It is a pleasure to start this debate, particularly on this day, which is seeing another first for Parliament.
In 1948, a tired world, exhausted after two world wars, did the right thing when it came together to proclaim the universal declaration of human rights. The concept was simple: it was to reaffirm the faith
“in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women”,
and to state:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
In 1998, the United Kingdom passed the Human Rights Act, which merely enshrined the European convention on human rights in British law. We were one of the first nations to sign the convention in 1950. The Foreign Secretary stated at the weekend that he wants to increase Britain’s influence in the world, but we cannot take our place on the world stage while making a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Members will also be aware of the doctrine of the margin of appreciation that applies to interpreting the convention. It provides for a range of discretion, under which the convention can be interpreted differently in different member states, to take into account cultural, historical and philosophical differences between Europe and the nation in question, so there is no need to be fearful of the Act.
I am sure that the whole House will agree that the dignity and worth of a person is important, and that equality is a goal worth pursuing, yet there are millions of men and women who struggle silently for equality at great personal cost. In Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still awaiting her fate. The signatories to the open letter in The Times to the president and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and a letter from 119 Members of this House to the Iranian Government have called on them to free her. The charges against her have changed. Her lawyer has had to flee. Her son has been arrested, as have German nationals. The German Bundestag has now passed a resolution to engage with the Iranian Government to lift the death penalty. Ashtiani’s human rights, like her testimony, count for less than a man’s. The man who was her co-accused is free and does not face the daily torture that she does of not knowing whether she is to live or die. We call on the Iranian Government to start the new year by resolving to free her.
Men and women both suffer human rights violations, but the position is more difficult for women, because 70% of the worlds illiterate people are female, and 75% of the world’s refugees and internally displaced persons are female. Women also face barriers, which give them less access to legal institutions, for example. In Burma, the recent release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was internationally welcomed and celebrated, but with the failing economic situation there are high volumes of human trafficking, especially of women and girls. These are the 21st century slaves, and we should be outraged in the same way as William Wilberforce was in this House. The enslavement of girls and women into prostitution is demeaning, offensive and undertaken by coercion.
Women are routinely subjected to genital mutilation in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, and the effect is now being seen here. This is not a religious issue; it reflects deep-rooted inequalities between the sexes and extreme discrimination against women. Worst of all, it is carried out on the voiceless: babies and young girls. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 must be enforced, but other techniques should also be used to educate people and to explain to those countries that this is not an acceptable practice.
In 1990, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote of the 100 million missing women. He noted that women lived longer than men in most circumstances. Even poorer countries in Latin America and Africa have more females than males. In places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they disappear. China has 107 males for every 100 females; in India, the figure is 108, and in Pakistan, 111. Kerala, which has championed the education of women, has the same excess of females as the United States, however.
In 2001, the World Bank argued that promoting gender equality was crucial to combating global poverty. The Self Employed Women’s Association was founded in India in 1972, and, by supporting women who are starting businesses, has achieved staggering success in raising living standards. Other initiatives, such as the “Because I am a Girl” campaign—Members may be aware that it organised a display in the Committee Corridor—are attempting to break the cycle of gender discrimination and poverty through education and targeted support. Such projects and initiatives help women to achieve their rightful place in societies that put them at risk following conflicts that render them victims. The transformation of those women's lives also transforms destabilised societies.
The principles of the universal declaration of human rights can be implemented through the empowerment of women through education and the use of micro-finance to give them equality. I believe that the struggle for gender equality is the moral challenge of this century, and that the future of the world depends on it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in what I am sure will be a wide-ranging and interesting debate.
I have a business background, and I am pleased to note that the Government have put support for business at the heart of their plan to rebalance our economy. They seem truly to value innovation and enterprise. The success of businesses of all sizes will be vital to our recovery. I have been fortunate enough to visit and meet representatives of many businesses in my constituency—that is one of the most interesting and informative parts of the role that I play—but all the company representatives whom I have met have highlighted particular challenges that they face in the current economic climate.
Places such as Basildon and Thurrock have the potential to lead our recovery. I believe that they will benefit from the change of Government and the new emphasis being placed on business, and will be able to play their role as the economic powerhouses that we need them to be. I am especially delighted that the Government have recognised the vital importance of our small and medium-sized enterprises. I think that Members throughout the House agree that they will have a major role to play in our recovery, but they face particular challenges. Let me give three examples.
The first challenge is access to finance, an issue that has been raised a number of times in the House and has been much discussed. We have lost many good businesses because of lack of support from the banks, either because the banks have become too risk-averse or because they have simply not liked the sector in which those companies operate. It is worth our reminding, certainly, the publicly owned banks that they need to do much more to support our businesses: I believe that they have a moral obligation to continue to support the companies that they have supported in the past. There is also a role for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I know of cases in which it has been too quick to pull the plug on companies, or too inflexible to recognise the cashflow problems that small companies may face. I hope that Ministers will think about whether more can be done to support them.
The second challenge is the burden of bureaucracy, red tape and regulation that falls on small businesses. I realise that it was designed to deal with the practices of unscrupulous employers, but I think we should recognise that the vast majority of SMEs value their employees greatly and treat them very well. Regulation must find a balance between dealing with unscrupulous employers and not overburdening responsible ones.
Many SMEs now have to employ external consultants to deal with ever-changing rules and regulations. They have to pay experts to help them to understand employment law and health and safety regulations. All that adds to the cost and burden of running their companies. While I recognise that employment law and health and safety regulations are vital to protect employees, there are sometimes unforeseen consequences. For example, if there were no statutory retirement age, it would be possible for an employee of many years’ standing to be dismissed on grounds of competency rather than being able to retire with dignity. Employers may not want to take this path but feel that they must in order to address their own commercial needs.
We need to make it easier for SMEs to employ people. The reality, or the perception of the reality, is that it is too difficult or too onerous to take on staff, so SMEs hold back longer than they might. I hope we will be able to find a way of easing that burden so that companies will take people on earlier and help reduce our rising or our high unemployment figures. We also need to do more to help people in the transition from unemployment to employment. In my time at work, there were occasions when we had to lend money to new starters because the cost of work was more than those people could afford as they moved from benefits to employment.
Finally, I want to encourage the Government to have a greater understanding of small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government are doing their best, but I want them to recognise that small businesses in particular are not a homogenous mass. A small business is more like a collection of micro-businesses. A company of 10 people could comprise a salesman, a production manager, a fitter, a driver and a designer, all of whom have separate skills and separate roles. They operate within separate spheres and cannot easily pick up the slack when one of the team members is on a prolonged absence. I hope the Government will recognise that when framing future legislation.
In summary, I truly believe that the Government have the best interests of business at heart and have got off to a great start, but will they please remember that not all businesses are the same and that size really does matter? We need a different approach, depending on the scale of the business. I know that, with care, we can deliver an environment to support our businesses and firms of all sizes, and that SMEs will happily play their role in rebuilding and rebalancing our damaged economy. With our help, they will grow to enjoy the bright and prosperous new year that I know we all wish them.
I take this opportunity to talk about an important issue that affects the economic welfare of my constituency and the north-east of England.
The Government recently postponed a decision on the intercity express programme. A final decision is to be made in the new year. The intercity express programme will replace the rolling stock on the east coast main line and the great western line. The previous Government appointed Hitachi as the preferred bidder, and Hitachi selected Newton Aycliffe in my constituency as its preferred site at which to build a new fleet of trains if the contract goes ahead. That means the creation of British jobs, a much-needed boost to the private sector in the north-east of England and the arrival of a major manufacturer in the region.
The Government are also considering an alternative train system that would entail coupling diesel engines to electric trains, an option that would more than likely mean that the trains would be imported from abroad, offering none of the benefits to the UK economy and adding further delays as the whole project would have to go out to tender again.
If there was ever a reason why the existing rolling stock needs to be replaced, it is evident today. The east coast main line is suspended between King’s Cross and Peterborough, with trains breaking down here, there and everywhere. The trains rely on overhead electric cables, and when they are down the trains stop. The Hitachi trains are bimodal, which means that they can switch from diesel to electric and vice versa when the need arises. Southeastern operates such Hitachi high speed trains, which have an excellent record in the current bad weather. That is a ringing endorsement of the technology and work force.
Given the combination of the weather and poor rolling stock, the journey home to the north-east for me and many others will not be a very pleasant experience over the next 48 hours. But what is more important is the economic impact of Hitachi’s desire to move to the north-east of England. The move to Newton Aycliffe would create 800 direct jobs and more than 7,000 jobs in the supply chain, many of them in the region.
Hitachi’s investment would be the biggest investment in the north-east of England since Nissan back in the 1980s. It would also tick many other boxes for the Government. It would grow the private sector. There would be a £48 return on every £1 of public investment. There is no requirement for public sector investment until after the next election, well after the scope of the present CSR. More important is the additional income to the Exchequer from the creation of so many manufacturing jobs, the average wage being between about £25,000 and £27,000. The northern TUC has published a study by the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, which revealed that such jobs at such rates of pay would generate about £13,000 per employee. In the case of the 800 jobs at Hitachi, that is £10.4 million a year in saved benefits and lost sums raised through direct and indirect taxes. If we consider the supply chain too, it has been estimated the figure would rise to over £100 million a year, a sum not to be sniffed at when we all want the deficit to be cut in a careful and structured way.
In Sedgefield, unemployment stands at 1,935. According to Government figures published last week, every unemployed person costs the Exchequer £7,800 in benefits and lost taxes. Therefore, unemployment in Sedgefield is costing the country about £15 million a year. That estimate is based on someone leaving jobseeker’s allowance and earning £12,200 a year. I have two issues with that. The average wage is higher than £12,200, so the cost to the Exchequer per person unemployed will be higher. Secondly, it shows what a great paucity of ambition the Government have for those who are out of work that they believe a person will leave JSA and earn just £12,200 a year. We need real jobs with real wages and a real future. Hitachi would offer the area that, and that is why this is so important to my constituency. Hitachi coming to Newton Aycliffe would help the town fulfil its ambition. If the intercity express programme does not go ahead or the programme is ordered in from abroad, thereby exploiting British jobs, the people of the north-east will feel as if the door is being slammed on the region and on their future.
Finally, I want to thank the thousands of constituents who signed the petition supporting the Hitachi bid and the Northern TUC for its help, along with the North East chamber of commerce, Unite the Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, The Northern Echo and well over 100 companies in the region who have leant their support to the Hitachi campaign. The intercity express programme must go ahead if we are to see private sector growth in the north-east of England. The economic case has been made—more jobs, greater tax income, and the biggest investment in the region for 30-odd years. Hitachi has shown great faith in the north-east. It is time for the Government to do the same by giving the go-ahead to the intercity express programme originally proposed by the last Government and by allowing Hitachi and the north-east to get on with the job.
