I want to raise the issue of ambulance stations in my High Peak constituency. First, for the sake of clarity, I should explain that the High Peak is a large constituency and as such is covered by two primary care trusts: Derbyshire in the south and Glossop and Tameside in the north. Consequently, the ambulance services are provided by the North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust and the East Midland Ambulance Service NHS Trust. I want to concentrate today on the East Midland Ambulance Service—EMAS—but if time allows, I will also briefly mention the North West Ambulance Service.
“Being the Best” is an EMAS proposal to rationalise the ambulance services and ambulance stations across the whole of the east midlands. I am sure many Members across the east midlands will have their own issues in their own constituencies. I want to highlight the consequences for the residents of a large part of the High Peak of what I believe are badly thought out and ill advised proposals.
EMAS is looking to create a hub-based model. A hub will be, as the word suggests, a large centre where ambulances will be based and where crews will go to collect their vehicles and return them at the end of the shift. The hubs will be supported by what EMAS calls “deployment units”. I have seen a photograph of a deployment unit and I venture to say that, if we in this Chamber saw one, many of us would say it looks remarkably like a portakabin. They look unattractive, which does not go down well in an attractive area such as the High Peak where the scenery is so well appreciated, and also seem to be of very little use. I can see the logic of a hub-and-spoke model, but the crucial decision within such a model is where the hubs are located. That is where I believe EMAS has got things so badly wrong for the High Peak.
There are presently two ambulance stations in the EMAS area of the High Peak: one in Buxton and one in New Mills. Under the EMAS proposals, both of them will be removed, leaving the area without an ambulance station at all, relying instead on a hub that is placed not in or even around the High Peak, but in Chesterfield—at a distance of over 30 miles from New Mills, which is the furthest point. EMAS claims that the ambulances will not be parked there, but merely collected from and returned to the hub. That may be the case, but it creates further difficulties, as I shall explain.
The High Peak gets its name for a very good reason—it is high and there are peaks. The road from Chesterfield into the High Peak reaches at some points almost 1,000 feet above sea level. It is exposed to the elements. Many areas around different parts of the north and the east midlands might see only a sprinkling of snow, but Tideswell Moor, as part of the road is called, can easily be closed: owing to its exposure, only a small amount of snow is required to drift across the road to make it impassable for many vehicles. I use that road every week to catch the train to London. I well remember one occasion when I returned from London, got off the train in Chesterfield and quickly realised that I could go no further. I had to stay overnight in a Chesterfield hotel. I had that option, but somebody in the High Peak who needs an ambulance to use that road does not.
Let us imagine a crew collecting the ambulance to go on shift. They leave the hub, and within a short time a 999 call is received, requiring them to divert to, for the sake of argument, Clay Cross. The ambulance goes to the call, collects the patient and takes them to Chesterfield hospital—a process that could take some time. I have been out with the ambulance crews and I know how long these things can take. From Chesterfield hospital, the crew could get further diverted to, say, Alfreton or Matlock. That could mean the ambulance never reaching the High Peak, leaving my constituency with no ambulance cover at all.
I realise that my case requires a working knowledge of the geography of north Derbyshire, but that further makes my point, as it is precisely that knowledge that was lacking or ignored when the plans were drawn up. In meetings with me, EMAS says that the model has been computer generated. I have to say that it may look good on paper, but it does not and will not work in reality. EMAS also says that “Being the Best” is about improving the service and improving staff welfare. I fail to see how it can even begin to satisfy either of those criteria. How can staff welfare be increased when many of them will face an extra 30-mile journey to work both before and after what could easily be a 12-hour shift?
In addition, EMAS will be committed to compensating staff for excess travel for a certain period following the move. Extra fuel costs will be incurred by the to-ing and fro-ing from the Chesterfield hub—not to mention the cost to the environment with all the extra miles that the staff will have to travel. That means reducing staff welfare while increasing costs and reducing efficiency—to my mind, the direct opposite of what EMAS is trying to achieve.
The knock-on effect will be that, through staff turnover, the High Peak will lose ambulance men and women with the crucial local road knowledge. High Peak residents wishing to become paramedics or to work on the ambulances will now apply to the North West Ambulance Service, whose operational centres are nearer. We will arrive at a situation whereby whatever ambulances we get in the High Peak will be staffed not by local people who know the local towns, villages and hamlets in the area, but by able and excellent staff—I concede that—who will be residents from miles away. They will not be able to find their way around—sat-navs do not work that well in the High Peak—and response times will increase even further.
The fundamental problem is the way the process has been undertaken and how the proposals have been arrived at. The North West Ambulance Service is looking at similar proposals, but it appears to be engaging with others, inviting key stakeholders to help to discuss and shape its plans. At a meeting, it referred to the hub-and-spoke model but, I am told, acknowledged that that method of delivery will not suit all areas. I do not wish to prejudge what NWAS may propose, but there appears to be an acknowledgement that one size does not fit all. EMAS, however, presented its proposals with little or no apparent discussion with anyone, key stakeholder or not, preferring to use what appears to be an off-the-shelf template.
