Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)
I should like to pass on the condolences of the people of Telford to the people who have been involved in the terrible disaster in the North sea. Our thoughts are very much with them today.
I should also like to say something about a personal friend of mine who, sadly, was killed in Afghanistan in December—Royal Marine Damian Davies. My thoughts are still with his family. He was a friend of mine, and I have not yet had a chance to raise this matter in a general debate. I want to pay tribute to all those in our armed services who are serving us so proudly around the world.
The House needs to hear about three issues before the Easter Adjournment, the first of which is the need to establish a post bank across the United Kingdom. We have an opportunity to set up a new banking model for the people of this country, based on the post office network. I want us to build up a trusted financial institution that is not based on shareholder value or on a target-driven bonus culture for management. We need to take the opportunity of the current financial crisis radically to redesign the banking system. I am sure that the Chancellor will want to say more about that in his statement this afternoon. At present, the top four commercial banks hold 76 per cent. of all current accounts in the UK, and surveys suggest that since the commercial banks have been bailed out and supported by the Government, consumer confidence in the private banking sector has reached an all-time low. It is clear that we need to rebuild confidence in the banking sector—that is partly what the G20 summit is about—but I think that we can do more by setting up a post bank.
Post offices would act as banks, providing a current account, a cheque book, a cash card and possibly a credit card, under the auspices of a new agency called post bank. In other European countries, such as France, Italy and Germany, it has proved to be profitable, equitable and popular. The scheme would strengthen the post office network by building up its business so that local economies—the drivers of prosperity—were enabled to grow through locally based services. Post offices would provide banking services, good quality local advice and financial help.
I believe that there is support for this proposal across the House. It is an idea whose time has come. There are 3 million people in this country without bank accounts, and a post bank model would help to make banking services available throughout the UK. It would be a trustworthy brand on which people could rely. The Government would initially need to finance the set-up of the post bank as a social enterprise until it became self-funding; any profits would be reinvested into the bank’s own operations, and moneys could be provided for community-based projects.
In the Telford area, we could get the Fairshare credit union to work with the post bank to offer low-cost loans through the post office network. We could partner such financial organisations with the post bank, and the credit union would immediately have a new set of outlets through which it could operate. Importantly, the post bank model would ensure that post office business was protected and that the sustainability of our remaining post offices was underpinned. The Government have put an enormous amount of money into sustaining the network, and they now need to put new business into it.
This proposal would enable us to protect our remaining post offices in Telford and across the country. It is a practical step that is backed by the trade unions, the Federation of Small Businesses, public research bodies and the National Pensioners Convention. As of yesterday, early-day motion 1082 carried 139 signatures, including my own—I am proud to have signed it. The post bank is a great idea, and I think that the Government need to move quickly on it. I would certainly be in the queue to open an account myself, if we could get the project off the ground. I do not know whether that means that I have to declare an interest—perhaps it does. I would certainly be in that queue.
The second issue that I want the House to think about before we go into the Easter recess is the need to create and support vibrant local shopping centres. There are a number of borough towns in my constituency that need regeneration and support in these difficult times, one of which is Madeley, and I am glad to say—although some people will be shocked by this—that Tesco is doing a great job there. It is building a new store in the high street and redesigning the high street, along with other private sector partners. We have encouraged Tesco to put in a local store and to provide new shops. Ironically, we are going back to the pre-new town high street pattern in Madeley. We built a new centre—a concrete structure—that proved to be unpopular and, after 30-odd years, we are demolishing it and putting back the old high street. I very much welcome that, and I welcome the role that Tesco is playing in that scheme.
Other local centres across Telford that need help include Dawley. It has suffered significantly from its close proximity to Telford shopping centre. We need to improve the street scene there, and we need to bring in more shops and residential units. In my view, the council should be looking at relocating some of its back-room staff to Dawley as part of the Paddock Mound development process. At the moment, the Dawley regeneration plans envisage the creation of a large amount of residential space in the Paddock Mound area, with some of the cash involved being invested to cross-subsidise the high street. We all know that the residential market is slow at the moment, and my worry is that that plan will delay the regeneration of Dawley. However, the council could step in and consider locating its back-room staff in that proposed residential area, which would bring cross-subsidy investment into the high street.
Another town in my community that needs investment is Oakengates. I am extremely concerned about the lack of commitment to Oakengates from the local authority. We need to save the old Walker Tech building—a stunning building in the town—as well as tackling the poor environment and the dangerous parking problems in Oxford street and Market street. So far, the council has offered peanuts to the people of Oakengates, and they deserve better.
A general theme that needs to be pursued across Telford is the introduction of street drinking bans. One thing that really deters people from going into local centres is the sight of groups of people—of all ages, it must be said—drinking alcohol at all times of the day. It puts people off and is particularly intimidating for older people who want to use the local facilities. Street drinking bans send out a clear message to the public that they should not consume alcohol in local centres as it creates an antisocial environment. Again, we need to move quickly. The council is going to consult on bringing in a street drinking ban in Dawley, after the major exercise that I carried out in which I received more than 1,000 responses from local residents. It is important that the council moves quickly, and that the ban in Dawley is seen as a pilot for other areas in Telford, such as Oakengates and Madeley, as well as local centres such as Brookside, Sutton Hill and Woodside, which could also benefit from having designated areas in their local centres where street drinking was banned.
Alongside the regeneration of those local centres, we also need to transform Telford town centre. I am extremely concerned about recent developments relating to the town centre. It was created to serve the new town and it has expanded over the years in a rather haphazard way, with new shopping arcades and other facilities being added on in a fairly piecemeal fashion. What is needed now is an overarching strategy to create a new, vibrant centre offering retail, entertainment and new housing. The strategy needs to involve all the partners in the town centre and to be led by the council, which is the strategic player.
Unfortunately, it seems that the council and the owners of the shopping centre, Hark Apollo, are not communicating. This has been made worse by the decision of the council effectively to rewrite the strategy for the centre by selling its civic offices to Asda, thereby drawing an anchor retailer out of the main shopping centre. I welcome the fact that Asda is committed to Telford, as it brings jobs to the area and retains jobs within it. However, the move by the council to lure it from the shopping centre is a serious concern. Hark Apollo has made it clear that this is a major threat to its shopping centre and that there has been a major breakdown of communication between it and the council.
I want to see a comprehensive redevelopment of the town centre with design continuity right across the scheme. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this right and the council should be co-ordinating the process, not creating a climate of crisis and recrimination. This project is vital for the regeneration of the borough and I will do anything I can to bring the parties together to talk. We should not be in this potentially disastrous position in any case. My message to the council is, “Get your act together. I will work with you and help you.” My message to Hark Apollo is also fairly blunt: “You need to review your parking charges, as this is one of the reasons Asda is considering moving out of the town centre”. I want the partners to come together; I believe in a strong partnership between the public and private sector. I believe that if we all work together, we can get this right and transform the centre of Telford.
The final issue I want to address is the review of health services in Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin. I have to say that I am sick and tired of continual reviews of our local health services. We seem to have the same discussions year in, year out—and it must be costing a fortune. In the seven years I have been an MP—[Interruption.] Eight years, but in all those years, we seem to have been having the same conversation about health services in our county. It is not necessarily to do with the Darzi review or the latest trend in Government policy; we just seem to have a constant debate going on among health services managers about the structure of services.
The clinical leaders forum in our area is leading the current review process and it has come up with proposals relating to acute hospital services. In simple terms, local health bosses seem to want to do two things. First, they want to keep children’s assessment units at both the Princess Royal hospital in Telford and Wrekin and the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, but they want to put in-patient children’s services on one site. That, they say, is the safest option. They also want to develop a children’s care service at home.
Secondly, the bosses want to retain A and E service on both sites, but with one dealing with the most seriously injured and ill—those involved in multiple trauma road accidents, for example. Level 1 A and E would be provided as it is now at regional centres; level 2 A and E would be on one of the sites in either Telford or Shrewsbury; and level 3 A and E would be on the other site. At present, no decision has been made about which site should have which services. The clinical leaders forum has produced a long list of four clinical options for sustainable acute services. More work is being done now as part of the consultation process. The concept of a new hospital has now emerged, located between Telford and Shrewsbury, so that it could provide all the acute services to the county.
I have to say that this process has now become an over-complicated shambles. The public have no faith in the process and the recent interventions by the National Clinical Advisory Team have made the situation worse. Health bosses should go right back, in my view, to the drawing board—or perhaps they should take the drawing board away and leave us all alone. We should be designing health services for the people of Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin—not, I add, for mid-Wales, with apologies to colleagues from mid-Wales—and it is about time health managers got out from behind their desks in Shrewsbury and took a long look at the health needs of my constituents in Telford. A&E services in our county are often stretched to capacity at the moment between the two hospitals and many people still have to wait a long time to be seen.
The history of hospital services in Shropshire includes a long struggle to get the status of Telford new town recognised as it grew from the 1960s onwards. Telford is the largest population centre in the county and it is a growing town. By 2026, at least 26,500 new homes will have been built in the borough of Telford and Wrekin, and the current planning review suggests that figure could expand to more than 30,000. Telford could easily grow to become a town of more than 200,000 people in the next two decades, and we need hospital services to reflect that.
We have high levels of deprivation—worse than anywhere else in the county—and other social indicators show very clearly that hospital services need to be focused on Telford. Anyone can see the logic of structuring services around Telford. Services should not be based on how the county looked 50 years ago or even 10 years ago; they should be based on how it looks now and how it is going to look. On that note, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I wish you a happy Easter?
I thank the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) for expressing sympathy for the victims of the helicopter tragedy and for his support for the post bank—a timely idea taking forward many of our concerns about the Post Office, and an issue to which I shall return.
We finally debated the economy in Government time on Tuesday. In that debate, I raised issues connected with the oil and gas industry. Later today, we are having a statement about the G20, which will obviously be about the global impact of the world economy and any global action that can be taken to restore confidence in the economic situation. During the statement, we will have a chance to discover what has come from that G20 meeting. Although the crisis is global and there are definitely global aspects to the economic crisis we face, there is no doubt that there are also local and national aspects to it. The Government had a role in getting us into the crisis and they will have a role in how we come out of it.
On the banking system, we need to learn lessons and understand why the Canadian banks have not gone through the same crisis as UK banks. We must ensure that Government action restores the UK banking system. There is real frustration among the majority of constituents of the majority of Members that so much taxpayers’ money is being poured in at the top, without them necessarily seeing any outcome at the bottom. If we speak to local businesses trying to secure the cash flow they need from the banks to keep going, we find that they are very frustrated. They are frustrated that the announcement of so many Government schemes is not necessarily followed by delivery and they are frustrated in terms of communication in that the banks do not seem to be aware of what schemes are available to assist in supporting business. We need to see a real measure of impact from all this intervention so that banks finally get liquidity flowing in the economy again. If small businesses are unable to borrow, they cannot keep the business turning over to get them through the slump and out the other side.
One victim of the response that has had to be made to the crisis is people with savings, particularly pensioners who have been hit hard. To get cash flow going, interest rates have been slashed to near zero. That provides more liquidity for people with mortgages and other borrowings and reduces the burden on business, which is to be welcomed, but it also has a negative impact on savings and particularly on pensioners who rely on them.
One action the Government could take—and take quickly—to restore a sense of justice on this issue would be to look at the assumed income pensioners and others on benefits could make from their savings. To assume that they can get 10 per cent. on their savings when the Bank has cut the rate to 0.5 per cent. is simply not natural justice and it flies in the face of reality. In the long run, while we want people to spend where they can in the economy, we also need to keep a savings culture in the long term. If we are to penalise people for putting money aside for their old age by assuming that absurd returns can be achieved, we are going to damage that savings culture in the future.
