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Christmas Adjournment

Volume 469: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2007

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

The business of government in a democratic country is a delicate balance between the needs of the population and the desires and political objectives of the Government. Although we have a system that enables us to vote for our Governments on a four or sometimes five-yearly basis, in the interim it is essential that whoever the Government are they do not misunderstand the implications of the changes they make.

In the administration of our country, local government has an important part to play. Indeed, one might say that the present Government have channelled large sums of money into local government and given it extra powers precisely because they expect there to be a partnership between the needs of the population at local level and the Government centrally. There are frequently objections from people who believe that all decisions should be taken centrally and imposed on those who for one reason or another have different views. That has never been my view and it never will be.

I believe that today the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—to whom I have given notice that I intend to mention her—intends to announce the reorganisation of Cheshire. She has never at any point deigned to explain the reasons for those major changes. Indeed, just before the summer recess, when an announcement was made that it was the intention to divide Cheshire into two, irrespective of the needs or wishes of the population, a letter was issued from the Department saying that the decision would none the less be subject to close examination of a number of factors, of which the economic ones were enormously important.

Rather foolishly, I thought that comment was serious and in the intervening time, with the assistance of people in education, the health service and general services, I have endeavoured to persuade Her Majesty’s Government—pointlessly, as it now appears—of the inequity and imbalance of the scheme they were proposing. My reasons were simple. The decision is not political. As anyone who bothers to make even the most elementary calculation will discover, the Labour party has little to gain from what is being proposed. The fact that my constituency will become part of a council dominated by a 56 per cent. Conservative vote is obviously of no concern to some people, but it is important to understand that the other part of Cheshire will be no safer. Those who pretend that the decision is political should examine the facts and figures.

The decision is certainly not economic. Cheshire is a mixed, interesting and dynamic county, which is changing every day. It has close relationships with Manchester in one direction, Liverpool in another and with north Wales and the potteries at various points. It is notable not only that the county has responded at all levels to the need for imaginative change, but that it is clearly capable of carrying forward at county level a unitary government that would be economically viable and would respond to the dynamic that the Labour Government have been proposing.

The Secretary of State has taken the decision not on political grounds—certainly not on party political grounds—and not on economic grounds, because all that information was supplied to her and to Treasury Ministers in considerable detail from the beginning of the discussion in July. It was pointed out to her that the two new authorities would rapidly run out of reserves—indeed, that they would do so within the first year of their creation. It was pointed out to her in great detail—the figures have been emphasised time and time again by independent audit—that the effect on the population of Cheshire, and particularly on my constituency, would be directly felt in the development of its schools, hospitals and general services, be they waste, roads or any of the other services that local government controls.

Therefore, there has to be a particular reason for today’s statement. Of course, that statement is in the form of a written answer, because it would be unfortunate to have to come here and answer questions from the Members concerned. Presumably it is because the Secretary of State is alleged to have said—although I am sure it cannot be true—that Cheshire is too big. May I point out that of the five unitary counties that have been given permission to go ahead by the Secretary of State, Cheshire is the smallest area? But, of course, throughout the debate facts have not really carried any great emphasis.

Why are we continuing to press ahead with a change that will not just destroy the old county boroughs and the cohesion of our education services, but will make the situation impossible, for example, for large assets that are jointly owned, such as Tatton Hall, which will need vireing from one authority to another before it can remain in the control of the population of Cheshire? But none of those things is of concern. We must move on; progress is all.

We should give full credit to the Secretary of State. She alone appears to have taken the decision. Treasury Ministers know very well that the facts and figures with which they were presented were absolutely watertight and that discussions have been held both at county level and at local government level in Chester and elsewhere with a number of auditors who have made it plain that they have accepted the case for one unitary county because those figures are viable and the alternative is not. It is known that the taxpayers in my area will not only have to pay many thousands of pounds, but will face the loss of many of the advantages that they have at present.

I have been in the House long enough to see the coming and going of many inadequate personalities. I have seen those on both sides of the House who have been promoted for various reasons. I have seen the crawlers. I have seen those who have used sex—[Interruption.] Oh, there are so many it would take too long to name them. I have seen those whose sexual preferences were of interest to others. I have seen those who demonstrated a great commitment to their own interests, irrespective of the political parties that they were supposed to represent.

But I have rarely seen a decision such as this, taken with such cynicism and with so little respect for the interests of the average voter. When the Secretary of State was seeking office as the deputy leader of the Labour party, she said that people frequently become disaffected with their own Government because they feel that no one is listening to them. Wherever could they have got that idea from? She also made it clear—she told us constantly—that she would listen.

Let me make it very plain: this decision will affect everything in my constituency—every practical purpose that I am pursuing at the moment. Three new health centres, a new school, which is desperately needed in one of the most deprived areas, and a new railway station: all those things will be scuppered by this decision, which will make my local government fundamentally uncertain not only in economic terms, but in its political control.

If I may say so, the decision has been taken with a degree of cynicism that I have not seen for some time. I do not believe that it is in the interests of the Labour party, but then it has never been pretended that the decision is in the interests of the Labour party or of individual voters. It is not in the interests of those who work in the health service, the education service, or social services, or of those who want decent, high-quality local government services. I believe that it is a decision that has been taken for the most venal and personal reasons, and I find it wholly and deeply objectionable.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government may regret not having made a formal statement, in which she could have addressed directly some of the questions raised by the hon. Lady. Today’s debate is a timely opportunity for us to get things on the record.

I want to concentrate on the fact that there are several matters before the House and in the hands of Government that are affecting access to services for constituents in rural areas. There is a need to maintain the life of rural communities and to maintain their engagement. We are in the middle of the consultation on the closure of 2,500 post offices. It is depressing that the Government seem to have come at the issue with a top-down attitude, looking at how many post offices they can afford to close, rather than at what kind of network is needed to deliver the criteria that they have set for the Post Office. The approach should have been much more bottom-up, based on the community’s needs. The Government should have worked out those needs and then built up to the kind of network that was needed to fulfil them, rather than coming up with a figure of 2,500 at the start of the process. The feedback from the Post Office is that if any individual campaign makes during the consultation an effective case for the non-closure of a post office, the Post Office will have to find another post office to close to make up the numbers. That means that the feedback from communities will not be as effective as it would be if a community-up approach were adopted.

In the north-east, there will be a month’s delay before the community will know what will happen. It was meant to be April, but it is now going to be May before we know the Post Office’s decision. Between now and then, we must continue to convey that there is a danger in building the model on to the urban reinvention model. The idea was that if one post office was closed, people would go to neighbouring post offices. In rural areas, where communication links are much more radial, there is a danger of falsely assuming that the closure of one post office will mean that the nearest post office benefits. The modelling will have to be far more effective in understanding how people in communities travel, where their nearest post offices are, and how many people are going to be excluded from access to those post offices.

The recent loss of child benefit data is a reminder of the value many people attach to using the post office as a safe and reliable means of handling their finances. The card account is a simple system. One cannot go overdrawn or put one’s finances at risk. In a situation where people cannot trust the Government with their data, the Post Office card account is a safer choice, because there is no risk of any fraud being perpetrated.

The Government keep talking about how natural forces and a change in the market are driving the situation with the Post Office. One of the biggest customers, the Department for Work and Pensions, forcibly drove through far too fast the change in how payments are made. The Government have to accept that they pushed people faster than they were naturally willing to go when it came to changing the system and that they put pressure on the Post Office to adapt far too quickly. Now they are having to pick up the pieces through the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is trying to sort out the Post Office.

The roll-out of broadband can engage rural communities and avoid a drift into cities. Many constituents finally have access to broadband, but parts of those communities do not get broadband at even the most basic speeds. However, many service providers produce sale pitches that offer broadband at much higher speeds than can be achieved on the ground. We need clearer marketing of broadband so that people get the speed of broadband for which they are paying, rather than an aspiration.

We also need to learn lessons from the first phase of getting broadband out. There is already talk of the next generation of much faster broadband. When Ofcom takes decisions on technology and the way in which it wants to operate the market, it needs to be mindful of how the service will be connected to rural areas. If it comes up with a model that can be rolled out really quickly in the cities, but that makes it even more difficult for social schemes to ensure that the technology reaches deep into rural areas, we will lose out again. Such technology should reinvigorate rural communities by enabling people to work from home, which would reduce the impact on the climate caused by commuting to work. However, if the progress in urban areas is much faster than that elsewhere, the drive towards people having to leave rural areas will increase. People who are involved in the oil and gas industry in the north-east of Scotland deal with large amounts of data. If such people are able to work from home, it will be a real bonus. However, that will require fast-speed broadband to reach their homes at the same time that it reaches urban areas.

Another change in technology affecting rural areas will be the switch-off of analogue television—that will happen in my area in 2010—which will lead to a total reliance on digital TV. We are beginning to hear assurances that when the power on the digital signal is turned up, it should be able to reach most homes, and that side of the technology is becoming more understood. However, it is important that rural communities have the chance to be part of the shared culture of digital television and to access information.

Some people are at risk of being excluded from the transition. People are already buying new equipment—if they are changing their television, they should be aware of their needs and how best to access digital TV—yet the help scheme kicks in only six months before the switchover. There should be a longer lead-in time during which vulnerable people can be assisted with the transition.

A particular group of vulnerable people who are missing out is those who are registered blind, those with poor eyesight, and those with dyslexia. The bonus of digital television for them will be audio description, which will mean that if they are watching a complex programme and cannot quite work out what is happening, they will be able to switch on the audio description to get the added benefit of finding out how many characters are on screen and what is involved in the development of the plot. Such technology will engage people with sight problems in TV in a way that cannot be achieved through the existing analogue system. However, there is concern that the aspiration for audio description is very low. Only 10 per cent. of public service broadcasting has to have audio description, so we need to drive that forward more quickly and effectively.

With regard to access, I am worried about the speed with which the Government are pressing ahead. Anyone who has switched to digital TV will know that the multitude of available channels are accessed by reading an on-screen guide. Clearly, such a guide is of no use to someone with sight problems or dyslexia, yet with multi-channel provision, there is no other way of working out the channels. On many handsets, the correct buttons to press are unclear, especially if one has difficulty with contrast; for example, many of the numbers might be very small. The Government need to press ahead quickly on ensuring that the talking programme guide is developed and running. If someone’s TV were to break down now, it would be madness for them to buy an old-fashioned TV—they should adapt their technology in the run-up to the switch-off. There should not be reliance on the six months before switch-off.

Although the Met Office says that this winter will be warmer than normal, it will be colder than the past couple of winters that we have experienced. It certainly feels colder at the moment than it has been for some time. That will remind all hon. Members of those who are struggling to heat their homes and the fact that the winter fuel payment has not kept up with the rise in fuel prices. Three factors affect a person’s ability to heat their home: their income; the price of the fuel that they use to heat the home; and the quality of the home’s insulation. The Government tackled fuel poverty, in the early stages of the market, by relying on bringing down the price of fuel. Of course, prices have now gone back up, and although they have eased off a little this year, they are on an upward trend. If people are to be able to heat their homes effectively and to make sure that the money that they spend on heating is not wasted, we will need to drive forward much more effectively an improvement in the quality of homes and their insulation.

There is an added disconnect in rural areas. While the price of gas, and thus the price of electricity, have remained relatively stable this winter, the price of oil, which is the main option for heating homes that are not on the gas network, has shot up dramatically. If we are to tackle fuel poverty throughout the country, we will need to recognise that those who are not on the gas main are missing out yet again on something that is available to the vast majority of society.

The plans involving the regulator to try to extend the gas network to fuel-poor areas will have a marginal benefit. However, when the Government consider support for the fuel-poor, they need to address those who are not, and are never likely to be, on the gas main and who thus face more volatile fuel prices and unstable markets. To that end, I urge the Government to examine alternative ways of heating homes, such as heat pumps and microgeneration technologies, that are more fuel-efficient and thus not as affected as oil by fluctuations in fuel prices.

At this point I should declare my interest in the oil and gas industry. I am a shareholder in Shell and vice-chair of the all-party group on the offshore oil and gas industry, which is supported by Oil and Gas UK. On the other side of the energy equation, a lot of my constituents’ jobs depend on the health of the North sea oil and gas industry, which is going through a period of transition. On the face of it, given that world oil prices are booming, it is a dynamic industry, but there are a lot of concerns underneath the surface. The Health and Safety Executive recently highlighted concern about structural maintenance and, if that is not addressed, the risk of a major incident. A lot of the equipment is reaching the end of its original design life, so a culture of adequate investment is needed to ensure the continuity of that equipment.

While the effective improvement to the human side of safety has been a success, there is a worry that if the investment culture is not right, another major incident could occur. That is a reminder of one of the challenges for the North sea, even with the high oil price. The situation surrounding the supply of skills and equipment throughout the world is becoming much more difficult, and competition for investment is becoming more challenging as larger, less mature fields in other parts of the world start to suck away investment. Costs are thus rising in the North sea.

Both the Government and the industry welcome the constructive engagement on changing the relationship between the Treasury and the industry. Historically, the Treasury, under both the Conservative and Labour parties, has viewed the industry as a short-term means of dealing with a cash-flow crisis in the Government’s coffers, without thinking of the long-term structural investment needs. Although the Treasury has taken a more constructive approach to some of the issues affecting the industry, it still needs to look at maximising the return from the North sea by reducing its take from the North sea so that we can see long-term benefits. Such benefits would include not only the retention of more jobs in the north-east of Scotland and places throughout the country that depend on the investment, but increased security of supply through the establishment of new sources of gas, given that there is much gas that can be found there, although only with the right investment climate. If we were to get that right, we could ensure that the Government’s future tax revenues were far greater.

Those are the issues that I wanted to raise on behalf of my constituency in the Christmas recess Adjournment debate. On the business of the House, I hope that in the new year the Leader of the House will be able to give us business at least two weeks ahead. When we began to programme legislation and began reforms to the House, part of the trade-off offered by previous Leaders of the House was that there would be more predictability and more information on what was coming before Parliament, to enable people to plan ahead. That was for the benefit of Members of Parliament and, more importantly, outsiders. We must remember them. If Parliament is to engage with the outside world, we need to give those outside time to realise what is happening here, so that they can influence us before we make our decisions. I hope that in the new year there will be the resolve to get back to the cycle of two weeks’ business being announced in business questions, so that the House can do a bit more planning. Obviously, as we progress, there can be a more clear-cut, longer-term view of how legislation will pan out.

Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish a merry Christmas to you and all the staff of the House who make it possible for us to function. I wish all Members of the House a happy new year and a prosperous 2008.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of huge importance to my constituents. It is probably the most important issue in my constituency, and has been for a considerable time. It is the future of Chase Farm hospital, which is in my constituency but which also serves surrounding constituencies. It has been an issue for between 15 and 20 years, so it is of long standing. It has not been helpful for the hospital; it has created huge instability. It is no exaggeration to say that there has been a significant loss of confidence in the NHS, and certainly in acute services, among local people.

My commitment in 1997—the future of the hospital was an issue even back then—was that I would do everything that I could to ensure that Chase Farm hospital had a future as a fully functioning hospital. By that, I meant that the hospital would have in-patient and out-patient provision, and surgeons and physicians. Babies could be born there, and there would be accident and emergency provision. I will not look back over the whole period, because undoubtedly the 12 minutes available to me in no way allows that, but I want to go back to July 2003, when Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust announced a “healthy hospitals” public engagement. “Public engagement” was never really defined, although we have had a number of them. They have varied considerably, but did not seem to involve much effort by local NHS bureaucrats, either in the hospital trust or in the primary care trust, to engage with the maximum number of constituents across my borough and the two neighbouring boroughs affected, Haringey and Barnet. A little part of Cheshunt is also affected.

Any public engagement that has taken place has been organised mainly by local Members of Parliament. At various times, members of the hospital trust or the PCT boards have attended. They have made some contribution at such meetings, but I am sorry to say that it has generally been a very unhelpful, ill-informed contribution. After the 2003 public engagement, a formal consultation document was to be produced. It was not produced—fortunately so, as the public engagement had been remarkably unsuccessful—because the sector-wide “healthy start, healthy futures” initiative did not proceed.

There were then two failed attempts to restart the consultation process, and in October 2005 there was another public engagement. That happened and provided any engagement with the public only because the three Enfield Members of Parliament organised a series of public meetings. Otherwise, I am not sure that there would have been any event that one could have pointed to and said, “This is a public engagement.”

We were then confronted with five options for consultation, two of which were highlighted as preferred options. Three of them were declared not viable by the medical director of the trust, who had put the options before us. That beggars belief: why put three options before us that the medical director considered not viable? That was followed by the chief executive being quoted in the local newspaper as expressing her opinion on her preferred options, and reiterating that other options were not viable. That came across to local people as a fiasco. They felt that situation was a stitch-up, that one of the options would definitely become the way forward, and that what took place was not a public engagement, and certainly not a consultation, but was just lip service. At no point have we been told exactly what a public engagement or consultation should involve, but it is everybody’s understanding that the views of the local community are supposed to be taken into account. I think that it is becoming clear why there is a significant loss of confidence.

At the end of the public engagement, it was clear that what the hospital trust wanted was a hot-cold solution. Barnet and North Middlesex University hospitals would be “hot” hospitals, becoming major trauma centres, with all accident and emergency work going there. Chase Farm would be a “cold” hospital, with all elective surgery. We want elective surgery at Chase Farm hospital, but we also want some accident and emergency provision, and we want it to be possible for Enfield babies to be born there.

Following the public engagement, we were to have a consultation. On 3 December 2005, 5,000 people in Enfield turned out to march on a cold, windy Saturday afternoon. That is a significant turnout for quite a small town. They linked hands around the hospital. There were numerous petitions opposing the hot-cold solution, one of which had 18,000 signatures. The local medical committee—our general practitioners—opposed that hot-cold solution, and felt that the public engagement had been completely inappropriate, and that the public’s need for access to the engagement had not been met. The chief executive of North Middlesex University hospital made it clear that she had significant problems with the proposals, and that if they went ahead, they would cause real problems for the accident and emergency departments at North Middlesex University and Barnet hospitals. The proposed expansion of North Middlesex University hospital would need to be looked at all over again.

It transpired that there was no feasibility study underpinning the options, so a feasibility study was started. We cannot expect the public to have any confidence in a proposal that is brought forward with no notion of its financial viability, as was the case in this instance. I am pleased to say that in January 2006, options for formal consultation were delayed. There had been a public engagement and another set of options, but again there was to be no formal consultation. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that there is a significant cost to such public engagements or possible consultations.

In January 2006, there was what was called a pause for thought. I was pleased to have that pause, which was due to the helpful intervention of my noble Friend Baroness Wall, who had become the chair of Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust; I am pleased that she did—she brought some common sense to the situation. The pause for thought was to be until May. In February and March that year, I met the Secretary of State for Health. Numerous other lobbying activities were going on, and people were trying to put forward a sensible position on Enfield heath care services.

In May 2006, no document was brought forward. We then discovered the existence of something called the project board. In September 2006, the project board brought forward 10 high-level scenarios. In October, it shortlisted four. If the House is beginning to lose the thread, I am not in the least bit surprised. Hon. Members can only imagine how local people felt.

Then came a report from the clinical, public and patient engagement groups. Nobody really knew what they were. It seemed to be something of an exclusive process to which most of the public had been given no access. At that point, the Healthcare Commission published a report that classified Barnet and Chase Farm hospital trust as one of only eight acute hospital trusts in the country that were weak in resources and some areas of service quality. That rating reflected the trust’s weak financial management, and so it is clear that we had gone from having no feasibility study to underpin proposals to having proposals based on information obtained from mismanaged finances. Confidence was totally eroded by that stage. We had had numerous other problems at the hospital. There were clearly serious management problems; we had three chief executives in some seven years.

We have since had a further formal consultation, and we have had the help of Professor Sir George Alberti, who was very helpful. He said that only over his dead body would the hospital close—closure was one option. I thought that that was rather a risky statement, given what had gone on so far. He also said that we needed some accident and emergency provision at the hospital. I sent out 30,000 letters during that consultation to help people to understand what was being proposed. We were willing to compromise. We were not saying that we wanted no change, but we said we wanted option 1, which was a hospital with all its elective surgery, some accident and emergency provision and a midwife-led birthing unit. We requested doctor-led, 24-hour local accident and emergency provision in line with what Lord Darzi recommends for a local hospital. We have just had the results, and option 1 is the approach that will be taken, but we have been given only 12 hours of local accident and emergency cover. That is not sufficient.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House ask Ministers in the Department of Health and anyone else who can have any impact on that decision to look at it very carefully? The people of Enfield have made it clear that they will work with local health authorities and Government and that they will accept some change, but we will not accept no accident and emergency provision during the 12 hours of the night. No cover is not acceptable—

The Christmas pantomime at the Northcott theatre in Exeter this year is “Cinderella”. We can all predict that it will have a happy ending and Cinderella will marry her prince. However, the outcome for the theatre is much more serious. We have recently heard that Arts Council England intends to withdraw all its annual funding of some £547,000 a year. If that is withdrawn, it is almost certain that the theatre will close.

My next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw)—the Minister of State, Department of Health—has set out clearly the reasons why, in his words, Arts Council England has made a most perverse decision. I agree, because although the theatre is on the campus of the university of Exeter, it is valued by the wider part of Devon, particularly eastern and mid-Devon, which I represent. I spoke only this morning to a theatre critic from the west country who has described the work of the Northcott theatre over the years as of quality. The performances at the Northcott are of a high quality.

The reason why the hon. Member for Exeter described the decision as perverse is that we have all been invited to a launch of the newly refurbished Northcott theatre in January—£2.1 million has just been spent on refurbishing it, of which Arts Council England contributed £100,000. It continued to pay more than £500,000 in revenue costs while the theatre was closed for refurbishment. Exeter city council, Devon county council, the university and private funders managed to raise £2.1 million to refurbish the theatre on the basis that Arts Council England supported and expressed confidence in the future of the Northcott.

It would be remiss of me, on behalf of my neighbour the hon. Member for Exeter and other Devon MPs, not to draw the House’s attention to a decision that he has rightly described as perverse. In that part of Devon, we value the quality of work at the Northcott. It is well attended, with 80 per cent. attendance, which is very good for a provincial theatre. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on to the relevant Minister the fact that opposition to Arts Council England’s decision has cross-party support in Devon. We stand shoulder to shoulder and will oppose the decision, because the loss of the Northcott would be a severe blow to the people of Devon.

