local authority. I know that that is not always the case for MPs, even when their local authority is run by their own party, but mine is exemplary. Hillingdon is a little hidden treasure on the west side of London, although it is still in Middlesex, of course.
The library reopened on Monday. The London borough of Hillingdon has spent £10 million on all 17 borough libraries and they are vibrant. New libraries with new ideas are being opened. Uxbridge library has six floors, a ground floor café and an atrium for art exhibitions, drama and dance. I was particularly pleased that it was opened not just by Councillor Ray Puddifoot, who is the local authority leader, but by a wonderful gentleman called Philip Colehan, who is 92 and used to be the borough librarian. In 1964, he opened 10 libraries and his passion for public libraries and the services they provide meant that he could see back in those days—before anyone had even come up with the idea of a one-stop shop—the opportunities a library can give. It can be a community hub.
If Members pop down to the end of either the Metropolitan or the Piccadilly line—Uxbridge is well served by both—they should have a look at the library. They could compare it with their own public libraries and local authorities and see that Hillingdon has got it absolutely spot on. Our libraries are able not just to exist but to flourish.
Given that it is coming up to the Easter break, the public and the press will all say that we are going to be off on a long holiday, but we know that we are going to be very busy with all the constituency stuff we do. I hope colleagues will take a little time off. If anybody is thinking of taking a break, I will give a little plug to Northern Ireland, which I visited last weekend. I went to watch my rugby team, Saracens, beat Ulster. According to the Ulster fans it was a controversial victory, but that is because they lost.
The hospitality and atmosphere were wonderful. Londonderry/Derry is a very interesting city and it was a pleasure to visit it. The countryside is wonderful, as are the Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills distillery. I am now on the wagon, but the people there were absolutely wonderful. I recommend a visit.
I like a bit of continuity, so I will end by noting that in our previous pre-Adjournment debate just before Christmas, I cheekily mentioned what was on my Christmas present list. Mrs Randall read Hansard, as she does every day, and I was lucky enough to receive a bat detector. All I can say is that I am looking forward to getting that bat detector out in the next few days and using its radar and locator. Perhaps I will pop down to where HS2 is planned to go through the borough of Hillingdon. There are some very interesting bats there and I want to hear and see them for myself so that I will be able to mention them in a debate when we return.
Finally, I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, Mr Speaker, all right hon. and hon. Members and, in particular, all those people who serve us so well in the House a happy and restful Easter—and don’t overdo it on the eggs!
It is a pleasure to follow my parliamentary neighbour, Sir John Randall. I have always thought that he wears the trauma of living next door to the greatest constituency in the UK—that of Harrow West—extremely lightly, given that he will never have the chance to represent it.
I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s praise for wildlife trusts, and in so doing I would like to take this opportunity, as president of the London Green Belt Council, to praise the contribution of so many residents’ associations across London that defend the green belt and green open spaces in London with great passion and commitment. I am thinking in particular of those in the London borough of Harrow, such as the Harrow Hill trust, the Pinner association, the Headstone residents’ association and the Hatch End association. I pay tribute to their work.
The right hon. Gentleman and I also share an interest in what happens at RAF Northolt. I gently ask the Deputy Leader of the House to ensure that, in future, whenever the Ministry of Defence consults on any plans to change the number of flights in and out of RAF Northolt, it will consult Harrow and Ealing councils as well as Hillingdon council and Hillingdon Members of Parliament. There is substantial concern in my constituency about the significant uplift in the number of flights the MOD is going to allow into RAF Northolt and about the lack of discussion with Harrow MPs and the local council.
I also want to ask the Deputy Leader of the House for his assistance on the issue of policing. The latest figures from the Mayor of London’s office show that, in January, Harrow had 344 police officers and just 38 police community support officers—a total of 382 officers. In March 2010, however, Harrow had a total of 519 police officers, made up of 403 police constables, sergeants and others, and 116 PCSOs. Harrow has therefore seen a 27% fall in the number of police officers since the general election—part of the 3,000 or so police officers axed from the London streets since 2010.
I understand that London has 30,036 police officers, despite the Mayor of London’s promise that he would maintain police numbers at or about 32,000. Indeed, the Deputy Mayor for policing, Stephen Greenhalgh, said last year that it would be a “doomsday scenario” for policing in London if the number dropped below 31,000, but that is what has happened. Over the same period since the general election, the Metropolitan police has lost almost 2,300 PCSOs, which is a 50% cut since 2010. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House is willing to try to secure from the Home Office a timeline for when Harrow will again have the same complement of police officers, including PCSOs, as we had back in March 2010. In particular, my constituents are concerned that there are not enough police officers in our part of Harrow. Despite the Mayor’s promises, there does not yet appear to be any sense of when we will get back to the numbers we once had.
The last issue I want to raise relates to one of the responsibilities of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I take this opportunity to congratulate the new Secretary of State, who also has responsibility for equality, Sajid Javid, on his appointment. I hope that he will take a particular interest in the implementation of section 27 of the Communications Act 2003, and the extent to which Ofcom is meeting its responsibilities for promoting equality of opportunity among those employed by providers of television and radio services.
One of Ofcom’s predecessors, the Independent Television Commission, required those it licensed to carry out equality monitoring. The ITC published data in tables every year, along with a critique and any other action that companies were taking on equality. However, Ofcom no longer publishes any such data. Although it has a duty to encourage equality of opportunity in the arts, it is not using the key available tool—public scrutiny—to encourage improvement. Indeed, Ofcom has resisted—sadly, successfully—freedom of information requests to release the data.
The House should be concerned, because surely our TV programmes and the organisations funded by Arts Council England should, in relation to those they employ on screen and on stage, reflect the very diverse nature of the communities that many hon. Members represent. I have received a number of representations from communities and from actors from particular ethnic minority backgrounds, who do not feel that they receive appropriate coverage or access to key media, particularly TV and theatre. For example, I rarely see Tamil actors and actresses on our TV screens, which is disappointing given the size of the Tamil community, particularly in my constituency. British east Asians are the third largest minority ethnic group in Britain today, but that is simply not reflected on our screens and stages.
To provide more evidence of that point, in nearly 30 years, “EastEnders” has had only one regular east Asian character, a young female DVD seller who lasted just six months. Given that the east end of London remains one of our most ethnically diverse areas, it is a little odd that Albert square has not had so much as even the proverbial cliché of a Chinese takeaway. “Coronation Street” also has a disappointing record. It waited until 2011 before it had an east Asian character, who lasted just four months. Hospital dramas such as “Casualty”, “Doctors” and “Holby City” are similarly disappointing. Given the number of east Asians working in our hospitals, including in senior roles, that is somewhat at odds with the reality of the very diverse work force in the NHS. Actors have told me that they worry that any east Asian actor who is unable or unwilling to embody a stereotype will simply be unable to build any kind of career, given the lack of opportunity to play appropriate and non-stereotypical roles.
Figures suggest that the number of black and ethnic minority staff in companies receiving Arts Council England funding is dropping. I therefore hope that the new Secretary of State might, in addition to all his other duties, encourage Ofcom and Arts Council England to take a greater interest in equality monitoring. I want what I watch on TV, in films and on stage to reflect the community I live in, and surely that is not an unreasonable ask. Sadly, it is now far from clear whether Ofcom is fulfilling its responsibilities under the Communications Act. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House is willing to take my plea for a little more action from Ofcom to the new Secretary of State, and to deliver a suitable response in the usual way.
I have a cunning plan to get potholed streets in Colchester filled in: I will invite the organisers of the Tour de France to hold one of the stages of this great cycling event in Colchester, which, created in 49 AD, was Britain’s first city and the first capital of Roman Britain. That would guarantee that the potholes in Colchester—wilfully neglected by Essex county council, by contrast with other parts of Essex—are attended to, at least on the route taken by some 200 of the world’s leading racing cyclists.
I know that that is true because regional television this week featured the part of rural Essex to which the Tour de France is going this year. Every inch, every foot, every yard, every furlong of rural road that the cyclists will speed along—probably without noticing the wonderful scenic beauty of the Essex countryside—has been surveyed for potholes. By the day of the race, every pothole will have been filled in, even those that Essex county council highways department would elsewhere deem to be of insufficient depth to need filling. The county council clearly considers that cyclists from around the world are worthy of greater attention and safety consideration than the residents of Essex whose council tax will go towards the cost of making the Tour de France route safe. It would not look good if professional cyclists topple from their machines because of an Essex pothole.
Talking of looking good, some say that the picturesque village of Finchingfield is the most attractive village in Essex. It is assumed that the world’s media will regard it as a good place to photograph and film cyclists speeding through. It is not a question of filling in potholes there—oh no—because the patchwork quilt appearance of the road surface might spoil the photographs, so at great expense the whole road has been resurfaced to ensure the kind of pristine surface that is rare in most of Essex. If I can get the Tour de France to come to Colchester, it would ensure that our potholes were filled in. I am sure that my constituents could design a route to maximise the number of roads and potholes to be attended to in their area. For example, on the Monkwick estate, I would nominate a route that included Queen Elizabeth way, Prince Philip road, Prince Charles road and Coronation avenue.
Behind my mockery, there is a serious point—namely, the performance, or lack of performance, of highway maintenance in Colchester under the auspices of Essex county council. I raised that at Communities and Local Government questions on Monday, when I got an encouraging response from the Secretary of State. Like me, he is an Essex MP, and thus fully aware of the shortcomings of county hall at Chelmsford, where favouritism rules.
Until a few years ago, Colchester borough council was responsible for highways maintenance and street lighting, but then the county council grabbed the work. The result is that our roads and pavements are the worst that I have ever known, and the county switches off our street lights at midnight. Although there is a case for tackling light pollution, most of my constituents do not want a total black-out. I have tried to get a meeting with the cabinet member responsible, but he will not reply to my letters. Indeed, he is on record as saying that when he gets a letter he disapproves of, he throws it in the bin. That is democratic accountability in Conservative-run Essex county council.
Complaints about highways maintenance make it the biggest local issue that residents currently raise with me. When Colchester borough council looked after highways, pavements and street lights, complaints were few and far between. It all changed and got worse when Essex county council took over, and it has got even worse—much worse—during the past two years, following the county council’s decision not to continue with nine contracts covering different parts of Essex, but to lump them together in a single contract worth £3 billion over
10 years from
While the Government and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government promote localism, which is a concept that I support, Essex county council has centralised highways to a devastatingly negative degree. In the good old days, when Colchester borough council’s highways depot was opposite where I live, potholed roads and damaged pavements would be attended to in a matter of days; it is now months—if you are lucky. If we are serious about localism, let us return to how it used to be, with the local council using local people with local knowledge, people with pride and a personal commitment to the area, to undertake that important work.
I have personally reported five times to Essex county council’s highways department the dangerous condition of the pavement outside my constituency office. It is a narrow pavement to a through-traffic route used by a large number of vehicles, many of them travelling too fast for the conditions. My office has witnessed, via CCTV cameras, four occasions when youngsters on mini-scooters have tumbled after hitting a pothole. Fortunately, each youngster fell forward. My concern is that on another occasion a youngster might topple into the road and under the wheels of a passing vehicle. On two occasions I was in my office when a youngster toppled from their scooter with the resultant tears. On one occasion I administered first aid to a three-year-old boy’s bleeding knee. I have reported the dangerous pavement five times. Earlier this year, I managed to get two people from the highways department to visit. The result? Nothing. My fifth letter, subsequent to their visit and following a further incident involving a little four-year-old girl, was acknowledged but, weeks later, the potholed pavement still needs attention.
Having described Essex county council’s appalling highways record, I will now draw attention to another matter: the way in which the county council engages with the 16 MPs who represent constituencies in the administrative county of Essex. I am the only MP who is not a Conservative, which clearly rankles at county hall. On
“the recent Essex MP quarterly meeting”.
That surprised me because I had no knowledge of quarterly meetings with Essex MPs. I submitted a freedom of information request to the chief executive. In due course, albeit later than the time specified in the Freedom of Information Act, I received a response from the person in charge of the incredibly named “your right to know” office. I am not making it up; that is what the office is called. It appears, however, that the right to know does not necessarily apply to the MP for Colchester. In the reply sent to my office on Monday, in response to my eight questions of
“quarterly meetings between Essex County Council Cabinet Members and Essex Conservative MPs.”
I note that the letter I received from the council’s chief executive made no mention of any party political affiliation and simply stated “Essex MPs,” of which I am one, albeit the only non-Conservative MP in Essex.
I have no problem with Essex Tory councillors having meetings with Essex Tory MPs. That is not the issue; the issue is that what are purported to be occasions for the county council to engage with the county’s MPs have deliberately excluded an MP from another party, yet the council tax payers of Essex are footing the bill and council officers are being sent to what are clearly party political meetings. In cobbling together a response, county hall cannot seem to give a consistent line to justify that arrangement. Using council officers, who in accordance with the local government code of conduct should be politically neutral, is wrong. Even though the cost to the public purse represents only a fraction of the £500,000 blown by the council’s former leader, Lord Hanningfield, on his political advancement within the Conservative party, it should not happen. I trust that the district auditor will investigate.
The FOI response states that “quarterly” meetings with Essex Tory MPs commenced on
“the meetings are informal and not minuted”.
But that does not accord with the chief executive’s letter of
“the recent Essex MP quarterly meeting when a number of concerns were raised”.
I assume that was the January meeting. She goes on to detail how such concerns will be addressed in future. After detailing action points, she tells MPs:
“I would like to invite you to provide feedback on these improvements which can be discussed at future Essex MP quarterly meetings.
