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Commons Chamber

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2009

House of Commons

Wednesday 16 December 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Older People (Security)

I recently launched the “Safer Ageing” strategy for older people, which was developed in partnership with representatives from older people’s groups, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Policing Board. The strategy sets out how Government and partners will work together to reduce the crime and antisocial behaviour experienced by older people in Northern Ireland.

While I welcome the new “Safer Ageing” strategy, is it not the case that the recent spate of burglaries and attacks on older people in Northern Ireland has had a devastating impact on the individuals affected, and will it not in turn have created a deeper fear of crime across the older population? What practical measures are there in the new plan to reduce that corrosive level of fear?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been considerable public concern in Northern Ireland about the spate of attacks on older people there, and the impact on individual older people is devastating. He is also right to say that not only does it have an impact on them as victims, but that it has a wider impact in terms of the fear of crime.

Two elements are very important here. The first is to have highly visible policing, which is certainly happening in the wake of the attacks. The second is the practical initiatives to which my hon. Friend referred, and I draw his attention to one in particular—the HandyVan scheme, which provides free locks, door chains, smoke alarms and other safety devices for older people. It helps them to feel safer, and it is an important initiative that my Department supports.

The Minister will be aware that there has been an increase in burglaries right across the Province of Northern Ireland. In my constituency, there have been at least 15 burglaries in three weeks in the town of Portadown, and in Lurgan and Banbridge. Does he agree that the reduction of 90 officers in Upper Bann and the closure of the Portadown police station are unacceptable at this time?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any crimes that take place in his constituency, or indeed anywhere. However, he has referred to the loss of 90 posts in H district, but these are not police officers who are being cut out of the police provision for his area. These are 90 police officers who have been identified by the Chief Constable as officers whom the hon. Gentleman’s constituents never see because they do jobs in the back office. The Chief Constable wants to get them out of the back office and into the community, where they will be more visible and able to deliver a more personal policing service.

Weapon Decommissioning (Loyalist Paramilitaries)

2. What recent assessment he has made of progress on decommissioning of weapons by loyalist paramilitary organisations. (306251)

The Government remain optimistic that, building on the success of decommissioning already this year, further acts will be completed before the deadline of 9 February 2010.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Will he tell the House what approaches have been made to the Northern Ireland Office by, or on behalf of, the Ulster Defence Association for funding in anticipation of decommissioning? Is he aware of loyalist paramilitaries making similar approaches to the Irish Government for multi-million pound funding?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my focus is on decommissioning, and that my concern is to ensure that decommissioning takes place by 9 February of next year. As for discussions between those engaged in legitimate political activity and the Northern Ireland Office, we will of course be happy to talk to people who are wholly engaged in legitimate political activity and who have eschewed violence of every kind.

Obviously, the entire community wants there to be further progress on loyalist decommissioning. However, will the Secretary of State continue to work in the loyalist working-class estates, where some paramilitary groups have had a stranglehold in the past, to try to ensure that the young people in those communities are not weaned into paramilitarism, but are weaned away from it in favour of the democratic principles that we all espouse?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the grip in which some communities were held in the past by the activities of those who do not respect the rule of law and order. Regrettably, communities in some areas are still held in that same grip. We will do everything that we can, including encouraging and working with the Northern Ireland Executive, to help all communities that have been held in the grip of violence. We will continue to work with them so that they too are able to enjoy the fruits of a normal society.

In its discussions with loyalists about decommissioning, can the Northern Ireland Office explain to the House what efforts it has made to glean any information about the whereabouts of Lisa Dorrian, a constituent of mine who was murdered and disappeared almost five years ago by people with loyalist connections?

The hon. Lady has on many occasions raised constituency issues, not least but not only that of Lisa Dorrian. I remember dealing with this when I was a junior Minister, and the hon. Lady never gives up on behalf of the family. It is a tribute to her that she continues to work so hard for her constituents. Of course that remains an ongoing case. Decommissioning is a matter for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. We may set the framework and the deadline of 9 February, but when that deadline comes to an end, I can promise the hon. Lady that our interest and concern for the family of Lisa Dorrian will continue.

Given that this is the last Northern Ireland questions before the end of the arms amnesty on 9 February, can the Secretary of State give reasons for his reported belief that the UDA will decommission some weapons over Christmas, when it is also reported that the UDA is seeking assurances on the future of power-sharing before it does so? Does the Secretary of State agree that laying down such conditions is unacceptable, because there is no reason or excuse for illegal arms to exist in any part of the United Kingdom?

May I take this opportunity to wish not only the hon. Gentleman but the entire House a happy Christmas on this important occasion? I hope the amnesty means that all hostilities between us will cease. That may be a slightly premature Christmas present, so I am not expecting anything in that box.

On decommissioning, I am interested only in making two things clear: first, that illegally held weapons have no place in society in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, and secondly, that on 9 February the arrangements for decommissioning will come to an end for good, for ever—the end. The IICD will be engaged with a number of organisations. At the end of that process, I hope to report to the House further progress on decommissioning. I am not interested in discussing conditions with any group.

Police Recruitment

3. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of police recruitment in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (306252)

Since the introduction of the temporary recruitment provisions in November 2001, there have been 3,751 appointments to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Catholic composition within PSNI regulars currently stands at 27.69 per cent. We remain on track to reach the target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March 2011.

That is extremely good news and everybody involved should be congratulated. It has not been easy. Can the Minister give an assurance to the House that once we reach the 30 per cent.—the sooner, the better—the special arrangements will cease and we will return to straightforward recruiting?

I welcome the endorsement from the right hon. Gentleman. That is deeply appreciated. It is a mark of how far things have come that we have gone from 8 per cent. Catholic representation to 27 per cent. and on to 30 per cent. I give him the assurance that he seeks. We intend to come to the House in March next year to ask for a renewal of the temporary powers for a further year. We are confident that we will get to 30 per cent. within that year. Indeed, if we reach that level before the end of the year, Ministers intend to come back to the House and rescind the special arrangements.

In a reply to a parliamentary question that I received yesterday, the Minister informed me that there are currently 5,305 Protestant police officers and 1,904 Catholic police officers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to correct this imbalance?

I repeat to my hon. Friend the progress that has been made. There were only 8 per cent. Catholic officers in 1998; that figure is now 27 per cent. and moving to 30 per cent. It was essential that we got a more representative police service in Northern Ireland so that there could be confidence in all sections of the community. It is worth saying that when we go back a decade ago, a plan for policing was emerging in Northern Ireland that many people thought was barely possible. Today we have almost 30 per cent. Catholics; we have every party represented on the Policing Board; and we have all parties unanimously choosing a new Chief Constable. These are amazing achievements in Northern Ireland, and they have come about because of the political will to deliver them.

Does the Minister accept that before the introduction of a 50:50 quota system, the level of Catholic applications to the Royal Ulster Constabulary stood at 25 per cent., so it is not all down to the 50:50 rule? Does he accept that people want to see the rule done away with and there to be a move towards selection and appointment on merit, untrammelled in that sense? Does he agree that recruitment is important, but that it is also important to retain experienced police officers, both regular and full-time reserve?

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that people from the Catholic community applied to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and there were many fine Catholic officers in the RUC, but not enough of them. That is why the temporary provisions were put in place. I can tell him that the application rate from Catholics is now at 38 per cent., so it has moved on. That is encouraging, because once the special provisions are removed, we will want to encourage applicants from all sections of the community so that the police service remains fully representative of the community that it serves.

To pick up on the Minister’s very last point, may I ask what the Government are doing to ensure that the drive towards a representative police force goes beyond the question of simply Protestant or Catholic communities in Northern Ireland? It must include and embrace all communities.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is not mentioned often enough: we want a police service that is representative of the whole community. It is therefore encouraging that, broadly, ethnic minorities are represented in the police service in the same proportion as they are present in Northern Ireland. Crucially, in the lifetime of the PSNI, the number of women regular officers has doubled from 12 per cent. to 24 per cent. That is also an indication of the influx, the interest and the commitment of women who want to be effective police officers, and it is ensuring that the police service is fully reflective of the community that it serves.

