I start by paying tribute to the maiden speakers this afternoon: the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice). I have a particular affection for Livingston because my father was head teacher of one of the very first primary schools there in the mid-1960s.
In my maiden speech I spoke about my constituency, its people, their ambitions for their families and their care for their community, and the dignity of work. Stretford and Urmston is not the most deprived of constituencies in the country. We do not have the highest levels of unemployment or the worst poverty rates, but many families are very worried about the future and their local community. My constituency sits in the northern part of the borough of Trafford, Conservative-controlled since 2004. In that time my constituents have come to feel that they are very much the poor relations, as they watch funds flow to the leafier, more prosperous south of the borough. One trivial but telling example is that in January, when we suffered the heavy snowfalls, it did not escape notice that the council’s snowplough was seen almost immediately in Hale, in the south of the borough, whereas in Stretford and Urmston we waited weeks. In fact we never saw the snowplough at all; we had to wait for the thaw.
My constituency also loses out in much more serious ways. Unemployment is twice the level in the wealthier next-door constituency of Altrincham and Sale West. Inequalities in health mean a difference in male life expectancy of 11 years between the poorest wards in my constituency and the richest in the south. Investment in our town centres, parks and youth facilities has all too often seen my constituency at the back of the queue.
Last week Trafford metropolitan borough council announced cuts of £70 million in public spending over the next few years. It made that announcement at a press conference: it took a leaf out of Ministers’ books, because councillors were not the first to hear. We do not have all the details of the cuts, but we already know that 81 more jobs will be lost this year and an elderly people’s home will close, and that social care, libraries, education, play facilities and parks are all likely to be hit.
That is the reality of spending cuts. It is no use seeking to suggest that they are the result of local decisions alone, because the £6 billion of Ministers’ so-called efficiency savings will have a direct effect on education and youth facilities in my constituency, on community cohesion programmes and on programmes to address health and the quality of life. It is Ministers who have frozen the playbuilder scheme in my constituency. Last week I asked the Leader of the House about that, and he said that it was a local decision, but I have since learned that it was an instruction from the Department for Education. Do not tell me that Labour had put in place spending plans that could not be afforded, because in Trafford a choice is being made about what to spend money on, and to cut front-line services first. Trafford council has still been able to find the money for consultancies and senior director posts, and to refurbish the town hall.
It is the public services on which my constituents rely—services that are popular, accessible and good quality—that face the first of the threats. Those are the services that bind society more closely together, and legitimise the right to social support. Now, under the guise of the big society, we see many of them picked apart. I am all in favour of people acting together to improve and strengthen their communities, and we have many examples of that in my constituency, from Positive Partington to Trafford peace week, the 60-plus action group, the companions and carers lunch club, and the Urmston partnership. Those and many other groups do tremendous work in the community. They enrich people’s lives. But let us be absolutely honest: they can in no way replace the public infrastructure. Their role is not, and should not be, the strategy or stewardship of public resources, or securing universal access. For that we need the state. That role has been fulfilled by Government offices for the regions, primary care trusts and local authorities—all now being airbrushed out, or seeing their roles minimised as part of the Government’s local delivery plans.
Volunteers do great work in our community, but they volunteer: they do what they want, when they can. That is why a local police inspector told me the other day that although special constables make a great contribution, they can in no way replace police community support officers. We cannot insist on where or when specials work, and we cannot secure a critical police presence from special constables at the visible policing level that the public want and expect.
Let us think about relying on volunteers to run our local library or swimming baths. Those roles require skilled, qualified and paid staff, guaranteed to maintain minimum standards of access, quality and safety. Let us also consider the Sure Start centres that support young families, or the carer who goes every evening to help an older person to get to bed. Those are core services that cannot be left to the chance of voluntary provision, yet I fear that the direction of the big society will be a cover for reducing investment, and that the result will be patchy unreliable provision.
I want Ministers to come to the House and tell us what the big society really means for public service quality, public sector employees, the voluntary and community sectors, communities, individuals and families. I want for every one of my constituents a guarantee that open, accessible and quality provision will be maintained in the services on which they rely. I want assurances for my local voluntary sector that it is not expected to become a cheap substitute for proper public provision. And I want to hear from Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, that the big society will be truly fair to us all.
It is a pleasure to be called in this end-of-season debate, in which we all have an opportunity to talk about subjects that perhaps the parliamentary time we have been afforded so far has not allowed us to discuss. In the short time I have, I shall bring to the House’s attention three or four areas of interest in my constituency and generally, the first of which is the decline in competitive sport.
I welcome the Government’s plans to revive competitive games in schools and reverse the decline in competitive sport, when there are no winners and no losers. Those of us who have been through not only a general election campaign recently but through polls when we might not have been successful know what it is to like to win and what it is to like to lose, and we are all the better for it. However, fewer than one third of our schools take part in regular competitive sport, and fewer than one fifth compete against other schools. In Crewe and Nantwich, I have seen for myself the huge importance of, and appetite for, competitive sport, and its huge impact on many young people’s lives.
Crewe and Nantwich athletics club has been phenomenally successful and is top of the men’s, women’s and under-11s’ leagues. I congratulate the young athletes who have been promoted to the premier north-west league, especially Liam Clowes, who has been selected to run for Great Britain at the world junior championships. None of that would have been possible unless Steve Walker, the head coach, had believed in the importance of competitive sport as a way to energise young people, and in their ability.
Crewe and Nantwich gymnastics club and the Cheshire academy of integrated sports and arts have sent many young adults with disabilities to the Special Olympics, which will take place again next year in Athens, where they have won countless gold medals. That is all down to the hard work and dedication of the coaches, who believe that competitive sport plays a vital part in encouraging young people to learn to deal with success and failure and to reach their potential. Many young people have a real passion for sport and can see through the façade of receiving a medal just for taking part; they want to believe that what they have done has meaning and will help them to strive for greater things.
I therefore welcome this Government’s attitude in trying to reintroduce competitive sport throughout our schools and within our communities, because I enjoy watching my daughter and son taking part in the egg and spoon race. I enjoy seeing not only the tears of joy when they win, but the tears of disappointment when they do not. That is not because I am a competitive dad, but because I like to see them engage in competitive sport that will help enliven and enrich their understanding of what sport can bring to their school and community.
The previous Government introduced a directive under which schools were asked to replace competitive races on sports days with so-called problem solving exercises. There is some debate about whether egg and spoon races can be described as problem solving exercises, but I know what I would prefer my son and daughter to be doing.
I shall not try to link all my subjects together, but simply move on. My next topic is the plight of looked-after children in our society—a serious issue in which I have been involved for a long time. I am keen that the new, reconstituted all-party groups on adoption and fostering and on looked-after children and care leavers should try to encourage Members of Parliament to go into their constituencies and meet some of the young people in care, or those who have experience of the care system. Members can thereby discover for themselves exactly what is going on and how looked-after children are faring.
We need to take up so many issues in the House on behalf of the many children in the care system who do not have a voice. I am delighted that the Government have seen fit to ensure that looked-after children will benefit from the pupil premium, and I would have been surprised if they had not taken that step. Another issue is the provision of mental health services for children and the need for the child and adolescent mental health service—CAMS—to be far more rigorous and available to all children when it is required. Furthermore, children need support when they leave care; we had a lengthy debate on that during discussion of the Children and Young Persons Bill in the previous Parliament.
A disproportionate number of children in custody have been in the care system or are in it. I will continue to press for one anomaly to be addressed: the fact that children in voluntary care who find themselves in custody lose their status as looked-after children—all the support mechanisms fall away. Why should that happen? I shall return to the subject throughout this Parliament.
My third issue is one that many older constituents have raised with me—the switchover to digital radio. Approximately 100 million analogue radios are still being used in the UK and 20 million car radios can receive only AM and FM radio. The previous Government were going to press ahead with the fairly arbitrary date of 2015 for the switchover, yet only 24% of radio listening is done through digital channels. We have to question the reliability of DAB radio; I still believe that the coverage is patchy. Furthermore, what are we going to do with all the old analogue radios? Who has given thought to that?
So many older people in my constituency believe that the FM service is more than adequate for their needs. If the switchover is rushed, the impact on the commercial radio sector could well be highly damaging. I am pleased that the Government view the issue as more of an aspiration—that a 50% threshold of DAB users is to be required and that the FM service will continue even if the DAB service is brought in as the preference for radio stations.
Those three subjects were completely unrelated, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that you found them fascinating. They all concern my constituents, from the very young to the very old, and I hope that they will be taken seriously by hon. Members on both sides of the House as we progress through this Parliament.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker; this is the first time I have spoken while you have been in the Chair. I congratulate you belatedly on your election.
I compliment the three Members who made their maiden speeches today. I was disappointed that in her excellent description of the free market of Witham, the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) did not get round to mentioning the 14th century peasants’ revolt, which originated in her constituency and offered a rather different take on how an economy can be developed.
In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) described the origins of the industrial revolution, and just about everybody north of Watford can claim that their area had a part in that. I grew up in Shropshire, and we are absolutely convinced that the industrial revolution began there. We will have to continue that debate.
I was so pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) mentioned the late Robin Cook and his enormous contribution to this House and, indeed, his opposition to the Iraq war.
The summer Adjournment debate, as it used to be called, is a good institution, but a limited one, because until now there has been no facility for reply other than the hapless Deputy Leader of the House having to sit through several hours of speeches on a convoluted range of subjects—from local issues, to FM radio, to, probably, space travel some time later this afternoon—and being expected to respond to them all but, in reality, not being able to respond to any of them. If our procedures are to mean anything, there must be some facility, at the very least, for Ministers to reply to points made during these debates by letter or by statement. Alternatively, we could go back to what used to be known as the Consolidated Fund debates, when Members could raise any specific issue and a Minister was forced to reply to them—in effect, a series of all-night Adjournment debates that we used to enjoy in the mid-1980s. I recall talking about the London ambulance service from 4 am until 5.30 am, and in the end an ambulance came and took us all away out of sheer exhaustion.
I want to raise an absolutely crucial issue concerning the health service in my constituency. In the past few months, there has been enormous discussion and debate about the configuration of health services in north London. Something called the north central London health service configuration—a conglomeration of the primary care trusts for the whole of north London—concocted a substantial report, a vintage photocopied version of which I have here, which made several proposals, including the closure of the accident and emergency department at my local hospital, the Whittington, with an implied and very obvious threat to A and E departments elsewhere.
That provoked consternation locally, as it would anywhere else, as well as an interesting public discussion and debate about the nature of the national health service, issues of poverty and need, and the value of a local hospital in addressing those issues. All Members will be familiar with such discussions. Several public meetings were held. For the first one I called, I was reluctant to get a large room because I was not sure how many people would turn up. However, 350 people turned up to ask questions, and even more came to another meeting that was held a short time later. A feeling of democratic deficit within the NHS was very obvious throughout all those discussions. We then organised a local march along the Holloway road in defence of Whittington hospital, which 5,000 people attended.
As a result, the leaderships of the three main political parties started to vie with each other to support the demands to keep the local hospital. During the general election campaign, we had one of those strange moments that occurs at such times when the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition called a demonstration outside the hospital and were overwhelmed with speakers, including Labour candidates such as me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and a number of Liberal Democrat candidates. The future Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), turned up and was immediately given a place on the platform alongside this strange conglomeration of people. All of us, including the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, now the Secretary of State for Health, pledged to do everything we could to save Whittington A and E department, and thus the hospital with it. I was not aware of this, but apparently he toured the whole country making such pledges and promises, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) said.
We are now concerned about what is going to be the future of health services in north London and the Islington area. Although Islington has an urban chic, cappuccino society image, with rather strange restaurants on Upper street where various arrangements were made between previous Labour leaders, in reality it is a borough of huge disparities in wealth and poverty. All the health indices—I have with me an excellent publication by the local primary care trust and the council, the health profile for Islington for 2010—indicate that there are high levels of health deficiency, obesity, cancer, heart conditions and a number of other problems. Interestingly, that publication also shows that the health condition of the borough has improved considerably over the past 10 years. Life expectancy has increased, infant mortality has declined, and all health indices have improved considerably, although they are still below the regional and national average.
I was very pleased that Islington council and the NHS produced an excellent document entitled “Closing the Gap—Tackling Health Inequalities in Islington”, a copy of which I have with me. It indicates that one of the major problems is the lack of affordable housing and emphasises the need for people not to grow up in overcrowded accommodation that damages their health.
The reason I mention all that is that, with some concern, I recently received a letter from the apparently soon to be redundant primary care trust, stating that there was to be a stocktake of stakeholders’ views on the future configuration of the health service in my borough. It provoked an immediate response from the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition, which stated:
“We note that in this letter you”—
the director of North Central London strategic health authority—
“give notice of a meeting to discuss with GPs from across North Central London commissioners the results of the stocktake on 15th July”.
It asked for an immediate reply. In the reply, the health authority wrote:
“This local stock take will help inform how we involve people in the review which will not start before September.”
The authority’s letter then immediately goes into a long paragraph about the need to be aware of the health White Paper, and concludes that the previous review has been halted, that the stocktake is reviewing the process undertaken, and that there will be a discussion with GPs in anticipation of their new role. It is time to stop messing with the NHS, return it to local democratic accountability and save the Whittington hospital.
I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Members for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) and for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on their maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Hyndburn’s constituency adjoins mine, and in what I hope will be an afternoon of agreement I agree with him that the industrial revolution started in east Lancashire. In fact, I will refer to that later in my speech.
I believe that it is the duty of every Member of this House, whatever their political persuasion, to try to reduce poverty and inequality wherever they find it. That is why I am determined that vital community resources in deprived areas of my constituency should not fall victim to the enormous public debt and recession that we inherited from the previous Government.
Community centres in Darwen were recently threatened by Blackburn with Darwen council as it began tightening its belt to deal with our deficit problems. The people of Darwen have always been radical and innovative, and they did not take that lying down. They will not let Sudellside community centre close, and they are looking at community ownership. When the issue was raised, some people in the area were sceptical. I was not. It is patronising, and simply not true, to suggest that passion for community ownership cannot be found in deprived areas. The big society is an idea not for middle-class do-gooders but for all of us. Sudellside community centre is vital to the community in which it is situated, and I will do all I can to ensure a bright and vibrant future for it.
Rossendale and Darwen is a very special part of the world. Not only is it picturesque, but it was the cradle of the industrial revolution. Its innovation continues today through its manufacturing prowess on both the national and international stage. As its Member of Parliament, I am focused on the future prosperity of my area and believe that if that is to be achieved we must address urgently the issue of building new infrastructure to support business and create new jobs.
Manchester is the economic capital of the north-west—I was brought up in Liverpool, which makes that very difficult to say, but it is unfortunately none the less true—and Rossendale must look to Manchester for its future prosperity. If the valley is to prosper, we must improve our transport links. That is why we must urgently proceed with the rail link from Rossendale to Manchester. The proposed scheme would mean a commuter train running on east Lancashire heritage railway—an example of commercial and conservation rail running on the same track.
The link would be of enormous benefit to Greater Manchester and provide easy access to Rossendale’s highly skilled work force. Rossendale’s manufacturing base and our spectacular open spaces would also be made accessible to all. Housing is inexpensive in my constituency, and a rail link would provide high-quality, affordable homes to BBC workers who move to the new media city in Salford. I am sure that they would flee the urban humdrum of London and Manchester.
In addition to improving transport links, the railway would drive regeneration of our town centres. For too long, shoppers in Rawtenstall have had to suffer the sight of the Valley centre at the bottom of Bank street. That festering sore on an otherwise attractive shopping street must be redeveloped, and I applaud the local Conservative council’s action to proceed with a compulsory purchase order of the site. I hope over the next few months that I can assist in creating a vibrant and historically sensitive new plan for that area. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity completely to redevelop a large portion of Rawtenstall town centre, and it must not be squandered.
The case for the rail link is compelling, and linked to the wider redevelopment of the Rossendale valley. I therefore hope that the Government look favourably on future efforts to secure funding for those schemes.
