Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)
I want to raise a matter concerning work that is being undertaken on parts of the M6 motorway in my constituency. I am doing so because I am very disappointed that the Highways Agency has not shown proper regard and consideration for my constituents, whose properties are virtually next to the motorway. Graham Dalton, the chief executive of the Highways Agency, which has authorised the work through the Department for Transport, has now, at long last, visited the borough, some nine months after the work started. Obviously, I expected that he would take the opportunity to visit my constituents, who have been so adversely affected. He knows the position, because during the past nine months I have written to him and faxed letters, sometimes twice or three times a week. Yes, there have been replies, but there has been a reluctance on his part to come and see what is happening.
Another reason for raising this issue on the Floor of the House is that the residents were given no proper notification that the work was going to take place. That is accepted by the agency, which says that it was a mistake. All that happened was that some advertisements were placed in the regional press that residents were unlikely to see. Why were they not told beforehand that the work was going to take place? It is pretty obvious why not—it is because they would have put forward proposals to try to safeguard their position during the various stages of the work. The public liaison officer for the contractors carrying out the work for the Highways Agency has admitted that a mistake was made in not letting people know about this beforehand. He said, interestingly, that nowhere else had they come across properties so close to the carriageway, and obviously they should know because they do a lot of work on motorway construction and repairs.
Hundreds of trees were taken down that had previously acted as a kind of barrier to the motorway, minimising noise and giving some protection for properties that were built before the motorway came into existence some years ago. Since then, the noise has been unbearable. We can only imagine the position of someone who lives just by the motorway where trees and other measures that provided some sort of protection have been taken away. They have to live through it, sometimes during the night as well. I have sent several letters urging that at least night work should not take place, and to some extent that has stopped, but not entirely. That is the nightmare situation—there is no other way to describe it—that several of my constituents have faced during the course of this year.
In April, the chief executive of the Highways Agency wrote to tell me that he admitted that this was wrong and that a public meeting, or “exhibition”, as it is described, had not taken place to explain the scheme beforehand. That comes rather late in the day. The work is started without direct notification to the people concerned, and then, when it is under way and the Member of Parliament undertakes his duties, as anyone else in this House would have done, there is an admission from the chief executive that a public meeting should have been held in the first place. If such a meeting had taken place, the residents would have had their say.
In March, after considerable difficulty, I managed to get an on-site meeting. It is almost impossible to appreciate how difficult that was. The situation involves the publicly funded Highways Agency, the private contractors and the rest, but the Highways Agency, in particular, gave me all kinds of reasons why it would not meet me on the site itself. It was happy to have a meeting with a Member of Parliament, but why should it not be an on-site meeting? It was only as a result of an intervention by the relevant Minister’s private office that finally, in March, an on-site meeting took place, which councillors and I went along to. It took a great deal of trouble and effort to get that meeting going.
In the past few weeks, Mr. Dalton, the chief executive of the Highways Agency, told me that he was going to visit the borough. Excellent news—at long last he was going to visit. Then, last week, I got a phone call from his office asking if I would arrange a meeting with him. I said, “We will be meeting, will we not, on the site where the work is taking place?” “Oh no”, I was told, “that can’t happen. It will be a very brief visit. It’s going to take place this coming Monday”—that is, two days ago. So at long last, the chief executive of the Highways Agency decides to come and visit to see what is happening with the work on the motorway—but as for meeting the residents, that is out of the question. The visit must be brief—he is too busy and cannot spare the time. What about my constituents, who have suffered such a nightmare? “Oh well, too bad,” seemed to be the attitude. He was willing to meet me and wanted to make an appointment as quickly as possible, but what about meeting my constituents? Hence I decided that it would be right to raise the issue on the Floor of the House. I believe that the action of the Highways Agency has been absolutely despicable. It did not inform the residents beforehand, and for that matter it did not let me know so that I could tell the residents. There was great reluctance even to have the on-site meeting, which finally took place in March, and then the chief executive said that he did not have the time on Monday, when I assume he made a visit, to meet the people concerned.
I have raised the issue and I hope that the Minister will perhaps persuade Mr. Dalton accordingly. I have no criticism of the private office of the Secretary of State for Transport, because there was the on-site meeting in March, which I mentioned, in my constituency arising from all this, which I imagine was due to his intervention. Last week’s effort by his private office and civil servants to persuade Mr. Dalton to change his mind came to nothing.
My hon. Friend should know that he could not be talking to a more sympathetic person, because I am currently struggling in my own constituency with the M60 junction 11 to 15 lane gain. I hope to give him a very sympathetic response later.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Incidentally, it is interesting that Mr. Dalton said that the on-site meeting in March was “helpful and positive”. If it was helpful and positive in March for one of the more junior officials to attend a meeting—perhaps not all that junior, but certainly junior to the chief executive or deputy chief executive—why would not a meeting with the chief executive himself be helpful and positive? The chief executive was not willing to turn up at the meeting in March, and one of his officials got the short straw.
All in all, I hope that Ministers at the Department for Transport will pursue the matter. It could be argued that the chief executive of the Highways Agency has no role in meeting the public, but I argue that in such situations as the M6 work in my constituency and the work that my hon. Friend the Minister described, the chief executive has not acted properly. I am sure that he is an honourable person and does his duties efficiently. I do not question that in any way, but he has been insensitive, to say the least, to the plight of my constituents. That is why I have raised the issue on the Floor of the House.
I shall follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in making a number of local points. That is the nature of these debates, which provide an opportunity to raise with the Minister some issues that constituents have brought to my attention.
I start with an education issue: the role that Ofsted has played in discharging its inspection responsibilities. Earlier this year it undertook an inspection of Robin Hood junior school in my constituency and rather used it as a guinea pig for a test run of its new inspection regime and a new inspector. The inspectors’ conclusions match neither the school’s view of itself nor the view of the local education authority and particularly the executive head responsible for school improvement. There has been unprecedented unanimity of view that the inspectors’ conduct and review have led to a judgment that is false and damaging to the school.
When the inspectors came to the school, they seemed to have a predetermined view about what was going on there. That was an incomplete picture based on a partial reading of the data that were available about the school’s educational performance. They proceeded very selectively to gather evidence that seemed to reinforce the hypothesis that they had already arrived at, disregarding evidence that would in any way contradict it. The inspectors took just one year’s data to form a view and projected that to conclude that there was widespread underachievement in the school. That was not true and is not fair, and the data do not support that conclusion. The inspectors seemed wilfully to overlook positive achievements while they were in the school, and by taking just one-year’s data rather than the normal three-year average, they misled themselves, and could mislead parents who are deciding whether to send their children to that school. I would argue that, in some ways, they misdirected themselves in how they conducted the inspection.
There is an appeal process to challenge Ofsted judgments and how inspectors have come to their conclusions, and it has been used to challenge the judgment in that case. However, from my direct experience of the process so far and discussions with the head teacher, I do not believe that it is a robust and independent process of checking whether the inspector has done the job properly. So far in the appeal process, points that I, the school and the local authority have raised have been disregarded. The inspectors’ version of events seems to have been accepted without question, and when alternative points of view are put forward they seem to be set aside if the inspectors’ notes do not include any evidence of them. That does not seem to be in any way fair or natural justice.
I finally wrote a letter to the chief inspector on behalf of the school and others. She has not replied to it herself, but in the reply that I have received, many of the questions that I posed were not answered by Ofsted. It was little more than a cut-and-paste version of the reply that was sent to the head teacher, who asked a number of questions that were similar but not completely the same.
I ask the Minister: where is the accountability, quality control and robust independent complaints procedure, and how can we accept a situation in which damage can be done to a school’s reputation by a rogue Ofsted report? I am concerned that the school could be done harm by the process. I have been delighted by how the school and parents have worked together and by the fact that the school has reassured parents, not least because it has been so robustly supported by the local education authority. I hope that justice will be done in the new year and that there will be some serious engagement by Ofsted in that serious problem.
The second matter that I wish to raise was mentioned by the Leader of the House in Prime Minister’s questions today. She referred to the need for credit unions to deal with the pressures that come from loan sharks. I have been supporting the efforts of the London borough of Sutton to set up a credit union to promote a culture of savings and offer secure low-cost loans. The route that the borough chose was to extend an existing credit union from the London borough of Croydon to cover both Sutton and Merton as well. That would cost less than other options and could be done more quickly.
Just last week, on 2 December, we learned that the application to extend the common bond to permit the Croydon Savers Union to operate in Sutton and Merton had been rejected. It would seem that it ticked all the boxes except one—it did not meet the locality rule that currently applies. The view of the Financial Services Authority was that although Sutton, Merton and Croydon share borders, they are not a sufficiently clear and coherent locality to warrant ticking that box. I suspect that many hon. Members will accept that, when administrative boundaries are drawn, the areas that fall within them are not automatically and always seen as a common locality. When it comes to finding a cost-effective way of extending the benefits of a credit union, it seems rather strange that that one rule is becoming such a barrier.
We have been told that changes to the rules that are due to come in by next July mean that the credit union will be able to go ahead then. However, I hope that the Minister will pass on to colleagues in the Treasury my view that hard-pressed families who are struggling under a burden of debt and financial pressures of one sort or another would benefit from a credit union as soon as possible. I hope that something can be done to ensure that one comes to Sutton sooner rather than later.
Decent council homes are a concern for many of my constituents, not just those who live in them but those who work in them to make them decent. It was a real blow to hear the announcement in July that the Government were to switch resources out of the decent homes programme and into the building of new council homes. One can understand the case for investment in new homes, but that should not in any way undermine the absolute need to ensure that existing properties are properly maintained, renovated and improved. A devastating blow has been dealt to tenants, and to the staff who have been working so hard to ensure that they get a two-star rating through the assessment, and that the programmes to meet the need are in place.
That money would have been used to replace a number of things, including life-expired, asbestos-ridden box bathrooms that are literally coming away from the sides of the properties to which they were attached 40 years ago, and electrical and plumbing works. New boilers and home insulation will go a long way to help to tackle fuel poverty in my constituency. Given that the stock condition has been put in the bottom quartile of London councils, the decent homes programme is much needed in my area.
A team has been set up to do all that work, but they are now at risk of being sacked, because the work will not be available to them. The contractors who have been lined up, who would have employed 27 new apprentices, are also now having to be stood down. We need that £120 million programme, to lift the standard of living of many of my constituents. I had a very successful and useful meeting just last week with the Minister for Housing and local tenants leaders, who made a very powerful case. The talks were productive. I certainly hope that the Minister will reflect on the matter over the Christmas period and that we will have a change of heart so that that resource becomes available.
I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions about Sri Lanka. The Tamil community in my constituency is concerned about relatives and others given what is happening in the country. I shall address only one issue today—the camps—and I hope that Foreign Office Ministers will continue to pursue it vigorously. The camps are seen by many Tamils as detention camps. People are not allowed free movement and certainly not to go home. There is a lack of information about who is being detained and why, and a lack of access for independent human rights and humanitarian agencies. Twelve thousand alleged Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam members are held in them without access to those agencies or even the Red Cross. They have now been incarcerated for seven months without any form of charge and certainly without any promise of being released.
The Government are doing much to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to honour their commitments on international law and human rights, but can more be done to ensure that, through the European Union, where we have leverage and which has recently reported on human rights violations, the renewal of the generalised system of preferences plus does not happen? That would be a way of signalling to the Sri Lankan Government that they must strive more to ensure that Tamils are treated fairly and equally in that country, and that there is a genuine process of restoring trust and building peace, rather than continued intimidation of, and misery for, many Tamils.
I end where I began—with education. There has been a 29.4 per cent. rise in births in my borough since 2001, which means that an additional 300 children per year will turn up at reception classes across Sutton. Indeed, in the past three years, there has been a 21 per cent. increase in Sutton and a 24 per cent. increase in Worcester Park in my constituency. Based on those figures and other data, there is a need, I believe, for anything between 170 and 200 more places in September of 2011 and over 300 more by 2012.
Despite having the largest birth rate increases in London and the lowest numbers of surplus places nationally, Sutton has recently been told that it will receive nothing of the £271 million that has been allocated by the Department for Children, Schools and Families as a safety valve to help to cope with such unexpected and increasing pressures. It therefore has to find up to £18 million itself to fund the additional accommodation that will be needed to ensure that those children have a school place to go to. The real concern now is that the accommodation will not be of the right sort—temporary accommodation—and that schools, governors, head teachers and others will understandably object to it, thus causing even more delays in delivery. I have been trying to get a response to an e-mail that I sent to the Minister for Schools and Learners to arrange a meeting to discuss my local education authority’s concerns and its case for additional funding, but I have not yet had one. I would like the opportunity to meet the Minister in the new year to see whether we can find a way through the funding problem.
In conclusion, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Speaker, the staff of individual Members of Parliament and those who work in the service of the House, the compliments of the season. I am sure that we all look forward to a very prosperous and successful new year.
I am sure Members on both sides of the House will be hoping for a positive outcome from the Copenhagen meeting as it draws toward a close. It is vital that an agreement is reached that will commit the countries of the world to work seriously together to tackle this international problem. During the summer I led a small Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to study the effects of climate change on some of the smallest countries in the world. The group visited Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu in the south Pacific, which have populations ranging from 11,000 to just over 200,000.
We heard from many people about how the effects of climate change are making their daily lives much more difficult. The Pacific islands are relatively poor, and the local people lack the resources to cope well with the extreme weather that is becoming more frequent. Some were angry that they suffer the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions having contributed virtually none themselves.
Most people imagine that rising sea levels lead to low-lying islands disappearing under water, causing local populations to relocate, but local inhabitants move long before that happens. Already in Vanuatu, the population of one small island has had to do so.
High tides and rising sea water contaminate the drinking water, meaning that the only option for populations is to collect rain water to drink. On Funafuti, the main island of Tuvalu, the local council told us that owing to low rainfall, families are currently rationed to six buckets of water each morning and evening. Although the European Union has been able to help with the provision of large rain water collection tanks on the main island, as yet no means have been found to transport similar tanks to the outer islands. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that representatives from Tuvalu have made themselves heard at the summit in Copenhagen.
Over time the land becomes saturated with salty water, making it impossible to grow food. At the moment, around 70 to 80 per cent. of the people on those islands are reliant on agriculture. We heard in Tuvalu that the island now frequently experiences high tides that lead to flooding. How can a small farmer keep animals or sow crops when fertile soils and fresh water are contaminated with salt water?
Pressure will grow for the larger countries in the Pacific to take in climate change refugees. The reality is that no Pacific nation will be unaffected, no matter how large. More than half the population of the islands of the region lives within 1.5 km of the shore. We were shown maps that showed that within 20 years, the heavily populated areas of many countries will be uninhabitable.
The visit brought it home to the delegation that climate change is having a profound impact now, and that the prospects for the people of the region are poor. Whatever the result of the Copenhagen discussions, I think it important that we in the UK continue to take what action we can to tackle the problem.
All Pacific island nations have drawn up national adaptation plans with the support of funds from the United Nations, but we were told that the lack resources to implement the plans causes those nations a great deal of concern. Climate change experts at the university of the South Pacific were clear that without significant adaptation now, the longer-term prospects for the countries are bleak.
Earlier this week, I asked the Prime Minister whether European Union money that has been allocated for assistance can be made available for adaptation. In his response he clearly recognised the importance of taking action. For many people in the world climate change is not an issue for the future: it is affecting them now.
In the UK we are lucky not to face such immediate problems. However, we do have a responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions to mitigate the future effects of climate change. I believe strongly that by focusing more on energy efficiency we could begin to see dramatic reductions. Houses in the UK are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. While there are many aspects to this which could and should be addressed, I particularly want to address the matter of heating and electricity.
I commend the Government for announcing a boiler scrappage scheme in the pre-Budget report last week. Around 125,000 households will be able to upgrade their boiler when the scheme starts early next year. I hope that we can allocate further funds in due course as part of a rolling programme to replace the large number of old and inefficient boilers in use. The Chancellor said:
“Inefficient domestic boilers add over £200 to household bills and 1 tonne of carbon to the atmosphere each year.”—[Official Report, 9 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 365.]
That scheme will be a positive step in reducing household emissions. It has an added attraction in that it will bring down the average household energy bill, which will be especially important to those caught in the fuel poverty trap.
It is important that we have financial incentives in place to encourage the next generation of low-carbon and renewable electricity. I know that the Government have been consulting on two mechanisms: the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs. I want to concentrate today on feed-in tariffs: the money paid for electricity supplied to the national grid. I think that we can make more progress. The Renewable Energy Association states that the Government are planning to meet just 2 per cent. of the UK’s electricity needs from technologies supported through the current tariff scheme. That figure is far lower than the potential and considerably lower than other countries are achieving or working toward.
If we pay more attention to that aspect of electricity production, we can encourage many more individual households and small businesses to become involved. The expansion of small-scale electricity production would help us in tackling climate change. It would also encourage technological innovation, followed in due course by the manufacture of the newly designed equipment.
Around the world, tariff schemes have had positive effects on cutting costs of renewable technologies, as well as creating employment opportunities. They offer an incentive for individuals and companies, particularly those already focused on products aimed at low carbon emissions. I understand that the proposed clean energy cash back tariff, scheduled to launch in April, will pay households which generate their own power from wind turbines and solar panels. They will receive money for each unit of electricity that they use in their own home, and also for the surplus energy that they provide to their local energy company. Both payments will be tax free.
I know that the Government’s consultation on renewable electricity financial incentives is now closed, and they have yet to issue their response. I hope that they will seriously consider increasing the proposed level of tariffs. The suggested return on investment of between 5 per cent. and 8 per cent. is not likely to be sufficient to encourage significant take-up. According to the modelling commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, tariffs that deliver a 10 per cent. return on investment would result in three times the amount of renewable electricity generation by 2020 than will be delivered by the proposed scheme.
Over the past few months, I have been working closely with one small Sheffield company in this field, Disenco Energy plc. It is close to the commercial production of the first viable micro combined heat and power appliance suitable for the domestic and commercial market. Currently the size of a washing machine, Disenco’s patented HomePowerPlan is a highly efficient boiler and a 3 KW electrical system at 92 per cent. efficiency. That appliance will supply all the hot water and heating requirements of a home, and up to 70 per cent. of its electricity needs at peak times. That is obviously beneficial for the consumer as costs and efficiency savings result in reductions to annual electrical bills. Importantly, it can cut the carbon footprint of a home by about 70 per cent., reducing C02 emissions.
The product is targeted at the domestic market as a direct replacement for the boiler. The company estimates that the cost could be around £3,000 when production gets into commercial gear. That would put them in the same market as many current new boilers, obviously important when trying to entice people to replace their old boiler with a new energy-efficient appliance.
The other significant benefit of micro combined heat and power units is that they assist with electricity generation at precisely the times when there is significant demand, helping the grid to cope with peak periods. They also make a significant contribution to tackling fuel poverty. Elderly and vulnerable people, who currently hesitate to put the heating on for fear of the cost, will be able to heat their homes, knowing that by doing so they are also generating electricity and being paid for it.
Emerging small businesses such as Disenco need the support that the Government can provide. They need a revenue system in place that provides incentives for householders to replace their old boilers with new products that can generate sufficient electricity that surplus can be sold to the national grid. They also of course need money to get their products to market. At a time when we have supported banks with billions of pounds, a few million pounds of investment could see these important new technologies in place in months.
We face the challenge of meeting the UK targets of reducing energy use, while at the same time bringing to an end the excessive use of fossil fuels. Feed-in tariffs are one way of helping us to get there. Encouraging change is a huge challenge, particularly so during this difficult economic time. However, the possibilities of these new technologies fill me with optimism. They will reduce carbon emissions, ensure that people can stay warm in their homes, and importantly we will use less of the planet’s resources. If we can encourage and help along this process, we can also help to generate future prosperity for the country.
On that note, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, everybody else in the House and all the staff a very happy Christmas and all the best for the new year.
I enjoy these end of term Adjournment debates in which we can talk about almost anything, but this will definitely be my last one, as I am retiring. As a result, rather than talk about various local matters, I thought that I would discuss an issue that concerns me, as someone leaving this House after 18 years. I know that those who will be here after the general election intend to make changes to the way in which this House works, especially to the work that Back Benchers do and their power—or perhaps I should say lack of power.
I was shadow Leader of the House when the Government introduced the increase in the use of the guillotine at all stages of a Bill. I opposed it then and, given our experience of that process, I believe that the House and our legislation is the poorer for not having more time—especially in Committee and when a Bill returns from the Lords—for scrutiny and examination on a clause-by-clause, line-by-line basis. It is possible for large chunks of legislation to be added in the other place and, because of the guillotine, to reach the statute book without this House having considered the detail of it at all. That is not democracy or what most of us came into this House to do. I hope that that will be addressed in the reforms that are needed, so that MPs feel that they can play a much more active and influential role in the way in which legislation passes through this place and, as a result, represent their constituents better. Constituents often write to us, but increasingly one finds oneself writing back and saying, “I’m very sorry, but when we got to this on the Floor of the House last night, the guillotine fell and the issues that you have concerns about were not discussed, even though the Speaker might have listed the particular amendments and clauses for debate.”
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) began the debate by outlining his experience in dealing with the Highways Agency. There, too, something needs to be done. All too often Members of Parliament find themselves unable to stand on the Floor of the House and ask a Minister to respond to a problem in their constituency. Instead they find themselves dealing with quangos, which can be bureaucratic and elusive in responding. That can be extremely time-consuming. If a Minister has ministerial responsibility for a brief, despite all the quangos, many of which I would like to see go, the Minister should be able to give an answer. One should not have to keep phoning a chief executive to get an answer to a local problem.
I would like to flag up my concerns regarding two pieces of paper that were on my desk this morning and which were sent to all Members of Parliament. The first is today’s parliamentary ombudsman report entitled, “Cold Comfort: the Administration of the 2005 Single Payment Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency”. The House has addressed that matter on many occasions, and I and other members of the Public Accounts Committee have studied it in detail. It is worrying. The ombudsman is an important person to whom Members of Parliament ultimately can take constituency problems for adjudication. Today, however, we see something quite extraordinary. Having looked at case work relating to rural single payments, the ombudsman made recommendations to Parliament, but the Government have not accepted the ombudsman’s determination. This is not the first time that has happened—we saw it with Equitable Life, for example, which we debated on the Floor of the House. The letter from the ombudsman reads:
“It is a rare occurrence for the Government to refuse to accept all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations in full and for the Government to lay a special report before Parliament on that basis. This report is only the sixth such special report laid before Parliament by the Ombudsman since the creation of the Ombudsman’s Office in 1967.”
The time has come for the House to exert its power and to say to the Government that when an ombudsman makes a determination, the Government of the day should abide by it, not ignore it.
In slight contrast, I also received from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a handy little pocket guide to the environment containing thousands of statistics. For example, on page 17, I can read about the 2007 EU municipal waste management programme for every country in the EU—fine if one is going on a quiz programme! The same Department that is refusing to accept the ombudsman’s determination apparently has the resources to produce these colourful little pocket guides, however useful they might be. I do not know what they cost, but it seems that some of the priorities in some Departments are wrong.
In the 1990s, when I was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a constituent came to me with a complaint about the Ministry. As is the rule for Ministers, I could not consider the matter because he was my constituent; I had to hand it to my colleagues. They considered my constituent’s complaint, but eventually the word came back that they did not think that there was a case and would not do whatever it was that my constituent was asking MAFF to do.
I thought about the matter for a nanosecond. I was a Minister in that Ministry because the people of my constituency in Tiverton and Honiton had elected me to represent them in this place. I decided that my duties as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament meant that I should refer my own Department to the parliamentary ombudsman, because I thought that my constituent had a good case. I had an interesting conversation with the permanent secretary. I went to his office and explained to him that I was going to refer MAFF to the parliamentary ombudsman, and he turned a whiter shade of pale. I did it because I thought that my priority was to represent my constituent’s interest, whether I was a Minister or a Back Bencher. We should be doing more of that. However, we need the Government to understand that when an ombudsman has a power, it is not for the Government to dismiss it and ignore what the ombudsman says.