Prison Estate

The Northern Ireland Prison Service has a capacity of 1,775. The prison estate comprises two adult male prisons and a third establishment that houses both young offenders and women.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for that reply. Will he tell the House how many prisoners in Northern Ireland suffer from either drug addiction or mental health problems?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The point of the question is to highlight how many vulnerable prisoners there are in Northern Ireland’s prisons, and how many suffer from mental health problems and personality disorders. There are high numbers of such people in prison in Northern Ireland, but he will be encouraged, I am sure, by the fact that about 18 months ago the health service in Northern Ireland took over responsibility for the delivery of health care, including mental health care. I expect to see substantial improvements in the support and service that is provided to vulnerable prisoners as a result of that measure.

Prisons in Northern Ireland are operating at close to full capacity, and for a long time now there have been discussions about the provision of a new prison in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister update us on that situation? Will the planned new prison be affected by the budget difficulties that are going to lead to capital cutbacks?

There are today 1,406 prisoners in prison in Northern Ireland, and that is lower than the figure on this day last year, when there were 1,481 prisoners in prisons. We are making available to the courts community sentences, electronic tagging and other measures that mean that, where appropriate, there is an alternative to prison. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to point to the need to improve accommodation. This year we have a new 60-cell block at Magilligan prison and a new 120-cell block at Maghaberry prison, and he and his hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), who is sitting next to him, will know that there is a clear commitment to rebuilding Magilligan prison. It badly needs rebuilding. The plans are in place, the work can begin in 2012 and the Government are mindful of the fact that it needs to be delivered. In all discussions between the Prime Minister and politicians from Northern Ireland, the need for a sustainable capital commitment to a new prison on the Magilligan site has always been on our minds.

Dissident Republican Groups

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the threat posed by dissident republican groups; and if he will make a statement. (306254)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the security threat in Northern Ireland from dissident republicans. (306257)

9. What steps are being taken to reduce the level of activity of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (306258)

10. What his most recent assessment is of the level of activity of dissident republicans; and if he will make a statement. (306259)

While the self-styled criminals remain a serious threat, their cowardly actions have been rejected by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. None the less, the Government are not complacent about the threat that those people continue to pose.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly with reference to a minority dissident republican group that appears to be causing trouble to try to put a stop to the peace process. Will he assure me that that will not happen, that he is working with everybody in Northern Ireland to ensure that it will not, and that that group will be named and dealt with in the appropriate manner?

I am pleased to report that that group is, indeed, being dealt with in the appropriate manner. That follows in part as a result of the extensive co-operation of the community, whose members do not wish to see Northern Ireland plunged into anything like the chaos they saw in the past. I will also say this to my hon. Friend: the dissident groups may wish to undermine the peace process, but they will do so only if they undermine confidence in the political process. If we succeed with the politics, we will preserve the peace.

Given the recent resignation of the prison governor and the sale of a judge’s home owing to dissident threats, what can the Secretary of State tell us about the action that the Government are taking to ensure the protection of prominent public figures?

The prison governor made it clear that his reasons for resignation, which we regret, were a matter of personal circumstances. My hon. Friend the Minister is making the appropriate arrangements in relation to that. As regards threats to individuals posed by the self-styled dissident groups, we will do everything we can to protect people in Northern Ireland. It is clear that this small minority of people, who have no support in the community, would like to undermine public confidence. We will ensure that those who promote peace and the politics and the institutions of Northern Ireland have the appropriate protection that they deserve.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the media have been endeavouring to connect the devolution of policing and justice with dissident republican activity. What steps are the Government taking to defeat dissident republicans? Does the Secretary of State understand that no political stunts or intimidation of Unionists will weaken our resolve in ensuring that policing and justice are devolved when there is community confidence, which means dealing with and resolving the issues, including the parades issue?

The hon. Gentleman will know that following the attacks at Massereene in his constituency in March, measures of public confidence were extremely high, not least because the public in Northern Ireland saw politicians across the divide come together with a unity of purpose. I believe, as the Independent Monitoring Commission report recently observed, that early completion of the devolution of policing and justice from Westminster to Stormont would be a potent intervention against these people. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about community confidence, but there could be no greater sign of confidence than the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

The Secretary of State will know that some in the security services believe that there is an intelligence deficit with regard to dissident republican groups. Does he share that concern, and what steps is he taking to overcome that problem?

First, many of these matters relate to the operational independence of the Chief Constable, which I am sure that all hon. Members would respect. We are ensuring that the resources are there for the security services in Northern Ireland and the PSNI. The hon. Lady will know that in order to meet this challenge, the Prime Minister has made additional reserves available to the PSNI this year and guaranteed it additional money next year. As for intelligence about these dissident groups, I congratulate the PSNI and the security services, who have consistently managed to thwart these people, whose objective is to undermine confidence and damage the peace process itself.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any threat to the stability of our political institutions feeds into the warped thinking of the so-called dissident so-called republican groups? Does he further agree that the sooner we can agree on the devolution of justice and policing, avoid any threat of the collapse of our institutions, and reject any speculation that Sinn Fein may be planning to withdraw from policing arrangements such as district policing partnerships, the sooner we will defy the agenda of the dissident groups?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I wish to note, and the House will wish to record, that only in the past few weeks those at Stormont have completed the passage of the Department of Justice Bill, which would enable a Justice Department to be created, and invite the identification of a Justice Minister. Progress is being made. Let us not allow the dissidents any voice at all; let us have a show of confidence and complete the devolution of policing and justice. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order. I know that hon. and right hon. Members will want to listen intently to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I call Sir Patrick Cormack.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and a very merry Christmas.

Does the Secretary of State agree that 2009 would have been a very much blacker year had it not been for the achievements of the PSNI in defusing some terrible bombs that could have caused enormous harm? Will he give the House the categorical assurance that the PSNI will be kept up to strength and increased in strength to combat that terrible threat?

May I first take this opportunity on behalf of the House to record our thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless work in Northern Ireland and with the Select Committee? I say that conscious of the decision that he has announced in relation to next year. We thank him for what he has done, and the people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for his work and that of his Committee.

The work of the PSNI in 2009 has been tireless and successful, despite enormous provocation. The House will wish to know that had the bomb intended for the Policing Board headquarters gone off, it would have caused certainly severe damage to the building and probably severe loss of life. Brilliant work by the PSNI and the services across the board continues to ensure that these criminals who call themselves dissidents do not succeed. I only hope that next year will be an even better year for the PSNI.

May I strongly endorse the comments of the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about the performance of the PSNI this year?

We do not underestimate the threat posed by dissidents, but we firmly believe that the response must be proportionate. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that every part of Northern Ireland is policed on a regular basis to ensure the confidence of all parts of the community in the effectiveness of the PSNI?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and join in his observations. The objective of these criminals is not damage to a building or even the loss of life but to undermine confidence in the politics and damage the peace process. We must all bear in mind that they seek to wreck the political process and in turn the peace process, and I can confidently say that this House will not allow them to succeed in that.

A few weeks ago, the Conservatives agreed to endorse the substantial financial package that would follow the devolution of policing and justice. Given the current threat, has the Secretary of State considered drawing on parts of that package in advance to enable the Chief Constable to deliver more effective policing?

My hon. Friend the Security Minister and I are in regular discussions with the Chief Constable, who of course has operational independence on these matters. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made available nearly £30 million of extra money this year for the PSNI and has offered more than that for next year. That money has not been exhausted, but my right hon. Friend has made it very clear to the Chief Constable that he is always open to representations from him because regardless of circumstances, this Government stand with the people of Northern Ireland.

Peace Process (Ministerial Discussions)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the US Secretary of State on the peace process in Northern Ireland. (306255)

Does the Secretary of State fully appreciate the support of the Conservative party for the tremendous efforts of the Americans, and particularly the Clinton Administration, in keeping the peace process on track? Following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Northern Ireland, does he anticipate further economic investment there?

The people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for the investment that has been made by the United States, which has allowed several hundred new jobs to be created this year in Northern Ireland despite the international recession. The decision by Secretary of State Clinton to create a special economic envoy, Declan Kelly, meant that only last week, 14 top American companies made presentations to the Administration in Northern Ireland looking at investment for next year. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have made it clear that their support will be as unstinting and relentless as that of Presidents Bush and Clinton before them.

What work is being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office further to integrate the areas across the divide in Northern Ireland, particularly in social housing? What is the NIO doing to remove the dreadful physical barriers that divide the two communities?

My hon. Friend will know that many of those matters have now of course been devolved. However, I simply say this to him: established in the Good Friday agreement and endorsed in the St. Andrews agreement were the principles of equality and justice for everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of faith and geography, to ensure that they enjoy shared power and a shared future that is fair.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply.