The town of Darwen on the other side of my constituency is undergoing a renaissance with the redevelopment of the town hall, Holker House, and the continuing success of Darwen market. I hope that the town continues to thrive. We have a superb new leisure centre, and in September our new academy school will open. I pay tribute to the contribution that teachers and other education professionals make to our society and to every young person in the country. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in wishing the pupils and staff of the Rod Aldridge academy good luck in their new school building in September.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice). They say that all good things are worth waiting for, which is certainly true on the occasion of their maiden speeches.
I have been amazed in the past two months by the efforts of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to mislead the public by saying that there is no alternative to the vandalism that they are inflicting on public services in Bolton West and throughout the country, and by the fact that they seem not to know that there is a global recession or that if Britain and the rest of the world had taken no action, we would now be in a global depression. Had they been in government, would they have taken no action? Would they have let the banks collapse, taking with them our savings, mortgages, pensions and businesses? Would they have allowed twice as many houses to be repossessed and twice as many people to be unemployed?
I was shocked that no Education Ministers would meet the pupils of Westhoughton high school to explain why they are not getting a new school when they visited the Palace a fortnight ago. I was also shocked that they cancelled the Building Schools for the Future projects in both Bolton and Wigan, even though those authorities had reached financial close, even though the money was in the budget to pay for them, and even though BSF would provide much-needed jobs and apprenticeships.
Government is about choices. This Government are making the choice to pay back the deficit by cutting vital services to the most vulnerable in society. They are also choosing to pay back the deficit quickly, and to privatise health and education, but those are not the only choices, and they are not the choices that Labour would have made.
With that in mind, will the Government tell me and my constituents whether the electrification of the Manchester to Preston railway line will go ahead? It was announced last year and would mean more trains, fewer emissions, cheaper running costs and better journey times. As part of the electrification, we would get new-to-us trains. Currently, passengers on our services play sardines every morning and evening. People are often left on the platform because nobody else can squeeze into the carriages. In fact, the engineers for Northern Rail should get medals. I do not know how they keep some of those trains running. Whether or not electrification happens, will we get new rolling stock? Good public transport is vital to economic growth, but the bottleneck in the rail network in Manchester is a hindrance to growth. Will we get the northern hub, so that there are more trains to and through Manchester?
As part of national pubs week, I visited the Red Lion pub in Westhoughton in my constituency to talk about the problems that the licence trade faces. This is a well run pub which is rooted in the community and used by a whole variety of groups, but I left fearful about its future. Of course the licensees mentioned the smoking ban, but their biggest concern was their inability to compete with the large chain pubs because of the brewery tie and other related costs. They told me about the extortionate costs of Sky and about the cost of business rates, compounded by having to pay council tax for their accommodation in the pub—paying twice for the same services, an issue that affects all business people who live over the shop. They told me about the cost of heat and light and their fears for increases in VAT. They told me about the cost of their performing rights licence—they have even had to remove the jukebox because they could not afford a full licence.
Six pubs close every day. The last Government were committed to introducing a “guest beer right” for tied tenants, which would allow them the freedom to make a fair profit. Will the current Government go ahead with those plans? The Government have pledged to introduce a community right-to-buy scheme so that communities can take over their local pub, but will they provide the £3.3 million funding that was committed by the last Government? Will they close the loophole in the planning law that allows pubs to be demolished or changed into shops or restaurants without the need to seek planning permission? Will they also look at other costs associated with running a pub to see if any other help can be given?
I have also had a meeting with one of my constituents, Komal Adris, a British citizen, who recently went on holiday to Israel and the west bank. At passport control in Tel Aviv, Komal was asked what her father’s name was. When she answered “Mohammed”, she was taken out of the queue and into a separate room for questioning. She was told that this was routine procedure, but she was the only person from the whole flight who was taken aside. She was also the only person with a brown face. She was kept from 8 pm to 7 am with a number of different Israeli officials interrogating her. No one would tell her how long she would be held or why she was being kept. She was asked why she was visiting Israel and Palestine and she explained where she was intending to go.
As the night went on, the questioning became more aggressive. In the early hours Komal was given a Government document to sign that would have allowed her to enter Israel, but prevented her from entering Palestinian territories. She was told that if she attempted to visit any Palestinian town or city she would be arrested and put in prison, even if it was just a visit to Bethlehem. She refused to sign, as she did on the two further occasions she was asked. This document appears to have no legal basis and the Israelis should not prevent movement to and through the Palestinian territories.
At 6 am, Komal was told that she had been refused entry and would be sent back to the UK. The reason she was given was “security”. She asked if the officers were saying that she was a security threat and they said, “No, of course we aren’t implying that you are a terror threat.” But if security was the real reason, why would they have let her into Israel? She was then taken away for searching. All her bags and personal belongings were thoroughly searched and she was strip searched. At about 7 am, she was taken away from the airport and put in a prison cell. She had no access to her belongings or her phone so she could not tell her family or friends what had happened to her. She was kept in a cell until 8.30 pm, having been held for more than 24 hours, unable to communicate with anyone and given just one cold packed meal. This was a frightening, disturbing and degrading episode for a young Muslim woman.
Komal could have signed the document and been allowed into Israel, so security cannot have been the real concern. Does this therefore mean that the Gaza blockade has now been extended to the west bank? Please can the Government tell me what action they have taken to uphold the freedom of travel for British citizens and to ensure that the Israeli authorities are not discriminating against British citizens on the grounds of their ethnicity or religious beliefs? Can they tell me how many British citizens have been denied entry to the west bank, and can they investigate why my constituent was treated in this discriminatory and degrading fashion?
Finally, as hon. Members may know, I have spent most of my life as a youth and community worker, and I am worried about what is happening to youth work now that the cuts are starting to bite. Youth and community work goes to the core of the big society, but groups are already concerned that they will not be able to survive. Do the Government not realise the importance of the area-based grant and regional bodies, such as the regional development agencies and the Government office for the north-west, to the voluntary and community sector? Without the support of funding streams to support and attract funding, groups will not survive. As in the ’80s and ’90s, we run the risk of both local authority and voluntary sector youth projects closing—young people with nowhere to go and nothing to do. How can the local authorities and youth services fulfil their obligation that 25% of young people have contact with youth workers, and 25% of those achieve accredited outcomes? I am scared for the future in Bolton West, and I hope that I will get reassurance that the future is not as bleak as I fear.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Members for Witham (Priti Patel), for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) on their maiden speeches. In particular, I appreciated the opportunity to recollect the role in the House of a previous Member for Livingston—a friend, at the time, of the current Member—who gave such a wonderful example to new Members of the importance of being independently minded, through his principled opposition to the Iraq war.
I wrote to Mr Speaker to let him know of my interest in taking part in this debate, because I wanted to speak about the situation affecting the railways in my constituency. However, I hope that I will be forgiven for first following up on a matter I have raised several times in the House since I arrived relating to the exploitation of the energy in our rivers, particularly the River Avon at Avoncliff in my constituency. I wish to do so because it is becoming a formative part of my initial understanding of the role and privileges—or otherwise—of hon. Members. I was approached by constituents who have done a remarkable job of renovating a derelict mill on the side of the river, and who were keen to establish a renewable energy project—a hydro scheme—on the river, which is something that the country needs us to do more often.
In September last year, my constituents made an application for a river abstraction licence from the Environment Agency, and by the end of March this year, they had been provided with a draft agreement from the agency indicating the terms under which they might be successful in receiving such a licence. Strangely, they then heard nothing for quite a period, and so came to me at one of my surgeries. It seemed necessary to get the agency to give them some clarity on the future prospects for this application, because the delay was blighting the development, so I wrote to the agency on behalf of my constituents. I also started to make inquiries in this place, not specifically into that case, but into the nature of the policy relating to the role of the agency. After all, why should we need abstraction licences for renewable energy projects that only momentarily use the water as it passes through the devices that generate the energy from the river?
I had only just begun to make inquiries when my constituents made further approaches to the agency about their application. I learned at my surgery this weekend that the applicant had mentioned to the staff at the agency that, because of the problems that the delays were causing them, they had enlisted the support of their Member of Parliament. To my shock, it was alleged by the applicant when he met me this weekend that he had received a response from that public servant to the effect that he was being told: “Yes, and I can assure you that if there are any more speeches in Parliament about this situation, your application will go to the back of the queue.” That is quite a serious matter, as I am sure you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, and one that has caused me great concern.
Hon. Members might feel that going to the back of the queue is not the most serious of consequences, given that we all have to develop some patience when seeking permissions from regulatory authorities. However, what is alleged to have been said is relevant in this case, because I received a reply to my letter to the Environment Agency dated 29 June in which I was told that the agency had failed to reach a determination on the application. However, a letter dated the very next day was sent to the applicants advising them that their application had been unsuccessful—something that I find hard to believe those replying to my original letter would not have been aware was in the pipeline.
A delay to my constituents’ application is significant, because the reason given for the refusal was that another application, on the other side of the river, had already been granted permission ahead of theirs, yet that application had not been granted when my constituents first approached me. Indeed, that other application was not officially submitted with the agency before my constituents submitted their application; rather, conversations with the agency had, as they were told, merely begun. It is therefore with great concern that I hear of allegations that an assessment of my constituents’ application was delayed because of the interest that I have taken in their case and because of the questions—essentially policy questions—that I have raised in the House.
I would therefore be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House, who has answered one of those questions—in fact, the question that I asked of him was the most ably answered of those on the subject that I have asked in the House so far—would raise the matter with his ministerial colleagues, because I have grave reservations about what has been happening in this instance.
I originally wanted to speak in this debate on the subject of railways, and as time is short, I will focus on one particular aspect of rail services in my constituency. At the start of the current franchise, which is operated by First Great Western, the new franchise agreement withdrew the requirement to provide a number of services on the line between Chippenham and Trowbridge in my constituency which called at Melksham. Those were the only services calling at that station. As a result, a popular and well used service has been reduced to one that now does only two round trips a day—round trips that are 12 hours apart and therefore of much less value to my constituents. Great efforts have continued to be made throughout to restore that service. I am looking forward to a meeting with First Great Western next week, at the start of the recess, at which I might pursue that pressing issue. Melksham is the fifth largest settlement in Wiltshire, yet it currently has a minimal train service.
I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the campaign for improved services at Melksham station which has been run by the now chair of the local chamber of commerce, Mr Graham Ellis, and to all those in the “Save the train” campaign and those who continue to pursue the matter through the Wiltshire community rail partnership. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, in that there is another operator that would like to run services on the line. I would therefore be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House could raise with colleagues in the Department for Transport the need to be open and flexible about open access agreements, so that in these more straitened times we might make better use of the track that we actually have. I hope that, in the spirit of the big society, the Go! co-operative, which is looking to embark on an open access agreement, might be given every opportunity to improve the services available to my constituents.
I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) on their maiden speeches. Good things are indeed worth waiting for.
I would like to raise an issue that is important to many of my constituents and that has been highlighted by two announcements this week—namely, employment in the Wigan borough. The first announcement was made by the hard-pressed Wigan council, which confirmed that more than 800 jobs were at risk due to the huge scale of the coalition’s proposed cuts of more than £55 million in Wigan.
The second blow to my constituents in Makerfield was the loss of 100 jobs and the possible closure of the Ingersoll Rand factory in Hindley Green. Time and again, I have heard Members on the coalition Front Bench state that public sector job losses will be mitigated by the growth of the private sector. Well, in my constituency, there appears to be a contraction of both sectors, and that is a blow that my constituents can ill afford.
Since last summer, the fall in unemployment in Wigan has been nearly 8%, due in part to the policies of the previous Labour Government and Wigan council of investing in businesses via the working neighbourhood fund, and investing in our young people, with more than 200 young people employed in the future jobs fund programme last year. They gained valuable skills and supported organisations such as Age Concern and the Wigan borough veterans council. Some of those young people, despite subsequently gaining paid work, have continued to volunteer with their placement organisations —the big society in action!
All this has been taken away by this Government, with no regard to the success of the scheme in my borough. The local authority intensive support start-up service, funded by the working neighbourhood fund and the Northwest Regional Development Agency, has been creating an average of one new business every day since the start of 2010. However, the axing of the RDA and the slashing of the working neighbourhood fund budget will leave the future growth of new businesses gravely in doubt in my constituency.
The coalfield communities regeneration programme has also supported new businesses in my area. Will the Minister commit to continuing to fund that vital programme, which supports the business and voluntary sectors in Makerfield? What support will he give to ensure that this and other funding streams continue to nurture new businesses in my constituency?
Another blow to the Wigan borough was the loss of our new schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme. That announcement was all the more devastating as Wigan council had received a letter from the Minister only the day before the cuts were announced, stating that where a local educational partnership had reached financial closure, as ours had, the schemes were to be allowed to proceed. Not only were the hopes of our young people, parents and teaching staff cruelly dashed, but many people—including many young people who believed that they could gain apprenticeships in the construction industry, building local schools—now have no hope of work.
I ask the Secretary of State for Education to look again at that decision, and to come to Wigan and speak to the parents, teachers and pupils there, particularly those in Hindley, the area already devastated by the job losses at Ingersoll Rand. In a visit to my local authority, he would see at first hand the impact of his decision on pupils and teachers seeking to achieve excellence in a building that is no longer fit for purpose, where teachers have to stick the tiles back on the walls before commencing lessons.
Another organisation employing many of my constituents who are living with daily uncertainty over their future is the Tote, which has its headquarters in the borough and employs some 600 people. I note early-day motion 578, tabled by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and I ask the Minister to commit to retaining the Tote’s headquarters in Wigan. This would protect the employment of its staff and the acknowledged expertise and professionalism that they possess.
Some of my constituents travel out of the Wigan borough to work, and I must mention the overcrowding on the trains to Liverpool and Manchester. The Greater Manchester chamber of commerce has rightly pointed out the significance of the rail network to the future economic success of the Greater Manchester area. I would welcome an indication from the Minister that investment in the northern hub, in electrification and in the commissioning of rolling stock to ease overcrowding will be forthcoming.
This Government seem determined to silence all the voices that speak for our region. They have already axed the regional development agency and abolished the Government office for the north-west. However, as one of my new Labour party members said, we have seen both parties in this coalition Government go through the Lobby and vote for measures that will disadvantage the poor and vulnerable, including introducing selective education and increasing VAT. They are standing up to be counted, and it is time for us to do the same.
Over the last three years during which I was a parliamentary candidate, building up to the last general election, many people in Montgomeryshire asked me what specific issue I would get involved in if I became an MP. I nearly always told them that the issue of particular interest to me was the relationship between the National Assembly for Wales, of which I had been a member for eight years, and this Parliament in Westminster. That relationship is indeed the subject that I would like to speak about today. I know that not everyone in the Chamber will share my obsession with the detail of devolution and the transfer of powers to Wales, so let me provide a little context before I raise three specific aspects of the issue.
The National Assembly for Wales was established in 1999 on the basis of the Government of Wales Act 1998, which followed a referendum of the people of Wales in 1997. The 1998 Act did not grant to the National Assembly for Wales any primary law-making powers; it had to depend on secondary law-making powers. That was the position until a new Government of Wales Act 2006 was passed, under which primary law-making powers were indeed granted to the National Assembly for Wales, albeit by means of what at least some of us thought was a very complex and bureaucratic system. I do not think that it has been successful.
What has transpired is that in the first quarter of next year there will be a very significant referendum for the people of Wales, in which they will be asked to vote on whether they want to move to part 4 of the 2006 Act. That would enable the primary law-making powers in all the devolved policy areas to be transferred to the Assembly. The essential difference between the position now and the position after a yes in the referendum is that all the primary powers in devolved policy areas would be transferred all in one go rather than bit by bit through the complex process I mentioned, which is what obtains at the moment.
As I said, I wish to touch briefly on three particular aspects of the relationship between this House and the National Assembly for Wales. The first is the date on which the referendum should be held. I have always taken a very strong view on that. It is not that I worry particularly about when the date should be. The National Assembly Government believe that the date should be on or before the next Assembly election on 5 May. I do not mind about that. What is hugely important to us here is that this should be recognised as the general election for the National Assembly for Wales—the Welsh general election—and another important constitutional issue should not be decided on the same day. There is an issue in this House relating to that. As to whether the law-making referendum should be on the same date as the Welsh general election, I have taken the view for two or three years that it should not be. I have expressed the same view in saying that the alternative vote referendum should not be held on the same date as the general election.
