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General matters

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2011

I wish to discuss history teaching in schools, because the study of history in schools has reached an all-time low. Last year, for the first time, the proportion of pupils being entered for history GCSE dropped beneath 30%, but the situation is actually far worse than that. Yesterday, I released a report, “History in Schools: A School Report”, which reveals that in vast areas of the country—often in the most deprived areas of our nation—history is being forgotten entirely. In 77 local authorities fewer than one in five pupils is passing history GCSE, but we need to break the figures down and examine individual local authorities, because in places such as Knowsley under 8% of pupils are passing history GCSE. Only four pupils in the whole of that local authority area passed A-level history. In 2010, 159 schools in this country did not enter a single pupil for history GCSE. We must address the situation urgently.

Often it is the Daily Mail or academics who discuss what type of history should be studied in schools, whose history should be studied, how history should be studied in the curriculum, whether we should have a narrative form of history or a more interpretive form of history that looks at sources, and whether history should be seen as a framework of facts. The Government are instituting a curriculum review, and we welcome that. I hope that it will examine the process whereby history is studied in bite-sized chunks and pupils do not get a sense of a narrative framework of history—they dot around from ancient Egypt to the Victorians, then on to the Tudors and off to 20th century history. Although we can debate whose history and what type of history should be studied, we should not deny that history is a crucial subject that binds us as one nation. However, it is becoming a subject of two nations, and that is the issue that I wish to raise with the House.

Britain is dangerously isolated in Europe—and not for a good reason— because we are the only nation apart from Albania that does not make the study of history compulsory beyond 14. I do not believe that we should be in that club, so I put my case to the Government that although the curriculum review is ongoing and will carry on until 2014, there has never been a more compelling time to make history a compulsory subject to study to 16. If I was to tell the Minister what my ideal Christmas present would be, as the vice-chair of the all-party group on archives and history, I would say that it would be to make the study of history compulsory to 16 for all pupils. I wish everyone a happy Christmas.

What a pleasure it is to follow a speech from a Member on the Government Benches that I would have been honoured and delighted to have made myself.

I want to talk a little about the history of the Arab countries, because exactly one year ago a humble vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in the small town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, protesting at his humiliation by the state. That act set off what we now call the Arab spring, a process of revolutionary change that today remains as unclear as the revolutions of 1789 or 1917 remained unclear 12 months after the storming of the Bastille or the Winter palace.

Sadly, we are seeing how history repeats itself, not, as Marx wrote, first as tragedy and then as farce, but as tragedy followed by tragedy. Revolutions devour their children and nowhere is that more true than in the Arab and Maghreb world. Gaddafi is gone but Libya is full of violence. The Syrian people get warm words from the west but nothing more as they are killed daily. The King of Bahrain came for tea at Downing street and the next thing we saw was a helpless woman being dragged away in front of cameras back in Bahrain as if the ruling elites there were sending a message to our Prime Minister that they did not care a fig about human rights.

In Tunis today, the Manouba university’s faculty of letters, with 8,000 students, is occupied by Islamist ideologues insisting that girls wear the niqab and veil their faces if they want to be students. We are learning, perhaps too late, that Islamism is not a friendly ideology but remains a political construct aimed at destroying human freedoms.

We have had to watch Egyptian soldiers faced with a peaceful protest pull a woman from the crowd and drag her painfully along the ground, exposing her breasts, before a brutal soldier stamps his booted foot on her chest. What is our Government’s response? Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary issued the blandest of bland statements:

“The unrest of recent days shows the scale of the challenges which Egypt’s political system must address including the need to build full respect for human rights.”

That was all the Foreign Secretary could say. “Unrest” is putting it uber-mildly, as 13 people have been shot dead by the Egyptian army, acting on orders, and hundreds have been wounded since Friday prayers last week. A military dictatorship is revealing itself in Egypt, aided by Islamists with that ideology’s extremely limited concept of freedom and democracy.

We do not know the name of the young woman who has been in many newspapers, but we do know the name of the 26-year-old Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil. He is now on the 118th day of a hunger strike that might well claim his life as he is taking only water at the moment. Nabil began earlier this year by blogging that

“the Egyptian army and the people are of one hand”,

meaning that the two were working together for democracy. He changed his mind and later wrote that the army and the people were

“no longer of one hand”

when he saw the army repressing protesters. For publishing that incontrovertible journalistic truth, he was charged with “insulting the Egyptian military” and a military tribunal convicted him last April in a fake legal process. Last week in a retrial, amid the renewed brutality in Tahrir square, his conviction was upheld.

The tribunal’s decision has been condemned by Reporters Without Borders and by the US State Department. I want to take advantage of this pre-Christmas debate to ask for our Foreign Secretary to add his own—and, I believe, Parliament’s—voice in calling for the immediate release of Maikel Nabil, who might well die soon, just as Mohammed Bouazizi died on 4 January this year when he sacrificed his life to call attention to the lack of freedom in Tunisia. Mr Nabil is taking only water now. His sacrifice is also in protest at the fact that Egypt’s ruling military council has put on trial 12,000 people in the post-Mubarak era, more civilians than were tried during all of Mubarak’s rule.

Throughout history military tribunals dealing with civilians who irritate the generals work on the basis of presumption not of innocence but of guilt. There is no right to cross-examine witnesses or evidence, and no consideration of the evidence is permitted. There is no right of appeal. Nabil and the 12,000 Egyptians now in prison had no right to their own lawyer. This is Soviet-style justice, or perhaps could seem even worse if one considers justice in the Nazi era.

I hope British lawyers will be able to go to Cairo to help Mr Nabil and other prisoners of conscience. I ask our Foreign Secretary to call in the Egyptian ambassador and demand Nabil’s immediate release and British generals who have hosted their Egyptian fellow army officers should place some calls to Cairo and say that the Egyptian military will be covered in shame if Maikel Nabil dies at their hands.

The Arab spring is at a crossroads. Britain should speak loud and clear for justice and democracy.

Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, there are a number of points that I wish to raise. I congratulate the Prime Minister on not signing the latest European treaty. Future generations will have every cause to thank him, and some of the French politicians behaved with less than great dignity.

Of course, next year we will host the Olympic games. I am delighted that 95% of the population will be within travelling distance of the Olympic torch route. I am delighted to say that the torch will visit Southend on 6 July. We are also fortunate to have the mountain bike event at Hadleigh.

Southend has not been so lucky when it comes to the national census. In 2001, 20,000 people were left off the census, and exactly the same seems to be happening this time. It is simply not good enough.

I am delighted that Visteon pensioners are receiving support. I understand that legal proceedings are drawing to a conclusion; I wish those pensioners well in all their endeavours.

Whistleblowing has become very fashionable, but not all whistleblowers are right, and there is every reason why constituents should know, through the Freedom of Information Act, who the whistleblower was when they have been wrongly accused.

With Christmas just around the corner, I urge the House to think of Camp Ashraf, as the deadline for its closure draws ever nearer. If protection is not given to the people there, Iraqi forces might attack them. It is our duty to put pressure on the Iraqi Government to postpone the deadline, and to ensure that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is allowed to evacuate the refugees safely.

Christmas is a wonderful time for giving, but many people give pets, and the result is absolutely disastrous: 11,500 pets were dumped last Christmas, so I hope that people will think very carefully before giving pets as presents this year.

A recent survey has shown that 16% of the population would quite happily buy fake fragrance. I would like to advise against the purchase of fake perfume; not only is it economically damaging, costing the real industry as much as £319 million a year, but it is dangerous for the user, with the potential for allergic reactions. I congratulate the Real Deal campaign on what it is trying to do.

I should also like to draw attention to the dangers of pocket lighters. According to a recent poll, one in 10 Brits has had an accident with a lighter, or knows someone who has. A worrying 79% of lighters sold in the UK do not conform to safety standards outlined in European regulations; I hope that the appropriate Department will have a look at that.

