As I understand it, the drones had gone but came back again, and the police are trying to find out who is controlling them. They have no means of stopping them flying other than by shooting them down, which they are loth to do because of stray bullets. We have to look immediately at serious measures to deal with this threat. If this happens again at Heathrow or other major airports, we will see considerable disruption to people’s lives and losses to the economy.
Nearly six years ago, the Francis report came out as a result of the terrible things that happened in Stafford Hospital over several years. Since then, a huge amount has been done to put that right and to make the County Hospital, as it is now called, one of the best-performing hospitals in the country for A&E services. For many weeks now, the A&E there has either admitted or discharged more than 95% of patients, and sometimes as much as 98%, within four hours. I pay tribute to the staff who have been through that difficult time since the 2000s and stuck at it right through to now, making the hospital a credit to the NHS.
The hospital still faces a lot of challenges. There is not enough activity there; we need to see more day case and elective work. I have been talking with the clinical commissioning groups and the University Hospitals of North Midlands trust to see that that happens, because it is vital that the hospital is maintained and grows. I also pay tribute to Paula Clark, the trust’s retiring chief executive. She took over at a difficult time from Mark Hackett, who himself had steered the hospital and the trust through difficult times. Paula has done a great job in the last three years, and I wish her well in retirement.
On the matter mentioned by the hon. Member for York Central, there is additional NHS land in the hospital’s grounds that is currently not being used. It is my firm belief that that land should be retained for health purposes—NHS purposes or allied health purposes, such as care. This kind of land, in or near to a town centre, is precious. There is other land. We are already building housing at two and a half times the national average. We do not need more housing in that area. We need to preserve that land for other related activities.
I will turn to several issues that I have dealt with over recent years and will, I hope, continue to deal with next year. The first is the work of unpaid carers, which goes unsung. They work year in, year out to look after their loved ones, without reward; they sometimes receive a carer’s allowance, but that has not gone up in recent years. They do it for love, because they are devoted to the people whom they care for. In Staffordshire we have had certain funds available for breaks for carers, but those funds have been reduced and may eventually not be there at all. It is vital that carers, particularly unpaid carers, and other support services have the opportunity to take those short breaks, which they would not otherwise be able to do.
I intend in the coming year to concentrate on this area and to try to encourage both local government and national Government to look at it. Of course, it is not just down to local and national Government. Local charities and other organisations are vital in the support for unpaid carers, and at Christmas, I want particularly to pay tribute to them.
The businesses in the Stafford constituency are an outstanding bunch. There are all types, from the smallest to the largest. A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour of taking the ambassador of China to businesses in my constituency—both to General Electric, where he saw the plans for a bid for a major offshore wind farm, off the east coast of Scotland, which is potentially coming to fruition, and to Perkins, a subsidiary of Caterpillar, that makes wonderful large diesel engines; they are getting more efficient all the time. It also manufactures: it has a manufacturing plant in China.
I took the ambassador to Shugborough Hall. Shugborough is the former home of Admiral Anson and of Patrick Lichfield. Shugborough has been retaken by the National Trust in the last couple of years. It was an honour to show the ambassador the dinner service presented to Admiral Anson in, I think, 1744, when his ship, which was on a round-the-world voyage, limped into Canton at the time that it was going up in flames. His men helped to put out the fire of Canton and, as a result, he was given that magnificent dinner service by the grateful inhabitants.
I had the honour, on another occasion, of visiting a local business set up by Barry Baggott and now owned by German investors, who have put a great deal of money into it. That shows how small-scale manufacturing can and does thrive in the United Kingdom. The business makes high-speed washing machines for glasses and cups that are used in Costa Coffee and other such places around the country. It is a local, British business. It gets an order one day; it makes the machine and delivers it the next day. That is the kind of just-in-time manufacturing that can and does take place on a small scale, not just on the large scale of motor plants.
As I mentioned, Stafford is building housing at two and a half times the national average, in accordance with the plan that we have, and that is right, but I want to see the infrastructure. I am not prepared to see, in our next plan, large-scale housing being proposed without the relevant infrastructure being put in at the same time or in advance. I would also like to see more green belt. It is fine that we are allocating greenfield as well as brownfield land for new housing. I have no problem with that: we have to meet housing needs. But I think that if we also brought back or introduced some more green belt—that would protect, for instance, Stafford from merging into Stone, which I see as a risk at the moment—people would be prepared to accept more housing, because they would see that more green belt was being put in place. At the moment, people do not know where the expansion of Stafford northwards and Stone southwards will end, because they just see more and more proposals for housing on greenfield land.
