Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Mole.)
I am delighted to take this opportunity to speak in the recess Adjournment debate. I intend to deal with the issue that was just raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who speaks for the Opposition on children’s issues, but is no longer in his place. I want to talk about child protection, the tragic death of baby P and other child abuse cases. How could this have possibly happened?
Today I do not want to concentrate on individual cases but to talk more generally about the issues and concerns. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was right to say that the issue goes very wide and is enormously important. There are a great many aspects to the issue and I am sure that in the time available I will not be able to do justice to all of them, but I want to take this opportunity to debate some of the complexities in more detail.
Before I was elected to this place, I was employed in social work for almost 20 years and spent a great deal of that time on child protection, ending up as the assistant director of children’s services in York. We must all be concerned that previous reviews of child protection failures have identified the same or similar mistakes on the part of the professionals involved, whether social workers, health workers, teachers or police officers. We have to ask why the lessons that were identified so many times have not become part of the standard operating procedure in child protection cases.
We also need to understand in much more detail the pressures that make it difficult for even the best and highly competent social workers to operate effectively. What do we ask when we look at child protection? What decisions do we ask front-line workers from across agencies to make?
We know that children thrive best when all their needs are met, whether emotional or physical, so removing a child temporarily or permanently from their birth family is an extremely serious step. It brings into question the fundamental rights of families to enjoy family life as they choose. It also has a drastic effect on the child’s emotional well-being.
Research into adoption tells us that all adopted children and, indeed, adults have to address for themselves why they were adopted. Even those who were given up freely by their birth parents can suffer feelings of rejection and damaged self-esteem. Those children who are removed from their parents, go through the care system and are placed with permanent adoptive families often have significant problems. Social workers thus have to assess the risk to children—the risk of significant harm if the child stays with its own family, but also the risks of removal and placement with another family.
Of course we see children who are removed from home for a short while and placed with foster parents while social workers work to improve the abilities of the family to care for the child. They may look at the fundamental issues of how they care for the child—parenting skills—but they may also address the drug and alcohol dependency issues which, if they were not there, would mean that the parents could care for their own child or children. There may be a trialled return home, which we hope succeeds. If it does not, there may be a further period in care and the child may ultimately be placed for adoption. Throughout the process, extremely difficult questions are involved in weighing up whether it is better to get the child back home with its family or to find it an alternative family for life. There are emotional implications for children and their security, but when a child’s birth family has complex problems there are no easy answers.
What is good enough parenting? When is it right to take the drastic step of finding an alternative family for a child? In cases such as that of baby P where there is horrendous abuse, we quickly come to the judgment that the point has long since been passed when that decision should have been made. In many situations, however, the decision is not easy.
For social workers, the burden is not just that they are in a situation where they have to try to make the best decision about a child’s future; our social services are overworked and poorly resourced, which makes things more difficult. A problem may not be identified because the social worker has too many cases and does not have time to assess the situation properly, so mistakes are made. I have been looking at some of the social work blogs, which are a way of finding out what people are thinking that was not possible a few years ago. Social workers say that they go to bed worrying about the children they are responsible for, because they do not have time to do all the tasks they should undertake. I remember that feeling well.
With some families, social workers are taking significant personal risks. I remember social workers visiting a house and finding firearms. It is not unusual for social workers to be threatened, but even in those circumstances they have to continue to try to focus on the child and make the best decision. They may come across new challenges that were not so prevalent when they trained. When I started in social work, drug abuse was uncommon, but now it is a regular feature of the difficulties families face.
Is it possible to prevent child deaths? Yes, but not all of them. There will always be cases that could not have been foreseen. We must recognise the element of risk, which inevitably means that sometimes things will go wrong despite the best efforts of all concerned.
Does the hon. Lady agree that a key way of ensuring that problems do not happen again, whether they relate to social services or even the probation service, is to make public the internal inquiries that take place after something has gone horribly wrong? People could then see what went wrong and what is being put in place to ensure that it does not happen again.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a difficult question because there are confidentiality issues for particular families. It is enormously important that such reviews are carried out properly and in a way that makes the circumstances public, but they must not become witch hunts for particular social workers. Furthermore, people must be able to learn from them and I have some suggestions about how we can do that better.
Over the years there has been much structural change in child protection and a new approach to the needs of children through the Every Child Matters agenda, which focuses on organisations involved in providing services to children, sharing information and working together to protect children and young people from harm and to help them achieve what they want in life. Some of those changes have been profoundly helpful— for instance, by bringing the different professionals involved together more often and emphasising the need to share information. I was pleased that the Government recently announced a co-location fund to bring health, education and children’s services together under one roof to facilitate those processes. From my experience, I know that when people get to know other professionals well and develop a daily working relationship with them, they are much more likely to be effective and to share information and achieve what they are trying to do.
Of course, at the heart of the matter is a fundamental issue about knowledge and skills. There has been insufficient rigour in ensuring that all professionals involved in child protection learn the lessons from case reviews and inquiries. Case reviews are vital for all involved in child protection—everyone can learn more from studying past mistakes—but we also need robust and thorough inspection systems, both internal and external, to ensure that child care staff understand the risks and what is required to address them.
We must demand higher and more rigorous standards of training, better continuous professional development and proper training for those who manage the child protection system. Compared with other professionals, such as doctors, teachers or nurses, social workers are few in number and their profession has not been given the same kind of attention as others. For years, the career structure has been debated to address how those with most experience can remain in front-line work. Some local authorities have done that more successfully than others, but too often the most experienced people are in management positions and not necessarily on the front line, where the skill, knowledge and experience needed to deal with difficult situations are sorely required. I therefore welcome the establishment by the Government of the social work taskforce. It will begin work in the new year and will address those and other issues.
All front-line staff need managers who understand what is required, who check their work regularly and ensure that the right information is collected and that thorough assessments are made. We must not forget that such work puts a strain on the well-being of social work staff so we need to ensure that it does not overwhelm otherwise competent, dedicated and skilled staff. Day in, day out, dealing with difficult families and difficult circumstances is very demanding. Social workers rarely receive recognition when things go right, and the negative press about tragic cases has an impact on their morale and, ultimately, on people’s desire to do that difficult and demanding work. We need to ensure that social workers are properly supported in their tasks and also properly remunerated.
I shall touch briefly on paperwork, because there is a tendency to view the recording of information as bureaucratic and unnecessary. This is where I feel that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, has got it wrong. I do not in any way feel that his intentions are bad—I too believe that we need to be vigilant about unnecessary bureaucracy—but accurate recording and robust management information are at the core of child protection. Indicators of likely future harm are best identified from past behaviour, so co-ordinating information and accurately recording visits and contacts, with proper analysis, are crucial. Supervision notes must be kept so that it is clear that social workers are receiving appropriate advice, and decisions must be recorded on files. That is essential for good practice and ensures that children have continuity of protection even in the absence of their allocated social worker or in the event that they move to a different authority. Many such families move around regularly and one of the danger points in child protection is when they move from one authority, which may have been working extremely hard with them, to another, which may not pick up the significance of various issues in the family.
I have concentrated primarily on the role of social workers, but other professionals have a vital role to play and must be involved. Working together across professions to monitor children, using all the information about health, child development and education, is essential.
I turn briefly to the prosecution of those who have harmed children. As we can see from the baby P case, we have moved forward. We saw the benefit of legislation that came in only a few years ago to ensure that everyone in a household could be held responsible for the death of a child even if it was impossible to identify who exactly had killed the child. However, I am concerned about the length of time that such cases take. It is obviously essential that nothing impedes legal processes and the conduct of a fair trial, but what about the children?
The serious case review on baby P was produced 15 months after he was killed, at the end of the court case, so for 15 months issues in Haringey were not fully addressed. I urge the Government to consider how more speedy reviews can be undertaken and how action can be taken to address failings and improve services, without the need to wait until the end of a court case. If we do not do that, we are failing children.
A number of people have called for a public inquiry into the case of baby P. Public inquiries are long, complicated and expensive. I believe it is unlikely that such an inquiry would uncover new lessons to learn, beyond those that previous inquiries have discovered or beyond that which the serious case review will uncover. So what would be the purpose of such a public inquiry at this point? The priority, in my view, needs to be to ensure that all those who work with children are properly trained and put that learning into practice.
The Government have taken a number of steps to address child protection concerns, some of which I have already referred to. The management of children’s services has rightly been raised. The Government propose that children’s services directors should have both education and social work experience. I am concerned about how that will be achieved. Although experience of child protection matters can be gained by staff whose previous career was in education, I am not sure whether the depth of knowledge required can be achieved easily. The Government should consider making each local authority have a senior manager with the required experience designated as having overall responsibility for child protection issues. That may be the director, if suitably qualified, but if the director has not got that depth of experience, it should be a second-tier manager.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families must ensure that it properly collates the lessons from all serious case reviews. My response to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is that bringing together information from reviews across the country is enormously important; in that way, we identify trends and understand the issues faced by social workers.
