Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]
I appreciate your calling me so early in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall return home to Telford and search out the remaining Easter eggs in my cupboard, and send them down to you in the following week.
I should like to raise four issues that are important for the House to hear about before we adjourn for the recess.
I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman is going to speak about is very important. Given that, no doubt he will wish to stay for the winding-up speeches, which finish at 6 o’clock, so he may be a bit delayed in getting back to his constituency.
Of course I will be here for the winding-up speeches. I will then return to Telford and hunt out those Easter eggs for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and return with them in two weeks’ time if I have not already demolished them.
The first of the four issues that I wish to bring to the House’s attention is audio description on television. Yesterday, I met Caroline Ellis of the Royal National Institute of Blind People to discuss how we can ensure that digital television is fully accessible to people with sight problems and to examine some of the latest technology. Television plays a pivotal role in the lives of people with sight problems. Some 73 per cent.—nearly three in four—spend five hours or more a week watching television. It is a major source of information, news and entertainment, and 86 per cent. of people with sight problems would watch more television if more programmes were accessible.
With that in mind, the RNIB is encouraging more of the 2 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK, including about 3,000 in my constituency, to watch TV by switching on a free existing service called audio description. Many of the nation’s favourite TV moments have never been fully enjoyed by blind and partially sighted people. Relying on the soundtrack means that they cannot follow what is going on.
I was shown a clip of a programme yesterday—it was “Doctor Who”, which is one of my favourites and has a new series starting on Saturday. If I closed my eyes or looked away from the screen, I could not tell what was going on. One advantage of audio description is that in addition to the speech in the programme, there is commentary that fits in between the dialogue and describes the body language, expressions and movements of people on the screen. It makes the story clear through sound and is a fantastic innovation.
As well as giving people with sight problems access to the nation’s favourite entertainment and drama programmes, audio description stops people feeling isolated and excluded, because they can discuss programmes with family and friends who are watching at the same time. At the moment, about 13 per cent. of programmes on digital TV have audio description, which is not nearly enough. Many of those programmes are repeats on channels such as The History Channel. It is still worth while tuning in, but we need to ensure that more programmes have audio description.
The service can be accessed on Sky, Virgin Media and some freeview boxes and integrated digital TVs. People can call an audio description hotline to get help, and I believe that the service brings a clear benefit to those with sight problems. The downside, as those with digital TVs will know, is that one has to navigate one’s way through visual menus on the screen to select programmes to watch, which is difficult and frustrating for people who are blind or partially sighted. Audio description may be available on a programme, but they cannot access it because the digital menu is visual in nature. We need to take action on that so that people who are blind or partially sighted can navigate around the screen and secure access to the new services. We cannot have a large proportion of our population, including, as I have said, about 3,000 people in Telford alone, excluded from the service, given that in future digital television will be the only option.
Digital switchover will come to the Central ITV region from 2011. I know that there will be a help scheme to ensure that households that have a disabled person or an elderly person over 75 in them, including those registered blind or partially sighted, can convert to digital TV on one set. Eligible people who are partially sighted or blind could do with securing a quality set-top box with audio description and easy-to-use remote controls, so that the TV guide on the screen tells them what programmes they are selecting and what is coming on next.
The Government have not yet committed to ensuring that providers put audio description support into set-top boxes. It is important that they do so soon, so that all digital services have a talking menu, and a talking recording menu if there is a hard drive on the box. It would be good if the Government could commit to that initiative, which I am sure will secure cross-party support. It is important to thousands of people in constituencies across the country, and I would like to see it delivered as soon as possible.
The second issue that the House needs to be made aware of before what I see from the annunciator is the April Adjournment, rather than the Easter Adjournment, is post offices. This week, we had the long awaited announcement about post office closures in Telford. I think that it is fair to say that the impact on the constituency was not as great as many had predicted. It had been suggested that at least four post offices would close in Telford, but in fact just one, at Randlay, has been named for possible closure. Ten others will remain intact. The main problem with Randlay post office is that it is very close to Telford town centre and a short bus ride from a Crown post office less than a mile away. I have spoken to the postmaster at Randlay, visited the post office there and written to every resident in the community. Throughout the six-week consultation period, I will help local people to make the case for the post office to stay open.
Post Office closures are an emotive subject, but we need to examine the facts if we are to proceed logically. At present, we as taxpayers subsidise the national network to the tune of £3.5 million a week. That level of subsidy is clearly unsustainable, and some offices will have to close across the UK. That money could be invested in schools, hospitals or local policing. Additionally, our shopping habits are changing and we are increasingly using the internet, the telephone and other outlets to purchase services and things we used to buy at the post office. New technology and the increasing preference for direct payments and online services have, and will continue to have, a significant effect on how post offices provide services to their customers.
We should not forget that locally, we have had some real successes in relation to post offices in recent years. I particularly want to thank the Co-op for its work to ensure that many post offices in Telford stay open. Three post offices have moved into Co-op stores: that has been extremely successful, and I am sure that similar moves have been successful elsewhere across the country. In Oakengates, Trench and Dawley the post office service is provided in the Co-op, where the environment is much better than that in the old offices. Post office services will remain at those three sites, and we will also be keeping services at Horsehay, Ironbridge, Brookside, Madely, Sutton Hill, Overdale and Telford town centre.
Some people have suggested that I voted in this House for the closure of post offices. That is absolute nonsense, and a display of the worst kind of political opportunism. The Opposition motion that we debated would merely have postponed the consultation exercise while options such as having local councils taking over post office services were examined.
In that debate, the Opposition made it clear that they would provide no new resources for post offices, and they were not even able to commit to maintaining the existing Government subsidy over the next decade. Also, I have seen no evidence that the Conservative-run Telford and Wrekin council will step in to save post office branches in Telford. If it were going to do so, it should give us the details of the plans and the precise amount of the council tax increase that would have to be imposed.
I am meeting the postmaster of that office next Tuesday to look at the books. If it does make a profit, we will make the case that it should stay open and I shall work with local residents to that end.
I recognise that post offices provide a critical resource for many communities, and we must make sure that the network is both viable and sustainable. Sustainability is the crucial element: without funding from this Labour Government, thousands more branches would have been under threat and there would have been thousands more closures.
Of course, thousands of post offices closed under the previous Conservative Government, and as far as I am aware there was no compensation for sub-postmasters then. At least, they have received some compensation in recent years, and there has been a proper national debate about how we should move forward in respect of post offices. The Opposition campaign to keep open every post office branch in the country is a sham.
The third issue I want to raise is Ironbridge, which is a world heritage site. I am chairman of the all-party world heritage sites group, and I am very proud to have in my constituency the Ironbridge gorge, which was inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage site list in 1986. The inscription relates the area’s role in the birth of the industrial revolution, and even people who have not visited will know the iconic image of the iron bridge over the River Severn.
The world heritage site is also a living community, with a resident population of about 4,000. They run businesses and live in the area, and there are also various museums along the gorge. The gorge itself attracts about 750,000 visitors a year, and about 300,000 pay to visit one or more of the 10 museum sites. The iron bridge was completed in 1779. As a symbol of the industrial revolution, it is recognised around the world. It is owned by the local council, under the guardianship of English Heritage.
The gorge is one of the UK’s most important visitor attractions. Through various sources, the nation has spent tens of millions of pounds of public money over the years to make sure that it acts as a tourist magnet and an engine for the local economy. The gorge is therefore incredibly important, but it is under threat from land instability caused by a combination of natural geology, past mining activity and the fact that its hillsides have been loaded with tipped waste, buildings and infrastructure.
That instability is exacerbated by the flooding on the River Severn that happens every two or three years. A flood barrier has been established for the Wharfage, but the floods still cause significant erosion along the gorge. Generally, the land movement is quite gradual, but the times when it has been great and fairly catastrophic have resulted in the partial blockage of the river and caused the destruction of buildings and property. There is always the possibility that a blockage of the river could cause major flooding and damage, both upstream and downstream. Moreover, life and property could be put at risk if the clearing of that blockage caused a rapid release of water.
A lot of work has been done in the gorge, much of it in recent times. Studies of the scale and extent of the flooding problem have been carried out, and they have identified the areas at greatest risk. Ground investigations have been undertaken by the council and land movement is being carefully monitored. The local council and the Government have acted in a partnership to invest in stabilisation, at Jiggers bank in 2002 and at the Lloyds phase 1 in 2007.
Residents are aware of the problem. An information pack has been made available so that they can report incidents of land instability or any problems that they might encounter on their property. There is also an emergency plan covering the worst-case scenarios of what might happen in the gorge, but there is a need for further investment to ensure that the environment is stabilised.
The local council, in partnership with the Government, has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis, and it is estimated that we need to spend about £86 million to ensure that the gorge is safe in the long term. If we delay, the cost may rise to more than £100 million—an enormous amount of money, and one that the local authority on its own clearly cannot come up with. I am therefore working with the local council to try to lobby Ministers to ensure that we get a fair share of resources so that the required works can be carried out.
I shall set out a list of the works that need to be done. We need to complete the stabilisation of the Lloyds and Lloyds Head on opposite sides of the River Severn; we need to stabilise the hillside and rebuild the road between Jackfield tile museum and Maws craft centre; and we need to complete the ground investigations in central Ironbridge, reconstruct the riverside wall along the Wharfage, stabilise Lloyds Coppice and carry out work to stabilise the Lloyds phase 3.
That is a significant amount of work. The key issue is that, when a national Government put a site forward for world heritage site status, they accept that the UNESCO charter requires them, as the state party, to ensure that the site is preserved for future generations. It is crucial that we invest in the Ironbridge gorge. It is a significant asset for the nation, and an iconic site that ranks alongside all the other incredible world heritage sites around the globe. I hope that Ministers will look closely at the partnership work being undertaken to secure the gorge’s long-term future as a national asset.
Finally, I want to say something about the importance of manufacturing for the west midlands. I am delighted that Advantage West Midlands has published its manufacturing support strategy for the next three years. It is an excellent document and it outlines how important manufacturing is for the area. Manufacturing is the largest wealth generator of the west midlands sector, accounting for about 27 per cent. of the regional gross value added—23 per cent. directly and an estimated further 4 per cent. from its supply chains.
During the early 1980s, when I left school—some Opposition Members will find that comment somewhat surprising—unemployment in Telford was running at just under 10 per cent. I am very proud to say that we have ensured that unemployment has come down over the past few years—it is now running at about 3 per cent.—but to give credit where it is due, one of the most important initiatives in Telford was undertaken by a partnership between a Conservative Government and a Labour council: the designation of the enterprise zone. That extremely important initiative secured cross-party support at the time, and it did a lot for Telford. We also secured the connection to the motorway network, with the opening of the M54.
Those two decisions in the 1980s were very important for Telford, and they were taken in the long-term interests of the town. I should like to thank the politicians who were involved for making those decisions, because they ensured that, in the long term, we were able to grow the manufacturing sector in Telford and draw new companies into Telford. In fact, we were a focal point for Japanese investment for many years. Indeed, we still have a large number of Japanese companies, such as Ricoh and Maxell, in the town, providing thousands of jobs.
We now need to continue to support the manufacturing sector in the region. Such manufacturing will be connected particularly to car manufacture and engineering, but increasingly, in Telford, we are looking at high-tech jobs and innovation. That is why I very much welcome the commitment in the recently published document to the technology corridor between Wolverhampton and Telford. It is crucial that we ensure that we have jobs growth along that M54 corridor and that organisations, such as the university of Wolverhampton, are party to supporting manufacturing, so that we can grow new technology and innovation business and build the skills base in Telford.
Supporting the concept of the city region—the idea is to connect some of the main areas across the central spine of the west midlands into a city region structure—will be crucial. Some clarion voices locally in Telford have suggested that we should not get involved in the city region. In my view, that would be a complete disaster. In the longer term, resources to support manufacturing, the skills sector and training will be decided by organisations such as the city region.
I fully support the Conservative council’s decision to continue to subscribe to the city region—a policy that was started by the Labour council before last year’s elections and continued by the Conservative council. I very much welcome that, and I urge the council to continue to ignore some of the clarion voices and the doom merchants who suggest that we should withdraw from the city region. It is important that we invest in it and that our skills and manufacturing strategy develops on a regional basis. On that note, I will go off in search of Easter eggs.
A belated happy Easter to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, from me, too.
I start with a word about the date of the Adjournment and the recess. Unusually, this year, the nation is slightly confused by these things, because the good old western Christian Church, which fixes its Easter according to certain risings of the sun, I think, and the moon, has had its earliest Easter for about 80 or 90 years—I gather that it will not be as early again for another 80 or 90 years. This year, Easter was on 23 March, and technically, it could only have been one day earlier than that. Obviously, it almost coincided with the first day of spring this year. I notice just in passing that, in 2011, it will be on 24 April, which must be pretty well the latest date that it can ever be, too.
I have no objection to the fact that Easter moves around—it adds a bit of variety and interest in an otherwise over-routine world—but there is an issue that affects our conducting business well. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), who helps me on House matters and directly shadows the Deputy Leader of the House, would have been here, except that he is not here, by permission, for a very good reason: his children are on their school holidays, and he and his wife have decided to take their children, who are in London today as opposed to Scotland, to see “The Lord of the Rings”. There is an issue for Members and children with regard to the coincidence of our sitting times with school holidays. That is not an easy issue to resolve. Clearly, there should be a break at Christmas, at or around Easter and in the summer, but when we plan our recesses, I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House were to ask her officials to try to make our terms coincide with the bulk of school term times and holidays around the country. We are catering for four countries, which have different education systems.
When I asked my hon. Friend to give me an idea of the school holidays in Scotland, he told me that some Easter holidays—for example, in Edinburgh and Aberdeenshire—started on 21 March and run until 7 April. The Glasgow ones do not start until 7 April and run until 18 April. The Dundee ones started on 31 March and run until 11 April. When I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) what the position was in Wales, he pointed out that there is a common view that the holidays run from 21 March to 7 April, but the summer holidays vary. Of course, some Scottish summer holidays start as early as the end of June and run until the middle of August. Obviously, this would need the consensus of the House, but I would be grateful if the Leader of the House were to get officials to draw up a matrix of school holiday plans—they vary, but they can generally be foreshadowed—to try to ensure that our term times match, as far as possible, school term times and holidays.
If we are trying to make the House family-friendly—colleagues have school-age children—we need to ensure, as far as possible, that our term times and holidays coincide with the maximum number of school term times and holidays. I think that that is a reasonable request, and it has been made by colleagues over the years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) has made it often, and he was concerned about the issue when he had young children, as many colleagues have. I hope that we can plan to ensure that we do our job for our families as well as for our constituents.
I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments over the past few minutes just bizarre. I can only put them down to the fact that he does not have schoolchildren. To give credit to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) and the late Robin Cook, that is precisely what they did. They dovetailed our term times and recesses with the school holidays, by and large, for England and Wales. Usually, it has worked extremely well. There is a problem with Scotland. There always will be a problem with Scotland, because the term times and summer holidays there are completely out of sync with the rest of the UK. It is a little churlish to give the impression that nothing has been done, when—I hate to admit it—the Government have made our hours with regard to school holidays extremely family-friendly.
Neither was I being churlish, nor did I say or imply that nothing had been done. Indeed, I indicated that the Government have tried to deal with the issue, but the situation could be even better. For example, a week’s difference now would have given more people a coincident school holiday and break here. It certainly needs to be addressed for colleagues from Scotland, for whom school holidays run throughout July as well as the bulk of August. Some of us have argued at length over many years that we should not have a three-month summer holiday. It is nonsense that we should break for so long. If we had a shorter summer holiday, one of the problems could be more easily addressed.
As a parent of three children who are still at school, I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not realise that hundreds of our constituents do not have the luxury of recesses? They have to pick their holidays. Some teachers have different school holidays from their children, if their children’s school is in a different local authority area. We are actually in quite a privileged position.