Another aspect of restoring confidence would be to embrace the post bank proposal quickly and efficiently and to roll it out. Many pensioners and people with small savings want real confidence that there is a traditional banking model available where people lend money to the banks, the money accumulates and real savings follow. People do not want fancy financial models that put at risk both savers and borrowers. The post bank could be a great way of restoring confidence in basic banking, and could provide new outlets for the Post Office. As the hon. Member for Telford pointed out, considerable effort has been put into saving, or at least reducing the damage to, the post office network, and the Government have invested a great deal. Now is the time to bring in new business to give vibrancy to, and take advantage of, the network that has been saved, to avoid further closures and to ensure a viable future for the service. Working with credit unions strikes me as a important way of building on something that already exists in communities.
The Government could take another step to restore savers’ confidence, and confidence in the financial system. They could respond to the continuing concerns of the ombudsman about the handling of the Equitable Life sufferers—the victims of the Equitable Life debacle. When there is maladministration, or a failure of administration, if we do not demonstrate that something will be done about it, people will not feel confident about the regulation of the financial system in the future. A stronger response from the Government, and a recognition of the ombudsman’s frustration over the handling of Equitable Life, would restore an element of confidence.
Responding to the economic crisis involves a role for the Treasury and the approaching Budget, but other Departments should be highly aware of the dangers of excessive regulation, and of regulation being introduced too quickly at a time when people are finding it most difficult to adapt. When I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry in the last Parliament, the point was made in evidence from the Federation of Small Businesses that while each regulation often stands up and makes sense, a wall of regulations all arriving at once places a great burden on business in requiring it to adapt and evolve. That applies during the good times, but when businesses are struggling to make ends meet and to cope with a real financial crisis, having to implement any extra bureaucracy or regulation that could be avoided imposes an unnecessary burden at a time when the other means of restarting the economy may not be working particularly well.
Earlier today, during questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we heard about the European Union’s proposals for sheep-tagging and the burden that that will place on many hill farmers. The Secretary of State spoke of a move to ease the impact. I think we need to know exactly how he expects that impact to be eased. When there are a large number of sheep on the hills, identifying them individually will involve extra bureaucracy, and having to work out, when a tag is lost from a sheep, which number was on it in order to replace it will mean an awful lot of extra work for a farming community that is also struggling with the financial crisis.
Another issue raised at question time was that of our high animal welfare standards. I want to reinforce what the Secretary of State said about sound and efficient labelling. Perhaps the Secretary of State could also reinforce what he said by ensuring that such a system can be delivered, so that consumers who have put pressure on us, as parliamentarians, to operate the highest animal welfare standards can support that pressure by buying products that meet them. There is no point in putting pressure on us to achieve high animal welfare standards, and then buying products from other countries that do not meet those standards and are therefore able to undercut products that do.
Another regulation is causing concern about the economy in my constituency. I must declare my interest in the oil and gas industry, as a Shell shareholder and a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British offshore oil and gas industry. The group recently made a visit to a conference in Stavanger which was supported by oil and gas industry companies. I am concerned about the emissions trading phase III regulations, and the European Union’s proposal for 100 per cent. of electricity generation emissions trading permits to be auctioned.
Much of the power on the offshore oil and gas platforms is generated on those platforms. The aim of the emissions trading regulations is to encourage less use of carbon by promoting alternative sources of electricity, but the offshore platforms are not connected to the grid, and cannot simply switch to a renewable source. Buying the permits at auction will impose an extra cost on the industry, which means that, at a time when the industry is already facing difficulties, older platforms in particular may be tipped into being no longer profitable, and start to be decommissioned earlier than was originally intended.
If those platforms are decommissioned early, nearby finds will no longer be exploitable. If we decommission early in the United Kingdom we will produce less oil and gas, but that will not affect the level of consumption; it will merely mean that we import more. The carbon leakage regulations provide a strong case for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to make to the European Union. It should say that we need to take advantage of the rules of the EU system, and that because of the carbon leakage, the North sea needs to be protected from the full impact of the 100 per cent. auction.
Another bureaucratic nightmare for many constituents is the minefield of the IR35 regulations. Many people work in the north-east of Scotland work as contractors, and already feel the real heat of the economic crisis. It is unlikely that they would suffer a pay cut upfront if they were employed, but because they are contractors, it is easy to reduce their fee levels by changing the terms of their contracts. The additional bureaucracy generated by all the work involved in trying to comply with IR35 could be eased if the Treasury thought again about its impact.
I wish to reinforce my support for the case for an early inquiry into the circumstances of the Iraq war, our involvement in it, and the decisions that led to it. Such an inquiry must be wide ranging to enable all the lessons to be learnt, and it should be arranged on an urgent basis so that we learn the lessons as soon as possible in order to apply them to any future conflicts. It must consider the role of Parliament, the role of scrutiny of Parliament, and the way in which Parliament questions Government. It is clear that Parliament had an opportunity to prevent that war, but did not judge the information provided by Government in a way that would have allowed it to question the decision that was put before it, and to avoid the tragedy of becoming so heavily involved in Iraq in such a bad way.
I pay tribute to the troops who have served in Iraq. They have performed the duty that Parliament asked them to perform. However, it is important for those lessons to be learnt. One of the tragedies of our having allowed the United States to distract us into becoming involved in Iraq was the fact that we took our eye off the ball of Afghanistan. That has made our present task in Afghanistan far more difficult, because the job was not seen through at the time. Having supported the intervention in Afghanistan, I hope that in our negotiations with the United States, the US will recognise the burden that we have already borne there and the importance of its troop surge in helping our hard-working armed forces—who are taking such a high risk—to deliver a better life for the people of Afghanistan, and to protect our security here at home by trying to see through a job that was not seen through properly at the time because of the distraction of Iraq.
Finally, as the Easter recess approaches, let me take this opportunity to thank all the staff of the House who make it possible for us to serve in this place, and to wish everyone a happy Easter.
I want to draw attention to a proposal whose implementation would have a significant effect on my constituency: the Co-operative Group’s proposal to build an eco-town known as Pennbury. Although the town would be built just outside the boundaries of my own constituency, in the constituencies of Harborough and Rutland and Melton, the impact on my constituency and the people in it would be considerable, and I am anxious to record the strength of feeling among those local people before the recess.
At the beginning of my remarks, I should declare some interests. I have been a member of the Midlands Co-operative Society, with a £20 share, for some decades and a member of the Co-operative party for some 40 years, and my constituency Labour party, of which I am a member, has recently received a £200 donation from the Co-operative party. Members will be able to tell from those declarations that I am very sympathetic to the principles of the Co-operative movement.
I am also very sympathetic indeed to the concept of environmentally sustainable housing. During my 17 years as leader of the city council in Leicester, it was awarded the accolade of being Britain’s first “environment city”, and it was one of 12 communities worldwide that was invited to the Rio summit to give examples of communities that were seeking to grow in a sustainable way. I also have a long commitment to the provision of adequate affordable housing. I was a member of the then controlling Labour group in the city council in Leicester at a time when we were very proud to be building some 1,000 council houses every year.
Therefore, nobody can doubt the fundamental attitudes with which I approached the Co-operative society’s proposals to build this eco-town. I am also not unsympathetic to its desire to develop a part of its extensive landholdings to the south of Leicester for housing. When I was leader of the city council, we had a number of discussions with it about what were then its proposals for an area called Stretton Magna, not far from the Pennbury development of today, and when the Co-op came forward with this new proposal, I hoped I would be able to support it.
In the almost two years since the publication of the Government prospectus for eco-towns, I have had a number of meetings with representatives of the Co-op. I have also met city and county councillors and officers, and I have looked carefully at the Co-op’s publications and at the analysis of the proposals undertaken by the city and county councils in Leicester and Leicestershire. I have looked particularly carefully at the work undertaken by Halcrow, which has conducted a strategic assessment of the proposals that was published last December.
My initial sympathy for the proposals and the proposers has changed to alarm about the potential impact on my constituency and the city of Leicester more generally, and from that alarm to a general conclusion that were Pennbury to be developed, its impact on Leicester—and Leicester, South as a part of Leicester—would be devastating. During this period, I have been particularly disappointed that, rather than engaging with the concerns that I and others have expressed, the Co-op has chosen to dismiss our questions and to rubbish the many criticisms that Halcrow made of what it described as the Co-op’s “questionable assumptions”.
The Co-op’s latest glossy publication is full of inspirational pictures and fine words. That is typical of its responses to the criticisms, and I will draw on it to illustrate some of my points. In it, the Co-op dismisses its opponents as
“a small minority of people who opposed the eco-town proposal from the outset”,
and it accuses them, and by implication me, of wishing to “stifle debate”. It may well be the case that some have opposed the principle, but that is certainly not true of me, nor of many others who have tried to get proper answers to reasonable questions.
Let me refer to one particularly distinguished critic: John Dean, the former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute and the distinguished city planning officer in Leicester in the 1970s and ’80s, who served for a total of, I think, some 21 years in that capacity. He did much to shape the conservation and appreciation of the city’s built heritage and to prepare the ground for its current regeneration. Mr. Dean said of the proposals for Pennbury:
“The location of the proposal derives from the landownership of the scheme promoters and not from any rational planning process which has considered and debated alternatives.”
He has produced a detailed critique of the proposals. Much as the Co-op might like to dismiss such distinguished criticism, John Dean and many others, such as me, who have been increasingly concerned about the proposals are certainly not guilty of nimbyism.
I have four broad and interlinked concerns: first, the development on this site will draw regeneration investment from the city of Leicester; secondly, the transport generated by it will have a totally unacceptable impact on the A6 corridor through my constituency and the A563 to the M1 motorway, and the suburban rat-runs through the constituency will be dreadful; thirdly, the tram, which has so seduced the city council, is a mirage, and many other aspects of the transportation proposals are unrealistic or unworkable; and, fourthly, the employment proposals and projections put forward by the Co-op are vague and unrealistic.
I wish to say a little more about transportation in particular. The Co-op claims that
“the effect of the eco-town on the transport network would be minimal”.
If it has carried out studies to come to that conclusion, they are certainly not ones that have convinced the experts, Halcrow, which expressed its conviction that the transport infrastructure cannot be delivered. However, we do not need an expert to tell us that the Co-op’s assertion that the impact of 15,000 new homes “would be minimal” is plainly ludicrous.
What the Co-op has tried to do in developing its proposals is pretend that it will be possible to persuade residents of this eco-town to reduce car ownership to one car for every two households. That may be highly desirable, but it does not reflect the real world of the 21st century. Equally ludicrous is its planning assumption that it will be possible to provide appropriate employment in the eco-town to match the employment needs of 60 per cent. of the residents. As Halcrow points out, that is more that twice the so-called containment level of the neighbouring mature areas of Oadby and Wigston. Even on the Co-op’s figures—which, as I have said, are hopelessly unrealistic—the location of the park-and-ride terminus at Leicester race course is in completely the wrong place and unworkable. The prospect of squeezing more cars and a dedicated public transport corridor—whether bendy buses or a tram—down the already heavily congested A6 London road, which is one of the most attractive routes into the city, with little more than some bus lay-bys and a more sophisticated traffic light system is totally incredible to ponder, and the strain on the ring road to the south of the city towards the M1 has scarcely been considered by the Co-op in any of its propaganda. Indeed, much of its propaganda is totally unreadable, with plans that are largely meaningless to the layperson for whom they are intended.
With regard to the regeneration of the city, the Co-op has made two completely contradictory assertions. On the one hand, it claims that the eco-town will not draw regeneration investment from the urban core of the city—which, of course, it clearly will—and on the other hand it asserts that it is better to develop on its green fields because, in its own words,
“brownfield sites are expensive to develop”.
Frankly, it cannot have it both ways. Particularly astonishingly, the Co-op claims that
“brownfield development has also failed to deliver affordable housing”.
I could take Co-op representatives throughout my constituency and across the city of Leicester and show them many examples over many decades of brownfield sites that have been successfully developed for either Housing Association or local authority properties.
In conclusion, the fundamental problem with the site is that, because of its proximity to Leicester—and to Oadby and Wigston, in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), whom I was pleased to see in the Chamber today— Pennbury can never be a free-standing development with its own identity. Because of the infrastructure problems, it is totally inappropriate as a sustainable urban extension.