Your concerns are recognised and I hope our intended actions assure you of our commitment to improve the current service we offer MPs.”
I am distressed to hear of my hon. Friend’s situation, but I have thought of a practical solution. If he joined the Conservative party, he might be able to get in on the meetings.
My right hon. Friend has a reputation for being a bit of a joker, but on this occasion, although some of my Labour opponents in Colchester feel that I have become a closet Tory, I am light years away from being a Tory of any sort, as my speech has indicated.
Having been rumbled, it will be interesting to see whether Essex county council will continue its policy of politicising its dealings with MPs in the administrative county of Essex. Post-Lord Hanningfield, I hope that what I have disclosed today will warrant investigation by the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association and the district auditor.
I join colleagues in thanking all who work on the parliamentary estate. Their dedication to assisting Members is greatly appreciated. They do so much for us.
I shall talk about the future of the Co-operative Group. I am proud to be a Labour and Co-operative MP.
We have seen a lot of turmoil in the Co-operative Group recently, and the resignation of former chief executive Euan Sutherland, following the revelation of the scale and nature of his total remuneration package, carries a stark warning to the remaining Co-operative Group leadership, who must now reflect carefully on what that means for the future. Lord Myners resigned overnight, although I understand his review of the Co-operative Group and its management continues.
The new leadership came in without experience of the co-operative or mutual sector, and must understand the importance of maintaining strong relationships with the rest of the co-operative movement. There is scant evidence that that has so far been considered important, and the swift decision dramatically to reduce funding for Co-op organisations such as Co-operatives UK will dismay long-standing co-operators further now that the hypocrisy of the executive pay policy has been laid bare.
The immediate response to the fresh crisis has been to accelerate the agenda for reforming the Co-operative Group’s structure. That is continuing even following the departure of Lord Myners from the board. No one, not least active co-operators, doubts that governance changes are needed. Much has been said about of the weakness of non-executives, although few have benefited more from that weakness than the current executive team. Rather than rushing headlong into irreversible changes, however, we and the Co-operative Group’s board should take a breath and calmly reflect on the issues.
Eminent as Lord Myners may be, it is not credible to base the Co-operative Group’s future governance on the views of one man. To date, all seven regional boards have now rejected his plan, and the response has to be one of calm reflection and compromise. There are three immediate actions that should be taken to steady the co-operative ship and set a fresh course that will begin to build trust and confidence between the Co-operative Group’s leadership and members.
The first is one about which I have received a lot of correspondence from members and customers across the country. There is no place in a consumer-owned co-operative business for unearned executive bonuses, and 100% retention payments should be scrapped. How those payments came to be requested by management, and then approved by the board, must be explained. Equally, no member of the current executive will carry the membership’s confidence if they do not immediately and publicly declare that they will not accept such payments.
Alistair Asher, who is now the Co-operative Group’s general counsel, was formerly a partner at Allen & Overy, where he was involved with building society demutualisation. He may have worked on demutualisations in the past, but the Co-op does not want to demutualise. Another member of the team is Nick Folland, the director who deals with communications. Both those men have been given a retention package of more than £1 million this year and next year that is not performance-related. I repeat that such gross, over-inflated handouts must stop.
There are other costs of this misguided approach to altering the way the Co-op runs itself. The “Have Your Say” consultation with customers cost £1.5 million.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech about the co-operative movement. Will she confirm that the Labour party was established some 60 years after the establishment of the Co-op, and that it is therefore in the best interests of the Co-op to embrace people of all political parties?
Up and down the country, co-operatives embrace people of all parties. The Co-op party has a sister arrangement with the Labour party, but that is not the thrust of my comments. I am talking about the Co-operative Group, which is ratcheting up costs at a high rate.
The Kelly review is costing £2,000 a day and the current total is £3.5 million. Millions of pounds have been spent on a new office next to the stock exchange, despite the Co-op Group having a brand new head office in Manchester.
Secondly, an eminent co-operators group should be established to advise and support Lord Myners in the valuable work that still needs to be carried out. The current leadership of the Co-op Group should reconnect with the wider co-operative movement. The best way to do that would be to establish a panel that can provide advice and support as the group goes through its reform process. Ideally, it would be chaired by someone like the former chief executive officer Sir Graham Melmoth or the former chairman Keith Darwin who have the credibility, experience and ability to provide candid advice to help steer the group to the next phase in its co-operative future.
Thirdly, an interim chief executive should be appointed who has mutual sector experience. The next chief executive will be perhaps the most critical person in the Co-op Group’s 170-year history. It is important that the recent errors are not repeated. It is critical that the new chief executive officer has a track record in the mutual sector. Confidence among member owners will simply not return without the trust that that would bring. The individual must understand the Co-op Group and be able to work across its diverse range of businesses.
We would do well to remember that the most successful CEO of recent years was Graham Melmoth. He was not a trader, but managed a team of skilled executives who ran the individual businesses while he oversaw the corporate strategy and provided leadership in line with the Co-op’s core principles. Such an approach would ensure that there was appropriate expertise in each division, while militating against the excessive micro-management of recent years.
The next few weeks will bring new challenges for the Co-operative Group. It will succeed through this period only if all its members and managers pull in the same direction and co-operate. Without an active and successful Co-op Group, our economy will lose a richness of choice and be the poorer for it. Members and customers up and down the country have been in touch with me to say that they are concerned about “our Co-op”. The management need to understand that feeling. They must listen to members. The Co-op is not just a brand; it is about mutual benefit and the sharing of profits among members. In my view, the Co-op is worth fighting for.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these end-of-term Adjournment debates. They provide a fascinating insight not only into the many parts of the country that are represented here, but into the characters of other hon. Members.
I will raise two issues that are important to my constituency. Interestingly, two of the speeches that we have heard have spoken of community identity, service and pride. The first issue that I will touch on relates to community identity. I want to talk about unintended bias in the broadcast media and, in particular, on the BBC. Although it is unintended, such bias results in the build-up of an anti-Government feeling. That could happen to any Government. The sequence of events that I will outline is but one example.
On the night of
The tidal surge was the largest ever recorded—larger than the devastating events of February 1953. As I have said, hundreds of homes were flooded and businesses were forced to close, including the hotel in Barton-upon-Humber where, less than a year earlier, Government agencies led by the Environment Agency, local authorities, the emergency services and others, including the then Minister, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, gathered to mark the anniversary of the 1953 tragedy and to report on all that had been done to prevent a repeat of that year’s flooding. The irony is that that very hotel was flooded on the night of
North Lincolnshire council responded very well, as did the Environment Agency, the emergency services and voluntary and community groups. Within 36 hours of the surge, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was in Immingham to receive reports from me and all the agencies involved. He had previously visited Boston and he went on to Hull. Did that figure in the main BBC news that evening? Not at all.
My constituents were given the impression that they had been ignored. I was asked, “Where were the Government? What have they been doing to help us?” I was able to reply, “Actually, a Cabinet member was here within 36 hours.” There followed numerous occasions on which my hon. Friend Andrew Percy and I questioned Ministers and met the Secretary of State. I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate in which the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dan Rogerson gave a full outline of the Government’s response.
A few weeks later, floods hit the south of England. It was headline news for days on end. News editors at the BBC would no doubt say that that was because Christmas was approaching and news was a little thin on the ground, but it strengthened the view among my constituents that a north-south divide exists. They said, “Only when the Thames valley is flooded do Ministers take any notice.” That is untrue because, as I have said, the Secretary of State was in my constituency within 36 hours. However, if the BBC does not report it, it passes almost unnoticed and the entirely incorrect impression is given that one part of the country is more important than another. If the BBC management want proof of the local feeling, I suggest that they rerun the edition of “Question Time” from a few weeks ago, when it was broadcast from Scunthorpe. The first question expressed the sentiments that I have set out.
I am not just being charitable in describing it as an unintended bias; I regard myself as a critical friend of the BBC. Regional and local reporters are, in the main, well qualified to express the views of local people. Dave Burns, who presents a daily programme on Radio Humberside, is a local institution. Viewers of the edition of “Look North” that is put out in east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire will know that Levy and Hudson figure alongside Morecambe and Wise and the two Ronnies as entertainers. They are very much a part of the local community. However, generally speaking, the BBC has a very London-centric, metropolitan culture.
The flooding coverage is just one example of how news coverage can have a significant impact on political opinion. More thought is clearly required of organisations such as the BBC that are charged with the responsibility of being politically neutral.
The other topic that I would like to raise is local, although it has a national perspective. North Lincolnshire council is Conservative-controlled and North East Lincolnshire council, the other authority that serves my constituency, is Labour-controlled. I suppose that Members may well expect that I would favour the former, but I am always reluctant to criticise either authority publicly. As Members will appreciate, we have to work with the councils that serve our area irrespective of their political colour. However, North East Lincolnshire council has recently made a decision that I think is particularly mean-spirited.
Police specials have traditionally been granted a discount on their council tax, but North East Lincolnshire council has decided to abandon that benefit for a saving of just £9,600. In contrast, North Lincolnshire council has retained it. The change comes at a time when the excellent local police commissioner for the Humberside force is embarking on a recruiting campaign for 100 additional police specials. I wish to send the message that given the small amount of money involved, North East Lincolnshire council should rethink.
It is a pleasure to follow Martin Vickers, who like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, me and every other Member is on a permanent quest for knowledge and self-improvement. I thought I would help that along by saying a few words about the extractive industries transparency initiative, for which I sit on the multi-stakeholder group in the UK.
I am happy to say that the Government signed up to the initiative last year, which will mean that in three years or so the UK will be a member of it. All the extractive industries companies based in the UK that operate here and elsewhere will have to declare to the Government the payments that they have made to the UK and to any country that signs up to the EITI. The Government will then make a statement of the payments they have received. That will not solve every problem of money going astray in developing countries, but it will move us a little way towards ensuring that the money that Governments receive from contracts and licences to exploit oil, gas and minerals, particularly in Africa but all over the world, does indeed find its way to those Governments and that they can account for it in their public expenditure.
The initiative is chaired by Clare Short, a former Member of this House, who also co-founded an all-party group called “Trade Out of Poverty”, now chaired by Mr Lilley, who is not in his place at the moment but who I believe will be coming back into the Chamber. The emphasis of that group, along with the all-party extractive industries group, of which I am a member, is to help developing nations encourage investment despite sometimes potentially risky contexts, particularly in minerals and mining, rather than having to rely on aid, as we often imagine they do—wrongly, actually.
I digress slightly from the EITI, but it sometimes feels as if political and public dialogue in the UK about developing nations is always about aid—the spending of 0.7% of gross national income and so on. I sometimes think that the bar for investment in those countries is set too high. Some worthy non-governmental organisations make the wrong judgment in being too critical of where Department for International Development expenditure goes, such as when it makes it more feasible for companies to overcome substantial risk and invest in developing nations.
There was a demonstration outside DFID a couple of weeks ago involving a couple of people in black tie and a waiter with a bottle of champagne and glasses. It was all about DFID paying money to various projects in the developing world. My first instinct was that the protest might have been by someone such as the Daily Mail—I do not necessarily want to be critical of it, but that would be consistent with its normal editorial line. However, it turned out to be a protest by the World Development Movement. It struck me that it was shooting itself in the foot by helping to bring DFID expenditure into unjustified disrepute. Its concern was that money was being spent to help companies operate in risky countries. However, there is great potential benefit to those countries in future, and I thought it was a great shame that that NGO had missed the point and wanted to discourage companies from the UK and across the world from examining prospects in some countries.
To return to the EITI, in many ways its role is similar to the one that will be played by the EU accounting directive, about which the Government have just issued a consultation document, although it is a little different and certainly has a different purpose. The US is currently going through legal proceedings that have held up its own equivalent, but importantly, it has signed up in the past week as a candidate country for the EITI. The relevant part of the Dodd-Frank Act is being held up because some extractive industry companies are concerned about the emphasis being placed on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Congo-Kinshasa to some. The concern is that it will effectively encourage people who want to get certain products from the earth to go to Australia and other countries, so the effect of legislation designed to make things more transparent could be to discourage investment and development in the DRC. I do not know whether that is right, but the process is being held up in the United States. It is really important that we carry on with our own process in Europe, which is the accounting directive—as I said, I am pleased that the Government have launched the consultation document—and the EITI.
I do not want to bore Members for too long about the EITI, although it is an important matter that quite a few Members will know little about. However, I wish to add that the tendency until recently was to encourage developing countries to sign up to the EITI. We have Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which is pretty effective—some people might argue about that sometimes—and we pretty much know who is paying tax on what, so it is hard for money to go astray. We can just to go HMRC and it tells us companies’ tax figures. It is therefore hard to get involved in corrupt practices in the UK. Developed countries have tended to say, “The EITI is not really for us. It is only for developing countries where money tends to disappear.” The effect has been that big developing countries, and middle-income countries that are wealthy in gross terms, such as Brazil and India, have said, “We’re not going to sign up to it, because none of the developed nations has. It is a bit patronising expecting only developing nations to sign up and not the US or UK”. Only recently have developed nations begun to sign up. It might seem a bit strange that we have not signed up to it before, but it is essentially because the context was different. We have now accepted the point that it is difficult to ask developing nations to sign up to a transparency project without signing up ourselves.