Today, I received an answer to a parliamentary question about the number of children who have been the subject of serious case reviews who have died from ingesting methadone. I have had that concern for a number of years, having quite by chance discovered other local authorities, as well as the one in which I was working at the time, where that had happened. The Department does not know the answer. That is not good enough; it needs to collate the information to look at issues that are perhaps not being identified, so that social workers can do their jobs and policy and practice can respond. In addition, I believe it is fundamental that the Government ensure that research on good practice is disseminated, as well as that on failings, so that staff can learn from what works, as well as from what goes wrong.
When child protection goes wrong, it can all too readily result in tragedy. The resulting press storm can leave onlookers with the impression that the whole child protection system is failing, which is not so. For the most part, children are protected and helped to have better lives.
First, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members the compliments of the season, but I fear that some of my remarks will not necessarily be fully within the compliments of good will to all men. [Hon. Members: “And women.”] Indeed. I have started badly already.
There are many reasons why I do not believe that the House should adjourn now. There are issues that we need to debate, and we need to be debating them now. There are also issues that mean that the House should not adjourn for as long as it plans to adjourn. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I find it very hard to understand why the Government thought it necessary and sensible to extend the Christmas recess by a week. With many of our constituents facing the prospect of being without a job in 2009, it seems rather disrespectful of them for us not to be in the House doing our jobs.
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to another, rather more immediate possibility? During the next three or four weeks, another bank might go down and the Government might want to intervene by making proposals to spend yet another £20 billion. Is it really compatible with our constitutional traditions that the Government could do that without the House’s permission to spend that money?
Over the years, the House has undoubtedly ceded to the Government more and more of its former control over supply. As a consequence, there probably would be no need to recall Parliament, although it certainly should be recalled in such circumstances, as my hon. Friend rightly says. In fact, I want to come on to the economic situation.
This Christmas, many of my constituents are facing an uncertain future. They fear for their livelihoods. Their homes and savings are threatened by circumstances beyond their control. I say that there is fear, but there is also frustration, because my constituents do not feel that the Government have the same sense of urgency in helping struggling families and small businesses to weather the economic storm as they did when they bailed out the banks. Action is required at every level to help our country through the downturn.
I am pleased to say that my local council was one of the first in the country to put together a comprehensive package of proposals to tackle the effects of the economic downturn locally, using the levers and networks at its disposal. That plan has already begun to deliver some results. I want to share some of those initiatives with hon. Members, because I hope that local authorities throughout the country will take them up in the coming weeks and months.
One of the initiatives is to improve the cash flow of small businesses. More than 200 small businesses supply my local authority, Sutton council, which is cutting the time that it takes to pay its bills from 30 days to just 10. The feedback from business so far shows that many firms are complimenting Sutton council on being such a prompt payer by comparison with other local authorities. I hope that other local authorities will take a leaf out of the Government’s book in cutting the time taken to pay bills, and out of the London borough of Sutton’s. Business costs are also being cut by the council, by boosting the numbers taking up small business rate relief. I was very impressed by the fact that Sutton’s efforts since late November have resulted in local companies saving £118,000—a crucial lifeline for hard-pressed businesses.
Crucially at this time, we must ensure that those who are most at risk in the financial turmoil are claiming the benefits that they need to carry on. I am thinking in particular of the forgotten victims of the economic downturn: our senior citizens. Nationally, £1.8 billion of council tax benefit goes unclaimed every year, and pensioners in particular are missing out on £5 billion-worth of unpaid benefits. Those people already tend to be the poorest in our communities, and their situation is made far worse because they are unaware of what they are entitled to. Sutton council is working closely with the Pension Service, Sutton citizens advice bureau and Sutton borough Age Concern to promote and maximise benefit take-up, so that they ensure that pensioners and others are receiving the necessary help with their living costs.
Pensioners often face much higher rates of inflation than the retail prices index suggests. Indeed, independent research has shown that seniors face an inflation rate of about 9 per cent., which is almost double the national average, and it is hardly surprising that pensioner poverty and pensioner indebtedness are serious and growing issues, compounded by the fact that pensions are not linked to earnings.
Just one fifth of average earnings is the value of the UK pension, which makes it one of the lowest in the world and in western Europe. I shall cite a few countries as examples. It is lower than that of Hungary, Portugal and the Czech Republic, all of which are some 30 places below Britain in gross domestic product rankings. That is why my colleagues and I certainly argue very strongly that the earnings link should be reinstated now and why we believe that the basic state pension should be increased substantially.
The Pensions Act 2008 aims to encourage private savings and to help those not in workplace schemes, but until the link to earnings is reintroduced, the foundation on which older people base their finances will be continuously eroded. A practical sign of the Government’s commitment to encourage private savings would be to put in place the long-overdue compensation scheme in respect of Equitable Life victims.
Although the credit crunch and economic downturn are undoubtedly defining issues of 2008 and will continue to dominate in 2009, other serious issues demand our attention, and one of them has been addressed already by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) in a very good and thoughtful contribution about child protection. Undoubtedly, the tragic case of baby P has shocked the nation, yet there is a terrible familiarity about his dreadful death. It would have had strong echoes of the Victoria Climbié case even had it not occurred in Haringey. The majority of children who die from abuse or neglect in this country know the perpetrator; most abuse takes place within the family, or is done by friends. As a society, we are in denial about that hard truth.
“There is a terrible sense of deja vu in the Laming report. The same weaknesses have led to the same mistakes, with the same missed opportunities to save a tortured child’s life.”
I first said that in 2003, when I was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on child protection in this House, and I repeat it now. I have a deep sense of frustration about the fact that, fundamentally, nothing has changed with regard to the problems identified in the Laming report.
Many initiatives have been taken; Every Child Matters is not just a phrase, but a series of actions that the Government have taken. However, there are still too many social work vacancies plugged by agency staff. There are still failures of oversight and accountability. There are still fragile systems of communication and collaboration between agencies. We saw a wave of resignations in the aftermath of the baby P case, and the almost ritualistic condemnation of social workers. That condemnation in turn deters people from applying to become social workers, which creates a vicious circle.
Much of the blame for baby P’s death has been placed at the door of Haringey social services, despite the fact that the police and medical professionals also saw him during his short life. Those other professionals all too often find themselves able to hide behind social workers, who bear the brunt and take the flak; as a result, they avoid their share of responsibility for what happened.
Baby P was admitted to hospital twice. He was seen by a GP and he was taken to a child development clinic. During that time, his mother was arrested twice. The Crown Prosecution Service considered the case but decided not to prosecute. It took that decision just a day before he died. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley that we need to speed up serious case reviews and make sure that the Department that takes overall responsibility for those reviews, on behalf of us all, is much smarter in analysing the lessons from reports and translating those lessons into changes in practice on the ground.
I nevertheless support my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) in her call for a public inquiry, if only because it is essential that we look at what lessons were not learned from the Laming inquiry and take the necessary steps to ensure that they are learned.
Yes, but that is not what has happened, and that is why we seem to be in a never-ending cycle of child deaths from abuse. That is why there is still a case for an independent review. It is not just the national health service, the police, social workers and Haringey council that are culpable. The Government and inspectorates also have questions to answer. Why was no action taken in February 2007, when the Department of Health was warned by a former Haringey social worker of the failings in child protection there? Just what did Ofsted do when it took over responsibility? After all, we are talking about Haringey, the epicentre of the last tragic death that convulsed the child protection system.
Ofsted’s assessment method has been found wanting. The drive towards light-touch inspection regimes places lives at risk by obscuring the human reality of the chaotic lives with which social workers have to contend. That is hidden behind a spreadsheet of cold statistics. I read the transcript of the Children, Schools and Families Committee’s inquiry and looked into the discussions with Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, and I was struck by how much reliance is still placed on data.
The baby P case has yet again exposed a fundamental question: how do we spot and protect those at risk in our communities? What shocks us all about the abuse that baby P suffered is that when we look at the information that becomes available afterwards, we see that such tragedies are preventable. Even so, they happen time and again—and not just to children; they happen to people of all ages. The reality is that abuse is a concern not just for children, but for older people. Often, they are even more out of sight and out of mind. The numbers are appalling: every year 342,000 older people suffer unspeakable cruelty in this country. Most often it is physical, psychological, sexual or even financial, and it is perpetrated by those closest to the victim.
Shockingly, 64 per cent. of elder abuse takes place within the family home. One individual who suffered unimaginable cruelty was Margaret Panting, who died in 2001 with 49 injuries to her body, and who was living with relatives in Sheffield. No one was prosecuted for those actions. Despite calls for new laws to protect people like Margaret Panting, nothing has happened. There is a bias towards children and victims of domestic violence in our safeguarding systems. Parliament has rightly legislated to tackle child abuse and domestic violence, but Governments have not followed the logic of that and legislated to protect adults who, through circumstance, become vulnerable. That lopsidedness in the system is graphically revealed in the staffing ratios for child and adult safeguarding. For example, in one primary care trust there are 10 members of staff covering child protection for every one responsible for adult protection. That may be a stark example, but I fear that it is far too typical. Legislation is essential to ensure that all the agencies involved in safeguarding adults really collaborate.