Concern about the devastating effects of this proposal cross the political divide. They have of course been expressed by Members in this Chamber—by, for example, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)—and, indeed, by members of all parties in the county council. Although members of the city council were, for reasons that are well understood locally, keen to give initial support to the proposal, they, too, gave it subject to conditions on housing, transport and regeneration, all of which it is now clear the Co-op will not be able to meet.
As the consultation period draws to an end, I want to take this opportunity before the Easter recess to urge the Government to kill off this misguided and extremely damaging proposal at this stage, rather than allowing it to proceed and to die, as I hope it eventually will, when it is subject to scrutiny and consideration in the regional and local planning processes.
I wish my many friends in the Co-operative movement well. I admire their determination to make good use of their assets and I have no doubt of their genuine environmental aspirations. However, on this occasion they have the wrong proposal on the wrong site, and I must defend the interests of my constituents and the city of Leicester from this potentially devastating proposal.
I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise a number of very important local issues. I had hoped to deal with one of them at business questions but unfortunately I was not called, so I will deal with it briefly now. It is about a rapidly improving school, Highdown, in my constituency, which was informed on Monday by the Learning and Skills Council about a cut to its sixth-form funding. This is happening to schools and colleges right across the country. The LSC is also refusing to fund all the places that Highdown needs to satisfy local student demand—on top of the fact that its new sixth-form centre building project has recently been put on hold. The new cut is causing a £200,000 budget deficit that will have very serious implications for the school. The head teacher told me that he could be forced to make teaching staff cuts, which in turn could halt the immense progress that the school has been making in recent years.
There will be other schools in my constituency suffering similar cuts, about which there was no consultation or, indeed, warning. So much for the Government’s promise of stability for schools through three-year funding mechanisms. The funding cut has been made at the last possible moment in the financial year and is obviously a desperate attempt to claw back money. What we do not know is what caused it. It is a particularly sneaky and underhand way of doing things, and the Secretary of State should be forced to come to this House as soon as possible to explain why he has done it.
I turn to phone masts, the behaviour of Vodafone and the incompetence of my local council’s planning department. Vodafone had submitted an application for a 10 m high mast at the junction of Westdene crescent and Woodcote way. It was turned down because it was completely inappropriate to the local area—in fact, it would be an eyesore. Another application was submitted, which the local council also turned down. However, Reading borough council’s planning department failed to notify Vodafone within 56 days, as it is required to do. The council says that it wrote to Vodafone on the 55th day, but the letter arrived on the 57th day. The result, I am told, is that Vodafone, on a technicality, has the right to go ahead. The council has failed its residents in this matter and should rightly be taken to task for its abject incompetence. It has let local residents down in a quite shameful way. I hope that the matter will be pursued via the local government ombudsman, but also that the council will do everything it possibly can to make amends.
However, Vodafone is also acting in a manner that I would not expect of a company that values the notion of corporate social responsibility. Whether it got the decision on the 56th or 57th day, it knew the planning application had been turned down before it went ahead; it should have accepted this, or at least acted in good faith to negotiate another site. I have to say to Vodafone that I will not deal with a company that treats my constituents in this way. It has not acted in good faith with the local people. Whatever the problems with Reading borough council, it should not be used to ride roughshod over local concerns. I have tried to engage Vodafone in a dialogue, and I urge the company again today to engage positively with me and with local people to try to get a solution that is acceptable to all parties. I am willing to help, because I believe that mobile communications are an extremely important part of modern life in this country and an important industry to the UK as a whole. It is essential that companies protect their reputations. I advise Vodafone to act without delay.
I turn now to the extremely serious issue of irresponsible lending. Although I appreciate that many families have been affected by the recession, I would like to concentrate my thoughts on one of my constituents, Mr. Trevor Howard. Owing to a catalogue of events outside his personal control and to the Financial Services Authority’s negligence, he is no ordinary victim of the credit crunch. In the times of profligate lending before the credit crunch hit, loans sometimes felt as easy to obtain as a bar of chocolate from a shop. People could more or less walk into a bank and choose the mortgage they wanted, of pretty much any shape or size.
During this period, Mr Howard’s former wife, Julie, fraudulently obtained hundreds of thousands of pounds via a plethora of loans, re-mortgages, store cards and credit cards. The level of deception she employed is shocking, but the incompetence of the lenders involved is equally so. We are talking about sums such as a £150,000 re-mortgage brokered by Best Advice mortgages—we can see the irony in that name—and funded by Kensington; another re-mortgage totalling £37,000 with the now collapsed Bradford & Bingley; loans in excess of £100,000 with Firstplus; and a number of other loans and credit cards. Thames Valley police have cautioned his wife, because the Crown Prosecution Service will not prosecute in a criminal court.
Mr. Howard has won a civil case against his ex-wife, but on this occasion attention needs to be drawn away from her fraud and toward the negligence of the lenders involved. None of the fraud would have been possible without the lax procedures employed by the lenders. HSBC, for example, agreed to a £13,000 loan that Mrs. Howard had applied for under her and her husband’s name. The bank manager signed his approval to the agreement the day before—the day before—the form was signed by the applicants. Not only this: Mr. Howard’s signature was forged, as has been verified by a handwriting expert.
On another occasion, Best Advice mortgages agreed to a £150,000 re-mortgage in both Mr. and Mrs. Howard’s name. It is claimed that the application was face to face; however, the truth is very different. Mr. Howard was at work, as a builder, on the day the application was made and has a large number of witnesses who have verified the fact. Mrs. Howard later admitted that the application was submitted by post. Subsequent inquiries to the lender showed that the form was incomplete, and Mr Howard’s date of birth was incorrect and his signature was once again forged. Witness signatures were forged, to the extent that three out of the four signatures on the mortgage deed were forgeries.
An Experian report revealed that Mr Howard’s date of birth was incorrect against a number of accounts, all of whose existence he was not aware of until he split from his now ex-wife. She ran the couple’s finances and employed an unimaginable level of deception to hide all the debt racked up in Mr Howard’s name—all without his knowledge or consent.
Mr. Howard has written to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, to the UK’s fraud prevention service and to the Prime Minister. Since taking up his case, I have written to the financial services ombudsman, the Justice Secretary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission regarding the failure to investigate the lenders. All attempts to get action to be taken against the mortgage lenders have fallen on deaf ears and they have simply been wriggling and passing the buck to each other. I am particularly dismayed at the attitude of the Financial Services Authority—the supposed regulator of financial services.
This case involves irresponsible lending in the extreme; money was fraudulently obtained by Mr. Howard’s ex-wife simply because the lenders did not carry out reasonable, significant or responsible checks. Like many builders, Mr. Howard was made redundant at the end of last year. Obviously, that was partly due to the economic climate, but the time that he had to take off work to fight his civil case, which he won, also played a significant part in his becoming unemployed. Mr. Howard’s home is being repossessed, so due to his wife’s fraudulent activities and the incompetence of the lenders he has been left unemployed and he will probably soon be without a home.
Serious questions need to be asked about the regulatory system and the way in which lending takes place in the UK. Applications made by post are obviously open to identity fraud, so why are lenders not making sufficient checks on those applications? For example, why did the lenders not carry out proper and thorough signature checks in this case? Mr. Howard’s date of birth was entered incorrectly by his ex-wife on application forms so that his credit history would not come up in checks by lenders. That hid all the previous lending and made it appear that he had a very good credit history. Why did the lenders not properly verify the identity of the applicants? The date of birth details on the forms and identify documents were not properly checked or corroborated at any stage? Credit cards were delivered through the post to an address other than the family home. Mr. Howard’s ex-wife had changed the delivery address without his knowledge or consent. How was that allowed to happen? Why do lenders not follow their European counterparts by requiring credit cards to be collected from them as a way of verifying the borrower’s identity?
When investigating, the police struggled to obtain documents from these lenders. Why is there no way to force lenders to provide the required information to the police? The sad reality is that Mr. Howard will probably never get justice for what has happened to him. The FSA has refused to investigate the lenders and the lenders themselves have failed to investigate internally. Perhaps the Minister could give Mr. Howard some hope and undertake to push for an inquiry into how this situation was allowed to happen. I am not sure that the answer is more regulation; it is about better regulation and the enforcement of existing regulation. The Government are culpable for failing to ensure that the FSA was on top of the financial regulation of this industry. Unfortunately, Mr. Howard is yet another example and victim of this Government’s economic failure.
Order. I mean no prejudice against those hon. Members who have spoken and who did so within their time limit, but it is apparent that it would perhaps be more to the advantage of hon. Members if I withdrew the time limit on speeches. That will perhaps give a slightly more relaxed opportunity to those hon. Members who have been patient enough to wait for the debate. I call Mr. Allen.
As Parliament and MPs are being kicked around by Government and the media at the moment, it is probably worth reminding ourselves of a time in the not-too-distant past when Parliament did get off its knees, did speak for people and did seek to hold the Government to account. The two largest rebellions ever within a governing party occurred six years ago but, despite them, Parliament decided to support President Bush’s war in Iraq. The last of our troops are coming home now, so it is a good time to ask the following question: what is the profit from our victory?
Some 179 of the troops’ comrades have died, as have 4,259 members of the US military and an estimated 99,500 Iraqi civilians; an extraordinary and irreplaceable diversion of focus and resources away from the real threat, al-Qaeda, has taken place—imagine what we could have done in Afghanistan to the nest of al-Qaeda had we deployed all those resources where terrorism was clearly a threat. A new home for terrorism has been created. I take second place to nobody in condemning the tyranny of Saddam Hussein—the only thing that can be said for him is that, as a result of his butchery and tyranny, his own people were so much in fear that they were not susceptible to the splinter groups of al-Qaeda and to terrorism. Even in the depths of fantasy peddled by some of the people around President Bush, there was never a proven or sustainable link to al-Qaeda. The 100,000 or so people killed in Iraq had families, and the dysfunction that has been created is the perfect breeding ground for generations of terrorists, who can take flight around the globe and make all of our lives more difficult.
We also lost the moral high ground as a civilisation. Whether it was because of what happened in Abu Ghraib or anywhere else, our right to speak, in any sense, as superior to any other culture disintegrated very rapidly—the right was forfeited. We also smashed the precious Arab-west coalition that had been developed in the previous Iraqi war, and the United Nations—perhaps our best hope for the future—was irrevocably weakened. It can no longer summon up armies or nations to rid people of tyrannies, wherever those may be.
That is the legacy and we all have to live with it. It must be said that not a single weapon of mass destruction—the pretext of going into Iraq—was ever found there. That is history, but it is useful to learn some lessons from history. I, like a majority of the people in the Chamber today who were also here at that time, opposed the war and organised, in this place, against it. After the decision was made, I kept my counsel and ensured that our young troops, many of whom are from my constituency—I have met them in Basra and elsewhere—were not undermined.
As we approach the sixth anniversary, I feel that some of the story can be told. Much of it reflects the grossly unbalanced relationship that exists in this place between Parliament and the Government, and there are a number of lessons that I would like the House and all Members to learn from that period. Before I touch on that, it is worth recalling that the first vote on the issue in this House, which took place on Wednesday 26 February 2003, was on the motion that the case for war was “unproven”, and 122 Labour MPs voted to oppose going to war. Had the Conservative MPs voted for the amendment, war would have been defeated by 109 votes. I am not making a partisan case. The Conservative Members who voted for the amendment did so with great courage and resilience, and those who did not voted in the way that they did because they felt, openly and honestly, that that was the best way to go.
The second such vote took place on 18 March 2003, on the amendment that the case for war had “not yet been established”, and the majority of the non-payroll vote on the Labour side—139 Labour Members—voted to oppose going to war. Sometimes my friends in the Liberal Democrats inadvertently make it appear that only they opposed the war at the time. A significant number of Liberal Members voted with us on that amendment, but it was not as large as 139—the number of Labour MPs that voted to oppose going to war. Some 219 Members, from all parties, voted against going to war and another 29 deliberately abstained. Had the Opposition voted for the amendment, it would have been carried by 109 votes and Bush would have gone to war on his own.