The EITI has been going on quietly in the background, but it is important to get it on the record because it will be important when it comes to fruition in about three years. Officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister in charge, Jo Swinson—she ostensibly chairs the meetings, but of course she is on maternity leave at the moment—have put a lot of time into it, as have the businesses that have signed up to the multi-stakeholder group, on which the relevant NGOs and the Government are also represented. A lot of work is going on to ensure that we achieve candidacy status in about 18 months. It is a commendable, broad cross-party effort, and there is no dispute about the objective. As I said, the EITI is chaired by Clare Short, who obviously has a particular political perspective, but has a sound perspective on the extractive industries.
From time to time we have had some difficulties, with a degree of purism creeping in—I am trying to choose my words carefully—from NGOs with substantial control over interests in developing nations. It sometimes feels as though strings are being pulled and wires being tugged to get certain outcomes. For example, it was very difficult to get Ethiopia made a candidate country. It finally happened a week or two ago, but there was enormous lobbying against it. That was a great shame, because Ethiopia was very keen to sign up, and so were the Ethiopian NGOs. Everyone agreed, but western-based NGOs were keen to stop it happening, for various reasons. I understand the human rights issues, but I think that Ethiopia will eventually qualify for membership.
It is a shame when western-based NGOs in very developed countries—whether they are based in London, Washington or New York—sometimes seem to look past the interests of nations that we want to help to develop economically and reflect their own interests in getting stories or increasing their membership and funding. I know that that is contentious, but that is how it seems to me. The stewardship of the EITI has been very sound in dealing with that in the last few weeks. People who know about the EITI will know that Ethiopia has been a contentious issue, but I am pleased to say that it is now a candidate country.
Various things are going on quietly in the background, although full agreement has not been reached. The UK Government are actually leading on the issue of beneficial ownership transparency. That is part of the EITI and we hope that the outcome in three years’ time will be that the UK signs up. We do not think that there is corruption in the UK, but if we sign up to a strong, gold standard EITI—without unnecessary bells and whistles—it would set a good example for all the other nations we would like to see sign up to it.
I shall conclude by wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all Members and officials of the House a nice Easter.
It is a pleasure to follow a fellow member of the House of Commons rowing team. Every summer we try to raise some money for charity.
It is a great privilege to be a Member of the House of Commons. I was thinking that as I was standing in the Division Lobby and looking at the marvellous architecture and reflecting on all the good work we do here. Let us be honest, however, and recognise that some of the publicity we have had this week has not been the best.
I speak as the chairman of the group of MPs that liaises with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—I served on the group with the Opposition spokesman, Angela Smith, for a while—and I want to talk about how we can make Parliament more relevant to people’s needs. We should not be too negative about ourselves—I also serve on the Council of Europe and I look at how other parliamentarians around Europe operate, and our debates are still much more relevant and spontaneous. For instance, I only decided to speak today in the light of events this week. That spontaneity in Parliament is very important, but we have to accept that we have a problem with our image in the eyes of the public, on expenses and much else, including whether we are relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
We have seen some publicity today to the effect that it is rather sad that we have no mothers in the Cabinet. I share that sadness: after all, half the population of the country are women, and we all have mothers. Even those women who work, and work very hard, often define being a mother as the most important thing in their lives. I do not blame the Prime Minister, because there may be all sorts of reasons—perhaps there are no suitable people—but I do not want to get into all that. However, we need to make this place more attractive and diverse. We have not yet succeeded in attracting as many working mothers to this place as we should have done. It is our fault because of the nature of our work, our expenses regime, the salary and much else. Would a general practitioner and mother working in, say, Newcastle find becoming a Member of Parliament attractive? Her salary would probably be halved, but people are prepared to take enormous salary cuts to work in this place—it is a wonderful privilege and many of us would work here for nothing. But people have to live their lives and support their families. We now have an arcane expenses system that makes our job very unattractive to many working mothers in particular.
I have made that point to IPSA many times as chairman of the liaison group. I have said that we want a decent salary. IPSA is independent and it should set the salary properly. It is setting about the task fairly, and trying to average out the salary in real terms over the last 110 years since Members of Parliament have had a salary. It has come up with a reasonably fair figure, but we have told it again and again that if we are to attract people who are juggling different family responsibilities, it would be better to have a flat-rate transferable allowance, rather than the arcane and complicated expenses system. It would have to be voluntary at first, because many people are locked into the expenses system, but it would enable people who are juggling family responsibilities to do so in the knowledge that they could come here and perform their public service. If we carry on with the present system of complicated expenses, I fear that these scandals will go on and on, year after year, drip by drip, affecting the credibility of Parliament.
We can make Parliament more interesting and more effective in other ways. The power of Back Benchers to hold the Executive to account could be more pronounced. I am a great fan of recent moves to bring in open primaries in the selection of Members of Parliament. One of the best new Members of Parliament is my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston. She was elected on an open primary and she is a marvellously independent MP. I would even be prepared to move eventually to the system that operates in other countries of open primaries not just for candidates standing for a parliamentary constituency for the first time, but for sitting Members. If we had that system, Members of Parliament would be much more accountable to their constituents and their views, and much less accountable to the views of the Whips Office. I have nothing against the Whips Office—I see a Whip on the Front Bench and she is a delightful lady colleague for whom I have great respect—but Parliament would be a better place if Members felt that their careers depended more on their constituents than the vagaries of promotion and the opinion of the Whips Office. Having an open primary system would be a very interesting development.
I cannot speak for the Labour party—perhaps it is making more progress—but we have started this process in the Conservative party. We undoubtedly have a problem with our local parties, which is an important constitutional point. Local Conservative parties—I suspect it is the same for the Labour party—are getting smaller and smaller. Local parties have probably always been fairly small in the Liberal Democrats. The problem is getting worse. Local parties are getting so small now that they could be in danger of takeovers from extreme minority interests, sects or odd bods. In that sense, they are becoming less representative of people who do not take a lot of interest in politics. That is not entirely the fault of political parties. All such groups are having difficulties and getting smaller, so we have to think of creative ways of engaging with the public. Many MPs use social media creatively, but the concept of widening our accountability beyond our local parties to the wider public through a primary system is interesting.
We need to keep working to increase the power of Select Committees and Back Benchers generally vis-à-vis the Executive. Select Committees have gone from strength to strength. I have served on many Select Committees in my time, starting with the Defence Committee and then moving on to the then Agriculture Committee, the Social Security Committee and chairing the Public Accounts Committee. Ultimately, however important Committees are in gaining publicity and publishing interesting reports, they are only scrutiny committees. In no way do they have anything like the authority and power of congressional committees. We have constantly to develop ways of increasing the authority of Select Committees.
We have to develop an alternative career structure for Members of Parliament. There are 650 MPs and there can only be 50 or 60 Ministers. There are too many Ministers. The number of Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries seems to increase relentlessly, sucking more and more people from the majority party into the Executive. That is a wholly unhealthy way of conducting a free Parliament. We need to build the Select Committee system up to make it more powerful and attractive. We need powers and authority over appointments and even, in certain circumstances, policy. For example, the Defence Committee could have power over procurement, as the armed forces committee does in the United States. All these ideas should be investigated continuously to make Back Benchers more relevant and free, and with more control over the Executive.
The primary system opens up the relevance of MPs to their own people. This is not an appropriate moment to talk about the issues I sometimes mention, but everybody knows that I may have my own views on gay marriage, overseas development and wind farms being put in my constituency through a very generous subsidy system. I may also have my own views on planning in villages and HS2. I do not need to weary the House by detailing them all—Members probably suspect where those views are coming from—but I hope and I suspect that, whether on planning, wind farms or overseas aid, I represent a certain strain of opinion in a conservative rural constituency in the east midlands. I hope that my views are not completely out of kilter with many of the people who live in my constituency. Indeed, I believe it is my job to speak up for middle England. There is nothing wrong with that. Plenty of people speak up for other parts of England, Scotland and Wales and for other viewpoints. I sometimes think that the conservative voice of middle England is not adequately spoken up for.
Following on from the remarks by my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, many people in the east midlands and northern England—my constituency is a northern seat—feel that there is a metropolitan bias in our whole system, whether in the BBC, the Cabinet or at the top of political parties. I have been an MP through many Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition and they are all the same: they tend to promote their friends. My great good friend and the first leader I worked for, Margaret Thatcher, was just as bad as the rest, so this is not a coded message attacking the current Prime Minister or anybody else. However, there is the view in northern England that there is too much emphasis in our public life on the liberal metropolitan elite, and that there is not enough hard-hitting, robust debate. That debate does not necessarily have to come from the right; it can come from the left too.
This is where I will finish, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think I have made my point. I hope the reforms I have talked about result in a more varied, robust and independent Parliament.
It is a great and rather unexpected pleasure to speak this afternoon, and a great pleasure to follow Sir Edward Leigh. We may have different views on a range of subjects, but I support the idea that MPs should stand by their principles, speak up for their constituents and be independent-minded, as well as being broadly in line with their own party’s philosophy. I think I am very much in line with my party’s philosophy, but I cannot speak for everybody in my party on that score. The Labour party membership card states that
“We are a democratic socialist party” and I say, “Hear, hear” to that.
I have come here to talk about an entirely different subject: rail freight. In business questions this morning, I raised with the Leader of the House the serious issue of air pollution and diesel particulates, and their effect on health in cities, particularly in London. London is a difficult place for people with asthma, chest complaints and so on at the moment, as air pollution is causing serious health difficulties. We have to do something about diesel. A significant measure should be to shift a lot of road freight on to rail. For heavy freight, road freight produces up to 12 times more CO2 and other emissions than the same tonne-mileage taken by rail. Even for lighter freight, there are still substantial multiple emissions. Shifting a substantial amount of road freight to rail would make a real difference, particularly in cities. If we could get the lorry through-traffic in London on to rail, we would be doing a tremendous service to the people of London and the rest of the country.
Rail Ministers big up the amount of freight on rail, but it is actually puny. Half of it is internal freight for Network Rail—ballast, rails and so on—so we are not doing well, especially in contrast with the continent of Europe, where there is heavy investment in a big freight rail network. To see a modal shift in rail freight capacity, we have to build new rail freight track with a large gauge capacity to take lorries on trains. It is only when we can carry lorries on trains that we will have the shift I want to see.
Regrettably, our Victorian forebears, fine people though they were, who built wonderful railway lines, decided to build too small a gauge. On the continent of Europe, those chose a larger loading gauge. I am not talking about the track gauge, but the loading gauge—the size of the wagons that travel on the track. Across the continent, dedicated freight lines are being built. That will make a massive difference to the amount of freight on rail. Tunnels are being built through the Alps that are 35 and 38 miles long, and will be capable of carrying trains with lorries and double-stack containers. These will be vast cavernous tunnels that we just do not have.
The cost of converting all our existing rail network to carry lorries on trains is prohibitive—it is just not possible. What we need is new capacity, and there is a scheme that would achieve that. I have spoken about the scheme previously in the Chamber. I am personally involved: I am a member of a team supporting the GB freight route. I have no pecuniary interest; I am committed to the scheme because I believe in it passionately. If we are to make progress, we have to have this scheme. It is a first-class scheme that would solve so many of the problems that new rail capacity exhibits.
The GB freight route would overwhelmingly use old track bed and under-utilised existing track. The line would go from the channel tunnel all the way to Glasgow, serving the west midlands, east midlands, south midlands, south Yorkshire, south Lancashire, the north-east and Scotland. It needs only 14 miles of new track, nine miles of which would be in tunnels under the Thames and elsewhere, so it would not cause any serious planning difficulties. No houses would need to be knocked down and there would be no environmental degradation. It would not cause any problems. I think there is one pig farm on the whole route, but I would hope that we could deal with one pig farm. Generous compensation to pig farmers is the way forward.
The route is very precise, having been worked out by dedicated British Rail-trained engineers with long experience. Also on our team is Ken Russell, a major road haulier from Scotland. He now runs the Barking freight terminal, which takes lorries on trains from the continent of Europe through the channel tunnel and along HS1 as far as Barking, where the lorries are lifted off. They cannot go any further, because the track cannot take lorries on trains. Continental hauliers and logistics companies who have said “We want you to go past Barking” have been told “We cannot go past Barking, because the track cannot accommodate lorries on trains.” We need to do something about that.
As I have said, the scheme is very detailed, and has been designed very precisely. Every mile of the track has been examined carefully by engineers, and we know exactly what we are doing. I have travelled along most of the track and seen it for myself. There are no planning problems, there will be no environmental degradation, and there are no houses on the route. We have already demonstrated that it works. Trains have come from Antwerp and Poland with lorries on them, and the lorries have been lifted off by Ken Russell’s firm, Russell Transport, at Barking. The terminal is owned by Axa, but is operated by Russell Transport. I must emphasise again that I have no pecuniary interest in the scheme, and never will have; I just believe in it.
Even now, freight trains are running from Poland to China. Once we have crossed the channel, not just Europe but the whole of Asia is open to us, and eventually trains will be able to run trains from Glasgow to Beijing—if we can travel from Glasgow to the channel tunnel. In order to do that, however, we must have that crucial ability to put lorries on trains at the terminals in our great economic regions, which would breathe new life into those regions as well. There would be a direct and easy route. Once a lorry had been lifted on to the train at a terminal, it could be delivered to Dortmund or Rome the next day. We have demonstrated that that would work.