The second important issue revolves around the powers. Currently, devolved powers are set out in a schedule. Before the referendum on 5 May takes place, the range of powers to be included in schedule 7 will be a matter of debate, and it is possible that several other powers beyond the currently devolved powers will be included. As yet, the debate has not really started, but it is time that it was, as this is a hugely important matter. We need to be aware of exactly what powers will be devolved well before the referendum takes place.
The third issue is also important, in my view. When a power is devolved from this place to the National Assembly for Wales, it is not the end of this place’s involvement. In my constituency, a number of devolved matters depend hugely on the wish on the English side of the border to ensure that they are dealt with properly. Let me give a couple of examples.
A few weeks ago, a little girl collapsed at her school, Llangedwyn primary school, near the English border. The situation was serious, and an ambulance was called. There was an ambulance station no more than 3 or 4 miles away, just over the border in England, but the ambulance was called not from that station but from a station perhaps 25 or 30 miles away. That young child’s life was put in danger by the bureaucratic difficulties involved in efficient management of the relationship between the two sides of the border, and, unless we are very careful, similar cases will occur simply as a result of the devolutionary process.
The second example relates to the connection between my constituency and the midlands. Road improvement—I am thinking specifically of the A458, but it is the principle that matters—is crucial to the economy of mid-Wales and to my constituency. An improvement programme costing about £30 million could have gone ahead, but at least 90% of the work would have been done in Wales. The Government of Wales were hugely committed to the programme, but about 5% of it involved England. As no economic benefit would flow to England from the development, it was not seen as a priority there, and it has not gone ahead. If a strategic view had been taken of the benefit to the United Kingdom it probably would have gone ahead, but because of the relationship that exists between the two sides of the border as the devolutionary process settles in, it dropped down the list of priorities.
The devolutionary process is continuing and will continue, whether or not there is a yes vote in the referendum. We in the Chamber must make certain that when an issue is devolved, we retain our interest and do our best to ensure that services to our constituents in Wales are not disadvantaged by the fact that there are two Governments on the two sides of the border, following different policies.
I congratulate the three maiden speakers, the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) and for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). However, I should point out to the hon. Member for Witham that when Napoleon said that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, he did not mean it strictly as a compliment.
I was very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston mentioned Robin Cook. I remember, when I was in this place before, hearing Robin Cook’s speech when he resigned from the Government. He held the House of Commons in the palm of his hand. I have rarely seen someone make such a powerful speech. Shortly after that, 139 Labour MPs went into the Opposition Lobby and voted against the Iraq war. The suggestion that we are now hearing from the Liberal Democrats that theirs was the only party that opposed the war as a matter of principle is absolutely untrue.
As a matter of fact, I remember occasions on which we went into that Lobby—maybe 30 or 40 of us from the Benches on the Government side of the House—and the Liberal Democrats stayed here, sitting on their hands, because at that point it was not entirely clear in which direction public opinion was going. Only when public opinion was clearly swinging against the war did the Liberal Democrats decide to vote with us in the Opposition Lobby.
No, it is not. That is the right way round.
It is five years since I took part in a pre-recess Adjournment debate. Such debates have become something of an institution. It is a sort of whingeing gits day, enabling us to get a few things off our chests. I am pleased to note that a number of speeches, particularly from Members on the Government Benches, have followed that tradition.
I want to begin by raising an issue which I hope concerns us all, namely unemployment. You might be right-wing, you might may be left-wing, you might be a Liberal—you would be a prat, but you might be a Liberal—but I hope that the issue of joblessness concerns Members on both sides of the House.
I apologise, and I withdraw that comment and will find another way of making my point at another time.
Returning to the subject of unemployment, we have been told by a number of Ministers, and especially the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that people should be prepared to travel around the country. That goes back to the time of “uncle Norman” telling all of us—and I was one of them—to travel around the country in search of work.
I want to draw attention to a specific example. A constituent of mine lost his job some time ago. He was on jobseeker’s allowance for six months, and the local jobcentre in Leytonstone in my constituency was very helpful and provided the resources to allow him to travel to interviews around the country. He therefore found a job at the other end of country, in the north—following the advice of the Secretary of State and other Ministers—but he then found himself in difficulty, because he had to try to find resources for a deposit for accommodation and also living costs for the period between starting work and receiving his first pay packet. He was offered three alternatives. First, there was a crisis loan, but that can only be used for very narrow purposes so it was not available. Secondly, there was the advance to wages scheme, but that would only provide £50, which was not enough. Thirdly, there was the adviser discretion fund. That could have provided £300. The problem, however, is that that has now been cut to £100. Therefore, in circumstances of fairly widespread unemployment and possibly rising deprivation when we have been told that our constituents must travel around the country in search of work, the Government have cut the adviser discretion fund, thus making it more difficult for them to travel around the country—or any distance—in search of work.
The second subject I want to draw attention to is the vexed issue of the Building Schools for the Future programme. I have lost all seven BSF projects in my constituency. Seven schools were going to benefit from BSF projects, but all of them have now been cancelled. I think we all know why the Library keeps receiving inaccurate lists of cancelled projects. When the Tories and Liberals came into government they found that a number of contracts were about to be let so they thought, “We’d better cancel them quickly—put the boot in—to make sure that loads of these potential projects get cancelled.” They therefore rushed the list through in an inaccurate form because they did not do the background work—they did not allow the Department to do the research. As a result, we have inaccurate lists placed in the Library and then we get officials scurrying around again trying to revise them and put new lists in the Library.
Sadly, however, in my case it looks as if the list is accurate. I wish it was not. Some of the schools that would have benefited from a BSF project are literally crumbling. Teachers, pupils, governors, the heads and the support staff and others in these schools have been struggling for years under very difficult circumstances. Nobody would argue that we get brilliant teaching if we have great buildings, but the reality is that if teachers are teaching in a crumbling school that inevitably affects the quality of their pupils’ education. BSF provided the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light has now been extinguished.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and I both represent constituencies that fall within the boundaries of the Waltham Forest borough, and since the BSF announcement was made we have been requesting a meeting almost on a daily basis, but the Secretary of State for Education has not yet managed to get back to us to say we can have a meeting about an issue that goes to the very core of why we are Members of Parliament.
I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to consider having a quiet word with the Secretary of State and recommending that he pulls his finger out. I am sorry I made those slighting comments because I have just realised that the Deputy Leader of the House is a Liberal so I did not do myself any good, and I do not regret what I said. Perhaps he could have a quick word with the Secretary of State for Education, telling him to pull his finger out and meet my hon. Friend and I and the leader of the council as soon as possible.
My final subject, which I want to touch on very briefly, follows on from comments made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) about the referendum on the voting system. We are in a surreal situation. The only one of the three major parties that went into the election with a commitment to a referendum on the alternative vote versus the first-past-the-post system was the Labour party. Personally, I am a supporter of first past the post. I thought it was absolute nonsense sticking that in our manifesto—but then, I did not write it. The two parties that are now in government went into the election, when in opposition, without any commitment to a referendum on AV or first past the post; yet now they are in government, they propose to have one.
This will not sort out the issue for Liberal MPs, because what they want is proportional representation. Of course, the Deputy Prime Minister would love that, because if we had PR he could go into meetings in back-rooms, ditch all sorts of commitments he has just fought the election on—such as on the replacement of Trident—and go back to the voters and say, “I did stand on all those commitments but sadly I’ve had to dump them all because I’ve done a deal with the Tories.” He would love such a system, and if we ever have that kind of future in British politics, that really will be a menace.
May I add my congratulations to the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), on their maiden speeches? I was advised early on that one should wait some considerable time before making one’s maiden speech. I foolishly chose to ignore that advice, and today was a perfect example of why it was such good advice.
I want to take this opportunity to articulate the frustrations of many commuters in my constituency of Enfield North, who, frankly, have been ignored for years. I have campaigned for at least five years to try to improve the level of commuter services. The rail operator that serves the bulk of the constituency—National Express East Anglia—and its predecessor brand both failed to recognise something that they should know: that the conditions on the trains are frankly unacceptable, and that their frequency and reliability are generally poor. I even had a National Express manager tell me that, although it had rolling stock, it had chosen not to put the required additional stock on some of the Enfield North local lines because we were bottom of their list of priorities. That is no comfort to my constituents, who pay zone 6 fares.
We also suffer from generally ill-kept stations which could do with a deep clean. Staffing at stations is limited and often non-existent; late at night, of course, that does not encourage a feeling of safety and security. Sunday services are non-existent. Many loyal Tottenham Hotspur fans travel regularly to see their team—is that not suffering enough? [Interruption.] I will not be forgiven for that comment, but to add to that the indignity of an unreliable service on a Sunday, when engineering works are scheduled to coincide with important travel days, just does not make sense and reflects the attitude of neglect towards my constituents.
I do not want the House to take my word for it. The statistics show that Network SouthEast had the lowest satisfaction ratings of all the services in the south-east and London. That is not good enough, but what do some of my constituents say? With perfect timing, I received a letter from some constituents only yesterday. They say that
“our local trains seem unable to move, therefore leaving us stranded on platforms, and”—
when they finally get on to the train—
“having to travel like cattle in sweltering carriages.”
All that they request are more carriages and an increase in the number of timetabled trains, which is not unreasonable. They even ask—this shows how bad things are—for a
“replacement bus service to Tottenham Hale when the line is closed for work”.
How many of us groan when we are offered a replacement bus service? My constituents want one because they see it as an improvement—how shocking is that? As I have said, they have to pay the most in our area, which is in zone 6.
National Express’s reply was most illuminating, because after several paragraphs of basically saying, “No change”, it said, “Please go to our improvement plan on the website.” Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that that link, which I tried only this morning, does not work either. The frustration is all too evident. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) says from a sedentary position, it is much like the website of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
I wish to be constructive, because I am confident that my constituents will welcome the steps that were announced by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers). It is encouraging that we will ensure that new rail franchising systems will impose demanding performance requirements based on passenger outcomes and satisfaction. It is also good to know that if operators do not meet those requirements they could ultimately face the serious sanction of losing their franchises. We believe and welcome the idea that longer franchises will lead to greater investment and perhaps to greater improvement in services. That is vital.
I understand the role of the carrot and the stick, but I urge the Government, in the spirit of localism that I am keen to embrace, to consider one or two other opportunities. In particular, as we approach the round of new franchises, we have the chance to consider two important possibilities. First, should we consider allowing greater local control over train services operating in the London area? Secondly, and more importantly, should there be greater local input into the new franchise negotiations?
What could we gain from that? A locally accountable transport authority would know how vital transport is to the local economy and would understand the micro-issues affecting local commuters far better than a rail operator. Such bodies answer to voters and can respond more effectively. There is an incentive for them to have issues fixed, to ensure rail performance, to ease overcrowding, to address safety in unsafe stations and to put those issues up the agenda. Significantly, they would also be ready to provide input into future negotiations. I am very keen that the experiences of my constituent commuters in the past five years should not be wasted. Instead, we could gain real intelligence about many of the shortcomings on the ground, which could then be considered when dealing with services. This issue is of great importance to people who spend two to three hours a day getting in and out of work.
Who could fulfil that task? Is there a role for Transport for London or the local authority? Should we give statutory weight to such a body? I put these ideas on the table because in areas such as health, education and housing, we are leading the way on greater devolvement locally and greater local involvement and decision making. However tempting it might be, I do not propose that local people should write the timetables or decide the level of rolling stock, but I do propose that the people of Enfield North and elsewhere should have the opportunity to have their local say on a matter of such great local importance.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) on their excellent maiden speeches.
I want to talk about an issue of particular interest to me: public health policy and the action that the Government can take to promote health and well-being. First, though, I want to wish my constituent Hilda Barwell a happy birthday and to mention National Eisteddfod, Wales’s greatest language, arts and cultural event, which is coming to Blaenau Gwent this week. Hilda Barwell has been a terrific example for all good Labour members in Blaenau Gwent. When she was 16, one of her first actions as a trade unionist was to lead a strike to improve working conditions in the Berlei factory in Ebbw Vale. There was no heating in the factory and mice were running across the feet of her fellow workers—it was a bit like the Tea Room in this place. Hilda has been a terrific campaigner over the years and, even now, she runs the Blaenau Gwent centre for the disabled. She is always putting others first, so a belated happy birthday to Hilda.
As I said, the National Eisteddfod is coming to Blaenau Gwent next week. Many share my belief that arts and culture can play their part in helping community regeneration. I hope that the Eisteddfod will be an important opportunity to help to renew our valleys and towns and to build a better Blaenau Gwent. I particularly want to highlight the fact that Susan Robeson will be visiting the Eisteddfod to show a documentary about her grandfather Paul Robeson, the great singer and human rights activist. He famously visited the Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale in 1958 as a guest of Nye Bevan, the then local MP. Nye’s invitation followed on from the successful campaign to let Paul Robeson finally travel abroad, which he had been banned from doing by the American authorities because of his radical views on civil rights. It is good, more than 50 years later, that we are able to celebrate the historic occasion of those great men working together
Despite its shortcomings and omissions, I am proud of Labour’s record on public health, especially with regard to tackling smoking in public places. However, I am dismayed by the coalition Government’s recent abdication of their responsibilities on public health. It is well documented that alcohol abuse can cause physical and mental health problems, and we have all witnessed the antisocial behaviour that alcohol can fuel. Of course, the reasons for alcohol abuse are complex, and social drinking is an established part of our national culture, but we can take action.
Only a few weeks ago, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence set out proposals to curb excessive drinking. However, its recommendations of a ban on alcohol advertising and a minimum price for a unit of alcohol have proved controversial. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Health has already ruled out minimum pricing, and instead we are told that the Government will
“report back in the autumn on the scope for targeting alcohol duty at the products most associated with binge drinking and under-age consumption.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 178.]
The Secretary of State says that he is worried that minimum pricing disproportionately affects the poor, but so do public spending cuts and increasing VAT, and that has not stopped the Government, so I doubt that that is his main reason. Indeed, we do not know whether that is true. Academics argue that the better-off spend far more on alcohol than the poor. Logic leads us to believe that young people have the least to spend on alcohol, so raising the price might mean that they consume less. Surely that would be a worthy public health outcome. The fact that Tesco has come out in favour of a minimum price is a helpful start. I would like a sensible discussion about minimum pricing, because I believe that it would gain the support of the majority of the public.
The Labour Government gained such public support over time for their ban on smoking in public places and then, with the universal support of the medical profession and health campaigners, they legislated to remove cigarettes from public display and to ban cigarette vending machines from pubs. However, the introduction of those public health initiatives has stalled. Again, the Government are reviewing the matter,
“given the challenges facing business competition and costs.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 891W.]
Labour prefers to tackle the challenges of smoking-related deaths and illness, and their devastating human cost and costs to the national health service. As Action on Smoking and Health has said:
“After all the election promises about public health, surely the coalition can make a better start than by caving in to the tobacco lobby”.
Of course, the coalition Government have given in not just to the tobacco industry, because the food industry’s advances have also been successful. The industry lobby has stopped the introduction of the consumer-friendly traffic light warnings for food, and instead we are to have guideline daily amounts. Linked to that, the Government are to weaken the Food Standards Agency. The agency will lose its role to promote healthy eating, which was described by a Government adviser on food policy, Professor Tim Lang of City university, as a “retrograde step”.
The Secretary of State for Health has also attacked initiatives to improve school meals. He says that he wants to avoid confrontation, which he claims was the hallmark of the Labour Government, but I do not believe that Labour’s promotion of healthy school meals was confrontational. Jamie Oliver’s promotion of good school dinners was hardly a public health blitzkrieg; rather, it raised awareness of an important public health issue.
However, we must confront stark health inequalities. In Blaenau Gwent, average male life expectancy is just over 78. Just 10 miles down the heads of the valleys road in Usk, it is 85. That cannot be right. Good employment is crucial for improved public health, but we must also address the key issues of diet, smoking and alcohol. Healthy living must be promoted by a real progressive Government. Where is the Lib Dems’ voice in this vital debate? Why have they not championed the consumer rather than the producer? In public health, why have they not intervened with their political partners to give our children and young people protection from less healthy food, from tobacco manufactures trying to recruit new smokers, and from low-price alcohol and the binge drinking that it sustains? When one man’s regulation can be another man’s vital public health protection, their coalition, laissez-faire agenda is already going too far. When the Lib Dems meet at their conference in the recess, perhaps they will look again at their public health policy, and strengthen, not weaken, these commitments. The public health agenda is too important to all our young people for the Lib Dems to be complete poodles and accept this laissez-faire lead from their majority party partners.