I shall now move on to the subject of drugs. In certain cases, people have serious medical conditions and health care professionals believe that they should have access to drugs, but for one reason or another they are either denied access or, again rather perversely, even prevented from making some contribution, if they so choose, to help to pay for the drug.

I recently had a case in Devon where a young mum had a severe but rare condition. The difference in cost between the drug that she was allowed and the drug that her consultant in London prescribed—the condition is so rare that her case is overseen by a London consultant—was £6,000 a year. Although she was turned down on appeal by doctors who clearly could not have had any knowledge of the complexity of her condition, I took the matter up with the chief executive of our primary care trust and I am pleased to say that she has now been allowed the drug that her consultant prescribed. MPs and other such people should not be the only route to obtain drugs that health care professionals believe necessary.

We have seen in the press only this week the rather bizarre situation in which people who pay a proportion of their costs when they have a life-threatening or severe condition are then denied any access to the rest of their treatment on the NHS. That cannot be the fairness and justice that the Government talked about when they came to office in 1997.

I am sure that the House will want to return to the subject. I certainly shall, not least—as hon. Members who, like me, represent English seats will know—because of the battle to get Lucentis prescribed for our constituents with wet-eye age-related macular degeneration. I notice that the Prime Minister was asked about that point a week or so ago at Prime Minister’s questions. Ironically, the Prime Minister will not have the sort of postbag about this that I do, because his constituents in Scotland get the drug; mine go blind. In the interests of fairness and justice, I ask the Deputy Leader of the House: what is the point of research companies that produce wonderful, ground-breaking drugs that make such a difference to people’s lives if people in this country cannot afford them? Health care professionals say that those drugs are the help that people need, but, perversely, they cannot be obtained even if people are prepared to contribute some of their hard-earned money to help to pay for them. There is something seriously wrong with drugs prescribing in this country. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to look into that.

Finally, I want to come to a point that I hope to bring back to the House in the new year. However, I must ask for the help of the Deputy Leader of the House. I wrote to the Minister for Housing, who is responsible for home information packs, on 19 October on behalf of my constituent, Mr. Dyke of Dunkeswell, who is aware that I shall raise the matter today. Mr. Dyke owns the kind of property that will be familiar to people who understand Devon architecture: a Devon longhouse. They are very old, very beautiful houses. This particular one was built in about 1500. He wanted to put his property on the market. Of course, since 1500 significant alterations and improvements have been made, including some to the thatched roof, and an additional part has been added to the building.

I do not think that any of us would oppose energy certificates in principle, although my party rightly opposes the whole of the home information packs operation. When the energy inspector arrived at Mr. Dyke’s house, he spent 15 minutes inspecting the property and asked no questions whatever of the home owner. Mr. Dyke was worried about that, because it is a complex building, and he volunteered certain information to the inspector and even walked him round, pointing out things that the inspector might have missed. The inspector made one or two notes and went away.

The property contains a solid fuel Rayburn, a Nouvelle Heatranger. On receiving the inspector’s report, and finding that he had received an F category energy certificate, my constituent was sure that the inspector had not taken account of the real fabric of the improvements that had been made to the property. Mr. Dyke obtained a copy of the assessors handbook produced for people carrying out such inspections, and—lo and behold—solid fuel boilers and heaters were not listed. Only gas and oil heaters were mentioned. Nor, for that matter, was there any mention of a building material with which we in Devon are very familiar: a substance called cob, which has quite beneficial insulation properties. I do not have time to go through the whole list of omissions.

My constituent has rightly described this situation as a farce. In the end, he had to ask for someone with more experience to come out and do the whole inspection again. So someone who until recently had been a chiropractor turned up to look at the construction of Mr. Dyke’s house. In the list of recommendations subsequently produced, my constituent was advised to fit a heating programmer, despite the fact that the system already had one. He was also advised that thermostatic radiator valves should be fitted, even though every radiator already had one. He was told that the hot water tank had no thermostatic regulator, although there was one. The list went on and on.

My constituent wants to sell his property, which is not unnatural, yet he is still being plagued by bureaucracy and inefficiency in what he has described as a farce. I wrote to the Minister for Housing about this in October, and I have sent her chasing letters since then. I have still not had the courtesy of a reply. Given Mr. Dyke’s experience, it appears that the people who are given the task of carrying out these inspections are not qualified or experienced enough to deal with older properties, but are trained to deal only with modern construction methods. I live in a house built in the 1600s made of wattle and daub—and I do not suppose that wattle and daub appear anywhere on the list of building materials that the Government deem it necessary to inspect.

Even worse is the way in which the Government have set up these certificates, with an inspection matrix that allows certain tick boxes and not others, obviously not taking account of the diversity of property construction, especially in parts of the country such as Devon, with a great mixture of old traditional properties containing a wide range of building insulation and materials. The Government really must intervene on this issue, and I would like the Minister to respond to this point.

My constituent Mr. Dyke has spent a lot of money improving the insulation and energy efficiency of his very old property. No one who has looked at it so far has been capable of giving the building a true assessment. It is outrageous that such people should have to undergo all this additional stress, anxiety and bureaucracy when they want to do something as simple and straightforward as selling their home.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). She usually ends such speeches by inviting hon. Members to visit her constituency during the recess, although I am not sure what she would want us to look at. Perhaps it would be Mr. and Mrs. Dyke’s central heating, or the theatre that is about to close down. I shall have to give it a miss on this occasion. One place that I shall not be visiting is Cheshire, and certainly not in the company of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for fear of what my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) might do to us if we were to arrive together.

I have only a few points to make in this Christmas Adjournment debate: two are local issues, and two are of national interest. The first is a matter that has already been raised by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith)—the closure of post offices. He gave a good account of the closure programme, which will also affect my constituency. There have been 52 post office closures in Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire, and one that I am particularly worried about is the post office at Willow Brook road and Bushby road.

I went to that post office last Friday to accept a petition from Mr. Shah and the local residents, which I will present to the House at 7 o’clock tonight. I hope that hon. Members will want to stay for the presentation of the petition. In it, local residents express their grave concern about what might happen to local facilities if the Willow Brook Road post office closes. A lot of elderly people use that post office, as well as a lot of lone parents, and mothers who cannot go into Leicester city centre to access postal services. This post office is of vital importance to the local community.

I know that all hon. Members can make a case for keeping their local post offices open, but I want to ask the Minister to make a special plea, through her good offices, to the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) to re-examine the case. I invite him to come to Leicester over the Christmas recess—Wolverhampton is not that far from Leicester—to visit Mr. Shah and the local residents and to hear for himself their real concerns about these proposals. I have faith in the system, and I know that we have Postwatch, but I am worried because every time we have written to Postwatch or the Government about a post office closure, the closure has still taken place. On this occasion, I hope that the Minister will come to my constituency.

The second point that I want to raise relates to a site at the junction of the A46 and the A6—the road that leads from Leicester to Nottingham. It is a large landmark site that has been occupied for more than 60 years by GE-Thorn. One in every two light bulbs in Europe were once made on the site. A decision was made last year to close GE in Leicester, after it had operated there for more than half a century, resulting in more than 400 employees being made redundant. At the time, the local people accepted that the proposed redundancy package was quite impressive, and although they wanted to keep their jobs, they were happy to go along with the package on offer.

My concern relates to the fact that the site has remained empty, and that GE has no plans to market it. It is an important local community resource, and I am worried that it will become derelict. The company replied today to my letter of 15 November—I do not know whether it knew that I was going to raise the matter in the House today—to say that it would look into the marketing of the site. I hope that it will do so quickly, so that the site can be used for housing or other amenities for the people in Rushy Mead. I know from discussions that I have had with Ross Wilmot, the leader of the city council, that he is keen to ensure that something is done about the area.

My two final points concern national issues. The first relates to the announcement made today in a written statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration concerning the proposed changes to visitors visas. I was watching a parliamentary programme last week when I saw the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons jump up to the Dispatch Box to reply to an hon. Member who was complaining about the number of Government announcements being made to the press before they were made to Parliament. She replied that she had no examples of that happening, at which Mr. Speaker said that he had a number of examples. Here is yet another example. All over the weekend those proposals were trailed in the national newspapers, and they were trailed yesterday on television, yet we have only just had the written statement.

I believe that there are some good things in these proposals, but I am a bit concerned about the proposal to introduce a bond system. We tried it seven years ago and it was not particularly successful, though I appreciate that the emphasis will now be on the sponsor in this country rather than the applicant abroad. That is welcome, but my problem, which other Members will share, is where many people are coming to a very big wedding—as in Leicester, where 20 or more relatives often attend them every weekend—how is the sponsor going to be able to pay for 20 bonds, if they are to be set at the level of £1,000 each? That is a lot of money.

Although I welcome the fact that the Minister for Borders and Immigration has sought so carefully to ensure that there is proper discussion and debate about these issues—the consultation period will last three months—I worry about one or two aspects of the bond system. I hope that the Government will listen to local communities and to hon. Members who have large immigration case loads and hear what they have to say about their experiences. I do not support the removal of the right of appeal. I think that a robust independent judicial appeal system is vital for the success of the visa regime, but I have no particular problems with reducing the length of a tourist visa from six to three months, as three months is plenty of time to visit relatives in this country.

My last point concerns police pay. As the Deputy Leader of the House will know, following an evidence session with the Home Secretary last week, the Home Affairs Select Committee took evidence from Jan Berry, the chairman of the Police Federation and the chief constable of Nottinghamshire, Steven Green. We listened carefully to what the police had to say about the Government’s approach to the issue of police pay and I am on record as saying that the Government have made a mistake in not paying the full award as recommended by the police arbitration tribunal, from 1 September. I cannot understand why that is not being done, as it is very clear from what we heard earlier today that the 2.5 per cent. is within the budget of every local police authority.

I understand from the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), whom I have just met in the Tea Room—I source this piece of information—that the chief constable of Gwent in north Wales has decided to honour the agreement and intends to find a means of backdating the payment to 1 September, which I think is a very good thing to do. However, I should say that the chief constable of Nottinghamshire said that he could not do that because he did not feel that it was legally possible.

Why are the police a special case? It is because for the last police strike, we have to go back to 1918. That is why the law was passed then, effectively preventing the police from going on strike again. They are one of a very small group of public sector workers who cannot go on strike, so if the Government go through a process of arbitration for those public sector workers, it is extremely important that they should be bound to accept the outcome.

Those familiar with the Home Affairs Committee will know that there are very different personalities on it from the different wings of the various parties, so it is often difficult to achieve unanimity in such a short time. On this occasion, we have had only two evidence sessions, yet at 1 o’clock today the Select Committee unanimously resolved to write to the Home Secretary to ask her to meet the pay award in full. We said that we did not accept that the police were in the same position as other public sector workers, because they cannot withdraw their labour in pursuit of any pay claim. We felt that it was incumbent on the Government to honour the recommendations of the independent tribunal, and we said that this was a question of trust. We need the police to carry out their proper functions.

Members will have received many e-mails and letters from members of the police force who are planning a very big demonstration in January next year to lobby Parliament. I believe that they are also going to Redditch to lobby the Home Secretary in her constituency. This is a problem that we do not need at the moment. The money is there and this Government have had very good relations with the police over the last 10 years. Law and order is at the very heart of our domestic agenda, and there seem to be no reasonable grounds why this claim cannot be paid. I understand and accept the Home Secretary’s argument that there must be an overall pay policy, but this will not breach such a policy because the money is, as I have explained, already there.

Let us send a very clear message that we value the work of the police. It is important not only to our law and order agenda but to our counter-terrorism agenda. We have rightly found an additional £15 million to put into counter-terrorism, so it is quite possible for the Government to honour this commitment. I realise that the Minister is not going to stand up at the Dispatch Box and announce that the settlement will be paid in full—if only that were the case! She will not say that, just as she will not say that Cheshire will not be divided or that Mr. and Mrs. Dyke’s central heating will be inspected tomorrow. What I would like her to do, however, is to pass my strong message back to colleagues, especially those in the Treasury and the Prime Minister, who I hope will meet the Police Federation shortly. That would be the right thing to do at the present time. As I wish everyone a very happy Christmas, I believe that this provides an opportunity for the Home Secretary to become Mother Christmas.

On Friday, I met Mr. and Mrs. John Burrell of Godshill, who came to my advice centre with a matter of the utmost concern. The Burrells have been married for 41 years and the family has lived on the Isle of Wight for five years. Sadly, Mr. Burrell was taken ill two years ago, or thereabouts, with renal cancer. His life may be prolonged by use of the drug Sutent. Although Sutent has not yet been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, it is prescribed in many PCTs—but not on the island. Across the Solent, in Portsmouth and Southampton, and in 60 other primary care trusts up and down the country, Sutent would be prescribed for Mr. Burrell or those like him. There appears to be a real difference between PCTs in terms of treatment available. Some, such as the Isle of Wight, are inflexible and others are more flexible and appear to consider whether use of the drug is appropriate.

The estimated cost for the initial treatment is between £4,000 and £7,000. The number of people on the Isle of Wight who may benefit from Sutent is as low as just two cases in two years, including that of Mr. Burrell. Mr. Burrell has been supported by Dr. Gabi Fritzsche, his general practitioner of Niton, and Dr. Kudingila Madhava, his consultant oncologist based at St Mary’s hospital in Portsmouth. Let me quote a letter sent by Dr. Madhava to the PCT, as reported in a front page article in the Isle of Wight County Press. Dr Madhava said:

“As Mr. Burrell is a young patient and has been very fit until recently, he would really be an ideal candidate for this treatment. It would be unfortunate if you deprived him of this newer drug just because of lack of funding.”

But despite that plea, Mr. Burrell was rejected for Sutent by the Isle of Wight PCT—a decision confirmed by an appeal panel last week.

Dr. Jenifer Smith, director of public health for the Isle of Wight PCT, said:

“Our standard practice for new drugs is to use only those which have been approved by NICE. We believe this policy is in the wider best interests of all our patients, and the public, as it ensures we prescribe medicines which are safe, effective and value for money.”

In other words, its officers simply give effect to a national policy, whereas other PCTs consider the suitability of the drug for local patients.

The NICE policy makes it clear that local decisions are okay for medicines that have not yet been approved for national schemes, yet that does not seem to be happening on the Isle of Wight. Southampton city and Portsmouth city teaching PCTs confirm that they prescribe Sutent, judging each request on its merits, while the north-east strategic health authority approves it as the routine first and second treatment for 12 trusts. To take Dr. Madhava’s words into account, it is hard to see what argument for giving the treatment to Mr. Burrell could be more compelling. The only conclusion can be that a postcode lottery is affecting the island, to the great detriment of my constituents and their families. Furthermore, NICE is delaying approval in many cases. If no scheme is approved nationally, there is a stalemate when local approval does not come through.

Mr. Burrell is in an impossible situation. One cannot fail to be moved by his plight. I should be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House could raise the case with the Minister concerned and ensure that an explanation for this state of affairs is provided for Mr. Burrell and his family. Ministers must also ensure that NICE evaluates new and apparently effective drugs swiftly, so that all patients can benefit from them.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in this Christmas Adjournment debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Christmas is a time for celebration and looking forward to the new year; however, a group of my constituents—the pigeon men and allotment holders of Ryhope—do not have that pleasure. Their Christmas will be very different from ours, because they face the arrival of bailiffs, eviction from the land that they have worked and the loss of the pigeons that they have cared for over many decades, often by members of the same family going back three generations. This brutal and unwelcome Christmas present comes courtesy of a dormant company—essentially a shell company—that does not appear to have any assets other than that piece of land, called Worktalent Ltd, which is based in a Newcastle firm of solicitors called Mark Gilbert Morse.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Mark Gilbert Morse has form when it comes to persecuting former miners? It is the same company that I exposed three years ago, when it was deducting 25 per cent. of the compensation due to former miners and their families, not content with the massive fees that it was already being paid by the Department of Trade and Industry.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am aware of the work that he has done to get compensation for many miners and others. I also have a complaint against the firm with the Legal Complaints Service, because it has refused to correspond with me as an elected Member of Parliament; indeed, it will not even answer the correspondence that I send.

The directors of Worktalent Ltd are Messrs. Gibson, Owen and Mark. Mr. Owen and Mr. Mark are also partners, as well as directors, of the said firm of Mark Gilbert Morse. The company bought the land cheaply—we estimate for around £12,500—a little over a decade ago, and 10 years ago issued an eviction notice against the allotment holders. Those allotment holders fought a brave and honourable campaign. They won support locally, nationally and, as it happens, internationally, including from many Members of Parliament, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). The allotment holders also successfully lifted the eviction, and in the process managed to get one of their pigeon crees—a north-east colloquialism for what people often know as pigeon lofts—recognised as the world’s only grade II listed pigeon cree. I understand why we list many of our great stately homes, but working people’s culture and heritage ought equally to be celebrated, so it was a great tribute to the men to achieve that.

The company has now come back at the men and commenced proceedings to have them evicted. The company has offered them financial inducements if they assist in having the crees de-listed and in securing planning permission. The men—and some women, too—are not prepared to do that. I met with them last Saturday. The company’s offer was rejected 22-nil, despite the great stress that the men are under— four of the men have had heart attacks in the past few months and one has had a stroke. Although there will be many reasons for their illness, part of the reason has to be connected with the anxiety that they feel.

Simply put, the men are not prepared to sell out for financial inducement. They might not have very much—many of them are redundant miners or shipyard workers—but they know the value of community and the value of working with children in local schools. To those men, that does not come in bundles of pound notes; it comes from what they feel in their hearts. The land is essentially worthless: the city council does not consider it acceptable to grant planning permission for alternative use and it has a grade II listed building on it. The land has no real value other than what it does now. The reality is that the company—this shell, dormant firm—took a punt. It bought a piece of land hoping that it would receive planning permission, but it did not count on the fight that the men would put up. They are men who have dug coal and built ships, and they do not threaten easily.

The men’s greatest fear is not the arrival of bailiffs over the Christmas and new year period; rather, it is being denied access to the land in order to feed the pigeons that they care for. I will pursue animal welfare legislation if the men are denied access, in respect of the health and welfare of the pigeons on site. I will also contact the appropriate authorities today, including the police, to make it perfectly clear that anyone found responsible for any damage done to that grade II listed building will face a custodial sentence, as is the law of the land.

Despite everything, there is a way forward. I urge the company to accept a proposal that will be made today. Specifically, I urge the Sunderland property developer, a Mr. Russell Foster, whom I believe to be behind the company—people might ask why I believe that; the answer is that he has told me as much and that the company secretary, Mr. Owen, admitted in a conversation that was taped by the BBC that the company was Mr. Foster’s—to accept a generous and imaginative offer that will be put forward today by Gentoo Living, the community arm of the former Sunderland housing group, and supported by the city council. The offer is to purchase the land, so that it can continue to be used as allotments and so that the work done with local children, who come in and work with the men, learning how to grow food and how to tender and care for pigeons, can also continue. That would be the best and most realistic outcome to the problem

I have pledged to my constituents that I will work as hard as I can to ensure that, whatever happens, the building will never be de-listed and that the view of the city council on not granting permission will be upheld. The company has an opportunity to make a profit from the land that it got or, in these final days before bailiffs arrive on the Ryhope allotments, to consider carefully what is a realistic and imaginative offer to the company and to Mr. Russell Foster. I do not believe that the company, or Mr. Foster, wish to be remembered for eternity—to have as their lasting epitaph in Sunderland and in the north-east; indeed, throughout the whole of Britain—as the company, and the men, who evicted pensioners over Christmas and the new year from the land that they love.

These men do not ask for a lot in life; they do not cause any trouble to anybody. They simply get up on a morning and go down to this land to grow food and tend to their pigeons. In 2007, it is not unreasonable to demand that we should try to deliver that to a group of people who contributed a great deal to this country economically. The choice is on the table if the company wishes to accept it; otherwise, it will live with the reputation of being behind a callous and unnecessary act that communities in the north-east will never forgive or forget. I ask the Minister to convey that message to all the Departments that are relevant to the building’s listed status.

Let me end by thanking all Members of this House. I was genuinely encouraged by the fact that the early-day motion in support of the Ryhope pigeon men was signed not only by Labour Members but by Conservative and Liberal Members and by Members from the smaller parties. I was very grateful for that, and I know that the men would like to convey their thanks to the House for the support they have received. I ask the Minister to convey what I have said to the relevant Departments, including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as those responsible for planning.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who, as we all know, had a very serious stroke some time ago. In his speech, he showed that he is still a robust spokesman for his constituency on the island despite recovering from that serious illness. Many of us are very pleased to see him here making those contributions.

This is one of those occasions when we can range over a wide number of issues, but there is often a consistency between our speeches. Several hon. Members have referred to post office closures. We have gone through several under this Government and although I accept that post offices close at various times—they always have and they will continue to do so—the lengthy uncertainty that has been experienced by the Post Office and the post office structure is something of which the Government should be ashamed. Initially, we were subject to the urban reinvention scheme, which led to four of our five post offices in Belper being closed, and now we have the rationalisation scheme. The right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) talked about consultation. I have just gone through such a consultation on post office closures, and I think that we need a new definition of that word. I am reminded that I am in the House of Commons, so I will not repeat some of the words that I have used to describe that supposed consultation process in my constituency. I think that consultation now means, in effect, “This is what we’re going to do—give us your views and we’ll ignore them.” That is exactly what has happened as regards the post office closures that have been confirmed in my constituency. Elizabeth Hoosley, who runs the post office in Marston Montgomery, will be closing her business after providing a service to that village for 42 and a half years. She is not somebody who is there to make a profit, but somebody who is providing a service to the community, yet that post office has been earmarked for closure. The same applies to the post office in Kirk Ireton, about which the most representations in my constituency were made. Again, those representations were completely ignored by the Post Office and the closure has been confirmed. The Government need to consider the whole process much more carefully and consider whether they should continue with it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many postmasters and mistresses feel so browbeaten that their morale is at a low? That causes stress not only to them but to other people who now also fear losing their post offices. In the case of some of them, their morale has dropped so much that they rather wish that they could get away from those businesses. We should be praising them for the work that they are doing, not threatening them with losing their jobs.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that observation with which I agree. He is right to emphasise the general frustration and uncertainty felt by those who run post offices in areas that have not yet been subject to the process and who have been waiting for a long time to see what will happen to them. That is regrettable.