If the tragic death of baby P could happen when social workers had a right of entry to his mother’s home, what horrors are being perpetrated by adults on other adults when professionals can still be turned away on the doorstep by a person’s supposed carer? We have to worry about that. I am not suggesting that legislation is a panacea that will instantly correct such terrible wrongs in our society. Humans will always err, and mistakes will happen, but we must ensure that our systems are as robust and resilient as possible, and are subject to rigorous testing.
Just as I fear that Ofsted’s drive towards light-touch inspection needs to be rethought, so too does the light-touch approach of the Commission for Social Care Inspection and its successor, the care quality commission. The laws on domestic violence brought about a shift in public attitudes on that issue; in the same way, it is time to give vulnerable adults and older people—a group to which we all hope to belong one day—the protection that they so rightly deserve.
Another group that finds itself powerless and forgotten is those who come to this country seeking refuge from the conflict and unrest in some of our world’s most troubled places. In particular, I want to highlight the situation in which some of my constituents have found themselves; I am sure that the situation is replicated across the country. Mandy Dube is from Zimbabwe, and has been living in the UK for the past 12 years. She applied for asylum in 2006 and she is, like thousands of others, still waiting for the outcome of that application. Yet in the meantime the Government have told Mandy that she is not entitled to work, and she is therefore left in limbo, waiting indefinitely, unable to earn the money that she needs to maintain a minimum standard of living.
Similarly, another constituent, Pathmarajat Rajanaygam, a Tamil from Sri Lanka, has been suspended from his supermarket job because of a delay in determining his application. He is eligible to work under the terms of his leave to remain, but because he does not have the specific document that indicates that fact, his employers have suspended him pending the update in his status. In both cases, the UK Border Agency has left my constituents in legal and employment limbo. That may leave them destitute, and with little option other than to enter the black economy, where they risk being exploited.
My Tamil constituents as a whole have a broader complaint to make to the Government. They strongly feel that not enough is being done, or has been done, to force the Singhalese Government to end the murder of innocent people, respect human rights and secure a peaceful settlement in that war-torn, troubled country. We in this country have a special responsibility, given our past colonial involvement in Sri Lanka, to seek a fair and just end to the conflict.
I want to end my contribution by paying tribute to just some of the people in my constituency who make a difference to the lives of others. Clearly, time does not permit me to name everyone whom I should like to name, but in light of the comments that I have made about refugees and those seeking leave to remain in this country, I want to pay tribute to the work of Refugee Network Sutton. Its small group of volunteers work unstintingly to help people, not only when they first arrive in the area—they give them essentials such as groceries, cleaning material and bedding—but afterwards. They give people ongoing support with their integration into the community. English classes, drop-in centres, and Christmas and Eid parties are just some of the ways in which that dedicated Sutton-based group is transforming lives. I applaud what it does.
I must also mention a few individuals. First, Marilyn Gordon-Jones, whom I nominated as a volunteer hero this summer and who came to the House to be recognised as such, has for many years given dedicated service at the Sutton Lodge day centre, Age Concern and Sutton Nursing. Her faithful commitment to and affection for those with whom she works rightly deserve our applause. Secondly, Shaun Whitehead commands the air cadets in my constituency. His huge personal commitment to the squadron is extraordinary. Young people so often get a bad press these days; it is great to see a youth leader with so much passion and commitment and young people who clearly get so much out of what he is doing.
Thirdly, I want to acknowledge the tireless work of Heather Shaw, who took on the chairmanship of Sutton neighbourhood watch two years ago in difficult times. Her energy and enthusiasm have opened doors and the organisation’s fortunes have turned around as a result. Finally, I should like to mention Melodie Shelbourne, who sadly died in January this year. She was the chief officer of Volunteer Action Sutton. She was a fantastic leader and motivator in the voluntary sector and she touched and changed the lives of many in my area. Everyone who knew her was the better for it, and she is sadly missed.
Those are just a few of the people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting in the past 12 months and for many years before that—
I start on a point that I have raised in previous Adjournment debates; it was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. The point relates to United Utilities, which has changed how it bills for surface water drainage and highway drainage. Previously, the billing was done on the basis of rateable values, but the company has now brought in a fixed price based on the size of the curtilage of the property or domestic dwelling. That has had the sad and difficult unintended consequence of increasing bills for places of worship, scouting organisations, hospices and other charities, which previously enjoyed a zero rating for the purposes of paying rates. Now they have been brought into the new charging system and will see huge increases in what they have to pay for drainage in the next three years. I have raised the issue with United Utilities on a number of occasions, and its representatives always tell me two things: that the new system is revenue-neutral for the company, and that Ofwat has demanded that it should treat each of its customers in the same way and bill them fairly for the services that they receive.
That is all well and good, but it does not take into account the contribution that places of worship, scouting organisations and hospices make to the communities that they serve. Every penny that such organisations have to spend on additional water rates—to the profit of United Utilities—is a penny less for the services that they provide. United Utilities has said that the new billing system was demanded by Ofwat and was a requirement of the Government, so for some time I have been seeking a meeting with the Minister responsible. Due to the Government reshuffle, that meeting has not taken place.
I am not going to. I am going to ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether he will use his good offices to do two things. The first is to ensure that the meeting takes place in the new year. The matter has been raised on both sides of the House and in various different places, and we need that meeting to take place. I also ask my hon. Friend to make sure that the Government take an inter-departmental look at the problem to see what we can do to bring relief for places of worship, scouting organisations, hospices and other organisations that have been caught by the change in policy. It would also be helpful if United Utilities produced figures that demonstrated beyond any doubt that the policy is revenue-neutral. You will not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that I have been visited by lots of organisations that are paying more, but by no one who is paying less.
That leads me to my next concern. It is a sad shame that the former Member for Crewe and Nantwich, my good and honourable friend the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, cannot be here, because she would be about to see me eat humble pie. Some time ago, we had an exchange in an Adjournment debate about whether there should be unitary local government in Cheshire. Gwyneth made a powerful—and, I thought, misguided—speech about why she opposed it, and I spent some of my time telling her why I thought that she was wrong. It may turn out that Gwyneth was far more right than me, and I shall explain why as briefly as possible.
One of the first things that the new Cheshire West and Chester shadow unitary authority did was advertise for a new chief executive with a salary of £173,000—as close as it is possible to get to the Prime Minister’s salary, although the two jobs are significantly different. I have a local government background and do not object to local government officials being paid the rate for the job; I just do not think that £173,000 is such a rate—it is far too much.
The next decision taken by the shadow authority concerned special responsibility payments. In local government, the tradition is that if a person is entitled to more than one such payment, they take the highest but do not take the second or third. The shadow authority decided that people can take as many responsibility payments as they have been awarded, which is wrong. When I was the leader of a local council, there were no special responsibility payments, although that is not the issue as I do not disagree with the system. However, when council tax payers’ money is spent, it should be spent fairly and properly.
I was also very much in favour of unitary local government, because I thought that it would bring service delivery closer to communities and improve services, but I have been proved wrong again. From 1 April, we will have a two-tier refuse collection service in the new unitary authority. The rubbish bins of the residents of Chester will be emptied once a week, and those of the residents of Vale Royal will be emptied once a fortnight. When I first asked the chief executive what the unit cost per household would be in 2009-10, he said that he could not tell me until September 2010. That, of course, was nonsense. He has now given me some indicative figures, which show that fortnightly household refuse collection in Vale Royal will cost £46.37; the weekly collection in Chester, however, will cost the princely sum of £46.48. For 9p extra, the residents of Chester will have their bins emptied once a week, while bins in Vale Royal will be emptied once a fortnight. I am not sure whether those figures compare apples with apples—the figures given by the chief executive may not compare like with like—but if the difference is only 9p, I do not see why, in a unitary council that starts on 1 April 2009, there should be a two-tier refuse collection. Refuse collection is one of the services for which householders pay their council tax. If it is right for there to be weekly collection in one part of the new authority, it should be right in another.
I am also very concerned that the shadow unitary authority has decided to reduce the number of programme area boards from eight to five; the whole purpose of bringing democracy closer to people was that there would be those area boards. The three towns in Vale Royal—Frodsham, Northwich and Winsford—are being put into rural area boards, when they should have boards of their own, so that they can be involved in the decision-making process. That was in the “People and Places” consultation document that we took forward during the debate on the unitary authority, and that is what I would expect the authority to implement.
I move on to incineration, another controversial issue in my constituency. My constituency has three proposals for waste incinerators; none of them is in my constituency, but three are on its borders. One at Weston Point has already been approved. It is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). It was wrongly approved; it should have gone to a public inquiry, but it did not. It has now been decided that it will go ahead. Another incinerator is proposed for Ince Marshes, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller); it went to a public inquiry and a decision is awaited. There were very strong grounds for that application to be refused, as it is not in the Cheshire waste management plant, but on a greenfield site designated specifically for the expansion of the petrochemical industry. It is the wrong location, and we await the result.