Sadly, hate crime is a growing problem, and it is particularly potent when it affects people who are learning-disabled. People with learning disabilities need to be helped to report hate crime, and I congratulate Southend Mencap on what it is trying to do.

I am still astounded at the way in which single parents are left isolated by what was the Child Support Agency. We brought before the House legislation that was supposed to help families, but I have in my constituency a Mrs O’Connor who has been struggling to get help for the past seven years. Her husband pays £5 a week towards the children. The latest letter that I got from the agency did not give a direct, personal line; it just gave a general line. That is absolutely disgraceful. The break-up of families is unfortunately an increasing phenomenon in today’s society. I commend the family justice review’s report, which mentions giving more power to grandparents.

I end with some thoughts about this place. When I first became an MP, I could make a real difference to people’s lives. Unfortunately, increasingly I can do so only at the margin. One need only look at Parliament square, where we still have demonstrations, or at the ridiculous arrangements at the Curtis Green building. An important announcement was made about a local hospital, and Monitor did not even have a conversation with me—it just sent out a press release. That simply is not good enough. We need to get back ownership of this place, which was destroyed in 1997.

As far as next year is concerned, I hope that my mother, Maud, will be able to celebrate her 100th birthday in April; I hope that the Queen will have a wonderful diamond jubilee; and we all look forward to the Olympic games. I wish everyone a very happy Christmas, good health, peace, prosperity, and a wonderful new year.

I want to speak briefly about two things: first, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, secondly, Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—a subject into which I will segue with surprisingly little effort; as you will discover, Mr Deputy Speaker, there is a significant link between the two.

Today, the incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, was invested in office again after an election that was preposterous. It was condemned strongly by the United States and France—and by Belgium; one might not normally think that terribly important, but in the case of the Congo, the Belgians’ position is quite important. Europe looks to Belgium to give a moral lead in some historical respect. The Carter Center observed the elections and said that they were not valid. The Open Society Institute did the same. In general, the position of most Governments, including the UK Government, is that the elections were a farce.

Nevertheless, Joseph Kabila turns out to be still in power. It is one of those odd situations where it is hard to break off diplomatic relations with a country because it has flawed elections. Many countries do not have elections at all, but the Congo is one of those worrying cases where things are going backwards. It had pretty well organised, well run elections funded by the international community back in 2006. This time, early in the year, President Kabila changed the rules to take out the second round of elections because he did not think he would win in the second round. He thought he would win easily in the first round. As the campaigning moved on, it looked as though he might lose in the first round, so it looks awfully like some manipulation took place, although nobody could see it. The manipulation occurs in the places where the ballot boxes are tipped out—sometimes just tipped out all over the floor and sometimes actually counted.

Some remarkable results emerged. In Katanga, where President Kabila clearly has a fantastic campaigning machine, he managed to get 99.8% of the vote—remarkable. His getting the vote out and his ID work must have been truly magnificent—99.8% of the vote. Only more remarkable than that is the fact that the turnout in Katanga, his own stronghold, was 100.14%—astonishing success in the Congo. Perhaps we should be watching how those politicians campaign and what the campaigning methods are. On the other hand, perhaps not.

There are direct elections in the Congo, of course, for the president. The parliamentary elections, which took place at the same time, will be counted shortly and the results will come out in January. We should probably have no more confidence in those. That is a great shame. I urge the UK Government to take a very strong position. As time goes by it is hard to deal with such a Government. We give considerable international development aid. We cannot reduce that; it goes directly through NGOs, but I hope the Government will take a strong position in the coming weeks and months.

I shall now segue into IPSA. The President of the Congo has a cunning ruse. It is not that cunning, actually. He simply takes national assets, sells them to a mate for a pittance and then his mate sells them on for a few hundred million dollars profit. He has done it many times now. I have stuck it on my website for all who may be interested to see it. He has done it to the tune of $5 billion or $6 billion in the past two years. One such deal involved a company listed in the UK, a company called Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, better known as ENRC.

The deal is well known and has been extensively written about. I urge all Members to google it. It is an absolute shocker of a deal. It is quite clear that it was a very ropey and dodgy deal. One of the primary defenders of the deal is a man called Ken Olisa, who was a member of the board of ENRC. He said at the time, “I wouldn’t have joined the board if I thought there was anything ropey, if anything crooked was going on.” That was just before he was famously sacked by the ENRC oligarchs who run it. He then changed his tune and is famously quoted as saying that the company is more soviet than City. This is a company that essentially enables the President of the Congo to rip off the people of the Congo.

IPSA has five board members—very experienced individuals who draw on their own experience. There is an accountant/academic, a former judge, a former quangocrat, and even a former Member of Parliament, so a pretty good bunch, except that the business man on IPSA is none other than Ken Olisa. I find that absolutely staggering. When I spoke about the subject last time, I was not even aware of it. Someone tweeted, “Perhaps Joyce ought to look at Ken Olisa’s other job before he slags off Ken Olisa again.” It is absolutely astonishing that that man should be on the board of IPSA, carrying out a function that we all agree is very important. I hope he may have the chance to reflect on whether his position on the board is appropriate.

The preamble to the charter of the United Nations says that the UN was created

“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and . . . to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”.

It refers to the need

“to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and… to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours”.

It states that

“armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest,”

and that international machinery should be employed

“for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples”.

Article 1 of the UN charter, in chapter 1, refers to the need to

“develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”

and to encourage

“respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

Following that introduction, I would like to refer to the UN declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples, which was adopted on 13 September 2007. Article 8 states that indigenous peoples have a collective and individual right to maintain and develop their distinct identities and characteristics, including the right to identify themselves as indigenous and to be recognised as such. It states that indigenous peoples should

“be free from discrimination of any kind”

and that we need to recognise

“the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources”.

Sadly, there is one country in the world with which this country, every country in the European Union and the United States of America have very strong links, but which practises policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid against its indigenous people. I refer to the state of Israel. The Israeli Cabinet took the decision on 11 September to proceed with a plan for attempting to resolve the long-standing issues faced by the country’s 200,000 Arab Bedouin population living in the southern Negev desert. The plan, known as the Prawer plan, will result in at least 30,000 people losing their homes. It is expected to be put to the Israeli Parliament any time now. The Bedouin community was not consulted when the plan was drawn up and already faces serious human rights violations through discriminatory policies.

The Bedouin are Israel’s indigenous people, as has been accepted by the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples, but the Israeli Government refuse to accept that and withhold several rights that are accorded to them under international law. Israel now wants to try to move tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes and villages into Government townships that are already overcrowded and have a whole range of social and economic problems.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting Palestine/Israel, the west bank and east Jerusalem. I witnessed at first hand policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid against the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, which is a separate matter to that of the Arab Bedouin. We have heard today about the Arab spring, but I am referring to the Arab winter. Palestinian children are being arrested, ill treated—arguably tortured—and some of them are being detained in Israel in violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention.

Because of the illegal walls built by the state of Israel across the west bank, today Mary and Joseph would not have been able to get to Bethlehem, the shepherds would have been ethnically cleansed and the three kings would not have been allowed into Palestine. I am amazed that the leaders of the Christian faith around the world, whether the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, through the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Pope, have remained silent. It is time that the Christian leaders spoke up for the people of the holy land.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), and I pay tribute to his remarks. I shall stay in the middle east, but stick with the theme that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) introduced some moments ago of the Arab spring.

The Arab spring is far from off course, and we have to maintain our optimism and hope that it can deliver to the peoples of that region justice and, for the first time in all our lifetimes, the prospect of democracy, but worrying developments are taking place, even in countries with which Britain has the closest of relationships.