The Minister probably knows my constituency and its terrain better than most, because she attended Lady Manners school in Bakewell—a fine school. Let me therefore raise with her another issue that is causing a great deal of concern. We have a fantastic community bus service that operates in Bakewell and Ashbourne. It is vital, in rural and spread-out communities that do not necessarily have the access to public transport that is available in urban areas, that community buses, which provide a first-class service to people in remote villages, are not put at risk as a result of the Government’s scheme to extend free travel to all pensioners as from next April. I accept that the Government would not want that to happen, but that could be the unintended consequence of the legislation for community transport. I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport, and I hope that she can reassure me that my worries are groundless.

On 3 December 1997, I had an Adjournment debate in the House on the issue of Blackdale quarry. On 24 October 2006, I had a further Adjournment debate on the same issue in Westminster Hall, when I raised with the relevant Minister the problem that we were having with Blackdale quarry on Longstone Edge. That is an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Peak District national park, which is visited by more than 20 million visitors every year—far more than the millennium dome ever got, yet it receives far less money than the dome cost even to maintain after it had closed. One of the problems has been uncertainty about certain regulations. Last October, the Minister assured me, as he came to the end of his description of one of the problems:

“That is the Catch-22 we are in.

The situation is clearly unsatisfactory, but the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for mineral legislation, fully appreciates that. It is preparing to consult on new regulations which, among other things, would provide a sanction—exactly what the right hon. Gentleman inquired about—to ensure that outstanding environmental information is provided and new conditions can finally be determined.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 24 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 404WH.]

Although we were promised that consultation more than a year ago, nothing has happened. The Secretary of State said to me in a recent letter that the process had stalled. At the same time, a large amount of money is being spent by the Peak District national park on taking all this through various inquiries, with two High Court cases so far and another one planned next year. In fact, this case has been going on for more than 10 years. The amount of public money that has been expended over that period on this one particular site is astronomical, let alone the annoyance felt locally about the determination of the site. Although we have a planning Bill before the House at the moment, it in no way helps in this current situation. The Government seem to want to push forward, understandably in certain cases, to ensure that we get speedier planning determinations. This planning case, which has been going on for more than 10 years already, shows no sign of coming to a conclusion. Therefore, I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the consultation on that particular area of legislation is brought to a conclusion very quickly.

Another example of where we are still waiting for the Government after they have promised to act is off-road regulations. The whole subject is a nightmare. The latest news from the Green Lanes environment action group is that the enforcement authorities—the police, county councils and national parks—are hindered because they have been expecting the publication of DEFRA’s guidance version 5 for many months. It has not yet emerged. That is another example of where delays in regulations and in the Government deciding the right way forward are costing money and inconveniencing people, with all the associated problems.

I am following the thrust of my right hon. Friend's argument. Is he suggesting that the Government have still to lay regulations before the House? If that is so, the situation is potentially very grave indeed, for, as he will be aware, the Government now do so in two main tranches a year: once shortly after October, and then after April. If he has to wait until after April, it is going to be a very vexing and tedious matter indeed.

On the first issue, I am waiting for the Government’s guidance, as opposed to regulations, because guidance helps the authorities to know which line they can take. I am waiting for the consultation to end and to see how the Government will move forward on that difficult planning issue. On the second issue, it is more about the regulations.

One of the issues that we do not seem to talk about often these days in the House is agriculture. Agriculture is essential in my constituency. As I said, a fair deal of my constituency is covered by the Peak District national park. The problems that the beef and lamb industries face are absolutely phenomenal. In the financial year ending March 2007, the average beef producer lost between £94 and £430 per head, and the average lamb producer lost between 65p and £36 a head. It is far worse for upland farmers. There is a real crisis. Although there are some areas of the industry where it looks like the worst is over and there is some hope, the beef and lamb industries are still facing serious problems.

I cannot remember the last time we had a debate in the House on agriculture. The Government used to provide an Adjournment debate on that subject, but I cannot remember the last occasion when the Government did that. There was an Opposition day debate on the problems faced by the farming community following the outbreak of diseases such as foot and mouth and bluetongue, but we have not had an agriculture debate in the House for some time. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to consider that as one of the future subjects that we should talk about.

We are fast approaching a situation where everyone will again be notified of their council tax increases. It looks like the Government are saying that they anticipate council tax going up by perhaps 4 per cent. or something similar. It is amazing how the Government are prepared to say that council tax should go up by 4 per cent., yet they set an inflation target of 2 per cent. I wonder why there is such a difference. Why do they allow councils to set their council tax increase 100 per cent. higher than their own inflation target? Many older people in our constituencies only get a 2 per cent. increase in their pension. The fact is that, over the past 10 years in Derbyshire Dales, we have seen council tax increase by 91 per cent. and in Amber Valley we have seen it increase by 87 per cent. That most affects those people on fixed incomes. It is the greatest cause of concern for them. For the Government to accept that council tax rises should be almost double what they anticipate inflation being is not acceptable.

If the Minister cannot today answer the questions that I have raised, particularly on the planning issues—I accept that she has to be briefed on every subject under the sun—I hope that she will take the opportunity to raise them with the Secretary of State, and that I will get a reply in due course.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise a couple of matters of particular concern to my constituents, although they have wider implications across south London. If I have time, I will refer to a third matter.

Earlier this year, I secured an Adjournment debate on the future of Network Rail services into London Bridge station following the welcome and long overdue extension of the East London line through my constituency to Crystal Palace and West Croydon. I do not intend to reprise the whole of that debate now, but I will make one point that I made then. The London borough of Lewisham has the highest proportion of residents who work outside the borough of any of the London boroughs. Therefore, the public transport links into and out of Lewisham are crucial to my constituents and others.

I sought in that debate to get an assurance that current Network Rail services would be augmented by East London line services and that there would be no cut in the current level of service, which is already extremely overcrowded. Although everyone welcomes the extension of the East London line and the extended opportunities that that will give for changes in travel patterns, on many occasions people cannot even get on the trains that go through the stations in my constituency. The frequency does not matter if by the time they get to Honor Oak, for example, they cannot get on the train. I sought a number of assurances, which the Minister was not able to give in full. However, the Minister certainly made some welcome comments.

Since then, the route utilisation study for south London has been concluded. Such studies are taking place throughout the country. I am sure that they are taking place in the constituencies of many Members present. The route utilisation study for south London has been published for consultation. The outline draft is before us. It is necessarily a weighty document: it is well over 200 pages, it is very technical and has numerous charts, graphs and tables. It will form the background not just for the extended East London line in 2010 but for the franchise renewal, which comes up in 2009.

The franchise is currently held by Southern. I do not know whether it will be successful again. I do not even know whether it will tender. I suspect that it will, which will be good news for people in my constituency, because it took over from the late, lamented Connex, which had the franchise taken away from it. Services have improved markedly. As I say, there is huge pressure in my constituency on the rail services going south on the loop line into London Bridge and Victoria stations.

The route utilisation study is not readily comprehensible to those who do not understand how railway timetabling is done. During the Adjournment debate earlier this year, I mentioned a few community groups in my constituency. I pay tribute to them again for the work that they have done in trying to interpret the implications of the options outlined in the study. However, I have concluded that the reasoning in that was at variance with my own and certainly at variance with the various undertakings and assurances that I was given by Network Rail, Southern, Transport for London and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who is responsible for rail, and his officials. There seems to be concern in the constituency that services into London Bridge station will be reduced from eight trains to six during the rush hour and that loop services between London Bridge and Clapham Junction into Victoria will be abolished.

I was therefore delighted to receive an e-mail from Network Rail. I will read part of it because I would like to get it on the record to reassure my constituents. It says:

“Network Rail has some concerns about a number of factually incorrect comments about the South London RUS which are currently in circulation and which may be causing…unnecessary worry.

Some of the issues which concern us, and which we would like to clarify are as follows:

It is not true to state that ‘the draft RUS would result in a 25 per cent. cut in existing Sydenham Line peak period services to London Bridge. The draft RUS proposals for December 2009 would in fact:

Result in exactly the same number of trains as today from Sydenham/Forest Hill arriving at London Bridge between 0700 and 1000 on weekdays”


“Result in an increase from today in the number of trains from Anerley, Penge West, Honor Oak Park and Brockley arriving at London Bridge between 0700 and 1000 on Weekdays”.

It goes on:

“It is not true to state that the draft RUS proposes an even greater cut in off-peak services from Sydenham to London Bridge. The draft RUS makes no comment whatever on the level of off-peak services to London Bridge. It is also not true to state that the draft RUS proposals will result in the loss of the loop line service to Clapham junction and Victoria.”

I was very heartened to receive that from Network Rail and obviously my constituents will be pleased as well. However, the proof of the pudding will be when the East London line arrives in 2010.

The utilisation study is out for consultation and should be finalised by March. It then goes to the Office of Rail Regulation and finally to the Department for Transport. I hope that all the bodies involved will process it in exactly the way that Network Rail intends and that the East London line in 2010 will be a genuine and very welcome addition—particularly to someone who has been campaigning for the extension of the East London line for 35 years—to the area and to the people of my constituency.

Another recent consultation, which was published only yesterday, is called “A Picture of Health” and is a joint venture by Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham primary care trusts, with the involvement of West Kent PCT. The study is looking at the acute sector within south-east London and outer west Kent. It has been augmented by Sir George Alberti, head of the national clinical advisory team. It is called, rather mistakenly in my estimation, the outer south-east London study. That is something of a misnomer, because University hospital, Lewisham is certainly not in outer London. However, it seems easier to deal with it in that way, rather than looking to the west and north to St. Thomas’s and King’s.

The great advantage of the variety of proposals that the study makes is that they are clinically led. A number of them—intermediate and hospital-based home services and urgent care centres—make admirable sense and the sooner they are advanced, the better. Many of them are not new and have been suggested for many years. However, the PCT and its predecessors were unable to put a funding framework in place. I hope that urgent progress will be made.

Many of the proposals deserve praise—as the consultation was published only yesterday, this is an early opportunity to make my views known—but some options should be ruled out immediately. Any suggestion to relocate the excellent paediatric facilities at Lewisham—a regional centre offering care of the highest quality—would be a severe mistake. There is no need to do that and, as the phrase has it, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Any suggestion that the accident and emergency facility at Lewisham should be downgraded or modified is completely misplaced. If it were not there, there would be nothing between St. Thomas’s, King’s and Farnborough to the south and Woolwich to the east. That is entirely unacceptable and would result in great dislocation. Hardly any of my constituents—hardly anyone in Lewisham—would use Woolwich and Farnborough and the pressure already on St. Thomas’s and King’s would simply be increased. The A and E at Lewisham is regularly busier than at King’s, a hospital with three times the number of beds, and is occasionally busier than St. Thomas’s. It would be an act of utmost folly to downgrade or modify it. I look forward to the consultation and hope that it will be to the benefit of everybody across south London.

Finally, I want to refer to an internet service provider that is failing to provide. Many right hon. and hon. Members will recall Freeserve, which was the dominant provider of internet services. In the end, it was acquired by Wanadoo and then went to Orange. During that time, people kept their e-mail addresses but were provided with services by Wanadoo and then by Orange—until a few months ago. This matter only came to my attention over the weekend.

Orange was taken over by France Telecom. I am sure that this has nothing to do with the fact that it is France Telecom, but surreptitiously and without warning long-established e-mail services are being disconnected. I am not even sure whether the company has the legal right to do that, because, effectively, it is taking people’s information or data and refusing them access to it. One can still send e-mails to the address that Orange has now blocked. People send mail in all good faith, assuming it has got through, but it has not, simply because of the capricious and disgraceful actions of Orange.

I know, as many hon. Members do, that Orange has a sophisticated lobbying organisation. There are many sessions for Members to discuss issues. I have been to a few and Orange is very generous with its hospitality; one can go out on the Terrace at its expense. Orange should take into account the fact that people have a right to be told, if nothing else. People may let Orange put them on to a new contract to screw money out of them—that is what these organisations do—but it is plain stupidity not to tell them what is going on. It should end this reprehensible behaviour as soon as possible.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you and the staff here in Parliament a very happy Christmas—not winterval, winterfest or Xmas, but Christmas? I hope that the Minister will tell her Government colleagues in Departments where there may be a tendency to follow the terms that the politically correct mob would foist on us that this House would like to see Christmas referred to by its proper term and not by these other names. I am sure that those of other religions—in this House and outside—do not take offence at the fact that we use the term Christmas around this time.

I want to raise a matter of great concern to people in Northern Ireland. Much of the time during the past Session was taken up, quite rightly, with the Government proposing legislation and regulations and providing reports on the war against terror. All of us support the Government in their actions. In Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world, the Government are conducting their war against terror but, in a most despicable example, they have ignored the state that has been the greatest sponsor of terror with the greatest impact on people in the UK: the state of Libya.

For many years, Libya sent arms to, financed and trained the IRA, which carried out acts of terror not just in Northern Ireland, but here in Great Britain. Many at this Christmas time mourn loved ones and are still living with the loss of limbs and livelihoods as a result of the terrorism sponsored by the Libyan Government over the 1970s, 1980s and into the early 1990s. The IRA campaign of terror could not have been sustained without the support of the Libyan Government.

In 1992, the Chief Constable of the then Royal Ulster Constabulary gave an intelligence estimate of the weaponry that had reached Northern Ireland from Libya. He catalogued it as 6 tonnes of Semtex; 1,500 AK rifles; three heavy machine guns; 500 handguns; 20 SAM missiles; 50 RPG-7 rocket launchers and 10 flamethrowers. Some of that Semtex was used in the most cowardly and dastardly terrorist actions committed during the troubles in Northern Ireland. That Semtex was used in a bomb at the war memorial on the November Remembrance day when 11 people were killed. It was used to blow up a bus near the Ballygawley roundabout in which eight soldiers died. It was used in the attempt to blow up the Cabinet in Downing street in 1991, and it was used in at least 250 booby-trap bombs, many of which led to loss of life and all of which led to the loss of limbs. Many shipments were intercepted. It is estimated that 200 additional tonnes of weaponry were on the three ships—the Claudia, the Marita Anne and the Eskund—which were intercepted on their way from Libya to Ireland.

Libya not only supplied arms; it also supplied finance. That has been borne out by Libyans themselves. The head of the Libyan London section confessed that at least £6 million was made available to the IRA by way of suitcases of money passed to IRA couriers in Tripoli. That money then came back to Ireland, was reinvested in property and businesses in Dublin at a time when property was booming, and made terrorism sustainable—it enabled the apparatus of terrorism to be financed through Libyan money.

The Libyans not only financed terror; they also trained terrorists. In “Bandit Country”, his excellent study of the IRA in south Armagh, Toby Harnden highlighted a number of the godfathers of terrorism in that area who had been trained in Libya and then returned to Northern Ireland to carry out bomb attacks against the security forces and organise the terror campaign that led to many targets here in London being blown up.

It would not have been unreasonable to expect that the Government, who are committed to ensuring that states that sponsor terror pay for their actions, would have had some urgency in making Libya pay for the years of terror it sponsored in the United Kingdom—terror which, as I have said, has had a far greater impact on individuals in this country than that of the Taliban or al-Qaeda or any of the other terrorist groups that the Government are currently pursuing.

There are well-documented precedents of compensation. When WPC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered near the Libyan embassy in London, compensation was sought for her family. When an airliner was blown up over Niger and 170 French citizens were killed, the French demanded compensation and refused to support the lifting of sanctions until it was paid. Rightly, the British and American Governments jointly demanded compensation for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. But when it comes to victims of Libyan-sponsored terror here in the United Kingdom, rather than making demands for compensation, the Foreign Office has campaigned to have sanctions against the Libyans lifted—it has twisted arms to make sure that they were lifted. The most bitter irony of all is that the Foreign Office has now sanctioned the sale of arms from this country to Libya. According to the records in this House, over the past two and a half years in standard individual export licences alone £50 million-worth of armaments has been sold by the United Kingdom to the Libyan Government, and that country has still not even apologised for the harm and suffering it caused to citizens of the United Kingdom.

I would like the Minister to seek an explanation from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister as to why in a recent letter to one of the victims’ groups in Northern Ireland the Government said that as far as they are concerned the case is closed. If war can be conducted against the Taliban and their assets can be frozen, and if we can go into Afghanistan to pursue terrorists, then at least Libya should be made to pay for the harm and hurt it has caused the people of the United Kingdom by sponsoring terrorism in this country for so many years.

I want briefly to raise one other matter. Over last weekend, another three Orange halls in Northern Ireland were destroyed, making an average of three per month over the past year and more than 200 in total since the sectarian campaign began of destroying what are in many places the only local community facility—although they are attached to the Orange Order, they are used by a wide section of the Northern Ireland community. Because of the number and widespread nature of the attacks, it has been virtually impossible for the people who run the halls to obtain insurance. Therefore, many halls scattered around Northern Ireland are lying derelict, burnt out and ruined—and of course every ruined building is an encouragement for those who want to continue such sectarian behaviour to do so, because they can see the highly visible results of what they do.

The Government had promised the Orange Order that if it was not possible to arrange private schemes they would look again at the issuing of Chief Constable certificates, which would open the door to compensation. Currently, to get a certificate it must be proved that at least three people have done the deed—often, halls are in the middle of the country and the deeds are done at night when no one is around, so it is impossible to establish that—or that it has been done by a proscribed organisation, but no proscribed organisation, regardless of how militant it might be, will confess to being involved in such a sectarian campaign. The result is that many of those halls are left empty and derelict.

The Government have not honoured their promise to the Orange Order of some time ago that if private insurance cover could not be obtained they would look at how to ease the way and review Chief Constable certificates. I ask the Minister to establish what has happened in respect of that promise and to ensure that it is fulfilled in 2008.

It is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is not in her place, because I want to take on her contribution to this debate regarding reorganisation in Cheshire. She attacked the decision announced today to replace the existing seven local authorities—Cheshire county council and the six district councils—with two unitary authorities, and she supports Cheshire county council’s campaign to replace those seven local authorities with one unitary authority.

Cheshire county council’s campaign has been predicated on the view that that option saves it, which is wrong because it actually abolishes it. My hon. Friend attacked our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by saying that this decision was hers and hers alone. However, it has been through the full process of government and has Treasury approval, so my hon. Friend is wrong on that account, too. She then tried to portray the decision to create two unitary authorities as costing Cheshire council tax payers money. That is wrong—a two-unitary solution in Cheshire will actually save them money. More money will go into local services, and there is a possibility that the council tax will be reduced.

My hon. Friend then attacked the decision by saying that it was without support. This is where she is being completely disingenuous, because the proposal for two unitary authorities is supported by me and my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christine Russell) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). To be fair to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), he also supports it, rather than having a single unitary for the whole county. Moreover, the proposal is supported by four out of the six districts, so it does have support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich went on to say that she was against the proposal because it would prevent three health centres, a new school and a railway station from being built in her constituency. That is absolute nonsense. The primary care trust will deliver health services in Cheshire, the Government themselves, through building schools for the future, will deliver the new school, and I suspect that Railtrack will be responsible for the rehabilitation of the railway.

My hon. Friend said that the proposal would adversely affect national health services in Cheshire. Strangely enough, Cheshire already has two primary care trusts that will fit very comfortably with having two unitary authorities in the area. She then said that the proposal would adversely affect education. As we all know, the delivery of education in the area is devolved down to schools. Cheshire’s excellent schools will continue to deliver their excellent services when we have two unitary authorities; I can see no particular problem with that.

My hon. Friend finished by saying that there was cynicism at the heart of the decision to create two unitary authorities in Cheshire. I ask the House to consider this for cynicism. Two weeks ago, we should have had the announcement that we were to get two unitary local authorities in Cheshire. It was delayed. My hon. Friend went to see the Chief Whip and said, “If you go ahead with the announcement, I will resign from the parliamentary Labour party, I will campaign against this decision and I will vote against the parliamentary Labour party on Europe.” And we are accused of being cynical. I hope that that puts the record straight, and that this proposal goes ahead with the support of my hon. Friends and of the people in the two areas, which will be better served by having unitary local government than by the current two-tier system.

Having got that off my chest, in the time left I will deal with the two local planning issues that I had originally wanted to start by raising. Both have national implications regarding ways in which I would like to see the law strengthened. In Weaverham, which is a very nice village in my constituency, there is company called Anaconda Investments Ltd. It purchased a plot of land with four existing dwellings, and put a proposal to the local authority to demolish those dwellings and replace them with six houses and flats at three-storey level. Vale Royal borough council, the planning authority, refused that planning application on three separate occasions. It was eventually granted on appeal.

If Anaconda had stuck to the permission that it was given on appeal, I would not be raising this issue now. However, it decided to overdevelop the site, and everybody who has looked at it agrees that it is completely overdeveloped. Anaconda was then told to put in fresh submission—a fresh, retrospective planning application—which it did. The local authority refused that retrospective application. It went to appeal, and the local authority’s position on one of the blocks in this development was upheld. That block remains in place. The area is oppressive, and the block in question seriously affects the residential and visual amenity of my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Carter, of 6 Greenwood close. The development is completely out of character with the area in which it is located. The council served an enforcement notice on the company, and that notice is going to appeal some time in the new year.

The problems arising from that development dovetail nicely with those of another development in the green belt in my constituency. A group of Travellers purchased a greenfield site in my constituency, occupied it without planning permission and turned it into a Traveller’s site. The local authority, Vale Royal borough council, acted very quickly in trying to get the Travellers removed. The case went to court, and the judge refused to grant the removal and allowed the Travellers to stay. They have, I think, permission to stay until next July, which will mean that they will have been on the site for well over 18 months.

The field in question is, as I say, a greenfield site in the green belt. It was designated green belt in the first review of the Vale Royal local plan, yet a group of Travellers is riding roughshod through the planning procedures. I want the Department for Communities and Local Government to strengthen planning law to give local authorities more enforcement powers to deal with particular planning applications that are granted on appeal, so that they can make sure that they comply with the parameters established on appeal. Where the green belt is breached, local authorities should be able to take effective action to stop that happening. That is an important thing that we could do. It would give local authorities far more power to intervene and would give the courts less power to frustrate our planning laws.

The next important issue that I would like to raise with the Minister relates to the Criminal Records Bureau. A constituent—I shall call him Mr. Smith to protect his identity—applied for a job as a gardener with a company called Peverel Management. The application form asked whether he had any criminal convictions, and he ticked the box marked “No”. Peverel did a check on my constituent with the CRB, found that he had two minor convictions and sacked him on the spot. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 makes it clear that those two convictions were spent convictions, that my constituent did not have to declare them on his form and that they should not have barred him from employment or brought him the sack.

