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Commons Chamber

Volume 294: debated on Wednesday 21 May 1997

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 21 May 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Adjournment Of The House

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Jamieson.]

9.34 am

Madam Speaker, I congratulate you on your election.

In this my maiden speech, I pay a warm tribute to my predecessor, Dr. John Gilbert, who represented the Dudley, East seat for 27 years. He represented the people of Dudley conscientiously and, when I was campaigning, he was often mentioned by people who came up to me in the street and commended him for the help that he had given them. I congratulate him on his recent appointment as Minister of State and on his imminent appointment as a life peer.

I now also represent two wards that were represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson)—indeed my friend as well—and I pay tribute to him. At a national level, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. This country is fortunate in having such a bold, dynamic and visionary leader, and the extent of my party's victory turned on his leadership. It also turned on the efforts of many others, including my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with his robust good sense, his background in the Labour movement and his energy, and many ordinary members, including the members of the Labour party in my constituency. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons on her appointment. The House is fortunate that the initiative for its reform is in such good hands.

I have the honour to represent Dudley, North. It is a tremendous privilege to have been elected to serve the people of that part of the black country. The region is replete with history, which dates back to prehistoric times. Castle Hill and Wren's Nest contain a unique collection of prehistoric fossils and an application has been made for world heritage listing on that basis.

As you well know, Madam Speaker, the name "the black country" derives from the time of the industrial revolution. In the 19th century, the region was a powerhouse of economic activity. It is a history of a great people who take pride in their contribution to this country's modern development. Much of that 19th-century industry has gone, but my constituency can look forward to the new millennium with confidence under a Labour Government, who are prepared to provide support for local initiatives. The Castle Gate project is just one example. The site, designed for high-tech industries of the 21st century, will now go ahead.

We should not forget that the past 18 years have not been kind to many of my constituents. Older people have suffered in particular and unemployment, especially among young people, is far too high. I therefore welcome the Government's commitments to improve public services, the national health service and social housing, and, in particular, their undertakings on the training and employment of young people. The Labour party believes that services provided publicly, by the community, are a way of ameliorating inequality, which has been so accentuated in the past 18 years.

Before the House adjourns, I should like it to consider a number of matters. The first relates to the Government's policies to address crime. When I was campaigning during the election, I found that youth crime was of particular concern to many ordinary people. In some cases, they may misperceive the problem, but crime is an objective reality. In his recent pronouncements, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has built on the well-accepted criminological truism that certainty is as important as severity in deterring crime. That is why fast-track punishment is important. Offenders have to be sure that they will be caught and punished quickly—it is as important as what happens afterwards.

Several years ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister coined the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The causes are many. Government policies on employment generation for young people are linked to our crime prevention policies. People without hope, or a future, or who are alienated from society, are more likely to commit crime.

A number of points have struck me as I have sat in the Crown court as an assistant recorder, and now a recorder, for the past six years, although I hasten to add that my experience is limited. The first is the complexity of matters. The former Home Secretary traded in simplicities. He also rejected the findings of research, even research from his own Department. It is no wonder that those at the coal face of the criminal justice system—the judiciary, including the higher judiciary—have resoundingly rejected his approach.

Secondly, I was struck by the fact that so much crime is drug and alcohol related. A number of hon. Members have said the same and mentioned the irresponsibility of some parts of the drinks industry. I agree that something must be done.

A third point that has struck me is that many people who appear before me in the Crown court have not had a decent start in life. We see that in the pre-sentence reports. That certainly does not absolve them from responsibility for their acts but it means, as the Prime Minister has said, that we must tackle the causes as well as the manifestations of crime.

Before the House adjourns, I should also like it to consider the recent pronouncements of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. One announcement concerned the operational independence of the Bank of England. The main Opposition party has taken issue with that on the basis that the decision was taken without parliamentary debate or statement, but it is in the nature of such things that events move quickly. In fact, it was an astute move. It back-footed the markets and richly deserves the praise that it has won. It is consistent with international developments in the operation of monetary policy and it also puts us in a position to comply with the Maastricht treaty should we decide to be part of the European single currency. There will still be accountability through the Monetary Policy Committee and a more representative Court at the Bank. More important, the Government will continue to set the inflation target.

I was gratified to hear the Governor of the Bank of England say last week:
"What we are about is growth and employment, but we are about that in the medium and longer term. Low inflation with steady growth is what we are on about. An inflation target is not an end in itself but very much a means to an end."
I welcome that statement; it is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is seeking to achieve.

I have been fortunate to serve on several International Monetary Fund missions to central banks in Asia and eastern European countries. I have to confess that sometimes the Governor's realistic appraisal of goals was rather lost in the concern for price stability. In countries with rampant inflation, price stability must be an overriding factor but, as the Governor has rightly said, and as the Chancellor has also made clear, the central goals must be growth and employment with stability, as the Chancellor has said, a platform to those ends.

I hope that before the House adjourns it will take into account the various matters that I have mentioned.

9.43 am

It is a pleasure and an honour to follow the eloquent and detailed maiden speech made by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston). I hope that my contribution will match his in eloquence and content.

It is a privilege to represent the beautiful constituency of Oxford, West and Abingdon. I am the first Liberal to sit for Oxford since a certain Mr. Frank Grey, who won in 1922 and 1923. On both occasions there was a two-party contest between the Liberals and Conservatives—a luxury that we can no longer enjoy. Unfortunately, Mr. Grey was unseated after an election petition, the charge—or at least the allegation—being that he tampered with the signals on the railway to prevent a train carrying Conservative voters from arriving from Oxford and disgorging its contents. It seems that 70 years later, the previous Government found an even more effective way to stop people going about their business on the railways through their privatisation programme.

In representing Oxford, I am also following the late Evan Luard who was latterly a member of the Social Democratic party, which I also joined. We therefore share not only a relatively rare first name, shared as far as I know in political circles only by the son of the new Prime Minister, but our political beliefs. He was followed by my immediate predecessor, the right hon. John Patten.

John Patten was considered a controversial Member of Parliament, yet he was and is well respected in the constituency for his courtesy to his political opponents and his constituents and for the effective and prompt way in which he dealt with constituency matters. Although I might not agree with much of what he said during the years that he served the constituency, I pay full tribute to his record as a constituency Member of Parliament and his record of standing up for what he believed in, even though it might court controversy. I hope that in also making a stand on things that matter to me, I can follow in his footsteps.

Oxford, West and Abingdon has many claims to fame. Because of its old and beautiful university, it has perhaps more libraries than any other constituency, more chapels and, of course, more bars and pubs. Indeed, I served my political apprenticeship 10 years ago among those chapels, libraries and bars. That allows me to note now the colleges of Balliol, Brasenose, Corpus Christi, Christ Church, Exeter, Hertford, Jesus, Keble, Kellog, Lincoln, Linacre, Lady Margaret Hall, Mansfield, Magdalen, Manchester, Merton, New college, Oriel, the Queen's college, Regent's Park, St. Anne's, St. Antony's, St. Catherine's, St. Edmund Hall, St. Hilda's, St. Hugh's, St. John's, St. Peter's, Trinity, University, Wadham, which is my own fondly remembered alma mater, Wolfson and Worcester.

The risk in that recitation of the oft-travelled canvass trips is that I may have missed some out, but I must pay due respect to the voters of those colleges—first-time voters at that—who, in large numbers, decided to return a Liberal Democrat. Partly it was because they recognised the importance for the future of this country of investment in education, not only in school education from which many of them benefited in the state sector, as I did in Liverpool, but in higher education.

Before the House adjourns, it is important that we consider the future of higher education. The university sector is under great pressure with the unit of funding having been reduced serially since the expansion of numbers, which was welcomed by all, but which was significantly underfunded. The threat of the end of free education for a first degree, for young as well as adult learners, should be treated with grave concern.

Access to higher education is already restricted to those well enough off to ensure that they can get through their university days without descending into poverty or those perhaps able to take out loans contingent on the fact that they are entering professions for which the remuneration will be sufficient to pay off those loans. The concern is that we not only damage access for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, such as people who went to my own comprehensive school in Liverpool, some of whom I know had to drop out of university education because of the cost, but close off access to higher education for those pursuing careers that are less well paid. In many cases, young graduates find that they cannot consider entering a career in the caring professions or in public service.

Hon. Members have expressed great concern about the recruitment levels of those entering the teaching or nursing profession, entry to which now usually requires a degree. Labour Members will be interested to know that, in my own profession, the starting salary for junior hospital doctors for out-of-hours work is around £3.50 an hour. They should be concerned that those who are treating, out of normal working hours, the sick and the most vulnerable in society are among the lowest-paid in the country.

I was proud to represent junior doctors in my trade union—the British Medical Association—not only in Oxford, West and Abingdon, but across the south-east. The BMA has pressed for due consideration of not only terms and conditions of employment but the work load that has fallen upon those who are working in the acute hospital sector. I include in that sector the legion of managers who now work in the health service. When I started on the wards, one would never see a manager beyond the normal working day on the wards of my local hospitals, the Radcliffe infirmary or the Oxford Radcliffe hospital. Even managers, however, are now pressed into action, when patient waiting times become too great. Managers, rather than junior doctors, are working hard to find beds—which are often in short supply—in which to place patients until an appropriate management plan can be made.

Before the House adjourns, I hope that we resolve to tackle the problems of the acute hospital sector, for the benefit not only of patients—who are feeling the effects of the excess work load placed on those working in the profession and of shortened hospital stays—but of those working in the hospital sector, on whom the national health service, which is under great pressure, must rely. Those people are doing ever more overtime and working ever harder, for seemingly less and less reward.

It is a pleasure for me to represent not only my fellow trade unionists within the medical profession but all my constituents in Oxford, West and Abingdon. People in my constituency have an outlook that extends not only to their own city and country. My constituency is the home of the Oxfam charity, and its university is the home of several third-world organisations. They look beyond our shores to think of people who are less well off than ourselves.

During the general election campaign, I made a pledge—which I hope to implement—to ensure that, when considering how to redistribute our country's resources, we not only think of the people of these islands, but consider how we can ensure that the world in which we live can be a fitter place, in which resources are shared more fairly between the first world and those in less developed countries. If I have a part to play in achieving that goal, I shall have served my constituents proud.

It is an honour to have been elected to the House, and I hope to be able to raise all these issues in this Parliament.

9.52 am

I congratulate both you, Madam Speaker, and the President of the Council. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on their maiden speeches. I hope that I can follow in the same, successful vein.

I pay tribute to Den Dover, the former hon. Member for Chorley, who represented the constituency for the past 18 years. He worked hard in the general election campaign, and one must always remember that he was a dedicated Member of Parliament. Before him, George Rodgers—a Labour Member—served Chorley well. From 1945 to 1969, Clifford Kenyon—a renowned name in the Chamber—served Chorley as one of the greatest ever Members of Parliament. His knowledge of farming was unquestionably renowned.

I should also like to thank my father, Doug Hoyle. He was a Member from 1974 to 1979, representing the old Nelson and Colne constituency. He then went on to serve, from 1981 to 1987, as the hon. Member for Warrington, North, where my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) represented the adjoining constituency. My father has since been elevated to the House of Lords. I wish him well, and I thank him for all the support that he has given me.

It is a privilege to represent Chorley, the town of my birth. Perhaps uniquely among hon. Members, I was born in my constituency, and I have always lived and worked in it. I am therefore very proud to have been elected to the House to represent my home town.

Chorley is an historical market town. It comprises more than 50,000 acres—from lowland, near Southport, to the west Pennine moors—and 23 parishes, and it has a population, which is rising, of 96,000. We had much manufacturing, from textiles to such famous companies as Leyland, Royal Ordnance and Horwich Locomotive Works. Although the latter was in Bolton, West, it still employed thousands of people from all over the area, including Chorley. Almost all those companies have now gone.

Royal Ordnance was most recently in the news as a dumping site for bovine spongiform encephalopathy infected animal offal, thereby serving as a double symbol of Tory failure. The borough unemployment rate now averages 4 per cent.—which is very low—but it is low only because more than 50 per cent. of the working population travels outside Chorley to work, as most of our manufacturing has been destroyed.

Other areas have severe unemployment, which is sometimes 12 per cent. or higher. Recent job losses have included those at NORWEB, GPT, Perrite and John Willman. Well-known companies across the country are still shedding jobs, and that is the danger. I am confident that the Government will deal with the danger.

A recent survey in Chorley showed that more than half the job offers in our jobcentre were for part-time employment. The average weekly wage for those jobs was £103, and one job was advertised at £1 per hour. Such a situation is disgusting and unacceptable in a modern society. We will be a modern society, and we will redress that imbalance. A minimum wage is crucial to achieving our goals.

How personal and national economic security can be obtained under current economic circumstances is inconceivable, and I await the Government's establishment of a commission to examine a minimum wage. Some private utilities earn in a few seconds as much as some people earn in a lifetime, yet they refuse to contribute—as detailed in the Government's finance plans—to the effort to put young people back in work. Our Government have a mandate to achieve that goal.

I was chairman of Chorley borough council's economic development and tourism committee, and I helped to bring investment to Chorley, by working with businesses and showing them the attractions and benefits of what we have to offer.

The Royal Ordnance site, which is now essentially derelict, once employed 30,000 people. Now it offers a few dozen jobs. By maximising the site's potential, we are finally returning investment to our area. We are delighted that the Computer Science Corporation has chosen a redundant building on the site as its base, thereby creating 400—mainly highly skilled—jobs. Over the next four years, Latham, Crossley and Davies, a major Chorley accounting firm, plans to expand, thereby creating 200 new jobs. An extension is also planned to Ackhurst business park, which should create another 130 new jobs.

Those developments were aided by the economic development unit, which plays an active, interventionist role in Chorley business. It does not tell business how to run itself—it works with business to create the economic conditions that business requires. Every week, we visited firms to talk and listen to them and to provide them with contacts with councillors and officers, with whom they could deal directly in the council. As the hon. Member for Chorley, I shall maintain those links and work hard for business and for the local authority. For many years, it has been a revelation in Chorley to have a public-private partnership—which is one basis of the Government's industrial strategy—instead of pitting one sector against another.

I also helped to found the Chorley partnership, to join businesses and community leaders in working together for the town's social and economic development.

Chorley has lacked support from central Government. To have a progressive Government who share our aims will give a major boost to my area. The creation of regional development agencies will be a massive improvement. Chorley's economic development unit dealt with 442 inquiries last year. Most people were seeking advice on sites, on property available in the locality and on potential sources of financial assistance. Little assistance has been available, however, because the previous Government did not believe in it. It is a crying shame that the previous Member of Parliament thought that assisted area status would do nothing for Chorley. I hope that we can redress the balance and put Chorley on a level playing field with neighbouring areas so that we can improve it for the benefit of the people who live there. My experience of Chorley's economic development unit has shown me that development support is exactly what business wants and needs. The creation of a regional development agency will meet that objective.

It is appropriate that Europe should be dealt with at the same time as the economy; they are inextricably linked—one cannot have one without the other. The previous Government did not believe in Europe, so we profited little from the support available while every other country in the European Union did. KONVER is available to areas such as Chorley, which has seen a rundown in its defence industry, yet because of the previous Government's lack of belief and interest, we received hardly any aid to which we were entitled.

What was more shocking was the fact that the rules that applied to parts of the midlands and the south-east were different from those applied to the north-west. There could be 50 per cent. funding in the south-east, but only 35 per cent. in the north-west. There is something tragically wrong about being able to divide the country so easily. If one was cynical, one would assume that it was a political decision.

KONVER money has always been important to us. In 1996, we put in for a £3 million grant from KONVER II—which was a continuation of the old peripheral areas programme—under the auspices of the Chorley business technology centre, to assist with an £8 million development scheme for part of a 1,000 acre site in Chorley which is contaminated, but which can be used for business. We received little support from the Government. The bid was scaled down to £1 million and then to £500,000, concentrating exclusively on managed workshop facilities at the Chorley business technology centre. It will do little to regenerate the massive Royal Ordnance site, but if we get the money, we shall at least have some start-up units for new businesses.

It is pointless to be a member of the EU when so much of what is available from membership is going begging because the previous Government's ideology was opposed to its positive aspects. By maximising our return from the EU in terms of grants such as KONVER, we can invest in sites, such as the Royal Ordnance site, which have massive potential. Those sites are existing industrial areas that can be developed without damaging the environment or contributing to urban sprawl. That must be of benefit to everyone.

I am delighted that we now have a Government who are committed to getting the most out of the EU by working with their partners and taking all to which we are entitled. I shall lobby Ministers hard to ensure that Chorley's case is heard and to support the early creation of regional development agencies, which will do so much to improve the economic success of regions such as the north-west.

I hope that the Royal Ordnance site will become a flagship for the whole of the north-west. It must be one of the biggest brown-field sites in the UK. It will benefit the whole of the north-west, it is well placed between two major motorways and it has a railway line running through its centre. We have a great opportunity to save green fields and to create new jobs for the north-west as a whole.

10.3 am

It is a great honour to follow three splendid maiden speeches. Together with my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), I find myself having to respond to all the maiden speeches although I am not able to speak twice on this occasion. I will, however, deal with the three maiden speeches that we have heard so far.

These occasions should be special for hon. Members who are speaking for the first time. As the House knows, maiden speeches are the only occasions on which Members are listened to without any interruptions. It is a great occasion when people who have worked hard to be returned to the House speak for the first time.

I greatly enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston). It is clear that he feels passionately about issues in his constituency and I am sure that his constituents will not be disappointed by his plans to raise matters on their behalf in the years ahead. I am sure that he and his supporters are proud of his efforts today.

We then heard the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). It was a most fluent speech and it is clear that the hon. Gentleman has great knowledge of many issues. I know that the whole House will look forward to hearing from him in the future.

I, too, pay tribute to the former Member of Parliament for Oxford, West and Abingdon—John Patten—and my hon. Friends and I greatly appreciated the tribute paid to him by the new hon. Member for that constituency. The hon. Gentleman referred to John Patten as "controversial" although I am not sure what that means these days. I believe that John Patten came to the House because he believed in things: he was a conviction politician. Every Member of Parliament is entitled to express his or her views. John Patten is a great loss to this House. He added something to all our debates—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members may disagree, but I believe that he is a great loss to this House and I am delighted that he will still serve in the Palace, albeit in the other Chamber.

With regard to the splendid speech by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), the hon. Gentleman's father had not alerted me to the fact that his son would be following him to the House. I knew the hon. Gentleman's late mother, who would have been proud of him, and I am sure that his father is proud of his speech today. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about the area that he now represents. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey and I also greatly appreciated his tribute to our defeated colleague, Den Dover. Den was a friend of mine and in the 14 years during which we were together in the House I saw that he worked very hard on behalf of his constituents. He raised constituency issues on every possible occasion and I believe that he is a great loss to this House.

I praise the three splendid maiden speeches this morning. The Leader of the House may smile, but the tradition is that maiden speeches should be uncontroversial. I normally do not have a good word to say about either the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats, but on this occasion I will honour the tradition and will not comment in any shape or form on the points made in those maiden speeches. I wish the three hon. Members well and I wish every success to those who have still to make their maiden speeches.

I wish to raise a number of points. The first concerns all the nonsense about Myra Hindley. I hope that the media will not waste days on end arguing the merits of whether she should eventually be released into society. There are many more important issues about which our constituents are concerned. I hope that this issue will pass in a day because I would regret our spending a great deal of time on it.

Secondly, there was an impression that the Labour party campaign was to a certain extent financed by the trade unions. In the course of this Parliament we shall find out the truth of the matter. I am, however, very concerned about a newspaper that is being distributed. I shall not name the source of my information or the name of the company concerned, but within two weeks of the election a newspaper has been distributed among workers in a company which is a very large employer. The newspaper talks about "the workers' fight" and says that big business is backing Downing street. It refers to Labour's drive against the poor and goes on and on about how the Labour party has already sold the workers out. We can argue about the merits of that later, but it would be a great mistake for individuals in the work forces of some of our large employers to stir up trouble within two weeks of the election—they should compare the state of the British economy in 1997 with how it was in 1979—so I hope that we shall hear no more of that nonsense.

My third point concerns my constituency. I pay a warm tribute to the former Member of Parliament, now Lord Channon, who represented the constituency for nearly four decades. I know him very well. Whatever anyone says about him, I discovered during the election campaign that even if he did not court great publicity he was highly regarded by his constituents. Like people in every other constituency, the people of Southend, West have every right to be represented by the Member of Parliament whom they choose. He was a splendid Member of Parliament and I am delighted that he will still be serving the country in the other House.

I want to raise some brief issues concerning the constituency. The first relates to houses in multiple occupation. In parts of Southend, West, particularly Westborough and Chalkwell, many large properties have been turned into houses in multiple occupation. Last year I served on the Standing Committee considering the Housing Bill, which gave local authorities the power to set up proper registers and to deal with matters relating to houses in multiple occupation sensibly so that licences are no longer handed out in the cavalier fashion in which they had been given in the past. During the election campaign, I found that some properties were not fit to be determined houses in multiple occupation. The situation has caused great upset to many neighbours.

Southend council has 18 Conservatives, 14 Liberal Democrats and seven Labour members. At least in the local elections there was a swing to the Conservative party. At first we were told that the Labour and Liberal Democrat members would work together, but the latest news is that the Labour party has apparently decided to pull out of the arrangement and will determine its stance on each matter as it comes up. Whoever is prepared to run Southend council, I hope that the Housing Act 1996 will be honoured and that there will be careful determination on houses in multiple occupation.

The next issue that I wish to raise relates to the cockle industry. I am honoured to represent Leigh-on-Sea and the cockle industry is important to my constituency. The fishermen played their part in the second world war, using their vessels to defend their country, and they are an important influence in the local community. The Leader of the House will not have time to deal with the matter in this debate, but I hope that she will ask her officials to find out what is going on.

Before the general election I met the then Minister with responsibility for fisheries, and we are particularly concerned about the Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 1994. I am told that the Kent and Essex Sea Fisheries Committee is implementing the order, but honouring that legislation is causing great distress. The Leigh-on-Sea Shellfish Merchants Association has always recognised that the local fleet is more than capable of outfishing cockle stocks and it has always tried to co-operate with the KESFC on sensible measures to preserve the fishery. Since the order came into effect, however, the KESFC has increased the number of licence holders by granting licences to applicants with dubious track records—or even no track record at all—and the business of law-abiding cockle fishermen is being damaged. I hope that the Leader of the House will find time to get her officials to investigate that.

The penultimate issue that I wish to raise concerns schools. I do not want to start a row in the Chamber about education—I shall save that for another occasion—but in my area we have many grant-maintained schools and selective schools. As I understand it, the Labour party fought the election campaign on the express promise that if local residents wished to continue to have selective schools, their wish would be honoured. I also understood that the new Government would do nothing to damage grant-maintained schools or, more importantly, the education of children. I have already had one or two letters from head teachers. They do not wish to argue, but simply ask for clarification—I do not believe that we have yet had a debate on education—about what will happen to grant-maintained and selective schools in Essex.

