We will now move on to debate issues that relate to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Two Members are listed to speak and when the Minister has replied to them, we will move on to the general debate. It might be helpful for hon. Members to know that those who wish to take part in the general debate should stay seated at present and once the Minister has spoken we will move on. I remind Members that we have a six-minute time limit and I remind the Minister of that, too, as Ministers are supposed to be as brief and succinct as we expect other Members to be.
I note that the other subject in this small section is that of Christians in Iran. I was just reminiscing with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) about how when we were born in Aden in Yemen we were Christians in an Arab country and how well we were treated by the people of South Yemen, as it then was.
It breaks my heart to come before the House yet again to talk about the crisis that is occurring in Yemen. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), on the Front Bench, because I want to pay tribute to him, to the Foreign Secretary and to the Government for the amount of face-time and focus that they have given to the situation in Yemen. I am very grateful for that, because the globe is very big and Yemen is a very small country. Ministers and the Government have spent an enormous amount of time in ensuring that this House, the rest of the country and, indeed, the world are focused on these issues.
As I speak, the crisis in Yemen is deepening. We have been told for a number of days that the President is about to sign an agreement, which has been brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council led by the Saudi Arabians, on his making a dignified exit so that a new Government consisting of members of the opposition, some of whom are not involved in politics—a kind of Government of national unity—can take power. Each time I meet Ministers in the Palace of Westminster they brief me on what is happening and tell me what they know, which is that the President is about to sign. We had thought that was the case just 24 hours ago, but then we heard that our ambassador John Wilks had been penned into the United Arab Emirates embassy in Sana’a as he and other dignitaries had been preparing to go to the presidential palace to witness the signature of the President, which did not happen. Now the crisis is getting deeper and deeper. We already have a political crisis that could well lead to civil war in Yemen, which we had before and which ended with the reunification of southern Yemen and northern Yemen to create the state that currently exists. We also have a humanitarian crisis: 40% of Yemenis live on less than £1.25 a day, there is 50% illiteracy and 7 million people do not have enough food to live and survive in Yemen every day. That is why this political crisis has become a military crisis and it is also a humanitarian crisis.
When the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee early last week, I asked him to do one thing: to see whether there is any way in which our country, which has an honourable record in such matters, could send an envoy to try to bring the sides together. What I have heard from my contacts in Yemen—I have visited Yemen almost every year since my family left in 1965 and certainly every year that I have been a Member of the House—is that Britain’s role is absolutely crucial. Whether it is through Britain working on its own, the UK working within the EU, or the United States of America working with EU partners and our country—whichever mechanism we have—we need to try to fill this vacuum, because if we do not there will be civil war in Yemen.
We are told that the death of Osama bin Laden has led to the appointment of a new person to run al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and we know that he, Anwar al-Awlaki, is in Yemen. There is a danger that unless we deal with this situation now, al-Qaeda will have an even greater hold on that country and will be part of the process by which it is driven into civil war.
Every time I have talked about Yemen, I have talked about a crisis and said that it is worsening. Every time that things get even worse, I think that they have reached a stage at which they will not get worse, but they do. My one plea to the Minister, therefore, is that he continues his efforts, for which I am very grateful, but looks carefully, as the Prime Minister promised to do when he answered my questions at the Liaison Committee last week, into appointing an envoy who can try to bring the sides together so that we can have peace in that very beautiful but very sad country.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I was particularly pleased to hear his comments about how well he was treated as a Christian growing up in an Arab country, which provide a sorry contrast with what I am about to say about Iran.
I am grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Elam Ministries for the briefing that they have given me in advance of today’s debate. I approach the subject with a degree of humility, conscious that this country has not always got right either the treatment of other faiths or the treatment of other Christian denominations, culminating in the Act of Toleration which we passed in 1689. We have made improvements since that time.
Yesterday in the House a famous footballer was named. In the course of my remarks I shall mention the names of eight Iranian Christians who are currently in prison for no reason other than their faith. Iran wants to persecute Christians in secret, but I believe the world should know and show its concern for what Iran is doing. Christianity has been present in Iran since the second century. We find crosses on coins from around 50 AD, and in the seventh century Iranian missionaries travelled to central Asia, India and China.
Christianity has been protected officially since the 1979 revolution. Article 23 of the Iranian constitution states: “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” Iran claims that there is religious freedom, but the reality is very different. In spite of that, the Church has grown and there are possibly hundreds of thousands of Iranian Christians today. What we see is a lack of tolerance, oppression and persecution. Open Doors puts Iran at No. 2 on its world watch list of the most severely persecuted countries in which Christians live; North Korea is No. 1.
Christian leaders must report to the Ministry of Information, which demands lists of members of churches. There are regular threats and intimidation. It is illegal to distribute Bibles. The Bible Society was closed down by the Government in 1990. The Iranian authorities have burned Bibles that they have confiscated. In May 2010 they burned hundreds of Bibles and New Testaments intercepted on the Iraqi border. In October last year more than 300 New Testaments were taken and burned by security forces on the Turkish border. Only three months ago, on 7 February 2011, 300 New Testaments were seized by authorities in Salmas, in West Azerbaijan, and publicly burned. Many of us in the House and around the world rightly condemned the attempts by the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, to burn the Koran, but I am not aware of any political leader in Iran—Islamic or otherwise—who has condemned the burning of Bibles. I hope Muslim leaders in the UK will condemn the practice.
Since the mid-1980s Christians have faced arbitrary arrest and imprisonment for their faith. Mehdi Dibaj was in prison for nine years between 1984 and 1993, mostly in solitary confinement, before being sentenced to death for his faith in 1994. Later that year, he was murdered after his release from prison. There has been escalating persecution and an increase in arrests in 2010 and 2011, with 282 known arrests of Christians in 34 cities since June last year.
In prison, Christians are subject to solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, interrogation—particularly about the location of Christian leaders—threats of execution and harm to their family, verbal and physical torture, and lack of medical treatment, and they are called on to renounce their faith. Prisoners are often required to hand over large sums of money and surrender the deeds to their houses to try to get out of prison.
Mostafa Shokrollahi and Khalil Yar-Ali were imprisoned on 15 January 2011. Noorollah Ghabitizadeh was imprisoned in Dezfool on Christmas eve, 2010. Farshid Fathi was arrested on Boxing day 2010. Even though his family raised $200,000 in bail, he is still in prison. Vahik Abrahamian was imprisoned in Hamadan on 4 September 2010. Masoud Delijani was arrested on 17 March this year. Abrahim Firouzi was imprisoned in Robat-Karim on 11 January this year, and his family cannot afford the $40,000 in bail demanded of them. Yousef Nadarkhani was imprisoned in Rasht on October 2009 and sentenced in November to death by hanging. He is currently awaiting trial before the Supreme Court. If the sentence is upheld, that will be the first execution for apostasy in 20 years, a very worrying development.
Such treatment seems to be officially sanctioned. Ayatollah Khamenei has talked disparagingly about the spread of the network of house churches. On 4 January this year, the Governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, announced the arrest of 39 evangelical Christians whom he described as “deviants”. Apostates can be referred to the revolutionary court.
I request the UK Government to be active in calling for the release of those in prison for their faith, to call for the investigation into how the Iranian Government use the death penalty for apostasy, to denounce the use of intimidation to curtail religious freedom, and to call on Iran to fulfil its constitutional provision for religious freedom and address its rhetoric and constitutional discrimination against religious minorities.
I thank my friends on both sides of the House, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for raising these two subjects, which are difficult and disappointing for us all. Both speeches were a measure of how much the House depends on the good briefings that Ministers get in this place from colleagues whose knowledge of a subject can be deep and long lasting and which comes with great passion and from the heart. We could not talk about Yemen without being briefed by the right hon. Gentleman, whose contributions we are all fortunate to have.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the difficulties of the current crisis in Yemen. I could have given nearly all of his speech from here, as his appreciation of the background to the current situation is entirely accurate. Yemen matters to the United Kingdom for a variety of reasons. It is a place of strategic importance, we have a history there and it faces a number of challenges with which this country, not alone but with others, has been engaged for some time. There are territorial disputes in the north and the south of the country and a chronic economic crisis that is being worsened by the political crisis currently besetting it. The security crisis very much relates to the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has a significant presence there, as the right hon. Gentleman said.
As a result of those various factors, the international community has supported Yemen in a variety of ways. The Friends of Yemen group was started towards the end of the previous Government’s period of office, and we have continued it. It is a group of international partners, including those in the Gulf, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as significant partners, that work together with the Government of Yemen to try to find a way through the various political, economic and security problems.
Much has hung on the individual character and personality of the President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in office for 32 years. As this year has gone on, it is clear that his legitimacy as President has been called into question. Protests from the people have mounted, opposition parties have expressed their concerns more volubly and the army has divided. Sadly, the protests, the aspirations for greater political freedom and the prospect of change to a more constitutionally based system of rule have been met with increasing violence and a number of deaths, the toll of which rises week by week.
The international community has reacted by working with those elements in the region to see whether there is any answer other than Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down from power after so long. We all conclude that it is not possible to see an end to the problem without his leaving. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, attempts have been made to find a way for the President to leave that will allow a peaceful transition as part of a constitutional process. It will not be simple and lots of work will be needed with the various parties in the transitional process to work towards an expression of democratic freedom and the election of a new President and a new Government.
Time after time, the President has come close to signifying his own support for such a system. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman was correct to say that the Gulf Co-operation Council and, in particular, its new general secretary, Dr al-Zayani, have been instrumental in putting together the most recent document, and significantly over the past few days every other possible signatory to such an agreement has signed it. The President’s own party, the Opposition parties and those who could play a part in the process have agreed to and signed the document. The last piece of the jigsaw was to have been put in place on Sunday, when the President was due to sign, but for the third time he came close to the wire and withdrew from it.
We have an opportunity, because the President of the United States is in the UK and meeting the Prime Minister. Indeed, I saw this morning that they had written a joint article for The Times. If there is a British-US initiative, perhaps there is a chance that on a conference call the President of Yemen will listen. Could we consider that?
May I give the idea some thought? I must reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the United States is clearly engaged in the situation, as are the rest of us, but the point is that the GCC and its general secretary came so close, and we should back them. The President of Yemen was almost there, and the signature was almost on the document. We believe that that is the best hope.