The third proposal is for an incinerator in Lostock, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne); it is on the boundary with Northwich, which is in the southern part of my constituency. I have contacted Cheshire county council about its proposals, but it is not prepared to give me information of any substance on the basis that it is in negotiations with four preferred bidders about its waste strategy for the next 25 years. The discussions are taking place in secret, and the council does not want to inform me about what is going on. I have been in touch with one of the preferred bidders, the Waste Recycling Group, which brought forward the proposal for the incinerator at Lostock. It has confirmed that waste incineration is an integral part of its plan and that Cheshire county council has said that it wants a self-sufficient approach to the disposal of its waste.
If Weston Point incinerator is built by INEOS Chlor, it will take all the waste from Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire. There is no economic case for a second or third incinerator on the periphery of my constituency. I am concerned that Cheshire county council has not yet grasped that point, and that it is still proposing to go ahead with a policy of waste incineration and will announce the two preferred bidders in February. It will then be for the new unitary authority, with Cheshire East unitary authority, to decide how to proceed. I am strongly of the opinion that the proposed incinerator at Lostock is totally unnecessary and economically unviable, and that if it were to be built it would have to import waste from elsewhere, which would break the Stockholm convention and pose a threat to public health in the area. I wanted to put my thoughts about that on the record.
I want to move on to an issue that has been a great cause of concern to me—the outbreak of measles in my constituency. I would not call it an epidemic, but there has been a massive increase in the number of my constituents and their children who are suffering from measles, which is the overspill from the now discredited campaign to discredit the MMR jab. My area of Cheshire has experienced the largest outbreak of measles outside London. The Health Protection Agency contacted schools and parents to try to encourage them to have the jab. We now have teenagers who are susceptible to contracting measles, which is a very infectious disease. Most people who were involved in the campaign to discredit the MMR jab, including those who demanded of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that he say whether his son Leo had had the MMR jab, share responsibility for the outbreak of measles in my constituency. We must now give a positive message on MMR, encourage people to take up the vaccinations that are available and contain that very contagious disease once and for all. I hope that in the weeks and months ahead parents in my constituency will feel confident that they can now go to their GP or nurse practitioner and say, “We want our children vaccinated with the MMR jab. We know that it’s safe and there are no contingent health risks, and it will benefit the health of our children.”
I think that Members would be disappointed if I did not give them an update on progress at Daresbury science and innovation campus in my constituency.
I am sure that that is so, because this week at Daresbury we have had a European first. There is a prototype machine there called ALICE—accelerators and lasers in combined experiments. Alice is of course part of the “Alice in Wonderland” story, and Daresbury is where the Rev. Dodgson lived and wrote the stories, so that is a nice connection. The people there have accelerated electrons to 99.9 per cent. of the speed of light and minus 271° C, which is as close as possible to absolute zero. They have demonstrated that we can now look at chemical experiments as if we were making movies or videos in real time. That will take science on to the next level—it is a major breakthrough.
It is even better than that, though. By generating the energy that is needed to accelerate the electrons as closely as possible to the speed of light so that they can be peeled off in straight lines through X-ray machines, they have demonstrated energy recovery, so all the energy that is put into accelerating the electrons can go back to the start, and we can start all over again at a reduced cost. Those electrons are going to be accelerated at about 11 million V. It is absolutely dynamic science. That is not the end of the project, as some people might think. Now that we have proved that the experiment works, the scientific possibilities are endless. The new light source, which I hope the British scientific community will take on, has been proven at Daresbury, and the intellectual possibilities of the prototype should be exploited to the full.
I want to finish on an unusual note. Last Friday—this is most unusual for most Members of Parliament—I opened a post office. In the Northwich part of my constituency, Mr. and Mrs. Asif have opened a post office in the high street. They invited me along to do the opening, and the shop was absolutely full of customers taking advantage not only of the services provided by the post office but of other services. They have innovative ideas about how they are going to make this post office succeed, and I was delighted to be part of that opening. I hope that the venture is a huge success and that my constituents have a fantastic benefit from it.
Finally, I wish to refer to my constituent, Mr. Bert Dyson, Member of Parliament—[Interruption.] I am sorry—Member of the Order of the British Empire. However, Bert would make a very good MP. In the past 25 years, Bert has been behind a project with Helsby golf club to raise money to purchase powered wheelchairs for severely disabled children. In the years that Bert has been doing that work, enough money has been raised to purchase 259 powered wheelchairs, which have transformed the lives of the children who have had them. Bert has had to retire because of ill health and has passed the reins on to another member of the committee, although he will still be involved in fundraising. I thought it appropriate to mark the occasion of Bert’s retirement by mentioning him in my speech and congratulating him on the excellent work that he has done to improve the quality of life of young children with severe disabilities in my constituency.
I will try to abide by your hint, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Let me start by welcoming the Deputy Leader of the House, who will wind up one of these Adjournment debates for the first time. He has been a regular attendee in the House on many occasions and has always taken part assiduously in House business and House matters. He brings to his office an understanding of the Chamber that perhaps some of his predecessors did not have. I look forward to hearing him wind up the debate and to his taking up seriously the matters that we raise.
I want to comment on a few issues that have been prominent in my postbag over the past few months, including Post Office card accounts. The Government have now made a decision on that, which I welcome. However, what is unacceptable is the vast amount of time that it took them to take that decision and the uncertainty that it led to in the whole post office system. We are to have a further debate next year on the whole question of Royal Mail, which will be very controversial for some Members. Given how post offices have served rural communities so well, I regret the amount of time that the Government took to reach a decision. That has added to the problem of the survival of post offices as people take decisions on whether to buy them.
In a similar vein, many people, particularly in rural areas, are concerned about the Government’s handling of the issue of dispensing from GP practices. The Government announced a decision on Thursday, but the consultation process closed only a few weeks ago. One wonders why there was such a consultation process. I suspect that the Government realised that they were getting themselves into exactly the same kind of mess with the issue of pharmacies and GP dispensing as they did with post offices. I hope that following that consultation some recommendations are taken on board about allowing GP practices to offer wider services from the pharmacies that they operate in their surgeries. That would be an addition to the rural practices that would be welcomed by GPs and by patients who have to use those practices.
I have often mentioned in these Adjournment debates the quarry on Longstone Edge. That matter is expected to go to the High Court some time early in the new year. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received me in a meeting on that issue, which I welcome. He has considered it in great detail and has taken many measures which, I hope, will be able to reassure my constituents, depending on the outcome of the High Court decision. I will say no more than that. When one often attacks the Government or says that they are getting things wrong, it is right to say when they are getting something right, and I welcome what the Secretary of State is doing.
I want to consider rural broadband because broadband is vital to our country. Although we have almost 100 per cent. coverage, a significant proportion of UK households still suffer from an unreliable connection and poor connection speeds. Poorly served households tend to be in rural areas, where many share an exchange, and are further away from it. A digital divide is developing, and there is a broadband divide between urban areas, which have a much faster service, and rural areas. If there are to be rural jobs and if companies are to prosper in rural areas, broadband is vital because it is essential to the operation of a business.
I want to express a great concern. When we are informed that things will happen, especially by the Prime Minister, they should happen. On 3 December, the Prime Minister stated:
“There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas.”
Many of us are used to the Prime Minister, so some people shouted, “Which Christmas?”
It was the right hon. Gentleman.
The Deputy Leader of the House is correct—it was me. The Prime Minister said:
“There will be a statement before the House rises this Christmas.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 38.]
It is disgraceful that that promise—and the Prime Minister’s word—has not been kept. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will give us the genuine reason for that. Last week, the Leader of the House said that it was a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. It must be taking a long time to dot i’s and cross t’s if we must wait nearly four weeks for the statement. In all seriousness, not fulfilling a commitment made at the Dispatch Box to provide a statement before Christmas is a disgraceful way in which to treat the House.
My constituency is large and rural, and bovine tuberculosis is a big issue for agriculture. It costs this country a fortune—it is estimated to have cost between £600 million and £800 million in the past 10 years. The current policy is failing: 200,000 cattle have been slaughtered, yet the incidence of bovine TB doubles every four and a half years. A comprehensive package of measures is needed to tackle cattle transmission and the impact on the countryside. It is worth remembering not only that infected badgers are responsible for the majority of TB breakdowns in cattle, but that they suffer a slow and painful death. It is a serious animal welfare issue and the Government have not dealt with it. I appreciate that there are tough decisions to make, but we cannot continue with the current increases in TB—it costs the country a huge amount of money, which is basically wasted. I want the Government to take that on board.