We know that 14 people have been killed by the security forces in Egypt since last Friday; we know that beatings are taking place; and we know of the case of the young woman who was half-stripped by the security forces, dragged along the floor and forced to reveal her underwear in what was a shameful act. Britain has strong relations with Egypt, but I endorse my right hon. Friend’s plea that its ambassador should be summoned to the Foreign Office and told of the serious concerns that this House and the people of Britain have about the actions of the security forces in a country that we value as a friendly nation.

Bahrain is also a country with which Britain has the strongest possible contacts and strong business connections, but we know from recent times that business in countries such as Bahrain is best helped when Britain promotes a strong regard for human rights. So we have to tell the King of Bahrain, with whom we have strong contacts, that the arrest of Zainab Alkhawaja, the blogger known as Angry Arabiya, and her punching by members of the security forces is a disgrace; that he has to address the results of the commission of inquiry that he set up—his own commission—to look into the disturbances there; and that the doctors who were arrested by the security forces for treating the victims of violence should now be released. Those are simple demands, and the Bahraini ambassador should have it made clear to him that this Parliament does not tolerate such abuse of human rights, even by countries with which this country has a close friendship.

In Syria, the situation is much complicated, with 5,000 people dead since the beginning of the Arab spring and the state deaf to any protest. The Russians may be starting to put a little more pressure on their long-time ally in Damascus, but Britain has again to speak out more loudly and to work with its allies in the European Union and at the United Nations to bring pressure on Damascus, because the systematic killing of people and the alleged rape of even children by the security forces is something about which we have to be vocal in the world. All Members would agree with that. We need robust diplomacy in the middle east, stating that human rights and the defence of democracy are in the common interest not simply of people in Britain, but of the ordinary citizens of Bahrain, Syria and Egypt.

Britain’s own interest is in seeing democracy develop in the middle east. My right hon. Friend said that he distrusted Islamist parties, but we have to be a little careful not to portray all Islamist parties as hostile to democracy. In Turkey, for example, democracy is consistent with a moderate Islamist party, so we must not allow the fundamentalists to drive a wedge between our country and such moderate groups.

Finally, on Belarus, almost a year ago to the day I led the international observation mission on the elections there, which were fraudulent from beginning to end and disgracefully ripped off the rights of the people of that country, but I was pleased to see this week a letter in the name of our Foreign Secretary and those of Germany, Poland and Sweden, making clear their position on Belarus. In that country, things go from bad to worse, and we have seen the presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, not only arrested and imprisoned, but imprisoned without his own family even being told where he is or able to communicate with him. That is a disgrace of an enormous magnitude and not simply the suppression of democracy, but an attempt to cow any voice—however strong, as Andrei Sannikov’s voice has been—that criticises the Lukashenko regime.

It is right and proper that we now demand the toughest possible EU sanctions on the Lukashenko regime and those around him.

I want to spend a few minutes celebrating some of the achievements in my constituency and highlighting some of my constituents’ concerns.

This has been a very difficult year for many of my constituents, particularly those in business. I want to recognise the extraordinary efforts of organisations such as Ilkley Business Forum, which has been offering leadership in bringing businesses together to try to support each other, and in ensuring that other partnerships work effectively in delivering the success of these businesses. I have two messages. First, I would say to constituents: “Buy local and support your local high street and local businesses. Unless you use those services, you might, as people often say, lose them, so please go and support them.” All levels of government have a responsibility to support business, including local government, so I would say, secondly, to Bradford council, of which I was once leader: “Ignore businesses in Keighley and Ilkley at your own peril.” At this time of economic difficulties, raising taxes by putting fees on car parking in those towns is wrong. As one business man said to me recently, “The local council thinks the streets of Ilkley are paved with gold.” Local businesses do not need to have these charges put against them; they need to be supported, and the council needs to reconsider.

We need to increase our capacity in the north. The north wants to make a positive contribution to the economy of this country and to change the dependency on the public sector and promote businesses. I therefore fully support the high-speed train link and want it to expand to Birmingham as soon as possible and then up to the north. Councils and MPs of all parties very much support this, and I give it my 100% backing.

The public sector is undergoing some of the greatest changes in Britain. Cuts to the public sector, particularly in the north, are having a real effect on services and staff. In my last role as leader of the council, I saw the enormous commitment by public sector workers in delivering key services. I know that these are difficult times, and despite the many issues raised, I welcome the positive response by the majority of the trade unions—a response that I have come to respect, as will many other people.

In my constituency, the jewel in the crown is probably Airedale general hospital. I want to acknowledge two “Highly Commended” national awards that the hospital has received and pay tribute to two members of staff, in particular. Senior audiologist Alan Walshaw has been recognised as audiologist of the year 2011, and Jane Downes, the hospital’s company secretary, has become company secretary of the year in a not-for-profit organisation. It is extremely important to recognise that.

Educational attainment and skills are low in the constituency, and if we fail to address these issues, the town will fail. Keighley First locality achievement partnership has already, in its first year, made a significant impact on attendance at schools, and I applaud its efforts. Parkwood primary school and Long Lee primary school have been judged to be outstanding schools by Ofsted.

A few weeks ago, I went to visit Project 6, which is a drug and alcohol treatment centre in town. Such a place is not always the most popular location in anybody’s town, but an enormous amount of important work is done there. Three ambassadors talked about their struggles in dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and the effect that it has had on their families. We all, in our towns and constituencies across the country, need to take some responsibility in addressing this. Many of these people want to make a positive contribution to society and not to be a burden. I pay tribute to the staff and volunteers at Project 6 for the work that they do.

The measure of any nation is how it addresses international development. We put an enormous amount of money into international development, and that is important. With other countries, we have helped to vaccinate a quarter of a billion children against diseases that our children do not suffer from; we have saved the lives of very many people in the horn of Africa; and we have put money into schools in Gaza, where 12 new schools are helping 24,000 children.

It is a pleasure to speak in this pre-recess Adjournment debate. I will focus my contribution on two local issues in my constituency. I had planned to talk about three issues, but I guess that it will have to be two because we are short of time. I am sure that I will manage. The two issues are superfast broadband connections and progress on the local campaign to combat antisocial behaviour.

There is demand for superfast broadband across Bradley Stoke, which is a new town and the largest population centre in the constituency. The sticking point is that any significant undertaking to lay the necessary cables in the town to increase the broadband speed would have to be done at the providers’ cost because the roads are in a good state of repair.

Last year, we started a community broadband campaign that collected more than 1,000 signatures to demonstrate the demand for improvements to the Almondsbury exchange. Although I appreciate that there are local infrastructure issues, it is difficult to see why the private sector is not capitalising better on that demand. We also hosted a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and the local authority. The Minister told us that to help solve the problem, the Government have set up a scheme to provide £530 million of funding to improve broadband provision across the country.

To ensure that South Gloucestershire council is able to benefit from the scheme, the Conservative-run council is working with Broadband Delivery UK to develop a local broadband plan, setting out how homes and businesses would benefit from improved broadband provision. Progress has not been as quick as I and some of my constituents would like. I am as keen as they are that concrete results emerge soon and I am hopeful that they will.

South Gloucestershire council had been working with Bath and North East Somerset council on a joint superfast broadband plan to submit to the Government for approval. However, at its November meeting, the Bath and North East Somerset cabinet decided to pull out of the plan. It made no sense for the Lib Dem administration to pull out of the joint plan with South Gloucestershire council, given all the benefits that superfast broadband could bring to households and businesses across both districts. I am pleased to report that progress is none the less being made behind the scenes. I hope to give positive news to my constituents on this matter early in the new year.

Hon. Members may remember that several months ago, in another pre-recess debate, I called for antisocial behaviour to be taken much more seriously by the police force that serves my area. I had been contacted by residents in Filton who were concerned that antisocial behaviour was being allowed to get out of control and was becoming a daily occurrence in some areas.

