Although the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) is no longer in the Chamber, I do not want to disappoint him. I welcome all Members to my beautiful constituency in Devon, where when they have feasted at home, they will find the moors and the beaches are wonderful places to walk off all the extra chocolate that we have been warned about.
I shall not talk about the trains because I want to talk about a problem we have with the M5, which goes through the middle of my constituency. Junction 28, at the small town of Cullompton, was part of the original motorway, but over the years services have been developed on the eastbound carriageway and it is now an official motorway services area. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the motorway exit does not match up to what one would normally expect to find on the exit to a services area. There is a small mini-roundabout at the top of the slip road and when articulated lorries in particular come off the motorway at that point, they swing across to the other lane—I hope I am not putting people off coming to Devon—to such an extent that one lane of the slip road has had to be closed.
I have held two meetings with Mid Devon district council, the Highways Agency and Devon county council and, more recently, on 1 December we met the regional development agency. It is obvious to anybody who uses that exit and that junction that its development over the years has outstripped the original infrastructure. Something significant needs to be done, not only to make the junction safer but to cope with the traffic.
There is obviously an impact on the town of Cullompton, which is right on the junction. It is not one of those towns that is miles from the motorway. As motorists leave the junction, they go straight on to Station road and are in the heart of the town within a minute. The development of the town and the growth of its facilities are being seriously restricted, because the motorway junction is significant for access to the town centre and also because there is a problem with traffic leaving the motorway to access the services.
I am concerned that, in discussions with the various agencies, we have had great difficulty in persuading them, not that they should do something about the problem tomorrow but that they should plan and factor into the development of the motorway structure a radically different system to accommodate the changing needs. However, we have been met with opposition. It is true that the Highways Agency may consider some minor changes, because it realises that there is an immediate problem, but we were told that one of the reasons why nothing significant could be done was that the junction was at a small Devon town. If we were adjacent to a large city, we would probably have funding for the changes. It is particularly galling that decisions about important motorway junctions are based not on need but on something called a spatial strategy—a plan not drawn up by the local people who use the junction and understand the priorities of the town or that part of the motorway, but by the regional development agency and, in particular, the regional assembly. Those bodies are unelected and unaccountable, yet they seem to have all the say about how money is spent and where the priorities for development and growth should be. It is yet another example of how rural areas—even a motorway junction in the middle of a rural area—and small towns lose out, because third parties, miles away from where we live, take significant decisions about what should or should not happen.
If the decisions had been left to Cullompton town council, Mid Devon district council and local people and they could have had a say in what happened in their area, it would be a different matter. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take on board what I am saying. Quite frankly, we must ask whether those bodies—the RDAs and regional assemblies—are really serving all the community that they have been given power over, or whether they are just selective about those interests that they think are more important. We talk about local decision making, but they do not think locally; they do not act locally.
I shall move on to issues that affect elderly people—I declare an interest. [Hon. Members: “No.”] We have already heard that there was general disappointment in the House about the reply that the Leader of the House gave yesterday to the question on the 10 per cent. interest on savings that is deemed to apply to benefits. That particularly affects elderly people who want to obtain pension credit and other important benefits that affect people who are at the margins of being eligible to apply for benefits. There is a significant change of circumstances, with interest rates dropping. I should like to add my support to those Members who have already said that the Government should urgently consider this matter. As has been said, people who have saved and people who rely on sometimes quite small amounts of investment income from their building society and bank accounts that are really important to their general well-being and their household budgets now find that that money is not there. I am really quite worried when people laughingly say, “Oh well, the only place to keep your money these days is under the bed.” Frankly, that is very worrying, but it is something that we shall face, particularly if interest rates go down to zero, which is not impossible. I hope that the Government will think again about that.
I should also like to refer to the help that the Government are giving to people who qualify for help with insulation. I have heard the Prime Minister talk about helping elderly people with money to help not just with fuel, but with insulating and improving their homes. I got an e-mail this week from a constituent who wrote:
“My ‘free’ home insulation—cavity walls and loft—was arranged for 11th December but postponed indefinitely, at two days’ notice, due to lack of funding. Is this yet another example of a splendid initiative by HMG that has been inadequately implemented and funded? At the age of 76, this sort of disappointment is very difficult to take, without getting depressed.”
I am pleased to report to the House that it looks as though that situation will be resolved for that gentleman, but what is the problem with that policy, which has been spoken about frequently by the Prime Minister personally? We are now in December, before we have even reached the hardest months of the winter, and contracts that were being implemented are suddenly stopped in their tracks at two days’ notice. I really do not understand why that should be, and I wonder whether the Deputy Leader of the House would be good enough to look at that and get back to me.
I should also like the Deputy Leader of the House to take up another issue with the appropriate Minister. I have tried to raise it with the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change. I raised it with the former Energy Minister earlier in the year, and it took eight months to get a reply, despite several promptings. I am still waiting for a reply to a request that I made in November to the current Energy Minister.
There is something called the Gas Act 1986, in which protection was given to people who had to buy their gas from their landlords. That protection was put in place so that landlords could not exploit their tenants. Several people in my constituency live in park homes, and some of them have to buy their gas through their landlords. They also buy liquefied petroleum gas. I understand that the protection given to people who buy gas does not cover such fuel, which has been provided by landlords more recently, as it was not included in the Gas Act 1986, because it is an oil-based product. Unless we can assist people who have to buy their fuel through third parties—and I do mean “have to”—and cannot shop around in the marketplace to get the best deal, they will be sitting ducks if landlords wish to exploit them.
Measures should be introduced; the Government could either identify an existing Bill to which they could be added, or could add them to an appropriate Bill in the next couple of months. It is wrong that landlords can exploit people through the resale of fuel, which is so important to people. There are some very nice park homes in my constituency, but people who live in park homes are, almost by definition, not the wealthiest people. They are predominantly older people from an older generation. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give the issue serious consideration.
I will not, if the hon. Lady does not mind, because I realise that not everybody will get to contribute if I do not keep my remarks brief.
I want to make one more quick point. It is about generic prescribing. I had a letter from a young man who has to take drugs for his epilepsy every day. He pointed out to me that he has great difficulty because of generic prescribing. When he goes to get his repeat prescription, it is not always the same drug, although chemically, I am told, it should be. His body has got used to one particular compilation of drugs. He is concerned that the way in which the drugs are put together means that he has difficulty moving from one brand to another, although technically the drug is the same.
I take prescribed drugs, and will have to do so for the rest of my life. I take one of the drugs as a tablet twice a day, which is very simple, but recently I noticed that I have got a different sort of drug—these are all generic drugs—and I was told to take it an hour before I eat. I was presented with a problem; I thought, “Does that mean I’ve got to wake up at 6 o’clock to take the drug, go back to sleep for an hour, and then get up and have breakfast?” These things are really quite difficult. Of course, not everybody reads all the small print on those little boxes of medication. I always do.
Will the Minister be good enough to have a word with the Department of Health about the issue? I am not suggesting that there are big differences in what is prescribed, but sometimes there are significant differences that are of concern to people for whom it is important, as far as their medical condition is concerned, to take the same medication at the same time each day. May I wish everybody in the House—Members, staff and officers—a very happy Christmas? And don’t forget—come to Devon for the new year.
Order. I am hoping that everybody who wishes to contribute to the debate will be able to do so. I have had my eye on the clock, and after the next speaker, the time limit on speeches will be reduced to 10 minutes. That way, I hope that everybody will be able to make their contribution.
I will support the cause and be very brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to weave my talk around a document that has just been produced by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, a creative manoeuvre of the Government’s from early on in the 1997 period. The document’s title is “Attacking the Recession: How Innovation Can Fight the Downturn”. It points out that many countries have historically got out of recession—recessions come and go—by playing to their strengths. It mentions Finland, Japan and other countries. It talks about the strengths of economies—the parts that are moving—and argues that such considerations can give people a chance to develop new ideas, innovations and new ways of thinking. Perhaps we need to emphasise that a little more, with regard to what we are doing creatively.
Now for a sharp contrast: the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who is in the Chamber, will know that I always mention railways, because I have a real fetish about the Norwich to London rail line. He has worked with me on the issue. That rail line has everything that the document tries to replace. It suffers from absolute defeatism; it cuts jobs; it closes Delia Smith-approved restaurant cars—there is not much better than those—and it gives every excuse for lateness, from foxes on the line to cars on the line. Anyone who wants an exciting journey from Norwich should get a train on that line. It will stop outside the emerging Olympic village, which can be seen growing in the time that the train sits there. That is an amazing feature; I am sure that many young people would like to see how buildings can be stuck up at that rate. Blow me, but when the Princess came to Norwich on Monday, she was late as well. Once we get the royals on our side, we might make some progress.
Some of us have been trying to get the line repaired for some time. If there is snow, the line gets paralysed for days. This country invented the train, yet here we are still with these problems. For the next three years at weekends we will again have to get on buses—we have already had three years of getting buses on Saturday mornings or Sundays and so on. Many people who work or study in London come up to Norfolk and are subjected to all that.
Some of us have also fought for the dualling of the A11. Thanks to the Government, it looks as though it will happen sooner rather than later; the last few miles are about to be done. The hon. Member for South Norfolk has given up on the trains; he now takes his car, and the dual carriageway will be ready for him before the trains are in order.
We are trying to do all these things in a country where the train is absolutely essential. It can be pleasant and fun, and when it works it really works. Restaurant cars can be very conducive to good interactions between people. In general, we need to bite the bullet on the train network in this country and make it really fit for purpose. Many construction and engineering jobs would come too, and that would be part and parcel of taking our country forward in the current situation. Furthermore, if National Express and the rail network do not get it together, my solution, as always, would be to renationalise the railways. The cry for that will grow and grow. We will get to the point reached in New Zealand, where the Labour party Government nationalised the railway to the advantage of the railway system, which improved under former Prime Minister Helen Clark. I think that in this country we will also move that way pretty sharply and shortly.
We often hear about boom and bust. Capitalism is all about boom and bust; there is no use in kidding ourselves—it booms and busts, and that is just one of its features. The odd green shoots will be on the way as we go through this recession, and perhaps a general election will move things along. We have to keep nagging the Government to make sure that we build on our strengths and reshape our futures, not only in the next six months but in the next five to 10 years—we have to have our eyes on that period as well.
Finally, I turn to Norwich and Norfolk in the context of looking ahead and fighting for a strategy to develop the county’s strengths. We need to be much more proactive. For example, as the document that I mentioned clearly states, the growth in the financial realm will probably decrease. Norwich used to be all about Norwich Union—people intermarried and all got jobs there, but things have changed. The financial sector has moved and it will move more.
What are the chances of getting something going in my constituency’s part of the world? What strengths do we have that will bring us out of the recession even faster? Norwich has a famous research park, which includes the university of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich hospital and three independent institutes—the John Innes centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Sainsbury laboratory. One should not laugh, but the John Innes centre has produced purple tomatoes. They are genetically modified—we may have an argument about that, and I am sure that the issue will come up again. The tomatoes are full of anthocyanins. They are good for the health, allegedly. How do I know? When they were tried on mice, the mice lived longer. It will not be long before we will be trying them out on the Opposition. I shall bring some down and slip them into their heavy diets, because I know that their Front Benchers are worried about obesity.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will now be invited to interact with the people there. Who knows? There may be a package on its way to him at this moment.
In the field of biotechnology, many exciting things are happening in Norwich, as they are across the country. It is the coming science. As the Minister for Science and Innovation in the other place, who made his name in biotechnology, has said, this part of the world, and the United Kingdom in general, is the arena where things are really going to happen. Another example is broccoli, which has chemicals called sulforophane. Using conventional plant-breeding methods, broccoli can be increased to super-broccoli status by having more of those chemicals. That has been shown in many cases to reduce rates of cancer. As Members will know, we have here a very successful and powerful all-party cancer group. Ministers come to see us, and we have a day called “Britain Against Cancer”. That is now reflected in Norfolk. Patient groups attended, and we had tremendous support from right across the county. The interesting thing was that no more money was needed. We discussed the interactions between people and the innovatory ways in which they were going to deliver the services—and blow me, one week later the local hospital delivered some of them. That may have been going to happen anyway, as these things do. However, things are increasingly moving back to the localities, and we should try to reflect some of the activities that we have learned about in this place down at the local level.
The university of East Anglia is famous for its creative writing department, with Malcolm Bradbury, Ian McEwan—the names go on and on. It has the Tyndall centre for climate change research, which is a world leader in that field. An organisation called Carbon Reduction, or C-Red, is interacting with industry to help and advise it. The university interacts with local industry in advising people about their energy needs and so on. It has helped Adnams, the great brewery. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) has left the Chamber now, but we are trying to get Adnams beer into the House. It is difficult because it is a big name. Adnams has created the world’s first carbon-neutral beer. I do not know what it does for hangovers, but the fact that it is carbon neutral is quite a success.
As for an engineering school, UAE does not have one. About 2 miles down the road, there is a Lotus factory that gets involved in making cars, engineers work there, and there is Formula 1 and Snetterton race track. Young people could be stimulated to take an interest in engineering at a time when this country is crying out for engineers. We need to interact at that level with universities. If we can get that interaction with research institutes, communities and the health service, we can get it right across the board. Part of the problem with universities is that they are hooked into the research assessment exercise, the results of which come out today. Their whole lives are taken up with trying to survive a rigorous assessment system.