Obviously, given that I sit on the Conservative Benches, I have a view on whom I want to form the next Government. I will not be coy: I really hope it will be a Conservative Government. However, in the coming Parliament, after the election, whoever are in government will have a golden opportunity to improve how the House works and to improve the representation of the people through the House, particularly through Back Benchers. I hope that they will reverse many of the things done in recent years and strengthen the powers of those who come to represent their constituents in trying to get results and answers and make life better for them.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning my remarks. However, does she agree that, apart from the other changes that have taken place—in my view for the better, but time will tell—Westminster Hall debates have given Back Benchers an opportunity that they did not have before? That is an added forum in which issues, whether national or local, can be raised.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that, at the time, I was one of the people who were extremely sceptical about how Westminster Hall would function and whether it would be of value. I do believe, however, that he was right and I was wrong. It has been a valuable debating Chamber. It perhaps does not have quite the clout of a debate with a vote in the House, but we would not want to see votes down in Westminster Hall. However, I agree with him. I am not saying that I am opposed to all change or that I am not a moderniser. Some areas of modernisation are good. Equally, however, I would always apply the test of whether they take powers away from Back Benchers and give them to the Executive. Whether we are Government Members or not, we are here to challenge and scrutinise the Executive and to get answers for our constituents. I think that litmus test needs to be applied.
I want to mention something that I raised in an earlier debate. Sometimes, in the House, Members repeatedly make certain points to the Government, but when the relevant policies are put into practice it becomes clear that they have not taken account of the concerns espoused by Members. That is of concern to me. We hear a lot about invitations to stakeholders and Government consultations that never come anywhere near the House when the Government are implementing policies and legislation, particularly in relation to secondary legislation and guidance.
I want to flag up another matter. Over the past couple of years, we have had legislation on disabled people who stop work or lose their jobs because of their disabilities and who then get into the cycle of going back to work. That critical area of returning to work worries me. I have asked the Jobcentre Plus in my constituency for a meeting with the people who assess whether somebody is ready to return to work. I am not necessarily talking about people who have been out of work for many years—the long-term unemployed—because there are different schemes for them. I am more concerned about people who have been out of work because of a serious illness—in particular, cancer—perhaps involving a lot of treatment and surgery, and who, as a result, are quite weak. I am also concerned about people with obvious disabilities.
I have found the recent experiences of some of those people to be quite brutal and cruel—I would use that word—as I have explained to the House before. I saw a lady who had had a lot of chemotherapy and radiography following a double mastectomy. This was her test: she went into the room and they asked her to raise her arms above her head. She could, so they said, “Right, back to work!” Her doctor said that she needed to go back part time and to do it gradually, but they dismissed that. That is why I asked for the meeting.
I have sat through many debates in the House on the need to get people back into work and on what happens when people return to work having been ill. During such debates, hon. Members on both sides of the House have told Ministers that we need to ensure that the assessors have the knowledge, expertise and medical background required to carry out proper assessments, and to ensure that they do not ride roughshod over hospital consultants and general practitioners who clearly know the patient much better than they do. It is not that those people are workshy or shirking; rather, they have had legitimate reasons not to be in work. I intend to follow that point up, but I am concerned that although I have heard it mentioned many times by colleagues across the House, for some reason what should have happened in practice has not happened.
It would not be Christmas or the holiday season if I did not invite colleagues from all parts of the House to come and visit the glorious county of Devon during this three-week recess. They will be made very welcome there. We have the most wonderful entertainment—I can almost hear the log fires crunching away in the background—and lovely food and drink from our wonderful farms. Hon. Members would be made very welcome, and they do not need to rely on British Airways to get to Devon from wherever they live in the country, because we have an excellent airline based in my constituency at Exeter airport called Flybe. It flies from all parts of the country into Exeter. We also have an airport in Plymouth. So I say this to hon. Members: do please come, you will be made very welcome.
I have mentioned BA, so let me conclude with this. My telephone has a ringtone that I know is incredibly irritating to colleagues and which has become known as the BA tune—it is actually “The Flower Duet” from Lakmé. As it is Christmas, I have brought in my phone, in case you felt that you wanted me to hold it up and share the tune with the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am at your disposal, although I can see that you are probably not going to let me do that.
I rather thought that you might do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just thought that people might like to hear the tune, because today is the last time that it will be played on my telephone. I intend to replace it tonight with Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” “The Flower Duet” from Lakmé will not be played on my telephone again.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you, all colleagues in the House and all members of staff in the House a very happy and peaceful Christmas?
Follow that! Let me reassure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I do not have with me my mobile or the BA tune, or for that matter Rod Stewart—I may go along with the sentiments of the song, but that is about it.
This is an important time, when Back Benchers can raise important issues, whether they be world issues, national issues or local issues—the point is that we can get them on the record. None is more important than our troops who are serving on the front line. It is always difficult for those troops who are serving, but more so at this time for their families and friends. I am sure that the best wishes from all parts of the House go to our brave armed forces serving overseas. In addition, there are also the emergency services in this country—people in hospitals who work on Christmas day and people who work in power stations to ensure that the rest of us have a wonderful Christmas. We all ought to give thanks to them, too.
I want to raise a local issue and take us to a village in Chorley, where the Willows sheltered housing can be found. Chorley has its own council housing, like everywhere else, but it decided to offload its housing and set up a company called Chorley Community Housing. Of course, we were given the greatest of promises: lots of investment to come; people to get new kitchens, new bathrooms and renovated homes; people to be supported in their homes. The Willows is a little special: it is a sheltered housing scheme. Chorley Community Housing said that it would invest heavily in the scheme and that, in fact, it would be not just a sheltered scheme, but an extra care scheme, which makes sense for Chorley, because there are only three sheltered accommodation schemes operating in the whole borough.
Hon. Members can therefore understand how important the Willows is to us and to the people who live there—it is their home. They felt that it was the right thing to vote for Chorley Community Housing, but they now feel that it was the wrong thing. What has Chorley Community Housing done, through and with the board of Adactus, the parent company? The chief executive of Adactus told everybody how well he would look after the people in those houses or in the sheltered scheme, only for us to find that people had gone down there—there was some spare accommodation—and been told that it was going to close.
That is a sad situation, which has happened within two years. It is totally unacceptable for Chorley Community Housing, through its Adactus board, even to consider closure. I have to tell them: they have got it wrong. What they should be doing is investing the money that they have promised and putting the extra care in. Closure is not acceptable to the House, not acceptable to the people of Chorley and certainly not acceptable to the people who live there, who call it home. They should not be bullied and intimidated. Hon. Members should beware when such companies come along and make a lot of promises.
It is important that we think about those in every area with no roofs over their heads and no homes, and no more so than in the Christmas period. When we think about people who are living rough on the streets, we can be thankful that the Churches and the charities will play their part to give them shelter and food over the Christmas period. However, in the case of Chorley—a wealthy community and a great place to live—it is absurd that we have a shortage of social housing and that, somehow, the council’s responsibility to provide more is not taken seriously. In fact, the council has section 106 money sat there, not being spent, that could be used to provide social housing. It is wrong and it is—how shall say this? I could make it a lot stronger, but all I will say is that it is totally regrettable.
“Criminal” is another word; it is regrettable that Chorley council will not do right by the people who need that support and shelter, especially as the money is there.
Within that context, people need jobs. We have gone into a recession. All the signs are that we are now coming out of it, but that usually brings another body blow, which is further increases in redundancies. The one thing that we have to learn from the recession is that we must not be reliant on the service and financial industries. We have to reinvest in manufacturing. We have to make this country great once again, so that when we export around the world, we are exporting products that were made and manufactured in this country. It is not too late. There are cynics who say, “It’s too late. We can’t put it back,” but we can put it back. We have the skills, the technology and the know-how. We must not miss this great opportunity to ensure that our manufacturing is made great again.
Nowhere is that more true than at Leyland Trucks, a big employer in the area and a great, historical name. Quite rightly, Leyland Trucks should be looking for support as well. I know that the company will get a new training grant—that is welcome—and there are talks about the hybrid truck. We talk about Ministers riding round in their Japanese-built hybrid cars, with no British jobs involved and no British components; but in this case we have a hybrid truck, developed by Leyland for the benefit of the climate, to which we should give real support.
I ask hon. Members: do you know what the tragedy of this truck is? Leyland Trucks wants to get partners to trial the truck, and this Government are a shareholder of a big company called Royal Mail, which uses a lot of trucks. Royal Mail has been asked to trial the hybrid truck, but believe it or not, Royal Mail has said no, it does not want to trial it. That is absolutely absurd. We have Royal Mail and a British truck manufacturer leading the world in clean technology with a hybrid truck, and we find that, as a shareholder, we are not putting the pressure on. I know that my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will take that on board and rattle the cages of Royal Mail, and certainly the Secretary of State’s cage too. It is important that if we have a good product, we use it, develop it and export it.
I do go on about our armed forces and how brave they are—I touched on that at the beginning of my remarks—and about the tragedy of what is happening. The Royal British Legion has launched an election manifesto. I know that a lot of MPs have signed up to it—I dare say that a lot of candidates will as well—and it is important that we register our support. The Royal British Legion is calling for an independent legal advisory service for bereaved armed forces families and an independent advisory committee on military deaths to give the families a voice. It is also issuing a call to keep the armed forces compensation scheme under continual review, to bring all single and family accommodation up to the highest standards, to introduce health screening for all service personnel and to introduce more effective prevention and treatment strategies to tackle mental health problems, drinking and drug abuse, as well as calling for support after people leave the armed forces. That fits in with the convention that we expect to see followed. Quite rightly, the Royal British Legion is championing the rights of our armed forces. It is only right that we put support for that on the record.
My constituency is both urban and rural, and there are farms there. Farming matters, not only to our community but to all the other countries around the world. Local farming is important to us all, and reducing the number of miles that our food has to travel will make a significant improvement to climate change. Having local products on sale in local supermarkets can make a real difference. Let us stop buying from all around the world. There is nothing wrong with that—I believe in trade—but it seems daft that carrots grown in Lancashire should be taken to Lincolnshire, and that Lincolnshire carrots should come to Lancashire. We could stop all that. Supermarkets such as Booths, a good quality local supermarket, buy regionally to support our local farmers, and that is what we need the great national supermarkets to do. They do a lot of talking, but talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words, and I expect action from the major supermarkets.
The dairy farmers have also had it rough, and we need to ensure that they get the right price for their products. Setting the right price at the farm gate will ensure that farming has a future in the UK. There is also the question of labelling, which matters to me and to most people, because we care about the welfare of livestock such as chickens reared for egg production, poultry reared as broilers, and beef. We expect the highest possible welfare standards for that livestock. There is nothing wrong with that. We must not allow poor welfare standards to be imported. Any imports should also meet the welfare standards that we expect our farmers to observe. Anyone who wants to export their products to this country should match the welfare standards that we set for our farmers. The nitrate scheme is another area that we need to look at. A lot of pressure has been put on farmers over a period of time, and that matter needs to be looked at and reconsidered.
There was a tragedy in my constituency when a young schoolgirl, Jessica Knight, was in the park at the wrong time and was savagely attacked by a maniac with a knife. She was severely stabbed and is now scarred all over. She survived—that was the good part—but her life has almost been destroyed and her family have suffered as a result of that awful attack. Compensation was paid, and of course it is the taxpayer who pays it. She received £18,000 for what she had gone through, and for the lifelong suffering ahead. That worries me, because it is impossible to judge, so soon after the attack, what she will need. There should have been an interim payment, followed by further payments when we can judge what her requirements are.
We need to look at the compensation scheme. We take away the assets of drug dealers and give them to the police or the Home Office, but why do we not put criminals’ assets into the compensation scheme? In that way, we could pay real compensation to constituents such as Jessica Knight. She has suffered so much, through no fault of her own. She was simply in the park at the wrong time. I hope that that can be looked at.
Another issue that I want to talk about is allotments. Local authorities have waiting lists for allotments, but they never take them seriously. That is certainly true of Chorley, where more than 200 people are waiting for an allotment, including the mayor herself. Let us take this challenge to the councils. People have a right to an allotment, and the councils are failing the people, including those in Chorley.
Thank you. It is important that we take on those councils.
My next point is about a UK border force. We should put such a force in place and support it. People come into the UK illegally, and drugs and guns come in and women are trafficked over our borders. We need to put a border force in place. Severely injured service personnel come back from Afghanistan who do not want to give up their uniform. They might not be able to go back into theatre, but we could use them to set up a border force if they wished. That would make a real difference, and give those people a future. They would be able to keep their uniform and help to protect our borders. We ought to look into that as a matter of urgency.
Another issue that I am greatly concerned about is the child care voucher scheme. It has been widely welcomed, but it is delivered by private companies. How well are they doing? When I asked that question, the Minister who responded told me that the Government do not know the answer because they do not administer the scheme. That is an absurd position to have got ourselves into. Ministers should be on top of their brief. They should be pursuing those companies for their failures. People are waiting up to 12 months to find out whether their child care voucher payments have been made. It is not good enough, and Ministers cannot shy away from ensuring that those companies deliver. This is taxpayers’ money. I hope that that matter can be taken on board as well.
My next topic is the great question of electrification. It was good to hear the pre-Budget report, and the announcement that the Preston to Manchester line is to be electrified, because between the two lies Chorley. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) will benefit from it as well; it will make a real difference. We have overcrowding. We will get new, faster rolling stock, and there will be an increased ability for the trains to stop not only at Chorley but at Adlington. At the moment, we have the absurd situation of trains not stopping because of overcrowding. The answer is to put more trains on, and that is something that Network Rail and the train operators need to consider. Electrification will give us a lot more options. We are also getting the new station at Buckshaw village, with the new park-and-ride scheme. Electrification will mean cleaner, greener trains. We can build on that development, and I am pleased that the Government have listened to my campaign and are delivering on it. I know that my hon. Friend will agree with me on that.
The Coppull railway station on the west coast main line was closed under Beeching. It is now time for that village to be reconnected, through the re-opening of that station.
I cannot disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a lot of room for improvement, especially in the standard of rolling stock. After electrification, our rolling stock could be handed over and used elsewhere on the train network. It is not old; it is just too small and cannot carry enough passengers. The major line between Preston and Manchester needs longer, faster trains with greater capacity.
My next point is about bus routes. The county council has been looking into them, and we have now lost the direct link that existed for a long time between Blackburn and Chorley. The buses used to come along Eaves lane and pick people up at the bottom of Great Knowley. That bus now goes via the hospital, which is good, but a lot of people in Lower Wheelton and other areas can no longer use that connection. When bus routes are changed, we need to talk to the people who use them to find out which routes would be the most beneficial, rather than asking someone who sits in an office in a white tower somewhere who says, “I think this is the best route because I looked at it on a map.” That is not good enough. We need to empower local people so that they can say which bus routes they want, and where they should go.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is the season of good will, and I wish you and all the staff of the House all the best at Christmas. Let us have a better year next year in the House. I look forward to that, and I wish all hon. Members on both sides of the House all the best for Christmas and the new year.
Like my very good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), I shall not be standing at the next general election, so this could be the last time I participate in one of these debates. My knowledge of procedure might be rather shaky, but presumably there will be some kind of debate at the end of the Parliament that I shall be able to take part in. Perhaps I can look that up.
I should like to follow my hon. Friend’s inspired example, although I shall not be changing the ring tone on my mobile. I shall, however, make a point of ringing her when she gets her new tune. I shall hope to hear her dulcet tones, rather than Rod Stewart, who I think is a rather aged act these days. I would rather hear my hon. Friend than that song. I shall follow her example in making a point not about local issues—although I think that it was Tip O’Neill who said “All politics is local”—but about national and international issues. I particularly want to put on record my views on Britain’s place in the world, and its interest in the European Union.
I recently read an article that made the point that there are now a large number of regional groupings in the world. South America, for example, has the organisation called Mercosur or Mercado Común del Sur in Spanish—I think it is Spanish, although it may be Portuguese. It is the group of south American nations originally started by Argentina and Brazil, mainly because there was a potential arms race going on between them, but it eventually developed into a trade, investment and, ultimately, democratic group. Any member that wants to join has to be a bona fide democracy. That group of south American countries was originally based on the inspiration of the European Union. There is also ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
I totally agree. I think that Mexico is now considering joining, along with Venezuela, which is an associate member.
Returning to east Asia, there is ASEAN, and south Asia has the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation. The Pacific has APEC—the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group—while Africa has the African Union, and there is now talk of changing the Arab League into an Arab Union. All these, originally inspired by the European Union, are essentially concentrating on issues involving security, trade and, in many cases, democracy. The world is breaking up into regional blocs based on continents. That indicates the clear necessity for a medium-sized European country of our kind to be involved in its bloc—in our case, the European Union. Without that, we would simply be diminished, and would have much greater difficulty in making our voice heard in the world.
That puts into context the backward-looking nature of a party like the UK Independence party, for example, which wants us to pull out of the European Union. Thank God all three major parties in this Parliament want us to stay in the EU; there may be differing emphases from different parts of the spectrum, but none the less, that is a common wish. I certainly hope that we will never, ever think about pulling out of the EU.
I notice that someone—the Foreign Secretary, no less—quoted Baroness Thatcher giving a clear indication of what it meant to a country to be part of the European Union. He quoted her as saying:
“The Community opens windows on the world for us that since the war have been closing”.
The Foreign Secretary’s response was:
“I never thought I would say this but Mrs Thatcher was prescient and right.”
Many of us believe that Mrs. Thatcher was prescient and right in many respects, so it was interesting to find that particular quotation in praise of her.
We all know that there are many detailed things wrong with the EU, and things go particularly wrong when it tries to get into what Douglas Hurd, now Lord Hurd, described as the “nooks and crannies” of British life. That is part of the problem, as it becomes unpopular in dealing with all those detailed matters in a rather ham-fisted way—and the Government then apply gold plating. I trust that when a Conservative Government eventually—I hope—take office next year, they will be able to deal with those issues. I am sure that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench will do their best to bring some common sense to those controversial areas.
The European Union is at its best when it is dealing with larger global matters, whether those be trade or, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) mentioned, climate change and the environment, and it is making a sensible fist of trying to take the lead globally on such issues. In some ways—although on energy, despite many efforts, it is has not yet got its act together—the EU is way ahead of China and America on those issues, particularly in dealing with civil and military actions all around the world by backing up its actions with European resources and in dealing with foreign policy issues. In that area, Europe has a role and it is important that it play to its full strength. To do that properly, it must first of all get its act together.
It was apparent to me during a Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Washington this year that President Obama was not visibly impressed by what he found in Prague when the European nations met together and discussed issues in a rather squabbling and disagreeable sort of way. He was not impressed, and I gather he said that he would not come back until Europe was more united on some of the issues that he was concerned about. I thought that that was a reasonable comment from an incoming President.
Equally, we must be less subservient to the United States. A stronger voice from a Europe that is less subservient to America helps both America and ourselves. Still on the subject of the relatively new President Obama, nothing was more embarrassing than seeing all those European Prime Ministers scrabbling to be the first through the door to the oval office to speak to the President or Secretary of State or whatever. It is embarrassing: it embarrasses America and it does us no good either. It will be much better if Europe can get its act together and present a clear and distinctive point of view, to which America will listen. On trade, for example, Europe has a point of view—a united point of view—and America is forced to listen, at least much more so than with some of the foreign policy initiatives of recent times.
On Iraq, for example, Europe was not united, and there was a visible divide between countries such as Britain and Spain on the one hand and Germany and France on the other. America still went ahead. We hoped that we would exert some influence on the decision of America, but we had no influence whatever. I personally voted against the war in Iraq, because at the time I did not see that the weapons of mass destruction were any threat to this country, even if they existed; I knew no more than anyone else, but I thought they posed no threat to this country.
It seems to me that if a country presents no threat to the UK, we should not invade it; it is as simple as that. We are now seeing what is coming out of the Chilcot inquiry, and it is astonishing to me that that fundamental mistake was made, way back in the early part of this century. We are paying the price for that now, and the Government are paying a price for the diversion of the time and effort of the Prime Minister and the people from the legitimate concerns about reforming public services and similar matters in this country.
The Government paid a heavy price for that elementary foreign policy mistake, and the truth is that we gained no extra pressure or influence as a result of what we did. There was a point at which the Americans called the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, but they are now back in favour. The Germans voted against approving the Iraq war, and they are back in favour, while Britain has no greater standing with America than before. That is something that this country has to get right strategically: we must understand the role of Europe in maximising the power and influence we can have in the world, while at the same time distancing ourselves and being less subservient to America, which, fundamentally, pursues its own interests.
There are areas where Europe can play—and indeed already is playing—some sort of role. At the recent Council, for example, Europe produced a statement on east Jerusalem that was prodding America, which in my view has been rather tame on this subject, into taking some sort of further action, adopting a tougher line with Israel. Secondly, on Iran, the European E3 plus 3 has proposed a series of sanctions over timing, and it is now clear that a sanctions regime is necessary to try to get the Iranian regime to see any sense, to abide by its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and more generally to abide by international law, which it is breaking. If we can get some support from China and Russia in this instance, we will have an effect, and Europe is playing a role in achieving that.
Things are clearly much more difficult with Afghanistan. Whatever we do, America has taken the lead and there is very little we can do to influence American policy. However, as a wide coalition is now dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, the sense of the policy, now coming through more strongly from European public opinion than from American public opinion, is that in the end there will have to be some sort of negotiation or political deal. It is not possible to achieve a military victory alone, and it is not possible to rely on military progress alone, although I support the current surge as a necessary part of a long and difficult process of securing something more stable in that country. Europe is clearly beginning to play a role, even though I accept that America is in the lead on this matter.
Europe must pay more attention to its immediate neighbours, particularly Russia, which, after all, is partly a European nation. I do not know whether Members saw a wonderful television programme called “The Art of Russia”, broadcast recently, in which Russians said, “We are neither European nor Asian: we are simply Russian.” That is true. Russia, plus the countries that surround it—Belarus, Ukraine and the “stans”, for instance—is an enormously important part of our geopolitical sphere. If Britain and Europe together could help to bring it more into the context of European policy, they would play a huge part in stabilising the world, enabling America, Europe and Russia to act together. Of course that would be difficult; of course there would be all sorts of drawbacks. Not every initiative prompts a response. None the less, I think that we should try.
Let me end by saying that we need a strong Britain and a strong Europe, despite all the disadvantages that that may involve.
As the hon. Gentleman is about to end his speech, may I say to him—bearing in mind the comments that he has made, with which I entirely agree—that this House will greatly miss his sagacity and experience after the next election?
I feel that I ought to sit down at that point, with the hon. Gentleman’s praise ringing in my ears. Splendid! I am very grateful to him.
We need a strong Europe to play a role, and within that role we need Britain to play a significant part. However, it will only be able to play such a part if it has a more coherent view of the policy that it can follow and the position that it can take.
I join others in wishing everyone a very happy Christmas and new year.
In my brief contribution, I want to talk about education and the potential for us to offer many more people, in the medium and long term, the opportunity to enjoy much happier Christmases and new years. I refer not just to mainstream education, but the range of complementary policies that need to be introduced in certain areas to add value to the substantial investment that has been made in our mainstream education system. New Labour’s mantra in 1997 was “Education, education, education”, and rightly so, because education is the route out of poverty for so many people. It is also a route to self-fulfilment. Above all, it is the driver for achievement of the skills base that we need in order to secure the public services and industry that will enable us to survive in the modern economy.
My constituency and the neighbouring black country constituencies provided object lessons, being classic examples of areas requiring that approach. Historically they have been manufacturing constituencies, but the closure of heavy industries during the 1980s and 1990s consigned a generation with relatively low educational qualifications to long-term unemployment. There was a danger that a new generation would grow up in households that had never known employment, or education and the aspirations that go with it. It was for areas such as mine that Labour’s priorities were so important in 1997, when unemployment was higher, there was more poverty, and educational achievement was lower—much lower—than the national average.
I am indebted to a project on poverty conducted by students at St Michaels school—which is in an area neighbouring my constituency and yours, Madam Deputy Speaker—which highlighted some of the issues confronting people in my constituency. I hope to present the result to the Minister during the next parliamentary Session.
We have seen an enormous amount of investment in education in local schools. It has risen by some 50 per cent. in real terms since 1997, and that has been reflected in achievement. The number of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs has almost doubled. The number at key stage 1 achieving level 5 in English and maths has risen by a third, and the number achieving that level at key stage 2 in English, maths and science has risen by two thirds. Meanwhile, the number of students entering higher education has risen by nearly 27 per cent.—but although those are significant improvements that reflect an enormous change in the aspirations and quality of life of those who have succeeded, our area still lags well behind the average in the national league tables of education authorities. It is important to focus on the extra problems that prevent areas such as the black country from attaining the higher educational achievements that are found in other areas.