My constituent could not go to an industrial tribunal because he had not been working for the company for longer than six months. He has not been reinstated, and there is no provision in the 1974 Act to take action against people who breach it by refusing to take account of the fact that a conviction has been spent. The situation is even worse, because the Police Act 1997 says that it is wrong for people to seek information from the CRB in such circumstances—a provision that was also broken. The only thing that the CRB can do is deregister the company that applied illegally for the information. My constituent found himself out of work and the company found themselves completely at odds with the law, but no sanction was taken against it. That is serious, and I urge the Minister to take up the issue with her ministerial colleagues.

I shall finish on a tragic note. On 24 October, two of my constituents, both young boys, Guy Davies and Kieran Coupe, were killed on the M56 in the Murdishaw part of my constituency. Information will doubtless emerge at the inquiry as to why two young boys, who were aged six and a half and seven, were on the motorway at the time of night that they were, but this was a tragic event for their families and for the people driving the cars involved in the collisions. I immediately met the chief constable, the chief executive of Halton borough council and senior management from the Highways Agency. They were all of the opinion that we ought not to have a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy, and that we should examine the situation to see whether there was anything that we could possibly do.

Two things that I would like done occurred to me. Fencing on motorways is designed to keep farm animals off the carriageway, not to prevent anyone from gaining access to motorways. I would like the Highways Agency to re-examine the safety precaution measures to see whether we can make it more difficult for pedestrians to get on to motorways, particularly where they run through areas of high population density. We must also ensure that the green cross code and road safety issues are taught at even the youngest levels in our schools, and outline the serious dangers involved in very young people finding themselves on main roads and motorways where they ought not to be, as happened in this case. I again offer the families my sincere condolences.

In the 90 seconds left available to me, I want to raise one other issue: police pay. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made a powerful case for the police pay review to be implemented in full from 1 September. He made the pertinent point that each police authority has already budgeted to pay the 2.5 per cent. increase and that we are doing something unnecessary. We have lost a great deal of police good will. They do not have the right to strike, nor do they have access to the other forms of industrial action that other public sector workers can take. They need to be able to have confidence in a pay review body that will deliver them a fair wage for the very serious job that they do. Even at this stage, I urge the Minister to re-examine this issue so that we can ensure that the UK’s police officers have a fair wage for doing an extremely dangerous job and for putting their lives on the line. We must give them the confidence that the outcomes of their future pay negotiations will be met in full. If we can do that, we will be able to rest assured that we have got far greater numbers of police than ever before, that they have greater powers to do the work that they carry out on our behalf and that they are properly remunerated for the work that they do. That would be an excellent Christmas present for Her Majesty’s police.

I was most interested in what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) had to say. I shall not follow him in discussing the reorganisation of local government in Cheshire, but there certainly appears to be scope for some interesting argument between him and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). We on the Opposition Benches look forward to seeing a lot of that.

In this Christmas Adjournment debate, I wish to raise briefly five points that have huge resonance in my constituency and around the country. It is important that these points get an airing. Indeed, I shall follow straight on from the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and from my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), on the question of police pay. I do not know how the Government got into this situation. We have the independent Police Arbitration Tribunal, but the Government, for reasons best known to themselves, have ignored it. The police have been treated very shabbily. I have received, as I am sure most hon. Members have, a huge correspondence, mostly e-mail, from constituents in the police who are extremely upset. I have many issues with policing in this country, including too much time being spent writing up paperwork, and too little being spent on the beat or arresting criminals on the streets. However, the police are hard-working public servants who we expect to put their lives on the line occasionally in our defence. They have received an independent pay award, and the Government should honour it. The Government are behaving very shabbily over this issue.

The independent Police Arbitration Tribunal was set up in 1979 and during 18 years of Conservative Government—not all of them, I admit, were times of loose public spending—the award was honoured. This Government have reneged on the deal, and I am astonished by that. They are unnecessarily provoking huge ill will from public servants for the sake of savings of £30 million. That is not a paltry sum, but it could be considered so in comparison with what they have pumped into Northern Rock. Our police officers deserve better.

My hon. Friend says that he is astonished that the Government have reneged on the police pay deal. However, at the time of the last general election, we were told that we would have a referendum on the European constitution. The Government have reneged on that, too. Does he detect a theme emerging?

As it happens, I shall come to that issue, but I do indeed see a theme emerging.

My constituents are concerned about police pay, like everybody else. That is not to say that policing could not be improved or reformed, but I am astonished by the Government’s behaviour. The Home Secretary should change her mind even now, because doing so would be for the benefit of the police force and the country.

The second issue is that of post offices, which has been mentioned by, among others, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who is sadly no longer in his place to keep me in my place. The Government have got the whole issue wrong. I used to shadow the post office portfolio. Every post office, apart from a Crown post office, is a small business, run by a small business person. Instead of treating that network as a business opportunity that could be used in many different ways, the Government have consistently—they have done so from the urban reinvention programme onwards—treated it as a problem. Frankly, they would like to get rid of it completely.

I am fortunate in that only one post office my constituency will be closed under the latest programme. It is at Arnesby, and I know it well, as I used to live there. The village is not especially big. It has a pub, a church and a school, but it does not have a shop or great community facilities. The post office is therefore much valued. My colleagues on the Front Bench share my view that the rural post office provides a service that should be married with the business opportunity that it represents. That is not to say that none should ever be closed, but the number of rural post offices around my constituency that have closed in the past 10 years is staggering. That has been to the detriment of my constituents’ lives, and I know that the same thing has happened all over the country. The Government and the Post Office need to look again at what they are doing.

Thirdly, I want to raise the question of pensions, and especially of those private pension schemes that have gone bust. People who know Leicestershire will know that many former workers at British United Shoe Machinery were affected by the problem, so I was delighted by the Government’s announcement yesterday that they intend to reimburse the pensioners involved. I applaud the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for finally making that decision, and although I have been here long enough to know that the Government are not absolutely accurate about everything that they put in the public domain, I hope that pensioners will receive 90 per cent. of the pension that they lost.

I have two questions about the Government’s actions in this matter. First, how was it that they were prepared to go to court to fight the pensioners’ action groups, given that they have just about met the pensioners’ demands? Secondly, how much will the deal cost? When we started arguing about this matter in the previous Parliament, we were told categorically that the burden would be huge. The Government said that reimbursing the pensioners could come to as much £15 billion, and that that was unacceptable. We did not agree, so I was puzzled yesterday to hear that the total cost would be between £2.7 billion and £2.9 billion. Both are large sums, but I understand that the Exchequer has already received £1.7 billion, as it had a claim on the pension funds when they collapsed. Therefore, the cost to the public purse is not £15 billion, but £1 billion. That is still an enormous amount, but the Government accept what most hon. Members have said for some time—that they have a moral responsibility to assist people who saved for retirement and lost their pensions through no fault of their own.

The fourth issue that I wish to raise—farming—also has local as well as national resonance. I should declare an interest, in that I have a farm, although I should also declare that I do not make any money out of it. The state of farming remains dire. There have been some improvements, such as in the price of wheat, but we all know that that will cause the cost of food to rise dramatically. Tesco has made some movement in respect of the farm-gate milk price, but the dairy sector remains in crisis.

My constituency used to have a great many dairy farmers, but a huge number of farms have gone out of business. They have either given up farming completely, or they have left the dairy sector because they cannot make a living out of it. They are just about breaking even now, but at one stage they were producing milk at a loss—and one does not need to be a very clever business man to realise that that cannot go on for very long. We need to look at the whole question of how farming is supported. The fiasco of the single farm payment goes on and on, and the Government should be ashamed of it. Other important questions have to do with how foot and mouth disease escaped from the Pirbright facility, and whether that resulted from the cuts made by the previous Chancellor of Exchequer in the funding for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and especially for the animal hygiene service, I think, which was in overall control of the Pirbright site.

I want especially to raise the issue of nitrate-vulnerable zones. A huge amount of money will have to be spent on installing slurry pits or bunds on every farm in the country. At best, their efficacy is dubious, but at worst they could have an unfortunate environmental impact on land that we want to improve. The House will know that the current system of single farm payments requires that land is kept in good agricultural and environmental condition—GAEC, for short. Farmers are encouraged to leave vegetation uncut, and especially to leave stubble over winter, as that is good for birds. However, the proposals for nitrate-vulnerable zones insist that stubble is ploughed over the winter so that slurry can be spread on the land. That is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, so the Government should look closely at the proposals and consider whether there might be better ways to reduce nitrates in ground and drinking water to improve the environment. The current proposals look like a disaster waiting to happen, and I counsel Labour Members that there will be disaster in every constituency that has farms unless there is change.

Finally, I turn to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). It involves every Member from the three main parties and probably has the support of the two minority parties represented in the Chamber today. At the last election, every Member elected from one of the three main parties stood on the platform that we would hold a referendum on the EU constitution; yet notwithstanding the fact that Giscard d’Estaing, who wrote the constitution, and everybody else on the continent, says that the reform treaty is exactly the same as a constitution, the Government, aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrat running dogs and their new leader, are reneging. They say, “Oh, we didn’t mean it”. Politicians are told that they lack integrity. I deny that—I hope I have some integrity; indeed, almost all Members of this place have integrity and want to stand by their word. That is important. What will the British public think of those who stand on a manifesto that states, “We will have a referendum on the EU constitution” and then change their mind? It is not acceptable.

I believe in parliamentary democracy and am not a great fan of referendums. However, I stood on that manifesto, and I demand that the Government stick by their promise and that the Prime Minister, who is in charge of the manifesto, sticks by his promise and that we hold a referendum. I hope that every hon. Member who stood on such a manifesto will support a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his generous words about my contribution. If there was a referendum, how would he vote?

I should most certainly vote against the constitution, but that is not the point. The point is that I promised my constituents that I would support a referendum on the treaty, as the hon. Gentleman promised his constituents—unless he had an opt-out.

If the hon. Gentleman asks anyone in the Chancelleries of Europe he will discover that everybody thinks that it is.

If we want to restore the public’s faith in this place we must stick by our promises, and I am astonished to see that the Prime Minister seems to have lost his moral compass in this case. I do not know whether he will find it, but I hope that everybody will bear these points in mind when it comes to a vote. We said that we would have a referendum, so we should have one and fulfil our promise to the British people.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, everybody else in the House and all the servants of the House—the Serjeant at Arms Department, security personnel, people who work in the kitchens and the cleaners—a very happy Christmas.

I agree with the last point made by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and disagree with almost everything else he said, although I do not have time to go into it—[Interruption.] Happy Christmas.

I have lived in Norwich in Norfolk for some time, and it is a delight. With its big skies, the Norfolk broads, its beaches, its wildlife, and of course its people, Norfolk is a magical place. It has unique cultural values, with a heritage that goes back to the Romans—people are always turning up Roman towns and coins—which gives us a richness and feel for history that I really appreciate.

Last year we survived floods. We have one railway line between Norwich and London, and I hope the train will be on time tonight, although I doubt it. Last week the Evening News described the line as a “fine mess”, with signal failures, trees falling on the line, and even greenhouses falling on the line—that takes a bit of believing. There have been suicides, strikes, landslides, the derailment of a train with nuclear waste—unique—and closed tunnels. I can add to that list, with overhead cables and foxes on the line. It is a really exciting Michael Palin whirligig on that trip. We hope that something will be done. The cows on the line are quite appetising: none of them has any kind of disease as far as I can see.

I look forward to the continuing debate on the first academy in Norfolk—in Norwich, in my constituency, on the Heartsease estate. I quote again from the local paper—this time from a member of the public, who spoke of

“the public being duped at various stages by people who in spite of righteous clamouring have misinformed their way to a position where a character with no educational qualifications is about to take control of an improving school”.

He goes on:

“this vile campaign has been orchestrated from being misinformed at all of the public meetings to seeing children at a Christian Youth Club being given a questionnaire and instructed how to fill them in. Seeing sponsors ‘ship’ in dozens of people without a connection to the high school to sway the adjudicator.”

That has not been refuted, as far as I can make out. A petition was raised on the estate. In the first trawl, over a couple of days, 400 people said that they were against the installation of the academy. There is no question about arguing the principle. They do not want the academy on this improving estate. I hope that Ministers will find time to meet me, and some of my constituents, in the not-too-distant future, before the decision is made.

I want to talk about the consultation on the location of complex needs schools and special resource bases in mainstream schools. That, of course, is the arena of special educational needs. It is often implied that people do not like change and always protest. I guess that there is some truth in that, but in this case people do want change. They want more to be happening and are prepared to get involved, if consulted properly. Norfolk county council is not famous for its consultation exercises, as I mentioned in relation to the academy. People want a genuine consultation.

I have various letters, all saying the same thing in their own way. A constituent of mine, talking about her granddaughter, says:

“She had spent three years at a mainstream school and it became quite obvious that in spite of the best efforts of teachers and support workers this was not the right placement for her. During this time she was unhappy, isolated from her peers, had severe behaviour problems and was showing little progress. She is now a confident happy child, behaviour problems greatly diminished, is learning literacy and numeracy skills and enjoying all the curriculum has to offer. She has a circle of friends that she can relate to and is able to enjoy out of school activities with. We have been very impressed with all Parkside has to offer and were expecting this to continue for the remainder of school life thus giving her the best possible chance of an independent adulthood.”

That is reflected in the views of many other people who have written to me.

The school is in central Norwich. It does a good job and is hugely oversubscribed. We need more schools like Parkside in Norfolk. Some children have to travel one and a half hours to the school from parts of north Norfolk. Why do we not have some sense of adventure and some ideas from the county council about developing a school in the northern half of the county? It is said that children who are at the school already will probably stay there, but that will happen only if the school is not closed, following the amazing consultation denoted by the glossy document that I have in my hand. My constituent went on:

“I realise the consultation is in its early stages”—

in fact, it finished last week—

“but the questionnaires sent out for parents have been cleverly worded as usual. There is no room for comments and there appears to be no opportunity for a school such as Parkside to retain the status quo.”

Parkside is a unique school for children with mild to moderate difficulties. Changing its remit to complex needs will completely change the school. Reducing the numbers will result in a loss of teaching staff and an inability to follow the curriculum in the same way. Many Norfolk schools are merely satisfactory, or are described as inadequate. Parkside is not one of those. It has an excellent Ofsted report. I cannot see why the county council would even consider changing a school that has such a success story. The council lacks foresight and an understanding of the problems.

There are various ideas in the document, and people are supposed to choose between them. Alternative options are presented, yet there is no mention of the Bercow or Ofsted reviews, which it is hoped will radicalise the whole field. Moreover, we have plenty of evidence that the teachers have not been involved in the process every step of the way.

We have already heard about cynicism today, and in this story there is a final point to be cynical about. We find that long after consultation has taken place on the academy, it has suddenly been decided that autism is a new issue, and some autistic children could be placed in that academy. It turns out that the person working in the county council who has made that decision is greatly pro-academy. I think that he is running the whole campaign on children with special needs.

Amazingly, we are told that Norfolk has few children in special school places. While the population of Norfolk has risen over the past 10 or 15 years, the number of special school places has not. We can talk about statistics, but the true figures have never been looked at. Despite Norfolk’s increasing population—it will continue to grow, with increased housing and so on—the number of young people who will have autism, Asperger’s and other special needs has never been determined. We will see new illnesses and diseases unfolding, so more children will need special care and attention in our schools. All those emotional and behavioural difficulties are being sidelined. Mainstream schools cannot cope with some of those problems, yet schools such as Parkside, which I have visited, are amazing. They have turned things round and given people a start in life that will, I hope, allow them to get jobs at the end of the day.

I do not believe that Bedfordshire can possibly have as many as four times the number of children with special needs as Norfolk. If anyone wants to change anything, they should get the true figures before they start the consultation. The document shows that the same number of children will be catered for, albeit spread around the county. The consultation might show that there is some sense in taking some children out of the middle of Norwich and sticking them out in the west of the county. For example, it is important to cut down journey times and to have a good local school. However, we would not be dealing with the problems, which would be shovelled aside into people’s houses. An amazing, and scandalous, number of carers in Norfolk look after not just the elderly, but young people who cannot get into the special schools.

We must talk to head teachers, staff and parents before the consultation results come out. There is an impression that far too often, the view of Norfolk county council is that everything has been decided and—to heck with the consultation—it will happen. The exercise excludes many of the key issues. It puts good schools at risk and does not consider future needs. Norfolk’s managerial system has a lot to learn from Alex Ferguson, who, for all his ways, is a great manager who gets things done successfully. Without vision, the people perish—and we are sitting on the edge of a volcano when that could happen to the many dozens of young people who require a specialist influence in their schooling at such a critical stage of their lives.

The Barnett formula concerns funding for the Scottish Parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland, and it has an impact on everyone in those nations, and in the Province. I wish to raise the subject because although the Barnett formula has been raised many times in the House over the past year—it was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate—and is often mentioned by commentators, the debates and discussions rarely concentrate on the Barnett formula itself. Barnett is used as a proxy, or shorthand, for other issues. It is used as a proxy when people discuss the imbalance in English regional spending, which I shall address. It is also used as a proxy for the West Lothian question, or the English democratic deficit, which is summarised by the ongoing situation of Scottish MPs—mainly, but not only, Labour MPs—voting on English domestic matters when this House cannot have any impact on decisions taken on those same matters in Scotland and Wales.

I do not want to defend the Barnett formula—far from it. It is, after all, designed as a convergence formula, and will, over time, squeeze the amount of money spent in Scotland compared with that spent in England. In the May 2000 document on Barnett produced by the Scottish Parliament, Professor Neil Kay said:

“the Barnett formula restricts the Scottish increase to the same absolute increase as for corresponding English programmes.”

In effect, a 4 per cent. increase for an English spending Department would be converted to an absolute sum of money, and when that was applied to the Scottish baseline, which was higher for historical reasons, the percentage increase would be less than the increase in England. It is therefore a convergence formula.

That is important, because it is all that the Barnett formula does. It is a means of allocating spending increases to Scotland on the basis of spending increases in England, but they are not comparable in percentage terms because the baselines are different. The Scottish Parliament has the authority to spend the block allocated, but the Scottish National party and I would prefer it to have the responsibility to set tax rates and collect tax.

I sympathise greatly with those, in the House and elsewhere, who are from parts of England where regional spending is perceived to be much lower than the English average, or significantly lower than the London or south-east average. However, from where I am standing—from the Scottish perspective—because Scotland has been in surplus for the best part of the last 30 years, even if its identifiable expenditure is higher than the average in some English regions, every last penny has in effect been raised from Scottish taxation.

The use of the term “identifiable expenditure”, or “net identifiable expenditure”, brings us to one of the key flaws in the argument that people use against Barnett. They base their analysis on net identifiable expenditure alone. There is rarely ever a glance at the imbalance in non-identifiable expenditure, which is heavily weighted to London and the south-east, and there is rarely mention of the other side of the balance sheet—the revenue side. To try to put the matter in some kind of context, in 1997, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, William Waldegrave, made it clear that Scotland had been in surplus from 1978 to 1995. In 2002, the work of the independent constitution unit proved the same point, explaining that Scotland had had an average surplus for the 20 previous years. Other work was done until only a few months ago by Oxford Economics. It told us that in the last year of its assessment, which was a few years ago, the figures were £9,600 per head in revenue, and £9,600 per head in expenditure. That broadly mirrored our figures for the same year—just shy of £50 billion in, and just shy of £50 billion out.

Even if identifiable expenditure or total expenditure was higher than any UK or English average, there would be no justification for a reduction in Scottish spending, even if the formula for funding were changed, because the spending is fully funded by Scottish tax returns. The bottom line on Scottish spending compared with English spending is that, according to the Library’s figures for the last full year in which it carried out an assessment, Scotland spends 41 per cent. of gross domestic product on public spending, while the UK average is 41.3 per cent. That is marginally higher but broadly in line.

The second and more basic flaw that opponents of Barnett make is to assume that different spending priorities are somehow indicative of a subsidy to Scotland. They are not. If hon. Members and commentators outside the House believe that English regions are not being properly funded—as I do—they should ask why, rather than point the finger at the Barnett formula, Scotland or the Scottish Government’s priorities.

Let us consider why the Government have been unable to invest properly in some of the English regions where there is such a spending imbalance. First, the UK has an enormous black hole. A cumulative deficit of £540 billion is forecast for this year, and the borrowing requirement for this year is £38 billion. That debt was almost wholly built up over the past 30 years, when Scotland has been in surplus. The UK cannot borrow any more without stretching its already taut fiscal rules to breaking point.

Secondly, the Government cannot raise much more tax without people beginning to notice. The total business tax take is up, the total personal tax take is up, and council tax is up.

Thirdly—this will be important in the year or two ahead—the Government cannot get away with hiding hyper-expensive private finance initiative projects off-balance sheet in order to deliver the public expenditure that many hon. Members want to see. In the past three years, according to the July spreadsheet, the taxpayer’s liability in connection with PFI projects has risen to £179 billion for £53 billion of capital projects. That is a rise in the past three and a half years of some £55 billion—a rise in liability greater than the total sum of every PFI deal signed before the table was published in July. That route to more investment is finished.

There is an imbalance in English regional spending, but because the Government have borrowed too much, taxed too much and paid far too much for PFI, all that many people—including commentators outside the House—have left to do is to attack Scotland and the “subsidy” that we receive, which is, of course, a myth. Here is the rub: to cut Scottish identifiable expenditure to the English average would increase the amount spent in England by £150 per person, but it would cut Scottish spending by £7.5 billion—a quarter of the entire Scottish Government’s budget. That would be a ridiculous thing to do. Fortunately, few people argue for it, but we need to ensure that some of the siren voices that are always screaming about subsidies to Scotland do not get in the way and butcher public provision in Scotland.

As for regional imbalances in spending, it is worth pointing out that the PFI figures show that of the £53 billion for capital projects, £24 billion will be spent in London. Almost 50 per cent. of all PFI deals signed were allocated to London. If hon. Members are concerned about the imbalance of spending in their areas, they might first like to investigate the way in which PFI has been used.