I am pleased to say that we have made significant progress in ensuring that the local police put the appropriate amount of time and energy into tackling antisocial behaviour. I am in constant contact with Avon and Somerset police, including with Chief Constable Colin Port, with whom I have an effective working relationship. In my mind, local policing has improved greatly because local people’s priorities are being considered and swift action is being taken. I pay particular tribute to Inspector Robert Evely, who has worked tirelessly to ensure that local residents feel safe and that their voice is heard in local police decision making.

When local policing takes into account local feelings, it can only be for the better. That is why I am such a strong supporter of the Government’s policy of police and crime commissioners and the elections that will take place in November 2012. Police and crime commissioners will be directly elected and accountable to the public who elected them and whom they serve. They will help to repair the broken link that I believe exists between the public and the police service. It is a fantastic policy that will be of huge benefit to residents in my area. I encourage all my constituents to take an interest, to participate in the elections and, if they are so minded, to consider running for the office.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this recess debate. First, I want to talk about Feniton, which is a village in my constituency that was flooded badly in 2008. In the village there are many bungalows. When they were flooded, a lot of elderly people had to go up into their lofts to get away from the floods. As one can imagine, that was a terrifying experience.

There are schemes to alleviate flooding in Feniton in the future. One scheme is to build ponds in the fields at the top of the village to collect water so that it does not rush down through the village, and thus to prevent flooding. The other plan is to build a pipe through the village to take water away more quickly. The only problem with the second solution is that it would take water down to the bottom end of the village, which would probably flood that area. I therefore think that the ponds at the top of the village are the answer. I am looking to the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help finance that. I know that money is tight, but I am particularly interested in trying to help my constituents in Feniton.

The other issue that I wish to raise is the aggregates levy sustainability fund, which was set up in April 2002 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and is intended to promote more environmentally friendly extraction of aggregates and to control the impact on local people.

There is a quarry at the villages of Westleigh and Burlescombe in my constituency, where some 750,000 tonnes of aggregate a year is extracted. The roads through Burlescombe are particularly poor and there are a lot of old cottages there, so the transportation of that aggregate is bad not only for the safety of the village but for its properties. The extraction produces something like £1.5 million a year of aggregates tax—a tax that was set up to help local people. I should like the Government to consider, as part of the Localism Bill, allowing some of that tax to be kept locally instead of being gobbled up by the Treasury, however exciting and necessary that might be.

The quarry has some 25 to 30 years to run, so we can imagine the millions of tonnes of stone that will travel through the village. It is high time that we worked out a way in which a percentage of the aggregates tax could be siphoned off and ring-fenced for the village of Burlescombe. That would bring some relief to the village.

There is also a tarmac plant at the Westleigh quarry, which runs day and night at times, especially at times of the year when there is a great demand for tarmac. Again, the villagers have to put up with lorries going through the village very late at night. It is high time that the Government, who are very keen on ensuring that local people have a say, give them a say on how the aggregates tax is spent. It may take several years, but a road and relief could be provided for the villagers of Burlescombe and Westleigh if just a small levy were put on the aggregates tax.

I will be interested to hear what Ministers have to say about that matter, because many of my colleagues throughout the country will have quarries in their constituencies and be in the same position. Why should people who have to put up with the problems of quarrying not get any benefit from the aggregates tax, which was set up to look after local people?

My local community has lost two friends in the past couple of weeks. First there was the very sad passing last week of Councillor Brenda Simpson, who was an outstanding member of Swale borough council for 23 years. Brenda was a perfect ward councillor who, despite being a staunch Conservative, always put the interests of her Kemsley community before party politics. She was honest, hard-working and a thoroughly nice person, and she will be missed by friend and political foe alike.

This month we also witnessed the death of the East Kent Gazette, which closed its doors after 156 years of publication. My heart goes out to the hard-working staff who face the prospect of losing their jobs.

This year we also witnessed the closure of Sittingbourne magistrates court, which was killed off by the Ministry of Justice despite a promise made to local people that it would remain open when Sheerness magistrates court was closed a few years ago. I am convinced that the closure will lead to some of my constituents being denied the access to justice to which they are entitled.

Sadly, there are more closures in the pipeline. For instance, we are fighting to keep open Queenborough fire station, which Kent fire and rescue service wants to close on the grounds that the number of houses in the area does not warrant a fire station. That ignores the fact that there are plans to build another 2,500 homes in Queenborough in the foreseeable future.

We are also fighting to save the Sheerness county youth club, which is under threat from Kent county council despite being acknowledged as one of the best youth clubs in the county.

We have a number of other challenges, too. For instance, our local road infrastructure needs upgrading if we are to prevent the centre of Sittingbourne from becoming gridlocked in the not-too-distant future. For a start, we need urgent action to ease congestion on the A2 and on the A249 at the Stockbury roundabout, which is a nightmare during rush hour. In addition, we want to see a commitment to complete the final stretch of the northern relief road in Sittingbourne and agreement in principle for a southern relief road.

Last week we learned that there are now almost 3,000 people unemployed in my constituency, an increase of 200 on the last quarter. But despite that increase I am quite upbeat about the future prospects for employment in my constituency. Recently Swale borough council approved planning applications for two new Morrisons supermarkets in the area, one in Sittingbourne and one in Sheppey. Tesco has also received planning approval for a major regeneration of Sittingbourne town centre. Those developments alone will create up to 1,500 very welcome jobs. Of course, because of their size, there might be a temptation for the Government to call in one or more of those planning applications. I would urge Ministers to resist that temptation so that those jobs can be delivered without delay.

In Sittingbourne and Sheppey we are lucky to have some excellent schools, including six secondary schools, all of which have either achieved academy status or are hoping to become academies. But a number of those schools are in urgent need of capital investment. I understand why the Government scrapped the ill-thought-out and badly managed Building Schools for the Future programme, but I very much hope that money will be made available to the schools in my constituency who desperately need to upgrade their buildings in order to maintain the excellent standards that they currently achieve.

Finally, there is one other bit of good news for my constituency, and it is literally good news! The Kent Messenger Group has stepped into the breach caused by the closure of the East Kent Gazette and last week launched a new paid-for paper in my constituency. It is called the Sittingbourne News Extra, and judging by its first edition, it promises to provide Sittingbourne and its surrounding villages with the local news to which they have become accustomed. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the editor and staff of the Sittingbourne News Extra on the quality of their paper and welcome them to our local community.

There is so much more that I could say about my constituency, of which I am very proud, but sadly time does not allow me to do anything other than wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and other right hon. and hon. Members, a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful new year.

On the face of it, my constituency might seem well served by transport as it has an international airport, the largest dock complex in the country and 10 railway stations, including one that serves two farms and an ancient ruin, and was used by 13 passengers in 2010. But the road network needs a little improvement. The main road into the constituency is the A180, but the A160 off to Immingham dock—which, as I said, is the largest dock complex in the country—is in urgent need of an upgrade.

The last message I had from the Department for Transport said that the upgrade was included in 12 future schemes that should receive development funds, and that a decision would be taken by the end of the year. So time is running out and this is my last opportunity to lobby Ministers about the importance of the A160. Not only does it serve the existing Immingham dock, but it will serve one of the two new enterprise zones in the area, so it is clearly of vital importance.

I welcome the Government’s recent decisions to grant those enterprise zones that status, and we also gained from the announcement that the Immingham bypass would at long last go ahead, as well as the halving of the Humber bridge tolls. May I also draw Ministers’ attention to the urgent need for a direct rail service from the constituency to London? About a year ago I met Alliance Rail, which is keen to do this, and it told me that its plans were still in the system. But the byzantine procedures that they have to go through for the opportunity to run a rail service are complex beyond belief. If we are to go ahead with High Speed 2 and develop our rail network, we must put together a system that reaches decisions rather more quickly. If the Victorians had been locked into the present system, our trains would still be pulled by Stephenson’s Rocket, and the network would not have expanded as it did. There is no incentive for rail companies to provide extra services.