We have a great deal of support. The supermarkets, for example, have said that if the line is built, they will offer 10,000 lorry loads a week in the first instance, and much more after that. We have the support of hauliers such as Eddie Stobart, the Malcolm Group and our own firm, Russell Transport. We also have the support of Eurotunnel, whose deputy chief executive has met us on a number of occasions. He is a good friend. There is a huge amount of capacity in the channel tunnel, which is, of course, very under-utilised. There will never be enough passengers to fill its capacity, so that capacity must be filled by freight. Hundreds of trains can go through the channel tunnel every week, and scores can go through it each day. They can run quite quickly one behind the other, provided that there is nothing on the track to restrict them.
We have met rail constructors who have boasted that they can build the line more cheaply than even we have suggested, although our figure is very low. Our figure for the whole scheme, which is based on the out-turn figures for the cost of HS1, is £6 billion. Just £6 billion for a massive addition to the rail network! That is about a third of what we are spending on Crossrail. The reason it is so cheap is that we have no planning problems. We are using under-utilised old track routes and unused track bed.
Moreover, there will be no conflict with HS2, if it goes ahead. Whatever we think of HS2—and I happen to think that the money would be better spent on a number of other railway schemes—the fact remains that there will be no conflict. There is a six-mile stretch in the midlands where the two lines would have to run side by side, but providing four tracks rather than two for those six miles would not be a problem. I shall say no more about HS2, because I do not want to open up that great can of worms at this particular moment.
We have political support from all sorts of interesting people. One of those who are actively supporting us is my noble Friend Lord Prescott. We are currently looking into the possibility of a link between Merseyside and Humberside, so that there can be roll-on/roll-off traffic from Ireland to Merseyside and across the Pennines to Humberside—and from there to the continent of Europe if necessary. Of course, certain conditions would have to be met. We must think about how we can engineer the track from Sheffield. Our terminal there would be at Tinsley, which is a big rail freight depot that will be well known to those who are familiar with the area, and which has plenty of capacity.
The scheme has some crucial elements of which the Government will have to be aware if we can get them behind it. The only hold-up so far has been caused by the Department for Transport. Everyone else seems to be in favour of the scheme; even the Mayor of London has given us the nod. The problem has constantly been with the Department for Transport, although not with
Transport Ministers, some of whom have been very supportive. Not only a previous Labour Minister but Ministers in the present Government are privately sympathetic to the scheme. One has visited the track with our engineers. Given that the scheme is so obviously what, in modern parlance, is described as a no-brainer, I do not understand why the Department does not jump at the idea.
We estimate that the scheme could take 5 million lorry journeys off the road each year, It would take all the north-south freight traffic on the west coast, east coast and midlands main lines, and free up those lines for passenger traffic. The idea that passengers should be taken off the north-south lines and on to HS2 in order to free them up for freight is constantly being thrown at us, but the problem is that the trains cannot transport lorries. Until that can be done, there will be no serious modal shift. I suspect that in future we will travel by train more and more as global warming takes hold and it becomes more and more difficult to travel by road. Railways are indeed the transport mode of the future. The west coast, east coast and midlands main lines should be used to the maximum for passenger traffic, and the freight should be shifted to our dedicated—or freight-priority—line.
I know that the Deputy Leader of the House, who is present, has experience of transport matters. He may be aware of the Barking-Gospel Oak line in London, which is currently being used for very limited passenger traffic. There is talk of upgrading it and making it a bit more useful, and that will be part of the scheme. Getting through London is the difficult part. An upgrade of that line so that it can link Barking with north-west London is crucial. I hope that when the Government proceed with the upgrade that they have promised, that upgrade will include enabling the line to take lorries and not just full-sized but double-stack full-sized containers. We are talking big stuff here.
That is the first of two vital components. The second is the four-mile Woodhead tunnel, which goes through the Pennines and has not been used for decades. My hon. Friend Angela Smith knows it very well, because it is in her constituency. It is a beautiful tunnel, which was built on a very large scale. A single track down the centre would be required to provide sufficient height, but that would not be a problem for a four-mile section of track. If we are to enable traffic to go from Merseyside across the Pennines and further north to Scotland, we will need the Woodhead tunnel. There has been talk of its being handed to the electricity grid so that cables can be put through it. I do not know whether that is happening yet, but it would be an utter waste. If it has not yet happened, I suggest that the old parallel tunnels next door to the Woodhead tunnel should be repaired, and the cables should be put through those. The repairs would require a small amount of money. Even if the cables have already been put through the Woodhead tunnel, I think that they should be relocated to the smaller tunnels, so that the big tunnel can be freed up for the line.
My right hon. Friend Lord Prescott is very keen on the cross-Pennine route, taking traffic off the M62, and this would be the way forward. Having Humberside and Merseyside linked for Irish traffic in particular would be a tremendous addition. Every major economic region of the country would have a terminal nearby, even the south-west, although that would be the last, and of course coming along the M4 and on to our scheme at the north-west London terminal would not be difficult. We do propose, however, a link from Birmingham down to the south-west and a terminal in the south-west in a later part of the scheme.
I have outlined, and made the case for, the scheme. I want the Government to take it seriously and I hope very much that they will be persuaded, perhaps after I have made the case on a few more occasions.
I want to discuss a subject that strangely we often shrink from discussing in any depth: the housing shortage in this country, its consequences, its causes and its cures. Reflecting over the years on both the social and the economic problems of this country, it strikes me that almost all the social problems and many of the economic ones are either caused by or aggravated by a shortage of housing. This is true not just of homelessness, overcrowding and the huge housing benefits bill—the fastest rising benefit bill and one of the largest components of the Department for Work and Pensions budget; it is also true of the benefit trap and the resultant disincentive to work, in that so many people have housing benefit even if they are in work and consequently suffer a loss of benefit when their earnings go up, and of family breakdowns, single parenthood, declining home ownership, and the inability of young people to leave home. All these problems are aggravated by the housing shortage. Now the average age of first-time buyers in London is the late-30s, which is dramatically different from a generation ago.
There are also economic problems: the level of debt, the diversion of lending from business to mortgages, and the mortgages cycle. They, too, are all aggravated by this housing shortage.
The causes of our having the highest prices and the highest rents in Europe and ever-longer waiting lists are simple enough: the number of households is outstripping the pitiful level of new house building. There are two main factors accounting for that. First, there are smaller households. Over the years, the average size of households decreases by roughly 0.5% as people live longer; often there is one of a couple living in the home; or the children might have left home so there are just the parents living in the home. The average size of households is declining, therefore, and, sadly, family breakdown adds to that trend. We would have to build a 0.5% addition to our housing stock every year just to cope with that factor, and we are barely doing that.
The other factor we are strangely reluctant to discuss is the fact that we are now a country of mass immigration. Since Labour took the brakes off immigration in the late ’90s, between 2 million and 3 million additional people have come to this country. For centuries this country was a net exporter of people. Rather bizarrely, now that we are one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, we are a net importer.
I find it strange that many people argue that immigrant numbers are not the problem so long as we have the right sort of immigrants. They say that so long as we exclude scroungers and the unskilled and so on, numbers do not matter. The situation is almost the reverse, however, because the sort of people we have had are overwhelmingly decent, hard-working, law-abiding people who come here to make better lives for themselves. The idea that they are qualitatively wrong is nonsense, insulting and racist. It is numbers that matter. It is numbers that have contributed and added to, and aggravated greatly, the housing shortage in this country. Very few people come to this country to claim benefits, although that is the focus in the discussions we have in this country, but all of them need homes, and all of them are going to occupy homes that otherwise would be available for the people already here.
I wrote a pamphlet back in the early part of this millennium entitled “Too Much of a Good Thing?” I hope that title makes clear my view of immigration: immigrants are basically decent, nice people—fellow human beings, children of the same God, people we should love as our neighbours when they live next to us. But we are foolish to invite too many people into this country. I was caused to publish that pamphlet by looking at the housing shortage and the reason for the rising demand for house building in this country, and I was immediately labelled a racist and an attempt was made to shut off the debate. I hope we can stop doing that, because we will never solve the problem if we do not understand its cause.
I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman that this subject is important, and it is the subject I am going to speak about, but I disagree with everything he is saying about it. There are 50,000 new homes being built in my constituency—a small, densely populated constituency—over the next 20 years. The majority of them will be sold off-plan to overseas investors, not to immigrants to the UK—not to people who now have British citizenship or are acquiring it. They will be sold in that way for a profit because mainly Conservative councils do deals with developers to sell them in that way. That is the root of the housing crisis, in London at least.
The hon. Gentleman is simply factually wrong. It contributes to the housing problem, but to a small degree. I advise him to read an article in City A.M. last week which got the figures for the number of such new unoccupied houses in London, and it is very small. It contributes to the problem, and if it is bigger than I think, I entirely agree with him that we ought to tackle it , but to suggest that it has anything like the impact of allowing 2 million or 3 million extra people, and every year an extra 200,000 or quarter of a million, into this country is simply to try to divert people’s attention from the self-evident realities. Let us deal with all the problems, including the problem the hon. Gentleman identifies, but we should not try to pretend that there would not be a problem if that issue were to go away.
The only answer in the long run is to build more homes. We cannot pretend that we can solve the housing shortage by manipulating house prices or house rents or mortgage interest rates. Whatever the price of a bottle, we cannot get a quart into a pint pot. If we have more people here, we have to build more homes here. I am not suggesting that we undo history. The history means there are more people here, and we have got to build more homes if we are to overcome the social and economic problems that result from a housing shortage.
If there are 2 million or 3 million more people here, we have to build a corresponding number of additional homes, because those people by and large are of child-bearing age, they will want to form households and we have to accommodate that. We also have to avoid the excuses that are often given for not building homes, not least in my constituency. I have a Hertfordshire constituency, and Hertfordshire is the most densely populated county outside central London. None the less, we have to build more homes there and avoid the excuses for not doing so.
The first excuse for opposing any proposal that gets planning permission is, “They’re the wrong type of houses.” In Hitchin people say, “They’re too small. There are too many flats, and we don’t want to build any more flats. Any new proposal must be stopped because it is for small homes or flats.” Elsewhere they say, “They’re too big. We don’t want those. If we have got a housing shortage, we should be building the small homes for first-time buyers and flats.” We must avoid seeking refuge in excuses. We probably need more of all kinds of property, including flats, small starter homes and larger family homes.
The second excuse that people use in Hertfordshire is that immigrants do not come to our area. By and large, that is true: the vast majority go to central London or to areas with an existing large immigrant population, including Luton. I see my distinguished neighbour, Kelvin Hopkins, nodding in agreement. Immigrants tend not to come to Hertfordshire, but the people who would have lived in the homes in central London that are now occupied by people from abroad—or kept empty by people from abroad, as Mr Slaughter says—do move out to the home counties. We cannot pretend that that does not happen. We cannot just shut the gates and pull up the drawbridge and pretend that we are not going to accommodate them. We have to accommodate more people.
The third excuse that people use is that we cannot build new homes because there is no infrastructure to support them, and if we build, it will just create a demand for such infrastructure. However, it is not houses that create that demand for more schools, hospitals, roads and water; it is people, and the people are already here. It is people, not houses, who consume water and who need hospitals and schools. The people are here, and we need to provide the infrastructure and the homes for them. We cannot pretend that the lack of one is an excuse for not providing the other.
The housing shortage creates problems for people like me who represent densely populated constituencies whose distinctive feature is the green belt. When I was first elected, I made the defence of the green belt a feature of my maiden speech. I pointed out that the one thing that united the diverse settlements in my constituency was the desire to remain separated from each other by strips of green belt. They should indeed remain separated in that way: the green belt is a vital and valuable part of our planning law, and we should attach enormous importance to keeping it. However, that means that we must build elsewhere, on brownfield sites or using infill development, unpopular though that often is.
New towns will also have to be built, not too far from London. We cannot pretend that this can all be done in the north of England. We cannot tell people to go and live in the north, or give them incentives to do so. There are already enormous incentives to move out of London and the home counties to the north. Anyone who sells their house in Harpenden can buy an equivalent property in the north of England for a fraction of the price and live off the investment income from the rest of the money. There are therefore already enormous incentives, but if people still have a desire to live in London and the home counties, that reflects the reality of economic and other forces that have to be taken into account.
We must do everything we can to stimulate and promote growth in other regions, but let us not pretend that we can avoid the need to build homes in and around London. We must do that, and we must avoid the excuses that have been used to prevent us from doing it. We must defend the green belt, but we must not be so hypocritical and bigoted as to pretend that we can have no housing at all elsewhere. I hope that enough of us will have the courage to say that, so that we can at least double the rate of house building in this country, as we must do if we are to tackle the underlying economic and social problems. If we do not do that, we will continue to suffer indefinitely.
I should like to use this opportunity to draw attention to social isolation in rural constituencies, which is an issue that is close to my heart. As I often have said in this House, I represent the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom. Strangford is made up of many rural and some isolated areas. I am well aware of the beauties of living in the country, but I am also aware of the drawbacks, one of which is isolation. For most people, it is no problem to run to the local corner shop or the nearest garage when the milk runs out sooner than expected, but this is not the case for an elderly person who lives in the countryside, where there is no such thing as the corner shop.
My rural constituents are reliant on cars to run even the smallest errand. I can hear those with green hearts crying, “Use public transport” or “Get on your bike”, but that is not as easy as it might be for those living in London. It is much more difficult for those of us who live in rural communities. The only public transport available in my constituency is the bus, as there are no rail lines, but with the way things are in our economy, the bus routes are designed to maximise the number of people on board. That is a fact of life—it is simple economics—but it does not always work for those who have to wait half a day to get to their local village or to the bigger towns.