There is a question as to whether Mr. Bush would have gone to war on his own or whether by supporting him we conferred legitimacy on his actions. One of the most frightening conversations I have had was with an academic in the US, during a Select Committee visit, who said, “I had a lot of qualms about the war, but when I saw Tony Blair was backing it, I decided it was all right for us to go to war.”
Tempting as the hon. Gentleman’s offer is, I shall not go over the old ground and reopen wounds within or across parties: I am trying to tease out some of the lessons for the future. I remember that he was in the Lobbies with us on those key occasions.
Had the Opposition not voted against, but abstained, we would have needed just 20 more colleagues to have blocked the war—so near, but so far away. Despite all the pressure, the hysteria, the whipping and the meetings with Cabinet Ministers and even the Prime Minister, the threats that the Prime Minister would resign and the accusations that people were siding with Saddam Hussein or were being unpatriotic, it is remarkable that those who opposed going to war not only maintained their opposition, but strengthened their position by the time of the second vote. That is a tribute to all those in all parties, of many different views, who felt so strongly that then was not the time to go to war.
I want to take the House on a brief stroll down parliamentary memory lane to recall the first rebel Parliament since the Long Parliament of 1640. The Long Parliament managed to fight the English civil war and execute the King. Its successor was not so dramatic, but it forced the Executive to convene the real Parliament to debate the slide into war against Iraq. In doing so, it opened up issues that are still pertinent to the House in general, and the possibility of a serious debate on the war in Iraq that would not pick over the bones of who was right or wrong, but would ensure that we learn the lessons and decide where the balance of authority should lie between Parliament and the Executive—something that we still need to resolve. When Parliament can check and scrutinise the Executive, we will have truly learned those lessons. The question is not when the Government will allow Parliament to scrutinise the Government. It is surely a complete contradiction in terms that the very body that will be scrutinised is the body that allows that scrutiny to take place. It defies human nature to want such exposure. There has to be a separation so that Parliament can do its job properly and question any Government’s decision at any time to go to war, and monitor the subsequent conduct of that war.
Through the summer recess of 2002, pressure was building up. The then Prime Minister was scuttling over to Camp David regularly, and it looked very much as though the United States would attack Iraq, and that Britain would be involved by virtue of the “special relationship” between Tony Blair and President Bush. They gave a press conference on 3 September 2002. Tony Blair said that if the situation developed in Iraq then the
“fullest possible debate will take place, not just in the country but obviously in Parliament and elsewhere”.
The term “elsewhere” was unfortunately characteristic: Parliament had no higher status in the prime ministerial mind than the media, the pub, the opinion polls or the focus groups. As events would prove, Parliament was not genuinely and openly involved in the process. Instead, Members had to fight to stake a claim to represent legitimately the opinions that they were hearing in their constituencies. That right was not gifted to us by Parliament, nor was it ours as of right. It had to be fought for, as indeed have almost all extensions of our rights.
Parliament had no rights either to recall itself or to debate war powers, and the Government gave no sign that they intended to recall Parliament before 15 October even though it was clear that they were likely to take this country to war. Many hon. Members at the time thought that that would be far too late and the die would be cast. On 3 and 4 September, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to consider recalling Parliament, and I know that dozens of other colleagues did the same—we agreed that this would be a good thing to do—but Tony Blair has never revealed how many MPs requested a recall.
We believed that a recall of Parliament would strengthen British policy and diplomacy; would strengthen the Prime Minister’s negotiating capability with the US President; and would help to explain the issues to the country, which was deeply divided and anxious about the possibility of war. Above all, recalling the forum of the nation would allow the ventilation of the views that had been expressed to us in July, August and September. That should always be our primary role, but it cannot be our role if we cannot meet to express those views.
Apart from writing to the Prime Minister, there is nothing else that an MP can do to get Parliament recalled. The Standing Order on the recall of Parliament—Standing Order No. 13—says that once the House is adjourned, a recall can be achieved only by representations
“to the Speaker by Her Majesty’s Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet”.
The Prime Minister has monopoly power over the recall of Parliament: the very person Parliament is meant to scrutinise is the only person who can authorise that scrutiny.
Since then, I have placed on the Order Paper every day a modest change to the right of this House to recall itself—to enable Mr. Speaker, without a request from Ministers, to think carefully about whether, on rare occasions, the House should be recalled. Regardless of people’s views about whether we should have gone to war at that time and about the timetable set by the President, all parliamentarians would surely have wanted the Speaker to make the decision about recall.
In spite of growing pressure from MPs, the Prime Minister was not willing to recall Parliament. Several of us therefore began to contemplate the idea of a rebel, unofficial Parliament—an alternative assembly of MPs. If Parliament was to be vetoed, perhaps MPs could take the initiative and convene themselves, meeting as an assembly of MPs outside of Executive control. Imagine that. Although it would clearly be second best to a real Parliament, the assembly could debate Iraq under strict parliamentary rules and put constituents’ views on the record. Having spoken to a number of colleagues in all parties, I wrote to every Member of the House and asked three questions: first, would they support Parliament’s being recalled to discuss the Iraq issue; secondly, if Parliament was not officially recalled, would they consider attending a gathering elsewhere of MPs operating under strict parliamentary rules to discuss the Iraq issue; and, thirdly, would they support a change in the Standing Orders to enable the Speaker to recall Parliament without the qualification that it should be at the request of Ministers if the Speaker were satisfied that the public interest did so require? The response was overwhelming. No fewer than 85 per cent. of Back Benchers agreed the need for an official recall, 65 per cent. agreed to come to an unofficial recall and 86 per cent. agreed that the Standing Orders should be changed, although, by agreement with my party’s Whips, I did not release those figures to the media. It was clear that the demand was there for an alternative Parliament.
On 5 September, I invited the former Speaker, Lord Weatherill, to resume his role for one day in the alternative Parliament. I also asked the then Serjeant at Arms if it was possible to hire the Chamber of this House. On 7 September, Lord Weatherill accepted the invitation to chair the alternative Parliament, which gave an immense boost to its standing. I looked for a team of Deputy Speakers and retired Clerks to support him.
We also began to think about procedures. An alternative Parliament did not need to be bound by obsolete and inefficient traditions. We planned to try out innovations, including a microphone for every Member, working sensible hours and a strict limit of 10 minutes on all speeches, with no privileges for Front Benchers or Privy Counsellors. Our Speaker would let the House sit until MPs had spoken. For once, a late-night sitting would be justifiable. We wanted to allow MPs who could not be on hand at the alternative Parliament to hand in their speech for the record, as is done in the US Congress.
We planned a live webcast of the alternative Parliament on the internet so that any elector could e-mail their views as they watched the debate. We even thought of a new logo—a raised portcullis, representing letting people into their Parliament rather than shutting them out. On Monday 9 September, a Back-Bench steering group of one MP from each party was created to oversee those arrangements.
The following day we had a classic Catch-22 response from the Serjeant at Arms: he could not allow the Chamber to be used until the House agreed, but the House would not reconvene until 15 October. We looked for an alternative venue in Westminster and settled on Church House—a chamber used when Parliament was bombed in the second world war. To many MPs, that circular 600-seat chamber was actually better designed than the Commons Chamber. I was told that it would cost £6,000 for a day and fortunately my wallet was spared by offers of financial support from the BBC, the Daily Mirror, the Rowntree trust and several individuals. We settled on the date of Thursday 19 September for the first Parliament to recall itself.
Invitations, as many colleagues will recall, were sent to every MP and it became clear on 10 September that there would be overwhelming attendance—we had gained a critical mass of Members of Parliament who were willing to attend to put their very different points of view at that gathering. We were also gathering massive coverage in the media, and the clincher was a call from the BBC to ask whether it could cover the debate from gavel to gavel, from morning until it finished. I, along with my colleagues who were involved at that point, readily agreed to that request.
On Wednesday 11 September—the anniversary of 9/11 —No. 10 capitulated. Robin Cook called me to concede that the official Parliament would be recalled, and so there would be no need for an alternative Parliament. Characteristically, No. 10 briefed the media before it briefed the steering group of MPs, but we were none the less delighted to have made the Executive recall Parliament, even though they were opposed to doing so.
The alternative Parliament secured for Parliament the right to debate the Government’s conduct of policy towards Iraq. That would not have happened for a further month had we not taken those steps. History will judge whether Parliament made the best use of that opportunity and whether it did enough to probe the military, political, legal and moral case for the Iraq war, or to expose the half-truths and outright falsehoods that accompanied it, as well as the lack of preparation for the aftermath—the absolutely criminal lack of preparation for victory, which meant that military victory was obtained but the peace was lost and frittered away.
Perhaps the subject of how the votes were organised and how the opinions fell is one for another day. However, many colleagues felt that that was the first e-mail rebellion in the House of Commons. The virtual organisation that was set up to support colleagues from all parties worked very well. The names of the colleagues who were involved and who stood out on that occasion are evident for all to see in the Division lists, which are still available.
Six years later, we still have unfinished business from the alternative Parliament, from those votes and from the decisions that were taken at that point. The recall of Parliament is still in the gift of the Executive. I still hope that all Front Benchers will seek to persuade their parties to commit to changing that. In spite of promises, Parliament still has no rights to approve war-making and the conduct of wars. The Prime Minister can still send our forces to war in the name of the Crown, as though he were Henry V at Agincourt. As we discovered in the run-up to the war, Parliament still receives no independent legal advice on the legality of war and still depends on the good will of the Law Officers even to see a brief outline of their opinion, let alone to debate it. This House needs its own legal capacity so that Members can refer to a Law Officer of their own to be sure of their legal standing when they make decisions that could come before the International Criminal Court and, in the most extreme cases, could result in charges when laws have been passed illegally because of the votes of Members. We need that capacity and we do not have it. Parliament still has no means of examining the quality and reliability of intelligence information if it is used to justify the resort to war.
Although those issues remain unresolved, hon. Members should look back at those votes and at the genuine opinions that were expressed in all parts of the House, and should take heart from the fact that this Parliament can get off its knees and express a view on behalf of the people out there. Members of Parliament do not have to be whipping boys of the media for the sins of one or two of our colleagues. We can have our rights, we can exercise our responsibilities and we can hold Governments to account. Even though—amazingly—it is now six years since those exciting and in many ways tragic days of 2003, I hope that Members of all parties, including those who will or do form Governments, will learn some of those lessons and implement some of the changes to make this House, once again, worthy of the name of the Parliament of the British people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on his speech, and I certainly agree with many of the points that he made. I shall say more about that in a moment, and I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak for a little longer than was originally allotted, but I shall not speak for too long as I do not want to be penalised in future.
This is likely to be the last Easter Adjournment debate before a general election, when the British people will have an opportunity to give their verdict on the Government’s performance since the 2005 election, and on Labour’s performance as a whole since 1997. I feel that that verdict will be pretty damning in every respect.
Whatever Government explanations are given, it is extraordinary to find the economy in its present state. The Prime Minister used to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so it is very difficult for him to distance himself from his first, disastrous Budget, which he delivered in 1997. Pension funds were raided to the tune of £5 billion, and he made many mistakes throughout the 10 years that he was Chancellor, especially in respect of regulation.
Following on from what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said, I shall regret voting for the Iraq war until the day that I die. In my experience of the House, many hon. Members claim to be experts on all sorts of things. I have never pretended to be an expert, although the Conservative Benches contain many colleagues with military expertise.
I listened to what the then Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, said at the Dispatch Box about how weapons of mass destruction could reach this country within 45 minutes. He made other claims too, but my party leader at the time, together with the then leader of the Liberal party, had been to No. 10 Downing street for a briefing. I believed that they had more expertise than I had, and that we could not let our troops down. For that reason, I thought that the right thing to do was to support the Government.