That is typified by the service that runs on Saturdays only from Cleethorpes to Brigg, Kirton in Lindsey and Gainsborough, and then on to Sheffield. We have a good service to Sheffield via Doncaster, but I am eager for people from Gainsborough—I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) in his place—to be able to use that service to take their families for a day out in Cleethorpes, where they can enjoy Pleasure Island and see the attractions that the “Cleethorpes in bloom” committee has organised.

The hon. Gentleman is making the case eloquently for the links between good transport infrastructure and economic development, but does he agree that direct train services are pivotal to that? Sometimes London does not realise that direct services—

Order. That is far too long an intervention. May I just say to Members that time is tight? I want to get everybody in, but time is very tight indeed. If people are going to give way, they should remember that the extra minute will come off somebody else’s time. Please let us try to ensure that we get everybody in.

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady’s point. It is vital for growth and economic development that we should have direct services. However, the system is so complex that there is no incentive for existing railway companies to expand. They can pile people on to existing services, but where is the incentive to take the commercial risk and develop a new service? We must do something to improve the situation.

Finally, I want to return to the vexed subject of the Humber bridge tolls. Members will appreciate that in his autumn statement the Chancellor halved the tolls. That is a great boost to the economy of the local area. Sadly, there is a fly in the ointment: the four local authorities have to reach agreement, because otherwise legislation is required. Three of the local authorities, under a mixture of political control, have agreed that the underwriting of the remaining debt should be split equally between them. Unfortunately, the leader of North East Lincolnshire council has taken a rather obstinate and petulant position, saying that that should be divided according to population.

I have written to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)—the two Ministers who conducted the recent review. However, may I urge those on the Front Bench to pass on my concerns to both those Ministers and all concerned, and ask that whatever pressure is possible be applied, so that this matter can be resolved? After 25 years of campaigning we now have the opportunity to give the local economy a real boost, and give easier and cheaper access to those who have to cross the bridge to obtain health treatment. Now is the time to do that. I urge Ministers to do all they can to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.

Mr Deputy Speaker, may I take the opportunity in this eclectic Christmas debate to wish you, your colleagues and all right hon. and hon. Members, as well as all parliamentary staff, a very happy Christmas and all the best for the new year?

I want to raise a topic of constitutional importance to a Government who have embraced parliamentary and constitutional reform with great enthusiasm: the West Lothian question. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all I want for Christmas is a West Lothian commission. I know that the Government share my enthusiasm to set up such a commission, because they have referred to it on many occasions. I think the first occasion in this Parliament was when the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) said in July 2010 that he anticipated that the commission would be set up by autumn 2010. That was confirmed again later that July by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who said that he would bring forward proposals in the autumn.

However, by October we heard that, in fact, the aim was to announce plans for a commission by the end of 2010. Then, when I raised the subject in last year’s Christmas Adjournment debate, I was assured that we would get the announcement in the new year. When I asked whether that meant 2011, I was assured that the Government were happy to confirm that that was the case. Imagine my excitement, then, when 2011 arrived, and when we were told, in March, that the commission would shortly be established. As time progressed throughout the year, a debate on the West Lothian commission took place in Westminster Hall, at which the Parliamentary Secretary confirmed that, in referring to “this year”, he did indeed mean 2011.

I was therefore very excited when a written ministerial statement was made on 8 September to assure the House that the commitment in the coalition’s programme for government to

“establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’”

would result in a commission being established after the conclusion of a

“short process of consultation and further deliberation. I expect that this will be in the weeks after the House returns in October.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 28WS.]

In the debate on my private Member’s Bill on 9 September, we again heard that the Government were keen to address this thorny constitutional topic as soon as possible. It is a problem that could become quite serious if it is not addressed.

It has taken 100 years to get this far towards establishing a commission on the West Lothian question, and we must welcome the enormous progress that has been made. I was delighted when the Deputy Leader of the House was able to confirm last week that the announcement was to be made shortly. I am therefore pleased to be able to give him this additional chance today, while we are still in 2011, to embrace this issue with the enthusiasm that I know he shares and to announce the establishment of the West Lothian commission. So, without further ado, I shall sit down and eagerly await that announcement.

I wish to raise a matter that is of particular concern to the logistics industry. That industry is something of a Cinderella sector whose contribution to the UK economy is often not recognised. It has had a tough few years, not least as a result of high fuel prices. Despite that, it has continued to deliver the goods for the UK, and our economy depends on an efficient, successful supply chain getting the right goods to the right places.

The logistics sector is of particular importance to my constituency, because Rugby enjoys an ideal location in the centre of England and at the crossroads of the motorway network, an hour away from the M25. As an aside, I should like to say that the industry and I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving the Catthorpe intersection at junction 19 of the M1. It is at the crossroads of the motorway network, and the scheme will improve a junction that currently suffers from considerable delays and accidents.

The issue that I wish to raise is the proposed EU regulation on the height of commercial vehicle trailers. The EU is seeking to restrict such trailers to a height of 4 metres through a directive known as the whole vehicle type approval scheme. The EU claims that this will ensure safety on our roads, but I believe that it is an example of the EU bringing in standardisation for standardisation’s sake.

I doubt that many Members will be aware of the directive. I was unaware of it until I had a meeting with representatives of a company based in my constituency. Lloyd Fraser Contracts is a large logistics company, among whose many contracts is one with Mr Kipling cakes. At this time of year, it spends much of its time delivering mince pies, among other things. These are relatively light, fragile products that are packed in boxes of very little weight. It is important to get as many boxes as possible into the trailers, and one way for the company to do that is to make its trailers taller to maximise the available space.

In response to the EU’s claim, Lloyd Fraser told me that it knew of only two instances in which the height of a trailer had been an issue in an accident. It was put to me that self-regulation has worked effectively in recent years. I was also told that when issues of wind speed are involved, the company takes a decision to take the high-sided vehicles off the road. It sees no reason for legislation. However, 4.9 metres seems to have been adopted within the UK as the maximum height of a trailer, but the company is now using double, triple or even quadruple decks on its lorries. In doing this, British businesses gain extra cubic capacity, while fuel consumption and exhaust emissions per tonne of product are dramatically cut. There is a strong business case for allowing British distributors and logistics companies to do what they have been doing.

In this matter, I want to refer to research published by Professor Alan McKinnon in October 2010. It showed that between 2004 and 2008 there was a 57% increase in the amount of freight moved in double-deck trailers. If the EU regulations are implemented and the UK is not granted an exemption, this directive would see road haulage costs rise by roughly £305 million, with CO2 emissions increasing by 64%—equivalent to having 151,000 extra cars on UK roads.

This is a potential problem for the UK, but I understand that work is going on behind the scenes between the Government and the EU. I welcome some of the meetings that have taken place with representatives from the industry. I very much hope that this will bring a successful resolution for all. It is important to champion the freight industry for keeping this country’s economy on the move. When it comes to the negotiations, I hope that common sense will prevail.

Finally, I extend to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to all Members and to staff a very happy Christmas.

It is an honour to speak in the final debate before Christmas. I want to talk about manufacturing engineering. We have a large number of successful manufacturers in my constituency, notably in the engineering sector, but in a wide range of products. I believe that we should celebrate these successes; it is time we put the spotlight on them. I am organising a festival for manufacturing and engineering to achieve exactly that.

First, I want to thank all the firms and organisations, especially the schools and our local college, for the massive support I have received in organising this week-long festival, which will focus on a wide variety of manufacturers and engineers.

I want to organise the festival for three reasons. First, as I have already said, I want to celebrate the success in my constituency. Manufacturers make a lot of innovative products and they export them across the globe. That is absolutely fantastic, and we need to say so.