On that note, I wish everybody a merry Christmas.
May I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year?
As a chartered surveyor and an East Anglian representing a Suffolk constituency, the provision of infrastructure takes up a lot of my time. That has been the case not just over the past seven months, but over the past 27 years. Two things that I find myself saying with great regularity are, “We don’t do infrastructure well in the UK” and, in an East Anglian context, “We talk about infrastructure a lot because we don’t have any.” The nearest motorway to my constituency of Waveney is in Holland, and Lowestoft has been waiting 75 years for a third crossing over the water that divides the town.
Infrastructure and job creation go hand in hand. A good transport system is a prerequisite for sustained economic growth and, conversely, poor infrastructure and congestion hold back growth and the creation of jobs. Historically over the centuries, Britain has had a great record of inventing and building world-class infrastructure that underpinned economic growth, whether the creation of the canal network, the engineering work of Brunel, or the building of the railways and the London underground. More recently, our track record has been poor. There has been no long-term strategic framework, projects have the gestation period of an elephant, and to many it appears that Britain has ground to a halt, as we sit in traffic jams and wait for trains that never arrive—and, at present, planes that do not fly.
In the past, local highway authorities pursued an ongoing programme of continually improving the local road network such as through regularly building bypasses and relief roads around market towns. They stopped pursuing such an approach 20 years ago. The result, in East Anglia at least, is that there is a large backlog of work to be carried out on such schemes as the Beccles southern relief road in my constituency, the Brandon bypass in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), and the Long Stratton bypass in south Norfolk.
The Brandon bypass was mentioned in my predecessor’s maiden speech in 1992 as an urgent priority for the link between Suffolk and Norfolk. Although some progress has been made since, no ground has been dug. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an awful long time to wait?
My hon. Friend very much proves my point. There is a need for local highways authorities to be given greater autonomy to carry out local projects. The geography of East Anglia is such that, in many respects, the provision of good infrastructure is not easy. Ours is a sparsely populated area, with relatively small regional centres, such as Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester, interspersed with coastal and market towns, and myriad villages. Today, the case for providing good infrastructure in East Anglia is compelling. There is a need for good roads, as East Anglia has a greater reliance on private vehicles than any other UK region. The area is relatively inaccessible compared with similar regions around the world with which we are competing for inward investment. Despite those drawbacks and the relative inadequacy of infrastructure in East Anglia, its economy performs extremely well. In terms of gross domestic product, it is the third top performing region after London and the south-east, and is a positive contributor to the Exchequer. With proper investment, East Anglia could contribute a great deal more.
The time is right for Britain to resume its role as a world leader in the provision of infrastructure. I have read the Treasury’s national infrastructure plan, which was published in October, so I know that the Government’s policies appear to be pointing in the right direction, but they now need to see them through. The UK is one of the most expensive countries in which to build infrastructure, with engineering works here costing 60% more than they do in Germany. In East Anglia, we have the opportunity to provide a 21st century infrastructure model, and I will conclude by outlining its main features.
First, we need to tackle the pinch points on the roads and railways. I welcome the support that the Government have already given to the dualling of the final 9 miles of single carriageway on the A11 and the improvements to the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight railway line. Both those projects will bring undoubted benefits to the region and will lead to the creation of new jobs. Other projects, some of which are in my constituency, will have similar benefits. The Beccles loop on the east Suffolk railway line, which the Government are supporting, will improve accessibility, as will the other two schemes that I have mentioned—the Beccles southern relief road and the third crossing in Lowestoft. The southern relief road will open up commercial land for development and will remove lorries from the town centre, thereby enhancing the town’s attraction as a shopping centre. The third crossing will have similar benefits for Lowestoft; it will open up commercial sites and help the regeneration of the town centre by reducing congestion. It will act as a catalyst for increased regeneration activity and for further investment in Lowestoft, providing an opportunity to create a perception of a positive and business-friendly location. It will enable Lowestoft to realise its full potential as an international centre for renewable energy.
There is also a need to invest in the infrastructure necessary for the energy sector to thrive. That means upgrading the electricity network, with a new offshore grid, greater interconnection with Europe and a smart grid and smart metering. The provision of superfast broadband across Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia is of crucial importance to the creation of jobs, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas. The Government’s broadband strategy, which was published last month, goes a long way in setting out how that can be achieved. Suffolk needs to be in the next round of broadband pilots and I, like my fellow Suffolk MPs, will be campaigning hard for its inclusion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the current state of broadband in Norfolk and Suffolk is not acceptable and is holding businesses back? In particular, some villages are complete “not spots”, where broadband cannot be accessed.
I agree entirely with that observation. The other Suffolk MPs and I are building on the strategy that has been put forward by Suffolk businesses, and we will take full advantage of the presence in the county of BT, which owns much of the infrastructure and has its research centre at Martlesham. Suffolk offers a unique opportunity for BT to show what can be done in delivering comprehensive high-speed coverage across the whole county, including in those hard-to-reach areas. To move the situation forward in Suffolk, BT needs to provide information on exactly when it intends to intervene and which exchanges in Suffolk it will upgrade. That will allow other, smaller providers to work on a bottom-up basis to consider which of the remaining areas they will be able to reach.
My Christmas message to the Government is to thank them for providing the framework for a 21st century infrastructure, and to urge them to make the necessary investment in East Anglia, so that we can play our part in securing the recovery, rebalancing the economy and creating new private sector jobs.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Have you had any indication that the Business Secretary intends to come to the Chamber this afternoon to make a statement on his policy on News Corporation’s bid to take full control of BSkyB? As you may be aware, it is reported today that the Secretary of State has said that he has
“declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win.”
Given that he is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity in considering that takeover, surely he must immediately step aside from any further involvement with that decision. Can you advise us whether you have been notified that either the Business Secretary or, indeed, the Prime Minister intend to come before the House today to confirm that that is what will now happen?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order, which I think I can deal with quite succinctly. I have not received any notification that the Government are to make any comments, whether from the Business Secretary or anybody else this afternoon, on the matter that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but I am sure that Government Front Benchers will have heard him.
The current chaos on our roads is expensive for individuals, businesses and the country as a whole, and, although we cannot control the weather, we can control the way in which we respond to it. I have mentioned winter tyres in previous debates and been told that they are not appropriate for this country. I shall try to convince the House that they are.
Winter tyres are designed to be more effective than regular tyres in temperatures under 7° C on any type of road, and the Met Office advises us that for most of the winter even this country is below 7° C. They are manufactured with a larger percentage of natural rubber and silica in the compound, which does not harden as much as synthetic rubber in cold conditions. They have a tread pattern designed to cope with slush and cold rain, as well as with snow and ice, and they are safer than any standard tyre in cold, dry conditions below 7° C, because the tread compound heats up at lower rolling temperatures to create grip in low temperatures.
I am not arguing for studded ice tyres or snow chains. I make that point explicitly, because even the Transport Secretary seems to have misunderstood me. Both cause damage to road surfaces, and I understand that snow chains are illegal unless they are used on a road surface with compacted snow. Winter tyres work, however. I do not claim for one moment to be an expert on tyres or even on cars, because I am proud of myself when I have worked out which side the petrol cap is on. However, when I look at the reviews of such tyres, I find real evidence that they are safer and much better.
One such tyre is the Goodyear UltraGrip 7 +, and it is interesting if we compare tyre performance on braking distances. I declare an interest, because that tyre is produced by Goodyear Dunlop Tyres, which is based in Birmingham. [Laughter.] It may not have escaped Members that I am a Birmingham MP.
Irrespective of whether Goodyear is based in the hon. Lady’s constituency, I very much support what she says, because much of northern Europe, which experiences such snow, has winter tyres. It is always said that the Government or the councils must provide for the roads, but, when we have inclement weather, and if we are going to have a lot more snow, winter tyres might be one solution.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. The factory is not in my constituency but in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who is sitting right next to me; Birmingham and Goodyear Dunlop are well represented in the Chamber this afternoon.
It is important to realise what a significant difference a winter tyre makes. When that Goodyear tyre was tested at a speed of 25 mph, it was found that its braking distance was six car lengths, or 25 metres, better than that of a summer tyre. That is not insignificant. Similarly, when comparisons were made in wet conditions conducive to aquaplaning, that tyre’s performance was about a fifth better—grip was about 18% higher—than a normal tyre’s.
People often say, “I’ve got ABS, so I don’t need winter tyres,” but that is completely to misunderstand the function of ABS, which allows someone to continue to be in control of steering when braking. It was never meant to deal with adverse road conditions.
A business man from near Hexham has all his employees on winter tyres. He put the issue very simply to me; he said, “You wouldn’t go out wearing flip-flops in winter. You would put on suitable footwear. Why do we not do the same with a car?”
I am grateful for that intervention because it takes me back to when I first arrived in this country 35 years ago. One of the things that always struck me is that the Brits are extraordinarily happy to talk about the weather, but very reluctant to take any notice of it in their behaviour. I have seen Brits wearing flip-flops in the middle of winter, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that ought to stop.
That is an important question. The issue is not only how much the tyres would cost, but how much people could save on their summer tyres. Furthermore, insurance companies say that the probability of an accident in adverse weather conditions goes up by 257%. There is the issue of avoiding accidents and the kind of snarl-ups on our motorways and roads caused by drivers—usually in continental rear-wheel-drive cars, the Mercs and BMWs, which were designed to have winter tyres—not being able to deal with not terribly steep inclines. The straightforward equation is that winter tyres probably do not cost as much as people think, and could save us a lot of money. The costs would depend on which tyre was chosen and whether one got a whole set of new tyres.
The industry says that in winter or when temperatures are below 7° C—that is, most of the winter—only 2% of people in this country drive cars with appropriate, winter tyres. In other words, 98% of people drive on unsafe tyres, so there is an argument for providing incentives for them to get the winter ones. At the moment, insurance companies are raising rather spurious points about whether winter tyres are modifications to the original tyres. I challenge the industry: just as there are rebates on house contents insurance if there are the right locks in a house, insurance companies should give rebates to those using winter tyres.
Furthermore, emergency services vehicles, whether ambulances or police cars, should as a matter of course have winter tyres because that would make them safer and save the country money; the practice should not be restricted only to some companies.
That is very true. Having grown up in Germany, I can vouch for the fact that the weather there is more regularly as fierce as it has been here. I would not advocate compulsion; the last thing that people want these days is to be forced to do anything more. It is a question of persuasion.
The Dutch managed to increase the use of winter tyres from 0.5% to more than 10% over 10 years through simple awareness campaigns. People here just do not think about the issue. I am glad to say that the Secretary of State for Transport seems to have changed his view between 2 December, when he thought that winter tyres were inappropriate, and now, when he says that those who can afford them should use them.