All the other parties seem to agree that the transitional process, which could be put in place by signing the document, allows for a 90-day transition period and offers guarantees to the family of Ali Abdullah Saleh, is the best hope for the future. It is also the President’s best hope and the best hope for the peace in the region. We are worried about reports that armed tribes are going into the capital, because that increases the risk of confrontation between the various bodies. The situation is absolutely immediate; it is ongoing as we speak.
The right hon. Gentleman was correct also to talk of the atrocious pressure put on ambassadors on Sunday, when the United Arab Emirates embassy was surrounded in a clear attempt to intimidate people and to prevent the President from signing.
So, we know where we are, and on the subject of the envoy the House should trust us. We are already heavily engaged, and our ambassadors to Yemen have repeatedly played a major role in working with others. For the time being, we will get behind the GCC and work with it to achieve a signing. We will continue to play a very important role, and I will continue to bring the House up to date as often as possible—and as needed. We all hope that sooner or later the saga will end, particularly for the good of the people of Yemen, who deserve to have the matter brought to a conclusion so that their country can enter a new chapter. If the President, by his own actions, leads a peaceful transition, he will have been of great service to his country at this time.
I turn briefly to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, who rightly raised the difficulties of Christians in Iran and will have spoken for a variety of other minorities. We remain very concerned about the treatment of Christians and several other minorities—religious, ethnic and linguistic—in Iran. The ongoing systematic persecution of minorities contravenes all Iran’s most basic obligations to international human rights standards, and it deprives thousands of the chance to practise their faith without hindrance or fear.
I commend to the House the publication by Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2011”, which is the latest edition, in which there is good information about the human rights records of many countries. In that aspect of the regime, as in so many others, Iran makes depressing reading. The report states:
“Authorities announced that security forces had arrested more than 6,000 individuals after”—
the disputed elections of—
“June 2009. Hundreds—including lawyers, rights defenders, journalists, civil society activists, and opposition leaders—remain in detention without charge.”
The list of executions is longer than any other country’s except China’s.
Christians, as my hon. Friend said, are a minority protected by law in Iran, and in bilateral meetings in Tehran and in London we repeatedly call on Iran to respect the rights of all who choose their own faith and method of worship. We have also worked with our EU partners and through the UN to highlight those issues for the wider international community and to put pressure on Iran to fulfil its obligations to the Iranian people. We are aware of unconfirmed reports of the burning of Bibles in Iran. The UK wholly condemns the desecration of any spiritual or religious artefacts or symbols of faith, including scriptures. Given that Iran heavily criticised Terry Jones, the American pastor who planned to burn the Koran last year, we call on the Iranian Government to end the hypocrisy and religious intolerance.
The demanding of large bails in Iran is sadly a common problem shared by all who feel the persecution of the system, which is designed to put on pressure. We are aware of those mentioned by my hon. Friend who were victims of the round-up and the crackdown on house churches after Christmas last year. That increased policy of detention continues to be a cause of great concern. Although we understand that the majority of those detained have been released, a number remain in custody, and we continue to believe that there were no legal or moral grounds for their initial detention—a point that we have made repeatedly to the Iranian authorities. Such intimidation on the grounds of faith and practice of worship should stop immediately. We call on Iran to allow all members of all faiths freely to participate in open worship.
We continue to work for the betterment of human rights through international institutions. The EU recently agreed to sanction Iranian individuals for human rights abuses, and the UN Human Rights Council voted at the end of March to install a special rapporteur to report on the human rights situation in Iran and to make thorough recommendations to the Iranian authorities, the Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council.
The comments by my hon. Friend and the case histories that he has dealt with sadly give the lie to the Iranian regime’s claim to be the voice of a republic with moral underpinning. Hypocritical in its support of protests elsewhere and condemned by its execution policy, the regime remains a sad disappointment to millions of good Muslims everywhere and, in particular, to the Iranian people, who deserve rather better.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be very brief and make just one or two points. I can either speak very quickly or stick to the quality.
I want to speak about social media and the issues that have arisen in the past couple of days. Yesterday, the Attorney-General general said in answer to a question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Justice that he would create a Committee. I presume that that would be a Committee of both Houses involving cross-party membership, but I am not yet sure how it is going to be put together. So far, the debate has had two primary variables at its heart. On the one hand, there has been the legal side, with much discussion among the usual lawyers. In fact, as far as I can see, there are only three or four lawyers in England, because they keep appearing on Channel 4 News, Newsnight and every other news programme. I will not name them, because that is not in vogue at the moment. I do not dispute that the law is a very important dimension. The other dimension is privacy, which people feel variously about. I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends are concerned about issues relating to a certain newspaper empire. To be honest, I have lesser, or different, concerns.
Both aspects are important, but what has not been aired is the issue of technology. At the moment, the court and legal system—and, indeed, Parliament—is finding itself in a tricky position over privacy, injunctions and so forth because of the way technology is racing ahead through social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook and many other platforms; I will not run through an advertisement for all the rivals. The fact is that they exist and that there is the potential for information to circulate with astonishing speed. As the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the shadow Justice Secretary said yesterday, it would be wrong for us in this place to say, “That’s the law, it can’t be enforced, so we just ignore it.”
Lord Neuberger’s report, which seemed a pretty reasonable effort, revealed some of the difficulties. Post that report, in the past couple of days, the Lord Chief Justice has tried to create some balance and reflected on the fact that some of the stuff that is said on the social media is taken pretty lightly. People gossip on the high street and at work, and that can sometimes have implications. Although I am not a lawyer, I understand that such gossip can have a legal status so that someone who took part could technically be taken to the civil courts for slander or, if they wrote it down, for libel. Social media merely—I say “merely”, but I know that there are significant implications—transfer that to the internet. One thing that the Lord Chief Justice said—I like to call him Judge Judge, because it is a great name, like the one in “Catch-22”—was that it is a simple fact that people do not give as much weight to information that they see on Twitter or wherever, because often it is wrong. It is patently obvious from recent cases in the media that some of the names that have come out have been wrong.
We might be tempted to say that one just has to accept that this is gossip on the internet, that that is life, and that there is nothing that the law can do about it. However, as the Attorney-General said yesterday, we cannot do that. There are many instances in which we could say that one should just accept that because we cannot implement a particular law in every case, it is not worth having. However, that is not a general position that we accept. We know that we cannot prosecute everyone who ever commits a crime. Nevertheless, it is important that the principle is there.
The argument about emerging technologies and what will come next is terribly important. I sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Communications Act 2003, which was the original Ofcom legislation. More recently, I took part in the debate in the House on the Digital Economy Act 2010. It is clear that it is difficult to legislate for new and emerging technologies, because one does not have the foggiest idea what will come next. Twitter is only two or three years old. We have no idea what there will be two or three years down the line. It is difficult to legislate for, or to take into account in the current debate, what will happen two or three years down the line. I want to emphasise that point, I hope it will be taken up by the Joint Committee when it comes into being and considers its position.
When I and other people say that we have to reflect on what is possible, we are not negating the actuality that there have to be laws under which people can be pursued if there is a particularly bad breach of an injunction, or whatever. The fact is that it is enormously difficult to close the stable door once the horse has bolted. That is not a statement of hopelessness. We have to think not just about Twitter, although that is what most of the debate has been about, but about the emerging technologies just down the road—there are many and I could bang on about them at great length, but I will not because my time is almost up—and they will inevitably impact on the deliberations of the Joint Committee and on the further discussions that will no doubt take place in this House.
I am pleased to raise the general issue of tourism policy and some specific examples of places to visit in my London borough of Bexley.
The UK tourism industry contributes significantly to our economy. Large and small businesses, charities and other organisations play a part in generating interest in our villages, towns and cities, from bed-and-breakfast owners and walking tour operators to historic sites, museums and galleries. They directly provide some £52 billion of our GDP and 4.4% of our jobs. Tourism is one of our fastest growing sectors. It creates jobs across our country, from city centres to the most rural communities. Regrettably, tourism in suburbs such as Bexley is under-promoted and is not as successful as it could be. I believe that more can be done in that area.
We have tremendous opportunities to promote England as a place to visit. The recent royal wedding highlighted London’s attractions, including Buckingham palace, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster abbey. Those who watched it on televisions around the world or within this country will have seen our historic streets. It was an excellent advert for London, which in my opinion is still the greatest city in the world. The London Olympics and Paralympics next year will be not just a month-long festival of sport, but an opportunity to encourage more people to visit London.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for tourism in our country. Does he agree that we should look at the VAT rate that is applied to accommodation? In this country, it is the same as the general rate, whereas in our competitor countries, it is far lower.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House will note it and take it back to the Chancellor and other Treasury Ministers.
The Government’s tourism policy is an important long-term strategy that will help the tourism industry to develop further and capitalise on its strengths. I welcome the establishment of the £100 million marketing fund and its ambitious aim of attracting 4 million extra visitors to the UK over the next four years. If that can be achieved, there could be substantial economic benefits of some £2 billion, with the possibility of some 50,000 new jobs being created. That is an excellent example of how Government and the private sector can work together for the benefit of our whole country.
I was rather disappointed to learn that only one fifth of the population take breaks of four nights or more in this country. If more people could be encouraged to go on holiday in the UK, to match the number holidaying abroad, £2 billion more could be generated for the tourist industry, and some 37,000 more jobs could be created. That would be a real benefit to our economy, and I believe it would be enjoyable for all those taking part. I still think that Britain is best for tourists and for holidays.
I hope that Government policy is not just about bigger towns and cities. I should like to encourage more domestic and international visitors to come to my borough of Bexley, to enjoy our historic, cultural and entertainment facilities. For a start, there is Danson House, in my constituency, a grade I listed Georgian building that was purchased by Sir John Boyd in 1753 but not completed until 1766. The principal architect was the highly regarded Sir Robert Taylor, who was involved in the design of many significant buildings, such as the Bank of England. The site was landscaped by Nathaniel Richmond, who was once Capability Brown’s assistant.
When the house was purchased by English Heritage in 1995, it was in a dilapidated state, as it had regrettably been allowed to deteriorate. English Heritage’s investment, in partnership with the Bexley Heritage Trust, has been invaluable, and both must be commended for their work to enable the house to be opened to the public. Visiting it is a fantastic experience, and I recommend it.
I also recommend that visitors walk around the magnificent Danson park grounds. With the lake, the conversion of the stables into a pub, the investment in new play facilities and the refurbishment of the Boathouse restaurant, it has won multiple awards, and I believe it is the best park in London. In fact, it recently received the gold award for safety.
A short walk from there will take visitors to the Red House, the one-time home of the artist, textile designer and writer William Morris.
He was, but he did good work as well in a different area.