Of course, I am not pretending that the issue does not affect other people. If we in this country are moving towards having five weeks’ annual holiday, one would hope that that holiday could always be taken. Normally, families can, by and large, choose when they take their holidays, although teachers cannot. There are other people, too, whose holidays are inflicted on them, as it were, and who must take their holiday at times entirely connected with their profession. I have made my point. This is not a self-interested question; I just request that the issue be considered in the light of continuing requests from colleagues who think that we can do better. We have made progress, but we can do better still.
Let me turn to matters that do not affect the House as directly. I want to mention local issues, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) did. There are three local issues on my list, one of which—post offices—is on everybody’s local list. Yesterday was the closing date for responses to the consultation on post offices across Greater London. As I said in Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Question Time earlier today, eight closures are proposed in my borough, four of which are in my constituency, and I have made representations. It is also proposed that a Crown post office be changed to a non-Crown post office and moved from an established Crown post office site on Borough high street to an as yet unopened—and, I think, entirely unbuilt—Costcutter store. That is taking trust a bit too far; it is cost-cutting with a vengeance. We might base our objection to the proposal on the fact that we do not believe that the building will be there until we see it, which might be a good reason for objecting.
I want to make two points on the subject that partly tie in with an earlier interchange. I believe that three of the four post offices for which closure is proposed in my patch are now profit-making. They include the one at Dockhead on the riverside in Bermondsey, where there is family commitment and where the postmistress is extremely keen to continue, and the one on Ilderton road, which is on the Bermondsey-Lewisham border near Millwall football ground. A family have been running that post office since 1979, and they are keen to continue. There is a third on Maddock way, which is on the Brandon estate, near the Southwark-Lambeth border. It probably was not profit-making, but it has a new postmistress who believes that she has just turned the business around. She wants to stay there, because she believes that the business is viable. The fourth one in East street has not been profit-making, and the owner has been trying to get out of the business for some time, but the Post Office is resisting.
The question whether a post office is profit-making should be a consideration. Post Office Ltd should be willing to tell Members of Parliament, with the agreement of the postmaster or postmistress, what an office’s commercial viability is—it is far too secretive about such things. It should share all the information that is relevant to a post office, with the agreement of the postmaster or postmistress. If it did that, a business case could be made for many post offices, although not necessarily as free-standing offices—they might be linked to a grocery or other store on the premises or nearby. Now that the London post office consultation information has been submitted—I submitted mine in full yesterday, as did colleagues—I hope that we can have a real dialogue with the Post Office, rather than a dialogue of the deaf or a dialogue of non-communication. We want information, and I hope that it will be forthcoming.
My second proposal, which I should like to make through the Deputy Leader of the House to her colleagues in the relevant Department and to the Post Office, is that we consider in every case the effect on the immediate business community. There can be devastating effects on parades of shops and in areas where there is deprivation. We need to consider that. The local authority is in many cases willing to be helpful, and the Post Office must take that into account.
Turning to my second local issue, I gather that a decision has been made, although nothing has been made public yet, about the world-famous poisons unit at the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. That is the unit to which people refer poisons, or potential poisons from all over the world for analysis and assessment, both in the context of crime and in the context of general medical treatment. It is to have its funding withdrawn, which is not a central Government matter, but a matter devolved to the Department of Health. The unit is well-established, and has an excellent national and international reputation. I hope that the final word has not been said on whether the money will be withdrawn, and I hope that the unit can remain in place in view of the quality of the service. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to help me to find out what is going on, so that we can get some information and debate the subject in the open rather than behind closed doors. I hope that we can put, and win, the case for the unit to stay open.
Thirdly, I am pleased to say that my local authority, Southwark council, and the private construction company Berkeley Homes have at last come to an agreement about the site called Potters Fields, which many hon. Members will know. It is on the right when one comes over Tower bridge from the north, next to London City Hall. It has been a derelict car park for many years, and is next to a very nice park. Southwark council and Berkeley Homes, both of which own part of the site, have at last come to an agreement to go back to the drawing board and together plan a new design for a cultural centre worthy of a landmark world heritage site. We have just heard a speech about an eminent landmark world heritage site in Shropshire that I know and admire. The design will replace the horrible eight pillars—a more vulgar name has been given to them—in the design that currently has planning permission. I hope that the Government and the new Mayor of London, whoever that will be, will support the new agreement, and that it will provide something to which the community can sign up, instead of the horrible monstrosity that we were to have inflicted on us, and which the community almost universally opposed.
I have a couple of final points to make, as other colleagues have many issues to put on the agenda. I wish to raise an issue that straddles constituency and national business, which has been raised by many colleagues on both sides of the House and by colleagues down the Corridor in the other place. My constituent Mehdi Kazemi, a 19-year-old Iranian, is at this minute in detention in the Netherlands. He came to the United Kingdom to study and was led to believe that if he went back to Iran he could be in severe trouble, or worse, because it had been announced publicly that he had had a gay relationship in Iran. I am not sure of all the historical facts, and it is not appropriate to share all of them now, but he makes the case that a former partner of his has been executed on the basis of his sexuality and sexual behaviour in Iran.
It is unarguable that the Iranian regime behaves in that way to gay people, as well as to other categories of people, including women and political dissenters. The request being made to the UK Government is that they review the policy in relation to sending people back to places such as Iran and, still, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia, when it is obvious that because of Government policy particular people are at particular risk. It is unacceptable that there is a policy under which people are expected to go back to certain countries of the world under certain regimes at certain times and to believe that they will be safe, and I hope it will be reviewed.
In the case that I mentioned, the Home Secretary, to her credit, said to me at the beginning, when I requested a stay after the initial hearing, that the Home Office would look at the case again. My constituent fled to mainland Europe, thinking that that might be a safer place, but if the Dutch authorities, as I expect, send him back to the UK, I am sure the Home Secretary will do that job properly. However, that job would be much easier if there were a general moratorium on deportations in such cases, where the vulnerability is established without argument and where people would be at huge risk if they were sent home.
My final request is topical. This is our last break before the May elections in London, much of England and Wales. May we bear in mind two things that are not working at all well?
The Lib Dems are working, often very well, but I am well used to the hon. Lady’s partisan comments.
First, on electoral registration and the avoidance of electoral fraud, we still believe that there is huge under-registration across the country and in London in particular. I know that the Leader of the House is exercised by that. The figures are probably 10 per cent. across England and 20 per cent. in London. There cannot be free and fair elections if so many people are not registered to vote.
The Slough case the other day, where the judge was hugely critical of the system after the conviction of a Conservative councillor in Slough for electoral fraud and his disqualification, reminded the House, I hope, that we must have a system of individual registration—not registration by household—so that people can be individually checked. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House understands the importance of that. We need to maximise turnout and participation and minimise fraud. We are not there yet; it is work in progress.
Linked to that, we still have a nonsense system for counting people, especially in urban areas where there is a big turnover of population, and in other parts of the country as well, where the census and other ways of counting population are very much behind the reality. The director—I think that is her title—of the Office for National Statistics, the new boss of the ONS, has made it clear that the system is not sufficiently robust or up to date. The Greater London assembly carried out a survey which suggests that in a borough such as Southwark we probably underestimate our population in official figures by between 5,000 and 10,000.
When population figures are wrong, there is a knock-on effect on the local government settlement. Ministers accept that, but they say that they cannot do anything about the settlement that has just come into effect. We believe that boroughs get less support than they ought to, because the assessed population is lower than it should be. If we are to have a fair system for distributing funds around the country, we need a fair and up-to-date system for assessing how many people live in an area—how many adults, how many children and how many retired people—so that we have up-to-date figures.
My suggestion, which I have made before, is that every year we have, effectively, a census day combined with electoral registration day on a date that people can remember—say, 1 March, with a countdown throughout February that can be tied in with publicity—and that we use those figures not just for electoral registration, but as the latest best estimate on a rolling census basis. A big census would take place every 10 years; another census would take place on a five-yearly basis; and the annual figures would be fed in to update our population count. That would not disadvantage anybody. I hope that it would advantage everybody in Government and local government and be accepted as a good idea.
We welcome the recess Adjournment debate, whether it is the Easter, the April or the spring Adjournment. It is right that we should have a short break at this time of year, and I do not think that anyone opposes it. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pick up the issues that colleagues and I put on her agenda and pass them on to the right places for answers by the time we get back.
I welcome occasions such as this, when we can raise issues that are important to our constituents. These debates are also useful for getting off our chest something that has been eating away at us for a long time. I intend to do both, and I hope to subtly link them together.
I draw the attention of the House to a 1920 Cabinet memo in which a prominent politician wrote about the occupation of Iraq, which was then Mesopotamia. He described it as
“a profuse and futile expenditure of taxpayers’ money”,
and he went on to say that
“we cannot go on sprawled out over those vast regions at ruinous expense and ever-increasing military risk”.
When I saw that, I thought it was some Marxist speaking, but it turned out to be Winston Churchill in a Cabinet memo. That encouraged me to penetrate Hansard further to see what the debates were like on the subject of Iraq in those far-off days, long before our time. I wish I had been alive and had participated in them, because they were much livelier. Members in all parts of the House were involved in discussing the issues. For example, we can see that Lloyd George’s Government and all his senior Ministers were involved in various debates over four years or more. The senior members were Curzon, Churchill, Chamberlain, Milner, Montagu, Bonar Law and the Prime Minister himself, Lloyd George—not a bad line up for a premier division team. One can imagine how heavily focused those debates would have been on the subject of the invasion.
I think that those debates were more entertaining and more interesting because they discussed the costs of the new territorial acquisition. Discussions took place in both Chambers and Army and Air Force estimates were looked at in open debate over several sittings. In those days, the essential feature of debates was that they occurred before the decisions had been made. They did not ratify something in an earlier estimate that led to spending; there was genuine discussion of how much should be invested in a particular year and in a particular foreign field. It was interesting.
Looking at our behaviour over the past few years, we see that there has not been complete lack of scrutiny—of course not; it happened elsewhere, in Select Committees and so on—but the financial cost has been pushed aside. It is not irrelevant to discuss that too. I tried to raise it the other night in a serious debate on the need for an inquiry and was told, quite sharply, that it was irrelevant. I do not think that it is entirely irrelevant, and I shall try to explain why.
It seems to me that people feel guilty about talking a lot about Iraq because we are letting the side and the soldiers down. I feel that, and I am sure that everybody round here does too, but I do not feel at all guilty about raising this subject. When I go back to Norwich, I get it all the time when I talk to constituents and hear that the pensioners cannot heat their homes. A few will write in—not a massive number—and there are always a few who come to see me. I always say, “Well, we can’t cost up everything.” Their answer, which I am sure all hon. Members have received, is, “You don’t have any trouble finding money for Iraq and Afghanistan.” I see heads nodding. People make a human response. Perhaps they do not understand the detail of it all—I do not think that I do, either—but I understand that kind of response.
I carried out some research with an old colleague of mine—a professor at the university of East Anglia—on the cost of the war to the British Government, which is about £9.9 billion at the minute. That is a minimum estimate, as it takes into account only operational capital expenditure, rather than indirect costs such as higher oil prices, loss of investor confidence and the possibility of a global recession—all the things in which the war has probably been a factor. I am not saying that it has been a major or a minor factor, but expenditure on the war has been a factor in such events across the world.
A book by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist, has just been published. I know that economists do not always agree with each other, but winning the Nobel prize is not bad; it is recognition by one’s peers. He claims that the war in Iraq alone will end up costing the UK more than £20 billion. His book is called “The Three Trillion Dollar War”. It is very significant and well worth a read in the next few weeks when people have the time to do that.
I want to make a contrast with the attitude of my constituents when they see the money being shovelled into that enterprise, be it good or bad as far as individuals and their parties are concerned. There is a local NHS walk-in centre on my patch at a place called Dussindale in Thorpe St. Andrew. Set up by the Government early on, it has had £531,000 taken from it. At the same time and over the same period, we have put in £3,297 million to service the work in Iraq and Afghanistan. That funding seems to have no end, as we heard this week with the continuation of the events in Basra and so on. We do not know where this will end up. Contrasting those things in the minds of the constituents whom we all serve, we can understand why there is a little feeling of unease about how well we perform in making financial assessments. The walk-in centre is successful: 5,000 people a month go for treatment of minor injuries and illnesses, skin complaints, muscle and joint injuries, minor cuts and wounds, and so on. It was very much opposed by GPs, on grounds that only they can handle such things, and is staffed completely by nurses. It is a great success—seven days a week, 24 hours a day—and it is wonderful. It sits next to a big supermarket, so people drift in with their problems.
A polyclinic may be set up central Norwich, which I see as a means whereby GPs can find their way back into the process. They may have a role to play, but it should not be at the expense of the walk-in clinics. Central Norwich had the opportunity to have its own walk-in clinic in the early days of the Labour Government and the GPs rejected it. I am all for progress, but in a big sprawling city, two centres are needed so that people can easily access treatment for minor complaints, so axing such services should not be part of our agenda. They are popular with the local population and they have received huge press coverage; there will probably be more of it during the next few months.
The nurse practitioners say that the centre can be run at a fraction of the cost of the war. We should be rewarding those places for the work that they do, encouraging and expanding it. When something is successful, we should not suddenly do away with it. I make a plea for the funding of the walk-in centre to be restored in full, so that the kind of services that the Government have been talking about this week, including pharmacies, continue. We do not need a GP for many of the functions at the primary level of our health service. I am not saying that we should take money from the war and put it into such services. We must find the right balance. I am not saying that troops should be brought back; that is an argument for another time and place. But the cost of the war should be balanced against these cuts. We have also heard about post office cuts, but in rural Norfolk and parts of Suffolk, as well as Telford, London and elsewhere, they are very important, and we should be finding the resources for them.
The House needs to debate how decisions are made on these issues so that we can strike a balance between where the money goes. The House fails badly when it comes to saying where the Treasury money should go. It is no use holding up our hands and saying that we will never get certain matters past the Treasury. We are in a position to get the Treasury to act in such areas and our constituents expect us to do so.
I shall not seek to detain the House for long, but I want to raise two important issues that my constituents feel should be brought to the House’s attention before we go into recess. We have already heard during today’s debate about sub-post offices, but the first issue that I want to raise concerns Chelmsford Crown post office.
Until last summer, Chelmsford Crown post office was an extremely fine institution on the ground floor of a stand-alone building close to disabled car parking and accessible to shoppers in the centre of Chelmsford. Solely as a penny-pinching, cost-saving exercise, the Post Office decided to close down that post office and to move it to the first floor of WH Smith in Chelmsford High street. That is not a problem inasmuch as the location is still in the centre of the town with easy access from the outside of the building, but the problems begin on the inside, because as always with such deals the services are on the first floor. No retailer will give up its prime ground floor site where people enter the shop from the street to buy its products. The important issue is whether there is good and proper access to the first floor for members of the public—particularly those in wheelchairs, the frail and those with disabilities. As far as the Chelmsford Crown post office in WH Smith is concerned, the short answer is that there is not.
Before this happened, I warned the Post Office that there would be problems, but my warnings were brushed aside. Unfortunately, the Crown post office has been in WH Smith for six or seven months and, sadly, my fears have been fully realised. There is a staircase to the first floor and one escalator; there is not an up escalator and a down escalator, so that is a problem. However, the Post Office says that that is not a problem because there is a lift. Indeed there is: it is small, so if people in wheelchairs want to use it, queues form. Inevitably, the lift breaks down. It did recently, and that caused tremendous problems. In the past seven months, people—certainly on one occasion—have had to be carried down by paramedics to get from the first floor out of the building. It is unforgivable that such a service is being provided in exchange for the first-class service that we received when we had our own stand-alone post office.
There is another problem. People can get in through the WH Smith high street entrance from the same level, although if they are going to the Post Office they then have to use the escalator, go up the stairs or, if they can, get into the lift. However, the only way to come in through the other entrance—in the London road, where all the buses stop—is down four very steep steps. There is no access for wheelchairs, so wheelchair users have to go all the way round to the other entrance. For those with non-motorised wheelchairs, that is a long distance. That is unacceptable.