Another factor is damaging the Government’s ability to invest: the trade gap. It is very important, although it is a subject that we do not often talk about these days. It affects our ability to invest because the tax take is down. We are seeing a reduction from where our GDP increases should be, because of the trade deficit. The impact of trade on GDP fell by 0.5 per cent. in the years from 2000 to 2004, and by 0.25 per cent. from 2006 to 2007. The total impact in money terms of GDP growth lost because of the trade deficit is approaching £30 billion. In Scotland, at £2.5 billion, that equates to almost £1,000 lost GDP per household in the past few years.

I wanted to get those points on the record today, as this debate provides a useful opportunity to do so. There will be many debates in the next year in which we will consider the economy as a whole, public spending in particular, the impact of Government debt levels and so on.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about Scottish MPs, and perhaps even Welsh MPs, not voting on English issues has been made many times. While we still have the Barnett formula, decisions on expenditure on health and education made in England have an influence on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is therefore perfectly proper that we should have an interest in those decisions and the way in which they are made.

Yes, they have an impact. Because of the way in which the formula works, if budgets for an English Department are cut, the cuts can be more severe in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We know that there is an imbalance in spending, and because of the massive deficits that the Government are now carrying, the potential for more and better investment in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is likely to be reduced and curtailed in the next few Budgets and pre-Budget statements. When we look at how we allocate funding in the future, we should look more accurately at how we can move to a position of full fiscal autonomy, rather than being entirely dependent on rises in the English base line and then—certainly in Scotland—being subject to the Barnett squeeze. That would be a far more honest and healthy approach.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you, Mr. Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers and the Officers of the House all the very best for the festive season. I hope that the Minister will tell us when she sums up how the Government are going to rein in the hyper-expensive PFI regime on which they have embarked, so as to free up the cash to ensure that we have not only proper investment in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a fair share of investment in the English regions, some of whose spending is considerably less than that of London and the south-east.

I have only one issue to raise this afternoon, but it goes to the very heart of our representative democracy. It is the issue of politicians changing their allegiance and switching parties without reference to the electorate. I know that we live in an era of big tent politics, but I hold to the traditional view that, if someone is elected to represent a particular party and then reneges on that commitment, he or she should stand down. Here at Westminster, over the years, there has been constant traffic between the two sides of the House, but those involved should stand down, resign and stand again.

That is even more the case in the European Parliament, where there is no fiction about people being elected as individuals. There, they are elected on a party list. Of course, people’s views change over the years. I have witnessed that here myself; I have seen people’s views changing almost imperceptibly so that they end up with a completely different political outlook from the one that they had five or 10 years earlier. With others, however, the change can be so immediate and abrupt as to leave us gasping. I want to talk today about one such conversion.

I want to talk about Sajjad Karim. He is a solicitor and, in 2004, he was the first British Muslim to be elected to the European Parliament. He was helped, supported and fast-tracked by his friends in the Liberal Democrat party, and he ended up in Brussels. Astonishingly, three weeks ago, he decided that he was a Conservative, changing his politics in the way that some people change their shirts. I pondered this matter, and wondered why he might have done that. I reflected on the fact that, in the internal elections in the Liberal Democrat party, Mr. Karim did not come top. The number of seats in the north-west region is also to be reduced as a consequence of the enlargement of the European Union, so cynics might say that Mr. Karim made the calculation that, under the list system in the next European parliamentary elections in 2009, he might not get elected.

Why am I interested in this case? When he was elected in 2004, Sajjad Karim opened a huge constituency office in the shopping centre smack bang in the middle of the biggest town in my constituency, with the Liberal Democrat logo along the top. It was impossible to miss that office. It has been closed for three weeks since the defection, and my prediction is that it will not reopen. It will be reopened somewhere else—perhaps in Cheshire or somewhere like that—but not in Pendle.

I am also interested in Sajjad Karim because of what he did to my constituents, which beggars belief. He treated his employees badly and he was disloyal to his friends and colleagues in the Liberal Democrat party. I say to the Conservatives that he will be an unreliable friend to them. The Conservatives are about to select their candidates for the European elections in 2009 and it beggars belief that someone like Karim could be preferred over a lifelong Conservative who wants to represent the party in Europe.

Karim sacked the people who worked in his constituency office and I would like to say exactly how he did it. He sacked those who worked for him by text message. This is what Karen Ashworth, the mother of one of his staff, told the local newspaper, the Nelson Leader, a few days after the sacking:

“While working on Monday I was horrified to learn that my daughter had been fired from her job. Her employer did not have the courtesy to tell her in person—instead, he simply sent her a text message asking her to pick up a letter from a firm of Solicitors in Nelson. It seems she was only sacked because her employer, Sajjad Karim…had decided to change his political allegiance. My daughter is not a member of any political party and had worked hard and loyally for Mr. Karim. To rub salt into the wound, when I returned home, I found a leaflet from the Conservatives behind my door, asking me to rejoice in what had happened.”

It was all carefully planned.

Astonishingly, Mr. Karim told the BBC on 26 November—just a few days after he had decided he was a Conservative—that this was not a “snapshot” decision, as he had been thinking about it for some time. I looked at his website, because I knew that he was a great blogger who had been blogging for years, and found that he was very critical of the Conservatives and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). It now transpires that he expects the world to believe that he did not write those blogs, which have now been wiped clean from cyberspace. Apparently, it was a disloyal employee who wrote the blogs on his behalf and he had to discipline and sack that employee for inventing them. That is amazing and literally incredible, in the dictionary definition of the word.

As I said, Karim let down his friends in the Liberal Democrat party. Tony Greaves, a councillor in Pendle and a Liberal Democrat peer in Westminster, was Karim’s mentor who brought him on as he wanted to see more ethnic minority representation in the European Parliament. This is what Lord Greaves said, which I want put on the record:

“I would say this is a very deep personal betrayal. He has done this with no discussion at all with people who thought they were friends, and I personally feel very betrayed indeed. The way he sacked his staff”—

my constituents—

“at his North west office in Nelson without having the courage to tell them face to face is disgraceful. He has not been taking calls from any of us for several days. If this is the way he treats friends and colleagues, the Tories are welcome to him.”

He went on to say that Mr. Karim was “despicable”. Lord Greaves went off to Simonstone—or wherever Sajjad Karim lives—and I will tell the House what happened. Tony Greaves wrote:

“The house was full of light and both cars were there. I knocked on the porch door and after a while a small shadow appeared near the door and retreated. I knocked again and no-one came to the door. So I went and stood on the pavement outside and stood looking at the house for about half a minute to see if I could see signs of movement (and so anyone looking outside could see who it was). Suddenly all the lights started going out and the house was left in darkness. I came home.”

Lord Greaves retreated to Pendle.

Sajjad Karim has said very critical things about the Conservatives in the recent past. On human rights, he said that they were

“stripping away…human and civil rights”.

In only June, he said about Conservative homophobia:

“Cameron attempts to paint a glossy image of a gay friendly party in the UK while desperately trying to get into bed at European level with Poland’s homophobic Law and Justice Party.”

On Kashmir, he said that the Conservatives

“were trying to make political capital out of the human rights of the Kashmiri people”.

He has also said:

“the Tories have adopted…an untenable position on animal welfare”.

On the environment, he said:

“The public have seen through his stunts”—

the Leader of the Opposition’s stunts—

“and the trust of the Liberal Democrats on green issues has only increased.”

Having comprehensively slagged off the Opposition, Sajjad Karim has also been slagging off his colleagues in the European parliamentary group. He thinks that they are lazy and totally useless, and on 10 August he criticised the group’s

“poor efforts in the North West”—

I have a lot of quotations, but I want to get them on the record. He also said:

“Between them, the three Tory MEPs representing the North West have asked a miserly total of only 18 questions since 2004 compared to the 216 that I have tabled. And they do not fare much better when it comes to making speeches in Parliament with only 29 speeches…by the North West Tory contingent compared to my own 43 speeches.”

This is the same Sajjad Karim who is going to join the Conservative parliamentary group. Finally, he left by giving a good kicking to the people who had supported him loyally for 18 years, saying:

“I am afraid that the Liberal Democrats have lost their way and are no longer a serious force in politics. I am here to serve the people of the North West and I think I can only do that now as a Conservative.”

I think that Sajjad Karim is a complete charlatan.

He does not suit the Tories. When the Conservatives select their candidates for the European parliamentary elections in 2009, I ask them to select Conservatives, not people who switch parties because it suits them. I have said it before, but that kind of behaviour degrades and contaminates our politics. We should not have anything to do with Sajjad Karim. I do not know whether he is a Conservative—only the Conservatives will be able to find that out—but I do know that he has to submit his CV for consideration by the north-west selection committee by 4 January. I hope that that CV is published.

It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). All I know is that I am a Conservative—always have been, always will be—and that is what is important to me. Also, it would be churlish not to congratulate the Liberal Democrats on having a new leader—one has emerged, Pope-like, this afternoon. The process was a bit like two bald men fighting over a comb; none the less, we wish them well and look forward to the next election, perhaps in another couple of years.

I want to give all hon. Members here a Christmas gift, which is that I intend to speak for only eight minutes. That is the sort of generous guy I am—it costs me nothing, but it is far better to offer that gift than any other, which might have cost me a bit of money. I want to talk about two things before the House adjourns for Christmas, because it is important that we have the opportunity to do so, notwithstanding all the other issues that hon. Members have raised, particularly nitrate zones, on which I hope to secure an Adjournment debate in the new year, so that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can answer that important point.

I am chairman of the all-party group on identity fraud. It has become quite apparent that the money that we ought to be spending on making people aware of ID fraud is not being spent. One of the biggest advertisers in the UK is Her Majesty’s Government, who spend a fortune on advertising all sorts of things, telling people how wonderful they are on every issue under the sun. That is not so when it comes to combating ID fraud. We need to invest a lot of money in tackling that. It cost the UK £1.7 billion last year, and it is one of the fastest-growing crimes.

I wish to raise one particular aspect given the time of year. Everybody is busy Christmas shopping, and a lot of people—a record number this year—will be shopping online. When they are online, and busy doing their e-mails as well, they receive e-mails which they believe to be from their bank, credit card company, PayPal, or whatever, and which look authentic, to all intents and purposes. They have all the symbols, and it looks as if they have come from the institution that they are pretending to come from, but they have not—they have come from fraudsters saying, “Your online account has been suspended: please put your user name and password here and it will be reactivated.” Of course, I do not know what happens if people do that, because I have never done it. I was alerted to it initially because I was sent one by a bank that I do not have an account with, so I knew that my online account could not have been suspended. However, many people who get one of these e-mails and it happens to be from the bank that they bank with, and who have never come across the concept of phishing, as it is called, may accidentally or in a hurry fill in the details and send it off, and it then goes directly to a fraudster who will attempt to use it to get the money from their account.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. In the past couple of weeks, I had such an e-mail from the bank that I bank with, including the correct logo. I knew that it was a fraud and a scam, but it was so genuine looking that I can see how people get sucked in. He is right to alert people to that.

That is part of the problem. I am not saying that people give those details because they are foolish—they do it because they genuinely believe that the e-mail has come from their financial institution, PayPal, or whatever it happens to be. The fact is that those institutions would not send such e-mails.

I am a customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland, but not through online banking. When I got one of those e-mails, I obviously knew that it was a fraud, but when I contacted the Royal Bank of Scotland so that it could attempt to alert its customers to the fact that that was happening, it was extremely difficult to find anyone who cared about it and was interested in following it up. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the institutions should be more proactive in warning their customers, especially if they have been alerted to the fact that something is happening?

Absolutely. The Government should be doing more, and so should the financial institutions. Every statement that they put out should say, “This statement should either be filed away or properly destroyed or incinerated.” They should also tell people that in no way would they ask for that sort of information. It is clever little ruse that is being operated, and I can understand why people may be providing this information, so my message would be that institutions will not be asking for it. PayPal tells me that if anybody receives a fraudulent e-mail, it has a team who look to trace it back. That is what all the institutions should be doing, including the Royal Bank of Scotland. They should all have teams of people investing money in trying to track down those fraudsters.

If anybody has filled in one of these things and now thinks that it might be fraudulent, they should get in touch with their financial institution so that at least their account can be flagged up and if there is any unusual activity it can be nipped in the bud. If they are really worried, they should change their account numbers and passwords. This Christmas-time, I would say: “For goodness’ sake, beware. Everybody is busy, but we do not want to make the fraudsters’ Christmas and ruin our 2008 by being lax and giving our financial information away.”

I promise that I will not take the injury time that has been added on, but I want to make a suggestion, also in the spirit of Christmas, about the modernisation of the House. As the topical debate that we have on a Thursday sort of works, and the topical questions certainly work, on a Monday morning we should have, from 9 o’clock to half past 12, a debate in this Chamber entitled “I read it in the Sunday papers—surely it cannot be true”. I do not know what other hon. Members are like, but my blood pressure goes through the roof by the time I have got to page five of The Mail on Sunday, never mind The Sunday Telegraph or all the other newspapers. We read those stories and if there is anyone else in the room we say, “Have you read this? This certainly cannot be true. They wouldn’t be doing this, would they?” This Sunday was no different from any other. I had to sit down and have a cup of coffee as I thought to myself, “This story cannot be true.”

That is why I thought I would throw just a few at the Minister. She can reassure us as we go into the recess that we can have a happy Christmas knowing that all those stories simply cannot be true.

There was a story about prostate cancer in The Sunday Times. As Members know, it is one of the biggest killers of men. Ultrasound therapy, which helps to prolong people’s lives if it can be used early on, is proving to be very successful. However, although NICE gave permission for that treatment over a three-year period, it has now decided to overturn its own approval and has said that people will not be given that therapy. Surely that cannot be right.

Then there was the cancer patient who wanted to supplement the cancer treatment that she was receiving—I raised the matter today with the Secretary of State for Health—by taking an additional drug that is not approved for prescription. Clearly, that would cost her a bit of money, which she was prepared to pay, but she was then told by the trust that if she did that, she would have to pay for all her drug therapy, which would cost £10,000. Surely that cannot be right.

Brussels has named its first ambassador to Africa, even though the constitution has not been ratified, albeit that part of it provides for the establishment of a diplomatic corps. Nevertheless, Brussels has already announced that a Belgian is to be the first ambassador for the EU in Africa. Surely that cannot be right.

A number of illegal immigrants are now being encouraged to go home, at a cost of £4,000 a pop—£1,000 towards resettlement, and £3,000 towards setting up businesses. People are setting up all sorts of businesses, including beauty salons and ostrich farms. That has cost £36 million to date. If they are illegal immigrants, should they not just be deported? Surely that cannot be right.

I have already breached my promise; I do not want to renege on promises I have made. All I can say is: let us have that debate on a Monday morning, get it off our chests and give the Government an opportunity to say, “It is not right—surely it cannot be right.” Happy Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I will try to follow that. In fact, I want to discuss the issue of financial irregularities, which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) touched on, too, but in a slightly different way.

I want to use this debate to make a number of points regarding the apparent illegal activity and financial irregularities in the internal operations of the British National party. The BNP claims to be a mature political party—some within it argue that it is the fourth national political party—yet the allegations that have come to light over the past few days directly contradict such claims and need to be thoroughly investigated.

For that reason, I wrote last week to the police to request an investigation into claims of illegal spying in the BNP. Today, I have received a 20-page dossier entitled, “Financial Irregularities in the British National Party: An Investigation by Searchlight Information Services”, which I will in turn send to both the police and the Electoral Commission following my speech here today.

Today, the far right British National party is engulfed in a political crisis that threatens to tear it apart. On 9 December, the party leadership sacked two of its senior officers amid claims of gross misconduct after they were found to be behind a blog that criticised fellow BNP officials. As a consequence, more than 58 BNP organisers and regional officials have resigned their positions and eight councillors have declined the party whip and become independent nationalist councillors in a show of support for their two sacked colleagues.

Although, like everyone in this House, I welcome those divisions, I would like to highlight some particularly unsavoury aspects to that feud which are unbefitting to any legitimate political party. I believe that much of the behaviour of the BNP leadership is illegal. I am particularly concerned about the following allegations. The first is that the BNP has posted on its website a recording and transcript of a private conversation between the two people who were subsequently sacked. It is the belief of the people concerned that their house, phone or computer has been bugged. In two meetings over the past week—in the north-west last Wednesday and in Leicester on Saturday—BNP leader Nick Griffin is believed to have admitted to some device being used and insisted that he would not hesitate to use such devices and methods in future. The BNP has boasted that this information was gleaned by its intelligence department. This House might be interested to note that this intelligence department consists of former police officers from apartheid South Africa. Some of these men have been linked with the apartheid regime's intelligence services.

Secondly, on Saturday 8 December, members of the BNP's security division, under instructions from leader Nick Griffin, entered the house of Sadie Graham in the east midlands by deception. A second security team attempted to gain entry to the home of Kenny Smith in Scotland, but were unsuccessful.

Thirdly, property belonging to Sadie Graham—including her personal computer, bought for her by her father—was removed without consent. This is nothing short of burglary.

Fourthly, the BNP leadership has subsequently been trawling through Sadie Graham's computer and, on Tuesday 11 December, Simon Darby, the deputy leader of the BNP, posted an e-mail found on her computer on his blog. The content of this e-mail was subsequently referred to in an article by Nick Griffin that was posted on the main BNP website. That implies that the BNP leader has been privy to a criminal act.

Fifthly, e-mails sent to Sadie Graham between Saturday 8 December and 10.15 am on Monday 10 December have also been opened and read by the BNP leadership. That, in turn, is a clear breach of the Data Protection Act.

Sixthly, Sadie Graham is a councillor on Broxtowe borough council and much of her council work, including correspondence from constituents, was on the computer. Not only is that again a breach of the Data Protection Act, it puts her constituents at risk and has prevented her from carrying out her duties as an elected councillor.

Briefly, I wish to turn to the issue of financial irregularities. The feud in the BNP is a clash of personalities and competence rather than politics and much of it relates to allegations of financial mismanagement by the BNP's treasury team. I have mentioned that I have a copy of a report prepared by Searchlight Information Services into the financial irregularities in the British National party. Today I wish to put the contents of the report into the public domain. It is this unpublished dossier that I will send to both the police and Electoral Commission. I would like to take a few minutes to outline some of the serious issues that the report raises. Time permits only a brief rehearsal of some of the many points included in the dossier.

First, the BNP's 2006 accounts have still not been submitted to the Electoral Commission, more than five months, so far, after the due date. The BNP's excuses for the delay do not stand up to scrutiny and the long delay suggests that irregularities have occurred.

Secondly, the BNP has blamed one of the expelled individuals for up to £17,000 that has not been accounted for. Whether or not that individual carries any blame in the matter is not the point; it is clear that substantial party funds are unaccounted for.

Thirdly, another former national officer resigned recently, laying various serious charges of incompetence against the BNP's treasurer, and especially against its deputy treasurer, who is responsible for the funds of local branches and groups.

Fourthly, the BNP failed to report a donation of £5,315 in the period from 1 July 2007 to 30 September 2007 in contravention of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000.

Fifthly, BNP financial records were shredded at the home of the party's former national treasurer in 2004.

Sixthly, the BNP has solicited donations from overseas to an organisation by the name of Civil Liberty, which Searchlight considers is merely a front organisation set up to circumvent the prohibition on donations to political parties from individuals who are not registered to vote in the UK.

Seventhly, before the prohibition of overseas donations introduced by the 2000 Act, the BNP raised money in the USA by a method that contravened US law.

Eighthly, there are allegations that Nick Griffin, the chairman of the BNP, has personally brought US donations into the UK in cash.

Ninthly, the BNP attempted to earn insurance commission by means of an insurance entity that was not authorised by the Financial Services Authority, and there were serious doubts whether the activity was exempt from the requirement for authorisation.

Tenthly, there is evidence that the BNP financed its insolvent position in 2006 by a failure to pay sums owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in respect of pay-as-you-earn and VAT.

Eleventhly, there is evidence in the document that the BNP is not accounting for income tax and national insurance contributions under PAYE in respect of workers by incorrectly treating workers as self-employed, which also deprives those workers of employment rights; the failure appears to be long standing.

Twelfthly, there are allegations that the BNP has paid workers in cash to avoid tax and national insurance contributions and to enable them to claim state benefits.

Thirteenthly, the BNP reassured its auditors that it would continue in existence because of the availability of funds in its so-called regional accounting unit, but it is doubtful that the BNP had any legal recourse to those funds.

Fourteenthly, there is no evidence that the BNP has accounted for corporation tax on profits on its own commercial activities.

Fifteenthly, the BNP omitted to prepare any accounts for the period 1 October 2001 to 31 December 2001.

Finally, the BNP claims to have spent at least £70,000 on printing equipment in 2005 alone, but no such expenditure is shown in the accounts.

In short, what is being uncovered in the internal workings of the BNP appears to be systematic illegality in data protection, bugging, money laundering, theft and the operation of the 2000 Act. That demands a thorough investigation. This is not the behaviour of a legitimate political party, and I very much hope that the police and the Electoral Commission will investigate the charges. The most shocking aspect is that it is being orchestrated by the leader of a political party. The BNP leadership, and Nick Griffin in particular, are showing us their true colours.

It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to have caught your eye and to have an opportunity to raise a few constituency matters.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of the new city of Milton Keynes. We have had a tremendous year of celebrations, culminating some two weeks ago in the visit of Her Majesty the Queen, during which she opened the magnificent new MK Dons stadium, which is a tribute to the hard work of the Winkelman family. Let me start, however, by paying tribute to John Moffoot, the unsung hero at Milton Keynes council, who organised that visit.

Milton Keynes faces many challenges, but the majority of them seem to stem from the Government’s desire to force the expansion of the city on its residents. Personally, I have no great problem with the expansion of Milton Keynes; however, I strongly feel that it should be a local decision. For a community to be truly sustainable, it must have the support of local people, and much of the expansion does not. Scant lip service has been paid to the views of local people by the unelected and unaccountable quango, Milton Keynes Partnership, in imposing its will. I have been campaigning for four years now for “I before E”—infrastructure before expansion. If we are to expand in Milton Keynes, it is vital that we provide the infrastructure first. Many of the comments I shall make today are based on the premise that, unfortunately, the Government are simply not providing that infrastructure.

I start on the subject of schools and the desperate news that has been given to Milton Keynes in recent weeks that the Government will massively cut our basic needs allocation for building new schools. That allocation is very much a basic need: it is for the provision of new schools. The cut will result in a shortfall of some £64.5 million over the next three years for our new schools. Already we have identified that we need 15 new schools over the next few years to accommodate the increase in pupil numbers that the expansion will bring. That is one new primary school every year. Let us take as an example Gifford Park, a primary school in my constituency that knows that locally it will have 476 new dwellings, yet because of the cut it will probably not get an extension.