I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the two soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles who died in Afghanistan yesterday. We send our deepest sympathies to their families. This Christmas, we will all be thinking of the bravery and dedication of our armed forces overseas, and especially at this time of year, of the families who support them.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Copenhagen. This morning he met the UN Secretary-General; this afternoon he will address the assembly.

The whole House will endorse what the right hon. and learned Lady said about those fallen soldiers, and our thoughts will very much be with their families.

However, may I turn to the home front and other families who will be desperately worried that their own loved ones might not return home for Christmas because of the British Airways cabin crew strike? Although there has been good news this morning that Unite and British Airways might now be talking, may I have an assurance from the deputy Prime Minister that she will use her considerable influence with the trade unions to ensure that this damaging strike is called off as soon as possible?

Both the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary have said that they, like I am sure everyone in the whole House, want to see that a strike does not take place. That is important not only for those who have travel plans this Christmas either to go abroad to see their families or to have their families join them, but for the long-term future of BA. I hope that when the talks take place this afternoon, they will reach a settlement.

We wish the Prime Minister well in the current talks in Copenhagen. We need a united position with our European partners to reach agreement in those vital talks. How much harder does my right hon. and learned Friend think it would be to reach such an agreement if we were isolated in Europe? Does she share my concern at the divisions in the group of allies of the Conservatives in Europe—more than half of their group opposes the European targets?

As the Prime Minister said, it is an uphill task at Copenhagen, but there could not be a more important task than to get all the countries of the world to agree on tackling climate change. As my hon. Friend says, there is indeed a contrast between the Prime Minister at the centre of events—[Interruption.] He was the first world leader to decide personally to go to Copenhagen. What a contrast, as he works with other world leaders, that the shadow Foreign Secretary has not even been able to persuade his own side that climate change is important.

May I join the Leader of the House in recording our sadness at the news last night of the death of two British soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles serving in Afghanistan? Over Christmas and the new year, the untiring efforts of our servicemen and women serving their country in a theatre of war must never be far from our minds.

The House of Commons is today rising unusually early for Christmas—the earliest we have risen for Christmas for 31 years—and I want to ask the Leader of the House about three particular pressing issues on which the Government will not be able to report to Parliament over the next three weeks. One indeed is the vital negotiations at Copenhagen, in which we wish the Prime Minister and other British representatives every success, although we should have been able to hear about the outcome next week, not just the prospects this week. Does she share our concern about the comments by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reported this morning, that a firm commitment on the proposed fund for developing countries to tackle climate change may be set aside and not addressed until next year? After the Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General this morning, what were the chances of that major setback being averted?

The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the House is somewhat spurious. We are rising early, but we are coming back early.

It is indeed important that we have not only a political agreement at Copenhagen, but legally binding targets that are independently verifiable and this $10 billion fund to ensure that the developing countries—the emerging economies—can play their part in the effort to tackle climate change. That is a difficult challenge. The Prime Minister, the Secretary-General of the UN and world leaders are working on it today, and I hope that the whole House will wish them well.

Well, we do wish them well, and I know that the Leader of the House will agree with me that in particular we must address the serious issue of the destruction of the world’s rainforests. As she thinks that we are not addressing this issue seriously, it is good to know that what we proposed last month the Government have since agreed to propose —that additional significant EU financial support should be given to developing countries to halt deforestation. Will the Government now also agree with one of the proposals I made three weeks ago—to set an example to other nations and show that we will take determined action under domestic law by making the import, possession and distribution of illegally harvested timber an offence under UK law?

I am sure that we will take every action possible, and we have already taken action to ensure that only sustainable timber is used. I did make a comment about the right hon. Gentleman’s party, and this week 11 Conservative Members have been party to the production of a report entitled “Climate change is natural: 100 reasons why”, claiming that it is nothing to worry about. We will deal with domestic law to protect timber and we will ensure that we take the action internationally to tackle deforestation: he should deal with Conservative Members who are climate change deniers.

I hope that the Leader of the House will indeed take seriously what we have proposed and look at what I have just put to her, because it may help the Government to take the issue seriously, as well as the Opposition. We look forward to that.

On another issue that requires urgent attention in this House, does the Leader of the House agree with the Foreign Secretary that, following the issuing of an arrest warrant for the Israeli Opposition leader Mrs. Livni, Parliament needs to look urgently at ways in which the system might be changed? While we all agree that allegations of human rights violations by all sides in the Gaza conflict need to be addressed, how is Britain meant to play a leading role in the middle east peace process if Israeli politicians cannot visit Britain without fear of arrest?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the Foreign Secretary’s words. We should be in no doubt that it is important for Israel’s leaders to be able to talk to Ministers in this country. Israel is an important strategic partner and we need to ensure that the situation is as the Foreign Secretary said it should be.

Can the Leader of the House shed a little more light on this? When the International Criminal Court Act 2001 was introduced, it was never meant by any one in this House to obstruct normal diplomatic business such as the vital work of the middle east peace process. Senior serving politicians, to whom we all need to talk every day, were not meant to be affected in this way, as we understand it. Can she say whether magistrates are applying the law correctly? If they are not interpreting the law correctly, will the Government give fresh advice on that point. If they are interpreting the law correctly, what will the Government do about it and when will a Minister come to the House to report on this and say what they propose to do?

I think that I am in a position to tell the House that we agree. Our objectives are the same as those set out by the right hon. Gentleman, and Ministers will be looking at the matter and ensuring that the situation is resolved.

I thank the Leader of the House for that, and I hope that they will do so quickly and report to the House when it returns.

On a further issue needing urgent attention, and which might become the biggest threat to world peace in 2010, do the Government agree that Iran’s continued failure to come to an agreement on its nuclear programme, and the mounting evidence of its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, make the need to agree vastly strengthened sanctions of immense and pressing importance? Will the Government commit during the recess to do their utmost to accelerate agreement on European Union sanctions and the new UN Security Council resolution that is urgently needed?

Yes, I think that we can agree that we want to ensure that the threat from Iran, which we have never underestimated, is recognised with increasing sanctions. I would certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Once again, that is something else that the Foreign Secretary will be taking forward.

We know that the Foreign Secretary will be taking that forward, but the Prime Minister has twice announced new sanctions against Iran without them ever taking effect. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to ensure that an effective new wave of sanctions is set out, including a ban on any new European investment in Iranian oil and gas—something that he announced in the middle of last year—and serious financial sanctions such as those that exist in the United States? Will she ensure, as Leader of the House, that a statement will be made to Parliament early in the new year by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary about what this country, the European Union and the UN Security Council are prepared to do at this critical point?

Indeed, the Prime Minister mentioned that in his statement following the European Council, and as Leader of the House I ensure that the House is kept updated on this important issue.

How telling it is, however, that on this day, when we have seen employment rise, the number of people in work increase and the number of people claiming unemployment benefit fall for the first time in two years, those things have not had a mention. I would have thought that today was the day when the shadow Foreign Secretary would come to the House and admit that the Tories had got it wrong.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen today’s Daily Record, which exposed a legalised lending company charging an annual percentage rate of 2,639,538.9 per cent? Is it not about time that we followed the lead of European countries and put a cap on interest charges, especially in the run-up to Christmas?

I congratulate the Daily Record on its campaign against loan-sharking. It is important that we inform everybody that Government-funded money advice centres are there to help people, that in all areas there are loan-sharking investigation teams and that people can look to their credit unions for help. For many families, there is a lot of pressure at Christmas, so they should take advice and use credit unions.

May I add our condolences in respect of the two servicemen who died serving this country in Afghanistan?

One of the Government’s achievements is that the share of tax revenue in the economy has now fallen to the lowest level since the days of Harold Macmillan. Yet, this week, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimated that about £40 billion is not being collected and is being evaded. Where is that money? [Interruption.]

Order. I ask the Leader of the House to wait. Government Back Benchers are in an especially boisterous mood today, but I want to make progress down the Order Paper and get as many people in as possible.

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, tax revenue has fallen because if fewer houses are being bought and sold, stamp duty falls, and if unemployment increases, there are fewer people paying taxes. Corporation tax has also fallen. Tax revenue has fallen because this country has been hit by a global economic recession.