I am absolutely delighted to hear that—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington said, we approve of that provided it is a Dunlop tyre made in Erdington.
The key thing is for people to behave in a manner that is appropriate to the weather conditions and to think ahead and order a set of tyres—whichever ones they choose—now, so that they have them in the winter. People should not make a fuss about it. Such an approach will save people money, save lives and save the economy. It is the right thing to do and we all ought to do it.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise a number of issues. Although I was delighted to see the back of the previous Labour Government and their totally discredited leadership, in recent years I have not been entirely content with the quality of ministerial responses to inquiries. We all understand that civil servants draft the letters, but if I get any more unsatisfactory replies, I will just scrawl across them the words “Not good enough” and send them back where they came from.
Joanna Cranfield was born with one arm. At the moment, I can use only one arm so I know that it presents challenges. My arm will get better; my constituent’s arm will not. She is 17 and is a very talented swimmer, who I hope will represent us in the 2012 Paralympics. Since the age of two, she has had a blue badge disability living allowance and carer’s money for her mother. Yet all that stopped at the age of 16. That is utterly ridiculous and I expect Ministers to address the matter.
My constituent Mr West took out his policy with Equitable Life before 1992. As is the case with other with-profit annuitants who took out policies before the September 1992 cut off date, he will lose a great deal of money. Unlike those who took out policies after 1 September 1992, Mr West will lose £100,000. I had certainly not appreciated that someone such as my constituent would be excluded from payments. How on earth can that be right? Again, I expect the Government to address the matter.
On Camp Ashraf, I am delighted to say that the early-day motion I have tabled has attracted 140 signatures. I am very concerned about the circumstances of the 3,500 people and 1,000 women in Camp Ashraf. Those residing in the camp have undergone psychological torture and serious medical restrictions. The UK Court of Appeal found that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran was not involved in terrorism and yet it still appears on the US terror list. That is absolutely disgraceful and I very much hope that Ministers will support the PMOI and allow Maryam Rajavi to visit this country.
My constituent Stephen James Bristow is serving a 26-year prison sentence in Thailand for possession of 24 grams of amphetamine. His parents, who are 74 and 78, came to see me recently. He shares a cell with 50 people in absolutely unbelievable circumstances. His flatmate was apparently responsible for the drugs and has committed suicide. I am asking a Minister to intervene, so that we can at the very least get that gentleman back to this country to serve the rest of his time.
Another constituent, Jackie Currie, was the chairman of the National Association of Official Prison Visitors, which is a very successful organisation that helps to represent the interests of official prison visitors. Recently, that organisation has undergone a change in its leadership and has petitioned to become a charity. The Ministry of Justice grant agreement—the main source of funding—states that the grant was awarded for activities around official prison visitors, including helping the National Offender Management Service to maintain a central database of said visitors. The charitable status puts at risk that whole concept and basically means that the organisation will not function properly. Again, I hope that Ministers will intervene.
Another constituent, Cherry Sholem, finds that her son, who has learning difficulties and suffers from dyspraxia, is not doing well in mainstream school. The simple fact is that Southend council cannot afford to provide the sort of education that Mrs Sholem believes her son should receive. I think that I have now had somewhere in the region of 1,000 e-mails from Mrs Sholem, so I would be grateful, again, if a Government Minister could assist.
I have been dealing with the case of Mr Ian Shirley and his partner, Ms Ida Hammond, who sadly died as a result of ill-health caused by the late stages of dementia. They were partners for 29 years and lived together for almost 10 years. Following complaints by Ms Hammond’s children, she was taken without explanation from Mr Shirley’s care and placed in a care home. She sadly died later. Again, I am asking for a Minister to intervene on that issue.
The ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, retires in a month’s time. On behalf of all the members of the all-party group on the Holy See, I wish to pay tribute to him for all his excellent work.
Finally, I want to wish everyone a very happy Christmas, good health, peace, prosperity and a wonderful new year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on initiating the debate on winter tyres. I should like briefly to say something about the impacts and benefits. The impact on the economy of what has been happening over the past seven days has been enormous. Last weekend, the retail sector in Birmingham, which was suffering gridlock, lost a third of its anticipated business. Distribution and logistics companies in the midlands such as DPD and TNT, which serve retail and manufacturing industries and Royal Mail, have had immense problems in discharging their responsibilities at their busiest time of the year. Royal Mail itself has had to take on an additional 7,000 employees. I pay tribute to the remarkable postmen and postwomen out there in all weathers serving this country well.
The impact has also been felt in terms of accidents. Last weekend, the ambulance service in Birmingham had 3,000 calls in one day—Saturday—many of them about very serious accidents that occurred as a consequence of the appalling weather that hit the city.
Increasingly, the problem is that citizens are struggling to get where they want to in Britain—even to admirable counties such as Suffolk and Norfolk. The benefit of winter tyres is therefore absolutely clear. Sadly, we no longer have the tyre industry in Britain that we once had. At its height, Fort Dunlop in my constituency had 15,000 employees. There is still the aircraft tyres factory that employs 400 people; it is a highly successful company. Britain no longer has mass production of car tyres. However, we still have the Michelin factory in Stoke and the Goodyear factory in Wolverhampton. I know both factories very well and visited them personally when I was deputy general secretary of Unite. Both have the capacity and technology to manufacture winter tyres. If we were to promote winter tyres, as we must, given the chaos of the past seven days and the certainty that we will have further bitter winters of the kind we are encountering at the moment, the benefits would be enormous for our economy generally and for the motor manufacturing cluster in the midlands, employing 150,000 people, in particular.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston is absolutely right to raise this issue, because winter tyres will save money if insurance companies incentivise; she is right when she says that that would be the thing to do. The evidence from continental experience is that that would save them money in reduced insurance claims. It would save lives and it could create jobs. Let us hope, therefore, as we wish this House a very merry Christmas, that this is the last winter in Britain that we see this lack of winter tyres. The future must lie in people being smart, buying British, buying winter tyres, saving themselves money, and being able to get to admirable places such as Suffolk and Norfolk.
It is a pleasure to speak after such erudite speeches from both sides of the House. I will speak on a matter that is specific to Suffolk and Newmarket and that affects the racing industry across the country.
Charles II was the first to make Newmarket the headquarters of the horse racing industry, and it is now its global headquarters. I will speak briefly about Newmarket’s position as the headquarters of that great sport. In Newmarket, there are 2,500 racehorses in training, 70 miles of gallops, 62 studs, the world leader in equine sales in Tattersalls, 79 training yards and 5,000 people who are directly or indirectly associated with the industry. Many of those people and organisations support me because I am an unambiguous supporter of the racing industry. The industry contributes to the economy across the country, making £3 billion and employing 100,000 people.
The future of the sport is tied intimately to gambling and the people who place bets on races—that includes many Members in this Chamber. We know that people love to bet. [Interruption.] Members are shaking their heads, but I think that it is an honourable and enjoyable thing to do, rather than something to query. Money from betting makes up 50% of prize money in racing, and that prize money attracts owners to race their horses and attracts some of the biggest international names to invest money in Britain. Heads of State, international business men and sportsmen, and punters who can afford to own a whole or part of a horse, love to race. Part of the thrill of racing is the potential for a prize.
The sport is not without its problems. The amount of money from the horserace betting levy that is transferred into prizes has fallen from £115 million to £75 million over recent years. Prize money in Britain is, on average, the 37th in the world. The levy, which was first put in place in 1961, is highly bureaucratic. Each year, it depends on the decision of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on how much money should be transferred from the gambling industry to racing, to reflect the product that racing provides for people to bet on, and therefore for the gambling industry to profit from. The transfer of value is a policy response to the value provided by racing, which everybody can bet on. That bureaucratic solution, which ends up with a decision by the Secretary of State, is extremely old-fashioned.
I speak as a racing enthusiast who often makes his way across Suffolk to visit the race course in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Does he agree that there is something very wrong in the way in which racing has been financed for the past 50 years, in that other sports, such as football and cricket, sell their television rights to television companies, whereas racing has to pay Channel 4 to show it?
I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that important point. Sorting out the pictures from racing and where the money from those pictures goes to is an important part of having a sustainable future for racing. There is an issue with the sale not only of the pictures, but of the product upon which so many bets are laid. We must consider the future of the transfer of value from the product.
In the short term, the Secretary of State has a consideration to make over the coming months. I urge the Government to find in racing’s favour on the grounds that for a sustainable and successful racing industry, on which the gambling industry depends, there must be a reasonable transfer of value from gambling to racing. I also urge them to examine long-term solutions—for instance by removing the threshold under which betting shops pay no levy, by ensuring that offshore betting on UK races is levied upon, and by examining betting exchanges in which an ordinary punter lays the bet rather than an organisation. Such bets escape the levy, but the laying of a bet in any circumstances, whether by a corporate organisation or a punter, is still part of the turnover of betting.
In Ireland, a 1% levy on all wins has just been introduced, to recognise the transfer of value involved. That applies across all sports, so that racing is not separated out in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) alluded to. The French have a system of a 1% transfer of value, plus saleable rights to bet on the industry. I urge the Government to consider all such options.
Everybody involved in the debate, whether on the racing side, the gambling side or in between, would agree that there is a desperate need for the levy to be modernised. In an environment in which money is tight and a bureaucratic system has existed for many decades, there is great pressure to get it right. That pressure is increasing, because racing is increasingly a world sport rather than merely a domestic one. The amount of money that is bet offshore is recognition of that. It is critical that we seize this moment to secure for Britain global leadership, in the future as we have had in the past, in this golden sport on which my constituency thrives.
May I start by wishing everyone here in the House of Commons a very happy Christmas? The staff do an amazing job, and I am deeply grateful to them for their last seven months of work.
I must declare an interest as a former jockey who, for his sins, still rides as an amateur. I probably would not have got through my school days were I not also a former bookmaker. I financed a large part of my school days by running an illegal book when I was aged about 12 and 13, and I avoided the law very impressively. It is a wonder I ever survived.
I have also been lucky enough to have ridden upsides a wealth of great jockeys, and I know Tony McCoy, for example. I congratulate him on winning the BBC sports personality of the year award. He once got off a horse of mine at Fontwell Park, which is a weird and wonderful figure-of-eight track unique in this country, and he said, “Do you know, you should have ridden this horse. You would have probably done better, the two of you.” People cannot comprehend what a compliment that was from the man who has won 15 champion jockey’s titles and has been undefeated as champion jockey since 1995. He was clearly wrong in his estimation of my abilities as a jockey—he was always very charitable when off the horse, but uncompromising when on it.
I, too, warmly congratulate Tony McCoy on his victory in the sports personality of the year award, and of course on his grand national win this year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sports personality of the year victory shows just how highly the nation values racing, and therefore the urgency and importance of the Government’s decision?