My constituent Mrs. Gower was so incensed by the issue that in a relatively short period she started a petition that got more than 600 aggrieved—and mostly, but not exclusively, elderly—people to complain and try to pressure the Post Office into doing something about the situation. The best solution would be to go back to the status quo of a year ago. I fear, however, that that is not a viable option; the Post Office has made the move and is saving money. It does not seem that concerned about the quality of the service that it provides its customers, because people have to buy stamps and take their parcels, so they are, up to a point, a captive audience. That is particularly true because in previous waves in the past five years—although not this wave—the company closed many of the sub-post offices in the surrounding area, saying that the Crown post office could become people’s sub-post office. Despite the lip service that it pays to the interests of its customers, the Post Office is not desperately concerned; otherwise it would not have moved the Crown post office to that unsuitable site and it would certainly have done something about access to it.
Something has to be done; the situation cannot carry on in this way. I have presented the petition to the head of the Post Office and I have been told that the regional manager of WH Smith will visit shortly to have a look at the situation. That is good of him; I am grateful, and I hope that he does visit. However, I also hope that he realises the problems and comes up with concrete ideas to overcome them. One such idea would be to put a proper access way at the London road entrance so that wheelchair users, the frail and those with mobility problems would be able to use the entrance. Many of them use buses to come into town and the buses stop immediately outside the entrance.
The second issue is that when people finally get upstairs, there are queues before they can get served. It would be sensible if there was a counter on the ground floor for the elderly and those with disabilities or mobility problems. That would save them having to go upstairs in the first place. I suspect that that is pie in the sky, because WH Smith does not want to restrict on its ability to make profits. However, if it is going to use its premises as a short-changed way of providing a Crown post office, perhaps it could sacrifice a little bit of space to help its customers.
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will not only pass on my comments to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform but ask him or one of his junior Ministers to have a word with the Post Office to see whether something positive can be done in the near future to alleviate the problem.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and impassioned case on behalf of his constituents. As regards lip service, does he share my disquiet and the cynicism of many voters on learning of the behaviour of some Labour Members of Parliament who, two weeks ago, rushed hot-foot from voting against the Conservative amendment against post office closures to public meetings and to publicise on their websites and in local media the fact that they are saving their local post offices? Is he as unsurprised as I am that people are cynical about politics?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that does contribute to the cynicism. Of course, some extremely honourable Members on the Labour Benches actually stuck to their principles by putting their vote where their mouth was and joining Conservative Members in supporting that amendment. It is incomprehensible to me, as someone who is as honest as the day is long, that someone can say one thing to their constituents outside this place, then come here and, at the behest of Government Whips, do something else in the Division Lobby. I find that slightly uncharacteristic of Labour MPs. It is the hallmark of Liberal Democrats every day of the week. We are used to it from them, because they, unlike us and Labour Members, also have the knack of being able to walk down a street, knock on 30 doors and, if they think they are going to win a vote, give 30 different answers to the same question that is asked of them. But c’est la vie—that is what old warhorses in the Conservative and Labour parties have come to expect from the Liberal Democrats. That is why I am surprised that in the vote on post offices only about 30 Labour Members of Parliament abided by what they were telling their constituents and joined us in the Division Lobby. However, that is on their consciences, and I am sure that the truth will out.
It was interesting listening to the earlier part of the speech by the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright), who regaled the House with his problems with a sub-post office facing closure. He, of course, did not join my hon. Friends in the Division Lobby in the post office vote. Perhaps he was convinced by the arguments of the junior Minister who wound up for his party at the end of the debate, although having listened to that speech I would be slightly surprised if that were the case. I think that the hon. Gentleman might have been more convinced by the fact that he is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Greater love hath no man for his job on the way up the greasy pole, in the hope that perhaps by the time the election comes in two years this will all be long since forgotten and he will survive. I suspect that people not only in his constituency but in Liberal Democrat constituencies have longer memories and get perplexed when they are told one thing in their local papers and then see their Members of Parliament doing another thing here.
However, I must not be diverted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I wish to raise another important issue—the A12 road that runs through the spine of Chelmsford and Essex up into Suffolk and beyond, just into Norfolk. It is one of the main feeder roads into the east of England and East Anglia. It serves not only the county of Essex, but the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe. The serious problem is that this road is old and constantly having to be repaired and, sadly, because of the increase in traffic—some of it domestic vehicles and a lot of it business generated by the ports—it is becoming too congested to be viable as a through road and a main road into one of the most important regions of this country.
I am pleased to see that Essex county council has spent the last six months making significant changes to the entrance and exit from the M25 on to the A12, which, although it has been open only for a few weeks, has made a significant improvement. If one goes from that point to my constituency of West Chelmsford, which means travelling 13 miles of road, one will see that about half of it is made up of three lanes, and the other half, two lanes. Beyond that, on the way to Colchester and Ipswich, the road constantly changes from two lanes to three lanes, which enhances the congestion problems.
Another problem is that investment is needed to improve the road to make it one worthy for the demands made of it, and to enhance it for domestic and business travellers in the region, and to and from the region and its ports. There was a crackpot idea some years ago, in the early 1990s, when the then Government suddenly unveiled in one of their White Papers on road building that they proposed to build a brand new motorway known as the M12 from a point off the M25 right up to Chelmsford, going west of the existing A12. That came as a considerable surprise to most people because no one had been calling for a new motorway. I thought that it was particularly noble of the then Secretary of State for Transport to come up with the idea, because the road passed within about 200 yd of the garden of his house, which seemed rather extreme to me. Fortunately, though, cooler and saner heads prevailed and the then Government abandoned that cockeyed scheme. It has not been resurrected, even though when the current Government were carrying out inquiries and investigations on how to improve the road situation around Ipswich and the knock-on effect down the A12, it was looked at. Rightfully and thankfully, however, it was dismissed as a non-starter.
We do not need a brand-new road. There is a simple solution to the existing problem, which is to invest in the infrastructure by upgrading the existing A12 in order that all the stretches of only two lanes have three lanes. That will cater for traffic and reduce congestion problems, costs for industry and the road safety problems that result from the bottlenecks. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), about the matter on 4 March, and I was pleased to find that he shares my view that the road is of national importance and that it needs a major upgrade.
That view is shared, interestingly enough, by the Minister for the East of England; it is nice to know that she has a view on the issue. It would be quite nice if she popped into Essex at some point as she is the Minister for the East of England, and no doubt, at some point, she will. She has had that job since the beginning of July, and she has not yet stepped into the county council area of Essex, which is the county with the largest population in the region for which she is the Minister. We look forward to welcoming her to Essex at some point when, in the course of her busy duties in the east of England, she can find time to visit us. She, too, believes that the road is important and needs improving and enhancing.
When comments are made quickly at Question Time, the full horror of what is being said does not always sink in. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport said that
“it is up to the hon. Gentleman and others to try to persuade the regional transport board for the east of England that it should prioritise that work… It is for the transport board to look at the priorities and make its recommendations to the Government.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2008; Vol. 472, c.1584.]
When one reads between the lines and finds the other side of the story, it is clear that the regional funding allocation for the east of England is not sufficient to meet the needs of the region. That surprises no Conservative Members, because we have been complaining for many years about the way in which the Government spread their allocation of funding around the country. There are not that many Labour councils or Members of Parliament in the east of England, so as with other distributions of moneys, we do not do as well as the Labour heartlands.
A letter from Essex county council states that
“the Regional Funding Allocation… is not sufficient to meet the needs of the Region. For example, the A120 proposed improvement alone is expected to cost in the region of £400 million, which is almost half the total available for the Region’s transport budget for the period to 2016. If one adds approximately £600 million for the A12 upgrade, and it could be much more, then it is obvious that unless funding is significantly increased the A12 will again fail to be funded under the RFA.”
What is badly needed now will become a pipe dream and we will have to wait many years for its realisation.
Given that Ministers recognise the importance of the road and of improvements to it to solve the current problems, which will only get worse as time goes on, it is time the Government were prepared to reconsider and either make realistic allocations of money to the region for its road funding programmes, or make the road a project in its own right, and provide substantial funding so that we can get the work done and improve and enhance one of the main feeder roads into one of the most important regions in the country.
I am especially delighted to speak today because it is my birthday, and I can think of no better way in which to spend it than in addressing my constituents’ concerns in the House of Commons. Today’s birthday is not special—there is no zero in it and I am a few years away from my bus pass.
I want to consider bus passes today. A couple of days ago, on 1 April, free travel for the over-60s and people with disabilities was extended to cover off-peak travel anywhere in England, including outside people’s local authority area. I praise North Lincolnshire council and its leader, Mark Kirk, for the scheme that it has introduced for residents.
North Lincolnshire council’s literature says:
“you may travel free on any local bus service at any time of day…In the rest of England outside North Lincolnshire, your pass entitles you to free travel on local buses between 9.30am and 11pm only, Monday to Friday.”
North Lincolnshire is doing a wee bit more, so its scheme is especially good. Under that scheme, people can also use the pass on local trains. They have to pay half fare, but allowing the pass to be used on local trains helps many community routes in my area. The scheme also provides for companions to travel, some free and some for half fare. If a person with disabilities has a bus pass that displays a specific symbol, they can take a companion with them free.
That is a fantastic scheme. However, I am sorry to say that North Lincolnshire council does not cover the whole of my constituency. Part of my constituency is covered by North East Lincolnshire council. Those who do not come from the area might think that having one authority called North Lincolnshire council and another called North East Lincolnshire council could cause a little confusion, but they are in fact different councils. In North East Lincolnshire, free travel is being restricted. Although pensioners and people with disabilities everywhere else in the area are getting an extension to free travel, travel for those who happen to live in Grimsby or Cleethorpes is being cut back.
Today’s Grimsby Telegraph, the local paper covering the area, gives the game away by talking about the “controversial” Government scheme—I do not know whether other hon. Members have, like me, been inundated with masses of letters about this so-called controversial scheme. The newspaper states—this is the spin being put out by North East Lincolnshire council—that the extension replaces what was there before. In effect, the paper is trying to have us believe that the extension is not an extension, but a completely new scheme replacing the existing scheme.
I have looked into the issue in detail, given the number of people who have contacted me asking, “What’s going on here? This was meant to be a great extension to the scheme, but I’m now being told, ‘You can’t get on this bus,’ ‘You can’t get on that train,’ or ‘You can’t bring so-and-so with you.’” Some people with disabilities have told me, “I have no choice when I travel. I only do 16 hours a week, but this helps me get to work. Now I’m going to have to pay £9 a week.” There has been absolute outrage.
I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport, and on several occasions with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), both as Minister for Transport and as Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber. And every time they have told me that the decision is not a Government decision, but one made locally.
I want to look back at how the council got where it is now. In 2000 a mandatory half fare scheme was introduced for the over-60s and disabled people. In 2006 that was extended to free travel on local buses, although people complained that it extended only as far as their local authority boundary, unless groups of local authorities in their area decided to club together. This year’s scheme is an extension of that scheme.
I checked on the funding for the scheme. In 2006-07 the Government provided English local authorities with an additional £350 million through the rate support grant to implement free local bus travel. That money will increase in subsequent years. In 2008-09, it will increase to £377 million and by 2010 it will be £396 million. Then I looked further, into the funding to tie that in with the extension. In 2008-09, the Government are providing an additional £212 million for the extended travel, on top of the rate support grant moneys, which will also increase year on year. That equates to an average funding increase of about 30 per cent. throughout the UK. I have checked with Ministers, who have told me that councils had their free scheme, but with the national scheme they can choose to add extra bits here and there, which is what North Lincolnshire council is doing—through, for example, companion travel and half fares on local trains.
The average increase in the region in which my constituency lies is 25 per cent., but let us examine the two neighbouring local authorities covering my constituency in more detail. Until now, North East Lincolnshire council has invested about £1.6 million in the concessionary fares scheme, while neighbouring North Lincolnshire council has invested £1.1 million. Both councils have had additional funding for the extension to the travel scheme. North East Lincolnshire has received £603,000, and North Lincolnshire has received £409,000. My maths might be a wee bit ropey, but that increase, at around 35 to 37 per cent., seems to be above the average. That is a pretty good increase in funding. Within the former Humberside area, the East Riding of Yorkshire has had a 24 per cent. increase, and Hull city has received 33 per cent., so the two authorities in my constituency have done pretty well. However, we still have a cut in travel funding, which has outraged thousands of people.
A stone’s throw away from the town of Immingham is the village of East Halton, but the local authority boundary lies between the two. Family members live on either side of the boundary, and while one lot can travel free at peak times, the others will now have to pay, having enjoyed free travel for the past two years. There is only one way to describe this: it is a cut, pure and simple. I think that it is one of the meanest cuts I have ever seen. At one end of the two local authority areas is the town of Scunthorpe, with Grimsby and Cleethorpes at the other. Pensioners can get on a bus at either end and travel across the area. Some will have to pay full fare, but others will enjoy free travel. That is absolutely ludicrous.
When I checked with the ruling group on North East Lincolnshire council, it said that it was getting only £613,000; in fact, it is £603,000. I tried to argue, saying, “Hold on! You’ve had £1.6 million from the rate support grant. Where has that gone? What have you done with it?” There was no answer to that. That was the council’s explanation for having restricted the travel arrangements. I really want to know where that money is going.
The council is blaming the Government, saying that they have cut the funding for the travel scheme in North East Lincolnshire, but nowhere can I find evidence of that happening. If this were a problem of Government funding, the neighbouring authorities would be in a similar position, but they are not. As I have said, North Lincolnshire council is providing free travel within its own area without restriction, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, which is Conservative controlled, is operating a broadly similar scheme. I think that people there pay an administration fee of about £15, but they then enjoy free local travel.
Has my hon. Friend thought about setting up a cross-party group—a sort of mini-Select Committee—that could call the council in? We have done that several times in Norfolk, and what we have found out has been very interesting. It often involves one person misappropriating the money into some other coffer. My hon. Friend is in a strong position to set up such a group. Has she considered doing so?
I have been asking the council to rethink over recent weeks and months. Now that the new scheme is in place, I am going to crank this up a bit. Holding some sort of inquiry is a good idea, although North East Lincolnshire council tends to be the one calling me in all the time, rather than the other way round. I really do not know whether what is happening is deliberate or whether it simply involves someone who has totally misunderstood the situation.
As I have said, the East Riding of Yorkshire, Hull city and North Lincolnshire are all providing the scheme as it should be run. It is a new scheme, but this is becoming a postcode lottery. Residents want action to be taken, and I am sorry that the council has not rethought what it has done to people. Will the Deputy Leader of the House speak to Transport Ministers to see whether there is anything they can do to force North East Lincolnshire council to look again at what it has done, and to do what everyone else in the area is doing? It is grossly unfair that the pensioners and disabled people in the North East Lincolnshire council area should be discriminated against in that manner.
Another issue affecting my constituents at the moment is closures. I see some ears pricking up on the Conservative Benches, but I am referring not to post offices but to fire stations. The Humberside fire and rescue service completed a consultation about reorganisation on 31 March, and the fire authority is due to announce which stations will be closed on 11 April, in the middle of our recess.
A cross-party group of Members of Parliament representing the area, including the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), is objecting to the planned closures and cuts. “Cross-party” does not include Liberal Democrats, however. We have no Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, although sadly we have a few Liberal Democrat councils, North East Lincolnshire being one of them. The message that I want to convey to the fire authority is that if all the local Members of Parliament are saying that its proposals are wrong, it ought to think again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), who was in the Chamber earlier, reported that one council, East Riding of Yorkshire, had voted in favour of the closures. I find it sad that a council so many miles from the part of my constituency where the closures will take place can affect what happens. I would be surprised if any of those councillors had ever crossed the notorious Humber bridge into Lincolnshire, and had even seen the fire stations for whose closure they voted last night.
Everyone seems to want to raise more than one issue today. The next issue that I want to raise is slightly nicer: it involves something called Pilgrim 400. The town of Immingham, which I mentioned earlier, has a connection with the history of the Pilgrim Fathers.
And the minors, yes.
It is not a well-known fact in British history that the original point of departure of the separatists from Scrooby, Babworth and Gainsborough was the port of Immingham, although people associate them with Boston. They then went to the Netherlands; some of them stayed in Amsterdam for about a year before moving to Leiden. Finally, they made the journey to found the Plymouth plantation in what became the United States of America.