We have all this biotechnological development going on in that part of the world. We have low-carbon technologies coming along, and health care products. With some initiative, we could ensure that travel, the railways and tourism expand at the same time and we become the regional hub. The social issues are part and parcel of that, and many initiatives are going on. There are groups such as Transition Norwich, where 500 people will come along to a meeting in a big hall on a Wednesday night to discuss how they can get involved with their environment and their community by having their own allotments or keeping bees. So there is a grass-roots feeling that can be tapped and I believe that that sort of community spirit—with people interacting and creating things—can sort out many problems. The local food produce schemes will be a big thing.
Let us get the railways right and get green technology going. Broadband access has been mentioned—we still do not have a national fibre-optic cable network, and that needs to be achieved. We need a human capital strategy, whereby we work with young people, who perhaps do not go to university for three or four years, and enable them to duck out of education and come back into it. All those novel ideas exist, and we need a regional innovation strategy. However, I do not know who will deliver it.
Norfolk is by the sea and it is blowy, but there is, as yet, no wave energy of which I am aware. There is some wind energy, and talk of turbines in the North sea and so on, but we need to get going and get zippy, and interact with firms that can build such things, as well as with other countries.
A co-ordinated approach is the way forward. We need it for the many young people who want to set up businesses. The document that I mentioned at the outset is all about building on the strength of the creativity of our young people. Some will be writers, some will be engineers, some will be scientists and others—very few—will be politicians. However, at the end of the day, we must get resources from the organisations that work in the relevant parts of the country to push the creativity that exists. It is our strength and will be a major feature of getting out of the recession.
Like many hon. Members, I had the experience of attending a school nativity play last week. It was at Killermont primary school in my constituency and it was delightful. It brings home the spirit of Christmas, which is an especially exciting time for children.
However, it is important to remember that, behind the fairy lights, Christmas carols and jubilation, many people carry great worries—especially financial worries in the current economic climate—on their shoulders at this time of year. It is especially galling when Government incompetence causes those financial worries. I know that most Members of Parliament encounter many Child Support Agency cases in which the CSA has been unable to enforce judgments and make parents who do not have care of their children pay for their maintenance.
Recently, I came across a case in which the ex-husband had made significant maintenance payments because he earned a good salary, but my constituent was left on benefits and did not know that the payments were being made. That went on for several years, and she found out only through a freedom of information request. If she could have got the payments to which she was entitled for her and her children, she would have been in a position to take on part-time work and make pension contributions, and her financial situation would be entirely different. That is an example of the appalling mess into which the CSA gets.
Another example of Government incompetence is the tax credit system. My constituent Mr. MacMillan did not confirm his income in time and consequently was presented with a bill for more than £8,000 to repay. Suddenly getting a letter through the door demanding such a sum is terrifying for people on tax credits. The figure has thankfully been reduced to £4,000, but it is still a significant sum. Let us remember that my constituent was entitled to the money, and that the position arose because of one error of not confirming his income in time. That is an incredibly harsh way in which to treat individuals, especially when the tax credit system gets so many things wrong through overpayments or underpayments. I have lost count of the constituents who tell me that they wish they had never applied for tax credits.
Kaupthing Isle of Man is another financial issue that worries many constituents. Many had invested, sometimes through UK companies, and had no idea that their money had been taken offshore, but they now stand to lose significant sums. On 13 November, the Leader of the House said:
“I shall raise it with my colleagues in the Treasury to establish whether a written ministerial statement is necessary in respect of those with deposits in Isle of Man financial institutions.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2008; Vol. 482 c. 962.]
No written statement has yet been made, so I wonder whether the Deputy Leader of the House will give us an update when he sums up. Will there be a Treasury statement? What are the Government doing to press the Icelandic Government to honour their commitments and compensate those who are affected?
In Treasury questions, I raised the depressing issue of unemployment and the 85 jobs going from Flexible Ducting in my constituency. Woolworths also employs more than 30 people in Kirkintilloch in my constituency. The Government could take a leaf out of President-elect Obama’s book, by investing in a green jobs revolution. They should also put much more investment into installation for homes, which would cut energy bills and help people to save money. We need to use this opportunity to create those jobs and help people to cut their bills.
It is not only the national Government who should be making their mark; it is local government as well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) pointed out. His council—along with Islington and, I am sure, others as well—has reduced the payment times for small and medium-sized businesses in its area to just 10 days. I very much hope that my local council will adopt such a policy. Indeed, I wrote to it earlier this month asking it to do so, but sadly there has been no response so far. The urgency of the situation means that action is required now from local authorities, and I hope that East Dunbartonshire council will act to do this. Other councils have shown that it is possible, and it is an essential way of assisting businesses during the economic downturn.
I want to turn to an issue of great concern to a particular town in my constituency. The Low Moss area of Bishopbriggs, one of the biggest towns in my constituency, was chosen as a temporary site for a prison more than 40 years ago. The term “ temporary” is an interesting one because, 40 years later, the prison is still there. Recently, against the wishes of the local community and the local council, the Scottish Government decided to build a new prison facility there. Despite the fact that it has been called Low Moss prison for 40 years, we have now discovered that, to add insult to injury, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service are now planning to call the new facility Bishopbriggs prison. Indeed, they have confirmed to me in writing that HMP Bishopbriggs is its working title. No reason has been given for this change.
Bishopbriggs is a cheerful and friendly town with a great community spirit. It has produced such esteemed figures as the politician Thomas Muir of Huntershill and, more recently, the talented musician, Amy Macdonald. Understandably, the people of the town do not want the first thing that people think of when they hear the name Bishopbriggs to be a prison. I have started a petition against the name change, and hundreds of people have already signed it. The strength of local feeling could not be clearer: the name HMP Bishopbriggs simply must be dropped.
I want to talk about the possibility of speeding up Parliament’s entry into the 21st century. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House has taken an interest in online matters. Indeed, I remember that, before his promotion to the Government, he was often seen asking questions in business questions to the Leader of the House about whether we should have more e-tabling of signatures for early-day motions and such like. More and more MPs are now using the internet to connect better with their constituents, and Parliament should also embrace this new technology, whether through social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace, or through interactive forums, encouraging comments on websites, podcasts, video logs—known as v-logs, they are small videos that can be uploaded to sites such as YouTube—or, indeed, a new website launched today called tweetminster.co.uk. It aggregates all the mini-blogs or “twitters” of those MPs who twitter regularly. I declare an interest, as one of the five MPs identified as those who use this service. The others are the hon. Members for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone). This is an example of a way of connecting more immediately with our constituents, and I would encourage other hon. Members to make full use of the advantages that the internet offers, particularly in relation to the younger audience, who would not normally declare a huge interest in politics.
I have noticed some reticence in the House, however, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to press this issue forward. I have found it difficult to make progress on a couple of issues in a particular. One is the campaign that I have been running to persuade the House authorities to allow Members—and, indeed, members of the public—to upload clips of what happens in the Chamber on to sites such as YouTube. At the moment, we are allowed to upload them on to our own websites, which is helpful in some ways, but we do not have the opportunities that other sites afford, such as forwarding and sharing these clips easily between like-minded people; posting them on to social networking sites; and rating them and commenting on them so that particularly popular clips can be flagged up through the sites for a wider audience.
Yes, most people can watch the BBC Parliament channel, but they probably do not do so. They see Prime Minister’s questions on television, and I have to say that I shudder to think of their response to it, because I do not think that it portrays the House at its best. If perhaps little nuggets of this House’s holding the Government to account by asking questions or of various other parts of parliamentary business could be distributed among like-minded groups and individuals, I think that it would be a great advantage for democracy. I know the Administration Committee is looking into this and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will also take it up.
I also urge the Deputy Leader of the House to take up the “Free our Bills” campaign. My early-day motion 221 has been signed by 72 Members so far. It is intended to change the way in which we tag legislation electronically to make it easier for people to follow where we are in the Bill process and make comments, which can only increase people’s engagement.
Finally, I echo the thanks of other Members to the staff of this House and to those working hard in our constituencies. I hope that the House will allow me a little indulgence to say a special thank you to my researcher, Nick Hutton, who has been a member of my staff since I was elected three and a half years ago. I have to say that he is an absolute star, but sadly he will be leaving in the new year to take up a new job. He will be greatly missed.
Merry Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to everyone in Parliament.
In these debates, Madam Deputy Speaker, our whole life almost passes in front of us, but I want to concentrate on a serious issue that has come up in my constituency about the care of the residents in the residential homes owned and managed by the company Southern Cross. The story goes back two years when I was approached by relatives of parents who lived in Southern Cross care homes in my constituency and across the London borough of Hillingdon.
A range of concerns were raised, including poor standards of care and cleanliness in the homes, lack of staff, lack of management, poor diet and lack of stimulation. I heard anecdotes of elderly people slumped in their chairs while the television was blaring. I heard about lack of respect as well as lack of care, as elderly people were spoken to in a demeaning manner. I heard about hectoring and even a bullying atmosphere was described. Anxieties were expressed at that stage about the physical security of the elderly and about the heavy manhandling of elderly people.
I took up individual complaints with the London borough of Hillingdon and the local primary care trust, but the frequency of the complaints worried me. In June 2006, I wrote to the then chief executive of the Hillingdon primary care trust to arrange a meeting with relatives to discuss the standards of care. We sat down and went through the issues together. I attended local meetings of the carers association and the Alzheimer’s Society and listened to similar concerns.
We were informed at the PCT meeting that our views would be listened to and fed back to the local council as well as the PCT itself. Despite that, I continued to receive in subsequent months individual complaints and expressions of concern about standards of care. I thus wrote to the director of social services at Hillingdon and to the chief executive of the Commission for Social Care Inspection. I enclosed a copy of a constituent’s letter that outlined examples of the concerns.
As I have said, I was still contacted too frequently by relatives of elderly people who express their concerns and I said at that stage that I was extremely worried that these people were vulnerable. I asked for the director’s views on the standards of care, I told the commissioner that I was extremely worried and I suggested to the director of social services that we should have an independent review. I welcomed the commission’s involvement and offered to meet Hillingdon council and the commission. I received no response from the London borough of Hillingdon, but I liaised with the commission to set up a meeting at the House of Commons at which relatives and representatives of the carers association could explain their concerns.
We were told at that meeting that the Commission for Social Care Inspection would be inspecting Hillingdon in 2008 and that there would be an attempt to bring the inspection forward. At that stage at least, I thought that we were making some progress. I was relieved that we had at least engaged. The CSCI inspection took place in early 2008 and its report was published in March. It concluded:
“The London borough of Hillingdon’s performance in safeguarding adults was poor…Quality assurance processes in relation to adult safeguarding were underdeveloped and there were some key weaknesses… Safeguarding recording practice was generally poor”—
and it continued like that.
Although the report is clearly damning on the issue of safeguarding the elderly, others as well as me found it fairly superficial. It offered a weak approach and it lacked a follow-through. The commission was too willing to accept excuses, unwilling to follow through improvements and unwilling to confront providers themselves with their weaknesses. Nevertheless, I thought that we were moving on again and were on the right path to raising standards. Six to nine months later, regrettably, constituents’ complaints keep coming. The examples are just the same as before: lack of physical care, lack of nutrition and so forth. One person’s father was losing weight yet the home did not even have the scales to measure it.
Because of the lack of consistent improvement, I approached one of the local councillors, Councillor John Major, who has been assiduous in raising these issues. He approached the leader of the council. We suggested an informal meeting with relatives, the carers association and Age Concern to have a chat to ensure that the leader of the council understood the concerns. The leader of the council is the council’s champion for the elderly. Unfortunately, he declined the meeting. I received a note from Councillor Major saying that the leader was discussing the matter with a fellow cabinet member. It appears that the meeting that was proposed as a way forward was not the way in which they wanted to deal with the situation. I was disappointed by that response.
Having got nowhere in securing redress through the leader of the council, three weeks ago I met the chief executive of the Hillingdon primary care trust with my neighbour, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), and I raised the concerns at that meeting. In contrast to the council, the PCT provided me with a detailed briefing note on what was happening in the individual homes. We were informed at that point that all admissions to the homes had been suspended.
As a result of one serious incident on 30 October, the police were called in. I will not mention individual homes because I do not want to worry my constituents any further, but in each of the homes at some stage admissions seem to have been halted by Hillingdon because of various concerns about the standards of care. There had been a litany of complaints throughout the year which had to be investigated, and when they had been investigated, further complaints arose. In one instance there were allegations that notices had been put up warning staff not to whistleblow to the Commission for Social Care Inspection.
There seems to be a typical pattern of behaviour. When a complaint is made, the company reacts by putting in a manager from another home. Intensive efforts are made to improve the standard of care. The improvements last a few months and the manager is pulled out. At the same time, the home where the manager worked previously deteriorates. The cycle has been going on year after year. While I was being briefed by the primary care trust, local Councillors Anthony Way and John Major insisted on a briefing from council officers. That reiterated exactly the same complaints—lack of staff, lack of training, lack of record keeping, lack of respect for the elderly, health care issues and lack of communication throughout.
The question for me is why the situation of continuous complaints has been allowed to happen, with the evident risk to elderly people. One reason, I have discovered, is that the council did not have the staff in place to commission and monitor the contracts awarded to Southern Cross. I have had sight of a letter from a council officer that confirms that there should have been five staff in place. Last year there was only one. The council recruited four staff, but two of those took redundancy, so there are only two members of staff. The council did not have the staff to monitor the contracts, find out what was going on, decide on appropriate action and take that action.
A second reason is that the council let the contract for residential care for the elderly on such a scale to Southern Cross over a 10-year period that Southern Cross has a virtual monopoly in Hillingdon. The council closed down its own homes and has very little alternative accommodation in the private sector, so Southern Cross has the council over a barrel. Southern Cross has become one of the largest providers of care for the elderly in the country. It is ruthless in the pursuit of profits. To gain a market share, I believe it has introduced loss leaders and maximised its profits by cutting staff, cutting wages and failing to invest in the basic services of those establishments.