We have been determined to take measures to stop tax avoidance, and we think it important that an example be set not only in this House, but in the House of Lords. According to an old saying, there should be no taxation without representation. What about no representation without taxation? We will introduce legislation to ensure that people are domiciled, resident and ordinarily resident in order to sit in this House or in the House of Lords.

I take that point, but perhaps make it in a less partisan way—[Interruption]—and perhaps commend the leader of the Conservative party for the helpful suggestion of new legislation, based on Liberal Democrat proposals, so that Members of the Houses of Commons and Lords who are non-doms should not sit in Parliament. May I welcome the fact that there is such enthusiasm, from turkeys voting for Christmas, and suggest that the Leader of the House give immediate effect to their wishes, by bringing in an amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill, so that non-doms such as Lord Ashcroft can leave Parliament immediately?

We certainly need transparency on the issue, and as I said, we will bring forward legislation. The hon. Gentleman is busy commending the Conservative party; at the risk of being accused of being partisan, I would like to complain about the Conservative party. The deputy chairman of the Conservative party made a promise to the honours committee—this pertains to the need for legislation—that he would make his tax affairs on shore. The Foreign Secretary—[Interruption]—the shadow Foreign Secretary—can tell us what the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury says he knows. Has Lord Ashcroft—

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady, but we need not pursue that point any further.

The Efford community in my constituency is a strong community, but does my right hon. and learned Friend understand the shock, horror and dismay at the crimes for which a nursery worker received an indeterminate sentence yesterday? Will she work with me to ensure that the lessons of the serious case review, which can now move rapidly to a conclusion, are fully and speedily learned?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Everybody has the utmost sympathy for the parents whose children were at that nursery and will expect, as there have been, stiff sentences in that case. If there are any lessons to be learnt, from what we hope is an exceptional incident, I am sure that they will be learnt by the serious case review panel.

Q2. In 1998, the Government put into law their code for fiscal stability, since when the so-called golden rule on borrowing has been broken in every year since 2001. If we are to have any confidence in the announced Fiscal Responsibility Bill, can the deputy Prime Minister tell us what penalties will apply to Ministers who break that law? Will there be fines or loss of office—or worse—for such Ministers, or is this just another Labour gimmick? (307389)

The Fiscal Responsibility Bill lays out a statutory responsibility and a statutory duty, and this House will hold Ministers to account. I would say that it is fiscally responsible to ensure that the economy grows and that we do not pull the plug on it. Although we are seeing encouraging signs, the recovery is still fragile. We want to ensure that we have fiscal responsibility when it comes to taxation to help the public finances and that those who are best off pay most. As well as putting the public finances back on a proper footing, we want to ensure that we protect public services. All of those are the fiscally responsible things to do.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the best measures for tackling inequality of assets in this country is the child trust fund, which benefits 3,941 children in my constituency? Does she also agree that the very worst measure would be an inheritance tax cut for millionaires?

The reason why none of my hon. Friend’s constituents would benefit from the Conservatives’ tax cuts for millionaires is that they live in Glasgow, not in Notting Hill Gate. He can rely on this Government to protect his constituents with measures such as the child trust fund.

Q3. On equality, given that in the past parliamentary decade, which ends today, Labour Cabinet Ministers have paid themselves an increase of more than £30,000, how does the Leader of the House justify the fact that the increase in Cabinet salaries alone is greater than the annual take-home wage of the people she is elected to represent? (307390)

The pay of all Cabinet Ministers—and, indeed, of all Ministers—has been frozen, and Cabinet Ministers and Ministers have also agreed to forgo their pay increase as Members of Parliament.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport said that the electrification of the midland main line was a matter not of whether but of when. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give her support to ensuring that that happens as soon as possible, as it is vital to the economy of the country?

I give my strong support to the proposal that my hon. Friend has mentioned. It is important that we invest in our economic infrastructure—transport is an important part of that—as we have done consistently over the past 10 years.

Q4. This morning, I visited a homelessness project run by the charity Crisis. One in 20 of the people that it is likely to cater for this Christmas will be homeless ex-service personnel. Given everything that those people have already done to serve their country, is there more that the Government can do to honour the military covenant and to focus on serving the health and welfare needs of those people who have so bravely served us? (307391)

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do everything possible, as part of the military covenant, to support our serving military forces in the field, our ex-servicemen and women, and their families. If he would like to make any suggestions about this, I am sure that they would be well received by the Defence Secretary.

My constituent, Leon Jones, was just 21 when he was killed in a fatal stabbing near his home recently, devastating his family, friends and the local community. Already, that local community has been proactive in raising awareness of the possession of knives, and of knife crime. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that such campaigns are needed, along with tough laws? Will she give the House an assurance that this Government will raise the minimum sentence for murder by knife from 15 to 25 years?

First, I would like to express my sincere condolences—as my hon. Friend has done—to the family of Leon Jones for the terrible loss that they have suffered as a result of his tragic death. We have to take knife crime very seriously, and we are upgrading the sentencing to put it on a par with gun crime. Everything must be done to protect people and to send out the message that knife crime cannot be accepted.

Q5. Is the Leader of the House aware that a planning application to build a massive distribution centre at Pyestock, on the border of my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), was refused by the local authority? The appeal was rejected by the inspector, yet an unelected Minister, Lord McKenzie, who knows nothing about the area, allowed the planning application to go through. Is this what the Government mean by supporting local democracy? (307392)

The hon. Gentleman will know what the planning processes involve. They have been laid out and agreed under statute by this House, and if he had any proposals, he should have put them forward in the Planning Bill.

All the schools in my constituency have benefited immensely from the investment of this Government in terms of both staffing and capital costs. Just last week, the Great Yarmouth high school heard an announcement that it was going to receive £12.5 million from the Building Schools for the Future fund. Can my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that any future Labour Government will continue with that Building Schools for the Future fund to ensure that investment in education continues?

The Building Schools for the Future fund has been important not only to make up the backlog and legacy of disrepair in our schools but in ensuring that our young people and children are educated in the best possible facilities. It has also provided much-needed help for the construction industry at a time when private sector construction has been facing tremendous difficulties. That is one of the reasons why we have not pulled the plug on public investment in construction in the way that the Conservatives have insisted that we should.

Q6. Copenhagen is the land of make-believe and fairy tales. Does the Leader of the House have a favourite fairy tale? Could it be the Emperor’s new clothes? Is she the little robber girl or is she really the princess? (307393)

We could learn a lesson from fairy tales, which is that you need to avoid the brothers Grimm, which we would get if they—[Laughter.]

Order. I say to right hon. and hon. Members that good humour is one thing, but disorder is another. We have to try to impress and reassure the public, not to disgust them.

The Leader of the House may recall on that on 7 May I drew to her attention the plight of migrant workers and those people whose papers are languishing in Lunar house, Croydon, where a parlous state is prevailing. Will she arrange for a meeting with the charity London Citizens and faith groups, including Bishop Patrick Lynch and his Anglican and Methodist colleagues, to discuss the problems of migrant workers and those people whose status here is yet to be determined?

I will ensure that there is a meeting of the relevant Minister with London Citizens, which is a very good organisation to whose work I would like to pay tribute. I am sure that it will be reassured to know how fast the backlog is being reduced under the leadership of the Home Secretary.

Q7. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has mentioned the mega Pyestock warehouse on the borders of our constituencies. Is the deputy Prime Minister aware that the decision of the noble Lord, overruling 12,000 local residents and the local councils and her own inspector, was taken in the rather doubtful interests of employment, but against the interests—[Interruption.]—because the jobs the Minister suggested might be created are very doubtful—but against the interests— (307394)

I cannot assist the right hon. Gentleman further except to repeat my answer to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). These are decisions made under a legal framework. They are made as ministerial decisions, but in the public interest. One public interest that the planning system is determined to promote is employment, and I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman agreed with that.

On the subject of the Geneva Conventions Act, will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to reassert the principle of judicial independence and, in particular, the power of the courts to issue criminal process against anybody—whatever side they are on, whatever their status, rank or influence against whom good prima facie evidence has been laid?

Of course that is the case. The courts act judicially and independently under the framework of law, both national and international, and we have to make sure that we not only guarantee judicial independence, but have the right legal framework.