The Derbyshire building society has proudly talked about its independence as a building society owned by its members for many years. It was therefore a great shock to read in The Sunday Times that the Nationwide was about to take it over. I have subsequently received several letters about the way in which that was done. I have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, especially about the position of the Derbyshire building society, which sold its Isle of Man subsidiary, Derbyshire Offshore, to the Kaupthing bank in 2007. Many people have lost a huge amount of money and grave uncertainty remains about whether they will be compensated. To what extent did the Financial Services Authority clear the Derbyshire building society’s actions when it sold off its offshore service? Were those who had investments in the offshore service properly briefed about the implications? I wrote to the Chancellor in November, but I have yet to receive a response. I realise that it is a complicated subject, but my constituents who have lost huge amounts of money deserve some explanation of what the Government are doing about the matter.
One aspect of the current economic climate that greatly worries me is the treatment of all the people who have done the right thing for a long time and saved money for their retirement. When they hear about interest rates decreasing, possibly below the current 3 per cent., as far as the Bank of England is concerned, it is ridiculous for the Government to tell them that they are getting a 10 per cent. return on their savings. The Government cannot continue to say that—they must revise the figure. Ten per cent. was generous even before we hit the current economic climate. We owe a special debt to people who have saved for a long time for their retirement and to have the little extras. If we do not acknowledge that, the House and the Government convey the message that those who save are wasting their time, because they get no reward. I hope that the Government will tackle that serious problem as soon as possible.
There are several other issues, which affect my constituency, that I could raise. However, bearing in mind what you asked hon. Members to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall simply take the opportunity to thank all House of Commons staff who have helped me so much with my responsibilities in the House throughout the year. I hope that they have a merry Christmas and a contented new year.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who made several common-sense points about a wide range of issues. As the Member of Parliament who represents the most rural Labour constituency in England, I agree with him especially about the importance of GP pharmacies. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is a good Yorkshire saying, which applies in that case. I also agree with him about rural broadband. In North Yorkshire, we are lucky to have a company called Nynet, which North Yorkshire county council backs, that helps with the position.
I want to consider four issues, which have some connection with the Christmas season. I want to say a few words about public transport over the Christmas period. Many hon. Members will shortly make their way back to their constituencies by train to celebrate Christmas. Many of us have already bought our copy of the Christmas Radio Times, and I want to talk about a television-related issue. Sport is part of the Christmas season and I am proudly wearing my Bradford City tie and looking forward to the Boxing day fixture against Lincoln. I have one sport-related matter to mention. Of course, as chairman of the all-party beer group, I urge all hon. Members to pay a professional or personal visit to a pub during the Christmas season. I am sure many of us will do that.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to early-day motion 328, which I tabled about public transport in the United Kingdom over the Christmas holidays. In the past six or seven years, a revolution has taken place in our major cities in buses running on Boxing day. Buses—and, indeed, the underground—have run in London on Boxing day for many years. However, a few years ago, almost no other buses in England ran on that day. West midlands passenger transport authority revolutionised its provision of buses on Boxing day six or seven years ago. It started an experiment, initially with a subsidy, but now the buses are run on a commercial basis as people travel to sporting fixtures, go to the shops—the Government are currently encouraging retail spending—or visit family and friends. That practice has spread to all passenger transport authorities in England—they are all running some buses this year, and that is vital.
However, apart from the Heathrow Express, the Gatwick Express and one or two services in Scotland, there are almost no trains for 58 hours. That does not happen in the rest of Europe, where at least a Sunday service runs the day after Christmas. Many of us will have the pleasure of the company of relatives over the Christmas period, but 58 hours can be quite a long time in some cases. More seriously, some people cannot go home for Christmas because they have to be at work on 27 December, and they know that they cannot get back in time. They might lose their job if they cannot get back.
The Government need to look into whether Network Rail and the train operating companies could provide some services on Boxing day. Contradictory arguments are put forward against that proposal. Some Ministers have said that everyone deserves a good period of time off, but they also point to the engineering works being carried out over that time. There is a certain contradiction in those arguments. I have spoken to representatives of TransPennine Express, who say that the most popular day of the year at Manchester airport is Boxing day, yet there are no trains to Manchester airport on that day. Why should Manchester be different from Gatwick? The company is willing to run trains on Boxing day on an experimental basis from York—perhaps even from Selby—through Leeds to Manchester airport. That would help the retail sector and the sporting fixtures as well as the airport. Ministers really need to take an interest in this important matter.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not know what your favourite television programme will be over the festive period, but, once the festive period is over, in January, the public service broadcasting review will be published by Ofcom. This could markedly change the nature of future Christmases on television. I want to highlight the role of ITV in this regard. ITV is trying to get rid of many of its public service obligations. Clearly, the value of ITV licences will come down in the coming years, as we approach the digital switchover.
Having commended one early-day motion tabled in my name, I should now like to commend another. Early-day motion 2283 relates to regional production quotas for ITV, and there are still a few hours left before the Christmas recess in which Members may sign it. It examines the important issue of ITV’s current obligation to spend 50 per cent. of its total programme spend outside the M25. ITV is trying to bring that down to 35 per cent. However, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport observed at the time of the last public service broadcasting review that the 50 per cent. out-of-London production quota was non-negotiable. It was fixed at that level, partly as compensation for ITV reducing its regional news coverage. It is important, particularly for Leeds and Manchester, that ITV should continue to make a large number of its programmes there. Surely it is cheaper to make programmes in the north of England than in the capital city. It would be the final victory of Carlton over Granada—those two companies merged a few years ago—if the regional production quota were decreased. A relatively small amount of money is involved in the out-of-London production quota: Ofcom estimates the cost at £5 million.
On a wider point, I hope that, when the regulator produces the public service broadcasting review, some obligations on ITV will be retained. Even when we reach the digital switchover in 2013, ITV’s use of the spectrum and its position on the electronic programme guide will still be worth about £45 million to ITV. Out-of-London production costs ITV £5 million, national news costs it £5 million, current affairs costs it £7 million, and original British production costs it £8 million, and all those things should remain for future British television programmes and British Christmases.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I know that you are a cricket fan, but I do not know whether you are a racing fan. There will be many race meetings on Boxing day and, at the moment, the BBC and Channel 4 are renegotiating their television contracts for 2010 and beyond. The BBC is threatening to halve its coverage of racing, and I think that that would be a great pity. For many of the people who watch its racing coverage, it is the mainstay of their BBC viewing, and 75 per cent. of racing fans who watch it on TV come from the social classes C2, D and E. I hope that this will not be the last year that the BBC shows the Welsh grand national. I think that it is on 27 December, and it is one of the few bits of live sport on terrestrial television over Christmas. I hope that the BBC will maintain its current commitment to racing in future contracts.
May I commend to the hon. Gentleman the article on this very subject in the Racing Post by Peter O’Sullevan? He is not just a racing great; he is a BBC great as well. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to support the argument that the BBC should not cut its racing coverage.
As always, the hon. Gentleman gives me a good tip; he is particularly good at doing that. He has also now given me a suggestion for my Christmas reading, which I will certainly follow up.
Finally, a word on pubs. The all-party parliamentary group on beer has set itself a considerable task for next year: we want to make the debate about the future of community pubs as central to the politics of 2009 as the debate on post offices was in 2008. Perhaps 10 per cent. of pubs—that is, about 5,000 of them—will be threatened with closure next year. The pubs in many villages and suburbs are the centre of the community. They are the place where people go to celebrate, to complain about life, to mourn and to seek friendship. They are a great feature of British life.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the reason why pubs are threatened with closure is that supermarkets are selling alcohol at very low prices? Do we not need a floor price to enable other institutions such as pubs and clubs to compete equally and fairly?
I have always been an assiduous reader of the Select Committee reports that my right hon. Friend produces. He has taken the words right out of my mouth: the essential problem for British pubs is the widening differential between prices in pubs and in the off trade. When I was a young man, the difference was about three times—that is, it was three times more expensive to buy a pint in a pub as it was to buy the equivalent amount of beer in a supermarket. Now, the margin is eight times, and widening.
The Scottish Government are suggesting that a minimum price be introduced next year, and it will be interesting to see what impact that has on the debate in the rest of the United Kingdom. There are other routes that could be explored as well. In Europe, the different regulations relating to VAT are once again being examined, and it is possible that regulations could be passed allowing a lower rate of duty on draught beer, which would be another way of allowing the pubs to compete more favourably. I hope and expect that this will be an important issue for Parliament in the coming year.
No preview of Parliament in 2009 would be complete without a little reflection on the impact of President-elect Barack Obama on world and British politics, and he also has a connection with British pubs. He visited a British pub in 1996 while on a stag weekend, so he has some experience of them. Furthermore, in Adam Boulton’s reflections on the Blair and Brown years, he reflects that our own Prime Minister was more comfortable in a pub environment than his predecessor. He spotted him in the Marquis of Granby, and said that the Prime Minister had apparently visited the pub of his own free will. So, having outlined the task for the all-party parliamentary group on beer, I shall finish by saying that when the new President visits these shores—in April, I think—I very much hope that our Prime Minister will invite him to a British pub, perhaps the Marquis of Granby, for at least one pint of British beer.
