I have the rather daunting task of responding in the 30 minutes that remain to the 26 contributions we have heard this afternoon. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating the debate.
As is customary, we first heard a contribution from Mr Amess, who has just returned to his seat. He displayed a high level of optimism—perhaps his level of optimism was the same as that of many English people about our chances of success in the World cup. His optimism was for his chance of promotion in the reshuffle. I encourage him to maintain that level of optimism.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about working-class Conservatives. There was a bit of banter between those on the two sides of the House about who could claim the highest number of working-class antecedents. He touched on many other issues: his concerns about Barclays bank; the residential home and its lift service; the probation service and its payments; and the Royal Mail dog awareness campaign. I can confirm that I, too, participated in the campaign. I was able to confirm to Royal Mail that, like most Members of the House, I did indeed have my backside bitten by a dog on one occasion when out canvassing. I am not quite sure why the person I canvassed, having failed to open the door to me when I knocked on it, felt it was necessary, at the point when I was leaving her house and had just reached the gate, to let her dog out so that it could viciously attack me.
My hon. Friend talked about Southend being the alternative city of culture, which I think is probably true. He talked also about diabetes treatment, an issue that comes up frequently in the House. He is right to highlight that. It is a very significant health issue with the potential to drain a very high level of resource from the NHS. He talked about mental health. He is right that in the past it has perhaps been the Cinderella health service, but the Government have tried, through parity of esteem and additional funding, to recognise mental health as something to which we need to give greater priority. He also talked about the importance of dealing with arthritis.
My hon. Friend talked about the concept of a national cemetery. I am afraid that I cannot give him any comfort on that. I have tried to identify which Department would like to take responsibility, but at the moment it is proving somewhat difficult to identify the lead Government Department. He bemoaned the fact that Southend did not have as many centenarians, but said that he was working to boost their numbers. Finally, he talked about the world record-breaking attempt that Rossi Ice Cream is going to conduct for the largest number of people licking an ice cream. It was not clear to me whether it was the same ice cream they would be licking, or whether they would each have a separate ice cream.
We then moved on to the contribution from Jim Fitzpatrick. He is not in his place, but I would like to respond briefly to the points he made. He paraded his working-class origins, although he said that having served as long as he has in this House he probably cannot claim that any more. He talked about cycling, of which I am also a great supporter. He thought that we needed a cycling champion, but I think we have at least a couple in Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins. He thinks that we perhaps need other cycling champions. He talked about Thames crossings and the need to provide additional access, which would be welcomed. One difficulty with additional access is whether it creates more traffic, but I am sure he is on top of that issue. He highlighted the importance of having a clean and fair general election in Tower Hamlets, on which I am sure that we all agree. Some of what happened there, including the logistics, in terms of the length of time taken to complete the election, was absolutely astounding.
The hon. Gentleman talked about leasehold reform, and I suspect that all of us will have encountered leaseholders who are up against some real challenges. He also talked about the need to increase house building. Again, I think there is a cross-party consensus on that. He raised the issue of the telephone company Zamir. I will certainly make sure that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is aware of the problems that company is having in its dealings with Bangladesh. He referred to Gaza, as did a number of other Members. I agree with what the Deputy Prime Minister said on this issue. First, we must condemn absolutely what Hamas is doing. Hamas needs to stop launching rockets at Israel. At the same time, Israel must stop the military strikes it is conducting on densely populated areas, because it is inevitable that they will lead to an unacceptable level of civilian casualties.
I commend my hon. Friend Mr Evans, who is in his place, for his work in representing his constituents on housing and development. He highlighted the scale of the proposed developments in his constituency, and the contrasting views and demands in different parts of the country. Opposition Members have talked about the need to expand housing provision. He rightly wants to defend the interests of his constituents, who are concerned about the very high level of development they face. He also said it was important to consider the issue of VAT on housing renovation. That is an idea which, although not Government policy, I have some sympathy with as a means of bringing back into use houses that are in need of renovation.