My final point concerns private care homes. You are a fellow Essex Member of Parliament, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My constituency has nearly 100 private care homes. We can argue with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats about the whys and wherefores of private care homes, but we have a crisis at the moment in Essex. I hope that the Leader of the House, through her officials, will be able to tell us what is happening about that issue.

We have a crisis of bed blocking and rapidly increasing numbers of elderly people. There are many people in local hospitals who should not be blocking beds there, and there are many empty beds in private care homes which would cost less than caring for those people in the public sector. More than 80 beds are blocked in Southend hospital. Essex county council is controlled not by the Conservative party, but by a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition. We have a Labour Government as well, so for goodness' sake let us sort the matter out. Some 90 per cent. of those people in hospital are awaiting social services funding for long-term care or community care packages. Half of the surgical wards are blocked with medically fit people awaiting discharge.

Whatever the arguments about the whys and wherefores, the situation is not good enough for the relatives who love those people who are in hospital at the moment. This is not the time to argue about the political merits of the matter. Those people may not be with us for much longer. I am simply asking that the new Government get in touch with the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties on Essex county council and do their best to sort the matter out, because there is a crisis. When relatives get around to finding out what the doctor recommends, they eventually get what they want, but it is taking an awfully long time. Many have already come to my surgery saying, "Our relatives are getting on in years and may not have much longer; we want to ensure that they are treated properly." The problem of bed blocking should be addressed urgently.

Finally, I congratulate all those who have made maiden speeches today or whose maiden speeches we shall hear shortly.

10.18 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on their fine maiden speeches—they have made my job all the more difficult. I also thank the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for his kind remarks.

It is a great privilege to make my maiden speech at this early stage and I am delighted to be here as the first Labour Member of Parliament for Erewash. I hope that the electorate's new practice of returning Labour Members will continue for many years to come.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Angela Knight, who represented Erewash from 1992 until this year. She was an extremely doughty campaigner who worked with commitment and enthusiasm to serve local people. During her last two years in the House she was a Treasury Minister. I wish her well.

In the short time that I have been attending Parliament, the two most frequent questions that I have been asked are, "What constituency do you represent?" and, when I reply, "Erewash," the inevitable supplementary is, "And where exactly is that?"

Erewash is in south-east Derbyshire. It lies between the cities of Derby and Nottingham. At either end of the constituency are the principal towns of Long Eaton and Ilkeston. In between, there are several villages and some very pretty countryside. The economic base of the area was founded on traditional industries—notably mining, heavy engineering and lace-making. Those industries have contracted over the years and the necklace of 12 coal pits which surrounded Ilkeston is no more.

Erewash was therefore a suitable case for widespread industrial inertia, but people have not permitted that to happen and there is extraordinary diversity in the local economy. Light engineering and textiles—including lace—are still major industries, but they operate at the cutting edge of modern technology. Furniture-making, information technology, service and distribution industries are all to be found there.

Stanton Ironworks is an excellent example of an industry that has moved with the times. It has a proud heritage going back more than 200 years, yet today it is Britain's largest manufacturer of ductile iron pipelines. I understand that Yorkshire Water placed a bulk order with the company last summer and I suspect that several other water companies will become familiar with its range of products in the coming months.

The wider site has been subject to reclamation and offers considerable potential, with improved rail and motorway access—a development that I support.

Many successful local firms export widely in Europe and welcome the Government's intention to complete the single market and to be at the heart of Europe arguing in the best interests of British jobs and business. They agree with Adair Turner that our constructive membership of the European Union is vital to their well-being.

I pay tribute to the local partnership, which is an exceptional example of its kind. It has co-ordinated many effective initiatives by pulling together the public, private and voluntary sectors and maximising local resources. Its current project—Erewash learning community—puts learning at the heart of local economic development policy. Recently, it came close to winning the prestigious Local Government Chronicle award for the business partnership of the year.

There are, however, factors in play which have not supported local prosperity. They include the boom-bust climate of the past few years, red tape, late payment, lack of investment, poor work standards, low pay and skills, and long-term youth unemployment. I am pleased to support a Government who find those problems unacceptable and are committed to their improvement through forthcoming domestic legislation and by signing up to the social chapter.

I particularly welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to education as the Government's first priority. Having taught for nigh on 25 years, I know that education, like no other process, develops high self-esteem and a sense of empowerment that allows the learner to play a full part in society. I applaud the raft of Government proposals to raise the quality of education for all our children and stress the importance of consultation in that process. Teachers are desperate for a constructive dialogue and I take the view that to listen first is a strength and not a weakness and leads to better decisions.

An increasing number of disaffected pupils attend our schools and I had the responsibility for working with some of them. Teachers need support to meet that challenge, not only for the sake of those children, but for those who are more predisposed to learning and for society at large. I also pay tribute to the many excellent schools and teachers in my constituency who do well by their pupils despite grappling with large class sizes and crumbling surroundings.

When I was on a public platform during the recent election campaign, I was asked by a local councillor to define poverty. He had written down the figure that he wanted to use to challenge my anticipated response. In my definition, I talked about the inability to take advantage of opportunities to make progress and a sense of hopelessness. His face went blank as it became apparent that those concepts were completely beyond his understanding.

Good skills, a decent job and the ability to plan for the future are shared goals. They allow people to feel part of society and play a part in it. Achieving sustained economic prosperity built on the proposals outlined in the Gracious Speech will sow the seedcorn for an inclusive society. I support the Government's proposals because they will allow our country and its people to prosper in the widest sense of the word and I look forward to playing a small part in delivering a programme that I know will benefit the people of Erewash.

10.25 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). I understand her difficulty in constantly having to explain where her constituency is. When I explain that Hazel Grove is in Stockport, people say, "Yes, I went there once for a holiday, but the sea is rather a long way away, isn't it?" I then have to explain that it is not in Southport but in Stockport, so I share the hon. Lady's problem.

It is a privilege to represent the constituency of Hazel Grove, which stretches from the centre of Stockport to the boundary of the Peak District national park. It has a number of small communities which were founded on water power and then on coal power. Some people are surprised to learn that until recently it also had a major steel works. The area has had to undergo a sometimes painful transformation from a series of small industrial towns to a commuter district for Greater Manchester.

Paradoxically, although my constituency includes a number of small towns and is called Hazel Grove, it does not include half of Hazel Grove. It contains Marple, Marple Bridge, Romiley, Woodley, Bredbury and part of Offerton, but only a small part of Hazel Grove, including the railway station. I therefore have the problem that not only do people outside the constituency not know where the Hazel Grove constituency is, but people in Hazel Grove do not know where it is either. They are all united, however, by their support for high-quality education.

Stockport borough council, on which I am privileged to serve, has a deservedly high reputation and is high in the league table of examination results at primary and secondary school level. One of the issues that I shall be putting to the House is that Stockport should receive extra funding for education and be the subject of a review by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in due course.

Hazel Grove is a commuter area, so a great deal of attention is focused on the problems of travel, public transport, road transport and rail links. Some of us have been campaigning for additional rail links to complete the rail network. I intend to focus on road schemes, the problems of public transport and the need to balance more effectively central Government investment in transport. Commuter areas also face environmental problems caused by air pollution, vibration and traffic noise. My constituency has one of the first fully automated air quality monitoring systems in the United Kingdom on the busy urban A6 that passes through Hazel Grove. The results of that monitoring, which have now been available for some six months, show scientifically what my constituents have known intuitively for some time—that air quality in the area is well below the standards set both by the United Kingdom and by the European Union.

My constituents also have concerns about the national health service. We have problems with the dermatology unit, on which I have been able to work with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey). There is a shortage of intensive care beds. Hon. Members may remember the tragic case of Nick Geldard, a young boy for whom an intensive care bed could not be found in the whole of Greater Manchester. He was driven by ambulance to Leeds, some 52 miles away, where he was declared dead on arrival.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) had to say about blocked hospital beds. I am happy to report that the issue does not face us in Stockport at the moment. However, we should bear it in mind that our social services department has had to take cuts of £4 million in this financial year and that one of the predicted outcomes of that was an increase in bed blocking simply because assessment procedures could not be carried out in time. Those cuts were brought about not because of the Liberal Democrat-led administration, nor as a result of the votes of the Labour opposition, and certainly not because of the votes of the two remaining Conservative councillors, but due to the reduction in central Government funding for social services in Stockport—a matter that I shall certainly wish to bring before the House in due course.

In making his maiden speech, the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) referred to development agencies and opportunities to boost employment. That is certainly a concern, and one that I shall wish to see supported. It is a matter of regret to me, however, that we have only a development agency and that there has not been a real transfer of power and decision making to democratically elected representatives in the north-west, which is what we believe is necessary.

I have outlined briefly some of the key concerns of the constituents who have sent me to the House to represent them: education, the problems of the NHS, and issues relating to public transport and employment. I hope that the House will not mind my mentioning briefly—so that the Leader of the House can hear—one of my concerns. Having entered the House as one of a greatly enlarged number of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament—in fact, more than 50 per cent. of the Liberal Democrat Members are new to the House in this Session—I should like to mention briefly one or two of the difficulties encountered by new hon. Members on both sides of the House in seeking to represent our constituents effectively.

I am happy to report that I now have a desk and an office, but I am not so happy to report that I cannot have a telephone for another week or 10 days. That is just one aspect of the way in which, in considering not just the impact of a new Government and a new Parliament but the effectiveness of democratically elected representatives entering the House, we can in future take more care and put in more preparation to ensure that Members are able to take up their duties promptly and effectively.

In representing Hazel Grove, I have the privilege of following two very distinguished predecessors. Dr. Michael Winstanley, a Liberal, represented the constituency briefly in 1974. He later became Lord Winstanley, and sadly died last year. From October 1974 onwards, the constituency was represented by Sir Tom Arnold, who gave twenty-two and a half years' service to the House. Courtesy of the Library, I discovered what he said in his maiden speech during a debate on the European Community in April 1975. He made a very strongly pro-European speech. Those who remember his later days, supporting an alternative Conservative leadership bid last summer, may be a little surprised to hear that. Things change—the teller for the Ayes at the end of that debate was Madam Speaker herself, while one of the more prominent Noes going through the Lobby was the present Deputy Prime Minister. We must therefore recognise that, in politics, things change over time.

Sadly, Sir Tom has been very seriously unwell over the past year and had to stand down before the election. It is a privilege to represent Hazel Grove. I hope very much to follow in the tracks of my two distinguished predecessors. I hope that I can show the care, compassion and persistence of Michael Winstanley and repeat the tenacity and length of service of Sir Tom.

10.35 am

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate during which there have been so many impressive maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has already dealt with the maiden speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I associate myself with the remarks that he made about those speeches, which were all very impressive. I should like to refer to the two fine maiden speeches made subsequently.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) represents an area not too far away from North-East Derbyshire. He mentioned that the Peak district is on the boundaries of his constituency. The Peak district extends a short distance into north-east Derbyshire, too. It is a beautiful area in which we both have considerable interest. He stressed environmental concerns. The environment in the area is very attractive, yet he identified environmental problems in his constituency, as I certainly do in mine. Although I was politically active in my constituency when I was first a candidate and then its Member of Parliament, I was surprised to discover the depth of environmental problems that were impressed on me. I have always played a very active role in such matters, so the hon. Gentleman and I may well find ourselves with various common interests.

The House always takes well to kind remarks made about predecessors such as the immediate predecessor of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, Sir Tom Arnold, especially when hon. Members realise that the remarks are genuine and not merely a form of words.

I must also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) on her maiden speech. It is quite appropriate for me to compliment her since I am a fellow Derbyshire Member of Parliament. The kind words that she said about Angela Knight are appreciated. No one more than myself would argue and dispute many of the positions and lines that Angela Knight took. We all recognise that Angela Knight was a serious hon. Member representing serious interests on behalf of her constituents.

The interests of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash and I directly linked on environmental matters when she referred to Stanton plc. I have a Stanton plc unit in my constituency. We have had problems with dioxin in the area, which was traced to the Stanton unit. Investigations in the Erewash area revealed similar problems. The problems were tackled, which shows that serious investigations into environmental matters enable us to discover what action is needed to correct such problems. They were corrected in both cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash also mentioned her experience in education. We have serious concerns about education in Derbyshire. In North-East Derbyshire, we have 45 primary schools, 41 of which—four small village schools apart—have a problem with class sizes. Those schools have classes of more than 30 pupils, and some have 40, 42 and 44. Therefore, Labour's commitment to tackling class sizes is very important. The other key to tackling education problems in Derbyshire is the future of the standard spending assessment and its calculation. Both my hon. Friend and myself are greatly concerned about that, and I am sure that we will unite to press the Government to correct the formula for Derbyshire.

All the maiden speeches have been fine speeches. In debates with short speeches, most hon. Members do not usually pay attention to what others are saying because they are waiting to say their own bit and get away. On this occasion, some fine maiden speeches have grabbed the attention of established hon. Members. Many of us feel that we need to look to our laurels with so much talent around and displayed in those speeches.

I wish to speak on a matter that I raised at the end of the previous Parliament, and I wish to continue to press the issue. Electoral registration involves a massive shortfall and we need a new, up-to-date system. On that issue, I am a Labour party moderniser, although some might dispute that title in connection with some of my other ideas. If we had had a modern electoral registration system for the election, many of those enfranchised would have been more likely to vote for Labour than for the previous Government. Our victory at the election would have been even more astounding if we had had an effective electoral register.

I was disappointed that it took so long to get hold of the figures for the numbers registered in each constituency at the end of the last Parliament. That information was provided only the day before the Parliament ended and I sought an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20, because the figures were as bad as in previous years. The problems that I had highlighted in the House on many occasions still existed.

People may think that the urgency has gone from the issue because the election has passed, but it is still important, not least because of the debate that we will have this afternoon. If we are to have referendums for Scotland and Wales, we should ensure full registration. If, as some people suggest, thresholds are to apply to the referendums, the percentages should take account of the fact that the registers contain many redundant names.

The new Government need to clarify their position. The 1993 Plant report, which was presented to the Labour party, argued for a modern, rolling electoral register. I have explained the principle behind a rolling register to the House on previous occasions and, when we were in opposition, my colleagues on the Front Bench made some commitments to that idea. However, the rolling register and modern electoral registration techniques were not part of the "Road to the Manifesto" and were not in our actual manifesto. I was disappointed that those ideas were not discussed in the constitutional talks that were held with the Liberal Democract party before the election. I was also disappointed that the Liberal Democract party did not press the issue, because it had given solid support to my proposals for a rolling register.

I hope that we can now begin to prepare the ground for a new electoral registration system. I have often argued that 3 million to 4 million people are missing from the electoral register. We now need some investigation and research to check out that claim. I hope that the Home Office will undertake a thorough investigation of the arrangements for the general election, including registration. I would like the Home Affairs Select Committee, when it is appointed, to instigate a report to investigate the issue.

In 1991, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys produced a report which has been very useful to me in my arguments about the numbers missing from registers. I hope that the Office for National Statistics will now update the work that was done in 1991.

I have asked Members, through The House Magazine, for any information that they have from canvassing returns that shows how many people on the registers have died or moved, how many are not registered and whether any other problems were discovered. I will deal with the information in confidence if necessary because I am interested only in the global figures. That evidence could form part of the investigations by the Home Office and the Home Affairs Select Committee.

I am convinced that the evidence will show the need for a rolling electoral register that puts people on the register when they move into an area and deletes their names when they are no longer there. It is nonsense that people who have died are left on electoral registers. Unless we take great care, we send electoral communications—even special postal shots on specific issues—to people who have died. However, councils receive regular weekly information from the registrars of births, deaths and marriages so that people can be excluded from council tax and housing benefit. The changes could also be made to electoral registers, if we kept rolling registers.

We also need to begin to register homeless people. The legal definition of who can be included on a register is a problem because people must be residents. Residents have to have a residence and, by definition, a homeless person does not have a residence. Homeless people should be included on registers even if they have to use accommodation addresses, hostels, benefit offices or other places as their residence. The Home Office could make a difference by issuing an early circular to returning officers to make a liberal interpretation of the current law, but the wording of the law will need changing in the future.

My hon. Friend intends to increase opportunities to register, but does he agree with the proposition that no one should be forced to register? If he does, we have a problem in defining how many people are missing from the register. Those who do not wish to be registered are still counted in the some 4 million who are unregistered. Is there any way to distinguish between those who are not on the register through lack of opportunity or being thwarted by the system and those who do not wish to register?

I want to do everything possible to give people the opportunity to register. Information about people moving could be made available to returning officers and requests to be registered could be fulfilled. As the law stands, a person can be fined £1,000 for failing to register. The offence is dealt with fairly leniently; I do not remember the last case in which a charge was brought—and I would not encourage that to happen. On the other hand, the fact that the provision remains may provide an extra pressure towards ensuring that people register.

Certainly there should be plenty of imaginative publicity about the need to register, and the importance of registration. People cannot even exercise an abstention, or show their abhorrence of politics in general, if they do not register, so as to show that they are among the genuine people who have not voted on a particular occasion.

The other electoral matter that needs tackling is access to polling stations for disabled people. I hope that that, too, will be taken up during the investigations. Scope and other bodies have produced valuable information about that problem. When I raised the subject during business questions, the Leader of the House pointed out some problems caused by the size of the ballot paper. In North-East Derbyshire the names on the ballot paper for the parliamentary election were in very small print, and it would have been problematic for a partially sighted person to read them.

Action must be taken. I have presented to the House many measures, such as ten-minute Bills and other private Members' Bills, both on the rolling register and on access to polling stations, although not yet on provisions for the homeless. I hope that the Government will give such matters serious consideration, so that by the next general election all the problems will have been resolved.

10.52 am

It is a great honour and privilege to be making my maiden speech, and to be following a parliamentarian of such distinction as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). He invited the Liberal Democrat party to support his views on registration, and although it would probably be inappropriate for me, as a new Member, to commit my party to that view, personally I saw a great deal of sense in what he said. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman made, and will wish to pursue them.

I represent the people of Somerton and Frome, a constituency that forms a large part of Somerset, stretching from the northernmost tip, at Norton St. Philip, just outside Bath, to Beercrocombe, just outside Taunton, at the other end. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mark Robinson, who served his constituents as an assiduous Member of Parliament, supporting them in dealing with their personal problems and doing all that he could to help them.

Mark Robinson also demonstrated over many years a genuine commitment to overseas development. He was parliamentary private secretary to Lady Chalker for many years, and although his commitment to the cause was not always reciprocated by his Front-Bench colleagues, it was notable and praiseworthy.

I also offer my sympathy to my predecessor and his wife in that we had such a tight vote in my constituency; the majority was 130. No human being should have to go through three counts. Whether one wins or loses, it is a tiresome occasion, and one is pleased to come out at the other end.

Historically, Somerset is a radical county. Some have described it as a county of revolting peasants, but that is a calumny. None the less, we have a tradition of independent thought and nonconformity, and of questioning the establishment wherever that may be, especially when it resides in the home counties.

We demonstrated those characteristics in no small degree in 1685, in Monmouth's rebellion, the last major rebellion on English soil. Many people in Somerset, myself included, are the direct descendants of rebels who took part in that rising.

Nowadays Somerset is a rather more peaceful place. Somebody once described it as characterised by cheese and churches, cider and smugness. I do not disavow the first three, but as for smugness, if we are smug it is simply because we have so much to be smug about in the beauty of the western counties.

I could indulge in a travelogue about the constituency, but that would take a long time because it is so large. Moreover, the names of many of the villages that I would encompass would be unintelligible to the Hansard reporters. Kingsbury Episcopi, Isle Abbotts, Charlton Horethorne and Wyke Champflower are all lovely villages, and I could go on at length about their merits.

However, suffice it to say that the constituency that I represent has an interesting history, because of the many events that have taken place there. It also has an industrial history. For instance, it is a coal-mining constituency. Labour Members may not readily recognise that fact, but Somerton and Frome was a coal-mining constituency until 30 or 40 years ago, when the mines were closed.

Frome, the major town in the constituency, was a wool town, much despised by a former parliamentarian, William Cobbett, as the "Manchester of the south". Wool was a significant trade there in its time.

My constituency also once contained many islands, although now the levels have largely been drained, and one can get from island to island while staying relatively dry. However, once one had to take a boat, and there are still times when the Somerset levels revert to their previous condition and become the great mere of Somerset again.

Current industries range from quarrying—something that we have in common with the Derbyshire Members who have spoken this morning—to agriculture, and to the high-tech defence-related industries in some parts of the constituency. There is an enormous diversity of approach across the area.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) made his maiden speech the other day, he told us much about the merits of the city of Colchester, but as he sat down he said, sotto voce, that he had omitted to mention Queen Boadicea. Let me mention her now, because hon. Members will know that there is a statue of Boadicea, or Boudicca, on Westminster bridge. That statue was cast in Frome, and is a lasting mark here in Westminster of my constituency.

Over the centuries there has been a Liberal tradition in my part of Somerset. I am certainly not the first Liberal to represent at least part of the present constituency of Somerton and Frome. Indeed, there was a famous by-election victory in 1910, when Lloyd George spoke in the Wesley chapel in support of the candidate, who went on to win and take part in the great reforming Government of the early years of this century. Let us hope that that Government, and the 1946 Government, which many will remember, will not be the last reforming Governments in this century.

Thomas Hughes was once the Liberal Member of Parliament for Frome. He is famous for having written "Tom Brown's Schooldays", but he went on to become one of the founding members of the Co-operative movement, and so forms part of that radical tradition that informs west country politics.

New Members will all have listened with great interest to the debate on the Gracious Speech. As we demonstrated during that debate, there is much in the speech that Liberal Democrats can commend. But there are also gaps, which we shall seek to fill as the Parliament continues. For my constituents, one of the great tests will be not the intention—the intention is demonstrably good—but the outcome. We want to see whether the measures will actually make a difference for the people whom we represent.

Let me illustrate a few of the areas in which we shall make that test. The first, which has already been mentioned many times, is education. I am a former chairman of the Somerset education committee, and I do not believe that Somerset schoolchildren have been given a fair deal over recent years. This year's county council budget8—set a few months ago—is the first for eight years without a real-terms cut in school funding. The reason for that is that Somerset was one of those rare authorities that felt unable to meet the demands of the capping regime of the previous Government. Here is an early test of the new Government's commitment to education. Will they impose a Conservative cap that will result in 90 teachers being sacked in Somerset?