Q8. Today, the UK Payments Council meets to determine the future use of cheques and it is anticipated that it will recommend their phasing out by 2018. Many older people and small businesses, especially those without access to the internet, continue to use cheques and value their convenience. What steps will the Government take to save the cheque and to ensure that vulnerable people and small businesses can continue to use this form of payment? (307395)

The hon. Gentleman has made a significant point, particularly in relation to older people. The Equality Bill ensures that public authorities making those changes must take account of the interests of older people, and must not take steps that discriminate against them. We need to look to the future, but also to ensure that older people do not suffer as a result.

Q9. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the measures in the Local Transport Act 2008 that enable elected local transport authorities to introduce quality contracts giving them power to determine local bus routes, frequencies and fares? Does she agree that any proposal to revoke those powers would remove from local communities the right to make decisions about their own bus services, and would be entirely contrary to the principle of local democratic accountability? (307396)

I think that those quality contracts represent an important step forward, and that it would be folly for the Local Transport Act powers to be revoked. That is one of the things that the Conservative party is threatening to do, and it should not happen.

Is not part of the problem the fact that we have an Administration run by Tweedledee and Tweedledum? As we approach 2010, if the Prime Minister really does want to give the people of this country a great new year cheer, he will announce a general election sooner rather than later.

Q10. I frequently receive representations from small businesses in my constituency about the costs of Government regulation. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in these difficult times, it is essential for the Government to reduce the burden of regulation, and can she tell me what the Government are doing about it? (307397)

We are ensuring that the Government help business, both big and small. One of the things that we have done is help businesses to defer their tax under the time-to-pay scheme. I think that the most important announcement for small business over the past few weeks was the Chancellor’s announcement in the pre-Budget report that that scheme would continue. We want to do all that we can to help small businesses. One of the things that we will not be doing is abolishing the regional development agencies, which are so important to helping small businesses but which the Tories would abolish.

Nimrod Review

Seven weeks ago, I addressed the House about Mr. Charles Haddon-Cave’s report on the events leading to the loss of 14 service personnel aboard Nimrod XV230 on 2 September 2006. As I said then, it was a tough read. It spelt out in detail the many failings both in the MOD and in industry that led to the tragedy. I wish again to express my sorrow for what happened that day, and to reiterate my sincere apologies to the families of those who died. I know that nothing I can say will bring those 14 men back. What we must do now is learn all the lessons, and take all the actions that are necessary to implement them.

Mr. Haddon-Cave’s investigations were wide-ranging. His report was thorough and detailed. I want to thank him again for his efforts, and for helping us to identify the changes that we need to make. Today I shall explain to the House how we are implementing his recommendations. Some of them are complex, and I am therefore placing in the Library of the House a more detailed written response to the 84 recommendations.

This afternoon I want to focus on three areas: the creation of a military aviation authority, the changes that we are making to the management of airworthiness, and our relationship with industry.

The Nimrod XV230 was lost as a result of a number of failings in the MOD and industry over a period of some three decades. Opportunities to discover and avoid the dangers, particularly during the development of the safety case, were missed. That was due in part to specific errors, but it was also due to the fact that the MOD’s aviation safety processes had become too cumbersome and complex, and lacked transparency and accountability. Despite the efforts of many hard-working men and women in the MOD and the private sector to deliver safe aircraft, the result was simply not good enough.

The report recognised—and indeed welcomed—the many improvements we had made since the loss of the XV230, but it also made it clear that we needed to go much further. I agree, and I am today announcing the most radical reform of the MOD’s airworthiness procedures since military aviation began.

First, we are creating a new independent military aviation authority that will regulate, audit and assure all military aviation activity. It will be led by a senior—three-star—military officer, supported by a staff of about 250 personnel. He will provide the leadership on airworthiness, and also the independent assurance that we and our industry partners are all operating to the highest safety standards. He will have been identified and appointed by February, and the new authority will begin its work from April next year. The MAA will be independent of those who fly and maintain our aircraft day to day, ensuring that they operate fully within the regulations and are properly equipped, trained and resourced to deliver safe aircraft to the services.

In proposing this new organisation for the management of airworthiness, Mr. Haddon-Cave wanted to ensure that there would be responsiveness in the face of changing operational circumstances, and that a safe approach would be adopted at all times. I agree, but in order to make his recommendations effective in the military environment, some adjustments are necessary. The single service assistant chiefs of staff must retain responsibility for determining that our aircraft can be safely released into service. The MAA will provide full assurance, but it will not carry out this release-to-service role directly. For operational emergency clearances, I have decided to opt for a tighter regime than Mr. Haddon-Cave proposed, under which the assistant chiefs—not those who fly the aircraft at the front line—will be responsible for any clearances. The MAA will play an assurance role in this area, too. This refinement of the Haddon-Cave model will deliver his intention while retaining operational agility, and improve on both our current and his proposed governance arrangements.

Mr. Haddon-Cave also recommended a new approach to aviation safety cases. He was critical of our current approach, saying that it was bureaucratic and, frankly, missed the point. I agree. We need to make it simpler and more relevant. The MAA will rewrite our instructions to include the improvements that the report recommends. I have instructed that we examine how to apply this best practice appropriately across the whole of defence. We are also auditing the standard of our current aviation safety cases to check that they are fit for purpose. Most of this work has been completed, and it will be finalised in the next couple of weeks.

I now turn to the criticisms of our relationships with industry. The Department has been working with BAE Systems and QinetiQ to address their failings identified in the report. BAE Systems has announced the appointment of Dr. Chris Elliott to provide independent support to the group managing director in undertaking a review of the company’s approach to product safety. QinetiQ has appointed Sir Robert Nelson QC to oversee the company’s formal investigation, which will include a review of processes, structure and reporting. All their findings will be shared with us.

Partnership with industry has always been part of ensuring that our troops are provided with the best possible equipment and support. We recognise that partnership does not mean that we can just transfer work to industry; we still have a role to play. That is why we are improving the skills of our people to ensure that we manage industry’s activities on our behalf more effectively. A review of the contract conditions that we put in place with industry is also being conducted. We will institute improved checks and audits by the MAA on industry compliance. However, I acknowledge that we need to do more, so I have asked my noble Friend the Minister of State, Lord Drayson, as part of the work that he is doing on defence acquisition reform, to establish a much clearer understanding of the different roles and interests of industry and of the MOD, and to be sure that industry’s efforts meet our needs.

In the course of his report, Mr. Haddon-Cave also criticised the personal conduct of a small number of civilians and service people who held positions in the MOD and in industry in the period leading up to 2006. A number of those individuals work for BAE Systems or for QinetiQ, both of which are conducting their own investigations, and a number of others are now retired. Neither of the two serving RAF officers who were named currently holds a position related in any way to safety. An RAF police investigation is being conducted into the issues raised by Mr. Haddon-Cave. I hope that hon. Members will understand that I am unable to comment further on these matters at present. There is an expectation that in some such situations, investigations are accompanied by blameless suspensions of the individuals under investigation. We will re-examine this area to develop a common practice for all MOD personnel—military and civilian.

Mr. Haddon-Cave’s analysis and conclusions on safety management in aviation have wider relevance, and we are looking to see what changes we may need to make across other domains in defence. He made a number of broader observations on areas that were not the main focus of his report. Mr. Haddon-Cave did not take evidence on the Department’s approach to change management. However, I will ensure that his observations on these important issues are reflected in our planned work on the organisation and culture of the MOD, as part of the preparations for the future defence review.

Every effort is being made by the Department to ensure that our armed forces are the best trained and the best equipped, but we must recognise that the work of defence is inherently dangerous. We ask our armed forces to place themselves in harm’s way, and that entails risk. At the same time, any organisation that wants to learn and improve must change and develop; our armed forces cannot stand still in the face of developing threats and the need to work in hostile environments. It is also vital that we do everything possible to use public money effectively and efficiently. However, I am clear that change and development and the management of risk cannot be incompatible with a clear commitment and approach to safety.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I have been clear throughout that the Ministry of Defence will be open and honest about our shortcomings, and we will respond vigorously and face the challenge to improve performance. I regret enormously the deaths of those on the XV230, and apologise for the part the Department played in failing to prevent them. The measures that I have announced today reflect a personal commitment to improving safety in military aviation and the safety of our armed forces.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it, as well as for details of the recommendations that the Government intend to implement and those that they intend not to accept.