I read a recent report in The Times on Southern Cross standards, which was informed by numerous comments by employees and former employees confirming the report’s headline, “filth and abuse in care home.” Earlier this year the company was on the point of financial collapse and I believe it made even more cuts in its service delivery. I pay tribute to the hard-working staff in those homes. They are underpaid and lacking in managerial support, yet they do their best in that environment.
There is a third reason why the scandal has been allowed to persist for so long. It is the one that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) mentioned: for too long, the needs of the elderly in our society have been ignored. They are swept to one side. The elderly do not count as much as others in our society. That must end. One small way in which we could demonstrate that they do count is by tackling Southern Cross in our local area, the London borough of Hillingdon, and nationally. I wrote 10 days ago to the Secretary of State for Health asking for Ministers to intervene as a matter of urgency in Southern Cross in the London borough of Hillingdon.
I also think there is a need for a wider review of the way in which we treat and care for the elderly, however, particularly in the privatised sector. We cannot sit back and let elderly people be put at risk in this way. There has been case after case in my constituency of what I consider to be severe neglect, and as I said, the police have been called to one home to investigate the physical abuse of an elderly person by the staff.
Members have mentioned the case of baby P, which has caused distress to the nation as well as throughout the House. I give this warning: unless we take decisive action fast on the care of the elderly and elderly care standards, we shall inevitably be faced with a granny P or a granddad P. It is coming; indeed, it may well have happened in our own area as a result of the activities of Southern Cross as a poor provider of residential care for the elderly. I urge my hon. Friend the Leader of the House to go to the Secretary of State for Health and say that this is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed locally and nationally.
As always, it is a great privilege to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). What he has said is absolutely right. As soon as possible after Christmas, I shall try to arrange a meeting between us and the leader of the authority, and we will also take up the issue with the Department. We are all very concerned about the care of the elderly, and I am afraid it is true that all too often elderly people seem to be somewhat forgotten.
According to today’s headlines about the ambulance and health services, they are at a critical point. I want to pay tribute to the ambulance service, because only last week my mother, who is 89, was taken to hospital by ambulance—thankfully, she is out of hospital now. I saw for myself the problems experienced by Hillingdon hospital, such as trolley waits. The ambulance personnel, for whom I have the highest regard, were having to wait with their charges until they could hand them over to the nursing staff, which meant long delays. While they were there, they could not be out doing what they wanted to do, and they were not taking breaks. I saw a variety of things that filled me with admiration for the work that they do, and, of course, for the staff of Hillingdon hospital.
That experience also made me realise that, despite everything, there is still a long way to go in relation to care. Most of the people whom I happened to see in the hospital were elderly, and very frightened. Many of those who arrive there do not have relations or friends with them. The situation is very worrying, and we must look into it.
When I was on the hospital site I met the chief executive, Mr. David McVittie. I have been very impressed by him on a number of occasions. He is always out there, walking the wards. As a retailer myself, I would describe him as a floorwalker. Staff members told me that he knew most of their names, which I considered very impressive. So it is a shame that, having said what a wonderful bloke he is, I must now say something that will irritate him slightly.
Hillingdon hospital wants a rebuild. It is working towards that, and the Government are considering it. RAF Uxbridge is being sold off, and it would be a wonderful site on which to rebuild the hospital for not only my constituents but the whole borough of Hillingdon. In fact, it would be better for the constituents of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). We heard this week that a new college was to open in Uxbridge, with 500 nursing students. I cannot help feeling that the two establishments should be next to each other. May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House—whom I welcome to his position—that at some stage we should get the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence together to discuss what I think is a wonderful opportunity? I have been told that it is not possible to use the RAF Uxbridge site for reasons involving foundation trust status and all sorts of interesting financial things, but I cannot help feeling that we must work around that.
I want to say something about the RAF, because personnel from RAF Uxbridge and RAF Northolt are currently serving overseas. I am thinking of 32 Squadron in particular, but there are others serving in the Falklands, Turkey, the middle east, Afghanistan and Iraq. I pay tribute to them and their families.
I was contacted recently by a wonderful serving warrant officer, who told me the one thing that he was concerned about while serving was the appalling state of accommodation at RAF Uxbridge. Principally because it is going to close down, there has not been much movement on improving it, but I am going to see it—I have spoken to the relevant Minister, and he has given me permission to do so. I am sure that hon. Members will want to hear about the situation there, and it is to be hoped that something can be done, because it is appalling if, while members of the armed forces are serving abroad, often in dangerous operation areas, they are worrying about the conditions their families are living in. That is a very sad state of affairs.
I welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement today on withdrawal from Iraq. As the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), is present, I wish to tell him that the tone of the response of his leader, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), was regrettable. The right hon. Gentleman was not a Member of this House when we debated going into Iraq; many Members on both sides of the House voted against the war but it was a difficult decision—at the time, it was not black and white. The idea that the Conservative and Labour Members who voted for the war were being gung-ho is erroneous, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman might, on reflection, come to regret his tone.
We have in our debate talked about uncertainties in many areas, and I must mention another one. My friend the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington would have mentioned it, but his speech was limited to 10 minutes. He wanted to discuss Southern Cross, so I shall mention the other issue on his behalf now. We hope to have the decision on Heathrow in January. It has been put off, but many people, not only in our constituencies but across west London, are again thinking this Christmas that next year they will be told that they have to leave their homes and that they have no future in their area.
I will not follow the hon. Gentleman down that line, although, as he knows, I have promised to stand in front of a bulldozer, and despite the entreaties of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), I think that I should bulk up a bit to make sure it is a fair contest.
Yesterday, I was able to have a little go at the Government about the reduction in VAT from the position of being a shop owner—and shop worker, too, in fact—so I will not reiterate why it is not a good idea. At this time of year, we always talk about the emergency services and pay tribute to their staff, which is perfectly right, but we should also pay tribute to shop workers, who will have to go out there from Boxing day onwards. I can say from personal experience that customers at sale time are not always the nicest, and as we are being told on the television to barter, it is actually quite an unpleasant experience and some people get quite aggressive. I pay tribute to all shop workers, and I ask Members, and all our constituents, to bear in mind that the person on the other side of the counter is a human being as well.
However, so that I do not always get accused of being like Scrooge and being miserable and Victor Meldrew-like—although I must admit that I said Scrooge was a disgrace, because he gave in at the end—let me say something on the jolly side of things. I went to a performance of “Hot Mikado” by Bishopshalt school. We all go to lots of such events, and it might be invidious to mention just one, but when we see how well children perform in such school productions—they put everything into them, and give so much joy to themselves and many others—we realise that it is all worth it, and that young people, apart from the tiny minority whom we mostly talk about here in this place, are a great tribute to their own generation.
I have received some wonderful letters from pupils at Highfield primary school, who came to the House on an educational visit. After I had seen them, they wrote to me asking me to come to the school—I cannot quite understand why, but perhaps they thought I look like Father Christmas. Interestingly, some of them said they were interested in hearing about the role of an MP because they want to be an MP. Despite what we hear—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned some wonderful things, but, sadly, I do not even have a link from the luddite website—if we just talk to people about politics it can be made interesting, and that will get them involved.
Finally, I wish everyone a happy Christmas. I wish a happy Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the other Deputy Speakers, to Mr. Speaker, to all the staff and to the civil servants who work in the Opposition Whips Office, who have to put up with us and do so admirably. This is perhaps not following protocol, but I wish a happy Christmas to one person who, more than anyone else, allows me to do my job to the best of my ability. I am talking about my wife, and I thank her.
I want to say a few words about welfare reform. I had hoped to deliver this speech during Monday’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, but after hours of sitting on the Benches, and as the time available got shorter and shorter, it seemed that it would not be possible to do justice to the subject. I suspect that will be the case again today, so I offer just some preliminary thoughts.
What concerns me at the moment is the criticism of the Government’s proposals coming from two, probably opposite, sides of the political spectrum. Both have quite a distorted take on what we are doing, and neither helps to take the debate forward. The criticisms do not help the people whom the welfare reform proposals are intended to help. A great deal of scaremongering is going on, and some very vulnerable people could be distressed by it.
The first viewpoint, to which I do not subscribe, says that the Labour Government have, by their support for the welfare state over the past 11 years, fostered a welfare dependency culture in this country. That view states that it has almost become the norm to be unemployed, people can have quite a comfortable life living on benefits and we have bred what I tend to call the Jeremy Kyle generation—other people call it the underclass—whereby people have no ambition or aspiration, and there are inter-generational cycles of poverty and worklessness. That has most recently been thrown into the spotlight by the cases of baby P and Shannon Matthews, where the parents or adults involved have been presented as typical examples of the people who have been bred by that sort of culture.
The other take on our proposals is that the Government have become bullies. People say that we are almost dragging people from their sickbeds, and that we are forcing people who have very serious disabilities and mothers who have just given birth down to the job centre to take on work that might be completely unsuitable with the threat of benefits being taken away if they do not comply. Neither view is helpful, and I shall say a bit more about that in a moment.
The other thing that surprises me is the number of people who seem to regard what the Government have been saying lately as something of a departure from what we have been doing since we were elected in 1997. It has been said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was entrusted with thinking the unthinkable, but the Government subsequently lost their nerve and did not go down that path. These welfare reform proposals are very much a continuation of what we have been trying to do since 1997—helping people to make the transition from welfare into work. It is frustrating to have to reiterate that in this debate, but I wish to reiterate it briefly.
First, our approach is about the financial side of things: ensuring that people would be better off in work, which involves measures such as tax credits and the minimum wage. Secondly, it is about being able to facilitate working, which means making affordable child care available to people, having flexible working so that people can juggle their other responsibilities and giving the necessary personalised support and encouragement to job seekers through things such as the new deal and Jobcentre Plus.
I met Jobcentre Plus staff in Bristol last Friday. We talked in detail about what would really help the welfare reform proposals to work, and we found that it comes down to small things, such as the availability of child care. One of the things that those staff told me—I have been banging on about poor public transport in Bristol ever since I got elected—is that the most important thing for those people, and for lone parents in particular, is how close their jobs are to the schools and their home. People do not want to travel for longer than 20 minutes or half an hour, because when someone is on a tight schedule and they have to drop the kids off at school, go to work for a few hours and then get back to the school gates to pick the kids up or get to the childminders’ place, having to use unreliable, expensive buses or having to travel to the other side of the city means that things do not stack up for them.
As we introduce personalised support, it is important to remember that it is not about a back-of-the-envelope calculation that someone would be financially better off back at work, because work has to fit into their lives and be practicable and doable. Otherwise, people will try working, give up and fall foul of the new sanctions regime, and their children will be the ones to suffer.
The Government deserve credit for approaching this issue in terms not only of adults who are already in the system, but of children. We hear a lot about apathetic, good-for-nothing youth, but I have met phenomenal young people in my constituency, and they certainly were not born with silver spoons in their mouths. I was at an awards ceremony in Bristol the other day for young achievers. They do community work and make a real difference to people’s lives through their voluntary activity. Part of that is down to changes in the school system. One of my sisters has three children and has just returned from living in Spain. It is amazing to talk to her kids, because they cannot believe that the schools in Kent that they now attend have laptops, interactive whiteboards and independent learning. In Spain, the schools are much like they were when I was at school, with learning by rote, copying things off a blackboard and no stimulation or incentive to take an interest in what is being learned. They have only been back a few months, so the feeling may wear off, but at the moment they are delighted to go to school.
I have many sisters, and I could probably keep the debate going until 6 o’clock talking about various aspects of their lives, but one of them has two sons, one aged 18 and one aged six—quite a gap. She tells me that the difference between when the 18-year-old started school and when the six-year-old started school is phenomenal. She has seen the years of change under this Labour Government, which shows that we have made a real difference and that what we have done is working.
However, we still have a long way to go. I was struck by what one of the Jobcentre Plus staff said to me on Friday. I presented her with a Remploy regional award for her work with people with disabilities—she went on to win the national award, too. Her name is Julia, and she talked to me about people who have been put on the new employment support allowance regime since October. She said:
“Only one of them doesn’t want to work—and he will by the time I’ve finished with him.”
That might sound like a threat, but it was not. She knows that people are sometimes very nervous when they come to see her. People think that they cannot possibly work, that their disabilities or illness are too great, that they have not worked for years and that they have no qualifications or skills. She knows that she can work with people like that and, with support, encouragement and the right training courses, she can help to turn their lives around. She is not a box-ticker or a bureaucrat, nor is she interested in forcing people into work just for the sake of saying that she has met her targets, but she is passionately devoted to her work. I met some of her colleagues who are working on the new deal for lone parents, and I was impressed by just how seriously they take their work. They welcome what the Government are doing.
People talk about an underclass. In one way, I am reluctant to dwell on this issue, because the danger is that it distorts the picture of the majority of those on benefits or who rely on the welfare state as a safety net, the vast majority of whom want to work. It is easy to present a stigmatised and stereotypical image of a lone parent, but the truth is that only 2 to 3 per cent. of lone parents are teenagers, and only 15 per cent. have never been married to or lived with the father of their child.
We cannot deny that some families have a multitude of problems and lead dysfunctional and chaotic lives. We need to look at them almost as a separate category, because they will not benefit to such an extent from the new proposals. We have to consider, for example, family intervention projects—we have Sure Start, and the Home Office has a family intervention project. The danger is being accused of interfering too much in people’s lives, but when such families have children, the problems can be passed on tenfold, so we have a responsibility to intervene.