More and more people are cycling, but the roads that are not main thoroughfares are not fit for bikes, even for those who are fit to cycle. Steps have been taken in my constituency and elsewhere to provide more opportunities for those who wish to cycle, including cycle lanes and portions of the road being set aside for cyclists. I welcome the fact that there are some good things happening in my constituency, but they are not happening everywhere.
That leaves people reliant on their cars, and the increases in fuel prices have hit these isolated areas hard. We are rightly urging people to get into work, and trying to encourage mothers to work even part time, but for anyone who lives in one of my rural areas and works in Belfast, the two-hour round trip costs £10 a day. That is £50 week or £250 a month, which is a huge chunk out of any wage packet. If the two earners in a household are on completely different work schedules, that might necessitate two cars, which will double the cost.
I will in no way minimise the fact that the fuel companies are taking advantage of the situation and making jaw-dropping profits, but we in this House also have a case to answer. I have been outspoken, as have others—including, notably, Robert Halfon—about the rate of UK fuel excise duty, which results in 58p a litre being added in tax. I give credit to the Government, however, because they have taken significant steps to address the cost of fuel through the abolition of the fuel duty escalator; we welcome what they have done in that regard over the past four years.
The high cost of fuel further isolates those in rural communities, as rural residents travel more often, and cover greater distances, by car than those in urban areas. Taking children to the boys brigade or the girls brigade, to sports or to after-school clubs is now a costly venture. If a local church is putting on a play, there will perhaps be a practice on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. That is three days and six journeys, in addition to taking the children to the Campaigners on a Tuesday night. This is another example of the costs multiplying for people who live in rural communities. For many families, the cost of those journeys is too much, so their children do not get to dress up as a shepherd or an angel. The isolation is clear.
The RAC has identified transport as the single biggest area of household expenditure bar none, even housing, food and power. If people were having to deal only with rising pump prices, that would be one thing, but they are also experiencing soaring insurance costs. Northern Ireland has the highest insurance costs in the whole of the United Kingdom. Many TV adverts offer insurance at premium rates, but the small print at the bottom of the screen often says. “Not available in Northern Ireland”. People are also experiencing hikes in parking charges, and train fares are increasing well above the rate of inflation, so every extra penny spent on the forecourts makes a real difference.
Unsurprisingly, it is those on the lowest incomes who are hit the hardest. They spend more on running a car as a proportion of their income than any other section of society. There is a high degree of car dependence in the rural communities that I represent. About 80% of the population live in a car-owning household, and over the past 50 years, car ownership among the poorest fifth of households has increased from 5% to 51%. The dependence on cars is critical. Those figures show how the economy has had an impact throughout the United Kingdom, and that is magnified in rural areas. And with less funding for community groups, services such as community transport are having difficulty putting on the special taxis and buses for those who are disabled and live in the countryside. That is yet another blow for those who cannot get out of the house and who exist in a contactless world. For elderly people, this is a critical issue.
How can we make a difference to the lives of those who live in our rural communities—the children who cannot get to after-school activities and clubs, the stay-at-home mums who have no car and no opportunity to meet other mums and have some adult company, the people who are ill or disabled and cannot drive and who no longer have an affordable taxi service, and the elderly who oft-times end up all but imprisoned in their own homes? What difference can we make? Again, a reduction in fuel duty would be a start, and although I accept and understand that the Government have taken significant steps, I believe that those who live in the countryside need a special reduction—or a pilot scheme of some sort—to enable the rural community that I represent, with the highest prices in the whole United Kingdom, to address that issue. A reduction in fuel duty would be a start, but more needs to be done. I am anxious to hear what steps or action the Government plan for the isolated in our rural communities.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you, your family, right hon. and hon. Members who are here and who have participated, and their staff, all the very best for a happy Easter? I hope the weather is good and you have a very relaxed time.
The key point behind these debates is the opportunity to raise a range of issues that might apply not only to Members’ constituencies, but to things of international and national importance. I shall raise some issues related to my constituency that are creating great turmoil. As we approach the most holy week of the Christian calendar, it is appropriate that we consider some of the things that are happening in my local area.
First, there is the good news. My constituency already plays host to the first state-sponsored Hindu primary school in the country, which has operated very successfully for a number of years. I was pleased to be present at the laying of its foundation stone and have supported the school since its inception. So this week we had the really good news that the country’s first state-sponsored Hindu secondary school will be sited in my constituency, on the Whitchurch playing fields. I trust that that decision will be endorsed tonight at Harrow council’s cabinet meeting and we can look forward to the redevelopment of the site in keeping with what is required. It will be the biggest free school in the country and one where parents of Hindu faith will be able to make a choice about their children’s secondary education. That is something we should endorse across the House.
I also note, I have to say, that the people who formed the rather oily, shady Whitchurch consortium, which was going to take over those playing fields, turn them over to private use and exclude the public from using them, will be shown the door. No one locally will mourn their passing. That is the good and positive news that we can look forward to.
Secondly, there is the bad news. We have a site in my constituency called Anmer Lodge, which was closed many years ago. It belongs to Harrow council; it is a landlocked site in Stanmore and it borders a car park that is associated with a shopping centre in Stanmore and is a district centre. The site has been sold to Notting Hill Housing Trust and last night a planning application was approved not only for a Marks & Spencer superstore, which will be welcomed locally, operating as a supermarket and providing competition to other supermarkets in the area, but for the development of 120 flats—tightly arranged, densely configured and not particularly, in my judgment, well designed—that will lead to a dramatic increase in traffic and degrade the quality of life for residents around the area.
Residents were almost united in the view that the Marks & Spencer supermarket was welcome, and that some housing was welcome as well. We need housing, as my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley said. The problem is that the consultants estimate that the whole development, including 120 flats—likely to involve two cars per household—and a Marks & Spencer supermarket, which will have footfall seven days a week, will generate only about 69 extra car parking visits a day.
From 8.30 to 10.30 in the morning, and from 3 o’clock in the afternoon to about 7 o’clock in the evening, the site is gridlocked, so it is incredible to believe that it will not impinge on the quality of life for all concerned. Regrettably, Harrow council’s planning committee did not see the good sense of all the various local groups objecting to the overdevelopment of this site, and allowed it to pass.
I move on to the issue of Barnet football club and the Hive. Madam Deputy Speaker, you might say, “What is Barnet football club doing in Harrow?” I am a great football fan, as many will know, and a fan of great football as well. Barnet football club was kicked out of Barnet and its Underhill stadium, because of disagreements with the local council and a large number of residents. The club sought a contract with Harrow council many years ago to develop the Hive as a centre for the development of youth football, women’s football and other associated activities, but not for first team matches.
Of course, this did not stop the club. First, it applied for planning permission to complete the stadium on the Hive, and this meant it got planning permission for a new stand, for floodlights and to complete the stadium that had been half-built in the interim. But it then decided to ignore the planning permission that had been given, build a stand that is twice as high as the original permission allowed and put floodlights in that are three times the height of those that were permitted.
I wonder sometimes whether Barnet football club has a solution to the so-called energy crisis in this country, because those floodlights are on all winter, until all hours of the day and night—often until 11.30 pm or midnight—and they light up everyone’s homes throughout the area so that people do not need to turn on their lights. In fact, if they did, they would not see the difference, because the floodlights illuminate their bedrooms, front rooms, dining rooms and kitchens. All local residents complain—quite rightly—that the lights have been operated in an outrageous way.
Barnet football club did not stop there, though. It then decided to use the stadium for its first team matches, despite the fact its contract with the council does not permit the playing of first team matches there until 2015, thinking “Well, what’s a couple of years between people? Let’s just ignore it, because after all we can just carry on and the council will roll over.”
Not content with that, the club then introduced London Broncos to the site, so at the Hive we now have the impact of unrestricted car parking all over residential streets for Barnet football club first team matches; and London Broncos, the rugby league club, who are not doing particularly well in the Super League, who are also impinging on residents every week. Basically, throughout the whole year, the area around the Hive is a nightmare for local residents. The council has failed to implement any controls on parking, so people can park on residential streets wherever they like, whenever they like, and nothing is done about it. It is a real and serious problem.
At the same time Barnet football club has ignored all the rules. The planning application it submitted was rejected, yet it just carried on regardless. To me, Tony Kleanthous and his ilk at Barnet football club deserve to return to Barnet as fast as possible—I wish them well in that—and to get out of Harrow.
The other two issues I want to raise briefly relate to the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital and to Stanmore station. The Royal National Orthopaedic hospital in my constituency has been around for about 100 years. Over the past 30 years it has developed as a national and international centre of excellence in the treatment of and recovery from orthopaedic elective surgery. It is a brilliant hospital. The surgeons and medical staff do brilliant work, and recent clients have included Princess Eugenie, who required an operation at a very young age to correct a spinal problem, and the noble Lord Tebbit’s wife, who spent almost a year in the hospital, recovering after the Brighton bombing.
It is a wonderful hospital, but it exists in Nissen huts that were built during the second world war. It has one of the best records of any hospital in the country, and certainly of any in London, on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—it has not had a case of MRSA for five years. One reason for that is that the hospital is exposed to the elements; it has no such thing as the closeted central heating that exists in modern hospitals—far from it.
We have had a plan for the redevelopment of the hospital for many years. The previous Government, on three separate occasions, promised the redevelopment of the hospital but failed to deliver. Prior to the election, I took the then shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lansley, to the site and he stated categorically, “If we are elected to government, we will see the rebuilding of this hospital on the existing site during the duration of the Government.” There is one year to go and, as yet, not a spade has been laid in the ground. However, we do have a comprehensive plan: for 300 homes to be put on the site—once again, this is much-needed housing—having freed up some of the land; for a private hospital to go alongside the national health hospital as a centre of expertise and excellence; for not only the Aspire centre, which helps people recovering from orthopaedics and is already there in a modern facility, but a nursing home, which will look after many people who need to be resident at the site; and, crucially, for the rebuilding of the national health service hospital.
Trying to grapple with the intricacies of NHS funding and decision making has been a real eye-opener for me. The number of business cases that hospital trusts and boards have to go through to get proper funding is incredible. We have now reached the stage where NHS London has the business plan from the board, all the figures stack up, as I understand it, and there is a dispute involving the NHS TDA—the appropriately named Trust Development Authority—on agreeing the numbers and confirming the funding and financing. That is despite the fact that one of the first acts of this Government, when we reviewed the capital allocations made by the previous Government, was to confirm the funding available for the rebuilding of this hospital on the existing site. The NHS people who are looking at this—I am talking about officials, not Ministers—are doing a really bad job, holding up the redevelopment of this site. Planning permission was granted for the master plan a year ago, yet we have not made progress with the site. I trust however that with the plan the board has laid out, we will see the start of development this summer of part of the work. I believe there is one last figure to be agreed, of some £20 million, which is in dispute between NHS London and the board, but I trust that over the next few days, having entered a new financial year, that will be signed off and approved. I regularly apply for Adjournment debates on this subject and will continue to do so until we get either the money or an Adjournment debate. I hope we get the money first and then we can have an Adjournment debate celebrating the fact.
Finally, I wish to raise the issue of Stanmore station. The Royal National Orthopaedic hospital is a centre of international excellence, and the nearest station to it is Stanmore. The good news is that life expectancy increases by a year with every stop travelled along the Jubilee line from east to west. Stanmore is at the extreme end of the Jubilee line, which means that life expectancy there is the greatest of anywhere in London. The bad news is that Stanmore has an increasingly elderly population. Our hospital treats disabled people, but our station has no disabled access. So disabled people, be they wheelchair users or people with other disabilities, are unable to come to the hospital by public transport—that is nonsense in this day and age. I have been involved in a campaign for more than 10 years to get a lift installed at Stanmore station. The villain of the piece is the former Mayor of London, who took the lift out of the budget when the station was being redeveloped. That redevelopment has been completed, so getting a lift into the station is difficult now. However, I trust that when the enlightened decisions are taken on rebuilding the hospital on the current site, we will get some enlightened decisions on getting a lift into the station, so that wheelchair users and other elderly people will be able to get from the platforms to the street without having to climb the equivalent of Mount Eiger in steps on the way up.
I will end my speech there, Madam Deputy Speaker, but first may I wish you, and all staff and all Members of the House, a very happy Easter break? We look forward to the opportunity to be out on the streets talking to residents about the issues that matter to our constituents. Given that the Indian elections have started today, we should send out a strong message from this House wishing the biggest democracy in the world every success in having peaceful elections, and I hope that Shri Narendra Modi will be elected as the next Prime Minister of India.
I want to talk about housing and planning policy in my constituency, which is having a detrimental effect on the quality of life of tens of thousands of my constituents in the short term and on the physical and social integrity of the area in the longer term. Given the nature of this debate, I will take a Pearl & Dean moment and give three tasters of other issues that will occupy my time and that of my constituents between now and the general election, and probably long beyond that.
The first is truly a life and death matter: the inaptly named “Shaping a healthier future” programme of NHS North West London, which is overseeing, in effect, the closure of two major hospitals and four accident and emergency departments in north-west London. An article in last night’s London Evening Standard by its health editor, Ross Lydall, summed up the futility, incompetence and callousness of the way in which this largest ever hospital closure programme is being carried out. It was based on research by the London assembly Labour group, which revealed that 200,000 people in London last year went beyond the four-hour limit in A and E. The article stated:
“Imperial NHS trust, which runs St Mary’s in Paddington, Charing Cross and Hammersmith, missed the target on 50 weeks. North West London hospitals trust…missed the target on 51 weeks.”