As Members would expect, I am batting for my constituents. We deserve a better ambulance service. We have several large quarries and other industrial premises within the High Peak, and they can be dangerous places. Industrial accidents happen. Safety records in the High Peak are good, but there is still the risk of injury.
Let me also dwell a moment on what happens in the summer months. The High Peak can be flooded with tourists. The population swells, and with it the potential risk and the need for an ambulance rise. Walkers, hikers and runners swarm across the High Peak hills like ants. Theatre-goers fill Buxton and the surrounding towns and villages during the Buxton festival. Coach-loads of people come to my constituency during the summer months. Who will go to them if they need emergency assistance?
The first responders, who perform excellent work in the High Peak, have expressed opposition to these plans. I am a great supporter of Mountain Rescue. It does a fantastic job across the High Peak, and in some cases its specific services are needed to reach people in inaccessible areas. Even it has taken the unusual step of expressing grave concerns about these proposals. Derbyshire, Leicester and Rutland Air Ambulance is also a vital part of the emergency mix in the High Peak, but the main ambulance service is still the one that people call most often. These other organisations embrace their responsibilities, but I am concerned that these proposals are leading to EMAS abdicating theirs.
The consultation has now closed. The whole High Peak community has united as one against these proposals. Two public meetings were attended by hundreds of local residents incensed by the proposals. At one meeting I attended, the chief executive said he was “listening very carefully” to local people. I hope he is. I hope that, when he presents his final recommendations to his board, they are not the same ones that are on the table today, as they are inadequate, unfeasible and unworkable: they reduce, not enhance, the service; they hamper, not improve, staff welfare; and they desert, not embrace, the people of the High Peak in their hour of need. The current proposals may improve some response times elsewhere, in the more populated areas of the east midlands, but they will not improve response times in the High Peak.
Traditionally, Members raise constituency concerns in the House’s pre-recess Adjournment debates, and I shall raise a subject that has provoked not anger, but fury, and a feeling of unfairness and injustice among my constituents such as I have not known in the 20 years that I have served as a Member of Parliament and the 20 years before that when I was a member of Lewisham borough council. That subject is the appointment in July of a trust special administrator to the South London Healthcare NHS Trust. The TSA was appointed under the unsustainable providers regime, a provision of the National Health Service Act 2006 and amended, I think, in 2009. South London Healthcare NHS Trust does not include Lewisham. It covers the adjoining area, and principally comprises the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Woolwich, the Queen Mary hospital in Sidcup and the Princess Royal university hospital in Farnborough.
This is the first time the Department has used these provisions, so the step taken is ground-breaking, pioneering—
Yes, I think that is part of the TSA’s agenda. The way the Department has engineered this situation is disgraceful, dishonourable, disreputable and downright dishonest—and if we have not had enough alliteration, I could add devious, as well as underhand and fraudulent.
Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I am no great supporter of what the TSA has done. The Department is attempting to pervert the process because the major impact of what the administrator in the adjoining trust is doing is on Lewisham hospital. The draft report is a considerable document that has cost an awful lot of money and made an awful lot of money for a number of consultants, including McKinsey, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers—they always seem to do well out of these things. The public consultation on the draft report has closed and the Secretary of State is due to reach a decision. The final report from the TSA will be presented in early January and the Secretary of State will be making a decision in February. I appeal today for the Secretary of State to suspend the entire process, because it has been perverted in the way that I have outlined.
I do not hold the TSA personally responsible. I have met him on a few occasions and find him to be a reasonable and rational person. However, I know that the devastating impact of his report is on Lewisham hospital—the impact there is beyond anything that will happen at Queen Mary’s, the Princess Royal or the Queen Elizabeth. The report will result in the closure of the accident and emergency department, and all medical and surgical emergency care, all maternity services, all children’s services and all critical care will cease on the Lewisham hospital site.
I had an Adjournment debate on this subject a couple of weeks ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) both raised the issue in the Opposition-day debate on health just last week. If I were to raise this matter every day in this House, I could not adequately reflect the burning resentment and anger that it has caused in the community in Lewisham, as the injustice is so severe. The Department could not appoint a special administrator to look at Lewisham Hospital NHS Trust, because it is a solvent, well-managed trust meeting all its performance and financial targets. What the Department has done is appoint an administrator next door and then, under the bogus and completely facile assumption that everything connects with everything else, focused on Lewisham hospital. That is what is completely devious about this.