We then listened to the contribution from Eric Joyce, who is no longer in his place, on the issue of Grangemouth. We have all followed that story, and I think we can all welcome the outcome, which has secured the jobs of many thousands of workers. He also highlighted his support for fracking and methane extraction, which given that our nation needs energy diversity, are potentially important sources of energy. He also referred to the extractive industries transparency initiative, which he has referred to in previous pre-recess Adjournment debates, highlighted something that I was not aware of and which other Members might not have known either: in some places in Nigeria, such as Rivers state, it is having a positive effect. As we all know, the presence of oil can often be a poison, rather than something that contributes positively to the development of a country, but at least in Rivers state it is making a contribution. He then tried to tempt me to get involved in Nigerian politics. For me, coalition politics is sufficient, without my getting involved in Nigerian politics.
David Tredinnick mentioned his support for complementary medicine. My friend Evan Harris—I wish he was still here—who has strong views on the subject, could have had a lively debate with him. The hon. Gentleman described the progress of a policy from being opposed to being fully adopted—from “mad and dangerous” to “can’t find anyone against it”—but then he talked about wearing four hats; I was worried he was still at the mad stage, as opposed to everyone agreeing with him. He also referred to astrology—it is probably best not to say any more about that, although he does not need to be an astrologer to know he will probably get some e-mails expressing frank views on astrology and its merits or otherwise. I agreed with his final point, however, about the need to make everyone in this country happier. I think we are trying to do that. I hope I am making all Members who contributed happy by responding to at least some of their points.
Barbara Keeley, who unfortunately could not stay—she let me know beforehand—talked about the importance of integrating health and social care and rightly sang the praises of carers, as we all often do in this place. It gives me the opportunity to sing the praises of the Sutton carers centre in my borough, which does a good job of supporting carers. I hope that this Government, and previous Governments, have recognised the importance of carers and are putting measures in place to support them. The carer’s assessment is part of that, the existence of which she has successfully highlighted to try and ensure that more people access it. She asked why the NHS was not being made responsible for identifying carers. I think local authorities, too, have a clear public health role and responsibility to do the same.
The hon. Lady also talked about the spare room subsidy. It is clear what the Liberal Democrats said on that issue. We support the principle of what the Government have done, but the Department for Work and Pensions has produced a report highlighting certain problems with the present scheme, and of course we will work within the coalition to get our Conservative partners to accept that action needs to be taken as a result of that report. If that is not possible, we will return to the issue in our manifesto at the general election.
The hon. Lady also mentioned air pollution. The Government are committed to working towards full compliance with current EU air quality standards. In recent decades, there have been considerable improvements in air quality, but we are not complacent. As a London MP, I am aware that the air quality issues there are a serious issue that we need to address.
My hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell referred to the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, whose importance I think we all recognise. Since its introduction, the number of employees killed at work has fallen by 85%. That is a substantial drop, although there is clearly more to be done. My hon. Friend pointed out that there had not been a single loss of life during the Olympic games, which I think is a real tribute to the safety standards that were adopted. As he said, it is a great pity that other countries—including Qatar and, indeed, Brazil—have not managed to achieve the same result.
Like my hon. Friend, I should be worried if anything were happening that would reduce the health and safety of workers, but certainly nothing that the Government are doing would have that effect. He referred to appendix 4. I am afraid that I do not know the details of appendix 4, but I will ensure that he receives a reply, because I know that the issue is of interest not only to him, but to other Members of Parliament.
Chris Bryant—who is not in the Chamber—talked about sporting bodies and the importance of looking seriously at the health impact of playing football. A range of football-related issues arise in the House regularly. During business questions, we have frequently encouraged Members to apply to the Backbench Business Committee, because it is clear that there are enough sport-related concerns to justify a wider debate on the issue.
I certainly agree with one of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I was shocked to see the German and Argentine players stumbling around on the sidelines and then going back on to the pitch. I cannot understand why they were allowed to do that. My son plays football, and I know what happens at junior level. All the advice is that someone who is thought to have concussion should be taken off the pitch, and medical help should be sought. That person should not be sent back on to the pitch.