I know of the work that the Government have done. I want to pinpoint one or two areas—one of them in my constituency—which provide a lesson that could be used in other areas. My constituency contains an estate that stood out according to all the normal indices of deprivation: the Tibbington estate, or the “Tibby”, as it is affectionately called. It is among the worst 1 per cent. in terms of poverty and low educational achievement, and unemployment is well above the average even for an area with above-average unemployment.
Three years ago, the Safer and Stronger Communities project secured three years of funding to set up a project involving the use of local people with aspirations and a commitment to improving their area to act as mentors for people on the estate. Over those three years they have helped some 400 families with a range of support mechanisms, but above all they have provided access to both intermediate and higher education for a number of people. The most significant statistic that I have found is the information that 41 received bursaries for colleges and universities. That would have been unthought of before the implementation of the project. That funding is coming to an end, and successor funding must be considered if the fragile growth in regeneration in the area is to be sustained. On Monday I was pleased to hear the announcement of the Connecting Communities project, which will enable 20 young citizens, under a successor scheme, to be recruited to train and implement environmental and other initiatives on the estate, continuing the work on raising aspirations that has already been done.
I want to emphasise the importance of that development. Given the deterioration in the economy, areas of that kind, which were beginning to emerge from years of recession, are obviously more fragile than some others. It is vital not to throw away all the progress that has been made on the Tibbington estate. I am confident that the work being done by Skills Link and the Murray Hall Community Trust will not be wasted. There is considerable evidence that when on one estate it is possible to recruit a critical mass of people who are committed to improving their local environment and bettering themselves, that commitment is transmitted to other people.
There is another area of policy that needs to be acted on if we are to make the most of our investment in mainstream education. I have been working with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and City university, on incorporating speech and language screening in the educational process, so as to secure the specific support needed for certain categories of young people who fail to make the most of education because of inherent speech and language difficulties.
These difficulties can emerge for all sorts of reasons. Young people’s home background might hinder them from acquiring normal levels of comprehension or articulacy, or they might have health problems or particular conditions that hold them back. Identifying and addressing the causes of these difficulties is a specialist skill, which has not until now been fully incorporated in the education system. Work to address them is being done by organisations such as the RCSLT and City university, and I wish to highlight the work being done at City university by Professor Joffe and the ELCISS—enhancing language and communication in secondary school—programme. It has conducted a project in Redbridge and in Barking and Dagenham, training teaching assistants to identify pupils with communications problems and the policies needed to address them. It is too early to assess fully the outcomes of this programme, but all the evidence so far is that comprehension, speaking and confidence is improving, and antisocial and disruptive behaviour is dropping, as a result.
There is a similar, and much-needed, programme for the criminal justice system. All too often in the past, young people with speech and language difficulties became disruptive and alienated from the education process because they could not access education in the same way as their fellow students. In time, many of them became alienated from mainstream society—an alienation that often manifested itself in criminal behaviour. It is no coincidence that 80 per cent. of the young people in the criminal justice system have been identified as having speech and language difficulties.
Interestingly, Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, was recruited to this cause by a prison governor saying to him, “Whoever else you take out of my prison, keep the speech and language therapist here.” If the young people who go through the youth justice system do not receive the education to give them the confidence and abilities to get back into mainstream society once they are released, all we are doing is recycling criminality. Speech and language therapy has an important role to play in this, and I compliment the RCSLT for providing the template for support—and indeed the support itself—that is required in terms of screening and other mechanisms.
I should also briefly mention my visit to Rampton, the secure hospital in Nottinghamshire where there is a team of speech and language therapists dealing with some of the most difficult and challenging patients, and pay tribute to the work that they have done. I was taken around by a patient who had acquired the ability and self-confidence to talk about his problems, and to escort people around the hospital explaining what the staff and patients did and how they dealt with different problems. That is a reflection of the Rampton staff’s commitment and the valuable work that they do to improve the quality of life of others.
Projects such as these are not just a frill; they are not just additions bolted on to our system. If we are to get full value from all the money that the Government have invested in education, they are essential. That is because we can only go so far by providing good schools, attractive buildings and inspirational teachers and head teachers, because there will always be groups of people with special problems that need to be addressed. There will also always be communities with no history of participation in education, and changing that culture and level of aspiration will complement all the good schools and inspirational teaching that we have provided.
I ask the Minister to take this point away with her, because money spent on improving young people’s education at the earliest stage in their development will make huge savings, both by reducing the number of people in the criminal justice system and by enhancing educational qualifications, and therefore the skills base of our country, which we need in order to survive in the modern world.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), but I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) and for Orpington (Mr. Horam). We will miss their presence in Parliament. They have both made serious contributions to this House over the years that they have been Members. I started my ministerial political career with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, when she was a junior Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I was a ministerial special adviser. I have therefore worked with her closely over a number of years, and I know that she has made a terrific contribution to this House.
I vie with my hon. Friend, however, in representing one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country. While she was exhorting everybody to go and spend their Christmas in the villages and towns of Devon, I can say that the honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds look particularly picturesque at this time of year, especially if it snows, and I encourage everybody to come and spend time in the Cotswolds over Christmas.
In the few minutes that are available to me, I shall concentrate not on singing “The twelve days of Christmas”, but on discussing the 12 years of this Labour Government and how that has affected my constituency. I have to say that it will not be a flattering account.
In the first year of Labour, we witnessed the beginning of the move away from local authority power, with the introduction of the regional development agencies. The South West of England Regional Development Agency had the wisdom not to appoint a single member from Gloucestershire to its board. It is therefore no surprise to me that Gloucestershire has ever since lost out in RDA grants. The RDAs are not particularly good at objectively stating how they come to their decisions, and they tend to make inconsistent decisions between themselves. I therefore look forward to the coming of a Conservative Government, who will bring about changes in the RDAs.
In the second year of Labour, there was the refusal to fund what I have dubbed the missing link. One can drive on a dual carriageway all the way from Palermo in Sicily in southern Italy to Perth in the middle of Scotland, except for a little missing link in my constituency, joining the M4 to the M5. Although I have campaigned consistently since becoming a Member of Parliament for that link to be built, it never has been, and the cost of doing so is ever rising, while there are more deaths and there is more congestion. I urge this Government—or perhaps I shall soon be needing to urge another Government of a better political hue—to build it.
The third year of Labour gave hope to many of my constituents, because the Government published a rural White Paper. At first, we thought they were a sinner who had repented, because although they were not known for helping the rural areas, it seemed to promise some real hope for the future. Unfortunately, that was very quickly followed by the fourth year of Labour, when the foot and mouth crisis took hold throughout the country. Many of my farmers were very severely hit and, unfortunately, they are still reminded of that as the Government are now saying that they must bear the cost of any future such outbreaks. My farmers are extremely worried about that because the Government do not have control over what may cause foot and mouth in the first place, as we saw from the outbreak in the Government’s own research institute in Surrey.
The fifth year of Labour gave my county its biggest ever increase in council tax. An increase of 8.3 per cent. across the country spawned a rise—this is the correct figure—of more than 50 per cent. in the police precept for the county in that year. The sixth year of Labour brought the beginning of the regional fire control centre, to be built in Taunton. That is a massively unpopular enterprise, given that Gloucestershire has one of the best working tri-centre control rooms, in Quedgeley, just outside Gloucester, where the police, fire and ambulance services work superbly together. Having seen the benefits of that, the Government decided in their wisdom to build a regional control centre. That was initially expected to cost £100 million, but this Government are so incompetent at managing finance that the latest estimate is that it will cost £1.5 billion. Why they could not have just left things alone when they were working perfectly properly, I do not know.
The seventh year of Labour gave us the regional spatial strategies, despite my best efforts on behalf of the Opposition to oppose them. I was told by the Government, who were putting them through Committee—one can see this if one looks through Hansard—that they were a creature of the Deputy Prime Minister. In other words, the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was desperately trying to get control of the rural areas and, in particular, of planning in those areas, and so he invented the regional spatial strategies. I am delighted that my colleagues who are shadowing the Department for Communities and Local Government will scrap them, and I hope very much that they have the opportunity to do so. These strategies are an unnecessary and unwanted tier of local government.
The eighth year of Labour saw the introduction of a most shambolic piece of legislation: the Hunting Act 2004, which came into force on 18 February 2005. It wasted more than 700 hours of time in this House. Whatever one’s views on hunting, one must say that the process has led to a shambolic and unworkable Act, which is unsatisfactory.
In the ninth year of Labour, the Government’s action weakened health care provision across the Cotswolds. In that year, Fairford hospital closed because of the severe financial constraints imposed on Costwold and Vale primary care trust. Gloucestershire county council’s health overview and scrutiny committee noted that the move
“has had a detrimental effect on the health and experience of the local residents”.
Far more seriously in that year was the Government’s imposed merger of the excellent Gloucestershire ambulance trust with Wiltshire and Avon’s ambulance trusts. I warned at the time that that would cost lives and I take no pleasure in saying that it did so. It delivered a poorer service, but I am glad to say that because of the pressure that my colleagues in the county and I have brought on that trust, it is beginning at long last—several years later—to improve its service. My best Christmas wish to my constituents—in fact, this is four years overdue—is that the long-promised new hospital in Moreton-in-Marsh will come to fruition in 2010.
The flood damage in the 10th year of Labour was, of course, not the Government’s fault. I cannot lay the blame for that at their door, much as I would like to do so—I am sure that they can control all acts of God! What I can blame them for is their lack of action. Some 300 homes in my constituency were flooded, as were several schools, doctors’ surgeries and other institutions. Two years on from the horrific floods that hit Gloucestershire in 2007, I still do not have total confidence that the same thing would not happen again. Some work has been carried out, but I am not totally confident that the incidents that brought about the cutting off of Mythe water works, which left many thousands of people without water, and that almost took out the substation in Gloucester—that would have left 500,000 people without electricity—would not be caused again.
In the 11th year of Labour came a decision to exclude the Swindon to Kemble railway line doubling, which is much needed and would be a very beneficial piece of infrastructure improvement at a relatively reasonable cost. I am glad to say that as a result of the pressure that I have been able to apply, Network Rail still hopes to include that in its improvement projects and it has until the end of the year to come up with the full costing for the scheme. I hope that, through a bit of careful accounting, we have managed to find within the region the funding to do that. Again, it would be very good news for my constituents if that were able to be delivered in 2010.
Also in the 11th year of Labour came the devastating closure of 12 post offices in my constituency. I ran a massive campaign to try to oppose those 12 closures, which were completely daft and without foundation. One of the post offices turned over £500,000 in the month in which it was closed—despite that, it was still closed. The daft thing about the decision is that in order to use a main post office people across more than 100 square miles now have to be funnelled into the centre of Cirencester, all making extra car journeys and having difficulty parking. It was one of the daftest decisions since Beeching. One Labour Member has complained today about the Beeching cuts, wanting the station in his area to be reopened, and I am sure that the same thing will happen over some of these post offices. As well as considering all the closures in my constituency, we need to consider the national situation. In 12 years, Labour has delivered 200 fewer rural schools since it came to power and 384 fewer police stations in the shires. Worst of all, 50 public houses are closing a week at the moment because of Labour’s high taxation system.
In the 12th year of this Government, Labour’s recession has meant that Renishaw, a leading plc in my constituency, sadly had to make 308 people redundant in Wotton-under-Edge, Stonehouse and Woodchester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). That was a tragedy for those involved, and I hope that 2010 will bring better news for them and they will be able to find jobs again. The Cotswolds has been badly hit by unemployment; the area had the 23rd highest rise in the number of claimants of all the 646 constituencies, and it had the 61st highest rise since 1997, when this Government came to power.
I wish to finish by discussing two local matters. At Prime Minister’s questions, I raised with the Prime Minister the issue of the funding of the further stage for the National Star college. That college provides probably the finest residential training for disabled people in this country, and it is an exemplar throughout the world. The Prime Minister sent me to see the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs, who promised me that he would urgently look into the matter. The net result was that the 13th Labour college was funded, but not the star college. The Learning and Skills Council produced criteria that the star college was never able to meet, because it was national by its nature, not local or even regional. I hope that the Government will find funding for that college. If they cannot, I hope that an incoming Government will do so. There is a desperate shortage of specialist residential training colleges for disabled people in this country. As I say, the college is an exemplar throughout the world and it reflects how this country treats its disabled people. I hope that the Government will be able to find the money.
The final issue that I wish to raise will affect all Members of this House next year: rating revaluation. Many Members of Parliament will have already been lobbied by businesses in their constituency that will find that their rates will be hugely increased next year. That comes in the middle of a recession when many of those businesses, particularly the small, rural ones, are already suffering. That seems to be a crass time to introduce rating revaluation.
I wish to draw the House’s attention to a particular quirk in the rating revaluation: the way in which petrol stations are rated. They are rated on their turnover. I cannot think of a more daft way to rate an industry, because that in effect taxes success: a property tax that taxes success! The rating system was never in business to tax success; it was in business to tax the size of a property. Ironically, Tesco has managed to get a cap on its turnover for rating purposes of £1 million. In other words, it is all very well to tax small petrol stations on their turnover, but the big ones are getting away with making huge profits and not being taxed on them. I have no problem with Tesco’s making profits in its petrol stations—I wish it well in that—but I want to ensure that all the small petrol retailers in my constituency stay open so that they can provide a service to my constituents.
In my constituency over the past 12 years of Labour, there has been a catalogue of shops closing, pubs closing, hospitals closing, libraries closing, magistrates courts closing and ambulance service mergers. In short, the Government have brought the country to its knees. They have weakened our standing internationally and, as far as the people of the Cotswolds are concerned, have shown a disgraceful attitude to the rural way of life. The recent pre-Budget statement brought home what a parlous state this country’s economy is in. As countries such as Turkey, France, Germany and the United States are crawling out of recession, but we are still in recession—with very high rates of unemployment, as well as high numbers of youngsters without a job and not in training, which is such a waste of talent—I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, all Members and all the staff of the House a very happy Christmas. Political hostilities will end over Christmas, but come the new year they will be back with a vengeance and I hope that we will get a change of Government.
I shall try to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and the Christmas cheer that so obviously emanated from it.
Over the past 18 months we have lived through a financial and economic crisis of international capitalism that is unprecedented since the great depression of the ’30s. Historically unmatched levels of state intervention have been required to stabilise the western economy, which at many times has stood on the verge of collapse. How ironic it is that the agency of government has done the rescuing—an idea that is anathema to all those neo-liberal free-marketeers who took as their guiding mantra Ronald Reagan’s comment that government is not the solution, but the problem.
The Government’s intervention has crossed the political divide. George Bush’s right-wing Government nationalised the two giant US mortgage market companies and in Britain the Labour Government have made bank interventions that have so far cost us about £140 billion, which is equivalent to more than 10 per cent. of our GDP and more than will be spent on the national health service this year.
The state interventions have ended any supremacy claimed by those ideological fanatics who previously argued that unrestrained free markets were the answer to all economic problems. They have spent the past 30 years seeking to extend the market into more and more areas of our life and have also promoted the domination of finance over all other sectors of our economy. Yet just one year later, the same free market zealots in the world of politics and their friends in their media now want to take the axe to the public sector, allegedly to address the problems faced by the economy.
At this point we should ask ourselves three questions. First, how did a financial collapse that brought such damage to the wider economy suddenly become the fault of such people as nurses, teachers, carers and other working people? Secondly, why should the majority of the population suffer, as they will if public services are severely cut? Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, will severe cuts help solve the economic problems that we face?
I want to state that the debate on economic recovery has wrongly and harmfully become dominated by those who argue that only by cutting public services can the issue of growth and the national debt be addressed. That has now become accepted wisdom; it is the received orthodoxy. However, it was once the received medical orthodoxy that the bleeding of patients was a necessary step to recovery. Thankfully, that orthodoxy was overthrown due to the experience of its deadly effects. It therefore needs to be said somewhere, loud and clear, that national debt is the symptom, not the cause, of the recession. To seek to address the debt by attacking Government expenditure fails to tackle the real causes of the economic crisis that have created a deficit.
By engaging in the cuts agenda, either now or in the next few years, we will cause long-term damage or risk a Japanese-style lost decade—or, as some economists are calling it, a zombie economy. Such an economic situation would hit the public finances even more dramatically, leaving us with even larger debts. Instead of the obsession with cuts we need a growth agenda that will allow Government revenues to rise and unemployment to fall and that will, in turn, reduce the debt.
As such an approach breaks with the consensus that has emerged on cutting public services, it may be helpful to put the current levels of national debt into an historical and international context. Government debt, which is at 55 per cent. of GDP in this financial year, is estimated to peak at 78 per cent. in 2014. Although that figure is high, it is far from unprecedented historically. According to the recent House of Commons paper “Background to the 2009 Pre-Budget Report”, Government debt was more than 100 per cent. of GDP every year from 1945 until 1963. The same paper adds:
“UK debt would still be below that of Italy, Japan and the US, and broadly similar to that of France and Germany”
at the end of 2010.
Of course, the national debt should be reduced in the future, not least as interest repayments soak up vital resources that could be better spent on schools, hospitals and elsewhere, but contrary to the claim of those on the right, increasing the deficit has been necessary during the worldwide recession—especially as it was so deep. I noticed that William Keegan explained it in The Observer in the following way:
“the large deficit…is not the problem: it is an integral part of the solution. It is the reason why we have not experienced the kind of full-scale 1930s-style depression which would have been on the cards without drastic fiscal action.”
Furthermore, anyone seriously wishing to address the debt rather than to pursue outdated and ineffective ideological goals might first want to look at how the debt has come about. Were they to do that, they would find that it is the consequence of three things: declining Government revenues; the large bank bail-outs, which amount to more than 10 per cent. of GDP; and, to a much lesser degree, an increase in Government expenditure. Treasury figures estimate an increase in public sector net debt of 18.9 per cent. of GDP between April 2008 and April 2010, excluding the bank bail-outs.
The majority of the increase in the debt has been caused by a fall in Government receipts. As the House of Commons paper “The outlook for the public finances” explains, it is normal during a recession for revenues to fall. Similarly, Government expenditure has also risen, as expected in a recession. That inevitable rise in Government expenditures is due to the so-called “automatic” processes that take place in a recession, such as, for example, the fact that we see more benefits paid out. However, only a minority of the deficit has been caused by the increase in Government expenditure, so I would argue that the calls to cut the public sector display economic incoherence. As Professor David Blanchflower, former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, told the Opposition:
“Cutting public spending in a recession is a really bad idea.”
I urge even those people on the Government Benches who are tempted by it to reject it.
So, what is the way forward? What practical polices do we need to address the vital issues of investment and growth? First, we need the Government to use their majority holdings in a number of banks to force the banks to increase investment and lending levels to businesses and to families to revive the economy and housing market. I am one of those who think that there is an element of gutlessness in the way that our Government have dealt with the banks, but we may come on to that later.
Secondly, in those areas where market failure is greatest and private investment has collapsed the most, the Government need to step in and invest directly themselves. Large-scale state investment in transport and housing in such areas would be economically as well as socially useful.
Thirdly, in the really long term, we desperately need to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on finance and develop the industries of the future. The UK has the potential to generate something like 400,000 jobs in green industries, but to fulfil that potential we need state-led investment on a green new deal that would be of tremendous immediate economic benefit and of long-term environmental benefit.
Fourthly, we can help reflate the economy through increasing levels of consumption by putting money into the pockets of those most likely to spend it. The last 30 years of neo-liberalism have witnessed a smaller and smaller proportion of the economy going to wages. If the Government were to reverse that by raising taxation on the super-rich and then handing over exactly the same amount of money to ordinary families, overall consumer spending would rise, helping the economy to move out of recession.
Finally, for those who advocate cuts, there are areas of public spending that can be cut. We do not need to renew Trident and, although I used to support them, I no longer think that we need ID cards. By cutting those projects, tens of billions of pounds could be saved at a stroke.
The package that I have outlined is only a small example of what could be done. It would be a popular message—I know that sometimes Governments do not like to be “populist”, but never mind—and it would deal with the debt and the much larger issue of restoring economic growth.
The alternative to going for growth is a cuts agenda, but cuts are not savings. They would remove demand from the economy and the recession would worsen as the negative multiplier effect kicked in. On this, we need to learn the lessons of history. Roosevelt announced his new deal in 1933, and things went well for three years after the banks were regulated and there was a big increase in public spending. Then, afraid of public debt and under pressure from the right, he began to cut, sending the economy back into a recession from which it did not recover until just before the second world war.
We can also learn from countries that are a bit closer to Britain than America. If we look just across the Irish sea, we can see the slash-and-burn tactics being employed by the Irish Government. The Fianna Fáil Government have overseen savage cuts to the public sector and a real fiscal tightening—something so beloved of the right wing in this country. That has been to the detriment to the wider economy in Ireland, which has continued to worsen. So the debt continues to rise while the Government have become more unpopular as the majority have suffered. Colleague and comrades on the Labour Benches should learn the economic and political lessons from Ireland.
I mentioned Roosevelt in a slightly pejorative way earlier so, in an attempt to balance that, I want to say that I believe that we are in a period of great ideological debate—and that is as it should be in a period of great economic crisis. Basically, the debate boils down to these questions: has the neo-liberal consensus of the past 30 years been correct, and what is the role of Government?
By way of an answer, I shall draw on the words of Roosevelt himself. He said:
“What is the State? It is the duly constituted representative of an organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutual protection and well-being. ‘The state’ or ‘The Government’ is but the machinery through which such mutual aid and protection are achieved.”
As we have this huge intellectual debate, I hope that those ideas are remembered. I also hope that we are moving into a period that sees the demise of neo-liberalism.
On that positive note, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you all the best at Christmas? I also wish all the best at Christmas to all hon. Members, and especially to all the staff who work so hard for us here.
If modern buildings and state-of-the-art facilities are the ingredients to make a school successful, then Bishops Park college at Clacton would have been the jewel in the crown of Essex county council. However, it lasted little more than five years before it was judged to be a failure, with some of the poorest examination results in Essex.
Projected figures for pupil admissions did not materialise. Who is now paying for this colossal miscalculation? The college was a costly private finance initiative project; I understand the cost totalled £30 million, a debt which, no doubt, the public purse continues to pay excessively to service.
Bishops Park has now merged with another secondary school in Clacton, and has become an academy. It is one of five secondary schools in Essex transferred to the Academies Enterprise Trust—whose patron at the time of the transfers was, by an extraordinary coincidence, the Conservative leader of Essex county council.
I think that the Department for Children, Schools and Families should hold an investigation into that trust, which has also taken over other secondary schools in different parts of the country. It looks more like a business operation using state funds and state-funded buildings. It is based on an industrial estate next to Hockley railway station.
Bishops Park is not in my constituency, but the relevance to Colchester is this: the same idiotic forward planning by Essex county council threatens future secondary school provision in Colchester, which is the fastest growing borough in the country. Whereas at Clacton the county council hopelessly overestimated the number of pupils, leaving it with the white elephant of the most modern secondary school buildings in Essex, at Colchester, the incompetence is in the opposite direction—a woeful underestimate of pupil numbers, which is being used to justify the closure of two secondary schools in south Colchester in what is, I repeat, the fastest-growing borough in the country.
The latest figure that I have, provided by Colchester borough council’s strategic policy unit, shows that there were 1,932 live births in Colchester in 2006, an increase of 276 a year since 2001. The population of Colchester is expected to grow by 30.9 per cent. to 223,500 people by 2021, a population increase of more than 3,000 people every year. Despite that, Essex county council claims that the number of children of secondary school age will fall. The truth is the opposite.
In the “south growth area”—that is, the CO2 postcode area, where the two threatened schools are located—the number of new dwellings totals 3,000, to be built in the period 2001 to 2021. How does that square with the county’s contention that there are not enough children in south Colchester to justify the continuation of the two secondary schools?
The consequence of the county’s idiotic strategy is that two communities will each lose their community school, in direct contravention of the Government’s declared policies, such as the sustainable communities and safe routes to school initiatives. Hopefully, the Government will find the determination to intervene and prevent the closures when they know that the county council’s case is based on false statistics.
The closures will create a postcode lottery of secondary school provision in Colchester, with no secondary schools in postcode CO2, but six in CO3 and two in CO4, with the forward planning people of Essex county council—yes, there are some sensible officers at county hall—already intimating that there will be a need for a third secondary school in CO4 to cater for the huge housing developments planned in north Colchester.