The Red House was Philip Webb’s first building as an independent architect, and it was completed in 1860. It featured ceiling paintings and wall hangings by Morris and furniture painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and it is a fantastic experience. It was purchased by the National Trust in 2003, and I recently had the pleasure of touring the house with its new manager, James Breslin. I am confident that the National Trust will ensure that it remains open for people to enjoy for years to come. It is another gem in suburban Bexleyheath.
Another historic property in my constituency that is open to the public is a grade I listed building and former stately home called Hall Place, which is part-Tudor and part-Jacobean and has fantastic gardens. Extensive work has recently been undertaken to ensure that it can be open for all to enjoy. I have been to a number of functions there, and the sense of history is incredible and the mixed architecture impressive and interesting.
There is also the beautiful and historic church of St Paulinus in Crayford. It was built in the 12th century, but there is evidence that there has been a church there for more than 1,000 years. It is located at the top of Crayford hill, on the mediaeval route to the continent, and pilgrims stopped there on the way to Canterbury for respite and care. The church is the burial place of Elizabeth Shovell, the former wife of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who was Admiral of the Fleet during the reign of Queen Anne. The former Surrey and England cricketer John Shuter is also buried there. Shuter once opened an innings with the legendary W. G. Grace, and his grave has recently been restored and rededicated with the help of the Friends of St Paulinus Church, Bexley cricket club and Surrey county cricket club. The living churchyard is a place of peace and tranquillity among the bustle of suburban Crayford.
In the same century in which St Paulinus was built, Lesnes abbey, in the north of our borough, was founded by Richard de Luci. It has been suggested that it was built as penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket, in which de Luci was involved. The abbey ruins are located in Lesnes abbey woods and are worth a visit.
Bexley has an awful lot to offer tourists both domestic and from abroad. I have highlighted just a few reasons for a visit, and I believe that we should develop tourism in the suburbs. It is also one of the greenest boroughs in London, with many small parks and green spaces such as Martens Grove and Bursted woods. The Erith marshes and the Crayford marshlands can be used for birdwatching, and people can walk along the River Cray. Bexleyheath Broadway offers civilised shopping, and there are quality hotels, such as the Marriott, restaurants—Assos in Crayford is a particular favourite of mine—and pubs. We have small theatres, popular sports clubs such as Welling United football club, the Europa gym and Crayford greyhound track. It is a great place to come, and I urge my colleagues and friends in the House to visit.
There is much to do in my constituency and my borough, but importantly, I welcome what the Government are doing to encourage tourism nationally. It is a very important industry, but it is also an important facility for creating jobs—and for having a good time. I welcome what the Government are doing, but I urge them to consider the suburbs, because there is a lot going on there that is worth visiting as a tourist.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), who takes great pride in his suburb. In the same way, people in Manchester have enormous pride in what our city is all about. That is why I wanted to raise two important local issues today.
First, the Edale unit, which is a secure mental health unit, is currently located in the central Manchester hospital. Manchester Mental Health and Social Care trust specifically had the unit designed only a few years ago as part of a private finance initiative in that hospital. The strategic health authority gifted the trust some £16 million for the project, but only four years on, the trust has decided that it wants to abandon the unit and move its facilities elsewhere.
The trust proposes to move the unit to Park House—the site of the North Manchester hospital. By all accounts, that decision is perplexing. Patients, user groups, families and those involved in mental health delivery tell me that the facilities in Park House are less adequate than those in the Edale unit, particularly because the new facility will have mixed-sex wards and the accommodation will be dormitory-style, with six beds to a unit, and therefore less secure. Because the therapy provision in Park House is worse than that in the Edale unit, those people, who have very serious mental health conditions, will receive inferior treatment.
Three options were examined and appraised before the change was announced, and the move to Park House was judged to be the worst of them. In health terms, therefore, the decision is perplexing, but it might be explicable if it saves the mental health trust £1.7 million a year, as the trust says it will. Money could drive the trust’s decision because of the cost pressures in the NHS, but the decision is still unacceptable, because although the move saves the mental health trust £1.7 million a year, it will cost the wider NHS economy an extra £1.9 million a year. The economics therefore do not add up. It might be good for the bookkeeping of the mental health trust, but it is bad for the health economy.
The difficulty I have had throughout the process is that both the mental health trust and the SHA have not been open with the public. All Members of the House would regard that situation as unacceptable. Bureaucrats cannot hide important decisions behind faceless decision-making processes. No Member of Parliament would accept that for their community, and I certainly do not accept it for mine. People in my community suffer from extraordinarily high levels of mental illness, and we need the provision of a facility that is in keeping with the very best, and not simply with the second-best, as driven by narrow financial needs.
I have asked to meet the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), and I hope that happens before final decisions are made. However, I want to emphasise that the process has been inadequate and unacceptable to local people.
The second issue is on another, very different, NHS facility: the Ancoats walk-in centre. Hon. Members often use superlatives, but my constituents in that area have some of the worst health of any people anywhere in the country. The area needs first-class health facilities. The walk-in centre was finally delivered to the Ancoats community when the former Ancoats hospital closed, which was quite a number of years ago now. There was a commitment to making health provision available for the non-chronic conditions that are so common in such areas. The health planners now intend to close this facility, thereby breaking the promise made when the Ancoats health facility was closed. That is particularly galling because the decisions were made long before any public consultation. I have a copy of the in-house magazine in February telling staff that the decision to close had been taken, yet the public consultation only began last week, on 16 May. That is unacceptable.
I repeat that the people in the Ancoats area have some of the worst health indicators not just in Manchester but across the country. The proposed relocated unit—in fact, they are closing the unit and claiming it is a relocation—is more than four miles away, which, for people with no access to a car or other private transport, means a journey by public transport or walking. However, of the three bus services available, one requires an 18-minute walk and the other two require bus changes. For those who need health care they can walk to, which they have come to expect in recent years, the alternative unit simply is not adequate. I appeal to the Minister to tell Health Ministers that bureaucrats cannot do this to communities. Bureaucrats need to answer properly to communities.
Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to raise several points. The “Panorama” programme last night reinforced my view of FIFA. It is a totally corrupt organisation. We were humiliated in the bid for the world cup. I hope that our representatives will not vote for either of the two candidates, and that we will withdraw from FIFA. I am a lifelong supporter of West Ham and am delighted that we have got the Olympic stadium, but I feel badly let down, along with other supporters, by the management. It is very sad indeed. I have come to the conclusion that some footballers are overpaid, some are oversexed and others underperform, unlike hon. Members.
The winner of the Eurovision song contest, Azerbaijan, was a lot of rubbish. I think that Blue had the best record, and that Eurovision has become totally farcical. We should withdraw from the Eurovision song contest and have a proper contest between members of the G20 instead.
I am looking forward to the Olympic games. As hon. Members know, Southend has the longest pier in the world and a wonderful athlete, Mark Foster, whom I hope will be allowed to run down the pier with the torch. It is all very well that the torch will be going to the constituency of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), but we want the flame to be shown in all its glory in Southend too.
We recently held the Southend version of the Essex Factor. A young lady called Lucy Urquhart won the contest, and I have no doubt that she will become an international celebrity. Last week, I had the honour to be nominated by Naturewatch for an animal charity champion award. I pay tribute to Naturewatch. It is a wonderful organisation, and it brought to my attention the problem of puppy farming. A quarter of the British people own dogs, and it is a disgrace that we have these puppy farms churning out five or six litters each year. We should do something about it. The current law is not being enforced. It is no good having a review or putting in place a code of practice. We want the current law enforced.
Last week, I think, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, came to the Dispatch Box to make a statement about using live animals in circuses. He was given a bit of a rough time. It is completely unacceptable that wild animals are used for circuses. I hope that the Minister here today will take that point back to the Department to ensure that we do not use live animals in circuses anymore.
I was totally dissatisfied with the 2001 census in Southend, which left off 20,000 people—we have been paying for it for the past 10 years—and I am unhappy to tell the House that I do not believe that the present census was conducted satisfactorily in Southend either. The local authority, which has done a fantastic job, has assured me that it has not been well-handled by the Office for National Statistics, which seems to be in complete denial. Our Minister—the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd)—has done a wonderful job, but I fear that we shall be going to appeal on the census.
We have the highest number of centenarians in the country, and buses are very important for elderly people. Sadly, we depend on subsidies to run certain bus routes, and we have just had the First bus company cut the No. 24 bus. I very much hope that the Minister responding to this debate will have a word with that organisation so that the No. 24 can be restored.
I had the great honour of being the chairman of the all-party small business group. Small businesses throughout the country are struggling at the moment, particularly in Leigh-on-Sea. More publicity should be given to the reduction of rates for small businesses. We also need to do something about the empty property relief that we used to have.
I welcome the English baccalaureate. It is good that we are concentrating on core subjects, but it is not acceptable that religious education is not included in the English baccalaureate. I have received representations from St Thomas More high school, St Bernard’s high school and Westcliff high school for boys, and I hope that we can have that restored.
Jo-Jo Cranfield is a very talented athlete who was born with one arm. Hopefully she will be representing us in the Paralympics, but it is absolutely disgraceful that disability living allowance has been withdrawn from her, and it has also been suggested that she have a further part of her arm amputated. I hope that the Minister can do something about that.
I am receiving increasing complaints about the Child Support Agency. It seems to be for ever blaming things on the computer—always a good excuse when things go wrong—so I hope that the Minister will have a word with the appropriate Department.
Finally, as far as fisheries and fish discards are concerned, the common fisheries policy needs to be reformed urgently. It is an absolute disgrace that Leigh fishermen are being penalised by quotas and having to throw away far too many fish.
I wish everyone a very happy Whitsun.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) and his skip around his constituency, which has left us all exhausted.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate, which I secured to draw attention to concerns raised by a number of my constituents—residents and business owners alike—in Walsall South. Many are finding the council’s approach to parking restrictions and enforcement extremely stressful. They are effectively being harassed as they go about their daily lawful business. I want to cover three areas: fines and enforcement; the council’s attitude; and the case of Cyril Randle.