Those two miscreants run three of the four closing A and E departments.
This process has been a stitch-up from the beginning: it has had fixed consultations; it has been subject to the most appalling propaganda by Hammersmith and Fulham council which simply tells lies, saying that hospital departments are going to stay open when in fact they are closing; and the trust has now put back the final decisions on the closures, which should have been taken as long ago as last October, to the week after the local elections—that does not fill me with anything other than dread.
I am glad that the arguments over the central issue are being made in the local elections on
The subject of dodgy consultations links me to my second subject, which is Heathrow’s expansion. People in west London have received a consultation document called “Black Heathrow” from a front organisation for Heathrow. It is completely unintelligible, talking at one stage about the closure of Heathrow, which no one wants, and then trying to advocate a third or additional runways on the site. I am pleased to say that there is a genuine cross-party organisation on this subject, which includes Sir John Randall, Zac Goldsmith, my hon. Friend John McDonnell, me and many others of all parties and of none who genuinely represent the views of the 2 million people in west London, the overwhelming majority of whom do not want Heathrow expanded.
I share the frustration of Howard Davies over the political fix that both coalition parties go along with. I am talking about the fact that the decision on airport capacity in the south-east has been kicked into touch until after the election. I think Mr Davies is a constituent, and his report so far is good as it explodes the myth of the need for a hub airport and raises the prospect of a second runway at Gatwick, which is, on every criteria, a better option. I hope we can have a little more honesty and transparency in this debate, and that we can force a decision before the next election.
The third issue is police crime statistics, which we have already touched on in our discussion on the report from the Public Administration Select Committee. The end of neighbourhood policing, which is what we are seeing in London and around the country, is a huge step back, and does nothing to ensure public confidence in the police force. On the misuse of statistics, I gave the example earlier of a propaganda exercise, which in fairness to the police was carried out by the local authority on their behalf, that pretended that extra resources were going into policing. In fact, the official statistics, if we can believe them, say that there has been a cut of 158 officers—police community support officers and police officers—in Hammersmith since the last election. I raised that matter with the police and crime commissioner.
I raised another matter with the commissioner which will affect Members across London. He was perfectly clear that it was not in his gift to do anything about this, as it was a political decision by the current deputy Mayor to sell off police houses across London. Most police accommodation is effectively social housing. Many tenants are current or former police staff. Many are families who have lived in that accommodation for 15, 20 or 25 years. They do not have security of tenure, so families are being evicted on a daily basis. I have 40 homes in my constituency at Broadmead. Families who thought that they had a home for life are being thrown out on to the streets or the tender mercies of the local authority.
That brings me neatly on to the issue of housing proper. I am only able to talk about that thanks to two sources. One is what I call, pace Sherlock Holmes, the Uxbridge road irregulars. I am talking about the hundreds of my constituents who write to me every month about housing issues and tell me about things such as the 300% rise in complaints about council housing repairs or identify the hundreds of empty council flats that are being sold off on the open market by the local authority. I also want to thank Martin Peach, one of my constituents who happens to be a housing expert. He has written a report on the issue, which reveals the depth and cynicism of the housing policy in Hammersmith. I have had to rely on those sources because, unlawfully, the local authority refuses not only to give me the information voluntarily but to answer freedom of information requests. Over a two-month period, before and after Christmas, I submitted nine such requests. I do not think that is particularly excessive, and I usually put in a lot more, to be honest.
As the local elections are approaching and the authority is so ashamed of what it is doing, it aggregated those freedom of information requests because most of them had the word “housing” in them. Some were about how many properties were sold, some were about rent arrears and one was about the Christmas card sent at great expense to all tenants that said, “Please don’t get drunk this Christmas, pay your rent instead,” which I thought was an excellent use of public money, but because they all contain the word “housing” they were aggregated and I was told that under the Freedom of Information Act it was too expensive to answer those questions. Clearly, I will go to the Information Commissioner and clearly I will get a decision in my favour, as I am sure that that is an unlawful step, but that will probably take me six months and the aim will have been achieved. That is another example of how the Freedom of Information Act is misused by local authorities. However, as I say, we have other sources to help us find out what is going on.
Let me briefly summarise what is going on. The policy in Hammersmith is to build no new social rented accommodation, in a borough where the average house price is, at a conservative estimate, £675,000, although some estimates say that it is £750,000, and where rent for a two-bedroom flat is £400 to £500 a week. At least 10,000 families are in housing need. The local authority’s response is not simply to say that it will not build a single additional social rented home, but to decide that it will reduce the existing stock. In 2011 it decided that any property that required repairs costing more than £15,000 could be sold on the open market. At the end of 2013, 262 properties had been sold, generating £112 million in revenue.
At the time, the local authority was warned—again, this takes us into the realms of illegality—by the director of legal services that it should not sell off scarce properties, when in fact it had sold off 72 ground-floor flats and 31 whole houses, that it should not sell off properties if there was a pressing housing need, which of course there is, and that it should have regard to the effect on persons protected by the Equality Act 2010. The people who are disadvantaged—those who are most in need—tend to be from minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities and other groups who are protected by that Act. The director of legal services also said that sales should not be tainted by considerations of electoral advantage. I will let that one hang in the air.
Selling off perfectly good, sound council flats that could be rented to homeless families is step one, and step two is a joint venture with a private developer that will ensure that initially 150, and over time perhaps several thousand, blocks or estates of council property will be emptied out, not replaced, and then developed into what one of my constituents poetically called “zombie homes for absentee oligarchs”. That is obviously a waste of public funds. Most of those properties have been newly refurbished under the decent homes programme, but they will either be sold off by auction or demolished. Housing those families who would have gone into those properties and who will now be in the private rented sector will cost a great deal in housing benefit, and that does not deal at all with the social cost.
In the period from
How many people are in housing need in the borough? I said more than 10,000, which was the number on the housing waiting list this time last year, but then the housing waiting list was effectively abolished and now the council will tell you that the figure is only 700. However, the waiting time for properties was between two and seven years depending on the size of the property. How selling off or demolishing hundreds of homes helps, I do not know.
What reasons are given for this? First, that there is too much social housing, but there is 31% social housing in Hammersmith and Fulham, which is below the inner London average. Secondly, that there is no need for social housing; we need a property-owning democracy. The net effect between this census and the one before is that the amount of owner-occupation in the borough fell from 43% to 35.6%, the second highest fall in the country. That is a very successful policy.
On planning, the target is 40% affordable housing in any scheme. What is achieved, on average, is 16%, and none of that is social rented housing. Most of it will be for a discount market sale or some form of shared ownership, with a likely income needed of £50,000, about £37,000 net. That is not affordable housing in my definition, yet the definition of affordable housing has been extended so that it now applies to households earning £80,000 a year.
Who are the 50,000 homes in Hammersmith being built for? As I said in an intervention on Mr Lilley, that is the target number. The answer is in a letter that comes through my letterbox in an ordinary street in Shepherd’s Bush every day, from estate agents who say that they have demand from overseas investors. They say they have 3,000 purchasers looking to buy in our area, many of whom have 100% cash funds.
I shall give one example of a riverside development next to an ordinary terraced street in Hammersmith. It is a modern, contemporary development of one, two and three-bed luxurious apartments in a tranquil riverside location, priced between £600,000 and £1.7 million. The agents details say this:
“Also exclusive to the services residents will sport complex, which includes a swimming pool, sauna, spa room, gym, massage room, virtual golf, movie theatre for residents, a wine room and a room for meetings…The complex is in walking dostants…and the Royal Borough of Kensington Park…is another Stronie away through the area Fulham—is one of the larges parks in London—Richmond Park.”
I apologise for the English, but, of course, that was translated from the Russian by Google translator, because almost all the developments in my constituency are marketed either through The Straits Times or through websites in the middle east or Russia. That is who a local authority in London thinks it is appropriate to build for when we have tens of thousands of local people of—I say this to the right hon. Gentleman— whatever ethnic origin, whether they are indigenous, first, second or third generation into the UK, who need homes. We have a successful and vibrant mixed community in Hammersmith, which suffers only because of the direct policies pursued by this Government, this Mayor and the local authority in my area.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. My right hon. Friend Sir John Randall introduced his speech by saying that the recess debate was one of the highlights of the year. He proceeded to make it so with a bucolic description of blinking at an orange butterfly on the edge of the A40, which itself was gently sipping on flowers. Not everyone here will know that my right hon. Friend’s Twitter address is “@uxbridgewalrus”, which irresistibly drew me to one of the great parliamentary speeches of all times, by his spiritual ancestor in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”:
“‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.’”
But, alas, my right hon. Friend then moved from the sunny uplands of orange butterflies to the darker territory of vultures and the EU.
Let me take you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all remaining Members, on a journey from the edge of the A40 to the M4, and so to the A417 and down the Cotswold hills into a glorious sunset with views all the way to May hill, the Malvern hills, Wales beyond and the ancient cathedral city of Gloucester, nestling beside the River Severn below. There is only one problem—people might find, especially on a Friday evening, that they will be blocked on the A417, especially around the Air Balloon roundabout. They might also be blocked on a Saturday afternoon. This Saturday, when heading to Kingsholm to watch Gloucester defeat Bath in an epic game of rugby, they might even miss the first half waiting for the queues of traffic at the Air Balloon roundabout to dissolve.
I want to talk about the so-called missing link of the A417—the road that links the M4 near Swindon and goes on to the M5 on the edge of Gloucester. Some 5 km of this road is single-carriageway, and that causes a major blockage at the roundabout I described. This route linking the M4 and the M5 is a major strategic route not just for Gloucestershire but beyond. It provides the connectivity for businesses to local, national and international markets. It is the major strategic route from the midlands to London, the Thames valley, the airports, and even the south coast ports. As a result of the 5 km of single carriageway and some 34,000 traffic movements a day, many of which are held up, this heavily congested road is, alas, recognised nationally as a notorious accident black spot.
It is time that this situation was resolved. The so-called brown route scheme has therefore been proposed as a solution with which we very much hope the Government are going to help. The first stage involves including the missing link in phase 2 of the Department for Transport’s route-based strategy for further development. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is taking careful note of the importance of the case that has been made to the Department. We need his support not just for the proposal itself but to encourage his colleague, my hon. Friend Martin Horwood, to get behind this plan wholeheartedly and join his five coalition colleagues in Gloucestershire—and many other MPs, from Stafford at the top of the M5 to the outskirts of London at the beginning of the M4—to ensure that visitors can get to the Cheltenham literature festival in his constituency, and Cheltenham races on the edge of it, in time to listen to great talks and see great races. We all need to back a plan that will turn the missing link into a rediscovered link and enable millions of people every year to experience a stress-free discovery of the joys of Gloucestershire.
After resolving how to get to Gloucester, either by road or by train—my favoured route, which is about to be made quicker and easier by the redoubling of the Kemble to Swindon line, also long overdue and being undertaken by this Government—the next issue is to improve the regeneration of the city centre and make Gloucester again, as it once was, one of the leading cities of the realm. I pay tribute to Gloucester city council for its continued leadership on many aspects of the regeneration of our city, particularly city council leader Paul James, who told me earlier this afternoon that we had been successful in our bid for funding for a new bus station, which will benefit not just my constituents but many others around the county as a transport hub in the shire capital. Councillor James and the city council in general have been working extremely hard on the part of the city centre regeneration around the King’s Quarter shopping area, and I believe that the bus station will be the catalyst for further announcements on that in due course.
I now want to focus on the regeneration of the area that we know as Greater Blackfriars. You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, from your own visits to Gloucester cathedral and, in particular, the spectacular Crucible exhibition of two years ago—surely one of the best sculpture exhibitions in the country for a generation—how important it is when in Gloucester not only to be able to visit the cathedral but to see the other great buildings and places of heritage interest. Later this year, we have Crucible 2, which I hope will bring you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and bring all Members present from their constituencies, including Harrogate and Knaresborough, to come and see it.
We need to improve and regenerate the area that I call Greater Blackfriars, which stretches from the former prison to Shire hall at Westgate street and includes many buildings in between, which are ripe for regeneration, and a cleared site known as the Barbican outside the former prison, now in the ownership of the city council. This offers us a unique opportunity for a master plan of regeneration that will incorporate the prison, which is shortly to be sold, the buildings known as Quayside, which is surplus county council estate, the building in which the police currently have their city headquarters, which they will be leaving soon, and the city council site of the Barbican.
Regeneration enables us to offer a vision that includes new accommodation—new housing for perhaps 2,000 residents—new offices for perhaps 1,500 people, and a new justice centre which can incorporate all the current courts and tribunals, many of whose current premises have passed their sell-by date and need replacement. Perhaps in due course, if the proposal is right and properly costed, that vision could include a new civic centre which could house both the county and city councils, alongside a five-star hotel, perhaps close to Westgate, in which visitors can stay when they come to see our great rugby team—unfortunately the new hotel will not be there in time for the world cup in 2015, but there will be some great games played next year—and to visit the cathedral, which I hope will shortly be successful in its bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to improve the experience for visitors.
This vision, which covers the whole of the Greater Blackfriars area, will radically transform the impression and perception of what Gloucester is all about. It will be the link between the already successful Gloucester Quays shopping area, which attracts over 3 million visitors a year, and a walk alongside the docks, which is one of Gloucester’s and the country’s great masterpieces, the deepest and furthest inland port in the country, towards the cathedral, through the new Greater Blackfriars area.