As I stated, however, there is also massive new development in south Colchester, principally at the former Colchester garrison. A quick look at the map shows the stupidity of closing two schools in this part of Colchester and consequently hugely expanding Philip Morant school, possibly to as many as 2,500 pupils, and Stanway school, with some 500-plus children being bussed across town during the busiest times of the day when, like most other towns, there is already huge traffic congestion.
Does it make financial sense at any time, but particularly when there are huge pressures on public expenditure, to spend millions on expanding schools while closing others? As we saw with Bishops Park, it is not new buildings which make a good school. It is the quality of the leadership, the teachers and other staff, and the ethos. This may appear to be purely a local matter, but it has national significance because it highlights—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is not just in Colchester that Essex education authority is making one unholy mess. The authority is closing a secondary school on Canvey Island, where the borough council is planning to build hundreds more houses. It is selling off the school playing fields to build the houses on that land. It is moving the most delinquent youth from all over Essex to a special school on Canvey Island, which has opened, without residents being consulted, in the middle of a residential—
I thank the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) for highlighting the incompetence of Essex county council. It spreads across the whole of Essex.
The issue is of national significance because it highlights how a deceitful local authority can ride roughshod over the views of the overwhelming majority—96 per cent. of respondents to the county’s own consultation were against the proposals, which the county Tories dismissed as being irrelevant. President Mugabe would love to have had 96 per cent.
With such arrogance, it is perhaps not surprising that the Conservatives have a minimal electoral mandate in Colchester. With the school closures a major issue, the Tories lost five seats—and control of the borough council—in May last year; and in this year’s county elections they managed to hold only one seat in my constituency, seeing a majority of more than 1,000 slashed to just 19 votes.
Colchester is not only the fastest-growing borough in the country, but the second largest shire district in England. Many smaller places have a unitary council, and if Colchester were a unitary authority, neither of the two threatened schools, Thomas Lord Audley at Monkwick, and Alderman Blaxill at Shrub End, would close.
There is growing support in Colchester for the unitary status that Southend already has. A survey that is currently under way reveals that 80 per cent. of the population want to get away from the control of Essex county council. Such a high figure for county council distrust comes as no surprise—a report this week, to be debated by the council on Monday next week, shows that Colchester is less satisfied with the county council than any other part of Essex, except Harlow.
The so-called “Overall Satisfaction with Essex County Council” survey shows that in Colchester, only 39.5 per cent. of people said that they were satisfied—and that comes from the county council’s own survey. Colchester borough council wants both schools to be kept open. Tory-run Essex county council has ignored the borough council, and the huge opposition from residents within the borough, and proceeded with the closure process, but it is not too late for the Government to intervene.
After all, Essex county council promised the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that it would not shut either school. On 19 May 2008, the Secretary of State told the Commons:
“Essex county council has explained that its preferred approach is to build on the existing partnership with Stanway school and to pursue a trust. We will support the council in its decision”.—[ Official Report, 19 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 3.]
Within weeks the county council broke that solemn pledge—given to the Government and given on the Floor of the House. The Secretary of State gave a genuine observation and statement, but the pledge was wilfully broken by the county council within weeks, so I hope that the Government will insist that it sticks to its original promise. The Secretary of State did not deliberately mislead the House; rather, he and his officials were misled by Essex county council. I urge him to prevail upon the county council to fulfil the promise that it gave last year and to drop the closure proposals for Alderman Blaxill and Thomas Lord Audley schools.
There is clearly a problem of democratic accountability, with the passing of Government control to quangos, such as the Office of the Schools Adjudicator and Partnerships for Schools, the latter being responsible for Building Schools for the Future. Local residents and even Colchester borough council cannot get the schools adjudicator or Partnerships for Schools to look at what is clearly a miscarriage of the truth by Essex county council, so the Secretary of State and his officials must surely exercise powers of intervention. We are talking about politically motivated discrimination by the Tory-run county council, and that will be to the detriment of future children of secondary school age throughout my constituency. It will be a costly blunder, leaving others in a few years’ time to pick up the consequences of the Chelmsford-based, Tory county hall vendetta against Colchester.
I do not object to investment in schools in my constituency. I am, however, opposed to wasteful expenditure. Essex county council says that £130 million will be invested from Building Schools for the Future. During the consultation, however, the council quoted a figure of £100 million, and as recently as August this year official council minutes referred to £150 million. The county council has failed to give a breakdown of how it arrived at any of those figures, and Partnerships for Schools has not been given a breakdown, either. Can anyone really trust anything that Essex county council says? The people of Colchester do not. There is no guarantee that what the county council has promised the head teachers will actually materialise.
The Government have spoken about super-heads, but that is meaningless unless they take action. In Colchester, we have just such a person—the inspirational Mr. Jonathan Tippett, who has transformed Stanway school into one of the best in Essex and removed Thomas Lord Audley and Alderman Blaxill schools from special measures. Last summer he led Thomas Lord Audley to its best exam results in its history, with September’s year 7 intake being the largest it has seen in several years, making nonsense of the county council’s claims that it is a failing school with falling numbers. One man is running those three schools in such an inspirational way that the county council should let him get on with it, and the Government should insist that he be allowed to continue this overwhelming success story at minimal cost to the public purse.
In May last year, the Secretary of State informed the House that the three schools under Mr. Tippett’s executive headship should go forward as a trust or a federation. Let us have happen what the Government were led to believe by Essex county council would happen as recently as last year. That would be the most cost-effective resolution to secondary school provision in Colchester. It would allow the communities of Shrub End and Monkwick to retain their local secondary schools while allowing a much better value-for-money injection of funds into secondary school education across Colchester, notably a new building for Sir Charles Lucas arts college at Greenstead, in preference to the county council’s wasteful and otherwise unwanted proposals.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), especially as he serves on the Home Affairs Committee. He is always able to bring important issues of concern to do with Essex, especially Colchester, here to the Chamber. I think the House would wish to congratulate him on being the runner-up in “The X Factor” competition—not he himself, of course, although he could be a rival to SuBo if he tried very hard, but one of his constituents, Olly, who was pipped at the post by this year’s winner.
I am so glad that the hon. Gentleman came into the Chamber just to tell me that; I am sure we are grateful for the clarification. However, Olly is an Essex boy, is he not, so he and the hon. Member for Colchester can both claim a bit of him.
Recess Adjournment debates, either in the summer or at Christmas, used to be occasions where Members encouraged other Members to come to their constituencies. That has always been a feature of the speeches by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). We were given such invitations, in a way, by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). However, they then related tales of woe, one about the collapse of capitalism and the other about the vicious 12 years that the poor people of Cotswold have experienced. I do not think I can go to the Cotswolds this Christmas after that sad speech by the hon. Gentleman—I will simply stay in Leicester with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby).
These debates have always been an opportunity for Members to say that the House should not adjourn until it has been able to consider certain matters. We never have a vote at the end of the debate—partly, I am sure, because whichever Minister sums up is able to satisfy us that all our concerns have been met, so there is no need to prevent the Adjournment of the House. I live in hope that one day someone will oppose the Adjournment of the House just to see what would happen—that has not happened in my 23 years here. I hope that it does not happen tonight, however, because I am sure that we all have important constituency engagements to get to.
I wish briefly to raise four issues, the first of which concerns the case of Gary McKinnon. It is very important that we have some clarity from the Government as to precisely what they are doing in relation to that case. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has been one of the champions of Gary McKinnon in his fight to be able to satisfy the legal authorities in this country rather than in the United States of America. She has campaigned strongly to enable his case to be dealt with here, as has his own Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes).
Of course, the Home Secretary has said that he has considered the evidence that Gary McKinnon’s lawyers put before him, but that he is of the view that the extradition can proceed and that Mr. McKinnon should be able to be tried in the United States of America. Only yesterday, Mr. McKinnon’s brave and honourable mother Janis Sharp led a protest outside the Home Office, which Members of all parties attended. She was urging the Home Secretary to think again about the matter. In this closing debate before the recess, I urge him to look again at the case and to do what he did a few weeks ago, which was to stop the clock on the extradition.
I know that the Home Secretary has said on a number of occasions, as he repeated to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, that he feels that he does not have the power to intervene and that it is up to Mr. McKinnon’s solicitors to make an application for judicial review. However, I wonder whether he will consider instructing different lawyers from those on whose advice he has reached his conclusions. A number of people, including Mrs. Sharp and the Select Committee, have seen legal advice from solicitors and leading counsel other than those on whom the Home Office relies suggesting that the Home Secretary does have the discretion to intervene in this case if he chooses to do so.
Surely a fundamental principle of how we are governed is that at the end of the day, Ministers have the power to intervene. There must be an inherent power that rests with the Crown and is exercised by Ministers, which ought to allow them to intervene in cases when they feel it is in the public interest for them to do so. I am sure that that applies not just to the Home Secretary but to other Ministers. When I was a Minister at the Foreign Office responsible for entry clearance, I was given largely the same advice as the Home Secretary on the matter of Ministers intervening in entry clearance cases. Because I was not satisfied with the advice that I received, I sought other legal advice. Lo and behold, the advice that I received was that of course it was possible to intervene in such cases.
I say to the Deputy Leader of the House that it is important that we pause and think about this case, which has a lot to do with the pride of the American Government. I understand that, and I recently met the American ambassador, Mr. Susman, who was recently appointed by President Obama. He was very courteous and respectful about the powers of this House and the remit of Select Committees, and I said to him that in our view, whether our Ministers could intervene was a fundamental principle. Interestingly, although the American Secretary of State has not intervened in the case of Amanda Knox—I take no view on that case, except that she has been convicted in a criminal court in Italy, and if we accept the rulings of EU courts she is guilty of her criminal offence—even the American Government are prepared to make supportive statements about their citizens. I hope that our Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, will be prepared to intervene in Mr. McKinnon’s case, and I hope that he will think again about his decision.
The second issue that I wish to mention is the crisis affecting the health services in respect of diabetes. We are facing a pandemic of diabetes in this country. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have declared on a number of occasions the fact that I was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Late diagnosis is a problem. I am now in my early 50s, and if that diagnosis had taken place earlier I could well have avoided becoming a diabetic. There are currently 7 million people in this country who have pre-diabetes. In other words, they have a disposition to diabetes, but have not been tested and therefore have not been warned, and they have the possibility of developing diabetes in later years.
There are many causes of type 2 diabetes. Stress is one, so any Member of the House probably has an immediate predisposition to diabetes. Obesity is another, although I do not cast any aspersions on any Member. However, type 2 diabetes is also related to the intake of sugar.
It is important that the health service understands the problem. The fact that we spend £1 million an hour on diabetes—£980 million a year on treatment for the condition—and that one in 10 people in our hospitals suffers from some form of diabetes should alert Ministers to the problem.
At the moment, 2.3 million have diabetes, and it is possible that some of our children, even those as young as two or three, according to university of California research, also have a predisposition to the condition because they have access to fructose, which is a sweetener sometimes used in children’s products. If the predisposition is not checked, it will lead in later life to diabetes.
I know that you are a grandfather, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so you know a number of young children. The children of the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, attended the Christmas party only last week. I hope that he noticed that there was no food for those like me at the party—this is my reason anyway—because the food offered was very sweet. That would not have helped the children who were trying to fight a predisposition to diabetes. We have to be on the alert. Ministers should understand that spending money on preventive work now will mean that we save not only a lot of money in the long run, but many lives.
Thirdly, on policing costs, the hon. Member for Colchester will know, because he attended the Home Affairs Committee sitting yesterday, where he was able to cross-examine, with his usual forensic skill, the Home Secretary and the head of the National Policing Improvement Agency, that the Home Office has spent £400 million in the past four years on consultants—people who advise the permanent secretary how to run his Department better and how to get better value for money. The chief constable of the NPIA, Peter Neyroud, told us that last year, which was the year before his appointment, the NPIA, which exists to provide police forces with advice on how they can improve efficiencies, spent £71 million on consultants. He did not believe that that provided value for money for the NPIA.
The problem for those in positions of responsibility—the decision makers as far as the public purse is concerned—is whether to spend money on more consultants. The Home Office and the NPIA have spent nearly half a billion on consultants, and goodness knows what individual police forces spend on them. If we look at the amount of savings that must be achieved by every police authority in the country and at the constant desire of Members on both sides of the House for visible policing, we see where the problem lies. Our police budgets will face severe challenges next year. If we are looking to cut the overall budget for local police forces, which I am against—the Government say that they are not doing that, but a number of police authorities claim that they are—it is important to look at things such as the amount of money spent on consultancies and consultants and to try to reduce it.
My final point concerns Yemen, the country of my birth. I declare an interest—I recently visited the country, partly as a guest of the Yemeni Government, as I have done over the past few years as chairman of the all-party group on Yemen. I was born there and left with my sisters and mother when I was nine years of age. As I have gone back, I have seen a country that has developed in certain areas. However, at the moment, Yemen faces a crisis, and the problem is that al-Qaeda has decided that it wishes to occupy parts of the country and to act against the Government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The result is instability.
The American Government and our Government have sought to try to ensure that the Yemeni Government are supported. The US Government have sent people to train Yemeni troops, and our Government have done much to increase the amount of aid that the Yemeni Government get, but every day we read about problems in that country. It is the second biggest country in the Gulf, but it is often forgotten, because it is very poor. Everybody concentrates on Dubai, which is having its great bubble—some say that it has burst, and others say that it has not—and it is a great holiday destination for British citizens, but it is important that we provide whatever support the President and Government of Yemen need to maintain the stability of that vital country.
For example, we have been trying for 20 years to get the Queen Elizabeth hospital—I was born there—rebuilt. We have gone to the EU to try to obtain resources to fund the hospital. South Yemen was part of the British Empire, eventually obtaining independence, and there is therefore a post-colonial tie between the UK and Yemen. We have a responsibility to help with projects that would be of benefit to the people of Yemen and we must reassert our support for that important country. I know that the recess is upon us and it will be difficult for Ministers to ring up the Foreign Office and get briefings on the issue, but I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will say something positive about our support for that important country. If anything happened to Yemen, it would seriously affect the stability of the whole Gulf region, and therefore of the world.
Finally, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, everyone in the House and all the wonderful people who serve us in this magnificent Palace a happy Christmas and new year.
In a similar vein to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), I wish to raise several issues. This is the last Christmas Adjournment debate before we face a general election, and this has been a dreadful year. Labour has succeeded in destroying the country and it has destroyed this place. The place in which we work has been greatly diminished. We are seen as an irrelevance and no longer as an attractive ornament. What has happened in the past year is an absolute travesty.
Underlining everything, we have the terrible state of the British economy. We owe £178 billion and the Government are trying to kid us all that they have done a splendid job in running the finances and the problems are just part of the world phenomenon. Every Wednesday the Prime Minister used to come to the Dispatch Box and tell us that he had abolished boom and bust. Well, my constituents are puzzled about where the boom has been, and they are convinced that this country is bust. I lay the blame entirely at the feet of this Government.
As chairman of the all-party group for small shops, I spent the summer visiting every small shop in my constituency. My goodness, times are tough for them. The slogan “If you don’t use ’em, we’ll lose ’em” is true. They are having a very tough time in competition with the larger supermarkets, as several of my hon. Friends have mentioned. I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will rally round at a reception early next year to support small businesses. I am very worried about the state of our finances, and we will not come out of recession until next year.
A related issue is the pay of public servants. The allowances and payment of parliamentarians have come under great scrutiny this year for several reasons. Many suggestions have been made about how we could save money. However, it is not clear how the pay of other public servants, especially at senior levels, will be judged and scrutinised under the freedom of information legislation. Some of them seem to be completely impervious to such scrutiny.
The electorate employ us as Members of Parliament and they renew, or end, our contract at a general election. However, it has not yet been determined how other senior public servants and leaders of these umpteen quangos can be removed from office if the general public are dissatisfied with their performance. As long ago as 2000, I raised the issue of public appointments in South Essex health authority in a Westminster Hall debate. It was all about the merger of two trusts and how people with mental health problems would be regarded in the future. I mentioned the potential appointment of a chief executive, and I remember clearly how the then Labour Minister dealt with the issue. Basically, I was told that Southend and Thurrock would be merged, but it turned out to be a takeover by the Thurrock trust. The person to whom I referred in that debate was appointed as chief executive, and recently, under the Freedom of Information Act, it has been found that nine years on that gentleman is paid more than £200,000 and received a bonus of £17,500. This is absolute madness!
We hear constant reports in the press about Members’ allowances, and quite rightly there will be changes to the proposed system, and of course there is the furore surrounding bonuses for bankers working for the financial institutions bailed out by the British taxpayer. Yet where is the scrutiny of public sector pay of senior people in, for instance, the health service and police? The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) alluded to that point. The payment of public sector executives is completely cut off from the harsh realities of the UK economic situation. The average family is struggling at the moment. The Government should pay more attention to that situation.
Over the past three years, Essex has had three chief constables. The first chief constable’s contract was not renewed, the second took early retirement and a third was appointed this year. The third was apparently one of three candidates, but the other two dropped out of the competition. In other words, there was a choice of one, and he was appointed. I and, presumably, my Essex colleagues were never told of the appointment until 26 October, when I received a letter from the new chief constable’s personal assistant stating:
“You may like to amend your records to reflect that Mr Jim Barker-McCardle was appointed as substantive Chief Constable with effect from the 8th September 2009”.
There was no embarrassment at all. My goodness! When this place had some standing, on the appointment of a new chief constable, Members would, out of common courtesy, be sent a letter from that person informing them of the appointment. We have become such an irrelevance that we do not get any letters from chief constables—we are not even told that a new one has been appointed—and when we complain to Ministers, they simply say that they have no responsibility in the matter. It is disgraceful!
Even the former chairman of the Police Federation has, in a Home Office-commissioned report, criticised the complex organisational and decision-making structure at the top of the policing system, which generates confusion about accountability among police officers. I must say that although the Independent Police Complaints Commission is very well led, in reality its judgments have no teeth. Any judgment is simply given to the chief constable, who does not seem to be responsible to anyone. I cannot see the purpose of Essex police authority.
As we all know, the cost to the country of the war in Afghanistan and our previous involvement in Iraq has been very high, not just financially, but—much more importantly—in the loss of young lives. Many of us had the honour of greeting troops returning from Afghanistan last month. They are doing an incredible job under very difficult circumstances. Last Monday we lost the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan, and two more have been killed recently.
All of us are watching the Chilcot inquiry very carefully, but however soft the questioning is, it seems certain that the previous Prime Minister did not tell the truth to the House of Commons about why we should get involved with Iraq. The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, said that the ex-Prime Minister engaged in an “alarming subterfuge” with the then American President. The former Prime Minister has now told us, in an interview with a celebrity, that he would have gone to war regardless of whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. I am one of those Conservative Members of Parliament who were stupid enough to believe what the then Prime Minister said, but it was not his choice to make; it was the choice of this House of Commons. It is an absolute disgrace that he has come out with that statement in a soft interview with a celebrity.
I hope that when the former Prime Minister gives evidence next year, some action will be taken as a result of what he says. I think that he deliberately misled Parliament on that issue, and why oh why he was so sycophantic to the United States of America I cannot imagine. Even the new American President, who in the build-up to the American election talked about cutting troop numbers in Afghanistan, is now sending another 30,000, which is more than his predecessor sent. What is going on now is absolutely crazy. Why the American President got the Nobel peace prize, before he had done anything whatever, I do not know. Again, that astonishes me.
I am the chairman of the all-party group on solvent abuse. Solvent abuse receives very little attention, despite the fact that NHS research shows that volatile substances are the most common entry-level substances among young people who choose to take drugs. More children aged 13 and under use volatile substances than use any illegal drug. St. George’s, university of London has done some excellent work in its report, “Trends in Death Associated With Abuse of Volatile Substances”, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will urge a Secretary of State to have a meeting with the all-party group.
A constituent, Mr. Congdon, has raised the issue of Vioxx with me. He very much wants compensation for UK users of Vioxx from Merck, Sharp and Dohme. Tragically, his wife died as a result of taking that prescription painkiller. From 1999 to 2004, Vioxx was widely prescribed as a painkiller for arthritis, migraines and menstruation. There have been many lawsuits in America, but in this country nothing whatever has been done about giving compensation.
Another constituent, Kevin Jones, raised with me the issue of tax credits. Having phoned the so-called helpline, I could not have found the person who answered to be ruder. When I said, “This is a helpline,” and told her that I was an MP, she said, “So what?” If anyone wants proof of how diminished we are out there, there it is, on the so-called helpline. What has happened with tax credit claims that were overpaid is an absolute shambles and has certainly caused enormous difficulties for many constituents.
Last Friday I met the Southend Association of Voluntary Services, whose job it is to advise and support local not-for-profit groups. It does a wonderful job under difficult circumstances. However, as with many third sector organisations, budget cuts have forced the association to cut down on a number of its activities. One of the most worthwhile projects that it runs is the vinvolved project, a volunteering project for 16 to 25-year-olds. The funding is secured only until March 2011, and I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House could see what she can do to encourage the Treasury and others to give that excellent organisation some support.
Last week I spoke at the National Audit Office’s rheumatoid arthritis conference, in my capacity as the joint chairman of the all-party group on inflammatory arthritis. A National Audit Office report entitled “Services for people with rheumatoid arthritis” was published in July, and it makes it clear that services are very patchy throughout the country. I hope that the Health Secretary will do whatever he can to bolster support for people suffering from arthritis.
During the summer Adjournment debate, I raised the issue of seat belts. We all remember the row that took place in the House when we first voted to make seat belts compulsory. A number of Members of Parliament thought that it was not the right thing to do, although it turned out to be completely the right thing to do. However, some people, in order to be more comfortable, do not wear their seat belts as they should. Instead of the collar bone taking the full force in an accident, damage can be done to the ribcage and to vital internal organs. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on my concerns on that issue to the Secretary of State for Transport.
We often think about animals at Christmas time, and I hope that there will not be the usual number of unwanted pets this year. I was recently at a gathering organised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to celebrate the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. That organisation does a wonderful job of looking after animal welfare. As the animals are unable to speak for themselves, I hope that at this time we will do all that we can to support their welfare and to ensure that there are not too many unwanted pets this Christmas. I join all others in wishing everyone a very happy Christmas and a much better new year.
Last Tuesday, I was called by an excited researcher from one of my local radio stations who asked me if I was aware that Leicester had been named as the crime capital of the east midlands. While I was trying to catch my breath, following that astonishing announcement, the young researcher went on to tell me that it was a city in which public services do not work well together and in which not enough was being done to tackle the major problems that many local people face. She also told me that people’s health was worse there than anywhere else in the east midlands, and that too many of them were dying early—[Interruption.] Yes, it sounds like Essex, doesn’t it?
I simply did not recognise the city from the description that the researcher was giving me, although I would not suggest for a moment that it is without problems. When I had caught my breath, I asked her for the source of her information. She told me that it was the Audit Commission. As a former member of the Audit Commission, I took that fairly seriously and agreed to go on air to talk about the matter. Before doing so, I did some research into the background.
The description had come from a person called Mary Perry, who is rather grandly titled the Oneplace spokesperson for Leicester. I understand that she is also the Oneplace spokesperson for a number of other places in the east midlands. My research allowed me at least to understand the context of the description. The work that it was announcing is very worth while. It is an attempt to bring together the results of the various inspection regimes that look at local authorities, including the Audit Commission—the lead body involved—the Quality Care Commission, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and Ofsted, and to bring all the data that they produce in their reports together in one place, to make it accessible to the public on a single website. That is of course very welcome.
It is some years since I was a member of the Audit Commission. At that time, we used to look forward to the prospect of what was then described—it might still be—as joined-up inspection. That would involve bringing the various regimes together in a way that made sense to the bodies that were being inspected, and to the public, on whose behalf the inspections were taking place.
The principles that the Audit Commission followed then, and does now, involve ensuring that the performance indicators used in the inspections are relevant, that they avoid creating perverse incentives, and that the conclusions that are drawn at the end of the inspection processes are firmly evidence-based. Of course, in looking at the inspection, as I hope the Audit Commission and the other regimes that inspect our local authorities and our local bodies now do, I hope that the approach will be robust and independent when necessary, while also being a critical friend rather than a hostile outsider when that is the more appropriate approach.