I endorse that comment entirely, and I see that my hon. Friend is wearing his royal purple, from the outfit that he is going to wear to Newmarket or wherever the next race will be.
We are dealing with one of the most impressive, successful and world-renowned sports, and we must do everything we can to support it. I speak as someone whose father rode in the grand national, and who represents the wonderful constituency of Hexham. It has many assets, not least the amazing race course that sits high above the town. From there, one can see Hadrian’s wall and three or four counties, and it is worth going there. I rode there in June 2009 and I confess that I am trying to persuade someone else to give me a ride again. But it is proving a little difficult as most people do not regard an ageing politician as their ideal jockey.
It is a sorry tale that the betting levy has been in such dispute for so long—in the House and in the racing forum. We are one of the few world leaders, on many levels and, if we fail to support racing, it will be the worst kind of short-sightedness. Both sides of the dispute accept that they have to run their organisation better and that the product must be improved. Many people are improving it—there is now much more diversity to the racing product. For example, 10 or 15 years ago, the idea that one would go racing and, at the end, watch Madness or Girls Aloud would not have been believed. Yet 20,000 people come to see them, and get everything going. That is a great credit to racing, but not enough is being done.
The overwhelming impression is that far too many have the bookmakers’ interests at heart. Since I became a Member, I have been struck by the might of the bookmaking industry. The truth is that bookmaking could not survive in its current form without horse racing. I therefore urge Ministers to do everything possible to support the work of trainers and the Jockey Club to sustain racing.
We are considering a small amount of money. One must not forget that in 2008, the levy was £115 million and in 2010, it was just over £75 million. That is the difference between total success and abject failure. None of the businesses, trainers, owners, jockeys—none of the infrastructure—would survive without adequate support from the levy.
It is a crucial decision. We are world leaders in so few things. One could argue that we were best at being unable to cope with snow until the great arrival of German winter tyres to bring us through. However, we are world leaders in one brand—horse racing. Clearly, investment needs to be made in the future of that great product. We need only look at the breeding that supports the infrastructure, and the hundreds of thousands of people who work day in, day out. I have been a stable lad and done my three horses.
There is a diverse set of interests, largely because many individuals work on an individual basis, whereas bookmakers are multinational, FTSE 100, powerful companies. Betfair is one of the major companies launched in the past few years and Ladbrokes and William Hill are big companies. It would be better if we could speak with one voice. Racing is trying to do that.
I urge hon. Members to think of the sense of community and the wondrous people in Lambourn, Newmarket, Malton and Pulborough. They are special places, which we will lose if we do not get behind Ministers, and Ministers do not make an effort.
Horse racing is a wondrous and special sport. On 26 December, the whole world will be focused on Kauto Star’s attempt to win his fifth King George. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to encourage us all to get behind the fight for racing, which cannot be allowed to wither and die. That will happen unless we change things.
Merry Christmas, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I rise to make a plea to the Department for Transport to rescue my constituents from their plight. I am referring not to the temporary difficulties caused by unexpectedly seasonal weather, but to the long-suffering of my constituents on overcrowded First Great Western services in some parts of my constituency, and to their suffering from the woefully absent services in other parts.
However, before I speak about that, I should like to raise the urgent matter of the forthcoming closure for refurbishment of the Chippenham driving test centre. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for road safety, has previously heard my calls for Wiltshire residents not to have to travel so far for a driving test. Many have experienced that difficulty since the closure of the Trowbridge driving test centre under the previous Government. However, should plans to close temporarily the Chippenham centre proceed in February, learner drivers in Wiltshire will have to travel as far as Bristol, Swindon or Salisbury. The good news is that the former driving test centre premises in Trowbridge are still available, and I urge the Minister to request that the Driving Standards Agency considers moving the Chippenham centre operation to Trowbridge during the period of those works.
I am always happy to offer solutions to the Government when I seek action from them, including in respect of the overcrowded trains to which I referred. Just over a month ago, the Transport Secretary set out his proposals for future rail investment, including one to cascade 650 additional carriages to the network outside London by March 2014. I should like to make the case for assigning even just one of those carriages to the trans-Wilts line, which links the five largest population centres in Wiltshire.
The line was a popular and well used service until the start of the current First Great Western franchise in 2006, when the requirement to provide a meaningful trans-Wilts service was dropped by the previous Government. Overcrowding is currently a serious problem on trains in and out of Bath. The problem is made worse because passengers cannot travel directly between Trowbridge and Chippenham—they are forced to re-route through Bath.
The Cardiff to Portsmouth line particularly suffers from overcrowding, as I told the Secretary of State following his statement. I am in no doubt that that line warrants some of those additional carriages. However, I suspect that without the benefit of some local knowledge, his officials could overlook the contribution that a single extra carriage assigned to the trans-Wilts line will make in alleviating the problem, since it will provide the direct route that is currently missing at all but the extremes of the day.
For example, at Melksham, there are currently only two train services each way a day, scheduled at deeply unhelpful times for commuters. A worker from Melksham who wishes to use those services to travel to work in Swindon would be obliged to work a 12-hour day before counting their travel time. To say the least, that is impractical. A single extra 153-class carriage would make possible four extra return services per day between Swindon and Salisbury. In due course, with a second 153 car, a regular and reliable hourly service throughout the day would be possible. At the same time, that would relieve pressure on overcrowded trains through Bath.
In the debate following the Secretary of State’s announcement on 25 November, he assured me that decisions to allocate those carriages will be determined not by the commercial position of franchisees, but by the wider economic benefits that extra capacity can bring. The trans-Wilts line can pass that test. For a start, there are no infrastructure constraints to expanding that service—no new track to lay, and no platforms or buildings to construct. There is passenger demand for such a service. Figures show a 10% growth in passenger numbers in west Wiltshire each year since 2005. The trans-Wilts service operated by Wessex Trains between 2001 and 2006 experienced strong year-on-year growth in passenger numbers, and more than 500,000 people live in the crescent between Swindon and Salisbury, which the line serves.
Indeed, the Wessex chamber of commerce and other local businesses have added their strong support for a service at economically meaningful times to connect the county’s population centres. The service would indeed support the footprint of the local enterprise partnership that is planned for Swindon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Wiltshire council has plans temporarily to move offices to close to Melksham station next year, which would provide an additional boost to demand while the service establishes itself.
That is a strong economic case, and I must pay tribute to the TransWilts Community Rail Partnership, which continues to co-ordinate the campaign for better rail services in our area. Improving the trans-Wilts line is not a costly or high-risk proposition. It is simply a bid to regain a service that was popular and well used, and which should never have been removed from the franchise in the first place.
I do not make a habit of writing lengthy or over-optimistic Christmas lists. Some hon. Members will receive a shiny, high-speed train set for their constituents, but for me and the long-suffering commuters of Wiltshire one or two second-hand carriages would grant us our Christmas wish.
Christmas is a time that parents look forward to celebrating with their children when they can. However, for many parents that is not possible—and I am thinking not only of our troops in Afghanistan, but of the 3 million children in this country who live apart from a parent and, in particular, of those who are caught in the family justice system. I think particularly of non-resident parents who are trying to get access to or have contact time, as it is called, with their children. This issue also affects grandparents, aunts and uncles to a very great degree.
Sadly, it is abundantly clear that the present family justice system is much too slow. Its processes are greatly abused by parents with no penalty or sanctions applied. It is far too expensive in many cases. One of my constituents, a father, came to see me to say that he had spent more than £8,000 obtaining a court-sanctioned contact order to see his children. He did not abuse that order, but it was not honoured and he could not get it upheld by the courts or the police. Unsurprisingly, he was then short of money to pay maintenance as he wanted to do.
The most vivid example of the failure to honour a court order came from a warrant officer who came to see me. He took his civilian overcoat off and underneath he was in uniform. On his chest was his badge of office—a crown, as those who have served in the armed forces will know—and he put the court order on the table in front of me with the crown of the court on it, stipulating that he should have time with his children every other weekend. That court order was not honoured, and it was not upheld by the police or the courts. He felt deeply let down.
We can learn a lot from countries such as Australia, which has a much more shared parenting approach, uses much more mediation and is generally more successful.
Another of my constituents is a young father who has a valid contact order in place. He previously had full custody of his little girl. He is not in any way dangerous—indeed, he is a devoted dad. He last saw his daughter in July. She cries out when she sees him and her grandmother in the local shopping centre, longing to be with him. He has tried since July to get a court date to see her before Christmas, but that has not been possible. He left my surgery in tears after I had updated him on what the family court service had said about his case.
Another constituent also had a valid contact order and on 21 June, the Monday after fathers’ day, he received a text to say that the mother of his child had disappeared, leaving no address. Even after a court seek-and-find procedure, no address was provided. A first court date was set in a court a long way away from where my constituent lives, but it was adjourned. When the case did get into court on 4 October, the proceedings were shambolic, the judge was not well briefed and the appropriate file was not there. The case was adjourned again until 30 November and, on 28 November, the mother succeeded in getting that hearing adjourned, as—allegedly—a medical report on the child was not ready. When my extremely persistent constituent finally got the case into court earlier this month, he found that the medical report was dated 18 November and had been available for the earlier court hearing, but of course there was no sanction on the mother. The courts allow difficult parents to deprive their children of a relationship with their father.
I am proud to be an MP for a Government who are radical and reforming in many ways, and I put it to the House that we need radical reform of the family justice system. We need a system that is much less winner takes all, less confrontational and less expensive; and we need a system that provides proper enforcement of court-sanctioned contact orders.
Has my hon. Friend seen the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office reports into CAFCASS, showing that the extremely moving examples that he has highlighted today are not isolated cases but part of a wider problem in the family court system?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is right. The problem affects every single one of us in the Chamber and is an issue on which we need urgent progress. The input of mothers and fathers, where safe—that is the vast majority of cases—is hugely beneficial to children.
The language we use in these cases is extremely unhelpful. I really dislike the terms “non-resident parent”, which suggests some sort of absentee parent forced to leave their own home, and “parent with care”—why should one parent have to do all the caring? Is that not unfair to mothers, to whom it often applies? The term “contact” is a cold and unfeeling term for what is the strongest of all human bonds. Would “daddy time” or “mummy time” not be more appropriate?
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), Australia takes a much better approach. Its approach, which was introduced hand-in-hand with reforms to the child maintenance system, is to regard a separated couple as two single parents, with the emphasis, wherever possible, on as much shared parenting as possible, not on one “parent with care” and a distant “non-resident parent”. That matters greatly, because there are very positive results for children when separated parents are involved in their children’s lives. Earlier this year, one of the most recent academic studies on this subject, by Fabricius et al, showed that when separated parents are involved to a greater degree with their children, it produces better school results, fewer suspensions and lower drop-out rates. There are clearly positive results to be had, so we need a real change of emphasis in this area. We need people in the public sector, such as general practitioners and teachers, to take the rights of non-resident parents seriously where the latter want to be involved in their children’s lives.