Secondly, we want more investment—much more investment—from outside as well as inside, because that will further drive the success of these businesses. To that end, I aim to ensure that investors come to Stroud to see what we have on offer in terms of the infrastructure and the people already there, and the opportunities.

The third reason I am organising this event is to make sure that young people see manufacturing as a pathway towards their own careers or a pathway to develop their expertise in manufacturing and engineering—to see it as a way to spend their lives in a working environment. It is so important to encourage young people to think about manufacturing and engineering as places to work.

Those are my three reasons, and I believe the festival will be a success. It starts on 23 April. I have brought on board a large number of people—beyond those supporting it through sponsorship and provision of other forms of support—because the initiative strikes at the heart of what we need to do.

Several things need to be done better, however, to make sure that manufacturing and engineering succeed in the long term. One is making sure that the banks start to understand how these firms really work, what they aim to do and how the banks can help them. We have to be more subtle and more sophisticated at analysing the requests for additional funds, especially in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector. We need, too, to go beyond simply managing debt towards equity funding. The Government should encourage that as they move towards implementation of the Vickers report. I look forward to contributing to those debates, but I want to put down a marker now: we must ensure that that is done.

Secondly, I think that we must be more aware of the length and sophistication of manufacturing supply chains. That is equally important in the context of Gloucestershire as the town that contains my constituency and in the context of Gloucestershire as part of England, and indeed that of England, Britain, Europe and the world. Supply chains are critical. I welcome the Government’s investment in them so far, but we must ensure that our attitude to economic policy takes account of that important element of manufacturing and engineering. Obviously, I shall want to draw particular attention to what happens in Stroud.

Finally, I want to emphasise the importance of skills and apprenticeships. It was good that we debated the subject yesterday, but we still need to find ways of encouraging young people to think about small businesses as options for apprenticeships, and encouraging small businesses to see apprenticeships as a way forward for them. We focus too much on the restrictions that deter them from employing young people. I know that we are reducing those restrictions, but we must also start to talk positively about the role that young people can and should play in small as well as medium-sized businesses. Those are facts, and they are important in ensuring that our economy thrives.

I want 2012 to be a happy and successful year for manufacturers, and I wish all Members of the House and the officers who support it a first-class Christmas.

I am going to speak about Portsmouth football club. I warn the House that there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that fans have come together to set up a supporters trust. I declare an interest as a proud member of that trust: like so many others, I pay a £5 subscription, which goes towards funding community projects and, potentially, safeguarding the future of the club. I pay tribute to all who brought that about, in Portsmouth and at Supporters Direct.

Now for the bad news. It is often said by enthusiasts—although we in this House would disagree—that the mark of a good referee is that he goes unnoticed, letting the game run its course. Sadly for fans of Portsmouth, the financial referee has been too much in evidence in recent years. Yet again, Portsmouth has been let down by one of its owners. At about the time when we were debating the problems with the European arrest warrant, one such warrant was issued for the Russian owner of the club so that he could answer charges of money laundering in Lithuania. His company, Convers Sports Initiatives—or, rather appropriately, CSI—was placed in administration, and the hunt for another new owner is under way.

Fans and the club staff are right to feel disappointed after the extraordinary amount of work that has been put in by so many people over the last 18 months to avoid closure and rebuild the club. The sense of despair is all the more acute given that the “fit and proper person” test was supposed to weed out unsuitable owners. I am keen to hear the Minister’s views on the situation, and to be told what he can do to support the club in its latest challenge. Needless to say, I have a few suggestions.

I think that the Minister should be anxious for the vetting of prospective club owners to be done well, and I should like to hear his assessment of the process that led to CSI’s being allowed to buy Portsmouth. I was very pleased both by the report on football governance by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and by the Government’s response to it. The social value of the game is very much recognised in this place.

Those who invest in football clubs as a means of making money would do well to recognise that they have put their money not just into a vehicle for profit, but into the collective identity of communities—the bonds shared between generations of families. It is that simple enjoyment of the game and love of the club for its own sake that makes supporters clubs appropriate participants in club governance. Their sole interest is the club, and without them there would be no club. In my view, that is the most compelling argument for supporters trusts to have a governance role.

Like the Portsmouth supporters trust, I think that the option of supporter involvement via a financial stake should be considered for Portsmouth, and I am helping with the production of an assessment of the amount that could be raised. The professionalism with which the trust has conducted itself has been hugely impressive. The core working party is composed of knowledgeable and skilled individuals with the financial and legal expertise to develop this proposition. However, they have been faced with a series of improbable but all too real barriers. They do not yet have access to the financial information any prospective buyer would be entitled to see. There appears to be a bias against them—a suspicion that they are not serious, and an assumption they do not have the funds and that they are not competent. We will demonstrate, because we can, that all these prejudices are unfounded, but it should not be necessary to go to such lengths. I would be grateful if the Minister made it clear to the administrators that in taking such a stance they are not acting in anyone’s interests. Discrimination is not the better part of valour. The administrators should be left in no doubt that this House and the Government believe in supporter involvement and that the Portsmouth supporters trust should be both treated and judged on a level playing field.

I would be grateful if the Minister took an active interest in this latest episode of Portsmouth football club’s life, and for anything the Minister could do to support the trust and the fans in safeguarding their beloved club’s future.

Finally, I wish colleagues a happy Christmas.

First, may I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and all the staff and officials of the House, as well as the security officers, for all they do in making the work of Members easier than it would otherwise be? I also want to thank my own staff—those currently working for me, and those who have moved on—for all their support in helping me represent Suffolk Coastal.

I want to highlight three topics. The first of them is the high fuel costs of people who live in off-gas-grid houses. I first raised this issue just over a year ago, when we were in the middle of a bleak mid-winter—the current winter has been much milder, of course. Last year people were paying just over 70p a litre for heating oil, and this Christmas the price is 60p, but that is still a huge amount of money, and the price is 50% higher than it was two years ago. I want to publicise the all-party group that was set up yesterday. I am sure that all the Members who have worked so hard on this issue will flock to join it. I also want to thank the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), for all the work he has done in helping to move this cause along. I hope that 2012 will be the year of success, when we can finally hold our heads up high on behalf of our constituents, many of whom are suffering fuel poverty. I also commend the community foundation networks for establishing the “surviving winter” appeal. When they are looking for people who really need their help, I ask them to look to the households without access to gas, as they are spending a lot of money to keep warm this winter.

Turning to rural post offices, I will keep up the fight for my local post offices in Wangford, Walberswick and Blythburgh. Unfortunately, the outreach service is no longer working properly, but it is important that such services can be accessed. The Post Office is working on that, but it is important that communities are supported, rather than face constant frustration.

On broadband, I am keen that the people of Suffolk show their support for the procurements that will happen next year. It is vital for our county that both fixed and mobile broadband are successes, in order to make Suffolk Coastal a great place not only to come to for the weekend but to work, rest and play all year round. I am also encouraged by recent comments by Ofcom about mobile broadband, and I am confident that the voice of the House will be listened to in ensuring that coverage of at least 98% will be achieved next year.

I thank all the people of Suffolk for raising more than £3 million towards the Treehouse appeal. I also thank the brave soldiers and officers of 23 Engineers, who are based in my constituency at the Rock barracks near Woodbridge. I specifically thank the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Frazer Ross. He has shown great leadership to that regiment. I am very sad that he will be moving on to his next post early, but I wish Frazer and Sandra well. Incidentally, they are moving to within a mile of where I used to live in Hampshire.

I also thank Siobhan Jordan from Ipswich hospital for getting through the second Care Quality Commission inspection, and I wish Carole Crocker, director of nursing at James Paget university hospital, the best of luck; I hope we manage to pull through.