If I may take a leaf out of the introduction to the speech by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), I would like to wish happy birthday to everyone in Portsmouth South who has a birthday today. That covers that one. I cannot name individuals. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) also has a birthday today. Happy birthday to the hon. Member. I am sure that the whole House is delighted about that, and we will all be round his house tonight for drinks. I would also like to congratulate all those who made their maiden speeches today. It is always a formidable task, but it feels so good once it is over. I am sure that they all feel a lot better for that experience being done and dusted.
When the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) was on the Government Benches in his first incarnation in the House of Commons, he called most of the then Government prats—[Interruption.] I think that he did, and I hate to think what other names he called them, on more than one occasion, when I was sitting where he is sitting now. I can only suggest that his change of tack, and his direction of attack, is because he seeks a job in a reformed shadow Cabinet, so we will look with interest at how he develops.
I want to raise five points. The first point concerns the huge problem faced by my local authority, among others—once again, I declare an interest as I am still a member of Portsmouth city council—whereby more than 3,300 properties are occupied by students, none of whom pay council tax because they are exempt, and those who own the properties, who are running them as very successful businesses, do not pay business rates on them. That means that our city is deprived of a council tax take of nearly £3.5 million a year. Nevertheless, we have to provide all the services: the fire services, the police—through the police precept—the rubbish collection and the street cleaning.
I therefore want the coalition to consider seriously the idea of charging business rates on those very successful businesses that make a huge amount of money out of student lettings. I do not want to see the cost passed on to students, because students are already paying extortionate rents for some of the rooms that they rent, where five students in a property pay upwards of £70 a week each for a room. A lot of money is being made by somebody. In some instances, very small houses are turning over £50,000-odd a year, and no tax is being paid to the local authorities—and that loss to local authorities is magnified throughout the country. There is something wrong somewhere, and I want the Government to tackle that issue.
I had the privilege of chairing a debate in Westminster Hall on changes in the benefit system, particularly changes in housing benefit. Those present for the debate might easily have been led to believe that it was only a London problem, but I assure London Members who took part in the debate that it is not. When large numbers of people claim housing benefit there is a consequence, and individuals on jobseeker’s allowance will not find it easy to cope with that.
Some people whom I represent are being told that if they do not get a job within 12 months they will lose 25% of their benefits, and I do not know how they will be expected to live with that, or even pay their rent. Landlords will not lower their rent. I would love to think that the policy was a method of forcing landlords to reduce their rent, but I cannot possibly see that happening, because in cities such as mine landlords will opt to house students, and people with children will again be queuing up at the local authority’s door claiming to be homeless. Where will the local authority put them? I do not know. In my city our housing waiting list is longer now than it was in the months after the end of the second world war, when one third of all housing had been bombed and 50% had been seriously damaged. We have a huge housing problem, so I want Ministers to take note very carefully, because it is not just a London problem. It affects all our constituencies, and I want us to take that seriously.
I, like other Members today, want to express my concerns about Building Schools for the Future and the disappointment factor. The programme involves 11 schools in my city and several in my constituency, one of which was only weeks away from having everything signed and sealed. If the statement had been made after the recess, the project would already have got the go-ahead. Work on the two schools most affected by the cut would probably have gone ahead and the Secretary of State would have had to include them, so I really want the upcoming review to send a positive message to the many disappointed parents, teachers, governors and, most of all, pupils throughout the country, stating that it will not only set the record straight on the fallacy of believing that all projects could be afforded, but give some hope to schools, such as those in my city, that have been swept aside in a rather cavalier way. I want some justice to prevail.
My next point is about the sad plight of something very dear to my heart—Portsmouth football club, and the shabby and awful way in which that club and, mainly, its supporters have been treated by the premiership. An organisation awash with money has allowed a great club, with a huge history of support from local residents over more than 100 years, to disintegrate. Next week in the courts, it will be trying to get Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs off its back so that it can at least hold on to its position in the championship, having been demoted from the premiership. I want some action to be taken. I know that Ministers will say, “It’s not our job,” but this is our national sport. It is Portsmouth today, but it could be many other clubs tomorrow. It seems that such action is okay when people are taking money out, but they do not want to put anything back in order to support the loyalty that fans have shown.
My final point is directed at my colleagues in the coalition. I was a big advocate of the coalition, becauseI did not think that anything else on offer was viable. I advocated it believing that we would introduce a fair way of dealing with the issues that we face—but I was not elected to see the poorest in our society suffer, and I want to put a big marker down to my colleagues in government by saying, “Please, please, please think seriously about the consequences of some of the things that the coalition is going to do over the coming months.” After the election and the forming of the coalition, many people out there believed that there was real hope on the horizon. I do not want that hope to end in despair. I want us to be fair to those who need our help most, and I hope that we will be.
Before the House adjourns, I wish to place on the record the problems and concerns of my constituents as a result of road congestion through the villages of Mottram and Hollingworth, and mention the ongoing saga of the proposed Mottram-to-Tintwistle bypass. [Interruption.] I can see that there is a lot of immediate interest in the subject.
If any hon. Members have ever driven between Sheffield and Manchester, they will probably have been delayed in my constituency. The journey from the end of the M67 in Hattersley to the junction with the M1 in south Yorkshire is a nightmare. The Woodhead pass is a convenient route across the country that avoids the M62, but its popularity has meant total misery for my constituents in Longdendale. I remind the House of my standing declared interest as an elected member of Tameside metropolitan borough council.
The latest figures given to me by the House of Commons Library tell me that, on average, 34,000 vehicles a day pass through the Mottram Moor A road in Hollingworth. That is an astonishing amount of traffic for small villages to cope with. It means that people cannot leave their houses, that the noise is unbearable and that the pollution levels are completely unacceptable, particularly in the playground of Hollingworth primary school, of which I am still a governor.
Many Secretaries of State for Transport have visited us and promised improvements; in fact, I believe that one made the journey, promised us that something would be done, but unfortunately was sacked on his journey back to London. That may explain the reluctance of more recent Secretaries of State for Transport to visit the area.
I am sure that hon. Members are wondering about the legislative history of the problem. The plans for a bypass in the area date back to the 1990s. They were extolled in the Conservative Government’s “Roads for Prosperity” White Paper in 1989, following a public consultation process. A preferred route was selected in October 1993, but work was suspended in 1996 following further Government reviews of the national road building programme.
In July 1998 the Labour Government published “A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England”, which also included the bypass. In November 2002 the Highways Agency submitted a report to the regional planning bodies, and the local communities affected by the congestion presented a petition with more than 9,000 signatures to Downing street a few months later. I was part of that local deputation. The preferred route for a bypass in the area was not without its opponents. The very tip of the new road would have entered the territory of the Peak District national park, whose representatives naturally raised concerns. However, many objections were also raised by people who had never visited the area and wrongly assumed that most of the new bypass would be in the park.
The public inquiry into the bypass opened on 26 June 2007. After several adjournments to consider the evidence submitted, the public inquiry was adjourned indefinitely in December 2008, following the submission of inaccurate data by the Highways Agency. I shall stand corrected if this is not the case, but I believe that it got the length of the Stocksbridge bypass wrong. That should be a concern, given that it is the Highways Agency. After further delays throughout 2008, the public inquiry was abandoned, as the cost of the scheme had gone up steadily in the intervening years and funding had been allocated elsewhere. I have to report that as a result, there is considerable bitterness in my constituency at the performance of the Highways Agency.
To move things forward, Tameside metropolitan borough council, my local authority, began working on a wider solution, which incorporated a smaller new road with other traffic restraining measures. The scheme currently has resources allocated to it from the regional funding allocation, but we await the comprehensive spending review to see whether they will still be there in October. Local campaigners have been very demoralised by the lack of progress. I pay tribute to Mike Flynn, Bob Haycock and David Moore for keeping the campaign going. They know that they will always have my support.
The problem is national, not local: the traffic congestion is not caused in my constituency or borough. The Government must recognise that the problem comes from outside our area, and allocate resources to find a solution. I am not prescriptive about what that should be, but I feel that some new road capacity in the area is essential if a solution is to be meaningful.
Some will say that any new road capacity increases pollution, as it makes a journey more favourable for other road users. For me, that misses the point; the important thing about pollution in any given area is the number of receptors of that pollution—who is breathing the pollution in. If there were an increase in traffic in the Longdendale valley as a whole, the receptors would be the vegetation along the side of the new bypass or similar road, and that would be far preferable to the current situation, in which the receptors are my constituents along Hyde road, Mottram Moor and Market street in Hollingworth, and the schoolchildren in Hollingworth primary school.
Other options have been suggested as a potential solution, including, most notably, a weight restriction on heavy goods vehicles using the Woodhead pass. I am open to any ideas that would provide a solution, but my concern with the weight restriction is that it would damage the local economy in Tameside, which seems unfair given that the problem comes from outside our area.
Whenever transport problems are raised, this question should always be asked: is a public transport solution available? In all honesty, when I look at the situation in Longdendale I cannot see how that can be the case. In addition, it cannot be denied that the coalition has given us a new ministerial team at the Department for Transport who, rightly or wrongly, are perceived as having little interest in the subject generally. If the rumours are true, in October my constituents could face not only the loss of the money allocated to deal with the specific congestion problem but the loss of the new rolling stock for the railway in Greater Manchester, the loss of bus services in the area through the slashing of the bus operators grant, and rail fare increases of RPI plus 10%. That would be a very dark day for transport in this country, and it would cause significant economic damage to constituencies such as mine.
My constituents face an unbearable situation that the Government need to recognise and help to address. To refuse to do so—I say this quite genuinely—will lead to civil disobedience in the area. The status quo is not an option. I therefore ask the Deputy Leader of the House to make efforts to arrange for me and other local representatives to meet people from the Department for Transport prior to a spending review announcement, to encourage the Department to announce which A roads it believes to be suffering from unacceptable levels of congestion and announce a strategy for dealing with them, and to ask a Minister from the Department for Transport to visit my constituency to see for themselves the intolerable situation that my constituents contend with on a daily basis.
It has been a very interesting three months for a new Member of Parliament, watching with fascination the whole process of governance at this level. I have sat through and voted on very many Bills and pieces of legislation over the past few months. We have all been working hard across these Benches on our respective issues. I would like to outline what has been going on in my constituency in relation to the coalition policies that affect it, and how, in the past three months, things have been moving in a positive direction.
Sunderland Point in my constituency—to describe it as beautiful is an understatement—is a sliver of land that can be reached at low tide. Being in the area is like stepping back in time to the 1700s; it has never changed. Most of the buildings are grade II listed. The previous Government, in their wisdom, told the Environment Agency to take away the historical context of protecting the shoreline management, but I am happy to report that the area has had a partial reprieve because the Environment Agency has assisted with the inshore “Hold back the line” scheme to allow the tide to come in. That is well short of what I would like to see—world heritage status for Sunderland Point—but it is a step in the right direction. Once such areas are lost to the elements, we will never get them back. This does not only apply to my constituency—it could be said of areas all around the country.
Moving up the coast to Heysham, I have heard a few of the gibes in this House and seen the internet blogging that says, “David Morris glows in the dark because he is pro-nuclear.” The truth is, however, that the nuclear power station is the largest employer in Heysham, and I am unashamedly pro-nuclear. Some Members disagree with me, but I still find them absolutely delightful. That is what makes us great. This is our debating Chamber; it is why we are here. I would like to see a third project being built at the nuclear power station in Heysham, and I would like more nuclear power stations to be built all across the country. I am very concerned, like most Members, that the lights will go out in 10 years’ time. Although I posed a bit of an awkward question to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change this afternoon, I agreed with 95% of his statement. I disagree with him on the nuclear issue, but we are here to fight the corner of our constituents and of what we believe is right.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) talked about the building of a bypass, and I have a similar problem. Such problems arise up and down the country. In my case, plans for the road in question have been in formulation for the past 60 years. Its building was rubber-stamped by the previous Secretary of State, and we even appointed a developer, but of course there is no money in the kitty so it has to stop.
I have to press the issue, and not just I but my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) is working hard on it. In our area of Lancashire, Heysham port is a key strategic route out to Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. A shipping company recently built two special ships that could sail in and out of the port, which were needed because of the depth and dredge of the harbour. They cost about £70 million. I am sure that all Members would agree that if a building were constructed in their constituency for £70 million, it would be headline news. However, we cannot get the traffic off the M6 to Heysham port quick enough, and there are problems with transport in Lancaster. We are all trying to get green transportation initiatives working, with the jobs that they will create. We all implore the Secretary of State to put roads in our areas at the top of the list, and I do so because the road in question would be a key strategic route to the rest of the country.
On a nicer note, Carnforth station, which was the scene of the movie “Brief Encounter”—I am sure a lot of Members have seen that David Lean classic—was rebuilt many years ago. The catalyst was a chap called Peter Yates, who was been working with me to try to see through his dream. The rebuilding was successfully completed, and I will give the visitors’ centre a plug. It is excellent, and the station has been transformed and restored into the scene of “Brief Encounter”. People from all over the world go there to propose at the table where the character got grit in her eye, and it is something to see. We have been working hard over the past three years to get Virgin Trains to stop and take on passengers in Carnforth. It has agreed to that in principle, which will open up tourism in the area and get cars off the road and promote green tourism.
On green issues, I am not against wind farms, despite what a lot of the blogs say. I just have a vision of them, like Martians across the landscape, in areas of outstanding natural beauty. I have the Lake district to my north and the trough of Bowland to my south, and in the middle is the Lune valley, or Lunesdale. It has not been categorised as an area of outstanding natural beauty, even though it is a beautiful area. Thankfully, I can report that Natural England is looking into stretching the AONB up to the borders of the Lake district, which would in effect negate the possibility of wind farm building there. I am absolutely certain that that would delight some of the area’s residents, but it would also delight me personally because it is a beautiful area and I believe it should be kept for future generations. I do promote wind farms, but I will always say that they should be out to sea.
On a final note on matters that I wish to push forward, a school in my constituency closed about 12 months ago and the building is in mothballs. After all the controversy in our education debates about schools being regenerated and rebuilt, we have a school in the Lune valley that could be reinvigorated under the free schools programme and used as a school once more.
On a personal note, I have thoroughly enjoyed my first three months in the House and have met some very interesting colleagues on both sides of it—
As a new Member, I am only just getting my head around some of the traditions of this place, and I am glad that Mr Speaker or the Deputy Speakers have not done to me what was done to a colleague of mine when we were rookie solicitors. She stood up to speak, and the sheriff said, “Miss C, I cannot hear you”—I will not give her name in case she reads Hansard, although I cannot imagine why anyone other than Members would do so. She raised her voice, as one would, and spoke louder, but the sheriff repeated that he could not hear her. Only after her voice had risen in volume considerably did it dawn on her that he meant he could not hear her because she was wearing a trouser suit. Things have moved on now, even in the Scottish courts.
One other delight of the maiden speeches and other speeches today is that they enhanced my geographical knowledge—I realise how little I knew about various parts of England. I was also interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) said about prefabs. I had the dubious delight of dealing with a similar situation in my ward when I was on the city council. We had to tell people that their prefabs had reached the end of their reasonable lives, but people really loved them. That tells us a lot about what people like in housing. When I dealt with housing on the council, I constantly told architects and planners that people like their little houses with their back and front doors that they can call their own. We still have a lot to learn from that.
Many of my constituents have come to see me. Last week, I was visited by a group of civil servants from my constituency who are concerned about the proposals in the Superannuation Bill. We will debate that in September, but in my discussion with my constituents we agreed that one big problem is that there seems to be a concerted campaign in parts of the media and, in my view, the coalition Government, to portray civil servants as fat cats, to ensure that the public do not have sympathy for them. When someone mentions civil servants, many people think of a Sir Humphrey figure—someone who frequents his London clubs, who is waiting for his “K” and who will indeed have a good pension—but the civil servants I met work in fairly ordinary clerical and administrative jobs. One might say that they are pen pushers or, these days, screen watchers, but they are not on high salaries and do not have huge pensions.