I would commend Australia again. In Perth in western Australia, it was found that one of the reasons parents with care were giving for not allowing contact time with children was their concern that the fathers would not be able to look after the children properly. As a result, courses in child health were set up for fathers to facilitate greater shared care—a very practical suggestion. I put it to the Minister, therefore, that on this issue we have made too little progress for far too long, causing far too much heartache to too many of our constituents. As I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all Members and staff of the House a very happy Christmas, I ask everyone to reflect briefly on those good parents who long to be with their children this Christmas but who will be denied that opportunity.
I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that this has been a most interesting and informative debate. I, for one, have learned a lot about subjects that I hardly knew existed as subjects, although I feel somewhat inadequate that my constituency does not have a race track or, indeed, a tyre factory—I hope that those things can be remedied as soon as possible.
I want to speak about unemployment levels, which is a subject that affects most hon. Members’ constituencies, and what I believe charitable organisations can do to help to alleviate it. I have done a lot of work on unemployment in Watford. At 3.1%, we do not have a particularly high unemployment level in gross terms, but we do have a lot of young people—the figure has nearly doubled in the past two and a half years. We also have quite a few people on incapacity benefit, many of whom wish to be taken off it and to move into work. I feel that the system has very much failed them. During the summer I commissioned a research project with some students to look into unemployment, speaking to young people in particular. We were quite amazed at how many of the 560 young people on jobseeker’s allowance were at home, demoralised and demotivated, making it difficult for them to go out and get work.
My central argument today is that we should encourage the charitable sector to help to alleviate the problem, because I believe that it can do far better than some of the commercial providers that are currently involved in the different job schemes. Last week I met a remarkable lady who is the mother of one of my constituents who is registered disabled. Lindsey Gibson has some problems with speech, but she is determined to get herself a job. She told me a tale of how firms such as Kennedy Scott are paid a lot of money by Government, with the best of intentions, to get people off jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity benefit. However, often people turn up and are told to leave after five minutes because there is no one there to teach them or because the computers are not working—they are given every excuse under the sun. It is quite disgraceful that such companies are not monitored, and my constituent is only one of a number of people who have mentioned this to me.
Let us look at the two new schemes that have been brought forward and how they use charitable organisations. Under the Work Together scheme, Jobcentre Plus encourages unemployed people to consider taking up voluntary work while looking for paid employment. Miss Gibson, whom I saw last week, was discouraged from doing that in the past, because people said that while she was doing voluntary work she was not able to look for work and would therefore not qualify for benefits. The Government are changing that, which is absolutely right. Doing voluntary work could mean working in a charity shop, which gives people confidence and allows them to network with other people. The hours are often flexible enough to allow people to go to job interviews and do what they really want to do. We have to encourage that. We cannot have rules that say that people cannot do more than 16 hours a week.
Work Choice, which is the other programme, is doing good work in Hertfordshire, and in Watford in particular, via the Shaw Trust, a charitable organisation that helps disabled people into work. Progress is being made. I would encourage the Government and charitable organisations to get involved in that work, because they can do it a lot better than private enterprise. If we had a race course or a tyre factory where people could work, things might be different, but we do not. We have to make do with Camelot—it is not involved in gambling, because people are playing a game—which employs 700 people. Camelot is a serious organisation; the reason I mention it is that it works in the community on helping people to get jobs. Some private companies are so fattened by the fees that they have received for training courses that I am reminded of that old advert—I think it was for Bran Flakes—in which people on a boat sang, “They’re tasty, tasty, very, very tasty. They’re very tasty.” This has to stop, so the more that we can deal with charitable organisations, the better.
I wish everyone a happy Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that hon. Members sympathise, as I do, with the Deputy Leader of the House, because how he will deal with all these different subjects between now and Christmas and the new year I do not know.
I realise that many colleagues’ minds will not be on the business of the House, but on their Christmas lunch. If they are still in search of provisions, may I suggest that they head to Norfolk, where they can find their entire lunch? If they should be stuck in Norfolk, because of the inclement weather—
Indeed. If hon. Members are stuck in Norfolk, may I suggest that they will be catered for? Not only will they be able to purchase their turkey, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and a mountain of vegetables; we also have the world’s biggest sugar factory, so dessert is catered for. A by-product of the sugar factory is the heat that it generates, and tomatoes are produced in the greenhouses there. There is cheese—the Binham Blue and the Wells Alpine—for the cheeseboard, and, for those after-dinner drinks, we also have the only English whisky distillery.
Norfolk is indeed a county of bounty, with 80% of the land used for food and farming. It often strikes me that if Martians were to come to Earth and watch prime-time TV programmes such as “Come Dine with Me” and “River Cottage”, they would think that we were all obsessed with food. They would imagine that we spent all day thinking about where our food came from and how it was produced. They would also believe Norfolk to be a dominant part of the British economy, with its strong food and farming industry. There have been excellent developments at local level. An example is the development of the Norfolk food hub, which I am assured will have goats grazing on the grass roof of its exciting new building, but there has not been a growth of food exports in relation to food imports. In fact, over the past 10 years, we have imported nearly twice as much food, relative to exports, as we used to do.
It is shocking, particularly given that farming and food production is now Britain’s biggest manufacturing industry. The farming and food industry is often seen as a cost centre, rather than an income generator. In fact, at heart, it is a commercial enterprise. We can see that if we go to the Swaffham poultry auction, or the Swaffham market. I believe that agriculture and food need the same access as other industries to talented people and to capital, because that would help to generate more income from the food and farming industry.
One of the huge issues for food and farming is the high demand for skills and new input into the industry. Running an average farm now requires only an eighth of the number of people needed 40 years ago, owing to mechanisation and improved technology, but those people need to be highly skilled. They need to be technically trained, and they need to understand business. There are opportunities in agriculture for highly skilled engineers, technicians and graduates from other disciplines. For example, David Lawrence, who runs the very successful agricultural academy, Easton college, spent 18 months searching for an agricultural engineer. This is a problem for farmers and for the food industry across my constituency, and it is very important to get graduates and skilled engineers into the industry. It is a great industry, and we need to encourage talented, qualified people to come to Norfolk to work in it.
Unlike America, England does not have vast prairies that yield economies of scale. We do, however, have great access to European markets, high quality products and immense marketing capability, and we need to use them more. Let us look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s progress in expanding exports. I fully support its efforts to make greater use of our commercial capabilities and our embassies and high commissions abroad. Food and farming should be one of the leading industries that the FCO promotes. Heygate’s flour mill in Downham Market has had great success in promoting flour products in the middle east, for example, and there is no reason why such successes cannot be replicated across other industries.
We can deliver for Britain. Agriculture has a great future as an export industry because of the sheer quality of our produce, but it also has an immense emotional connection to Britain. Internationally, people value British food. I was at an airport recently, and I saw Marmite on sale, ready for people to take out of the country. That is the kind of export leader that we need to think about.
I was shocked to read that we now import 67% of our apples. In the 1960s and 1970s, great orchards were uprooted so that we could have the Pink Lady apple in this country. Anyone who remembers our native breeds knows that an English apple tastes better, and I would particularly recommend Norfolk apples. It would be of huge benefit to the Treasury to see more native apples exported, as well as being eaten here, and it would be great to see the fens repopulated by the fabulous orchards that used to dominate the region. May I also say that good practice starts at home?
Let me take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish you and all Members of the House, as well as its staff and their families, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
In April 2008, the previous Government introduced the local housing allowance as a new way of calculating housing benefit for tenants in the private sector. The allowance is paid directly to the tenant, who should pass it on to the landlord as rent. The housing allowance and direct payments to tenants allow prospective tenants to “shop around” with their allowances, but following the introduction of local housing allowances more than 41% of private landlords—an increase of 4%—are not letting to tenants who receive such allowances, mainly because of the lack of a guarantee that rents will be received. The greatest difficulty facing many landlords with local housing allowance tenants is their inability to obtain rents. Currently, when tenants are in arrears, landlords must wait for a minimum of eight weeks before they can request direct payments.
I recently attended a meeting of the Calderdale landlords association in Calder Valley. The picture that was painted was of a sector in meltdown. No fewer than 350 properties belonging to the members of the association who were present at the meeting are in danger of being withdrawn from those receiving local housing allowances, entirely owing to the lack of guarantees.
In far too many cases throughout England, tenants move in, pay the first month’s rent, and then do not pay for two months. Leaving arrears, they then move across the border to neighbouring local authority areas and repeat the process. Then, of course, they move on again. Many pay only three months’ rent in 12 months. The cost to landlords is getting out of hand, and the practice is keeping rental charges far too high. Honest, decent people who pay their rent on time are subsidising many people who do not. A landlord who contacted me recently said that in a portfolio of 15 houses, seven tenants were more than two months in arrears, and five of them had moved on owing well over £1,000 each in rent. The cost to landlords of pursuing back rents is also expensive, and landlords incurring that additional expense often have no chance of receiving any money at all. As a result, many landlords do not pursue back rents, as by doing so they would only add to their losses.
At a time when supply should be increasing to meet increasing demand and take advantage of higher rents, stock levels in the sector fell by 2.7% between the first and second quarters of the year. As a consequence, not only is supply much tighter, but rents increased at a rate of 2.3% over the same period because supply is so much lower than demand.
Other issues in the sector are causing a decline in stock levels. The taxation system provides little incentive for investment in accommodation; we should allow the private rented sector to be treated in the same way as businesses. The system is also failing to identify vulnerable people who, even under the current arrangement, should be eligible for direct payment of their local housing allowance to their landlords. Many tenants are failing to manage their finances properly, falling into rent arrears and having their tenancies terminated. The safeguarding processes that exist are failing. Many landlords are reporting that rents have not been paid this month, as some tenants are choosing to spend their housing allowance on Christmas rather than paying their rents.
The solution to the crisis that is starting to develop is quite simple. The Residential Landlords Association, Shelter and Crisis all agree on two specific points. First, their tenants—who consist overwhelmingly of claimants of local housing allowance—say that they would prefer the allowance to be paid directly to their landlords. That would help people to manage their finances, and would reduce the temptation to use the allowance to pay other debts rather than paying rent. It would also provide tenants with security so they could be sure that the rent had been paid and there was no chance of losing their home.
The hon. Gentleman’s heart-rending appeal on behalf of landlords is very interesting. Will he join me in extending similar concern to the 67,000 families in the midlands facing an increase of an average of £9 a week as the consequence of £1.8 billion being taken out of housing benefit by his Government—families who can ill afford to pay £9 a week extra?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure he will agree that it was the previous Government who brought in the housing allowance, which is hindering the progress of the private rented sector and stopping investment in it, as I mentioned.