It was with that in mind that I looked at the news release from which the researcher was drawing a picture of the city of Leicester. Indeed, Mary Perry, this Oneplace spokesperson for Leicester, described the city as one where the partnership
“is not giving crime a high priority.”
“Recent crime figures are the worst in the East Midlands. Community safety partners need to work together more effectively to reduce crime and make the city safer for local people.”
I could go on and refer to other elements that the researcher had drawn out from the press release.
I have to say that that description of the city is not one that those involved in the various partnerships and bodies that provide services to the city would recognise—and it is certainly not one that I recognise either. It does not represent what any reasonable person who knows the city would consider to be a balanced judgment about it and the services it receives. The press release is based on broad generalisations and contains, frankly, headline-grabbing snippets. No doubt that was done with the very best of intentions and no doubt it was done with the intention of drawing people’s attention to the launch of the new initiative, to the website that lies behind it and the overview that it seeks to give. Frankly, however, it does nothing for the reputation of the Audit Commission or the other inspectorates that contributed to it.
The Audit Commission has raised a lot of questions about the data lying behind the news release that described Leicester in that way and led the researcher to conclude that the city was the “crime capital” of the east midlands, but it has not helped to point the way to those who seek to find answers to the questions, which include: what sort of crime figures—are they recorded crime figures, reported crime figures, or crime figures as perceived by the victims of those crimes? None of those questions is answered, so I believe that to be shoddy work from the Audit Commission.
It would indeed be perverse if Leicestershire constabulary, which has such an excellent record of encouraging people to report crimes and of encouraging its officers to record them when they are reported, were to be penalised as a result of the success of those policies on encouraging the reporting and recording of crimes, yet that is precisely the sort of conclusion that the casual reader would reach from that news release. It would also be perverse indeed if this led to Leicestershire constabulary doing what I understand other constabularies sometimes do—actually encouraging people not to report and officers not to record crimes. It seems to me that, on this occasion, the Audit Commission has made a serious mistake in the way it has sought to promote that new website and the excellent initiative in which it plays a lead part.
I have tried to look behind the figures, but in looking at the website, I have frankly not been able to find out how those conclusions were reached or what sort of crime figures were used in reaching them. I have discovered from talking to those who are part of the community safety partnership in Leicester that there are a lot of very unhappy and very committed people who were involved in the promotion of community safety in the city, but who are deeply disappointed, deeply upset and deeply distressed by the resulting publicity that followed the news release.
I am deeply unhappy by the approach that has been adopted. I am particularly unhappy because, while it may get a headline, it certainly does not do justice to the city, and it certainly does not do justice to those who are concerned for its well-being.
The Audit Commission and the other inspectors have come up with a very simplistic way of describing services in the city of Leicester and, indeed, in other local authority areas up and down the land. It boils down to the use of flags: red flags and green flags. Other hon. Members may well be familiar with such arrangements in their areas. While the use of such simplistic devices may be attractive in terms of drawing attention to things—for instance, the new website—it is over-simplistic in this context, and difficult to justify.
I have noted the green flags given to the areas around Leicester, and the lack of green flags relating to any of the services in Leicester itself; I have noted the red flags given to the areas around Leicester, and the red flags given to the city itself; and I have reached the conclusion that the choice of green or red flags is entirely subjective.
For a long time the Audit Commission has had a much wider role than that of simply examining the finances of local authorities, which was originally the role of the District Audit Service. It has been given that wider role by both the last Government and this one. I think it has long aspired to bring some order to the plethora of inspection regimes covering local services, and I think it is right to wish to do that, but I believe that on this occasion it has gone too far in its enthusiasm for bringing order and simplicity, and has over-simplified.
The work that the Audit Commission has done is unreasonable in the circumstances. There is a total lack of consistency in the way in which it has presented Leicester and other local authority areas, and it has left unanswered far more questions than it has answered. Its approach has done a disservice to Leicester, and to its own work on behalf of recipients of services in Leicester and other areas.
As I have said, it is vital for inspectors who look at cities such as Leicester and other towns, cities and counties up and down the land to seek performance indicators that are relevant and avoid perverse incentives. Above all, they must ensure that their conclusions are firmly based on evidence. The flag system that the inspectors have used and the press releases that they have issued do not meet those tests. They do not demonstrate a regime that is robust and independent, and they certainly do not demonstrate one with an entirely objective approach. This is not a regime that appears to be a critical friend rather than a hostile or even bullying outsider.
The Audit Commission, and those involved in the other inspection regimes, should look closely at the way in which they have handled the launch of the Oneplace initiative. Although the initiative has much to commend it, they need to recognise that a single snapshot—which is how they themselves have described the work that they are doing—can be simplistic and even damaging. It may produce a headline for them, but it does not get anywhere near the truth as it is actually experienced by people in the city of Leicester or, I would suggest, elsewhere.
Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me join other hon. Members in wishing you and, of course, the staff of the House a very happy Christmas and a prosperous and peaceful new year.
First, may I follow the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) in wishing everyone present a happy Christmas, just in case I forget to do so at the end of my speech? As I represent a constituency in Portsmouth, which has one of the largest populations of service personnel, may I also wish all our service personnel around the world a happy Christmas, and in particular may I wish those who are in Afghanistan a peaceful and pleasant festive season? I also want to wish service personnel families a happy Christmas, as this can be a very difficult period for them, and assure them that the thoughts of the entire House—of Members of all parties—are with them.
I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, too. I doubt if its work has been as important as it is today since it was founded in the aftermath of the first world war. I urge all Members to give their support to the British Legion in the forthcoming election. I am sure that not a single candidate in the entire country will decline to back it, but let us set an example by backing it first now.
I should also declare an interest, as I want to talk about certain issues affecting the city of Portsmouth and, as is stated in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am a member of Portsmouth city council and its executive. The first issue is Portsmouth’s serious housing problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) about the importance of housing. Portsmouth’s current housing problem is probably as bad as it was in 1945, when a third of the buildings in the city had been demolished or severely damaged by the Luftwaffe, sizeable chunks of it had to be bulldozed down, and tens of thousands of people were moved outside the city.
The Government have promised a lot on housing, and particularly on council housing, yet they have not delivered. We have heard the words, but they have yet to walk the walk and provide the money. Even at this late stage, as we approach a general election, I ask the Government to give powers to use section 106 moneys to improve and construct council properties, and to give local authorities back the initiative to be able to build the sorts of properties that they know they need to satisfy their housing demand. In contrast to private developers who want to build only what they know they can sell, local authorities have a responsibility to house all sorts of people, such as families of various sizes and those with lifestyle difficulties such as disabilities, who might need special adaptations in their properties. We need to free up local authorities, and we need the Government to give assistance, not cut it, as is being suggested by some commentators.
The second issue affecting Portsmouth was raised in the House yesterday: defence spending, particularly in the context of the Royal Navy. Month after month, I am depressed by the indecision and the briefings that are given or the leaks that are allowed to be made, especially about the aircraft carrier programme. One minute it is on, the next minute it may be off, or it is being reconsidered, reorganised or delayed. What effect do Ministers think that sort of indecision has on the morale of the work force in Portsmouth who have been loyal to the Ministry of Defence and the national interest for generations, and whose city’s main industrial backbone is based on support for the MOD?
Unusually, I have to say that the hon. Gentleman is being unfair to the Government. I am a Front-Bench spokesman on defence and I have heard the Government say over and over again that the carriers will go ahead, so for once I feel that he is being unduly alarmist.
I am convinced in my heart that the carriers will go ahead, but why do the Government allow the speculation to continue? Why do they not, once and for all, give proper dates and stick to them? Yesterday, I asked the Secretary of State whether he could categorically assure the House, the country and, more importantly, people whose livelihood depends on the carriers that the dates that the Government have announced will be stuck to. It simply is not good enough to treat people in this way.
We have to make a proper analysis of what we need to spend on defence. The Royal Navy is as important today as it has been in past generations, and the future of the naval base in Portsmouth is important in that respect. We should be looking to give the Royal Navy the resources that it needs to provide the punch that the Government demand of it by their overseas commitments and their use of force on occasion. Again, we cannot talk the talk without producing the right sort of resources. We should give clear direction to show our armed forces that there is a future for people who enlist in the Royal Navy, and to show those on the industrial side, in shipbuilding, that their careers will not be affected because the Government have changed their mind.
Thirdly, I wish to discuss the way in which we deal with some immigration cases. I deal with a phenomenal number of these cases, and I would imagine that half the people in the two advice centres that I hold each week have an immigration case or a problem related in some way to one. I am amazed at the number of times that I have been able to get people removed from detention. Some of these people have been picked up off the street, or have been detained when they have gone to report to the police station, as they have to do on a weekly or fortnightly basis.
Most recently, I encountered the case of somebody who was detained in the city of Portsmouth, taken to Heathrow the same day, and told that they were to be deported within 48 hours I spoke to the relevant Minister’s office, and I was delighted that the Minister was able to stop that. More importantly—this was beyond belief—I discovered from the immigration officer dealing with the case at the Heathrow holding centre that the person could not be deported because his papers were deficient and the country to which he was to be deported would not have accepted him. We had probably spent several hundred—if not thousands—of pounds detaining that person, only for him to be freed again, returned to live at home and told that he had to continue to report. I asked why that had been done, but nobody has yet been able to give a satisfactory answer.
The problem is that that case is one of a dozen or so cases in the past three months of people being detained, sometimes for a week or a fortnight, only to be released subsequently with no real account having been given of why they were detained in the first place and why they were subsequently released into exactly the same circumstances as before they were detained. Again, there appears to be a lack of coherence in the UK Border Agency’s way of dealing with these cases.
I am perfectly supportive of the idea that people who do not deserve, or do not have a right, to be here should be removed, but for goodness’ sake let us do it in a way that everybody understands. We should not pick people up, detain them in a detention centre and threaten them daily that they are about to leave the country, when we know that we are not in a position to deport them to another country because they do not have the papers that would allow us to do so. How on earth can that be logical or in anyone’s interests, least of all those of the Treasury, which must be at its wits’ end with the UKBA’s performance in dealing with such cases?
I should tell the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) that, sadly, Leicester is not alone when it comes to the operations of the Audit Commission. My city was criticised for having a high number of reported rape cases. We, the police and other agencies had actively encouraged women to come forward, and the next thing we knew we were accused of being the rape capital of the south. What on earth is up with an organisation that tries to co-ordinate an approach to certain issues but fails to understand the simple basics? If we encourage and give support to women to come forward and report rapes or attempted rapes, that will push the number—or the indices—of reported rape cases up. The commission failed to understand that.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South is dead right to criticise the Audit Commission’s understanding of the background to many of its statistics. It beggars belief that an agency that has so much clout, and that the Government listen to, is allowed to get away with such statements—
My hon. Friend—not for the first time—makes the important point that the commission is not accountable, and it is about time it was.
My final point is a bit of sour grapes, from my point of view, and concerns the England 2018 World cup bid. My city enthusiastically got behind the campaign and supported it to such an extent that we set up a team and invested close to £250,000. But when it came to the crunch—make-your-mind-up time—the appalling behaviour of FIFA, the Football Association and, to a lesser extent, the Government persuaded the city council not to pursue its bid to be a host city.
I was disappointed, yet I too voted to abandon the bid. We would have ended up needing an on-paper potential outlay of £24 million, perhaps more, with little or no evidence that any of the return on it would come back to us. Even before we could be selected, we were asked to sign a contract on 26 November that suggested that we would have to pay another £250,000 to the FA for its marketing bid. Members will have seen some of the FA’s expenditure, such as buying expensive luggage and other gifts to bribe people to vote for us. We were also told that we would have to provide the finance for one person to spend 36 days in South Africa as an active part of the campaign team.
We were told that if we were successful, we would be expected to do an awful lot of things, including guaranteeing a stadium for the games to be played in. The football club in Portsmouth desperately needs a new stadium, but it could not give a cast-iron assurance. The city council was told that if it wanted to make this bid, it had to guarantee the stadium or it would have to compensate FIFA for another city’s having to take on the responsibilities that Portsmouth could not. We were already being told that if we had a new stadium in Portsmouth, built by the club, we would have to put £6 million of council tax payers’ money into it to increase its capacity to meet FIFA’s standards, with no guarantee that we would get any gain, or even any kudos, from it.
We were told that we would have to ban all existing advertising, for the duration of the competition, for 1 km around the stadium and 1 km around the fans area. We would have to pay compensation to everybody who now displays adverts in those areas. No one within that zone would have been allowed to sell food or beverages, either, because FIFA had made its own arrangements for food and beverage deals around the ground.
We were originally told that if we signed that contract we could get between 10 and 15 per cent. of the gate receipts of all the 64 games that would be played in England during the world cup competition. Then we were told, “No, we’ve changed our minds. You’ll get between 10 and 15 per cent. of the receipts that your ground gets for games played there.” Then that changed too, and we were told, “No, you’ll get whatever they choose to pay you after they’ve taken out all their costs, because in effect, FIFA is hiring the ground.”
It was a complete and utter fiasco. The FA wrote to the city council on 18 November, giving even more conditions. We were advised by lawyers that it would be helpful if we put money aside for a judicial review of the legality of signing such a one-sided contract. When we sought the Government’s assistance and asked them to step in on behalf of all 16 local authorities that were bidding at that stage, they turned their back on us. They said, “It’s down to you, but be careful what you sign.”
I hope that the 2018 World cup bid is a success for the UK, but for local authorities it could be one of the biggest financial disasters ever to befall them. The city of Portsmouth made a wise decision to get out before we were too far committed. It is a sad reflection on FIFA, the FA and the Government that they treat our national game in such a disrespectful way—and FIFA in particular have a lot of questions to answer.
I had not intended to begin by saying anything about the Royal Navy, but the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) raised the subject and kindly let me intervene, so I shall just say that the Government can be criticised about plenty of things in connection with the Royal Navy, such as the reduction in the number of frigates and destroyers. That number has been reduced from 35 to 23 and, by some counts, to as few as 19.
In addition, the number of nuclear-powered attack submarines has been cut from 12 to seven. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South referred to the date when the carriers will come into service, but it was revealed only yesterday that that was postponed to enable a temporary saving of some £600 million, but that the cost of the postponement will be £1.1 billion later on.
It is a dire situation indeed, but I think that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and supporters of the Royal Navy. After the next general election—when, as I trust, there will be a change of government—I shall be very surprised indeed to find that the contracts for the carriers have not been drawn up with sufficient rigour and comprehensiveness to ensure that the classic strategic argument that always convinces a Treasury team that a vital military asset must be bought, will come into play. That argument is, of course, that it would cost more to cancel the carriers than it would to proceed with them.
I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is nodding. He is right to make criticisms, but he should not fly the kite of suggesting that the carriers will not happen. I shall be amazed if the carriers do not happen, whatever else we have reason to criticise this Government for in respect of the Royal Navy.
At Christmas-time, we think about the people whom we have lost. We think also about the people whom other people have lost, and in particular of the service personnel who have been lost this year. I think in particular of Olaf Schmid, and I wait with interest to see what posthumous gallantry award he will be given—it should come sooner rather than later—for the magnificent bomb disposal work that he did. The courage and dignity shown by his widow Christina were an example to us all. It is an example that none us would probably be able to follow if, heaven forbid, we were placed in such a situation, but it is one that we as a House can admire and acknowledge, and of which we can stand in awe.
I think of two people whom I have lost in the course of the past year. One was my cold war comrade and friend George Miller—or George Miller-Kurakin, to give him his full inherited name. He died on 23 October, aged just 54. I am grateful to the obituaries editor of The Independent, who gave him pride of place with a half-page obituary that I had written, spelling out some of the work that George did to help NATO remain strong while he waited for Russia—his country of descent, shall we say?—to see the back of communism. He was an inspirational figure, and I was glad also that The Daily Telegraph similarly accorded him a half-page tribute written by Harry Phibbs, who was part of George’s network of couriers, who also did so much to keep the flame of freedom alive in Russia. George died too young, but among those who knew him and among those who have a dim perception of some of the work that went on below the surface to undermine Soviet communism, he will be honoured as a hero.
The other person whom I lost was my father, Samuel Lewis, who died at exactly this time last year. He died on 16 December at the great age of 95. On the day he died, I spoke in a debate, because I had undertaken to do so, and I am glad to find myself speaking again on the first anniversary of his passing. The best tribute that I can give to a man who worked as a tailor for 71 years and who, like my friend George Miller, never earned any real money, is to go on doing the work that I know he was proud to see me engaged in.
I well remember being sworn in to serve in the House in 1997. My father was 84 and sitting in the Gallery. I mentioned that to Speaker Boothroyd. She said to me, “Well, I think we’ll make an exception. Normally we are not supposed to pay any attention to anyone outside the boundaries of the Chamber, but as this is a special occasion, let’s give him a wave.” So Speaker Boothroyd and I made that little gesture to my dad, and I know he was very touched and satisfied by it.
Both George and Sam—George with his too short life and Sam with his very long life—had one great benefit: almost till the end, they kept full command of their faculties. My father’s short-term memory was shot, but right up until the day he died, he was still very much himself. What I want to talk about in this short contribution to the debate is what happens when one’s faculties and one’s personality are affected by illness—mental illness—at too early an age.
I have spoken in Adjournment debates and in Westminster Hall debates recently about the activities of the Hampshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in respect of the supposedly temporary closure of the psychiatric intensive care unit at Woodhaven hospital in my constituency. It is called Ellingham ward and it provides a vital service. It has been “temporarily” closed and a specialist team has been dispersed. I intend to continue in the months and, hopefully, years ahead, if the general election gives me another mandate to do so, to campaign and fight to make sure that that ward is not lost.
As a result of that campaign, I have been contacted by people who were involved in another specialist unit, known as the student mental health team. It was operated by the Southampton City primary care trust for the benefit of students in Southampton and Solent universities. Those include a number of my constituents. In a nutshell, that specialist team was set up in 1997 and did valuable work saving young lives for a decade, but after those 10 years it was decided by the Southampton City PCT and the Hampshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which provides the adult mental health services for the whole of our area, that it would be better to transfer the team from the one to the other. It was alleged and assured at the time that nothing really would change. However, not long after the transfer, we find that the team has been dismantled and its personnel have been, for the most part, made redundant. The students have lost an important service and a lifeline.
The point about the student mental health team is that students went to see them as a secondary care service. In other words, the students were pretty ill—in danger of overdosing or doing other things that might lead to suicide. As one member of the team said, they dealt with complex, serious stuff: students with bipolar syndrome or manic depression, psychosis—students in crisis. There were five therapists plus an administrator.
The measure of the seriousness of the team’s work comes from the document that the Southampton City primary care trust and the Hampshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust produced when the service was transferred from one to the other. The document stated:
“The Student Mental Health Service is a very dynamic and experienced team who undertake complex and specialised clinical work. The team consist of highly skilled practitioners… Since its inception the student mental health service has seen a significant growth in the number of students seen with severe and enduring mental health problems including personality disorders, psychosis, bipolar disorder, OCD”—
obsessive compulsive disorder—
“eating disorders, self-injurious behaviours and”—
I cannot stress these words too much—
“high risk cases including clients with active suicidal behaviours.”
The document continued, stating that
“this is a good time for the Student Mental Health Service to move to the Hampshire Partnership Trust as provider of the service. It will enable the integration of the Student Mental Health Service as a discrete specialist service”—
a separate specialist service—
“within the totality of the Mental Health Provision in Southampton.”
As a result of that, the document also referred to the people who are seen as those who suffer from
“severe and complex Mental Health problems”.
All that makes it absolutely clear that the service was for young people who were seriously ill. However, I have, as always, given the Hampshire Partnership trust an opportunity to explain why it has done what it has done, and Mr. Nick Yeo, the head of the trust, said that it was
“part of a new development”
to set up a scheme called IAPT, or improving access to psychological therapies. IAPT, the letter states,
“is a therapy based service aimed at providing for the adult population, including students of Southampton…covering steps 2/3 of the stepped care approach,”
which I will explain in a moment. Mr. Yeo went on to say that the service was put out to tender, Dorset Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust won and it is now a matter for that organisation. The trouble with all that, however, is that the student service never was a step 3 service. A step 3 service is for people with moderate to mild mental health problems, but the student service was at least a step 4 service, which is for moderate to severe and complex mental health problems where serious interventions are necessary and there is a serious risk to life.
The service was transferred from one provider to another and eventually ended up with the Dorset trust, which supplies the new service called IAPT. However, IAPT, as it has been explained to me, is only a primary care service for people with basic anxiety and depression; it is not geared for complex and serious cases. The students will therefore have to take their chance with the ordinary community mental health care teams who go out in general for people with severe problems in society; there will be no specialist treatment for students whatever. The trouble is that that service, which is not supplied by the Dorset trust but continues to be supplied by the Hampshire trust, is already bursting at the seams. Yet all the students who used to go to the student service were people who were so ill that it is beyond doubt that they would never have been accepted for the IAPT service that has now been transferred to Dorset.
In effect, what has happened is the destruction of a specialised service for seriously ill young people in the Southampton area. At the time when the service was set up, it was said that it was intended for severely ill people. It has been transferred out of existence by being merged with a service that is not for severely mentally ill people, with the result that four of the five therapists have been made redundant. The effect of that is disastrous. Those who self-harm, those who are suicidal, and those who suffer from enduring mental health problems will not get a service. It has been closure by the back door; nobody has noticed it or understood it because it has been a process of institutional manoeuvring and covert destruction.
I am sorry to have brought up such a grim subject at what should be a happy time of the year, but I hope that by my doing so the media in the Southampton area will take an interest and young lives will be saved that would otherwise be lost.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). This is an opportunity for me to raise two important issues, one substantive and one slightly less so.
I begin with my grave misgivings about the proposals by the Ministry of Justice and the chief executive of the Land Registry, the chief land registrar, to close five Land Registry offices in the so-called greater south-east. Bizarrely, that includes the loss by compulsory redundancy of 302 jobs in Peterborough by September 2011—a timetable that may preclude my constituents, if they are made compulsorily redundant, from receiving as advantageous severance payments as people doing equal jobs in three other Land Registry offices.
Last month, I had the opportunity to speak to the chief land registrar, Peter Collis. I also had a round-table meeting with a couple of dozen members of staff in the Peterborough office, at Touthill close in the city centre, on 25 November. There is significant concern about the evidential basis that is being used by the Land Registry in putting forward the business case that was published by Ministers on 22 October 2009. The former chief land registrar, John Manthorpe, has prepared a detailed document called the accelerated transformation programme, which I commend to the House. That document puts a very different slant on the information provided by the Land Registry. Mr. Manthorpe—who is, incidentally, a gentleman who served with distinction in his position from 1985 to 1996—has described the plans for closures as
“quite disproportionate and unnecessarily expensive”,
based as they are on the historically low level of property and mortgage market activity. I will focus my remarks on the implications for the Land Registry office in Peterborough; no doubt other hon. Members will argue the case for their own Land Registry offices in Stevenage, Portsmouth, Croydon and Tunbridge Wells. Mr. Manthorpe has provided those Members with his detailed rebuttal document.
The current proposals pay no heed to the long-term experience of the staff at the Peterborough Land Registry office who are to be forced to accept compulsory redundancy, at considerable cost to the public purse. Under Mr. Manthorpe’s alternative plan, all 19 current offices would remain open, with a continuation of the natural wastage programme through retirements, resignations and transfers to other Government offices and departments such as Jobcentre Plus and English Nature in the city, plus the continuance of the highly successful voluntary severance scheme, and the sale and lease of surplus office capacity across the entire Land Registry estate nationally.
At present, the Land Registry business case bizarrely advocates the recruitment of 594 new, inexperienced staff across the 12 retained offices post-2011, but the removal of 1,500 experienced, dedicated and skilled staff by compulsory redundancy at a cost to the Exchequer of £186 million. Those plans do not stand up to scrutiny and are wrong-headed, short-sighted and flawed, as I will demonstrate with particular reference to premises, staffing, the implications of the Lyons review and the economic impact on the city of Peterborough.
We all accept that the building occupied by the Peterborough Land Registry office is too big and expensive for the staff complement currently occupying it, and the Government must of course address issues of cost and surplus estate. However, there is capacity to let the excess space to other Departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The lease expires in 2013 and will need to be paid whether or not the building is occupied after 2011. Early surrender of the lease would be at a premium.