The story starts on 7 March, with parking charges being introduced on Ablewell street, Lichfield street and Station street. The restrictions cover a total of 310 parking spaces. Previously, people had been able to park free for two hours while they used local businesses on those streets and in the surrounding area. However, under the new rules, drivers are charged 20p for every 10 minutes, up to a maximum of two hours with no return. The charges are in force from Monday to Saturday between 8.30 am and 6.30 pm, excluding bank holidays. For now, there is nowhere free to park in town. There are fines of £50—they are reduced if paid before a certain time—yet the notices on the parking meters do not specify the amount. The restrictions and charges are very rigorously enforced. Several wardens walk down the affected streets each hour. Anyone late by one minute may be liable for a fine of £50. Some 670 drivers were issued with tickets within the first eight days of the charges being introduced, which equates to almost £3,500. Over the month from 7 March to 7 April, 1,700 parking tickets were issued. That equates to £18,000 of parking fines.
Local businesses are suffering and have reported losses as a result of the new restrictions. I have received a petition, which I will present at the end of today’s debate, supported by more than 700 signatories who oppose the new rules from NE Sandwiches, Smart Cut, Super Car, Ablewell Fish Bar, Pure Therapy, Hair of the Dog, News and Booze, and Traditional Settings. Some have already experienced a drop in trade of up to 30%, and others as much as 50%. The owner of News and Booze said:
“Nobody is going to come here and pay an extra 20p every ten minutes to buy a chocolate bar, a sandwich, or get a haircut.”
The GP’s surgery on Lichfield street is also being affected, with one of my constituents given a fine even though he had an appointment there. There are a number of residential properties on Station street. No exemption is made for residents to park their cars or for people making deliveries. Life in Walsall town centre is getting difficult. Mr Papanicodemou told me:
“If no action is taken, we feel that it will lead to the collapse of many established businesses, which would result in numerous empty shop premises. The eventual outcome of this will mean a loss of business rates to the council and also increased unemployment in the area.”
What does the council say? Its justification is that it is looking at the competing demands and the current arrangements to deliver the maximum wider benefit, while also contributing to the cost of providing and maintaining parking facilities, but that is not what the businesses have asked for. Balancing the need to pay for and maintaining parking facilities is not a relevant consideration in making the decision on this scheme. There has been no consultation or justification for the scheme. The council accepts that there has been a decrease in the number of people using town centre car parks. Of course there has! Businesses have said so, and trading figures suggest that people are abandoning the town centre. Now the new art gallery is closed on Sundays. What incentive is there to go into the town centre?
The case of Cyril Randle involves the salutary tale of an over-zealous enforcement officer and a council that would not back down until the court hearing, in the face of no evidence. Mr Randle came to my surgery to ask me to warn my constituents of what could happen to them if Ministers extend the powers of traffic wardens to cover offences such as littering or to stop moving vehicles involved in motoring offences. In 2006, Cyril, then aged 75, was apparently spotted spitting chewing gum from the window of a white Golf. The council had many of its facts wrong—not least that Mr Randle had not done the thing of which he was accused. On the day of the hearing, the council offered not to prosecute, on the grounds of Mr Randle’s age and ill health, but he wanted it on the record that he was innocent. Representatives of the council did not turn up. His solicitor asked that all charges be dropped, and the magistrate agreed that Mr Randle was innocent. Throughout the whole process, the council never issued a fine. It had no evidence. Indeed, the driver’s side window of Mr Randle’s car was broken and would not open.
In conclusion, what is required is, first, public information about ending littering, rather than making vehicle owners responsible for litter thrown out of a car. Secondly, the council must not use car parking and enforcement for raising revenue. The Department for Transport’s operational guidance states:
“The objective of civil parking enforcement should be 100 per cent compliance, with no penalty charges”.
This was revised in November 2010. Instead, the council should allow people to pay for the time used, just as they do in large shopping malls, rather than giving them a short amount of time and penalising them for being one minute late. I have already written to the Government’s new high street tsar, Mary Portas, and invited her to visit the Walsall high streets. On behalf of my constituents, I say: give the highway back to the residents who pay their council tax, and give the high street back to the residents, so that they can linger, shop and visit the new art gallery.
In the Backbench Business debate before the Christmas recess, I spoke about magistrates court closures, and about how the Government, instead of following their localism agenda, were unjustly moving services away from some local communities in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. I firmly believe that delivering services locally can enhance efficiency and effectiveness rather than being their antithesis. So, as the Government, the regions, and those who commission and provide health services grapple with difficult budgets and soaring demands, I urge the Government, and particularly the key health stakeholders in my county of Surrey, really to think through how community hospitals could help to deliver improved health care at a local and accessible level and in a cost-efficient way.
My constituents in Woking, Pirbright and Normandy are generally well served when they travel out to the two acute hospitals located on either side of the constituency—St Peter’s in Ashford and the Royal Surrey in Guildford—but I am particularly fortunate to have Woking community hospital at the very heart of my constituency. It is an excellent local facility, receiving 110,000 visits each year. It provides assessment and rehabilitation, audiology, ophthalmology, physiotherapy and X-rays, and the nationally respected Bradley unit offers a neuro-rehabilitation service for patients with multiple sclerosis and other disorders.
The doctors, nurses and staff are incredibly dedicated, and the hospital is also supported by the Friends of Woking Community Hospital, whose 350 members have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund additional improvements and projects. These have included diagnostic equipment for the early detection of glaucoma, electronically operated beds and the construction of two conservatories that provide patients with a quiet, light-filled space. They even provide newspapers for long-stay patients of the Bradley neuro-rehabilitation ward. A major legacy has recently been bequeathed by Sir Alec Bedser, a long-term Woking resident, and I am sure his generosity will be put to good use. This amazing level of dedication and support is difficult, though not impossible, to replicate at the larger institutions and provides a real catalyst for future success.
I would argue that community hospitals such as the one in Woking that already have a certain size and critical mass and already have the experience, the space, the good buildings and infrastructure to offer a broad range of services to a reasonably large local population—even though they are not immediately adjacent to a main acute hospital—have enormous potential to expand their existing offerings and deliver excellent health care right in the heart of their communities.
What I am championing is the idea of a lead or a hub community hospital that offers a wider range of truly local health care, which could help to take some of the pressure off our over-burdened acute hospitals. For example, with the right medical staff on hand and good co-ordination with the ambulance service, most low-acuity ambulance calls could be dealt with at hub community hospitals. There could be an extension of medical cover at the hubs, including into the evenings and weekends, so that a wider range of sicker patients could be seen there. What about a rapid access centre, where a consultant would see and assess elderly people within one or two days to save them being sent to A and E or a busy acute hospital? Perhaps there is scope at one or two of our larger community hospitals for a temporary intoxication and related minor injuries unit. I believe that community health services can play a leading role in developing home nursing services to complement local hospitals so that patients can be released quicker to be supported at home, thus releasing hospital beds for new patients.
To its credit, NHS Surrey has held discussions about the future for community health. Let us be clear, however: over the next few weeks or months, I would like to see three things. First, I want a firm commitment that Woking community hospital will be a lead or hub hospital, albeit initially on a pilot basis. Secondly, I want some details on the service provision that is going to be enhanced and how it can be integrated with other local services. Finally, I want a commitment to funding that recognises the important future role that community health services and key community hospitals should have in Surrey.
The Government have increased the primary care trust’s baseline budget by over £30 million for this year, so the plan to reduce spending on community health services by 1.5% is worrying and difficult to justify. I believe that moving more activity to community settings has a major role to play in the future clinical and financial sustainability of the Surrey health system—a view that seems to be shared by NHS Surrey—but the rhetoric about treating more patients in the community must be backed by action and by funding.
In the Woking community hospital, I have a very fine local facility. I want to see it enhanced over the coming years and I believe that NHS Surrey should support me in that endeavour. I believe that the Government and health authorities generally should also look at supporting community health right in the heart of their communities.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on what I see as a key public health issue. I shall consider the health impact of cold homes and fuel poverty. Parts of my constituency are more than 1,200 feet above sea level; our winters can be icy and our houses chilly. We wrap up warm in the valleys, but this is no substitute for a snug energy-efficient home.
People know that cold homes are bad for our health, but cold can also kill. Michael Marmot, our pre-eminent public health expert has said
“A winter death certificate may say ‘death due to heart attack’, but very often cold was a key factor.”
This truth must be addressed to tackle the health impacts of cold homes. The most recent figures from the Welsh Assembly Government show that 25% of households in Wales are in fuel poverty, which means they have to spend 10% or more of their net income to heat their homes adequately.
I recently attended the launch of the Marmot review of the health impacts of fuel poverty, and I want to highlight some of its findings. It found that fuel poverty
“negatively affects children's educational attainment, emotional well-being and resilience.”
It also found that
“More than 1 in 4 adolescents living in cold housing are at risk of multiple mental health problems compared to 1 in 20”
young people in warm housing. Sadly, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, there were 25,000 excess deaths due to cold in England and Wales in the winter of 2009-2010. Our rates are higher than those of many other European countries, including the most northerly Scandinavian countries. Poor heating is leading to poorer lives for far too many people. As Sir Michael Marmot says,
“Inequalities that are avoidable are fundamentally unfair—fuel poverty is avoidable and it contributes to social and health inequalities.”
Our challenge is to align our health and environmental agendas, and to create jobs as well. A Shelter Cymru report estimates the total cost of bringing all poor housing in Wales to an acceptable standard at around £1.5 billion, half of which is needed to deal with cold homes.
Maximising take-up is an absolute must. National Government, the devolved Assembly, local authorities and health workers all have a role to play, and Members of Parliament can help with publicity. The coalition Government have said that they will deliver their green deal and the energy company obligation in the autumn of 2012, and the Minister confirmed to me last week that the ECO would be focused on fuel poverty and hard-to-treat homes. I think that the ECO should target a reduction in excess winter deaths, and in particular ensure that private sector tenants benefit from investment in energy-saving measures.
UK-wide schemes will be important in helping Wales to meet its ambitious targets. The Welsh Assembly Government already give a high priority to fuel poverty reduction. Its strategy was launched at the Coed Cae estate in Nantyglo in my constituency. There, social and private housing is being retro-fitted with external cladding to make homes more fuel-efficient. I want the Government to work with the Welsh Assembly to deliver for the people of Wales. In Blaenau Gwent, Tai Calon, our largest provider of social housing, is spending £9 million on updating heating systems and working with E.ON to invest up to £10 million in energy efficiency, and 1,000 homes will be given new double-glazed windows. In an area of high unemployment, it is important to ensure that local companies are used for those upgrades.
According to my local newspaper, the Gwent Gazette,
“the Valleys consistently come top of the leagues that no one wants to win”,
which include those for rates of heart disease and premature death. If the area is to move down those league tables, tackling fuel poverty must be an obligation. We must ensure that people take up what is on offer. I was appalled when National Energy Action told me that 10,000 households, a third of the Blaenau Gwent total, were missing out on their entitlement. That is the highest percentage in any constituency in Great Britain.