The rule by which the local housing allowance can be paid directly to landlords only when claimants become eight weeks in arrears should be replaced when a sum of one month’s rent falls into arrears for 14 days. That would prevent tenants in difficulties from getting further into debt. Allowances should also be paid calendar-monthly in advance, in line with normal rental payment practices.
For a system that was set up to give people their own choices, its failure is producing a system where rents are on the rise because of the shortage of housing in the sector and because of those who do not pay their rent and buck the system. That is without question increasing rents in the sector. That is not fair, it is not sustainable and it needs to change.
I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on bringing some festive cheer to this Adjournment debate with your red socks with green flashes. I am not sure whether those are holly leaves. [Interruption.] I can see things which other Members in the Chamber may not be able to see.
Unfortunately, the topic that I wish to raise today is a little more serious. In his statement of 14 December, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), announced plans for a more modern justice system that has
“more efficient courts, better facilities, and the faster conclusion of cases for the benefit of victims, witnesses, defendants, judges and the public at large.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 816.]
I support the broad intention of those proposals, and I believe the Surrey courts service has supported this approach for some time. Since 1990, the year in which Woking court opened as the county’s new, purpose-built building, seven courthouses have been closed in total and just four magistrates courts now operate—in Guildford, Redhill, Staines and Woking.
Woking is still the best equipped court in Surrey with excellent disabled facilities, including wheelchair access and hearing loops in each court, and terrific youth and child witness provision. Woking is also the most efficient court in terms of the number of cases seen per hour relative to utilisation rates. The case throughput rate has risen from 5.43 per hour in 2008 to no less than 7.65 in 2010.
The Minister wrote to me on the day of his statement to tell me that Woking court was to close and that its workload would be transferred to Guildford and Staines. In his letter he said:
“By closing courts with low workloads, or facilities which do not meet the modern standards society expects, we have been able to release £22 million to improve and modernise the courts to which work will transfer.”
Presumably he is including potential Woking court receipts within this figure, despite it having neither a low workload nor poor facilities. However, he is closing Surrey’s most modern and best equipped court and he will find it almost impossible to raise the remaining three courts in Surrey to an equivalent standard. For example, the other courts have severe limitations with regard to which courtrooms prisoners can be produced in, whereas Woking can have prisoners produced in all three courtrooms.
The Government’s consultation response pointed out that the public areas of Staines and Guildford courts are accessible to disabled people. That is a wonderful thing for disabled visitors, but not so much use to a disabled person who wishes to access the actual courtrooms independently and safely.
While we are on the subject of the Government’s response, I am told that six financial advisers have been left off Her Majesty’s Courts Service list of staff affected by the closure. I hope the Minister will be able to correct this. There are also significant maintenance backlogs at Guildford and Staines, and I would be grateful if the Minister provided more details on them, as I believe the figures have recently changed.
If Woking court is so wonderful, why is it being closed? The reason seems to be that the Ministry of Justice has been unable to identify one of the older, less efficient courts—which would have been more in keeping with the terms of the consultation and the overall strategy—because the other magistrates courts in Surrey are co-located with county courts. Yet after seven closures in 20 years, I do not believe the county can afford to lose another court.
In 2008, Surrey had a population of just over 1.1 million people, which amounts to just over 278,000 people per court. Only one area had a higher figure—south Yorkshire—which has more than 316,000 people per courthouse, and it is not suffering a closure. If Woking court closes, Surrey’s figure will be comfortably the highest in the country, at over 371,000 per courthouse.
My constituency has also faced a court closure, at Thetford. Does my hon. Friend agree it is important not just that justice is done, but that justice is seen to be done locally? We need to make sure that our justice system does not become over-centralised, and that people locally need to be involved.
I could not agree more, and I think the Government’s proposals tread a fine line in respect of the issues my hon. Friend mentions.
Not only would Surrey have 371,000 people per courthouse, but Surrey’s population is increasing, by almost 20% over the next 23 years according to Surrey county council. I will also send figures to the Minister showing that Surrey already has one of the highest numbers of crimes per courthouse of any police authority outside London.
My constituency also faces the problem of a courthouse closing, in Honiton. Does my hon. Friend agree that a lot of defendants might not get to court if they have to travel a great distance? If they do not get to court, the police will have to arrest them later, so there could be much more bureaucracy and problems as a result of shutting a local courthouse.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable and pertinent point. Woking also has a significant Muslim population, and it has built up good links with Woking courthouse, so the problem my hon. Friend mentions could be exacerbated in this instance.
If Woking court closes, the target utilisation rate for Staines and Guildford, where the work is due to transfer, will be 93%. That is very high, especially considering the need for significant remedial work and modernisation at those courthouses. Where will the cases go if the courts have to close to be repaired or updated? Where is the margin for error for the population growth I mentioned, or for the unexpected?
Finally, what possible grounds are there for stating that the court’s relationship with Woking’s Muslim community and with our Shah Jahan mosque
“will be maintained should the closure be ordered”?
The relationship between the mosque and the local court has been built slowly and sensitively over many years, involving specific officials from the court, who will no longer serve the current local justice area, and chairmen of a bench, which will cease to exist. The mosque will lose its link to the court because that link will be fractured, and its relationship with new and unfamiliar personnel, in an area outside its community, can neither be anticipated nor relied upon.
I urge the Minister to review all these points—I will elaborate on them when I write to him shortly—and to reflect on his decision. Several Members have intervened on me, and I sympathise with many colleagues who have also suffered closures, but I say to them that we have a court that is purpose built, has high utilisation rates, has a terrific bench, dedicated staff, fantastic disabled access and all the facilities I have mentioned, and it would be a tragedy for the county of Surrey to lose it.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Describing a women’s refuge as a “success” is a regrettable use of the word, because in a supposedly civilised society there should be no need for a place of refuge for women and, frequently, also their children, to escape the violence, intimidation or non-physical psychological behaviour of a bullying husband, partner or father. But what has been achieved in my constituency at the Colchester and Tendring women’s refuge, and I am sure at many similar refuges around the country, can be described only as a success. I am sure that lives have been saved; certainly, battered lives have been spared further abuse and cruelty.
In the past year, the refuge has provided a safe haven for 120 women and 194 children. Across Essex, refuges have accommodated 664 women and 701 children—that is an increase of 15% over the previous year. The refuge in my constituency relies on a combination of professionals and volunteers. It represents exactly the concept that I believe the Prime Minister had in mind when he talked about “the big society”. The Colchester refuge could not operate without volunteers. In addition to the trustees, who are responsible for the organisation’s governance and financial health, there are a further 23 volunteers.
Sadly, although the operating costs of the refuge are less than half what it would cost the public purse if the children were put in care—and, thus, removed from their mother, whose whereabouts could also result in a cost to public funds—there is a real threat to its future provision and financial viability because of serious cuts to funding from the Supporting People budget. In Essex, the cut is feared to be in the region of 25% to 30%. We must examine the financial savings—these are in addition to the huge emotional good work, for which no monetary value can be given, of keeping mothers and their children united—from what refuges provide. There would otherwise be a legal statutory requirement on the relevant local authority to fund this money from the public purse.
There is arguably no worse time—or perhaps, given the awfulness of the subject, no better time—than the last parliamentary day before Christmas for me to raise one of the taboo subjects which diminish the claim that we are a civilised country: domestic violence and other abuse suffered by many women. This Saturday, about 30 children, 20 of whom are under child protection orders, will have their Christmas dinner in the Colchester refuge. If places had not been available, they would probably have had to be separated from their mothers and taken into foster care.
The directorate of children’s social care at Essex county council estimates that the cost of fostering a child for a week is £500—that excludes administration, monitoring and other associated costs. The highly respected Fostering Network puts the cost considerably higher. By contrast, the cost to Supporting People of keeping a woman with three children in Colchester and Tendring women’s refuge is £216 a week. Adding to that the housing benefit received, the cost of keeping a family together in a refuge remains less than half the basic cost of £1,000 to keep just two children in foster care.
I am certain that the pioneers who, in December 33 years ago, opened the first women’s refuge in Colchester would not have wanted things to be so desperate that such a facility was needed. Regrettably, such is the scale of the problem that in the second decade of the third millennium this accommodation in Colchester has grown from one property, a former neighbourhood shop, to two large houses. One is a big Victorian dwelling converted to provide individual spaces for women and their children, as necessary; the second is a purpose-built modern building that should be viewed as the benchmark for such provision. I recall attending the official opening of the older dwelling.
There is also a third building, which is a daytime centre providing non-residential advice and support for women living in disturbing relationships. Although the buildings are located in my constituency, the Colchester and Tendring women’s refuge covers two local authority areas—those of Colchester borough council and Tendring district council. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) covers parts of both those local authorities.
I commend my hon. Friend for raising this matter on the Adjournment of the House. Does he agree that the concern is that Essex county council’s decision to withdraw funds will result in increased costs for the council? I assure him that the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, is examining this problem in general and is considering how the voluntary sector is affected by reductions in public spending of this nature.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who has visited the refuge and is working with colleagues at Essex country council to try to resolve the financial problems to which I refer. We might disagree on some things, but I am confident that we have shared objectives on this occasion. I also understand that the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), whose constituency is exclusively in Tendring district, will visit the refuge in the new year.
With a background as a journalist who reported on court cases, and with long service in local government where I came across much of life, I thought that I was streetwise, but in my time as a Member I have been shocked by how some male members of the species can be such “bar stewards”. I am sure that it has been the constituency experience of colleagues throughout the House.
It was because of my growing concerns about domestic violence that I was able, when I served on the Home Affairs Committee, to encourage colleagues to hold an inquiry into the subject. We heard harrowing stories as we gathered evidence. In the course of the inquiry, I accompanied the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), on a visit to the Colchester women’s refuge to meet members of staff and some of the residents. The Committee’s report on domestic violence, forced marriage and “honour” based violence was published on 13 June 2008.
Domestic violence is a subject that people do not normally want to talk about, but here in Parliament it is important that we do. An analysis of 10 separate domestic violence studies came up with consistent findings: one in four women experiences domestic violence at some point of their lives, with between 6% and 10% suffering in any given year. The British crime survey, looking at England and Wales for 2003, found an estimated 12.9 million incidents of domestic violence against women and 2.5 million against men. Although only a minority of incidents of domestic violence are reported to the police, on average the police still receive one call about domestic violence every minute—1,300 calls a day, more than 570,000 each year.
In that context, the need for women’s refuges is such that it would be wrong for there to be cuts that imperilled their future. We have to accept, as a sad reflection on society, that a small minority of men behave in an appalling way. The Colchester and Tendring women’s refuge provides a safe haven. A combination of professional staff and volunteers do a fantastic job, but I am concerned that the unintended consequences of Government policies—implemented by Essex county council, cutting the Supporting People funding for refuges—could seriously affect what is done. I urge the Government to ensure that women’s refuges are allowed to continue the excellent work that they undertake.