Valuation Office Agency data show that in rental terms, Peterborough is significantly less expensive than many other localities. Headline rental values are £125 per square metre in the city, compared with £145 in Leicester, £150 in Nottingham, £240 in Croydon and more than £1,000 in central London. There is no reason why the Peterborough office would not be able to move to alternative, smaller rental premises in the city on the expiry of the lease in 2013.
Peterborough city council and the East of England regional assembly published a study in August 2004 that maintained that it was an ideal location for civil servants locating out of London and the south-east under the auspices of the 2004 Lyons review. The case for maintaining an office in Peterborough is that it would be considerably cheaper than maintaining one in London, and the office in Peterborough already has the necessary IT, telephone and furniture requirements for such a relocation. In the view of the property consultancy King Sturge, in its report for Sir Michael Lyons, and according to the Lyons review and the Office of Government Commerce guidance, it makes sense for the head office functions to be located in the existing Peterborough office. That would reduce the Land Registry’s underlying cost base. The Peterborough building is leased and there is no capital asset value to be unlocked, and it would otherwise be a continuing drain on resources through redundancy payments. We are talking about people’s jobs, including older workers who have shown dedication and loyalty over the years to this important work. It is about human capital and human resources, and especially lawyer resources. Lawyers are extremely expensive for the Land Registry to recruit and train.
In short, the Lyons review has been interpreted wrongly in the Land Registry’s business case. It can be argued that in order to comply with the review, it is not necessary to close the Peterborough office. It is wrong to allocate a so-called red marking to the office to suggest that it is non-compliant with the Lyons agenda. By that I mean that Peterborough has been allocated a position as part of the greater south-east, but it is not Oxford, Milton Keynes, Hampshire or Kent. It is on the border with the east midlands, in the eastern region. It is not in the greater south-east, and there was a misapprehension about that in the decision taken and the case made for closure. I am glad that the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) is no longer in his place, because if the criteria had been correctly applied, both the Nottingham and Leicester offices would have been deemed more suitable for closure than Peterborough. The case for closing Peterborough in preference to other offices has not been correctly made.
The closure of the Peterborough Land Registry office will have a significant impact. I will be presumptuous enough to speak for my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), who is my neighbour. Many of his constituents will be affected, and no doubt he will add his own words in his closing remarks. Of all the proposed office closures, the Peterborough one will cause the greatest pain to staff, due to the limited employment prospects in comparable work in the city, with no capital gain to the organisation.
It is understood that advice was sought by the accelerated transformation programme team on the basis of socio-economic profiling of the areas that currently have a Land Registry presence and with reference to the Government’s regeneration framework, to which all Departments are signed up and which OGC is keen to see applied in decisions on the location of Government agencies. Although it is apparent from DCLG advice that the level of deprivation in Peterborough is not the same as that in Hull or Birkenhead, the local economy and job market should be carefully considered. Peterborough is a city with significant areas of deprivation. One area, Dogsthorpe ward, is among the most deprived in England, some other parts of the city are within the 3 per cent. most deprived and a further seven are deemed to have high levels of deprivation.
The east of England region may be seen on some indexes as comparatively affluent, but it is important properly to assess the characteristics of specific locations. Currently, the male unemployment rate in the city of Peterborough is 10.1 per cent. We have seen significant job losses over the past two years, involving companies such as Pearl Assurance, Peterborough city council, Freemans, the catalogues company, Perkins Engines, Norwich and Peterborough building society and Ideal Shopping Direct, the home shopping channel. Others will empathise with the fact that Woolworths and other retail outlets have closed. In short, the social dynamic, and the economic impact and ramifications, have not been taken fully into account when Peterborough has been compared with other parts of the country. A blunt instrument has been used. That is a dismal picture to paint for the dedicated and hard-working Land Registry staff.
I hope that the Minister answers my questions in her winding-up speech, and that she discusses the matter seriously with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, because the proposals do not stand up to scrutiny. They are ill conceived and short-termist, and Ministers should reject them. The people of Peterborough who have given their dedicated service to the Land Registry over the years should be allowed to make their case—it is coherent and cost-neutral to the Exchequer—and to continue their good work.
In the time left to me, I shall raise an important matter that affects only a relatively small number of people, but which is vital to them, their lives and their future prospects. On Saturday, a lady whom I shall call Mrs. W came to my surgery. She is a trained nursery nurse. About three years ago, she worked in a care home. One day in 2006, a lady who worked with her, who was off duty, came into the care home and accused Mrs. W of roughly handling a patient. Mrs. W was immediately reported to the manager and suspended on full pay. She denied roughly handling the elderly patient, but was quite rightly subjected to a proper disciplinary process and took her Unison representative along. Due process was observed and Mrs. W was completely exonerated from the charge of inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour and of roughly handling the lady concerned.
However, the story does not have a happy ending, because a misinterpretation of section 113 of the Police Act 1997 means that the statement made by the then manager of the Bupa facility—I will not name it or say what area of the city it is in—remains in Mrs. W’s Criminal Records Bureau records. She subsequently left the facility later in 2006 and trained to be a nursery nurse. However, even though she really wants to do that job, she has been unable to secure employment because no one will take a chance after they have seen the statement in the CRB record.
It is in the gift of the chief constable of Cambridgeshire to change that statement or remove it completely. Until something is done, that woman cannot secure employment, and it cannot be right that people can be accused of something, completely exonerated and return to work, but when they want to change jobs a sword of Damocles—in the form of a tangential reference—is held over their heads for years to come, blighting their lives. I have another constituent, a schoolmaster, who is in exactly the same position. Rightly, he is very angry and bitter about the aspersions that have been cast on him. In his case, it was disciplining a teenage girl pupil that got him into difficulty. I hope that the Minister will address that issue.
Finally, I wish everyone well, especially my constituents, John and Rosie Sandall, who are travelling to Ukraine for the 26th time in 20 years to take money and presents to needy children whose families suffered in the terrible Chernobyl tragedy in 1986. I also look forward to helping to serve the Christmas dinner, with turkey and all the trimmings, with the Salvation Army at Bourges boulevard in Peterborough on Christmas day to help the needy and elderly of the New England and Millfield areas. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all officers and Members of the House a happy Christmas.
Like other hon. Members, I wish to raise local issues, but first I want to talk about an international issue. In 2003, this Parliament voted to invade Iraq. That was an illegal invasion and a disastrous decision. In 2003, I was one of the MPs—as were all of my colleagues—who voted against that invasion. I also came down to London one Sunday shortly before the vote, with my then nine-year-old daughter and 1 million other people, to march outside this building to protest against what was clearly about to happen.
Hans Blix and his team of UN weapons inspectors had spent some months going to more than half—some 60 per cent.—of the sites that the British and US intelligence services had identified as possible sites for WMD, and they had found nothing. Hans Blix reported that openly and publicly, and he said that if he had another three months, they could finish going to all the sites, but that they expected to find nothing. Instead, of course, we took a different course of action.
Already we are seeing, in the early days of the Chilcot inquiry, evidence confirming the view that many of us had back in 2003 that the flimsy evidence of an Iraqi taxi driver and an online student dissertation was sexed up to make a false case for war. We now have the vision of the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, appearing on television and admitting openly that he would have taken this country to war anyway, regardless of what case could or could not be made on WMD. But only days before the vote that took us into Iraq, he stood at the Dispatch Box and told this House that if Saddam Hussein and his sons were willing to give up their weapons of mass destruction, they could stay in power. Tony Blair categorically stated that it was not about regime change, but about WMD. How can someone give up WMD that they do not possess because they do not exist?
The Iraq war—a wrong and illegal war—went ahead. It alienated the Muslim world which, only 18 months earlier, had largely rallied around the US after the disgraceful 9/11 attacks. It led to 500,000 to 600,000 people in Iraq dying by UN estimates and up to 1 million dying by other estimates. Bombings continue to wreak havoc in Baghdad and across Iraq, as we saw tragically only a few days ago. Iraq became a recruiting sergeant for international terrorism.
On the other hand, the Afghan war in 2001 was different. The Afghanistan invasion was justified and legal, and as a newly elected MP at the time I argued that case against the Stop the War coalition at a public meeting in Chesterfield. Eighteen months later, I argued at a similar public meeting that the Iraq war was wrong.
Afghanistan was justified because 9/11 had been planned and executed from safe bases there, and of course there had been attacks around the world before 9/11, most notably on the US embassy in Kenya where the American targets were missed and 60 Africans, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, were cold-bloodedly slaughtered. The great majority of the Muslim world rallied around and supported the USA after the disgraceful 9/11 attack, and supported the invasion of Afghanistan.
In general, the coalition troops who went into Afghanistan were welcomed in much of the country as liberators, not just by the Kurds and the Northern Alliance, but in many other parts of the country. But then all attention was taken away from that country and disastrously diverted to the illegal invasion of Iraq—the eye was taken off the ball. Eight years later—almost as long as world war one and world war two put together—the Government say that they will provide enough helicopters and armoured patrol vehicles by next year and train up the Afghan forces to take over from western troops some time in the future.
What on earth have the Government been doing for the past eight years? Why did they not provide enough helicopters at some point over the past eight years? Why did they not provide suitable armoured patrol vehicles over the past eight years? Why did they not embark on a serious, large-scale programme of training up Afghan security forces so that they could do the jobs currently done by western troops over the past eight years? Why have they waited until now to say, “We’ll do it for next year”? It is too late. It is eight years too late. If we send our servicemen and women out to risk their lives, they should be properly equipped from the start, not eight or nine years in.
Chesterfield has been relatively lucky so far in that, as far as I know, we have only had one death in the armed forces in Afghanistan. However, others have been injured, some of them disabled for life. The young man who died, Ben Ford, was 19. I was about to call him a young boy because he was exactly the same age as my son. They were in the same year group at the same school, and when my son was 19, I still thought of him—wrongly, I suppose—as a boy. Ben Ford died because his Snatch Land Rover was blown up by an improvised explosive device. Had it been a properly armoured patrol vehicle, he might have survived. Neither did the vehicle have any electronic warfare counter measures—the sort of measures that can intercept the radio signals that set off IEDs from a distance via remote control. Had it been properly equipped, he might have survived.
Military personnel know, when they join the armed forces, that they risk their lives—that is part of the job—but they should be entitled to know that they are being sent with the best equipment possible and for a clearly defined and legal purpose and objective, and that the politicians in charge are fully focused on the endgame that will end the conflict, not that after eight years the Government will suddenly wake up to the drift that has characterised this country’s presence in Afghanistan since 2001. It is a drift that has led to unnecessary deaths.
On more local issues, last Wednesday, I and other Derbyshire MPs met a wide-ranging delegation that included the police and fire authorities, and various councils, including Chesterfield borough council and North East Derbyshire, Bolsover and South Derbyshire district councils. They came to lobby us on various issues. Also, this morning, I met the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) to discuss the chronic underfunding of Chesterfield borough council as a result of the Government’s bus fare scheme.
What was the common thread between those two meetings, two weeks apart and covering a range of councils, police and fire authorities, and bus fares? It was that none of that lobbying involved any special pleading. Nobody was asking for something extra or for what other people did not have. Nobody was saying, “Give us something new. Give us more on top.” Each lobbying group—whether a council, fire brigade, police authority, Chesterfield borough council or with an interest in bus fares—was saying, “Give us the money that you as a Government say that we should have but will not give to us.”
I will provide an explanation, although hon. Members will be familiar with the details. Derbyshire police are underfunded by £5 million a year. It is not the police saying that; it is the Government. However, the Government will not give the police that £5 million a year. The fire service in Derbyshire is less badly affected than the police are, but it is also underfunded. All the councils in Derbyshire, from the district and borough councils up to the county council, are also underfunded, according to the Government’s own figures.
Many hon. Members will be familiar with the f40 campaign, which I was part of as a councillor, long before I was elected as an MP. When the Government were first elected in 1997, the f40 campaign was promised that the problem of shire counties in particular being badly underfunded by the complex formula used to devise central Government funding would be resolved. In 2006, the Government finally revised the funding formula. From 2006, they said, “Yes, you should have more money”—you being the police authority, the fire service or the council—“but you can’t have it, because of the floors and ceilings in operation.” Derbyshire police, which is the fifth worst funded police force in the country and has hundreds fewer police officers than equivalent shire counties such as Nottinghamshire or Durham, therefore continues to suffer.
In 2008, the Government introduced an excellent national bus fare scheme, which is of great value in enhancing older people’s lives, but they failed to fund it properly for around 30 of the 263 authorities that were involved. At first the Government just denied that there was a problem, although I am pleased to say that the meeting that I had this morning with the Transport Minister was much more positive than the one that I had last year with his predecessor. Last year the Government denied that there was a problem; this year they have accepted that there is one. They are proposing to give Chesterfield borough council and the other 30 authorities that have been badly hit their money for next year, from 1 April 2010, although that is not a guarantee, because other councils that were given too much money are complaining bitterly that they do not want that money taken away from them.
How do councils deal with that general situation, involving the police, the fire service, bus fares, council funding and so on, when 75 per cent. of funding for local authorities basically comes from the Government grant, not the local council tax? Most local voters simply do not understand that. How do local authorities deal with things when the direction on how to spend most of that money comes from central Government, rather than from local decision taking? Local voters just do not understand that. If the Government refuse to pay up, as they have in all the cases that I have mentioned, what can the local authority do?
In Surrey, where the police force was in the same situation with its funding, the decision was made to increase the council tax by more than the recommended level. There was a wide consultation with the public and businesses, who said, “Yes, we’d rather increase the council tax than have fewer police on the beat,” and as a result a cap was introduced.
Derbyshire police force has gone down the same route, consulting widely and receiving overwhelming feedback from across Derbyshire saying, “Yes, we’d rather pay more council tax than cut our police force,” which is already the fifth worst funded in the country. However, the Government have said, “No, you can’t take that decision. We don’t care what local people, local councils or the police force say in Derbyshire; we’re going to underfund you. And, to rub your nose in it, we’re going to cap you.” That means that Derbyshire is facing the loss of front-line police officers next year, when it is already one of the lowest staffed forces in the country, albeit a very efficient one.
In the short term, the Government should solve the problem by providing the money that they say those councils should have for those services, but which they will not provide them with. In the longer term, but not after too long—this should happen as soon as the next general election is over—the next Government should reverse the whole system. We are so centralised that 90 per cent. of the taxation raised is taken to London and then handed out with strings attached. The Government in London try to micro-manage everything that councils do and everything that schools do, through Ofsted, league tables and the national curriculum.
That should be reversed, and it is not what happens in the rest of the western world. It does not happen anywhere else in Europe, apart from Malta, which is a small island and can be excused, nor does it happen in Canada, the USA or Australia. As with proportional representation, we are the odd ones out. So the rest of the world has got it wrong and we have got it right? I do not think so. The Government should change the system to the benefit of democracy in this country—and, for that matter, for more efficient local government.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) mentioned the Oneplace reports that are online. From the sounds of it, the report for Chesterfield was much more optimistic than the one for Leicester, but two things in it stood out. The first was that, in talking about the problems facing Chesterfield borough council, which was praised for its work on boosting the open-air market, attracting employers, bucking the recession to some extent and doing a grand job in all sorts of ways, the report pointed out—over and over, on the first five of the nine pages in the report—that the council faces a huge problem because of the underfunding of bus fares. Last year and this year, 11 per cent. of the council’s budget was diverted not into anything to do with the borough council, but into paying for the Government’s underfunded scheme. I hope that the Government will rectify that next year, but there is no mention at all of paying back the £3.5 million that has been taken away in the past two years, much to the detriment of Chesterfield services.
The report states:
“Councillors must decide soon where to get the necessary investment of around £43.8 million to bring its council houses up to the required standard”.
Where indeed? The Government will not provide that money. They will not give back the rent, the right-to-buy money or the money that they have taken away from Chesterfield over the years to pay housing benefits and to build the Olympic infrastructure in London. They are not going to give any of that back, so where is the money to come from?
The council could go to an arm’s-length management organisation, which is one of the Government’s options, but the ALMOs are now being told that they cannot have any money either. The only option is complete privatisation, by handing housing over to the housing associations. As with nearly half the councils around the country, however, 70 per cent. of the people of Chesterfield have said no to privatisation. What is the council to do in the face of policies from a Government who say, “If you don’t privatise and transfer out, we will effectively starve you out by taking money away from your council rents and not allowing you to maintain your stock in the way that the people of Chesterfield want”?
I want to talk about several matters affecting my constituents on which there have been recent decisions, reviews or consultations. If I have time, I want to cover student funding, the outcome of the Walker review on water metering and charging, and capital funding for schools and housing.
Before I turn to those matters, however, I want to talk about Efford, the community in my constituency that I mentioned at Prime Minister’s questions today. As I said then, that community has been strong and resilient in the face of six months of very distressing press coverage about the nursery worker who was given an indeterminate sentence yesterday for her horrible crimes against children at Little Ted’s nursery in my constituency. Like most of my constituents, I am pleased that she was given an indeterminate sentence. The tariff for crimes of this nature simply does not deal with people’s feelings of disgust, anger, loathing and incomprehension at such an unbelievable breach of trust, and such evil behaviour.
Every Member of the House faces the difficult job of explaining why judges and sentencing are independent of the role of MPs, and also distanced from the Government and Ministers. Democracy and the rule of law demand that that be so, and anyone who stops to think about it can see why that is the case. No one would want politicians to be able to interfere with sentencing. As a female colleague said to me earlier today, that would set us on the road to becoming a banana republic. In the context of what has happened in Efford, however, it is sometimes difficult to deal with people’s deep-seated anger and the emotions that are aroused by these events, and it is not easy to explain the rather dry subject of the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
There is one thing that I can do, however. That is to commit myself to making it a top priority to ensure that the serious case review, which will produce its conclusions in the next month or two, learns lessons from this situation, for the sake not only of the 100 or more families in Efford who have suffered over the past six months, but of every parent in this country who wants to ensure that nursery care is of a high quality. The review has already been at work for several months, and its findings have been delayed to ensure that the views of the affected families could be taken into account. It was right to delay it, because serious case reviews benefit hugely if the experience of close family members are taken into account.
Efford is a strong and resilient community. It has at its heart the Heart of Efford Community Partnership, and I want to pay tribute in particular to its chair, Kath Hancock, who has done amazing work over the past six months in providing a link between the people of Efford and the public services.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) just mentioned the Oneplace assessment. In fact, Plymouth has received one of the few green flags handed out for the way in which it has handled several crises, this most recent crisis being one of them.
I am really pleased that there is to be a new primary school in Efford; no community could deserve it more. The two schools of Highfield and Plym View have come together as High View in one of the old premises while the new one is built. Last week I attended the nativity play there, and I wish I could have bottled and taken away the energy and the confidence of those young children. They gave a very professional performance, many of them good enough to appear in musicals on the London stage; it was a real tonic to be able to share that with them. Incidentally, I was lobbied by a member of the school council about getting some funding to visit Parliament and see how it works. I hope that we can arrange that next year. It was also very good to be able to welcome the Thames Gardens and Horseshoe residents associations here in Parliament earlier this week.
I now want to deal with student fees. The Government promised that the current policy on tuition fees and funding would be reviewed after the first cohort of students studying under the system had graduated. That means now. The timing ensures that, far from anyone sneaking things through, this issue will be very much in the spotlight as we approach the next election. When the National Union of Students recently lobbied us, they presented me, and, I suspect, other Members with large student communities, with a copy of “Funding Our Future”—a blueprint with some really interesting ideas in it. I instinctively like the idea of having a trust, which they put forward, although I have a range of questions, particularly about the costings and whether the proposals will take into account the position of women, who seem to me to be better taken care of under the present arrangements than under the proposed new ones. I am open-minded about suggestions at this stage; I recently met some of my local university of Plymouth student union officers, and I hope to meet others to discuss the matter.
At the time when fees were introduced, I was interested in the graduate tax approach to dealing with student funding, and I am pleased that the Government review is wide and will, I hope, be able to look at the proposals being made. I would love to see stronger student representation on the review panel; the National Union of Students is making a case for that. There is a student representative, albeit not one in which it has total confidence, and I think that that representation could do with some strengthening.
I am pleased that there has been a 67.3 per cent. increase in the number of students going to university over the past 10 years—435 from my constituency this year, compared with 260 in 1997. It is an important debate to have, as we must continue to find a way to support and fund our higher education institutions. Although I am delighted that so many young people are now able to access higher education and have the qualifications to do so, we must also ensure that the higher education institutions have the funding that they need to maintain their high standards of tuition. The UK, of course, has—or at least, had until recently—23 of the world’s top 100 universities. I attended a breakfast briefing, which discussed the challenges faced in some of the devolved areas where universities with a different set of student funding arrangements are struggling to keep up with the funding they need to maintain their position in the global league tables.
Similarly, we must ensure that other forms of student support are adequately funded and resourced, as highlighted by the recent problems with handling student finance applications. None of this comes cheaply, and it is important to remember that more public money is spent on universities than on any other level of education, with some three quarters of the cost of higher education borne by the taxpayer. I am lobbied for better funding by representatives of pre-school, primary and secondary education as well as further education—and that is, of course, only the education sector.
I believe that the United Kingdom university system represents good value for money when our fees are compared with university fees internationally. Those of us who from time to time have American interns passing through our offices know that the costs in America are amazing compared with ours, although it goes without saying that I am not suggesting that we want the United Kingdom system to become like the American one. We should bear in mind that there has been a large increase in the number of students applying for part-time or shorter courses, and that those students may include people with families to look after.
Apart from climate change, perhaps our biggest challenge for the future is the skills race. We need to maintain our excellence in those fields. Fewer jobs will be manual or unskilled. If Britain is to remain competitive in the world economy, the development of a skilled and highly trained professional work force is key. For every five manual jobs today, there will be only one in 2020. Further education has a vital role to play in the development of vocational skills, along with renewed emphasis on apprenticeships and, of course, business funding.
I am pleased that the final report of the Walker review has at long last been published. I am also pleased that, having examined the economic, social and geographical circumstances of the South West Water area, the review team has concluded that current bills in the south-west relate to the poor state of the sewerage assets at the time of privatisation, and that 20 years ago—as many of us have said for a long time—the Conservative privatisation was badly botched. To address the root cause directly would need a specific one-off adjustment of £650 million, or annual transfers funded either by Government or by other water customers across the country. None of that will be easy to achieve. Anna Walker suggests that Ofwat would be best placed to consider the options for implementing either a one-off or another kind of adjustment, and advising Ministers accordingly.
Last week I met the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I am pleased to say that he has wasted no time in asking Ofwat to investigate Anna Walker’s proposals and report to him. He has been very helpful both to me and to other Members of Parliament from Devon and Cornwall—predominantly Liberal Democrats, but also my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)—who have campaigned relentlessly throughout this and previous Parliaments.
The Government’s recent decision to give the go-ahead for Plymouth to spend £78 million through the Building Schools for the Future programme on secondary schools and to upgrade ICT equipment has been very welcome. We were originally to receive it in five years’ time, but I campaigned, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport—and we were pleased that our case was recognised following a visit from the Minister for Schools and Learners earlier this year.
The decision is a real boost for the whole community. Good schools not only shape the future of our children but help everyone in the locality, and the jobs involved in the building work will be very welcome too. This is exactly the sort of news that it is good to receive just before Christmas. Tamarside community college will have 50 to 70 per cent. new build, Lipson community college will have 20 to 50 per cent. new build, Stoke Damerel college in my constituency will have 100 per cent. new build, John Kitto community college will have 50 to 70 per cent. new build,, and Sir John Hunt community college will have a major ITC programme. All that is very welcome.
We heard today that the Minister for Housing had shortlisted the Redrow Vision housing scheme in Devonport for a Kickstart grant of just under £3 million. That comes after funding was agreed a few weeks ago for Kerr street in Devonport and Cargo in Millbay. That is a real tonic for jobs in the city. Although 50 per cent. of the funding must be paid back to the Government, developers will have the cash that they need to get sites up and running again. There will be a rigorous final check before the final go-ahead, but 22,500 houses will be built nationally as a result of this Labour Government’s investment. We will continue to invest through the downturn, in order to secure both homes and jobs.
Within the last hour, we have learned of one final tonic: Plymouth has been chosen as one of the host cities in England’s 2018 World cup bid. If the bid is successful, that will bring huge opportunities, not only by promoting the strong tourist attractions of our city, but in terms of jobs and getting young people involved in the sport of football. I hope Members on both sides of the House, and people throughout the country, will join me in hoping that England’s bid to host that World cup is successful.
