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February Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:54 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 2:54 pm, 13th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who gave us a great tour of her constituency and the problems she has faced not just recently but, I suspect, for the past 10 years. For new and returning Members, the great beauty of these debates is that we, as Back-Bench MPs, can raise anything that we choose. To those who have made excellent maiden speeches today, I suggest booking a season ticket for these debates, because they will have the opportunity to raise issues on many occasions in the future.

Unfortunately, we have not heard from my hon. Friend Sir David Amess, who gives a virtuoso performance at these debates, rattling through every single piece of correspondence he has received over the past three months. We gravely miss him, but I have no doubt that next time we have one of these debates, he will be back. He may be on his way to Downing Street—we never know.

On a serious note, before we rise for the short February recess, there are a few things that I wish to raise. I have often had the opportunity of initiating this debate, and I now have the pleasure of closing it for Back-Bench Members. I raised at business questions this morning the huge deficit in local authority pension funds. That is a real scandal, and it threatens the retirement and future of public sector workers who have worked so diligently for us.

That is not the only thing that local authorities have been engaged in. The National Audit Office has reported on the exposure involved when local authorities buy up commercial properties to get a rental stream, particularly in the retail sector. We know how problematic the retail sector is, how big a risk that is and the threat to the public purse. The Government will need to investigate that shortly.

One of the major issues that most people associate me with is homelessness. I piloted the Homelessness Reduction Bill through the House in 2017. The Act has only been in operation effectively for a year; the duty to refer has been in operation for just over a year. Many thousands of people up and down the country have been prevented from becoming homeless as a direct result of the biggest shake-up in homelessness legislation for more than 40 years. But we still have a big problem. We see every day the signs of homelessness in this country, with people sleeping rough on our streets. I repeat: it is a national scandal that in this country, we still have people sleeping rough. I want the Government to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes it a crime to not have anywhere to live. That cannot be right in a civilised society. People who are homeless need assistance, not to be arrested and taken to a police station. We need a revision of the law to combat aggressive begging, which we unfortunately see on our streets and our public transport system every day.

One key thing that the Government should do is provide more housing at affordable levels that people can rent and, if they so wish, buy. We built 220,000 units of housing last year, which was the highest number for all but one of the last 30 years, but the Government’s target is 300,000 a year for five years. Unless local authorities build new council houses or properties, we will not get anywhere near the 300,000 units required to enable people to have a home of their own. We need to ensure that we enshrine within this the right to buy for those in council housing and prevent local authorities from using external bodies and housing companies that seek to provide housing but frustrate individuals who wish to exercise the right to buy.

We now need to learn the lessons from the Housing First pilots and roll them out across the country. When someone has been sleeping rough for any period of time, they need not just a secure roof over their head, but a network of support: they will probably need to be treated for mental health problems and certainly for physical health problems. They may need to be cured of alcohol, drug or substance abuse. It is no good just putting them in a home and hoping they will get on with it. They need that network of support. That is going to be key.

I next want to raise the long-term scandal of the victims of the Equitable Life scam. I was proud that the Conservative Government I supported when first elected to this House in 2010 made the commitment, which we are all encouraged to make, to provide justice for those robbed of their money. The Government set up a compensation scheme, but only provided £1.5 billion of the £4.1 billion that was accepted as being owed, meaning that the Government still owe £2.6 billion to the victims of the Equitable Life scandal.

As co-chair of the all-party group, I will continue to campaign for justice for those victims, until such time as we get the Government to provide the funding required. Many of the victims are now very old and vulnerable and desperately need the money. Many others are coming up to retirement age and will need to draw on their pensions, which have been severely downgraded as a result of the particular issues of that scam. The victims are receiving only 22.5% of their assessed loss and that affects nearly 1 million people across the UK, many of whom are nurses or people in our caring professions, who were encouraged by the Government and their employers to invest in these schemes, which then effectively were ceased. We clearly need to combat that.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to know that we have a number of new recruits for the all-party beer group. I was delighted to hear that in the debate, as I am sure you are. You will have to read Hansard to see the contributions made, in particular that by my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton.

I want to raise a few local issues before we rise for the Adjournment. First, almost no speech by me in this debate would be complete without me raising the issue of Stanmore station. The do-nothing Mayor of London has come up with a grandiose scheme to build on the car park at Stanmore station, which, hon. Members may not be aware, is the terminus of the Jubilee line. It currently has 450 car parking spaces. The Mayor’s aim is to reduce that number by 150 and build multi-storey, high-density flats all over the car park. This has given rise to a very focused local campaign against this monstrosity. The area is characterised by two-storey housing. The Mayor wants to build an 11-storey block of flats alongside the station, which would dwarf the whole area and prevent proper access to and from the station. I am at great pains to say that I want to see more housing provided, but not in this way, and certainly not by reducing the amount of car parking available.