First, I should like to talk about the difficulty that local councils face in providing evidence to support planning decisions at the appeal stage. I want to highlight the inadequacy of planning inspectorate investigations based on these cases. The Isle of Wight councillor for Sandown South, Ian Ward, has drawn my attention to a case in my constituency. A council planning decision relating to No. 16, Grafton street, Sandown had been partly overturned at appeal by the planning inspectorate. A landlord had, without permission, changed the use of a residential home for the elderly into a house in multiple occupation. The council put out an enforcement order against the landlord, preventing him from doing this. The landlord appealed against the council decision and the planning inspectorate launched an investigation.
The premises, the inspector heard, had been linked to noise, public order offences and at least one assault. The inspector seemed not to have established whether the incidents resulted in any convictions, or even just their outcome—hardly a thorough investigation. Furthermore, at the time the landlord bought the premises, it housed 13 residents. At the time of the appeal, the single announced inspection found it housed only six—again, this was not a good way of establishing the facts. Further evidence of disturbances was presented by other neighbours. The inspector decided that
“some of those incidents appear to be related to disturbances in the street rather than being directly related to the appellant’s property. Some, no doubt, were disturbances that occurred in the street. Some however, we infer, did relate to the appellant’s property”—
woolly words for a woolly investigation. Despite all the evidence that convinced the council, the planning inspector decided to allow the landlord to change the use of the premises as he had requested. The appeal decision resulted in only a minor change to the original application.
I share Councillor Ward’s primary concern. The planning inspector showed total disregard for the negative impact his decision would make on the neighbouring community. I know that the situation has been replicated on the island, and I suspect that it occurs on the mainland, too. In my view, the end result is often an appeal decision based on inadequate information which is not in the public’s interest. It means that many justifiable council decisions are overturned at great cost to the taxpayer by the planning inspectorate. Does the Minister agree that the planning inspectorate has failed the public in cases such as the one I have cited?
On a different issue, my constituent, Mr. Gower, is concerned that despite the availability of 03 telephone numbers, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs continues to use 0845 numbers, which, as they are not available as part of package deals, typically cost the consumer more than local calls. A complaints manager at HMRC has confirmed that it is looking into alternatives to the 0845 system that would offer benefits to users. As long ago as June 2007, the consumers organisation Which? found widespread confusion about the prices of these non-geographic calls and recommended that they be replaced with 03 numbers. Will the Minister ensure that work on looking at alternatives to the current system is prioritised?
To move on again, I am extremely concerned about the withdrawal of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs collection service for fallen cattle from January 2009, and I would add my support to the work carried out by the National Fallen Stock Company and the National Farmers Union to find a long-term solution to the particular problems faced by Isle of Wight farmers. Our farmers are in an invidious position in that they want to comply with requirements under the TSE—transmissible spongiform encephalopathies—and animal by-products regulations, but there is currently no infrastructure that enables them to do so.
I deplore the need to get permission from the EU to deal properly with fallen stock. I am grateful to the Minister for seeking derogation in relation to the TSE regulations, but we need a proper solution to these problems. Will the Minister support the provision of a “bulking-up” facility that would enable carcases to be collected in one place and then shipped off the island in bulk? Alternatively, will he work with local people to ensure that an incinerator facility is provided on the island, which would be a long-term solution to some of these problems?
Finally, it was brought to my attention earlier this month that an Isle of Wight bailiff had been ill and off work. It went on for some months, with the result that the Isle of Wight has had no bailiff service for law-abiding landlords. Bailiffs from Portsmouth county court were to provide cover in the meantime, but it seems they were unable to do so and, more importantly, the island authorities were not informed. Although the original bailiff has since returned to part-time duty, this is only on a part-time basis and the confusion has caused significant delays in carrying out the law.
On a related matter, I was informed that one of my constituents had been treated disgracefully by the Ministry of Justice. He had applied for the post of full-time replacement bailiff for the Isle of Wight in July this year and by August he had been offered a position. He was then made to wait 15 weeks, during which he was told that Criminal Records Bureau documentation had been lost, which he then had to replace at his own expense. He was finally told in November this year that the funding for the position had been withdrawn. He had been strung along by the Ministry of Justice HR department for 15 weeks before it informed him of the situation. Meanwhile, the patchy cover afforded by Portsmouth bailiffs put pressure on Portsmouth’s own resources. Not only did it cost the taxpayer additional ferry fares to ship them to and from the island, but there were periods when there was no one to act as bailiff.
Needless to say, the constituent in question is extremely angry. He has incurred personal expense in travelling to the mainland for interviews and providing paperwork. He had not applied for other posts over the previous four months because he had been told very clearly that he had a job with the Ministry of Justice. I ask the Minister why, if funding for a new bailiff for the island was available as late as October, it was withdrawn in November? Why was my constituent led on a wild goose chase for several months after August when he could have been seeking other employment? Will the Minister please look into those matters?
Those four items are causes of some concern and I am glad to have had the opportunity to bring them to the Minister’s attention. For the most part, however, the Isle of Wight is a beautiful and well blessed place in which to live. I am grateful for the assistance that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have given to my constituents and I wish you a merry Christmas and a peaceful and happy new year.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who raised some important issues about the planning system, one of which I hope to take up in my small contribution to the debate.
I begin by joining the Conservative Chief Whip in praising my hon. Friend the new Deputy Leader of the House in advance of his maiden speech in these debates. I am sure it will be scintillating. He has been one of the usual suspects who have attended these debates in recent years, and it must be the nightmare of any usual suspect that they would end up having to answer the issues raised by hon. Members.
I know that we will get a wonderful contribution from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who in each of the Adjournment debates before a recess always invites hon. Members to visit her constituency. We have no statistics, though, showing how many take up her invitation .
I have no quarries or incinerators to speak about, but I start by thanking the Home Secretary for a decision that she took yesterday, I think, which was obvious in the published version of the Policing and Crime Bill, which received its First Reading in the House today. On Tuesday the Home Affairs Committee took evidence from the Local Government Association and the Association of Police Authorities, and I wrote to the Home Secretary telling her that the Government’s proposals for directly elected members of police authorities were fundamentally flawed. Forty-eight hours later, the proposals have been withdrawn. The Home Affairs Committee, of course, takes credit for that decision.
The Home Secretary chose, unfortunately, not to make a statement to the House, but instead to announce her changes to Patrick Wintour of The Guardian. Nevertheless, we are grateful for what the Government have done. It surely would have been wrong to give single-interest or extremist groups the chance to get elected to police authorities, thereby aiding the politicisation of the police. There is always politics in policing, clearly, because we have a Home Secretary who is about to choose the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but what we were concerned about, and what every group that wrote to the Select Committee was concerned about, was the fact that if we have those elections, there is a danger that the whole police agenda could be hijacked in a particular direction. I thank the Government for what they have done.
I am not quite so keen on the statement that the Government put out today concerning the review of the rights of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens to come to work in the United Kingdom. I declare my interest as a former Minister for Europe with responsibility for enlargement. I have always felt that the citizens of countries that join the European Union should be treated as equal citizens, and I could never understand why Romania and Bulgaria were singled out among the 27 for their citizens not to be given full and equal rights to come to work in the United Kingdom.
The Government review the decision every year and have just put before the House a written statement indicating that they are not changing their position, and that those who come to work from Romania and Bulgaria will have to continue to work as self-employed people. That is the wrong decision because it results in even greater difficulty in dealing with employment issues, though I welcome the Government’s decision to expand one of the tiers to allow more agricultural workers, which will benefit people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and others who represent rural constituencies and have been complaining of the lack of people applying for such jobs.
I shall raise three brief points concerning a number of matters which I hoped the Government would have allowed more time to discuss before the House adjourned. The first is a matter that I have raised on a number of occasions—diabetes. I declare my interest as someone who has type 2 diabetes. I suppose it is the way I discovered that I have type 2 diabetes that encourages me to raise the matter in the House at every opportunity, especially as we arrive at the Christmas season.
The chairman of the all-party beer group is encouraging Members to visit pubs over the Christmas period—not something that many Members will feel reluctant to do. However, I caution Members who have not had a diabetes test. I do not want to embarrass Members over whether or not they have been tested for diabetes, but as they enter the Christmas spirit and are given boxes of chocolates and sweets and consume a lot of sweet foods and carbohydrates over the next four weeks, they should pause, especially if they are slightly overweight—again, I am not looking at any right hon. or hon. Members in particular. If they have that slight problem, it is vital that over the Christmas period they have a diabetes test. The test takes only a few seconds, and they will then know whether they should consult their GP in order to have further treatment.
That is how I discovered I had type 2 diabetes just a few years ago. I am not saying that as a result I am not as overweight as I was five years ago, but that discovery enabled me to take my medication. There are 2.2 million people in the United Kingdom who are diagnosed with diabetes, but 750,000 people are unaware that they have the disease. One of the problems facing us as legislators is that it is costing the Government £1 million an hour to treat people for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It accounts for approximately one tenth—10 per cent.—of the entire NHS budget.