May I begin by adding my tribute to those who have been killed or wounded on active service in Afghanistan? My thoughts and sympathies are especially with the families who for the first time this Christmas will miss their loved ones. I think in particular of the family of Lance Corporal Richard Brandon, whose funeral was on 2 October, and at which his partner and fiancée moved us all to tears with her amazingly composed and courageous tribute to that serving soldier.
Having said that, the main purpose of my contribution this afternoon is to ask the Deputy Leader of the House to convey my serious concerns about the future of and what is happening at a school in my constituency. Baxter college in Kidderminster has been labelled a national challenge school without considered justification, and with potentially dire consequences. A consultation on replacing the college with a national challenge trust school has recently ended and a decision is due before Christmas, which is why a message must urgently be got through to the Minister for Schools and Learners.
To my knowledge, the school has an impressive history. I visited it first as an MP in 2001, when it was called the Harry Cheshire high school, and I was appalled. The graffiti, the behaviour of the kids, the untidy classrooms and the rowdyism were all unacceptable. The local authority spotted what was going on and did several things to improve it. First, it changed its name. Richard Baxter was a cleric in the 1600s who spent much of his time working in Kidderminster, and he was one of the earliest and most influential non-conformists—a very famous person, therefore, to lend his name to the school. The local authority also brought in an inspirational head teacher from elsewhere, who brought with him some expert teachers, and together the staff, the governors and the head have turned the school around. It is now a joy to walk around it: it is tidy, with no graffiti, and the behaviour is excellent. In the classes, there is an atmosphere of friendship, co-operation and learning.
On the filing cabinet in the headmaster’s office are the following words:
“Passion, flexibility, camaraderie, integrity and kindness.”
That is exactly what the school exemplifies. He has increased the number of pupils from just over 400 to more than 1,000, and the sixth-form cohort from just 23 to 150. The proportion of five grade A* to C GCSEs achieved when he took over the school in 2003 was 13 per cent. By 2007, he had increased that to 54 per cent. The letters that I was receiving from parents pleading that they should not have to send their children to this failing school have completely stopped; people are now pleased that their children go there. Ofsted rates the school as satisfactory, and it has received awards from Investors in People and the national training centre of excellence.
Significantly, with six other secondary schools in my area and with Kidderminster college, Baxter college is a member of a new trust that started on 1 September 2008—the ContinU trust. People are amazed that that possibly unique example of co-operation between eight educational establishments allows them to share their services and to build up their expertise in one thing and share it across all the senior pupils in my area. When I walked past Kidderminster college recently, I noticed a sign saying, “ContinU transport pick-up point”. The trust even has transport to take the students between these schools to receive their specialist lessons. Secondary education is developing with co-operation between the schools and the college in my area.
However, when I made a routine visit on 23 October to see the head of Baxter college—this was not at his request—I was staggered to see that he was not his usual bright, cheerful self. He gave me the news that not only had the college been labelled a national challenge school, because of one slip—I will explain why the results declined for that one year—but that there was a proposal to push it into a national challenge trust. That would mean that it would be abolished in name and would become a trust with another school. At first sight, that appeared to be cut and dried, and hard to contest, but nobody at government level appreciates exactly what the new head, staff and governors have done—as I have said, the improvement in the school has been staggering. I am not criticising the chief executive of the county council or its director of children’s services, because they are both relatively new appointments and they did not know what the school was like before all this happened. However, the proposal is an absolute kick in the teeth for the head, the governors, the staff and the pupils, who have transformed the school. Even worse, this inspirational head has been taken by the same education authority to pull round schools in other parts of the county, and he has done so successfully.
I come to the reasons for the blip. A review of education in Wyre Forest took us from a three-tier system to a two-tier one. In the first year of the new system, Baxter college had two years of children coming from five feeder schools, three of which are among the worst performing locally because of the deprivation of the area in which they are situated. Thus, Baxter college suddenly had to absorb 11 to 13-year-olds largely from poorly achieving schools. In addition, there was a tremendous shortage of maths teachers. Despite all those problems, this year the college has done well in A* to C GCSE results, including in English and Maths, and has got over these issues.
However, the college is still being forced into the educational trust. That has had a devastating effect on morale, staff and pupils, and governors have been sacked. There has also been an effect on prospective parents; I will again get letters from people who do not want their children to go to the school just because it has been labelled as “failing” in this way. Very significant is the effect on the ContinU trust, which, as I have said, is unique in its success. The school is being taken out of that trust, so it will no longer be co-operating in the same way.
There are even rumours and allegations that the school has been forced into this national challenge trust because of the effect, in some way, on the Building Schools for the Future programme—I do not know whether that is significant. I wrote to the Minister for Schools and Learners on 26 October to express my concern, and I also submitted my response to the consultation. I had a reply on 17 November, accepting my concerns but not offering any particular action or help. On 25 November, eight days later, I was staggered to receive a letter from the same Minister, giving me the news that the school would become a national challenge trust school, and asking: was I not delighted that it was going to be transferred into that form? The letter concluded:
“I am sure you will be delighted about this new development for Wyre Forest.”
I have never been a Minister, and I do not see many prospects of my becoming one, but I would have thought that even if the Minister could not remember that particular example, at least some of his staff would have realised that one cannot write to an MP only eight days after the last letter, congratulating him on something that he obviously deplored. I was very cross to read that. I have written back to the Minister and have not had a reply.
My aim in raising these issues after the consultation has ended but before the decision is made is to appeal to the Department to reconsider what the head, staff, governors and students have achieved and the consequences if the school is abolished and becomes a national challenge trust school—and even to consider reversing the proposal.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Any major change, particularly one affecting the morale of teaching staff and of other children, can have a disastrous effect. The college is being paired with a school in a village in another part of Worcestershire. I cannot see that the staff and the governors there have the same experience of coping with a school that takes children from disadvantaged areas.
Let me finish with some of the usual messages. I am very concerned for the children who visit my patch, because they go on the Severn Valley railway and meet Father Christmas, and they go to the safari park to see the white lion cubs and they meet Father Christmas. What do children think about Father Christmas these days when they can meet him everywhere they go?
I started my education right on the top of Ilkley moor and the temperature today reminds me of what it was like at my prep school. Those who were listening to the “Today” programme two or three days ago will have heard that the marvellous carol, “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night”, can be sung to the tune of “On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at”. Earlier on, before you took the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) threatened to play her mobile phone ring tone, with the tune from “Lakmé” which is, I think, something to do with British Airways. Until she did that, I was almost tempted to ask whether we could have a go at singing “While Shepherds Watched” to “On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at”, but I am sure that you would not approve of that. When hon. Members go home to carol services, it is worth asking whether they can have that tune.
I conclude by wishing a happy Christmas and a happy new year to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your staff, other hon. Members and, in particular, the staff who look after us in the Terrace cafeteria and—as a Member who does not have a Whip—the marvellous Doorkeepers, who tell me exactly what is going on and when.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), and I want to focus my remarks on issues that have been at the forefront of my constituents’ concerns over the past year.
Obviously, the recession has been one of the biggest problems that my constituents have faced, and I am sure that the same is true for the constituents of many, if not all, hon. Members. It has had a tremendous impact: I have spent a lot time speaking to local businesses in my constituency, and I continue to be very frustrated by the stories that I hear from viable concerns—the ones with sound order books that would be able to get through the recession if it were not for the threats hanging over them. Those threats include the possibility that their banks might suddenly withdraw credit, or charge huge interest on overdrafts.
Like many hon. Members, I have made many representations to the Chancellor about those threats, but it seems that the Government are unwilling to use their influence, even with those banks in which the state is a major shareholder, to get the banks lending to viable businesses. Some of the companies in my constituency have gone to the wall, with people made redundant as a result, and I would hate to see more viable businesses that could survive the recession having to suffer the same fate.
I have also been dismayed by the result of the recent court case on bank charges, and I know that that sentiment is widely shared. The banks charge punitive fees when a person goes even slightly overdrawn, and those fees compound because they are charged daily. The result is that a person who goes £1 overdrawn can accrue more than £100 in charges in just a few days.
The charges are not related to the cost of processing spontaneous overdrafts, and are just a way to claw back money. In fact, the overdraft charges make up a large proportion of banks’ profits, and they are often applied to very vulnerable people. Given the court decision, I would very much like the Government to bring forward legislation to ensure that banks are able only to levy fair charges that relate to the costs of the additional administration work incurred when people go overdrawn.
My hon. Friend may be aware that the point decided in the Abbey National case was a very narrow one. The Supreme Court gave a clear steer that the Government and Parliament may wish to revisit the matter, and that the Office for Fair Trading could bring proceedings under section 140 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Would she join me in making that call for early action?
I certainly would, and my hon. Friend makes his point very well indeed. This matter is something that requires urgent action, especially in a recession, from the Government and bodies such as the OFT.
I have mentioned redundancy, which has affected many of my constituents, but the fear of unemployment hanging over many people adds to stress and creates problems in the home. It is something that our constituents all face on a regular basis.
On a slightly more positive note, there has been good news on the unemployment figures in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire: a slight drop has been recorded in the past two months. I hope that that is a trend but fear that it may not be, as we all know that unemployment tends to be a lagging indicator in recessions. There could be more pain to come, especially given that there may be future strictures on the public sector.
A great many of my constituents employed in the civil service have been concerned by the proposed changes to the civil service compensation scheme and how their potential compensation if they were made redundant would be altered. I accept that the scheme needs to be amended, but the proposed changes are causing concern about the inequity between different types of workers. I hope that the Government will listen to the representations that are being made, and come forward with amended plans for the scheme.
The recession is hitting savers particularly hard. The low interest rates may be good for those with mortgages, but their effect is quite the opposite for people who rely on interest payments on their savings for their basic, day-to-day living. That is causing problems for many older people in my constituency in particular.
Many of those older people are also victims of the Equitable Life saga. They put their savings into a well respected institution, and I am one of many MPs to be frustrated in our attempts to make progress in this matter. I have called an Adjournment debate on the issue, and I have attended other Adjournment debates on it, including one secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). In addition, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has been very active on the matter, as have hon. Members on both sides of the House through the all-party group on Equitable Life.
It seems that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is continual delay, and we know that people with Equitable Life policies are dying before getting the opportunity to receive any possible compensation. I urge the Government to deal with the matter and to recognise that, when they have a parliamentary ombudsman and she has given a firm ruling on the issue, it makes sense that that should be followed.
East Dunbartonshire is often seen as an affluent constituency, but that does not mean that there is no poverty. It is often hidden. Pensioners in particular may live in a large house that has been their family home, but they face difficulties with fuel poverty in trying to heat that home, and with large council tax bills because the council tax system is not related to ability to pay and is very unfair.
We have had concerns for other elderly people in my area who require care at home or who are living in sheltered housing. Like some other local authorities, East Dunbartonshire council has tried to introduce charges for sheltered housing wardens, among other things. Wardens are an essential part of living in such accommodation, which helps people to maintain an independent life for far longer and is much better value than going into more supported accommodation. I know that local authorities will have difficulties balancing the budget during the recession, but I hope that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are not seen as the first port of call for savings. That would be very unjust indeed.
It is sometimes said that all politics is local. There have recently been various controversial local issues in my constituency. The Kilmardinny development is proposed for a piece of land between Milngavie and Bearsden in my constituency. Much of the land, such as the old bus station site, has been derelict for some years, although other parts of it have been used for golf and other purposes. People accept that the land should be developed, and the local council’s local plan suggested that 330 houses would be appropriate, but a proposal came forward for 550 houses, which is clear overdevelopment. Despite the proposal being overwhelmingly rejected by the local council more than two years ago, the decision will ultimately be taken by one unelected official, the reporter.
I see other hon. Members nodding. They will have had such experiences in their constituencies. In the case in East Dunbartonshire, the community gain is limited and the traffic improvements will probably only counter the increase in traffic problems that would come from the impact of an additional 550 houses on local roads. The £10 million planning gain for a new local leisure centre does not cover the £17 million cost, at least, of building such a centre. If the reporter recommends that the scheme go ahead under those conditions, the council could be put under pressure to accept a development that would leave it out of pocket.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she has had an extremely long day. I saw her very early this morning on television, and she was working late last night. In Wellingborough we have exactly the same issue. People are against the Wellingborough North development, the council is against it, and lo and behold, someone from the Government who knows nothing about it can overturn it. Does she agree that these decisions should be left to local councils?
Indeed. We also need some kind of appeals system. I am frustrated by the way the system works at present. It does not serve local interests well when the views of the people who know best—those who represent a local area—are overturned. I firmly believe that the Kilmardinny development as currently proposed should not and must not go ahead.
Elsewhere in my constituency, Tesco, which is well known in the context of planning, has a current application to expand its Milngavie store—to knock down the existing store and more than double it in size, in effect placing one of its Tesco Extra stores, I imagine, right next to the town centre. That is a massive expansion. I have surveyed my constituents on the matter—the 5,500 households affected in the town—and had more than 800 replies. The majority said that the proposed size of the store is far too big, and its location will result in its protruding more than 7 metres above the road, whereas at present it is set below the road and away from it, so it is not an eyesore on the landscape.
As is often the case with large supermarket developments, people are also concerned about the impact on local shops. We are still lucky in Milngavie to have a great range of independent stores, such as a butcher, an ironmonger, a fabulous independent bookshop, confectioners and others. More than doubling the size of a large supermarket in that vicinity could have a very negative impact on those shops. I hope that those concerns will be taken into account when the application is considered, although I must note that, from the experiences of other hon. Members, companies such as Tesco do not necessarily have a great track record when it comes to changing their plans.
In Bishopbriggs, the town centre is also being redeveloped, but again the plans seem to be arranged entirely around creating a Morrisons superstore and a large car park, rather than focused on other aspects that make up a town centre, such as community facilities. In fact, the proposals involve knocking down a sports hall that was built only a few years ago at significant expense—despite a group of volunteers in the community getting together and putting forward a business plan to run the hall for community gain, which is surely something that we should all encourage in our local areas. Nevertheless, that development has not received final approval, either, so I urge developers and the council to take heed of local concerns.
The situation is not all doom and gloom, however, and I should like to share an excellent example of community action in Kirkintilloch in my constituency. In 2003, a group of young people decided that they would like to have a skate park in the town. They got together with like-minded people and lobbied politicians, including me—although in 2003 I was standing for the Scottish Parliament. They lobbied MSPs and the council; they raised funds and managed to secure grants of £500,000; they were involved in community activities such as litter picks and gala days to raise their profile. Just a couple of weeks ago, the skate park opened. It has been well used—a healthy activity whereby young people can socialise and learn mutual respect.
I pay tribute to Susan Murray for driving forward the project, and to Alex Baylis, who is a skater. When he started out on the campaign, he was at school, and in the six years that it has taken to build the park he has gone through university, graduated and set up an increasingly successful band called the Acutones. Without those people and many other volunteers, the park would simply not have been possible.
I shall touch on a couple of national issues before concluding. I had hoped to raise the first in Prime Minister’s questions, but sadly time sped away and we just missed out on reaching my question on the Order Paper. It is the important issue of body image. Some Members will know that today the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint, made through a campaign website that I co-ordinated, about an advert that had been digitally retouched. The advert was for an Oil of Olay anti-wrinkle cream, and it is clearly misleading for such adverts to retouch wrinkles out of the picture.
I am glad that the ASA upheld that complaint, but there is a wider issue. There is a lot of academic evidence showing that the idealised and heavily retouched images that we see in the media damage the health and self-esteem of not only young people, but people of all ages and both women and men. I should like adverts to be labelled to show the extent to which they have been digitally retouched, and I very much hope to return to the issue in the new year and, possibly, to secure a fuller debate about the subject.
I should also like to mention political reform. We all accept that 2009 has been a somewhat difficult year for politics and democracy. Having had the expenses scandal, the public are understandably quite angry about what has happened, but I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that quite a lot of MPs are quite angry about what has gone on, too. I am sure that many of us were unaware of the extent to which expenses were being used for unexpected purposes. We need to grasp this opportunity to rebuild our politics and to make changes that make our politics much stronger in the long run. We must ensure that we make progress on reform of the House of Lords, for example, and the Prime Minister recently said that he was in favour of votes for 16-year-olds. That is Liberal Democrat party policy, Labour party policy and Scottish National party policy, so let us introduce either an amendment to existing legislation or a short Bill and put it into practice.
There have been private Members’ Bills on the right of recall, and there is increasing consensus on the issue. We should make such changes so that, if an MP is found to have done something wrong, their constituents have some power in between elections. They should not have to lump it; they should be able to take action and prompt a by-election. I strongly believe that electoral reform should be back on the agenda, as indeed should reform of this House.
I urge Members to look carefully at the Wright Committee proposals to help to ensure that the agenda of Parliament is set by a cross-party Committee—by Parliament rather than the Government—and that Select Committee Chairs are elected rather than stitched up in smoke-filled rooms. We should look at more ways in which the public can interact with Parliament; perhaps they can even initiate proceedings in Parliament, whether through suggestions for topical debates or other methods. The Wright proposals are not the entire solution, and they do not go far enough, but they are a step in the right direction. I welcomed Mr. Speaker saying earlier today, in response to a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), that he had no reason to believe that these proposals would not be coming to the House and, I hope, voted on in the new year. That will be a very important piece of reform for the House to get through.
I would like to give sincere thanks to the members of my staff—Hannah Wright, Karen Hurst, Jamie McHale and Mark MacDonald—who have been absolutely fantastic this year in helping me to serve my constituents through my Bishopbriggs and Westminster offices.
I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, colleagues and all the staff in the House a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Order. I think that three more hon. Members would like to participate. I therefore hope that they will suspend from their minds the idea that they have 15 minutes each, because we have to get the wind-ups in, starting at approximately half-past 6, if there are to be responses to all the speeches that have been made. I hope that those three Members will try to help each other.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Let me start by wishing everyone a happy Christmas and a good new year, because I am so infuriated by what I am about to talk about that I will probably forget to do it at the end.
This afternoon I read an article on the BBC website that it is important to mention here. It flagged up a programme that finished about seven minutes ago; it was on the World Service and intended for Africa. It was on a part of the website, newsforums.bbc.co.uk, which does what it says on the tin—it is a forum about the news. It lists the most popular topics that people are talking about at the moment. No. 1 is:
“What impact will the BA strike have?”
That is a topical issue, and I guess one could look at it either way. No. 3 is:
“When does self-defence go too far?”
No. 4 is:
“What are the chances of a deal at Copenhagen?”
No. 5 is: “Are airbrushed adverts misleading?” One could say that each of those issues is interesting, there could be a debate about it, and it could be seen both ways. No. 2 is: “Should homosexuals face execution?” That is not really a question to which one can answer anything other than no. It is one of those 10 million questions to which the answer is no, although I do not wish to make light of it.
The first person who has responded says, very sensibly:
“What kind of question is this?”
A whole bunch of people have responded; the string has now been closed to contributions. Someone who has grasped the issue very clearly says:
“I can’t believe I’m actually reading a debate on whether someone…should be executed, for their expressing their sexuality.”
Initially I was completely mystified as to why on earth the BBC would have put this string up. I have the privilege of being the chair of the all-party group on the Great Lakes region and genocide prevention. It has a couple of hundred members from this House and the other House. We are very active on issues to do with Africa, and we are aware that Uganda, sadly, is trying to put through a piece of legislation that would send people to jail for seven years if they are caught committing a homosexual act. Some people think that this will apply only if they have AIDS or HIV, but there is also a criterion whereby if they are a repeat offender they could be executed.
The BBC has chosen to deal with that issue by putting on its website a forum that asks us to consider and debate it, suggesting that one could see it both ways. Of course, it probably imagines that it is communicating mainly with people in Uganda and the rest of Africa. However, every person who has responded comes from somewhere else, such as Winchester, which is not known for being in Africa unless there is a Winchester in Uganda, and Alberta. N. F., a chap from Alberta, or perhaps it is a woman, writes:
“Can I move to Uganda? At least one country in the world is taking moral values seriously… It may sound extreme, but that shock value will allow more people to think about their actions beforehand.”
The BBC certainly engendered a bit of discussion on both sides of the argument.
My instinct is that the BBC has tried to tap into the kind of discussion that is going on in Uganda at the moment. We should be looking at it, as most people are, with abhorrence. President Museveni is tacitly encouraging a Back-Bench Bill that has a chance of becoming law and that is homophobic, brutal and savage. We should condemn it, and so should the BBC, just as we do sexual violence in the Congo or genocide in Rwanda or Darfur. Instead, the BBC seems to have thought it appropriate to come up with something that suggests that it is a subject for discussion. I believe that the BBC has done that because it is a subject for discussion in Uganda. But if it can do no more than suggest that there should be even-handed discussion—actually, it can and often does do more—there is something badly wrong.
As it happens, the BBC World Service does much fabulous work in Africa and across the world. It was recently closed down in Rwanda and the BBC spent a great deal of time and effort eventually getting the BBC Kinyarwanda service opened up there. Everyone recognises its great service to people who listen to it in the UK and across the world. However, there is something deeply wrong with the presentation on the website. As I said, it advertises a radio programme, which I have no doubt was mediated, and I am sure that whoever ran, produced and presented it tried to be even-handed in some way. I hope that they gave some sense that a decent, sensible debate about banning homosexuality and sending people to prison for it in Uganda should surely end up with our condemning it out of hand. That clearly has not happened on the website, and I hope that the BBC takes note.
It occurs to me that there is another result of what I consider to be this grave error by the BBC, which I suspect was made by someone fairly junior, because a more senior editor would have seen the problem before it went up on the website. The BBC knows who reads and responds to the website, and almost every person who has responded lives in England. One or two live abroad. It has engendered debate on the subject of whether we should execute homosexuals, and it has done so in Britain with UK taxpayers’ money.
I hope that the BBC will pay attention. I have had this opportunity to raise the matter, and perhaps that will have some modest impact. As I was sitting here I e-mailed Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, and I hope that others might be moved to do the same.
You will doubtless be relieved to hear that I will refrain from both activities, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
A number of hon. Members have paid tribute to the work of the emergency services, which will be working over the Christmas and new year period. So far, everybody who has referred to them has spoken of the fire, police and ambulance services. It pains me slightly that I have to remind the House that there is a fourth emergency service, the coastguard, which will also be on duty as we tuck into our turkey with the trimmings on Christmas day. It provides cover 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
That status as a forgotten emergency service vexes me somewhat, because the recent history of the coastguard service has not been happy. Last year, it came to the point at which members of the coastguard staff went on strike for the first time in their history. I know that that caused many of them real anxiety, because they see themselves as having a vocation and being there to provide a very important service for those of us who live in coastal and island communities and use the sea, either for leisure or our living. They were forced into that position because their pay and conditions had fallen behind those of comparable workers in other emergency services to such an extent that in the past few years the most junior grades have had to have pay settlements imposed on them, because otherwise their pay would have fallen foul of the minimum wage legislation. That is what we are paying the watch assistants, who are responsible for some of the most important, detailed and stressful work available to coastguards.
That is little short of a disgrace, but worse we have subsequently discovered from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s 2008-09 annual report that the same senior management and board members who insisted that the increase for watch officers and watch assistants could not go above the 2 per cent. ceiling set by the Government for public sector pay were in fact awarding themselves increases of, on average, 15 per cent. The chief executive of the MCA saw his wage increase from £127,000 per annum in 2007-08 to £137,000 in 2008-09. That adds insult to injury for very dedicated people who provide a crucial service, and highlights how the MCA has lost sight of its core functions and the sort of leadership that it needs and that is valued in constituencies such as mine. The morale of staff and many watch officers is through the floor, which can be seen from the turnover of staff. If I have a hope for the new year, it is that somebody will take control of the agency and introduce proposals that will allow the staff to be paid a wage that truly reflects the value of their work.
In my constituency, there is growing concern about the Government’s proposals for changes to the furnished holiday lettings rules. I hope the House will bear with me because the matter involves a fairly detailed piece of tax legislation—in all my years as a solicitor, I was never particularly fond of tax law, but it is important. At the moment, people who offer property as a furnished holiday let are entitled to a particular set of advantages under the furnished holiday lettings rules: any losses they incur can be treated as a trading loss and set against other income; capital allowances can be claimed on furniture and furnishings; any capital gain made on the disposal of furnished holiday letting property can be rolled over; and the deemed capital gain on the gift of a furnished holiday letting property can be held over.