Charles Haddon-Cave’s report was, for many of us, the most damning thing that we had ever seen in our time in Parliament. His criticism of the Nimrod safety case was excoriating. Let me remind the House that he said that it

“was a lamentable job from start to finish. It was riddled with errors. It missed the key dangers. Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency, and cynicism.”

It is a report that I think we will all remember, however long we serve in this House. The bottom line is that 14 men died in a tragedy that was wholly avoidable. There were previous warnings and previous incidents, but appropriate action was not taken, and two major companies with international reputations, as well as the MOD, are involved.

I do not think that anybody in this House wants a witch hunt. No one is seeking scapegoats for the sake of having scapegoats, but as well as ensuring that, as the Secretary of State said, no repetition occurs, we also need to know who takes responsibility for what happened—responsibility as regards the families who have lost loved ones, and the armed forces. As we have often said in this House, we have two duties to our armed forces—to ensure that we do everything we can both to provide them with the maximum chance of success in their mission, and to minimise their risk in carrying out that mission. We have to ensure that they have confidence in the high-tech equipment on which they increasingly rely.

I welcome the measures set out in the Secretary of State’s statement and in the Government’s wider detailed response, including the setting up of the military aviation authority. However, given the complexity of the issue, I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand that we will want to look at this in greater detail, and in particular at the recommendations that the Government do not want to implement. It is worth praising MOD staff for having acted expeditiously in going through the report and ensuring that these items can be implemented as soon as possible.

I have some specific questions, but before I come to them let me say that overall, responsibility for technical issues needs to lie with technical experts. I have to say—as I did seven weeks ago—that I still have worries about the quality of advice being passed up the chain. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient and independent assessment of technical advice is being given to Ministers? There is no point in making Ministers responsible if they are not safeguarded in the quality of the advice that they receive.

The MOD pays to be an intelligent customer, so how does the Secretary of State specifically assess the role of QinetiQ in making the MOD an intelligent customer in this case? Why the delay in the QinetiQ and BAE responses? They knew that the report was coming, they had ample time to make their case and it is simply not good enough. We in this House and the families deserve a full and proper explanation, and delays and excuses about who has retired simply will not wash.

Let me turn to the specific issues. Will the Secretary of State first tell us how much the setting up and running costs of the MAA will be, and which budgets they will come from? Will he explain in a little more detail than he did in his statement why the new MAA will not have release-to-service responsibility? Is it, as I think he implied, because it is not just about the safety of the aircraft but about the fact that the environment in which they will have to operate will be taken into account, as will the specific circumstances at the time? If that is so, how do we avoid the risk of cutting corners and finding ourselves with the potential of another tragic event? In a culture—whether we like it or not—of increasing legal liability, it is a worry to all of us in this House as well as to our armed forces that we seem now to be compounding warfare with lawfare.

I have three other specific questions that I would like to put to the Secretary of State. Does he accept, and does the MOD accept, that it was a mistake to abolish the post of chief engineer of the RAF? To amplify what he has said already, can he give a categorical assurance, given that the airworthiness regime is consistent across the air domain, that all air assets in all three service are “safe to fly”? Can he guarantee that the imperative of speed in introducing urgent operational requirements to platforms for theatre has in no way degraded the airworthiness case of the aircraft being deployed?

I turn briefly to the question of compensation. No sum of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one. None the less, compensation is at least in part an act of atonement that recognises responsibility for failure. Does the Secretary of State agree that any level of compensation set has to reflect that concept adequately? Will he ensure that the process of compensation occurs expeditiously and accurately? At the same time, will he also ensure that the same applies to pension arrangements, because, as he will be aware, some of the families have concerns about the accuracy of the system?

I shall end as I started, by speaking about the avoidable deaths of 14 of our service personnel. Their families will bear their loss for ever, and this is a very difficult time of year for them. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing the families, to the best extent that circumstances will allow, a happy and peaceful Christmas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for many of the comments that he has made, a large number of which I totally and absolutely agree with. Equally, I want to thank him, on behalf of the staff of the MOD, for the kind comments that he has made about how they have responded to the report. I think that their response has been exemplary.

The hon. Gentleman asked about speed, but in these circumstances it is important to balance speed of reaction with thoroughness and not making mistakes. That is something that we have to think about, but I hope that we have got the balance right by establishing the MAA and looking at these complex issues to try to get a new system in place. I know that the families want us to move as quickly as possible to learn the lessons of what led to the loss of their loved ones, but equally they want us to learn those lessons genuinely and thoroughly.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the advice that I get within the Department. I have been in the MOD for two and half years now, and I find it to be packed with talented and dedicated people who are prepared to look, learn and challenge the perceived wisdom all the time. I try to encourage that attitude and atmosphere, so that people are not stifled in what they say and do, and so that we get as broad an internal view on these issues as we can.

From time to time, however, we need to use outside expertise to enable us to see through our own failings, or, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the failings of others. That is when we bring in someone like Mr. Haddon-Cave to help us. I think that he has done a thorough job, and that he has identified lessons that badly need to be learned.

I cannot talk in detail about the exact reaction of QinetiQ and BAE Systems. I spoke to Mr. Haddon-Cave again only yesterday, and I think that both companies are now moving in the right direction. I cannot say whether they were as shocked as we were by the report’s findings in the initial days, and I do not want to dwell on that. I think that we need to look forward.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) also asked about compensation. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has met the families repeatedly, so he gets the criticisms and pressures directly, as did I when I used to hold that job. I hope—indeed, I am repeatedly assured—that we are not the cause of any delay in settling compensation claims. That is what I am told, but my hon. Friend is sitting front and centre on this, trying to make absolutely certain that we are not the cause of delay. In no way do we want to aggravate in any way the sorrow and the loss suffered by the families. We need to be seen to be getting on with this job. If blame has to be apportioned between us and the companies involved, that is something that we can sort out. It should not affect our ability to get on and make offers to the families.

We are driving the matter forward as fast as possible. We have made an offer of interim payments, but I am afraid that the legal representatives of some of the families have turned their faces against that. However, we will do everything we can to reach a settlement as soon as possible. We accepted responsibility a long time ago, and we do not demur from that in any way.

The Defence Secretary called the Haddon-Cave report “a tough read”, and it certainly was, describing as it did the tragic and avoidable deaths of 14 of our personnel. It was a damning indictment of procedures in the Ministry of Defence and in industrial partner companies, so I welcome the tone of the right hon. Gentleman’s response, both seven weeks ago and again today.

At the centre of what the Defence Secretary announced today, I particularly welcome the formation of the new military aviation authority. He described the authority as independent, but it is obvious that the safety of particular aircraft will differ according to the theatres in which they operate. The right hon. Gentleman has refined the Haddon-Cave recommendations on precise release to service, but will he say whether the MAA will have personnel on the spot in theatre at all times? Will he guarantee that there will be enough of them, and at a senior enough level, to be able to retain their independence and not get swept up into the emergency of a particular situation?

Will the Secretary of State also assure us that the new arrangements will be more responsive and attentive to feedback from the crews of particular aircraft than has sometimes been the case in the past?

The report was scathing about the two companies involved. Industrial partners are important to us, and I welcome the steps that the Defence Secretary said that the two companies were taking, but will he tell the House whether they will step up to the plate and share with the Ministry of Defence both the responsibility and the liability that emerge from this tragic event?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was a glaring risk to this aircraft that went undiscovered by many experts over 30 years. Most particularly, however, it was not discovered during the safety case that was supposedly put together to identify exactly such risks, but which failed so to do.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the appropriate level of authority on release to service, and we have spent a lot of time over the last seven weeks trying to talk about that. As the hon. Member for Woodspring said, in the military environment we need to make absolutely certain that authority lies in the right place. I do not want to remove that authority: the release to service will be vested in the appropriate level of the chain of command, but we will also make sure that no one lower than that will take operational risk. Therefore, if operational circumstances demand that a particular platform ought to be allowed to fly, that level of release will be needed before any such course of action can be taken. In addition, the MAA will have the authority to oversee and audit all the decisions that are taken.

The reason why Mr. Haddon-Cave wanted to make sure that these matters were led at the appropriate level was to ensure the kind of authority and independence that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) is looking for. That is why we are saying that three-star officer level is appropriate.