This affects a number of constituencies around London because many people drive to Stanmore to leave their car there and get into London via public transport. I take the view that we want to encourage people to get out of their cars and use public transport, but this will in effect encourage people to drive into London and then leave their car on residential streets, or to drive further down the line and then use stations further into London, so it is a very foolish move in both regards. Over the next few weeks, I will be working with residents groups to combat this at Stanmore station.

Equally, the Mayor has a plan for Canons Park station, which is the next station along the route. He wants to build all over that car park as well, which I think is a retrograde step. There is clearly land alongside the Jubilee line that could be used for housing without having any impact whatever on the car parking provision available. I am looking forward to combating that. We have the London mayoral elections in May, and I am sure that all the residents around Stanmore, Canons Park and Rayners Lane, which is in another part of Harrow, will see a good reason why they should vote for the Conservative candidate in those elections, rather than for the current incumbent.

I also want to raise the issue of crime and the level of policing in Harrow. The tri-borough commander of the police has been very effective in ensuring that our number of police in Harrow is actually above the resource allocation formula, which is good news. The only bad news is that many of those are new graduates from the Hendon Police College and they will take time to come up to speed.

One of the things that has blighted my constituency for the last 18 months has been the rise in aggravated burglaries. This is true in a number of areas of London, particularly the outer-London areas. I am delighted to hear that Shaun Bailey has suggested that we need an anti-burglary squad to be a hit squad of the police to combat those involved in aggravated burglary, who act in gangs in a deliberate, targeted fashion against vulnerable people. This is bizarre form of burglary in which the burglars want people to be at home when they burgle their homes, so that they can beat them up and extract their goods, including their diaries, jewellery and money, and force them to open their safes. This is a particularly pernicious type of crime and it needs to be combated.

On the health service locally, Gareth Thomas, my constituency neighbour, drew attention to the situation at Northwick Park Hospital. He is no longer in his place but, if he were, I would just remind him that, when he was re-elected in 2001, he committed to the people of Harrow that there would be a brand new hospital on the Northwick Park site. Nineteen years later, we are still waiting for it. Nevertheless, that was his promise. I am delighted by the fact that, after I was elected, I was able to assist in getting a new accident and emergency unit into Northwick Park Hospital. The reality is that the staff there do a brilliant job in very challenging circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of walk-in centres, such as that at the Belmont health centre, which is in my constituency. I just want to make sure it is on the record that the key here is that there was a walk-in-and-wait service: people could walk in and wait—and wait and wait. Now, without saving a single penny, the CCG has implemented an appointments system, so someone makes an appointment and walks in, and they are seen very quickly after their appointment is due. That saves the health authority money, but actually there is no saving involved because it has trebled the number of appointments available and the service operates seven days a week, between 8 am and 8 pm, so people can see a GP irrespective of which GP they are registered with in Harrow. From that perspective, it is a much better service for the residents of Harrow, which I think is key.

Another issue I perennially raise in these debates is the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore. Again, local people and the trust have battled for 30 years to get this wonderful hospital rebuilt. The first unit on site cost £80 million. It was promised by the last Labour Government but never delivered, and I am delighted that it has been delivered under a Conservative Government. The next phase of the redevelopment involves new car parking facilities, new accommodation for nurses to live in, and other staffing accommodation, but it is being held up by NHS bureaucracy. Given that the project has been signed off at all sorts of levels, it is an outrage that we have to battle forever to get the money to put spades in the ground on site, and get the accommodation that our nursing staff, and other medical staff, desperately need to provide that service.

The next phase will continue rebuilding more of the hospital, so that we get first-class conditions for the brilliant service that is provided on a national scale. Unfortunately, however, there often seems to be a serious problem in getting funding through national health service bureaucracy. Will the Minister take back to the Health Secretary—I understand he is unchanged, which is good news—the message that we must cure the elongated bureaucracy in the national health service? A business plan could be ready and signed off, but it seems to take forever for the bureaucracy to make it happen. That prevents us from delivering the first-rate health service that people in this country expect.

Some may say that MPs are going on holiday next week. I wish it were true. Right hon. and hon. Members across the House will be working hard in their constituencies, meeting residents and constituents about a wide range of issues, and taking up things that matter to them. I wish the House staff a week away from their work in this place, but the rest of us will be working diligently and very hard on behalf of our constituents.