The proposal is that furnished holiday lettings should be treated the same as ordinary let accommodation, which is to say that they will be treated as a furnished or unfurnished long let. Those who hold the advantage would make the case that they do more than just provide a furnished property. They would say that they provide laundry services, crockery and the full range of other services on a weekly or fortnightly basis, and that that sets them apart from those who provide normal let accommodation.
The matter is of particular importance to many in my constituency, because many who are engaged in letting the furnished holiday lets I have described are farmers. For as long as I can remember, we have been telling farmers that they need to diversify and find new ways of using their assets. Indeed, over the years, we have seen a massive decrease in the number of farm workers and the need for tied accommodation in farm cottages has also diminished, so for many farmers holiday letting has been an obvious diversification, and they have taken it on with great enthusiasm. They are now having the rug pulled out from under their feet, at a time when margins for farmers are already very tight.
The problem for a constituency such as mine is that if these properties are to be taken off the letting market, all the other tourist-dependent businesses—arts and crafts, food and beverage, and tour buses—that rely on tourists coming to Orkney and Shetland and staying locally will suffer the knock-on effects. I hope that the Treasury will see sense. I cannot believe that the measure will provide a massive tax take for the Government, but it will have a significant impact on some of the most economically fragile communities in the country.
I am mindful of the pressures of time and, although there are other matters about which I would have liked to speak, I shall refrain from doing so in order to allow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) an opportunity to have his say. I wish all hon. Members present the very best for the festive season. Today is a particularly welcome occasion, because it is not often that I can say in December that I look forward to escaping the cold blast of London weather for the much more temperate climate of the northern isles. Other hon. Members have suggested that we should come and see their constituencies as we rush headlong towards the shortest day. It is very difficult to see much in my constituency at this time of year, as we only have about six hours of full daylight, but it is worth seeing in any event. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or any other hon. Member would be more than welcome.
May I start by thanking the two previous contributors for reducing the time of their speeches? I was amazed by the extraordinary story that the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) told about the BBC, and if it had not come from him I would have doubted that it was true. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made two powerful points, but I was unaware of his first point, and I hope that that situation is sorted out. One of the wonderful things about sitting in this Chamber is learning the things that matter. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) also spoke powerfully about the need to reform Parliament, and that is an issue that I wish to address tonight.
It would be wrong of me not to thank our armed forces who are serving overseas at the moment, especially those in Afghanistan. I declare a personal interest in that, and for the parents of officers serving abroad this is a particularly difficult time. I pay tribute to all our armed forces.
I also wish to thank Mr. Speaker, the Deputy Speakers and the staff of the House for looking after us so well in the last year.
I would like to extend that thanks to the Deputy Leader of the House, who is a genuine and well-respected Member, but unfortunately she is sitting on the Treasury Bench tonight, and I am not a happy bunny. We need to reform this House, we need more democracy and we need to bring power back to Parliament. However, over the last few weeks the Government have been doing the reverse. The Executive have been taking more and more power away from this House and reducing the time for debate.
In particular, I want to talk about private Members’ Bills. Earlier today I had the pleasure of sitting here while 18 private Members’ Bills received their First Reading. The Bills cover a range of very important issues: the Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants Etc.) Bill, the Anti-slavery Day Bill, to which I am—I believe—a signatory, the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill, which I could not get my name on because it was so popular, and the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill, which I did manage to get my name on.
The problem is that at the moment we do not know if any of those Bills will even get debated. I listened with amazement as Members chose the dates for Second Reading; in fact, one Member chose tomorrow. The problem for Members is that the Government have failed to bring forward the days on which private Members’ Bills are to be heard in the House. Standing Orders do not ask that the Executive might perhaps bring forward those days; it is a requirement that the Executive bring forward 13 days in the Session when private Members’ Bills have precedence over Government business. That is to protect Back Benchers so that they have a right at least to get a hearing for issues and Bills about which they really care. No such naming of the 13 days has occurred. It is unprecedented in parliamentary history for private Members’ Bills to be presented to the House when the dates on which they are to get their Second Reading have not been heard.
You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Government have been trying to alter Standing Orders every night for what seems like the past month. Every night hon. Members have objected to the motion, and it is just possible that the motion will be objected to this evening as well. The ridiculous situation is that the Government are trying to change Standing Orders to reduce the length of time that Members have to discuss private Members’ Bills, without having a debate on changing them. Standing Orders are here to protect this Parliament. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, the Executive already have too much power, and if they are to take away some of the rights of Back Benchers by amending Standing Orders, the very least that the Government could do is have a debate. I have not heard one reason why we should amend Standing Orders.
I would be delighted if the Deputy Leader of the House could get up at the end of the debate and say, “We’ll have those 13 days, and table a motion on the first day back.” However, at the moment, we have a ridiculous situation in which Members are having to guess when they can have a Second Reading. Of course, if the days are different Members can put their dates back, but they cannot bring them forward. From the beginning of January 13 Fridays, which would not interfere with recess dates, are available, on which those private Members’ Bills could be debated. The Government are just being arrogant and stubborn in not allowing those 13 days.
This is the first time in five years that I have spoken in such an Adjournment debate, and I would like to mention a couple of things about my constituency. In my constituency unemployment is more than double what it was in 1997. In my constituency a secondary school has been demolished and not replaced. The Government are creating 52,000 new homes in north Northamptonshire. The police force in my constituency has one of the worst ratios of police officers to population in the country.
Worst of all, my constituency does not have a hospital. My constituents have to go to Kettering or Northampton general hospital, but the hospitals there are overcrowded and cannot deal with my constituents adequately. In fact, Kettering was, unfortunately, named as one of seven hospitals that have had a higher standard mortality rate than the national average for five years. What we need in Wellingborough is our own hospital, but—can you believe it, Mr. Deputy Speaker?—this Government have closed the hospital out-patient facility in my constituency and moved it. Where do you think they have moved it to? They have moved it to the marginal Labour constituency of Corby. The Government should be ashamed of themselves. We need a hospital in Wellingborough.
May I take this opportunity to thank all Members who have made contributions today? I give particular thanks to those Members who have said that they are stepping down at the next general election. Despite the time limit on speeches, I felt that all Members were able to get in all the points that, had there not been a time limit, they would probably have taken longer to say, but probably without making any further points.
As usual, we have had local, regional and national issues, as well as touching on some international matters. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) started off by telling us of his struggle with the chief executive of the Highways Agency. It is a matter of concern that the Highways Agency held no public meeting before it started work. Indeed, it was even more concerning that the chief executive was not happy to have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman at the site where the work is taking place. I suspect that that fight between the hon. Gentleman and the chief executive of the Highways Agency will continue, and I wish him well in that regard. The hon. Gentleman also raised an interesting point that was subsequently picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), when she commented on the power that quangos have. Ministers will sometimes keep quangos at arm’s length, so that they do not have to get involved in difficult issues.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) raised a number of local issues, among which was the fact that there is concern at the withdrawal of funds for council housing in his area. That is an issue, Mr. Deputy Chairman, on which I suspect many of us in the Chamber can sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, because it is one that we have all felt acutely in our postbags, given the current economic crisis. I speak as a Member representing Cambridgeshire, where there has been a cut in funding for housing.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) made a timely and thoughtful speech, particularly given what is happening in Copenhagen at present. I was particularly interested in her visit to the small Pacific nations, which do not regularly have a powerful voice; in fact, often they simply do not have a voice on the international scene at all, let alone regularly. I am sure that the House will have taken on board what she said about the fact that no Pacific nation will be able to avoid the consequences. Even more startling, however, was the fact that climate change is already beginning to affect some of those nations, particularly Tuvalu, where, as she mentioned, salt water is contaminating fresh water and water is already being rationed. In the light of what she said, we can only hope that the conference in Copenhagen, which is now turning into a summit, will prove fruitful, for the benefit of mankind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who is a veteran of these recess Adjournment debates, will be sorely missed. Let me put it on record that she has been a powerful advocate for her constituents throughout her time as a Member of Parliament, and her successor will have to do a powerful job in trying to match her. I very much hope that one of the first things that her successor will do is to remember that they must come to all the recess Adjournment debates and give a plug to the local tourist industry, because that is something about which my hon. Friend has been diligent. My hon. Friend also covered a number of other subjects, including the need for reform in this place. As the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, I have taken them on board, as I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House has, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), too, mentioned that he was stepping down, and we were sorry to hear that. He, too, has a proud record of service to his constituents—[Hon. Members: “Distinguished!”] I have been corrected. His record is not only proud but distinguished. Again, his successor will have quite a job to do in following him.
Mr. Deputy Chairman, my hon. Friend made a powerful point—
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I apologise most profusely for giving you a promotion—[Hon. Members: “No, no!”] Perhaps I should just carry on, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington made a powerful contribution, in which he pointed out the fact that the world is arranging itself into groups and clusters, and said that that was all the more reason for Britain to be part of the European Union if it is to have a powerful voice on the international scene. I thank him for his contribution.
The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) gave a typically robust and spirited performance. He certainly spoke well in support of British manufacturing. He had a message for Lord Mandelson about the Royal Mail’s refusal to try out the new hybrid trucks. Of course, Lord Mandelson is the de facto Deputy Prime Minister. He does not listen to a lot of people, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s message will get through to him.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) made a speech based on education, and spoke of the disparity in educational attainment in different parts of the country, as well as describing the specific features in his own constituency. I have to say that I did not agree with all that he said, but I was reminded of the occasion when Mahatma Gandhi said—I shall paraphrase the quote—that if we educate a man, we educate an individual, but if we educate a woman, we educate a whole family.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made a powerful speech about the adverse effects of 12 years of Labour rule that his constituents have had to put up with. His speech had considerable support on this side of the House—but given the response that many Labour Members will have received on the doorstep recently, I imagine that some of them were minded to agree with him as well, quietly if not publicly. I am pleased that he will be getting his new hospital, and that Network Rail is carrying out a feasibility study for the new railway station. Also, it is only right that the Government should start to think seriously about supporting the National Star college. A society is judged on how it treats its disabled people, and I very much hope that the Government will take that on board.
The hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) made a detailed speech on the present economic crisis. I disagreed with much of what he said, but I can certainly agree with his point that the banks are not lending money to businesses and individuals. His points about bank charges and about banks abusing their authority were echoed by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made a typical Lib Dem speech. It was full of political point scoring and light on substance. Perhaps a friend of his will take him to one side and point out that the woes of the country are due to a Labour Government, and have nothing to do with a Conservative Administration.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) always contributes to these Adjournment debates. He rightly spoke about the serious matter of Gary McKinnon, with which I know he has been involved. He also spoke as a determined advocate on the subject of diabetes, and pointed out that prevention is better than cure. I have some sympathy for him, given that his constituency has a large Asian element to it. Asians are renowned for giving considerable quantities of sweetmeats to everyone who visits them, particularly Members of Parliament, and he must find it quite tempting to eat them instead of giving them away to his children.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) gave a powerful speech, raising a number of topics. He rightly raised concern about the cost of quangos and public sector salaries. I certainly wish him well in achieving some stability as far as chief constables in Essex are concerned. He also spoke passionately about Tony Blair’s comments on the invasion of Iraq—a theme subsequently taken up by other Members. It is fair to say that we all await with considerable interest the outcome of the Chilcot inquiry. My hon. Friend is right to point out that at Christmas-time, people should not give unwanted pets to children—or indeed adults—who may subsequently be unable to take care of them.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) spoke as a former member of the Audit Commission and questioned the balance of a report that described Leicester. I am glad that he was able to put his views on that issue on the record.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) spoke with considerable feeling about the families of service personnel at Christmas. I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that we certainly agree with his sentiments. He also praised the work of the Royal British Legion, spoke about the impact of defence spending decisions—or indecisions—and criticised the UK Border Agency for its handling of many immigration cases. As the number of immigrant cases being handled is uncertain, I am not surprised that there is so much uncertainty about how the Border Agency deals with those cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) gave a moving speech. He spoke of the need to remember those who are no longer with us. He rightly mentioned the bravery of Olaf Schmid and the courage of his widow. We also heard about the work of George Miller. My hon. Friend also mentioned his late father, Sam Lewis, this year being the first anniversary of his death, and we heard how he managed to wave to him when he was in the Strangers Gallery. In my maiden speech I not only managed to refer to my parents but to give them a wave—and got away with it. I was subsequently told that we can get away with most things in our maiden speeches, but thereafter we cannot.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), a constituency neighbour of mine, spoke about the proposed closure of Peterborough Land Registry and the possible loss of 302 jobs. I share his concern and agree wholeheartedly with his campaign to try to save those jobs—a campaign of which I am also part.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) gave a passionate speech on Iraq. A lot of questions were asked, and we certainly hope it will not be too long before answers are provided. He also covered local issues such as funding for the local police and the underfunding of local services.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) spoke at length on educational matters, and was quite keen to praise the Government for their achievement in that area. I am sorry to say that I do not agree with that praise; in fact, it was noticeable that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who spoke after her with no party perspective, did not agree with the Government’s education policies either. While the hon. Lady spoke glowingly about the funds given to her local educational establishments, I have to tell her that it is a pity that some of that money could not come to the Great Gidding primary school in my constituency, which was promised £4 million for a new school, which was then stopped just weeks before work was due to commence. There is now no prospect whatever of that new school coming over the horizon.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest is, as I said, having difficulties with the education department concerning an excellent school that he described, and I certainly wish him well in his efforts.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire raised a number of issues, but I shall focus on a couple of the good ones. She rightly spoke about Equitable Life. The Government’s handling of the ombudsman’s report is shameful; they gain no credit for the way in which they have handled this whole affair. The hon. Lady also spoke about the reform of Parliament and a debate that took place in Westminster Hall only yesterday—a debate noteworthy for the fact that the Government completely failed to say where they stand on the Wright report.
Thanks are due to the last three speakers for the brevity of their comments, and my own comments about them will also be brief. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) raised some strong issues concerning the BBC, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) spoke of the need to review the furnished holiday letting rules, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) was able to record his views on the proposal to reduce the number of days on which private Members’ Bills can be debated.
Finally, let me take this opportunity to wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—along with all Members, all Members’ staff, and indeed all staff of the House—a very happy Christmas and happy new year, and to send a particular Christmas greeting to all our armed forces serving abroad.
I, too, thank all Members for their contributions. We have heard from 23 Members on subjects ranging from the demise of neo-liberalism to the apparently terrible years in the Cotswolds. We have heard about climate change and decent council homes, about allotments and aircraft carriers, about speech and language therapists, and about inspirational head teachers. The Essex Members have fought over Olly from “The X Factor”, and we have heard that we should go to Devon but probably not to the Cotswolds. We have also heard Members’ views on Sri Lanka, the Yemen, and the role of Europe in the world. I think that that is about as wide-ranging as we were able to become, but in addition we almost heard the flower duet from “Lakmé”—as well as something about Rod Stewart which I shall gloss over very quickly—and a version of “While Shepherds Watched” sung to the tune of “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at”. We have been very seasonal.
First and most importantly, let me join all the Members who have paid tribute to our armed forces: those serving in Afghanistan, those who have fallen and their families, and those who have been injured. Let me mention in particular Simon Annis from Salford, of 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who died earlier this year trying to save an injured colleague. Let me also express support for the fire, police and health service staff and the coastguards who will help us to get through the Christmas season.
Let me touch briefly on events that have taken place in the House since the last pre-recess debate. The Chamber was opened to the UK Youth Parliament on 30 October. There were five debates, and I am sure that Members in all parties will agree that the young people conducted themselves very well. I hope that that may become a more regular event in the House.
Members touched on the fact that, following the crisis that engulfed the House in connection with the way in which in which some Members had used their allowances, we had passed the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which was given Royal Assent on the day of the last pre-recess Adjournment debate. We have now established the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has a chief executive, a chair and other board members. It is preparing to make changes which I trust will restore the credibility and standing of the House in the face of what has been a critical period for this place. The need for that was raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).
Very late the other evening, we established the London Regional Committee. Let me take this opportunity to wish its members well in their work. There have been other achievements, but I shall pass over those.
Some Members used their speeches to engage in what the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), described as political point-scoring—he was right: we heard quite a lot of that today—rather than raising issues that required a response from me. Others raised entirely local issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned 13, which I think must be a record for him. I am afraid that I lost count of the number raised by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), but he did his usual sterling job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is not in the Chamber now. However, I have already told him how much I sympathise with his difficulties with the Highways Agency. I consider it intolerable that his constituents were not informed of the work before it started, particularly the removal of tree screens. I shall work hard to try to help my hon. Friend. I understand that he has a contact for meetings, that the chief executive of the Highways Agency is now willing to meet him, and that the Secretary of State for Transport will write to him shortly.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) raised a number of issues. He will understand that I cannot comment on the outcome of Ofsted inspections because that is a matter for an independent inspectorate, but I will ensure that the chief inspector writes to him. He also mentioned credit unions. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the creation of a social investment wholesale bank and further support for credit unions, but I will write to him about the issues in his constituency.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman met the Homes and Communities Agency and the relevant Minister last week, to discuss his concerns about funding for decent homes. This is a difficult issue. Other Members have talked about the need for new council housing, and to meet that need there are to be 22,500 new council homes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the Government’s work in Sri Lanka. Several other Members talked about that subject. There is still concern in the Chamber about this matter, and I shall get a response to the specific issues raised.
In this week of the climate change conference, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) made an important contribution—as she always does when she speaks in the House. She knows that this is a critical period for securing a deal at Copenhagen, and the Prime Minister is working on achieving that today. She will also know that the Prime Minister proposed a Copenhagen launch fund of $10 billion to assist developing countries—such as those she mentioned— to deal with climate change, with a €2.4 billion contribution from the European Union.
My hon. Friend also referred to the boiler scrappage scheme, which did not get a fair press when it was announced in the pre-Budget report, and national grid tariffs for people in fuel poverty, and I shall pass her comments on to the relevant Ministers. She made a very strong case on that.
On the contribution of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), I have already said that we should all go to Devon over Christmas, and I am sure that I would if I could. The hon. Lady has had a distinguished 18-year career. Recently, since I have been a Member, she has been vice-chair of the all-party group on carers, of which I was also vice-chair. It does vital work.
The hon. Lady discussed the reform of the House, and I am pleased to hear of her change of heart on the use of Westminster Hall. She also talked about the number of quangos and the importance of supporting disabled people going back to work. She might know that there is an independent review of the work capability assessment, which is due to report in 2010. Clearly, her own meetings at local level will be of help, but she may want to contribute to the review as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley touched on so many issues that I will not be able to discuss all of them. Among them were sheltered housing, British manufacturing and new technologies, support for service families—we have rightly heard about that time and again in this debate—local farming and child care vouchers. He also mentioned the awful attack on Jessica Knight, and I will pass on the compensation issue he raised.
On the electrification of the north-west railway line, my hon. Friend is right to say that both his and my constituents will benefit from that greener and more comfortable and reliable mode of travel. My hon. Friend also mentioned a local shop. I shop at the Unicorn co-operative, which is in Chorlton, not Chorley, but, like Booths, it has good policies on local buying and not selling products brought in by aeroplanes from far distant places.
The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) talked about a number of global issues, particularly the importance of the role of the EU in the world, and I will make sure his comments are passed on to Foreign Office Ministers. I hope he can make that point about the importance of the EU and our membership of it to his party colleagues as well, however. The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) has today introduced a Bill questioning our membership of the EU and seeking a referendum on that, so the hon. Member for Orpington might want to do some proselytising on his own political side.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) raised a number of issues, in particular about the importance of education as the route out of poverty. I feel that strongly, too. When he was talking, I almost thought I was listening to events in parts of my constituency, such as schools getting more good GCSEs and more pupils going to university. These are all vital achievements. I was interested to hear about the successful mentoring scheme on the Tibbington estate in his constituency, and I hope it continues. I will certainly help to make the relevant Minister aware of it. It is also very good that schools are taking steps such as conducting the survey on local factors that my hon. Friend mentioned.
Finally, my hon. Friend complimented the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. My sister is a speech and language therapist, so I should probably not pass on without complimenting it, too. Speech and language therapists do a vital job, and there is great support in this House for the work they do.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) began his speech rather amusingly by referring to the song, “The twelve days of Christmas”, reflecting the musical theme we have had today. However, I am unsure where his series of complaints will take us. In fact, I am very glad that the Labour Government provided time to bring in the Hunting Act 2004; that was time well spent. I would like to pass on my sympathies to those affected by flooding, including those who were recently affected in Cumbria. Some streets in my constituency can flood when there is excess rain, and I know that we must keep thinking of the families and of the devastation that flooding causes. I am pleased that we are legislating to reduce the risks of serious flooding through the Flood and Water Management Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) talked about the demise of neo-liberalism. What he said was very interesting and we will have to review that by re-reading Hansard. He will be glad to know that the Treasury said in the recent statement:
“We will make first-class standards in public services not a privilege for the few but the right of all, by setting out—in health, education, policing and, in time, social care—new entitlements to high-quality public services, backed where appropriate by the force of law.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 29.]
That ties in very well with what he said.
The hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) both raised the issue of school closures. I have found the schools adjudicator to be a useful stopping point, so it is a shame that the hon. Gentlemen cannot make the case there. However, we note and will pass on what they have said.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the Building Schools for the Future programme—that very large capital investment programme for the next 50 years, which will provide world-class teaching. Even though there are difficulties in some places, that programme is very worth while.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) talked about Gary McKinnon, and we shall pass on his comments to the Home Secretary. However, I understand that Mr. McKinnon’s lawyers have applied for judicial review of the further decision. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East also talked about Yemen, and I can tell him that the UK has contributed an additional £2 million to the UN appeal for emergency aid. I should add that there is a Yemeni community of 600 to 700 people in Eccles, so Yemen is a concern to us in Salford, as it is to him.
The hon. Member for Southend, West who is the most regular attender of these debates, raised a number of points. I shall not deal with the political ones, but on his point about the scrutiny of senior public servant pay, he might wish to note the smarter Government initiative, which was announced by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the fact that there will be publication and scrutiny of those very high salaries that he mentioned—most of us think that it is about time. I wish to commend the work of the all-party group on drugs misuse—some of the House’s all-party groups do very worthwhile work—and the mention of the importance of seatbelts and animal welfare at this time of year.
The contribution from the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) ranged across a number of topics, including the Royal British Legion—which had already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley—housing, the Navy and the Audit Commission. I was sorry to hear that Portsmouth was not chosen to be a host city for the 2018 World cup—if we get it—but as Plymouth was chosen we do not have to be too concerned.
I was also sorry to hear about the passing of the father of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). The hon. Gentleman went on to mention Afghanistan, the Royal Navy and the closure of hospital wards, and I shall write to him on those issues.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) raised the issue of the closure of the Land Registry office in his constituency, which he redefined as not being in the south-east but in the east midlands. We will take those representations forward for him. I am sure that everyone will be saddened to hear of the case that he mentioned; it is right that those who are exonerated should not be treated unfairly, and I shall write to him about the case.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) raised a lot of issues relating to loca1 councils and bus fare funding, and I shall write to him about those.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) talked about the deeply shocking case in her constituency, which has provoked revulsion across the country. I know that she found it difficult not being able to talk about the case in this place as it was progressing. It is a very good thing that Plymouth city council has been able to support that community and the families. I expect that serious case review to be completed as soon as possible, and I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the need for that. I shall ensure that I write to her about any other issues that she raised.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) discussed inspirational teachers, and a very good thing that is too. I will have to move over all the other things that were mentioned, as I must come to the end of my contribution, but I shall write to hon. Members about those.
We have much work to do when we return to the House after the Christmas recess. I should like to wish, as other hon. Members have done, a relaxing Christmas and a happy new year to all the staff who provide so much support to us throughout the year, particularly the staff of Hansard, the staff in the Library, everyone in the Tea Room, the other catering staff, the cleaners, the Clerks of the Committee, the police, the Serjeant at Arms and her team, and the doorkeepers. We really appreciate the work that they all do to ensure that this place runs as smoothly as possible. A number of Members were successful in obtaining Royal Assent for their private Members’ Bill last year, and we hope that many more will be. I also want to wish a merry Christmas and a happy new year to Members on both sides of the House, despite the political point scoring that we had, and finally to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).