MPs must play their part. I saw the benefits for pensioners recently when I visited Margaret Jones in Ebbw Vale, whose new central heating system had been installed under the Welsh Assembly’s scheme. NEA has a fuel poverty action guide that MPs can use to help constituents. I have written to the chief medical officer for Wales to ask what action is being taken, and whether the Aneurin Bevan Health Board is playing a referral role to help local people with home heating problems.
Ambitious targets are critically important. The investment in public health, a priority for the 21st century, is as important as clean water and clean air were in the 20th century. I want the Government to be active and drive the agenda very strongly, and to work in partnership to make a massive improvement in the health and quality of life of the young, the chronically ill, the disabled and the elderly.
Working with the British Heart Foundation as part of the Heartstart UK campaign, I am calling for every child in the UK to be taught extended life support, so that when they leave school they are capable of saving a life. I want every child, and eventually every adult, in the UK to be able to do the following: recognise an emergency; contact the ambulance service immediately; administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation; and use an automated defibrillator. This campaign has received overwhelming support from across the medical, teaching and charitable communities, including from the following organisations: the British Medical Association, Research Councils UK, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing, the Joint Royal Colleges Ambulance Liaison Committee, the PSHE Association, SAD.org.uk, and Cardiac Risk in the Young—CRY.
I am passionate about the issue of extended life support—ELS—because as a teenager I found my father following his heart attack, so I know just how essential it is to have these skills. I am far from alone, as there are 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the UK each year. Currently, only about one in 12 sufferers will survive; that means 27,500 people are dying in the community, some of whom could have been saved. On average, it takes about six to 12 minutes for an emergency ambulance to reach a critically ill patient. For every minute that passes in cardiac arrest, the patient’s chance of survival falls by 10%. However, if immediate CPR—cardiopulmonary resuscitation—is given, survival rates increase threefold.
The great shame is that most people are simply not able to help individuals in cardiac arrest. All too often, passers-by simply hope that someone else will act. By training and educating individuals we can radically alter this situation. I have heard horrific stories of crowds gathering around with no one willing to step in. Thankfully, the evidence clearly shows that with training, lay people can overcome the psychological barriers and manage the patient until more advanced and experienced personnel arrive.
What I am asking for will take only 0.2% of the school year. It takes less than two hours fully to train a young person in ELS; that is the equivalent of just one physical education lesson. The training is straightforward. The recent meeting of the all-party group on heart disease, even I managed to breeze through it, as did my staff. The training can be broken into three levels, and even the most basic form of training can make a difference. For example, the body has enough oxygen in the blood so that even basic-compression CPR would be sufficient for 15 minutes, which is longer than the average ambulance response time. These skills will remain with people for the rest of their lives. We will instantly create a new generation of life savers, and they can pass their skills on, so it is a win-win situation. We have the evidence that this will work. It will allow us to change the prognosis for this devastating condition, saving thousands of lives a year.
My request is not new. Norway, Denmark and France already have this as part of their national curricula. The American Heart Association has decreed that no child who is non-proficient in CPR should be able to graduate from secondary school. The British Heart Foundation already has more than 900 schools actively engaged in the Heartstart campaign, helping train thousands of children in these essential skills. This campaign needs to be extended to every school, and with that in mind I have already met Dr Peter Crouch of the Taw Hill medical practice, and Swindon borough council, to look at ways to ensure that it is extended to all the schools in my North Swindon constituency. I urge all MPs to do the same.
My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that I recently visited the St John Ambulance team in Brierley hill in my constituency to see the fantastic work that it does with schoolchildren on this very subject. Will he join me in congratulating that organisation on its work?
Absolutely; it serves as an excellent example and it should be encouraged. All MPs have a role to play in encouraging such work.
Life support makes a real difference to survival rates. Training takes less than two hours, with the skills remaining for life. Through education and empowerment a new generation of life savers will be created, saving thousands of lives a year. I very much hope we can now ensure that this is made a compulsory element of a child’s education, and thereby create an army of life savers with the confidence and skills to save many lives.
I wish to discuss the threat to heritage buildings in my constituency. Two months ago, a planning application to build a large hotel development encompassing a 500-year-old listed building, the Dower house, in the village of Harlington, was refused by the London borough of Hillingdon’s planning committee. Two weeks ago, the Dower house was consumed by fire and the police are investigating a suspected arson attack. This is just another example of what feels like the almost industrial-scale destruction of heritage buildings in my constituency.
We all value a sense of community where we live and a sense of belonging, and part of that sense of community is about valuing our local heritage. Local buildings all tell their story of how our communities developed, and are cherished for their architectural beauty and histories— the stories they tell us. This country has a proud history of protecting its national heritage buildings and sites, and I pay tribute to the work of English Heritage and bodies such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the National Trust. But the battle to save our heritage is now being fought out ferociously in the suburbs of our cities and towns; it is the battle for local heritage buildings. These buildings are often unheralded and unsung wonders that lift our hearts when we discover them and their histories.
Although valued by local people, local heritage buildings, especially those in London suburbs such as mine, are being hit by a tsunami of urban sprawl and intensive pressure from property development. In my area, many of those buildings are still just about standing as beacons of beauty and historical interest, but they are at severe risk, as listed by English Heritage, from developers and neglect by their owners, and they are vulnerable to council asset-stripping sales or a lack of public investment.
I wish to cite three examples, in addition to Dower house, the first of which is the Harmondsworth great barn. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings described it as perhaps the greatest surviving mediaeval barn in the country, and John Betjeman dubbed it the “cathedral of Middlesex”. When its owner went into administration a number of years ago, the local council unfortunately failed to purchase it for £1 and it passed into the ownership of a Mr Robert Noonan. He owns it through a company called Harmondsworth Barn Ltd, based in Gibraltar. Under his ownership the barn has been neglected, and English Heritage now judges it to be in a poor condition. We have established the Friends of Harmondsworth Barn, and as a result of much effort and lobbying by local people, English Heritage has undertaken basic works to protect the barn, but is seeking a refund in the courts from its existing owners. English Heritage has put the barn on its at-risk register and we fear that, having saved the barn from a third runway, we could lose it as a result of neglect by its owner.
My second example is Benlow works, a beautiful building visible from the railway in Hayes. It is the symbol of our local industrial heritage. It was the place where the Orchestrelle factory was; this is where people built the “Aeolian” organ players. It is a grade II listed building but it is in a sorry state of neglect and English Heritage has listed it as at risk. Our only information on the owner is that the building belongs to the Freshwater Group of Companies in Shaftesbury avenue, London, but the council and English Heritage have failed to get any response from the owners to a request to improve the building, despite offers of support, including an offer of a significant grant to refurbish the building.
My third example is Golden Crescent library, a lovely building originally built by Mrs Emily Shackle in the late 19th century as a mission hall in memory of her late husband. Middlesex county council opened it as a local library in 1933 and it served generations of my constituents until last year, when Hillingdon borough council closed the library and opened a new one. Despite promises to preserve the older, listed building for community use, it is now to be sold off for development as flats and most of the building is to be demolished. The façade may remain but we will, unfortunately, lose the cherished building.
I have given just a few examples of heritage buildings at risk in my area. Our community has tried everything to protect our heritage. Working with the excellent council officers Charmian Baker, Sarah Harper and Nairita Chakraborty, two years ago I convened a local community conference to discuss our local heritage. Local residents have gone out to map and research the buildings and sites to update the council’s heritage list. We have set up the Hayes and Harlington Conservation Panel, as well as friends groups for each of the buildings under threat. But despite all this we are still under attack, and I fear that we are, at times, fighting a losing battle.
My appeal is therefore for assistance at all levels of government and from other agencies that could become involved. First, I appeal to the Minister for an urgent meeting to discuss the heritage sites in my constituency, because I fear that without urgent intervention we may lose some wonderful buildings. I fear the cuts of 30% that English Heritage faces, given that more than 400 buildings are at risk in London, but I appeal to English Heritage to refocus on the London suburbs such as Hayes and Harlington. My appeal to the local council is for it to stop asset stripping and to work with the local community to protect our heritage buildings. My appeal to the owners of these buildings, particularly those I have named, is for them to contact me and work with our local community to preserve these buildings. We need powers, resources and co-operation from all levels of government and society if we are to preserve our local heritage. Once demolished, such buildings are lost for ever for future generations. We cannot let this happen.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is not the only one who has difficulty protecting his local heritage. We have that difficulty in rural areas too. Indeed, I rise tonight to express the deep anger, disappointment and dismay across my constituency that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has approved a mass burn incinerator for the village of St Dennis in the heart of the constituency.
There is anger because a Government who make much of their localism agenda have overruled the wishes of the local parish council, the former district council and the former county council’s planning committee, and ignored representations from Cornwall’s six MPs. There is disappointment because the Government have fundamentally undermined their claims to be the greenest Government ever. There is dismay because the incinerator is the wrong solution to Cornwall’s waste problems and might dominate the small village of St Dennis for four decades to come.
Let me put the incinerator in context. At 120 metres, its stack is twice the height of this building’s famous Clock Tower, which houses Big Ben, and taller than the Statue of Liberty. It will dominate a small Cornish village and will be seen from many of Cornwall’s beauty spots. As we enter an era of global warming, Cornwall’s incinerator will belch out thousands of tonnes of CO2 emissions and other harmful particulates.
We know that inefficient incineration, in which the energy is not used, does not move waste up the waste hierarchy. It remains a disposal in the same category as landfill. It is therefore out of step with Government policy, but that is what is happening in Cornwall, and that is what the Secretary of State has approved. The incinerator will generate more than 200 extra fuel-guzzling lorry movements on Cornwall’s lanes and roads each and every day. It will depress reuse and recycling rates. Incineration has never been the right solution for Cornwall, only the quick fix for a council caught in a blind panic.
The difficult circumstances in St Dennis mask the great strength of the people. They have put up a tremendous fight against the plans in what has always been a David and Goliath situation. They are not nimbys and since 2005 they have only ever wanted a modern solution to a modern problem. They have fought with only half the information that other sides in the dispute have.
May I ask my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House directly whether waste private finance initiative contracts and the potential liabilities to which they expose local authorities will now be material considerations in planning policy, as the inspector’s report suggests? Does that not fundamentally undermine the plan-led approach that the Government want to adopt? How can development be plan-led if local people who have no control over the contracts signed by a local authority will always be trumped by the provisions of that contract? How can it be right for a document for use in a public inquiry to be redacted? There should be no document needed for a public inquiry that is not available in full to all participants. I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend asked his colleagues in the Department to write to me on those points.