On Russia, which was raised by a number of Members, the hon. Gentleman underlined the importance of standing together and trying to persuade France and Germany to work on the issue. I hope that that will be possible, notwithstanding the business interests that those two countries have in relation to Russia.
Bob Blackman, who is present, mentioned an e-petition, and drew attention to the success of e-petitions generally and what it could lead to in terms of parliamentary debates. I am very pleased about the debate that took place as a result of that e-petition. He then referred to the issue of caste, which is clearly controversial. Some believe that it is an issue even in the United Kingdom, in the context of people’s ability to obtain jobs in, for instance, the national health service. That has been raised with me in the past. I think we shall have to agree that there may be differing views on caste.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about Gaza, about a number of free schools in his constituency—it is clear that a great deal is happening to education there, and that he is very proud of it—and about the fact that managing the steps from the platform to street level at Stanmore station requires one to be an Olympic athlete. I shall ensure that the Mayor is aware of that, as it is a Transport for London issue. He mentioned Anmer Lodge and the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital, as he had done during our Easter Adjournment debates. He is clearly as determined to ensure that his local hospital is rebuilt as I am to ensure that St Helier hospital is rebuilt, and I have no doubt that both of us will continue to campaign on those issues.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Barnet football club, Tesco, the NatWest closure, and the “hated no right turn”, of which none of the rest of us were aware, apart from Mr Thomas—who, I understand, is training for the London triathlon. My tip is that if he has not done his swimming training yet, he will have a real struggle. It is not really possible to engage in the other two events without the swimming: I know that. I wish the hon. Gentleman good luck.
The hon. Gentleman also raised an issue to do with football. That again suggests there is potential for the Backbench Business Committee to deliver a comprehensive debate on football matters, if Members approach it. He asked if I could secure for him a letter from the Department for Communities and Local Government on the Harrow council funding issue, and I will endeavour to do that and to flag that up to them. He also raised concerns about pensions and reforms to the pensions system. I hope he agrees that some of the changes the Government made are positive, but he highlighted some specific issues about pension funds and the need for greater accountability and accessibility, and I hope some of them will follow in the footsteps of the Legal & General, which he highlighted as having taken positive action in this respect and which has, perhaps, set an example for others.
We then had a contribution from Chris Skidmore, who is in his place. I commend him on his campaigning on Cossham hospital, and, indeed, his mother on the work she used to do—or may still do—as a nurse. I also have some advice for him in relation to antenatal classes, particularly if he is attending the birth: the second one is easier, but he may find that he faints in the first one. I just give him that word of warning. He made a very strong case for the maintenance of services at his hospital and I hope his campaign is successful.
Valerie Vaz talked about the need for best practice guidance in relation to consultations, and she asked whether I will introduce that. I can confirm to her that it has already been introduced, so I have already delivered that, but it was in November last year. There are best practice guidelines for consultations, therefore, although I must confess I am not sure whether there is the level of detail that would confirm whether a non-response should or should not be counted, so she may want to look at that and see whether it is the case.
The hon. Lady also raised concerns about her GP surgery and the legislation we have just passed, and I think she suggested that the Government want to know absolutely everything about their citizens. That is certainly not what the data retention proposals are about. She highlighted that in her view the reshuffle the Government —or the Conservatives—have just undertaken is actually about creating more opportunities for Mr Speaker to impersonate leading Ministers. He has not heard that, but he may be practising once he has read Hansard later.
Jason McCartney highlighted his volunteering work, as he has done in the past, and I commend him on that—he is not in the Chamber, but I commend him none the less. He also highlighted planning issues, which is one of those difficult areas for Members of Parliament where on the one hand we need to represent constituents who might have children still living at home who cannot afford to move out, while on the other hand we have constituents who do not want to see developments in their backyard. He highlighted the importance of developing brownfield sites, too, which the Government clearly support, and bringing flats above shops into use.