Average civil service pay is £22,850, compared with average private sector pay of £24,970. Sixty-three per cent. of civil servants earn less than £25,000, and the average civil service pension, taking out a few very high earners, is £4,200 per annum. I told those civil servants that I would do everything I could—as I hope other hon. Members will—to counter the impression of civil servants that is given in some parts of our media, so that we can acknowledge the important job that they do for other constituents, such as people who are waiting for their benefit payments or who are trying to get jobs by spending time in Jobcentre Plus. That is the other side of the coin. Those civil servants may be administrators and paper shufflers, but we need them very much.
During my election campaign, I said that I would take up the issue of housing benefit, and I have been particularly interested in the debates since the emergency Budget. I fully agree that the spend on housing benefit is too high, but the current proposals penalise the claimant without getting to the root of the problem. We cannot look at housing benefit without looking at the rest of the affordable housing budget. In 2007-08, housing benefit represented 85% of the total support for affordable housing, with only 15% coming from capital investment. In 1990, the balance was 59% to 41%. Every time I raise this subject, coalition Members point out that the Labour Government had 13 years to sort it out, and indeed they did. I said before I was elected that I would take up this issue, whoever won the election. It is an important issue, and I will urge our new leader, whoever it is, to address it seriously.
The temporary accommodation aspect of housing benefit has not received much discussion so far and is not covered by the current proposal, but it is very important. Every year in my city far more people apply as homeless to the council than it has council or housing association vacancies. We have good homelessness legislation in Scotland, under which everybody has a right to temporary accommodation if they need it, and by 2012—which is not that far off—they will have a right not only to temporary accommodation but to stay in that accommodation until a permanent offer is made. Temporary accommodation is becoming overcrowded.
When I was on the council, I was involved in setting up a private sector leasing scheme, which was meant to be a short-term solution until we got more houses. I know that the council is now considering extending that private leasing scheme for another five years, but it is an extremely expensive way of providing housing. In March this year, there were 1,600 private sector leased homes in the city, with an average monthly rent of £880. That is more than £10,000 per year per property, with a total of £16.8 million. Most of those tenants will get housing benefit. If some 70% of that cost is met through housing benefit, that is nearly £12 million. The affordable housing investment programme for Edinburgh in the past five years has amounted to £34 million, and £41 million in the last year, and for that some 500 houses are built every year. If we had the £11.8 million that is being spent on those private sector leased houses, another 150 houses could be built.
I know that we could not make the switch in one year, but if the coalition Government want to be the sort of Government that some people thought we would get out of a hung Parliament—in other words, one who listen to all sides—they would seek to address this, rather than making savings on housing benefit to set against the deficit. The savings could go towards building the homes that people so desperately need. If we planned for that over a 10-year period, we could make a real difference. I hope to be part of that over the next four and a half years.
May I say how delightful it has been this afternoon to listen to such a varied debate? I congratulate those hon. Members who made their maiden speeches—and many of the hon. Members who made not so maiden speeches.
I wish to raise a subject of great concern to many of my constituents: the proposed closure of the magistrates court in Sittingbourne. I understand that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be concerned by the potential loss of their local court and will lobby Ministers hard in an effort to save it. In those circumstances, it is perhaps difficult to argue that my own local court should be treated as a special case, but that is exactly what I propose to do.
This is not the first time that Sittingbourne magistrates court has been considered for closure. However, during the last review, a decision was taken to retain the service, not least because of the unique nature of its catchment area. Sittingbourne magistrates court serves a wide area of north Kent, including the borough of Swale which has a population of 132,000 and is the second most deprived area in the whole of Kent. There are pockets of severe social and economic deprivation, particularly on the Isle of Sheppey. Some 15 neighbourhoods in the borough are in the 20% most deprived areas nationally, with 11 of those areas being located on Sheppey. As you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, people living in deprived areas often make up a higher proportion of court users than people from more affluent areas.
Those people are also more likely to rely on public transport—and that is the nub of the problem. Public transport and links between Sheppey and the mainland are very poor. People without their own transport and who live at the east end of the island will be particularly hard hit by the closure of Sittingbourne magistrates court. If somebody from Leysdown was involved in a court case held in Medway that happened to finish late in the afternoon, it would be almost impossible for them to get home by public transport, because by the time they would have walked from the magistrates court in Chatham to the railway station, caught a train to Sittingbourne and then another train to Sheerness, they would be faced with missing the last bus to Leysdown, which leaves from Sheerness at 1 minute past 6 in the evening.
I use Leysdown as an example, but many other rural communities in my constituency are facing a similar problem. However, islanders in particular would be particularly miffed about the closure of Sittingbourne magistrates court, because until relatively recently, Sheppey had its own court, as did Faversham, which is close by. When that court was closed, we were promised that the court in Sittingbourne would remain open. Closing our last remaining court in Swale would be a betrayal of some very vulnerable people.
I turn briefly to the consultation document that sets out some of the criteria being used to determine the need for a court. One of the criteria is that people should be able to reach a court within 60 minutes using public transport. Helpfully, the consultation document also includes a fact sheet that describes Sittingbourne magistrates court, its work load, its accommodation, the implications for staff and costs and its location, including journey times from Sittingbourne to Canterbury and Chatham, the alternative courts.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you probably will not be surprised to learn that conveniently for the Ministry of Justice the train journey times shown are well within the 60-minute guideline. Unfortunately, however, the figures are not all they seem. For instance, the times quoted are station to station and take no account of the time it would take somebody to get from their home to Sittingbourne station at one end, and from the station to court at the other end. There is also a glaring omission in the consultation document fact sheet. The map that was conveniently and thoughtfully provided to show the relative locations of the courts has airbrushed Sheppey from existence—which is particularly worrying for those of us who live on the island.
To remove the Isle of Sheppey from the equation when considering the future of our only remaining magistrates court is simply unacceptable. To suggest, as the document does, that somebody living at the eastern end of Sheppey could travel to either Chatham or Canterbury in less than 60 minutes is laughable. It is a journey that even with the right connections can take two hours. Closing Sittingbourne magistrates court, and forcing defendants and witnesses to travel either to Canterbury or Chatham, would turn justice into a public transport lottery. I have already made representations to the Ministry of Justice on behalf of my constituents in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and I urge Ministers now to listen closely to my pleas and announce that our local court will remain open. I plead with them not just for myself, but for all those vulnerable constituents living in this deprived area.
Many of my constituents in Nottingham East are from the Pakistani and Kashmiri population, and have friends or family living in Kashmir and that part of the world. They are increasingly concerned about the ongoing dispute and the problems that remain unresolved between India and Pakistan over what is a disputed territory. I am not a world expert on the issue, but I have had a number of constituents continually raise it with me, and I felt it important to take this opportunity to raise it today, especially as I do not believe that the Kashmir question, from the list of all the international problems worldwide, is aired as frequently as it should be.
Obviously many Members will be aware of the post-war settlement of 1947-48, when the area was partitioned. There was a significant amount of conflict, and when the line of control was established, drawing up the boundaries around the various Indian and Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir, that set off a chain of events. That chain of events involved the United Nations drawing up a resolution aspiring towards some level of eventual self-determination for the people of Kashmir, so that they could decide their future fate and hopefully achieve a peaceful and democratic outcome. Unfortunately, since then there have been at least three major conflicts between India and Pakistan in the area, some of which have come close to becoming very major conflicts indeed.
Although I understand the Indian concerns about the ongoing possibility of infiltration from across the border—many of those concerns are legitimate—and although I accept that there are human rights concerns in the Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir, it is the human rights questions that arise so frequently in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir that have caused such great concern among many of my constituents. Although the news is difficult to verify—there are very few independent observers and very little reporting by a free press—there are reports of thousands and thousands of people losing their lives in the conflict, with up to 10,000 people having disappeared since 1990 according to one report.
The current situation continues to be very serious indeed. There has been a curfew in many parts of Indian-administered Kashmir since June, which means that a large part of the population are unable to leave their homes, with work curtailed, employment not always possible and shops not functioning. Even when people go out to protest, they often find that the police swiftly stamp out any dissent. That can lead to a repetitious cycle, which tends to involve people mourning the deaths of local residents and, in turn, the police suppressing that turnout, which can lead to a flare-up of conflict, with young men in particular pelting the police with stones. Such conflicts can flare up in many parts of the world, resulting in civilian deaths, which are extremely regrettable. I am told that there have been 34 such deaths so far this year.
I take this opportunity to urge the Government not to be frightened to raise the unresolved question of Kashmir with the Indian Premier and the Indian Government, particularly as the Prime Minister and other Ministers are visiting India this week—I think—on a trade delegation, and the issue is exceptionally important. Obviously many people in Kashmir would eventually like the opportunity for some level of self-determination or a better say in their destiny and governance. However, the key thing now is to find a way of demilitarising and calming the situation in Kashmir. Obviously I understand the approach taken on the borders, but what is important is the sense that internal repression is taking place within Kashmir, and we need to move on from that. I also hope that we can eventually include Kashmiri people and civil society leaders much more in dialogue and the peace process.
There are a couple of other points, affecting our constituents back in this country, that I take this opportunity to raise. The disability living allowance has for many years supported many disabled people, helping them with specialised equipment and the extra costs that they face, including transportation costs. The Conservative party promised to protect the disability living allowance in its manifesto. Unfortunately, however, it appears that there will be significant cuts in the DLA in the near future.
The introduction of a so-called objective medical assessment from 2013 appears to have allowed the Treasury to put a figure on the saving that it will be able to make on the DLA. The projected saving in 2013 is £360 million, and more than £1 billion in 2014-15. If it is to be a genuinely objective medical assessment, I am at a loss to see how the Treasury can quantify the savings involved, or indeed predict that there will be savings rather than extra expenditure. This is exceptionally worrying. Many people are expressing their concerns about this, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss the matter further on another occasion.
I am also concerned by the Government’s recent decision to scrap the East Midlands Development Agency and the Government office for the east midlands. Both those bodies have tried hard to bring investment and regeneration to my part of the world. In particular, EMDA has had some of the lowest administration costs of any RDA, and objective studies have shown that £9 of wider benefit has come from every £1 that it has invested in the real economy and in regeneration. There has been a great deal of investment in the creative industries, for example, including the New Art Exchange in my constituency and Nottingham Contemporary, and it would be a great shame if that regeneration budget were to be cut. Those organisations have added great value to the economy, and I hope that we shall see that investment continue in the longer term.
Order. A number of hon. Members wish to speak, and I want to call as many as I possibly can. I am therefore reducing the time limit on speeches to six minutes. I know that this will prove difficult for many Members, but I am sure that everyone will want to try to get a speech in.
Many Members this afternoon have laid claim to the industrial revolution. Totnes cannot lay claim to that, but it undoubtedly has the finest beaches and countryside in the land, and I hope that many Members will visit us over the summer.
If any of our visitors get into deep water or find themselves drifting off to France, they will doubtless believe that they can rely on the coastguard to protect them. I want to draw to the House’s attention a serious incident in that regard. On 28 June, four teenagers went swimming shortly before 8 am, and they got into difficulties in a rip current. A call was made from Bigbury coastguard to Brixham coastguard requesting the attendance of the Hope Cove lifeboat. The reason for that request was that the Hope Cove rescue boat was just 3.1 miles away and could have covered the distance in 14 minutes, including muster time. The coastguard chose not to send it out, however, because the Hope Cove rescue boat has had unilaterally imposed upon it an arbitrary and very small distance in which to operate.
That decision was not taken on the grounds of cost. In fact, it costs far more to send the lifeboat from Salcombe, which is 11 miles away and takes 27 minutes to get there. Nor was the decision based on a sensible worry about the cost of operating the Hope Cove rescue boat, because a generous benefactor sent a cheque for the entire running costs to the coastguard, which was returned. The decision had no basis in common sense. Had it not been for a person passing in a kayak who pulled one of the teenagers unconscious from the water, that teenager would, sadly, have died rather than just spending a day in intensive care.
The local community has requested, through a solicitor, to see a transcript of the recording of the call from the Bigbury coastguard to the Brixham coastguard. After all, we are not talking about a passing member of the public making this recommendation; it was made by the Bigbury coastguard itself. That request has been refused, even though the information was requested under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I would like to know what is the point of that Act if it is not to call public bodies to account, to cut through and say, “Where is the decision-making process and what was it based on?”. I am calling—and I hope the House will support me in doing so—for Her Majesty’s coastguard to release that information.
I know that many other Members wish to speak so I will be brief, but the other point here is that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has kindly offered to visit and see the situation for himself. He has given an assurance that he will not close down the rescue boat without doing that. There is no substitute for seeing conditions in person on the ground. I hope that the Minister will give us a date for his visit. We are expecting at last the barbecue summer that was promised us last year. We are expecting many visitors to the South Hams and we would like them to be safe. In the interest of public safety, we call for the rescue boat at Hope Cove, which is so valued by the entire community, to be safeguarded and not to have the Maritime and Coastguard Agency wash its hands of its responsibility by seeking to devolve all responsibility for safety at sea to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
It is a great shame that the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) is not in his place, as I would like to correct something he said earlier. He referred to a much-quoted sentence when he said that this Parliament was the “mother of all Parliaments”. In fact, this was originally said by the Liberal John Bright, but when he said it, he was not referring to this Parliament as being the mother of all Parliaments, but saying that England was the mother of Parliament. He, like many Liberals, was wrong as well, because the longest-standing Parliament was not this country’s, but the Icelandic Althingi, which first sat in 929. We should at times be a bit more careful about our history.
That brings me to the first issue I want to raise, which relates to the pernicious and now-published Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. It is pernicious because, for a start, it shackles together two issues that have no proper right to be in the same Bill. If they have to be in the same Bill, they should be in the other published Bill that provides for fixed-term Parliaments; it would then be a general constitutional reform Bill. Indeed, elements of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill presume that the other Bill is going to be carried, so there is an argument for putting all three issues together, but not just two.
The Bill is also pernicious because it will increase the power of patronage in this House. Cutting the number of seats from 650 to 600 without cutting the number of Ministers will increase the role that patronage plays in this House. I note in passing that the Liberals have decided to add yet more patronage by creating these rather strange Liberal Whips. The tentacles of patronage needed to keep this coalition together are, as I say, pernicious.
The most pernicious element of all relates to the process that the Bill presumes will happen. Accordingly, the Boundary Commissions will draw up reports for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. They will send them to the Secretary of State who will then— I am not joking, but the legislation might be—
“lay…before Parliament…the draft of an Order in Council for giving effect with or without modifications”
to the recommendations. In other words, the Secretary of State can draw up precisely what the constituency boundaries look like and this House will not be able to amend it because it will be an Order in Council. All we could do is vote for or against it. That is indeed pernicious.
The Deputy Prime Minister has referred on television and radio to the coalition introducing the best reforms since the Great Reform Act of 1832. This is not a great reform Bill: it is a great patronage Bill; it is a great gerrymandering Bill; it is a great partisan shenanigans Bill—and it is also, incidentally, the great rotten boroughs for Liberals in Scotland Bill. In case anyone is not certain, I am wholly opposed to it.
The second issue I want to discuss is S4C, although I understand that this may not be a matter of scintillating interest to everyone in the House. We heard over the weekend that the Government are going to cut the funding for S4C by 6% every year for the next four years. This has not, of course, been announced to the House, but I understand that S4C has been told about it. The funding of S4C is laid down in statute. In order to change its funding—I think it would be a big mistake to take £24 million out of the Welsh broadcasting economy—the Government would introduce primary legislation, unless they are doing some kind of dodgy deal in the background which they are not prepared to tell us about in the House.
I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to reply to each of the issues that I am raising, or to ensure that Ministers do so. I believe that, as we move into a fully digital era, the existence of S4C is all the more important for my constituents. It enables them to see Welsh coverage on television, not only in the Welsh language but, increasingly, in the English language.