I bitterly regret that now. I will never be so naive again. In economic terms, we would of course be in a better position now if we did not have the war debt, but the hon. Member for Nottingham, North told us how many people had died, and the number is just appalling. As for Afghanistan, any hon. Members who reckon that they have the necessary expertise should tell us how we can defeat terrorism when the people responsible for it are willing to take their own lives. I should be very interested to hear from them. I repeat that when the British public are given the opportunity to judge this Government, their verdict will be very damning.
However, I want to discuss a number of matters before we adjourn for the Easter recess. I see that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is still in his place. He and I went to Shanghai on our visit to China last year, and I have just had the privilege of leading a delegation to Mumbai and Chennai. The visits to China and India were very educational, as they allowed us to learn about the performance of those countries’ economies. The British Government need to watch their development very carefully, and I hope that we will be at the forefront in taking the opportunities that present themselves. We must also make much more use of the wonderful work of the British Council.
I happen to be the chairman of FRAME, the fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments, a parliamentary group that tries to stop experimentation on animals. We adopt the sensible approach of trying to find alternative sources. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research does wonderful work in reducing unnecessary animal experimentation. It provides research funding for reducing cruelty in animal testing in areas such as veterinary immunisation testing and reproductive toxicology, and it supports data sharing in industry to ensure that animal testing is kept to the statutory minimum.
The organisation has had great success in reducing dramatically the fatal use of testing on rodents, for instance. Some might say that its budget of £4.5 million is large, but that money has to go an awfully long way. Most of it goes on research grants, and it would be wonderful if the organisation were to get more money under the next spending review.
When I was a member of the Health Committee, I suggested that we had an inquiry into obesity. All sorts of people got interested in the subject as a result, but I said to my colleagues at the time that I did not think we would make much progress if we did not concentrate on the salt, fat and sugar contents of the food that various producers were putting on the market. I accepted that spending more time on physical activities was a wonderful idea, but I believed that we needed to focus on what was achievable in the overall goal of reducing obesity.
Sadly, 10 years later, unhealthy food advertising to children is still widespread, even though new Ofcom regulations for TV and radio were introduced a year ago. There has not been as much progress as there should have been in introducing the traffic light system, as the Health Committee recommended, because—as ever—Tesco has gone its own way.
Tesco almost seems to be running the country. Many years ago, when I was Member of Parliament for Basildon, we started off with one superstore in the middle of town, but we had three by the end of my time there. Then the company wanted to have a post office in its supermarkets, and we lost shopping parades as a result. Nowadays, as all hon. Members know, Tesco is acquiring bits of land everywhere for its outlets, and it even runs them in garages. Tesco is putting people out of business morning, noon and night. It wanted to do its own thing, as ever, with the traffic light system of labelling. Quite simply, the system has not worked. I believe that it would be prudent to consider introducing a robust regulatory code of practice to address childhood obesity. The gesture politics that I so often see in relation to obesity is achieving absolutely nothing.
Cooking oil is a common waste product that is damaging to the environment and difficult to dispose of. We have an excellent opportunity to use it to produce carbon-neutral electricity. That would make a wonderful contribution to the Government’s carbon emission reduction targets, yet the lack of classification of cooking oil as a fuel or waste product is a major disincentive to companies looking to invest in the technology. Swift action to rectify that situation would make a great contribution to reducing carbon emissions.
This time last week, I was chairing the annual general meeting of the all-party group on the Holy See. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was present, as were the media because they thought he would announce his successor as cardinal, which he did not. The Papal Nuncio was present and so, too, was our wonderful ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell. Some long-serving Members will remember my exchange about the Holy See with Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s questions, after it had been brought to my attention and that of other Members that we were to lose our delegation at the Vatican. Mr. Blair looked very surprised at that, even though he was running the country and, as we learned, was very close to the Catholic Church. After Members were alerted to the situation, a number of us got together to form the all-party group.
Francis Campbell is doing a wonderful job as ambassador and I am delighted to tell the House that Peter Ricketts has informed me that as a result of sensible and constructive lobbying by colleagues, our embassy will be reinforced with a new deputy ambassador and more staff. The staff have done wonderful work operating on a tiny budget.
I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that this place has changed out of all recognition. Colleagues do not know what we are talking about when we tell them how much power we had. We worked long hours and we could really make a difference. Now we have lost all our power to quangos, but the issue I have just described is an example of how we can make a difference without rowing and arguing with colleagues. I am delighted with what has been achieved.
Anti-Semitism is unacceptable wherever it happens. The Metropolitan police report that there were four times as many anti-Jewish incidents in recent weeks as there were Islamophobic incidents. The Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Jewish racism, reports that there were as many attacks on Jews in the first weeks of 2009 as in the first six months of 2008. That is staggering, although we know why about 270 cases of anti-Semitism were reported in the first few weeks of 2009—it was to do with the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza and southern Israel.
Incidents recorded by the CST include violent assaults in the street, hate e-mails and graffiti threatening jihad against British Jews. One disturbing aspect is the targeting of Jewish children. The Jewish Chronicle reported that a 12-year-old schoolgirl on her way home from school was terrorised by a mob of youths chanting “Kill all Jews” and “Death to Jews.” I became so concerned that I tabled a series of parliamentary questions, and I am pleased to hear that the Government have taken the matter seriously and will act on it.
I welcome the fact that the first international conference on combating anti-Semitism was held in London. It was attended by more than 100 parliamentarians from 40 countries. The conference called for the establishment of an international taskforce of internet specialists to monitor anti-Semitism online and propose international responses. I very much welcome that.
Over the years, I have found that many of the issues raised in Parliament are seasonal. Here we are on 2 April, so I am raising the issue of fireworks. Despite the passage of the Fireworks Regulations 2004, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals still receives hundreds of complaints every year, particularly on bonfire night and new year’s eve. Domestic animals are severely stressed and given to madness by loud fireworks. A Labour Member who is no longer in the House—
Yes. Bill Tynan introduced a Bill on fireworks.
Despite prohibition of the supply of excessively loud category 3 fireworks, it is clear that fireworks are still readily available that create noise levels in excess of 100 dB at 15 m, well beyond the loudest noises in normal domestic settings. We need to look at what can be done to promote desensitisation programmes for domestic pets and to ensure that the current law on night-time firework use is enforced thoroughly. In addition, we need to look at ways to reduce statutory maximum noise levels further, perhaps to 75 dB, as recommended by the RSPCA.
I am a former executive officer of an all-party parliamentary group that campaigned against fireworks, so I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is raising the issue today. Is not the situation particularly serious for guide dogs? I am often told by vets who say that fireworks are not a nuisance, “You can simply sedate an animal for the duration of the firework season.” One cannot do that to a guide dog.
One can have a spectacular firework display that gives great visual enjoyment without loud noise levels. The noise is not essential to the quality of the firework; it is an extra that is added on, and it could be reduced without damaging the visual quality.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are blessed to be by the River Thames, where we can see beautiful firework displays reflecting off the river without its being noisy. The new year celebrations were a wonderful opportunity to see such displays. Last November, all the bangs, which seemed to be fired in the direction of my house—I do not know whether I was being targeted by local residents—were slightly over the top, so I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman.
Did you take it personally?
No, I certainly did not.
All hon. Members, whether or not they use their allowance for a second home, must be absolutely fed up with all the junk mail that is put through the letterboxes. I know that these are tough times, but whether the junk mail is from restaurants, suppliers or others, it is completely out of control. Some of that junk mail can cause nuisance, distress and inconvenience to many people in all sorts of ways. It leads to a high level of waste and identity fraud. Levels of direct mail mistakenly sent to people who have moved are still far too high. I am advised that even under the best practice guidelines of the Direct Marketing Association, data management software still leads to an average of 25 per cent. of deceased persons continuing to be sent direct marketing. That can cause great distress to family members. More rights are needed to allow people to take control of their personal data and to prevent bothersome and unnecessary junk mailings.
I have been contacted by the Swimming Teachers Association, which feels a little bit peeved that it was not involved in the excellent decision to extend free swimming to the over-60s and under-16s. The programme involves a lot of money being spent—£140 million—including on 49 development officers. It would seem prudent to involve all relevant parties, so that we can strengthen decision making on how that money is to be spent. I hope that in future, the Swimming Teachers Association will be included.
When I was on the Select Committee on Health, I suggested an inquiry into allergies. I am raising this issue on 2 April, not in the summer. There are so many allergies that people have today; I am thinking particularly of hay fever. The availability of allergy therapy through the national health service is patchy and varies enormously between primary care trusts. Availability of anti-allergy medication, vaccines and immunotherapy is limited, and greater urgency is needed in giving devolved primary care trusts money that is ring-fenced for allergy therapy.
I wish to mention the Kennel Club and dogs. The ability of dog owners to comply with their obligations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to provide their dogs with off-lead exercise has been compromised by the introduction of dog control orders under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, particularly where no alternative provision has been made. The Kennel Club believes that to date at least 120 councils have implemented dog control orders, sometimes issuing as many as 100 orders in an area, although there could well be more. Research shows that the biggest factor for owners when choosing where to exercise their dogs is whether they can exercise them off the lead. If that is not possible locally, more than 40 per cent. would drive elsewhere, despite the detrimental impact on the environment. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance accompanying the 2005 Act states that local authorities should show that dog control orders are a “necessary and proportionate response”. In practice, that has been largely ignored as many local authorities have taken the most restrictive approach. Furthermore, although local authorities are required to notify Natural England of any proposed dog control orders on access land, very few appear to have done so.
I end with some good news about Southend council. I am delighted to say that the Audit Commission has given it a three-star rating; that means that it is a local authority that is continuing to improve, under the excellent leadership of councillors Nigel Holdcroft and John Lamb and the chief executive Rob Tinlin. All in all, and given the challenging economic backdrop, Southend council is doing extremely well. I join others in wishing everyone a happy, healthy Easter.
Last week, I read a test that those who want to live in the UK and take UK citizenship have to pass. At a meeting of my constituency Labour party, we discussed whether we could answer the questions ourselves. I bought a little book with all the questions from the Portcullis House bookshop. Actually, some of them are not that easy; some are quite tricky.
One of the questions asks about the role of a Member of Parliament. I take it that the answer in the book is the one in the official documentation, although the book may be wrong. The answer given was that he—or she, indeed; I am sure that whatever term is used is gender-neutral—
I am, too; I am sure that that has not been missed. The answer was that Members of Parliament meet their constituents and raise issues in Parliament. There were also a few other subsidiary points about the things that Members of Parliament do. However, the book did not say that we legislate; it mentions nothing about legislation, which strikes me as the oddest thing.
I have been here for eight years. I am not the most experienced Member, but I have seen things happen and how different Members do their jobs. It seems to me that the only statutory function of a Member is to legislate. All the other stuff that we do is a matter of local style, and we do it all in different ways. Some Members have a lot of contact about council issues, while others tend to leave that to councillors. It depends on the local political context. The single thing that we do is to come here to legislate in what we think is the interest of the common weal, if I can put it in that rather aggrandised way. That is primarily what we are here for. All the party politics and so forth come on top of that; they are important, and we all have our philosophical predispositions in that respect. But the most meaningful stuff, which I like to get my teeth into—I mean constituency cases, which we all have—is that which has a direct bearing on current legislation, for good or ill. When I say “legislating in the common weal”, I do not always mean our producing new legislation; sometimes it is not a bad idea to get rid of legislation when it is unnecessary.
I shall tell a little story. Recently, I came across a case that gave me a great opportunity to look closely at a tiny area of policy that had a really marked influence on the life of a constituent—indeed, probably several thousand women in Scotland, as it happens, were affected by this legislation. A woman, who shall remain anonymous, came to my constituency surgery. I cannot remember what the original issue was, but as I was ushering her out of the door, finishing my cup of tea, she said, “It would be good if you could help me with that, because I lost my child benefit last year when my child started at the further education college.” I asked her to run that by me again, because for other reasons she had already explained that she had a child who had left school and was in her second year of a course at the local FE college. The child was 17, and the woman had lost her child benefit.