At the public meetings the TSA has held on the matter, he has shown a little film setting out what he is trying to do. It included him quoting this age-old homily, “If your domestic finances are in mess, clearly you have to do something about it.” I do not dispute that the finances of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust are in a mess. At the meeting in Sydenham one of my constituents said to him, “If your domestic finances are in a mess, you may well have to do something about it, but that does not include breaking into next door’s house and nicking all their stuff.” That is precisely what is happening under this system. This procedure is being used for the first time. If it is used in that way, the Department will set a template for the rest of the country. It will then, in theory, be able to appoint a TSA anywhere and his or her remit will be such that they can look anywhere; they will not just focus on the area or trust they have been established to look into.
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State repeatedly parrot four tests for reorganisations and reconfigurations. The first is that they should have general practitioner and clinical commissioning group support. The second is that they should have public engagement. That is a strange use of the vague term “public engagement”; they do not specify “public support”. The third is that the proposals have to be clinically sound. The fourth is that they have to increase patient choice. None of those factors exists in the recommendations for Lewisham hospital, and the TSA does not even maintain that they do. He openly admits that the proposals will reduce patient choice sharply. The clinicians, the hospital board, the CCG, and various groups of GPs across Lewisham and beyond all say that the recommendations are a threat to the standard of care that the people of Lewisham can expect and all are opposed to the TSA’s proposals. I say to the Secretary of State, via the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), that he should abandon the scheme now, as the way it has been undertaken is clearly flawed, and he should protect the services that my constituents and people across south-east London have a right to expect.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on a particularly important topic, in which the Minister shares an interest, as we are neighbours. First, I wish to thank our front-line staff in the ambulance service, our paramedics, who work very hard. I also thank our volunteers, the community first responders, who do a great job and genuinely participate in helping to save lives in our communities. That is particularly important in the shires, as reaching someone in just a few minutes to provide life-saving treatment is crucial. I thank those people who give up their time.
A reorganisation is taking place in the east of England ambulance service, and I know that that is a concern to staff, who feel that patients will not get the treatment that they deserve. Change is always unsettling, but I genuinely believe that the management are trying to do this for the best reasons. One of the things we need to keep ensuring is that patient safety is the key priority.
The east of England ambulance service is hitting its targets—it has a regional target. Given that our region is so vast, it is no surprise that by focusing on certain cities it is relatively straightforward to hit targets. However, when we break down the performance by county, we start to see a very different story. I know that my colleagues from Suffolk and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) have long been campaigning on that issue to try to raise it up the agenda, and it is vital that we do so. The presence of a new interim chief executive may start to help us to tackle that. We need to work hard to keep the chair and the board of the ambulance service on their toes, so that they recognise that saying that they have hit a regional target does not mean that the issue will go away—it will not.
One of the things I call on the board to do is think carefully about its responses to Members of Parliament when we are asking for greater transparency on performance. Belatedly—I am pleased that it has done this—there is an agreement that it will start to publish county by county performance details on a monthly basis. I believe that the board should and can go further. We already know that it provides performance data by postcode to the primary care trusts, and I believe those data should be published—they should certainly be available. Instead of getting into freedom of information exchanges, we need to ensure that, in line with what Sir David Nicholson told the Public Accounts Committee, every Member of Parliament should be able to get access to the data they need easily in order to monitor what is happening for their constituents and not be caught in a bureaucratic nightmare. As we all know, sunlight often brings a change in performance. Somebody trying to get to a village such as Shingle Street finds that it takes 10 minutes to get there just from the main road. When I say “main road” I am referring to a single track road. I recognise that not everybody will be able to do that, but it is still important that we try to get the postcode data published.
Earlier this year, after a successful meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), a Health Minister at the time, I was under the impression that there would be a contract with the county performance targets built into it. Indeed, that was important for the paying of bonuses. Disappointingly, the contract that was agreed with the ambulance service by the person agreeing it on behalf of the primary care trusts in the east of England contained an added caveat about hospital handover times. We know that that is an issue, but another thing that Members of Parliament are doing is putting the spotlight on where there are those problems as well. Ultimately, we want the best ambulance service for our patients. We should not have to put up with sub-standard performance simply because the county is rural.
One disappointing thing about the contract, from which we expected so much, was that there seemed to be a lot of wriggle room. The new interim chief executive knows that well, as he negotiated the contract on behalf of the primary care trusts. He knows the issues our ambulance services face and I shall press him to ensure that the contracts this time make it clear what percentage of people in Suffolk should expect to see an ambulance within the regulated time.
Another thing that went wrong was the complaints process, although I am delighted that the chair of the ambulance trust has fixed that. I pay tribute to her and her staff for sorting that out. All these problems together have led me to voice my opposition—I will continue to do so—to the trust’s being allowed to have foundation status before a quality service is delivered consistently across the region. Simply placing ambulances close to Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Luton and so on—near the big conurbations—is not fair on our rural areas. I point those people who say, “Well, it is a rural area,” to the example of the north-west. Cumbria has very similar characteristics as a pretty rural area with some big towns, yet the service there manages consistently to hit its targets.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I hope so. It is clear that MPs from Suffolk and across the east of England will not let up on the issue and I hope that we will have a step change in performance when we meet again in February.