I also urge the Deputy Leader of the House to consider the issue of the funding of the BBC. Many people in this country believe that the BBC is one of the greatest institutions that Britain has ever given to our society and to the world. We all have our complaints about individual journalists—about their being biased, or not biased—but the honest truth is that around the world, the BBC and the World Service are well respected and admired. Let me say to the Government that anyone in any other country would be astounded at the thought that we would cut the funding of the BBC by any significant amount.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good speech. I particularly approve of his comments about the BBC. Does he agree that the BBC could provide a service for my constituents in Harrow by investigating the circumstances in which ColArt, which runs a factory in my constituency employing some 200 people, wants to shift manufacturing operations from Wealdstone to France, thus putting at risk the jobs of many of my constituents? Is that not a subject that the BBC could usefully investigate?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the phenomenal sagacity and dexterity that he has just shown. Obviously there should be at least an investigative programme by the likes of “Panorama”—if it has any time to spare between investigations of the shenanigans in the Liberal party.
The serious point I am making is that cutting the BBC licence fee has absolutely nothing to do with cutting the deficit, and that, through its investment in all the creative industries, the BBC plays a vital role in many other parts of our British national identity.
That brings me to my next point. One of our actions as a Government of which I am particularly proud was our introduction of the artist’s resale right in the United Kingdom, which has benefited 1,827 artists—although it may be a bit more since this morning. Ten million pounds have gone to those artists. It is mostly the smaller names rather than the very famous people who are receiving the money, but an investment is also being made in the important artistic community in this country. The British art market put out a rumour that our action would destroy it, but in fact the market has risen by roughly 23% year on year since 2003. I urge the Government to ensure that the right applies not only to living artists but to the estates and families of artists who have died, because they are often the people who maintain the heritage of those artists.
Finally, I want to raise another issue relating to south Wales. The defence training academy at St Athan will dramatically improve the quality of training that we give our armed forces. It will provide between 5,000 and 6,000 jobs in south Wales, and should therefore be seen not as an optional add-on, but as essential to our defence of the realm.
It is a great honour to make a few points in the summer Adjournment debate. I begin by suggesting to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that perhaps there should be a small redistribution of wealth from the BBC to ITV. We should remember that it also does a good job.
Let me move quickly on to the subject of South West Water charges. In my constituency—in my view, it is as beautiful as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston)—the charges are significantly higher, because we have 30% of the beaches and only 3% of the population to pay the extra charges. I should like the Government to consider some form of national levy requiring people from all over the country to pay for the beaches that they come to enjoy. We welcome them when they come to enjoy those beaches, but we do not think that the retired people of the South West Water area should pay the extra charges. It would mean bills in the South West Water area falling by about £65 to £75, yet the national levy would be in the region of £1.50. I ask the Government to look at this sympathetically.
On Tiverton high school, let me first say that I understand that the coalition Government have of course had to cut back on the Building Schools for the Future programme because there was no money left. We know that that is the case, and I shall not repeat it too often. We need to be sure that we can build schools in the future, and that the money we put into capital spending actually goes into building schools and not on administration, as 20% to 30% did under BSF. I ask Ministers that when money becomes available, Tiverton high school is not forgotten, because that would be good not only for the high school, but for a part of Tiverton that needs regeneration.
I want now to talk about the A303/A30.
I thought the Deputy Leader of the House might say that as the A303 also runs through his constituency. In Cornwall, we have trunked the whole A303—or A30 as it is down there. That is excellent of course, but by the time many people get to Cornwall they will have passed through Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon. We have to make sure that we trunk the road through Somerset into Devon, and around Honiton in particular, where there is a bad bottleneck. When people get to Honiton, they can link into the dual carriageway that takes them on to Exeter and beyond. It would be great if we could get this done. In 1997, the road was all ready to be built, but then—lo and behold—we got a Labour Government who immediately stopped it. As the plans are all ready, we could go ahead and build this straight away if we had the money.
My constituency has the two hospitals of Tiverton and Honiton, and we have maternity units in both of them. Prior to the election, services were cut in Honiton and they have been stopped in Tiverton. I want to ensure that those maternity services are reintroduced, because it is absolutely right that we not only have midwives to help with home births, but that mothers can choose to give birth in hospital as well. I therefore make that great plea.
I want there to be more competition with BT in the rolling out of broadband into rural areas. At present BT is dictating the speed at which it is being rolled out, and it is currently not being rolled out at all across many rural areas. I welcome the coalition Government’s commitment to helping communities roll out broadband.
The need to take decisive action on tuberculosis in cattle is an issue dear to the hearts of many of us in rural areas. We spend more than £100 million a year on taking out diseased cattle, yet we are not tackling the disease in wildlife. I welcome the commitment of the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that we look at ways in which we can cull infected badgers so that cattle are not re-infected.
My final point is about Zimbabwe, which is, I accept, a long way from my constituency, but many of my constituents come from that country and I was an election observer there in 2000. Zimbabwe is still staggering on, and I hope our coalition Government prove to be more effective than the current coalition Government in that country. I plead with the Government to look in future at helping Zimbabwe to have a proper audit of the farms and farmland there. Zimbabwe could feed both itself and quite a lot of Africa, but at present it cannot even feed itself because that land is not being farmed and not being looked after. The ownership of these farms is now often not for the sake of farming the land, but just for the sake of having property, and that should be investigated.
I pay tribute to the three Members who made their maiden speeches this afternoon. Interestingly, all three referred to Margaret Thatcher and the influence she had had on them—in different ways. I am sure that they must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu, as I am and certainly my constituents are. Despite the Government’s pronouncements that they are introducing a new politics, it is clear that they are actually introducing policies that are Thatcherism mark 2: for example, the first steps to privatise the NHS, the attacks on state schools, and the terrible damage they are going to inflict on our welfare system.
However, one marked difference is that Thatcherism mark 1 presented its policies on the basis of ideological conviction. This Government are presenting their Thatcherite policies on the basis of blaming everybody else, not least the previous Labour Government. They continue to run with the canard that they are having to make these swingeing cuts across the whole of our national fabric because we got the finances wrong. To those who take the trouble to read the Gothic novel that the Chancellor of the Exchequer published under the title of an emergency Budget, it becomes increasingly clear that his feverish imagination fanned the flames of the Frankenstein finances that form the basis for these choices.
My central point is that in that fantasy Budget—that Gothic novel—the Government stated categorically that, although it would be a Budget of austerity, they would protect the most vulnerable in our country and the low- paid. That is clearly not the case, and the example I give is their housing benefit proposal, which is a particular concern in my constituency. I know that the Conservatives never listen to the Opposition, but perhaps they will listen to what the Mayor of London has to say on this issue. He is targeting the new cap that will be introduced, which at the moment will affect the majority of housing benefit claimants in the private sector. However, the secretive changes that the Government are introducing to benefit uprating—for example, basing it on the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index—will affect all housing benefit claimants.
The Mayor of London said:
“The new cap is lower than the existing LHA”—
local housing allowance—
“in all 33 London boroughs for five bedroom homes, in 25 boroughs for four bedroom homes and in 18 boroughs for homes with three and two bedrooms. In 30 boroughs, the combined impact of the new threshold and the new cap will leave families in three bed homes, whose rents are currently at the median of local rents, with a weekly shortfall ranging from £23 to £360.”
That, as I have said, does not even begin to touch on the impact of the changes being made to the wider benefits system, such as increasing non-dependant deductions.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) discussed the situation of people on jobseeker’s allowance after 12 months. I have received a letter from a single-mother constituent of mine. If, after 12 months, she has not managed to obtain employment, her housing benefit will be reduced, even though she is allowed to look for work that fits in with her family commitments such as taking her child to and from school. She lives in a borough in the centre of London in which rents are above not only the national average but the London average. Despite the Government’s protestations to the contrary, this measure will impact on the most vulnerable. It will affect not only people on jobseeker’s allowance, but pensioners and some people with disabilities.
The Government must rethink this policy. In common with so many of the policies they are introducing, they have markedly failed to think it through. We must consider the serious harm that the ill-considered consequences of such changes could cause. This policy will not save the country any money—if that is indeed the Government’s motive for introducing it. In fact, it will cost us a great deal more. I do not want anyone to have to go back to the days under the previous Thatcherite regime when families with small children were trapped in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I can foresee a time when, if the housing benefit policy is not changed, those days will return. We will see more and more people sleeping on our streets and local authorities will have to push people out into the outer London boroughs, which will mean that the low-income workers on whom this city depends for its smooth running will have to leave. Is that really how we are going to create a thriving economy not only in the capital city but in the country at large? It seems to be the antithesis of that.
It is not too late for the Government to realise that there are alternatives. They simply have to think, for a moment, outside their stifling envelope and realise that their first duty is to the people who sent them here. That will be a bit of a stretch—they are not exactly a representative Government—but they have to think again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) on their excellent maiden speeches. May I pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is no longer in his place, about the facility for a substantive response from a Minister to points raised in the Adjournment debate? In my capacity as a member of the Backbench Business Committee—I see present also a colleague on the Opposition side of the Chamber—and as this debate is taking place in BackBench Business Committee time, I will report that point back to the Committee in time for our evidence seminar in September.
I hope that the House will not adjourn until it has considered the matter of business rates and particularly their impact on small businesses, shops and restaurants in Battersea and other parts of Wandsworth. I am delighted that the coalition Government have signalled their support for small business through a number of proposals, not least the scrapping of the planned rise in employers’ national insurance and the commitment to seek a way to make small business rate relief automatic. Although it is very welcome, the latter move will have relatively little impact in a London constituency such as mine in which business rates are so high, reflecting their proximity to central London but without the footfall of central London.
I should like to ask the Government to go further over this Parliament, as the localism agenda gathers pace, and consider giving local councils a greater role in setting local business rates. This issue was thrown into sharp relief by the dreadful impact on my constituency of the business rate revaluations of 2009 and 2010, by which London was particularly badly hit. Many businesses and shopping areas such as Northcote road, Old York road, St John’s hill, Battersea Park road and Lavender hill have struggled to survive those rises, which were often of more than 100%. The number of empty shops and restaurant fronts bears testimony to the fact that some businesses lost that struggle.
Wandsworth council has been innovative in the face of the difficulties caused by the ending of transitional relief last year and it remains the only council in London that runs a hardship scheme for small businesses. To date, that scheme has helped more than 50 local firms to save money on their bills and stay afloat, the result of which is that they are still paying tax and employing people. Innovative councils could do even more if they had the power to set some or all of the business rate instead of just collecting it. A borough such as Wandsworth with a low tax culture could bring real benefits to its businesses and we could avoid painful juxtapositions, such that in spring 2009, when a local launderette’s business rates increased by 250% while residents in the same road received a zero increase on residential council tax.
I am aware of the chequered history of local councils setting business rates, so that power might have to be earned, but local councils of whatever political complexion that have a clear grasp of the importance of small business to the local economy could play a significant role, through the setting of a lower local business rate, in sustaining existing businesses and encouraging new ones. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will agree that it is important to rebuild the connection between local authorities, local businesses, the services that those businesses receive from local authorities and the local residents who value those businesses. It is worth considering whether to restore some measure of accountability in the levying of business rates. That idea sits very comfortably with the Government’s commitment to localism and I commend it to the House.
I hope that we can consider a couple of extra matters before the House adjourns for the summer recess. When the parties in government talk about public spending cuts, they would like us to believe that they are simply talking about what they claim are the legions of overpaid and underworked public sector bureaucrats who push paper around and introduce more and more regulation. However, the truth is rather different up in west Fife, where the public spending cuts will have a devastating impact on the defence and electricity generation industries.
Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence announced that the Harrier jump jet will not fly from the new super-carriers when they come into service. Hon. Members will recognise that, given that the joint strike fighter will not be available for some time after Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to enter into service, one can draw one of only two conclusions: either the MOD proposes that the Queen Elizabeth should become a glorified helicopter carrier for the first few years of its life; or, even more worryingly, the Department plans to delay the Queen Elizabeth’s entry into service following the comprehensive spending review. I will be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House asks the Secretary of State for Defence to write as a matter of urgency to Members on both sides of the House with an interest in defence to clarify the MOD’s position on the Harrier and joint strike fighter and, crucially, the date of entry for the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales.
Monday’s edition of The Times carried a rather disturbing story suggesting that, as part of the public sector cuts that we hear so much about, the MOD plans to take out of service immediately either the RAF Tornados or the Royal Navy Harriers. Leaving aside the obvious reasons why we need both the Tornados and the Harriers in service for the defence of the nation, as well as the amazing jobs that the aircraft crews have been doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent years, that obviously gives rise to serious concerns for RAF bases throughout the country, including RAF Leuchars in Fife, as well as RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth elsewhere in Scotland. It is not unreasonable to assume that if seven squadrons of Tornados are taken out of service, we simply will not need such a number of RAF bases. I will therefore be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House will press the Defence Secretary to clarify what the Government plan to do about our Tornado and Harrier squadrons.
Longannet power station plays an important part in my constituency. It has served homes and businesses in east and central Scotland with electricity for some 40 years, so it is approaching the end of its natural life. As the House will recall, it is on the shortlist of two for the carbon capture and storage competition, the result of which was expected in October. Many Members would have been worried by today’s statement from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, because he seemed to suggest that the competition would be pushed back to the end of the year.
Hon. Members will recall that when the House debated energy efficiency last month, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), did not have time to answer all the points raised. He promised to write to clarify those points, but it appears that he has lost his writing pad over the past five weeks, because Members have not received answers to their questions. Again, I will grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House will ask the Minister of State to write to me about three specific points, which I shall recap for the record.
First, will the Government still meet the October deadline for the CCS competition? Secondly, is the prize for the competition still that set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) when he was Secretary of State, or has it fallen victim to the Chancellor’s spending cuts? Thirdly, will the Minister of State meet me and other Scottish Members so that we can discuss possible changes to the transmission charges operated by the national grid and how we can make them more equitable to Scottish power stations?
I add my compliments for the three fine maiden speeches that we have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice). I am sure that they will make excellent representatives for their constituencies.
Before we break for the recess, it is important for the House to have an opportunity to discuss how localism and the big society are affecting my constituency. Localism is being welcomed and embraced by my constituents. In North West Leicestershire, as in many other constituencies, the biggest local issue in the run-up to the general election was the Labour Government’s top-down housing targets. It was decided that my constituency should have an extra 12,200 houses. The district council was set an impossible task of consulting the local population. The main problem was that there was very little to consult about. The figure was set, and it was decided already that the clear focus for the main thrust of development was to be concentrated on the town of Coalville. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that there is nowhere in North West Leicestershire where building more than 12,000 houses would be acceptable to the local residents. That level of housing growth, if implemented, would have changed the character of my constituency for ever.
I am very pleased, and my constituents are mostly delighted, that these top-down targets have been dropped. This means that all powers to decide housing numbers, types, densities and where they will be built, now rest where they belong, with locally elected, locally accountable district councils. Many community groups were set up to oppose the top-down targets, and their work is worthy of mention. The Whitwick action group, the Don’t Destroy Donington campaign, the residents against inappropriate development in Ashby and the friends of Thringstone are particularly worthy of mention. It is also worth mentioning that it is easier to lead someone forward than to push them, and this is very much the difference between this Government’s policy and that of the previous one.
For too long, local government and local opinion have been ridden roughshod over by central Government. The Government are often the final arbiters of planning appeals, which have huge effects on local communities, often acting as judge, jury and executioner. Ministers have in the past, with the mere flourish of a penned signature, condemned communities that they do not know, and people they have never met, to years of anguish. For example, the overturning of decisions taken locally with regard to the opencast mine at Ravenstone in North West Leicestershire has, quite literally, undermined the influence of, and respect that residents have for, the locally elected council and councillors. This dumbs down the role of the council, and I believe that it discourages many able people from standing for election. This Chamber, Members will be glad to hear, will be hearing more from me about opencast mining in the very near future. This Government will, I hope, give local councils the chance to show real leadership—something so sadly lacking in the past, when they were mostly there to enact top-down national policies.