We will also need five new secondary schools over the next few years to accommodate the increase in pupil numbers. Oakgrove is a marvellous new school in Middleton in my constituency. It has already had two phases of extension and is waiting for the third. However, it now has no idea whether it will get the money to extend.

I wonder whether the Minister can offer any advice to my constituents: given that the funding has been cut—some £64.5 million—where exactly does she suggest that my parents send their schoolchildren? At best, we will see kids bussed around Milton Keynes, as we have seen for several years previously. What exactly are we going to do—and what exactly are the Government going to do to make sure that there is no such shortfall?

I turn to another theme affecting my constituency, and in doing so I want to add a few points to those made in early-day motion 317, on the Open university, which is in my name and has been signed by some 210 Members of this House. There are many flourishing businesses in my constituency bringing employment to the area, but one stands out for the scale, quality and uniqueness of its contribution. One of the first coups of the founding fathers of the new town of Milton Keynes was to secure a very special university within its boundaries.

Milton Keynes attracted the fledgling Open university to occupy a major site near the village. Many felt that this revolutionary institution, which harnessed technology to deliver higher education at a distance, simply would not survive. They did not believe that it was possible to enable students to study in their own time, away from the life of a traditional campus, and to graduate on equal terms with students from the best traditional universities. To borrow a cliché, the rest, of course, is history.

I am happy to say that some 38 years later, the Open university is not only one of Milton Keynes’s biggest success stories, with more than 200,000 students studying every year. It is one of the UK’s best success stories and is emulated worldwide—for example, in the middle east, where its staff helped to set up, and provided the teaching materials for, the Arab OU, which already has 30,000 students. Recently, the Open university has started talking to the Government of China about exploring the benefits of collaboration on open and distance learning in order to meet the huge growth in demand for higher education that China’s economy requires.

In Milton Keynes, the OU has played a major role in helping to develop the cultural, scientific and social life of the area. It is an exemplary citizen—a founder member of the Community Foundation, and of the local theatre and art gallery. More than 400 of its staff still serve on school governing bodies or work as volunteers in community organisations and local charities. From next January, the whole university will be involved in fundraising events for the Prince’s Trust.

The OU runs a microwave link to local schools in Milton Keynes, enabling them to access a wider curriculum and to link with schools all over the world. It has supported dozens of local schools in setting up and running their own local history projects, in order to give parents the chance to acquire IT skills alongside their children. It has supported Bletchley Park in preserving its computers and cryptographic history, and in making it accessible to the world.

Far beyond Milton Keynes, the Open university has served as a beacon in bringing education to ever-greater numbers of people. It led the world in harnessing the widest possible range of assistive technologies to enable people with disabilities to study on an equal platform with their peers. From its earliest experiments using the latest technology to take education right into people’s lives via their TV sets, it has continued to pioneer ways of reaching ever more people in ever more places using the full power of the digital age.

Let me give just a couple of examples. In 2007, the OU’s audience includes new migrants in London developing language skills, alongside studying for OU qualifications in health and social care; naval pilots studying for an OU foundation degree in military aviation, alongside their flying training; and upwards of 125,000 teachers in Uganda, Sudan and Nigeria, who are using the OU’s learning materials. The OU has rightly been the recipient of a Queen’s award for export achievement.

One of the biggest challenges facing the UK economy is addressing the IT skills gap. That is not just because the IT sector is booming, but because all business areas are now leveraging competitive advantage by adding value through IT. More than 70,000 of the jobs advertised in the UK now have an IT component, and the only way to address the gap between the supply of, and demand for, people with appropriate IT and business skills is to upskill and reskill those already in work. The OU is a major contributor in this arena nationally, allowing people to dip in and update their IT and business skills in line with their job requirements, without the need physically to attend a classroom. Every year, more than 30,000 computing, IT and business course places are taken up by part-time OU students.

The Open university is also a centre for space and other such research. Technology developed for space missions could soon be exploited to provide a cost-effective, rapid and accurate tool for diagnosing tuberculosis. In sub-Saharan Africa, TB, combined with AIDS, is the major killer. The OU is exploring using that same technology to identify the signature of the TB bacterium, and to provide accurate and rapid diagnosis of TB without the need for a specialist laboratory.

The Open university has achieved all that without any compromise on quality. Since the introduction of the teaching quality index in 2005, the OU has topped the overall student satisfaction ratings three times in a row. Under the previous system, it was in the top 5 per cent. of universities for teaching quality. It is a truly remarkable institution and a great British success.

My hon. Friend is making a strong and spirited case for the Open university. He mentions the early-day motion that he wisely tabled, which has been signed by hon. Members from all parties—this is not a partisan issue. It criticises the Government’s decision to stop funding for second degrees and subsequent qualifications. Is that evidence of the fact either that the Government have either misdirected their policy or that it is incoherent, given that they say that they want to broaden access, and to upskill and reskill in the way that he describes?

Absolutely, and it is indeed strange that the Open university should have been one of the principal victims of a decision taken without consultation either in the sector or with business.

As my hon. Friend says, the decision was taken to remove funding for those studying for courses that are part of equivalent or lower qualifications—precisely those courses needed by the economy, as workers have a higher need to keep reskilling. These men and women who are sacrificing their time to re-educate themselves, in conformity with the Prime Minister’s stated aim of lifelong learning—he used to be an Open university tutor—and who mostly remain in work, paying taxes and supporting our economy, are to be treated less favourably than other students. For many, their employer will not make up the lost funding, and for those who are trying to break away from their present career or profession, their employer will not provide any support.

These men and women, who entered university straight from school but who, in mid life, have been out of the workplace for a number of years as parents bringing up the next generation or as carers looking after relatives, are to be denied the chance to find their feet again and to re-equip themselves for the changing world of work by going back to university to study.

Instead of part-time study being favoured because of its economic benefits, it is always the poor cousin. I sincerely hope that the demonstration of support for my early-day motion on equivalent and lower qualifications by 204 Members, from both sides of the House, will have provoked a rethink on this issue. Part-time learning throughout life will be a necessity in our society. The Open university needs our support in order to grow and flourish, and I, for one, hope that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families can make an appropriate new year’s resolution.

In the time left available to me, I wish to raise a couple of other constituency issues, the first of which relates to trains. It would appear that Milton Keynes is no longer the first stop on the inter-city route, but is now the penultimate stop on the commuter route. Commuters in Milton Keynes simply cannot understand why, when the Government are forcing our city to expand, little extra provision is being made for our services.

Although we are grateful that the platforms in Milton Keynes Central are being upgraded, I asked the Minister what benefit that will bring to the commuters of Milton Keynes. I received an answer to my parliamentary question, which stated:

“The enlarged Milton Keynes Central station was justified on the basis that the town could be served by an increased frequency of inter city trains linking Milton Keynes with the north”.

That is fascinating, but when we looked at the new timetable, we discovered that the number of direct services to Liverpool had been cut—not increased, as the answer says—from seven to two, and the number of services to the north-west and Scotland had fallen from six to just one. People who want to get on that train must do so at 6.26 am. In addition, I should mention the ridiculous situation whereby trains to Euston will stop to let passengers off at Milton Keynes, but nobody can get on. Not a single inter-city train now stops there during peak hours.

The other issue that I wish briefly to cover is our hospital, which was built in 1984—for the population at the time. Milton Keynes general hospital has expanded rapidly over recent years. It is easy for the Prime Minister to say that every hospital will have a deep clean, but that is not that easy to do in hospitals such as the one in Milton Keynes. It has a high occupancy rate, which means that it has no decant area. Some 32 areas in the hospital have been identified as needing to be cleaned, at the cost of some £8,000 per area, but a dedicated decant area has yet to be identified. The hospital is struggling to find somewhere to enable the deep clean to be carried out. While I am on the subject of the hospital, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the midwives. They are working under increasing pressure, because the birth rate has been increasingly rapid in Milton Keynes over the years.

While my hon. Friend is on the subject of health, I wonder whether he would add his voice to the campaign to draw attention to cardiac death among young people. He has shown great leadership on the issue of second degrees. Will he find time to campaign on such an issue, with his typical flair and assiduity, both in Milton Keynes and here? It is estimated that up to eight young people a week die of early cardiac death. I wonder whether we should be paying more attention to the matter in Milton Keynes and elsewhere, and drawing it to the attention of Ministers.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point and I know that he has been a champion of that worthy cause. I would be delighted to pick up that issue, alongside him and other hon. Members.

My final point is on another valuable piece of infrastructure in Milton Keynes, but one that is often overlooked. We are fortunate in having the Grand Union canal flowing through Milton Keynes. There has been much debate in the House recently about the potential cuts for British Waterways that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposes. Some say that the figure will be as much as £30 million, but the biggest impact in my constituency will be on the building of the new Milton Keynes to Bedford extension of the canal, for which there is great support. The extension will finally link the two towns and be the first new canal in nearly 100 years. I pay tribute to John Bint who has been one of the key people in pushing that scheme. It will provide a valuable asset for my area, a green lung and a facility that the growing population will be able to use. However, amid the growing uncertainty over funding for British Waterways it looks increasingly unlikely that the project will get off the ground. It enjoys cross-party support in the town and I simply ask the Minister to take note of my concerns and do what she can to push that valuable project ahead.

I wish to talk today about the changing role and status of women, and the role of Government in addressing those changes. When I consider that when my mother was born women were not allowed to vote, let alone stand for Parliament, it brings home to me how far we have come. It would be a brave man indeed who spoke out today in the House of Commons and said that women’s brains were not capable of understanding how Parliament worked and that they should therefore take no part in the political process, but that was common parlance less than 100 years ago.

Despite what women have achieved over the years, there is still a long way to go. Women consistently earn less than men, they lose out when it comes to pensions and they are far more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual abuse. That is not good enough, not just for women in my constituency, but for those across the country. That is why we need to do more.

I am proud that the Government are working to tackle the gaps in pay, income and assets, and working to break the glass ceiling of opportunity for women. Over the past decade, we have made considerable progress. In my view, one of the most significant measures that the Labour Government have introduced is the national minimum wage. Two thirds of the 1.3 million workers benefiting from the minimum wage are women, and nearly half of those are working part-time. But there are far too many women earning only the minimum wage.

Disadvantaged young women who live in the more deprived parts of my constituency have the potential to achieve so much, but instead they face a lifetime of poorly paid jobs with no prospects. For them, there is only one rung on the career ladder—the bottom rung. Without opportunities to develop skills and get training, the life chances of a girl from a deprived background are massively reduced, as are her aspirations and plans for the future. Young women from deprived communities need new and improved support to develop the knowledge, confidence and skills to get jobs, so that they can work their way off the bottom rung of the career ladder. Although I welcome, of course, the massive expansion in apprenticeships, I would like the Minister’s assurance that women will get their fair share of them. Women who have rewarding, well-paid careers will be the best role models for their daughters, so that the next generation can grow up not in poverty, but able to take advantage of the benefits of economic growth instead of left behind.

We also have to consider what happens after work, when women retire. There are more women of pensionable age than men, but only 35 per cent. of women are entitled to a full basic state pension at state pension age, and only 24 per cent. of them are entitled on the basis of their own national insurance contributions. That is the case because when the state pension came into being, the pattern of employment for men and women was very different. During the second world war, women took on many of the jobs that men had done, but after the war, when the state pension was introduced by the Attlee Labour Government, people had reverted, by and large, to the old pattern of a male breadwinner and the woman staying at home to bring up the children. That was the basis of the state pension scheme, with married women being able to opt out even when they were working by paying the married women’s stamp.

Of course, that situation has changed drastically, especially in the past 20-odd years. In 1983, only 55 per cent. of women were employed, but now the figure is well over 70 per cent. Even so, for many women the pattern is one of part-time, low-paid work, with gaps for rearing children or caring for elderly relatives. That does not gel with the current state pension scheme, under which people need to work regularly for more than 40 years, with no gaps, before they qualify for a full state pension.

We need the reforms that are being introduced. We need a system that is fair to women whether they go out to work or take time out to look after children or care for disabled or elderly relatives. I am aware that it is not only women who care for others, but it is overwhelmingly more likely that women rather than men will care for children and older relatives. It is clearly wrong that women should be penalised for taking a caring role as opposed to paid employment. What does it say about us as a society that we value cash contributions so much more than social and caring contributions? I fully support the move towards a more progressive approach to pensions, and one that values everyone’s contribution, whether it be monetary or social.

Progress has been made already. The Pensions Act 2007 introduced reforms to the basic state pension that make it easier for people to qualify. From 2010, a person will have to have only 30 years of national insurance contributions to qualify for a basic state pension. That will help people such as women and carers, who are more likely to have had periods without paid employment during their lives. I also welcome the Government’s intention to introduce a new carer’s credit towards the basic state pension, which will be available to those providing 20 or more hours of care a week for severely disabled people. I hope that we will continue to review pension legislation to ensure that women do not miss out in the future.

I now want to speak briefly about violence against women. Among people subject to four or more incidents of domestic violence from the perpetrator, more than 89 per cent. were women. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said:

“Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation and it is perhaps the most pervasive.”

According to the child and woman abuse studies unit, nearly half of adult women in the UK experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking in their lifetimes. Violence against women is all too often conflated with domestic violence, even though it is actually a much broader problem that includes rape and sexual violence, forced marriage, stalking, sexual exploitation and sexual harassment.

Many women and children display remarkable resilience, but the impact on individuals and entire families can be devastating. In the summer, I was contacted by a brave young woman in my constituency who was the victim of a stalker. He was in prison, from where he threatened her by letter. He was later released—something that has understandably put my constituent and her family under considerable strain. She was forced to relocate, leaving her job and friends, and she has received little or no help. However, she is receiving support from Croydon’s ground-breaking family justice centre, which I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit in September. There are many victims like my constituent—not just of stalking, but of domestic violence, forced marriage and racial abuse—who would benefit if similar centres were set up around the country.

On average, two women die each week at the hands of a current or former partner, so it is clear that we need more centres like the one to which I have referred. Before the centre was opened, there were up to five adult murders a year in Croydon, but that number has fallen to zero. We need to do all we can to tackle what remains a scourge on our society and relationships. We have to break the cycle of violence that has such a devastating effect on the children caught up in violent relationships, and we have to change a culture that uses violence to control women. In my constituency, many agencies work with victims of violence. We have an excellent record of success, and I look forward to increased Government support for those agencies.

In my speech, I have touched on three areas where progress has been made on issues affecting women. None of that progress would have happened if this Labour Government were not committed to equality, but we must not forget that we would not have been able to deliver for women had there not been a massive increase in the number of women MPs. Women MPs have ensured that uncomfortable issues such as domestic violence, rape, prostitution and forced marriage are debated in this place. Labour women MPs have ensured that the minimum wage, flexible working, increased maternity leave, free nursery provision and women’s pensions reform are at the heart of the Government’s legislative programme. Labour was prepared to take positive action to ensure that large numbers of women MPs enter this place. I was selected on an all-women shortlist and I am proud of it. Earlier, I spoke about positive role models for young women. What could be more positive than seeing large numbers of women MPs delivering for women?

I am sure, however, that when many women MPs first arrived in this place they were, like me, horrified by the schoolboy playground antics and shouting of insults across the Chamber that sometimes pass for serious debate and questioning in the House. Such behaviour is designed to intimidate and it is a form of bullying. It is not only women MPs who dislike it; women voters find things such as the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions seriously off-putting. It may provide good fodder for the sketch writers, but it does nothing to endear us to the voters.

During the Christmas recess, I suggest that we all take ourselves off to a real pantomime. We can shout, “Oh no he didn’t” and “It’s behind you” to our heart’s content, and get it out of our system before we return in January. I recommend “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at Kings theatre, Portsmouth, and I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) that “Snow White” is also playing at Towngate theatre in her constituency.

I do not pretend to be Snow White, but I am certainly not dopey, I hope I am not grumpy and I try to be happy, so in conclusion I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all the Officers and staff of the House and all hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess I want to raise a number of points. A lot has happened since the last Christmas recess when Mr. Blair was still Prime Minister. The new Prime Minister has faced several challenges. He has cancelled a general election. The Home Secretary has admitted that the Government massively underestimated the number of illegal immigrant workers in the UK. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has lost computer discs, and yesterday we heard that some more discs had been lost. We have had the political donations row, the signing of the EU treaty without a referendum and the police difficulties.

Some of us have been sitting in the Chamber joyfully since 1.30 listening carefully to the speeches. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House does her best to get notes from her civil servants about the important points that I and other Members raise on behalf of our constituents, but I should be grateful if she will kindly make sure that Departments respond to our points within a few weeks.

On Sunday I attended a carol service at Fair Havens, which is a wonderful hospice that serves a wide area. It has been announced that Fair Havens has only enough funding for another four weeks—an enormous tragedy for the hospice. Seventy-two per cent. of the funding for Fair Havens comes from the voluntary sector. As a result of the downturn in the economy, the hospice is in dire straits. It costs £2.6 million a year to run and people are desperate because we do not know where the money will come from, so if the Minister can come up with some money from our local primary care trust or find a big donor we shall be absolutely delighted.

The People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran is opposed to the current regime in Iran. In the Chamber two weeks ago, I raised with the Foreign Secretary matters relating to the organisation’s inclusion on the proscribed list. He told me the case was sub judice, but that is no longer so. On 30 November, justice prevailed when the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission handed down its judgment that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation. The judgment found that the Government’s attitude was “flawed,” “perverse” and “must be set aside”. Of course, the Government persisted, but I am delighted to tell the House that last Friday, the POAC refused the Home Secretary’s application for permission to appeal against its judgment. I hope that the Government will welcome the leader of the organisation, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, to the United Kingdom next year, and that, for once in their life, they will do something good and be on the side of the good people.

African horse sickness has not yet arrived in the United Kingdom, but it has reached Europe. The disease is midge-borne and I am advised that there are sufficient midges in this country to support the virus. Apparently, it was originally transmitted to Europe by imported zebras. Following foot and mouth, if African horse sickness arrives in the UK next year, it will have devastating effects. I was at a press conference with a few celebrities this morning. A number of the Minister’s colleagues are interested in the issue. We intend to have deputation next year. It is an important matter. We want the Government to tell us what preventive measures are in place. Vaccines should be prepared by next spring.

I turn to police pay and the state of British policing. All hon. Members will have had faxes and e-mails from serving police officers expressing concern about pay and conditions. I will quote one such officer. I will not name him, but he is a long-serving police officer. He said that the Government are

“without doubt the most inept”

he has ever encountered. He said that they have

“systematically destroyed all trace of proper Law and Order, and replaced it with statistically driven incentive policing, where performance is measured daily only in figures for arrests and detections.”

He continued:

“They have compounded this by empowering the Crown Prosecution service to act as judge and jury with no trial. In addition, they insist on copious amounts of paper to encourage officers to stay in, and not go out on patrol.”

If one were to pick a time to have a fight with the police, whose morale is at rock bottom, this would not be it. This is a stupid time to choose. I hope that the Government will do something about the pay settlement for the police, and not continue with their current policy. The police officer also said, “Come on the next general election,” and I would certainly support him in his call.

On the subject of hepatology, a number of hon. Members went to St. Mary’s hospital in Paddington, including the hon. Members for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and Lady Masham. We were taken to see the new facilities and the consultants gave us a wonderful briefing on liver disease. Liver disease is the fifth highest cause of mortality in the United Kingdom and is increasing pretty steadily. Lives could be saved through prevention, early detection and effective management, but the Government do not seem to be taking the issue on board and bringing it to the fore. In 2004, we had the national plan for liver services by the British Liver Trust. We are still waiting for a response. I hope that the Minister will get on to the Department of Health to see what is going to be done about the liver strategy.

In Southend, we have cliff slippage. It seems a long time ago that I listened to the first speech in this debate, from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who mentioned the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I am also going to mention the Secretary of State. During an exchange with me a week ago, she talked about the possibility of my not being pushed off a cliff. If the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich had her way, the Secretary of State would be in considerable difficulties, judging by what was said earlier. In Southend, we have a desperate situation whereby the cliffs are slipping. We need joined-up support from Departments.

As the Child Support Agency is being wound up, my constituents face more and more incredible situations. A very nice couple—they have asked me to mention this; it is not a private matter—are being pursued for a figure approaching £20,000. That is absolutely crazy. I wrote a letter in support of their court appearance last week. Apparently, those hearing the evidence did not allow the couple to speak. I wrote in my letter:

“Despite numerous attempts on my part to get the CSA to clarify exactly what amount my constituent owes to this organisation, I have met over the last year and a half a series of delays, poor answers, and late acknowledgements to my letters or no acknowledgment at all.”

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass that on.

Many hon. Members’ constituencies face the closure of their Remploy factory, as we do in Southend. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), has been doing her best to reassure us, but my constituents are not reassured, so I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass that on.

A lovely lady who works at Basildon hospital came to see me at my last surgery. Although she wanted me to mention her name, I will not. She was breathalysed in 2003, when she was an alcoholic. She lost her licence, and it was reissued in 2006. After she had held her licence for a year, she had to apply for another one. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency required her to be tested, and the test found that she was just over the technical level. Her consultant and others have given her a number of independent blood tests showing that she is absolutely clear—she has not touched alcohol since. Will the Deputy Leader of the House pass this on to the quango, and can we please get this wonderful nurse back into work at Basildon hospital?

I end on some positive notes. In previous such debates, I have talked about the lack of buses in Southend, West. I am delighted to say that two weeks ago, I was present at the unveiling of a new fleet of low-loader buses with disabled and easy access. People in Southend are jumping up in the air about those buses. Routes that were cut as a result of underfunding have been restored, so I am delighted to congratulate Arriva on that development.

I congratulate the Government on the medals that they are giving to those who served in the Women’s Land Army. Those women include my mother, who is in her 96th year. Although we need these medals fairly quickly, we are absolutely delighted about what the Government have done. I end by wishing everyone a very happy and joyful Christmas.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to speak in this year’s Christmas Adjournment debate.

I will touch on several issues affecting my constituents, the first of which is the recent announcement on the future of post offices. The Post Office put forward for closure three post offices in my Cleethorpes constituency, which were located in Barton-upon-Humber, Ashby cum Fenby and Habrough. Following the consultation exercise, it has said that all three branches will close.