Somerset is not an extravagant authority—historically, it is a low-spending authority—and it can demonstrate beyond peradventure the efficiency and effectiveness of its education service. Its education service boasts the lowest administrative costs of any authority in the country, and it delegates more money to its schools than practically any other authority. It has the lowest number of surplus places in its primary schools of any county in England, and it tops up the Government's standard spending assessment by taking money from other areas in the council's work—for example, road repairs, some of which are badly needed—to a greater extent than any other county authority. That will be a test of whether the Government are committed to "education, education and education" and whether the money that they intend to release from the assisted places scheme will make any difference in a county such as Somerset, which is already so near the bone as far as education expenditure is concerned.

We will be looking for capital expenditure. Somerset maintains 267 schools, but last year was permitted to spend only £2 million on their upkeep. What commercial business would dream of running an estate of that size with that amount of capital reinvestment? It is a nonsense in education and business terms.

Let me move to the police. I served for a time as chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority, and I remember regular visits to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary. I do not know whether he was engaged in "semantic prestidigitation" at the time, but whenever we asked for 100 extra officers—the minimum the chief constable required to police the rural areas of Somerset properly—the answer was no one year, the next year and the third year. Again, this will be a test for the new Government. Will there be more police officers on the streets of Somerset as a result of the change in Government, or will their rhetoric mean nothing?

The third test will be the environment, which was strangely absent from the Gracious Speech. Why was that? Is it no longer to be a priority? If so, we Liberal Democrats will have a great deal to say about that. One environmental test will be the Government's housing allocations and whether they wish to see the continuation of the proposed suburbanisation of Somerset. I have the greatest regard for my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and his constituency, but Surbiton and Somerset are different places and we do not want to see Surbiton replicated in our rural county.

Finally, I refer to the health service. We shall be looking for an NHS dentistry service. There is no longer such a service in Frome, as we have lost the last dentist offering NHS treatment. Will the service be restored? I am an optician by training, although I am not practising. Will free eye tests—a single preventive measure that would make a real difference to the health of a great number of people—return? Incidentally, free eye tests would save the health service a great deal of money in the long term by preventing diseases such as glaucoma by catching them early, rather than in their operative stages. Will we see a commitment to local hospitals—such as those in Wincanton which are currently under threat—and to acute services?

In a maiden speech, it is nice to be able to range over a wider area than is normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown)—my constituency neighbour—has, for my sins, asked me to speak on Europe in the next few months. When I do so, I shall be arguing for a radical reform of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, and for the informed consent of the peoples of Europe to any changes resulting from the Amsterdam summit. I shall argue for a genuine commitment to subsidiarity at all levels—European, national and local—and for greater accountability within the structures of Europe, but that will wait for another day.

Suffice it to say today that I am proud to represent my constituents in Somerset. I am a Somerset man, and I will unashamedly support the interests of the people of Somerset in this House. I look forward to an interesting time over the next few years in the hope that the great expectations raised by the election are not disappointed by the performance of the Government in attempting to realise their intentions.

11.5 am

May I start by paying tribute to the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who reminded me of a previous Liberal Member of this House, Clement Freud? We could perhaps adopt the hon. Gentleman as a Lancashire man because of the similarities between his constituency and mine. I did not know about those similarities before he made his maiden speech, but they are amazing—the Co-operative movement, wool and cotton provide a bond between us, although not a party political one.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who referred to electoral registration and access for disabled people to democracy. Those two issues came up time and again during the general election campaign and, as a new hon. Member, I will be looking forward to the Government taking a keen interest in them. Although we had a wonderful turnout in Rochdale among young people and first-time voters, it is clear that much work has still to be done on the issue of electoral registration.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire also referred to the sincerity of tributes. I should like to talk about three previous Members for my constituency, as they are the three who have represented me since I was born and brought up in the Rochdale constituency—Liz Lynne, Sir Cyril Smith and Jack McCann. First, I should like to pay a sincere tribute to Liz Lynne. Although she was not Rochdale born and bred, she showed in her five years as our Member of Parliament that one could have an impact nationally and locally as a new Member of Parliament. Liz did a lot of pioneering work, especially on one of her dear subjects—disabled people. I hope to continue locally and nationally the good work that Liz did in that area, and in many others. Many people felt fondly about Liz, and I wish her well.

There is a joke in Rochdale—a polite one of course—that any public occasion to which I am invited with Sir Cyril Smith is a bit like "The Little and Large Show". I know that it is meant with great affection for Sir Cyril, who is an incredible act to follow. There are many ex-Members of Parliament, but Sir Cyril has a place in the history books and an honoured place in the history of Rochdale. The reason he was successful—bar party politics in Rochdale—was that he was a man of the people. Some criticised him for staying in Rochdale, but it meant that there were not many there whom he did not help in his 20-year career. If, in my time as a Member of Parliament, I can help as many people as Sir Cyril did, I will feel that I have done the job that the people of Rochdale sent me here to do.

A quarter of a century on, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the debt of thanks that I should pay to the last Labour Member of Parliament for Rochdale, the late Jack McCann. Although Jack was the first Member of Parliament for my constituency I knew—I am fibbing really as I was a tad too young really to have known him—I got a full picture of Jack McCann the man and the politician on the doorsteps. Lots of Rochdalians—generally older people—truly remembered the man and felt proud to have known him. They loved him—they loved his honesty and felt that he truly worked for Rochdale. That is what I hope to continue.

Rochdale has a proud tradition of what I would call quirky characters as its Members of Parliament and I hope to follow in that tradition in some way—although I am only 5 ft tall, I do not need a microphone. One of the most moving occasions during the election campaign was just before my adoption meeting, when I received a telephone call at our campaign headquarters. I was asked, in an agile voice, "Can I speak to Lorna Fitzsimons please?" The caller introduced herself as Alice McCann, Jack McCann's wife. She was bright as a button at the age of 83 and raring to go, asking, "When can I come and help? We've got to make sure we return a Labour MP this time. Twenty-five years on, it's about time." She painted the most beautiful picture of Rochdale when Jack won his by-election. She said that it was amazing; it was two weeks after the Munich air disaster. One can imagine what it was like in Rochdale. God bless Rochdale football club, but the majority of people actually support the Reds. The tone in the town and the country was very sombre and we were knee deep in snow in one of the worst winters, but the atmosphere after the by-election was electric with hope and optimism—the real attitude that Rochdale and true Rochdalians embody. That is what brought home to me the character and spirit of Rochdale.

I have the greatest pride in representing my home town. Under the new boundary changes, my village of Wardle and that of Littleborough have been brought into the constituency. Being able to say that I was born in a local hospital, Birch Hill, went to one of the new local schools—Wardle high school—and then worked in the constituency gives me a great heritage and an advantage in understanding the needs of the constituency.

Rochdale has a rich tapestry, whether in textiles, in which I am proud to be a skilled labourer—I did a degree in textiles and followed in my father's footsteps as he worked in the mills—or in brass bands. A little-known fact about me is that I am a secret horn player, or was when I was at school. I am proud to say that at the car boot sales in Rochdale there are one or two copies of the LP to which my name is attached. There is also the attitude of the people. They have warm, open hearts and they are honest. We might be a bit blunt now and again, but we are honest, warm and welcoming. The people are vibrant and colourful.

At the heart of the town—in the centre—we have a huge Asian population. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) mentioned the curry mile in his opening speech on the Loyal Address; we have our own curry street in my constituency. Asian small businesses are at the heart of rebuilding Rochdale.

Rochdale has many expectations of this Government, and quite rightly. In the past 18 years, it has paid the price for the lack of investment, especially in our manufacturing base and our young people. The textile industry has been decimated. There is now a new drive, with a new Member of Parliament, a new leader of the council and a new team forming to put Rochdale back on the map where it should be, right at the heart of the economic and industrial revolution. I want to be known as the person who helped Rochdale to be the economic gateway to our liberation.

The other travesty of the past 18 years that Rochdale has had to witness is youth unemployment. The people of Rochdale are talented and hard working but, sadly, they have not had the opportunities—especially the under-25s—that they should have had. As a new constituency Member of Parliament, one of the big challenges for me is to provide opportunities through the much needed welfare-to-work programme outlined in the Gracious Speech. I will be working with my colleagues to ensure that all the needy young people in Rochdale get a chance at a real job or training opportunity to change the cycle of despair. On some of our estates—the Kirkholt estate, to name one—there is now much hope.

Everyone might think that The Sun or Alastair Campbell coined the phrase, "The Blair babes". Rochdale would like to think that it got there first, because we have a group of women called the Brimrod babes. They do not know that I am mentioning them in my maiden speech. Much has been made of the number of women Members in this new Parliament. I want to pay tribute to my Brimrod babes—the women who live on one cul-de-sac on a council estate. They are grandmothers, mothers and daughters—three generations—who have never had any formal education, by which I mean further or higher education, or been involved in politics. They were captivated. I do not know what happened precisely to their awareness, but watching my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the run-up to the general election, they decided to get active. They taught me many lessons about not presuming things about people. They liberated themselves and they helped me to get elected. I would take anyone who is in any doubt about the importance of this Parliament to their cul-de-sac and their homes. The way in which they have learnt that they can change their own lives and that we can help them is amazing. If, in my time as Member of Parliament for Rochdale, I can show the courage that they have shown to overcome their inhibitions and lack of confidence and get involved, I will be proud of what I have done.

Rochdale has a lot to offer economically, socially and culturally, such as in helping and guiding our quest to ensure that everyone in the world has access to human rights. Hon. Members who know that we have a large Pakistani community will understand the importance of Kashmir to the people of Rochdale. Our history is one of wide openness and of welcoming people of all races, creeds, countries and colours to Rochdale. That means not only that charity starts at home, but that we must remember that we cannot settle unless our sisters and brothers in Kashmir and elsewhere have access to democracy and human rights. The commitment to human rights made by my right hon. Friend the new Foreign Secretary and in the Gracious Speech was welcome to my constituents.

The other welcome commitment in the Gracious Speech concerned health. Like many other constituencies, Rochdale has a health care crisis. It is a crisis not in terms of bed blocking, but in that we have a mortality rate 10 per cent. above the national average. That is a travesty. The people of Rochdale, therefore, welcome the new Government's commitment to health care. For the first time, there is a Minister with responsibility for health in the community, who can tackle some of the problems that are causing deaths in Rochdale.

The crisis is such that we desperately need the private finance initiative to work. The people of Rochdale need accessible health care, and one of the most exercising points of the campaign in the past six months and beyond was the future of Rochdale hospital. I shall work alongside the new Front-Bench team and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the private finance initiative works.

Because of the way in which the country has been run over the past 18 years, there is not enough money in the public purse to make the investment that we know is needed in our health service. The people of Rochdale have journeyed to the practical conclusion that they therefore need a successful partnership with the private sector; that has not been easy for some of them, but they have been courageous and know that all solutions must be considered. I hope that in this Parliament I can show the same ingenuity in seeking solutions to problems in my constituency and further afield.

I pay tribute to the people of Rochdale who voted for me as one of the younger new Members of Parliament, proving that young people have a voice right at the heart of Government and can effect change. If I can in any way emulate the history of those people who have worked in Rochdale for a better Britain, I shall truly have been a good parliamentarian.

11.20 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak so early in this Parliament; with so many new Members coming in at the general election, I had visions, or perhaps nightmares, of making my maiden speech some time around Christmas, so I am delighted to get in.

It is an honour to serve in the House, with the tradition and history that it oozes—I thank first the members of the Jarrow Labour party who nominated me and the constituents who voted me into this splendid House to represent their interests—but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take on board some changes that could be made to improve its functioning. I draw attention to the voting system in particular. I read recently about schools being failed after a visit from a group of inspectors; if that group studied our voting system, we would certainly be failed automatically. That should be considered, but I leave it in the hands of the Leader of the House.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Don Dixon. I am in a good position to do that, as I am a good friend of his and have known him for many years. Many hon. Members will know Don; he certainly stamped his authority on the House in his role as Opposition Deputy Chief Whip. He came from a traditional, humble background in Jarrow. He had a basic education; worked in a shipyard; came up through trade union politics; became leader of Jarrow council; and was elected to Tyneside council, transforming the whole of south Tyneside with his vision of council housing. He was then elected to the House in 1979, and served it well.

The great thing about Don was that he set great store by loyalty; he has shown loyalty to all those who know him, to the Labour party and, as I know for a fact, to the House. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties respect the job that he did, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for recommending his early elevation to the House of Lords; we in Jarrow see that as a tribute to Don, and we take it as a tribute to the people of Jarrow.

It is customary for new Members to speak about the constituency for which they have been elected. Once again, I am in a fairly good position, as I was born, bred and educated in Jarrow and know the town very well, but the constituency contains not only the town of Jarrow but the town of Hebburn; the villages of Boldon, Cleadon and Whitburn; and the new ward of Wrekendyke, which was transferred in the recent boundary changes.

My constituency is, of course, very famous in Labour history. It was built over the past century on a heavy industrial base on the Tyne. Sadly, that base declined through the 1980s. The last coalfield in Jarrow has closed, as have the steel industry and most of the shipping industry. With those closures, I am sad to say, many good, hard-working, decent people were discarded and told, "We no longer need your services, thank you very much." That is and always will be a tragedy and a message about what happened in the 1980s.

If there is one message that I would like to get across in this maiden speech, it is the need for jobs in Jarrow. It is very sad that, last Monday, yet another Jarrow march set off, this time on the way to Europe, nearly 61 years after the first Jarrow march, when Ellen Wilkinson and 200 men from Jarrow walked to London in the search for jobs.

At the meeting to see the marchers setting off for Europe on Monday, I expressed the hope that it would be the last march to have to leave Jarrow in search of jobs. Remember that the marchers who left on Monday left with exactly the same principles as those who left in 1936: they were after not handouts or charity, but real jobs, because unemployment affects people as individuals; it affects families; and, if there is mass unemployment, as there is in the north and in Jarrow in particular, it affects the town. It is no wonder that there are social divisions throughout the country.

It has sometimes annoyed me over the past decade or so—I hope that Ministers will take this on board—that unemployment is spoken of in percentages, with this per cent. in Jarrow, that per cent. in Liverpool and so on. Percentages are no good, because an unemployed individual is 100 per cent. unemployed. It is important to remember that.

Old habits die hard: I was reading Ellen Wilkinson's book, "The Town That Was Murdered", and found some interesting parallels between the 1930s and the 1980s. For example, she said that in the mid-1930s unemployment in Jarrow was about 70 per cent., while in the neighbouring town of Hebburn it was lower, so the Government decided to merge the figures and came up with a figure of 35 per cent.: they cut unemployment overnight. There is an interesting parallel with the 30 changes in the way in which the figures have been calculated.

Ellen Wilkinson also provided some interesting parallels concerning youth unemployment, which was rife then as now in Jarrow, and about people being thrown on the scrap heap at 40 and left to go stale and vegetate at home, wasting all the skills and promise that they showed in early life.

As Member of Parliament for Jarrow, I want to press the claim for jobs, which I consider to be imperative. That is why I welcome the Government's jobs package to get 250,000 youngsters nationally from welfare into work and to give the long-term unemployed the chance to get back into work, financed by a windfall tax on the privatised utilities.

Of course, we would be kidding everybody if we said we could build utopia overnight, but we must remember that the Labour party's pledges are a commitment and an indication of our priorities. The unemployed are of central importance to our programme. We are making a start, and I am sure that we will do more over the coming Parliament.

It is not as though the people of Jarrow and the surrounding area were lying back through the 1980s. Both councils in my constituency, South Tyneside and Gateshead, have been working actively with the private sector to try to generate jobs in the area. In particular, South Tyneside, which covers most of my constituency, has drawn up many innovative schemes to try to rejuvenate the area, in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors through an organisation called STEP, the South Tyneside Enterprise Partnership. Schemes include extension of the metro, provision of a second Tyne tunnel through a private finance initiative project, and preparation of green-field sites for industry.

I make no bones about the fact that I will press the Government on jobs for my area. I hope that we will get positive, urgent decisions on matters such as the second Tyne tunnel and STEP's single regeneration budget bid, which covers Jarrow and Hebburn. We need early decisions because those matters are vital for the area. There is much hope in my constituency. I make no apology for pressing the case for jobs in Jarrow, as other hon. Members will for their constituencies. I will often repeat the same message. I hope that we will be able to deliver for the people of Jarrow.

11.30 am

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons), for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), among others, on making their maiden speeches.

I am the first ever Labour Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. Against all the odds, we won the seat, but we also won the argument. It was Labour, not the Liberal Democrats, who fought the Conservatives. It will be like that for ever more. We shall continue to win because people will back new Labour as they need a good, hard-working constituency Member of Parliament and a good new Labour Government.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Derek Conway, who gave the constituency great public service for 14 years. I pay tribute also to his predecessor, Sir John Langford-Holt, who was held in great affection and high regard for 38 years before Mr. Conway. As I am only the third Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham since the war, I trust that the precedent for such longevity of service will continue. I pledge that I will fight for the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham with great heart and vigour.

I thank the Palace of Westminster staff, who have been so kind and helpful not only to me but to other new Members. They have set a standard in friendliness and in always being able to help us out. I also thank the voters who voted for me and my campaign team, who worked so tirelessly. I must thank my wife, Shelly, and my son, Alexander, who sacrificed much family life so that I could be here. I ask the powers that be to spell my wife's name correctly. I do not want to incur her wrath; in a choice between her wrath and the wrath of the Whips, give me the Whips' wrath any time. To those who warn that I would not want to incur the wrath of the Whips, I say, "You don't know my wife."

Last week, I brought my son, who is only 18 months old, to the Commons. One problem was that I had to explain that the television sets around the House cannot yet be tuned to Postman Pat or the Teletubbies. However, I might push the Finance and Services Committee to consider the possibility. My other problem was that my son is so young that he did not know the ways of this great Palace. When he could not get his own way, he decided to lie prostrate in the corridors of power, kicking and screaming. I was a little embarrassed until I found that that was not too unusual in the Commons.

To echo other maiden speeches, I hope that the House will become more family-friendly. I know that great strides have already been made but, as a father, I shall support measures to make it more user-friendly to families.

It is a great honour to serve the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham. The constituency's history goes back thousands of years. The village of Wroxeter, which is near Shrewsbury, was a Roman city—in its heyday, the fourth largest in Britain. Acton Burnell, another small village near Shrewsbury, held the third Parliament of Edward I.

Some might disagree, but I truly believe that Shrewsbury is delightful—the finest town in England. It is dominated by its 15th-century black and white Tudor housing and narrow cobbled streets. It is the birthplace of Charles Darwin. The surrounding villages account for my constituency's name. Atcham represents the quarter of its voters who live in rural areas. It is some of the most beautiful countryside to be seen. Hon. Members may recall that we have an annual flower show. I do not want to cause a dispute with the Minister for sport, but it can hold its own with any in the country.

Shrewsbury does not rely only on the past. It has a great future. It has a thriving business community with great plans for expansion. I trust that I can play a part in bringing more investment to the town and surrounding areas. I hope that our Challenge 2000 bid to try to create a new business venture in the north of Shrewsbury, which will bring up to 2,500 much needed jobs to the town, will be successful. Youth unemployment is especially bad in some deprived areas of Shrewsbury. People may say, "What deprived areas in Shrewsbury?" However, there are such areas. Many towns and villages around Britain have, like some parts of Shrewsbury, suffered over the past 18 years. I hope that our pledge to put 250,000 youngsters back to work or into training will help up to 200 young people in the Shrewsbury area. I shall work in partnership with councils, businesses, the voluntary sector or whoever else to help to bring more jobs to Shrewsbury.

I mentioned the Acton Burnell Parliament of 1283, the main purpose of which was to provide for the recovery of debts. I welcome the measure in the Gracious Speech that will ensure that, at long last, large companies pay their debts on time. Small businesses have suffered much: one has gone out of business every three minutes since 1992. We need to help them quickly. Those entrepreneurs will help us to forge ahead and create more jobs.

The new Labour Government have set a new direction and offer new politics for Britain. For business circles, one of the Government's main attributes will be the creation of private-public partnerships and agreements. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale. The public purse cannot fund everything in future. We must take the social conscience of the public sector and work with the dynamic, efficient private sector to come together as one to provide the services that the country needs.

On business, I look forward to the information technology opportunities that lie ahead, especially for rural areas. Many young people in rural areas in my constituency could work from home, the village hall or a communal area using information technology.

It was a great travesty to see Shrewsbury Town football club relegated last season. Of course, that occurred under my predecessor, so I look forward to the football club rightly being promoted in the coming seasons so that it can become a centre for the town.

Farming is of key importance in my constituency and farmers there have been devastated by BSE. The handling of the BSE crisis was terrible and I welcome the Foreign Secretary's pledge to work with Europe and to be at the centre of Europe in order to ensure the lifting of the beef ban as quickly as possible. I cannot stress enough how hard the crisis has hit some of those beef farmers, especially those on small farms. They have had to endure not just the financial hardship but the mental stress that has been inflicted on themselves and their families. I trust that things will improve quickly.

We need a reform of the common agricultural policy and it must be linked to enhancing the environment. We must ensure that in future we do not pay farmers to do nothing with set-aside. We should ask them and pay them to enhance the environment.

I should like to say a quick word about our terrific hospital, the Royal Shrewsbury. It has had to undergo incredible hardship and cuts over the past 18 years and I pay tribute to all the staff, the doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and consultants, who have worked so hard to provide such an excellent service in spite of financial difficulties.

I want to extend a warm invitation to any hon. Member to come to Shrewsbury to taste the delights of such a wonderful area and take in the beautiful countryside.

11.41 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) on his maiden speech and on being the first Labour Member for that constituency. I want to begin with a denial—I am not 27. It came as a great shock to me to see in The Observer after my election that I was down as one of the new young intake. It has never been more true that one should not believe all one reads in the newspapers, even the quality ones.

It is a great privilege to be elected to represent the constituency of Bolton, South-East, which comprises parts of the old Bolton borough along with villages such as Little Lever and Kearsley and the former mining community of Farnworth. It is a mixed rural and urban community with a large Muslim population.

We made history on 1 May by returning for the first time three Labour Members representing the great town of Bolton. We have a Labour Member of the European Parliament and we have a substantial Labour council. Together, we shall put great pressure on the shakers and movers in this place to bring benefits to the people of my constituency and the rest of Bolton.

Burnden park, the former home of Bolton Wanderers football club, is in my constituency. I say "former" because that great football team is on the move—it is going up to the premier division following an extremely successful season and is moving to a new stadium at Horwich, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly). Before that great football team leaves my constituency, I want to place on record my congratulations on its past success and my best wishes for its future success.

The former member for my constituency was David Young, a Scotsman born in Greenock. He became a teacher in the midlands before entering Parliament in 1974 as the Member for the Bolton, East constituency. I helped David fight that 1974 election, so I have known him for a long time, and I was his constituency chairman twice. From 1977 to 1979, David served as the parliamentary private secretary to the then Secretary of State for Defence, Fred Mulley. As hon. Members will know, David had a keen interest in foreign affairs and was well travelled. He was an excellent constituency member and was in touch with all the electorate of Bolton, South-East, including the large Muslim community.