All Members will be pretty aware of what the child benefit regulations are, because lots of constituents come to us with different issues relating to them. It was immediately obvious to me that there was something very peculiar about her losing her child benefit because the child was in further education. The general principle of child benefit, which is a universal benefit, is that parents are given assistance, regardless of income level, in bringing up their children until they are regarded as adults. Generally speaking, under the regulations drawn up by the Treasury, someone under 19 and not in advanced education—not at university or an equivalent, or doing an HND, which is just below university level; in higher education, essentially—would be excluded. Otherwise, if a child—or a student or person; the word “child” can be seen as pejorative and some 16 and 17-year-olds would not be happy with it—is still under 19 and in school or equivalent, then child benefit applies.
This woman’s 18-year-old child was doing an HNC at Falkirk college, which is now called Forth Valley college, it having absorbed the colleges in Stirling and Alloa. Some Members may not be immediately acquainted with that development, but it was very important in my area. It is a fabulous college with a really good recent inspectorial result. I thought that the case was peculiar, so I looked into it. The girl is planning to become a nurse, so she is on a pre-nursing course. She is doing that instead of being in the sixth form, so she will end up with a qualification that is the equivalent of advanced highers in Scotland—the equivalent of A-levels down here. Her mother therefore should not have lost her child benefit—that was clear as a bell to me as soon as she said it.
I checked up on the situation. Some of this stuff is devolved because education is devolved in Scotland, but the child benefit regulations are not. It is a question of having different qualifications across the UK. The relevant institutions—the Scottish Parliament and, I guess, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly—have to say that their qualifications are equivalent to certain English ones, and then the child benefit regulations are drawn up accordingly. There is a table in the child benefit regulations, which are drawn up by the Treasury and implemented by the Department for Work and Pensions, laying out non-advanced and advanced qualifications. It is pretty clear-cut. On one side are GCSEs, or standards in Scotland, A-levels, BTECs in England, and so forth; on the other, degrees, HNDs and so forth.
The Scottish HNC is a one-year qualification, full-time, or a two-year qualification, part-time. In England, what used to be called an HNC is essentially a part-time HND, which is a two-year course. An HND is an advanced course and an HNC is a non-advanced course—the equivalent of a BTEC in England. It transpires that the officials in Scotland seem to have missed that detail and agreed with the Treasury that an HNC is an advanced qualification. The DWP therefore assumes that all these students will be going into the second year of their two-year course in colleges all over Scotland, and effectively disqualifies their parents from child benefit.
That has implications. Child benefit is a gateway benefit, so my constituent loses not only child benefit but a number of other benefits. I will maintain her anonymity by saying that she has an unusual benefit that I had never heard of before, which is not constrained by income. In total, this woman was losing about £8,000, not taxed, in the one year when she was wrongly disqualified. That is remarkable. I suspect that in my constituency—I am taking a stab here—several hundred people will be affected. Although most people doing HNCs are returners, quite a few do them as an alternative to sixth form, and they are clearly a BTEC equivalent. People in Scotland are being treated differently as a consequence.
I wrote to the Treasury, fully expecting a big barney, and I have now met the relevant Minister—the Financial Secretary. I hope that this is not too presumptuous of me, but I think that they agree. They would not have had much of an argument because the Scottish Qualifications Authority—a fabulous, very efficient organisation that my sister works for, so I always have to say that—has a diagram that simply says that the Scottish HNC is the equivalent of an English BTEC. The peculiarity is why, when the Treasury fired this process up in the first place, it was agreed that they were equivalent when a difference should have been spotted.
For the moment, the outcome is that the Treasury is taking a careful look at the matter. I hope that it will make a correction and move the qualification across the line—I think that it is doing so—so that in the coming year, people who were previously disqualified from child benefit and other associated benefits will qualify. There is, of course, the question of what happens to my constituent, whose child will have finished the course by then. The effect will be that several thousand people in Scotland—mainly women, but it is not necessarily women who take child benefit—will benefit to the tune of somewhere between £1,000 and £8,000, which is perhaps what my constituent would have received, in one financial year. That is a significant bunch of cash, and it depends on a tiny detail. I cannot really blame the Treasury because lots of stuff is going on, and there is a lot of complexity in the vastly important bits of legislation it is dealing with.
Reflecting on my laborious entry into this position, given the generous amount of time we seem to have available—
I note what both of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are saying, and it is not necessarily the same thing.
What I was banging on about was this: in this place, one can do a lot as a Back Bencher, looking at legislation and picking things up instinctively. If something seems as if it is not right, quite often it is not. Often that is just the way it is; we do not get perfect solutions to everything. Constituents may come along and say, “That person gets a certain benefit, and I do not. We are on either side of a dividing line—why is that?” It is not really possible to say, “There is a continuum, we have to draw the line somewhere, and that is just the way it is.” The most difficult thing to say to a constituent is often, “I know that it’s not really fair, but that’s just the way it is. I am not saying, “Life’s not fair”, but sometimes, by definition, legislation will be a bit clunky, and there will always be marginal cases that are unfortunate, which we cannot do anything about.
In this case, however, we could do something about it. I think that the outcome will be fine, but when I reflected on the meaning of the case from a political perspective, I saw that something else was going on, apart from the fact that the Scottish civil servants had apparently responded badly. It did not seem to happen at the political level; as far as I can see it happened because of an official’s error in Scotland. I do not think that it was just a case of someone being slack.
There is a different mental process going on in Scotland at the moment. I am not obsessed with the whole devolution/independence/non-independence nexus but it is interesting to see how civil servants in Scotland operate differently in the new political context, and that is not necessarily healthy. Recently, I had to write to the Scottish Executive to inquire about some detail in this case. It is purely a constituency case—it has no party political basis, and it would not bother me if it had. I am quite keen that the Government should change the rules, and if they do not, I will continue to say what I am saying now. I wrote to Historic Scotland, staffed by civil servants, and I got a super, professional response from the experts on the ground. They are the experts in the nexus of planning, building, history and all that stuff. Those experts are ultimately employed by the Scottish Government, with a link to the UK Government. The civil servants there engaged with me—they said that they did not make the decisions, but explained how the process worked and the sort of the thing that could be expected. They explained how people would logically respond and gave their views as experts, emphasising that Ministers might not take the same view and so forth. I therefore got a good steer from the professionals in Historic Scotland—the response was first class. I met them and they took me through the stuff. Ultimately, they are civil servants and they work essentially for the Scottish Government, not the UK Government, although there is a clear link.
That was contrary to my other experience. I do not blame civil servants for that—it is the culture and the way in which they have to work in Scotland now. I used nursing as a way into the problem. I could have used engineering, but I chose nursing because many people doing the HNC were doing the nursing version and then going into nursing education. The scheme is a combination of policy, knowledge of education, especially higher and further education, and so on, so the people who pulled it together are essentially the civil servants and experts who work under the auspices of the Scottish Government. Sometimes they work for agencies and sometimes as conventional civil servants in a conventional Department.
I wrote to a civil servant, explaining that I had a problem and that I was not sure whether I had the right end of the stick, and asking for a heads-up or general idea of whether what I said cohered. I phoned initially and got a call back saying that the relevant official would ring me, perhaps before the end of the day. However, instead, I got an e-mail saying that there was some concern that I was a Member of Parliament rather than a member of the public so the query had been referred to the official’s boss. It became clear through a series of e-mails that those—doubtless excellent—civil servants were afraid to have any communication with a Back-Bench Member of Parliament who was making inquiries about a legitimate constituency case, with no party political intent. I appreciate that it is difficult for people to make that judgment, but I was putting a fairly technical argument, and it appeared easy for a person with a good bit of knowledge about the subject to give a professional opinion.
I ended up getting a letter or an e-mail from someone more senior in the organisation who said that civil servants were not permitted to communicate with Members of Parliament. Even worse, I was told that if I wrote to the Minister, the civil servants would send me a description of the procedures in Scotland. I was in a position whereby, as a constituency MP, I could not ask the experts for an opinion. I was not asking about procedure, because that is a matter of wiring diagrams and so forth. I knew the procedure like the back of my hand—that is how I perceived the problem in the first place. However, as a constituency MP in Scotland, I could not ask the Government a technical question and get a technical response.
The difference between the two examples, which I have given at some length, is that Historic Scotland is an agency in its own right. People can describe it better than me, but I would say that, although it is an agency and therefore works for Ministers, it has self-confidence as a professional body with its own professional integrity. If people ask it questions, the staff will give their professional opinion, while stressing, “You can quote me if you want but I might be wrong or people might disagree.” They are confident in giving their professional opinions. However, there are other parts of the civil service in Scotland, which are much more sensitive and work at the direct command of Ministers. Unlike civil servants in Departments here of whom I have asked technical questions, those in Scotland appear to have been told not to speak to Opposition Members of Parliament. As a constituency MP, trying to get at something to which there is no corollary here because the expertise is in Scotland, there appears to be significant dysfunction.
Is not it the convention here that we do not talk directly to civil servants, except with the permission of the Minister for whom they work? Indeed, that came to light when my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) dealt with the fridges directive. Members of the European Parliament got access to civil servants and could make clear to them the approaching disaster, but the Member of Parliament who dealt with the subject here could not have that direct access.
The hon. Gentleman may well be correct—I am sure that he is; he has been here longer than me—but if he is, I was not aware, because I do that all the time. All sorts of people are experts in their field, but if we cannot talk to them, we simply cannot get knowledge about a particular situation. If I wanted to know something obscure about traffic regulations or something like that, I probably would not write to the Minister. [Interruption.] I can see my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House on the Front Bench looking like I should write to Ministers.
My hon. Friend moved as though he was looking in a particular way, but from here I could see only his finely honed pectorals heaving, which I probably misinterpreted.
In any case, in the example of MEPs that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned, the corollary of us speaking to local government officials may be MEPs talking to sovereign Government officials. Where it will clearly not be politically embarrassing, there will be all sorts of situations in which common sense says that it is useful to pick up the phone and ask someone who is a technical expert a question. I find it extremely helpful to pick up the phone in that way where there are technical issues, although not in party political cases—one would always deal with Ministers in that way where something was sensitive, and I would not expect to put civil servants on the spot in any sense. An example might be local jobcentres, the immigration service or the various help lines, where we basically speak directly to civil servants. I will speak to local jobcentre officials, Child Support Agency officials or immigration officials regularly, and that works extremely well. There are no party political issues at stake: I will just be looking after the interests of a constituent.
Having waxed orchestral about that issue, perhaps I could start to draw to a close. [Laughter.] Or perhaps not.
Perhaps. Let me draw together the strands of that extensive description of HNCs and education in Scotland. There is tremendous scope, if we look carefully at legislation, to see little niggles here and there that we can tidy up. If we tidy them up, sometimes that will have significant effects on constituents. My phase 2 argument is that there seems to be a bit of a dysfunction in Scotland when it comes to MPs gathering information—we gather it anyway; we just gather it by a different route—and talking intelligently to officials. The dysfunction seems to exist in those Departments that are under direct command and control, as opposed to being among the professionals, who have personal self-confidence and perhaps more a sense of professionalism, and who will say, “This is my professional opinion.” That is increasingly absent among the experts in certain parts of the Scottish Executive.
May I wish everyone an enjoyable Easter, including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate before the House rises for Easter.
Last week, Brent Friends of the Earth, my local branch, held a number of screenings of the film “The Age of Stupid”. If hon. Members have not seen the film, I strongly recommend that they go and see it. It is a powerful film, campaigning for action on climate change. The film features Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in 2055. He is pictured as the last man alive in an archiving centre somewhere off the coast of Norway, looking back at films from 2009 and asking why we did nothing to try to halt climate change when we had the chance. One of the people in the archive films asks whether people will look back and think that we were living in an age of stupid, when people were stupid not to see what was staring them in the face.