I have also seen during the past few weeks how localism feeds into the big society in my constituency, which we so much want to encourage to flourish. I have met some of the selfless people who work in the voluntary sector and seen the work that they are doing to improve and turn around the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in my community in North West Leicestershire. I have been to the Marlene Reid centre, a social enterprise based in Coalville, and to the Turning Point office, also in Coalville, where staff and volunteers are helping those affected by drug and alcohol misuse, and I have been to Home Start, which provides dozens of volunteers to support parents and families struggling to cope who are in need of a little support to get them through their lives. This is the big society in action, and I will be doing all I can to see that these groups have all the support they need from the Government to carry on with their essential work. It is vital that those groups are not subject to undue interference from government.
I want to share with hon. Members an interesting experience. I visited the local air ambulance, which flies out of East Midlands airport in my constituency. The service is funded totally by charitable donations. When I asked whether it would not rather be funded by the Government, surprisingly it said that it definitely would not, as then it would be subject to all the bureaucracy, red tape and targets that would go with that. It would rather keep its independence and raise its own funds. That says a lot about the dedication and commitment of the volunteers and fundraisers who work for the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland air ambulance, but it also says a lot that is not good about government.
I reiterate that North West Leicestershire has some fantastic selfless people working in the community. The challenge for government is to create the conditions to ensure that their efforts reap the maximum benefits for society. We can do this by devolving powers to the people who recognise what local communities need. Those people do not need the state to interfere with their lives. The time of big government is over: it did not work, and it was far too expensive. Anything that government take responsibility for, individuals and voluntary groups tend to withdraw from. The Government need to relinquish ground back to volunteer groups and individuals. This is the time of localism and the big society, and we will be able to build economically, socially and spiritually stronger communities because of it.
I shall discuss three issues that are causing concern and anxiety in my constituency, but first I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who talked about the beauty of, and gave us a tour around, his constituency. I was lucky enough to be in Morecambe last weekend, and I certainly agree that Morecambe bay is a very beautiful setting. I also visited the Midland hotel, which has gone through a major refurbishment to restore it to its 1930s art deco beauty, partly funded, as I understand it, through the regional development agency in the north-west. I just wanted to put on the record the fact that government can do good things.
The first issue in my constituency that I want to raise is about education. Although Hull was fortunate enough to be in one of the early waves of Building Schools for the Future, so is not part of the coalition Government’s slash-and-burn approach to BSF investment, there remains a concern about the primary capital programme in the city. Indeed, I am still awaiting a response to a question that I put to the Secretary of State. It was due for answer on 14 July, so I wonder whether the Deputy Leader of the House could chase that up for me.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about a failure to receive a response from the Department for Education. I asked a question, which was due for answer on 12 July, about the lists, and I still have not received a reply. I assume that she shares my concern.
Absolutely. I do share that concern, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to help us.
I want to talk about McMillan nursery in my constituency, which Ofsted recently rated as outstanding. The head teacher, Andrew Shimmin, and his staff do a fantastic job in a part of Hull that faces many challenges. However, the recent weeks and months have been a difficult time for McMillan. We had the very sad death of Kerry Mackinder, who had worked at the school for some time, and the staff’s future is now threatened by Hull’s Liberal Democrat council, which seems intent on making deep cuts without proper consultation and without considering other options for the school.
The coalition Government have talked at length about early intervention, and I know that many Members believe that it is important to put money into children’s lives early, so that we do not have to spend it later when things go wrong. Unfortunately, Hull city council does not seem to take that approach, and there are particular concerns about the new funding formula that Madam Deputy Speaker introduced when she was the Minister with responsibility for children in the previous Government. She made it clear that the new funding formula for early years could take into account the important role that nursery schools play, as they have professionally trained teachers, often work in deprived areas, and often need to keep places vacant in case social services need to place a child urgently in a nursery school.
I was very disappointed to hear not only that staff at McMillan nursery are to be made redundant, but that the nurture group—a positive way of dealing with children’s problems early—is also to be abandoned. Local parents are organising a petition to try to keep the group open, and I pay tribute to the trade unionists who, on behalf of members who work at McMillan, are fighting hard, trying to get other plans for the nursery put forward and challenging the tight timetable for consultation with staff about their jobs.
The second constituency issue that I want to raise is housing. The previous Government agreed to a regeneration scheme in Orchard Park based on private finance initiative credits, and the local authority is consulting the community on that. However, owing to the coalition Government’s stance on decisions made before the election, I am worried that the scheme might not come to fruition, and it is badly needed. I understand that Hull city council has already spent up to £1 million on the consultation and on the preparatory work for the scheme.
In another part of my constituency, Bransholme North, the first housing stock transfer will take place. There was a ballot earlier this year, and the Housing Minister will have to agree to the transfer later in the year, but the uncertainty about the coalition Government’s approach to social housing is causing concern in Kingston upon Hull North, so, as tenants want the stock transfer to happen, I again seek a reassurance that it will.
My final point about housing is that at the beginning of July I received a petition from residents of Auckland avenue in Hull. Led by Mrs Walker and Mrs Lambert, it was about the deterioration in the neighbourhood resulting from the conversion of small family homes into houses in multiple occupancy. I had a look for myself, and there was indeed a deterioration in the area. I have written to Hull city council to ask it how it is planning to use its powers to deal with the problem in that area. Now I understand that the coalition Government have suspended the Labour Government’s legislation on houses in multiple occupancy, which was intended to help communities and residents such as those now suffering in Auckland avenue.
Finally, I turn to transport. Under the Labour Government, approval had been given to upgrade schemes on local roads such as the A63. We were also moving closer to reducing or abolishing tolls on the Humber bridge. Now we are told by the Secretary of State for Transport that we must choose between the road schemes and progress on the Humber bridge tolls. Studies have clearly shown that cutting the tolls would boost the local economy on both sides of the River Humber. Surely the £98 million cost of building the Humber bridge has now been paid back by Humber people. Those are the issues—education, housing and transport —that really matter to my constituents in Hull, far more than the rushed referendum on the voting system.
In a passionate contribution to the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about the gerrymandering over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. On the first day back, we are to be forced to have a Second Reading debate on that Bill without any pre-legislative scrutiny. That is an absolute disgrace.
I should like to place on the record my congratulations to Members who made their maiden speeches earlier this afternoon. Before we break for the recess, I should like to raise a number of local, national and possibly international issues.
I shall start with local issues. I am sure that the whole House would like to congratulate Elmgrove, Aylward, Glebe, St John’s and Stag Lane schools in my constituency, which have all received Artsmark awards from the Arts Council in the past week. That leads me to a concern being raised at local level, about the wonderful new Cedars youth centre, which is being developed in a partnership between Harrow council, the lottery and Watford football club. Some £4.2 million was set aside for it, but we are awaiting approval from the Department for Education. I trust that that will be forthcoming before the recess is out.
Seventy years have passed since Britain stood alone and the RAF, and Fighter Command in particular, stood between us and the Nazis. The centre of that operation was at Bentley priory in my constituency. Time, of course, has moved on; now there is a challenge as to what we will do with Bentley priory. There is a clear need to preserve the priory for the nation so that we can celebrate what Fighter Command achieved 70 years ago. We must not allow it to fall into disrepair and disuse and pass it on in that state to our children and our children’s children.
Some hon. Members who know me well might wonder why I am raising this next issue in the House. A firm in my constituency called ColArt, which is probably better known as Winsor and Newton, is currently consulting on closing down its operation in Wealdstone and transferring the manufacturing jobs to France and other parts of the world, involving the loss of 200 specialist jobs in the constituency. The local council and the Government need to intervene to safeguard those jobs for local people and to protect manufacturing industry in London. I trust that that support and effort will be forthcoming from the Government before the consultation period is over at the end of September. This afternoon I met representatives of the factory, who are deeply concerned about what is going to happen to their jobs and to the future of manufacturing in our area. I am happy to place on record my firm and full support for their work, and I will, with the firm, be seeking appropriate measures to ensure that we safeguard that facility for local people.
Finally, I want to discuss a case—Regina v. Robert Nicholls and others—which arose on 28 and 29 June in Lewes Crown court, and which probably would have passed unnoticed but for the learned judge’s summing up in directing the jury. The case concerns a number of individuals who committed terrible criminal damage at a local armaments factory in January 2009. As they virtually admitted that they had done so, it was something of a surprise when they were acquitted of the crimes after the jury had deliberated for a very short period. A week to 10 days ago, the summing up by the judge was released. It reads almost like the case for the defence or a plea in mitigation. In the course of some 87 pages, it lists a whole litany of reasons and excuses as to why it is perfectly reasonable for people in this country to commit criminal damage against armaments factories if those factories are supplying the state of Israel.
This has caused immense concern in my constituency, where there are large numbers of Jewish people who believe that it will provide a licence for individuals who oppose the state of Israel to take criminal action against factories in this country that supply the state of Israel. It is the thin end of a very thick wedge, and the Government—the Ministry of Justice—must step in and take action. We cannot have judges with prejudicial views instructing juries to acquit people where there is no evidence to support that outcome. I have asked the Lord Chancellor to intervene in this case and ensure that something is done, and I trust that that will happen before the recess.
I wish to use this debate to highlight the devastating impact that the coalition Government’s cuts in public expenditure will have on the city of Liverpool and, in particular, on my constituents in Wavertree. The Government’s proposals for cuts of up to 40% in some Departments will jeopardise the economic recovery, unfairly punish those in the most deprived areas and, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, put 600,000 public sector workers out of work.
Members in all parts of the House acknowledge the effect of the global recession on the country’s public finances, but the new Tory Government have ignored this approach and instead opted to pursue an agenda described by the Institute for Fiscal Studies as amounting to the longest and deepest period of public spending cuts since the second world war. Despite what the Government would have the public believe, these cuts are not inevitable. They are the result of the ideological choices that the Conservative-Liberal Government are making. Economists such as Nobel prize-winning Professor Joseph Stiglitz have warned that the Tory Government’s Budget and their other cuts will result at least in a slowing of the recovery and at worst in a double-dip recession.
Merseyside will bear the brunt of the Government’s cuts far more than other areas of the country, not least because in some parts of the region 60% of the work force rely on the public sector for their income. While some of the more ideologically driven Members on the Government Benches may demonise the public sector as a drag on the private sector, those of us with a more clear-headed view know the important relationship that exists between the public and private sectors. For every £1 that a local government worker earns in Liverpool, they spend 70p there. If that money stops, we will see small businesses close, a spiralling welfare bill and public services straining under the weight of underfunding and increased demand.
Jack Stopforth, chief executive of Liverpool chamber of commerce, has said that the Government are being “unbelievably naive” over the effect of job losses and clearly have
“no awareness of the link between public sector services and private sector supply chains”.
Despite that important relationship, the Government seem determined to further crush any project that would bring necessary jobs and investment to Merseyside. The withdrawal of funding for the Mersey gateway, which would bring 5,000 jobs, and the cancelling of Liverpool’s 26 Building Schools for the Future projects, which has already cost 1,000 jobs, are evidence of that. Today, the Northwest Development Agency has announced more than £52 million of cuts to 101 projects, many of which fall in Liverpool.
There have been a number of short-sighted cuts, particularly the decision not to introduce a tax relief for the video games industry. In 2009, the industry brought approximately £1 billion to the UK’s gross domestic product, and in my constituency and across Liverpool there are a number of video games developers including Genemation, Bizarre Creations, Magenta Software and Playbox. Sony Computer Entertainment, based at Wavertree technology park, employs more than 600 people, and introducing a games tax relief would protect and increase a figure of £415 million in new and saved tax receipts for the Treasury, far outweighing the £192 million that the relief would cost. Can the Deputy Leader of the House explain why the Red Book highlighted only the cost of the tax relief and not the net benefit?
Decisions such as that and the cancellation of the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters highlight the Government’s short-term thinking and strike at the very premise behind their strategy to pursue a private sector-led recovery. They seem adamant that the gap created by their public sector cuts will be filled by increased demand and job creation in the private sector. However, businesses in areas such as Liverpool rely more heavily than others on income from public sector workers.
Not only will the Government raise unemployment with their cuts, but they seem to want to punish those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves out of work. All of us in the House recognise the value of helping people off benefits and into work. That is important for self-esteem, well-being and the economy, and jobseekers should be supported, not castigated. The Government’s plans to freeze jobseeker’s allowance—[Interruption.] Oh, I will sit down. Sorry.
Our function in this House is to ensure that our information about constituents’ problems is translated into creating better policy so that our constituents have fewer problems. Today, I wish to raise two issues that have recently come to my attention.
On educational provision for those with behavioural and learning difficulties, I have had a case in which a lady—I will call her K—brought into the borough her son with severe learning and behavioural difficulties, challenging behaviour and anger management problems. On 22 July, my constituent made distressed calls saying that the previous day, her son had been out of control. He had ransacked the flat and smashed all the furniture. The tutor who arrived to give him the five and a half hours of educational provision that he was due under statute had to leave and said that he would get help. The police came and the mother asked them for help, but they left again. She rang social services but no one arrived. She took her son to the police station, crying out for help. A social worker arrived, saw the smashed-up flat and took the son away for an hour, then brought him back again saying that they could not cope with him.
Over the weekend, I have arranged for special provision to be made for respite for the mother, but the point is that five and a half hours a week of statutory provision for a child is not enough. This child cannot be accommodated in school, but a local authority has a responsibility. When a parent is keeping a child out of school, it gives fines and parenting orders, yet when it is responsible for the child it need put in place only five and a half hours’ provision a week. That is wrong and absolutely inadequate, because it means that the parent can get no respite.
Section 3 of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government, ensures that full-time provision is made available. On 14 July, an order introduced provisions of that Act, but not section 3. Will the Deputy Leader of the House say when that section will be introduced, so that children get the educational provision and care that they rightly deserve? My constituent was told that the only way she could get that provision was if the child were put under a child protection order, which would mean that she would be deemed the perpetrator of an assault, when in fact the child was disruptive, violent and aggressive. It is absolutely wrong that that should be the only route to respite for a parent.
I shall focus on something that has not yet been covered in this absolutely fascinating debate: the Government’s attitude to technology in the community, which is a cross-party issue. We all agree on the enabling role that we want technology to play in our communities. I want my constituents in Blakelaw and Elswick to be able to wake up in the morning and look at the latest job vacancies online; for employees in West Gosforth and Westgate to be able to claim their tax credits online; for students in Kenton and Fenham to have access to the world’s most inspirational teachers from their bedrooms; and for pensioners in Wingrove, and Benwell and Scotswood, to benefit from medical and social care in the comfort of their homes.
The Minister for Universities and Science recently made quite a good speech on the importance of science and technology, but the coalition will be judged by actions, not by fine words. In Newcastle, only 60% of my constituents have broadband at home. Social and economic issues rather than availability play a part in that. More than 10 million adults in our country have never used the internet. What has the coalition done? It scrapped the previous Government’s commitment to free internet access from all libraries; cut £50 million a year from an IT fund designed to bring technology into classrooms in order to fund free schools; scrapped procurement and other support for information and communications technology in schools; and rushed through the Academies Act 2010, abandoning the requirement for schools to teach science and maths at all, never mind separate sciences.
The coalition has also abolished regional development agencies, which helped to support science and technology locally; deferred concrete, funded plans to make broadband available everywhere in favour of three small rural pilots; and placed leadership on broadband in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I have a great deal of respect for that Department, and it would be wrong not to recognise the critical role that digital culture plays in the digital economy. However, broadband is not only about delivering content; it is the basis for our future economic resurgence. Frankly, for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to give up leadership on that critical matter is totally dotty.
Building the right broadband infrastructure is complex, and it needs people with expertise to manage it. What broadband expertise does the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have? Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain what the Government are doing to overcome digital exclusion, and what expertise are they drawing on to do so?
Whether a person is digitally literate or not is a matter of choice at the moment—many people leave the operation of their set-top boxes to their children and know more of the dark side of the moon than the inside of their digital phones—but in future, there will be no option, because digital literacy will be as important as the ability to add up. The coalition is failing to equip our children for that future, and in so doing, damaging our economy.
It is a shame that, on only the second day on which the Backbench Business Committee has chosen the business, Back Benchers such as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) are being cut off in their prime and others have not been able to raise all the issues that they wished to raise.