The separatists did try to leave from Boston in 1607, but were captured and imprisoned. Eventually they were released, and, wishing to escape religious persecution, managed to find a Dutch captain with a vessel in Hull who agreed to take them to the Netherlands. The women travelled by barque down the Trent and into the Humber to connect with the boat. The men travelled overland, and eventually managed to get on the boat and leave the country. Sadly, the women and children did not, because the barque ran aground. They were captured by soldiers and arrested. That caused something of an outcry, and they were finally released and allowed to join their families in the Netherlands.
Many of the street names in Immingham—Clyfton, as in Clyfton crescent, Brewster, Allerton, Bradford, Winslow—are the names of people who are still commemorated in the town today. This summer it will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims’ departure, and I pay tribute to those who are educating people in the area about its historical links. We have had some tremendous communications from various Mayflower societies in the United States.
Finally, let me wish everyone well for our April break, spring break, or whatever we want to call it; we cannot really call it an Easter break. Members are welcome to visit the wonderful resort of Cleethorpes, where my family will be descending on me to celebrate my birthday—in style, I hope. I also want Members to support my bank holiday Bill; I notice that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is present. It will come before the House after we return from the recess. I am calling for an extra bank holiday—in the autumn, as the current time of year is a bit crowded with bank holidays—and I hope that all Members will support it.
It is a pleasure to have been called to take part in this Adjournment debate. Although I shall address some local issues, as is the custom in such debates, I also wish briefly to touch upon a couple of events that have been reported in today’s news media and which are far from constituency based.
I have read today that at the Bucharest NATO summit Macedonia’s application to join NATO has been turned down. Although Croatia and Albania have been asked whether they would like to join, Macedonia has not. That saddens me, as Macedonian forces have been fighting alongside our own and NATO forces in various theatres. It is openly acknowledged that its application has been turned down purely because Greece objects to Macedonia being called Macedonia; it wants to call it the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. That seems rather bizarre, particularly in the current age when we in Europe are all trying to get along together. The British Government must play their part in trying to resolve this matter. If we are trying to welcome countries in, we must reject the idea that their past somehow stays with them; such territorial disputes often go back a long way in history and are not really disputes at all any more but largely imagined, and they are no part of today’s Europe.
The other event in today’s news is particularly close to my heart: the Government have published their draft Marine Bill. That is much to be welcomed—although judging by its size it will provide Members with a considerable amount of reading material in the coming weeks. I have been closely associated with this subject ever since I attempted to introduce my own Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill, which was reasonably successful as it got as far as the House of Lords before it was holed below the line.
I do not want to be churlish, but it has taken a long time for this draft Marine Bill to be brought forward, yet it was part of all three major parties’ manifesto commitments in the 2005 election. After the draft Bill has been subjected to the scrutiny that it is designed to receive, I urge the Government to introduce a Bill before the House as soon as possible, because urgent action is needed as there is very little protection for the marine environment. Members know from the reaction not only to my Bill, but to various organisations’ campaigns, that this subject is very dear to the hearts of most of our constituents, regardless of whether we represent inland or coastal seats.
I shall now turn to my Uxbridge constituency. Like many other MPs, I have been taking up the issue of the closure of post offices. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, the consultation closed yesterday, and I have made representations for the Moorfield Road and Uxbridge Common Park Road sub-post offices to remain open. When Members look into this matter, all of us realise—even those whose wish to save their post offices does not always translate into votes in the House—how much these post offices are valued, particularly by the elderly and the vulnerable. That is to do with so much more than just the services they provide, such as selling stamps or foreign currency. The sub-postmasters and mistresses are still in that great breed of retailers who want to give service and who are part of the community, and the loss of that would be the most tragic loss of all.
I still think that the Post Office has not examined how it could provide that sort of service, because not all the requirements are necessary. Members of the community who want to renew their road tax can do so online or they can use their car to go to the next sub-post office, but people who want to collect a pension or to post a parcel may not have such access—a bus does not even go nearby the Moorfield Road post office. As I mentioned in the debate a couple of weeks ago, a system of services must be put in place. My retail outlet sells stamps, but it is not allowed to do anything more than that. I cannot help feeling that it would not be beyond the Post Office’s wit to supply the weighing machines that produce the stamps—not the ones that people put on things, but the labels—so that some of that service could be provided by other outlets. It is a great shame that the Post Office is rushing ahead with this whole closure programme without thinking about how to improve its service—it just keeps cutting back all the time.
The hon. Gentleman prompts me to respond on that point. One frustration is that offices that say that they would happily deal with tax discs or passports, that to do so would make the difference and that people keep asking for that service only to be told that it cannot be provided are being turned down by the Post Office when they request to provide them. Their opportunity to be more profitable is hindered from upstairs by Post Office management, although it would help everybody on the ground.
The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the things that I find most frustrating in today’s world is that the Post Office seems to be cutting its own throat. It should be able to provide the things that people want in more outlets rather than restricting them.
I was interested to hear the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) about the Crown post office in Chelmsford having already moved into WH Smith. I believe that on 17 April, the Uxbridge Crown post office will move to the local WH Smith. Although I made representations, met representatives of the Post Office and was given various assurances about the services that would be provided to ensure that there would be no difficulties in respect of access and the number of windows open, his experience fills me with dread. I try to be positive—I am not someone who always objects to change for the sake of it—but I have heard about several of my hon. Friends’ experiences with these transfers of Crown post offices to WH Smith and I am concerned. I can tell the Post Office and WH Smith that I shall make several wanders down the high street in Uxbridge in the coming weeks to see for myself exactly whether they have lived up to their promises or whether a terminal 5 is taking place in a mini world in Uxbridge. I am concerned about that.
Another local issue of great concern that is constantly being raised with me is what is these days called “garden grabbing”. It occurs when family homes in suburban streets are destroyed or knocked down as developers put up flats, when gardens disappear through infilling and so on. That practice, which is destroying the character of many of our roads and communities, is happening in many areas of my constituency, but it is at its worst in Fairfield road, Uxbridge, where 35 per cent. of the properties have some sort of application lodged or an appeal going on. The poor residents of that road say, “We are going to stick it here, as we have lived here all our lives”, but they see another development going up and another being granted on appeal. That is one of the most frustrating things—the local authority understood exactly what the application would mean and therefore rejected it, but it was then granted on appeal.
One of the problems is that the inspectorate considers the individual planning application rather than looking at the area in a street or a road, which would make a lot of difference. The London borough of Hillingdon planning department is as frustrated as anyone else and it is trying to look at the strategy to see whether it can change it, but it is frustrated at every level.
I have raised the subject before and the Government must look hard at it. Uxbridge is a pretty pleasant place to be, although it has its problems, but many of the ills of our society emerge as we destroy the fabric of our communities and of community life. If we destroy that community feeling, that will only bring more problems. We have seen that happen elsewhere, and it is about time that such things were regulated in a much fairer and better way. We should put the residents’ interests first.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made a plea about the parliamentary holidays and for us to be able to spend time with our children. I agree that it is incredibly important for all families to spend as much time together as they can. My children’s holidays have not on this occasion matched the parliamentary recess, but I was able to spend the weekend away on a rugby tour with my daughter, who is the only girl in the boys’ team. It will be her last tour away because once players get past the under-12s, they are not allowed to play mixed rugby any more.
I want to pay tribute to all sports that get our kids actively involved. I am sure that the hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches will be delighted to hear that I am an advocate of women’s sport. That has probably come from having a daughter who is keen on sport. I have seen its benefits. Sports are incredibly important for both boys and girls, especially team sports, because of their fitness levels and also to help them to bond together. Although such activity is mainly for the kids, the parents can find some diversions here and there. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you have no idea what goes on on such occasions, but they are very civilised. In fact, it is akin to what goes on in the Opposition Whips Office, as far as I can see.
As it is the last season for my daughter, I want to thank Ruislip rugby club and those involved with the under-12s, especially the coaches, Mr. Terry Russell, Phil Skelton and Robin Nelson. They have done so much. At least 40 kids turn up on a Sunday morning to play in all weathers, which is a tribute to the coaches.
I shall be doing my own bit for fitness in the weeks of the recess, as I shall be walking the streets of Hillingdon as a part-time postman for my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and his ambitions to become London Mayor. All of us who love this great city of ours realise that that gentleman will keep it a great city. I hope that when I return hon. Members will see a slimmer, fitter Member for Uxbridge.
Finally, I cannot not mention the most pressing issue for most of my constituents, which is the proposed third runway at Heathrow. We had a debate on the subject yesterday during the Liberal Democrats’ Opposition time, when I was disappointed that the debate turned into a party political one. It is a very serious matter and people from all parties have views on the subject. I find it particularly sad that on that matter, and incidentally on an inquiry into the war in Iraq, the Liberal Democrats do not seem to like anybody else to agree with them. They seem to think that it is their own particular thing, and they are rather sad if anybody dares to agree with them. [Laughter.] Liberal Democrat Members laugh, but such things are very serious. When I have spoken to many Liberal Democrat Members at public meetings there has been no difference between us, but they suddenly seem to turn on those of us on the Conservative Benches who share their views when they are in the glare here. I find that particularly worrying. It is a different matter in Westminster Hall, which speaks volumes for that chamber.
I have been discussing with my hon. Friends some of the things that people do not understand. One of my hon. Friends said to me, “But they’re not going to increase flights, are they? I have been told by BAA that it is not going to increase flights—it is just to make the capacity a bit bigger so that there is more space.” But 220,000 extra flights a year is, I think, an increase.
There is another thing that is incredibly important for all Members to understand, which Members who do not live nearby or have not taken a special interest do not realise. When we talk of a third runway, one could almost say, “Well, what are they worried about? It is a bit of tarmac. It’s just going to go down the road a bit, it’s not really a problem.” In fact, there are a couple of Labour wards that I could put a bit of tarmac through quite happily, but it does not work like that. It will not just be a third runway and a sixth terminal; what is proposed is a whole new airport the size of Gatwick being put alongside Heathrow. That is what people do not understand.
I was not able to be at yesterday’s debate. I have it to read, but I have yet to do so. I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that if there can be cross-party agreement on such issues, we all benefit. Although I am not a west London MP, having been to see colleagues and friends in west London and beyond, it seems to me that he and his constituents are right to seek support from others on what is not just a little expansion but a transformation that will go far beyond the inconvenience and environmental pollution that they already suffer from.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. In the London borough of Hillingdon and the neighbourhood, the matter is completely cross-party, and long will it be so, I am sure. I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman was not at the debate, because perhaps his reasonableness might have prevailed and the debate might have been different. There might not have been time for many other speakers, though.
Finally, I wish a pleasant recess to Members of the House, and particularly to Officers of the House and all those hard-working people who have to put up with us day in, day out. I know that some of them will still be working, because when we go to our constituencies it is not all holiday, whatever those in the Press Gallery might say. Far from it. It is important that we recognise that this place is a community in itself, and we must thank those who work so hard on our behalf.
I endorse and echo the good wishes of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) to all Members of the House and to all those who help and service the House. For their patience and kindness, often to a very new Member, I am deeply grateful.
I do not propose to detain the House for long, but I want to draw attention to a number of matters that deeply affect the constituents whom I have the honour to represent. My constituency is profoundly rural, encompassing a large part of the north Devonshire coast. It contains a number of coastal communities, which are particularly affected by factors such as seasonal work, coastal erosion, outward migration and deprivation. In fact, it is not widely known that Torridge and West Devon contains two of the most deprived wards in England. People are often surprised to learn that—including a Minister whom I and a number of constituents from the town of Bideford met yesterday.
My constituency includes part of the north Devon coast, and in the south it embraces a large part of Dartmoor. The moor is characterised by hill farming, but it also has a considerable amount of deprivation and rural isolation. Today, I want to speak specifically about the matters that affect people living in its fragile rural communities. I have been aware for some time that people in my constituency feel a sense of helplessness that arises from their belief that they are no longer able to affect the fate, future and destiny of their communities. Increasingly, that power is being removed to a remote and unaccountable quangocracy that includes the regional development agencies and regional assemblies, as well as bodies such as Natural England.
Although I have no doubt that Natural England is motivated by a genuine sense of the public interest, its decisions do not always seem to be explicable or accountable. Moreover, it does not always consult the people likely to be affected. For example, Natural England has declined to assist people living in the coastal town of Northam, in the northern part of my constituency, who are facing acute problems with erosion in an area known as the Northam burrows. It is a beautiful spot: when the spring breezes tease the flowers from their buds, nowhere is nicer for a refreshing walk.
The Royal North Devon golf club—one of the old- fashioned clubs that sprang up on the sand dunes and grassy banks of our coastline—is situated in the Northam burrows. However, the tide has been advancing relentlessly for some years, and it has begun to erode the pebble ridge that offers protection from the sea’s depredations. The pebble ridge is an idiosyncratic feature of the area, and it is a precious and protected site, but only the other day we lost 25 m of it to erosion.
The people of the communities that I represent cannot understand why the responsible authorities—the district and county councils—do not take the action that their fathers and forefathers took to protect the Northam burrows against coastal erosion. Simply recharging the pebble ridge would afford protection against the oncoming tide and the erosion that it causes. No such action has been taken because Natural England no longer believes that recharging the pebble ridge is the right thing to do, even as an interim measure. Instead, it believes in what is called managed retreat. I do not contest that there are sound reasons for that belief, but managed retreat means that the cycle of tides in that part of the Torridge estuary should be allowed to do its work, and it also means that interim measures are not in the interests of the Northam burrows.
If Natural England is right, it is vital that its reasoning be communicated to the people who live in the area, because they are the ones who are affected by coastal erosion. Their houses and communities are at risk, as are the precious Northam burrows that they have loved and lived in for decades and centuries. They feel that the policy has been devised at a distance from them and has not been one on which they have been consulted and that, in any event, it lacks the justification and substance that it ought to have.
There is an additional problem—a problem that, I hope, when I reveal it, will make apparent to hon. Members why the community is so concerned. On the Northam burrows—this is common to many precious and protected sites—many years ago, a landfill site was deemed appropriate. On that landfill site, which closed 40 or 50 years ago—certainly, 30 or 40 years ago—there was placed, pre-war and in the 1940s, a whole range of the odious and the bad. It is believed that there are many tonnes of asbestos of the most dangerous kind, that there may be medical waste and that it is all lying in a vast mound in the middle of the Northam burrows.
As the tide advances and surmounts the dunes, as it is beginning to do, it is beginning to sweep in and encircle that landfill site. None of us knows what is in the site. We believe that it contains asbestos—we are pretty confident that it does—and we know that it will contain something very unpleasant. As the tide encircles it and begins to erode it, we can only speculate and greet with some fear and trepidation what may be uncovered by the tide.
There is no doubt that the problem is urgent. There is no doubt that the problem is acute. All agree that it is urgently necessary, since the records of the landfill site were lost by the county council many years ago, that some urgent steps are taken to investigate what lies beneath. Yet month has followed month and year has followed year, but no such investigation has been carried out, while the tide continues to advance, while the pebble ridge continues to recede and be eroded and while the danger increases step by step, nearer and nearer to the communities that I represent.
So I use this opportunity to raise in the House, I hope, in as clear and compelling a way as I can, the urgent necessity for Devon county council to act now. Those whom I represent believe that, as the tide encircles that landfill site not a catastrophe but certainly a very dangerous situation indeed could arise. The county council has committed itself to move forward with those investigations now for many months, if not years, and those investigations must commence. My constituents cannot understand the delay, and they cannot understand the policy of not recharging the pebble ridge and thus protecting the landfill site from the further inflow of the tide.
One or other thing must happen, and the delay, inertia and apparent unwillingness of the county council, which I say with no partisan spirit is Liberal Democrat controlled, is something that those whom I represent can no longer countenance, understand or tolerate. I believe and hope that these words will be heeded, as will the cries and pleas of the local communities that I represent. That is the first issue, which illuminates, as I believe, why those whom I represent resent the sense of a quangocracy at a great distance from them not listening to the interests of the fragile rural communities in Torridge and West Devon.