Moving from one serious subject to another, I note that this Christmas approximately 3,000 of my constituents will not enjoy the festivities with their family. I refer to the soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, based at the Colchester garrison, who are deployed to Afghanistan and predominantly Helmand province. Most are at Camp Bastion, but others have been deployed throughout the province, including those soldiers at the forward operational bases, the FOBs. To them and their families back in the UK, I am sure the whole House will wish to send Christmas greetings and its hopes for a peaceful return in the new year.
Finally, to my constituents, royalists and republicans alike, let us look forward not only to Christmas but to the royal wedding. If the republicans do not want to celebrate, I hope that they will still enjoy the day off.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your Christmas generosity in allowing us an extra minute to speak. I wish you, all Members and those who look after us so well in the House a very happy Christmas.
Members have spoken about court closures, racing stables and winter tyres. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) talked about the wonderful food in Norfolk, and I could not let this opportunity pass without saying not only that is Norfolk food good, but that Devon food is excellent. With one’s Christmas pudding, one must have some Devonshire cream and make sure that one has some grass-fed Devonshire lamb and beef to go alongside it—perhaps a bit of turkey too.
I rise to speak about heating oil, another matter very important to rural constituencies. My constituency is 40 miles long; it starts on Exmoor and ends up in the sea at Seaton. There is a huge rural area within those boundaries, and many of the villages and hamlets there have no mains gas supply. Their only alternative to electricity for heating is oil. That is why the postcode lottery on what people pay for heating oil must stop.
During business questions last week, I made the point that during November and early December, crude oil prices went up by 17% and that the price of heating oil went up by 70%. There is no justification for that. Within rural areas, there are many old properties—some are farm houses, some are small cottages—and they are difficult to insulate with modern insulation and expensive to heat. People need more fuel to heat them, and if we lump on to that the huge increase in price, a lot of the heating allowances for poorer people just do not go very far at all.
About 2 million properties rely on heating oil; they are mostly in rural areas and 828,000 of them are in England. Recently, as I said, there has been a spike in oil prices that could add as much as £540 a year to the average family’s heating bill. The price of heating oil tends to rise gradually in the winter months, when demand is at its highest. A home owner might use anything between 2,500 to 4,000 litres of oil. Price rises during winter are unavoidable, but the price rises that we have seen cannot be justified simply by supply and demand.
Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituents who have contacted me in the past couple of days to express the real suspicion that the supply of oil is being held back to inflate prices artificially, with the companies knowing full well that the average UK home that uses oil can store only up to 60 days’ worth? In effect, those homes have to buy oil when winter is at its worst.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Furthermore, some oil companies unscrupulously deliver oil at a very high price and hold back on deliveries under contracts that are sold at a lower price. The issue really needs to be sorted out.
That brings me neatly to my next point. Crude oil accounts for 48% of the cost of heating oil. The largest next component, accounting for 45%, includes the cost of distribution and marketing. The refining process accounts for only 7%.
The average price of a litre of heating oil in Northern Ireland, which has had some of the worst of the recent weather, is 48p per litre, or 52p in Belfast—and given that weather, the cost of delivery and getting the tankers to the houses would be among the greatest. The average price in the south of England at the moment is 80p per litre, while in the middle of England it is 68p, in Wales it is 67p and in Scotland it is 64p per litre. What justification is there for someone in the south of England having to pay nearly twice as much as people in Northern Ireland? During the same period, the price of petrol at the pumps has gone up by only 10p per litre.
I say clearly to the Business Secretary that it is time that we did something about the situation. At the moment, he is considering establishing the position of an ombudsman to consider food prices and whether supermarkets’ buying power is too great. I urge him to get on with that as quickly as he can. I do not know whether he wants to go down this route, but I suggest that having an adjudicator or ombudsman for heating oil might provide some sort of solution to the problem that I have outlined. I am not thinking of a huge bureaucracy but of somebody people could contact to ask why their heating oil is so expensive in their parts of the country. Those companies would have to justify what they are actually charging. At the moment, there is misery being made out of cold weather and some people have no source of heating other than oil fires, Agas and boilers.
As I said, many houses are difficult to heat and insulate, and people are having to pay an extra price before Christmas. The Government cannot just stand by on this matter. All hon. Members probably believe in some form of market forces, but in this case those forces are being used to drive up the cost of fuel unjustifiably. As I have said, weather conditions alone cannot justify what is happening because Northern Ireland has had some of the worst weather in this period, yet it has some of the cheapest fuel. We must ensure that constituents who use oil to heat their houses, wherever they live, pay a fair price for that fuel and are not held to ransom by either the oil companies or those who deliver the oil to houses.
I put on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for how it has handled today’s Adjournment debate in providing so many hon. Members with an opportunity to speak.
My remarks will focus on equality and diversity. We have had a diverse debate this afternoon, but I am confident that the Deputy Leader of the House will be more than equal to the challenge of pulling the issues together in his closing remarks. I fundamentally agree with much of what colleagues have said, but I must challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and say that every good Christmas pudding around the country will, of course, have Cornish clotted cream served with it.
Equality means something different to different people. Whether we are talking about equality of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, there is no such thing as being almost equal. There can be no grey areas. If hon. Members will forgive the pun, equality is a black and white issue; someone is either equal or they are not. There is no doubt that the Government need to do more work across all the subjects I mentioned. However, I would like to focus some thoughts on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
As many hon. Members will know—indeed, it is something I put on the record during my maiden speech—I am proud to be an openly gay Member of Parliament. I firmly believe that hon. Members from all parties have a responsibility to champion equality both in the countries of the United Kingdom and abroad. Although the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of LGBT equality, the record of other countries around the world is not quite so rosy. In Gambia, sexual relations between men still carries a sentence of 14-years’ imprisonment. The sentence is 21 years in Kenya and 25 years in Ghana. In Tanzania, Barbados, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, the sentence can be life in prison, and in Nigeria and Pakistan—among other countries—sexual relations between gay men can lead to state-sanctioned execution.
The United Kingdom needs to do more to stand up for equality around the world. Last week, I tabled an early-day motion expressing concern at a United Nations decision to remove a reference to sexual orientation from a resolution condemning arbitrary executions. Will the Deputy Leader of the House work with his colleagues to strengthen the Government’s commitment to using our influence to push other countries towards true equality, particularly in relation to revisiting that UN resolution?
More work also still needs to be done on the issue in Britain. Research from the Library shows that suicide rates within the LGBT community are shocking. It is estimated that around 9% of the population have at some point considered taking their own lives. In the LGBT community, that figure is more than 50%. Indeed, while only 2.5%—a figure that is, none the less, tragic—of the population attempt suicide, 29% of people in the LGBT community try to take their own lives.
It is clear from those statistics that more work needs to be done to reach out to people across this country and explain to them that it is okay to be who they are. That is why I was pleased that one of the first actions of the Minister for Equalities was to launch the new equalities strategy for Government. Part of this strategy is the first ever cross-government programme to support LGBT people, and that is very welcome. Indeed, the Government have recognised that there are specific issues that transgender people face, and I welcome the moves to develop the first Government action plan on transgender equality next year.
In many ways, these steps build on the visible and vocal support that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have given to the LGBT community, not least in the run-up to Pride London this year, when they hosted an event in Downing street. I was very pleased yesterday to attend the launch of a new parliamentary support network for LGBT people here in the Palace of Westminster—ParliOut. That is an important first step for this House and everybody who works here in ensuring that we are able to provide support to Members, researchers and everybody else who comes and goes from this place. Of all places, people should feel able to be themselves here.
However, there is still further to go. As many Members know, I am a keen supporter and proponent of equal marriage for same-sex couples. As Mr Speaker said yesterday evening at the launch of ParliOut, it was a groundbreaking moment when Parliament itself was granted a licence to hold civil partnerships and when the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his partner were the first to benefit from that. However, it would have been much more groundbreaking for this House to enable full equal marriage for same-sex couples across the country—not necessarily a religious tie, unless that is what individuals and their faith groups choose, but crucially the same status and legal position as that of heterosexual married couples. I am delighted that Stonewall now supports this aim, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to mention the steps that the Government are taking to investigate it as an option and perhaps to introduce legislation before the end of this Parliament.
This week, Mr Deputy Speaker, saw your brave decision to reveal your own sexuality. I believe that that sends a hugely welcome and clear signal that this place has changed and that attitudes across the country are changing too. I would like to extend to you my best wishes and, I am sure, the best wishes of the whole House on that decision.
I am sure that in the season of good will the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge the extraordinary, groundbreaking contribution of the Labour Government on this issue. He mentioned the problems of those in the transgender group. Can he focus a little on the particular problems of women who do not want to get divorced even after the change of their gender, and the problems that they have over pensions? We should have addressed that and still have to do so. Does he have any thoughts on that?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It would be remiss of me not to remark on the huge progress that was made under the previous Government. She identifies an area where there is still work to be done and where we need to go further and faster. The call that I am making to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the Government is that we finish this job and deliver true equality to all citizens in the United Kingdom as quickly as we can.
There is no doubt that attitudes have changed in the country, and in many ways this place is now playing catch-up to those attitudes. For everybody who is out there still struggling to come to terms with their identity, we need to be absolutely clear that there are no second-class citizens in the United Kingdom and that as a country we are stronger because we are not all the same. I hope that over the coming years this Parliament will work to send out a clear signal that all of us are equal and all of us are entitled to live our lives free from fear and with the same opportunities and protections as each other.
As the last Back Bencher to speak today, Mr Deputy Speaker, I think that that leaves me only to wish everybody a very merry Christmas and probably to turn off the light switch as I leave.
But not before I have had a chance to try to respond to the debate.
The pre-recess Adjournment debate is one of the great parliamentary institutions, and I am very pleased that the Backbench Business Committee has decided to keep it going, albeit with a twist—a new format. I thank my ministerial colleagues for their contributions, especially those who are Ministers on the Treasury Bench but do not usually have the opportunity to speak from the Dispatch Box—the Assistant Whips. Members will have the opportunity to give feedback to the Backbench Business Committee and the Government on how the format has worked and on changes that they would like to see. I also thank the departmental clerks, who provide us with the information that we need to respond to hon. Members, and particularly those in the office of the Leader of the House and myself. We cannot answer everything, so some hon. Members will receive letters from Departments to deal with the details that they have raised.