The response that was sent to Members of Parliament following the consultation was incredibly poor. Despite the objections, the reasons given for proceeding with each of the three closures were very scant. The proposed closure of Habrough post office generated the greatest opposition, yet the response was simply along the lines of, “We have received objections and considered the issues regarding travel, and we don’t see any particular problem.” There is a problem, however, and the Habrough decision was based on wrong information, because people simply cannot get a return bus journey to the nearest post office, which is in the town of Immingham. The objectors had pointed that out—I even phoned this week to point it out. What really worried me was being told that even if the Post Office had based its decision on wrong information, that would not prevent the closure. There was meant to be a consultation. If it is a proper consultation, there should be mechanisms for raising such points.

When the closures in north Lincolnshire were announced, one post office in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey)—a neighbouring MP—which was not even included in the original proposals was suddenly put forward for closure. On investigation, we were informed that because certain other post offices had been saved, it was decided that a few more post offices would be lobbed into the mix to be considered for closure, to make up the numbers. If there is to be consultation, it has to be proper consultation. When I heard that explanation of what is happening in a neighbouring constituency, it made me doubt whether objections were considered carefully and properly across the board.

I shall now move on to the subject of fire stations. To add insult to injury, at the end of last week Humberside fire authority announced various changes to the service that it provides. Two of the proposals affect Cleethorpes constituency. The first proposal is that the retained fire station at Waltham be closed and taken out of service in 2008-09, and the second is that services at the Immingham West fire station be reduced by one engine in 2009-10. Obviously I am sad about the announcement, and not just because I recall opening that fire station not that many years ago. Cleethorpes is lovely; it is a wonderful east coast resort, but the constituency is far more than the coastal town. The Humber bank is one of the biggest industrial areas in the country. Residents of Immingham have around them two oil refineries, power stations and docks, not to mention the numerous factories on the banks of the river. All those are dangerous high-risk sites. That is why Immingham has specialised fire stations at either end of the town.

Accidents happen. There was an explosion at one of the refineries a few years ago. Anybody who can think back further will remember, in the same area, the Flixborough disaster. People are very conscious of such things. They remember those events. The fire station’s engine was called out only four times in a year, but that is not the point. The point is that one of those occasions could be a major incident. People will remember what happened at Buncefield; around Immingham there are similar oil storage facilities. It would be wrong to reduce the number of engines at the Immingham West station.

I have a proposal to put to the fire authority in the consultation. It is not ideal, but I am throwing it into the mix. If the authority insists on going ahead with the removal of an engine, thus causing a loss of jobs at the Immingham West station, rather than having a specialised unit, could we possibly have a retained crew at that fire station? That would at least give the town some cover, and it would offer some peace of mind to residents of the area. The fire and rescue service in my constituency has done a marvellous job in recent months. Like many others in that part of the country, it was affected by the flooding in the summer. Everybody saw the pictures of Hull, across the river. There was severe flooding in my constituency, too, but it did not appear much on the national news. However, even now residents are living in caravans. They face Christmas in a caravan because repairs and refurbishments are still under way.

One of the towns affected was Immingham. The fire and rescue service did a marvellous job, not only with Immingham residents but with Goxhill, Barrow upon Humber and around the area. People are sensitive. When they suffered from the floods, the fire service helped out. They are surrounded by industry—including high-risk industry—yet they are going to lose a fire engine.

Waltham fire station is being suggested for total closure, too. It is a retained station that serves a population of some 20,000—the whole southern part of my constituency, which is very rural. It had 200 calls in the past year, and costs about £60,000 to run. I would say that it is a cost-effective station. I would like the fire authority to reconsider.

Another subject that I shall touch on briefly is police pay. Like all other Members of Parliament, I have received a great many e-mails from serving officers in my constituency. I understand why the Government have decided to stage the increase: we do not want inflationary pay rises. That is the reason being given. We can look back to the boom and bust economies of the past to see the impact that that can have, and how pay rises can be wiped out. I understand where the Government are coming from. However, in my heart, part of me says that if a deal has been struck through arbitration we should do our best to meet that deal. The Government have said that they will stage the increase, and I do not think there will be much movement on that. However, in order to restore the faith of serving police officers I want my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to take back the message that even if we are not going to do something about the pay as it is, can we not do anything else? What other good-will gesture can we make to say thank you for the marvellous job that police officers do?

Like other Members, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to wish you and everybody else a most wonderful Christmas and a very peaceful new year—and I hope that everybody will have a couple of days off from relentless casework.

I begin by endorsing the Christmas message of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who deplored the dumbing down of Christmas by those who claim offence on behalf of others when none has been intended or taken. I have never had a complaint from a Sikh, a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or anybody else from one of the great world religions about the celebration of Christian festivals. If the politically correct mafia would focus on the values that we have in common—such as the family, the work ethic and looking after people who are less fortunate than ourselves—perhaps they would have a happy Christmas, too.

I want to talk about the finances of the London borough of Havering and the local government financial settlement. Historically, Havering had a low base budget because it was an economical authority, so year on year the increases on that low base budget have been modest.

This year, the London borough of Havering won a national award for the best council in the country for financial services. That was largely because of the council cabinet member for finance, Councillor Roger Ramsey, and the director of finance, Rita Greenwood. They have worked tirelessly over the past four years to put the finances, which were in a parlous state when they took over, on to a sound footing, to keep council tax increases to a minimum and to improve services to the tax-paying public.

One might think that, having achieved all that last year and having introduced the lowest council tax increase for 10 years, there might have been some financial benefit or reward from the Government—but the reward was to be floored again this year.

Havering council has been floored at 2 per cent., which is about an extra £1 million in monetary terms. That £1 million has to cope with inflation and a whole range of other pressures, including the extra £4 million needed for adult social services. The borough has one of the highest proportions of elderly people of all the London boroughs. All the associated costs that go with that put pressure on the council’s budget. We have many classically asset-rich and cash-poor people who moved out from the east end of London several decades ago, having never earned a great deal of money. They are now living on a modest retirement income, and their care costs are escalating. The east London waste authority, which is the waste disposal authority for our group of London boroughs, is going to increase its precept by £1 million this year, so the increase in council grant could all be soaked up purely by paying for waste disposal. There has also been a staff pay upgrade of nearly 2.5 per cent.

All this illustrates the impossible situation in which the London borough of Havering finds itself. London overall has done very badly, and this is the worst settlement nationally for years, yet all the boroughs that adjoin Havering have not been floored. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) is no longer in his seat to hear the fact that for the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham, the figure is 5.9 per cent. For Redbridge the figure is 5.2 per cent., for Newham it is 5.1 per cent., and for Enfield it is 4.8 per cent. According to the Government, the relative needs per head for Havering and its immediate neighbours are expressed as follows: for Havering £195, for Redbridge £306, and for Barking and Dagenham, £482, which means that a person living there will have nearly two and a half times as much spent on them as someone in Havering. Finally—this is the beauty—there is a whopping £708 for everyone living in Newham. That is more than three and a half times the amount that a person in Havering will receive. Even the London average of £449 is more than double the amount allocated to Havering.

How can this be? Why has Havering been singled out for such dreadful treatment? Who in the Government has such a dreadful grudge against Havering? The council is determined to achieve a reasonably low council tax increase again, but that means that services will have much less money spent on them than they need. For example, there is a £70 million backlog of road and footpath repairs. I receive letters all the time from constituents complaining about the footpath outside their house or the potholes in their road. I write back and tell them that the London borough of Havering has a rolling programme of footpath and carriageway repairs. That programme is not going to roll very far this year on the current allocation.

I received a letter this week from Joe Bell, the United Kingdom Youth Parliament cabinet member for London. His letter illustrates just one example of the forced and unwelcome budgetary decisions that the London borough of Havering will have to make. Havering’s central youth council has been very active, and every year it holds elections for the Youth Parliament. One of the schools of which I happen to be a governor, Gaynes school, has had pupils elected to the Parliament two years running. This year the central youth council has been told that, because of overspending on social services to meet certain Government targets, funding cuts in the youth service will have to be made. That means that there is simply not enough money to fund the Youth Parliament elections this year. The youth council was told that it could go ahead only if it funded the elections itself at a cost of £3,000, which is almost its whole budget.

The youth council stands for youth democracy, and its members said that until that night, they thought that they had the support of the borough, but that apparently, that was not the case. Of course they are wrong to think that, but the decision is very unwelcome. I cannot believe that a single councillor in Havering would have welcomed the decision. In the youth council’s eyes, though, it is the council that has cut its funding. The youth council wishes to register its disgust at such a disgraceful state of affairs, and I want to register my disgust as well—not with the council, but at this dreadful grant that the London borough of Havering gets every year in comparison with its neighbours and the rest of London. The youth council intends to write to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families about this, and I will be very interested hear what response it receives.

Let me quote from the list of the council’s priorities and objectives. One is promoting financial efficiency and providing value for money. Clearly, it is making a very good job of that, but in improving services, one of its objectives is to be positive about young people, but it will not be able to fulfil that. Another is investing in roads and pavements, and still another is developing a range of services for young people, particularly hard-to-reach young people. This settlement is clearly going to make it very difficult for the council to achieve the objectives that, because of their importance to local people, it has set itself.

During the autumn, the Government published the outcome of their comprehensive spending review for the next three years. Among the highlights for local government was a value-for-money programme in which councils will be expected to make cash savings of 3 per cent. each year—and so the screw turns. The savings are expected to deliver improved, modern and personalised public services for families in need, children in care and old and vulnerable people, as well as increasing recycling of waste to 40 per cent. by 2010.

The actual level of grant increase will depend on whether the existing system of ceilings, floors and damping will remain in place. Given the express intention of the London borough of Havering to limit council tax increases, it will be essential to maintain the financial prudence that, despite the absence of any financial reward from the Government, has been so ably demonstrated. There is a limit to how many more financial miracles the London borough of Havering can produce, so will the Deputy Leader of the House please pass on the message to give our borough a fair deal?

In my remaining time, I would like to ask the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on another message to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The matter seems so trivial at first sight that Members may wonder why I am bringing it to the House’s attention, but it has proved impossible to resolve. My constituency contains the Sacred Heart of Mary girls school, of which I happen to be a governor. Next door is the Sacred Heart of Mary convent school. These are separate and different schools, but they share the same postcode.

I have asked the Post Office to give each school a separate postcode, because they continually receive one another’s post. During term time, it does not matter too much because it is easy to exchange, but during the school holidays, post for the convent school, however urgent, goes through the letterbox and lies there for a considerable time. All my appeals to the Post Office have fallen on deaf ears. From Adam Crozier down, the responses I receive say, “No, you can’t have one,” but no one can explain why, or back up the decision with any logical reason. Will the Minister please pass on this message to the Secretary of State? All the school wants is its own postcode; all the other schools in the borough have one, so please can this school have one as well?

My time is constrained, so in case I run out, I start by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, Mr. Speaker, his staff and indeed all the staff of the House, who go to great lengths to make our lives easier and our business run smoothly, a happy Christmas and good fortunes in the new year.

I should like to raise four issues, if only briefly: the south-east plan, post offices, my local hospital and, following on from that, the funding formulae that local councils in my area are receiving from the Government. Before I do so, however, I should like to commend the idea proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who is no longer in his place, of giving medals to those in the Women’s Land Army. To follow on from the points that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made, my mother was a welfare officer in the land army. She was involved in a demonstration that the girls from the land army held down the Mall at the end of the war, when they stripped down to their bras and pants in protest at not receiving demob suits. That generation of women did a great deal to further the cause of the women who sit in the House. We should pay them a significant tribute for their guts and their determination to stand up and fight for what they wanted.

On the current south-east plan, however, my constituency is geographically constrained, being on a floodplain and surrounded by green belt, with protected downland to the south-east and south-west, and rural villages stretching down to the Sussex border. Guildford borough council has met its housing targets, but the town, with its narrow and constricted roads, is increasingly congested, with the study of the likely transport impact of housing numbers set out in the draft south-east plan predicting unacceptable traffic congestion. We are also conscious of other infrastructure deficiencies in water and sewerage, as well as increasing problems with flooding.

The inspectors’ panel report on the south-east plan, which is now being considered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, increased the housing numbers for Guildford by one third, or nearly 2,000 additional houses. It also diminished the requirement for infrastructure to accompany new development, changing the need in the draft plan for development to be “contingent” on the provision of infrastructure to the “timely provision of infrastructure”, which provides more scope for inadequate, inferior development without the necessary facilities and amenities.

It seems that Guildford was singled out for a disproportionate increase in housing because, interestingly, it is described as a “regional hub”, a term that had metamorphosed from the description “regional transport hub”, which many residents in my constituency found somewhat surprising. Yes, Guildford has a railway station and a bus service of sorts, but it is a long way from having the comprehensive public transport system that the term might suggest.

If Guildford is to meet the new housing targets as well as intensifying development in the urban area, it will almost certainly have to expand into the green belt to the north of the town. The effects of incremental development are already being felt in north Guildford, particularly in areas such as Stoughton, which suffers significantly from the lack of infrastructure. The threats to Waverley, in the south of my constituency, are similar. The tensions between house building, inadequate infrastructure and the use of green belts continue.

Guildford is further concerned about uncertainty over the treatment of housing windfall sites. Historically, Guildford has provided much of its development on such relatively small sites, as has Waverley, and there is no sign that they will arise less frequently in future. However, the Government’s new planning policy statement 3 does not want those sites taken into account in the housing planning numbers, except with laborious justification. The south-east plan inspectors were more realistic. Clarification of the Government’s attitude on windfall sites is much needed, so I would appreciate it if the Deputy Leader of House could address that or get an answer on it for me.

Both Waverley and Guildford are alarmed at the scale of development proposed in the inspectors’ panel report, which is likely to undermine the character of the area on which its economic success is founded. Its residents feel that the inspectors underestimated the constraints on development and that their proposals will lead to huge and unavoidable congestion, as well as a deterioration in the quality of life of all our residents through the inadequacy of infrastructure. There will also be a significant impact on the local, and indeed the national economy. It would be nice to have some clarification. A recent letter from the relevant Minister says that he will

“continue to protect robustly the land designated as Green Belt.”

However, there is clearly a conflict, as is shown by the inspectors’ report.

Many Members mentioned post offices. My constituency, which is heading towards a consultation at the end of January, is in the same position as many others, and there is considerable concern locally. Our post offices are our lifeblood—the social glue that holds our communities together. In Guildford, that applies not only to the rural areas but to the communities that sit outside the town centre. We often hear about the impact that closures will have on elderly, more vulnerable and disabled people, but it is important to remember that in my area they will also have a significant impact on small businesses, including mail order companies, many of which operate from small premises, sometimes from home, and rely heavily on their local post offices. Although Guildford town does not look far away on the map, getting there is a significant consideration in terms of loss of time.

The next matter that I want to mention is my local hospital trust. I was delighted this year when Surrey primary care trust acknowledged all the local concerns about cutting services at the trust. We are now continuing with a three-trust option in west Surrey, with some improved services at Royal Surrey County hospital. There are proposals to merge Frimley Park and St. Peter’s hospitals, but they are at an early stage. Part of that success was down to the cross-party, cross-community campaign that we fought. I pay particular tribute to Professor Chris Marks, who headed up the campaign in a clearly independent and robust manner. However, to secure the hospital’s future, it is important that it gains foundation status. Indeed, the Government agree. In the online document, “Achieving balance in the NHS”, they say that they are

“committed to offering all NHS Trusts the opportunity to apply to attain Foundation Trust status by 2008.”

That is clearly what they want hospital trusts to do, but on the road to that end, someone, somewhere is blocking the application. Royal Surrey County is one of the best-performing trusts in the country. It is financially secure and achieving financial balance, it has some of the best mortality rates in the country, and accident and emergency waiting times are among the best in the country, yet the primary care trust or the strategic health authority—it is not entirely clear which—is trying to block the application. It is vital that Royal Surrey County gets foundation status. That would also be an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate just how much a hospital trust can achieve. I have asked the Minister concerned to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), and I look forward to a positive outcome from that request.

The last subject that I should like to mention is local government settlements, which have been grim in Guildford and Waverley, as throughout Surrey, with a 1 per cent. increase in local government funding, 0.3 per cent. going to Surrey county council, and an equally bad settlement for the police under a very unsympathetic funding formula. Surrey is the single biggest financial contributor to the Government’s coffers and I am afraid that I, like many residents, am getting sick and tired of our being used as a cash cow. Local residents expect their local councils to provide good services, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so when the Government are starving them of much-needed cash. People in Guildford, in Waverley and across Surrey feel that they are being punished by central Government. That is not the only cut. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who is not in her place at the moment, my local theatre, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, has just discovered that it is to lose its Arts Council funding. It is early days, but there is no doubt that the theatre is under significant threat. Middle England pays and middle England gets punished.

I am sorry to sound angry because I enjoy the company of the Minister. We have a little bit of a laugh in the corridors. I am sorry to spoil the rather light mood of the House today, but south-east Surrey in particular and my constituency are a significant contributor to this Government: we are net contributors, I believe, to the tune of £5.5 billion. It is easy for the Government to dismiss us as not of any political significance, but they would be unwise to dismiss us as not of any financial significance.

When my hon. Friends raise issues that are important to our constituents, the Government all too readily dismiss our concerns and talk about how wonderful everything is under their administration. We have been rather flattered by the cries recently of, “What would you do?” I think that the Government should start to listen to the voice of ordinary people who are raising the money that the Government are spending. They should rise to the real challenges of Government and trust local people. Stop the Stalinist top-down dictatorial approach that is making my residents so angry. The Government may have found the past four months slightly sticky, but I assure them that things can get a lot worse.

It feels like this has been a long time coming, so I had better make the most of it, but it is always a great pleasure to listen to so many excellent speeches, in particular the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who represents her constituents so effectively.

It is now just a week until Christmas, traditionally a time of giving and joy for families throughout the country. Obviously, I wish the staff in the House, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and your colleagues, and other hon. Members across the political divide a very happy Christmas and new year, but I would like to focus on those who are left behind at Christmas: people who are perhaps forgotten at this time of year.

I want to talk about a club in my constituency called the Sun club, which caters for young people with learning disabilities in the eastern part of my constituency. Every Friday night, that club offers a place where vulnerable young people can have what equates to a genuine social life, and where young people with severe challenges in life are able to be safe and happy and to take part in all sorts of wonderful social activities, including outings, sports and meeting up with friends. Many of those friendships have developed over decades from the time of primary school. That is why the young people love the club so much.

I am told that there is no similar provision for young people with learning disabilities anywhere in Reading borough. In my two and a half years as an MP, I have certainly not seen anything similar. The service also offers a welcome respite for parents and carers for a few hours a week, from 6 to 9 pm on a Friday. They benefit not only because their child is happy and safe in that environment, but because they get a short break each week from what is a lifetime of caring. The House is only too well aware of the massive financial and emotional burden of caring that many families take from the state each year.

I visited the Sun club and spoke with parents and users. They genuinely cherish the service. You would think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the local authority would, too, but you would be wrong. Reading borough council wants to close the club because it does not appear to fit neatly into one of its budgetary boxes. The Sun club is currently funded by the youth service, which is supposed to be for 13 to 19-year-olds, but is also for those up to the age of 25 who have learning disabilities. Apparently, the club has a few members who are over the 25-years age limit.

Parents understand the council’s dilemma and wish to work with it to find a sensible solution, but the actions of the local authority have been bordering on the heartless. In August, the local authority wrote to parents to inform them of the budgetary problem but promised to manage the situation

“sensitively and in consultation with parents…I will be writing to inform you of further progress, inviting you to a meeting to discuss this in full.”

It is with great regret that I inform the House that there has been no real consultation with parents and certainly no meeting to discus this proposal in full, or any progress.

Many letters to the local authority from parents have simply gone unanswered. Answers that I have received from the local authority to my inquiries on their behalf have been at best inaccurate in describing the current situation. Worse, the local authority is now taking disciplinary action against the member of staff who raised concerns on behalf of parents about what was happening. It is always difficult to comment on matters going through due process, but I would say to the local authority that what it is doing will look very unpleasant and wrong to the outside world.

Those thinking that we all have to work within constraints and budgets are right, but the astonishing thing is that the cost of the club is a mere £5,700 a year. This money could be found from a £0.5 billion annual budget if there was truly the will to do so.

By way of advice to Reading borough council, I would say three things. First, stop trying to bully parents and instead work with them, as it said it would from the outset, to find a solution for these young people. This club is worth supporting. Secondly, drop the disciplinary action against the youth worker, which reflects extraordinarily badly against the local authority. Thirdly, reflect very carefully on the special educational needs support in Reading. There are huge problems even for those children in schools, but for those over 18 the gaps in provision are absolutely enormous. Where there is a success, such as the club, do not set out to destroy it simply because it cannot be made to fit into a particular budgetary pot.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point and showing what a compassionate and caring Member he is. May I share with him that I have the same problem with Essex county council?

I have heard about the problems with Essex county council. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As he knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) sat on the Education and Skills Committee during our inquiry into special educational needs.

The second issue that I should like to raise is the tragic death of my constituent Tyson Brown, who lost his life in 2005 and whose family feel badly let down by the way in which the case has been handled by the police, the Health and Safety Executive and the coroner. The family believe that each of those organisations has made mistakes that have made it much more difficult for the evidence to be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service to enable the case to progress to court.

The death of a son is never easy to cope with, yet my constituent’s family’s tragedy has been compounded by the fact that the individuals they believe responsible for their child’s death have never stood trial. On 12 August 2005, Tyson Brown, a 16-year-old boy from Woodley, drowned during his lunch break. He was attempting to swim across a flooded quarry where he had been working after accepting a challenge to do so from his employer. That is right; an employer, at his place of work, bet his employee to swim across a dangerous flooded quarry, exposing a young man to considerable danger.

The police attended the scene and quickly dismissed the death as a tragic accident. Health and safety officials said that as it took place at “lunchtime”, it was not a matter for them. The police, based on a short telephone conversation with the Health and Safety Executive, seemed to have come to the conclusion that there was very little to investigate. I find that quite extraordinary. Indeed, a civil case—where, admittedly, the burden of evidence is lower—that the family brought against the employer resulted in a £10,000 compensation settlement, although that is not much for a young life.