The future of post offices is, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) has mentioned, a critical question that is, even now, bearing on the consciousness of those whom I represent. We are in the middle of the stage of identifying the sub-post office branches for closure. I have never experienced such a process. It is characterised by what I can only describe as a rather sinister sense of intimidation. I have postmasters ringing me quietly in the night, afraid even to speak to their Member of Parliament because of confidentiality clauses and the implied and unspoken suggestion that if they speak to their Member of Parliament, make a fuss or draw their position to public attention, they may lose their compensation. They whisper to me in corners, and they telephone me confidentially. They are anxious and troubled—it is not too much to say that they are afraid.
When the communities that I represent learn how many and which post offices will be affected, it will cause an outcry. Some of the post offices affected are in the heart of the most vulnerable, distant, remote, isolated and rural communities that I represent. It is well known that Devonshire has the largest county-wide network of roads in the country, some of which are of third-world standard. Even the manager of Stagecoach, the local bus company, has said that many of the roads in Devon—I represent one of the most far-flung regions in Devon—are inaccessible to bus services generally. Villages may have one bus a week, and certainly no more than one a day, yet post offices are to close, and the frail, the elderly, the vulnerable, and those in wheelchairs and electric buggies will have to negotiate their way to the post office on the roads that I have described. As for the weather, hon. Members who are familiar with the rain in Devon may fear and tremble for those people’s welfare. They will have to negotiate all those difficulties and adversities to go miles to their nearest post office.
The network change team—that is the euphemistic description of the team that is wielding the axe, and cutting and closing the post office network in my constituency—says, “Well, we’ll provide a van.” For people who live on a hill in Dartmoor, it is not a great deal of comfort to be told that for two hours on a wet, windy, bleak or snowy day the Post Office will provide a van. It is a brutal axe to wield on a number of scattered rural communities that are fragile, remote and isolated.
The closures will hit the most vulnerable hardest. They will tear the heart out of some villages whose only contact with the rest of the world is through their post office or their public house—their public houses are closing at a similar rate to their post offices. The process of post office closures in my constituency is as brutal and as bad for the communities that I represent as any measure that the Government could have permitted. It is characterised by fear, secrecy and want of transparency. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has told us that it is only right that full disclosure be made in relation to a post office. I agree with him entirely, but when one asks the Post Office, there is immediately a clamming-up and an unwillingness to disclose facts that could furnish information relevant to the submission and information on which the case could be made for a particular post office or number of post offices.
The system is not fair, and it will not be seen as honest by those whom I represent. That is why I speak—not, I hope, with too much vehemence—on behalf of a currently undisclosed number of people about a programme that will land a particularly heavy series of blows on the community that I represent. We are one of the most deprived constituencies; we have no bus system, and no public transport system that would enable those affected to travel. It is no use saying that the 3-mile access criterion for rural communities refers to distance as the crow flies. We are not crows in Devon; we do not fly; and we have no buses.
The lady, whom I will not name, to whom I spoke the other day in one of the villages where the post office may close—I cannot name her because that would be to name the post office, and to name the post office would breach confidentiality, which would have consequences—rides in an electric buggy for disabled people. It is 3.9 miles to the nearest post office, if her local post office closes. How is she to get there? There is one bus a day. She would have to remain in the other village all day waiting for the bus, merely to buy a stamp or send a parcel. Or, as the lady told me, with her Union Jack on the little basket on the front of her buggy—the House may have detected that she is indeed a Conservative voter, God bless her—she will set out in her buggy around the winding roads with their pits, holes and divots for the nearest village 3.9 miles away. I fear for her. She means it, and she will try, but is that what the Government want? Are the Government willing to permit an elderly person in a disabled buggy to set out on a 3.9 mile journey through fragile, remote rural isolation on Dartmoor in the wind, the rain and the cold in order to cash her pension or buy a few stamps? I earnestly submit not.
That is another reason why the rural communities that I represent feel as profoundly as they do that the Government are not interested in the rural south-west and do not govern for them. The Government do not understand the problems of the villages and market towns that I represent. There are so many issues that affect my constituents’ interests that I could speak almost until kingdom come, and I can already hear the silent groans of hon. Members at that dismal prospect, so I will not trouble the House much longer. I shall raise only one or two of those issues.
Do not tempt me.
I have more than 65 sub-post office branches, which shows why my constituency is said to be the second largest in England and the sixth most rural constituency in the country, including our Scottish cousins. There are so many problems with services that affect rural communities and give rise to the state of mind among them that London, the House and the Government are not listening. Broadband is a minor irritation, it might be thought by the House, but there are dozens of villages in my constituency that cannot receive it. Sometimes parts of villages, and sometimes whole villages, do not have access to broadband.
The regional development agency has assisted with a little money to enable some exchanges, but I get letters almost weekly about the rural businesses whose interests and prosperity have been frustrated by the simple inability to send an e-mail. I dare say that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge would not recognise the problem. I dare say that people in Uxbridge can at least get broadband, but in Northlew, St. Giles on the Heath or Belstone, or in many parts of those communities, people cannot get broadband at all.
If we are to encourage rural business and encourage diversification in areas where the traditional staples of agriculture and livestock farming have, sadly, been in decline for so many years, how are we to give those communities the empowerment that they need to take into their own hands their destiny and their fate, unless we can provide them with at least the elementary necessity of a modern business, a modern broadband communication link?
Just over the border, European money is aflowing and awashing in Cornwall, and it is gurgling around the plughole of public money, which is being squandered in millions and tens of millions. In Devon, however, and particularly in Torridge, there is nothing. We have none of the largesse that is falling like rain and manna upon Cornwall. We have a few bits—a few pennies pushed in our direction—but nothing when it comes to the enablement of my communities to receive the simple and basic necessity of broadband.
One Labour Member has discussed bus concessions. Even bus concessions in Devon have proved an extraordinary and chaotic nightmare. Hitherto, the county council—
Yes, a Liberal Democrat council. Nevertheless, I cannot blame the council for everything, and I do not seek to do so. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, no. Perish the thought that I should blame the Liberal Democrats. Speaking for myself, I have always enjoyed the most cordial relationship with the Liberal Democrat county council, and I think that the Liberal Democrats try to do their best—it is not always a good best, but they try to do it.
The county operated a bus concession scheme that allowed people to travel from 9 o’clock in the morning. Hon. Members might think 9 o’clock is a sensible time to begin, because that is when most of the buses go. They do not go after 9.30, because if people want to leave their villages and get to work, the buses must go before then. Unfortunately, however, the Devonwide partnership, which runs the scheme, felt unable to continue the original scheme, which was local, and introduced a start time of 9.30. That means that the scheme is almost useless for dozens of my villages, which people cannot get out of until after 9.30.
Why does the scheme now start at 9.30? I will tell hon. Members the reason, which might provide an answer for the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and which is certainly the answer in Devon: the Government have simply not provided enough money. At the moment, the Devonwide partnership does not dare take the step of starting the scheme at 9 o’clock rather than 9.30. Why? Because the Government have done no serious study of the number of visitors who will arrive in Devon. Those visitors, and the distances involved, would take up much of the Government’s money. So for the first year, the scheme starts at 9.30, not 9, which makes it automatically of little use to thousands of those who will have the card.
Additionally, it has not been possible to extend the companion or carers scheme to the county. That, too, is a devastating blow to those who are disabled and those with autistic children, which is a subject close to my heart. Their companions will be unable to travel on the buses, because the scheme has not been extended. Having done the maths, the Devonwide partnership simply does not believe that enough money has been provided to fund it.
The local scheme started at 9 and gave carers the right to accompany the disabled. The new national scheme starts at 9.30 but does not give carers that same right. I submit that that is another reason why hon. Members, were they living in one of the villages or market towns that I represent, would regard this as another meaningless, mysterious, peculiar, baffling decision taken remotely from them that hit hard their quality of life and their confidence that they could survive living in those remote and rural communities.
I am curious about what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said about the concessionary travel scheme. His constituency is represented by a Liberal Democrat council, as is mine, and our constituents are experiencing similar problems and excuses. I have just checked and, apparently, Devon has been given £3.4 million in additional special grant this year, which is a 44 per cent. increase. He might mention that to his Liberal Democrat council.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that debating point, but I shall not endorse it, because I have been told by those who run the Devonwide partnership—I respect many of them; they are perfectly decent people—that they have done their maths and there simply is not enough money, particularly as Devon is rich in tourist attractions. We have the south Devon coast, Dartmoor and the north Devon coast. The assessment is that the number of tourist visitors who will take up the benefit of the national concessionary scheme is so great that the money simply is not enough to cover it. That is why this is a problem that will adversely affect those whom I represent.
I cannot conclude my brief tour d’horizon of the problems of my constituency without referring to bovine tuberculosis. Mine is a livestock farming constituency, and it is probably the single most densely infected area. Dozens if not hundreds of farms are locked up in restrictions associated with the disease. For years now—certainly since I entered the House nearly three years ago—I have repeatedly urged the Government to take action, and the only way to do so, certainly in my area, is, as the Select Committee recently recommended, to grasp the nettle and order a humane badger cull in properly controlled circumstances. I am sorry to have to offend Labour Members in their sentiment and proper regard for those beautiful animals, but all scientists now agree that unless we tackle the disease in the wildlife reservoir, the disease, which costs £100 million a year, will go on inflicting devastating distress upon farming families as they see their livelihoods, their herds and their farms simply being washed down the plughole, putting them out of business, and we will go on experiencing this unacceptable and corrosive problem in the countryside.
I do not argue for an indiscriminate cull. The Select Committee got it exactly right. It must be done where the vets and the scientists agree that it will have effect—in the dense hot spots where we must eliminate the disease not only from the cattle population but from the wildlife population. We must bear down on both sides of the disease. We cannot simply replace infected cattle with clean cattle, leave infected badgers on the farms and expect TB not to break out again. That is what is happening, and it is time that the Government decided to end the scourge.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox). Like him I represent a large rural constituency and I share many of the frustrations that he expressed about the provision of services to rural areas, and the first issue that I want to raise before the House adjourns for the Easter recess is an example of such services being removed from rural areas—motorcycle test centres.
From 29 September 2008, learner motorcyclists from my constituency and from many other parts of the country will face a round trip of more than 200 miles to take their tests, because on that date the new practical motorcycle test will be introduced to comply with European legislation. The aim of that legislation is to improve the standard of road safety for motorcycle and moped riders. There are good arguments for improving the test for motorcyclists because a disproportionate number of the accidents on our roads involve motorcyclists. As well as all the human suffering that a fatal accident causes, it is estimated to cost £1.5 million to society generally. Despite the benefits of the new testing regime, there are serious deficiencies in the way in which the Government are introducing it.
In order to carry out the new practical test, the Government are constructing multi-purpose test centres. A few years ago, they agreed that most learners should be able to reach a test site within 45 minutes’ travelling time and by travelling no more than 20 miles from their home. However, the construction of the new test centres is running well behind schedule. For example, in Scotland only two test centres are operational, one in Glasgow and one just outside Edinburgh. By September, when the new test becomes compulsory, the Driving Standards Agency expects only three more sites to be operational in Scotland—in Wick, Inverness and Kirkcaldy. That will leave a very large part of Scotland, including nearly all my constituency, well outside the 20 miles. In fact, some of the learner motorcyclists on the mainland parts of my constituency will have a round trip of well over 200 miles and even greater problems will face learners from the islands.
For example, at present the test can be carried out on the isle of Tiree. However, in future someone from there will have to make a three-day round trip, with two nights away from home, to sit the test. The DSA says that it is negotiating for other sites. Oban in my constituency was on the original published list of sites, but what the DSA terms the “Oban site” may end up in Fort William— 44 miles from Oban and well over 130 miles from Campbeltown, which is at the other end of my constituency. Even if the Fort William site proceeds, and that is by no means certain, it will definitely not be ready by the time the new tests start in September.
There are no transitional arrangements; on 29 September, every learner in the country will have to go to one of the new test centres to sit their test. The new system has already resulted in a business casualty in my constituency. Just a few days ago, a motorcycle school in Oban closed; the owners said that there was no point in continuing to teach motorcyclists if they had to travel all the way to Glasgow to take their tests, rather than take their tests locally as they can at the moment.
I ask the Government urgently to rethink their plans for test centres. Better testing may well save lives, but only if it is accessible to learners. Under the current proposals it is not; round trips of hundreds of miles, or three-day round trips for islanders, cannot be considered to represent accessibility. I have already seen one motorcycle school close and I am sure that others elsewhere in the country will do so. Furthermore, there is a risk with the new scheme: people will be tempted to skip the test and use their motorcycles illegally if the test centre is too far away. Given the cost to society of a fatal accident—the human cost, plus the estimated £1.5 million financial cost—I urge the Government to ensure that there is an easily accessible range of test centres and to remember the 45-minute, 20-mile commitment that they gave a few years ago.
I want to raise another issue, which is of great concern to the hill farming community in my constituency—the European Union proposals for electronic sheep tagging. They are still at the consultation stage, but the current proposals for the recording of individual sheep movements are completely impractical in a hill farm setting. They would involve recording each individual sheep’s identity when a batch of sheep was being moved, but that is simply not necessary; recording the batch movement itself would be just as good for the purposes of disease control and food safety.
Batch recording is in use at present and delivers a sustainable and robust method of recording sheep movements. It delivers food traceability and disease monitoring, as was demonstrated during last year’s foot and mouth outbreak. Through the batch recording of sheep movements, every sheep in Scotland was traced within three days of the outbreak on 3 August. The current proposals are completely impractical in a hill farm setting, where flocks can be made up of more than 1,000 animals. The price of sheep is so low that the sheep farming industry simply could not sustain the price of electronic identification technology. When a batch of sheep is moved, recording batch movements, rather than each individual sheep’s identity, is perfectly adequate for disease control and food safety purposes. I urge the Government to ensure in the negotiations at EU level that the proposed regulations are modified to reflect that.
There is mounting concern in the Scottish shipbuilding industry at the delay in signing the contract to build the new aircraft carriers. The shipbuilding industry supports thousands of jobs in Scotland and is desperately waiting for the new aircraft carrier contract. I hope that the Government will sign that contract soon to allow the work to start. I also want to make the case for the carriers, once they are in service, to be based at the Clyde naval base at Faslane. Faslane has superb facilities. It is a superbly sheltered anchorage that gives enough clearance for large ships such as the new aircraft carriers to dock at low tide. There is enough space round about to accommodate all the back-up support that the carriers would require, as well as plenty of skilled workers within easy travelling distance and plenty of empty Ministry of Defence housing. Faslane has the setting, in the Gareloch, and the local infrastructure and work force to be an ideal location for basing the new carriers.
My next subject—this time it is not a complaint but a welcome—is the Competition Commission’s proposal for a new grocery supply code of practice, with the easily remembered acronym of GSCOP, and an ombudsman to police it. I welcome that recommendation because the current supermarket code of practice has proven ineffective at protecting farmers and other suppliers from exploitation. A good example is the huge difference between the price of milk at the farm gate and on the supermarket shelf. When the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs investigated that, it could never quite get to the bottom of where all the money was going, and the new code of practice and ombudsman are ideal for that purpose. I hope that the Government will take those proposals on board and give them their backing, and that GSCOP and the ombudsman will quickly be put in place.
Finally, I want to raise an issue that has been raised by almost every hon. Member who has spoken—post offices. In my constituency, the axe has already fallen and eight post offices have closed, but that may not be the end of the matter. It may be the end of the compulsory closures in this scheme, but I am worried about the long-term viability of many of the post offices that have escaped the axe.
My hon. Friend is right to be concerned, because sometimes even when one is given a promise, as we were during the last set of closures, that is not the end of the matter. We were told that the closure of two post offices—Abbey street and Bermondsey street—would result in the Dockhead service being strengthened and made more successful for the future, as it has been, but we now discover that the Post Office is saying that another one has to go. He is absolutely right to take these promises of “closure now and all safe later” with more than a pinch of salt.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he is quite right.