The issue is not about judging people by their family structures, which is very wrong. We can talk about whether marriage is the best state in which to bring up children, but we must accept that many people do not grow up in that sort of situation. I do not judge people by whether their parents are married to each other, cohabiting or divorced, or by whether they live with a single parent or stay with their dad at weekends. We should judge people by their relationships, their parenting, their values and their behaviour. I do not think that the financial levers in the welfare reform Bill are enough. We need to have a good hard look at what else we can do to break the cycle with those people.
I do not think that Karen Matthews is at all typical of the single parents out there. We have to tell people over and over again that she is not typical, because otherwise it will undermine the whole consensus on which the welfare state is built. However, I do not think that we can turn our backs on people like that and just write them off, either.
I just have time to say merry Christmas to everybody, especially you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am delighted to be able to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. Christmas and new year are a good time of year to reflect on what has happened in the last year and to make resolutions for the next year.
This year has been a very mixed year for my constituents and in the few minutes I have available, I want to concentrate on the loss of services in rural areas. Indeed, the Government’s own Commission for Rural Communities estimates that about one in five people live in rural areas, of whom half live in small rural towns. It also states that between 2004 and 2007, life in rural areas compared with that in urban areas has declined. Indeed, its director for analysis, Nicola Lloyd, said:
“A decline in rural services such as post offices and shops continues to concern rural communities and this makes life even more difficult for people who are deprived who are often unable to afford to travel to reach the services and support they need.”
As my speech will show, it is very difficult for those who are vulnerable and who lack basic services and public transport, particularly elderly people, to live in rural areas.
The demographics in my constituency have been particularly sharp in relation to recent Government policy. The number of young people in the Cotswolds is declining and in that respect the Government’s spending on education is particularly worrying. We have a lot of small rural schools and when the local education authority is at the bottom of the expenditure league per pupil, it makes those schools difficult to sustain. Indeed, I think it is very unfair that a child of equivalent family, degree of vulnerability and IQ is substantially disadvantaged in terms of funding from the Government simply because of their postcode. Let me cite the recent figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Spending per pupil for children aged between three and 19 in Hackney in 2005-06, the latest year for which figures are available, was £6,740. In the Cotswolds, the figure was only £3,980. That is almost half. For that to be the case for an equivalent child just because of their postcode is not fair.
That inequity was perpetuated over the past 10 years, because whereas Hackney received a 39.8 per cent. increase over that time, the Cotswolds received only a 36.8 per cent. increase. The inequality was therefore perpetuated and in the recent Telegraph league table, published in January, Gloucestershire was cited as 16th out of 149 LEAs. In other words, it was one of the nearest to the bottom. If Gloucestershire were even brought up to the average, that would mean another £200 per pupil. As many of my primary schools have pointed out to me, that £200 would make a huge difference to how they could spend.
In Gloucestershire we are finding—the figures from the Department of Children, Schools and Families prove this—that the number of statements issued in schools has declined over the past 10 years. The number of children with special needs has increased, but more worryingly the increase has come at secondary level. In other words, people who need special assistance and who need statementing are not being picked up at an early enough stage. I have seen several cases recently where parents have tried to get their children special needs help or statementing and have had a huge difficulty in doing so. Even parents with very poor levels of income have had to go and get their own private educational and psychological reports in order to be able to prove their case. I do not think that that is acceptable.
While there are fewer children as a proportion of the population in our constituencies, at the other end of the scale there are more pensioners. One of the scandals in this country is that 1.3 million pensioners do not claim pension credit, and the total loss is £2 billion, or about £13 a week for each pensioner who does not claim. About two thirds of all eligible pensioners claim pension credit and council tax benefit, while almost 90 per cent. of those eligible claim housing benefit. The Department for Work and Pensions needs to look at the matter, as it is unacceptable in our society today that we hide these benefits away. Everyone entitled to them should draw them—that should be what happens.
I turn now to a point made by several hon. Members this morning. In this financial tsunami, as I call it, pensioners and savers are being disadvantaged by the fact that interest rates have fallen to very low levels. I do not want the Government to cite this as an Opposition expenditure pledge, but we should look at introducing special measures for pensioners. For instance, pensioner bonds could be delivered through the Post Office, thus giving pensioners a better deal and providing more work for post offices.
In the short time that I have left, I want to say something about post offices. This year, 12 of the 32 offices in my constituency have closed—a total almost unprecedented in any other constituency—and all the closures were done purely by Government diktat, according to the criteria that had been laid down.
One of the two post office on the outskirts of Cirencester turned over £500,000 in the month of January. It was highly profitable, yet both offices were still closed. Now, 19,000 people all have to get into their cars—or try to use non-existent public transport—to get to the centre of the town. The 21 villages that they live in cover 100 square miles, so the decision to close the two post offices on the outskirts of Cirencester was absolutely crazy.
On behalf of the Conservative party, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) welcomed the Government’s recent announcement on the Royal Mail. I also welcomed it, but I do not approve of some of the changes that have been made over the past couple of weeks. As I do every year, I visited the sorting office in Cirencester last week to wish my postmen a happy Christmas, but they were a relatively unhappy lot because of the reduction in the amount of overtime and the higher targets that have been set. I have no problem with those changes, which have been made in the interests of efficiency, but it is unacceptable to introduce them—and thus make people miserable— just before Christmas.
Yesterday, I heard that my Royal Mail sorting office in Wotton-under-Edge is to close. I shall meet representatives of Royal Mail tomorrow but, again, why did the decision have to be announced within a week of Christmas? It only adds to the misery of the people who will lose their jobs, and I hope that Royal Mail will do its level best to find everyone new employment in adjoining sorting offices.
I want to make a few brief remarks about railway services in my area. One piece of good news is that the capacity of the Cotswold line is to be doubled, something for which I have campaigned successfully with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). However, although a better economic case can be made for it, there will be no doubling of capacity on the line between Swindon and Kemble. As one of the most cost-effective schemes in the south-west, it would have joined the cities of Swindon, Cheltenham and Gloucester at a cost of only £38 million. Connectivity would have been much improved, and the doubling of that line must be achieved to ensure that Gloucestershire’s economic growth and prosperity are to be maintained.
I turn now to the announcement of the Government’s U-turn on doctor’s dispensary surgeries made by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope). It is extremely welcome to my constituents but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said, people should not have been put through so much anxiety for so long. A further anxiety is that the new super-surgeries will put a number of my small rural doctor’s surgeries at risk. Again, I hope that the Government will not keep elderly and vulnerable people in anticipation for too long: if there are to be changes, let us make them quickly, as there is no need to keep people in suspense for months and months.
I hope that the Government will give rural areas very careful consideration. People think that the Cotswolds are rich and rosy, and in many ways they are. It is a superb place to live, but there are 110 villages and 11 market towns in my constituency and there are pockets of vulnerable, elderly and poor people in every one. They need just as much help from their Government as anybody anywhere else in this country.
The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is not in his place. He is chairman of the all-party beer group. I am chairman of the all-party wine group. I hope that everyone will visit their local pub. I wholly endorse that wish. When they go there, I hope that they will make the right choice and have a glass of good red burgundy instead of a glass of beer, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and every hon. Member will join me in wishing that everyone drinks responsibly this Christmas.
May I at this point, Madam Deputy Speaker, wish you, Mr. Speaker, the staff of the House and my own staff, who work hard day in, day out to support me, a very merry, happy Christmas and a successful new year?
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise many issues. I do not expect the Minister to reply to any of them this afternoon, given the time, but if the appropriate Department could respond by Easter, that would be appreciated.
The debate takes place against the grimmest background that I have ever known. The country is in a mess; the world is in a mess. The British economy is in freefall. I am not sure that it has been appreciated just how serious things are. Without getting involved in an argument about the state of the British economy, let us make it clear that there has been no boom, but certainly there has been bust. How on earth a strategy can be pursued of the country borrowing more and more money, in the hope that that will get us out of the present state of affairs, I do not know. It is ridiculous. Roll on the general election, and let the British people decide. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, the Prime Minister underestimates the intelligence of the British people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) mentioned the war with Iraq. I will always regret that, on 18 March 2003, I was unwise enough to believe what Tony Blair said about weapons of mass destruction reaching this country and other parts within 45 minutes. I will regret that decision until the day I die. The latest combined estimated bill of £3.7 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan means that the two operations will have cost the taxpayer £13.2 billion over six years. That has not put the British economy in great shape. Approximately 8,100 British troops are now serving in Afghanistan and the Government have not ruled out sending more, despite what they said this afternoon. A total of 311 British soldiers have been killed—242 in action—and sent home in body bags from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. This includes 133 in Afghanistan and 178 in Iraq. I know that the Prime Minister told us earlier today that 41 countries have signed up to our involvement in Afghanistan, but I need more convincing about the real objective there. If anyone can come up with a solution to terrorism when people are prepared to take their own life, I would be interested to hear it.
We have just had an election in America. After Mr. Bush, I was not too concerned whether Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain took over; I just thought that whoever won would be better. I have to say that Labour has slavishly followed the American lead since 1997, with dire consequences in this country. Mr. Obama was elected on the basis of change. Well, his front-line team all seem to be Washington insiders—they are not new at all. Now that Mrs. Clinton is going to be gracing the stage in foreign affairs, I want our British Government, whatever party is in power, to put British interests first and no longer follow slavishly the American lead.
Many Members of Parliament will have constituents who have come from Zimbabwe. Their plight is awful. A lady who came to my last surgery told me that she had been raped in Zimbabwe, her husband had been murdered and her children are in South Africa. What can we say to someone in that situation? Another constituent, aged 18, entered the UK in August 2002 and has lived with her mother and sister in Westcliff ever since. Her mother is HIV positive and her father died in 2006. She already has some A and O-levels but she is expected to pay fees of £11,000 as an international student, yet she is not allowed to work and nor are her mother and sister. I hope that the appropriate Department will come up with a solution for them.
The arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was a disgrace and a stain on the mother of Parliaments. Any free-minded Member of Parliament must not let the matter drop. It is an absolute disgrace. A number of issues concern me about the police in general. I deal with any number of local cases in Essex—quite what the police authority does these days I do not know.
One of my constituents was verbally abused and threatened by two clients at a letting agency. The police did not turn up. The case is with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where it goes on and on. Another wonderful family in my constituency lives next door to a serving Met police officer. There were all sorts of allegations between the two families, and eventually Essex police arrested my constituent, in front of his family, because he was accused of throwing a stone at a fence. That chap was arrested in front of his family and the local rabbi had to go down to the police station. That case has gone to the IPCC too. It is a wonderful organisation, but cases go on and on and nothing happens. I am dealing with one case that has been with the IPCC for more than four years.
Constituents ask me, “Are we living in a police state?”, and I wonder what can be going on when we have had a Labour Government since 1997. When they arrived, they were hostile to the police, but it was funny how the cash for honours issue was dealt with.
A number of colleagues have mentioned the baby P case. Recently, I was talking to Peter Forrest, who was the opposition leader on Haringey council and had a lead role during the Victoria Climbié inquiry. What he told me about what has gone on in Haringey is disgraceful. Recently, on a Channel 4 programme, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families was asked why Ofsted gave Haringey social services a three-star rating just after baby P died. The Minister said that Haringey had deceived Ofsted over the data. Mr. Forrest tells me that exactly the same point was made during the Victoria Climbié inquiry. When I was a member of the Health Committee, we took evidence from Lord Laming and we were told that there would never be another such disaster. Unfortunately, we all know what has happened.
I was privileged to pilot the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which should eliminate fuel poverty among vulnerable people by 2010 and for everyone by 2016. Recently, I was lobbied by Macmillan, which is concerned about the plight of cancer patients who need help with their heating bills because they cannot work or even move around their homes.
A constituent came to see me who, 28 years ago, had been imprisoned for five years because he was supposed to have witnessed a robbery—why he got five years I do not know. Twenty-eight years on he still cannot get insurance, and I should be grateful if a Department could come back to me with an answer about that issue.
Trinity family centre, which is a wonderful organisation funded by the lottery, helps many people. It has run out of money so any help that can be given would be greatly appreciated.
I am delighted to tell the House that Southend council is doing brilliantly; its star ratings in every area of its responsibility are better than ever. We recently discovered a Saxon site and we should very much like some money from the Government to assist us with a museum there, and if the Government could come up with a solution in respect of the roads that, too, would be greatly appreciated. On planning, I am very disappointed about the pressure put on locally to produce new housing and lovely buildings are then razed to the ground.
Tomorrow, I will be impersonating Father Christmas in Southend, West, but 24 hours before then, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas, good health, peace, prosperity and a much better new year.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I shall not go into the finer points of his speech, but we are usually on the same side on human rights in Iran—an issue to which we will return in the new year.
I shall focus my brief comments on employment prospects in my constituency and exemplify some of the points that were made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on rurality and some of the challenges that face rural communities. He mentioned the post offices in his constituency. One of my great memories of the past year is the campaign that we fought to save 14 post offices in the Ceredigion constituency. Sadly, we lost that battle. In fact, the Post Office added another one to the list. Thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who fought to save one of the post offices in Brecon, we lost another one.
I hoped that we could value the Post Office’s claim that weight would be added to the campaign to keep a post office open if it was the last shop in the village. That was the experience of five post offices in Ceredigion: they were the last retail outlets in some of the most scattered rural communities in Wales. Sadly, despite the Post Office’s words and the elaborate consultation, it did not accept our argument. I believe that it did not stick to its word, and among the 15 closures, two shops have now gone, very much to the detriment of the communities concerned.
At this time of year, we will not be short of invitations to chapels, churches and school nativity plays. There will be community spirit still in those villages, but no one can say that the spirit of community will be enhanced by the boarding up and the permanent “shut” signs in the windows of those businesses. For those of us who are involved in Post Office consultations, that is a lesson about the value that we can attribute to the words in its criteria documents.