Bolton has suffered badly over the past two decades. Its textile and engineering industries have been decimated, with the loss of thousands of jobs. The miners have all lost their jobs and there is no longer a single pit left in the north-west following the recent closure of Parkside colliery. However, because of the robust nature of Boltonians and a keen interest by the local authority in creating new jobs, Bolton has picked itself up and adopted new skills.

I encourage anyone who has not visited this great town to do so. Outside Manchester it has one of the finest shopping centres in the north-west and our markets are a tourist attraction. It has a strong cultural tradition, with several fine museums, including the Hall-ith-Wood museum where Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule. Arkwright also worked in the town. They were the pioneers of the industrial revolution. More recently, Sir Harry Kroto, educated at Bolton school, won the Nobel prize for chemistry. As a fellow chemist, I should like to add my congratulations to him. I should also mention Susan Isaacs, who was one of the pioneers of nursery education. I am pleased to learn that the Government have a keen interest in promoting such education. It has been revealed in the past few days in the Bolton Evening News that even my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a family tree that goes back to relatives in our town.

Two things propelled me to seek election to this place. First, as a chemist, about once a month for the past 29 years I have travelled Europe and visited nearly every university and polytechnic in the land presenting a show called "The Magic of Chemistry". It is an attempt to communicate science to the general public. One of my interests at Westminster will be to promote a public understanding of science. I am still a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and will remain so. I take a keen interest in the teaching of chemistry and in the chemical industry.

I have been a member of Bolton council for almost 20 years and served for 10 years as its chairman of housing. That is my greatest interest, and I shall be following up housing issues in the House. The housing committee in Bolton has been extremely innovative and there are some examples that we should promote for the rest of the country.

We began a dispute service between neighbours, called the Bolton neighbourhood dispute service. It is run by a superb organiser, Sue Parry, and employs 42 volunteers to mediate between neighbours who often have not spoken to each other for several years. I am pleased to say that the success rate for cases referred to it is over 80 per cent. We were the first local authority in the land to start such a mediation service and it is now being modelled by authorities throughout the north and, I hope, soon, throughout the country. I shall be promoting such services for other local authorities.

That service recently expanded into something else, which is extremely novel. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of the problem of bullying in schools. In Bolton, we are now training young people to mediate to solve the problem of bullying, and I commend such a service to other hon. Members for their areas.

When I was chairman of housing, I hit several problems, one of which was a rapidly escalating housing waiting list. It had been about 5,000, but suddenly it started to escalate and reached a peak at 8,000. I felt that I had to do something about it, so one day I walked into the office of the director of housing and said to Mr. George Caswell, "I want a partnership between this council, the Housing Corporation and some of the leading housing associations in the town." I have to pay tribute to Mr. Caswell, because within six months he had created an organisation called Bolton Community Homes Ltd., which has been one of the finest examples of partnership in housing across the land.

In approximately three years, we delivered 1,700 homes to cure the problem of the escalating waiting list. We did not build just ordinary homes for ordinary people. We built specialised homes for the disabled and other people with special problems. Indeed, the architects went to the very people who were to live in those homes—especially disabled people—and asked them what facilities they would like, and where they should be situated in the house. In other words, the people themselves helped the architects to design homes for them to live in. I recommend that approach to other people.

The old cotton towns of the north have a serious problem. They have row upon row of old, terraced houses well over 120 years old, the fabric of which is crumbling. That is the towns' biggest problem. I shall be pressing the Minister of State, Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), who has responsibility for housing—very hard on the matter. We have 23,000 unfit homes in Bolton. The environmental health officers consider that about 5,000 to 6,000 of them are irredeemably unfit and should be knocked down—and this is 1997.

Since 1979, we have lost more than 70 per cent. of our housing funding and we have not been able to tackle the substantial problems as we wanted. The Conservative Government reduced the grant for private sector improvements from a high level of 95 per cent. in 1979 to a low level of 60 per cent., where it remains today. That means that local councils have to borrow 40 per cent. of the money needed to improve private sector homes, and that is while their total expenditure is capped. It has been absolutely impossible for any local authority in the country, especially Bolton, to tackle that serious problem.

The Conservative Government bragged about spending the same on housing as the Labour Government spent when they left office in 1979. That is true, but the difference is that in 1979, the Labour Government were spending most of their housing money on bricks and mortar, whereas the outgoing Conservative Government spent most of their money on housing benefit, in pursuance of a dogmatic belief in market rents. Incidentally, they were never able to define market rents.

It is a scandal that so much money is spent on housing benefit. We must direct housing money away from benefits and into renovation and new homes for the homeless across Britain. Under the Conservatives, the housing benefit bill rose from about £3 billion when the Labour Government left office in 1979 to a rapidly escalating £13 billion today. The new Labour Government face an enormous problem even in halting the growth in housing benefit, never mind reversing the trend.

It will be a privilege to represent my constituents in Bolton, South-East. In my election campaign, I promised that in the House of Commons I would do my best for them, and I will.

11.53 am

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak this morning on my first occasion in the House, in what has been a veritable confetti of maiden speeches. I stand in the shadow of some great speeches. I first refer to my right hon. Friend—I am sorry, I am elevating my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) far too soon. First, he is too young and now he has been here a long time. I was struck by the similarities between his constituency and mine as he talked about the weaving industry and his experience in housing.

Likewise, I am delighted to hear that the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) came to the House at the age of 18 months, beating my own record of early interest in politics. I became interested at 14. I hope that my hon. Friend's son follows in his great footsteps. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) made a moving speech about his constituency, with its great and sound history. I know that his constituency will have a great fighter in him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) has now left the Chamber. Her name rang around the debating halls of this country long before she became a Member of Parliament. I know that her great voice, embodied in a small body, will add a great deal to the House. It will be difficult for me, standing in the shadow of those wonderful speeches, to deliver my own maiden speech.

It is normal in the House to follow certain traditions. Those traditions were taught to me at the age of 14 by my teachers of history, government and citizenship. They are two great sisters who, I am glad to say, wrote to me yesterday. I was touched to receive their letter. I have remembered them all these years as an inspiration and I am delighted that they have noticed that I have arrived here at last after 30 years. They would be embarrassed if I named them, but I have to say that good teachers who inspire a person and whose teaching takes people through life are worth more than gold. Those two teachers were worth more than gold to me.

What my teachers taught me about the traditions of this House was the importance of democracy. We had some talk of democracy earlier today and I was delighted that there were parties of schoolchildren in the Gallery at the time. I hope that although the House is fairly quiet this morning, they will have been inspired by this great place. Democracy is nothing if we do not take part in it.

The thing that I learned when I was taught government and citizenship by those two great teachers was that we as a people have to take part in our own state—the state of the nation and the state of our democracy. I hope that the new Secretary of State for Education and Employment will take that on board as we examine the standards of education for the future. It is all very well to have basic standards of education, but I have met people in my constituency who do not know the difference between local government and Parliament, and who do not know how or where to vote, and people who do not know that they can vote or how to put their name on the electoral register. It is a sad indictment of a democracy if its people are not actively involved in the process.

I shall return to the traditions of the House, because I do not want to let my teachers down. I want to talk about my constituency of Colne Valley. It is often confused with other constituencies because it is named after the River Colne. Make no mistake, there are two valleys in the constituency—the Colne valley and the Holme valley. It is in the Colne valley that one finds great traditional industrial heritage. It has those oft-sung-about satanic mills nestled in its great splendour and rugged hillsides.

To the south is the Holme valley, with its beautiful picture-postcard elegance—those green and pleasant pastures. The contrast of the two valleys has attracted the television and film industry to my constituency. I am pleased about that because the television and film industry has an income equal to that of the oil industry. It is an importer of great wealth into our country.

The three programmes that I want to talk about should be well known to hon. Members. The first is "Last of the Summer Wine", with Compo, Clegg and Foggy, those three great characters. The programme may mislead hon. Members into thinking that the people of Colne Valley are quite elderly. In fact, they are younger than the national average for any constituency. So please do not be misled by that great programme.

Two new television programmes have appeared on our screens, "Where the Heart is"—my heart is certainly in the Colne valley—and "Wokenwell", which those of us who live nearby know is actually filmed at Marsden. "Where the Heart is" is filmed outside my house in Slaithwaite, so I am extremely proud.

I particularly want to talk about the film and television industry, because it embodies technical skills and the great talents of producers, film technicians and the actors we all know. That industry is dependent on high-quality products, high-quality skills and well-paid jobs. That is the foundation for a proper strong, key economic base, the sort of economic base that I support.

In his maiden speech, my predecessor, Graham Riddick, referred to "Last of the Summer Wine", and also eulogised about our beautiful constituency. I agree with him on both those counts. Alas, I do not agree with very much else that he said in that speech, nor with very much else that he said after that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree, however, that he was a man who argued valiantly for the things in which he believed, often in the face of great opposition—indeed, some hon. Members on his own Benches did not always agree with him. He always stood up for what he believed in and the people of Colne Valley recognised that.

In his maiden speech, my predecessor spoke up for the demolition of one of our local mills, which he described as an eyesore and which he said should be razed to the ground. I am pleased to inform the House that that mill has now been restored to its former magnificent splendour. Kirklees council, a good Labour council which I am happy to support, formed a joint venture company to achieve that transformation. That venture brought together the skills of the local construction industry, which was so short of jobs, and the need of the community for good housing. It has been a magnificent success. The former mill now provides 122 new homes for the people of Colne Valley. It also provided high-quality, good, well-paid jobs for architects, joiners, builders, plumbers and many, many more.

I approve of that type of marriage between industry, its needs and the needs of the community. I am delighted that the Labour manifesto, which has now been translated into a wonderful Gracious Speech, includes such partnerships.

If we were able to release the £30 million of housing capital receipts now held by Kirklees council, imagine how we could spend that money to invigorate our local economy. Despite the imagination of Kirklees council, which established the joint venture company to redevelop Crowther mill, there is still much to do.

Colne Valley does not suffer from the same type of housing shortage as elsewhere, but some of our housing stock is dilapidated, particularly that in the private rented sector. I am extremely worried about one family in my community whose house is so wet and damp that both their children suffer greatly from asthma. One child, born just in January this year, is already taking eight steroids a day. Her doctor has told her mother that that is because of the damp condition of her home. How wonderful it will be to renovate social housing and build it anew so that such families have the opportunity of a decent home. That development will also benefit the construction industry, which we need in Colne Valley.

Let us also consider the implications of the windfall levy and our plans for how we might use it in Kirklees. We aim once again to bring together the skills of our community and the needs of the population. If we develop the construction industry, and we shall, it will provide a great opportunity to train more people to have the very skills that will be needed in that expanding industry. In my area we are already looking at ways in which we could use the windfall levy to create the opportunities to learn those new skills. That would also enable people to gain the new jobs that will be created as a result.

The former Labour Member for Colne Valley, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), will be pleased to discover that part of our plans for the windfall levy includes the introduction of a new environmental task force. We have a great need for that force in Colne Valley because of its canals, rivers and dry stone walls, which need to be renovated. Those environmental needs are also social needs when we consider the need for environmental improvements to homes on our estates. Again, overcoming those problems will involve a partnership between the needs of our community and the skills of our population.

When my right hon. Friend made his maiden speech, he made great reference to the environment. On a visit to Scapegoat Hill school in my constituency, I saw some trees that my right hon. Friend had planted 25 years ago. They are now growing vigorously despite harsh conditions, which may offer a parallel to the Labour party and its development in recent years.

I am sure that when my right hon. Friend referred to the importance of the environment, he envisaged that the environment of Colne Valley would be improved by measures such as those contained in the Gracious Speech, which we supported so strongly yesterday.

I am also pleased to recognise the contribution made to my constituency by Richard Wainwright, who was the Member until 1987. In his maiden speech, he referred to the traditional industrial heritage of Colne Valley and spoke about the local mills. We now need to diversify our economy, because too much dependence on the traditional industries of the mills will mean that our local economy will die on the vine. We cannot allow that to happen. The use of the windfall levy, capital receipts and the great progress made in welfare-to-work programmes will give us the opportunity to make our local economy as diverse as the many villages and people who reside in Colne Valley. That is the right way forward. We cannot once again depend on one industry, because that would lead to the death of our local economy. I want Colne Valley to have a strong and vigorous economic future.

It has also been a tradition for the Member for Colne Valley to talk about our great history, and I do not want to let my predecessors down on this occasion. Let me take the House back briefly to 1907, when the first socialist Labour Member was elected for Colne Valley—Victor Grayson, who subsequently mysteriously disappeared. I agree with my predecessor Graham Riddick that that is one tradition that I do not want to follow. Heaven knows where he ended up, but I am glad to have ended up here. Other great names, such as Philip Snowden, were also referred to by my predecessors, and who can forget that Harold Wilson was born in my constituency.

What a great tradition for any new Member to follow, and I am glad to do so. In the shadow of the many speeches that I have heard this morning and of the great politicians who came before me, as the first woman Member for Colne Valley, I hope to achieve at least half of what they achieved.

12.7 pm

I am grateful to be called just before the Leader of the House. I pay tribute to those colleagues who have made their maiden speeches today, which have all been excellent, particularly those from the new Members for Colne Valley (Ms Mountford), for Bolton, South-East, (Dr. Iddon), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons).

The issue that I should like to raise this morning is the future of Oldchurch hospital at Romford in east London. That hospital was on the previous Government's hit list of those under threat of closure in Greater London. A huge campaign to keep that hospital open has been run for about six years. If Oldchurch was closed in the long term—I know that the new Government have announced a moratorium on hospital closures, which I welcome—that would have an enormous impact on east London.

My hon. Friends the new Members for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), who has long been involved in the campaign, for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) and I have fought to keep the hospital open. I also know that my hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham (Ms Church) and for Barking (Ms Hodge) have long been involved in that campaign. The closure of that hospital would have an enormous impact not only on Havering, the borough which I represent in Hornchurch, but on Newham, West Ham and many other London boroughs where the provision of health care is already a great problem.

The plan is to replace Oldchurch hospital with an accident and emergency department at Harold Wood hospital, which is far less accessible, particularly for people in the south of the constituency. Reaching Harold Wood hospital's A and E department would be difficult. It would involve a two to three-hour trip on public transport. It would be particularly difficult for older people, who might not have their own cars, and young mothers—there are many single mothers in my constituency.

The decision to close Oldchurch hospital was wrong in the first place, was mistaken and can be reversed. The new A and E department at Harold Wood will be built under the private finance initiative, which I regard as mistaken, but the PFI contracts have not been signed, so the plan can be reversed without any spending commitments having been given. We can reverse the closure of Oldchurch hospital, keep it open and continue to maintain a service to people in Hornchurch, Romford, Upminster and many other constituencies in east London.

12.10 pm

This has been a somewhat unusual debate, not only because of the empty Conservative Benches, but because of the many maiden speeches that have been made. I do not think that this three-hour Adjournment debate has ever been used for that purpose. It has been extremely useful and the time been well used by a wide range of Members, who have learnt quickly what opportunities can be provided in the House to those who want to raise issues affecting their constituents.

In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friends who had to start the debate, going in at the deep end without any experienced Members opening the way. I recall the relief of getting my maiden speech out of the way. Members who have spoken should be feeling not just relief, but much collective pride at the quality of their contributions. They have clearly shown the quality of debate that we can expect from new Members who entered at the last election.

May I say a few words about each of the issues that have been raised? I hope to be able to have time to deal with all of them today. The debate was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston), who said that he wanted some change and reform in the House. Needless to say, I welcome that comment. We will be looking for some good ideas from new Members, who may not yet be bogged down in our old ways and therefore may not be as resistant to change as some of us who have been here for longer—although I am quite an enthusiast for change. I hope that we can have some support from new Members, and from old and new Members working together.

My hon. Friend showed that his work as a recorder is valuable experience, which he now brings to the House. I am sure that his background will be extremely helpful. He highlighted in particular drug and alcohol-related crime, and I am sure that what he has seen in practice will allow him to contribute to debates on those issues. I hope that we can use his expertise there.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a confident maiden speech and was very amusing on occasions. He gave some history of his constituency. It was the first that I had ever heard of railway signals being used to prevent people from voting, but we all learn, which is partly what these debates are about. With his background in the medical world, he was able to give us his informed concern; again, we will appreciate and listen to that in future. Giving us a full list of Oxford colleges was brave and I hope for his sake only that it was a complete list; otherwise, we will have to hear from him very quickly to repair any omissions.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), whom I have known for some time. He mentioned his father, who was known to all of us in the House, but he failed to mention his and his father's connection with Bolton Wanderers. However, as that was put right by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I can forgive him that on this occasion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley showed that he knew his constituency very well, having been born and brought up there and having worked there. He clearly knows the problems it faces and intends to be a strong voice on its behalf. He talked about the many difficulties that it has faced in recent years, not least because of the previous Government's inability to get the best out of the European Union. I am sure that he will be lobbying new Ministers hard, and he proved today that he is prepared and able to do that.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is not a new Member, but one of those Conservative Members who has changed constituencies. He is not in his place at the moment, but he dropped me a note to say that he had to go to a constituency engagement. I was going to say to him that I welcomed his comments on party funding. I hope that they will be consistent. The fact that he has raised the issue today shows, I hope, that he will support our desire to have a Nolan or a Nolan-type inquiry into party funding, and to change the rules in the not too distant future.

The hon. Member for Southend, West raised some specific points about the cockle industry in Leigh-on-Sea. I have an admission to make: I am not an expert on that industry, so I intend to ask the relevant Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to write to him about those concerns.

I do know something about the situation in care homes and in the national health service. The comments of the hon. Member for Southend, West about blocked beds and the need for change were somewhat rich. He was pretending that a problem that has been there for many years had suddenly arisen in the past 18 days of the Labour Government and had never materialised in the 18 years of the Conservative Government. Again, I will pass his comments on to the Department, but he should have acknowledged that his own Government bore some responsibility for the problems about which he was complaining.

In her maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) spoke about her constituents' concern—particularly, that they have lost out because of the previous Government's negative approach to Europe. She also used her own experience as a teacher to make some pertinent remarks about education, the need for consultation and the need for people in education to work in partnership. I welcomed her contribution on that. It is important that the House consists of Members with a wide range of experience. I am sure that she will have much to contribute in education debates. She said that, if her constituents were to prosper as individuals as well as a society, education had to be a priority. That is clearly a Government concern.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) talked not only about the local problems of his constituency, but about the practical problems that some new Members face and that his party faces, having almost doubled in size in a short time. He said that he had a desk, an office and a telephone, although the telephone was not yet working. I have to issue a disclaimer to start with because those items are not a matter for the Leader of the House, but he is extremely fortunate. When most of us arrived as new Members, we were told not only that we should not expect an office too quickly, but that we should not even perch in the wrong places to use telephones. I was glad that one of my hon. Friends acknowledged the fact that the arrangements made by the House authorities this time have been far better and more helpful to new Members than ever before. The fact that we now have rooms with banks of telephones and information points is a remarkable breakthrough.

The hon. Gentleman might be concerned about the difficulties, but I ask him to sympathise with those of us who experienced far greater difficulties. That does not mean, however, that things could not be improved. The scale of the changeover is so great that it has taken everyone by surprise. If the hon. Gentleman accurately predicted the result of the election, I wish that he had told the rest of us, because we might all have been better prepared.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) talked about class sizes and the standard spending assessment for education, but also returned to an issue that he has mentioned many times—the need to improve electoral registration. It is something that he has brought to our attention many times by being a persistent Back Bencher and not letting the issue go.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is here. I do not expect that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire will let Home Office Ministers off the hook, but I am sure that they will try to responsive. Ministers might not take the precise path that my hon. Friend wishes, but I am sure that they will consider the problem and try to make improvements. All of us believe that improvements can be made.

While my hon. Friend the Minister is here, I must point out that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire also mentioned the need to revise the design of the ballot paper. As that is an issue of great concern to me following my experience of elections, I hope that I can lobby as well as Back Benchers. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire in highlighting the need for disabled people to have full and proper access to polling stations. It was partly due to the lead he gave before the last election that many of us were able to explore the problem in our own localities, and I hope and believe that some changes were made as a result.

We then heard a speech from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is a Liberal Democrat. He made a very confident contribution, and I am sure that we shall hear much more from him. He challenged us to be a reforming Government; I hope that we do not disappoint him. I am sure that he will continue to make valuable contributions to debates on education, the police and the environment, which he highlighted today, and that his constituents will be pleased that he has spoken so forcefully on their behalf. In passing, he sympathised with his predecessor for having three recounts. As someone who has a four-figure majority for the first time in five Parliaments, I sympathise with anyone who has to go through so many recounts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) did not have as narrow as a majority as I had when I started. She showed that she not only knows but understands her constituency but said one thing that I found very hard to accept. She said that she was a secret horn player. I am not sure that there can be such a thing as a secret horn player; perhaps she will tell us about that some other time. She proved that she is well qualified to follow what she described as the trend to have quirky characters represent Rochdale. She is extremely competent, and I am sure that her bouncy contributions will be welcome in the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) also made his maiden speech. He began by saying that he wanted changes to the voting system in the House, and we can all sympathise with the delays involved. He went on to say what a good friend he was of his predecessor, Don Dixon. To those of us who have been promoting change in the House, there is a certain contradiction in my hon. Friend's two statements. I just hope that the friendship is not spoiled by my hon. Friend's contribution. However, I am sure that his sentiments about the need to campaign for jobs in Jarrow will be shared by his predecessor and appreciated by other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) pointed out that he was only the third Member to hold his seat since the war. That is quite-a record these days. I hope that he will be here for a very long time. He mentioned the House's lack of family-friendliness. I have been here for many years and have often been asked what impact having a lot of new women here will make, so I was glad that a man showed that it is not simply a female issue, but that we should all attempt to ensure that the House of Commons responds to everyone's needs, including all those with family responsibilities. I hope that we can take such issues on board when it comes to modernising the House.

I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents will appreciate the concerns that he expressed about bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the need to reform the common agricultural policy. The Government are of course committed to that.