The main concern of all the postmasters and postmistresses in my constituency is what is going to happen to the Post Office card account after 2010. We are still waiting for a formal announcement from the Department for Work and Pensions. If the Post Office is not successful in being given the POCA, I can envisage far more post offices in my constituency being forced to close. A warning of what could happen came when the TV licence contract was given to PayPoint. PayPoint has a large network of shops throughout the country, but they nearly all tend to be in towns and large urban areas—they do not have a rural network. For example, several islands in my constituency have a post office but no PayPoint outlet, so people cannot pay their TV licence over the counter any more, and the whole of the rural north Argyll area has no PayPoint outlet but several post offices. There is fear that the Government may give the contract to the likes of PayPoint or a consortium of banks, which do not have the rural network that the Post Office has.
I urge the Government to write into the specification of the contract that whoever wins it must have a rural network—and an island network, which is important for my constituency. If the Post Office does not win that contract, it will mean the axe for a huge number of other post offices, and it will make it difficult for people to collect their pensions and benefits. I urge Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions to specify that whoever wins the contract, it must have a large rural network. I believe that the Post Office is the only organisation that can deliver that contract. The announcement must be made fairly soon to give security to postmasters and mistresses.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise those issues. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass them on to the relevant Ministers. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all hon. Members and all staff of the House a very enjoyable April recess.
I am grateful to be able to raise a few issues on behalf of my constituents, although I can certainly relate to a number of the other issues raised by hon. Members today.
The first issue is the minimum wage and the low-paid. We have heard a lot over the past few weeks about the minimum wage rising to £5.73 an hour, but when we look at the moneys that people actually receive on that sort of wage, we find a 40-hour week giving £11,950 a year. If we add the basic working tax credit and the child tax credit, we have a total of £14,295. We are told that the poverty level is anything below £15,000 a year, so we can see that there are significant problems with the level of the minimum wage. I support the comments of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said that the minimum wage needs to be reviewed.
I am told that the average wage in my constituency is £18,000 a year. If we take a simple figure of 10 people, with one of them earning £100,000 and the other nine earning £10,000, we find that the average is £19,000. But only one of them would be on a significant wage, so averages are very misleading. If we take out those on significant earnings, such as the Member of Parliament, local authority officers, doctors and nurses, we find that the people earning lower wages in factories and shops are nowhere near even the average wage in my constituency, but we expect those people to pay rising fuel bills and council tax bills. That shows just how difficult it is for people to survive.
My constituency has the highest rate of band D properties in Wales. According to any of the other statistics that we could look at, it is one of the poorest boroughs—we have high deprivation levels—but we pay the highest council tax, at band D level. The average house price is £110,000. Even if someone was on the average wage—if it was £18,000—how on earth would they afford a property that cost £100,000?
Alongside that is a case that has been discussed in this House on many occasions—council housing. There should be support for councils so that they can have a level playing field with housing associations and other providers of social housing. The worry is how long social housing lasts. Is it up to the first buyer, or the second buyer? How long is shared equity? Is it for life? How do those who buy at shared equity levels ever move on? It is necessary to ring-fence social housing to ensure that affordable housing is always available. It is extremely difficult for people with an income averaging at about £15,000, £16,000 or £17,000 to get a mortgage at the level of £60,000, £65,000 or £70,000.
I support wholeheartedly the scrutiny of MPs that has been initiated during the past few months with regard to how we operate, how we are paid and how we are paid expenses, but it should apply to all those paid by the public purse, including local councillors and MEPs. It should not stop at the House. I asked several local councillors and officers for whom they work, and the answer was invariably the same: the local authority. I asked again, “Who do you work for?” and they answered again, “The local authority.” Not once did anyone say that they work for the people, that they are paid from the public purse and that they are there on behalf of the people. There will always be times when they cannot deliver the people’s expectations, but hiding is not the answer.
We have heard about planning and house building. If land is in the ownership of the borough council, who owns it? When a borough council decides to sell off its land, surely it should ask the people. Around our community, there are fields and green areas owned by the borough council, but sold off for development with almost no consultation.
There is a huge difference between consultation and negotiation. If there is to be consultation, it should be meaningful. If there is no intention to listen and pay heed to those consulted, it should not be done. The credibility of politics is a problem for all of us. Not listening to the people whom we represent is a cardinal sin. We may not like what comes back from the community, but we walk away from it at our peril. We are driving people away from the political process. When we have local consultation and the involvement of local people, they should drive the decisions. They should be involved at every opportunity, but we do not involve them; we isolate them at every opportunity in the hope that perhaps they will go away.
The previous debate was about the drugs strategy. I intended to speak then, but I hoped to contribute to the current debate, so I left my comments until now. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for his work on the all-party group on drugs misuse. Recently, we met a group of young people from all over the country to discuss the drugs strategy. The first thing on which they picked up was the lack of input from young people. There are few conversations with young people. They do not have to be with those who take drugs; they could be with those who would argue against that. We should ask for their input on what we should do to prevent young people from becoming addicts. Schools and education are huge topics, and time and again young people say, “No one asks us. We are told what education we should receive, but we’re not asked.”
Let me consider inactivity. When the Government pledge funds to community facilities, I am sure that we all support that. The problem is how long the funding will last and whether it is short-term funding, with borough councils then saying that they cannot afford to help and support community centres and youth projects. It is no good funding something for six months, 12 months or two years. If we cannot fund according to need, there is no point in funding.
We need to fund more youth workers and social services so that the contact with those who need them happens where the problems occur. I recently spoke to some of our police officers, who said that they were providing cover because there is no input from social services and not enough youth workers. We need to be proactive, not reactive. At the moment, we put pressure on our police forces to be reactive rather than putting permanent structures in place. Yes, that means money, but if it is well spent, it will pay dividends in future. I hope that the Government will listen to some of those arguments.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you, the staff of the House and all hon. Members a peaceful and restful recess.
I join other hon. Members in sending my best wishes to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who is not currently in her place, on her birthday. Whatever her age, she does not look it. The Deputy Leader of the House smiles; I hope that she will deal with all the points that the hon. Lady made. I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) his passionate support for ladies playing sport. Like him I have a daughter who plays sport—mine is a successful female footballer—so I applaud any strategies to encourage ladies to play sport.
There are 10 points that I wish to raise before the end of this April Adjournment debate. Because of the shortage of time I will rattle through them, but the Deputy Leader of the House is very good at ensuring that I receive answers to my points in due course. My first point is about parliamentary questions—a subject that was raised at business questions earlier. The Leader of the House gave an assurance that the practice of Departments referring hon. Members to websites would no longer be seen as satisfactory.
The reason why I ask a lot of written questions is that I do not always receive answers to my original questions. To give the Deputy Leader of the House just one example, last year I asked the Home Secretary about her meetings with Sir Ian Blair. I did not expect her to tell me the detail of every location and so on, but the process of answering that question has been tortuous, and at the end of it all I am still none the wiser. Some Departments are splendid and give good answers, but others are very tardy.
Now that my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has returned to the Chamber, I want to congratulate him on his campaign to improve the A12 network, which, as an Essex MP, I know would certainly benefit my constituents.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous comments, but it would be unfair of me to take all the credit for what is happening. Essex county council is doing tremendous work, as he knows, but I also pay tribute to the Essex Chronicle, my local paper, which, in the finest traditions of all local papers, has mounted a vigorous campaign to get action to redress the problems on that important road.
In the true modest style of an Essex Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend is not taking the credit for the campaign. I join him in congratulating his local newspaper on its campaign.
Secondly, I am the chairman of the all-party group on inflammatory arthritis. There is a type of arthritis called—I hope that I can pronounce this properly—ankylosing spondylitis, which is a chronic degenerative arthritis of the joints that causes inflammation at the sites where ligaments and tendons attach to the bone. Ankylosing spondylitis is an incredibly painful type of arthritis that is quite difficult to treat and for which there is no known cure. However, there are treatments and medications available to reduce the symptoms and the pain.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recently undertook an evaluation of the latest treatments for adult patients with severe forms of the condition. After considering all the evidence, NICE recommended that the two most cost-effective treatments should be available to patients through the NHS. Those treatments can also be administered by the patient at home instead of in hospital, thereby enabling them to take control of their condition and medication. That is a good decision, supporting a modern NHS.
However, although its evaluation has been lengthy and thorough, NICE has acknowledged that the appeal hearing against the recommendation, which took place this week, could lead to further delays before guidance is finally issued. I would therefore ask the Deputy Leader of the House to have a word with the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), to see whether something can be done to expedite matters.
My third point concerns people using mobile phones while driving cars. My view on mobile phones was shared by the late and much lamented Eric Forth. I have asked the Department for Transport a series of questions about the number of prosecutions of people using mobile phones. The answer, from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), was very instructive. I am absolutely baffled by the disparity between regions. The legislation was introduced in December 2003, but in some areas no prosecutions or proceedings have ever been instituted, so the law is simply not being enforced throughout the UK. I have lost count of the times I have been stuck behind a lorry whose driver is obviously involved in an interesting phone call and showing no regard for other road users. This is a serious problem, and I hope that we can start to take it a little more seriously than we seem to at the moment.
Dr. Vini Khurana, an eminent neurosurgeon in Australia, has just produced an interesting paper stating that there is a direct causal link between people using mobile phones and the incidence of brain tumours. Once upon a time, Members used to present petitions about mobile phone masts and similar issues. That all seems to have gone very quiet at the moment, but it has certainly not gone quiet as far as I am concerned.
I was honoured to be the only UK representative at the recent Taiwanese elections. Compared with what has been going on in Zimbabwe, it was a joy to go to Taiwan and to see people enthusiastically grasping the opportunity to vote in an election. The election was fought rigorously between the KMT and the ruling Democratic Progressive party, and the KMT won, receiving the largest percentage and number of votes in the history of Taiwan. I was also fortunate enough to meet the new President, Ma Ying-jeou, on the evening of his election. I was struck by his warmth and humanity, and by the clear vision that he had for the future of his country, given all the challenges of trying to work with China and of not becoming isolated.
I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on my thanks to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton). In the Christmas Adjournment debate, I made a plea for money to help to tackle cliff slippage, and she listened to my plea. I was supported in my representations by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), and we were delighted to receive the extra funding. It is being well used, but I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House can guess what I am going to say next. Southend needs more money, because there is now further slippage closer to the town centre, so I hope that the hon. Lady will once again be able to work a charm offensive with her right hon. Friend.
Another issue that hon. Members are trying to deal with at the moment is that of hospital parking charges. I remember clearly when those charges were first introduced. Labour Members who were then in opposition protested about them, but they are now widely accepted. My hospital in Southend is land-locked; there is no room for it to expand. My constituency has a huge number of elderly people. They are not lazy; they need their cars to get to the rheumatology clinic, for example. The parking charges can range from £2 to £4, and that can soon mount up for people visiting a loved one with cancer, for example. The hospital is now building a multi-storey car park, but that is causing further difficulties. Will the Deputy Leader of the House have a word with her ministerial colleagues to see whether they have a view on this matter?
Another issue that I have raised before in these Adjournment debates concerns a constituent named David Clark. Ten years ago he was working for Essex police as a police officer. He was forced to retire from his job on medical grounds, following bullying and harassment by senior officers. This is too complex a story to develop in just a minute, but it is all to do with whistleblowing. My constituent did a splendid job in his time with the police force. His maltreatment followed his managing an investigation into theft and stolen goods in 1997. He did the right thing and decided to pursue legal action against the chief constable of Essex in July 2006. In the recent High Court hearing, Mr. Justice Tugendhat ruled in my constituent’s favour and, nine months on, in June 2007, he received £93,000 in compensation from Essex police force in an out-of-court settlement. What is not acceptable is that the costs of the case—£35,000—have still not been paid, which is putting my constituent under a huge amount of strain.
During the High Court hearing, the judge condemned the detective sergeant involved as “not capable of belief”, and said that he could not be regarded as a “candid witness”. He made a number of criticisms of the organisation of the Essex police, which he said was in stark contrast to my constituent, whom he considered to be a “careful and honest witness”. Most frustrating of all, my constituent has tried over and over again to arrange a meeting with the chairman of Essex police authority, to absolutely no avail. I find that desperately disappointing.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) raised an issue involving his local driving test centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East and I are confronting exactly the same issue, and we are very concerned about it. I will not be disloyal to my former constituency, Basildon. I will simply say that to relocate the entire test centre to Basildon will cause huge problems in Southend, because it means a journey of nearly 14 miles. I strongly support the efforts of the Southend and District Driving Instructors Association to save the Southend centre.
The penultimate issue that I wish to raise concerns Mr. and Mrs. Eeles, who came to my surgery recently. The couple, aged 71 and 76, took a one-day coach trip to Belgium to buy cheap tobacco. They acted within the law: they bought 3 kg. The Customs officer stopped Mrs. Eeles and detained her—an elderly person—for two hours, confiscating her legal amount of tobacco. That was absolutely crazy. Mrs. Eeles is very upset, and I support her in all the representations that she is currently making.
Finally, I want to say something about a young lady in my constituency called Felicia Cantone. Last week a local newspaper ran the headline “Felicia loses leg but has just two days off”. The story was about a 10-year-old girl who returned to school two days after her leg was amputated. She had to have that horrific operation to prevent the spread of bone cancer—a rare type of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, which was first diagnosed when she was seven. She is an incredibly brave girl, and she returned to school in two days. Apparently, the operation increased her chance of survival from 20 per cent. to 40 per cent.
The point that I want to make—and I do not say this is a joke—is that Felicia needs a prosthetic leg, and cannot obtain one from the national health service. I am baffled by the reasons for that, but there are all sorts of problems: for instance, she is very young and is growing quickly. The family are fundraising locally in order to send her to America. It is an extraordinary case. I hope that after I have written to the Deputy Leader of the House with more details, she will ask the Department of Health to consider it.
I join other Members in wishing everyone a very happy April break.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I, too, send birthday greetings to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac).
It is a year or so since I had an opportunity to speak in an Adjournment debate. Things have moved on quite well in Peterborough during that time, not least given the prospect that the Posh will be promoted to league division 1 for next season. They are currently top of the league.
Last September saw the opening of the Thomas Deacon academy, the largest academy in England and Wales. We have had the first tranche of city centre regeneration, and the planning application for the North Westgate development has been submitted to Peterborough city council. The super-hospital is about to enter a new stage of construction, and we hope it will be opened in 2011 or 2012, and we also have other interesting projects connected with the regeneration of Peterborough.
I shall now briefly raise some key issues. First, I beg the indulgence of the House as I wish to return to the matter of post offices. It is often forgotten that a reduction in the urban network is also a major issue. Under the rather Orwellian-sounding urban reinvention programme, my constituency has lost six post offices in the last six years, reducing the total from 23 to 17, and we fear that when in July the proposals are put out for consultation across Cambridgeshire—and Northamptonshire, I believe—we may lose another six to eight just in the Peterborough constituency. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) is leading the campaign in his constituency against post office closures, and I pay tribute to Sir Peter Brown, the Cambridgeshire cabinet member for communities, who is co-ordinating all the local authorities and other key stakeholders in Cambridgeshire to put the case for keeping those post offices open. That is needed, not least in my constituency; I once described the Crown post office at Cowgate as resembling a Dickensian soup kitchen because it was completely overflowing with people, and the queues can go out on to the street, particularly in the summer. The idea that we can lose another six to eight sub-post offices is barmy.
Flag Fen is one of the finest bronze age settlements in Europe, but it is desperately short of money. Sadly, its manager, Georgina Butters, recently left because there is insufficient funding. Although it has had some money remitted via English Heritage, there is not sufficient funding to develop both the artefacts and the tourism and leisure side of the site. It would be a great shame if Flag Fen were to be left to close, and its great attractions were to be lost to Cambridgeshire and the country as a whole.