I was prompted to talk about the balance in Ceredigion between the public sector and the private sector by a newspaper article that was brought to my attention. It was published on 1 December in the Daily Mail, of all papers, and the headlines were “Welcome to Soviet Britain” and “Figures reveal the Labour heartlands where half the population relies on the state for a job”. Ten constituencies were listed and, perhaps to my surprise, Ceredigion featured sixth equal in that list. My constituency is not well known as part of the Labour heartland—nor is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—but it does boast a large number of public sector jobs.
Some 40 per cent. of our work force are employed in the public sector in some manifestation. That is no surprise to Ceredigion. We have the national library, the funding settlement for which sadly means that the doors are often shut at weekends now, rather than open. We have two universities—Aberystwyth and Lampeter. The county council obviously covers a wide rural area—again, with a very difficult funding settlement. Of course, we have the national health service, with hospitals in Aberystwyth, Tregaron and Cardigan. However, to balance the picture, we also have the highest proportion of micro-businesses anywhere in Wales. We have an essential balance between the public and private sectors.
At a time when private sector jobs are being lost, we are also feeling the pinch in the public sector. The announcement of the closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in Aberystwyth was a body blow, not least because half way through the consultation, we felt that we had been successful in keeping at least some of the jobs in the compliance section, which was to remain open, albeit with a reduced staff. The expected loss of a further 20 high-skilled jobs at a factory that I visited yesterday—Protherics—in a very rural part of the county at Ffostrasol was a bitter blow. To some people, the loss of 20 jobs may not seem particularly significant, but in a sparsely populated rural area, the effect will be magnified enormously for the local community. On the same day on which those jobs were lost at Protherics, it was announced that hundreds of jobs were lost at Hoover in Merthyr Tydfil. Our sympathy goes out to the people affected.
The point that I want to get across to the House is that rural communities face incredible difficulties. When such decisions are made by people sitting in London or Cardiff—or indeed, in the current climate, in New York or Paris—with their spreadsheets in front of them, do they really understand the implications of some of them for the broader rural community? Ceredigion and West Wales and the Valleys are a convergence funding area—convergence funding follows on from the old objective 1 money—in recognition of the deprived nature of the economy. We are also a Communities First area because of the rural deprivation in many wards across the county.
In the short time available to me, I want to consider the tax office in Aberystwyth. The decision that was taken was a great shock to us in the county. If there is any glimmer of hope—any door that can be pushed open—I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pursue it with his colleagues. We are talking about highly skilled jobs that are really needed in the rural economy. I would particularly like to make the Government aware of the disappointment felt by HMRC staff about the advice on possible redeployment offered to them by their personnel department. The impact assessment relating to Crown buildings in Aberystwyth said:
“Opportunities may exist to transfer to other Government Departments and HMRC has a support package of measures, both financial and personal, to facilitate such transfers. Other Government Departments located in the area include”—
we are talking about Ceredigion, in Wales—
“Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs…Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills…Department for Transport”.
Those Departments do not function in Wales, let alone Ceredigion. Many of my constituents felt insulted by the insensitive way in which they were furnished with a UK-wide document as they heard the news that they were about to lose their jobs.
Of course, any closures are regrettable, but we have real fears for HMRC about future service delivery—fears that may yet be realised. I encourage hon. Members to look at a map of HMRC offices; they will see that HMRC will be void of any presence in Powys, most of rural Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. The exception is the sparsely manned advice centres. When I had a meeting with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and his officials, I was told that a couple of outreach workers will cross Offa’s Dyke from England to resolve any problems as they arise. That is completely unacceptable.
My hon. Friend is of course right. His constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, like my constituency of Ceredigion, boasts a huge number of small businesses. They need advice and support to get them through these difficult times.
When I met the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I was given the distinct impression that one function—the compliance function—would be retained locally. I am keen to find out what changed in the last two or three weeks of the consultation, between our being told that the compliance function was safe in Aberystwyth and that it was to be taken away. Perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House could convey that to the Treasury. On the same day, it was announced that the Merthyr Tydfil HMRC office was to be retained. I do not denigrate that at all; the issue is not whether that office should be retained—of course it should. What causes me concern is that there may well have been some kind of trade-off in the dying days of the consultation, as a result of which my constituents will suffer.
I have one other point to make. It may seem marginal to many, but it is of relevance to my constituency, and it illustrates the feeling that rural constituencies are being left to wither on the vine. It concerns European Community directive 2000/56/EC, which relates to the provision of motorcycle testing centres. Again, if one looks at a map showing motorcycle testing centres post-2009, one finds that there will be no motorcycle testing centres in the whole of Powys and Ceredigion. Anybody in my constituency who wishes to take a motorcycle test—we should remember that they will be learners—will have to travel to Swansea or Shrewsbury, far outside the recommended 45-minute or 20-mile journey. They will have to undertake a 150-mile round trip. It is incumbent on the Driving Standards Agency to look at the matter again.
Broadband has been mentioned. On a brighter note, there is a suggestion that there should be a universal service obligation in broadband provision, and that is to be welcomed. It will certainly be welcomed by Dr. Jenkins and Mrs. Ffrancon of Blaenplwyf in Ceredigion, who will rely desperately on broadband to further their academic and business work.
The electronic identification of sheep is another significant issue affecting the farmers of Ceredigion. We had a debate on the issue in Westminster Hall, and we got some sympathy from the colleague of the Deputy Leader of the House because of the injustice of the scheme. We have received the support of the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrat party and Plaid Cymru, which are against the scheme. Yet it is still pushing on, with potentially huge financial implications for the farming community across the country.
The story of rural communities is a sorry one; I hope that we can enter 2009 with more optimism. Notwithstanding that, I wish everybody—including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—a happy Christmas. From Wales we wish everyone Nadolig llawen.
Order. I should like to try to give everybody the opportunity to speak, so it would be helpful if hon. Members took a little less than the allotted 10 minutes whenever possible.
I shall certainly follow your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Like my colleagues, I should like to wish everyone, particularly the staff who have been so supportive to me in difficult times, a very merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.
Given that Father Christmas—not necessarily the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)—is due shortly, it is tempting to say what I want for Christmas. I want many things for Christmas. I am grateful for having been called to speak, incidentally, given that I have an Adjournment debate on Sri Lanka after this debate.
I have many aspirations for my constituency. There has been a change to railway timetables on the main line from Brighton through East Croydon to London. The authorities have had the problem of shuffling the pressures on that line. That has been particularly difficult because the Gatwick Express dominates track space while being poorly used, and therefore discriminates significantly against the interests of commuters in south London.
One of the impacts of providing additional priority for rail users south of East Croydon has been a withdrawal of the important service that runs eventually from East Croydon to Crystal Palace. That is because of the removal of services from Smitham to London Bridge, particularly in the day time. There is an irony in the reductions, given that at the same time we have had the upsetting news that the Greater London authority has decided not to progress the extension of the tram link to Crystal Palace. Those two pieces of news are a double blow for Croydon and Crystal Palace.
I suggest that one way of finding the cheapest solution for making provision is to reopen what was platform 7 at Norwood Junction station. That would mean that there was a new turn-back facility for trains, which would be able to go to Crystal Palace and Victoria from Norwood Junction. The railway authorities estimated that that would cost just £10 million. The issue exercises many MPs with constituencies to the north of Croydon, Central. I am grateful for the great deal of support that I have had, particularly from Labour Members of Parliament, on that issue. I am also pleased to work with the Conservative council in Croydon, the Labour party in Croydon, Ken Livingstone and the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) to campaign to keep the issue of the Croydon tram link very much on the agenda.
I am afraid to say that as a child it was possible for me to dream of the most generous of presents, and I am going to name one or two more that would be appropriate for Croydon before finishing early to allow other Members sufficient time to contribute. If there is to be significant fiscal stimulation through capital spend by the Government, every opportunity should be taken to act not only to improve public sector provision but in an intelligent and stimulating way towards local economies to bring in private sector participation.
For a long time, the key gateway site next to East Croydon station has been undeveloped. That is partly because there were, unfortunately, some foolish approaches by Croydon council, which backed only one developer on its proposal for an arena site, which I am glad to say the Minister concerned decided, with extremely good judgment, not to support, after several appeals. We are left with a site that many people who travel to Gatwick or the south coast will have seen to be completely empty and undeveloped for the past 35 years.
One way in which that site could be developed is through public sector involvement. I would like Croydon’s very limited Mayday university hospital site in Thornton Heath, which many residents to the south of Croydon are reluctant to use, to be replaced with a development on the East Croydon site. That would also allow for the provision of appropriate public sector-supported housing for nurses. Many people from across south London could reach that site with a great deal of convenience. At the moment, constituents coming from the east of East Croydon have to use two bus routes to attend that hospital. That is not appropriate for people who are ill or old and frail.
I express a final wish in my remaining 14 seconds. There is a huge bottleneck on the rail system at East Croydon. Ultimately, we need an extra two platforms so that all these capacity issues can be dealt with appropriately.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a very important matter in the House—the worsening security situation in Israel and the Gaza strip. I shall focus particular attention on the plight of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by the terrorist Hamas movement for two and a half years.
Since Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, 5,128 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into southern Israel, and since 2001 24 people have been killed and 620 injured. One hundred and fifty rockets have been launched in the past six weeks alone, and 17 just yesterday, which is despite a truce negotiated through the Egyptian Government that came into effect on 19 June this year. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a courageous act based on a desire for a long-term negotiated peace and for the self-determination of the Palestinian people through a viable and secure Palestinian state.
Regrettably, the leaders of Hamas remain wedded to a vile Islamist ideology and the creation of an Islamic state secured by violence and the eradication of the state of Israel. Since the withdrawal, 150 Hamas operatives have completed so-called training courses in Iran, and 600 have received instruction by Iranian operatives in Syria, which is unacceptable to the international community. Hamas continues to smuggle weapons into Gaza through a vast network of tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border and to broadcast jihadist propaganda on Hamas TV. Specifically, they refuse to comply with the three Quartet principles, making progress in talks with Israel all but impossible.
I want to revert to the plight of Gilad Shalit. Hon. Members know the cause of the Lebanon war in 2006. Although most people know that the catalyst was Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers from the Israeli side of the Lebanon-Israel border, it is less well known that Hamas kidnapped an Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit. At 5.40 am on 25 June 2006, in an attack on the kibbutz Kerem Shalom in Israel, two soldiers were killed, four others were wounded and Corporal Shalit was captured. The terrorists had infiltrated the kibbutz through a tunnel from Rafah. The Hamas leadership authorised and spearheaded the attack, taking full responsibility for the raid and praising the terrorists as heroes of the Palestinian people.
As we know, Hezbollah subsequently murdered the two soldiers in Lebanon. Their bodies were given back to Israel in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, one of whom, Samir Kuntar, a vicious child murderer, was recently given the order of merit by the Syrian regime. I am delighted that the evident disgust of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), comes through in his written answer to me, dated 17 December. I know that Foreign Office Ministers have taken up the matter informally with Syria.
In more than 900 days of captivity, Gilad Shalit has not been allowed visiting rights or even access to any humanitarian organisations. Despite repeated demands from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Hamas has refused him the most basic human rights. Hamas has flagrantly violated every aspect of international law, including humane treatment of its prisoner, his family’s right to know of his well-being and permitting humanitarian access.
On 16 June 2006, Shalit’s captors offered to release him if Israel agreed to free all female Palestinian prisoners and all prisoners under 18. More recently, Hamas, Egypt and Israel have come to a standstill on the terrorist group’s demand for the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Last week, Israel released 200 from a list of 450 men that Hamas submitted. To date, Israel has freed 450 prisoners in return for the 22-year-old serviceman.
On 25 June 2007, the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, issued a statement that,
“international humanitarian law absolutely prohibits taking and holding a person by force to compel the enemy to meet certain demands, while threatening to kill or harm the person if the demands are not met”.
To assist Corporal Shalit and put pressure on Hamas to grant Red Cross access, parliamentarians throughout Europe are leading campaigns to highlight his case. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who yesterday lobbied the Red Cross to ensure that humanitarian access for Gilad Shalit remains high on its agenda.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire launched the European-wide initiative at an international conference in November in Paris and has led the campaign with the Red Cross. Hamas is keen to convince the Red Cross that it is a force with which to be negotiated. However, in reality, it behaves barbarically and flagrantly flouts the most basic tenets of international law. Burning effigies of Corporal Shalit and barring even the Red Cross is symbolic of the activities of a terrorist organisation, not a movement that genuinely seeks a just settlement for the Palestinian people.
Indeed, far from trying to make moves towards peace, the Hamas leader in Syria, Kahlid Mashal, has declared that the ceasefire will end on 19 December—in a few days. That means that Israeli towns such as Sderot, which lies just outside Gaza, will again be subject to intense daily missile bombardment.
As we approach Christmas and Chanukah, many people throughout Europe and the middle east are working for the release of Corporal Shalit. By doing that, we hold up a standard for humanitarian and civilised values. The campaigns might help the Red Cross gain the access that this Israeli hostage deserves, and be a small step on the road to achieving a just and peaceful settlement and the goal of an enduring two-state solution in the middle east. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House encourages his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to continue their efforts.
In the meantime, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you and all the Officers and staff of the House a wonderful and restful Christmas, and a successful and prosperous 2009.
I wish to raise my concerns over allegations that institutionalised fraud took place at the former Manchester college of arts and technology, better known as MANCAT. Many unanswered questions remain, and I feel that the matter is relevant for two reasons: first, that further education colleges are calling for increased powers of self-regulation; and secondly, that the new Manchester college created by the merger of MANCAT and City college is run largely by former MANCAT senior management.