The community in mid-Cornwall is angry. Our faith in the democratic process has been shaken to its core. How can it be, when we have won our case every time we have put it to local decision makers, that our Secretary of State, who is responsible for localism, has overruled the local decision makers whom he says he seeks to empower? There is no doubt that Friday was a sad day for democracy in Cornwall, for Cornwall’s beautiful environment, and for future generations who will look back, bemused, at the folly that has been imposed on them.
I, too, would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I apologise to any Members who were present when I spoke in the pre-recess debate last month, as I must return to the issue of antisocial behaviour which I raised on that occasion. After I last spoke on the topic, I received a full and considered response from the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention, for which I thank him. I am glad that he agreed that
“Much of what is described as ‘anti-social behaviour’ is actually crime, and it has a huge impact on the quality of life of millions of decent people”.
The Government are on the right track in recognising that the current measures for dealing with antisocial behaviour are bureaucratic and ineffective and that the solution lies in giving the police and local agencies more effective powers to deal with the problem at a much more local level.
I am saddened to report to the House that the constituents I mentioned in my last speech on this topic are still suffering at the hands of a few thugs who believe that they can do as they please and that they are above the law in waging their campaigns of intimidation and abuse. Just last week a crowd of about 20 were involved in intimidating a resident who said, “I have lived here all my life and this has got to stop!” The crowd followed my constituent down the road to his home where more youths arrived in two cars. Neighbours called the police who, instead of dispersing the crowd or, heaven forbid, making arrests for disturbance of the peace at the very least, simply chatted with the crowd in a manner that my constituent described as jolly and friendly. My constituent reported the matter to the district chief superintendent, who replied that he had asked a colleague to respond, but no response has been received so far. I am hopeful that when a copy of Hansard arrives on his desk, sent from my office, the response will be forthcoming more quickly.
I look forward to the Home Office’s response to the public consultation, but in the interim I expect the local police and local agencies to make full use of the current powers for tackling antisocial behaviour and to offer the most effective means available of protecting victims and communities. It is easy to see why there is a perception in some quarters that nothing can be done about this sort of crime, but something can be done, as it was done in New York by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In one of the most crime-infested cities in the world, he achieved real success. He realised that
“Reducing the number of crimes wouldn’t be enough: people had to see improvement, not just hear about it. If crime went down but the existing amount of pushing and shoving, urinating on the streets, and other quality-of-life issues remained the same, we would never have a convincing case that life was better. We had to get people to be safe and to feel safe.”
When people feel safe, antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated by the community. Only when the local police achieve that will we see the trends of antisocial behaviour begin to reverse. I have more to say but I know we are stuck for time so I shall finish.
I would like to update the House about the progress on a subject that has become something of a preoccupation of mine of late: the private finance initiative. Members will be familiar with the details of the PFI, including its cost, complexity and lack of transparency and the level of advisory fees involved. The issue affects almost every constituency in the land and therefore almost every Member of the House.
As hon. Members will be aware, there have been far too many scandals for comfort over the years. Let me refresh our collective memory with a few choice examples. The Ministry of Defence pays £22 for each of its 100 W light bulbs. The Public Accounts Committee recently found that the project to widen the M25 took nine years simply to procure, that the cost was likely to be in the region of £1 billion too much and that the advisory fees alone were in the order of £80 million. It is an interesting fact that under the Building Schools for the Future programme, secondary schools were required to have atriums, as though they were multinational corporations, at colossal cost. One might ask why that should be so, but so it was.
Members can take their pick as to their preferred PFI scandal, so it is little wonder that the campaign to secure savings on the PFI now has 70 Members from across all major parties in the House. The campaign is not about tearing up contracts, but about renegotiating them, locating savings without a loss of services and sharing future rewards more equally with the taxpayer. Since the campaign was launched last year, we have made huge progress. The Department of Health is looking very hard, through what it has referred to as its “deep dive”, at its costs at Romford hospital, from which it hopes to infer a programme of cost savings that can run across the entire PFI hospital network. The MOD has reopened contracts at Corsham and two other facilities. The Public Accounts Committee is holding a hearing next month with key players in the industry to find out what has gone wrong, and I am pleased to say that the Treasury Committee—my own Committee—has held an inquiry and is holding a hearing on that inquiry’s findings, focusing on alternatives to the PFI.
In recent months I have had extensive meetings with industry, with Ministers and officials at the Treasury and Cabinet Office, and with the National Audit Office. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) for his intervention in that regard. I have had meetings extensively with the different players in the industry—the contractors, the developers, the banks, the service providers and the advisers—and I have been surprised by the positive response from those organisations. There is clearly a high level of interest in working with the Government to remedy some of the evils of PFI over recent years and setting the stage for the much improved use of private finance in the future.
However, it is important for colleagues to note that some firms remain outside the process. I will mention some in particular. Innisfree, which has been a very big PFI provider, has decided to bury its head in the sand. That organisation has been associated with some of the most lucrative deals for the private sector. It had a profit last year of 53% of its turnover. Sodexho is a very large national service provider, whose exorbitant costs I drew to the attention of the House last year, in relation to Hereford hospital in my constituency.
I draw the attention of the House to the performance of the advisers as a group—the law and accountancy firms, which have not participated so far in the process. It is striking that no matter how many transactions are done, the advisory fees on PFI deals have not fallen at all over the past 15 years.
I shall be approaching the Backbench Business Committee on 7 June for a full debate on the subject of PFI. I very much hope that as many Members as possible will join the campaign if they have not already done so, support my approach to the Committee, and speak in that debate.
Two weeks ago the Danish company Vestas announced that it had signed an option for 70 hectares of land at the port of Sheerness. That option opens up the possibility of Vestas setting up a factory in my constituency to manufacture its next generation wind turbine, the V164-7.0. Vestas is considering locating in the UK because of the immense growth prospects for offshore wind-generated energy in this country, but let us not be under any illusions: Vestas has plenty of alternative options on the continent.
Vestas has already made a substantial investment just to secure the land option in Sheerness, and I am convinced that it is ready to move that option to a full lease as long as it sees firm commitments from customers. Of course, potential customers will not be willing to provide those buying commitments unless there is sufficient market and regulatory certainty to ensure a long-term viable business case. I am calling on the Government to provide that certainty and to create the conditions that would enable Vestas to secure the orders for the V164, which would give it the confidence to turn the option for land at Sheerness into a full lease, start building its factory and create much needed jobs in my constituency.
I have already discussed the situation with Vestas and it is looking for a number of assurances from the Government before sealing the deal. It wants to see a support mechanism that is specifically adapted to the needs of the wind industry, as opposed to trying to make wind fit within a one-size-fits-all solution. Such a support mechanism is key to making offshore wind a long-term, cost-competitive component of the energy mix, and needs to be designed very quickly and set at a level that drives continued investment from Vestas customers. In addition, Vestas need reassurances that the UK’s offshore wind ambitions will not be moderated. It wants to see mechanisms in place to avoid any prolonged hiatus in investments as a result of the electricity market reform proposals. It wants the Government to set firm and ambitious targets, specifically for offshore wind generation, and not only to 2020, but beyond to 2030. Finally, it wants timely decisions on planning applications not only for offshore projects but for the enabling infrastructure, such as grid connections and substations, which would provide more market certainty and increase investor confidence.
If Vestas sets up its factory on Sheppey, an estimated 2,000 direct jobs and 1,000 indirect jobs will be created. On behalf of all those in my constituency who would benefit from those jobs, I would like to ask several questions. First, how do the Government plan to provide Vestas with the necessary conditions that would encourage it to make that major investment in the UK? Secondly, what are they doing to overcome the obstacles that the offshore wind industry faces? Thirdly, what are they doing to ensure that investment like that proposed by Vestas comes to the UK and does not go to countries such as Germany or France, which no doubt would welcome it with open arms? Fourthly, how can the UK maintain its position as global leader in offshore wind energy and secure the jobs and economic benefits that go with it?
Fifthly, why are the Government opting for an electricity market reform package that appears to be focused on getting new nuclear power stations off the ground, rather than putting more emphasis on getting investment into renewables? Sixthly, given that the Government’s £60 million so-called ports fund, which is supposed to help upgrade port infrastructure to meet the needs of the offshore wind industry, applies only to areas with assisted status, how do the Government intend to create a level playing field so that we in Sittingbourne and Sheppey can secure Vestas investment for an area of high deprivation that just happens to be located in the so-called wealthy south-east? Finally, what can the Government do to help de-risk the potential investment by Vestas? I appreciate that those are not questions to which my right hon. Friend the Minister has ready answers, but I very much hope that he will ensure that the relevant Minister provides a response as a matter of urgency.
In my first year in this place I have often boasted of Portsmouth’s assets: its superb natural harbour, which will soon host our magnificent aircraft carriers; its heritage; its high-tech industries; its entrepreneurial and hard-working people; and its remarkable natural history—after all, a third of the world’s migrating Brent geese cannot all be wrong.
Given those advantages, one wonders why we have not made more progress in regenerating parts of the city. In fact, there have been serious obstacles to growth in Portsmouth, but happily they are not insurmountable. However, we might need the Treasury to give us a leg up. We have suffered from the lack of a clear and articulated vision, which is unforgivable when one considers the heritage on which we can build a strong narrative for future development.
Portsmouth is the maritime heart of this country. We have the wonderful historic dockyard and the recent developments at Gunwharf and the Spinnaker Tower, but that cannot be the limit of our aspirations. We must think about the whole area; not only Portsmouth, but Fareham and Gosport. What do we want the harbour to become? We should aim high, because with the list of assets I have mentioned we could be one of the world’s premier destinations for historical tourism and maritime pursuits. I believe that the key to unlocking the potential of the harbour and to achieving a step change in regeneration for our city lies in the various surplus defence estates in Portsmouth and the surrounding areas.