Finally, local enterprise partnerships were established only this year, and I pay tribute to the new Anglia LEP and Andy Wood, who has been its chair. He has been a great driver of growth and I hope that continues in 2012.

To cut straight to the point, happy Christmas; there is not much time to say anything else.

I want to draw attention to the trial of Bradley Manning, a young US soldier with a Welsh mother who is standing before a pre-trial hearing in a military court in Washington at the moment. In April 2010, the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange publicly released the Iraq video “Collateral Murder”, which shows a US army attack in Iraq in 2007 that left 12 innocent civilians dead, including two employees of Reuters. The disturbing Iraq footage proved to be just the start of a series of WikiLeaks releases that included US military incident reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, and tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables.

In May 2010, a young US Marine was arrested while serving in Iraq on suspicion of being the source of the WikiLeaks revelations. Just a few months earlier, Hillary Clinton praised the use of the internet—praised blogs, e-mails, social networks and text messages—which she said has opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.

The pre-trial hearing that is now under way will determine whether Bradley Manning will face court martial. He is charged with aiding the enemy and violating the espionage Act, and if convicted could be sentenced to life imprisonment. Manning has appeared in public for the first time since being confined under maximum security for one and a half years. For much of that time he was held in conditions so harsh that the UN rapporteur on torture felt compelled to express concern after being denied unrestricted access to Manning by the US Government. The US Government’s treatment of Bradley Manning in these conditions has been discussed by me and others in this House previously, and it was international pressure that got him better prison conditions.

I believe that Bradley Manning is carrying the can for repeated mistakes by the US military. He should never have been sent to Iraq in the first place. He should have been discharged from the army, as was originally intended. The people who should be on trial are those who ignored the medical evidence. They sent a vulnerable young man to deal with sensitive classified information. They were negligent. It is clear now from the evidence coming out in the court that this was a troubled young man who should never have been given access to classified information. Those who allowed this access were grossly negligent and have only themselves to blame.

I believe that Bradley Manning’s actions have served as one of the sparks for the emerging Arab spring and the dramatic changes across the middle east. I hope that this House agrees with me that Bradley Manning should have a fair trial, that it should be held in proper conditions and with him being given access to the people he needs to see, and that his defence counsel should be able to call the witnesses they want to call. At the moment, those witnesses have not been called—that is being denied by the court—but all the prosecution witnesses have been allowed to be called by the prosecution.

Mr Speaker, welcome to the Chair. Because I believe in crawling to people in authority, may I wish you a very happy and merry Christmas and thank you for your delightful Christmas card?

This is a wonderfully eclectic debate—from ponds in Devon to dictators in the Congo getting 99.8% of the vote. I want to deal, like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), with local issues that relate to Lincolnshire. He mentioned the extraordinary railway line that connects our two constituencies, and there are only three trains a week, which all run on Saturdays. However, there is a much more important railway line that runs from Grimsby and Cleethorpes down through Market Rasen, in my constituency, to Lincoln and then on to London. We used to have a direct service and my hon. Friend referred to resurrecting this vitally important service; but I say to him that we want it to go through Market Rasen and Lincoln, and not through Doncaster. I am sure he will be agreeable to that, and I expect the Minister to make a commitment to that effect when he winds up this debate.

What I really want to talk about in the remaining two minutes or so of my speech is an important project in Gainsborough that is in danger of closure but must not be closed. This is about the big society, which the Prime Minister was right to launch. He was right to change the emphasis from big government to families, individuals, neighbours and local people. In my constituency there is just such a big society project. It was founded in 2007 and is called YaSiG—Young and Safe in Gainsborough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) talked about the power of history and the importance of history teaching, but many people fall out of our school system and YaSiG provides for them. It provides for people between the ages of 13 and 24 who have fallen out of education and it co-ordinates a number of facilities for young people. It gives them a safe place to meet and socialise. It runs, among other things, a very successful motorcycle maintenance course, which I have visited, operating outside the classroom and providing just the sort of training opportunities that many young people need. YaSiG covers subjects as varied as sports, catering and horticulture. It emphasises building social skills, and it improves confidence and the ability to work with older people. There is no doubt that this project, which operates in one of the most deprived wards in England, Gainsborough South West, is already making a big difference.

The project was set up with money from the previous Government, under the community asset transfer programme, but it was not thought through. There were adequate funds for the capital injection but not for revenue maintenance, and the project simply cannot be sustained now. I urgently call—this should happen over the next 24 hours—on Lincolnshire county council, West Lindsey district council and the Government to co-ordinate their efforts to save this vital project. At the very least, West Lindsey district council should give the freehold to YaSiG, so that it can borrow against it, and should waive its indemnity of £45,000. If we really do believe in projects that further the big society and provide for the most deprived people in our community, we cannot let them go out of business. We should co-ordinate efforts to save them and to help our young people in the future.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and a very happy Christmas to you.

I rise to speak on the subject of speaking—on the way in which we organise debates in this House. I have some simple but radical ideas which, if implemented, would improve the efficiency of Members and the quality of debate in this Chamber. Vitally, they would also increase the level of communication that this House has with the wider public and, in particular, with the young people we are so importantly trying to reach nowadays.

If we put in to speak in a debate such as this, we write, quite rightly, to the Speaker. The Speaker and his assistants then put together a list, we appear in a certain order on it and that information is held fairly tightly to the Chair. We may become privy to it as the debate progresses, but it is not widely disseminated in the Chamber or in the Palace of Westminster, or to the wider general public. There would be a huge advantage to us all if we were to publish that information—the order in which people were due to speak and roughly when they would be expected to speak—and it was on electronic boards in the Chamber, on the annunciators around the Palace of Westminster, on the internet, and if we allowed it to go out on apps on telephones, mobile devices and so on. Members of the public would, thus, know, for example, that the hon. Member for Central Devon was going to speak in approximately 30 minutes’ time and so would be able to tune into the Parliament channel to see his brilliant performance.

Such an approach would meet a number of important objectives. First, it would mean that Members would know roughly when they were due to speak in a debate, which would allow them to plan a little more thoroughly. Secondly, it would raise the quality of debate, because Members in the rest of the Palace of Westminster could come into the Chamber at a particular moment knowing that somebody was about to speak and they could then intervene on them, and because somebody speaking in the Chamber would know which Members were likely to speak subsequently, they could therefore invite them to comment, or otherwise, on something that they were saying.

The most useful part of such an approach would be that it would engage those outside this Chamber, as the public would be able to establish exactly when a particular Member was due to speak. We all have constituents who will often say to us, “I always watch the Parliament channel and sometimes I see you, sometimes I do not. I would love to know when you are actually speaking.” My proposal would be a method by which they could do that.

It would be particularly appropriate and effective for younger people, who could use an app on their telephone. My telephone, for example, has an app that can tell me when any bus in London is about to reach any particular stop, as it uses real-time information, and there is no reason why the information on when Members of Parliament are due to speak should not similarly be made available. I believe that that could engage young people, who could receive that information and, by tapping an app, could actually see us speaking in this Chamber.

I believe, quite rightly, that this is a highly impressive, wonderful and venerable institution. It is the mother of all Parliaments, but I believe that if we are to move with the times and keep that important link between ourselves and the general public—the electorate of all ages—we should make such a change. For those who fear change, I suggest that we could take a gradualist approach, introducing it bit by it. It could be experimental, in that we could try it for a short time and then reassess it. Of course, we could maintain some of our rules about being present for the opening speeches, the wind-ups and so on.

With that message, Mr Speaker, I wish you a happy Christmas and thank you for this opportunity to speak.

At this time of year, it is appropriate that we should pay due tribute to our excellent emergency services: our doctors, nurses, ambulance crews, paramedics, firefighters and, of course, our wonderful police. They do a magnificent job, keeping us safe in our homes and healthy. When many of us are enjoying ourselves, they will be working, as they do 365 days a year. It is right that we should pay tribute to those excellent people.