That structure might change in time. We may well find that bringing other parts of MOD safety within such a construct is the right thing to do, in which case the authority would broaden to cover other areas. However, for the initial period while we are setting up the MAA, the focus needs to be on aviation safety, and the organisation needs to be led at the appropriate level.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the characteristically frank and candid manner in which he addressed the House, which is appreciated. Will he assure the House that an independent military aviation authority will have full access to any information that it requires to do a comprehensive job, and that it will be truly independent so that it can make any comments or criticism that it considers necessary in the interests of our service personnel, without pressure on it for financial or political considerations?

That is precisely what we are trying to achieve. I hope that my hon. Friend understands—I have heard this, understandably, from the families who have lost their loved ones—that the independent military aviation authority should be outside the Ministry of Defence, with the Civil Aviation Authority playing its role. We cannot bring a civilian authority into the military environment, so what we are trying to do, and what Haddon-Cave recommended, because he saw that that was not the way forward and did not recommend it, is to mirror the level of authority in the CAA but with people who recognise the military environment. Of course, we must monitor their performance to ensure that they are doing their job appropriately over time and that they have the independence that my hon. Friend wants.

Is not the most difficult thing to change the culture of the Ministry of Defence, away from ticking boxes? How do we do that?

There are still changes that need to be made and we still have a way to go, but in the two and a half years that I have been in the Ministry of Defence, during which I have dealt with many boards of inquiry, inquests and deaths of service personnel, I have already seen a change of culture. There are areas where it does not reach, but there is a desire to make sure that the right culture exists. We have made progress over time. The pressure to which the Department has been subjected from the level of scrutiny required by inquests and the new service inquiries has put that in a better place. It still is not right; it still needs to be driven. There is more, and the MAA will be a major tool in ensuring that that happens.

The Secretary of State will know that, since this tough report was published, morale among those involved has taken a considerable knock. Does he agree that it is imperative that we acknowledge that, as well as the uniformed work force, there are thousands in the civilian work force throughout the country, including more than 2,000 in Boscombe Down in my constituency alone, who work for QinetiQ, whose reach goes from Boscombe Down to Benbecula, and who support our uniformed military personnel every day? Does he agree that we must ensure that they regain the trust and confidence of Her Majesty’s forces? Will he tell us where the headquarters of the military aviation authority will be and where the 250 military personnel will come from?

I accept that there is a point in what the hon. Gentleman says. When people and the Department are criticised to the degree that they were in the report, that is bound to worry even dedicated people who are trying to do their job. Equally, there is well founded evidence from up and down the ranks of our employees that they want to make sure that we learn all the lessons as well. They are not just feeling the crush and the pressure of the criticism. In many cases they are urging us to put systems in place that make sure that we are as effective as we can be. They know that they are part of the system and they take huge pride in the work that they do. We have not decided a location yet. Haddon-Cave wants to make sure that we have a separate location. It will take time to put the team together and allocate appropriate premises to them.

Will the MAA, rather like the CAA, have responsibility not only for airworthiness, but for safety on the ground and at air bases? Is it not time that we had an independent military air accident investigation board?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the detail. I want the MAA to be able to take a complete overview and audit all aspects of air safety. I will write to clarify the detail.

Just yesterday I and a cross-party group of MPs met the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), to discuss the future of the Nimrod project. There are still 1,000-plus skilled workers at Woodford in my constituency building the new generation of Nimrod aircraft. What message does the Secretary of State have today for those loyal and dedicated workers who stand to lose their jobs when the current Nimrod project is completed?

The decisions that I announced yesterday and those that the Minister was talking to the hon. Gentleman’s group about were not connected to the Haddon-Cave review, as I tried to make clear yesterday. They related to prioritisation issues and budgetary measures within the MOD. Mr. Haddon-Cave was very clear. We asked that if, at any point in the course of his investigation, he found reason to question the airworthiness of planes currently flying, he should come to us immediately. He did not do that. He says that in his report, and he says that the Nimrod is now the most scrutinised military aircraft flying anywhere in the world. We still need the capabilities of many of the Nimrod variations. [Interruption.] We still need other variations of the Nimrod and we will need to look carefully at how we use that aircraft in the future. We will do so during a strategic defence review.

I very much welcome the Haddon-Cave report and I commend the Secretary of State’s response to its findings, but will he confirm that he has had independent, third party representations from people who are concerned about one or two of the report’s more subjective findings on individuals in the command chain, where conclusions appear to have been drawn without substantial evidence? I do not wish to tempt him to comment on any investigations in progress, but can he say anything about that part of the report and will he undertake to give those individuals a fair hearing at some stage during the investigation?

I have had representations, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I hope that he understands that, for the reason that I mentioned in my statement, I do not want to say anything about any of the individuals. Two are still current employees who are undergoing investigation. It would be wrong for me to go into that matter.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and prior sight of it. Today we pay tribute to the 14 service personnel who died aboard Nimrod XV230 and to their families. We hope that no more loved ones will have to go through the same sort of tragedy.

We will look closely at the MOD’s detailed response. It is important to recognise the personnel at RAF Kinloss who have worked extremely hard to maintain the safety of the ageing Nimrod fleet, as well as the wider community in Moray who give such great support. There are many lessons to be learned from the Haddon-Cave report, as well as from the treatment of the families, which left a lot to be desired. I welcome the creation of the military aviation authority, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the report criticised

“a shift in culture and priorities in the MOD towards ‘business’ and financial targets, at the expense of functional values such as safety and airworthiness”.

Given this week’s military cuts and the continuing defence privatisation agenda, how could the MOD even begin to claim that it will get to grips with the deep-seated failed culture that led to the loss of Nimrod XV230?

I pay tribute not only to those whose lives were lost on that XV230, but to the rest of the crews and servicemen who keep and have kept such planes flying for a long time. I pay tribute also to the families, whom I have met on more than one occasion. Yes, of course there is anguish and grief, but there has been a determination on their part—a laudable determination—to drive us to learn the lessons so that the loss of their loved ones is not in vain and we get to a better place in our systems and safety capability. They are to be applauded for that.

On the criticisms that were made, there is no doubt that in this area aviation safety suffered. None of us can say—I do not believe that any proper reading of Haddon-Cave says—that we should not be driving for efficiency. Everybody wants an efficient service, and everybody wants to make sure that we are at the cutting edge in our methods as well as in the equipment that we fly. But safety cannot be compromised in that regard.

I thank the Secretary of State for bringing these sensitive and difficult issues to the House for scrutiny, for his tributes and for his honest and caring approach, which the whole House recognises. However, will he confirm, given that he has not yet done so, that the resources required to set up the MAA will not be drawn from front-line services, and that they will be new resources?

Many of the responsibilities already exist within various parts of the Ministry of Defence, but they really need to be brought together, given authority and leadership and, therefore, put in a position to make sure that the lessons we need badly to learn are learned. The resources will be ours, but many of them already exist in various other places, and we need to bring them together in the way that Mr. Haddon-Cave has suggested.

We all acknowledge that no review or reaction to such will be able to bring back the 14 service personnel whose lives were lost. Nor can we remove the pain that their families have suffered. However, will the Secretary of State assure the House that no aircraft will be allowed to fly, and no other equipment will be used, that endangers our servicemen and women whether they be in theatre or preparing for theatre.

That should not happen—it should not be happening now. There are lots and lots of dedicated people in the RAF, the Army and the Navy and in our civilian staff at the Ministry of Defence whose responsibility it is—and they take it very seriously—to see exactly that that does not happen. However, the complexity and the lack of accountability—the things that were identified in the report—could undermine the best of individuals who are trying to do the job that we give them to do. So bringing out this matter, giving clear lines of accountability and establishing the authority ought to put our own people in a place where they can work more effectively for the safety of the people for whom we have responsibility.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to my point of order on 12 November 2008 to Speaker Martin, my subsequent point of order on 12 November this year to your good self, Sir, and my general comments and remarks over the eight and a half years that I have been a Member regarding the flying of the Union flag—the flag of our country—from the flagpoles on the parliamentary estate, will you now give a progress report and explain what is going to happen in the future on this matter?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for his point of order and, indeed, for giving me advance notice of it, and I am very happy to provide the progress report that he seeks. He should be aware and the House is now informed that the Chair of the Administration Committee wrote to me on 25 November to inform me that

“the Administration Committee considered a paper from the Parliamentary Director of Estates on flag flying on the Parliamentary Estate.”

Following a discussion of this important matter, the Committee agreed to recommend to me that

“flags should be flown on all three flagpoles on the Estate every day of the year, taking account of the usual ceremonial occasions.”