I come now to the issue of Stafford town centre. A major part of it is thriving. We have just seen the newest Odeon cinema in the country open. We have now two cinemas, having a few months ago had none, because the old one was closed: it has now reopened, I am very glad to say. That part of the town centre is thriving, but the north part of the town centre and the market square need a great deal of support and help. We need to repurpose some of the buildings. We need more people living in the town centre. However, we also need to see more local independent businesses thriving, and that relates to something else that the hon. Member for York Central mentioned—absentee landlords for properties, who keep rent prices high. Even if the properties come within the rates support, whereby rates do not have to be paid, the rent is too high and the overheads are too high, and local businesses cannot afford to be there. We need to work on that and to encourage the parts of town centres that are currently neglected to come back into use and thrive. That is also right at the top of my agenda.
It was a great honour to welcome a few weeks ago the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mrs Wheeler, for a visit to Staffordshire Women’s Aid’s new refuge in Stafford. Building it up over the last few years has been a magnificent achievement by that organisation and the local community. We also had the opportunity to take the Minister to Eagle House to see the work of the Housing First project, which Stafford Borough Council has introduced and which has had a great effect. At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Bob Blackman for all the work that he has done on homelessness. I am sure that the Housing First project is partly due to his sterling work.
One issue that has come up and which has been raised by colleagues is the new psychoactive substances, which are causing great distress. In Staffordshire and particularly in Stoke and Stafford, we have a terrible thing called monkey dust. I do not know whether others have seen this problem across the country. Monkey dust seems to be in our area particularly and it has a terrible effect on the people who take it. It makes them more aggressive and has led to quite some problems with antisocial behaviour. The police are on to it, but we have to be vigilant all the time to ensure that new psychoactive substances are dealt with and the production, wherever it is, is closed down as soon as possible.
I would like to turn to one or two international matters, Mr Robertson. Given your strong interest in Ethiopia—where I am a trade envoy for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—you are well aware of the importance of creating jobs and livelihoods for the hundreds of millions of young people across the developing world and particularly across Africa. The population of Africa is expected to double from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion and it will have the highest number of young people on the globe, on this planet, by 2060. Therefore it is critical that the United Kingdom supports Governments such as that of Ethiopia, whose population is now more than 100 million, and others as they try to develop opportunities for young people.
The alternative to that is what we have seen over the last few years, which is migration and, often, migration under the compulsion of human traffickers. I saw some Ethiopians in Calais at the beginning of this year. They had reached Calais through that kind of pressure and were seeking to come over to the United Kingdom to work. Unless we provide and see created the kind of opportunities that I have described for young people across Africa and in developing countries elsewhere, the kind of crisis with refugees that we saw in 2015 will be as nothing compared with what we see in the future.
It is critical that we work together. That is why, as chair of the international Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, I have tried to set up a global coalition for youth employment. But the issue is not just Africa. In September, I was in Kosovo, talking with its Government and Parliament, at the invitation of its Parliament, about its problem. It has 60% youth unemployment, and that is a country in the heart of Europe.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, it has been a great honour to see the work done by so many British institutions around the world to tackle malaria and the 18 or so neglected tropical diseases. Those institutions include the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the University of York, Keele University and, in Scotland, the University of Stirling. The problem is that progress, which had been superb since 2000 under Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments, has stalled because of the resistance of the malaria parasite to the drugs and the resistance of mosquitoes to the insecticides on bed nets, which had been so successful in helping to reduce deaths and incidences by more than half over that period. Therefore it is vital that we keep going with the work and research that is being done, across our universities, for new insecticides and drugs.
I will close with the issue of human rights and, in particular, religious freedom. I am sad to say that I see the space for human rights closing in many parts of the world, rather than opening up, and the same goes for religious freedom. It is vital that this country remains a beacon for human rights and religious freedom and that we do not succumb to the kinds of pressures that we see in other countries, where people are forced to keep quiet about their sincere beliefs. When we see our international partners going in the wrong direction, and we know which countries those are, it is vital that we encourage them—often this is better done privately—to recognise that allowing people to practise their faith, or lack of faith, is vital to the human soul. With that, I wish everybody here a happy Christmas and new year.