Members will know of my consistent interest in the issue of the fortification of some foods with folic acid, which is mainly as a result of the fact that the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus is located at Park road in Peterborough. There is an unanswerable case that folic acid helps to reduce massively, if not completely eliminate, neural tube defects and appalling disabilities such as spina bifida and hydrocephalus, which afflict hundreds of families a year and cause hundreds of elective terminations. That can be ameliorated if folic acid is introduced into women’s diets before they become pregnant. Last year, the Food Standards Agency cleared the way in making that case, but unfortunately there has been a delay in respect of a ministerial recommendation. I hope Ministers will look very favourably on the huge weight of scientific evidence, because this is about people’s lives—it is about the quality of children’s and families’ lives. It is time that we followed the lead of the United States and 32 other countries across the world, and embraced the fortification of some foods with folic acid.
Another major health concern in my constituency is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In Peterborough, about 2,700 people suffer from the condition; it is the fifth biggest killer in the United Kingdom, and the people in my primary care trust area are 10 per cent more at risk of hospital admission than those elsewhere in the UK—indeed, it is described as a COPD hot spot in the east of England. I was recently privileged to attend and speak at an event at the Thomas Walker medical centre in Huntly grove: a British Lung Foundation reception and launch for its Breathe Easy campaign. It is important that Government understand how important this issue is. We do not know why the condition particularly affects Peterborough. Long ago, Peterborough moved on from being a large industrial engineering city and a railway city, but agricultural materials are burnt in the area, and agriculture, food processing and packaging takes place across the area. The combination of those things might mean that our area is particularly afflicted by that condition, and, indeed, by asthma, which is also a significant problem. The last figures showed that my local Peterborough primary care trust was ranked 32nd highest for asthma admissions out of 300 trusts nationwide.
The final health issue that I wish to discuss is teenage pregnancy, which is a major problem. It is a badge of dishonour that my constituency and the city of Peterborough is the teenage pregnancy capital of the east of England, and that, regrettably, the trend in my area is either stable or rising, rather than reducing, as it is in so many other parts of both the east of England and the country as a whole. That is particularly the case given that some 43 per cent. of the 190 young women between the ages of 15 and 17 who fell pregnant in 2006 in my area chose to have an elective abortion—that is a tragedy and social catastrophe. We must do more. We must not just repeat the mantra of sex education and more access to contraception. Although it may be unfashionable, there must be a moral aspect to this issue, and girls and young women should be given different paths to go along. This is not just about sex education.
The main substance of my remarks will not be about that issue, but about the report produced earlier this week by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs entitled “The Economic Impact of Immigration”. It is timely that we debate that report, albeit during the debate on the April adjournment. I hope that Ministers will find Government time in the next Session to debate the issue, because I believe that unfettered, unrestricted and uncontrolled immigration has, in many respects, been a social disaster for this country in terms of social cohesion, community relations and the economic situation in many towns and cities, particularly in the east of England.
Immigration has had a massive impact in a small number of areas, not only Peterborough, but Breckland, King’s Lynn, Boston and other parts of both the east of England and the rest of the country. It has had a big impact on the delivery of housing and health services—indeed, I was advised only today of a big increase in tuberculosis in the Peterborough city council area. That is just one of the side effects of large-scale, unfettered immigration. It also has an impact in respect of policing, the issue of people trafficking and the sex trade, adult social care and, in particular, education.
The issue that I would like to discuss most is the entrenching of welfare dependency, particularly in the host community. Who would have believed that a Labour Government would have allowed such uncontrolled immigration as to leave us nationally with a situation where 5.2 million people are on benefits, where we have to recruit low-skill, low-wage people to do jobs that our own people should be doing and where we tolerate slum housing, low wages and poor working conditions because we are told spuriously the Government’s bogus argument, advanced by the Minister for Borders and Immigration, the Home Secretary and others, that immigration has produced benefits to the value of £6 billion a year? That argument has been conclusively demolished by the report produced earlier this week. I feel vindicated by that cross-party report, which has been produced by experts and has rubbished the Government’s campaign of misinformation on unprecedented and uncontrolled immigration. Sadly, it is five years too late. I feel that I have ploughed a lonely furrow on this issue. If one ever mentioned the subject hitherto, one was inevitably accused of racism even though it is incumbent on every Member to judge the situation in their constituency and to speak up for their constituents, irrespective of their race, religion, creed or colour. I have done that.
I have never taken the view that immigration per se is a bad thing—I believe that controlled immigration is a good thing. Such massive economic and social change has come at a high price, with a massive strain on community resources, the delivery of public services, resentment between communities irrespective of racial group and, in particular, the embedding of a low-wage, low-skill economy and the pricing out of many people onto jobseeker’s allowance and other benefits.
If we consider the situation in Peterborough over the past few years, we see that the number of those on active jobseeker’s allowance rose from 1,640 to 2,280 between 2001 and 2007. The median gross weekly rate wages have declined from £447.10 to £421.90 over the past two years. The number of NEETs—those not in employment, education or training—has risen. In fact, there was no change overall in the five years between 2002 and 2007. Some 4,500 people in Peterborough have been on benefits for more than five years.
Did no one think that this would happen? When the Government told us that between 8,000 and 15,000 people would come from the European Union countries in 2004, did they consider what the impact would be on a constituency such as mine? In my constituency, 49 per cent. of pupils achieve five GCSE grades from A to E, the lowest in the east of England. We have the third lowest proportion of adults with degree-level qualifications and the third highest with no qualifications. We have 10 super output areas of the most deprived 5 per cent. of the region. One in 14 of my constituents is on incapacity benefit and 24 per cent. of jobseeker’s allowance claimants are in the 16 to 24 age group. Self-employment levels are low and the resident earning figures reduced over the past few years.
We were told that mass immigration was a panacea, and the Government told us that it was a “good thing”. There was no proper methodology or analysis and no economic study was undertaken to see the impact on a low-skilled, low-waged, low educational attainment constituency such as mine, which is moving from a heavy industry, railway-focused economy to a more service-based economy.
It could be said that Peterborough is the victim of its geographical circumstances. It is on the A1 and the A47. It is a transport hub and naturally the sort of place where businesses would consider developing the service industry, the food processing and packaging industry, transportation and logistics. It is at the centre of a rural area near south Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and the rest of Cambridgeshire. However, no thought was given to the impact of 20,000 EU migrants coming to the city and what would happen to primary care, primary schools, transportation, policing and other services.
It has been lonely to put this case. It has not always been fashionable to make the arguments that I have made today. I have held two Adjournment debates on the subject over the past two years, one last June and one the year before that. I feel vindicated by the report. I feel that I have done my duty to my constituents. I welcome those who want to make a better life for themselves and their families and contribute to my community, but the Government have failed dismally in their responsibility to have regard to social and community cohesion, a good balance and proper controlled migration. When I talk to my constituents I find that when the election comes, this Government will be driven from office.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). I shall allude to some of the issues that he raised, because I share some of his concerns and views.
First, I want to raise some issues affecting my constituency that have the common theme of housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who was hoping that I would launch straight into cannabis, in which case he would have stayed, now knows that he is free to depart, unless he wants to stay for quite a long time.
I turn first to the provision of accommodation for Travellers and Gypsies in my constituency. Like everybody else, they need homes, and we have to provide accommodation for them somewhere in the eastern area. Following the lead of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), I raised the matter in a debate in the House, and I wish to return to it because we did not get a satisfactory answer about two things from the Minister who responded. The first was why such a high rate of growth of the population of Travellers in the eastern areas is assumed. Why is it assumed that the Traveller population is increasing more rapidly than the population of Africa, which has the highest growth rate otherwise known in the world? Why is such a large growth rate built into demands for provision that are being imposed on local authorities?
Secondly, we want to know the rationale behind the policy of requiring the local authorities that already have the highest number of sites for Travellers to provide the highest number of additional sites. People in the part of my constituency that falls within the St. Albans area are particularly incensed, because St. Albans already has by far the largest number of sites for Travellers in Hertfordshire, yet it is being required to provide nearly twice as many as most other local authorities, and the highest number in Hertfordshire. Surely that is not fair. I hope that the Government will require the Government office for the east of England to think again and advise the East of England regional assembly likewise that it should not follow such a policy. It puts a blight on my constituency, because so many sites have to be considered. The sooner the whole matter is resolved, the better it will be for everybody, Travellers and settled population alike.
The settled population—the vast majority of our constituents—also need homes. In Hertfordshire, we have in the past met the targets for building new homes for the existing population, and we have done so without building on the green belt in my constituency. That is becoming increasingly difficult, because the targets imposed on us have been raised, raised and raised again.
North Hertfordshire district council now has to provide an additional 15,000 homes. The Government have already given permission for the building of an initial 3,600 homes west of Stevenage—the largest incursion on the green belt that has ever been known—yet that additional demand has been put upon us. My constituents are worried, because in seeking sites for that large number of homes, the local authority has to consider an even larger number of potential options. So large areas of the constituency are being examined as potential areas although—thank heavens!—not all will be selected to meet that target.
That problem has caused concern, disturbance, anger and resentment, but those emotions are nothing compared with the outrage that has greeted the discovery—the exposure—that officials from the Department for Communities and Local Government have had meetings with their counterparts in Luton borough council, South Bedfordshire district council and Bedfordshire council, as well as with representatives of the developers, Blore Homes, to consider building homes in the North Hertfordshire district council area of my constituency. Moreover, they met without informing or inviting officials or councillors from North Hertfordshire district council or Hertfordshire county council, and they did not let me know that the meetings were taking place.
In other words, the DCLG considers that it can meet its targets by building in our district, on the beautiful stretch of land between Luton and the ill-named but extremely lovely part of my constituency known as Lilley Bottom. That name has nothing to do with me, although it may possibly have something to do with my ancestors. I wrote to the Minister for Housing a couple of weeks ago, as soon as I learned what had been going on. I wanted to know why Government officials had met developers and local authority staff to consider building in my constituency without letting my local authority or me know. So far, I have had no reply.
The Deputy Leader of the House will respond to the debate. Although she will probably not be able to explain why I have received no reply, or give me the answer that I need, I hope that she will make sure—post haste—that her colleague replies to me. The anger in my constituency will only be compounded if Ministers fail to tell us what is going on, or to apologise for what has gone on so far.
Why do so many homes need to be built? Why have the targets been raised? Sixty per cent. of the additional homes that we need are simply the result of the existing population living in smaller households. That happens because people are leaving home earlier and living longer, and also—sadly—because families split up. The average household size declines each year, with the result that a county such as Hertfordshire—or anywhere else—needs roughly 0.5 per cent. more houses each year. That accounts for the 60 per cent. of additional homes to which I have referred. However, those additional homes will require little extra infrastructure. We will not need more schools or hospitals, and probably no more roads, electricity or water. We need that extra infrastructure only when there is an increase in total population, and that is exactly what is happening in this country.
The excellent report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee highlighted the fact that net immigration into this country is causing a substantial increase in population. Based on the Government Actuary’s projection, I calculate that our net population will increase by 190,000 a year through net immigration—and, of course, we must not forget those people’s offspring. Indeed, nearly 40 per cent. of the new households that we need in this country will be the result of the policy of allowing immigration to exceed by so much the number of people returning home or emigrating.
The Economic Affairs Committee report also said that two thirds of the new households in Greater London are the result of net immigration. Although there is remarkably little direct immigration into Hertfordshire, we see its consequences. People of all ethnicities move out of London into the county and, individually, they are welcomed—after all, many of the people in Hertfordshire came from London originally. However, the net inflow into London has also produced a huge net outflow. Much of it has been into Hertfordshire, and that is what has created the problems that I have described.
We have had 17 statements about housing demand and supply in the 25 years that I have been a Member of Parliament—no, 17 statements in the 10 years that the Government have been in power—not one of which has mentioned net immigration as a cause of the extra demand and the need for extra supply. So the Government have been trying to obscure what is going on.
Personally, I have always taken the view that most immigrants are not, as they are often caricatured, scroungers, criminals or welfare-dependent. They are hard-working, law-abiding, decent people who want to come to this country to work hard for the benefit of themselves and their families and to make a contribution to society, but they need homes. It would be monstrous to allow people to come to this country and then not to provide the additional homes that they will need in due course. I want to highlight the hypocrisy of parties that encourage immigration and oppose restrictions on immigration but then campaign against the need to build additional houses whenever and wherever it occurs. I hope that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is listening to my remarks, because he has said in the past that one way in which he diverges from me and cannot understand me is on my desire to place a restriction on immigration to this country.
The hon. Gentleman said so in a debate on the subject, and he can look it up in Hansard, if he has any desire to resile from that position. I hope that he will have words with the Liberal Democrats in my constituency, who oppose every proposal to build houses, while not being prepared to do anything about the cause of a larger population in this country.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, as soon as he has thought of a good line to take.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said that his had been a lone voice in highlighting the issue—not quite alone, because I have been doing so for some while. In 2005, I published a pamphlet called “Too Much of a Good Thing? Towards a balanced approach to immigration”. Instantly, of course, Liberal and Labour opponents declared that I must be a racist, because I was discussing immigration. They were laughed out of court, because people in my constituency know that I have spent the past 25 years working extremely hard with the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Sikh communities to integrate them into the broader community. So that attempt to silence me did not work and probably rebounded on those opponents, as was shown in the subsequent election result.
I am very happy to continue a conversation later with the right hon. Gentleman, but, first, I have never taken the view that there should be no limit on immigration. That would seem an illogical view to take given this country’s size. Secondly, I was a dissenter in my own party when the view was taken that we should have no delay in the new east European entrants being allowed in immediately. I took the view that we should do as the French and others did, which was to have a gradual process, which was eventually done for Bulgaria and Romania. Thirdly, I am certainly always willing to engage with colleagues from any party, if they believe that they cannot have extra house building in their own communities when the population nationally is going up. I spend a lot of my time telling my own colleagues as well as others that everywhere must take its fair share of additional housing and the additional number of people who come to this country.
That is good; I shall be able to quote the hon. Gentleman to his colleagues in Hertfordshire, and I suspect that they will disown him as he has effectively disowned them.
I want to comment on two aspects of the Government’s response so far to the Lords Committee report on immigration. First, they revert to asserting, “But still net immigration contributes £6 billion a year to the economy.” They are using a half-truth in a way that would be monstrous if they were to use the other half. It is true that immigrants contribute an extra £6 billion in goods and services to the gross domestic product, but it is equally true that they consume £6 billion in goods and services from GDP. It would be monstrous if anyone said therefore that immigrants are a net burden of £6 billion on the economy, but that could be done with as much veracity as Ministers saying that immigrants are making a net contribution of £6 billion. Immigrants produce £6 billion, and they consume £6 billion. Most of us roughly consume as much as we produce. Indeed, the nature of Government statistics means that they automatically produce as much as they consume.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is strange that in the week when the 10p tax rate was abolished—a change that will affect 5.2 million people who earn between £5,000 and £18,000—the Lords report found that it is the low-skilled, low-wage work force who, under a Labour Government, will be most disadvantaged by the policy of uncontrolled and unfettered immigration?
It is, and that is an indictment of those who have tried to pretend that that is not happening. The Lords Committee made the important point that if we try to meet so-called labour shortages—skills shortages—by importing skills from abroad rather than by skilling-up our own people and rewarding those who acquire those skills, we will permanently keep an unskilled, low-paid element of our population. That is one of the most malign consequences of the policy that the Government have been pursuing for the past 10 years—a policy that I hope they will bring to an end as a consequence of the report.
Ministers have commented on the Lords Committee’s suggestion that a limit or broad target be set annually to bring about a more balanced relationship between immigration into the country, and emigration and return from it. The Government’s response has been, “That’s nonsense; the policy affects only a fifth of those coming into this country. Those who come here from the EU, those who come here as students and relatives of people who live here would not be covered by it,” but exactly the same is true of their points-based system, which they flaunt as though it will be the solution to high levels of immigration. They cannot have it both ways. The truth is that we should return to the situation that we were in before the Government were elected, when we had much firmer control and restrictions on immigration, and allowed people to come and settle here only if they were genuinely needed—the aim was not that they should effectively replace the existing population.