Both the proposals that I have mentioned, the resolution of the A417 missing link and the housing-led regeneration of the Greater Blackfriars area, are included in the strategic economic plan put forward by our local economic partnership, the LEP for Gloucestershire. This is a relatively dense 100-page document which not all my constituents will read in the half-hour or so before this Saturday’s game against Bath at Kingsholm. That is why I wanted to draw attention today to two major elements which will help to transform access to and the regeneration of our city centre.
That is a good note on which to bring my speech to an end and to wish Madam Deputy Speaker and all colleagues a very happy Easter.
I want to talk about something serious: the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft for our country. The Nimrod MRA4 was scrapped in 2010. We had squandered £4 billion on it and it was a total write-off. In fact, it was cut up. Four years on, we still have no maritime patrol aircraft for our country. The United Kingdom is a maritime nation. We are surrounded on all sides by seas. Others, arguably less maritime than our nation—France, Spain and Portugal—all have a maritime patrol aircraft capability.
The UK has clear international obligations to have oversight of adjacent oceans and seas, as laid out in four conventions: the international convention for safety of life at sea, the international convention on maritime search and rescue, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea and the convention on international civil aviation.
What are our responsibilities under those conventions? In essence, we are required—and we have agreed—to have oversight of 1.25 million square nautical miles of the Atlantic and North sea. We are required to maintain an operational search and rescue capability over that area. In rough terms, we have to look after up to 1,200 nautical miles of the Atlantic up to Iceland, but we are not able to do it. We use our search and rescue helicopters and surface vessels, sometimes with dunking helicopters, but helicopters can reach only up to 240 nautical miles. They have no linger time at that distance and have to come back and, frankly, surface vessels using helicopters cannot do the job because even then there is a gap of 1,000 nautical miles that we just cannot supervise. Therefore, we have to get allies such as the French, with their Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft, or the Spanish or the Portuguese to help us. That is fine, in a way, but not great, given that we should have responsibility for our own seas.
The fact is that maritime patrol aircraft look not just over but under the seas. The invulnerability of our SSBNs—our nuclear submarines, which have a deterrent on board—is threatened by the inability to see exactly what is following them. We can hardly ask our allies to do that for us. I will not go further into that.
We definitely need a squadron of maritime patrol aircraft. I declare an interest, because my brother, ex-Wing Commander Andy Stewart, was commanding officer of 201 Squadron—the Nimrod squadron—and flew Nimrods throughout his career. He is on my back about this all the time, so I hope the House will forgive me for continuing to ask questions about maritime patrol aircraft and for taking up its time on the subject this afternoon. However, this is terribly important to our country. We cannot guarantee the security of the waters around us, but we should be able to do that, especially given the increasing incursions of Russian aircraft and naval vessels around our northern waters.
According to the Defence Committee, the Ministry of Defence gave back about £2 billion in underspend to the Treasury last year, and there is likely to be another underspend this year. That is great—we all want that—but I wonder whether it could be used to start ordering something crucial. This is the biggest military capability gap in our armed forces.
Perhaps we could afford to start the process of getting a maritime patrol aircraft before the next strategic defence and security review. There are two obvious options for off-the-shelf buy. The first is the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, which is probably the leading contender and which operates in the United States. The second is the Orion maritime patrol aircraft from Lockheed Martin, which operates in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
At the moment in the southern Indian ocean, Poseidons operated by the United States and Orions from New Zealand or Australia are combing the waters to try to find the remains of an aircraft that, frankly, has just disappeared. Australia, New Zealand and the United States can do that, but what would happen if one of our aircraft or an aircraft flying over British territory disappeared 900 miles out into the Atlantic? We do not have anything that could get there quickly or could search like a maritime patrol aircraft, which is something we desperately need. We should seriously consider restoring a maritime patrol aircraft capability to our country as soon as possible. We should start moving towards that even before the next SDSR, which will presumably be after the election, perhaps in 2015 or 2016.
I seem to be the last Back-Bench speaker this afternoon. I thank all hon. Members who have stayed here to listen to me. I thank the staff of the House of Commons for being such decent people—kind, hard working and always up to help. I end by thanking you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. God bless everyone, and happy Easter.
It is a pleasure to respond to the pre-recess Adjournment debate. As is customary, I will do so at some length to my hon. Friend Mr Amess, who opened the debate. Hon. Members who can see the Dispatch Box will notice that I have a significant number of notes relating to the points he raised—I will take them in no particular order—but I hope to leave time to respond to the points made by other hon. Members as well.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Maldives and the double taxation and bilateral investment treaties. I will ensure that his comments are passed on to the Treasury, which is the lead Department on this issue. It is clearly important that action is taken to strengthen the Maldives economy. We hope that President Yameen will now work towards economic reform in the Maldives, in addition to considering the treaties.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Assisted Dying Bill. The Government believe that any change in the law in this emotive area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide, rather than one for Government policy. The Government will take a collective view on the Bill in order to respond to the debate on Second Reading, a date for which has yet to be confirmed.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of dog breeding—puppy farming—about which there is a significant petition. Legislation is already in place to control the breeding and selling of dogs. Local authorities have powers to grant licences for dog-breeding establishments, and have powers of refusal based on the grounds of welfare. Powers are also available to local authorities to investigate and enter premises in relation to allegations of poor welfare or cruelty.
My hon. Friend referred to the all-party group on hepatology. The Department of Health is concerned by the increasing burden of liver disease—he said it was the fifth biggest killer—and the resulting premature mortality, much of which is preventable. Together with NHS England and Public Health England, the Department of Health will support local authorities and clinical commissioning groups in their responsibility to deliver improved outcomes in relation to liver disease.
My hon. Friend mentioned the controversial issue of gender selection abortion. As I am sure he and other hon. Members are aware, abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal. The Abortion Act 1967 states that two practitioners must be of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the woman has grounds for an abortion according to the criteria set out in the Act. The chief medical officer has written twice to all doctors involved with abortion provision to remind them of the need to ensure that they work within the law at all times.
My hon. Friend also referred to melanoma. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recommended Yervoy as an option for treating advanced melanoma in people who have previously received therapy. NHS commissioners are required to fund Yervoy if there is an indication that clinicians want to use it. NICE is currently developing guidance on the drug’s use in previously untreated, unresectable stage 3 or 4 malignant melanoma.
I hope I have addressed all the medical issues to which my hon. Friend referred, and I will now talk about Quilliam. In a previous guise, when I was my party’s home affairs spokesman, I had knowledge of that organisation. He talked about the need to ensure that we address the promotion of extremism on the internet. Members will be aware that terrorist groups make extensive use of the internet to spread their propaganda, and we have seen how that can contribute to individuals becoming radicalised. A number of those convicted under the terrorism Acts were exposed to radicalising content that they found online, including Inspire magazine, sermons and bomb-making instructions. A number of people who have been involved in terrorist activity have admitted to accessing radicalising content online. Keeping up with the scale and pace of terrorist and extremist content online remains a challenge, so it is important that we have a balanced approach, including working with industry, law enforcement and the public. The police counter-terrorism internet referral unit is removing more illegal terrorist content than previously. Since 2010 we have taken down more than 29,000 pieces of illegal terrorist material.
My hon. Friend referred to the work of Seetec recruitment in Southend, and he talked about South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust. He previously talked about the trust’s services in the pre-recess Adjournment debate in December 2013. He had an opportunity to discuss his concerns in Westminster Hall on
My hon. Friend raised the further health issue of thalidomide victims. He will know that on
My hon. Friend praised Westcliff high school for girls in his constituency, which has the second-best GCSE results in the country. I congratulate the school. In 2013, 100% of pupils achieved five or more A to C grades. The school cannot do any better, but it now has the challenge of maintaining that performance hereafter.
My hon. Friend mentioned tongue-tied breastfeeding—it is very difficult to say “tongue-tied.” I was not aware of the issue, and I do not know how many other Members were aware of it, but he is right to raise its profile, particularly as he has found that even medical practitioners are not necessarily aware of the condition. I hope there will now be greater recognition. He will be pleased to know that NICE has issued full guidance to the NHS on division of tongue-tie for breastfeeding. He asked for a meeting with Health Ministers, and although I cannot commit the diaries of other Ministers, I am sure he will pursue the matter vigorously. I am sure that the Department of Health will look carefully at the different health-related points that he has raised during this debate in case there are things that it wants to respond to him on directly.
That might include the issue of FH. I will leave it at that, rather than spelling out precisely what it stands for. My hon. Friend may know that the NICE clinical guidelines recommend that health care professionals should use cascade testing to identify people with FH. Those guidelines represent best practice as they are based on the available evidence and developed through wide consultation. In view of their complexity and the different states of readiness for implementation in the NHS, clinical guidelines are not subject to the same statutory funding requirement as NICE’s technology appraisals.
My hon. Friend clearly has some strong views about the effectiveness of the Essex probation trust. I understand that he has corresponded with Ministers at the Ministry of Justice about rehabilitation services in Essex. I am sure he welcomes the changes that the Government are making to ensure that people who were not receiving support and assistance will do so. He has put his concerns on the record. I am sure that in any process of assessing individual bids, the competence of the organisations that submit the bids will be taken into account.
My hon. Friend spoke about Bahrain. The Government remain supportive of the reforms that are under way in Bahrain. We commend the steps that have been taken by the Bahraini Government to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry. Progress has been made in a number of areas, but there is more to be done. We encourage the Bahraini Government to ensure that the remaining recommendations are implemented soon.
My hon. Friend talked about the importance of ensuring that drug treatment is tailored to the individual. I certainly support that. It must be the most effective way to help someone overcome their addiction and to reduce the health harms that are associated with their illicit opiate use. It is for NICE to decide when there is sufficient evidence to update its guidance and appraisals. It might be considering that issue at the moment.
My hon. Friend spoke about the wine and spirits industry and wine duty. I am sure that he supports the steps taken in the Budget, such as the reduction in beer duty and, in relation to the spirits industry, the freezing of the duty on Scotch whisky. We all know that pubs are an important community asset where people socialise and consume alcohol responsibly. Supporting pubs through the reduction in beer duty was therefore a welcome measure. Ending the wine duty escalator will support pubs that have diversified away from beer. It also ensures that beer and wine duties remain broadly similar, as is required under EU law.
The last thing that my hon. Friend raised was the issue of CCTV spy cars, which councils use in some circumstances to raise money by issuing parking fines. The feeling among drivers is that they suddenly receive a fine some weeks later, when they are not aware that they have committed an offence. Clearly, we do not propose to do anything to prevent a parking warden or police officer from issuing a penalty in cases of genuinely dangerous parking. We want to ensure that, particularly around schools, parking restrictions are enforced. Parents often request the presence of a CCTV car to monitor other parents who do not observe the rules and, as a result, might endanger the safety of children. I hope that I have dealt with all my hon. Friend’s points.
I now move on to my neighbour, Siobhain McDonagh.
I rather worried that the final sentence of my hon. Friend’s intervention would be a requirement to respond in suitable detail to all the other speeches. I do not want to give away any secrets, but there are advantages to Members letting me know in advance what will be in their speech, because it perhaps ensures a slightly greater degree of detail in the response. Fortunately for me, however, my neighbour the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised an issue with which I am extremely familiar—the future of St Helier hospital, which is in my constituency—so I required no briefing notes from officials on it. I have been living, eating and breathing it for the past 25 years or so, and my wife had my children there.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, £290 million was allocated to St Helier under the previous Government, which I welcomed, and that was confirmed under the current Government, which I also fully supported. As she said, a review called “Better Services Better Value” was put forward. Had the Surrey GPs not said that they did not support it, it would potentially have led to the closure of the A and E and maternity services at St Helier and Epsom, which I opposed. She referred to the 13,000 signatures on her petition, and I think mine currently has 19,000, so we are both raising awareness of the issue. She commended the supporters of the campaign in Merton, as I do, and a wide range of organisations in Sutton, such as the league of friends, that are campaigning on the issue.
I must say, however, that I do not think it is entirely helpful to the campaign to try to make it partisan in the way that I am afraid some of the hon. Lady’s fellow party members have. They have claimed that clause 119 of the Care Bill will allow the Secretary of State for Health to close any hospital anywhere in the country at any time if he decides on a whim to do so. That is clearly not what the clause is about. It is about scenarios such as Mid Staffordshire, where the way in which the hospital was run meant that more patients were dying than should have been the case. In a very limited number of circumstances—it has been used only twice—there is a need to take urgent action, and that is what the clause is about. It is not about a well run hospital such as St Helier, which is in category 6, the category for the safest hospitals in the country. I wish that that argument were not being deployed, because it does not add to the campaign, which is strong enough as it is. The hon. Lady and I, along with my right hon. Friend Paul Burstow, who is also campaigning hard on the issue, will continue to run the campaign.
The hon. Lady also referred to surgery schemes that have stalled. I am sure that her local clinical commissioning group will have noted her concerns, and I hope that it will respond promptly, and preferably positively. I will also draw the matter to the attention of the relevant Health Minister, to ensure that the Department of Health takes whatever action it can.
The hon. Lady referred to GPs charging for letters. I am not aware of any other organisations that I contact that charge for providing a letter to assist a Member of Parliament in pursuing casework—I do not know whether any other Members know of any. It is regrettable that some GPs choose to do that. I should point out, however, that although GPs have a statutory duty to provide certain things for free, they may charge fees in some circumstances. I will ensure that her concerns are raised with the Department of Health and that it responds to her directly.