Mr Mudie rightly highlighted the importance of speaking out for adults with autism who are not in a position to do that themselves and concerns he had that they may drop below the radar—I think that was the phrase he used—and that, although the banding proposals may ensure there is no longer a postcode lottery in the provision of care, he believes it may in fact mean some people will drop out of receiving the support they need.
Martin Vickers, who is in his place, referred to Mr Rockhill, who got a formal caution for displaying an A-board. Like him, I would have hoped the local authority could have demonstrated a degree of common sense in its approach.
He also referred to a constituent who should not be spreading his net in the bay, and again I think a modicum of common sense might have resolved that, but he might also like to know of a case involving a county council that asked a local borough council to take down the knitted bicycle bunting erected for the Tour de France because of the damage it might have caused to the heritage lampposts.
That is another example of people perhaps being a little over-zealous in their application of the rules and regulations.
Meg Hillier referred to the need to build more housing. As I said, there is a cross-party consensus on that; there may not be a similar consensus on where the houses should be built, though the need for them is clearly demonstrated. I believe she said her local authority is building council homes, and I am pleased to say that my local Sutton council is doing the same thing and has set up its own company for that purpose. She highlighted the need to encourage responsible private landlords to offer longer tenancies. We have all had constituents in our surgeries who dealt with someone who may potentially be a good private landlord but who had provided them with only a year’s tenancy, and I think we would all want to see that addressed.
The hon. Lady referred to her concerns about the withdrawal of the minimum practice income guarantee and how it may lead to a transfer of funding from poor areas to richer areas. I do not know whether she is right about the impact in my constituency, but she asked whether I could secure a response from the Department of Health and I will do that for her. She also referred to broadband and I will pick that matter up shortly. She rightly reminded everyone that it is 100 days since the schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram and almost no action seems to have been taken—that is very depressing. Like others, I experience a degree of bafflement about the lack of any concrete action in that respect.
Jack Lopresti, who is in his place, talked about the need for a new junction on the M4. I know that has been considered, but I am afraid it is not in the current programme. He rightly highlighted the very good work done by the Great Western Air Ambulance and the support it provides to 2 million people, and his desire to see it funded from the LIBOR fund. He also talked about residents user groups, and his constituent Bob Woodward OBE and the work he has done in raising huge amounts of money for CLIC.
I will ensure that Paul Blomfield also receives the response that will go to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch about the minimum practice income guarantee. He talked about the work he is doing with Muslim communities, and I agree that we need to ensure they do not feel under attack because of the conflagration of different things that they might feel is targeted at them. We should all be very careful about the language we use in that respect.
As other hon. Members have said, Dr Lee made a very thoughtful and hard-hitting statement. I guess the issue is: what can we do in concrete terms about Russia? Are some of the options that were put forward viable or would they inflame the situation further? That is the challenge to which the Government have to respond. Clearly, there is the possibility of a recall if that is necessary—if things develop—but we did have the Prime Minister’s statement on the issue.
Diana Johnson, who is also in her place, had concerns about the NHS. I agree that the NHS faces challenges, but there are a range of measures, be it on hospital-acquired infections, mixed-sex wards, or the record lows for the 18, 26 and 52-week treatment targets, where things are more positive. I am of course very sorry to hear about the poor care her constituent received, although from what she was describing I think it was not a resources issue; it was more of a communication issue, potentially within the hospital and upon release of the patient.
Neil Parish, who was not able to stay, referred to the A303. All Members who have been on holiday in that area probably want to see action taken, and we await the autumn statement later this year, which we hope will be positive on that. He also raised the issue of broadband. We have invested heavily in broadband—£790 million—but I agree that, in certain parts of the country, it has not yet delivered the goods that people want to see.
Jim Shannon talked about the Orange Order, and its motto “Toleration for everyone”. Clearly, that is particularly essential in a Northern Ireland context, and is something that we all want to support. We support too the charity work that it is undertaking.