I want to turn to a matter that was raised by a number of hon. Members in this debate and in the previous debate—the issue of drink and drugs. As was emphasised by a constituent who recently came to my surgery, too often we put too little emphasis on the problems of drink, relative to the problems of drugs. My constituent has benefited from the care provided by Hertscare, a local anti-addiction organisation to which she paid tribute, and I join her in paying that tribute. She felt that it was not given enough resources to cope with those who suffer from alcoholism, as compared with those who suffer from drug addiction. It is important that we get the balance right, because overall the damage done by addiction to alcohol is at least as great, if not greater, than that done by drugs.
Earlier today we had a debate about drug policy. One aspect of it concerned the response to rumours that the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is to reject the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the cannabis classification be upgraded again—it was downgraded at the request of his predecessor on the advice of that body. As far as I know, I am the only Member of the House who has served as a Front Bencher, both in government and in opposition, who has never taken cannabis and has no desire to take cannabis—
Sorry; shall we say the only Cabinet-level Member who has not taken cannabis? It seems particularly true of Cabinet Ministers that they find themselves forced to admit that they have tried cannabis. I have not taken it, and as a result I have a clear enough head to know that one cannot enforce or defend a policy of banning cannabis in a country where we allow nicotine and alcohol. It simply does not work, has not worked and will not work.
I draw the attention of the House to another of the prescient pamphlets that I wrote some years ago, “Common Sense on Cannabis,” arguing that if we try to outlaw cannabis use, the danger is that we will drive soft-drug users into the arms of hard-drug pushers. All too often, we push people into the arms of those who persuade them to move on to heroin and cocaine. In that pamphlet, I put forward the highly unpopular policy that we should not simply de-penalise the sale of cannabis, but legalise it in a controlled fashion.
At the time, the pamphlet caused quite an upsurge of interest, and there was a great deal of support for it on the Labour Benches. It was that which caused Tony Blair to invite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider downgrading cannabis—a typical Blairite response that achieved the worst of all possible worlds. It was an attempt to manipulate the headlines to make it appear that he was doing something that would appease his Back Benchers who wanted a more liberal policy, without in fact altering the law in any significant way. It sent out the signal that cannabis use was tolerated, while leaving it against the law and allowing no method of getting it except from gangs who also push hard drugs.
Now we are seeing the new Prime Minister doing the same smoke and mirrors thing, thinking he can give the impression that he is doing something substantive by asking for cannabis to be upgraded again. These things are second order and not important. What we need is fact-based, evidence-based realism on the issue of drugs, and that we clearly will not get from the present Prime Minister, any more than we did from his predecessor.
I hope the House as a whole will not rule out listening to or taking the advice of the advisory council before we have even heard it. I do not know what it will say or what evidence it will present. When it has offered evidence and advice, I will examine it. If it causes me to change my mind, I will change my mind, but I will not say that we should accept it or reject it before we have even heard what it is.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view. I have always taken the view that if one sets up such an eminent body to advise, there must be a mighty good reason for not accepting its advice. Our system should presume that the advisory council’s recommendation would have effect unless Parliament consciously votes to overturn it. If the Government could step away from that, we would have a much better debate and outcome.
That is a valid point, although I would not go that far. We should not hand over and put out to commission the powers of the House. If the advisory council offers advice, we should consider it. It may be good advice or bad advice, but I always took the view that Ministers are responsible for the advice that they take and should never blame their advisers. The House is responsible for the advice that it takes and should not leave it entirely to its advisers, but it should listen to the advice before it rules out taking it or commits itself to taking it.
No Adjournment speech would be complete without a reference to post offices, and mine in particular would not be. There is some poetry by Walter Scott, I think, although I cannot quite remember it—something about “Sadder than owl-song in the evening breeze, Is that cry of woe, ‘I told you so.’”
I was the Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry responsible for the network of post offices, then I moved on at the Department of Social Security to be their main customer and source of revenue. I had to consider at that stage whether we should go down the line that the Government have decided to go down, and make people receive payment, wherever possible, through the banks rather than through the post offices, and thereby potentially save—as the prospect was offered to me when I was Secretary of State—£400 million on the contract that the DSS had with the post offices.
I decided that that would be a false saving, because making that saving on the DSS contract would so undermine those post offices that the Government would have to step in to subsidise them. Indeed, it would cost more than £400 million to subsidise and maintain them. Why? The Government paying pensions and other benefits through the post office was unique, and people left the post office with more money than they entered with, so they spent some of it there. That created footfall and custom. It meant that the—
I will, in a second. Hon. Members: He has just come in! There seems to be a general view that I should not give way, because the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for long, and I think I have been speaking for too long. Equal weight should be given to both points, and I shall endeavour to move on.
I therefore concluded that we ought to try to make the post offices as low cost as the banks in delivering cash, and I introduced a computerisation programme that was designed to achieve that. For a year or two after the Labour Government came to power, we were told that that was going according to budget and plan, but then they suddenly announced that it was not, cancelled it, pocketed what they thought was the saving and found themselves going down exactly the route that I predicted. That is why we are in this position now.
I do not know whether it is possible to go into reverse at this stage and find some way to reduce the costs of delivering benefits and pensions through the post offices, but if we could do that we would undoubtedly increase their viability no end and avoid the need for subsidies and for so many closures. However, we ought to put the blame where it is due, which is on Ministers who adopted the policy against the advice of their officials. I have constantly asked Ministers to acknowledge that they were told that that would be the consequence, but they have refused either to admit it or to deny it—I am sure that they would have denied it, if they had been able to. They have deliberately created the situation in which we find ourselves, and they cannot escape the blame for that.
I hope that the Members of Parliament who are gathering on both sides of the House to hear my closing remarks have an excellent recess and use it to read not only the two pamphlets that I wrote, which I mentioned earlier, but, probably even more importantly, the House of Lords report on an issue that is one of the most important to our constituents. Indeed, according to all the opinion polls, it is now considered among the most important issues by our constituents, for the obvious reason that they can see what is going on and do not need the Lords report to point it out in the way in which we experts do. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a very happy recess.
I, too, thank all those who have taken part in this afternoon’s debate. We have heard a number of excellent speeches, ranging in content from local constituency matters to national issues. We have also covered some international matters.
The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) began proceedings with a detailed speech. The House will share his concerns about the fact that many blind people do not have access to television, despite the fact that technological advances mean that they can partake of it. I have to say that the arguments he made in attempting to claim that he did not really vote for post office closures when we all know that he did were disingenuous to say the least.
The point was aptly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) when he said that such behaviour contributes to the cynicism about all those who work here and does not help our cause in trying to establish that we are a reputable profession and people who are trying to do the best for their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) rightly pointed out that the fact that the hon. Member for Telford happens to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury may have had something to do with his about-turn, by which I suspect his constituents will not be convinced.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spent the first seven minutes of his speech talking about matters to do with the fact that the recess does not match the school holidays. He seemed to be under the impression that the debate was a continuation of this morning’s business questions. I have to take issue with his point about long summer holidays. He may be taking a long summer holiday between July and October, but the majority of his colleagues in the House will be doing constituency work. I have sympathy with Mehdi Kazemi, the Iranian gentleman whom he mentioned, and I hope very much that the Deputy Leader of the House will have taken on board the concerns that were raised.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said that this debate was an opportunity for Members of Parliament to speak about constituency matters and get things off their chest, and for his sake I hope that he was able to do both those things and that he feels a lot better for it. He touched on the issue of Iraq, and I hope again that those points were noted, and he also spoke of the funding for a walk-in medical centre in his constituency, arguments that were well put, and I am sure that his constituents will feel well served by him in today’s debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) gave a typically forceful speech, and I have every sympathy with his arguments on Chelmsford Crown post office. He rightly put into perspective the difficulties now experienced by people who visit the post office compared with when it was in a stand-alone building. He said that that was unacceptable, and I agree and wish him well in trying to resolve the difficulty that his constituents face. I also agree that the Government should review their road-funding programme.
I take this opportunity to wish the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) a very happy birthday—a day which I hope was made all the happier by her speech of great diligence. Her constituents will have noted that she has aired their concerns about the inconsistencies in bus travel passes, and I am sure that they will be grateful to her for having put on the record the blip in the historical records of the connection between Immingham and the Pilgrim Fathers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) gave a typically wise and thoughtful speech, with a touch of humour thrown in for good measure. He too rightly talked of post offices and mentioned the elderly and vulnerable people who will be particularly affected by their closure, and also referred to their being a useful community resource for those who use and live around them.
I endorse wholeheartedly my hon. Friend’s point about encouraging more sport for ladies. Women have enormous talent in this area, and it is not being nurtured as well as it could be. We should look to ensure that sponsors of sport take note of the comments made in today’s debate and give good consideration to making sure that we have more female sports on television. At this point, I should say that we need more role models, such as Charlotte Edwards, the captain of the England ladies’ cricket team. It is my privilege to have her as a resident in my constituency. As my local newspaper The Hunts Post said, she is
“one of the most influential female England cricketers of all time.”
Long may she continue to be successful, having clinched the Ashes for England in February 2008.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) gave a masterful and eloquent performance, and I very much hope that Devon county council will deal with the problem of the tide encircling the landfill site, the consequences of which will be dangerous for the local community. I hope also that he will have some joy in trying to get broadband for the residents of St. Giles on the Heath and some other villages. It is a problem that those Members with a rural element to their constituencies understand all too well.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) gave a measured speech, and I hope that his plea to have more access to motorcycle test centres has been heard by the Deputy Leader of the House, and that she will pass the message on to the relevant Minister. The House will have noted his welcome to the new grocery supply code of practice and his urging that it be put in place as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) made a wide-ranging speech, and the House will have noted the economic circumstances of his constituency, including the issues concerning drug misuse. We cannot fail to have noticed his observation that the police have to double up to do social work. Their position is not in any way assisted by the fact that they also have mountains and mountains of paperwork to add to their workload.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made a broad speech that covered a number of issues. I suspect like many Members, I agree entirely with him that the answers that Ministers provide are often very inadequate and that there is a discrepancy between different Departments in respect of the efficiency with which questions are answered. Many of us share that concern. The House will have been staggered by the revelation that Felicia Cantone, the brave 10-year-old girl in his constituency, cannot get a prosthetic leg because she is deemed to be too young.
Clearly, my hon. Friend has been well served by his comments in this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, my constituency neighbour, raised a number of issues. I have considerable sympathy with much of what he said. I echo his arguments on the closure of local post offices and add my support to the efforts for more funds for Flag Fen.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) gave an excellent speech that rightly touched on the problems faced by a number of constituencies in respect of house building. He rightly drew a link between immigration and the need for new homes. I hope that the Government and others have taken note that when people talk of such a link they are not racists. When my right hon. and hon. Friends and I talk about restrictions on immigration, we are not being racists—it is called good governance, and I suggest that the Government take that on board.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I conclude by wishing a very happy recess to you, all Members and their staff, and all the staff of the House—particularly those in the security arena, who do so much hard work to make sure that we have a safe environment in which to work.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this April Adjournment debate. As always, it is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara).
I want to begin by commenting on the remarks that have been made about post offices. That issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright), the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley).
I do understand that the proposed closure of post offices is a real problem in many communities because 12 of the 48 post offices in my constituency are proposed for closure. The Government recognise the social and economic benefits of the post office network; that is why they are spending £1.7 billion on subsidising the Post Office. As all hon. Members must acknowledge, that is a large sum and it should be possible for the Post Office to support a proper network with it.
Hon. Members said that they were frustrated by the quality of the consultations. I remind them that, until now, between 10 and 15 per cent. of the proposals have been changed as a result of representations. That emphasises the importance of hon. Members taking part in these consultations and encouraging their constituents to do so. Earlier today, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House promised to take back to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform the request to share information about individual post offices and their commercial strategies, along with all hon. Members’ remarks, which we will submit to the Minister responsible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford spoke about audio-description in his excellent speech. I do not know whether he is aware that the Communications Act 2003 sets minimum targets for audio-description, and it is the responsibility of Ofcom to ensure that they are met. He also spoke about Ironbridge, the world heritage site. I can remember visiting that as a child and seeing a coracle, which only goes to show that I am much older than he is. I understand that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and regional Ministers have set up a group that is looking into how to protect Ironbridge. He also spoke about manufacturing in the west midlands and the importance of inward investment in creating new jobs.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey rightly spoke about the importance of the timing of recesses. I will undertake to update the work that we have done on that by reviewing which local authorities hon. Members send their children to school in so that next year we can take that into account when we set the timetable.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about an important site in his constituency and the importance of getting a sensitive development there. He went on to talk about the case of Mr. Mehdi Kazemi, an Iranian. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but the Home Secretary has agreed that that case should be considered in the light of representations that were made by the House of Lords, because every case must of course be considered on its individual merits, and people’s human rights must be taken into account when decisions are taken. That is the policy that the Home Office follows. The hon. Gentleman also talked about electoral under-registration, which is, as he knows, very significant. I will forward those remarks to the Ministry of Justice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) spoke about the costs of the Iraq war. He cited an extraordinary figure, which I have checked. The Government estimate that by the end of 2006-07 the conflict will in fact have cost the British taxpayer some £5.5 billion, which is considerably below his figure. He raised the reasonable point that we should have more discussion before sums of money are committed to. I know that the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury have discussed improving the scrutiny of estimates. In addition, next year we will have a debate when the spending announcement is made in recognition of the significance of this issue. My hon. Friend also talked about the decisions of Norfolk primary care trust with regard to walk-in services, and I hope that he will take part in that consultation.
The hon. Member for West Chelmsford spoke about the A12. I understand that the Highways Agency is aware of the issues and is trying to manage the traffic flows better through electronic messaging and so forth. I realise that his request was for more investment, and I will pass that message on to the Department for Transport. However, I would like to defend the allocation of funding around the regions and remind him that grants are made in the light of circumstances, not politics.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) proved what a hard-working Member she is by coming in to make a speech on her birthday, and I would like to join others in congratulating her on that, as well as congratulating the people of Immingham on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers. I would also like to congratulate North Lincolnshire council on its excellent implementation of the bus pass extension. What sounded particularly good about its scheme was the flexibility involving trains.
The hon. Member for Uxbridge raised a number of issues, including the size of the Marine Bill. The Bill is as large as it is because it includes a plain English version so that more people will be able to read and understand it more easily. He spoke about his daughter, who is a very good rugby player. The Government take the issue of women’s and girls’ participation in sport seriously, which is why Kelly Holmes is the national school sport champion; she also chairs something called the GirlsActive service.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon spoke about the serious problems faced by his hill farmers and of the coastal erosion of the Burrows. I would remind him that spending on coastal erosion has doubled, and by 2010 it will be £800 million. He made a wide-ranging speech, which I felt in the end became a rural version of Monty Python’s “I lived in a shoebox” sketch. I found that I could not reconcile the number and severity of the problems that he raised with my picture of Bideford, which I know to be an exceptionally beautiful place where my parents-in-law met. I would also remind him that the decision on bovine tuberculosis is one that will be taken in the light of scientific, not sentimental interests.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute spoke about the problems his constituents have in taking motorcycling tests. His constituents have an exceptionally long journey to take, and I understand that that is a problem for them. I will take his concerns to the Department for Transport, although I am sure that he will understand that in rural areas and in western Scotland, access will not be as close as it is for those in large cities. He asked about the delay in the shipbuilding contract, and I refer him to a parliamentary answer given in the Lords last week, which explained that the main manufacturing contract for the aircraft carriers will be made when the commercial arrangements and the work schedule have been completed.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke about his constituency. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is to be congratulated on having made the most efficient speech of the afternoon, raising 14 issues in 10 minutes.
The hon. Member for Peterborough and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden talked about immigration. I would like to point out that this Government’s policy is not to have uncontrolled immigration, which is why we are introducing a points-based system. We are also investing in skills and training for people in this country so that they can benefit from economic opportunities. All those policies on increasing participation in higher education and increasing the number of apprenticeships were opposed by Conservative Members.
It only remains for me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to thank you and all the members of staff who work for us so assiduously throughout the year, and I wish everybody a very pleasant and restful April recess.
Perhaps I might be allowed to reciprocate the many good wishes that have been directed to the Chair and the officials of the House. I hope that everyone has a very good Easter break.
It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.