Let me issue a plea to Ministers, and indeed other Members, to raise this issue in their constituencies. We hear fantastic statistics about the amount of money that the Government have put into the health service—more money than has been invested in it at any time before. I should like that money to be spent on preventive medicine—on screening people and making sure that they are healthy—rather than its being spent on them when they go into hospital, which, of course, is much more expensive. This also applies to young people. Nearly one in four children aged four or five in English primary schools are overweight or obese, and there are approximately 1,400 children who have type 2 diabetes—some as young as seven—as a result of being overweight. Some have inherited their condition from their parents. I inherited mine from my mother, who sadly died of diabetes complications.
I also want to talk about mobile phone masts, which touches on the subject raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight: the planning system. We all use mobile phones, or most of us do. There are 65 million mobile phone handsets in the United Kingdom. There must, therefore, be mobile phone masts; otherwise we would not be able to communicate with each other through our mobile phones.
I am constantly reminded by constituents of the problems that they experience when mobile phone companies erect mobile phone masts without consultation and without taking the views of local people into consideration. If a mast is less than 15 m high, companies do not have to apply for full planning permission; they can make a prior approval application to the local planning authority, which has only eight weeks in which to object. If it does not object, there is deemed planning consent. Leicester’s planning department is, I suppose, as busy as any of the other planning departments in Members’ constituencies, and because it is so busy, it is difficult for it to adhere to its timetable. As a result, masts are being erected without the support or co-operation of local people. If a mast is over 15 m high, of course, a planning application must be made.
At the start of 2008, there were about 50,300 base station sites in the United Kingdom. Two-thirds are on existing structures and buildings. There are now nearly 74 million mobile connections in the United Kingdom, and the number is increasing every day. I am sure that other Members, including the Deputy Leader of the House, have had representations about it. We need to review the regulations very carefully, and stop the mobile phone companies automatically being given permission just because the local authority is not able to reply in time. I urge the Government to look into the issue.
The latest such proposal affects a road at the heart of my constituency, the Melton road, which is frequently visited by the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), when he comes to see his relatives in Leicester and goes out to buy his bhajias—not budgerigars, as I have been misquoted as saying—in the Belgrave road. When he goes there, he will observe the ambience of the Belgrave and Melton roads. The latest proposal by Vodafone is to erect a huge mast on the pavement of the Melton road, one of the busiest roads in the country. That would spoil the local environment and upset local residents—and, of course, their Member of Parliament and local councillors. It is decisions of that kind that cause so much upset. Representatives of Vodafone came to see me last week, and I told them that I would oppose the proposal. I think it extremely important for us to take account of the detrimental effect that such decisions made by companies have on the appearance of an area.
Sadly, I do not have a list of constituents that I can read out at the end of my speech to thank them for all their work—those who have distributed leaflets for me, or who have been particularly kind, or to whom I have forgotten to send Christmas cards. I think, however, that we ought to have a debate about changing the procedures of the House. Perhaps at the end of each day’s sitting, when petitions are presented, Members can present lists of constituents who are local heroes and heroines, so that we need not necessarily do so during the Christmas Adjournment debate.
May I take this opportunity to wish everyone who works in the House—the staff and Officers of the House, and my own staff in particular—a wonderful Christmas break? We look forward to seeing everyone again in January.
As this is the season of good will, let me join the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) in congratulating the Deputy Leader of the House on his speech in advance. I think that that is a very good practice, and it is probably the safest way to move forward. May I also associate myself with the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks on mobile phone masts? They were well made, and there must be similar problems in almost all our constituencies.
As this is the season of good will and also because I shall perhaps say a few harsh things later on, may I commend some of the speeches of Labour Members? On the contribution of the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), let me be the first to volunteer: yes, I will be visiting a pub over the Christmas period and I will think of him when I do so.
I thought the right hon. Gentleman was going to spoil my next remarks by drawing Members’ attention to the fact that President-elect Obama visited a pub in our country. He did so while visiting relatives in Bracknell, but unfortunately he chose to go to a pub in the neighbouring Wokingham constituency. That was a mistake, but I am sure it can be put right.
It was refreshing to hear the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) admit that he got something wrong. Would it not be wonderful if a few more of us Members did that a little more often? May I associate myself with his remarks on what seem to be the sometimes excessive salaries of chief executives and other senior officers of local authorities? That point becomes even more valid and relevant as the current economic recession bites even harder for many of our constituents.
Finally, while I am trying to be nice to Labour Members, let me commend the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). Although she is for the moment absent from the Chamber, let me also say—I think I speak for many Members on both sides of the House in doing so—that I was both surprised and disappointed when she was removed from the Government Front Bench. There would be a long list of Government Members whom I would have removed first. As was made clear by her speech, we in this House will benefit from her being on the Back Benches, and that will be a loss to the Government.
I wish to raise four issues that I believe the House should have addressed more fully before the Christmas recess. The first is the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and the raiding of his offices and homes. I wish initially to discuss the issue of the police involvement. I was rather surprised yesterday that the internal inquiry was partially leaked by the police. It seems to me that either the internal inquiry should remain internal until the case has been concluded—I would accept that—or it ought to be published in full so we can see its findings. For it to be selectively leaked by the Metropolitan police is another example of crassness by the current senior officers in that force. All I can say is that it is a merciful relief for my constituents that they live in the Thames Valley police force area, rather than here in London.
Questions need to be raised if not now then in the near future—it is possible that they were raised in this internal review—as to why 20 anti-terrorist police officers were needed to raid the four separate offices, and why they took away computers and mobile phones, which must have affected my hon. Friend’s work and was in breach of data protection and of the very special relationship we all have with our constituents. This was most unsatisfactory.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. We will all follow his inquiry very closely.
On the involvement of senior police officers in the Met, I hope I am not being too cruel, but what keep coming back to me are the words of Alan Clark when he was referring to the generals in the first world war and the wonderful soldiers in the trenches, because our ordinary police officers risking their lives and well-being on the streets of London daily are “lions led by donkeys”. I very much hope that there will be major changes at the top of the Metropolitan police force.
We must address the issue of how the House authorities dealt with this matter. It is clearly highly unsatisfactory that the police were allowed to raid the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford without a warrant and that insufficient questions were asked. I passionately believe that not only must Members of Parliament not be above the law, but we must be treated exactly the same as all our constituents. However, it is important that, in such cases, the House authorities—the Speaker, the Serjeant at Arms, the Clerk and others—satisfy themselves first that there is a case to answer and that any action is not in breach of the long-standing tradition that protects our constituents’ confidentiality in this House.
Clearly, that did not happen in this case and an investigation needs to take place. In his original statement on the day of the state opening, the Speaker rightly agreed with me and tried to set in motion a process to enable such an inquiry. It is shameful and deeply regrettable—I do not believe this was anything to do with the Leader of the House or her deputy, because I think they were leant on by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary—that the motion that was tabled did not set up a Committee in the way that the Speaker wanted and the rest of the House expected.
We all know that, these days, the Standards and Privileges Committee does not have a Government majority, and nor should it. It is equally plain that although a Committee of the House or, for that matter, a departmental Select Committee should reflect the balance of the parties in the House, that should not be the case on something as important as this. That is why when it came to vote for the Committee as set out in the motion, those on the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and nationalist Benches rightly voted against, why so many Labour Members either joined us or abstained and why the majority was so minute.
The second reason for the minute majority was simply that the Committee was not going to meet, except to adjourn immediately after it had appointed a Chair, and that was quite wrong. The Committee should be carrying out this investigation. Where do we go from here? Clearly, the Speaker’s Committee is dead and buried, unless the Government change their mind—I am not holding my breath, and I do not expect the Deputy Leader of the House to say in his winding-up speech that they are going to change their mind. So the only way forward is to refer this matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I hope that that will happen as soon as the House returns, so that the Committee can look into all these matters.
The third aspect to the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford is, of course, ministerial involvement and responsibility. It is abundantly clear that what was leaked to him embarrassed the Government but was not a matter of national security. It is deeply regrettable that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, noisily abetted by among others the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, (Mr. Simon), led a slur, a smear and what, outside this place, would clearly be a potential slander against my hon. Friend, suggesting that something much more serious was involved and that a major security breach had taken place.
If that were the case, is it not a little odd that the so-called whistleblower was arrested on one day, but it was not until 13 days later that police actually turned up here and raided my hon. Friend’s office, and arrested him in his constituency? I notice that it has now all been quietly dropped and forgotten, but what a minority of Ministers did was nasty, unpleasant and wrong and I am sure that it embarrassed Labour Members as much as it annoyed us.
On the subject of the whistleblower, let me make it clear that except in the most exceptional circumstances public servants should not leak information to politicians, journalists or anyone else. When it is not a matter of national security, a full internal inquiry should be carried out in the Department and, in a serious case, if the culprit is found, he or she should be dismissed without any compensation. That should have happened in this case. For some reason, it did not, and we ended up with this heavy-handed police action.