I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for more than 20 years. He might have mentioned Bolton Wanderers because he knew that it would elicit favourable comments from me. However, on this occasion he was not asking for anything, so perhaps he was right to save his comments for another occasion. He has been renowned for his knowledge of chemistry for many years. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and I both have sons who have seen my hon. Friend's "The Magic of Chemistry" show. I hope that the House will find ways to use his expertise. He also demonstrated expertise in housing, and those of us who have known him for many years know that to be a genuine concern of his.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Ms Mountford) also made a maiden speech—one old friend of mine following another. She is also a near neighbour of mine in constituency terms. She made an excellent contribution, which I am sure her constituents will appreciate. I share her concern to ensure that young people get involved in the democratic process and understand how government and Parliament work. I also share her desire to see some movement on the issue of capital receipts, because we are all aware of the housing problems that many local authorities are facing and have faced for many years. I look forward to examining various issues with her in the House and in our constituencies for many years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) had already made his maiden speech, so he used this occasion to raise an important constituency issue, which is a traditional use of such debates. He showed his strong local knowledge. I understand why he is concerned about Oldchurch hospital. He also said that other colleagues shared his concern. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the problem. Although I do not share his views on the private finance initiative and its possibilities, I will ensure that the Minister replies to the details of the issues that he raised.

The purpose of debates on matters to be considered before an Adjournment is always to allow hon. Members to raise a wide range of issues, and that is what has happened in this debate. Several hon. Members have mentioned some common concerns, such as education, youth unemployment and crime. The fact that such common concerns have been expressed shows that the Government were on the right track when we determined our priorities for inclusion in the Labour manifesto and for action.

Today, in excellent speeches, new Members have expressed their concerns, and it augurs well for the House's future, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire said, that hon. Members are willing to debate. I congratulate all the new Members who have made their maiden speeches in this debate.

Electoral Fraud

12.30 pm

I welcome you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Chair. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to the Treasury Bench. I am sure that he will illuminate our debates with distinction.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the issue of the conduct of elections, because, unhappily, electoral fraud and deceit are increasing. One form of fraud consists of candidates deliberately confusing the electorate by assigning titles to themselves on the ballot paper that are calculated to deceive voters.

In my own constituency, a man called Terry Betts referred to himself at the general election as the "New Labour" candidate. He was listed first on the ballot paper, whereas I—the official Labour candidate—was listed ninth. On election night, Betts apologised to me for—as he put it—"what happened today". I did not accept his apology, because I had not been the victim. The victims were the 2,000 electors who, because of the deliberate confusion caused by Betts, were denied the democratic right to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Betts described himself on the ballot paper as New Labour, so that voters would believe that he was the official Labour candidate and was supported by Tony Blair. The truth is that Betts was not a member of the Labour party and that he has never been a member of the Labour party. He was not supported by Tony Blair, and Tony Blair has never heard of Terry Betts.

On polling day, Mr. Betts was supported by Councillor Isaac Leibowitz—a man known to the Home Office—who drove around in a car with an audio system, shouting, "Vote Labour. Vote Betts." Last year, Councillor Leibowitz was expelled from the Labour party by Tony Blair.

Order. When the hon. Gentleman mentions another hon. Member, he should refer to him as "the Prime Minister", for example, or as the hon. Member for a specific constituency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the problem is that I am explaining events that occurred during the general election, when the Prime Minister was neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the Prime Minister-he was Mr. Tony Blair.

He is now, however, the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman has sufficient experience in the House to know exactly how to deal with such matters.

I will attempt to apply my brain to meeting your wishes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Electoral fraud comes easily to Isaac Leibowitz. He is, indeed, a persistent electoral fraudster. Neither Hackney council nor its chief executive, however, has ever even admonished him for bringing the council into disrepute, contrary to the national code of conduct for local government councillors.

In 1994, in a local government election in the Northfields ward, Leibowitz engaged in a proxy voting scam. Although he was a Labour councillor, the scam was designed to help in the election of three Tory councillors and to prevent the election of a Labour Jewish woman named Denise Robson. There is incontrovertible evidence that, in that election, some people who voted were under age, that others voted twice and from different addresses, and that foreigners who were not entitled to vote did vote.

In 1996, in a by-election in South Defoe, Leibowitz set up a new political party, which, to deceive the electorate, he called the "Labor party". He fraudulently persuaded electors to sign his candidate's nomination papers, because electors believed that his candidate was the official Labour party candidate. Leibowitz then went "granny farming" for votes, by obtaining proxy votes from very elderly, housebound people who had lost their critical faculties and were incapable of exercising a choice. Only three weeks ago, he participated in the general election, in which he exercised his corrupt talents. In a press release, the so-called New Labour candidate said that he had the support of a group of local councillors, who masquerade under the title of Hackney New Labour. Last year, each and every one of those councillors was expelled from the Labour party by the Prime Minister. They have nothing to do with new Labour.

Hackney New Labour is led by an embittered, shambolic 76-year-old man named Gerry Ross. That so-called New Labour man is a former communist who supported Joe Stalin. From the beginning of his subsequent membership of the Labour party until his expulsion from it, he consistently proved to be a wrecker. In 1977, he was expelled from Hackney council's Labour group. Two years ago, he was forced out of the chairmanship of a Londonwide body, the London Committee for Accessible Transport, because no one could tolerate his behaviour. Last year, he was expelled from the Labour party by the Prime Minister. He now leads a group of political and electoral cheats, who are attempting to corrupt the democratic process in Hackney.

I am sure that the Minister anticipates one of the points that is worrying me—my fear that, in 1998, that bogus organisation, Hackney New Labour, will attempt to corrupt and pervert local elections in London and Hackney. I believe that action must be taken to stop that happening.

After the general election, I received reports of people suffering distress at every polling station because of confusion over who was the official Labour candidate—it was me. At one polling situation, an old lady burst into tears and had to be consoled by my ex-wife after she realised her mistake. That old lady gets a vote only once every five years, and her day had been ruined. A man at another polling station, after realising his mistake, rushed back into the polling booth and called out: "Stop voting, everyone. You are voting for the wrong person." At that, three voters left the polling station, with their ballot papers, to ask people outside who was the official Labour candidate—all of which, obviously, was unlawful.

An old lady at yet another polling station, who realised that she had mistakenly put her cross against Betts's name, ate her ballot paper rather than placing it into the ballot box. In a long political career, people have done many things to come to my defence, but none of them had been so heroic as to eat their ballot paper.

After the general election, we have received hundreds of telephone calls from voters who felt that they had been deceived. Many people have asked me why the chief executive—Tony Elliston, who was the returning officer in charge—did not take action. That is a good question, because, on 17 April 1997—during the general election campaign—the Labour party's lawyers faxed Elliston a copy of a judgment in a similar case, in which a candidate who called himself a New Labour candidate was not the official Labour candidate. In that case, the judge ruled that what had occurred was
"a fraudulent device or contrivance which was intended to impede or prevent the free exercise of the franchise of electors within section 115(2)(b)".
Some senior and respected councillors have told me that they fear that the chief executive's indifference to electoral fraud may arise from questionably close relationships with the bogus members of Hackney New Labour. I will not comment on that, but it is something that Ministers may like to mull over.

What I can say with certainty—for a moment, I thought that I was on the wrong side of the Chamber—is that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) complained to the chief executive about the appalling delay in sending out poll cards, he responded superciliously, saying: "We don't want to get them out too early, do we?" That was not the view of the electorate, thousands of whom did not receive their poll cards until the day before the election.

Whatever the truth about the bogus "New Labour" candidate Betts, Councillor Leibowitz, the chief executive and Hackney New Labour, the Minister will agree, I am sure, that working men and women fought long and hard to obtain the vote. Politicians and administrators should respect their right to vote for the candidate of their choice—indeed, they have a duty to do so. I fear that things will not be sorted out without the intervention of Home Office Ministers, and I look forward to a sympathetic reply from my hon. Friend the Minister.

12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. George Howarth)

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) in congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on filling that Chair. I know from experience that it is a job that you will do admirably and to the benefit of the whole House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating this debate on a number of aspects of the conduct of parliamentary elections. I am especially grateful that he has raised the matter so soon after the general election. My hon. Friend has raised a number of points, the first of which is the cynical and misleading descriptions of some candidates on nomination papers and ballot papers, and the consequences that that has had in his constituency and elsewhere. The second point is the possibility of abuse of the absent voter arrangements.

Those are both important issues. Whatever other expertise we may have, the conduct of elections is dear to the hearts of all hon. Members. As the general election is so recent, it is even dearer than usual.

Both issues are important. I recognise that my hon. Friend has eloquently and wittily explained the problems that arise because candidates misdescribe themselves, using party titles to which they have no right. That is indeed important. I am also pleased that the debate provides an opportunity to discuss spoiling tactics, which were not successful in my hon. Friend's constituency. In Knowsley, we have had long experience of candidates describing themselves as Labour candidates when they were not entitled to do so. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is far easier to cause confusion with such titles in local elections than it is in general elections.

I turn now to misleading descriptions on ballot papers. The provision that allows every candidate to include a description on his or her nomination paper is set out in the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. No candidate is required to provide a description on the nomination paper, but, where he or she does so, the description as set out on the nomination paper is automatically transferred to the ballot paper.

The rules provide only that the description must not exceed six words and must be sufficient, with the candidate's other particulars, to identify him or her. Rightly, the description may not contravene the ordinary law of the land. It must not, for example, be obscene or racist, or act as an incitement to crime.

My hon. Friend has rightly said that responsibility for these matters rests with the returning officer. The 1983 Act places responsibility for the conduct of parliamentary elections on acting returning officers in each constituency. Acting returning officers, however, do not have the power to amend a candidate's nomination paper, and may reject a nomination only in two very particular circumstances. Those are that the candidate is disqualified because he or she is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment, or that the nomination paper is not as required by law and is not subscribed in due form.

The effect of the second part of the rules is that the acting returning officer can rule only on the validity of the nomination paper, and not on the validity of the person's nomination. It is here that the problem arises. The reason for limiting the acting returning officer's authority in this way is clear. Successive Governments have taken it as a first priority that acting returning officers should not be drawn into making decisions that might be considered political or party political. Every hon. Member will see the common sense in that.

I recognise my hon. Friend's concern that the use of misleading party names is a problem. The returns from the general election have still to be brought together, but I accept that the use of potentially misleading party names on ballot papers is likely to have increased from 1992. I am certain that, when we have a chance to analyse those returns, we shall see that that is the case.

Fortunately for the House and for my hon. Friend, the spoiling tactics used in his constituency did not have the desired outcome. Indeed, my hon. Friend is here today to tell us the story. As far as we know, the problem of misleading descriptions has not affected the outcome in any constituency in the general election. I know, however, that there is a strong argument that, in the 1994 European elections, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was affected. On a subsequent occasion, the hon. Member may raise that issue. In that election, the title "Literal Democrat" was used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) is not here; I hope that the Minister is not under a misapprehension. He is right in asserting that there was a serious problem in the European election. The issue went to court, but was not resolved in the way that we would have hoped.

I made a mistake. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was nodding so vigorously that I assumed that he was the hon. Member for Torbay. Obviously, he has been seduced by the power of my oratory, which was the cause of the problem. Clearly, a problem arose in the European election, and it is a matter that must be looked at in future.

Hon. Members will recognise that the problem of the attempted misdirection of the electorate has been with us for a long time. Descriptions were introduced specifically to address that problem. Many hon. Members will recall the days when there was no description on the ballot paper; I remember that being the case within my political lifetime. Descriptions were introduced to try to address the problem, but they clearly have not been as effective as we would have wished.

There are a number of options that do not require party registration, an issue to which I shall turn in a moment, and which have been looked at by Home Office officials. The various options include the use of party logos on ballot papers, the strengthening of the 1983 Act to provide a specific offence of using a description intended to mislead, and the introduction of a challenge process to be heard before a High Court judge. I know that the Liberal Democrats, in various submissions, have supported that.

There are difficulties with all three proposals, which need to be scrutinised in much greater detail. At this stage, I would not like to make a commitment to any of them. However, now that the election is over, discussion of the issues between the political parties will go ahead. I hope that we can examine them again to see whether there is any prospect of moving ahead, although I must add the qualification that there are problems with all three proposals that I have mentioned.

I should like to say a few words on political party registration, which offers us better prospects for dealing with the problems. The principal problem with the use of party names as candidate descriptions is that political parties are not recognised in electoral law. The lack of any means by which a political party can register its name for electoral purposes is the starting point for the difficulties that my hon. Friend has described.

From that stems the problem of a candidate being able to describe himself as new Labour when he has nothing to do with the Labour party or as a Literal Democrat when he has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, or, as has happened in my constituency, simply to use the confusing title "Labour", spelled properly. We have never been able to challenge that.

If she were free to do so, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) could wax lyrical for at least 15 minutes on the confusion that often exists at elections in Liverpool, where various candidates use all kinds of different descriptions, trying to pretend that they are Labour party candidates when they are not.

We have to make progress on this. The lack of statutory registration of political parties has consequences for party funding. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned our commitment to look into that. The registration of political parties would have to be part of any mechanism for bringing party funding under control. If we have any kind of proportional system—an issue that will be considered, and should be the subject of a referendum, during this Parliament—we shall have to consider party registration.

My hon. Friend is aware of our manifesto commitment to examine ways of regulating and reforming the funding of political parties—a commitment that we take seriously. We also have a clear manifesto commitment to put to the Scottish and Welsh people proposals for the devolution of powers to representative bodies elected by proportional representation.

The Government are considering how best to take forward those commitments. The answer will, without doubt, involve a measure for the registration of political parties, although it is too early to be able to say yet what that may involve. Any measures to register political parties would provide an opportunity for action on the statutory recognition of political party names. We shall certainly have to examine that issue.

My hon. Friend also talked about granny farming—the first time that I have come across the term. That is not a bizarre agricultural practice, as it might sound, but a specific problem to do with proxy votes. The Government take seriously any allegations of widespread and systematic abuse of the procedure for absent voting. If it becomes necessary, we are prepared to legislate.

There is no recent evidence that the abuse of proxy voting is systematic or widespread. Application forms for absent votes were amended in 1994, after well-publicised examples of elderly people being deliberately misled into believing that they were applying for a postal ballot paper, which would have allowed them to cast their own vote, rather than a proxy to vote on their behalf. Electors now have to indicate clearly whether they are applying to vote by post or by proxy. All appointments of a proxy must be signed by the elector or by the proxy.

Under the Representation of the People Act 1985, an elector who is unable to vote in person at the polling station may apply to vote by post or by proxy. Those wishing to vote by proxy are required to give the name and address of the person appointed as proxy, and must sign the proxy appointment or arrange for it to be signed by the proxy.

The review of electoral law and practice set up after the 1992 general election considered whether changes should be made to the absent voting system and to the application forms, to reduce the opportunity for abuse of the system and to make it more accessible to voters. Various suggestions were considered, including the redesign of the form, the need for the elector to sign in person, the wording on the ballot papers and the inclusion of the level of fines. The application forms were amended in 1994.

In the past five years, there have been allegations of absent voting irregularities in St. Ives in 1992, in Brighton in 1993, in Burnley in 1994 and in Cynon Valley in 1995. Various actions resulted from those allegations, some of which were upheld. The offences in Cynon Valley led to a member of Plaid Cymru being tried in Cardiff Crown court and sentenced to two months in prison.

There have been no reports, either officially from an acting returning officer or from newspapers, of abuses in connection with absent vote applications at the 1997 election, although I am sure that my hon. Friend's speech will remedy that defect. Any allegations of malpractice regarding the absent voting system should be reported to the police, whose job it is to investigate.

A person who votes as some other person—in person or by means of a postal or proxy vote—commits an offence of personation, which is a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Acts. A person is also guilty of a corrupt practice if
"by abduction, duress, or any fraudulent device or contrivance he impedes or prevents the free exercise of the franchise of an elector."
I am not sure how that applies to swallowing a ballot paper, but we should investigate that.

A person who makes a false statement in an application for an absent vote, or who attests an application that he knows to contain a false statement, also commits an offence, as does anybody attesting an application when not qualified to do so. Electoral abuse is a serious matter. There are strict penalties for those found guilty, with a maximum fine of £5,000.

My hon. Friend has raised some important issues, and I congratulate him. It is right that such issues should be aired as early as possible in the electoral cycle, so that we have time to review and consider them and take any necessary action. If I have missed any points from my hon. Friend's speech, I shall pick them up and communicate with him.

Part of the task that the Government have set themselves is to clean up politics in this country. The issues raised today fall within the scope of that aim. Subject to proper consultation, we shall act to clean up politics and to make the electoral system as free of defects as possible.

Gangmasters (South Lincolnshire)

12.59 pm

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your election. I shall try not to trespass on your patience too often. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his appointment to a Department with which I have had a love-hate relationship for many years. I hope that he will enjoy his time there and play an active part in reforming the common agricultural policy.

A large proportion of our vegetables is produced in south Lincolnshire. As it is a seasonal industry, there is an obvious need for casual labour on a considerable scale. Many thousands of men and women are engaged in harvesting the vegetables and, increasingly, in processing them in factories. To give the Minister an idea of the scale, one factory requires more than 2,000 men and women to work on a casual basis most days of the year.

Obviously it is necessary to organise many thousands of people into the various farms and factories where they are required. That is the role of the gangmaster, who enters into an agreement with the farmer or factory manager to organise a certain number of people for a certain number of days. The gangmaster receives a lump sum and it is up to him or her to pay the gangers what he or she thinks fit.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the system. It worked very well for a long time, until unemployment took off and more than 1 million people in south Lincolnshire became available for casual work. They come from as far afield as Sheffield, Doncaster, Grimsby, Mansfield and even Birmingham. The people who recruit them are different from those who previously undertook such work. According to the Department for Education and Employment, there are now about 800 gangmasters, who fall into two categories. The first comprises those whose names, addresses and telephone numbers can be found in the Yellow Pages or the telephone directory. They can be easily identified by Government Departments and, generally speaking, they engage local people. They often employ their friends, relations and neighbours. They depend on having a good reputation, and over the years they have tried to do an honest job. If they were not honest to their friends and neighbours, they would not have gangs. However, their position has become almost untenable because of the other category of gangmasters who are in the vast majority—there are only about 50 or 60 in the Yellow Pages—many of whom have criminal records and continue to commit acts of dishonesty and violence.

There is such fear among the gangers that it is impossible for me to recount the experience of any ganger. One honest gangmaster who provided me with information was warned not to speak to me again. He was told that, if he did, he would be punished. He ignored that threat and gave me more evidence about the criminal activities of the other gangmasters. Having done that, he was punished. The other gangmasters took a puppy that he had recently acquired for his family and cut off its paws. Needless to say, he has given me no more information. Indeed, none of the honest gangmasters is willing to be forthcoming about the activities of the others.

We are dealing with people who have a disdain for the law of our country and do not hesitate to use some pretty bad methods of recruiting gangers and to treat them badly. I shall not go into detail about what goes on in the fields and the factories, but there are many cruel and obscene practices that cannot be justified.

This state of affairs has continued since unemployment rose, making it possible for disreputable gangmasters to recruit men and women who have been on social security and are willing to come to Lincolnshire, often making a long journey in transport provided by the gangmasters. Many of them get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to earn a miserable rate of pay.

The result is unfair competition. Wages are almost the only variable cost in producing and processing vegetables. Farms and factories that can reduce their wage costs can hold down their prices. As the Minister knows only too well, about five major supermarket chains are competing with each other and trying to keep down prices, with the result that at the end of the chain gangers are working at a derisory rate of pay.

The position has become worse in the past 12 months. Not only are gangmasters recruiting people who are on social security, but they have agents in eastern Europe—in Poland, the Ukraine and even Russia—who are bringing illegal immigrants to Britain. I cannot say how many there are, but it is certainly an appreciable number. Those people are told that, if they come to England, they can earn as much in one day as they get in one week in their own country, and that is true.

A number of evils are being committed. Apart from illegal immigration, there is massive social security fraud. One cannot quantify the millions of pounds that have been lost, but one sub-postmaster in my constituency has calculated that, even in his area, it must cost the system about £500,000 a year. Fraud is being perpetrated on the Inland Revenue and on Customs and Excise, but, above all, there has been a great depressing effect on wage rates in my constituency. It means that men and women in my constituency are better off on social security than doing a reasonable job. Only their self-respect enables people to continue working in appalling conditions as gangers on the farms and in the factories.

I feel sure that the Minister will be persuaded that action must be taken. The previous Government took a number of steps, none of which has succeeded. In the past, gangmasters were licensed, but licensing came to an end when there was full employment. There was no need for any control over gangmasters as, on the whole, the system worked successfully. However, the position has now completely changed and I can think of no solution other than a return to licensing.

The Minister may know that I introduced a Bill for the licensing of gangmasters. Up to now, I have not revealed that it was drafted for me by an official of the Transport and General Workers Union; I therefore hope that the Bill will be treated more sympathetically if I reintroduce it. If the Government cannot support such a measure, I urge them to think of taking some steps to overcome the evil to which I have referred. The previous Government tried; they took a number of steps, but they all failed. I urge the Minister to reconsider licensing.

1.9 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Jeff Rooker)

I should first associate myself with the comments of my colleagues on the Treasury Bench and other hon. Members in congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment as the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. Having served under you in Committee, I know that you will serve the House in your onerous task with distinction. We understand the great sacrifice that you, as a Member of Parliament, have made in order to fill the post that must be filled. We are therefore doubly grateful to you and your colleagues in the Chair for taking on such an awesome responsibility.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) on taking this early opportunity to raise an issue that over the years I have been an hon. Member—not as many years as him—he has raised many times. I have occasionally been present when he has raised the issue during Question Time as well as in a ten-minute Bill. Since I knew that he had obtained this debate, I took the opportunity over the past 24 hours to check in Hansard the written questions that he has tabled on the matter. He comes to the issue with a long and dedicated experience of concern for his constituents.

I hope that the issue is not partisan in any way. It is one of fairness and of justice for our citizens who work in the agricultural and farming industry. I share the concerns expressed. If unscrupulous people are at work—the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness painted a very sorry tale of the production of food in Britain—they must be rooted out, and rooted out vigorously.

As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness rightly said, agriculture and horticulture depend on a large number of casual or seasonal workers. Many years ago—longer than I care to remember—I did a couple of weeks of fruit picking up in Scotland. I understand the concerns and why the job is highly seasonal. I understand that, during some weeks, up to 14,000 people a day are employed on a casual basis to pick food. The task obviously needs to be done that way.

As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness also rightly said, it is astonishing to learn—I have seen some of the newspaper advertisements—that, due to high levels of mass unemployment, especially in urban areas, which has gone on for a decade or more, people have been bussed into the Lincolnshire fields from as far afield as my own city of Birmingham. I shall return to that matter.

The organisation of employees by gangmasters is not, as the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said, inherently bad. Gangmasters must—we will ensure that they do—operate within the law. The law must be enforced without exception. There is therefore a need to look at the legal framework. I shall spend a few minutes detailing some aspects of it, before I turn to more positive remarks.