As the G20 meets today, having bumped climate change off the agenda, I cannot help but think that we almost certainly do live in the age of stupid. Not only has the G20 bumped climate change from the agenda, with the decision to look at it at the Copenhagen conference later this year, but it will have failed—at least I expect that it will have failed; we await the Chancellor’s statement later this afternoon—to link the fiscal stimulus that so many countries are arguing for with the green economy. That most certainly is a very stupid thing indeed.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My constituency, along with his, will be affected by increased noise as a result of the expansion of Heathrow. I might well return to that point later.
It is as though we are trying to compartmentalise climate change into one conference and one meeting, and to turn it into something that can be discussed only at that meeting. By taking it away from the economic reform agenda, we are encouraged to think of it as a special case that we come together to talk about and which we forget about as soon as we leave the meeting. In so doing, we demonstrate that we have failed to grasp the seriousness of the problem that we face.
The issue in that film that stood out and left the most lasting impression on me was the story of the young Nigerian woman, Layefa Malini, who wanted to become a doctor. She lived in the Niger delta and suffered the consequences of the oil harvesting, the pollution and the poverty in the area. She told of the challenges in her life as she wrestled with the problem of putting together enough money to enable her to go off and study. She described the impact that that had on her, and her choice to give up fishing in order to sell oil illegally just to make enough money. That story left me with an overwhelming sense of how we live in excess here, and of how much poverty there is elsewhere in the world. That sense of injustice struck a chord with me, as did the impact of climate change on the poorest people in the world.
We often talk about climate change as an abstract thing, a scientific debate involving international jargon and diplomacy. Frankly, most of us cannot get a handle on it. I have a degree in natural sciences, although if I am truly honest, I must say that much of the science involved in the climate change debate leaves me cold. However, the image of the poorest people in the world, who are likely to suffer the consequences of what we are doing, strikes a chord with me. They are also likely to suffer first and most profoundly. I suspect that that would be a galvanising force for most people if they really understood the consequences of what we are doing to the poorest people in the world.
Climate change will affect us all, and it has no respect for international boundaries. It is the poorest people in the developing countries, who are already held back by a chronic, sustained lack of resources and power and by poverty that limits choice and security, who will first, and most profoundly, experience the consequences of what we are doing here. Developing countries are the most vulnerable partly because of their geographical position and partly because so much of their population is reliant on rain-fed agriculture. Also, many of those people live in appalling living conditions.
Poverty exists regardless of climate change, but climate change is already creating a vicious cycle that will rob people of their ability to improve their own situation. It threatens to wash away much of the progress that we have made towards achieving the millennium development goals. This ought to be a matter of serious concern to the Government, as they have made the delivery of those goals a key plank of their own international priorities, but that is being undermined by our failure to tackle climate change in a serious, sustained way.
Natural disasters already happen more often in developing countries. If we look back at the natural disasters that happened in the 1990s, for example, we can see that in the eight years between 1990 and 1998, 94 per cent. of the world’s 568 major natural disasters happened in developing countries. That ought to give us pause for thought. People in those countries are more vulnerable to their effects because they often live in very poor-quality, overcrowded accommodation. They are susceptible to losing their homes, and their water sources tend to be polluted. It is not only the major disasters that have an effect, however. The more subtle changes will also have devastating consequences. Crop yields are predicted to fall by as much as 50 per cent. in some African countries by 2020 because of the impacts of climate change.
The story of Layefa Malini, which I mentioned earlier, struck a particular chord with me because I visited Nigeria last summer to work on a project with Voluntary Service Overseas. I visited the capital Abuja while I was working on an education project. I then travelled north to Kaduna and Kano and south into Enugu, so I saw people living in very different conditions. We moved out to visit some of the rural areas outside Abuja and saw the problems people faced because of lack of water. People living in those villages will be particularly affected if rainfall decreases and they are unable to get clean drinking water.
Kano, one of the most northern places in Nigeria right on the border up near Niger, has a very arid climate, but it is also prone to flooding during the rainy season. Niger has already experienced the devastating consequences of desertification as the Sahel moves further into areas occupied by people. Many people have been forced to flee into Nigeria, looking for a method of making a living. North Nigeria experiences the consequences of displaced people moving from Niger into Kano and neighbouring areas.
I saw the consequences of flooding during the rainy season when I was in Kano. Along with many other areas in the developing world, Kano does not have a sewerage system. Sewage moves through trenches in the road, effectively, sometimes just a few inches below the path people are walking on. It does not take much water to wash that sewage out into people’s homes, on to footpaths or into the road. When it rains in Nigeria in the rainy season, it really rains. People quickly find themselves walking through one or two feet of water, all of which is sewage-infested water that transmits disease, making it miserable for people to live with. Drinking water, in as much as there is any, becomes quickly polluted with sewage and rubbish.
One particular problem I noted in Nigeria was the failure to deal with rubbish in a sensible way. I am afraid that landfill is often actually open rubbish in the streets, and flood water washes toxins from rubbish straight into any drinking water. Even if the water is boiled, it is often still too toxic to drink.
The young woman shown in “The Age of Stupid”, Layefa Malini, lived in the Niger delta region—an area we expect to be particularly affected by coastal flooding. It will be even more difficult for people living there to eke out a living as their farm lands become less and less inhabitable. It is not just Nigeria, as Ethiopia and Kenya have already experienced the devastating consequences of drought. Those two countries are predicted to be the first in line for climate change impacts, with lack of rainfall and effects on food security.
In Africa, the intergovernmental panel on climate change predicts that water stress will affect between 75 million and 250 million people by 2020, which will rise to 350 million to 600 million by 2050 if we do not take dramatic action on climate change. Of course, as I said, changes in agriculture lead people to change where they live. Many people living in rural areas find that they need to move into towns and cities in order to make a living. It is often young members of a family who are asked to leave for the towns and cities to try to send money back. Charities working in Cambodia have said that that can have a real impact on disease, with many people previously living in rural areas—perhaps mainly the young—moving into cities, but then returning with HIV or other infections, which are brought back into the rural areas. Clearly, the impacts of climate change are much more profound than just a bit more rain or heat.
We can also expect dramatic changes in conflicts as the competition for resources becomes more and more acute. In 2007 and 2008, because of rising food prices, we witnessed food riots in more than 30 countries. International Alert has estimated that in more than 46 countries, which are home to some 4.6 billion people, climate change, in conjunction with existing problems around economic and social issues, will create a very high risk of violent conflicts.
The consequence will be increased migration, internally displaced families, and families moving across international borders, most likely to other developing countries that are ill equipped to deal with an influx of poor people. We think of refugees as a problem that we face here, and of course the Government have been keen to drive down the number of people trying to claim asylum in this country, but if we were really serious about wanting to reduce that number we would make a more serious effort to tackle the causes of poverty and conflict, and to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. It is not our country that bears the burden of looking after refugees, but other, poor countries that are ill equipped to do so.
Will the hon. Lady add northern Nigeria, which I have visited, to her list of causes? It is a maelstrom in the conflict between the Christian and Muslim world. All too often, people who should know better use every opportunity to cause such conflict. Many communities that have lived together for generations are now being forced apart by religious discrimination.
I agree. The area around Jos in particular has experienced conflict between Christian and Muslim communities. In Kaduna, another place that I visited, the two communities live together. Relations can be very tense, and if the difficulties involving food and water resources continue to increase, that will only heighten the tension. It is not only religious tension that is at the root of the problems. Religious tension is often an excuse, or the label given to something much more profound relating to land, food, money and water. It is certainly true that Nigeria has had its difficulties, and it is a country that I know, but many other countries face similar problems.
We may have only a few years left before atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reach a tipping point, and we find ourselves on an irreversible journey towards dangerous climate change. We cannot underestimate the importance of taking leadership on that issue now. The challenges that we face in tackling the financial crisis should provide us with opportunities to tackle climate change in a lasting way. Some of our present economic and environmental problems may have the same solutions. If South Korea can produce a fiscal stimulus of which 80 per cent. concerns the green economy, we must ask ourselves why on earth we cannot do the same. It is not too late for us to cancel the VAT cut, and to put the money saved into insulating homes, schools and hospitals and building new zero-carbon homes. That would enable us to tackle fuel poverty, house the homeless and do something serious to deal with climate change for the long term. Instead, we have given a small amount of money to a few relatively rich people who want to buy expensive goods such as flat-screen televisions, which seems petty given the problems that we are facing.
It is not too late for us to match our reform of the banking sector with carbon reporting. If we are not prepared to do that, at least we can influence our own banks—the banks that we now control—to prevent environmentally damaging investments in tar sands and deforestation. We should try to use the control that we have over many of the banks to build a new economy that will itself build for the future, rather than simply trying to replace the broken problem that we already have.
It is not too late for us to take a lead by cancelling damaging environmental projects such as Heathrow, or unabated coal power stations such as Kingsnorth. It is not too late for us to take a lead on renewables, and to adopt a credible strategy for the meeting of our 2020 targets. I fear that the Government have given up, feeling that it is too late for them to do anything before the next general election, but they have an opportunity to leave a legacy regardless of the result of the election, and I wish that they would take it.
The G20 may have junked the environment this week, but we have time before Copenhagen in December to lay the groundwork for a serious climate deal that could make a huge difference. We need our Government to take a lead on that now, and to be at the forefront of climate negotiations. We must have a serious commitment to cut emissions by at least 30 per cent., not the 20 per cent. with time off for carbon trading that came with the European Union deal. We must also put developing countries’ concerns at the heart of the climate change deal. We have grown rich in part by polluting. We must now repay that debt to the developing world by financing and sharing technology so that countries can access clean and green energy and develop in a sustainable way, and we must help developing countries to adapt to the damaging consequences of climate change that will, unfortunately, happen regardless of what we do.
We need to create space to encourage and enable communities to come up with their own solutions. That is the case in both developing countries and here in the UK. We need the Government to take a lead, but this is the responsibility of all of us, and good ideas often come from communities, rather than just from Government. I am thinking of one example in Brent in particular: a woman called Lorraine Skinner felt so frustrated about the consequences of climate change and the fact that people were not prepared to act that she designed a new system called “green zones”, which has now been adopted throughout Brent. She went door to door and talked to her neighbours on her road. It is a relatively small road, but by her efforts she has managed to raise dramatically the amount of recycling and composting that takes place on it. She has also given people tomato plants and persuaded them to plant them. That may be a small thing, but sometimes it is small things that actually change people’s attitudes—such as on growing their own food or feeling that they can take action. A similar small thing has been done in Camden, where people have been encouraged to plant fruit trees in the middle of their estates. As a result, they feel that they can play a part, and that there are things they can do.
We all have a role to play, but I hope the Government will consider the key role that they have to play, particularly before the Copenhagen conference later this year. We do not have time to waste waiting for another international meeting. We must not junk this issue and wait until a later meeting to address it because we cannot face tackling it now.
I sometimes wonder whether I have done something to upset the gods of democracy—whom we can rename the Whips Office for the purpose of this analogy—because today is my wedding anniversary and I find myself in the House of Commons Chamber. Also, tomorrow is my birthday, and last year this debate fell on my birthday. It therefore appears that I am not allowed out of this place to enjoy such events.
There are, however, several issues that I want to bring to the attention of the House and Ministers in advance of the Easter recess. The first of them is a very local issue: the Humber bridge. Indeed, most of the issues I shall raise will be extremely parochial, in contrast to the international themes raised in the speech of the previous contributor, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather).
The Humber bridge links my Lincolnshire constituency with Yorkshire on the north bank of the Humber. At the beginning of March, there was an inquiry into a proposal to increase the tolls to cross the bridge by 20p each way. I presented evidence at the inquiry against the toll increase, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). More Members of Parliament would have given evidence had we not been the only three whom the Whips Office allowed out. However, although only three MPs from the region appeared, we put our case forcefully and stridently on behalf of our constituents.
Everybody in my area has opposed the increase in the bridge tolls. As I am sure Members can appreciate, in any economic climate, let alone the current one, people do not welcome having such an extra pressure on their purse. People from across the political divide were saying that to the inspector. However, my concern and the reason I want to raise the issue today is that the public inquiry was at the beginning of March, has not reported yet and obviously has to go to the Secretary of State for Transport, so constituents have been left in limbo, not knowing whether the inspector will approve the increase in the tolls.