The Chair of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), helpfully pointed out to me in the letter:

“This would bring Parliament into line with other Whitehall departments. In the case of the Victoria Tower, agreement would be necessary with the House of Lords.”

I wrote back to the hon. Gentleman on 30 November, agreeing to his recommendations, including those relating to shape, dimensions and a change to “three by five”, which I know will be of close interest to the House.

I hope that the hon. Member for Romford feels a proper sense of triumph at what he has achieved in this matter, which he has, as he indicated, pursued over a lengthy period with, if I may say, a tenacity reminiscent of a Staffordshire bull terrier.

Royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Consolidated Fund Act 2009.

Bills Presented

Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants Etc.) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Dr. Brian Iddon, supported by Rob Marris, Mr. Neil Gerrard, John Austin, Chris McCafferty, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. David Curry, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Phil Willis, Bob Russell and Paul Holmes, presented a Bill to protect persons whose tenancies are not binding on mortgagees and to require mortgagees to give notice of the proposed execution of possession orders.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January, and to be printed (Bill 15).

Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. David Chaytor, supported by Mr. David S. Borrow, Mr. David Crausby, Mr. David Drew, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. Paul Truswell, Mark Fisher, Mr. Michael Clapham, Helen Southworth, Mrs. Betty Williams, Fiona Mactaggart and Joan Walley, presented a Bill to make further provision about the functions, powers and constitution of local authority overview and scrutiny committees; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 16).

Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Andrew Gwynne, supported by Ms Sally Keeble, Anne Snelgrove, Mr. David Drew, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Mr. Andy Reed, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Peter Lilley, Peter Bottomley, Anne Main, Andrew Stunell and Tom Brake, presented a Bill to make provision for or in connection with the relief of debts of certain developing countries.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 17).

Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Albert Owen, supported by Andrew George, Nick Ainger, Mr. David Drew, Mark Durkan, Daniel Kawczynski, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Peter Bottomley, Mark Williams, Alun Michael, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle and Dr. Hywel Francis, presented a Bill to make provision for the appointment, functions and powers of a Grocery Market Ombudsman; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 18).

Sunbeds (Regulation) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Julie Morgan, supported by Mrs. Siân C. James, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs. Betty Williams, Frank Dobson, Jessica Morden, Rosie Cooper, Dr. Evan Harris, Sandra Gidley, Mr. John Baron, Miss Julie Kirkbride and Dr. Richard Taylor, presented a Bill to make provision about the use or supply of tanning devices that use artificial ultra-violet radiation; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January, and to be printed (Bill 19).

Anti-slavery Day Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Anthony Steen, supported by Clare Short, Sir Michael Spicer, Michael Connarty, Sir Paul Beresford, Dr. Evan Harris, Keith Vaz, Mr. Peter Bone and Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. Peter Luff, Mr. Angus Robertson and Lady Sylvia Hermon, presented a Bill to introduce a national day to raise awareness of the need to eradicate all forms of slavery, human trafficking and exploitation; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 20).

Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Alistair Burt, supported by Mr. David Drew, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. Martin Caton, Joan Walley, Dr. Brian Iddon, Tom Levitt, Julia Goldsworthy, Mr. Oliver Heald, Robert Neill and Mr. Nick Hurd, presented a Bill to amend the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 to make provision regarding town and parish councils, local decision-making and expenditure and the consideration of proposals; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 21).

Warsaw Convention (Carrier Liability) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

John Smith, supported by John Barrett, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Martyn Jones, Jim Sheridan, Mr. Desmond Swayne, Sir Nicholas Winterton, Mr. Brian Jenkins and Dr. Richard Taylor, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to propose amendments to Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention for the purpose of extending carrier liability to cases of detriment to health or psychological well-being; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 22).

Safety and Conservation (Byelaws) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Crispin Blunt, on behalf of Chris Grayling, presented a Bill to empower the Secretary of State to delegate certain powers in respect of safety and conservation to conservators and other specified bodies; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 23).

Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Nigel Dodds, supported by Mr. Peter Robinson, Mr. William Cash, Mr. Ian Davidson, Mr. Mike Hancock, Lady Sylvia Hermon, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr. William McCrea, Bob Spink, Ann Winterton and Sir Nicholas Winterton, presented a Bill to require the holding of a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon and to require the repeal of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 if the decision to ratify is not approved in the referendum; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 24).

National Health Service Public Interest Disclosure Support Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Dr. Richard Taylor, supported by Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. William Cash, Mr. Dai Davies, Frank Dobson, Sandra Gidley, Patrick Hall, Dr. Doug Naysmith, Mr. Robert N. Wareing and Dr. Tony Wright, presented a Bill to make provision for the appointment, functions and powers of independent Support Officers for NHS employees who wish to make certain disclosures in the public interest; to place a duty on NHS trusts and others to co-operate with such Support Officers; to make consequential amendments to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 25).

Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Simon Hughes, supported by Lorely Burt, Tim Farron, Lynne Featherstone, Nick Harvey, John Hemming, Paul Holmes, Mr. John Leech, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Andrew Stunell, Stephen Williams and Jenny Willott, presented a Bill to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to enable local planning authorities to use sums received under section 106 of the Act for the building and improvement of housing; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January, and to be printed (Bill 26).

Care Homes and Sheltered Accommodation (Domestic Pets) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Nigel Waterson, supported by Miss Ann Widdecombe, Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Roger Gale, Paul Flynn, Mr. James Gray, Mr. Denis MacShane, Dr. Nick Palmer and Ann Clwyd, presented a Bill to make provision for residents of care homes and sheltered accommodation to keep domestic pets in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 27).

European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Douglas Carswell, supported by Philip Davies, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Mr. Peter Bone, Mr Austin Mitchell, Mr. Mike Hancock, Dr. Evan Harris, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Kelvin Hopkins and Ann Winterton, presented a Bill to require the holding of a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 February, and to be printed (Bill 28).

Development on Flood Plains (Environment Agency Powers) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Bob Spink presented a Bill to empower the Environment Agency to prevent development on flood plains to which the Agency objects; to require planning authorities to comply with Environment Agency advice when considering development on flood plains; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January, and to be printed (Bill 29).

Local Government (Infrastructure Requirement Plans) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Mark Hoban, supported by Mr. Mark Francois, Mr. Mark Prisk, Mr. Paul Goodman, Mr. David Gauke, Mr. Brooks Newmark, Mrs Maria Miller, John Howell and Mr. Charles Walker, presented a Bill to require local authorities to assess the infrastructure needed to support future housing and commercial development and to prepare plans for its provision; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 30).

Marine Accident Investigation Branch (Reports) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

David Cairns presented a Bill to make provision to oblige shipping companies, port operators and other bodies to comply with recommendations made in reports of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents and of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March, and to be printed (Bill 31).

School Transport Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. David Heath presented a Bill to make provision for a dedicated school bus network; to amend the duties of Local Education Authorities to provide school transport; to improve the safety of users of school transport; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 32).

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have just heard a lot of hon. Members presenting private Members’ Bills and, with the exception of the last Member, giving dates for Second Reading when the House has not yet been given any dates when Second Readings are to be available. How can that be in order? How can Members know that they will actually be able to debate their business on that day?

That is a matter for the Government, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows. I think it would be accurate to say that he is engaged in a continuing altercation with the Government on this important matter. Once again, he has taken the opportunity to register firmly on the record his disapproval of the Government’s handling of the matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the fact that the consideration of private Members’ Bills is a matter for the Government rather than the House an illustration of why we need an early debate on the proposals from the Wright Committee?

The hon. Gentleman is taking the opportunity to instigate a debate. As he knows, I have myself indicated on previous occasions a desire that the matters to which he has referred should come before the House before very long. After the festive season, I have no reason to suppose that he will be disappointed.

If there are no further points of order—I know the House is in a very “point of order” mood—we now come to the main business.

Christmas Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

As hon. Members will probably be aware, I have imposed a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

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.

Order. May I just remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions?

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.

Order. I appreciate the hon. Lady’s offer, but even at this time of good will to all, I think that I would have to refuse.

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.

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not made such good progress with his campaign for better carriages on the northern franchise, and neither have the Government.

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.

Uruguay is also a member of Mercosur, but there are associate members that wish to join. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should encourage more south American countries to join?

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 believe that Olly came from my constituency, Braintree, rather than that of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell).

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,