A range of legislation regulates the employment of workers by gangmasters. All agricultural workers must be paid the appropriate minimum wage. Agricultural work is the only area in which there is a statutory minimum wage for each hour of work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the problems associated with pay, to which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) referred, would be alleviated by the introduction of a national minimum wage, especially since in my constituency and throughout Lincolnshire workers earn on average £40 a week less than is earned by the average British worker?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to the House. I campaigned for a national minimum wage when we last had a Labour Government, so I understand the difficulties and the need for it. Agriculture and horticulture is the one area with a statutory national minimum wage regulated by law and approved by the House, yet the law can be flouted in the extreme, as my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness have highlighted.

The national minimum wage in agriculture applies regardless of whether people are employed directly by a farmer, a gangmaster or a contractor. It applies to everyone who works on the farm, including those undertaking packhouse activities for crops grown on that farm. Provisions for people working away from the farm are slightly different. People on piece-work are sometimes told by gangmasters that the minimum wage does not apply to them. They are lying; the minimum wage does apply to such workers and they must not be paid less than the overall minimum required for the hours that they work.

Enforcement of minimum wage legislation is, of course, conducted through the criminal courts. One of the snags, however, is that we as enforcers have only six months after the event to take effective action in court. That presents a serious practical problem. I shall highlight one example of that.

As Channel 4's recent programme "A Bitter Harvest" highlighted—I have not seen the programme, but I have read the transcript and reports—someone may spend months researching a matter. Months therefore elapse before all the activities are recorded, produced and shown on television. That can cause problems for the regulators in rooting out perpetrators of events shown on our television screens. My officials are considering all aspects of that programme and enforcers across the Departments are considering whether any action can be taken as a result of the events highlighted in the film. We may be caught by the fact that the events took place more than six months ago. I do not deny that difficulty.

Other problems in enforcement relate to lack of records of hours worked or payment received. Workers are sometimes unwilling to be witnesses. Given that good gangmasters cease to be witnesses due to threats of intimidation from thugs and spivs, we should consider how workers feel when they want to complain. It is absolutely impossible for them to do so for fear of intimidation.

Gangmasters are subject to other legal provisions. Gangmasters supplying workers to work under the direction of farmers are subject to the Employment Agencies Act 1973, and the penalties for infringement are harsh. The Department of Trade and Industry must follow up complaints. In the worst cases, offenders may have to cease operations as an employment agency or business for up to 10 years.

Gangmasters are also expected to comply with relevant tax and national insurance legislation. I know that my colleagues in the Department of Social Security will be looking at that. The agricultural compliance unit in the Inland Revenue was set up to ensure that taxes and national insurance are collected. That is one angle of enforcement. There are also provisions to prevent the harbouring and use of illegal immigrants. Enforcement can lead to the deportation of illegal workers or the imprisonment of operators. I would certainly support the latter as the first priority. It is the one way of stamping out that activity.

The use of illegal immigrants presents all kinds of opportunities for the exploitation of workers because of lack of knowledge of the English language and a fear of complaining. Such workers can be kept in appalling accommodation. Indeed, as we have seen recently, casuals employed by gangmasters can, over several weeks, end up owing gangmasters money, because gangmasters charge for transport and, perhaps, accommodation. We, in 1997, almost have tied labour in this country, since the longer such workers work, the more they owe the employer. That is outrageous and we must take every possible step to rule it out.

There are proper arrangements for seasonal workers under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which of course allows foreign workers into the United Kingdom to undertake agricultural work. Such practice is quite normal. Up to 10,000 young foreign, non-European economic area workers may come into the UK to undertake work for up to six months between May and November—the key season of the year.

A single operator may at the same time commit offences against each of the several disparate legal requirements. Such requirements are regulated by more than one Department, and there are therefore difficulties. There have clearly been difficulties in the past, which I hope my colleagues and I can eliminate in future.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness highlighted the fact that abuse of the law can be tempting to people who are in receipt of social security benefit. They can go into work that is not subsequently declared. Pressure of mass unemployment in urban areas has caused that. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, if the abuse occurs widely—which it does in his experience in Lincolnshire—the effect on the local rural economy and on the level of wages for the indigenous population is catastrophic. That has a knock-on effect and leads to rural deprivation on a grand scale. I represent an urban area, but I understand that our rural areas are not like the pictures on the front of chocolate boxes. In 1990, I made a speech from the Opposition Back Benches about rural deprivation. I understand that the problem can be as serious as in the inner cities; however, because it is more disparate and diffused, it is not highlighted in the same way.

On the subject of enforcement, and given that more than 700 cowboy gangmasters operate in urban areas and elsewhere, how can the Government identify and monitor them? They are fly-by-night characters who act as gangmasters for a couple of months, make a lot of money and disappear on holiday or to prison.

The hon. Gentleman is right and the Government must address the issue. Local task forces of enforcement agencies are set up to tackle the problems. They can involve the police, together with enforcement officers from the immigration and nationality directorate, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Social Security and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The focus must be to catch the operators, and we need to consider what more can be done.

All the produce ends up on the shelves of our shops and supermarkets, so the food sector has a responsibility. The great supermarket chains are sensitive to bad publicity when they are accused of exploiting workers in the third world. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness has described third-world conditions for the people who work on the land and the local population in Lincolnshire. Those who buy from the farmers have a responsibility to ensure that farmers use good gangmasters and not spiv gangmasters. I will ensure that the food industry addresses that issue.

Yes, but we have a new broom and a fresh mandate. Our instincts are different and we want to solve the problem. The British Retail Consortium has approached the National Farmers Union about the introduction of a code of practice to control the activities of gangmasters. I am in favour of codes of practice, but I will review every code of practice issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that they do not undermine the regulations approved by the House. Codes of practice can be of benefit, but they can be used to avoid enforcement.

The NFU issues guidance already to farmers on the employment of casual labour. Not every farmer is a member of the NFU, and we must try to reach those non-members too. The NFU has also set up a working party that is addressing the issue of gangmasters more directly. It will propose a code of practice and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will comment on that.

There are many anecdotes about abuse of the system. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness has given hard evidence of such abuse, but it is always difficult to provide that hard evidence in a court of law. Legislation is available to deal with the problem, but the question is whether it is being used. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the issue in the early days of this Parliament. The problems caused by some gangmasters have long been known, but the nature of gangmasters has changed. We must examine whether the existing legislation covers the new type of gangmaster.

As a first step, I will consider the existing laws and whether they meet the current situation. I will ensure that they are enforced in as concerted a manner as possible. Voluntary codes of practice may have a role to play. The issue reached my desk only in the past 24 hours, but I will also inquire why the old gangmaster licensing system was abandoned in 1951. People then had prospects of full employment and nobody envisaged people being bussed from Birmingham, Manchester and Wolverhampton to the fields of Lincolnshire. The problem of the exploitation of illegal immigrants and people from eastern Europe was also non-existent. Harvesting was a family and community affair to get food into our shops.

I will give the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness a commitment that I will discuss the matter further with my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue. When I have concluded those discussions, and—I hope—found a way forward, I will be in touch with the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him for requesting this debate.

Mr Peter Windass

1.25 pm

I start by thanking Madam Speaker for permitting me to raise the subject of this Adjournment debate.

Over the past three years, I have corresponded with several Government Departments and executive agencies on behalf of my constituent, Mrs. Moira Windass, whose son, Peter Windass, was murdered in York in January 1994. That correspondence reveals serious shortcomings in the criminal justice system. It also reveals an inability on the part of Ministers to give accurate answers to clear, factual questions about the operation of the criminal justice system. I would have liked to put some questions to the Ministers concerned in an Adjournment debate, but I was prevented from doing so by the sub judice rule. I do not hold the present Minister responsible for the actions of the previous Government, but I was anxious to have this debate because I want the new Government to consider the administration of the criminal justice system and to improve it.

Peter Windass was a young man with his whole life ahead of him. He was an honest, upstanding and hard-working person; a qualified stonemason who worked on repairing and restoring York's city walls. When he died in January three years ago, it was as a result of an unprovoked attack. His attackers were arrested by the police within 24 hours. One has subsequently been convicted of murder and another of affray. From the point of view of the criminal justice system, it might appear that the case was dealt with satisfactorily. The crime has been solved, the criminals have been convicted and both have been sentenced to prison. However, from the point of view of the victim's family, the conduct of the case was far from satisfactory. The way that it has dragged on has prolonged and intensified their anguish.

It is impossible to describe the pain endured by the family of a murder victim. The family's feelings should be the primary concern of a criminal justice system. Instead, their feelings, questions and needs are treated as almost incidental to the judicial process. The family received good support from friends and voluntary bodies, including the Victim Support scheme in York, and from the police, but the courts appeared distant. The members of the family had to mingle in court with witnesses appearing for the defence, including people they knew from their neighbourhood who were threatening to them.

Various promises were made to the family by different parts of the justice system, but they were not kept. For example, the police promised them that they would be told of the date on which one of the accused would be sentenced, so that they could be in court to hear the sentence passed. That did not happen.

The justice process itself is painfully slow. My choice of the word "painfully" is careful. I do not use it as a figure of speech. I mean that the slowness causes pain for victims' families. It is almost three years since the murderer was convicted, yet still the tariff—the time that he will have to serve in prison—has not been confirmed, so the case has not ended. The family are still waiting to find out what penalty will be imposed on the man who murdered their son.

When justice is delayed, justice is denied. We need a justice system which, while allowing a defendant his rights in court, does not unnecessarily prolong proceedings.

When the family asked questions about the case, the answers they received from different parts of the justice system were sometimes contradictory and sometimes simply wrong. The police did not know what the Crown Prosecution Service was doing. The CPS and the Court Service were at sixes and sevens. The Court Service, the Prison Service and the probation service failed to work together, so the family received different answers to their questions from different parts of the system.

The criminal justice system has become fragmented. The problem is faced not by the Windass family alone, in one isolated case, but by many families of the victims of murder and manslaughter. Since the murder of her son, Mrs. Windass has played a prominent part in a voluntary body called SAMM—Support After Murder and Manslaughter. She knows that what happened to her family is, unfortunately, all too common.

We need a better co-ordinated criminal justice system, and I can give a few examples that illustrate that need. First, I wrote to Baroness Blatch, the former Minister at the Home Office, about the failure of the system to advise the family of the date of sentencing. The family were promised that they would be notified by a police officer, but that did not happen.

The Baroness replied:
"it has never been a Crown Prosecution Service function to inform the police of new hearing dates in the Crown Court."
Well, that should be a Crown Prosecution Service function, and the CPS should also have to tell the victim—or in the case of murder or manslaughter, the victim's family—the dates of new hearings.

Secondly, at the time of the murder, one of the two accused, a man called Eaves, was supposed to be under curfew in Blackburn as a result of bail conditions imposed for a string of other offences. In a letter to me dated April 1995, another former Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), said that Eaves's bail was subject to four conditions, one of which was that he had to report regularly to the police in Blackburn.

In January 1996 the former Minister retracted that statement, saying that Eaves was not on bail but subject to an arrest warrant, and that the bail conditions before he absconded and the arrest warrant was issued did not stipulate that he should report to Blackburn police.

I raised that matter with the chief constable of Lancashire, and it turned out that the bail conditions applied had required Eaves to report to the police. The chief constable wrote to me:
"The bail conditions were initially imposed by Blackburn Magistrates' Court on 1st October 1993"—
about three months before the murder.
"The Police are informed, routinely, by the Courts of any bail conditions. However, there are insufficient Police resources to individually monitor whether or not someone is residing at a particular address or complying with curfew conditions."
If a court imposes bail conditions to protect the public from a violent or potentially violent offender, we need to ensure that those conditions are met and enforced. Indeed, we must first ensure that the conditions are enforceable.

I have a third example. Eaves has a long record of repeatedly breaking bail conditions and absconding while on bail, yet when, part way through the criminal proceedings against him, the charge against him was reduced from one of murder to one of affray, the court offered him bail again, despite objections by both the police and the victim's family. Eaves was granted bail again, and he absconded again.

In a letter to me dated April 1995, the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border—whom I have told I would raise the matter in the House today—said:
"The Government is determined to see that the courts grant bail only in those circumstances where it is safe to do so".
That policy is right, but in Eaves's case it was not applied. He had absconded from bail on the night that the murder was committed.

In the same letter, the right hon. Gentleman said that Eaves
"will be appearing at Preston Crown Court in due course when he will be sentenced. Under amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 1991, when deciding what sentence to pass on Eaves, the court will have to take into consideration the fact that the offence was committed on bail as a factor aggravating the seriousness of the offence."
Quite right too—but when Eaves was sentenced, the judge was not informed that the offence was committed when he had absconded while on bail, so the penalty that he suffered, the prison sentence, did not take account of the aggravating factor that the Minister had said would be recognised.

It is hardly surprising that the family feel let down by the criminal justice system. Moreover, the former Government's mishandling of their changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board regulations meant that, on top of everything else, the family lost out on compensation payments. They received funeral expenses only. I shall write to my hon. Friend the new Minister separately about that matter, because it has undoubtedly compounded the family's feeling that the justice system was working against them.

I believe that the criminal justice system needs radical change, and I have four specific proposals for the Minister. First, the Crown Prosecution Service should have a duty to keep the victim—or, in the case of murder, the victim's family—informed about the progress of criminal proceedings.

Secondly, the CPS should co-ordinate its proceedings better with those of the police. I should like an assurance from my hon. Friend that the Labour party's election manifesto proposal, that the Crown Prosecution Service should appoint a dedicated senior prosecutor attached to each police force, will address those two problems—the duty to keep the victim informed, and co-ordination between the police and the prosecution service.

Thirdly, tighter bail rules need to be introduced. If imposed by a court, a residential restriction to a particular address or a curfew at a particular time of day need to be enforceable and enforced. If they are not, there is no point in making them.

Fourthly, the Government must do everything they can, within the constraints of ensuring due process, to speed up the justice system. I find it intolerable that a year after the judge recommended a tariff, that tariff has still not been confirmed. Of course the convicted man should have a right to make representations before the tariff is set, but the system should not allow the perpetrator of a crime to drag out the agony for the victim or the family for a further year. In this case, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can give an assurance that the tariff will be set as soon as possible.

In general, we need a new approach to the criminal justice system which puts the victim at its heart. I ask the House one very simple question—if the criminal justice system does not seek to provide justice for the victim of a crime, who then does it provide justice for?

1.41 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) on initiating an important debate on this general area of policy and, particularly, the family to whom he has referred. Only those who have lost a loved one at the hands of a murderer can begin to understand the pain and grief suffered by bereaved families. The impact can affect not only the immediate family, but friends, colleagues and neighbours. For all too many, the repercussions can last for the rest of their lives.

No one could fail to have enormous sympathy for families who are bereaved in such a sudden and violent way, and I wish to take this opportunity to express my sincerest sympathy to Mrs. Windass, who is following the debate today. My hon. Friend has illustrated the experience of many other families. Many families of murder victims—and many other victims of crime—feel neglected by the criminal justice system and a great deal more needs to be done to meet their needs.

I can assure the House that this Government will take action to redress the balance of the criminal justice system in favour of victims, while maintaining the interests of justice. We will ensure that all agencies give a high priority to treating victims with sensitivity and respect, and will listen to their views to improve the services they provide to victims and their families.

The Government want to ensure that victims are kept fully informed of progress in their case—one of the central issues raised by my hon. Friend—if they want to be. Victims of crime must be kept informed of significant developments in their case and should have the opportunity to explain the effect the crime has had on them.

Pilot studies are now under way in six police force areas; the police will keep victims informed of developments. This will be extended to two more areas shortly and will provide, in effect, a one-stop-shop pilot project. However, the idea that victims who want to know what is happening can look to the police to keep them informed is only one option. We will carefully examine the outcome of the pilot exercises, but we believe that this task should not be left to the police alone.

In respect of the reform of the Crown Prosecution Service, I am happy to confirm the steps we are taking. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary regard this as an important reform. Our plans to decentralise the CPS will enhance co-operation between local Crown prosecutors and the police. The new local CPS should be more involved in informing victims of its decisions. Specifically, local Crown prosecutors, who will be in post under our reorganisation, will be accountable for their decisions and should be prepared to explain to victims their reasons for discontinuing or downgrading charges against offenders—at least in the most serious cases.

My hon. Friend says that it should be the responsibility of the CPS to keep families informed. That is a fair point. In 1994, I tabled amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to place that requirement on the CPS, but they were not accepted by the then Government.

We also want local Crown prosecutors to be more proactive in meeting victims and witnesses—especially in cases where people have been killed as the result of a crime—to explain their decision on prosecution. The concern of families is shown by the fact that requests to meet the CPS are increasing in number; I am assured that no request is refused. Our plans to decentralise the CPS should achieve even greater responsiveness to the needs of victims of crime and their families.

The enforcement of bail conditions was another important matter that my hon. Friend referred to. It is not an easy one to deal with, as he will appreciate. In view of the serious series of events he described, I am happy to give him an undertaking to look into the circumstances surrounding the bail decisions to which he referred. There are cases where things go badly wrong, and that is why we want to improve the enforcement and oversight of bail conditions.

My hon. Friend referred also to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. I believe that this is one of a number of matters that fall between two stools. The House will recall that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—the previous Home Secretary—introduced a new scheme, which was challenged and had to be withdrawn. He then had to replace it with a second new scheme, which was introduced and debated in the House. I assure my hon. Friend that I will look at the situation and take advice as to whether there are steps that can be taken to alleviate the problem. Again it is complicated, but I will look into it carefully to see what can be done.

It is clear that the families of homicide victims need assistance because of the deep distress caused by the tragic event. It is now common practice for police forces to appoint one officer on the investigation team as a family liaison officer. The victim's family will be given that officer's name and telephone number and the officer will be responsible for answering any questions the family may have about the case and for keeping them informed of developments throughout the police investigation and any subsequent court proceedings. This includes the progress and outcome of Court of Appeal cases—a point to which I shall return—where the police will tell the family quickly of the date of the appeal, if the offender is granted bail pending the appeal and, of course, the outcome, when it is known. Obviously that will not be a perfect system as, in some cases, the police do not have the information to pass on. We must tighten the procedures and we will build on best practice so that best practice becomes the norm. We will keep the matter under review.

An information pack is now available for the families of murder victims. The police will offer the families a copy of the pack, which was developed by the Home Office, to help anyone bereaved as the result of a crime. The information pack contains practical information to help the family and friends of the victim, both in the immediate aftermath of the crime and in the longer term. All police forces have copies of the pack, which will be monitored to ensure that no family is left out. Again, we will keep this under review.

As well as receiving information about case progress, it is right that the victims should have the opportunity to explain how the crime has affected them. It is easy to forget that all crime is about the victims and that that is what the process is about. Ways of doing so are being tested in the pilot project.

As hon. Members will appreciate, giving people the chance to make a formal statement about how the crime has affected them raises a number of sensitive issues, which we will need to consider carefully when we evaluate the pilot study. Furthermore, when the victim has been killed, the issue of who should be allowed to make a victim statement as a secondary victim needs further careful thought. In some cases, it will be obvious that the position is not clear cut. In the case of homicide, the majority of victims—54 per cent. of males and 73 per cent. of females—knew the suspect before they were killed and 40 per cent. of females were killed by current and former partners. In such cases, the relatives' views would form part of their case for leniency and it would be far from obvious who was the right person, if anyone, to offer the contrary view as a secondary victim.

The complication of these issues should not and will not stop us engaging in them, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that there is no simple, straightforward way to deal with them immediately.

My hon. Friend made a number of serious points about the setting of the tariff and the period taken to reach that conclusion. He is right to point out that it is more than three years since the murder and more than two since conviction, yet the tariff has not been set for the life sentence. That is another common area of concern to the families of murder victims.

In every case in which a person is convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, the family of the victim have the right to know what tariff has been set—the minimum period to be served in prison for the purpose of retribution and deterrence. A decision on the tariff, however, has to await the outcome of any appeal to the Court of Appeal in case the conviction is quashed or the appeal sheds new light on the offence. Since the appeal process can be lengthy, it may indeed be many months after sentence before the tariff is set and the victim's family can be told. That is the general situation.

I understand that in Peter Windass's case, the Prison Service is awaiting representations from his killer's solicitors about the tariff. When those are received, Ministers will be able to set a tariff. I can assure my hon. Friend that Mrs. Windass will be informed of the outcome as soon as possible after that. I can go a little further, as officials are pressing solicitors for the representations to be make as quickly as possible and today I have discussed ways in which we can speed up the process of advising relatives about the progress of appeals and that of setting the tariff.

Clearly, improvements can be made. For instance, in this case it appeared that the dismissal of an appeal heard by a single judge was going to be followed by an appeal to a full court—leave was given for that second appeal. The fact that that was dropped after 14 days was not picked up until much later. Clearly that added to the delay in providing information to the family. That is the type of gap and difficulty in the process that we will tighten up.

I am grateful to hear my hon. Friend's commitment that he will speed up the process in this case. I would also be grateful if he would ask the solicitors how long the court has been waiting for representations from the murderer's solicitors and consider the more general point of whether that is longer than is necessary to ensure a fair opportunity.

Certainly I will be happy to consider that when I study the circumstances. I was pointing out that there has been a gap in our being kept informed. We have found out why it happened and will try to use that knowledge to learn lessons and ensure that it does not happen again.

On mentally disordered offenders, the arrangements for the probation service to keep victims and their families informed of post-sentence developments do not apply to victims of offenders who are sent to hospital. That does not apply in this case, so I will leave that matter to one side, but I have flagged it up as another area of concern.

Victims of crime and their families do not merely need timely information about their case and to have their views taken into account; they also deserve appropriate support to help meet their practical and emotional needs, whether or not their case goes to court. My hon. Friend tells me that Victim Support was helpful to the family in this case, although I must stress that it is no substitute for sensitive support and help from every part of the criminal justice system.

The Home Office provides substantial funding to Victim Support nationally, which provides practical help and emotional support to victims of all types of crime. Our grant this year is £11.7 million, which will support the work of about 365 local schemes and branches nationwide. The grant also supports the work of the Crown court witness service, which has been established at all 77 Crown court centres in England and Wales to help victims, witnesses and their families cope with the stress of a court appearance.

Victim Support is working closely with another organisation, Support After Murder and Manslaughter—known as SAMM—to which my hon. Friend referred, to improve and develop services to the families of murder victims. The network of self-help groups throughout the country puts bereaved families in touch with each other and allows them to share their anguish and their anger, to talk to someone who has been in the same situation and to gain strength from knowing that they are not alone in their grief. As my hon. Friend said, Mrs. Windass is a member of its executive committee and is using her experience to help others. That sort of mutual support and understanding is perhaps as helpful as anything else in enabling families to come to terms with what has happened and I pay tribute to those like her who turn their tragedy and misery into a springboard for helping others.

Through our grant to Victim Support, the Home Office has provided funds to help run the SAMM office located at Victim Support's national office in London. I am sure that the association between the two organisations will enable Victim Support and SAMM to develop and improve further the services that they offer to families bereaved by violence.