I also want to place on the record the actions of the four brave police officers who laid their lives on the line just a month ago when they were stabbed. They were Harrow police officers, but were operating in the neighbouring constituency. They are now at home, recovering with their families, and I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with them and their families, wishing them a speedy recovery and a return to active duty as soon as they can do so.

I also, however, want to refer briefly to some reforms that are possible within the police service. The four police officers who were stabbed were wearing the official uniforms given to them by the police service as well as stab-proof vests. Despite that, they were stabbed, so it is appropriate that the police service should review the quality of the equipment issued to our police so that they are not placed in danger.

We could also improve the procurement policies pursued in the police service. The Government estimate that £300 million a year can be saved through more positive procurement. Let me give one or two examples of where I think it is going completely wrong at the moment. In the Metropolitan police, for example, if someone’s computer goes wrong and they call out an engineer, the call-out charge is £200. Equally, the maintenance for a single printer is £85 a year. Of course, for £85 a printer can be bought to replace it in a local shop rather than maintaining those they already have. It is a shocking fact that, in our police stations across the capital, if someone’s light bulb goes out of action they have to call someone else and the cost of getting that light bulb replaced is £200. Members of the police service could, quite simply, replace them themselves, but they are not allowed to. It is complete and utter nonsense.

I also think we need to consider reviewing the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. At the moment, our police are forced to handwrite statements and police community support officers are not allowed to take witness statements from members of the public. Clearly, at a time when we can use technology, it is appropriate that we should do so. Our police officers have to keep multiple forms, most of which are not used at all. Custom and practice has built up, however, that that data should be collected and brought to police stations, where nothing seems to happen to it.

I also want to raise the issue of ethnic monitoring. It is absolutely crucial that we monitor our services to make sure that we provide them appropriately, but it is nonsensical that when someone is arrested, they and the police officer arresting them get the right to say to which ethnic minority the person arrested belongs. That does not seem very sensible. As we build up to the Olympics, the police are still suffering from the overload resulting from the riots last summer; there have been 12-hour shifts and all holiday was cancelled, and the pressure on the police is growing.

Mr Speaker, I end by wishing you, all Members of the House and everyone associated with Parliament a happy Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) said that this was an eclectic debate; “eclectic” does not begin to describe the task that lies ahead of me as I try to respond, in the next 10 minutes, to hon. Members who have spoken. As she has so many times raised the issue on which she spoke, and has not been given satisfaction from the Dispatch Box, I will deal with her point first and give her the statement that I think she was hoping for; the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), would perhaps have given it earlier, if he had had the opportunity. The commission on the West Lothian question will start work in February 2012, and will report by the end of the Session in spring 2013. My hon. Friend will make a further statement on the commission in the new year.

A spate of points were raised about foreign affairs. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd), and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) talked about various aspects of world affairs relating to what we loosely group together as the middle east, the Sahel and the Maghreb, as if that were all an amorphous mass, which it clearly is not. There are many countries there with different issues. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester raised the issues in Israel to do with the Bedouin in the south Negev desert. What brings those issues together, as far as the British Government’s position is concerned, is our commitment to human rights and developing democracy, and our wish to extend friendship, particularly to the new Governments forming in those areas, and to help them in any way that we can to achieve those objectives. Where they stray from those objectives, we might perhaps constructively point out that there are better ways of doing business. The hon. Member for Manchester Central raised the issue of Bahrain; it is very good that the King of Bahrain has appointed a commission to look into the issues, but the test is what happens to the response. Those matters were well worth raising.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who I do not think is in the Chamber at the moment, talked about the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a long-term interest of his—and expressed concerns about the elections there. The good news from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that there were elections, they were largely peaceful and there was a high turnout, but clearly there were problems, which were identified by a number of observers. Those are matters that the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo need to look at.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) talked about the case of Bradley Manning, which is before the American courts; it is right for us to express concern and state that he should have a fair and open trial in the United States on the matters on which he was arraigned.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) talked about teaching history—a subject that I raised in Adjournment debates when I was in opposition, because it is desperately important for our young people to be given a sense of history—not just national and world history but local history, so that they have a sense of identity and of the place where they live. That is a matter that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Education are looking at in the context of the curriculum review. The hon. Member for Kingswood made his point extremely well.

The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) spoke about how we conduct our business in the House. It is not for me to respond to that. Perhaps it is for Mr Speaker to respond, or the Procedure Committee, but the points that the hon. Gentleman raised were sensible suggestions that ought to be considered.

Many hon. Members talked about local issues in their area. I have a great deal of fellow feeling for some of them. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) talked about fuel poverty, a matter with which, as she rightly said, I have engaged myself over the years, particularly the difficulties of people in rural areas who often do not have access to mains gas, are reliant on fuel oil or LPG and find themselves in considerable difficulties because of the increasing costs. The Government are very aware of that.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) pointed out some successes in his constituency, in both schools and hospitals, and said something very important in support of the public sector. It is important that from the Dispatch Box we say how much we appreciate what people in the public sector do. The role that they play in society is an extremely positive contribution. I am very pleased about the successful resolution of those discussions that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced in his statement earlier today.

The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) spoke about two things. The first was high-speed broadband in his area, which he is right to say is crucial. That is why the Government are engaged in the programme, and why the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) has insisted that local authorities have a draft local broadband plan by the end of February, and have it agreed by the end of April, in order to secure matched funding. I hope the hon. Gentleman will now be able to make significant progress. Secondly, he spoke about antisocial behaviour, and was able to report progress in his area. As a former chair of the Avon and Somerset police authority, I am particularly pleased, as we share a police authority area, that Chief Constable Colin Port has been in contact and has taken such a supportive view.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) was guaranteed my full attention when he talked about flooding in the village of Feniton, with which he knows I am more than familiar—not with the village, but with the concept of flooding in my constituency. He went on to talk about quarrying. My constituency is the most densely populated quarrying area in the whole country. The points he raised about the aggregates sustainability fund would be echoed by many communities in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) has, I hope, guaranteed that he will be mentioned in the Sittingbourne News Extra editorial next week. From his contributions to these debates, I feel that I know an awful lot more about Sittingbourne and Sheppey than I did a year or two ago.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said that he has an airport, he has docks, he has 10 stations, and then had the temerity to expect trains to stop at his stations. He wanted the roads, including the A160, to be improved, and he also spoke about Humber bridge tolls. I think that his views were compatible with those of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who also spoke about roads. I think they have neighbouring constituencies, so it is good that they are working together. The hon. Member for Gainsborough also mentioned Young and Safe in Gainsborough, an organisation he obviously believes does very good work. We must hope that it survives its current difficulties.

The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) clearly has an exceedingly good company in his constituency, but spoke about the 4 metre height limit that has been proposed by the Commission. The Government agree that the 4 metre height limit is inappropriate and continue to press the Commission not to implement it. The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) talked about the importance of manufacturing in his constituency and he is absolutely right. He also spoke about the importance of apprenticeships. I am very pleased that we have had 442,700 new apprenticeship starts in the past year, compared with 279,700 the previous year. That is a real commitment to young people getting the skills that they need.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) talked about Portsmouth football club. As a former rugby player, I have to say that I am not a great expert on football, but she demonstrated the difficulty that the football authorities face in implementing the owners and directors test, which is a self-certification test based on a series of objective criteria, rather than a subjective test of individuals.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about efficiencies in the police service, and clearly improvements can still be made in modernising the police service. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) included everything in his contribution, as he always does. He is a regular on these occasions and gave a superb performance.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Officers and Members of the House a very happy Christmas. In particular, I wish to put on the record our appreciation of Eddie McKay, who was appointed to the House in January 1988 and is retiring this Christmas. We wish him every success and happiness in his retirement.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3), and Order, 1 November).