To recap, allegations were made by several members of staff at MANCAT relating to the falsification of paperwork such as student registers and additional learning support forms, which, it was said, enabled the college to obtain extra money from the further education body, the Learning and Skills Council. Following my last speech on this subject, I submitted written questions on 2 June to the LSC chief executive, Mark Haysom. I was keen to know why MANCAT kept a secondary system of registers, not produced or signed by tutors, on which to base funding claims, but I received no explanation.
One of my main concerns was the wholesale destruction of auditable documents by the college, which thwarted inquiries by the LSC’s own investigator into the allegations. The documents included, among much else, original registers compiled by tutors. I asked Mr. Haysom who was responsible, who authorised the destruction, how long it had been going on, exactly what had been destroyed and why MANCAT had informed auditors that it had kept records for the requisite six years when it had not done so. I also asked whether any sanctions had been taken against MANCAT when it was discovered that the records had been destroyed. I received no answers to those questions. All that I was told by Mr. Haysom was:
“Failure to maintain and keep appropriate records was one of the issues taken very seriously by the LSC in subsequent dialogue with the college aimed at tightening and improving the college’s audit systems”.
In many spheres of work, destroying auditable documents would merit dismissal from post, but I am not aware of any senior managers at MANCAT having been sacked, nor am I aware of any disciplinary proceedings being taken against them. Indeed, the core of its senior management team, including the principal, Peter Tavernor, and the deputy principal, Barbara Forshaw, now run the new Manchester college, which was formed in August 2008. It is one of the two biggest further education colleges in the country, with an estimated annual turnover of £130 million.
Shortly after my Adjournment debate speech of 22 May, I received a confidential letter from someone working in Manchester’s FE sector, telling me:
“It is well worth pursuing your enquiries and a lot of people in Manchester would be greatly heartened by any public enquiry or investigation”.
The writer also said:
“There is a great deal of nervousness regarding the forthcoming merger.”
Information has come to light about how the new Manchester college is being run, and it gives me cause for concern. One aspect is that several capable former members of MANCAT’s administration staff, who left MANCAT years ago and joined City college because they were unhappy about MANCAT’s record keeping, have now, following the merger, been made redundant at the new institution and asked to sign confidentiality agreements—better known as gagging clauses—as a condition of receiving the redundancy payments to which they are entitled. It is also my understanding that some of these staff had witnessed malpractice at MANCAT, namely the manipulation of student numbers. Students who had left part-way though a course remained on the database, and the college had continued to claim funding for them throughout the academic year. The Public Accounts Committee has long deplored the use of public money and gagging clauses to prevent people from revealing abuses in the workplace. That approach was routinely used by management at MANCAT to silence potential whistleblowers, which I raised in the Adjournment debate on 22 May. It would appear that this pattern is continuing at the new college.
Moreover, it is my understanding that the acutely sensitive posts of head of student records and head of management information systems at Manchester college are now being run by a husband and wife team with a close personal connection to the principal of the college, Peter Tavernor. It is the job of one or other of those employees to validate and audit data on which funding claims are based. I am not stating there has been impropriety, but surely that arrangement cannot be ideal, bearing in mind that there are so many unanswered questions surrounding Mr Tavernor’s former college.
I believe that the public have long been denied the rigorous investigation at MANCAT that they deserve. Mr. Haysom has made it clear that the Learning and Skills Council has no appetite for a further investigation, because the crucial records that constituted potential evidence have been destroyed, and because the events occurred several years ago. All that remains highly relevant, however, not only because the new Manchester college is largely being run by senior MANCAT personnel, but because the FE sector as a whole is calling for further self-regulation.
According to the Association of Colleges website, a system is envisaged that will be
“characterised by a reduction in the regulatory demands placed on providers and single ownership of the regulatory framework facilitated by the single voice”.
In so far as that tortuous sentence makes sense at all, I think that it means that it believes that FE colleges should be trusted to run their own affairs without too much scrutiny or interference from outside. It goes on:
“We envisage a self-regulation system in which providers”—
that is to say, colleges—
“become respected and trusted partners of Government by recognising their statutory responsibilities and their accountability for the effective delivery of national policy and the efficient use of public funds”.
I particularly note the word “trusted”, as trust was conspicuously absent in MANCAT’s relationship with its former external auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was called in to investigate after a former lecturer raised concerns about the manipulation of student registers. Six months after that exercise, PricewaterhouseCoopers resigned, and the PWC partner, Lee Childs wrote to Peter Tavernor, stating:
“Frankly, I do not believe it possible to audit effectively without trust on both sides”.
I am aware that MANCAT has always refuted allegations of fraud and malpractice even though detailed allegations of manipulated paperwork surfaced independently from different individuals in unconnected departments. After my last Adjournment debate speech, I received indignant letters from two MANCAT governors claiming that the allegations had always been unsubstantiated. They informed me that since those events the college has had an Ofsted inspection and an LSC review of its financial governance systems with exemplary results and that its maintenance of student records had been described by PricewaterhouseCoopers as a model of good practice.
I have no doubt that much good work has been done at MANCAT, but I am also mindful that in 2002 it had had its previous Ofsted inspection just as allegations began to surface. A grade 1, which is “outstanding”, was awarded to the English for speakers of other languages department, but it subsequently emerged in signed statements from several former staff that that department was allegedly riddled with the sort manipulation that I have described.
Several tutors in ESOL and in the department of computer imaging were pressed to alter the registers on which funding was based. One tutor in computer imaging was reported as saying:
“If students were absent, we had to mark them with a zero, which meant they did not attend; did not contact college…The student would be withdrawn after three zeros, but I was told not to mark students who ceased to attend with a zero. It was explained to me that if a student were to be withdrawn before a certain benchmark date, the college would lose funding…I was told by a divisional leader to mark a student who had ceased to attend as being off with ‘authorised absence’ or AA in the register. I was very uneasy about this; I put A, or absent and from then on photocopied my registers each week”.
Another former tutor in the ESOL department told of registers being altered after they had been handed into the departmental head, Marina Parha:
“Names unfamiliar to the class teacher had appeared and in some cases existing students had been marked present when they had, in fact, been absent…On showing my own registers to Marina Parha in the first term of the academic year 2001-02, I was asked by her what all the zeros were for. When I explained they indicated student absences, she replied: ‘I don’t like all those zeros—we’ll have to do something about that’. In a subsequent meeting, she told me to change some of the zeros to ticks for a few weeks. I did not argue and neither did I alter my registers.”
I refer to what one former ESOL lecturer said in a statement prepared for a colleague who intended to take MANCAT to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. The lecturer said that
“in a meeting just before the Ofsted inspection at the end of April 2002... Marina Parha—who was in charge of ESOL at Mancat—announced to the teachers that the department had achieved a student retention rate of 100 per cent.”
The statement continues:
“Those present were stunned by what she said—we were, after all, the teachers of the classes and we knew that it was common for students to leave, sometimes without any warning, in the middle of their courses. It was common knowledge in the department that she had amended our registers to create a false impression of student retention.”
The former lecturer went on to say that he had been asked by a team leader to
“mark my absent students as present on my class register, in order (so she said) to avoid such absences casting a negative light on my performance as a teacher. I refused to do this.”
He described a conversation he had had with a colleague who had been sacked:
“I found out that he had been subjected to pressure into signing misrepresentative documents and had refused to do so. Marina Parha seemed to revel in her ability to deceive. She actually boasted to the teachers in a meeting how she was going to give an incorrect picture to the Ofsted inspector during the inspection”.
He then described how Ms Parha said she would do this by carefully selecting files that showed the level of students’ work in a good light.
The colleague wrote in a statement that Ms Parha was
“contemptuous about the inspection process at Wednesday evening staff meeting. She was pleased we had only one inspector... who knew absolutely nothing about ESOL.”
He then described how Ms Parha told staff she wanted as many groups of students as possible to go out on trips during the week of the inspection, and
“focus his attention on certain classes”.
He went on:
“I believe it is legitimate to speculate that the inspector’s exposure to the reality of the department was carefully controlled and that he was not given a full picture of the classes, teaching, administration or staff morale within it.”
Ms Parha has continued to thrive since her department gained its grade 1: she is now head of department for language support at the Manchester college, but I would suggest that the Ofsted exercise of 2002 gives food for thought about how far such inspections can be relied upon to give a true picture. I also suggest that all those events should make the Secretary of State cautious about granting further education the increased self-regulation that it so strongly desires.
May I wish everyone a happy Christmas.
I do not think I can speak quite as fast as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). Many subjects have been mentioned in the debate so far. It is an appropriate time of year to talk about the middle east, but I would prefer us to be peacemakers in the middle east, rather than taking one side or the other.
Christmas is a time of good will and an opportunity to thank people, so I take the opportunity of this speech to thank both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats for introducing the highly successful proportional representation system in Scotland. I am doubly appreciative because we have it both in the Parliament and in the councils, especially in Glasgow. I have to accept that I have been elected under the first-past-the-post system on four occasions out of five, so I have benefited from that system, but I remain convinced that the PR system is much better.
We have to thank Tony Blair and Donald Dewar for introducing PR for the list system for the Scottish Parliament in 1999, which has led to fairer government and greater consensus. The first two terms, of course, were coalition government. PR also opened up the opportunity for minority government. Some had reservations about that in 1999 and 2003 and no one dared try it, but now it has been tried and it works. The First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), is to be congratulated on the tremendous success he has made of that.
The second form of proportional representation for which I am grateful is PR by single transferable vote, from which the 32 Scottish local authorities benefit. That was introduced in 2007, thanks largely to the Lib Dems, who insisted on it in 2003. In Glasgow’s case that has been a huge improvement. First past the post had latterly been a total failure in Glasgow. In 2003 Labour took 71 of the 79 seats, which is 90 per cent. of the seats on only 47 per cent. of the vote. By contrast, in 2007 that was reduced to 58 per cent. of the seats, even though Labour was still in control. But the system means that representation is much closer to the actual vote and the will of the people.
The advantage of STV is that as well as being more proportional, it maintains the strong councillor-ward link, or potentially the strong MP-constituency link. There are clearly different forms of proportional representation—the list in the Scottish Parliament, and STV in Glasgow city council and elsewhere. STV has the bonus that the public choose both the party and the individual.
It would be good at this time to acknowledge, as I hope all Members of the House would do, the hard work that many councillors do throughout the country. As the Member who has most recently been a councillor, I see the huge amount of work that councillors put in. They often get little support and are not well paid for that work.
Another advantage of proportional representation is that the public prefer us to consider issues on a case-by-case basis. They get fed up with issues being pushed through by one party no matter what. PR encourages more of a shared agenda between parties. It means that we are more likely to get a result that is in tune with public opinion. Minority government takes that even further by making it essential that each individual case is looked at. It depends on how mature the Opposition tend to be. In Scotland we have seen co-operation—with the Conservative party, I must admit, which is perhaps not our expectation—on getting more police on the street. That has been a practical success of PR and STV. We have smaller class sizes—
I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments and share experience with regard to the London Assembly, which is also elected by proportional representation. That has meant that, rather quixotically but also quite effectively, there has been a dialogue between a broad spectrum of views, including Greens, UKIP, Liberals and Conservatives. Getting politicians to co-operate publicly in that way must be a great endorsement from British politics.
Indeed. One of the disappointments that I have had in coming here is that there are no Green politicians in the House. The public are extremely concerned about the environment, yet one party is totally excluded from the House.
Of course, the Government can sometimes be defeated in such circumstances. For example, the proposal for trams in Edinburgh was passed, with the result that fewer schools are now being built in Scotland. However, I urge Members to consider PRSTV at some stage. It might prove to be a big success both here and in another place.
Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you and almost all Members here for giving me, as a new Member, such a warm welcome. I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
I shall wish everyone a happy Christmas and new year now, because I shall end my speech by talking about the Iraq war, and that may not be the best context in which to wish people a happy Christmas.
A Member who spoke earlier issued an annual invitation to Members to visit her wonderful constituency in Devon. That is a county that I know well and love, but may I invite Members to take a Christmas and new year break in my constituency? If they want outdoor activity, Chesterfield is a great base. Two or three miles down the road is the fantastic Derbyshire Peak district. People can walk on the moors, uplands and lowlands, where the scenery is absolutely beautiful. They can visit Chatsworth house, or, a couple of miles in the other direction, Bolsover castle, Hardwick hall and the National Trust’s Clumber park. Those are wonderful attractions, but there is also a great deal to be seen in Chesterfield itself. People can enjoy themselves and work off the Christmas pudding and the mince pies.
When I first lived in Chesterfield in 1979, the Chesterfield canal was a stagnant, overgrown ditch, but volunteers have renovated it, and it is now a linear green lung. It is possible to follow it from the centre of Chesterfield into the countryside. It is widely used by birdwatchers, fishers, walkers, cyclists and canal enthusiasts. The Barrow Hill engine shed is not technically in my constituency, being just over the border in the constituency of North-East Derbyshire, but it is effectively part of Chesterfield. It is one of the few working roundhouses that survive from the great steam train age, and is a very popular tourist attraction.
In 1688, the Revolution House at Old Whittington was a small pub at the edge of a little hamlet up on the moors. That is why the Duke of Devonshire and others from across Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire who were plotting a treasonable act—the overthrow of the King in the glorious revolution of 1688—met there to plot in secret, away from prying eyes.
Chesterfield has a wonderful old town centre with a large open-air market, which is the focal point of the town and brings in a large number of shoppers, tourists and other visitors. At one end is the parish church, the “Crooked Spire”. Many Members will have seen it when travelling from one end of England to the other on the midland main line. It has a crooked corkscrew spire which both twists and leans to one side. There are seven such spires in Europe, but Chesterfield’s is the one that twists and leans the most. It is a great tourist attraction: people come from throughout Europe, and even from America, specifically to see the church and the spire.