More than 9 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. That is about one in every seven people, or approximately 14,000 per constituency. I wish to explore issues of accessibility for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to telephone services as well as shops and businesses. Deafness is the invisible disability and many elderly people tell me that hearing aids are automatically seen as a sign of decrepitude. That could explain why only some 2 million people use hearing aids when it is estimated that between 5 million and 6 million could benefit from them. Those who have difficulty hearing find that when speaking on the telephone or face to face people are impatient with them, and even sometimes seem to find it acceptable to be rude to them.
Many hon. Members will associate deafness and hearing loss with the use of British sign language—or BSL. It is important to our understanding of the issue that we acknowledge the fact that only 50,000 people in the UK use BSL as a first or preferred language. In fact, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the UK’s largest deaf and hearing loss charity, estimates that more than 8.2 million people have mild to moderate deafness. I declare an interest, as that figure includes me. I lost all hearing in one ear at the age of 16 after contracting mumps.
I wish to highlight action that businesses can take to better help their customers who are deaf or hard of hearing access them over the telephone. This is an especially important area as more businesses adopt automated answering software and call centre staff as the public’s primary means for contacting them. I am sure that we can all recall frustrating experiences when trying to contact a business by that method. Let us imagine how much more frustrating it would be with a hearing loss. Often one is asked to press a number to ensure that the call can be directed appropriately, but if one does not properly hear these instructions immediately it can be very difficult to seek clarification and often calls go round in circles or are prematurely terminated. It is also deeply frustrating when a person asks the call centre operator to give a yes or no answer, but the operator reverts to the fixed script they have to use and gabbles or mumbles, despite being asked to speak slowly. Some people who have speech difficulties, perhaps after a stroke, also have problems using voice recognition telephone systems, which can be a nightmare.
If a business wishes to have that kind of system, it is essential that there is an early and clear option for people with a hearing loss to be put through to an operator who has received deaf awareness training. There are some very simple steps that businesses can take. These include ensuring that their operators speak clearly and at a slow speed and that they repeat themselves when asked to do so. Businesses must recognise that calls involving customers who are deaf or hard of hearing will be of a longer length. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will ask the Minister responsible to consider introducing a set number on all systems that people who are deaf or hard of hearing could press to be put through to somebody who understands their needs.
I also wish to raise the problems with text relay, which is a national relay service that allows text phone users to communicate with users of normal telephones through a relay assistant. It is a complex system and it does take time, but unfortunately call centre staff and others are reluctant to use it, simply because it does take time. However, some large and high-profile businesses are doing the right thing, including Western Power, Lloyds TSB, Barclays Bank and even Government agencies such as HMRC.
There are some simple steps that can be taken to ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can communicate, and even I was surprised, as someone who is hard of hearing, at just how simple those steps are. People can ensure that they talk in a place with good lighting so that they can be lip-read; they talk in a place away from noisy distractions; they face the person, again so they can be lip-read; they speak clearly, but not too slowly, and do not exaggerate their lip movements; and they do not shout, because that is uncomfortable for a hearing aid user and it looks aggressive.
Better use of a loop induction system would help as well. In a mystery shopping expedition by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, only 22% of shops had an operational loop. It would seem that regional managers of stores are fully aware of the importance, but do not switch them on.
I have many more issues to raise, and perhaps I need to return to the House to discuss them further.
It is nice to know that Back-Bench Members are getting such a high profile under this new regime. I would have liked to discuss the imposition of police commissioners at a time of budget cuts. I would like to know why we are abolishing the highest performing regional development agency in the country at a time when Birmingham has the highest unemployment of the core cities, and why we are imposing a VAT rise that will cripple small service sector businesses in my constituency—people such as hairdressers and small restaurant owners.
On the day, however, when the Khyra Ishaq case review has been published, I want to focus on Birmingham council’s decision to review the 23 nurseries it is thinking of closing, including three in my constituency—Millpool Gardens, Selly Oak and Reameadow. The council says today in response to the report that it is going to refocus on early intervention and prevention, but that cannot be done by cutting basic nursery provision; it cannot be done by no one resigning when, in the 21st century, a little girl starves to death when she is supposed to be under the protection of Birmingham city council; and we will not make much progress when not a single person admits responsibility and resigns for that atrocity.
Instead of anyone resigning, what has Birmingham council done? It has appointed a new cabinet member and an additional senior manager earning £120,000 a year—just slightly less than the Prime Minister—in order to improve its services. That is why there is no money for social workers. That is why there are not enough social workers. That is why there is no money to provide basic services and provision in Birmingham. It is a disgrace that the council is getting away with it—and if there was more time, Mr Speaker, I would tell you what we ought to do to deal with it.
I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. Clearly, we have to look at how we allocate time, because I understand that we have had 41 speakers. We have had subjects ranging from fishing quotas and pre-fab bungalows, to maternity services and cancer drugs, and from a much-needed bypass to much-wanted railway improvements. We have also heard three excellent maiden speeches from the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and for Livingston (Graeme Morrice).
One major theme has been the continuing concern of hon. Members about the loss of new school buildings under the Building Schools for the Future programme. That was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), and the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock). It is of great concern to those hon. Members and to the head teachers, governors, pupils and schools affected. We cannot have good quality education in schools where tiles have to be stuck back on the walls. Hon. Members have urged the Education Secretary to think again, and I join them in repeating that, for the sake of our schools and for the jobs that would have been created or protected by investment in BSF.
The hon. Member for Witham made a good maiden speech. She had the task of paying tribute to not one but four predecessors, and she did so very well. Like other Labour Members, I do not share her enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher, but I am sure that most Members are supporters of their local newsagents and other small shops in our communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn made an excellent maiden speech, paying tribute to his predecessors and drawing a picture of the communities from Oswaldtwistle to Accrington, and on to the borders of the Ribble valley. He cited as badges of honour that his constituency contains the birthplace of the industrial revolution, and that his predecessor invaded the stage at a Clash concert. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston also made an excellent speech. On confusion over names, I should tell him that in the last Parliament, we had two Michael Fosters and two Angela Smiths, but there was only one Robin Cook, to whom he rightly paid tribute. He drew some vivid pictures of West Lothian communities and paid tribute to local government leaders, of which he was formerly one.
Several hon. Members raised issues caused by policy confusion in developments in the NHS. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West spoke about confusion and disarray caused in Greater Manchester by the Health Secretary’s decision to revisit the consultation on maternity and neonatal services. In Salford, we very much want to keep open our maternity unit at Hope hospital. She is right to draw attention to the confusion caused not only in Bolton, but in Bury, Rochdale and other parts of Greater Manchester. We ask that Health Ministers listen to local people and resolve the future of our maternity services.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) talked about cancer drugs. There is much condemnation of primary care trusts when difficult decisions are made about the funding of certain drugs. It is tempting to think that if all decisions were taken by GPs, that would solve all the problems. However, not all GPs either want or are ready to take on commissioning. We should ask what effect their taking financial decisions will have. What will a patient think when a GP says no to a particular treatment or drug for financial reasons? The disappointment will be the same.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made a compelling case for fairness in the services delivered to her constituents and voiced her concern about the cuts made by Trafford council. I should say that I was a councillor in Labour-run Trafford from 1995 to 2004. We worked hard to protect care for older people, develop services for children and young people, and even keep our parks and gardens. She is a strong advocate for her constituents, as she showed in her speech today.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) talked about competitive sport. Although I agree with him about the need to encourage excellence, my biggest fear is for all those children and young people who will not be able to afford the costs of participating in sport, particularly now that the grants for free swimming have been cut.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about enjoying Adjournment debates in the middle of the night in the 1980s. For most people, this debate, lasting five hours in the daytime, has been long enough. [Interruption.] “Oh no!” I hear. “We could have gone on longer.” He also referred to his concern about the future of the health service in Islington. He urged Ministers to stop messing with the NHS, a view that I strongly support.
The pre-recess Adjournment debate is a good vehicle for allowing hon. Members to raise issues and express views. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) has raised nine issues today. I have known him to raise 13, so he was being kind to the Deputy Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) spoke of a local case involving a trader and constituents who had lost their life savings. I hope that her raising the issue today will help to publicise her constituents’ plight.
The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) talked about a superb new leisure centre and a new academy school in his constituency. It is very good to hear of sound investment from a Labour Government. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) that Government investment, including that made through regional development agencies, is welcome in many constituencies.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) argued strongly for the first-past-the-post system of voting. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talked about the coalition Government’s appalling proposals to hack away at communities and change constituency boundaries to suit a political purpose. We will all have more to say on that when we return in September.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) made a strong case for a bypass in his constituency. My constituency of Worsley and Eccles South suffers from congestion, and we have three motorways and some of the most badly designed junctions anywhere. I hope that the Department for Transport will cancel the ill-advised lane gain scheme proposed for junctions 12 to 15 of the M60, and that whatever is saved can be used to help further the proposals for the bypass in Stalybridge and Hyde.
A number of Members have talked in strong terms about planning and faceless bureaucrats, and about central decisions being made on planning issues. However, that is exactly what the Conservative-led Government are doing by closing more than 150 magistrates and county courts, including in Salford. As we have heard, keeping justice local is a key issue in places such as Sittingbourne and Sheppey too. I hope that Government Members will continue to argue against the Government’s centrally driven decision on that.
When we are working in our constituencies over the recess, rather than here, it is important that we keep in mind those in our armed forces, to whom I pay tribute. I pay tribute to those serving in Afghanistan, to those who have fallen and their families, and to those who have been injured. We must always remember their service and sacrifice, and support them and their families.
I should like to wish a good summer break to all the staff who provide so much support to us throughout the year, particularly the staff of Hansard, who make sense of our debates, the staff in the Library, all the wonderful staff in the Tea Room, the other catering staff in the House, the cleaners, the Clerks of the Committees, the police, the Serjeant at Arms and her team, and the Doorkeepers. We really appreciate the work that they all do to ensure that this place runs as smoothly as possible.
Finally, Mr Speaker, may I thank you and all the Deputy Speakers for keeping such excellent order in our debates? The new team has done a great job, and I hope that you all have a good break during the summer.
I want to start where the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) finished, just in case I do not get the chance to say this later. I really want to send all those who work in the House my very best wishes and pay tribute to the way in which they keep this place running. They include the staff of Hansard, the Library and the Tea Room, the cleaners, the Clerks, the police, the Serjeant at Arms and her team, and the Doorkeepers. I particularly want to join the authors of early-day motion 596 in paying tribute to George Blaylock, Clive Burrows, Ken Jones and Clive Thomas, who, after a combined 73 years of service, are retiring as Doorkeepers. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I hope that all hon. Members appreciate how much we owe to the staff of this House and the way in which they carry out their duties.
There is not time to do justice to all the excellent speeches that we have heard this afternoon. The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), made the very good suggestion that we should find a mechanism whereby everything that is said in these debates receives a proper response from Ministers. I will do my best to ensure that that happens on this occasion. Certainly, I shall ensure that any points to which I do not respond go to the appropriate Department. Her request was backed up by the hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Battersea (Jane Ellison).
I congratulate the three hon. Members who made their maiden speeches today. We had a surfeit of very competent speeches, and I am delighted that the standard of speeches has been maintained by all those who have entered the House this time round. The speeches covered an enormous amount of territory. We went from the Clash with the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) to the jam with my the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel). The hon. Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) did something that I always appreciate—namely, he put a few of his more difficult-sounding villages into the middle of his speech. I always do that, because it keeps the officers of Hansard happy. Kingsbury Episcopi! I just throw that in for no reason at all.
On the substance of the debate, there were groups of subjects, and they included schools, which featured prominently. Some hon. Members paid tribute to schools in their constituencies. They included the hon. Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Harrow West (Mr Thomas). Several hon. Members were concerned about school buildings and the fact that they had fallen foul of the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future. That point was raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). Whenever he talks about the mining interests in his constituency, he reminds me of the coal mining area of my constituency, where the pits closed a little earlier than in his.
I appreciate the need to replace our crumbling schools, and I wish that we had had a programme that was capable of being delivered. However, in the case of those schools that deserve replacement, I hope that hon. Members will persevere, and that they will push, push and push again for those schools to be included in future programmes. I know that the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister with responsibility for schools, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) will listen to those propositions. I hope that Ministers will meet the hon. Member for Bolsover about Tibshelf school. I hope that they will also meet the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).
I think that the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) were talking about schools that were not part of the Building Schools for the Future programme. One of the criticisms of that programme was that it did not extend to primary schools, infant schools or nursery schools, and perhaps that is something that we need to do in the future.
Another sub-theme related to trains. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen talked about the need for a Rossendale to Manchester link. He was supported in that by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). The hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) talked about the deficiencies in provision in his constituency, and he mentioned National Express. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) mentioned the famous station at Carnforth, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked about the slightly less famous station at Melksham. I am nevertheless familiar with that station, and with the need for First Great Western to do a better job. I hope that we will be able to make progress on what is essentially the railway companies providing a better service. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who is very much engaged with these issues, will take those matters forward.
Another sub-theme was health. I will forgive the hon. Member for Islington North for calling me “hapless”; I think I have quite a lot of hap, although he feels otherwise. He spoke about the Whittington hospital, and I know how important it is. He argued for local decisions on hospitals and against centralisation. The hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) said that he did not want local decisions on hospitals, but centralisation and a big supercentre. They cannot both be right, but the most important thing is that local provision is what is necessary to provide a good health service in the local area. The points raised will continue to be debated.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) did a side advertisement for the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru, offered birthday wishes to his constituent, and also talked about alcohol pricing. How we reduce binge drinking is something that we will have to address as a public health issue. I think that the Department is very seized of the importance of that.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke about the two hospitals in his constituency and wants to see a return to the provision of maternity services, while the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) raised the issue of his constituent who needed a cancer drug. I am sure he will be pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has announced today that from October an extra £50 million will be available to help patients get access to innovative new cancer drugs. Doctors will be put in charge of deciding how the funding is spent for their patients locally, based on the advice of cancer specialists.
I thought there would be a sub-group based on courts when the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) talked about Sittingbourne court. I could join this group, as I am facing the proposed closure of Frome magistrates court. There is a consultation exercise and we will all put our views forcefully to the Ministry of Justice. Decisions will be based on access to justice criteria, which is very important. I hope that he will make his case on that basis.
We now come to a group that I have headed simply as “denial”. This includes the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Bolton West, for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), for Leyton and Wanstead, for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who would simply not accept the mess that their Government—the Labour Government—had left. The key phrase came from the hon. Member for Bolton West who said that the choices that are being taken now are not the choices they would have made. Well, we would have loved to have known what choices they would have made, because they were committed to £40 billion-worth of cuts and 500,000 job losses in the public sector. Come on, let us hear what they were!
Let me try to deal with all the rest in the three minutes remaining. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) ranged from fishing smacks under 10 metres in Leigh-on-Sea to myalgic encephalomyelitis and his constituents Julie Ditchburn and Tinashe Sahanga, Southend airport, clamping and policing. I will make sure that various Departments will get to hear what he had to say.
The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) raised what sounds like a very important case of the Financial Services Authority failing in its regulatory function in respect of her constituents. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned Traveller sites and is presenting a petition. He will be pleased that the decentralisation Bill is coming forward in mid-November to give extra powers to local authorities.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) raised competitive sports and I absolutely agree with him, while my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham talked about his constituent in Avoncliff and the attitude of the Environment Agency. He and I share a lot of experience on this issue of micro-hydro power generation and the attitude of the Environment Agency. It is an issue that we must get to the bottom of.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) talked about the law-making powers for the National Assembly of Wales, while the hon. Member for Portsmouth South spoke about houses in multiple occupation and the difficulties of council tax and business rates. I hope that the Department will look at those issues.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) talked about the Mottram-to-Tintwistle bypass and wanted a meeting with a Minister. I think he threatened civil disobedience if he did not get it, so we had perhaps better arrange it. I hope that the relevant Minister will explain why the public inquiry was so mishandled under the last Government.
The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale talked about the conservation of the conservation of the coastline, while the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) told us that all civil servants are not fat cats—and she is absolutely right; it is an important point that needs to be made. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) talked about Kashmir, while the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) talked about the Hope Cove lifeboat. She raised a crucial issue; she wants to know when a Minister will visit and asked about the freedom of information request. I will make sure that her specific questions are answered.
I have no time to respond to any more questions, but I will ensure that hon. Members do get replies to the points that they raised. May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all staff a very happy recess.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).