One of the challenges we face is the cost of maintaining the number of historic and often listed buildings in the dockyard. That is necessary but expensive work. Pleasingly, the Government have reiterated their commitment to all three naval bases, which strategically is the right thing to do, but it is vital that those defence assets have the financial wherewithal to “wash their faces”, as the burden of heritage maintenance is an unwelcome expense when the Royal Navy has so many other commitments. Those wonderful buildings should be preserved, used and enjoyed, and there is the commercial interest and the willingness of the Ministry of Defence to make that happen locally. Alas, rules designed to ensure fair competition demand such a huge investment from would-be developers, without any guarantee of success, that Portsmouth’s historical dockyard continues to stand empty. Local residents and tourists lose out, as they cannot enjoy beautifully restored historic buildings, facilities—homes, hotels, shops and museums—or the jobs that would be created; the city loses out, as it is denied the economic growth and investment that would obviously result; the MOD and the Royal Navy lose out, as millions that might have been spent on the naval dockyard are being spent on the historic estate; and English Heritage loses out as precious listed buildings drift into decay.
I am sure that Portsmouth will not be an isolated case, and the Treasury needs to realise that investors will not hold their millions in reserve, waiting for the day when common sense prevails. They will take their money elsewhere, and not necessarily in Britain. We must make investment easier, and that will require a strategic alliance of industry, civic authorities, the Royal Navy, the MOD, the heritage sites and other organisations. On the current rules of engagement, however, such a vision and alliance is not possible.
A full competitive tendering process for such developments is not practical: the costs would be prohibitive, because it is so complex, and it would require the co-ordination of many stakeholders. It is not realistic for such a chain of contributors to commit themselves without any assurance of success, and the project stands a much better chance of being delivered successfully if, from the start, a close relationship can be established between the stakeholders and such a strategic alliance.
To insist on the full competitive tendering process would inevitably mean the project being broken down into smaller schemes, and that would be the death knell for integrated regeneration in the north and south of the city and through to Gosport. It would certainly remove any hope of coherent integration between military and civil needs. That is an important part of the regeneration programmes for cities and towns where the Royal Navy is the central employer, estate owner and provider of further employment and opportunity. Development needs to be undertaken on such a scale to achieve the necessary regeneration that will drive changes in residential and visitor perceptions.
Today, I ask the Treasury to consider increasing the geographical scope of the national insurance contribution holiday to some areas of the south-east, where extra help is needed and the potential for growth is considerable. In my view, Portsmouth is top of the list. I ask the Treasury also to recognise the damage that out-of-control business rates are doing in Portsmouth and elsewhere, and to work to provide incentives for local authorities to address the problem; to work with the MOD to ensure that bureaucracy and costs are reduced for potential development of surplus MOD estates; to examine how it can support the emergence of strategic alliances throughout all sectors in order to make such regeneration affordable and achievable; and finally to meet me and potential partners in such an alliance in Portsmouth to discuss those issues in more detail. I hope that that meeting can take place in Portsmouth, so that the Treasury can see the energy, drive, vision and potential of our city.
I begin with the case of Ian Elam of Dunfermline, who is the sole carer for his wife, Jeanie, and has looked after her for about 10 years without any respite. She suffers from multiple sclerosis and requires 24-hour care. At the end of 2009, Mr Elam was persuaded by Fife council social workers to make use of a respite opportunity, and his wife entered respite care at Queen Margaret hospital. Regrettably, the staff could not cope with Mrs Elam, and her husband had to attend to her needs for about 12 hours per day during her stay, which continued until February 2010.
Unfortunately, the Department for Work and Pensions has decided that Mr Elam should lose many of the benefits that he receives during his respite from caring. I am sure the House will be surprised to learn that, when people who provide 24-hour care take a short period of respite, they lose all their benefits. After all, no one in this House or, indeed, in the Press Gallery would expect to take unpaid holiday. I should be grateful, therefore, if the Deputy Leader of the House made some inquiries about the state of the case and report back to me at a later date.
It is fitting that I follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), as I too have a naval interest. Just this weekend, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is responsible for defence procurement, wrote to many Members to inform them of the outcome of the Government’s strategic defence and security review and the refitting and basing of the surface and submarine fleets. Two Type 23 frigates, HMS Somerset and HMS Richmond, which had been scheduled for refitting at Rosyth dockyard, are now to be refitted at Devonport. I do not oppose the move—after all, Devonport has a large hole in its order book thanks to the decisions of this Government—but there is uncertainty about the future of Rosyth dockyard.
I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House is also aware of the ongoing uncertainties at DM Crombie, which faces an uncertain future when the last of the surface fleet is fitted out at Rosyth at the end of 2013, because there is a long gap until—I hope—the Queen Elizabeth class comes into service. I would therefore be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House ascertained whether the Minister would be prepared to meet me to discuss the long-term future of Rosyth and Crombie.
In my maiden speech, I talked about Longannet power station, which is now the only bidder for the carbon capture and storage project. It has waited 12 months for a decision from this Government, and there does not appear to be one in sight. I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House updated the House on what progress has been made on carbon capture and storage at Longannet and whether the relevant Minister of State would be prepared to meet me to discuss it.
The House will recall that I have led the charge against ship-to-ship transfers in the Firth of Forth. This decision lies with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House urged him to make a decision as speedily as possible when we come back after the recess, as the uncertainty is helping no one.
My constituency is a highly rural one in which agriculture matters a great deal. It matters for jobs on farms and in the processing and distribution sectors—and of course farmers are the stewards of our land and promote tourism too. Food matters. In terms of food security, there are pressures on our population worldwide, with 6.8 billion people today, rising to 9.2 billion in 2050. The amount of land per person that was available for cultivation in the 1950s was 0.5 hectares—it is now just half that amount, and it will be down to a third by 2050. Global warming will also make farming more problematic, as will changes in dietary habits as we get wealthier and eat more meat that requires more land to produce it. That is a huge challenge.
I wish to address one or two important points regarding the challenges that face my farming community in Central Devon. Bovine TB has led to the slaughtering of 25,000 cattle, last year alone, at a cost of £63 million—something that scars the farming families who are affected. I am afraid that the previous Government sat on their hands when the Independent Scientific Group’s report was published. We now await with great interest the Government’s announcement, which is due shortly, on whether action will be taken on the provision of badger control licences. I urge them to take positive action in that respect. Incidentally, that has the support of the British Veterinary Association and the British Cattle Veterinary Association.
Milk prices are a huge issue, particularly for dairy farmers in the south-west. As recently as this February, the National Farmers Union reported that the cost of milk production was 29.1p per litre, which is above the farm-gate price that farmers are receiving. Much has been said in this Chamber about the importance of restraining the power of the supermarkets and creating an ombudsman for that purpose. I urge the Government to make good on their commitment for a groceries code adjudicator.
On red tape, we said in the coalition agreement:
“We will reduce the regulatory burden on farmers”.
I welcome Richard Macdonald’s report and urge the Government to respond to the 200 recommendations that he made by bringing forward as many of those changes as possible, including moving towards risk-based inspection of farms to reduce their onerous nature to as limited a number of farms as possible.
My final plea is for hill farmers. Hill farm incomes in 2008-09 were just £25,700 compared with over £50,000 for other farms. Hill farming is one of the most difficult forms of farming in our country; it is very tough. These are proud, resilient, hard-working people who need our support by continuing to support the higher level stewardship arrangements and stock rearing and suckler cows on the moors. I ask the Minister to let me know what the Government’s thinking is on section 68 funding from the EU, which could be directed specifically into hill farming.
I am anxious that other Members have an opportunity to speak, so I will leave it at that.
I will canter through some topical issues that affect families in the Witham constituency.
First, I bring good news for one Minister. I put on record my thanks to the Minister of State, Department for Transport for listening to the concerns of my constituents and removing the Greater Anglia rail franchise from National Express East Anglia. Its service was appalling. She genuinely listened to my constituents’ concerns and did something about them. With the publication of the McNulty report and the ongoing work on the new long-term franchise arrangements, I make a plea to Ministers to put customer service and value for money first when awarding franchises.
Another issue is the NHS reforms. My constituency has no hospital and it asks for no hospital. However, it has two primary care trusts that have spent a lot of money over the past decade investing in bureaucrats and managers while my constituents have been left high and dry without treatments and access to local health care. That will change with the reforms. I press Ministers to stick with the principles of the Health and Social Care Bill and ensure that real investment can be made at the front line, rather than being spent on management and bureaucracy.
I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members have had difficulties with planning issues in their constituencies, particularly in relation to Traveller sites. I have endless issues with Traveller sites and planning applications in my constituency. Ministers have had plenty of correspondence with me about this issue. I recognise that there is currently a consultation that relates in particular to Traveller circulars. There are serious concerns on this issue and I hope that Ministers will take representations from Members of Parliament and local communities, perhaps as part of the Localism Bill, and listen to genuine local concerns.
On small businesses, I have spoken tirelessly about the fact that 83% of the jobs in my constituency are in small and medium-sized enterprises. That is a tremendous figure and I would like it to be even higher. One problem with trying to make it higher is that banks are still not lending money to small businesses and enterprise is still being stifled. I make a plea to Ministers to ensure that this matter is given priority so that our wealth creators can get the private sector growing, create more jobs, and get our economy back on track.
My constituents frequently raise the sentencing of offenders and the criminal justice system with me. They are appalled by the waves of soft justice that we have seen in recent years and that it is now almost impossible to lock up criminals. In the view of my constituents, prison is there to punish people, to act as a deterrent and to keep the public safe. I urge the Government to use the opportunity of the sentencing review to restore public confidence by bringing in tougher and longer sentences for criminals to protect the public and victims.
In the short time that I have, I wish to raise three specific issues.
The first issue is the plight of the Ashiana charitable trust, to which I was proud to give an award last night at the national Kids Count awards. It enables disabled young people and people with learning difficulties to fulfil an active life, and entertains people throughout London and beyond. It is sad to report that Harrow council has decided to remove all funding from that organisation. That is a national scandal that I hope the council will change, even at this late stage.
Secondly, I am a passionate about ensuring that there is growth in the private sector. I was therefore amazed to be told by a constituent who wants to set up a business in my constituency that he has attempted to register for VAT, and yet has been put on hold by the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for 18 months. He would employ more than 10 people locally, and he has done the right thing in trying to register for VAT, but the answer that he has been given is that he should charge customers for VAT, retain the money and then hand it over to HMRC when he is finally given registration. He wishes to seek a business-to-business arrangement, but the other businesses require a VAT number before they will do business with him. He has been forced into a position where he cannot get premises and cannot buy vehicles, because he cannot afford to get the loan that is required until he is VAT registered. HMRC is acting as a direct obstacle to the setting up of that business in my constituency. I trust that we can see an end to that.