One of the advantages of visiting Chesterfield at Christmas is the opportunity to see the Christmas lights. That brings me to a key point. Year after year, the borough council invests more money in expanding and improving the lights. Apart from putting out the Christmas message, brightening up the midwinter scene and helping people to enjoy themselves, they attract visitors to Chesterfield’s wonderful town centre with its large open-air market. That brings in people who spend money and create jobs in the shops and on the market stalls.
Unfortunately, the Labour councillors—there are a few left in Chesterfield—do not understand. They consider investing money in Christmas lights to be a strange thing to do, although it creates jobs and brings in visitors. When the Liberal Democrats took over the council in 2003, they built a new coach station which the previous council had refused point-blank even to consider. That bus station was absolutely dire. At one stage, it featured in the national press as the worst in the United Kingdom. It was such an eyesore. The Liberal Democrats built a new station, and now there are coaches. When the Christmas lights were switched on one Sunday a few weeks ago, coaches came from places as far away and as varied as Walsall and Lowestoft, each of them bringing 40 or 45 visitors to spend the day, see the lights turned on, and spend money at the market and in the pubs and restaurants in the town centre. It is all part of job creation and making the town vibrant.
The number of lettings at the market has increased this year, while most open-air markets around the country are suffering badly. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on markets, I hear from people all over the country that open-air markets are suffering as a result of competition from shops, stores such as Primark, out-of-town shopping centres and massive car boot sales. For the first time in some years, however, the number of stall lettings at Chesterfield market has increased. The shops in Chesterfield have a 4 per cent. vacancy rate, compared to the English average of 10 per cent. They are doing very well. A recent university survey marked out Chesterfield as one of the fastest growing and improving economies in England.
All of this brings me on to the problems local councils face when trying to invigorate and renovate their economies. They know what is most needed and wanted locally, and they are best placed to take that action, but they are often handicapped by the Government and the funding streams that the Government control. At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time there was a question about a council that had turned down an offer of free swimming for under-16s and pensioners. How could it be so callous as to turn down this free offer from the Government? Many councils have done that—although not Chesterfield—because the Government have, of course, not funded it. They have given out this wonderful initiative, but they have not provided all the money. Chesterfield is providing that free swimming, but it is costing us £50,000 of council tax payers’ money to cover the shortfall in Government funding. That is 1.2 per cent. on council tax for Chesterfield, which is a small council. Also, this year and next year there will be the 3 per cent. Gershon efficiency savings, and next year—2009-10—there will be a 0.6 per cent. grant settlement from the Government, who provide 75 per cent. of council money; that is well below the inflation rate. Therefore, there will be more cuts. The year after that, the settlement will be 0.2 per cent. so there will be more cuts again.
The council has to meet those settlements, but Chesterfield does so very well, as it is a well-run council. It was, in fact, on course to start expanding some services next year with the money it had set aside, but then we got the concessionary bus fares fiasco. At the start of this year, councils across the country said, “The Government are not providing enough money for this wonderful new national scheme.” In Chesterfield, the guesstimate was that it would be down by about £300,000. The figures have now come in from Derbyshire county council, which is administering the scheme, and Chesterfield is expected to put in about £1.8 million to bail out the Government’s scheme. As I have said, Chesterfield is a small council, and that sum amounts to 11 per cent. of its average revenue budget. It cannot afford that; it is impossible. That will devastate the council’s finances. The options are to either put 36 per cent. on council tax or slash services by 11 per cent. This is happening all over the country, but according to Local Government Association figures, Chesterfield is the worst hit council in the country; Exeter and Cambridge, with a proportion of 8 per cent. of annual revenue, are the next two worst hit. The Government must backtrack on this and provide the proper funding for their scheme, as they introduced it.
I became increasingly angry while listening to the contributions on the statement on Iraq earlier this afternoon, because Members seemed to be reinventing history. Both Labour and Conservative Members said we could forget the illegal invasion, the 300,000 civilian deaths, the breeding ground for terrorism that has been created when terrorists were not operating in Iraq before, the wrecked economy over the past five years in Iraq and the destabilisation of the Arab world, because we had had regime change, which made it okay. Iraq was never about regime change, however; that was explicitly stated by the then Prime Minister. For example, on the radio on 18 November 2002, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said:
“I have got no doubt that the purpose of our challenge…is disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. It is not regime change”.
On 30 November, he made the same basic point:
“It is solely because of the threat”
from weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein poses,
“and for this reason alone”,
not regime change.
On 25 February 2003, the then Prime Minister said in this Chamber:
“I detest his regime…but even now, he could save it by complying”—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 124]—
with the demand for disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist, as we all know, and as some of us could see was the case even before the illegal invasion.
The then Prime Minister said on three occasions that it was not about regime change. Regime change is illegal under international law. If we have really adopted this policy of regime change, when are we invading Zimbabwe or Burma, or China to get it out of Tibet? This is nonsense; the Government know it is not a policy. It was just a fig leaf to disguise the fact that we were taken into an illegal war under totally false pretences and pretexts. As a citizen, I joined the 1 million other citizens, along with my youngest daughter, who was 10, to walk past the Palace of Westminster in protest at the illegal invasion that everyone could see was coming. As an MP, I took part in our process and voted against that war.
One or two Conservative MPs have said, both following the statement and during this debate, that we should not be criticising what happened and that we should forget all that. I remember the wall of sound that came across from the Government Benches attacking us because we were opposed to the war, but I remember even more the comments that came from some Members on the Conservative Benches to my right; they were shouting about cowardice, offering white feathers, and displaying jingoism and bombast of the worst kind. As a citizen who took part in that million-person march and who voted against the war in this Chamber, I think it is unacceptable that in this afternoon’s statement about pulling out British troops we did not get a statement about an open inquiry into the disastrous illegal decision to invade Iraq.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) for making a short speech and giving me the chance to contribute for a few minutes.
I simply wish to say a few words about UN resolution 1843 on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to which the UK Government signed up one month ago. It resolves to increase the size of the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 17,000 to 20,000. MONUC is run by a UK citizen, Alan Doss. It was argued very strongly by the UN that there was a requirement to increase the number of troops—although 17,000 personnel are in the DRC, it is a very large country—in view of the latest phase of a civil war that is going on between two groups, the CNDP, which some people think is helped by some Rwandan citizens, and the FDLR. The FARDC, the Congolese Government troops, who are deeply ineffectual, are also involved.
The UN has deployed to do what it can in that situation, and the UN Security Council has agreed that extra troops are required. The assessment was that it would take two months to deploy the UN’s troops in the DRC, once it had found who was actually going to send 3,000 troops there. I understand that the realistic assessment now is that it will take six months to deploy them. Everyone agrees that this is an enormously urgent situation, because raping, looting and pillaging are occurring. Although a ceasefire is technically in place between the FARDC and the CNDP, the two protagonist groups—the FARDC is made up of the Government troops, but there are issues to address associated with the behaviour of all the troops involved—a great deal of fighting is still going on between groups such as the Mai-Mai and the CNDP. The civilians get caught in the crossfire and they also get targeted deliberately. Two little girls, one aged five and the other seven, were shot dead a few days ago inside a UN camp, and a series of rapes took place just outside it—rapes are used in the DRC as a weapon of war.
May I quote two sentences from the Security Council meeting on Monday? The record states that the UK contribution
“stressed the importance of the earliest possible deployment of the 3,000 additional personnel, as mandated by resolution 1843…however, the target of two months was a bit ‘too leisurely’.”
We were saying that the deployment was taking too long. We stressed the fact that we were able to deploy much more quickly in the relatively recent case of the Lebanon. We are also told:
“The United Kingdom stood ready to find…troop-contributing countries, to help deployments, and it stood ready to contribute both equipment and personnel, notably on the command and intelligence sides.”
The Foreign Secretary went straight out to the DRC with the French Foreign Secretary, and Lord Malloch-Brown has worked tirelessly to do something about this situation, but the fact is that, at the moment, resolution 1843 is just a piece of paper, and nothing is happening in respect of it. I do not blame any particular country, although some countries are more reluctant to contribute than others, and I certainly do not blame the UK Government, but the reality is that the totality of the effort on resolution 1843 is that nothing is happening.
Mindful of that, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, has asked for an EU force to deploy to fill the gap. It is very difficult for the UK to deploy troops, because we have heavy commitments in Afghanistan, but it is equally difficult to see, at the moment, where any other countries are going to contribute any other troops. If the UK were to contribute a proportion, there would be a risk that it would end up taking on the whole task. That is the fundamental sticking point from the UK’s point of view. Some countries that would like to do something cannot because they cannot secure the agreement of all the other European countries. There are historical difficulties in respect of the involvement in the region of countries such as France and Belgium, but I believe that Belgium in particular would be prepared to deploy troops to plug that gap.
Those who know the situation there know that Goma needs to be properly stabilised. At the moment, the CNDP and General Nkunda, who commands it, could take Goma if they wished. That would be a grievous blow to the DRC and it would threaten its integrity as a country, and it would be a grievous blow to the UN. We desperately need to respect UN resolution 1843 and, in the meantime, an EU force will probably need to be involved. At the moment, it appears that although we are saying that this is terribly urgent, because all over the place women are being raped and children are being murdered, the international community is doing literally nothing at all about resolution 1843. We really must get a grip of the situation.
May I join in with the plaudits for the Deputy Leader of the House, and wish him well on his first outing at an Adjournment debate? Given the quality of the praise given to him, I hope that he does not feel too much pressure. In any event, I am sure that he will rise to the occasion as he always does.
We started with a knowledgeable and thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). It clearly reflected her experience before she entered the Commons, when she worked in the social services arena. She referred to the tragedy of baby P, and we all agree that the challenge is to try to minimise risk to children. Sadly, we may have to contend with the fact that we may never be able to prevent such tragedies completely.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) followed, and I disagreed with some of his comments. He said that Members were off for a long holiday, but most of us take the view that being in Parliament is part of our duties and we will be doing a lot of work in our constituencies. Although I appreciate that his party will put out a “holier than thou” press release saying that he is against this long break, I wish him a happy holiday in his constituency, while the rest of us are working in ours.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) referred to a disagreement that he had with the late Gwyneth Dunwoody. I remember it well, as I was sitting here wondering how to address the argument that was going on. I give him all credit for having the courage to concede that he was wrong. I am sure that Gwyneth would have been very proud of him.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) delivered a typically powerful speech and his constituents can rest assured that they have a strong voice in this Chamber. He rightly criticised the disgraceful delay in making a final announcement on Post Office card accounts. There are still some questions that need to be answered about the millions of pounds that were squandered on the whole process, and indeed the millions of pounds that were paid to all those who put in bids but got nowhere with them.
My right hon. Friend also highlighted the importance of the spoken word and integrity, when he recalled the Prime Minister’s promise, made at the Dispatch Box, of a statement on Equitable Life before Christmas. The Prime Minister has failed to provide an explanation of why that will not happen, and nor has he apologised for promising something that has not been delivered. My right hon. Friend asked a straightforward question—why the delay—and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will answer it.
The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) made an impassioned plea that when President-elect Obama visits the United Kingdom, he visits a pub. The hon. Gentleman is chairman of the all-party beer group, and I hope that he will bear in mind the rest of its members and that we will all be invited along to drinks with President Obama, as he will then be. May I just point out that my constituency has several excellent pubs which would be happy to host the President?
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) raised several points, including some serious concerns about the local bailiff service. I was concerned to hear about the job application of one of his constituents. My hon. Friend raised some important questions about funding and the Ministry of Justice, and I hope that answers will be forthcoming.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) described himself as a “usual suspect” and, as usual, he raised several issues. In particular, he made a plea for greater awareness for diabetes, and he certainly put that on the record today. I hope that his efforts in raising that awareness will have received a big boost from his contribution today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) raised a number of serious points about the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). My right hon. Friend rightly questioned the role of some senior Ministers, particularly the Home Secretary, and expressed considerable regret at the fact that the Speaker had proposed a Speaker’s Committee that was subsequently hijacked by the Government, who put forward their own version of the Speaker’s Committee. The two certainly did not match. A number of questions remain unanswered. May I point out to the Deputy Leader of the House that if he and his Government feel that the issue will simply stay in the long grass, we hope that it will not and we will persist until we get those answers?
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) brought the reality of war to our debate when she mentioned the death of Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. She asked if his mother would be able to meet some of the relevant Ministers. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will have taken that on board and will facilitate some of those meetings. Having visited Afghanistan very recently, I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to our brave men and women who, while the rest of us are enjoying festivities over this Christmas period, will be doing anything but.
I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) well in trying to overcome the traffic difficulties associated with Cullompton in her constituency. I hope that the Government will have heard her words about the difficulty that many people are having with the income that they rely on from interest on their savings. The Government will have heard her message about the dependency that many elderly people have on interest derived from savings, which, as we know, is increasingly declining.
Deep discontent with his local railway line was all too clear when we heard the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). However, he went on to suggest the nationalisation of the railway industry. As far as I am aware, that was not in the Queen’s Speech, but perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House would like to confirm that we have not just had a Labour Back Bencher giving us a Christmas leak of some sort.
It is not often that I find myself in agreement with a Lib Dem Member, but the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) will have had considerable sympathy from many Members when she spoke about the misery of some of her constituents in dealing with the tax credit system.