We are also committed to ensuring that the courts become much more sensitive to the needs and interests of victims and witnesses through better facilities, information, support services and separate prosecution and defence waiting facilities wherever possible. Some progress has already been made. The court users charter explains the standards of service that victims and witnesses can expect from the Court Service. The victims charter sets out clearly 27 standards of service that victims should be able to expect from all the criminal justice agencies, including the courts, and explains which agency provides each service and how victims can complain if they do not get the level of service promised. Shortly, we plan to issue a revised version of the Home Office "Witness in Court" leaflet, which explains to victims and witnesses what happens at court.

All those changes will help, but central to the needs of victims and families is their wish to see justice done. People such as Mrs. Windass know from their experiences the deep truth in the saying that justice delayed is justice denied. No one can have a monopoly on the feelings or needs of families of murder victims; every situation is different, each family will respond differently to the devastating tragedy, but all of us have the same goal—to try to meet the needs of those families in the best way possible, whatever they are.

The Government accept that the current situation is not perfect and that improvements can be made. We will work with the criminal justice agencies, Victim Support, SAMM and other support groups to improve the service that victims and their families get from the criminal justice system. We will speed up justice, as our manifesto commitments made clear. We will start with youth justice, halving the time that it takes to get young offenders to court and establishing a fast-track system for the persistent young offenders who cause so much chaos and devastation in communities throughout the land. We must tackle violence in our society, bearing in mind the fact that the number of violent crimes increased by more than 11 per cent. last year alone and is 166 per cent. higher than it was in 1979. We must nip things in the bud when things start to go wrong. We must improve consistency and progression in sentencing, to tackle the scandal exposed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when we were in opposition.

That is the background against which I can assure my hon. Friend that we will take action on the issues and concerns that he has raised in this short debate today. I am sure that he will be interested to know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when speaking to the Police Federation at its annual conference today, will also be setting out a vision of the future and ways in which we intend to tackle and improve the operation of the criminal justice system, in the interests of victims, the communities that have been damaged by crime and those who have felt the scourge of violent crime in recent years.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a series of extremely important issues and I look forward to dealing with them in practical terms in the coming months.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

Oral Answers To Questions

International Development

Great Lakes Region

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what further assistance her Department plans to provide in the Great Lakes region of Africa; and if she will make a statement. [310]

I should explain that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), is at a meeting of the Caribbean development bank, so I am here on my own today.

Since 1993, the United Kingdom has committed £178 million—bilaterally and through the European Union—to help the people of the Great Lakes region to survive. The population desperately need peace and security to rebuild their lives. We hope to work constructively with Mr. Kabila's new Administration, with other Governments in the region and with international partners to try to secure stability and sustained economic and social development in the region.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. May I be the first formally to congratulate her on her richly deserved appointment? Does my right hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the establishment of a new Government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? What plans does she have to assist that Government to establish democracy and rebuild the economy? What plans does she have to assist the Government of Rwanda to ensure that there are speedy and fair trials of those accused of genocide?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous remarks.

The fall of the Mobutu regime in the Congo—as it now is again—is a fantastically important opportunity for Africa and for the long-suffering people of Zaire. An Administration in Kinshasa committed to respect for human rights and national consensus in transition to representative and elected government will be an enormously important step forward for the region.

Tomorrow I shall discuss with Vice-President Kagame of Rwanda the way in which we can work together to secure that aim, and next week I shall meet ex-President Nyerere. We all want to work with the new Government, and if they will respect human rights, we will work together with the whole international community to bring economic and social development to that very important part of Africa.

It is also important that the Rwandan refugees return home, that there should be proper trials for those accused of genocide and that human rights are protected so that the people of Rwanda can also look forward to social development in a more stable and peaceful future. Again, we shall do everything in our power to work in partnership with the Government of Rwanda to achieve that aim, constantly stressing to them that respect for human rights is crucial to further progress for their country.

Third-World Debt

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what recent discussions she has had regarding the reduction of third-world debt; and if she will make a statement. [311]

I had an encouraging meeting with the president of the World bank last week. The Government strongly support the heavily indebted poor countries initiative and are pressing for its speedy implementation. Our aim is to produce tangible results quickly for the most needy countries and to bring about a once and for all exit from their debt problems.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to one of the best jobs in the Government and I am sure that she will do it well. Has she given consideration to persuading her colleagues at the Treasury unilaterally to remit some of the debt owed to the Export Credits Guarantee Department by some of the most indebted countries, and will she make any relaxation of indebtedness conditional upon respect for human rights?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. To be fair, the previous Administration worked hard in their later years to achieve success on debt cancellation. Britain's record on cancelling debt owed bilaterally is very good, but we cannot make further progress without getting partnerships across the international community. It is important that we get momentum behind the initiative and start to make progress.

Uganda has been named as the first candidate to exit from debt, and Britain has volunteered to make an extra payment to make up for the fact that the African development bank is not in a position to make its payment. The previous Administration made that clear, and we are standing by that commitment. We hope that other Governments will work similarly. Once we get progress and success, I believe that the initiative can be built upon and that we can begin to give some of the neediest countries in the world the chance to work their way out of poverty.

I, too, offer my congratulations to the right hon. Lady. She has a warm heart and an independent spirit. I suspect that she will need both qualities, not least in dealing with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Does she agree that it is disappointing that only Uganda has entered the framework set down for the highly indebted poor countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World bank last year, and that Uganda will be eligible for debt relief only in 1998? What practical steps can be taken to maintain the momentum to which the right hon. Lady referred? Is she satisfied that the criteria laid down in the heavily indebted poor countries initiative are wide enough to allow the most rapid entry of as many countries as possible into its framework?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind remarks. He is right that we should like more rapid progress, but we have to take partner countries with us. Not all countries are as persuaded of the need to make progress as Britain is. Uganda has been named, and there is preliminary agreement on the eligibility of three other countries—Bolivia, Burkina Faso and Cite d'Ivoire.

I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is anxious to show what a warm heart he has on this matter, and we shall do everything in our power to ensure that rapid progress is made. Any support, suggestions or help from any part of the House on ways in which we can achieve that outcome will be welcome.

I, too, unreservedly welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. We should pay tribute to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer for their work on debt reduction. I was pleased to hear the right hon. Lady's fine words on the heavily indebted poor countries initiative and to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a warm heart on the matter. However, a warm heart will not reduce debt. How much do the Government intend to make available for the initiative? They said that they would make money available when they were in opposition.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I have already paid unreserved tribute to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Uganda is first and Britain is committed to making additional payments because the African development bank is not in a position to pay its share. We cannot say exactly what the amount will be until the calculations are made, but Britain is in advance of other countries. We are determined to make progress on Uganda and very keen for our partners to make the same sort of commitments. We shall do all in our power to make fast progress.

It is in the interests of justice, and of the whole world, that we should deal with the desperate poverty entrenched by debt. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 per cent. of people live in poverty. We shall make no progress until we deal with debt.

Kenya

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on aid projects that the United Kingdom is currently funding in Kenya. [312]

Within the context of the overall policy review that I am conducting, I intend to concentrate our aid programme on improving the access of the poor to essential health services and basic education, and on finding ways to increase the incomes of smallholder farmers and the urban poor.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and I welcome her reply. Will she discuss with the Kenyan authorities two issues which cry out for urgent action? The first is the plight of street children and their horrendous suffering. The second is the substantial increase in the number of people with AIDS. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider helping on those two issues with advice and, if possible, with financial aid?

Britain is a large donor in Kenya and, potentially, can attempt to use its influence. Developments in Kenya are worrying and patchy. There has been a deterioration in the level of primary education and a growth in the level of poverty. As my hon. Friend said, the problem of AIDS is also very serious. We are reviewing all our spending and commitments so as to concentrate on those in greatest need. The two groups in Kenya to whom my hon. Friend referred are obviously in great need.

It is a pleasure to see the Secretary of State in her place. May I ask her whether the aid programme is funding the secondary education in Kenya of any refugees from southern Sudan where secondary education is in turmoil?

I am afraid that I do not know the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question, but I will find out and write to him.

Aid And Trade Provision

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what plans she has to carry out a review of the aid and trade provision. [313]

As I have said, we are reviewing all our expenditure programmes. I am determined to concentrate our efforts on poverty eradication. This means that we are necessarily reviewing the aid and trade provision.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and I am reassured by her answer. During any review, will she consider the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs during the last Parliament when it looked into the Pergau scandal? Most of the ATP aid was being focused by the Tory Government on Indonesia and China—two countries which do not have the best human rights records. Among the developing countries, Indonesia is the sixth largest recipient of direct foreign investment. How could the Tory Government have justified concentrating 17 per cent. of ATP aid on that country? I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that we should be directing that aid towards the poorest peoples in the world.

During the review we shall, of course, take account of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report. I share my hon. Friend's concerns and I am reviewing our aid programme to Indonesia. Many people argue that the aid and trade provision does not meet either development or commercial objectives very well. We want absolutely to concentrate all our efforts and all our resources on the eradication of poverty. That means that we must look seriously at the way in which the aid and trade provision has pulled our aid spend in a different direction.

In greeting the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box, I welcome her review of Britain's overseas aid programme, particularly the review of the aid and trade provision that she has announced. Will she focus much more on the aid and trade provision to the mutual benefit of British industry and commerce and the recipient countries, thereby enhancing political and commercial connections between them while at the same time diminishing Britain's contribution to the European Union's aid programme, which is not nearly so well targeted as the British one and is often wasteful and misapplied?

As I have said, we are reviewing the aid and trade provision, but perhaps our thinking goes in a slightly different direction from that of the hon. Gentleman. The aid programme is not about the promotion of commercial opportunities. That is an important objective of Government policy, but the aid programme should be part of a bigger strategy for eliminating abject poverty in the world. That is in the long-term interests of everyone and, indeed, of commercial activity. If there is less poverty, there will be more commerce.

On European Union aid, the hon. Gentleman will know that it was his Government who, in Edinburgh, made an agreement which meant that up to 40 per cent. of our aid spend should go through the EU and unfortunately I have inherited that. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the performance of EU aid is patchy and I shall be doing everything in my power to use our influence in the EU to try to get the concentration on poverty eradication in EU spending in the same way as we want to achieve that from our own aid spending.

Child Labour

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what steps she is taking to stop the exploitation of child labour in third-world countries. [314

The tragedy of child labour, bad though it is, is not just the current exploitation of children but the fact that they are deprived of education, which will blight their lives permanently. We intend to strengthen our support for the International Labour Organisation's efforts in the developing countries to eliminate hazardous and exploitative child labour. Promoting universal primary education—an achievable objective throughout the world if the world community decided that it wished to achieve it—is a crucial part of the solution.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment. Last week Christian Aid published a report on the exploitation of children in the manufacture of sports goods. An Indian child as young as seven receives just 12p for hand-stitching an Eric Cantona football which retails in Britain at £9.99. Will my right hon. Friend appeal to all sports stars, sports clubs and the sports industry to co-operate with Governments, non-governmental organisations and the International Labour Organisation to phase out the exploitation of child labour and to introduce, where appropriate, special development measures to protect family income and children's rights to health and education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Christian Aid report was very useful and we welcome it strongly and applaud the publicity accrued on this serious issue. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for not calling for an immediate boycott of the goods involved. People who are concerned about child labour often do that, but it can lead to the children being thrown into an even worse situation in which they have to live as beggars on the streets or are even forced into prostitution. We need the type of partnerships that my hon. Friend suggested.

We should like sports firms and others who find that the products that they buy are produced by child labour to use their influence to press our Government, the companies involved and Governments in developing countries to plan the phasing out of child labour. In many countries, parents cannot find work, but children are employed. In this respect, the history of our own country is an experience on which we can draw. There must be regulation to phase out child labour and ensure that children are in education, where they belong, so that they have brighter prospects.

Will the right hon. Lady focus particularly on the evil of bonded labour in those countries where it is still rife? Such labour is the 20th-century equivalent of slavery, and children especially suffer from it.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. Bonded labour is a scourge of the world. As he says, it is akin to slavery and we shall take action on it. I believe that we should take whatever action we can, in co-operation with other Governments.

The proposal for a human rights clause in the World Trade Organisation so that no country can obtain access to the most privileged terms of trade unless it guarantees the right of labour to organise and that there will be no child labour and no bonded labour is one of the ways forward for the world. We shall join with the American Government and others in supporting that call, which will provide a long-term solution.

In the meantime, we shall take what action we can, wherever we can.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Secretary of State and I welcome what she has just said. Is she prepared to use the Government's influence on the World Trade Organisation to ensure that all future trade negotiations and trade strategies which are agreed will include a specific commitment to full recognition of all ILO conditions by all signatory states, as a major part of ending the disgraceful exploitation of children and ensuring decent rights for all workers in developing countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We consider that the pressure for a human rights clause in the World Trade Organisation is crucial, not only to make progress on child labour but to prevent the globalisation of the world economy leading to the pushing down of standards across the world. Minimum conditions that all countries are required to meet before they obtain access to the most privileged terms of trade will provide a platform for everyone across the world. It is a very important change and we shall do all that we can to achieve it.

Aid Target

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development when she expects the Government to meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product in their contribution to overseas aid; and if she will make a statement. [315]

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development when she estimates that spending on overseas aid will reach the target of 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product. [318]

We remain committed to the 0.7 per cent. United Nations aid target and to reversing the decline in United Kingdom spending. As we said during the election campaign, however, we shall work within existing ceilings this year and next. I am currently reviewing expenditure plans and putting in place a coherent strategy to tackle global poverty, which will be published in the White Paper promised in the Queen's Speech. As we demonstrate progress, additional resources will be made available.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position and congratulate her on her strong commitment to and understanding of development issues. Does she share my concern that this country now contributes just 0.28 per cent. of GDP in overseas aid compared with 0.51 per cent. in 1979? The rich in this country have had tax cuts, but the poor in many countries have lacked basic food and shelter.

Given the right hon. Lady's strong commitment, is she capable of persuading her colleagues—particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to ensure that, despite the stringent financial conditions that he has imposed on the Cabinet, sufficient funds will be made available to meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent.? Will she set a time scale for that?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: Labour's record on aid is a proud one—we reached 0.51 per cent. of GDP and rising towards the target. The Conservative Government, who so rightly have lost office, left us with a contribution of 0.27 per cent. of GDP—even worse than the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave.

We need a higher aid spend, but we need to spend our aid money better. We need coherence across all our policies on debt, at the International Monetary Fund, the World bank, the European Union and the Lome renegotiations. In that way, we can focus our efforts on the measurable eradication of poverty.

While I can hardly change the Department's aid spend this year—although I can do so at the margins—because it takes so long to work up sensible and strong projects, I am busy working to redirect our energies next year. It is in the year after that, however, that I shall need more resources because we shall have plans in place to spend the money properly. I hope and intend that that will be so.

In adding my voice to the general welcome that has been extended to the right hon. Lady in her new role, may I ask if I am right in interpreting her previous answer by suggesting that while the Chancellor of the Exchequer may or may not have a warm heart, he is most unlikely to have an open purse? If those are the circumstances that she faces, can she give any clearer indication of how she will make the aid spend more effective?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I thought that I had been talking about that for some considerable time this afternoon. Too much of the current aid spend goes on projects which are worth while in themselves but are not focused on the eradication of poverty. I am very supportive of the plans outlined in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Assistance Committee report, which stated that the world should set itself targets including that of halving world poverty by the year 2015. All the donor countries would then work in partnership with developing countries to reach measurable progress.

If we work in such a way, we may then begin to believe that in the new millennium we shall see the end of abject poverty in the world. Currently, poverty affects one in four people. The aid spend is an important part of that plan, but it must be based within strategies which deliver progress; otherwise, money may be spent on good causes, but we shall not reach progress.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer cares very deeply about that agenda and I am extremely optimistic that he and I will work beneficially together to get the progress that we want.

Will my right hon. Friend assure Labour Members that a Labour Government will never repeat the cut imposed by the Tory Chancellor in his Budget this year, when he reduced overseas aid by £180 million? That deliberate cut imposed untold hardship and misery on hundreds of thousands of African and Asian families so that the price of gin and whisky in this country could be reduced by 27p. Such was the motive behind that attempt at general election popularity.

The Conservative party fought the election on a commitment to move to an aid spend of 0.7 per cent. of GDP, but year upon year the Conservative Government cut the aid budget. As I said earlier, they also gave up to 40 per cent. of our spend to the EU and thus lost control of it. Their record is poor. We fought the election on a commitment to halt the decline and to increase the aid spend and we intend to keep all our manifesto commitments.

When my right hon. Friend conducts her expenditure review, will she examine closely the way in which Brussels officials manage the know-how and PHARE funds? In terms of devolution, surely Britain's contributions to the funds should be managed by my right hon. Friend and her Department.

The know-how fund is managed from Britain by my Department, with the Foreign Office co-operating. The PHARE fund is a European Union programme; it therefore has to be managed differently, but it should be complementary. The spending on that fund, like that on all other funds, must be reviewed to make it more effective than under the previous Administration.

The Secretary of State was correct when she said that we need to spend all our money better. Is she aware that Oxfam says that 19 water tanks, providing 28,500 people with 10 litres of clean water a day, could have been provided through our aid budget for the absurd cost of the Foreign Secretary's glitzy presentation of the mission statement? Was that money well spent?

I have to say that that is an extremely cheap point—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman served as a Minister in a Government who have just been booted out of office and who consistently cut, cut and cut the aid budget to give tax cuts to their wealthy friends. The new Administration will ensure that our aid spending eradicates poverty as effectively as possible, but it is also our duty to announce the priorities of our foreign policy—and that is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs did.

Africa

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what are her priorities in respect of Africa. [316]

I aim to work in partnership with African Governments—what we need is not donor countries telling other countries what to do, but partnerships—and with international institutions on strategies to eliminate poverty through sustainable economic and social development. That will be underpinned through support for good governance and human rights. Priority will be given to programmes which help the poorest people in Africa. As I have said, we intend to outline our strategy in the promised White Paper.

I add my voice to those welcoming my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her post and wish her well in that work. She will bring a refreshing change to it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the resolution of the conflict in southern Africa is a considerable priority and that it is important to support the efforts of the South African Government and, in particular, President Mandela in his current efforts to bring peace and to resolve that conflict? In so doing, we shall lift out of poverty many of the millions of people who have had conflict heaped on them in circumstances of dire poverty, leading to a worsening of the situation almost beyond human comprehension.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: poverty often leads to war, which just worsens the cycle. Africa has suffered gravely, but there are grounds for optimism. The absolute decline in its economy has been turned around. Governments such as Uganda, Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea are doing well. The change of regime in the Congo could be an enormous opportunity for progress. That would also help to resolve the situation in Angola. There is now a real opportunity for Africa, and we must work in partnership with those Governments to make progress.

I warmly welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. Although there can be optimism at recent developments in Africa, does she agree that one of the major priorities should be a move towards better government among some of the countries to which we give aid? Will she assure the House that she will use the ability as a donor Government to insist on better practice by many Governments in Africa, linked to aid?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The needy people of Africa need good governance so that there can be partnerships with developed countries and real progress can be made. We shall use all our influence to try to achieve that aim. The beauty now is that Africa has its own examples of good governance and success, such as Uganda and Ghana, which means that there is the chance of a home-grown African model spreading to others. So yes—we shall do that and there are real opportunities now.

Rain Forests

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what steps she plans to take to ensure that the United Kingdom's international development policies contribute to the preservation of the world's rain forests. [317]

My Department has 200 forestry projects under way in 41 countries at a total cost of £200 million.

At the UN General Assembly special session on environment and development in June, which I hope to attend with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we shall work to secure more effective international action to improve forest management.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her very comprehensive answer. Is she aware of the tremendous support being given by a range of British companies to a rain forest protection programme in Guyana undertaken by the Amerindians, using modern technology to publicise worldwide the threat to their rain forests? One of the industrial partners in that project is British Telecom. If British Telecom is affected by the windfall tax and has to reduce its expenditure on that project, will the right hon. Lady undertake to lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer to safeguard that vital rainfall—wind forest—rain forest protection plan?

I am not sure whether I heard the right hon. Gentleman correctly—is he advocating a rainfall tax? I am very disappointed in him: questions about the future of the world and its poorest people and the future of the rain forests are important to the whole of humanity and should not be used to make cheap political points.

Prime Minister

Before I call the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), I remind the House of the new method of handling engagements questions. The Member with the first such question should call out the number of his or her question in the normal way. After the Prime Minister has described his engagements, that Member will be asked to put a supplementary question. For the second and subsequent engagements questions, the Members who tabled the question should not call out the number of the question but simply put their supplementary question as soon as I call their name. Members with substantive questions on the Order Paper should, of course, continue to call the number of the question.

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 May. [340]

I have had various meetings with Ministers today to discuss the implementation of our election pledges. I will have various meetings later, in particular in relation to young people and skills. In addition, I have attended a meeting of the Labour party's national executive.

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister to his role of answering questions and I am grateful to him for finding the time in his diary to do so. At some point he might consult the House about these changes. I also wish him well in dealing with the massed ranks of his own Back Benchers as they lose their political virginity.

Will the Prime Minister agree today to compensate pensioners for any damage done to pension funds as a result of the windfall tax and changes in advance corporation tax which he might propose?

I first have to say yes, indeed, we have had a busy day because this Government, unlike the last Government, are governing in the interests of the people of this country. Secondly, the windfall tax will not harm pensioners at all. What did, however, harm pensioners was the last Government's imposition of VAT on fuel. It is precisely for that reason that we propose cutting it.

It is an honour to be called during the Prime Minister's first Question Time to make a serious attempt to question the Prime Minister. Given that at present only one crime in 50 leads to a conviction, does my right hon. Friend recognise the need for effective measures to prevent crime as well as a criminal justice system in which the public can have confidence? Will he tell us what measures the Government will take to prevent crime?

Certainly I shall. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, today my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is announcing a series of measures that I hope will have a beneficial effect on cutting crime. He is of course announcing first, that we say that children between the ages of 10 and 13 are able to tell the difference between right and wrong and the law should be changed in that respect. Secondly, we are going to halve the amount of time it takes to get persistent juvenile offenders to court. Thirdly, he has announced a review of the entire youth justice system. Much of the behaviour of some young tearaways and thugs makes life hell for people. We are committed to taking action and again, unlike the previous Administration, action we will take.

Q2.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Government will argue for a zonal lifting of the European beef ban? If they will, will he outline a time scale within which we can expect the lifting to occur? Will he also guarantee that the beef ban will be lifted in Scotland at the same time as it is lifted in Northern Ireland? [341]

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are in negotiations with the European Commission and with our European partners to try to get the best possible deal on lifting the beef ban. One part of lifting the ban, of course, is a certified herd scheme. It is important not only that we apply that scheme in Northern Ireland, which has a traceability scheme, but that we discover how we can lift the ban in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I should tell the House that the BSE situation that the Government have inherited is quite appalling, and not only because of its expense. The way in which the negotiations were handled was a disgrace, and it will take some time to sort out the situation. The early indications, however, are that we are able to get a far better deal than the previous Government. We shall do everything that we possibly can, in the interests not only of the farming industry but of Britain's good standing abroad.

Is the Prime Minister aware of widespread public concern about the growth of drug abuse in the United Kingdom? Over the past decade, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of drug offences. Will he provide an outline of the Government's plans to deal with the drugs crisis?

Yes. As my hon. Friend may know, we are committed to proper testing and treatment for all offenders who have a drugs problem. Additionally, however—as we announced before the general election—we will appoint one individual, whom we will call the drug tsar, who will co-ordinate all aspects of the fight against drug abuse and the link between drug abuse and crime. In many parts of the United Kingdom, as much as 50 per cent.—possibly more—of crimes are linked to drug abuse. It is absolutely essential that we bear down on every single aspect of the problem. By putting one person—who will be responsible to the Home Secretary—in charge of all aspects of co-ordinating Government policy on the problem, we believe that we will give ourselves a far better chance of dealing with that evil in our midst.

May I, first, welcome the Prime Minister's attempt to find a new format for Prime Minister's Question Time? Such an attempt was undoubtedly too bold for some, but the Prime Minister's efforts will have been worth it if we find a format that is a little less confrontational and a little more rational.

Is it still the Government's intention, in the next two years, to spend not a penny more on education than the Conservative Government whom they defeated?

First, I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for the change in the format of Prime Minister's questions. I hope that, in time, it will prove to be for the benefit of all hon. Members.

There are differences on education spending between ourselves and the previous Government. The first important difference is that we will phase out the assisted places scheme and reduce class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds. Secondly, the nursery voucher scheme will, rightly, be replaced by proper nursery education for our children. Thirdly, the windfall tax will have some impact on the skills and training part of the education budget, helping young people back into work through better skills and training.

The Prime Minister knows that the figures that Ministers quote on the abolition of assisted places do not add up. Even if they did, however, surely it is true that the Government will not deliver next year, and that they may deliver very little in the subsequent year. Therefore, are not the consequences of the Government's policy that teachers who were to be sacked because of Conservative policies will be sacked, that class sizes that were to rise next autumn will rise, and that the serious situation in books and equipment facing schools this winter because of Conservative policies will not get better under a Labour Government, and may even get worse?

No; I do not accept that. Reducing class sizes will be achieved partly by employing extra teachers. The right hon. Gentleman said that the figures do not add up, but they were checked by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which found that they added up, and even that there was money to spare. It is very important to understand that the vast majority of people—parents who use the state education system—understand that it will take time to put things right. It will take time, because of what we have inherited. Those people now know that they have a Government who have the right values, who are committed to the state education system and who, over time, will improve the system, as we have promised to do.

Having fought the general election on a platform of no hundred days of dynamic action—the definition of dynamic action changing from one Prime Minister to another—having introduced a Queen's Speech with 26 Bills, much to the delight of the public, having made the Bank of England independent, having severed supervision of the banking system from the Bank of England and having introduced a new system of regulation for the City of London, can the Prime Minister tell the House what he proposes as an encore?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is, of course, important that we start to make a difference in the areas where the people of this country elected us to make a difference—in our schools, in rebuilding our national health service, in giving hope to our young people and in the measures, as my hon. Friend rightly says, in relation to the Bank of England. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor took decisive action at the very beginning and he is to be congratulated on that. It is far better now that we take the politics out of setting interest rates and that we do not play politics with people's mortgages. As the National Association of Estate Agents said just the other day, in the long term that will lead to lower mortgage rates and, therefore, to a better deal for home owners.

In view of the apparent confusion in briefings from Ministers over recent days, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House which companies and which classes of companies are likely to be liable to the windfall tax? Will he also please explain to the House why the chairman of British Telecom apparently felt that his company would not be liable?

I heard what the chairman of British Telecom said the other day and I was delighted that he indicated that he had the good judgment to vote Labour in the general election. The idea, however, that the chairman of British Telecom or anyone else was in any doubt that we intended to introduce a windfall tax is rather hard to believe. As the right hon. Gentleman knows because we have said this many times, the actual companies will be decided by the Chancellor in accordance with precedent, which is to make any moves in relation to the Budget in the Budget. That is the proper way in which to do it. The companies and the amount of the windfall tax will be decided by my right hon. Friend in the normal way.

Sir lain seems to be rather regretting his vote already, but I will let that pass for the moment. I find it surprising that the House of Commons is to be the last to be told who will be liable to the tax in view of the private briefings that are going on. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can confirm to the House that no one acting in his capacity or no one from the Labour party when in opposition gave any indication, clearly or in terms of a nod and a wink, that British Telecom would not be included in the tax. Can the Prime Minister be categorical about that please?

I certainly can be categorical. Everybody has known that the decisions on who—whether British Telecom or anyone else—will be liable for the windfall tax will be taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the normal way. It is perfectly obvious that that should be the case. Prior to the Budget, it would be wholly wrong if my right hon. Friend announced the companies or the amounts of the windfall tax. In following that precedent we are following precisely what the previous Conservative Government did in relation to the windfall tax on banks.

The House will note that the right hon. Gentleman replied in the generality but did not reply specifically. He did not provide the House with the categorical assurance I asked him for; perhaps he will do so in just a moment. If the tax proceeds, it will lead to an extra tax on gas, water, electricity and telephones. I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). If the tax gives rise to an increase in bills for many people on low incomes, will the right hon. Gentleman follow the precedent set by the previous Government and increase social security benefits to compensate for that? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that if he does not, the populist tax on fat cats he proposes will be a tax that hits most those who have least?

I shall resist the temptation to say that that was the soundbite, because I have a feeling that I used to use a few of those myself at one time. No, that is not the case. There is a cap on prices. Some of the regulators have already said that they would not consider it right for the windfall tax to lead to any increase in prices.

The reason for introducing the windfall tax is clear. There is no doubt that vast excess profits were made. There is also no doubt that it is essential that we give hope and opportunity to those hundreds of thousands of young people at present without them in our society. There will be a great deal of agreement, not just among those who do not have opportunity, but even among those who are perfectly well off, that if we do not tackle the problems of a growing underclass of people cut off from society's mainstream without any chance of a job, with poor educational opportunities, without the chance to do well in life, we shall end up, as the previous Government did, paying more and more in welfare bills and having less and less for future investment.

May I make a simple plea to my right hon. Friend on behalf of St. Helens, which is an industrial town? Perhaps he could find time to have a word in the ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and suggest to him that, if slanted towards encouraging investment in industry, the June Budget would undoubtedly help our manufacturing base—for home consumption and overseas exports—and thus the welfare of all our people.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I have no doubt that the Chancellor will receive a great deal of advice and assistance in the weeks ahead. He will have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I have no doubt that he will take it into account.

Q3.

How will the Prime Minister fund his programme for young people when the money from the windfall tax dries up? All the experts agree that it will and that he will need extra money. [342]

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman seems to understand, as his leader did not, that money is needed to tackle the problem. I agree wholeheartedly on that. The windfall levy is a one-off, but by getting young people off benefit and into work, we shall save money in the long term. Conservative Members shake their heads, but there is no doubt that there are young people in this country who are leaving school without any proper qualifications. If they do not get the right chances on skills and apprenticeships, they will never make anything of their lives.

During the election campaign, I met some third-generation families in which the father has not worked, the son has not worked and the grandson is not going to work either. Unless we try to give them some sort of chance to escape from that welfare dependency, we shall be in this difficulty for ever.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the problems that our communities face not just from the causes of crime but from the underlying aggressive and loutish behaviour? What are the Government going to do about that?

My hon. Friend is right. That is one reason why the measures that we announced in the Queen's Speech tackle not merely juvenile offending and other criminal offences, but disruptive, noisy or anti-social neighbours. All hon. Members who have talked to their constituents will know of the misery caused by small groups of people who act in an anti-social way. This Government, at long last, is going to do something about it.

Q4.

Do the Government intend to limit the amount of time that British fishermen can spend at sea to meet cuts in European quotas, as suggested by the Fisheries Minister? [343]

Against a background of negotiations that were not well handled by the previous Administration, we are trying to secure the best deal for our fishermen on quota hopping and on other issues so that we can put in place a long-term framework to guarantee their future and offer some stability.

Q5.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an estimated 120 million anti-personnel land mines are planted around the world? Every 20 minutes, those land mines kill or maim someone, often harming young, innocent children. When does my right hon. Friend expect to fulfil Labour's commitment to ban those evil weapons for good? [344]

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Government will announce later today that we will ban the import, export, transfer and manufacture of anti-personnel mines. We shall also phase out the United Kingdom stocks of anti-personnel land mines and ban the trade through the United Kingdom of all such land mines. They have caused enormous carnage, often to wholly innocent civilians, including children. The sooner that Britain gives a lead in this the better. It is the right and civilised thing to do.

Will the Prime Minister undertake a review of the somewhat curious arrangements for science policy that he has inherited?

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider two points in particular: first, whether it is right to have the Government's chief scientific adviser located, not in the centre of government, but in one of the Departments that he is responsible for supervising, and secondly, whether it is sensible to have two separate Ministers responsible for research councils and for universities when research council funding is integral to the funding of universities?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for giving me notice of it. I pay tribute to his work in education and science when he was a Minister in the previous Administration. The review that is being conducted by the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), will examine both the points that he raised. I give no undertakings at all as to the outcome of that review, but it will certainly examine those issues.

Q6.

So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the framework document remains on the table as that will provide a fair settlement for both communities in Northern Ireland, as well as for cross-border bodies? Does he agree that there is a particular responsibility on the part of the IRA to end its murderous terrorist campaign which has caused only pain, suffering and numerous deaths in the past 25 years? Is it not obvious that no amount of terrorist activity will in any way change the position in Northern Ireland? [345]

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the activities of the IRA. Of course, all the documents that were negotiated by the previous Government remain on the table. As my hon. Friend knows, my officials are talking to Sinn Fein, but I should make it clear that there is no question of Sinn Fein participating in any talks whatever unless there is a clear, credible and unequivocal ceasefire. That should be demonstrated in word and deed. Sinn Fein and everybody else should be under no illusions whatever about that.

I endorse what the Prime Minister has just said about the terms of entry into talks for Sinn Fein.

I am sure that he will ensure that that will be borne home to Sinn Fein in any discussions with officials and that he will ensure that discussion does not move into negotiation as that would not be permissible. I am sure that the Prime Minister is bearing in mind the fact that an election is taking place in Northern Ireland today. In the light of that and in the light of the comments by the Irish Prime Minister and by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that he has commended, that a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for murder, does he think that it was wise for officials in the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office to arrange for events to take place today that would only boost the standing of Sinn Fein?

If I understand rightly, the events to which the hon. Gentleman is referring involve the transfer of prisoners. I shall return to that in a moment. In respect of the talks with Sinn Fein, there is no question of their being about a negotiation of a ceasefire. They are to make clear the Government's terms and conditions for Sinn Fein's entry into any such talks. Secondly, in relation to the two prisoners who have been transferred, I have made inquiries and it is clear that the arrangements were put in train before the general election. It follows the transfer in the past year of nine prisoners who were convicted of terrorist offences. It should not be seen in any way as a signal to Sinn Fein.

Pensioner Poverty

Q7.

To ask the Prime Minister what proposals he has to alleviate poverty among existing pensioners. [346]

We are doing everything that we possibly can to alleviate poverty among Britain's pensioners. Many hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of Britain's pensioners enjoy a good standard of living; there are many more who do not. That is one reason why we are looking urgently at the help that can be given to Britain's poorest pensioners, and, of course, it is one reason why we are committed to the cut in VAT on fuel.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for pensioner poverty is the complexity and sometimes arbitrary nature of the income support cut-off points? Will he find time—unlike the previous Government, who refused—to look at the work done by Lancashire county council's welfare rights service, which has managed to find ingenious means of getting 15 per cent. more pensioners to claim income support—about 7,000 individuals, totalling about £4 million going into pensioners' pockets in Lancashire? Will he use his immense influence to ensure that the Government's programme for ending pensioner poverty begins with getting pensioners the rights and benefits to which they are entitled?

I am very happy to congratulate the work of those who are bringing home to pensioners the entitlements that they have. I should say two other things to my hon. Friend. The review of pensions that is being undertaken by the Department of Social Security will include how we help those pensioners in greatest poverty. In addition, I hope that he can say to his constituents, as I would say to the country, that previous Labour Governments have done well by Britain's pensioners—always—and we will do well by them again. [Interruption.] We have done very well, as indeed they know. Although, no doubt, there will be different ways of doing well for a different age, we shall continue to do our best by Britain's pensioners.

Engagements

Q8.

If, as the Prime Minister indicated some moments ago, a lifting of the beef export ban is not exactly imminent, is he able to indicate what kind of approximate time scale our beef producers might reasonably expect? In the meantime, what steps are his Government taking to restrict imports into the United Kingdom of beef products that do not meet the same very high standards required of our domestic producers? [347]

We obviously want to do everything that we possibly can to encourage and bring about the lifting of the beef ban. I say to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest respect that I do not think that plucking out arbitrary timetables has a very good history in the matter. We remember what happened before. [Laughter.] I am sorry to bring back bad memories. I believe that we can make progress and I am hopeful that progress is being made. The very fact that we have a Government who are arguing the case sensibly and constructively gives us a far better chance than we had under the previous Administration.

Q9.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the indignation and outrage felt among bus passengers in north-east Lancashire, who have been left high and dry by Stagecoach? Even as I speak, bus fares are going up, services are being cut, drivers are leaving in droves and the situation is in crisis. Is not such a situation, where private monopolies have driven out public interest, a shaming indictment of the previous Government's policies? [348]

In the interests of non-confrontational exchanges across the Floor, we will leave it to others to judge whether the situation is a shaming indictment. The one thing that is quite clear is that there are severe problems with the regulatory system at the moment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is, in addition to his rain-making duties, undertaking a review of bus regulation. We are well aware of the need to ensure, particularly for people in rural communities, that they get the bus services that they need.

Q10.

Will the Prime Minister find time to visit employers in my constituency of North Wiltshire who tell me that they will lay off workers the morning after he brings in the minimum wage? Does he agree that the tragically high level of youth unemployment on the continent of Europe is not least because of the job-destroying minimum wage in Europe? [349]

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that the United States has a minimum wage and a lower unemployment rate than we do. In contradistinction to the position here, that is now a matter for agreement between the republicans and democrats. It is a pity that we cannot obtain the same agreement about decency. Employers will be fully consulted about the level at which the minimum wage is set and how it is implemented. That is very important. I do not believe that the Conservative way of competing on the basis of low wages and low skills is the right future for Britain. We will compete in the future by investing in our people and by employers recognising that if they treat people fairly, they will get the best out of them. If that is one change that an incoming Labour Government can make, we will have done a service to the whole country.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that in this first session of Prime Minister's questions we have already got through more questions than we used to in two quarter-hour sessions? It has been a more civilised and informative event than ever before and I look forward to more in the future. On the question of the national minimum wage, many of us take great pride in the fact that the Labour party has stuck to that policy through thick and thin and intends to implement it as early as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments and I hope that people will understand that this is a better way to organise Prime Minister's questions. The Select Committee on Procedure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is establishing will look at ways that it can be improved in the light of experience.

On the minimum wage, I do not wish to repeat what I said earlier, but some 800,000 people in this country are paid £2.50 an hour or less. There are reasons of efficiency for introducing some basic minimum threshold for pay, but there are also reasons of decency and fairness, and we shall do it.

Points Of Order

3.31 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. [Interruption.]

Will hon. Members please leave quickly and quietly? We have business to do.

Have you had any requests for a statement on the saving of Bart's—if it is true, I welcome it—which has so far emerged in briefings to Back Benchers, among whom, I cheerfully remark, the local Member of Parliament has not been included? That seems as unsatisfactory a method of instructing Parliament on the issue as the original written answer about the closure. Until we have the opportunity to cross-examine Ministers, we cannot break out the champagne.

I am not aware of any statement or comment on the issue that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. His point of order gives me an opportunity, for which I am grateful, early in the life of the Government to remind those on the Treasury Bench that any statement on a change of policy should be made first to the House, not outside and not to Back Benchers. The House needs to know first of any change of policy and I hope that those on the Treasury Bench take my words to heart and inform any Ministers concerned.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the interests of advancing the Chamber into the civilised world, may I suggest that you think seriously about changing the rules so that hon. Members can read questions if they wish? When hon. Members were asked to speak without reading pieces of paper, it may have been a way to demonstrate their public school upbringing, but they now have the ability to read and should be allowed to read questions without being barracked by other hon. Members in the Chamber.

That is not a point of order for me. If the hon. Gentleman wishes our procedures to be changed, the Select Committee on Procedure will soon be established and he can refer the matter to it.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you aware that at 8 o'clock this morning Liberal Democrat Members attempted to put in more prayer cards than there were hon. Members from that party present? I am sure that you will wish to deprecate that. Will you make it clear to Liberal Democrats, and to any other hon. Members in the Chamber who do not know, that prayer cards can be put in only by the hon. Member involved and not by anyone else?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House, especially new Members, that prayer cards can be put in only by the Member concerned. Members must be present in person to do so. I certainly deprecate the use of other Members to put prayer cards in place.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A moment ago, you made a welcome statement about the rights of Back Benchers and the need for policy announcements to be made in the House. May I ask you to go further? Yesterday, an important announcement about policy change in relation to the Bank of England and the City of London was made, but no briefing papers about the statement were available in the Vote Office. Should not that be put right?

Briefing papers and documentation in the Vote Office have always been a question for the Minister concerned, not for the Speaker. I am concerned to ensure that when statements are made, they are made in the House, and not outside—but, as I said, documentation is the responsibility of the Minister concerned.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Two minutes ago you will have heard the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) make a derogatory remark about people with a public school education. Do you not agree that it is a usual courtesy of the House to give notice of such remarks? The hon. Gentleman might have advised the Prime Minister before he made that point.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) would have had writer's cramp this morning if he had tried to write to all hon. Members with a public school education, so we need not worry about that question.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Before I came into the Chamber for the debate, or rather, for Question Time, ready for the debate on the referendums, I asked the Vote Office for the papers from the Government about what would actually be set up by the referendums—that is, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I was told that there was none. Was that an oversight by the Vote Office, or have the Government really not given us any information about what we are to discuss in relation to the referendums?

All that we have to deal with today is the usual question of the Bill before us. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has had it for some time, has thoroughly digested it and is ready to speak on it when I call him.

Just a moment. This is getting to be like a jack-in-the-box, with everyone bobbing up and down. Who is next?

Order. We do not take further points of order. I have dealt with that matter, and we shall now deal with the Bill. There are no further points of order once the Speaker has responded.

Orders Of The Day

Referendums (Scotland And Wales) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.36 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

For the convenience of the House, I should make it clear that although I shall try to deal with the Bill as a whole in explanatory terms, I shall of course lay particular emphasis on the Scottish aspects. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will deal with the debate tomorrow, and he, perhaps, will be able to fill in more completely than I shall have time to do, the arguments concerning the Principality.

The measure is a deceptively simple one.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It was a little difficult to hear you as Members were leaving the Chamber, but did I understand you to say that you had selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition? If so, did you consider the possibility of calling the amendment in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends, or that tabled by other parties that are represented in Scotland—

and Wales—bearing in mind the fact that the official Opposition have no direct representation in Scotland?

This is an unusual situation, but unusual situations merit unusual responses by the House.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Do you agree that the Bill is not a "Scotland" Bill but a United Kingdom measure, so the United Kingdom Parliament should decide on it?

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

No, no. We cannot go on with points of order. I can deal perfectly well with the point. Many Members wish to speak in the debate, and I want to call them, so let me answer the original point of order.

Yes, of course, I looked seriously at the reasoned amendments on the Order Paper. I consulted for a long time this morning and gave the matter a great deal of thought, and I came to the conclusion that I have announced to the House. I want the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the rest of the House to understand that I took a great deal of time and trouble to consider those reasoned amendments, to take advice and to listen to it. But of course, finally, I have to make the decision, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Will the ruling that you have just made be a precedent for future debates on Scottish and Welsh measures?

The hon. Lady is asking a hypothetical question. I deal only with matters of the moment, and I will deal with that issue when I need to.

This is an important Bill. On the face of it, it is neither long nor complex, but it is a first and decisive step towards delivering a Parliament for the people of Scotland. Therefore, it is a measure of great importance. That is marked by the fact that it is the first Bill to be given a Second Reading by the new Government.

The Bill will pave the way for that Parliament, and its passage is an essential preparation for it. The whole constitutional package that is to be presented to the House is important. Few of us would dispute that there is widespread cynicism about the political processes and, arguably, democracy itself is in some disrepute. Most Members of Parliament—however much we might disagree about the solution—would accept that this is a very real problem. It is this problem that we are, in part, trying to address with our constitutional measures.

What we are looking for is openness and accessibility in government, as well as modern, democratic and responsive government. The Parliament that we envisage in Scotland—working within the framework of the United Kingdom and strengthened by that—will put under democratic control the substantial and extensive powers at present exercised by the Secretary of State for Scotland. We want to make those accessible and more immediately responsive to the public will in Scotland.

The Secretary of State has referred to making government more open and accessible and to the "whole constitutional package". Would not it have been better to have held the Bill back until we could see the detail of the Government's constitutional proposals?

I am getting some advice from my Back-Bench colleagues, which I gladly accept.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) will not be surprised to hear that that is not my opinion. The Bill will allow a test of public opinion and is a matter of establishing consent. It is not a Second Reading aperitif for devolution in Scotland or Wales. There is, I would argue, a strong case for having a test of public opinion, but whether we should or should not is the question before us. If the Bill reaches the statute book and we move to the referendum, there will be a White Paper that will clearly set out the scheme and which will inform the public of the details—although I have to say that, in Scotland, Wales and other parts of the country, these issues are well understood. In any event, the White Paper will set out the scheme in some detail, and it is on that basis that the arguments will rage. It may be that I shall come across the hon. Member for Sevenoaks in my travels, which will be a pleasure. It is then that the arguments on devolution itself will take place.

When will the people of England be consulted on what they think about all this?

That is a rather brave point, but I have to accept that the right hon. Gentleman is sometimes brave to the point of perversity. He is brave in making that point, given the recent election results in this country. In any event, there is a clear precedent from 1979. This is a mechanism for testing opinion, which deals with the challenge repeatedly made by the Conservative party in Scotland and in other parts of the country—that there is no consent in Scotland. I shall return to that matter in a moment.