The family have been fighting to get at the truth for two years and have not been treated in the manner they should have been by the police, the HSE or the coroner’s court. They have raised a number of concerns about the way the police investigated the case and they are dissatisfied with the responses they have received. Despite a number of letters sent to the police, I, too, have failed to receive completely satisfactory answers to questions, such as why the boss, Mr. Edwards, was allowed to leave the scene before being interviewed, why his statement was not recorded properly and on the correct witness statement forms, why he was not asked to attend the inquest as a witness, and why the police waited more than three hours before informing the family of the death of their son. That raises concerns about whether justice has been seen to be done in this case—whether the police have carried out a thorough investigation, whether the HSE made a rash and ill-informed decision about the nature of the incident, and whether the coroner was given all the information required before coming to a conclusion.

I believe that it is reasonable to interpret that the duty of care an employer has for their employees is not set rigidly by the hours of work; rather, it should also be determined by the influence an employer exercises over their employee and by the environment in which it is exercised. It is reasonable to expect that an employer should be held accountable for their influence if it can be shown that risk to an employee’s health and well-being directly resulted from that influence and would not have occurred otherwise. Considering this case in particular, it is therefore reasonable to expect that the influence Mr. Edwards exercised as a boss over Tyson Brown would have extended over the lunch-break period. It is also reasonable to expect that Tyson Brown, particularly considering his age, would respond to requests by his boss even at lunchtime in a way that he might not have done if Mr. Edwards had held no such superior position. Finally, it is reasonable for Mr. Edwards to foresee a risk to Tyson Brown by encouraging him to enter a flooded quarry without safety measures in place.

It is not for the House to rule on the interpretation of the facts in this case. Equally, I do not believe that it is for the police to make such a judgment, but I do believe that we need an independent adjudication of the circumstances of this case. There is no doubt in my mind that mistakes have been made. I therefore do not believe that Tyson Brown has received justice. After two years, it is time for this matter to be properly settled and I hope that the Minister will use her good offices to help in that.

First, I wish to thank all the Members who have spoken in the debate and to compliment them on their excellent contributions. We have heard about a wide range of subjects—from those that concern Members’ constituencies to national issues and some that address the international perspective—and I very much hope that where the Deputy Leader of the House is unable to provide answers she will ensure that the appropriate Ministers provide full and proper replies to Members.

The debate began with a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who gave a strong critique of the reorganisation in Cheshire. She raised a number of serious issues for the relevant Secretary of State, but we subsequently heard a speech from the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) in which he more or less disagreed with everything that the hon. Lady said—although to be fair to him he also covered a number of other issues, including a possible review of police pay.

The contribution of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) touched on the closure of post offices, a subject close to the heart of many Members—it affects many of us and we share his concerns. The right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) spoke on a point echoed in respect of many other Members’ constituencies: the future of local hospitals, and in her case of Chase Farm hospital. She was somewhat scathing about the consultation process. My advice to her is to join us, the next time that there is an Opposition day debate on a health issue, in criticising her own Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) drew attention to the possible closure of the Northcott theatre. It is particularly noteworthy that there is cross-party support locally for that very worthwhile venture, and I certainly wish her well in her campaign. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made a very valid point when he criticised his own Government for trailing well in advance today’s written statement on visitors to the UK. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House has taken that on board.

How welcome it was to see my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) making such a valid contribution in this place today. He made a very moving speech concerning his constituents, particularly Mr. and Mrs. Burrell and the former’s need for treatment with the drug Sutent. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will ensure that the statement that my hon. Friend requested from the relevant Minister will be forthcoming as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) made a thoughtful speech on the future use of a particular piece of land and the future of the pigeons on it. I hope that the situation is quickly resolved. In passing, I understand that the matter was covered on the “Today” programme this morning. We are used to hearing Ministers trail their comments on that programme; I am sure that the Whip in charge will note that Back Benchers are following that practice.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) spoke passionately on behalf of his constituents and rightly pointed out the difficulties experienced by his beef and lamb producers. I agree entirely with him when he says that it is high time that we had a debate on agriculture in Government time; it is long overdue. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) gave a knowledgeable speech on his local train services. That, we all acknowledge, is always a difficult subject, but I am sure that his constituents are grateful for his efforts in raising it in the Chamber.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised a very relevant point, given that it is the festive season, and he was supported in his comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). Both spoke of the need to ensure that Christmas is called Christmas, and not “Winterval” or anything else, by the political correctness brigade. I entirely agree with those comments. If one were to ask members of a minority religion—to ask, say, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or the Jewish community—to change the name of their religious festival because it was felt that it offended those who are not from that faith, there would rightly be outrage from those communities. Yet there are people in this country who are quite happy to rename Christmas “Winterval”. [Interruption.] Labour Members are saying “Where?” I suggest that they look at some of their own local authorities, where they will find the answer. It is wrong to have one rule for the minority religions, yet for those who are part of the mainstream majority religion in this country to find that Christmas is to be renamed. I hope that the political correctness brigade will take note of that.

Let me help my hon. Friend and those on the Labour Benches who have very short memories. It was the Labour authority in Birmingham that determined that Christmas would be called “Winterval”.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for specifying which authority it was, but I am sure that he will agree that there are other such authorities, most of which are run by the governing party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke passionately about a number of issues, including the need for a referendum on the European Union—the Government pledged that in their manifesto. He rightly said that when Governments renege on their manifestos that reflects badly on politics for all of us, and that the Prime Minister has lost his moral compass.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) gave a considered speech on Norfolk matters, making particular reference to special educational needs. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) gave a learned speech on various financial matters, in particular the Barnett formula, Scottish financing, English spending and so on. I am sure that this House will return to those subjects in future.

We heard an interesting speech by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). He spoke of a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament defecting to the Conservatives. I urge the hon. Gentleman’s Whips to keep an eye on him and inquire why a Labour Member is particularly excited about a Liberal Democrat MEP defecting to the Conservatives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) subsequently made a passionate speech. He spoke about the need for increased investment in tackling identity fraud. Given the time of the year, when a lot of expenditure takes place, that is a particularly relevant point.

The hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) raised a number of points in a serious speech. He asked a number of pertinent questions about the British National party, and a lot of answers are required. I hope that the issues will be looked into by the Electoral Commission and the police.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) spoke appreciatively about one of Britain’s strong success stories—the Open university. Its great achievements have taken place both in this country and abroad.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) spoke with considerable care and concern about the serious issue of equality for women. She boasted about her Government’s achievements in that particular area. May I remind her that it would have helped the cause of the former Minister for women and equality if she had been paid the proper ministerial salary when in post, rather than the salary of a Back Bencher?

We then heard a fast-paced speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). He made a number of points, concluding with the good news of the unveiling of the easy access disabled buses.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) also made a number of points, including her wish for better fire services for her local community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) covered various important points for her constituents, including the tension between house builders, inadequate infrastructure and the green belt.

The final speech was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). He spoke about the people who Christmas perhaps tends to forget. His thoughtful speech covered the threatened closure of the Sun club, which caters for very vulnerable people in his constituency. I know that he is a strong and committed campaigner for his constituents, and I wish him well in his campaign to save the club.

All that remains for me to do is to wish you and all the staff of the House a happy Christmas and new year, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I also extend season’s greetings and Christmas greetings to all the members of the security team, who look after us so well, and to the staff of the Members? I wish everyone a happy Christmas and new year, and look forward to seeing everybody again in the new year.

It is nice to be able to respond to an afternoon of debate that has been so lively and marked by so many contributions. The first was of course the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She made a powerful speech in which she was strongly critical of the local government reorganisation in Cheshire. I am sure that her arguments will be heard beyond this Chamber. It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) disagreed with much of what she said. In County Durham, we have gone through a similar reorganisation recently and I know that such processes can raise strong feelings, because the way in which local government is organised has an impact on public service delivery.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) spoke initially about rural services and, in particular, his concern about post office closures. His points about the significance of the post office were echoed not only by those with rural constituencies, but others. They included my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). All were concerned by post office closures and the method of consultation on those closures. I will certainly draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine went on to talk about the importance of broadband extension, especially for rural communities. I will draw his points on that issue to the attention of colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He talked about the switchover from analogue to digital television, but I am afraid that he went way beyond my understanding in the description of the technology. I think that he was saying that support for vulnerable groups needs to have a longer lead-in, especially for people who are blind or dyslexic. I will draw that point to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The hon. Gentleman went on to make a complaint about the level of the winter fuel payment, which I did not think was wholly justified, given the high expenditure that the Government have put into Warm Front of some £800 million, benefiting 1.6 million people. That needs to be taken into account when considering fuel poverty, which has become much less prevalent in the last 10 years. He also talked about North sea oil and gas and expressed particular concern about future development. He said that for a long time the Treasury had taken a short-term view of it. In a former life, I was the civil servant on the North sea desk, so his suggestion that that was a longstanding problem made me rather uncomfortable. In any case, I do not think that it is a problem now.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman made the suggestion that the Leader of the House should announce business two weeks ahead. Sometimes we do announce business more than one week ahead, but I will take his suggestion away and we will consider it.

I congratulate the Government on the £27 million stop-gap funding for children’s hospices this year and I request an early statement on funding for 2008-09. I also request an early debate on the Floor of the House on the holistic palliative care of children, as I was promised such a debate by the former Leader of the House, now Lord Chancellor, some six months ago.

I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) spoke about Chase Farm hospital. She is an energetic campaigner on behalf of her constituents and her speech described the many years that she has spent in such campaigning. She was especially concerned to preserve accident and emergency and maternity services in the hospital. She was concerned about the quality of the consultation that had been carried out. My understanding is that such decisions are for the local NHS, and that all the PCTs agreed that it was option No. 1 which should be considered. Even so, my right hon. Friend made a powerful case, and I shall draw her remarks to the attention of Ministers in the Department of Health.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) spoke about the closure of the theatre in Exeter. She will understand that that is a decision for the Arts Council of England, which is an arm’s length body. I can draw the matter to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but I cannot be terribly optimistic about the upshot.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton also spoke about the problem that arises when consultants prescribe drugs that, for financial or other reasons, are not available to patients. She suggested that an unfair funding arrangement enabled people in Scotland to get drugs that are not available to people in England. I hope that she heard the speech made by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie), who explained to the House that Scotland received no real-terms subsidy under the Barnett formula.

The hon. Lady went on to talk about the operation of HIPs. She said that she supported energy certificates, but she also made some complaints about the administration of the HIPs scheme. She said that she had written to Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government in the middle of October, and I shall impress on them the importance of giving her an early response.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East spoke about post office closures in his constituency, and then about the site at the junction of the A46 and the A6 where GE Thorn used to have a plant. He is worried that the site could become derelict, and wants the company and the council to look into its future use.

My right hon. Friend welcomed the proposal to change the rules on immigration and visitors, and said that he supported the proposal to reduce the length of visits from six months to three. I was glad that he was able to find something in the Government’s programme to support, because he then went on to make some criticisms of the Home Secretary’s decisions in respect of police pay. In that, he was supported by the hon. Members for Blaby and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), and by my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale and for Cleethorpes.

Of course, the Government recognise the vital and hard work performed by the police, but the public sector pay policy must be maintained. There is no need for me to advise my right hon. Friend on how to make his case to Ministers, as he is clearly perfectly capable of doing so.

I should like to take this opportunity to express my pleasure at seeing the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) back and in his place this afternoon. He made a very good and characteristically clear speech in which he described the case of a constituent of his who has cancer. I understand that the local NHS was not prescribing the drug that would have helped his constituent, and I want to make it clear that it is not acceptable for NHS organisations to refuse to fund treatments simply because they have not yet been appraised by NICE. However, PCTs in different areas will have different priorities, so unless we have a completely centralised system, about which Members on both sides of the House would be critical, there will difficulties in meeting all needs and priorities.

Several hon. Members talked about cancer care in their area. Over the last 10 years the extra spending and concentration on cancer has brought mortality rates down by 17 per cent., and a new cancer reform strategy is being developed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) made an excellent speech about his constituents in Ryhope and the importance of pigeon fancying and allotment holding. My constituency is only 25 miles from my hon. Friend’s, so I know how important pigeon fancying is for the large number of people who derive great enjoyment from the sport. Some of us even wondered whether it could be made an Olympic sport, but I understand that that will not be possible. My hon. Friend also pointed out that the Legal Complaints Service refused to correspond with him. I shall refer his point to the Ministry of Justice, as that situation seems completely unacceptable.

The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) spoke about post office closures. I was surprised that he did not mention the Barley Mow in Kirk Ireton, because when Mary and Tony Short contacted me, I told them to get in touch with him about their post office. I will draw the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about community bus services to the attention of the Department for Transport. I was surprised by what he said, because the Department is trying to encourage more community bus services and more social enterprise where big bus companies do not find it economic to operate. I very much hope that the framework in the new transport legislation will go some way towards helping people in his rural constituency.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about Longstone rake and the difficulties with minerals regulations. He asked when the consultation would take place and said he was not sure that the Planning Bill would help to speed up the process. I shall refer his comments to Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government. He went on to talk about agriculture, and upland farmers in particular. I echo his remarks, as there are many hill farmers in my constituency and the recent outbreak of foot and mouth has been problematic for them. I shall take his call for a debate on agriculture as a request for a topical debate.

The right hon. Gentleman complained about the fact that council taxes were rising by 4 per cent. while rises in incomes were tied to inflation, but he needs to look at the wider context. Opposition Members sometimes forget the state in which pensioners were living 10 years ago. I remind them that we have lifted 2 million pensioners out of poverty over the last 10 years.

It is not. The hon. Gentleman may be uncomfortable with them, but those are the facts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) spoke about the East London line extension. He has made an extremely careful and thorough analysis of all the technical documents and has been involved in the campaign for 35 years. I will draw his concerns about the future development to the attention of the Department for Transport. He also made some points about health services in his area. Again, he was concerned about the quality of consultation, which was an issue that came up in the speeches of several hon. Members. I will draw that point to the attention of Ministers in the Department of Health.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke about the threats from international terrorism, and in particular, he expressed his concern about the Libyan regime. He was concerned about the arms trade and how it can feed into the situation. I understand from the Foreign Office that, while it is aware of the situation and does not condone it, it believes that the relationship with Libya has improved significantly. I will draw his remarks to the attention of Foreign Office Ministers. He also raised the issue of the destruction of Orange halls and said that some 200 had been lost in recent years. I shall write to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) spoke about the reorganisation of local government in Cheshire. He went on to talk about two planning issues, one in an area where there has been overdevelopment and another on a greenfield site. He made a specific recommendation—we will pass it on to the Department for Communities and Local Government—that local authorities need stronger enforcement powers, because without those powers, there are not sufficient penalties to provide incentives for people to abide by the planning regulations. He spoke of his concerns about the effectiveness of the Criminal Records Bureau, and about the rehabilitation of offenders. I will pass his concerns on to the Home Office.

My hon. Friend also spoke of two children who had been killed on the motorway in his constituency. He is absolutely right: road safety is the most significant issue of risk to children in this country. He will no doubt have noticed that the children’s plan, which was published a few days ago, addressed the issue of road safety. I will draw what he said to the attention of the Department for Transport and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) gave a wide-ranging speech covering police pay, post offices, pensions, farmers and his desire to have an EU referendum. I am not going to suggest that we are going to have an EU referendum. As he knows very well, the document is not a new constitution. It is a treaty and the House will have many weeks to examine it in the new year.

No; the hon. Gentleman will have plenty of time in the new year.

I felt that the hon. Gentleman made a more reasonable point when he spoke about the importance of ensuring that dairy farmers were well treated. I draw his attention to the inquiry by the Competition Commission into the behaviour of supermarkets.

May I take the hon. Lady back to the referendum? Did she endorse and support the Labour party manifesto on which she stood in May 2005?

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. It is not that the Government have changed their mind; it is that circumstances have changed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) spoke about the train line to Norwich, academies in his constituency and resources for children with special needs. I hope that he is aware of the review of special needs education that was announced as part of the children’s plan and the extra £18 million that will be spent on training teachers to help secure better support for children with special needs. I hope that he is also aware of the private Member’s Bill that is being promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), which would enable better planning of local authority services for children with special needs.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) spoke about the Barnett formula and the private finance initiative, and I will pass his remarks to the Treasury. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made a helpful intervention during that speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) painted an extremely vivid picture of his European Member of Parliament and the unreliability of Sajjad Karim. I felt that it was a good job that the people of Pendle have a good Labour MP to look after them in such difficulties.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) spoke about identity fraud, the importance of raising people’s awareness of the problem and, in particular, the risks of giving information on the net that might lead to ID fraud. The issue is important, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He also spoke about his desire for an extra debate on a Monday morning; I am not sure whether that was a serious suggestion. One of the things he said that he had read about in the Sunday papers and could not believe was true was the £4,000 payment for asylum seekers. I should like to read out the response made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration:

“We take suggestions that the Assisted Voluntary Returns…system is being abused very seriously. If abuse of the scheme comes to light, we will fully investigate and push for the strongest action to be taken. All applicants for the scheme undergo a series of identity and eligibility checks before being granted any form of assistance”.

I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

We should all be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), who has clearly done a great deal of work investigating the unpleasantness of the British National party. He described a number of extremely unpleasant criminal activities to which the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, had admitted. They were in keeping with the horrible, racist politics that I am sure that the whole House would wish to condemn.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) spoke about schools in his constituency. I am not sure whether he is aware that spending per pupil has doubled in the past two years. He also talked about the Open university, whose headquarters are located in his constituency. I am sure that he knows that a former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, described that as his greatest achievement. I think that the hon. Gentleman has had a meeting with Ministers in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman one thing before he intervenes: I understand that £100 million is being redirected from people who would be getting second degrees through the Open university to people who would be acquiring their first degree.

May I take the hon. Lady back to her comment that spending on education has doubled in recent years? That does not change the fact that £64.5 million will now not be spent in Milton Keynes over the next three years, so we will not build the 13 new schools that we desperately need to cope with the expansion of the population. What advice can she offer to parents in my constituency who will struggle to find a place for their children over the new few years in Milton Keynes?

I would advise them to vote Labour, because the fact is that the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues promise massive cuts to the building schools for the future programme, which will be far more serious than anything that he described this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) gave a considered speech on the position of women in this country. She connected the way of life of many women, and their problems—low income, unequal entitlement to pensions, and domestic violence—with the need for political reform. She pointed out that it is important to have more women in political life, so that those issues get the proper attention that they deserve. Of course I will draw her remarks to the attention of colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government, and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. I will also pass on her points about apprenticeships for young women to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) gave a wide-ranging speech, which covered the problems faced by the Fair Havens hospice. I hope that he heard the earlier intervention made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The hon. Member for Southend, West also mentioned Iran and the treatment of a particular group whose name I am not sure that I can pronounce. He mentioned African horse sickness, police pay, hepatology, Remploy and the Women’s Land Army medal. On police pay, he needs to take account of context, and the fact that crime is down 32 per cent. in the past 10 years. It is not right that, as I think one of his constituents suggested, we had destroyed law and order.

I find that an odd answer to the question of police pay. The reason why we are catching more criminals is that the police are working in partnership with the Government. The refusal to pay the police their full award breaches that trust. We would like to know whether the Minister will take that point back to the Home Secretary, and try to get the matter resolved.

Of course I will report to the Home Office what hon. Members have said. The point that I was making to the hon. Member for Southend, West is that the situation is not one of doom and gloom; crime is down in this country.

The hon. Member for Southend, West also talked about the seriousness of liver disease. I can only assume that unlike the rest of the country, he has not recently heard the public health Minister talking about the dangers of drinking too much alcohol. I hope that he is aware of the fact that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has undertaken a further review of Remploy factories and has reprieved many of them. I am sorry if the one in his constituency is not among them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, an extremely hard-working Member of Parliament, demonstrated in her speech that she understands and cares about her constituents. She spoke about the Post Office and police pay, but mostly about the fire stations in Waltham and Immingham. She was concerned by proposals to downgrade the fire stations. She pointed out that good fire stations are particularly important because of the heavy industry nearby. I will draw her remarks to the attention of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) spoke about the financial effectiveness of the London borough of Havering. She felt that Havering has been treated unfairly by the Department for Communities and Local Government in respect of the application of the grant formula. I am sure that Havering has had its proper allocation according to the formula. I am quite sure that there is in no sense any campaign against Havering, but I will draw her remarks to the attention of the DCLG, and I will draw her concern about postcodes to the attention of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) told us a story about her mother taking her clothes off in the Mall when she was a member of the land army. I can only say that the hon. Lady is obviously a chip off the old block—although I hope that she is not going to do that in the Chamber now. She spoke of her concerns about overdevelopment in her constituency. I understand that the matter is fraught, since my mother-in-law is one of her constituents. Nevertheless, I remind the hon. Lady that 10 years ago the amount of development on brownfield sites was 56 per cent., and it is now up to 74 per cent.

The hon. Lady also spoke about her local hospital trust and said how much she wanted to see her local hospital become a foundation trust. She has written to the Department of Health to seek a meeting. We will follow that up on her behalf. She, too, was concerned about the local authority grant settlement in Surrey. Local authority grant settlements are the result of a sort of Heath Robinson formula that takes account of not only income, of which she made much, but needs.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) spoke about children with special needs at the Sun club in his constituency. He raised the issue of gaps in provision once children reach 16 or 18. He was pointing to the important contribution that the voluntary sector can make in supporting those families. He told the House an alarming story about the death by drowning of a young man, Tyson Brown. That sounded very serious, and I will pass those concerns on to the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Finally, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) gave a typically polished and witty performance.

I hope that people will be able to get new jobs. The closure programme is phased over some time, and there is a partnership of the County Durham Development Company, the local skills council and the local authority that will provide training for people.

I would not want people to think that that was the total sum of my constituency. It is an extremely nice place to spend Christmas, whether that involves joining in with traditional carols played by brass bands at one end of the constituency or going for walks in the area of outstanding natural beauty at the other. I wish all hon. Members a happy Christmas. I hope that they will have as pleasant and restful a time as I intend to. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, Mr. Speaker and all staff who work for us in the Palace of Westminster for everything that you and they have done for us in the past year.

With the leave of the House, I shall put motions 5 and 6 together.


Environmental Audit

That Mark Pritchard be discharged from the Environmental Audit Committee and Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger be added.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That Daniel Kawczynski be discharged from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and Miss Anne McIntosh be added.—[Mr. Alan Campbell, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.]