I am sure that the House will have been appalled to hear about the treatment in Southern Cross residential care homes, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I wish the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) well in trying to get urgent redress for those elderly people who are suffering. I also hope that the strong message that my hon. Friend tried to convey to the chief executive of Hillingdon hospital will have been heard. On behalf of us all, I wish my hon. Friend’s mother well, as I know that she has recently been unwell.
The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) threatened to talk at length about her sisters and their lives but thought better of it. She spoke, however, in more serious terms when she referred to the underclass in our society, which is something that has been in the media a lot recently. I hope that she will agree with the hard work that has been put in by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and the Centre for Social Justice, with which he has been working so diligently.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) spoke, rightly, of the numerous problems facing those who live in rural areas. That is an ongoing issue and those of us who have rural constituencies will have much sympathy with what they had to say.
As always, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) raised a number of issues. He was absolutely right to point out the dire straits that our economy is in as well as the tragedy of Zimbabwe.
The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke of the need for another platform at East Croydon railway station. I think that he will agree that that is a cause that will not be won easily, but I wish him well in his campaign.
My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), spoke of the appalling circumstances of the kidnap of Corporal Gilad Shalit by Hamas. He has been in captivity now for some 900 days, and I have much sympathy with all that my hon. Friend said. Indeed, when I was successful in securing a debate in Westminster Hall, I too raised the tragedy of Corporal Shalit’s kidnap. I wish the campaign well, as it is certainly very inhumane for people like him, and the many others in captivity, to be treated in that way.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) spoke again about the difficulties that have arisen with one of his local colleges. I recall that it was not so long ago that he spoke in similar vein in an Adjournment debate, and I am sorry that not much progress has been made. All I can do is wish him success in his next Adjournment debate, and I hope that the fact that he has mentioned the matter today will prompt those in authority to take proper notice.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) is a relatively new Member of the House, and I welcome him as such, but I disagree with his support for proportional representation. Under that system, political parties are elected on the manifestos that they set out, but afterwards they hide behind closed doors. They then produce new deals on which the public have had no say, but that is the form of Government that the hon. Gentleman seems to prefer. In addition, PR tends to give minority parties greater credibility and an amount of power disproportionate to what they deserve. That is probably one reason why such parties are always banging on about it.
There was a festive flavour to the contribution from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who told us about excellent Christmas lights in his constituency. He said that they bring people in who then support the local economy by visiting pubs, restaurants and the like. He is certainly proving to be a good advocate for his local tourist industry.
The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) raised serious issues concerning United Nations resolution 1843, and he spoke of the need for nations to work together. As we all know, conflict overseas is bad enough without the additional difficulty of trying to get many countries to work together to deal with it. Again, his contribution served to remind us of all the tragedies taking place around the world at this Christmas period.
Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you and all hon. and right hon. Members a very happy Christmas? I should like to extend the same good wishes to all Clerks and House staff, as well as to all the cleaners, caterers and security personnel who make our lives so easy and thereby enable us to serve our constituents. I wish everyone in the House a happy Christmas and a prosperous and successful new year.
My predecessor warned me that these debates were slightly odd events, to put it mildly. I have taken part in many European affairs debates, and I have likened them to an episode of “Dad’s Army”, with people constantly saying, “They don’t like it up ’em, you know!” However, today’s debate reminded me rather more of an episode of “’Allo ’Allo!”, as I shall explain.
For instance, we certainly have Colonel von Strohm—the seemingly very bluff but actually extremely bright man who organises everything—and that would definitely be the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). We also have Herr Flick, who is constantly scheming and a great enforcer of discipline, and I think that that is my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar). We certainly have Lieutenant Gruber, in the person of the extremely dapper, precise and keen-to-please right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). Unfortunately, he is not in his place at the moment, for which absence he has offered his apologies. Above all, we have General von Klinkerhoffen, the heavyweight with the warm heart who is much nicer than his politics—definitely the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin).
Everyone has been wonderfully eloquent today so the debate lacked Officer Crabtree, the man who gets all his words wrong, but that role would probably fall to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who sadly has not been able to take part in the debate. We have not had a Helga or a von Smallhausen, and we certainly have not had a Louise of the resistance, because she would say something only once. However, we have had Madam Edith, who invites everyone into her café and then warbles away to them eloquently. That is the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). [Interruption.] I did not hear what the hon. Lady just shouted at me.
Well, I think she used to get rather worried about the knobs at the end of her bed.
We started off with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), a close friend of mine ever since we were elected in 2001. She made an important speech about child protection—an issue that has exercised the whole of the country in the past few weeks and months, with specific cases that we all know about. She spoke from her personal experience very effectively.
We then moved on to the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). It was a bit of a PR puff for his council, which of course he used to sit on. Before that, I think he used to work for Kall Kwik, which doubtless has been useful in the production of constant “Focus” leaflets. His speech had a little bit of the ring of the “Focus” leaflet to it, but I would not want to doubt his word as I do every “Focus” leaflet I have ever seen in my life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) asserted that Gwyneth Dunwoody was always right. This was difficult to disagree with when she was physically here, but now that she is not, I have to say that I did not always agree with her. But my hon. Friend made some important points, notably about water charges for charities. I am prepared to make sure that the meeting to which he referred takes place.
My hon. Friend also referred to the measles outbreak. There are important lessons to learn about the rise in the number of measles outbreaks. Much of the scaremongering of a few years ago about the MMR vaccine has receded. Measles is a serious illness that can cause complications such as meningitis and encephalitis, and on rare occasions it can kill. So it is important that all parents take the opportunity that is offered to them by the health service.
General von Klinkerhoffen then made his speech: the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire referred at some length to rural issues, but I recognise many of the issues that he said were rural issues from my constituency of Rhondda, where the population is highly concentrated. Many of the same issues arise, such as what is happening with post offices, the local economy and pubs and the provision of broadband.
The right hon. Gentleman, like many hon. Members, asked why we had not yet had a statement on Equitable Life. I know from my own constituency that the issue exercises a large number of people. As it happens, I took a loss myself. It is important that the Government get this right and do not rush into action. I know that the Prime Minister said he wanted there to be a statement by Christmas, and I believe that he believed it was going to be possible at that time. I do not think hon. Members need to imagine that some nefarious plotting is going on; it is simply that we want to make sure that we get this right—and the right hon. Gentleman can take that face off.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the takeover of Derbyshire building society by the Nationwide and the issues related to the Isle of Man. I have constituents who have lost money in the Isle of Man. There are difficulties here because the arrangements for depositors in banks in the Isle of Man and Guernsey are a matter for the Governments of those islands. We do not have plans to issue a statement, but deposits with Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander of the Isle of Man will be subject to the Isle of Man deposit compensation scheme.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about people who did the right thing and saved up throughout their life yet find themselves penalised at the end. This is one of the toughest issues for any Government who want to treat people fairly. How do we make sure that those people who have set a bit aside do not get penalised? I believe that what we have done in the past few years, by making sure that the increased prosperity of this country has been shared out among all pensioners, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, through the winter fuel payment and the pension credit, has gone some way towards that, but there is further that we could go.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) revealed that he thinks 58 hours spent with his family over Christmas is far too long, and that the trains should be got going a little earlier so that he can escape them. I think that was the gist of his speech. He made an important point about the role of ITV. When it comes to Ofcom’s final report in the new year, many hon. Members will want an opportunity to raise related issues. To have a single, monopoly broadcaster as the voice of our country, especially in news broadcasting and current affairs, would be highly detrimental to the democratic and social welfare of the country. My hon. Friend also referred to racing. As he knows, it is for the racing fraternity to decide how to allocate rights and for the broadcasters to decide what they show over Christmas.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) raised a series of issues, including one about planning. I have learned one thing in life, which is to try never to get involved in a planning or a parking issue, but the hon. Gentleman raised two issues on which I hope I shall be able to help him. The first was about the bailiff service for the Isle of Wight—he may have said “baillie”, but I think the word is “bailiff”. He asked questions about funding from the Ministry of Defence, and I shall follow them up and make sure he gets a proper answer as soon as possible.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the fallen stock collection service on the Isle of Wight and made various suggestions about how it might be addressed. I shall take up those issues with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on his behalf.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made an important point about preventive medicine and referred to his type 2 diabetes and to the sweet nature of Christmas. He does not want the health service to deal with people only after they have contracted an illness, but to try to prevent them from contracting illnesses. He urged Members to take the type 2 diabetes test. I ran the London marathon this year for something that affects many men—the men’s cancers, from which many still die, in particular prostate cancer. It is important that all men aged over 50 take the proper tests.
My right hon. Friend also spoke about mobile phone masts. When I worked at the BBC, we found that that issue was nothing by comparison with those related to television masts, yet we rarely hear complaints about them.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell is no longer in the Chamber, but he made his apologies earlier. He spoke about the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), and raised the issue of whether there should be a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee. As I am sure he knows, that is a matter solely for the Speaker so I do not want to intrude.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said that trawler men would be getting compensation. We are tidying up that issue for the relatively small number of people who have received no compensation and I am glad that Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have been able to make progress on that. Then my hon. Friend started talking rubbish—the confusion over rubbish collection in the constituency next door to hers.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton—or Dame Edith, as we now know her—spoke about the spatial plan. She was most distrustful of regional development bodies—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] All right. All I can say to the hon. Lady and to all Members who just said, “Hear, hear” is that I look forward to their applications to sit on regional Select Committees. Even if they voted against them, we should be absolutely delighted to see them on those Committees so that they can bring a degree of accountability to regional development bodies.
I heard what the hon. Lady said about the Gas Act 1986 and I shall make sure that she has an answer. There was another issue, which I have forgotten, but I shall seek an answer for her about that too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made an important speech, I think—although obviously I disagreed with him somewhat about renationalising the railways. He made an important point about social and human investment—[Interruption.] Oh, he is not in the Chamber—I shall not talk about that point at length then.
I am afraid that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) talked a whole load of rubbish about tax credits. My experience is that one of the things that has rescued more people from poverty in some of the poorest families in the poorest communities in my constituency is the system of tax credits, which has also made it possible for many families to get into work. Yes, there have been difficult moments, when sometimes the scheme has not been as generous as it might be, but the hon. Lady talked down the scheme in an unfortunate way.
The hon. Lady said something sensible about “Free our Bills”, however. We want to ensure that the changes happen so that our presentation of legislation in the House is easier for Members to understand, in particular online so that they can research properly before they go into Committee. The changes will ensure, too, that all members of the public have a clearer insight into what we do in this place. That is why I am working very closely with the House authorities to ensure that we publish online in a way that is easier for the public.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a very important speech about the abuse of the elderly. In particular, he told us some horrific tales of problems with Southern Cross in his constituency. I will ensure that the meeting that he was seeking happens and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health replies.
The hon. Member for Uxbridge, from the shop workers’ union, USDAW—actually, I do not know whether he is unionised—paid a tribute to shop workers. He was right to point out that we often talk about the armed forces, the police, the security services and people in the health service and so on working through Christmas, but my first job was in a rather “Are You Being Served?” store in Cheltenham—[Interruption.] I know where hon. Members are going with that, so I shall say no more about it. He also said that he was quite prepared, in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, to stand in front of a bulldozer, and I suspect that he would win. We all pass on our regards to his mother and hope that she is getting better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) made a very important speech about welfare reform and pointed out that Karen Matthews is not typical. Labour Members believe it is absolutely vital in the poorest communities in this country that we have a welfare system that does not keep people in poverty, but gives them opportunities in life, and that does not keep them on benefits, but gives them an opportunity to work. That is why, particularly in single-parent families, the opportunity to work is a really important thing that we need to advance as a socialist cause.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) spoke of pensioners and how many of them do not claim all their benefits—he has moved seats, which is unfair—and he makes a very good point. It is incumbent on us to ensure that we do better at that. However, he also urged the House to drink Burgundy, which seemed a rather unpatriotic thing for us all to do at Christmas. There are perfectly good English wines and, indeed, some wonderful Welsh wines—such as Cariad—so I hope that he will desist from doing so.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) said that he did not want me to reply to any of the issues that he raised, so I am not going to.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) raised the issue of HMRC jobs in Wales. He makes a fair point, which I will pass on to Ministers, and I hope that they will have an opportunity to reply to him.
The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)—who has moved as well, and with whom I was at university, incidentally—called for another platform. I suspect that that is unlikely to happen in Croydon, but I will pass on his message to the Secretary of State for Transport.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) referred tellingly to the middle east, and I wholeheartedly agree with the points that he made. It is interesting that this year, for the first time, many more pilgrims or tourists will be able to go to Bethlehem. It would be nice to see a Holy Land that could be genuinely visited by anyone.
The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) made a speech at a phenomenal pace—it sounded a little as though it was being read into the record—but he did so very ably, and I am not entirely sure what it was about.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) talked about proportional representation, and Herr Flick—my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley—has told me that I am not to agree with him. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) referred in similar tones to what his leader said earlier today on Iraq. I disagree with him, and I hope he will understand that hon. Members can honourably disagree with one another.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) made a very important speech about the Congo. Lord Malloch-Brown has been engaged very vigorously in that issue from the moment that we could act on it.
I should like to pay some tributes: first, to the staff of the House—the Clerks, the Doorkeepers and, in particular, to Gladys in the Tea Room and to all the cleaners. I thank my private office and constituency office—this always sounds a little like the Oscar awards—but, probably on behalf of all hon. Members, I thank our spouses and partners, because they often have to put up with an awful lot of rubbish from us.
I think that what we have learned today is:
“No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me”.
That is why the House today rightly expressed its concern for the vulnerable, the elderly, children, the homeless, the lonely, people in Zimbabwe, the people of the Congo, the unemployed and people in the middle east. We should always go further, and we should seek to abolish child poverty so that every child has an opportunity in life—the opportunities that we have.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).