I am confused about the Home Secretary’s role in this matter. We have taken advice from the last two Conservative Home Secretaries, my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who are very distinguished. They both said unequivocally that if they had been Home Secretary, they would have expected to be told if a Member of Parliament was to be arrested and his office raided. They said that, by any chance they were not told, heads would have rolled. They have been somewhat backed up by the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), who intervened on the Home Secretary a couple of weeks ago to say that he would not have been so placid if he had been told after the event. Well, all of us who know the right hon. Gentleman know that he is many things, but placid is not one of them. We can just imagine what would have happened if he had been Home Secretary and had learnt about what happened only afterwards.
The Home Secretary’s role is unfortunate. We have to accept, because she is a right hon. Member, that she has told the truth and she did not know. That puts her in a difficult position, because the question is why she did not know. Furthermore, why did she not do anything about it afterwards? Strangely, it appears that the Cabinet Office knew rather more, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office was rather more involved. That raises many interesting questions for the inquiry and, possibly, the Select Committee. Indeed, there will be more than one Select Committee looking at this matter, because the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has suggested that the Public Administration Committee will also inquire into the events.
My second point again involves the Home Secretary who, of all Ministers, has had the worst war in the last few months. She is clearly in great difficulties. Here I link in with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, who was right to apologise. If Gwyneth Dunwoody had been sitting in her customary seat in the corner, she would have enjoyed and appreciated the apology. Why could not the Home Secretary bring herself to apologise, when being cross-examined earlier this week about why Sir Michael Scholar had been so critical of the release of statistics on knife crime that were incomplete and immature? If she had done so, she would have gained huge respect on both sides of the House, because we all make mistakes. I have always found that if people apologise, they are forgiven by every reasonable person.
It is an immensely serious issue. Sir Michael Scholar was appointed by the Government—it was a good appointment and it is right that we should have such a position—as the watchdog on statistics. I am sure that I do not need to remind you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that he is also an ex-permanent secretary at the Home Office. He knows what is going on from back to front. We saw that gentle, rather academic, scholarly face on our television news absolutely furious at how the statistics had been manipulated. We cannot help but feel that again it was not the placid Home Secretary’s direct fault, and so we go back to Downing street and the Cabinet Office.
One can imagine some bright young thing who hopes one day to sit on the Government or Opposition Benches thinking, “Now, the Prime Minister has had this knife crime summit in his diary for a few days. Wouldn’t it be good to give him some really good statistics to show that it has all been sorted out?” That was wrong. It should not have happened and people such as the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary should apologise and ensure that that bright young thing spends a little more time learning the way the world works. What happened was deeply regrettable.
Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) rightly pointed out, it is a disgrace that we have not had a statement on Equitable Life. I made that point to the Chancellor earlier today, so I shall not dwell on it.
It is desperately important that we continue to have more debates on the economy, particularly when the Minister for the Olympics has made it clear—I think that she is right—that this is the worst recession we have ever known. We need to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer just why it is not the Government’s fault. If the markets have decided, due to the reduction of the pound against the dollar and the euro, they have clearly got it right.
I end by wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all staff here a very happy Christmas—
I wish to begin by putting on the record the fact that this week marks the 90th anniversary of women being able to vote in a general election, and it is also the 90th anniversary of women being able to stand for Parliament. Seventeen women stood for election on 14 December 1918. Only one was successful, and that was Countess Constance Markievicz, so she never took her seat.
The second woman to be elected, of course, was Viscountess Astor, who was elected in a by-election, but today I want to pay tribute to Margaret Wintringham, who was elected in 1921. She was the third woman to be elected and the second to take her seat, as well as the first Liberal woman and the first British-born woman to be elected. She was also the first woman who was actually involved in the suffrage movement to be elected. She represented the Louth constituency, which at the time included the southern section of the current Cleethorpes constituency. I pay tribute to her and all those pioneering women, because without their hard work I would not be able to stand here today and discuss serious issues before we rise for the recess.
First, I want to talk about the death of Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. He was sadly killed in Helmand province on 15 January 2007. His name has now been inscribed on the war memorial in the town of Immingham, where he was born and where his mother still lives. His name joins those of those who died in the first and second world wars.
I want to talk about Mathew today because we have recently had the inquest into his death, and his family have come away none the wiser. Outside Cleethorpes town hall, his mother said that from the day he died, she has not known what happened to him. She does not know why his body was left on the ground. She does not know why he was shot. She does not know who shot him. She hoped to find out from the inquest what happened, and sadly she feels that all those questions remain unanswered. There were discrepancies between the findings of the Royal Navy board of inquiry after Mathew’s death and issues raised at the inquest. There was a great deal of conflicting evidence, and I feel that we owe our troops, and Mathew Ford’s family, much more than that.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will help me to arrange a meeting between Mathew’s mother and Ministers, so that she can raise her concerns about the conduct of the board of inquiry investigation. Such a meeting would also enable her to discuss some of the issues that were not investigated at the subsequent inquest. The details are very distressing, and I shall not go into them today, but I repeat that we owe it to the families of those who lose their lives serving this country to look into such matters.
The next serious issue that I want to raise today concerns the rates paid by companies operating in Britain’s ports, which affects some 700 companies around the UK. In a nutshell, those companies have received demands to pay their business rates backdated to 2005. The sums involved are incredibly large as a result, but the crucial factor is that since 2005 the companies have been paying their rates along with their rents directly to port operators, such as Associated British Ports. That means that they are being asked to pay double, which they believe—I agree with them—is grossly unfair. Some firms have gone under already because of the mess with the rates. The proposed solution is that companies do not pay the increased rates until 2010. That solution is not new—it has been used in the past, with orders being put through this House postponing the immediate implementation of rate revaluations, and I hope that a similar mechanism can be adopted in this instance.
Many hon. Members attended Monday’s very successful lobby on the matter in the House, but I worry for the future of the 700 companies if we do not come up with a solution. I hope that Ministers will meet some of the operators involved, and hon. Members have already lobbied my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. We have also seen the Prime Minister, and at that meeting we stressed the seriousness of the problem and the large number of firms that are affected. I want Ministers to look at the real problems that the firms are facing by meeting representatives of some of them directly. I hope that they will also look at the possibility of putting through the House an order that would postpone the increased levy until 2010. To be fair to them, the Government have made some very helpful suggestions, but I fear that they will not be enough to prevent some firms going under.
The next matter that I want to deal with today is more positive—compensation for former distant-water trawlermen who lost their livelihoods as a result of the cod wars. I have brought the matter up in these debates over the years. We have heard a lot about compensation for miners, for example, but a great many people lost their livelihoods after the cod wars.
The Government introduced a compensation scheme in 2000, but a serious loophole in the rules meant that thousands of men did not receive any money—they may have had a break in service of more than 12 weeks that rendered them ineligible to receive compensation. I thank the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who on Thursday last week announced that a new scheme will be devised in the new year that does not include that serious loophole. As a result, many of my constituents who were never compensated following the loss of their livelihood will receive compensation. It has taken a long time to get to this stage, and talking about former distant-water trawlermen is very much a minority sport in this House. In debates such as this, we can raise important issues for our constituents, which has enabled me to raise this issue and finally have it resolved.
The Secretary of State made an announcement yesterday about some of the measures being introduced following the serious floods. Hull, which is across the River Humber from my constituency, always gets the most attention when we talk about the floods, but that rain that fell on Hull fell just as heavily on the other side of the river, and many hundreds of my constituents were affected. I hope that we can move swiftly to implement some of the measures that my right hon. Friend mentioned yesterday, such as enabling individual householders to obtain grants for flood boards, for example, or special devices that can cover air bricks to stop water entering properties. My constituents are already inquiring about that, and I hope that we get the details of those grant schemes very soon.
The final issue that I want to bring before the House is one of those “You couldn’t make it up” issues. It relates to rubbish collection in North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, two neighbouring authorities across which my constituency happens to cut. In its eagerness to tell residents when their Christmas refuse would be collected, North East Lincolnshire decided to go on a sort of land grab and delivered its leaflets in the neighbouring authority. About 1,000 homes in North Lincolnshire were kindly given the refuse collection dates for the neighbouring authority.
As hon. Members can imagine, the phones were red hot. People wondered why on earth their refuse collections were being completely and utterly changed. Finally, I had to ask one person who the letter was from. They said, “Well, it is from the council—North East Lincolnshire council.” I said, “You live in North Lincolnshire council.” Now North Lincolnshire is having to re-leaflet the households to tell them that the arrangements have not totally changed. A cost has been put on one authority by another authority. I hope that North East Lincolnshire council will do the decent thing, put its hands up, say sorry and at least pay the cost of rectifying its mistake.
Finally—before Opposition Members leap up to take part in the debate—I wish every Member of the House a restful Christmas. We do not usually get many days off to rest. I also hope that everyone who works for us, all the people who work in the House and all our constituents have a restful Christmas.