I will start with the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). Oddly, the first and last speeches of this debate mirrored each other, because they spoke of human rights, gender equality and the equality prospectus. They underlined that equality is an important facet of domestic and foreign policy. The hon. Lady mentioned the Ashtiani case, and she knows that the Government have made vigorous representations to the Iranian Government on that matter. She also gave sobering statistics on gender balance in some developing countries, to which everyone should pay attention, as they suggest that there is more than just discrimination against female children in those areas. We must keep banging on at such issues. This country has a good history of developing human rights and the awareness of them, but we can never be complacent, either in our country or abroad.
That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). It is apposite that he should raise the issue today, because I gather that it is the fifth anniversary of civil partnerships in England and Wales. This is a timely reminder of the importance of the equality agenda. Like him, I pay tribute to Mr Speaker, to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to all who were involved in the setting up of ParliOut. I hope that last night’s launch was the first of many successes that the group will enjoy. We need to put this issue at the heart of the coalition Government’s agenda. If we do not stand for equality, we do not stand for the basic human principles of decency. It is important that we do all that we can to make those principles a reality in this country. I cannot give my hon. Friend an answer on civil partnerships, other than to say that the matter is being discussed actively by Home Office Ministers, as I think he knows. We hope to come to a conclusion soon.
I will deal with a couple of points that hon. Members raised about business. The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), like me, has a small business background. It is of value for this House to have people who have worked in business, because they have contact with a world that often seems distant from politics. He made points about access to finance, red tape and scale problems—some things that work in large businesses are more difficult to achieve when there are a limited number of people in the work force. Those were extremely valuable points.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) concentrated on infrastructure demands, and the need for railway and road connections to his part of the world. In fact, East Anglia has done rather well out of this debate. He mentioned the Beccles bypass and the Brandon bypass in a neighbouring constituency. I am pleased that he also mentioned the need for high-speed internet, because that will be crucial in many rural areas. We always think about infrastructure in its physical manifestations, but the internet will increasingly be the most important thing that businesses need to compete successfully.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) made a very good case for the development of the Hitachi works in Newton Aycliffe. He knows that I cannot give him an answer on the decision that the Government will take, but he also knows that the matter is being actively considered and that there will be an announcement early in the new year. As someone who needs great western rolling stock, I will take a great interest in whether it is built in his constituency or elsewhere. He rightly made a strong case for his constituents and mentioned Hitachi’s good record in cold weather, which ought to be at the top of people’s priorities at the moment. I am grateful to him and will ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport hears what he has to say.
The hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) talked about how we create jobs, how we get people back into employment and the role of the voluntary sector, and he made extremely important points. He was rather sad that he did not have a race course in his constituency, although he said that he had Camelot there. I have to say that I have the original Camelot in my constituency, but we will let that pass.
We then heard a string of seasonally related speeches, starting with the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) making a strong case for winter tyres. I think that we now agree about exactly what we mean by winter tyres, which perhaps was not quite the case in the earlier exchanges between the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and the Secretary of State, who I think was talking about studded tyres and snow chains rather than the tyres that she suggests.
The hon. Lady clearly made a sensible point, and we know that the Secretary of State has started an assessment of whether we are likely to see these very bad weather conditions regularly, and what changes to legislation or practice are needed to adapt to them. He will clearly have to take her point into account. Of course there are other matters on which we can engage people in good practice, such as tyre tread depth and pressure, but she made a very good point, from her own experience and in the wider interests of her constituency, about what many people will see as a sensible option.
To continue the seasonal theme, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) made what I can only describe as a “bootiful” speech. She mentioned turkeys, which we associate with Norfolk, but I had not previously associated goats on the roof with Norfolk. She also mentioned the very good eating qualities of Norfolk apples, but I have to say that where the best ones come from depends on whether one thinks apples should be eaten or drunk.
The hon. Lady’s key point was that we do not say enough about the very good-quality produce that we produce in this country. We have superb brand names in our ancient counties. For instance, Norfolk has real associations with certain foods, as does Somerset. I am even prepared, despite the cream wars earlier, to accept that Devon and Cornwall have associations with good foods. I sometimes think that we do not make enough of those associations in marketing what we produce.
Still on the seasonal theme, I associate Boxing day with going to Wincanton races, and we heard two important contributions about the racing industry. I have heard of Newmarket, but Wincanton is obviously a very important race course, and some of the best trainers come from my constituency. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) mentioned Kauto Star, who was trained in my constituency. I had my picture taken with him a year or so ago, and he bit me, but he is a very good horse. I know that the hon. Gentleman unfortunately could not stay for the end of the debate, but he said that he was a jockey himself and that there was little demand for ageing politicians as jockeys. I seem to remember that my late friend Sir Clement Freud acted as a jockey very late in his political life, so all hope is not extinguished.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the future of racing, the effect of the levy and the diminishing value of the levy board contribution. We have got to get it right because racing is an important industry—it is not just the race courses, the trainers or the betting industry, but all those things put together, and all the downstream industries that connect with racing. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) has met the levy board and the racing and betting industries to discuss how we can get the levy reformed or possibly replaced. I hope that the Government will shortly make the right decisions for the industry.
Let us move away from seasonal issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) initially raised the driver training centre at Trowbridge and said that he had campaigned on it. He may remember that, in the days when I could campaign about things in the House, I, too, campaigned for the retention of that centre, which served my constituency in Frome. I know that he knows that Ministers are considering the matter seriously, and I will pass on his comments. I can do no more than that from the Dispatch Box.
I will also pass on my hon. Friend’s determination for the railway service in Wiltshire to be improved, particularly that in Melksham, which is so appallingly served by the current franchise. The key will be the local authorities and the attitude of Wiltshire unitary authority in deciding whether they want to take that forward. I know that the Department will be keen to work with Wiltshire if it feels that that is the right way to ensure that the necessary rolling stock is available to operate a new service for the area.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised a difficult subject, which we ought to discuss more often. He did not like the word “contact”, so perhaps “parent time” is better, whereby parents who are separated can share quality time with their children. I think that he has rightly drawn attention to the deficiencies in some parts of the family law system. He knows that the Government are conducting a family justice review to consider the family justice system as a whole, and to ascertain particularly how we can support better arrangements. As he says, that time is sometimes the subject of contact orders, which are sparingly enforced. That is one of the difficulties. I suspect that the answer may well lie in more mediation and—if he does not mind my using a cant term—a holistic approach to the relationships between children and their parents, ensuring that matters are examined in the round in the legal system.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) discussed paying housing benefit directly to landlords. I am sure that he knows that we are widening local authority discretion to pay housing benefit directly to the landlords, if it will help customers secure a new tenancy or remain in their current home at a reduced rate. We are working closely with local authorities to ensure that the provisions are used in specific circumstances, when landlords reduce rents to an affordable level for customers. I am afraid that the Government do not intend to revert to the position whereby landlords demand direct payments as a condition of the tenancy because that was open to abuse, and we do not want to return to such a situation. Clearly, that will be examined with increasing closeness in the next little while to ensure that we have an effective system.
The hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) talked about the closure of the magistrates court in Woking. If I say that I have enormous fellow feeling for the hon. Gentleman, I hope that that will not be misinterpreted, but having seen the closure of Frome magistrates court and Trowbridge county court, which served my town of Frome and the surrounding area, I know exactly how he feels. He asked me for information about the rationale. I can tell him only what I have been supplied from the Ministry of Justice. Woking magistrates court is to close because utilisation of the courts in Surrey was only 72% and, taking a whole-area approach, Woking was the most sensible option for closure because, although it has good facilities and relatively high utilisation, if that work is absorbed by the remaining courts in Surrey—specifically, if work from Woking were transferred to Staines and Guildford magistrates court—the utilisation rate for magistrates courts in Surrey will increase from 72% to 89%. The Ministry of Justice also makes the point that all other magistrates courts in Surrey are co-located with a county court, which allows significant economies of scale, and centralisation of resources and types of work. He will want to ask the MOJ about those figures and argue his case further, which is of course his right, but that information might be helpful to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) raised the effect of domestic violence and the hugely important work of women’s refuges such as the Colchester and Tendring women’s refuge. In the House and elsewhere, people sometimes duck away from that, but it is important that we do not do so. I believe that he said that that refuge houses 120 women and 194 children, which is a significant contribution to welfare in his area. He was very much supported by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).
My hon. Friend spelt out very clearly the social and economic value of such facilities. He spoke of the real contribution that that women’s refuge and others make—his views are shared by MPs in neighbouring constituencies. I hope that by putting those views on the record, he gives pause for thought to Essex county council, and that it considers carefully where its priorities lie in setting its budget for this and future years.
I should not be remotely surprised that my hon. Friend raised the issue of the armed forces, but I should like to add my voice to his in sending our very best wishes and grateful thanks to the members of the armed forces who are serving in Afghanistan. I wish them a peaceful—so far as is possible—and safe Christmas. We all look forward to their safe return in the new year. I hope the whole House agrees with that.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), aside from his advert for Devonshire produce, raised an issue that affects all in rural areas—the cost of fuel oil. I declare an interest, because my house is heated by fuel oil. Luckily, I have a fairly full tank at the moment, so I am feeling smug, but many are not because the price increases are substantial. I listened very carefully to what the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said on that. Fuel oil and liquefied petroleum gas both fall outside the current regulatory arrangements, but he is clearly considering whether more needs to be done. The message is simple. If consumers feel that they are being unfairly treated, they should raise their concerns with the Office of Fair Trading. We asked the OFT to monitor the situation, and I hope that people use that opportunity so that it gets a clear picture of what is happening.
Last but not least, we heard the contribution of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess). A pre-Adjournment debate would not be complete without that—it is inimitable. In the space of just six minutes, he managed to mention the disability issues and sporting excellence of Joanna Cranfield; Mr West, who has problems with Equitable Life; his efforts on behalf of Steven Bristow, who has been in prison in Thailand for 27 years; Jackie Currie and the change in the status of prison visitors; Cherry Sholem and her child who has dyspraxia; and Ian Shirley, whose partner, Ida Hammond, has sadly passed away after suffering from dementia. He added Camp Ashraf to that and gave his best wishes to the ambassador to the Holy See on his retirement. His was a sterling performance, but I cannot answer all his points. I will ensure that those who need to hear them do so.
Lastly, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you and the staff of the House—particularly the Doorkeepers, and particularly Maxwell, who is retiring as a Doorkeeper after 17 years—very best wishes for Christmas and the new year. Yet again, it has been a delight to answer the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate, and I hope that I have answered at least some of the points that hon. Members have raised.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Before we move on to the next business and while some people are still here, on behalf of Mr Speaker, myself and the other Deputy Speakers, I wish all the staff of Parliament who keep it all going a merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy new year—from the cleaners to the cooks, from the Clerks to the contractors, and from MPs and their staff to Hansard and the journalists. More importantly, our thoughts and thanks go to the armed forces at this special time.
Business of the House
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at this day’s sitting, consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—(Robert Goodwill.)
Question agreed to.