My right hon. Friend Sir John Randall said that the pre-recess Adjournment debates are one of the highlights of the year, and I agree with him. He referred to the butterfly supping on the nectar of a flower alongside the A40. I hate to spoil the picture that he built up for us, but I suspect that by now the butterfly has been demolished by a juggernaut driving along the A40. I heard on Radio 4 that this has been a slightly better year so far for butterflies, and I also felt rather guilty about removing a substantial amount of ivy from a tree when I learnt from the same programme that ivy is exactly what butterflies need in the winter and to provide nectar in the autumn when few flowers are available.
My hon. Friend also talked about vultures and I think we all wondered for a moment what he was about to say. He then mentioned the European Union and I thought it would be one of those stories in which the EU is to blame for everything. In this case, it would seem that the EU is to be blamed for the deaths of European vultures. I will ensure that, if appropriate, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responds on the issue of bearded vultures as I know that my right hon. Friend identifies with those birds and wants to see their numbers grow—
We have learnt two more stunning twitcher facts this afternoon. They will go down on the record and in years to come people will read my right hon. Friend’s contribution and benefit from his expertise on bird watching.
My right hon. Friend also explained that Malta was not on his holiday list until it addressed the issue of turtledoves and the wall of lead that birds fly into as they approach that island. He then went on to the subject of the Wildlife Trusts and the campaign it is running to save grasslands as part of our natural environment—something that I am sure we would all support. He referred to the Allerton project which is a farm that operates on a commercial basis, but takes its conservation responsibilities very seriously. That best practice should perhaps be more widely promoted, and I am pleased that DEFRA is aware of it.
My right hon. Friend then talked about the modern slavery Bill, and I am sure that the Home Office will look seriously at the recommendations from the Joint Committee. I agree that modern-day slavery is an abomination. Members of Parliament all read their local papers avidly, and we can all spot the cases of modern slavery they contain, such as the brothels that have been closed down or the cannabis farms that can be found in all sorts of places, including neat, tidy and relatively affluent suburbs such as Sutton, Carshalton and Wallington. Cannabis farms are regularly found in houses, empty warehouses and empty blocks of flats. My right hon. Friend referred to early-day motion 1257. He does not normally support early-day motions, but this one was to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Anti- Slavery International, and we join him in congratulating that organisation on its anniversary.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned his central library and the investment that has gone into it. He said that he was not being partisan in saying that the London borough of Hillingdon was brilliant in terms of its library provision, and I am not being partisan when I say the same about the London borough of Sutton, where we have also succeeded in investing in libraries, especially those that work jointly with sports centres and so on to maximise footfall and other benefits.
My right hon. Friend plugged Northern Ireland as a holiday destination, and I agree with him that it is a place that everyone should visit. Great steps forward have been taken since the Good Friday agreement, but some significant issues still need to be addressed. We are all very pleased that he got a bat detector for Christmas. I hope he makes good use of it.
Mr Thomas also mentioned the Wildlife Trust and praised its work. He touched on residents’ associations. We all have effective residents’ associations working hard in our constituencies. In my case, they are fighting against a proposal for a very large McDonald’s on Stafford road. He referred to RAF Northolt, wanting to ensure that any consultation, for example on plans to increase the number of flights, goes beyond just Hillingdon council. I will pass on his concerns to the Ministry of Defence to ensure that perhaps a wider consultation is embarked upon.
The hon. Gentleman referred to underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic people in the media. The Government are committed to black and minority ethnic diversity in TV, film and the arts, both on and off screen. The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Mr Vaizey recently met leading figures from these sectors to consider options to improve representation. I think we all support the idea that people who appear on our screens or on our airwaves should be fully representative of the population as a whole, and be in roles that do not stereotype.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman raised a point about monitoring data no longer being published. I cannot provide any further information, but I will, as he requests, ask the Minister to respond.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a decline in police numbers in Harrow. The independent crime survey has identified that since 2010 the level of crime has gone down by 10%. That is something we can all welcome. I note the drop in the number of officers in his borough as a result of changes that have happened in London. I have seen a similar decline in the number of officers in Sutton. My concern is that people need the reassurance of police visibility. As a result of these changes, there is concern that the deterrent effect is not what it used to be. His concerns are on the record. The Mayor of London may wish, if he is following this debate, to respond directly to him on that point.
My hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell had the novel proposal, which I think we all wish we had thought of ourselves, of redirecting the Tour de France through every single road in his constituency, or at least the ones that are the responsibility of Essex county council, to ensure that all the potholes are filled in. I commend him for his initiative. He clearly has strong views on his county council and has used this debate to put them on the record. On the subject of potholes, he will be pleased to hear that in this financial year the Department for Transport is providing more than £1 billion to local authorities for local highways maintenance, which includes tackling potholes. There was, of course, £200 million announced by the Chancellor in the Budget for pothole repairs. I hope he welcomes the activity on this front. He also referred to an exchange around quarterly meetings of Essex MPs. I would hope that any local authority seeking to work with its Members of Parliament would not choose to do so in a way that gives favour to one party over another. I hope it takes note of this debate.
Meg Hillier referred to the Co-op Group, which, as she knows, is going through a difficult time. The resignation of Lord Myners from the board after some directors criticised his review of the group’s structure has created further instability, and the group is now facing losses of up to £2 billion. There is clearly a need for action, and she did a very good job of specifying the action that she considered appropriate. I am sure that the members of the Co-op Group will read carefully what she had to say. They clearly need to put their house in order—something that only they can do—and I agree with her that a period of calm reflection, building trust and confidence is required. I also agree with her that if we were to lose the Co-op, we would lose some of the richness and variety from which we currently benefit.
Martin Vickers said that he felt that there was unintended bias on the part of the BBC. I suspect that, whatever coverage it had or had not given to Nelson Mandela, there would have been an issue: the coverage would have been too little for some, or too much for others. I am not sure that the BBC could ever have got everyone on board. What the hon. Gentleman certainly did, however, was reinforce the point that his constituency is key and should not be neglected at the expense of any other constituency in the country, especially given that it was so badly affected by a tidal surge. He drew attention—perhaps with some justification—to the difference between the coverage of the floods that hit the south and the coverage of those that hit the north.
Eric Joyce concentrated on the extractive industries transparency initiative, which the Government fully support. He praised the work that the Department for International Development is doing. I agree with him that the fact that the United Kingdom is the only large industrialised nation that is contributing 0.7% of its GDP to overseas aid gives us significant clout in discussions on these matters, and that much of our investment in developing countries benefits the UK as well. That cannot be stressed too often. The Government certainly would not want any actions involving the extractive industries to reduce investment in developing countries, because that investment, and growth in those countries, can make a far bigger contribution to their development than even the significant level of financial aid that comes from countries such as the UK. If the transparency initiative comes to fruition in three years’ time—as the hon. Gentleman and I hope it will—we shall be able to learn a great deal from it about best practice which could be applied to other industries.
I think we would all agree with Sir Edward Leigh that Parliament should be made more relevant to people’s needs. I do not necessarily agree with some of the solutions he suggested, but I would certainly welcome a debate on the subject. One of the issues that we must address is the under-representation of different communities and women in the House. If we want Parliament to be more relevant to people’s needs, we must ensure that there is a better representation of people from different backgrounds and genders. He may be right in saying that open primaries could be a way of achieving that, but there are a number of other things that we can do. Many of the actions taken by the Government since 2010, such as the introduction of the Backbench Business Committee —as well as the actions taken by Select Committee Chairs to raise the profile of Select Committees and election to them—have led people to believe that Parliament represents their views slightly more effectively than it used to, and some of the polls have confirmed that. Clearly, more can be done. For instance, there is a move to ensure that we enhance the handling of petitions within the online petition system, which I think members of the public will appreciate, too. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contributions to ways in which we can ensure that Parliament reflects people’s needs or is more relevant to them. I am not going to comment on whether there are too many Ministers in the Government, although I point out that in my case I am a Minister but at least I am not paid, so there is no impact on the payroll.
Kelvin Hopkins raised the issue of rail freight, which he campaigns on vigorously. He set out a scheme that is being put forward by the GB freight group at a minimal cost, he said, of £6 billion, which would enable freight to go from Glasgow to the channel tunnel and beyond to Beijing, which would be quite a journey. We would need to take lots of sandwiches and many flasks of tea to get from Glasgow to Beijing on that freight train, but that would certainly open up new markets to freight. I will pass on his interest in that scheme to the Department for Transport. He said Ministers in past Governments and, indeed, the current Government were supportive but he felt the blockage may be elsewhere.
Mr Lilley raised the issue of housing. It was also mentioned by a number of other Members. I would like to put on record some of the progress we have made. Almost 420,000 homes have been built since April 2010. The new housing construction output is now at its highest level since the crash in 2008 and housing starts are at the highest level since 2007 as well. We are therefore making progress. We believe that by the end of this Government we will have more affordable homes than there were at the start of the Government, something previous Governments have not achieved. We expect to deliver 165,000 new homes in three years. That will be the fastest rate of delivery in the past 20 years. I agree with him that increasing house building can address many issues beyond those of homelessness, overcrowding and employment. He also raised the issue of the impact of immigration on the housing shortage. Clearly, the UK has seen substantial inward migration. That is something the Government are now starting to tackle, and clearly immigration does have an impact on housing.
I had an interesting meeting a couple of weeks ago with an organisation called Pocket which is trying to develop, on a relatively small scale, on areas of land in London that are perhaps difficult for larger developers to use, and which would provide housing for those caught in the middle—people who will never be able to access affordable housing because of their income, but who in London at least are very unlikely to be able to afford to buy housing because of the level of house prices. That sort of initiative can make a contribution.
Jim Shannon pointed out that cycling is not easy in rural areas. I agree: the distances might be greater and it may be hillier and windier. Those who advocate cycling, including me, do not all argue that everyone has to cycle wherever they live and whatever distances are involved. He rightly highlighted the issue of fuel costs and the impact they can have, particularly on people in rural areas. I know colleagues from all parties—particularly those from rural areas and places like Scotland—are very concerned about that. He welcomed the measures the Government are taking to address fuel costs and I know he would like us to go further, but the Government are aware of the issue and we are doing as much as we can.
Bob Blackman referred to having the country’s first state-sponsored Hindu primary school in his constituency, and said that it is now going to have the first state-sponsored Hindu secondary school. I wish the schools well. He also mentioned Anmer Lodge, and expressed concerns about the scale of that development. His contribution highlighted the difficulties that any area faces when trying to address the housing issue. As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, we need to increase provision but local residents need to feel that that is being done in a way that does not present a challenge to them.
The hon. Member for Harrow East is clearly not going to be buying a season ticket for Barnet football club. Indeed, he probably would not be given one if he asked. Many Members will have football clubs in residential areas of their constituencies, and they can have a significant impact. I do not know whether that is the case in his constituency, but the problems can be exacerbated in that kind of environment. I am sure that his concerns will be listened to in the appropriate places.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital, saying that he wanted the development of that centre of excellence to happen as soon as possible. He will have noticed that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Jane Ellison is in her place and that she heard his speech. That subject is on her agenda, and she is aware of his concerns. He also mentioned the difficulty of getting in and out of Stanmore station because there was no lift, and I understand his reasons for wanting action to be taken on that as soon as possible.
Mr Slaughter talked about a variety of issues. He mentioned the “Shaping a healthier future” programme. He and other Members will have received proposals with names that, on the face of it, sound positive but which might not be to everyone’s satisfaction, given the impact they could have on the local health service. The Department of Health, NHS England and the trusts need to take into account the medical benefits of specialisation—as happened in London, for example, in relation to stroke services—as well as the possible disbenefit that can derive from a lack of access to local services. The right balance needs to be struck.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to his campaign to oppose a third runway at Heathrow. As the Liberal Democrats’ party spokesman on aviation back in 1997, I confirmed at the time that our policy was to oppose a third runway, and we have not deviated from that position since then. On housing, he referred to the refusal to respond to freedom of information requests relating to a wide range of issues. It is incumbent on all local authorities, and the Government, to be as open and helpful as possible in relation to FOI requests.
Richard Graham has apologised for leaving the debate early. I understand that he had to catch a train. He referred to the need to take action in relation to the missing link between the M4 and the M5. He also rightly concentrated on the importance of regenerating the city of Gloucester and the Greater Blackfriars area. From his description, the area certainly sounds ripe for investment and will provide an opportunity to deliver a vision for the city.
Members will be pleased to hear that I have nearly finished. Bob Stewart referred to the need for a maritime patrol aircraft. He explained some of the technical advantages of being able to see not only what was on the surface but also what was below it. That is an invaluable asset when dealing with submarines. He also said that we needed to work in partnership with our allies. That is something that I welcome, although there could be times when it is difficult to achieve. He will know that defence procurement is an area in which the Government have had to take action to address significant overruns. However, he could not have put his request for the maritime patrol aircraft more clearly, and I will ensure that those in the Ministry of Defence see his speech and respond to him on that point.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am on to my last note, which says “Thank you” at the top, so thank you for chairing this debate so ably. I thank also all Members who have taken part in what has been a fairly comprehensive tour, from butterflies on the A4 to the Maldives. I conclude by thanking my officials who have worked in supporting me today, and the House authorities for keeping us safe. I hope everyone has an absolutely fantastic Easter.
Unusually, I think the House should thank the Minister for his extremely thorough response to the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment.