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Adjournment (Easter)

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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

2.10 pm

In this Adjournment debate, I wish to address three matters: first, the war in Iraq; secondly, a constituency interest which, in fact, has a wider national application; and thirdly, I want to say something about Parliament.

I want to say something about the laws of war or, as they are correctly called, the rules of humanitarian law. Humanitarian law applies to the conduct of war, and is different from the question whether a state may lawfully use armed force. I said in the House well before the conflict started that what we are doing in Iraq is perfectly lawful. However, the separate body of humanitarian law attempts to limit the effects of armed conflict, mainly by restricting the means and methods of warfare. It is contained in customary international law, and now most notably the Geneva conventions of 1949 and the additional protocols of 1977. Humanitarian law demands that the means and methods of warfare must discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and military objects on the one hand and civilians and civilian, cultural, religious, medical and similar objects on the other. There is also a prohibition on means and methods of warfare that cause severe or long-term damage to the environment. In addition, certain weapons, such as chemical and biological weapons and anti-personnel mines, are banned.

States have an obligation to ensure that their armed forces and citizens comply with the rules of humanitarian law, and must have a system to punish breaches of those rules. This country has created offences in our domestic law for breaches of the Geneva conventions and the protocols. My experience as a Law Officer during the Kosovo conflict was that we are scrupulous in complying with the rules of humanitarian law. That does not mean that mistakes do not occur, but I was impressed by how mightily our armed forces attempt to comply with their obligations under the Geneva conventions. We may discount media reports of the behaviour of some Iraqi combatants, but it is clear that there is no moral equivalence between the means and methods of the British armed forces and certain elements in the Iraqi forces.

As for combatants, the Geneva conventions require, first, that they be members of a state's armed forces. Secondly there is a principle of distinction—not only must combatants comply with the laws of war, as I have outlined, but they must distinguish themselves from civilians, not least by carrying their weapons openly. If combatants fail to comply with those requirements, they run the risk of losing protections accorded to prisoners of war by the conventions. At a basic level, those conventions demand respect for the lives and physical and mental integrity of POWs, but there are other advantages such as registration and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In the last few days, the status of the Fedayeen militia has been at issue. The Ministry of Defence has said that there is no case for treating those paramilitary forces as unlawful combatants, whether or not they are wearing military uniforms. That is right—they are identifiable, are in a war zone, carry their weapons openly and hence are entitled to POW status. Even unlawful combatants must not be treated inhumanely—I shall discuss that issue in relation to the detentions at Guantanamo bay.

In my view, British troops are governed by the European convention on human rights. The United States is a signatory to the international convention on civil and political rights, so its troops are bound by similar standards. Both conventions include standards such as the right to life, the prohibition on torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, and the right to liberty or, to put it another way, the right not to be unlawfully detained. That last right is at issue in Guantanamo bay. I have raised that matter with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary by letter and in parliamentary questions. One of the detainees, Shafiq Rasul, lives just outside my constituency in Tipton, and his family is well known in Dudley. The United States uses various legal arguments to justify the detention Shafiq and others. First, it invokes the principle of distinction, which I have already mentioned. The argument is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were unlawful combatants because they were not members of the armed forces of a state. That is certainly the case with al-Qaeda, which is terrorist organisation, but the argument has less force in the case of the Taliban. The United States, however, argues that those combatants are not entitled to protections for POWs in the Geneva conventions.

Secondly, as foreign nationals not on US sovereign territory, those detainees do not enjoy the ordinary constitutional protections of Americans. That contention has been upheld by the federal United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. That decision is regrettable because it turns on an arcane point of property law—the 1903 lease of lands agreement between the US and Cuba established that Cuba had de jure sovereignty over Guantanamo bay. The reality is that Shafiq and other Britons are being held indefinitely. Our Court of Appeal considered the matter late last year in the Abassi case and said that the detainees are being held
"in apparent contravention of fundamental principles recognised by both English and American jurisdictions and by international law".
What is objectionable, as the Court of Appeal, said, is that Shafiq, Abassi and others are without any opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of their detention before the courts.

My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the de jure jurisdiction of Cuba under the 1903 lease. Is he aware of what that lease says to give individuals rights that they have otherwise been denied?

The wording of the lease is such that Cuba has de jure sovereignty. Whatever the de facto position, the court held that, under the lease, Cuba still had de jure sovereignty. Of course, that does not accord with the realities of the situation, as the United States obviously has control of that base.

Once the war in Iraq is over, we would be perfectly entitled to press the United States to act in accordance with the rule of law in relation to Britons who are detained at Guantanamo bay. If they are guilty of offences, they must be punished but, by the same token, they must have the right to be accorded a hearing before a court or tribunal.

I now turn to a constituency interest. These are difficult times for manufacturing. There is a long-term structural decline, added to which there is a cyclical slowdown because of the world economic recession. There is a significant effect on jobs, and about 10,000 jobs a month are being lost in manufacturing. It still accounts for 20 per cent. of gross domestic product, and in my area of the black country and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), it accounts for 30 per cent. of GDP. A higher proportion of people are employed in manufacturing in our region than is the case nationally.

What do we have to do to move from low value added production to a more highly competitive economy, where good design, high technology and innovation will give us a competitive edge? What can Government do? The Government have established the Manufacturing Advisory Service. The figures issued in the past couple of days demonstrate that that is proving to be a popular service. It is responding to what manufacturers want. There have been about 8,500 inquiries, and 1,000 of those have led to further consultancies.

It is impressive that manufacturers have responded. I speak as someone who worked for a British manufacturer for eight years. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman think that many of those inquiries from manufacturers are prompted by their need for Government advice about how they should interpret, implement and apply the plethora of legislation that the Government have imposed on manufacturers since coming to office?

I do not accept that argument. I understand that the great majority of those inquiries are technical, with manufacturers asking how they can improve their performance so that they can move to higher value production. The Department of Trade and Industry claims that the in-depth consultancy work under the scheme has resulted in average productivity savings of £85,000. I am rather sceptical about that figure, but it may be true.

Government can do a great deal to improve skills. At a local level that can be done by colleges of education, such as Dudley college in my constituency. I have previously told the House of the virtues of Dudley college, which is the fourth biggest college in the country and offers traineeships and modern apprenticeships. It has a construction curriculum centre that has been recognised as a centre of excellence nationally. At national level Departments must work closely together, and in the past month or so I have been gratified that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has indicated that he will work much more closely with the DTI to improve skills levels in the economy.

Industry itself can do a great deal. It is in the driving seat. Recently some of my hon. Friends and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were at the launch of the Black Country chamber of commerce manufacturing support campaign. [Interruption.] It is a great pity that the shadow Leader of the House was not able to attend. The chamber of commerce says in its detailed statement that it wants to work with various partners, especially the educational establishments, it wants to change the perception of manufacturing, and more importantly, it wants to identify champions of the sector so as to stimulate the growth of high quality manufacturing establishments. It speaks of
"helping to identify niche segments, promoting higher value added activities, driving the way to fully exploit design and innovation, seeking to lead and inspire Businesses."
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, fully support that campaign. I invite the shadow Leader of the House to do likewise. I shall work with the chamber to advance that agenda.

The hon. and learned Gentleman breezily dismissed the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). Instead of speaking about what the Government can do, why does he not speak about what the Government should stop doing? Given that more than 99 per cent. of companies in this country employ fewer than 100 people, account for more than half of the private sector workforce and produce two fifths of our national output, why is he so complacent about the fact that those small businesses face a regulatory sea that is deeper and more hazardous than any that they have previously had to negotiate?

As I said to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I do not accept the argument that red tape is an unaffordable burden on the economy. Most of the regulation is designed to improve the position of those working for or affected by the activities of manufacturing establishments and businesses generally. I welcome that regulation.

Does not the criticism that has just been levelled at my hon. and learned Friend resemble the argument a few years ago that the national minimum wage would be disastrous and cause a great deal of unemployment? The Opposition have changed their tune on that.

As they must on a number of other matters, as well. We heard predictions that tens of thousands of jobs would be lost. Of course, the number of jobs has gone up by 1.5 million since 1997.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his generosity. He may have, as I have and as you may have, Madam Deputy Speaker, visited the Manufacturing Advisory Service in the west midlands based in West Bromwich. When I spoke to the advisers there, they did not speak about lots of inquiries about how to deal with red tape. They spoke about innovation, information sharing and how they could access the substantial funds that the Government have provided to help the transition in manufacturing to the high tech innovation to which my hon. and learned Friend referred.

I agree. Our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has reduced the number of sources that businesses must access if they want assistance. The West Bromwich centre is a good example of that.

I come to the third aspect of my contribution. [Interruption.] I know that the shadow Leader of the House is looking forward to it. It relates to the nature of the House, which may interest him. We need to improve our procedures. Recently, I was part of a working party set up by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, with the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). Under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Budd, the working party produced a report that was recently launched. It is entitled "Making Tax Law" and the argument of the working party paper was that fully to understand and enact tax legislation, we need entirely different procedures. It is an area where experts need to make a contribution much earlier in the process, so that we as legislators can fully appreciate what we are enacting.

After six years in the House, it seems to me that we spend far too long on some matters and not enough time on others. Recently, I raised an issue that other hon. Members, including the shadow Leader of the House, might consider trivial: legislation to implement the UN convention on contracts for the international sale of goods. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry says that there is no legislative time at present to deal with that, but it is important for our position as an international trading economy to sign up to that convention as soon as we can. It is not acceptable that we cannot find legislative time for that.

I want to say something about the House of Lords, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and his Committee are still considering. Let me set out my stall at the outset. I am not impressed by the case for an elected second Chamber. Much of that case proceeds on a false premise, which was starkly set out in the report of the Public Administration Committee, which states that Parliament's key task is
"holding the Government to account".
Elsewhere, the Committee's report refers to Britain's "uniquely powerful Executive". Although it may not be described as the key task, the argument is that reform of the House of Lords is necessary primarily to hold the Government to account. The royal commission adopted the same approach and even quoted Lord Hailsham's aphorism about an elected dictatorship, although it conceded that constraints on Executive Government were provided, for example, by the media. That premise leads to the notion of increasing confidence, enhancing scrutiny powers and boosting the legitimacy of Parliament by reforming the House of Lords.

In my view, once a party element is introduced into the equation, the key task of Parliament is not that of holding the Government to account. From the point of view of the governing party, it is to provide and sustain the Government. From the point of view of the main Opposition party, however, it is to undermine them. That does not mean that holding the Government to account goes out of the window, although from the point of view of members of the governing party, they will hold it to account as much through internal and informal party discussions as through parliamentary channels, if not more so. From the perspective of the main Opposition party or parties, that will happen as much through the media as through those channels.

My first point is that, if one starts with what I believe is a more realistic assumption about Parliament's key task, one can reach different conclusions about reform of the House of Lords. If one is talking about enhancing Parliament's ability to enable the Government to meet their manifesto commitment, one will come to a different conclusion about the role of the House of Lords. Secondly, discussions about House of Lords reform tend to assume that the reformed body will not lead to constitutional deadlock. Neither the royal commission, the Select Committee on Public Administration nor the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform suggest any alteration to the Parliament Acts. It is said that they provide sufficient safeguards against such deadlock. Of course, there is consensus against the introduction of significant new powers for the second Chamber, although there are suggestions that there could be more effective control over statutory instruments and a role in relation to some constitutional Bills.

My concern is not deadlock, which I concede would be rare. I am concerned about what an enhanced, more confident and legitimate House of Lords might do without any change in its formal powers. First, it can obstruct. In 1993–96, the average number of defeats was about 12 a year; since 1997, there have been at least three times as many. In addition to defeats, Bills have been withdrawn or delayed because of the Lords' obstruction.

Without any change in the formal powers of the House of Lords, there is a danger that an enhanced, more confident and legitimate Chamber will strain at the practices and conventions on which our constitution is based. If there has been a constitutional practice that the Lords should not challenge the clearly expressed view of the Commons on major issues of public policy, it has been sorely tested in the past couple of years. At present, there is a power to veto statutory instruments. It was previously the convention that that power would not be used, but that has now been white ant-ed out. The convention that the Lords should not stand in the way of manifesto commitments would be even more severely tested than at present by an enhanced and more confident and legitimate House of Lords.

I voted for abolition of the Lords, as unicameralism has its attractions—we have it in Scotland and other parts of Europe—but I can see that it is not a practical solution and it is, frankly, not on the cards. The difficulty with a fully and directly elected House is that the constitutional conventions will be under very great strain. None the less, reform must continue and we must deal with the hereditary peers. In terms of appointments, we should also ensure that the Lords do not become either cronies or a self-perpetuating oligarchy through an appointments committee of the great and good. We must also explore the possibility of indirect elections from the nations and regions.

Those are my three main points and I ask that they be considered before the Easter Adjournment.

2.34 pm

I should like to pick up on two points. I say to the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) that I am quickly coming to the view that either the House of Lords should be abolished or there should be an age limit on its membership, since my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), I and others led the Conservative party to victory in the parliamentary pancake race, only to find that we were not awarded the cup, which was awarded to the Lords on points because they were older than us. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Outrageous."] I am therefore taking a much more vigorous interest in reform of their lordships' House.

On a point of information, the record of the House will show very clearly that, in the 1992–97 Parliament, whenever both Front-Bench and Back-Bench Labour Members mentioned the minimum wage, they referred—this was more than six years ago—to a figure well in excess of £5 an hour. In fact, £5.75 was mentioned. It was on that basis that the Conservative party rightly warned against the impact in terms of job losses in certain sectors and about the differential effect on those who were higher up the scale.

I should like to make three points and I shall try to do so in slightly less time than the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North took to make his speech, as I know that many Conservative Members wish to make substantive contributions. First, it would be remiss of me not to share with the House the up-to-date news on the resurfacing of the noisiest road in the country, which is situated in the best county of Britain—we now know that officially—Devon. I refer to the A30 from Honiton to Exeter. I hope that it was not an omen that I received the information on All Fools' day, but the Department said that the concrete-surfaced section in question would be resurfaced, although the time scale is somewhat loose. It will happen in either 2004–05 or 2006–07.

Significantly, the roads listed for resurfacing are those where either 100 or more properties per kilometre are affected or the noise level is so high in terms of national comparisons that it is 3 dB greater than predicted. Clearly, the road is being resurfaced not because of the number of properties affected, but because of the noise level. Only four properties per kilometre are deemed to be affected, so the road must be very noisy indeed.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, who represents Exeter, feels keenly about the road and will be delighted if I stop standing up and asking him to sort it out. On a more serious note, I say to him that, when the road was under construction, I received many representations from people who were very concerned about the surface that was being chosen and the effect of the noise on nearby residents. At the time, I exchanged a lot of correspondence with the contractors and the Government. The contractors were able to choose from a menu of different surfaces. Of course, the noise aspect was flagged up in the inspectors' report, as it had been the subject of a public inquiry.

I am now concerned about the fact that I had it in writing from the contractors that the concrete surface, which they euphemistically described as whisper concrete, would be no noisier than a blacktop or tarmac finish. If the evidence that we have seen this week about the decibel level of the road is correct, that information was wrong. The question that I now put to the Parliamentary Secretary, which I know that he will put to the appropriate Minister, is as follows. I have handed the written data to Ministers in the past, showing the nature of the commitment made on the part of the contractors in terms of noise level, and they are clearly in breach of contract. It was incumbent on them to choose from the menu of surfaces, especially as the issue had been highlighted in the public inquiry, a surface that would meet that commitment. If that is not the case, I want to know, as in any other commercial—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary is making a hand gesture that Hansard will not be able to record. He is running his thumb over four fingers, which I assume means money. He is right that the matter is about money, but as there was a written commitment about the choice of surface, it is incumbent on the Government to charge the contractor with breach of contract.

The hon. Lady knows that I have supported her plea before. I have used the road and I continue to be amazed by local residents' patience. Does she accept that money is not the only factor, because if contractors are liable in the way that she suggests, surely we could speed up the process rather than having to wait until 2006?

That is exactly why I am raising the matter. We now have details of the work on noise levels. The situation is clearly not only about the Treasury making money available to the Highways Agency. The Department for Transport has a duty because public money and a public contract were issued, although the finished product was in breach of written commitments. I hope that the Department will pursue the contractors about the written promises because we should not have to wait so long for the work to be done. If the Department could get some money back, the work might take place a little earlier, otherwise we will have to wait three or perhaps four years, at best, which is a long time for my constituents.

Whisper concrete sounds a bit like a chocolate bar. Will the hon. Lady tell us when the contract was signed and when the road was laid, because if that was more than six years ago, the Government will not be able to sue for breach of contract because of provisions in the Limitation Act 1980?

I think that it is less than six years since the work was completed, and the issue was flagged up at the time. I shall check on that because I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's memory is better than mine. I register the point now, as I have before with Ministers responsible for transport.

The slow speed with which good and well-researched information about the safety of phone masts is identified is a matter of concern throughout the country and especially in parts of my constituency. I know that there is a separate debate about mobile phones themselves, but I wish to focus especially on the installation and use of masts. The Government often pray in aid the Stewart report, but much in that report and other European reports on the same subject suggests that we should err on the side of caution. It is all very well to do that, but that is done when there is insufficient properly researched information in the public domain. Such research has been based on the so-called heating effect of the emissions.

I remain very concerned, especially because of ongoing research that I have commissioned to examine differentials in not only European countries, but countries further afield. Many countries set limits on acceptable emissions that are lower than ours. Although we are told that we err on the side of caution, I am not convinced that we have got it right. A mast in Crediton, in my constituency, complies with UK emission levels but would not have been allowed in other countries. Such disparities may be based on conflicting scientific information, so it is incumbent on us to access the best worldwide scientific research to try to plug the gaps in our knowledge.

Thermal emissions and the heating effect are not the only aspects of the impact of phone masts that cause concern. The Exeter Express and Echo—the Parliamentary Secretary will know it only too well—recently printed an article about a Devon doctor, Dr. Blackwell, who speaks regularly about the subject. Dr. Blackwell said:
"The tests they are carrying out regard thermal effects but we are looking at non-thermal effects. Heating from emissions is not the issue … Unfortunately, local authorities, when dealing with planning, are allowed only to refer to the guidelines on thermal effects".
The article went on to say that Dr. Blackwell
"claims emissions from masts weaken the blood-brain barrier and allow toxins to pass into brain cells. Evidence from countries such as Russia showed that pulsed radiation from masts could cause leukaemia, miscarriages, epilepsy and other ailments."
We need more open-minded investigation of research from throughout the world to identify and fill gaps in the research programme.

I am unhappy about the safety of mobile phone masts. I would not claim to be an expert on the technicalities, and I am sure that many hon. Members have more knowledge than I, but one of my constituents recently wrote to ask me:
"Could you tell me how many Microcell transmitters are exceeding the power output expected for a Microcell and in fact are emitting powers comparable to a Macrocell".
We all understand the demand for mobile phones and technology. Sometimes masts do not require planning permission if they are erected on land such as railway-owned land. Planning authorities work on what Government guidelines tell them, but the guidelines are based on an inexact science. That is not only dangerous but it makes the situation difficult for the planning authority.

I want to say only one thing about the war, because this is not the time for a detailed examination of the questions that must be answered when it is over. Before the war began, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether we had learned lessons from our experiences in Afghanistan. Our special forces went into Afghanistan to try to locate Osama bin Laden in the mountains along the border with Pakistan only to find that there was no one there. The map of where they were going had been printed in the British press the day before and I told the Secretary of State that it beggared belief that we were so daft as to allow that. Although he did not use the same language as me, he seemed to agree.

I have watched the news coming from Iraq, as everyone does. Although every reporter based in Iraq prefaces each report by saying, "I can't tell you where I am," in the end they do tell us. I do not know whether people have noticed this, but even if the reporters do not actually say where they are, a map is helpfully shown on the television screen to back up what they say. Consequently, information about troop movements and which bridges have been taken or are yet to be taken is broadcast on our screens. We are mad to put out such information in advance of sending our troops in to deal with the situation.

2.48 pm

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said that this is not the time to consider Iraq in any depth, but I am afraid that my speech will be entirely about Iraq. At business questions, I called for a debate on the reconstruction of Iraq after the war, including discussion of how a democracy will be put together and how its society will be rebuilt. I shall not enter that debate now, although I might set out some of the problems with which we must deal. A debate on reconstruction will involve us all, irrespective of our position on whether the invasion should have started, because we should all be equally concerned about Iraq's future. Those of us who oppose the war must face the fact that it is progressing and unlikely to be abandoned. We must therefore consider the consequences and what should happen when we reach the end of the war.

I want to use a book by Dilip Hiro, entitled "Iraq: A Report from the Inside", which I recommend to hon. Members. It is currently available in bookshops; it has hit the market at the right time although it was written before the war started. Its points about the risks are relevant because they are now being experienced, and we should examine them.

Dilip Hiro has written about the middle east, India and racism. He has produced some 20 books, although this is the first that I have seen. I shall read more of his work, especially his background to the current position in the middle east, Iraq and more widely. I want to consider some of his points about the danger of engaging in the sort of invasion in which we are involved.

First, he states:
"Iraqis are known as staunch nationalists. They mounted a yearlong popular uprising against the British mandate in 1920."
We should be conscious that we are the old imperial power in Iraq. I shall speak about the problem of the United States of America being our partner later. Its involvement is perhaps even more problematic. The United Kingdom's involvement creates great problems. We drew Iraq's boundaries, and did so deliberately in our interest. We excluded Kuwait from the Basra area and added the Kurdish area to it to create an area that we believed we could run and control, and perhaps divide and rule. We gave it a limited port facility in the south of the country, which is its only access to the sea.

The League of Nations handed us a mandate to run Iraq. When it gained its independence in the 1930s, we retained Crown territory for 25 years or so under a treaty arrangement. It included the camps of Habbaniya, Shu'aiba and Basra. Basra was a movements unit, where I did my national service from 1954–56. There were Iraqi levies with British officers, who operated in the country. The agreement ended in 1955, and Harold Macmillan, as Foreign Secretary, did a deal in the Baghdad pact, which allowed our troops to remain. They were there, for example, during the Suez crisis in the following year. The Crown territory was handed over, the Iraqi levies were disbanded and given the opportunity, which most of them took, to join the Iraqi army.

The Suez crisis in 1956 had a big impact on Iraq. In 1958, a revolution took place under Kassim. It was a free officers' movement, which enjoyed popular support. The Iraqi communist party was one of the major underground movements, which had been active in the docks and oilfields for a long time. It has often expressed the views of the Iraqi labour movement. For five years, there was great hope, until a coup took place. After coup and counter-coup, matters degenerated to the position under Saddam Hussein.

Iraqis are staunch nationalists, whether they are Shi'a, Sunni or from other groups. Perhaps it is less true of the Kurds, who are loyal to Kurdistan. The point is important because it makes it difficult for Britain to be accepted as the shaper of the future in Iraq.

Secondly, Dilip Hiro writes:
"Saddam is unlikely to repeat the blunder of exposing his armed men and material in the desert as he did in the Gulf War. Indeed, he is reported to have planned urban warfare".
We are clearly in that position and may have fallen into a trap in the gallop to Baghdad, which has left Basra and other areas under siege. We have not been able to tackle the problems there and will have to return to them later. It is a mistake to believe that taking over Baghdad means that the rest of the country will automatically fall into line with the so-called coalition—which in fact would be better described as a collusion between us and America, with a small involvement from Australia.

Thirdly, Dilip Hiro states:
"The key difference between now and the Gulf War is that in 1990–91, the Arab governments had a monopoly over the broadcasting channels and most of the print media."
There is a considerable extension of Arab media facilities, which matter tremendously because of the attitudes that subsequently develop in the Arab world, the middle east generally and further afield among Islamic groups throughout the world. They perceive a position that reinforces their views about what is occurring.

The book's fourth point is as follows:
"To imagine that a people who have suffered grievously at the hands of the United States for twelve years … would turn out in thousands to greet American soldiers and their Iraqi cohorts as liberators seems unrealistic."
America's position in Iraqi eyes is anti-Palestinian and linked to Israel. Whatever the details of those matters and however we would finesse them, that is the understanding of the Iraqi people. Furthermore, Saddam Hussein has often played that card. He once even cut off all oil exports from his country to western nations because of Israel's actions, stealing a march on the rest of the Arab world.

Fifthly, the book states:
"When a country is attacked, its citizens rally around the leader",
and that is true however disagreeable the leader is. The Secretary of State for Defence pointed out that 50 per cent. of the Iraqi population had been born during the reign of Saddam Hussein. It is difficult to get a handle on different perceptions in such circumstances.

Dilip Hiro's sixth point is that
"Saddam would have no qualms about deploying chemical or biological agents if he possesses them".
Citing such weapons as a ground for taking action is dubious. Either there is not much there, thus making action unjustifiable, or there is something extremely dangerous there, which is liable to be used in the circumstances that now pertain.

Seventhly, the book states:
"The task of locating Saddam and/or his close associations and/ or renegade generals will be long and hazardous."
It will be long and hazardous even if we take over Baghdad because the mopping up in other areas will be a big job.

The eighth point is that the war will end up diluting and complicating our commitment to pursue our war against terrorism. I believe that any response to terrorism needs to be intelligence-led. We need to be able to draw on the intelligence in the wider world—in areas such as Pakistan, for example—to defend ourselves against potential terrorist activity, rather than giving it a field day as we have done by engaging in the actions that we are currently pursuing.

The ninth point is:
"In the economic field, the disruption of oil supplies from the region will hurt the economies of the United States, the European Union and Japan".
Saddam Hussein has used that weapon on a number of occasions in the past—to advance his position against the Clinton regime, for example.

The 10th point states:
"Politically, unlike in Afghanistan or Yugoslavia, there is no Iraqi leadership waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum left by Saddam's overthrow and initiate a democratization process.
This is something about which we need to have a debate. It is tremendously difficult to see what bits and pieces there are to place together. If Members look in "Europa", which gives information about different nations, they will see that the section on Iraq includes a list of 20 different political groupings that have formed together in six different alliances on different occasions. That probably just touches the surface in terms of what is around and who is attempting to work together. In the Kurdish area, the two main Kurdish groups have often been in battles with each other. Sometimes one will form an alliance against the other using Saddam Hussein; at other times they will use Iran or Turkey. It is not easy to place these elements together.

The 11th point is that there is a chance of anarchy and the break-up of Iraq. In a debate initiated by the Opposition on 30 January, the Secretary of State for International Development pointed to the potential humanitarian nightmare that could occur if the war took place. The first point that she made in relation to that was the danger of large-scale ethnic fighting breaking out in Iraq. There will be many scores to settle with the old regime and against different groups, and to keep the lid on all that will be quite difficult.

The 12th point is the danger of the destabilisation of the post-Saddam regime from Iran and Syria, which is presumably why we have already heard threats from the United States in terms of its extending its redevelopment of the middle east by attacking those nations.

The 13th point involves the problem of Iraqi Kurdistan. The great difficulty is that the Kurds want a nation to be put together that includes the southern sections of Turkey, bits of Syria and areas in Iran, as well as northern Iraq. That is their objective and it could produce great destabilisation in the area.

The final point is this:
"If democracy is delivered to Iraqis by the Americans arriving in tanks and helicopter gunships, then the local people and other Arabs will perceive it as a consequence of a defeat inflicted on them by their nemesis, the Israeli-American nexus."
That is the perception that will exist in the area.

Those are the massive difficulties and problems that there will be. We need to try to handle them in some way, and to overcome them. We also need to draw these matters together in terms of talking about how on earth we can achieve something democratic in these circumstances in Iraq, and how on earth we can achieve reconstruction and bring decent standards of life to a people who have suffered grievously over many years from the actions of Saddam Hussein and from our reactions to him.

3.4 pm

I always enjoy participating in these debates, and I can honestly say that I usually go away from them feeling that I have learned a great deal. That is not a familiar experience in all debates in the House, as other Members will testify. Today has been no exception, and I look forward to hearing further contributions from colleagues on both sides of the House.

I should like to return in a few minutes to the issue of the war and how it is being perceived, and to the issues that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has just touched on about the post-conflict situation, because they are obviously at the top of our minds. I am sure that we shall have other opportunities to think about them before we go into the Easter recess, but this is a particularly good opportunity to consider in more general terms and over a longer time scale the lessons that we need to learn. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman not only for giving us a guide to the contents of the book "Iraq: a Report from the Inside", but for giving us some very clear guidance about the issues that we need to address.

I was particularly struck by the hon. Gentleman's reference to the need for our response to terrorism to be intelligence led. That is a much wider issue than that of what happens in Iraq over the next few weeks, because it will affect the next few years. Indeed, colleagues might have heard a discussion on the "Today" programme this morning about the difficulties not only of peacemaking but of peacekeeping after hostilities, in which comparisons were made with the Balkans.

I was also struck by the erudite contribution by the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) about the Geneva conventions and, indeed, the other international conventions. I hope that he is right in saying that, as soon as the hostilities are over, the United States Government will be faced with a challenge that what would seem to many of us to involve double standards, in terms of those who are imprisoned in Cuba with very limited rights. I fear, however, that I do not entirely follow him in terms of the problems facing manufacturing industry, not because I do not agree with him that such problems exist—clearly, they do—but because I find it extraordinary that he could deal with them without any reference to the difficulties that manufacturing industry faces in terms of exporting to euroland. Those difficulties have been reduced somewhat by the reduced discrepancy between the currency valuations, but they are still there, and manufacturers in Cornwall are facing a considerable uphill struggle, in common with agriculture, fishing and the tourist industry.

I share the hon. and learned Gentleman's concern about the way in which we deal with very detailed issues of tax law. I served on the Standing Committee for a Finance Bill one year and, frankly it was a terrible experience for me—not just because I was so ignorant but because I felt no wiser by the end of it. I did not feel that, collectively, we had done a good job, and I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is right to have concerns about those matters.

I take issue with the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments about the reform of the House of Lords, which I thought were extraordinarily timid. I assume that he was a member of the party that signed up to a manifesto that wished to make the second Chamber more effective and democratic. Frankly, it is not going to go that way if the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister are allowed to dominate the further discussion. I do not think that I would be breaking any confidences of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform if I said that, so far as I am aware, the hon. and learned Gentleman's view is not accepted or endorsed by anybody on that Committee from either House or any party. We must move on, for the very good reason that was often articulated here on a Thursday afternoon by the former Leader of the House, which is that good government depends on good parliamentary scrutiny. We are clearly not getting that, collectively, from the two Houses of Parliament working together. It is not a question of one House challenging the other. It is a question of both Houses working together to make Parliament more effective. I was particularly disappointed that a former Minister and a thoughtful Member of the House should take such a pessimistic, defeatist view.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) about the surfacing of the A30 and I entirely agree with her. Of course, that is not the only section of the A30 that suffers from so-called whisper concrete. We also have it to the west of Exeter, around Oakhampton. I use that road twice a week on my way to and from Exeter station when I come to the House. I entirely endorse her view that, collectively, we should—I was going to say blackmail, but that would be an improper word to use—at least persuade the contractors to bring forward the dates for the improvement of that service. I am sure that she is right.

I return to the hon. Lady's point about the lessons of Afghanistan and, in particular, the role of the media. Recently, we have heard many quotations, some of them misquotations, from Aeschylus, who, I gather, wrote in the 5th century BC. He said:
"In war, Truth is the first casualty".
That, apparently, is the proper way to render that statement. This morning, I heard—frankly, with incredulity and dismay—the Home Secretary's comments on media coverage of the Iraq hostilities, which, significantly, were made in the United States rather than here. There seems to be an implication in what he said that western journalists, particularly in Baghdad, are the stooges of Saddam's media managers; that was echoed a couple of hours ago when a Conservative Member attacked the BBC on similar grounds following the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence.

Members may also have heard on this morning's "Today" programme a robust and persuasive defence of the integrity of those journalists by Robert Graham of the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. Those journalists are incredibly courageous—they are taking their lives in their hands in Baghdad, and they are managing to report the situation as they see it in the most dangerous and difficult conditions.

Long ago, in one of my many failed previous careers, I was a journalist. I would not have dreamt of accepting an assignment to Baghdad in the current circumstances. We should be saluting the courage of those journalists, not in any way decrying their commitment to good journalism. Indeed, several highly respected journalists have already lost their lives in Iraq, so I find it difficult to accept the criticisms that have been made.

What did the Home Secretary say? He said:
"For the first time in our history we not only have thousands of journalists with our troops but we have broadcast media behind what we would describe as enemy lines, reporting blow-by-blow what is happening."
In fact, as the BBC has noted, there are not thousands of journalists involved, but hundreds, as well as an estimated 250 press officers with coalition forces, so that is a bit of a worry to start with. Of course, there were also reporters in Baghdad in the 1991 conflict, giving blow-by-blow accounts.

It does not help that the Home Secretary, while complaining about spin, appears to be spinning himself. None of us can trust anything that the Saddam regime tells us. We know that, and most of the Arab world knows it. It also knows that his media machine is very suspect. Perhaps even more significant than the Home Secretary's comments on the messengers and their message is the fact that the al-Jazeera network has suspended broadcasts from Iraq today. Why? Because its editor refused to continue to broadcast after the Saddam regime expelled two of his journalists. We should recognise that, rather than simply make attacks.

As our troops are putting their lives on the line to create a more open, more democratic and free Iraq, I believe that they are entitled to expect higher standards from western politicians than the world has seen from Saddam. Our public are entitled to that as well. For example, we still do not know whether there was a substantial public uprising in Basra. The media teams on our side suggested at the time that there was and that it had been ruthlessly put down. Surely we should know by now. If we do know, we and the public are entitled to hear about it. Similarly, we were told by the US and UK authorities that a chemical warfare factory had been discovered, but everything then went quiet. Was there one or was there not? Have the media been told to shut up or was the claim, by any chance, an overexcited bit of spin—a false report?

We should bear it mind that our own Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have repeatedly emphasised disarmament and the so-called weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for our participation in the war, and that Ministers here have refused to accept the Bush doctrine of regime change as sufficient justification. The media have yet to tell us whether stocks of any such weapons have been found. Given the proportion of the Iraqi land mass that has been liberated, one would expect some evidence to have been discovered.

Of course, I accept that even very small amounts of biological or chemical ingredients could be absolutely devastating, although I accept also that those would not be easy to find, but one would have expected some disclosure or some hints by now. If the US intelligence services knew where they were stored, surely they would have tipped off the UN inspectorate years ago.

Reference was made to that issue during the exchanges earlier between the Secretary of State for Defence and my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). There is at least a mystery here. I do not think it sufficient just to refer to protective equipment, because that in itself does not prove the existence of an horrendous arsenal, which is what the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers told us was there. Is something being kept from us? The media have a role to play in trying to establish that, and we should not simply accept assurances from our own press and spin doctors.

There was also the curious incident, which, as I saw it, went largely unreported, of the camp found in northern Iraq that belonged to a group linked to al-Qaeda. That group, however, was specifically anti-Saddam, which suggests that it and its links to al-Qaeda were not sufficient justification for the war. If anything, they were to the contrary.

By contrast with the complaints made by the Home Secretary in the US last night, my main complaint about the media involves excessive intrusion and excessive coverage. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton: there have been too many obsessively close-up and graphic reports of action and fatalities for my taste. Certainly, there have been unpleasant examples of "doorstepping" of the wives, parents or families of those who have lost their lives on our behalf, almost as soon as they have been officially informed of the loss of life. I find that very difficult to take.

Also, I find it hard to believe that the extraordinary scale and tone of the coverage is necessary, desirable or helpful to the families who are directly involved. In the first few days of the hostilities, taking a cue from the American media, there was a tendency to make it all look like a computer game—a casualty-free, remote, electronic playground—which could keep everybody cheerfully gung-ho for a few days before normality was restored. Tragically, we have all learned that no wars are like that, and certainly this war is not like that. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to another aspect of what has been happening: so much detail is given that assistance could be given to the enemy forces and their intelligence services.

I also find the falsification of photographs difficult to take. An example of that was given in the media this morning after a photographer had clearly falsified a photograph, obviously with the intention of making it more dramatic. Even now, the paper mills are struggling to produce enough newsprint to supply the apparently insatiable and ghoulish appetite of the editors. I wonder who reads and watches all this. Who manages to watch the interminable TV punditry?

What about the compulsory spin? It is surely significant that every single one of Rupert Murdoch's more than 100 newspaper editors all over the world vigorously supported the American justification for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, whether the local population were doubtful, enthusiastic or antagonistic to hostilities. What an amazing coincidence.

I have been a working journalist, and I know many print and broadcast journalists who share those concerns, but their anxieties seem to have been overruled by the decision makers at the top. It is as if the media moguls had invested so much in the operation that they were determined to legitimise it and then to extract their full money's worth from it. I consider both aims deplorable.

We need not subscribe to the suspicion of conspiracy, so dreadfully fuelled by the notorious Jo Moore e-mail of 11 September, to worry about what is happening behind the scenes. The fog of war lies low over domestic politics too, as was revealed this morning by the results of an excellent survey reported in The Independent.

The Minister may laugh, but I do not think this is funny, and I do not think viewers and readers find it funny. They expect high standards of journalism from Britain. That is one reason, no doubt, why the Minister would accept that we must defeat the dictatorial attitude of the Saddam regime.

I too read the survey results in The Independent, which is my newspaper of choice. I reflected deeply, and it struck me that we have two options. I invite the hon. Gentleman to agree or disagree. In my opinion, either we suspend the domestic agenda or we continue it, taking due note of the fact that the most important item on it is the fact that our troops are fighting overseas. Does the hon. Gentleman think we should suspend the domestic agenda or not? If he thinks we should not suspend it, let me say that I suspect that some of his hon. Friends would criticise the Government if announcements were delayed, for instance, and would suggest that the Government were burying information by not releasing it.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I do not think he was listening very carefully to what I was saying. My criticism is this: we seem to have lost the balance in the media, and I think the Government have taken advantage of it. That is not just a criticism of the Government; I am criticising editorial balance. I think the distinction is important.

For everyone's sake—for the sake of our troops, the people of Iraq, those in the wider middle east and indeed the international community—we must simply hope and pray that the war is over soon. But that is also a good reason for trying to be sure that we return to a world in which the media take responsibility for balance—a balance that I believe is desperately needed at the moment.

3.22 pm

I apologise for the fact that I must leave relatively early. I hope I shall be forgiven. Normally I would be present for most of the debate, but I am attending a meeting of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

I agree with what was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) about manufacturing industry. He and I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), know only too well what happened in the 1980s and early 1990s, when two major recessions caused so much harm to the black country manufacturing industry. We still experience many problems, but I believe that the situation has greatly improved.

I want to concentrate on the military conflict. I agreed with some of what was said by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about journalists. It is important to recognise their right to report. I do not agree with some of what they say—I am thinking particularly of one or two who have reported from Baghdad—but they have every right to put their views in a free and democratic country. I refer, of course, to the country to which they report.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a number of journalists have already died in the last fortnight. We recognise their courage in reporting the war, and note that we are better informed as a result of their journalism. I certainly do not agree with those who engage in journalist-baiting.

As was mentioned during questions on the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, today's newspapers contain interviews with a group of western journalists who had been held in a Baghdad prison on suspicion of spying. When released, they gave information about what had happened in the prison. One, a British journalist employed by the American newspaper Newsday, said
"There were beatings and torture going on outside our cells, in the corridor".
According to this report, the journalist
"described hearing the screams of other prisoners"
—not journalists; Iraqis, obviously—
"being tortured and saw some with eyes and faces bloodied and swollen."
He said:
"Other inmates hobbled round, apparently because the soles of their feet had been burned or otherwise injured."
That illustrates what has been going on in the country under Saddam's tyranny. We should have no illusions on that score.

I shall deal with the subject of post-Saddam Iraq shortly. Let me say first, however, that there would have been no discussion about what would happen in a post- Saddam Iraq if military action had not been taken. If we had listened to the critics—if we had heeded their advice that action should not be taken, however strongly we believed that the regime was holding weapons of mass destruction—Saddam's rule would have continued indefinitely. Even if he had gone in time, presumably one of his sons, no less a murderous thug, would have taken over. Critics argue, rightly in my view, that a major United Nations role will be needed once the fighting has ceased. Fine; but that would not be part of the scenario, or part of our discussion, had the United States and Britain not taken this action.

I believe that virtually every Member—I wish I could say "every Member"—wishes the coalition every possible success: wishes it victory. Yes, it would be nice to say "everyone", but I think everyone present understands why I cannot quite say that. I shall make no further comment about that; I think that the point has been taken. However, it is important to convey to people in Iraq—this is really why I am making this speech—that a permanent foreign occupation is not intended.

It is true that the Iraqi people have not so far come out to greet the soldiers, and why should they? They do not know the outcome, and they have lived for so long under terror and tyranny. As I said before the war began, though, I believe that the vast majority want to get rid of Saddam. What they do not want in any circumstances is permanent occupation of their country, particularly—this may seem derogatory in religious terms—by infidels. We would, I think, make a huge blunder if having achieved the military victory that is so essential, we proceeded to a long period of occupation. That would undermine what we are doing, to some extent. It would not, of course, undermine the freeing of the country from tyranny, but it would confirm the suspicion of people in many countries—not least those in the Islamic world—who do not accept our integrity, and do not believe that we are doing what we are doing for the reason we have given.

We need to clarify our position and, to a large extent, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did so at yesterday's Question Time. It is disturbing, as I said to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, to read reports that the United States intends to put in a retired general as governor and that the role of the UN will be minimised or confined simply to humanitarian aid. I make the point as strongly as I can that before elections take place—we all agree that there must be an interim period—the governance of the country should be through the United Nations. That is absolutely essential and it must involve those from Muslim countries.

If there is suspicion, concern and anxiety—not among extremists of the Muslim world who have their own agenda, but among other people who are far from extremists—it is because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has poisoned the atmosphere. As I said in a previous debate, virtually every hon. Member accepts the existence of Israel for reasons that we understand, but it should be an Israel with the 1967 borders. We must also accept the fact that for 55 years the Palestinians have had a raw deal. They have not been accorded dignity or experienced the economic possibilities that they should have had, and so many of them live in wretched refugee camps. The leadership of the western countries must have an understanding of the plight of the Palestinians, of what they have suffered and of why they feel so bitter and humiliated.

All the faults should not be attributed to Israeli action in 1967. I do not accept that. I was a Member of Parliament in 1967 and I said then that Israel had a perfect right to defend itself and not be destroyed. Since then, however, the Israelis have behaved in a manner that is totally wrong: it cannot be justified; it is inexcusable. Unfortunately, Israel has the likes of Sharon and others who are political and religious fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalism is not confined to the Muslim world: there are Christian fundamentalists and there are certainly religious fundamentalists in Israel who argue that because of what God is said to have promised in the Bible, they have the right to all the occupied territories. Of course they do not describe it as such: they talk of Judaea and Samaria.

I welcome the fact that, at long last, a United States President has said that he is in favour, in principle, of a Palestinian state, but he has to demonstrate more than Britain does—that he will put sufficient pressure on Israel to accept that a sovereign and viable Palestinian state should come into existence alongside Israel. If that happens in the next few years, it would be a great blessing not only for the Palestinians, but for Israelis and the whole international community. The absolute poison of that continued conflict would finally have come to an end.

3.32 pm

I am sorry to see that so many of the usual suspects are not in their places today. I wonder why not. Perhaps they are a little afraid, have lost their nerve and do not want to turn up to face the music. We should remember Labour's battle cry that things can only get better—a discordant tune that now rings hollow to all my constituents.

Public services are much worse under Labour. Let us examine the facts. The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) is laughing, but my constituents, who have to pay massive council tax bills this year, are not laughing. Local and national taxes have increased massively, whereas street crime, congestion, public transport and hospital waiting lists are all worse than ever. Our local post offices, chemists and the police stations in Castle Point are all under threat from Government policies. Our roads are grinding to a halt and our rail services have become much worse than they ever were. The Government have clearly lost their way.

We must make the Government start to listen to the people again, and the best way to do that is through the local poll booths on 1 May, in about four weeks' time. Our policies are much more relevant to people's needs because we have listened to the people. We learned our lesson—it was tough, but we learned. I am a good example of the Conservative party bouncing back and taking seats from Labour—and we shall take many council seats on 1 May.

Let me go through one or two Tory policies that are relevant to people's needs just now. For instance, we shall deliver more police patrols: 40,000 extra police will patrol our streets to make our communities safer and to deliver the streets back to the people who pay for them and deserve them. We shall pay for that by stopping the massive asylum payouts. I think that our constituents would welcome that.

The Tories will deliver better local services. The people in Castle Point quite rightly compare Southend's Tory-controlled council with their own Labour-controlled council. The Tory-controlled council delivers far better services, at an average cost to people of £400 per year less than Labour-controlled Castle Point. Is it any wonder that this Labour Government branded Labour-controlled Castle Point borough council as failing? Let us see what the people in Castle Point have to say about that on 1 May.

I shall read part of a letter from two of my constituents, Pat and Ken, whom I shall call Mr. and Mrs. W. On 23 March, they wrote:
"Commencing April, my pension, and that of my wife Pat, will increase by £13 per month for the two of us. Our Council Tax will increase by £18 a month from the same period. We will, therefore, be £5 a month worse off because of these totally unjustified increases. So much for the 'caring' Gordon Brown."
My correspondents go on to wonder whether the Chancellor would like to tell them why they should be grateful that he is looking after them so well.

Clearly, my constituents understand what Labour is about. They know that the council tax is yet another Government stealth tax. They know that the council tax increase has very little to do with Essex county council or the local borough council, but that it is to do with the shift of Government grants from the south-east up to the Labour heartlands. My constituents will not be putting up with that for very much longer.

The truth of what my hon. Friend has just said about the redistribution of resources is powerfully underlined in my own area. Is he aware that in Buckinghamshire, 7.5 per cent. of the projected 14.8 per cent. rise in council tax is exclusively attributable to Government theft from our area to prop up and subsidise their profligate friends in the north?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for supporting my argument and driving it forward. People up and down the country will be able to make their views known to the Government on 1 May.

Local pharmacies are part of the primary health care service. They are not just retailers; they are professional health care deliverers, and part of the very fabric of our society and communities. They take a great burden off GPs and, if regulations were relaxed just a little further, they could do even more—and they should be able to. We should celebrate and support them, rather than threatening them, which is what the Office of Fair Trading is doing with its control of entry regulation recommendation. I call on the Government to reject that recommendation, as it would damage pharmacies and set back the pharmacy service by 10 years.

The OFT recommendation would damage most the more vulnerable people in society. I am talking about people with mobility difficulties, young mothers with children and pushchairs, elderly people, people who do not have two cars, and disabled people—it is they who would suffer most. I therefore call on the Government to think carefully about the matter and introduce policies that would use pharmacies more, not put them under greater threat. I congratulate The Evening Echo, Yellow Advertiser and Island Times in Essex on backing local petitioners and chemists by drawing public attention to this important matter.

Last week, the Home Office Minister with responsibility for prisons visited Castle Point to look at the ongoing problems of youth nuisance. He walked around the Roseberry walk area, where traders regularly suffer from the antics of vandals and hooligans. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have raised that matter on the Floor of the House many times, and you will be surprised to learn that the Minister was discourteous to me: he did not even bother to drop me a note to let me know that he was going to my constituency—I had to read about it afterwards. That is a flagrant breach of the conventions of the House. It shows the Government's contempt and arrogance in stopping listening and in not treating this House with the respect that it rightly deserves by giving us the power properly to hold the Government to account and to represent our constituents' interests.

I have news for the Home Office Minister. It is his Government who are the architects of the burgeoning street crime, because, in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, they took away from the police the power to remove from young people on the streets and in public places unopened cans and bottles of alcohol. It means that, if a police officer finds a group of nine or 13-yearolds on the street with a six-pack of extra-strength lager, of which they have drunk three quarters of the contents of one can and not opened the other five, the police will remove the quarter-full open can and say, "Now go away and drink those other five cans somewhere else." What total nonsense. The Government have now made a humiliating U-turn and a complete climbdown by reinstating in the Licensing Bill—they could not even do it in a proper criminal justice Bill—the police's power to remove the unopened cans that my private Member's Bill gave them in 1997. I am glad that I have been able to put that matter on the record again.

The Government said in their manifesto that they would support the post office network, yet they recently announced that they expect 3,000 more post offices to close over the next few years. That is not supporting the post office network, but damaging the fabric of our community. They have also changed, in a disagreeable way, the method by which benefits and pensions are paid. That causes distress and harm to people, especially disabled people who cannot go to the post office themselves to draw their pension. Such people may use different people each week to do it for them, and cannot be spreading their PIN numbers around liberally. I ask the Government to consider that problem.

I also ask the Government to consider the universal bank account, which is very user-unfriendly. People with universal bank accounts are often the poorer people in our society, who could best take advantage of the significant discounts that utilities offer for setting up direct debits and standing orders, yet the universal bank account denies them the right to have a standing order or a direct debit. What utter nonsense. The universal bank account should be improved so that people can use it properly and benefit from it.

The Government are presiding over a progressive attack on our local village centres and community shopping centres in rural and urban areas. They are ripping out the heart of our community.

I turn to the war in Iraq. Some of my constituents support the Government's action and some are very much against it. I do not know which judgment will prevail, but I do know that, in a democracy, we must listen to all views carefully and take them into account. I believe that if, by taking action, we can on balance save lives, we should support a leadership that has the moral courage to take that action. That is why I support the Prime Minister and support our troops in Iraq.

Humanitarian aid is very important. The oil-for-food programme under United Nations resolution 986 has not worked terribly well and a lot of money is bottled up in it. Once the conflict is over, we shall have to release that money for real projects, such as hospitals and schools in Iraq. We shall also have to ensure that aid—especially food aid and medical aid—flows freely during and immediately after the conflict, We must never underestimate Saddam Hussein's ability to deceive and manipulate. His trickery is boundless and the depth of his evil and depravity is without parallel, as my constituent Jock Hall keeps telling me. He has, and will again in future if he gets—

Jock Hall is an engineer who has worked in the region and who knows the depths to which Saddam will go and how he manipulates situations. He is deeply concerned that Saddam might remove the chlorine plants that make the water safe, thus poisoning his own people; or even put lures on hospitals, schools or religious monuments to try to make our attacking forces mistakenly destroy those institutions so that he can drive a wedge between the coalition forces and the other Arab nations. I am sure that our forces are well aware of that kind of trickery—I know that the Minister is. We must be very careful about Saddam Hussein.

We must also be careful to resist a Turkish incursion in the north of Iraq, which would be very destabilising and damaging. I congratulate the Kurds on setting up what is in fact a parliamentary democracy with power sharing between the two main groups. That has removed the traditional conflict between those groups. The Parliament has been able to be set up because of the no-fly zone. It is a wonderful institution and I spoke in it myself about four weeks ago. It was a great opportunity to witness a democracy growing and getting stronger in that region. It could be a model for the rest of the middle east, if we can feed, fertilise and nurture it. For instance, that Parliament has proportionately many more women than ours. Some of them are feisty women and very eloquent speakers, who were doing a tremendous job.

I welcome what the Kurds have achieved. In a postwar Iraq, the new administration should flow from the Iraqi people themselves. We cannot impose it on them, but we must facilitate, encourage, advise and help them in developing good plans—the Iraqi opposition forces already have well-developed structures. In December, there was a conference on the issue in London, and about a month ago there was another conference at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. The opposition parties are co-operating. Of course, there will be a single federal state of Iraq, which will look after foreign affairs and defence. It will take all the oil revenues from the whole country, whatever the region, and then redistribute them equitably in a way that I am sure they will be able to agree on. The state will be based on a parliamentary representative democracy. Within the state there will be regional governments, one of which should be a Kurdish regional government. The Kurds accept that they will not get a separate state now, and that they will not be able to interfere with Kurdish minorities in Syria, Iran or Turkey. They are happy to accept a regional Kurdish government in Iraq as part of the federal Iraqi state. That is what they are unanimously asking for, and I welcome that very much. None the less, we must not take our eye off the Israel-Palestine problem; we must address that with great energy as soon as possible.

God speed and protect all our forces who are fighting out there. They have shown great courage, dignity and determination, and tremendous, characteristically British professionalism in executing their duties as servicemen and women.

Finally, I turn to questions about the federal state of Europe into which the Labour Administration are attempting to lead us. I invite the Minister to kill any last hope that Labour may have entertained that there will be a common European foreign and defence structure. Iraq has shown what nonsense that would be and how dangerous it would be.

Will the Minister give a commitment that we will withdraw from the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, both of which have been expensive failures, increasingly so during the past decade? I have called for such a commitment on other occasions, so the Minister should not look so incredulous.

Will the Minister denounce further tax harmonisation, which would destroy our competitiveness? That is why Europe wants tax harmonisation. Will he stop the ever-burgeoning burden of EU regulations that swamp us? Will he set up a serious programme to remove those unnecessary and inappropriate regulations?

May I take the hon. Gentleman back a few sentences? He seemed to be taking a position that surprises me, although it would not be surprising if it came from the Labour Benches. He said that the EU wanted to destroy the United Kingdom's tax system because it was competitive. Is his position that we have a competitive tax system?

It certainly is not. Our tax system could be much better—but it could also be much worse, and Europe would make it much worse. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has allowed me to clarify that point.

I was about to draw the attention of the House to one of the stupid regulations or directives that Europe comes up with. The EU wants to reclassify Canvey Island, which clearly is—as it has always been—an island, as mainland. The people who live on Canvey Island think that is complete nonsense and wonder what it has to do with Europe. That directive must come from the same drawer as those on straight bananas and lawnmower noise, but I shall move rapidly on.

Does the Minister accept that, for the foreseeable future, the single currency would be economically damaging and constitutionally and democratically disastrous for the UK? There is no question about that. Furthermore, will he get Mr. Kinnock removed as the EU's corruption tsar? Will the Government consider withholding Britain's contributions until corruption and waste are tackled seriously? That is clearly not happening at present.

My constituents are sick of having to pay the European Union a net contribution of £30 billion a year for membership of a club whose only beneficiary is the Prime Minister—as he believes. The right hon. Gentleman has designs for himself in Europe in the future.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case against European federalism in front of a prominent federast member of the Government. Given that there is to be an emerging constitution for the continent, under the terms of the Convention on the Future of Europe, does my hon. Friend agree that it is an urgent priority for Britain to make representations for a dramatic improvement in the principle of subsidiarity? Under the present protocol of the treaty of Amsterdam on the subject, no European directive or regulation that is damaging to this country has been repealed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point about the European constitution. I was about to move on to that. The House should hold a full-day debate on that matter, which is just as serious for this country as the single currency. It will be just as dangerous for us to take that route and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point so eloquently.

On the net contribution that we have to make to Europe, let me set out some of the figures so that there can be no confusion. In 2000, Britain's contribution to the EU was £10.719 billion and the abatement was £2.084 billion, so our gross contribution to the EU was £8.635 billion. Britain's receipts from the EU included £2.916 billion in agricultural support, and regional and social support amounting to £ 1.865 billion, so Britain's net contribution to the EU in 2000 was £3.854 billion.

I further believe that we would be better placed to protect and create jobs without the common agricultural policy, common fisheries policy, single currency, tax harmonisation and those regulations, so this is a plea for Britain to return to the simple and effective single market trading relationship and sensible co-operation, which we all thought we were supporting and voting for in 1972, 1974 and at other times.

3.56 pm

Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I should like to raise a number of issues on behalf of my constituents, the first of which concerns my constituent, Mr. Maajid Nawaz That gentleman has been awaiting trial in Egypt since April 2002. 1 and others attended a peaceful vigil on 1 April, this week, to mark the anniversary of the fact that Maajid Nawaz, Ian Malcolm Nisbett, Reza Pankhurst and 23 other people are waiting for their trials to continue in Egypt. Those people have been accused of offences relating to the membership of the Islamic Liberation party.

The Minister will probably recall that I have raised the case involving that gentleman before, but the reason why I am raising it again is that I am working very closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) and the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms) because we are all affected, with our constituents, by this issue.

I am particularly concerned about the Egyptian ambassador's response to our request to meet him, which I would have thought perfectly proper, following the meeting that we had with Baroness Amos. He wrote back just two weeks ago, saying:
"Reference to the letter … co-signed by a number of Members of Parliament, including yourself, regarding the case of the British men detained in Egypt on charges of affiliation to the banned Liberation party, and further to our previous correspondence in that matter:
I would like to underline the fact that the case currently lies in the hands of the relevant judicial authorities in Egypt, and that there is no possible way the Embassy, or any other entity, could interfere to influence its development or outcome.
Let me reassure you that the case will be handled with the fairness and impartiality our judicial system is renowned for.
I will be happy to continue sharing with you any relevant information we receive from the authorities in Egypt regarding the development of the case."
But of course, in a cleverly drafted letter, the ambassador did not agree to meet four Members of Parliament, one of whom happens to be a Minister. We have protested about that sorry state of affairs, and I understand that Baroness Amos will shortly have a meeting with the ambassador, after which, I hope, he will rethink his inability to be more forthcoming and have a meeting with us. Clearly, we are not going to discuss the flower arrangements in his office or the state of the wallpaper. We will discuss our concerns about the issue. It would be very regrettable for the ambassador to refuse to meet us.

The situation has continued for more than a year. The trial was due to continue yesterday but, yet again, was adjourned, until 19 April. Many of the relatives and loved ones take the view that the judicial process in Egypt is, in itself, designed to be a punishment. Given that the Parliamentary Secretary was a Foreign Office Minister, I ask him to use his best endeavours to ensure that the meeting takes place.

I was going to dwell on the council tax, but my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) did that for me by saying what a wonderful council Southend was. He highlighted the financial arrangements there and compared them with those in the Labour authority in his constituency. I shall miss out that part of my speech.

I want to share with the House the position concerning Southend airport and, in particular, St. Lawrence church. It is another issue that the Parliamentary Secretary has heard me mention, but he will understand its importance. Last night, the council considered the airport's planning application. I am delighted to tell the House that the council unanimously rejected the application.

I say "unanimously", but I notice that one Liberal Democrat Member is present. This point is not directed at the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), but perhaps he will pass it on to his colleagues. The leader of the Liberal group on Southend council was unfortunately excluded from the meeting because he was considered to have predetermined the application in his public statements. He had talked about the issue even though the new Government requirements for planning applications mean that one is not supposed to talk about such issues publicly. It has been suggested that he spoke about the issue for the purpose of electoral gain on 1 May. However, he was unable to take part in the debate and to represent the people who voted for him.

The council has nevertheless rejected the application. St. Lawrence church is 1,000 years old and we were first told that it would be moved. It would be a complicated and expensive process to put a 1,000-year-old church on to wheels and move it a few hundred yards. A little later the word "demolished" was said to be among the issues that the council was considering, but we were eventually told that the church would be rebuilt. Whatever the circumstances, the council has decided that the church will not be moved. I salute the council, and I have been inundated with thousands of representations from not just local residents but from people throughout the country. People have loved ones buried by the church and others have moved to Southend for various reasons. They were very upset by the application.

I do not know, at this early stage, whether the airport owner intends to appeal against the council's decision. If an appeal is made, it will go before the Deputy Prime Minister. No one in Southend wants the airport to close. The problem started because the safety organisation that is responsible for airports in this country decided that the church was too near the take-off point for aeroplanes. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will pass the issue on quietly to the Deputy Prime Minister. As I said, local residents do not want the airport to close.

I have been listening closely to my hon. Friend's contribution. He has mentioned the Liberal Democrats in Southend, and particularly the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Will he tell the House which way the Liberal Democrat leader might have been inclined to vote had he been at the committee meeting where he was not allowed to be?

I suspect that he had not been anticipating that the matter would come before the council before the local elections. I anticipate that because all the other councils were keeping their mouths shut, there would have been a whisper during the election campaign that the Conservatives were in favour of St. Lawrence church being demolished. Of course, he has been caught out.

Far be it from me to diminish or trivialise the significance of the important point that my hon. Friend has just made. May I put it to my hon. Friend through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that serious though it is if a Liberal Democrat councillor gets caught out, the House should be conscious that in some areas, including the Aylesbury Vale district council area, the Liberals appear to have failed even to find candidates to contest seats in a matter of a week's time?

I am being tempted in this season of good will as we move to the Easter recess to go in for Liberal bashing. Much as my hon. Friends tempt me, I am content for Hansard to be the true record of the points that we have shared. I hope that the Minister, in spite of what he has heard already, with which I entirely agree, will have a word with the Civil Aviation Authority to reconsider its decision in as much as St. Lawrence church will stay where it is. At the same time, we still want Southend airport to operate.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point pinched my speech, but he mentioned pharmacists. My next two points are about pharmacists and post offices. Almost every Member is now rising at the end of our proceedings to present petitions on these two issues, and I am no exception in that. The petition that I have presented talks about the Office of Fair Trading having recommended the Government proposals that would allow unrestricted opening of pharmacies able to dispense NHS prescriptions. It tells its customers that these proposals, if accepted, would mean that many local pharmacists would struggle to survive and that the services that pharmacies currently offer would be at risk. Worse still, they might go out of business.

Pharmacists point out also that instead of prescriptions being a walk away as they may be now, often local residents would have to get their prescriptions dispensed at a supermarket pharmacy at an out-of-town shopping centre.

I am a member of the Health Select Committee. I suppose that this is a jibe at the Minister, but the new arrangements for the times that we sit and conduct ourselves in the House are clearly not working. They are an absolute disaster. I know that the Minister is one of the greatest enthusiasts of the new arrangements, but I must tell him that many of his hon. Friends who called themselves modernisers are quietly saying, "What a disaster this is. Can we do something about it?" By stealth, we are already doing something about it on Wednesdays because we certainly no longer sit until 7 pm. However, we need to do something about sitting times on Tuesdays.

This morning, I was chairing a Standing Committee. At the same time, I wanted to be present at the Health Select Committee, which was taking evidence on the Office of Fair Trading report into the control of entry regulations and retail pharmacy services in the United Kingdom. To me, that was an important matter. There were expert witnesses from the OFT and independent pharmacists. There was even a representative of ASDA. Given the new sitting arrangements, it is impossible for me to chair a Standing Committee and attend a meeting of the Health Select Committee to do the job that I very much want to do. I enjoy being on the Health Select Committee.

There are many other examples of modernisation not working. It is not a case of Members of Parliament being lazy—it is simply that the new arrangements mean, particularly for the Opposition, who are depleted in numbers, that we are unable to fulfil our duties, serve on Committee or attend meetings. I hope that in his winding-up speech the Minister will tell us whether there are any plans for the House to have another vote on the matter. I know that the issue is sensitive because the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who was keen on the proposals, is no longer Leader of the House. However, I assure the Minister that many of his colleagues believe that the changes have been a disaster.

Does my hon. Friend think that the Minister should consider bringing forward the review of our hours from the end of the Parliament to the end of this Session because many Members are starting to demand that?

I am told that the only way that we can get the Government to have a rethink is to get an early-day motion signed by Members of Parliament who were in favour of the changes but are not any more. I do not know how brave and bold these modernising Members of Parliament are, but I hope that the Minister will take seriously the examples that I have just shared with the House which demonstrate that there is a frequent clash in our duties.

As for local pharmacists, the Government, we are told, intend to respond or give us an idea of what they will do in July, but the issue is causing great upset, particularly to my constituents. Out of 659 constituencies, my constituency ranks 30th in the number of senior citizens. I go to 100th birthday celebrations practically every day, and one lady in my constituency who is nearly 110 lives in her bungalow on her own. If you want a long life come and live in Southend. The local pharmacist is fundamental to my senior citizens' way of life. In the same breath, I want to express concern about what is happening to our post offices. Hon. Members will have been invited to a reception this afternoon organised by the Communication Workers Union, who have told us:
"the Government has taken the decision to pay pension and benefit payments directly into bank accounts rather than recipients collecting cash at the Post Office. The consequences of the public moving over to the Banking system and transacting their business elsewhere could result in up to 40 per cent. of Post Office business"—
a huge amount—
"being lost. This in turn could have serious consequences for our members' jobs and livelihoods. However it is still possible for benefit and pension recipients to collect their cash at the Post Office via the Post Office Card Account."
The union therefore launched its "Banking on You" campaign today.

I represent an urban area and am disturbed by what is happening to our post offices. According to the House of Commons Library, there are 19 urban post offices in my constituency. I have already received letters telling me that three of them are going to close. I know that this is a modernising Government, but I am sick to death of the term "modernising". I represent an awful lot of senior citizens, and they do not really want to be modernised—they like toddling down to the post office, having a conversation and collecting their money. The Government may say, "For goodness' sake, the last thing that you want to do is carry cash around with you," but that is a condemnation of their policies on law and order. There is no doubt that the closure of urban post offices is worrying a huge number of our constituents, and I hope that the Government will rethink the issue.

My next point relates to single-handed GPs. I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to present a petition on the matter. Our local newspaper, the Leigh Times, recently published a comment column headed, "GP vacancies is dismal news for Southend". It stated that
"a recent British Medical Association (BMA) survey showed that 10.42 per cent. of the GP vacancies in Southend had been vacant for three months … In only five other areas was the vacancy rates higher."
I have already shared with the House the fact that I represent a huge number of senior citizens. The newspaper comment continued:
"The survey showed, though, that vacancy rates among British GPs are rapidly increasing—which means that the remaining GPs are struggling to cope with the needs of well over a million extra patients."
Whether the Government like it or not, there is a huge issue concerning the recruitment of general practitioners.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) had an exchange with the Prime Minister on 3 July last year, in which the Prime Minister said:
"There has been a move over time away from single-handed practices so as to improve the quality of care that people receive."—[Official Report, 3 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 219.]
That was deeply insulting to single-handed GPs, many of whom are doing a magnificent job on behalf of our constituents. But what a crazy thing to have done, when more than 10 per cent. of the GP vacancies in Southend have been vacant for more than three months. Again, I hope the Minister will pass that on.

The House will be relieved to know that I have only two final points to gabble through. I have been inundated recently with letters from constituents about their financial affairs. They are not writing to tell me that they have so much money that they would like to give me some of it. They are writing to tell me that their investments are not giving them a wonderful return. A couple who invested with Aberdeen Asset Managers Ltd., said that when the company claimed that the returns were so high, they would normally have been suspicious and not touched the organisation with a barge pole. They go on to say:
"However, at the time Aberdeen were considered to be one of the most reputable of the Investment Management Companies."
I will not tell the House how much money was involved, but they have lost the lot through bad advice.

Then there is the dreadful situation of Equitable Life, which so many hon. Members have mentioned in the House. I have one pensioner who writes:
"I am an Equitable Life pensioner and am horrified at the way the affairs of this society have been handled over the years, with the result that my pension is continually decreasing."
The very helpful Treasury Minister wrote back to me immediately—I was pleased with the advice—telling me that Lord Penrose was conducting an inquiry into the matter. However, that is taking too long. It seems to be kicked into the long grass. All my constituents, like myself, are on life's journey. They are getting older and they need the support now.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene again. Does he agree that the Government could give tremendous help to all his constituents and old people around the country if they withdrew their pernicious advance corporation tax burden on pensions, which is costing pensions £5 billion a year every year? That is a major factor in the problem that he describes.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

My final point relates to the death of one of my relatives. I do not remember whether the Minister had his present job when I raised the matter before. Members of Parliament continually—although, we hope, not too often—receive complaints from constituents when a relative or a loved one dies. Their reaction may be that perhaps it was not the fault of the doctors or the hospital, as the care was wonderful. They have to go through the grieving process, and we have to give them reassurance and go through the Government's requirements for dealing with complaints. I am not making any complaints about the way in which such matters are dealt with in Southend.

The issue that I wish to raise concerns an aunt, Miss Kitty Martin. Although she has been dead for what must be almost three years, I am still trying to get some justice. I speak as a Member of Parliament who was involved in her health care from start to finish, via the hospital in Redbridge. The treatment was completely inadequate and the situation was disgraceful. She was in a mixed ward and was given electric shock treatment and prescribed drugs without permission. When I saw at a conference one of the consultants involved, he said "Just wait until tomorrow, because the final test is going to be done and we'll hopefully know what is wrong." I found out later that the tests had already been done and that he had not even been briefed. The situation was a complete shambles.

I want to share with the Parliamentary Secretary—I have to say that airing the issue publicly has not got me anywhere so far—the fact that I am now dealing with people who are new to their jobs, as others have left, so it continually seems that I am starting again. I am always sent back to the starting point, which is that I must have a round robin discussion with people who were involved in the care. Those people have now left the national health service or moved on, but at the end of the day, once we have had the discussion, I shall still refer the matter to the ombudsman. That is the issue now. At the moment—the case has gone on for almost three years—bits of paper are merely being pushed backwards and forwards. I have no complaint about the way in which Southend deals with problems, but I have a very big complaint about the way in which Redbridge health authority is dealing with this problem, and I would be very grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would try to assist me in dealing with it.

4.21 pm

I do not want to detain the House for too long, but I wish to raise a very important constituency issue which has been of concern for some time and which has certainly been given a timely twist in the past day or so.

Some years ago, when Devonport dockyard secured the contract for the refitting of the Trident submarines, there was great joy and celebration about the fact that such a valuable contract was coming to Plymouth and about the significant economic benefit that it would provide. Of course, some people were very concerned about having nuclear submarines in the Plymouth dockyard, which is very close to the city. Inevitably, over a period, the dockyard had to undergo considerable improvement. A new dock was created and many things had to be put in place to ensure that issues would be settled when the first Trident submarine arrived.

One of the relatively minor issues—it seemed minor in the initial stages, but grew in importance over time—was the discharge of radioactive waste, especially in association with the submarine's cooling systems. Although there are vast amounts of technical information, I shall speak in layman's terms for the benefit of the House. The issue relates to the water coolant around the nuclear power plant, which becomes radioactive over a period because of its proximity to that power plant. In older type submarines, the tritium—the radioactive substance—is relatively dilute in the water-cooling systems. The new Trident systems have a sealed unit, so the water coolant remains close to the power plant for much longer and therefore becomes much more radioactive.

Devonport Management Ltd. quite properly sought for the licence arrangements to be altered to ensure that the more highly radioactive discharges could be made in the same way as in the refitting of other submarines. That meant that there was an increase of about 700 per cent. in the radioactivity of such liquid discharges, which clearly concerned a number of people not only in my constituency but in other hon. Members' constituencies close to the River Tamar and throughout the country. Some people became anxious about significantly increasing radioactive discharges directly into the river.

I have raised the issue on several occasions in an Adjournment debate and through questions. I have held a lengthy correspondence with the Environment Agency. It is disappointing that the first Trident submarine has been in dock for more than a year and that the matter has not been finalised, given that the problem is a likely consequence of refitting the submarine in Plymouth and that that was probably known some years ago.

A few months ago, I received lengthy and complex reports examining the feasibility of creating a pipeline to discharge the treated radioactive effluent further out into the sea. The research was conducted under the auspices of the best practicable environmental option study. A further study—a radiological assessment of the discharges—has also been conducted. The reports are detailed and identify 11 options for dealing with liquid radioactive discharge.

The options include: discharge into the river, using the existing pipeline; discharge from an extended pipeline; routing liquid effluent via a sewage works outfall; disposal of liquid effluent by barge in national waters—I particularly favoured that option—and on-site and off-site cementation. No one could suggest that the feasibility study did not examine all the ins and outs of the process. However, it is interesting to note that although DML, the contractors, were extremely keen to maintain the existing system, the radiological assessment of the discharges states that, to stay where we are and bearing in mind that the figures are for comparative purposes, the discharge from the current location of the estimated annual dose of the critical group member is 0.59—I shall not go into detail about what that means—compared with discharge into national waters of 0.00096. In anybody's language, that means that people would be exposed to much less radioactivity if we chose the option of discharge by barge into national waters.

When we examined the matter further, it became clear that there were anomalies in DML's consideration of the option. I therefore wrote to the Environment Agency to suggest that it re-examined the matter because some of the DML's reasons were contradictory. It kindly wrote back and said that it agreed with me. In its rejection of the option, DML stated:
"Disposal of liquid effluent by barge in national waters … is against DEFRA policy"
but is not illegal under current UK law. That is important because we were trying to explain the difference between discharging the effluent into the river, which ultimately flows into the sea, and putting it on to a barge. It was argued that it ends up in the same place. However, putting it on to a barge and thus speeding its journey to the sea would satisfy many more people. It would not pollute the river as much as the current discharge and it would cause significantly less radioactive harm.

It became apparent this week that the European Union has decided that the Government will be threatened with legal action by the European Commission for breaching EU rules on the disposal of nuclear waste. In fact, the Commission says that the UK failed to comply with "major requirements" under EU law, when it authorised nuclear waste disposals last year from Devonport dockyard nuclear plant. The EU health assessment and radiation protection safeguards were ignored, according to the Commission statement.

The current Euratom treaty obliges all European Union Governments to notify any nuclear disposal plans, so that the Commission can assess the potential health impact on other EU countries. It is only right and fair that it should be given that opportunity before any permissions are given. The Commission then has six months to give its views on these transboundary effects. The treaty also includes a justification principle, under which the benefits of a specific nuclear waste plan must be shown to outweigh any of the detrimental effects. Again, that is easily understood.

The Commission was informed in January 2002 that the UK Environment Agency was about to authorise nuclear waste disposal from Devonport dockyard, following the refitting and refuelling of the nuclear submarines there. The statement that was made the day before yesterday said that that move was made without taking account of the Commission's job of assessing the plan, and without applying the justification principle, which
"constitutes a major principle of the radiation protection system".
I understand that officials have sent a "reasoned opinion" to the Government, setting out their objections and asking for an explanation. That explanation needs to be made much more clear. Having been raising this subject for well over a year and, having been unaware that we were transgressing European Union regulations, I think that it behoves the Government to seize this important subject.

The current Trident submarine is in dock, undergoing its refit. I do not know whether any discharge of tritium-affected water has yet taken place, or whether the liquid is still being kept on the submarine. Before any discharge takes place, however, the Environment Agency should surely be fully conversant with all the regulations that need to be complied with before any licence is granted. This subject has caused considerable concern for many people. Some scientists believe that tritium is nowhere near as dangerous as many people pretend it to be, while others provide equally expert opinion stating that tritium is a dangerous radioactive material that should be handled very carefully. I do not have a scientific background, and being bombarded by arguments from both sides is sometimes unhelpful. It is also unhelpful for members of the public who are trying to grapple with the issue.

Many of us believe that the precautionary principle should surround this whole question, and that, as a minimum, we should look into the proper regulation of any discharges and that the Environment Agency should take into account not only domestic DEFRA policy and current UK law but all European Union regulations. This issue has become critical. These matters should have been settled years ago, before the first submarine even came in. We are at a very late stage now. The Commission is clearly unhappy, as are many of my constituents. I think that even the Environment Agency is now beginning to feel that its position is not as solid as it has suggested in the past. It is time for the Minister to advise his colleagues that this issue has to be grasped. It is not going to go away, and a proper policy needs to be developed to deal with it, so that the public know that there is real protection for them.

It is clear to me that, on a precautionary basis, we should not discharge any radioactive liquid into the River Tamar. At the very minimum, we should be taking it well beyond our coastal waters, although keeping it in our national waters. But surely the best thing to do would be to retain it. We are not talking about huge amounts—not millions of gallons but a few thousand gallons of material that could easily be stored until we had a clear understanding of what we were going to do with it. There is a certain confusion, so if we allow discharges, perhaps under a licence that is not as solid as I believe it should be, we will do a great deal of unnecessary harm and cause alarm for my constituents and many others who live on and around the River Tamar.

4.35 pm

Before the House rises for the Easter recess, I want to raise with the Minister the case of my constituent Mr. Alan Clark, who was grossly unfairly dismissed by Hill Samuel, which is now part of Lloyds TSB. The cover-up surrounding his dismissal began in the 1990s and has stretched to this very day. In dealing with that constituency case, I want to touch on more general issues with respect to financial regulation. Indeed, I have a specific proposal for Treasury Ministers.

In coming across this injustice, I am indebted to our former colleague Sir Tom Arnold, who was Chairman of the Treasury Committee. He drew the case to my attention and, while Chairman of that Committee, also drew it to the attention of the Bank of England. As a consequence of that action, there was an inquiry—at least one carried out by the lawyers of Hill Samuel and Lloyds TSB—although its findings have never been published. I ask Ministers to look into the possibility of securing the publication of that inquiry so that it can be brought into the public domain. However, Sir Tom Arnold's work, with the assistance of Mr. Michael Gross, ensured that legal proceedings took place resulting in a criminal fraud conviction for one of the bank's senior directors, a Mr. Gordon Skingley.

My constituent Mr. Alan Clark was a director of Hill Samuel bank. He had an exemplary record of service over 22 years, but he was made redundant—I use that term advisedly—days before his 50th birthday. I was in the banking sector in the mid to late 1990s, and I know of many people in similar positions who were made redundant at that time, but the institutions concerned maintained a policy of ensuring that executives, managers and ordinary staff approaching that age could continue until they were 50, owing to the pension arrangements that would kick in when they reached that age.

I know for a fact that at that time Hill Samuel bank maintained just such a humane policy for its employees. After all, it costs the financial institutions concerned very little, but makes a hell of a difference to the individual. My constituent was made redundant at a cost to him of some 40 per cent. of his accrued pension rights. Why was he made redundant? I believe that it was because he stood up to the said Mr. Skingley, who was subsequently convicted of fraud. He blew the whistle and he was punished for it.

My constituent had spent 20 years running Hill Samuel's property section and dealing with the property portfolio. After a merger, the said Mr. Skingley took over that department and Mr. Alan Clark began to become familiar with his dishonest ways of doing business and his manipulation and falsification of figures to liquidate the bank's clients to his own advantage. In a particular case, he sought to do just that to Gross-Hill properties, a well-run and profitable property company with a large portfolio of business and freehold property in south Wales in which the bank was the major shareholder. Mr. Alan Clark was the bank's representative on its board of directors. He raised a warning flag, telling the bank's directors that the liquidation was about to take place and that it was out of order and quite improper. Consequently, his unfair dismissal was engineered by Mr. Skingley, who recognised the threat posed to his dishonest schemes.

I make that assertion on the basis of evidence provided by no less an individual than the then head of personnel at Hill Samuel, Mr. Rodney Gardner. He said that the bank's senior executives, Messrs McCrichard, Barrington and Freedberg, had wrongly supported Mr. Skingley against my constituent.

Let us contrast the treatment of my constituent with the subsequent treatment of Mr. Skingley once the truth was known and he was convicted of fraud. Mr. Skingley still benefits from his enhanced pension of £50,000 a year. Even if the bank succeeds in freezing it to secure the return of £108,000 that was knowingly misdirected, only two years will elapse before he enjoys the benefits of that enhanced pension again. My constituent Mr. Clark, however, is without 40 per cent. of his rights.

What has been the reaction of Lloyds TSB to representations made by me, by Sir Tom Arnold and by the former personnel officer of the bank concerned? It has been to sweep the matter under the carpet. The lawyers' report on the goings-on remains secret.

Why did my hon. Friend's constituent not avail himself of the possibility of going to an industrial tribunal? I assume that he did not do so. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us about that aspect of the case, if he has not reached it yet.

That is a very fair question, and one that occurred to me when the matter was first brought to my attention by Sir Tom Arnold. When he came to the House with Mr. Clark, he said "When I chaired the Treasury Select Committee I was told about this, and passed it on to the Bank of England. That at least resulted in the inquiry by the lawyers, whose report remains secret. I am no longer in a position to pursue the matter; will you do so?" My immediate reaction was to wonder why Mr. Clark had not taken the case to law at the time. Why had he not availed himself of the tribunal procedure?

Mr. Clark's answer was this. "I had not yet turned 50. I hoped to use my contacts and networks in the City to secure comparable employment. Let me be realistic and frank with you, Mr. Swayne: if I had expected to secure such employment in the City, I would not have been able to do so had I gone to an industrial tribunal and made such a fist of it."

That is, perhaps, an indictment of the City and its ways, and perhaps Mr. Clark's estimate was a misjudgment; but that is the case that he made to me at the time. I am not in a position to second-guess his judgment. Time elapsed, however, and eventually the option was no longer available. He pursued his case by other means, and the result was the conviction of his oppressor but no redress from the bank.

What lesson can we draw from this? We have learned, I think, that we cannot allow the banks to discourage employees from blowing the whistle because they maintain so much power and influence over our financial affairs. I am glad to say that the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 gives the Financial Services Authority a number of mechanisms to promote whistle-blowing of the kind that my constituent had the honesty, decency and bravery to stand up and do. We cannot allow the banks to undermine that through their own policies, as evidenced in this case. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to draw the matter to the attention of the Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary and find out what safeguards are available to prevent a repetition of the sort of cover-up carried out by Lloyds TSB in respect of the fraud perpetrated by Mr. Skingley.

I would suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary discuss with the Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary the possibility of establishing supervisory powers within the Treasury itself. An independent supervisor could then independently prepare a report when allegations such as the one that I have brought before the House today are made. Such matters could then be properly investigated. I would feel more comfortable if the Treasury or the Financial Services Authority had mechanisms in place to deal with such obvious injustices.

We cannot allow Lloyds TSB to conduct a report of its own and then keep it entirely to itself. That is unacceptable. A clear injustice has been committed and an enormous amount of skulduggery and financial impropriety has been uncovered beneath it, but it has not been properly exposed.

4.47 pm

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence in calling me to speak in this afternoon's debate. As hon. Members may have noticed, I was not present for most of the debate. I can pray in aid that I was chairing a Standing Committee, though I am also mindful of the adage that excuses are for losers, so I shall not go further down that path. I always find debates like this profitable and try to contribute when so called. Today, I will be brief.

I should like to speak about the schools admission policy in my constituency, particularly in the town of Braintree. Hitherto, the town was divided into catchment areas and those living near one senior school could expect to go to that senior school. In practice, three high schools are available: the Notley, the Tabor and the Alec Hunter high schools. The particular problems that I want to highlight relate to the Notley high school in the south-west of the town an area in which extensive developments have taken place.

The education authority entered into a policy to guarantee places at Notley high school to a series of villages outside the town. That pledge was given at a time when those villages and that area were comparatively undeveloped. Since then, a vast expansion of population and building has taken place outside the town limits of Braintree, and in some of the parishes that had benefited from the pledge of guaranteed places. Consequently, the number of children taking up guaranteed places at the school from those villages has increased, putting pressure on the number of places available at Notley high school.

The county council's proposal, currently under consultation, is that there will be no guaranteed places for those living in Braintree, but that such places will remain for those living in the villages outside. That has the ludicrous and singularly unfair consequence that children living next door to Notley high school will in all likelihood not be able to attend that school in future. It has the further problem of breaking up family groups. Older children from the adjacent John Ray primary school went on, in the natural order of events, to Notley high school, but under the new policy their younger brothers and sisters will have to go to other schools. It adds a burden on some parents, who have to ferry children to different parts of the town at the same time. However, the overriding problem is that it makes no sense to parents that they can look our of their window and across the road at the high school—which many attended themselves—yet their children cannot attend it as they had anticipated.

I have called on the county council to consider the matter in conjunction with the Department for Education and Skills. I hope that the school and the local education committee will give serious consideration to expanding Notley high school to accommodate the growth of the population on that side of town.

I appreciate that it will be argued that vacant places remain in one of the other high schools. However, there is extensive population growth in that part of town too, and it is anticipated that the demand for school places there will also become great in a few years.

Given the rise in the number of people on the electoral register, I suspect that Braintree may be one of the fastest growing towns in the country. It will need many more school places in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will speak to other Ministers to see whether, through co-operation, some policy can be devised to assist parents and children in the part of Braintree that I have referred to. They may otherwise be denied a place in the school of their choice.

4.51 pm

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a brief contribution to this debate. I apologise for not being here from the start, as I was visiting various local organisations in my constituency. One or two issues arose from those visits, and I should like to take this opportunity to mention them.

Before I speak about those matters, however, I want the Minister to take one message on board. At the present time, our brave servicemen and women are fighting in the Gulf to eradicate the regime of Saddam Hussein. It is very important that those in the Territorial Army be given recognition for the service that they are giving at this time. There is a TA base in my constituency, the 266 Parachute Battery Royal Artillery Volunteers. Its members are currently out in the Gulf, serving Queen and country. I pay tribute to them, and I hope that their needs, and the needs of their families, are not forgotten.

The spouses and families of permanent service personnel are always given consideration while their relatives are away fighting, but the spouses and families of TA personnel are often overlooked. I hope that the Government will take that into consideration in the coming weeks.

I also want to put on record my heartfelt thanks to Her Majesty the Queen, who visited the Romford constituency a month ago. It was her first visit to Romford as Queen of our country, and she was received warmly by her loyal subjects there. As the local Member of Parliament, I am very proud that she chose to come to Romford. People who know the town will understand that the people there are very patriotic. We believe in our country, and we fly the Union flag with pride from the town hall every day of the year, and not just on special occasions. In the town centre, market traders regularly fly the flag to show their belief and pride in this country.

I should therefore like to take this opportunity to mention again to the Minister that perhaps it is time for consideration to be given to following the tradition laid down by Her Majesty the Queen, and to flying the Union flag from the Palace of Westminster throughout the year. It is especially sad that in the summer, when many tourists are in London, one looks at the main flagpole on the British Parliament and sees an empty mast. The time has come to follow the example of Buckingham Palace and to fly the flag throughout the year.

I should also like to ask why the flagpole on Portcullis house has never been used to this day. It remains empty even on those designated days when the flag is supposed to be flown. In that context, I want to congratulate St. Peter's Roman Catholic primary school in my constituency, which is one of the only schools that I know that flies the Union flag every day from the school building.

This morning, I met representatives of the local community health council for the London borough of Havering. I ask the Minister to look into the transitional arrangements with regard to the work of local CHCs, given that they are to be abolished later this year. There is a great deal of concern about what is going to replace CHCs and whether the new structure will be as effective as the existing one. The CHCs have done an incredibly good job in representing, from an independent perspective, the needs of patients in all our constituencies. As the Government are abolishing them to replace them with a new system, I hope that Ministers will ensure that the transition will be a good one, that there will be sufficient funding for the new bodies and that co-operation between the Government and the CHCs will continue until the transition period is over. I am afraid that at the moment there is not a lot of confidence in my local CHC that matters are progressing in a way that will benefit my constituents and all those who need to use the services of the CHC.

I should also like to remember the people of Gibraltar, who are loyally supporting the United Kingdom as our country faces conflict. I hope that the Government recognise the contribution that the loyal people of that British overseas territory make to the support for our country at this time, and that it will not be forgotten in future. I hope that when the Prime Minister meets his counterpart in Spain he will remember that Gibraltar has played a significant role not only in the current situation, but in previous military conflicts. That should not be forgotten either.

I wish everybody a very happy Easter. Easter is an important time of year for spending time with one's family and for attending church or whatever religious organisation one may choose. It is important that we uphold the traditions of Easter. It is not a matter simply of having a holiday, but of remembering why Easter exists and its purpose. That is why I am delighted that last week in business questions the Minister agreed with my defence of the hot cross bun. Many people have since written to me and contacted me by various means to express their support for upholding our traditions. The absurdity of the local authorities who decided—

Perhaps I could tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that the rumour in the national press that Wolverhampton council has banned the hot cross bun is absolute rubbish. It did not, and would not, because in Wolverhampton we value culturally diverse traditions. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that there has been no ban on hot cross buns by Wolverhampton council.

I am delighted to hear that news. I had not heard that Wolverhampton council had been mentioned in that context; I had heard about other councils. I am delighted that there is consensus on the issue, because many of our constituents are pretty fed up with various forms of political correctness. The important thing is that we respect all religions and traditions in our country. Certainly, Easter is a time of year when we should celebrate, and eating a hot cross bun is very much part of the Easter traditions of this country.

Finally, I want to mention the Wellgate community farm in my constituency. Next week, it celebrates a special weekend called "Meet the Easter babies", when it opens its gates to local families, children and other residents of the area so that they can meet the new animal babies that have been born on the farm. It is a wonderful local organisation and I commend the idea of community farms to the Minister. They are wonderful for children, older people and those with learning disabilities, who are able to go and meet the animals. I hope that the Government will support such community farms in future—my own local farm and others in the network across the country. They do wonderful work—and what better time to visit a community farm than at Easter?

5 pm

I will try to be brief because I know that others would like to speak in the debate over whether we should adjourn for Easter. One thing that concerns me when we adjourn is that there is no parliamentary scrutiny. I want to raise three issues with the Minister. A few minutes ago, he made a quiet comment from a sedentary position about misreporting. The Government are often misreported, but despite their reputation for presentation, they are sometimes quite powerless in their own interests. I will give a couple of examples of that. The Licensing Bill is at Committee stage just now and it is being said that the Bill will prevent darts playing in pubs and clubs. People know that that is rubbish, but the Government's press and publicity machine should legitimately and vigorously be rebutting that idea. Rather than being great sweeping issues, these are the bread-and-butter issues that our constituents raise in our surgeries.

My second example concerns airports. I live across the river from Cliffe, which is an option for the new airport. I use the word "option" deliberately, but Cliffe airport is being portrayed by many people as a Government proposal. That is not being rebutted sufficiently. People have a right to understand. There may be ignorance, but the Government are not making it clear that Cliffe is one of many options. I think it would be the wrong choice and am fairly optimistic that it will not be chosen. However, the distinction between an option to be explored and a Government proposal should be made much more vigorously.

If Parliament closes for Easter, an issue that exercises many hon. Members, but one that will go off the boil, is that of the future of pharmacies. The House of Commons got the message over to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry a few days ago that hon. Members from all corners of the United Kingdom and from all political parties would be extraordinarily angry if the Government, after their 90-day consultation period, were to do anything that would harm our local pharmacies. I do not think that the Government will do that, but why stall in announcing the inevitable—that the network of community pharmacies that we have, we will hold? For the life of me, I cannot see why the Government have to deliberate so long. It is bad politics and the view of the House of Commons is overwhelming on the issue. When he reports back through Government machinery to the various Ministers with interests in this, I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the mood of the House of Commons today, as before, was that the matter should not be pursued any further.

I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's view that having to wait until July before we receive any sort of response from the Government is entirely wrong. Did the hon. Gentleman notice that, in the debate in Westminster Hall when I challenged the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), as to whether the recommendations in the Office of Fair Trading report would require primary legislation as opposed to secondary legislation, he said that he understood that it would require a full Act of Parliament? The hon. Gentleman will share my view that, in the third Session of this Parliament, the likelihood of the Government squeezing such a Bill into the legislative programme is nil. The Government should say so.

That is absolutely correct. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I, as a Labour hon. Member, feel frustration that the Government have allowed a thing such as this to run. As I say, they should not do it. I do not think that they will do it and they should kill it dead—for selfish party political reasons as well as for the overriding reason that the House of Commons and the public do not want it.

The debate also gives me an opportunity to consider the parliamentary calendar. Journalists and some Members of Parliament seem to think that we shall have a shorter summer recess. That is not the case. The dates have been shifted, although there is still an uneven distribution of parliamentary sittings. May I urge the deputy Leader of the House to raise that point with the next Leader of the House? The summer recess dates have changed, but there will still be a long close-down when we shall be unable to ask parliamentary questions, there will be no scrutiny and we shall be unable to hear oral statements. We do not want Parliament to be in continuous session, but many of us want round-the-year sittings that reflect the role of a modern Government. During continuing international and national crises, we need access to Ministers.

The Government can take credit for the innovation of written statements, although some people feel—with a degree of justification—that some matters are put into written statements when they should be dealt with orally at the Dispatch Box. Overall, however, we acknowledge and welcome the net increase in Government statements.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to a written statement made earlier this week by the Foreign Secretary. I hope that the House will forgive me for reading it out. It states:
"I am gravely concerned at reports that Northbridge Services Group, a UK company, is recruiting British, South African, French and other ex-servicemen as military units to work in Côte d'Ivoire. The crisis in Côte d'Ivoire has caused enormous suffering for the people of that country, and threatens the stability of the wider region. The Linas-Marcoussis agreement offers Ivorians the opportunity of a peaceful, political settlement, which addresses the key issue underlying the crisis. Ivorians are now making progress in setting up a broad-based government of National Reconciliation, under the terms of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. Any deployment of foreign military units at this time would seriously undermine the peace process, and the efforts of the UK and wider international community to support a durable, political settlement. We have made it clear to Northbridge Services Group that the UK Government would deplore any intervention of this sort."—[Official Report, 1 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 52WS.]
I have rarely heard a more pathetic Government statement. To spell it out in plain language: our security and intelligence services rumbled the fact that one of those wretched companies was recruiting mercenaries in the United Kingdom to fight in the Ivory Coast and stir up trouble against our interests and the interests of the people of the Ivory Coast and the international community. The Foreign Secretary said that the Government had made it clear that they would deplore such intervention. I certainly hope so, but why does not the Foreign Secretary do something about it?

The statement was frustrating because, a couple of years ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office produced a Green Paper on mercenaries—grudgingly. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs had to extract the document from the Government as though it was pulling teeth from an elephant. The Committee deliberated on the matter and received a response from the Government.

I want all mercenary recruitment stopped; it should be outlawed in this country. At the least, the Committee wanted regulation, but there is none. The Government have shown no enthusiasm to introduce regulation either of the recruitment of mercenaries in the United Kingdom or of their operation from this country; and when something occurs that is against our interests, or those of the international community and, especially, of impoverished, suffering people in war-torn Ivory Coast, they merely say, "We deplore it". I want the Minister to tell the Foreign Office that that will not do. It is a most disappointing response.

I want to add a view that I have been unable to express on the Floor of the House until now: I believe that the United Kingdom's prosecution of the war in Iraq, although wretched and distressing, is correct. We had little choice in the matter. The Government and the Law Officers have presented a complicated legal case, and I believe that it would have been better summarised by the fact that—this is certainly something that I personally rely on—Saddam Hussein's regime asked for an armistice at the end of the last Gulf war, and it was granted subject to conditions, as armistices are. He abrogated that armistice; no one else did. He never complied with those conditions.

Of course, in retrospect, we should perhaps have been firmer, sooner in telling Saddam Hussein that he had not complied with the armistice conditions, but we know why we did not. It was politically difficult to take any action, and there was a reluctance to restart hostilities. We had 12 years of trying to say, "Please, nice Mr. Saddam Hussein, will you comply?" When he did not, we tried some other bit of leverage. We applied sanctions, but they did not put any leverage on him, but just hit the Iraqi people.

The kernel of the legal case and the moral case—I am mindful of the need for proportionality and last resort when justifying how one votes in such matters—is the fact that Saddam Hussein abrogated the armistice that he sought. Since then, there have been considerable and continuing humanitarian atrocities against the people of Iraq—something in which we have acquiesced by our silence, and we can no longer do so.

I should like to have spoken at greater length to explain my position, but I will not do so because that is difficult for the House. However, the shadow Leader of the House needs to be sensitive to the fact that every Member of Parliament often wants an opportunity to state publicly where they stand. I hope that he and the acting Leader of the House may pick up the fact that, on such grave issues, we should be able to write our views into the Official Report, so that they are on the record and there is no misunderstanding or hiding behind the fact that we have not had an opportunity to be called by Mr. Speaker.

5.12 pm

I, too, apologise for not having been present at the outset of the debate. I had the pleasure of serving on a Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), and if it had not been for my perhaps all too lengthy participation, he would have been able to speak in this debate even earlier.

Like the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I wish to refer to Iraq. We cannot think of ourselves going away for an Easter holiday without thinking about our troops in the Gulf and their families at home going through a very anxious period. I am sure that all hon. Members hope that, when we return after Easter, the war will be won and our troops will be safely home.

Also like the hon. Member for Thurrock, I wish to refer to community pharmacies. I have presented several petitions covering thousands of my constituents who are worried about the future of their community pharmacies. The Government are in an extraordinary position: I do not know whether other hon. Members are aware that there has been an announcement—a press release no less—by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), who is responsible for health in Northern Ireland.

One would have thought that the Under-Secretary was speaking on behalf of the Government when he announced, by press release, that he was rejecting outright the Office of Fair Trading report. He said that the report
"does not take account of Health Service issues of patient care"
He added:
"it has been put to me that deregulation would run the significant risk of reducing access to pharmaceutical services, particularly in rural areas. There may be a reduction and, indeed, a removal of local services in some areas to the detriment of the infirm, the elderly and those less well off in our community. I cannot allow that to happen."
That is a statement by a member of the Government.

As has been pointed out in an excellent letter from my noble Friend Lord Fowler in today's Financial Times, that is totally inconsistent with the line being adopted by the Government and the Department of Trade and Industry, where the Secretary of State there has said that we must wait until the end of July before the Government are able finally to pronounce on the matter. Meanwhile, we have had the announcements in Scotland and Wales that they will have no truck with the recommendations in the report. I hope that the Minister can explain how one part of the Government machine can say "no way" to the Office of Fair Trading report and the other part can say, much to the consternation of people in my constituency, that it will have to wait to see what happens and will not tell them until the end of July.

Another aspect of Government policy that is causing a lot of anxiety is their approach to post office closures. We understand that they say that post offices have to close and recognise what has been said about proper consultation. As the local Member of Parliament, I have been involved in the consultation about two post office closures in Christchurch. Both have been the subject of strong opposition that is represented by letters and petitions, and, I think uniquely, they have engendered the opposition of Postwatch, the body appointed by and paid for by the Government to represent consumer interests on post office matters.

The first post office closure to which Postwatch objected was at Stanpit, but its objections counted for nothing and the post office closed. We are now in the period after the closure of representations on the future of Town Common post office, and we are waiting anxiously to learn what decision has been reached. If the views of local people, the Member of Parliament and Postwatch on the post office at Town Common again count for nothing, that will drive a coach and horses through any pretence on the part of the Government that the post office closure programme is subject to proper consultation.

Consultation means listening to what is said in the consultation process. If we are paying for a statutory consultative body such as Postwatch and ignoring its views, there is no point in having it. That shows that the whole process is an absolute sham.

I hope that the Government will relent in relation to the Town Common closure, not least because the nearest post office is more than a mile away. They have made much play of people in urban areas living within one mile of the nearest post office and ensuring that 95 per cent. of them will be able to continue to do so. In this part of west Christchurch, that principle will not apply.

Finally, I wish to refer briefly to the council tax, which is causing an enormous amount of anxiety for my constituents, as it is for others elsewhere. We shall have an opportunity to debate this subject at greater length next week, but the Government must realise that the increases in council tax for which they are responsible are totally unacceptable. The increases are engendering an enormous amount of correspondence. I receive many letters in every post from pensioners in my constituency who say that they just cannot afford them.

I have a letter from a gentleman and his wife that says that they are going to pay what they paid last year plus 1.7 per cent—the amount by which the retail prices index rose in the past year. They say that they have
"small pensions, we wouldn't qualify for financial help due to means testing as we have some savings, carefully put away over many years and which we shall need in the future to take care of us in old age."
The Government have not thought through the implications of the sustained very high increases in council tax. They are depriving elderly people of the ability to be responsible for themselves in their old age by taking money away from them. They could never have planned for such spending. A Liberal Democrat councillor in my constituency has suggested that such hard-pressed people should have to sell their homes, but the Government have not come up with an alternative. These people will have an unhappy Easter because of the Government's behaviour.

5.19 pm

This has been an unusually fascinating Adjournment debate, not least because the balance between Members who have raised constituency issues and those who have raised national issues has been about the same. That makes today's debate slightly uncharacteristic, but interesting for that.

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not attempt to analyse everything that they have said—they will be far more eager to hear from the Minister than from me. However, I want to maintain the traditions of the House by attempting to do some justice to the debate by winding it up from the official Opposition Front Bench.

I shall take one salient point from the matters that each of the contributions highlighted. The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) referred to the decline in manufacturing, both generally and in his constituency. I think that we would all admit that there has been a secular decline not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the developed world. Legitimately, there is a political element to that debate. Opposition Members feel that many of the measures that the Government have taken have hastened the decline by placing additional burdens on manufacturing industry.

The hon. and learned Gentleman justified that, and he was politically entitled to do so. The judgment of Opposition and Labour Members differs on how far Government policy has exacerbated the manufacturing sector problem. In the end, the manufacturers will have to make that judgment. We would wish the Government to be somewhat more sensitive to the views of the manufacturing sector before making what often seems to us a headlong rush towards increasing regulations, whether they are justified by health and safety considerations or anything else. We would wish the Government to ameliorate that approach somewhat, to say the very least. Indeed, we would prefer them to reverse it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) raised an issue that I know worries all of our constituents: the vexed issue of telecommunication masts. As someone who refuses to use a mobile telephone, I feel a degree of virtue which I suspect is not shared by many Members or perhaps by many of our constituents. I am intrigued when anguished constituents approach me claiming that telecommunication masts are harming them, their children or their relatives. It is on the tip of my tongue to say, "Do you use a mobile telephone?", but I stop myself because I do not want to displease them.

There is a genuine tension between the desire of people to use these damned devices, which I cannot understand, and the technology and equipment that is required to support them. I suppose that I have some sympathy with the Government of the day, who have to resolve the issue. However, what my hon. Friend was saying must surely be reasonable: that whatever knowledge is available should be widely understood and then visibly and palpably used by the Government in the development of their policies. There is a gap between a general understanding of the nature of the problems that have arisen from telecommunication masts, and what appears to some people to be almost a casual attitude on the part of the Government. I hope that the Minister will at the very least be able to reassure us that that is not the case.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) treated us to one of the most comprehensive analyses that we have yet heard in the House about the historical context of the Iraqi conflict. We are grateful to him for that. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman wishes, as perhaps we all do, that that analysis had been better understood before the conflict started and in the long run-up to it. Now that we are where we are, the best that we can hope for is that the points that the hon. Gentleman made will be fully taken into account in the post-hostility reconstruction phase, so that we might at least hope that we can get the best out of the conflict for the people of not only Iraq but the middle east generally. That would be the benefit could accrue from the hon. Gentleman's contribution.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised a matter that was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton: the tension between our modern desire to be informed instantaneously about everything through the technology that is available to us, and the traditional approach that the military has always taken, which is that what it does should be as confidential, not to say secret, as possible. If we are not careful, an absurd situation will arise. If we are being told what is happening, so are the Iraqis. And if we are not being told what has happened because we have been misinformed, what is the point of the exercise anyway? I find that problem hard to resolve—we have got ourselves into serious difficulties. The concept of embedded journalists intrigues me. I wondered whether it was to do with their private lives, but apparently it is not—it is about them charging around in military vehicles. However, I am not sure what their true value is. If they are sworn not to give away anything of military significance, what are they telling us? I sometimes think that the exercise is pointless, and we may learn that lesson once hostilities come to an end.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) returned to the issue of Iraq, and emphasised, like many contributors to the debate, the importance of the reconstruction phase. He also saw a resolution to the Palestine issue as integral to a resolution to the post-conflict problems in Iraq. I doubt whether anyone in the House would disagree with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised matters that were also raised by many other hon. Members—the closure of pharmacies and post offices, which are of the greatest importance to our constituents, affecting their everyday lives. They are not sure why their local pharmacy or chemist's shop is being threatened, and do not understand why the Government cannot give them an explanation. The Government, however, are in an anomalous position. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, if a Minister spills the beans and says, "Don't worry, we are not going to do that at all", that cuts across the point of both the Office of Fair Trading, of which we may or may not approve, and the consultation. If consultation is to be meaningful, we cannot demand instant decisions even from this Government, when one of their legitimate agencies or organs has made a decision.

Well, it is frustrating for our constituents and us to be left in a period of unnecessary uncertainty. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), has done us all a favour. Perhaps as a result of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, we can now go out and tell everyone in the land that a Minister has told us what is going to happen so, based on the doctrine of collective responsibility—if it still exists—we can all sleep in our beds tonight, drugged by products from pharmacies, no doubt.

The closure of post offices was also raised. Like other hon. Members, I have constituents who are anxious that their local post office will close. In my case, it is the one in Burnt Ash lane in Bromley. Again, there is confusion. On one hand, we are being told that the Post Office is now an independent, robust organisation and must do what it deems to be correct; on the other, there is a duty on the Government to protect the integrity not only of our postal services, but of the community services that have traditionally been provided by our post offices. The Government do not seem to be prepared to grasp that problem and deal with it. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, can give us words of comfort on that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) emphasised the same problem in his constituency, and went on to raise an issue of concern to growing numbers of Members on both sides of the House: the conflicts that have arisen as a result of the change in our working patterns and hours. In fact, today's debate has illustrated that. A number of hon. Members have been performing duties elsewhere, so have been unable to attend the whole debate, thus highlighting the point made by my hon. Friend. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate—he is doing so given the absurd lack of a Leader of the House, which I find increasingly irritating, not to say scandalous—he will be able to tell us that the issue of the hours will be revisited by the House authorities and the new Leader of the House, so that Members who are having second thoughts about the issue will have an opportunity to express their views. If I may suggest it as an intermediate position, perhaps we might reconsider the Tuesday hours, to see whether Monday and Tuesday might be operated on the old hours, with Wednesday and Thursday on the new dispensation. We could at least have a trial to see whether that would help to resolve some of the problems that we are experiencing.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) raised an issue of enormous concern to his constituents and the surrounding area. It was a technical issue, but none the less important for that. His suggestion sounded to my layman's ears all too reasonable—that is, that the potentially noxious discharges should not be allowed to proceed until much more is known about their effect, and until the alternatives have been properly explored. That sounded a reasonable request, as I hope the Minister will agree when he sums up the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) raised his constituent's problem, which I hope will help to resolve it in a way that has not been possible before. I hope that my hon. Friend will pursue his idea of Treasury supervision of the banking sector and that he will receive a positive response.

I was intrigued by the remarks of the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), not least because, having done my penance in the Department for Education for five years in a previous existence, everything that he said rang all too familiar with me. He seemed to be describing the conflict that arises between local education authority boundaries; the Greenwich judgment, which allows school admissions to cross those boundaries in a way that was not the case before; and class size limitations, which are a new factor that schools must take into account. I would add a further factor: school transport.

I grappled with those problems for five years, and I never found a satisfactory resolution to them. In the end, one has to make up one's mind that either one has a school admissions policy that allows parents no choice at all—in other words, it states, "Your child will go to the nearest school, regardless"—or one has a policy that tries to open up the system and make it competitive. The inevitable result of that is that many parents will not be able to get their child into the nearest school, or into their school of first choice. I live with that because my local education authority happens to have some very good schools and many of the places are occupied by children from neighbouring boroughs. At this time of year, we all have parents coming to us with the problem, so I feel a great deal of empathy with what the hon. Gentleman says.

My only suggestion is that the hon. Gentleman take the issues directly to Education Ministers, in an effort to concentrate their minds on the dilemmas and problems that exist, to see whether they can find a way of resolving them. They must be resolved as a matter of national policy, because in a funny way, the more the issue is devolved, the more complex, frustrating and difficult it becomes. I can offer the hon. Gentleman no more help than that, but I recognise the problem.

I want to wave the flag with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). It frustrates me as much as it does him that our national flag is in danger of becoming something of which people are ashamed. That cannot be right. The symbol of our nation—our national flag—must surely be able to be flown over public buildings with pride. It should not be something for which we apologise or of which we are ashamed in any circumstances that I can think of. I hope that his repetition of the problem will help to move it forward and maintain our pride in one of our national symbols.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised a number of issues—licensing, Cliffe airport, and pharmacies. I am not sure that the issue of mercenaries is as simple as he suggested. If we are proud of the fact that our citizens are free to do as they wish within the law, and if we start to restrict their ability even to become a mercenary, that raises some profound issues of individual freedom, freedom of movement and freedom of choice. There may be some legitimate boundaries to that, but even in this case, we would have to be extremely careful before we rushed in to tackle the problem.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch again spoke about pharmacies and post offices, which affect his constituency as much as any other. We should all be grateful for his revelation about the Northern Ireland Minister, which may have provided us with the solace and comfort that we have been seeking in the matter. Providing that the Parliamentary Secretary will act, as I hope he can, in a spirit of collective responsibility with his Government colleague and confirm what my hon. Friend said, the debate will have been worthwhile.

5.34 pm

I always act in the spirit of collective responsibility, if I may give that assurance to the shadow Leader of the House.

I should like to begin by making an apology in advance. The low numbers of hon. Members in the Chamber earlier today led me to assume that I would be in for a marathon, as I was in winding up my first pre-recess Adjournment debate back in the summer, when I think that I spoke for 50 minutes and went through every single detail of every hon. Member's speech. I think that that was widely appreciated. Indeed, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) nods. I shall endeavour to do the same thing today and deal with all the issues, but in case I do not manage to do so, I give an undertaking to hon. Members: if I do not address all the points that they raised, I shall ensure that they are written to about them, as I have done in the past.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) began the debate with a measured and expert assessment of what he saw as the position regarding detainees in Guantanamo bay. I share some of his concerns about the situation and I assure him that the Government are keen for it to be resolved. I repeat to him what the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions—some of the information that is still being gleaned from the detainees is proving extremely important in the ongoing fight against terrorism. None the less, I assure him that the Government are taking his concerns on board.

My hon. and learned Friend spoke about the very important role of manufacturing industry in his constituency. In particular, he spoke warmly about the role of the Manufacturing Advisory Service. I wholeheartedly concur with him on that point.

My hon. and learned Friend was also one of a number of hon. Members who spoke about the procedures of the House. In particular, he referred to the way in which we deal with taxation law. He will be aware that we are trying as much as we possibly can to improve and increase the amount of pre-legislative scrutiny that we conduct. Hon. Members will see that that is the case in the next few months, as some Bills published in draft will receive pre-legislative scrutiny. It is our wish to move to a situation in which that is overwhelmingly the case. On his suggestion that we debate some matters for too long and other matters for not long enough, I guess that that will always be a matter of personal interest in the subject in question, although I hear what he says.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the old chestnut—it is, of course, an important old chestnut—of resurfacing the A30. I hope that she was as pleased as I was with this week's announcement that, far from what was predicted by some doom-mongers nationally and locally who said that the resurfacing would not happen for another 10 years, the job will be in the first tranche of resurfacing to take place by 2007 at the latest. In doing that work, we will be repairing the terrible damage done by the previous Government when they ordered those cheap and very noisy concrete roads. None the less, I shall have words with my fellow Ministers in the Department for Transport regarding the point that she made about the contract and the question whether it might be possible for the Government to recoup all or some of the original cost of the road. If she is right in her assertion that the contracts gave an assurance at the time that was not correct, I shall certainly look into that.

I am delighted to hear that, but if we wait until 2007, the work will be probably be done approximately when the road was going to resurfaced anyway.

That is not the case. Until this Government came to power, there was no commitment to resurface all the noisy concrete roads that were commissioned under the previous Government. We said previously that the work would be done within 10 years and we have now brought that forward for a large number of roads, which will be dealt with by 2007 at the latest.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton also raised the issue of telephone masts, which I know is of great concern to her; she has been very involved with the campaign in our mutual local newspaper. The Government err on the side of caution. I shall ensure that my ministerial colleagues look into the comments of Dr. Blackwell that she quoted from the Express and Echo, which dealt with the importance of taking into account non-thermal effects, and ensure that she receives a response from them in that regard. I am sure that she is aware that, on 20 March, which can only be a couple of weeks ago or less, the Government announced a further two-year project investigating evidence of ill-health around base stations. I hope that that will help to produce some of the more conclusive evidence that we would all like to see.

The hon. Lady was absolutely right to say that representatives of the media based in Iraq and the Gulf should exercise responsibility about how much they give away about troop movements. The safety of our forces must always be paramount.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) dedicated his whole speech to Iraq. Indeed, we have had rather an unusual pre-recess Adjournment debate in that so many hon. Members understandably talked about Iraq. My hon. Friend rightly emphasised the importance of what will happen in post-Saddam Iraq. We will be judged on what happens in post-Saddam Iraq. Many who were sceptical of, or in outright opposition to, the decision to take military action want the action to be brought to a swift and successful conclusion now that it is under way. I hope that we can unite not only domestically, but internationally so that the Security Council and the European Union unite behind the post-Saddam Iraq that we all want.

I prefer to use the word "redevelopment" rather than "reconstruction" because reconstruction implies that we have caused the destruction. We have not, of course, because it has been caused by more than 20 years of Saddam Hussein's terrible dictatorship and misrule. I am sure that hon. Members are well aware that Iraq was wealthier, per capita, than Portugal or Malaysia before Saddam came to power. However, before the conflict started, 60 per cent. of its population was dependent on help from the oil-for-food programme. Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world. It could be wealthy and successful, and I am confident that it will be after Saddam has been deposed and we have had time to help the Iraqi people to redevelop their country.

My hon. Friend quoted at length from what sounded like an interesting book. I have not read it but I shall have a look at it if I have time. I was not totally convinced by all of what he read. It seemed to suggest that the problem we face in Iraq is that we are a former imperial power. That can be said of a lot of places, and there is a flip side to the argument. When I was the Minister responsible for the middle east, I found that people in the region expect us to get involved and engaged because they think that we bear an extra responsibility because of history, and I think that that is right. My experience showed that people in the Arab world, and especially the middle east, welcome British engagement because they think that we have expertise, and we owe it to them because of history.

I do not follow the argument that because we, the United States or any other country might have made mistakes in a part of the world, we should not do the right thing now. Several people have written to me about the Iraqi conflict and made that argument, but I do not understand its logic. My hon. Friend said that our history makes it difficult for us to be the shaper of a post-Saddam Iraq. We have made it perfectly clear that we do not want to shape a post-Saddam Iraq because we want the Iraqi people to do that and for Iraq's administration to pass into the hands of free Iraqis as soon as possible.

I do not understand how we can avoid getting involved in shaping what will happen in Iraq. If we are a conquering force in the area, even if we get hold of other people and the United Nations, our role will be very significant. The past is a problem. There might be advantages of being an imperial power because we would be known in the area and some people might have liked us. However, many others believe that we adopted an exploitative position.

With respect to my hon. Friend, I do not accept his use of the terminology "a conquering force". We will be a liberating force, and we already are in the parts of Iraq in which the Iraqi people are sufficiently confident to speak freely and where they feel safe from retribution from Saddam's henchmen. My hon. Friend should look at the model of Afghanistan. Of course, our input and that of the international community was important to help the Afghan people to set up their conference and institutions such as the Loya Jirga, but such things were based firmly on Afghan traditions and practices. I can assure him that the same applies in Iraq. It is not in our interests to be perceived as trying to tell the Iraqi people how they should run their country once they have been liberated. In comparison with Afghanistan, Iraq has not only good natural resources but a highly educated work force and 4 million highly educated people in exile. Many may want to return to help with the redevelopment of their country.

My hon. Friend argued that one of the reasons for inaction was the danger that Saddam might use his chemical or biological weapons. I have never understood the logic of that argument, which suggests that one should do nothing and leave Saddam to continue to develop such weapons and his capability of delivering them further until he poses an even greater danger. Sometimes it is necessary to confront a smaller danger to prevent a greater danger.

I do not share my hon. Friend's pessimism about our ability to help the Iraqis to establish a representative, more democratic regime and I do not agree that the effects will be destabilising to the region. Some people may ask what good stability has done the region in the past few decades, and argue that it needs change, democracy and a few more regimes that respect human rights.

Many hon. Members mentioned the middle east peace process. I believe that the impact of our actions could be positive. Having been the Minister responsible for the middle east, I know that the Israeli population's reluctance to make some of the tough choices that a peace settlement involves is partly due to feeling threatened by states, including Iraq, which remain dedicated to the destruction of Israel. A different regime in Iraq would make the solution to the middle east peace process easier. It will also encourage the essential engagement of the United States.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) was right to point out that, whatever one thinks of President Bush, he is the first American president of any political colour not only to commit America to the creation of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution but to support its enshrinement by the United Nations in resolutions. We must use our influence to ensure that he stands by that commitment.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire has anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish state. Again, I should like to reassure him. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who visited Iraq, said that the position in northern Iraq had changed. Thanks to the democracy that is enjoyed there, the people have overcome their traditional rivalry and their desire for a Kurdish state. They want autonomy in Iraq, with its borders intact. There is general international agreement about that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), like several other hon. Members, dwelt on the media coverage of the war and some of the comments attributed to the Home Secretary. As a former journalist, I take a close interest in that. I agree with hon. Members who said that the journalists out there have shown immense courage. It is not an easy job. It is paradoxical that being in Baghdad is currently almost easier than being embedded. The journalists who are embedded with the forces have not had a shower for weeks and are living in difficult conditions. However, by and large, they are doing a tremendous job.

Sometimes the journalists in Baghdad do not do enough to remind their audiences of the restrictions under which they operate. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North mentioned the case of the journalists who had been freed after being imprisoned in Iraq. The reporting from journalists who have lived among the Iraqi people and subsequently leave Iraq is different from that of journalists in Baghdad, who are not allowed to say what they want and cannot contact the people they want. A classic example is Johann Hari, the columnist from The Independent, which is an anti-war newspaper. He used to be anti-war but he spent three months in Iraq and wrote that people approached him with the words, "Are you British? Please liberate us." I also think that the BBC and other broadcasters and journalists are sometimes reluctant to make a value judgment about regimes. I believe, as a democrat, that democracy is good, or better. Sometimes, journalists who enjoy the freedoms of a democracy are reticent about making a value judgment that suggests that our form of government, our freedoms or our democracy are better than the system under which the Iraqis have suffered for so long.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall also asked why no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found. That was a bit of a naÏve question. It is early days, and that is not the main priority of what we are doing at the moment. I draw to his attention the Northern Ireland analogy. We all know that the IRA has had weapons for 30 years. That is widely acknowledged, but we have never been able to find them. So it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I confident that, when the regime in Iraq falls and its true nature is revealed, his concerns will be allayed.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that none of us could trust what the Saddam regime said. I thought, however, that he was rather unfair about the newspapers. There has been a lively debate in the newspapers in this country, as there has here. They have not all been blindly supportive of what is going on. The polling of newspaper readerships has also been interesting, in that it reveals that the prejudices of a newspaper's readers does not necessarily reflect the editorial line that that newspaper has adopted on the Iraqi conflict. The hon. Gentleman also hoped that what was going on was not distracting people's attention from domestic issues. We do not have control over that, and, as he rightly said, The Independent did a big piece today about all the so-called bad news that people have not noticed because there is a war going on. As I said at business questions earlier, I could equally point to lots of good news that has not been given very much attention because of the military conflict.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North rightly drew hon. Members' attention to the most recent accounts of journalists who had been held captive in Baghdad and who are now free. He robustly—and, I think, rightly—defended the military action that we are taking. He also rightly reiterated the importance of the hearts and minds operation, which I think is becoming more successful every day as parts of southern Iraq are liberated. It is very difficult for us to imagine what it is like to live under that kind of tyranny. People say, "Why aren't they all jumping up and down and throwing flowers over the troops?" In some places, they are, but they are doing it only when they feel really safe to do it, and when it can be guaranteed that there is no chance that we will leave again—after what happened in 1991—or that the militia and informers who still live among them will not take their revenge. That is absolutely right. I have said before that part of a successful outcome will be our not staying longer than is absolutely necessary. I have also mentioned the importance of making progress on the middle east peace process.

The hon. Member for Castle Point kicked off his local election campaign with a litany of complaints that made his constituency sound like a bit of a disaster area, although I am sure that it is not. He confidently predicted many gains for his party in the local elections. We shall see. He also complained about the recent local council tax increases. We can all trade stories about that. In my area, for example, my prudent local Labour council in Exeter is putting up its council tax by only 5.7 per cent., even though it received the same amount of money as the Conservative and Liberal Democrat-dominated county council, which is raising its council tax by 18 per cent. We can all trade these examples, but the fact remains that, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Government have increased spending on local authorities by 25 per cent. in real terms, compared with a 6 per cent. cut under the previous Conservative Government.

I am afraid that it was in the middle of the hon. Gentleman's speech that I had to go out and get a doughnut, so I am sure that I missed a number of the important constituency points that he raised. If I did miss any, I promise to get back to him. I came back as he was saying some very sensible things about Iraq and describing the success of democracy in northern Iraq, from his own experience of visiting the area. He also made a number of recommendations that I am not sure are official Conservative party policy, but don't worry, I shall definitely go and check. If they are not, I shall let my party know.

The hon. Gentleman also revealed the true, Europhobic face of the Tory party at the end of his speech. When I looked in "Dod's", I noticed that the UK Independence party got a vote bigger than his majority at the last election, so I can understand why he did so.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) raised the issue, of which I was aware, of his constituent who is still awaiting trial in Egypt. The hon. Gentleman has had discussions with Baroness Amos and, indeed, the issue has been discussed by the Prime Minister and the President of Egypt. I shall pass on the request. In my experience, the Egyptian ambassador is a charming man, and I shall mention the issue when I see him next.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the outcome of his local planning appeal. Of course, he cannot expect me to comment, as it is a local planning matter, and, as he said, we will have to wait and see whether the applicant appeals. A number of Members, including him, referred to the hours of the House. I think that all those who complained voted against the change, so their complaints are largely to be expected, but I am afraid that they will have to wait a while. There may be teething problems and if there are difficulties with Committees meeting at certain hours there may be things that can be done, but thinking that we will go back to the bad old days after only a few weeks is to hope for too much. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) made clear at the time, the changes that we voted for are for this Parliament, so I do not think that it will be possible to hold a review before it ends.

One reason for the GP vacancies up and down the country is that we are creating a lot more places and it takes time to train GPs. There is a particular problem with single practices, which the hon. Member for Southend, West will be aware of, arising from the Shipman inquiry, but I shall look into the cases that he raised and get back to him.

The hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), raised certain cases, one involving the giving of bad financial advice and the other a distressing example of a whistleblower who was badly treated. It sounds to me as though both show a need for better regulation of financial services, which is great to hear from the Conservatives as they are usually complaining about there being too much regulation and the Government being too active. We certainly hear that complaint often from the shadow Leader of the House. I will look into the cases that have been raised and get back to Members. On the health authority complaint raised by the hon. Member for Southend, West, I think, if I understood him rightly, that he is still going to the ombudsman. I wish him well in that endeavour.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) raised an issue that is important to his constituents—the discharges in connection with work at Devonport dockyard. I understand that he has been in regular communication with the Environment Agency, and I shall endeavour to get an update for him, given the European Commission statement to which he referred. As he acknowledged, however, there are always two sides to this argument. It is a very difficult subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) raised the inability of some parents to get their children into the school of their choice, which will be an important issue to his constituents. A number of us have had that experience, as I have in my constituency, because the population is growing in a particular area or a school is becoming much more popular. In most cases, it is usually possible for the school to expand a little, at least temporarily, although that may not be so in that of his school. However, I am surprised at a policy that involves dividing siblings, which is unusual, so I shall write to the Department for Education and Skills and ask it to respond to his points. I shall also ask whether the solution that he suggests might be considered by it and whether it can encourage the local authority to do so.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) is always flying the flag. I think that he made his name during the general election campaign: did he not have a dog with a Union jack coat? I have some sympathy on this. The flying of flags here is, I am told, a matter for Black Rod, so the hon. Gentleman might like to make representations there. Also, he may be interested to know that I had a constituency case in which building workers flew a Union flag because of what is going on in Iraq, but they were told to take it down by the foreman as there was a worry that the site would be picketed by anti-war protestors. It is ridiculous.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman is wearing flag of St. George cuff links℄very tasteful. I am all for reclaiming the flag of St. George and the Union flag as well as hot cross buns for Easter. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) was able to put on record the facts about his authority. Such stories tend to get blown out of proportion, and we cannot always believe everything we read in the newspapers. That is perhaps a good point to finish.

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