This issue is vital, because there is an ongoing campaign about the tolls to cross the Humber bridge. The four unitary councils in the surrounding area came together and commissioned research to show the tolls’ economic impact on our area. Everybody had said anecdotally that the tolls were a barrier to economic development and growth. However, the report showed that empirically, so we now have very strong evidence to enable us to present to Ministers the case that the tolls were holding back the economic development of our area. The campaign is therefore ongoing. Putting aside the 20p increase, which everybody is against, people generally want the tolls reduced to get rid of this barrier.
Three options are available as a way forward. There is a debt from the building of the bridge because the money was borrowed from the public works department. However, despite the fact that over the years the tolls have paid off the original amount borrowed, because of interest the debt keeps rolling on like some huge behemoth and we never seem to be able to pay it off. The campaign is concerned with the Government’s writing off the remaining debt owed to the Treasury arising from the money borrowed to build the Humber bridge. As I say, the capital amount has been paid back already from the tolls. However, that leaves the question of the repairs to, and the maintenance of, the bridge, and this is where the options come in.
I was quite surprised by the outcome of the surveys that I conducted on this issue. The first of the three options is to write off the debt and for the Government to take over responsibility for the Humber bridge, paying for all the repairs, maintenance and so on. There would be absolutely nothing left in the way of debt, and free crossings for everybody—wonderful! The second option is to write off the debt and to pay for repairs and maintenance through increasing the council tax. The third option is to reduce the tolls substantially to, say, £1 per crossing, and the money raised could cover the cost of repairs and maintenance.
I thought that the majority of people would go for the “nothing to pay” option, but in fact, most went for the token amount. Some 75 per cent. of people said, “Paying a pound would be okay, and that would cover the repairs and maintenance.” Interestingly, virtually nobody thought that it would be an excellent idea to increase the council tax to cover the repairs and maintenance, although there was one person—I think he knows who he is—who suggested that we bring back the ferry that used to connect the village of New Holland with the city of Hull. He was the only person who wanted that.
We presented the case to Ministers through Adjournment debates in the Chamber, but because the inspector has not reported on the 20p increase that the bridge board wants to introduce, we cannot bring delegations from the business community and local authorities to Westminster to press the case for reducing the tolls overall. We are, in essence, in a state of limbo.
I hope that my raising the issue today means that the message will work its way through the system, so that whoever needs to know about it realises that we need to take this issue forward, particularly in this economic climate, and that the inspector reports and we can then make progress on our lobbying to reduce the tolls.
What is gratifying about this campaign, which will be ongoing, is that the bridge board, which has been somewhat reluctant in the past to agree with Members of Parliament about tolls, has understood the weight of opinion in the area for reduced tolls; it has seen the empirical research commissioned by the councils showing that there would be substantial economic growth if that barrier were reduced. The board itself has said that it would like to try out, for perhaps a year’s trial period, a toll of £1 to cross the bridge. Its view has come into line with that of the people campaigning on this issue, but we cannot make progress on this because we have not yet had the report. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make sure that the right ears hear that particular plea.
Last night, a debate on business rates took place in the Chamber, during which I said that if there are job losses in my constituency, as I believe there will be as a result of this double taxation on certain core businesses in the port of Immingham, the hinterland of the people involved will be cut because of the tolls on the Humber bridge. For someone who has lost their job, the idea of paying more than £5 for a return to cross the bridge will make them think again about applying for a job on the other side of the river. To many of my constituents the whole area on the north bank may as well not exist. The travel patterns were part of the research conducted, and it was demonstrated that the toll was a substantial barrier. People do not cross the bridge to access training, so it is also hindering their opportunities. I feel that it also affects social mobility in our area. I know that people turn down jobs on the other side of the river because they do their sums and work out that they will spend more than £1,000 a year in tolls.
I have just been talking about the toll for cars, but the Humber bridge is one of the only major toll bridges where there is also a charge for motorbikes. The toll for freight is phenomenal and, because of the cost, businesses avoid taking jobs that necessitate crossing the river. That is why it is vital in this economic climate to see whether something can be done to give a stimulus to economic growth in that part of the country. The Government have said that they will do all they can to help British businesses through the economic downturn, and acting on this issue would be an excellent way to give a boost to my part of the country.
I believe that I mentioned my next local issue in a previous recess Adjournment debate; the regulars here will doubtless groan when I mention compensation for former distant water trawlermen again—[Interruption.] I hear the Deputy Leader of the House groaning. I am sure that many a burly ex-trawlerman would not take kindly to that type of groan from him. This is a serious issue, because these people lost their livelihoods as a result of a Government decision at the end of the cod wars to refuse the generous quotas being offered by Iceland; their fishing grounds were no longer available to them, they came home to port and they had no livelihood. For years, they campaigned for compensation, and it was only in the late 1990s that that was agreed. Our community greeted that news with great delight. My father was in Iceland at the time as a member of the Royal Navy, doing fishing protection work rather than as a trawlerman. Sadly he is no longer with us, but he always used to say that it was a great injustice that the trawlermen had not received any compensation.
The scheme was introduced and people were paid up to £20,000, but there was a serious loophole. None of the experts or the people on the ground in our community noticed it, but it meant that some people were paid nothing or had their compensation substantially reduced because of what are called breaks in service. If people had a break of a certain number of weeks in a long career, they lost compensation. The scheme was probably set up like that in an attempt to copy the redundancy rules, under which if people work in a factory for 10 years, leave for three months and then come back, they have broken the continuity of employment. But of course in the fishing industry the labour was pooled, and people were given a ship if one was available, so it was a fragmented way of working. Someone might get a job, go away for a few weeks, come back and be off for some weeks. That meant that some people were excluded from the compensation scheme.
We have recently had some success in addressing that problem, and the Government have amended the original scheme to try to put right that injustice. However, we think that we have found another flaw in the system. I hope that we do not go ahead with the rules for additional payments with that flaw. The problem is that the new rules propose that the only people who will be eligible for the compensation are those who applied under the original scheme in 2000. If people applied and they received no compensation or a substantially reduced amount, their cases can be reconsidered. However, in Grimsby the local authority funded some advice workers to help the former trawlermen with their applications, and they told some of the potential applicants not to bother applying because they would not qualify under the rules. So those ex-trawlermen never applied. Only those who applied at the time will be eligible. I hope that that issue will be addressed, because it would be a gross injustice if the new scheme—which was meant to put right an injustice—excluded those people.
The consultation on the scheme still has a few more weeks to run, and I recently had a marvellous meeting with more than 100 former trawlermen to involve them in that consultation. We held the meeting in the national fishing heritage centre in Grimsby, which is a marvellous little museum, and we were able to introduce the men and their families to what is, in effect, their centre. Many of them had not been using the centre. In a lovely gesture by the centre, which also gave me the use of the facilities for free, all the former trawlermen who came that day have been given a free pass to the centre so that they can bring their grandchildren and other relatives and show them what it was like in that industry, which created the great port of Grimsby—Grimsby fish is still known around the world.
My next point is to do with a consultation, again. People will begin to see why I am raising all these subjects today—a feeling of inertia arises when consultations are under way, and when people do not have the answers and cannot move forward until they get them. This consultation concerns the siting of Travellers’ sites in North Lincolnshire, one of the two local authorities that cover my constituency. There has been quite extensive consultation, which is now closed, and I submitted comments on behalf of my residents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) also commented on the proposals. Of course, we are left not knowing what the result will be or when we will find it out. We need to consider that fact when we have consultation processes or public inquiries. It is all very well to have a statutory consultation period—fine, we can all work with that—but why is there no statutory period in which we have to be told the outcome? That would be my plea, as it would give people certainty that they will get their answers.
I now want to talk a little about school meals in north Lincolnshire, in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes areas. I have campaigned for a number of years to improve school meals. One of my grandmothers was a school cook, who cooked marvellous food. My father was a cook in the Navy, so that is something that is clearly in the McIsaac family blood. We like our food, we like to cook and we want to ensure that everybody else enjoys good food, too.
I have campaigned to improve school meals in north-east Lincolnshire. Sadly, several years ago the council let schools decide whether to keep kitchens or to get rid of them. A number of schools got rid of their kitchens and offered sandwich options or baked potatoes. I campaigned with parents, with the schools and so on, and took the issue up with Ministers. Everybody has been very supportive of the idea of introducing the improvements. Ministers have been marvellous and listened to the case that we presented for funding to bring back the kitchens and put good food back on the menus.
I do not have any problems with that, but then things became absolutely ludicrous. After all those years of campaigning, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that they were going to be running pilot schemes for free school meals for all primary age children. I thought, “Hallelujah! That is exactly what I have been campaigning on for a number of years.” In the current economic climate any saving, even a saving of this nature, will be a real bonus for families. North East Lincolnshire council was invited to be one of those that ran the pilots, but it said, “No”. The schools say that they would love the scheme, the parents support the idea and the Members of Parliament think that it would be a good idea, but the council says that it does not have enough money, because the scheme is match funded.
Ideally, I would like the Government to consider running some pilot projects that are not match funded, as that would help councils that find themselves in financial difficulty. My North East Lincolnshire county council is in that position: it was one of the negligent authorities that lost £7 million when it invested that amount in Icelandic banks just days before the collapse.
I am told that that loss has had no impact on the council’s decision not to produce the match funding that would ensure free meals for primary school age children. However, the council has other investments and the money is there, so I do not understand its approach. I hope that the Department for Children, Schools and Families can do something to help, either by setting up a fully funded pilot or simply by telling the council to get its act together.
I want to speak about a couple of other subjects, and the first is ministerial correspondence. I shall not name the Department or the particular Minister involved, but I am getting heartily fed up of sending almost fortnightly reminders, especially given that it can take nearly four months to get a reply to my original letter. That is not acceptable. I keep apologising to constituents and telling them, “Sorry, the Minister hasn’t replied yet and, yes, we are reminding him,” but nothing happens. I also do the other normal things, such as putting down parliamentary questions asking when to expect replies to correspondence dated X, Y and Z, and I get the usual little letter that appears in response, but it is never just a one-off. With some Departments, the process is continuous, and that is wholly unacceptable.
Another problem is that the quality of the response often leaves a lot to be desired, even when I am writing on behalf of pensioners. For example, I once wrote to a Minister about illiteracy and adult literacy, and all I got was a very short reply to the effect that the information that I needed could be found by clicking on a website. I am sorry, but that is not good enough. It is not the sort of response that we should be sending out to constituents. [Interruption.] I can see that the gods of democracy—that is, the Whips—on the Front Bench are giving me the evil eye. That probably means that the Chancellor can now come to the Chamber to make his statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is eager to take part in the debate as well, and I will not deny him his chance.
Finally, I want to talk about circuses. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) mentioned certain animal welfare issues, and my constituents are not particularly happy that a circus will be coming to Cleethorpes over Easter. There are always protests, and allegations of cruelty to the animals. I believe that the circus has managed to get hold of some elephants this year, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe spoke about this circus when it visited his constituency some weeks ago.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, I was a member of the Committee considering the Bill that became the Animal Welfare Act 2006. My memory may be affected by age—it is my birthday tomorrow, so there is another year to add on—but, unless it has gone completely, I seem to recall that the Government said that regulations or something would be brought forward to stop the exploitation of performing animals in circuses. Years later, however, the circus is still trundling up every year. The animals are still there and every year there are allegations of cruelty. In this day and age, surely we can resolve the issue once and for all. That type of entertainment belongs in the past.
With that, I wish everybody a wonderful Easter break. I am not in competition with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) in this Adjournment debate. She always extols the virtues of her constituency and invites Members to spend some of their holiday there. Tiverton is lovely—my great-granny was from there. I have no qualms about people going to Tiverton, but I invite Members to the Lincolnshire coast, to see Cleethorpes and the wonderful delights of that part of the country—but not the circus.