The third plight that I will allude to briefly has been exposed nationally. My constituent, Yvonne Alpagot, came to see me about Brentsouth Trading Ltd, which operates out of a garage in Southall. I have also raised this matter with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). My constituent found the website because she has a car with a Renault engine. The company purported to be expert in sorting out Renault engines, but she was scandalously treated. When she finally got to see her vehicle again, the engine had been removed and placed on the back seat, spilling oil all over the seat. The car had been damaged out of all proportion, and when she sought to recover the vehicle she was physically threatened by individuals in the company. She took them to court and won, but unfortunately they had closed the company just a week before she got to court.
After doing some research, Yvonne Alpagot discovered that more than six companies were operating out of a single site, and curiously enough, each of them had a number of the same directors. She found that they had closed down companies and opened them again, leaving hundreds of customers high and dry. On many occasions, they had closed down companies with court judgments against them. That is a scandal, and it needs to be put right. We need to ensure that when companies close down and there are court judgments against their directors, the directors are not allowed to start up another company performing the same function on the same site. We need to rectify that scandal.
I could go into great detail about that case, but I recognise that time is against me. What I seek, as I have said before at Question Time, is for such phoenix operations to be stopped in their tracks, so that innocent people who have no idea that those companies are trading illegally are not forced to pay thousands of pounds to companies that should not be operating in the first place.
I noticed when I looked at the list of Members who were going to take part in the debate, and examined their background in “Dod’s”, that the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt)—I do not intend to embarrass her in any way—was once a magician’s assistant, which is perhaps not widely known. It seemed me that I needed at least a magician’s assistant to answer all the points that have been raised in the debate. As usual, I will not be able to do so adequately, and as usual I will ensure that the various Departments that are relevant to the points that have been made write to the Members concerned in due course.
Let us canter through the 18 contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who is not in his place at the moment, talked about the ongoing controversy about privacy and the difficulty of policing online social sites such as Twitter. He is absolutely right that it is very difficult, but that does not mean that there is no responsibility on either those sites or the people who use them to comply with the law. We have said previously, and I say again, that what is illegal offline is illegal online. The criminal law applies as much to those sites as it does to anyone else, and we look forward to the work of the Joint Committee that is being set up to examine those matters and the wider privacy and defamation issues.
The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) gave us a wonderful look at his constituency and explained the contribution that it could make to this country’s tourism industry. I have been a tourist in his constituency, so I feel rather superior. I took a weekend in north Kent recently, and I am familiar with Hall Place. What I did not know was that his constituency shares something with mine, because it contains an edifice that was built as penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket. In fact, the entire village in which I live was built as penance by Henry II, so the hon. Gentleman and I have something in common.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the capacity of our tourism, both internationally and within this country, and said that it was not just the obvious places that had something to offer. He was absolutely right, and I will ensure that he gets a full response in due course from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) raised two very important points as far as his constituents are concerned: the closures of Edale House and of the Ancoats centre. I am not clear on the extent to which those decisions are irrevocable, but it is essential that local people have a proper input into such key decisions on their health provision. That is the entire thrust of what the Government are trying to do. We want to ensure that decisions are not top-down edicts, but that they are taken on the basis of the advice of local clinicians and the local people involved. If the Government can assist in ensuring that those matters are discussed in the context of what is right for his constituency and the people whom he represents, I am sure we would be happy to do so.
I shall leave the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) to one side for a moment, and address the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who spoke about the difficulties of the parking regime in Walsall. In fact, I was well aware of those problems, because I have been reading the correspondents’ pages in the Walsall Advertiser, which draw attention to exactly the point she raised. Of course, that is a local council issue, and there is a limit to what the Government can or would wish to do, because such matters are best decided at community level. However, clearly, she has taken the opportunity to represent the views of many of her constituents, and as I understand it, she will present a petition later, which will include the views of News and Booze, which I notice decries its name by selling choc bars and hair cuts. I am sure that she represents what a lot of people in her constituency think on the subject of parking in Walsall.
I recall the contribution of the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) to a previous debate on courts. His remarks today on the importance of Woking community hospital were entirely consistent with that. He is working with the grain in this instance, because the indication is that it is felt that that hospital can play a leading role in providing health services in that part of the county of Surrey. I notice that the Surrey primary care trust has made that clear as part of its forward programme, but he is right to emphasise that local hospitals can do things that the big acute hospitals cannot do, and that they can act as a hub for provision. I am glad he took the opportunity to say that.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) talked about fuel poverty. He may or may not know that that subject is dear to my heart and to the heart of the hon. Member for Southend West—he has previously presented legislation on fuel poverty, and I presented a Bill on fuel poverty in the last Session of the previous Parliament. I am afraid that my Bill foundered at the hands of the previous Government, who were not quite as keen on dealing effectively with fuel poverty as the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and I are. However, this Government are making real progress. The hon. Gentleman was right to talk about the impact of fuel poverty on communities such as the one he represents. One thing that pleases me about our proposals is that they deal not just with the houses that it is easy to deal with, but those that are more difficult to treat. Some of the residential stock of which he spoke—in Nantyglo, for instance—probably falls into the latter category. It is essential that we do not simply go for the low-hanging fruit and the easy pickings, but ensure that we extend defences against fuel poverty to all parts of our community. I applaud him for making those points.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about emergency life-saving skills; that point has been raised several times recently. He is obviously right. It is essential that young people have the opportunity to learn those skills so that they can put them to good use at a later stage. I noticed that this point was raised in Education questions yesterday. I think the Secretary of State agreed that it needs to be addressed and that we need to ensure that young people have access to that information. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will continue his campaign, although whether the teaching of those skills should be a formal part of the national curriculum, or whether there are other ways of providing them in the school programme, is a moot point. However, it is clear that young people ought to have them in their skill range for when they leave school, so that they can use them when needed—and none of us ever knows when they will be needed.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about heritage buildings in his constituency. I am getting to know his constituency rather better having had two of these debates with him. What has happened at Dower house, in particular, sounds very odd. I understand that it is still subject to a police investigation, so we shall see what happens with that in due course. He mentioned other buildings in his constituency that he felt were at risk, including the Harmondsworth great barn, the Golden crescent library and others. English Heritage has indicated to me that it would be happy to meet him and others in his constituency to discuss these issues. I will also extend that request to a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to see whether we can arrange something. I know that the Department, English Heritage and the Crown Prosecution Service take heritage crime very seriously. It happens far too easily: an important building suddenly goes up in smoke, often following failed planning permission. We have got to stop that; we have got to take effective measures. I am sure he will find that he is speaking to people who agree with the basic principles he has outlined.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) is clearly very upset with the decision taken on the incinerator at St Dennis. I cannot tell him anything about the decision-making process of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and nor should I say anything, because he will have acted in a quasi-judicial capacity when making that decision. However, I will ensure that the points my hon. Friend raised on behalf of his constituents are communicated to the Secretary of State. I do not know whether things have changed since I sat on an authority with responsibility for such matters, but I seem to remember that there was a two-stage process: planning permission followed by an operating licence. When granting an operating licence, further restrictions or conditions could be applied. I might be wrong, however. I will certainly ensure that his points are raised with the relevant Minister.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) spoke about antisocial behaviour, which is the curse of many of our constituencies and causes much unhappiness for many of our constituents. He is right to raise it. I am pleased that he got a good reply from the Minister concerned when he raised it previously. It sounds like issues remain to be resolved in his constituency, however, and it would be sensible were he to raise them directly with Chief Constable Colin Port, because it is clear that he is not yet satisfied with the police response. It is for the chief constable to respond on those matters.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) raised again the issue of private finance initiatives, on which he is fighting an excellent campaign. The key concern is value for money, yet it has become transparently obvious that many PFI schemes simply did not provide that. The Government are committed to ensuring that we get value for money whenever we enter a scheme of that kind. I know that he has had discussions—in fact, he mentioned them—with the Chancellor and the Commercial Secretary, and that he feels that real progress is being made. I hope that progress continues and we ensure that if we use that form of financing for public projects, it is not simply a way of getting the amounts involved off the balance sheet, but a way of ensuring that people have the services they need at a cost that is commensurate with their value. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue his campaign to achieve that.
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) is someone else whose constituency I feel I know much more about than I did a few weeks ago, having replied to a debate with him only recently. I know how important the Vestas investment in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey is to his constituents. He asked me a series of questions, but accepted that I would probably be unable to answer him. He is absolutely right—I cannot—but I will ensure that his questions are communicated to the relevant Minister. What I can say is that the Government are talking to Vestas about how to assist the investment that it is thinking of making. There is a problem, in that the £60 million is not available because Sheerness is not an assisted area. There are EU state aid rules and there are difficulties getting around them, but the Government are very keen on assisting the investment, as the hon. Gentleman is, and I hope we can do everything possible to make it a reality.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth North talked about Portsmouth and the issues there. One thing that I had not known until I read the background notes to this debate is that Portsmouth is the most densely populated city outside inner London. Again, not many people know that. We need to ensure that development continues in Portsmouth. She raised the significant issue of the relationship with the Ministry of Defence, and how it might be brought on board with the local enterprise partnership and the other keys to growth in the area. If there is anything we can do to make that happen more effectively, that would make obvious sense for the interests of her constituents. I will draw the issue to the attention not only of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but of the MOD. Hopefully we can make progress. She would also like to talk to the Treasury about national insurance contributions relief, and I will pass on that request too.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) raised a number of issues. I cannot give an answer to his point about his constituent Mr Elam and respite care, but I will ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions does. As for the shipyards in his constituency, I think he recognises the fact that not every refit can take place in Rosyth—some are taking place in Devonport—but there is work there that has been commissioned by this Government and that will continue, which is good news for Rosyth. As for Longannet, this is a key issue that Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change have been directly involved in. He asked for the relevant Minister of State to visit his constituency. I am sure that the Minister concerned would very much like to do so if he could, but the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary both already have, so the hon. Gentleman has not been neglected.
The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) talked about farming issues. He will celebrate, as I will on behalf of my constituents, today’s publication of the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. We are making real progress.
The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) talked about various things. She was kind enough to say thank you to the Minister of State, Department for Transport for her work on rail services. She talked about Travellers sites, small businesses and sentences—issues that I know will continue to crop up. As far as hospitals are concerned, it is absolutely clear that the main thrust of the policy will survive whatever changes are made to the details.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about HMRC registration for VAT and a trust in his constituency, which are points that I am afraid I cannot answer in full.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) listed about 20 things in his speech, but I cannot talk about them now. Let me tell him, however, that I will spend the next couple of weeks writing to the relevant Departments about all those issues. Others will have other priorities, but I—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).