Health care is very important to the people of Suffolk, but I also want to take this opportunity to thank my staff for all the hard work they have done in the last year. They have been extraordinary in helping my constituents tackle all sorts of issues and have also been very helpful this week, as we have sent out a mailshot of nearly 4,000 letters on Sizewell C—another issue that I share with my hon. Friend the Minister—and the impact that could have in the future. On that note, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you a happy Christmas.
I wish to take the unusual step of telling the House and the Minister about the individual case of little Vinny Duggan to highlight a wider problem that the Government can solve by making legal changes so that other patients and other parents such as Andy and Andrea Duggan do not have to go through what this family has gone through in the past two and a half years. As Andrea has said to me, this is their fight, but it is also a fight for other people in their position.
I have been involved with the parents in the quest for information for only 10 months, whereas Mr and Mrs Duggan have been battling since Vinny was born nearly two and half years ago. At times, Vinny has fought for life. He is now a little lad who is full of life. I was with the family on Saturday, and he was smiling, laughing, climbing on the sofa and climbing on me, but he has a very serious congenital heart and lung condition. He has brain damage, likely to have been caused by a lack of oxygen, and he is unlikely ever to be able to speak. His parents have told me that they are very proud of Vinny and very grateful that they still have him here.
It has been touch and go at times. He was born on 20 August 2010 at Doncaster royal infirmary. He was full term and was a healthy 7 lb 9 oz. However, within the first day his mum, in particular, became concerned that he was very blue, that he was not feeding properly and that he was very sleepy. The following day, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur and the day after that he was discharged against the parents’ wishes, as they were concerned and wanted tests done before he was discharged. He was at home for two days and after that time, when he had not properly woken up or properly fed and had stopped wetting his nappies, they phoned the hospital and were advised to take him to the children’s observational unit, where they arrived at 7 o’clock that evening.
Within the first hour, they were assessed by a triage nurse as non-urgent—green, in other words—and had to wait almost another five hours before a doctor saw them. During that night, Vinny was put on a heart monitor and given the tests he needed. He had a very high heart rate and was transferred rapidly to the specialist unit at Leeds general infirmary. He was diagnosed as having a very serious life-threatening heart and lung condition. He was given open heart and major lung surgery and spent five months in Leeds hospital, six weeks of that in intensive care and 10 weeks in the high-dependency unit.
The internal investigation at Doncaster hospital afterwards concluded that there were “no real concerns” about the standard of care in Vinny’s case, despite the fact that there were many chances to notice that he was unwell, to do the tests that could have been required and to listen to Mr and Mrs Duggan’s concerns. There remain important discrepancies between the evidence of the parents and that of some of the staff and the hospital in the investigation. It took two years and a new chief executive before, six weeks ago, Mr and Mrs Duggan received a welcome letter from the new acting chief executive, Mike Pinkerton, who ended by saying:
“The care that Vinny received fell below the standard you have a right to expect from us and I do sincerely apologise.”
Like so many other parents, Mr and Mrs Duggan had principally wanted an explanation—not retribution or compensation. However, like many parents, they were driven down the route of trying to get answers through the courts, and that is what they are having to do. They also rightly turned to the professional body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which is responsible for regulating Britain’s 670,000 nurses and midwives. Mrs Duggan submitted a complaint in September 2011, which was turned down in January 2012. She challenged it, which caused the council to look again at the argument that there was no case to answer, and the internal review concluded that the case should be referred back to the investigating committee for reconsideration.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council, however, has limited powers to review its decisions and that has been reinforced and restricted further by a High Court judgment in May in the case of R(B) v. NMC 2012. In other words, the NMC does not have the legal powers it needs to review its own decisions. The chief executive, Jackie Smith, was good enough to meet me in the summer and to agree to commission independent legal advice on Vinny’s case and on the NMC’s restrictions. That independent legal advice came from Mark Shaw QC, who concluded:
“The Order and Rules makes it plain that the NMC has no statutory power to review, re-open or reverse a disciplinary decision (in particular, a decision of the Investigating Committee that a registrant has no case to answer) beyond the specific circumstances stipulated in rule 7, namely: receipt of a fresh allegation within three years of the dismissal of a previous allegation against the same registrant.”
He went on to point out:
“Typically, other professional regulators have wider review powers, granted explicitly by secondary legislation.”
Those other professional bodies include the General Medical Council, which is responsible for regulating Britain’s 250,000 registered doctors. The GMC’s powers were rightly extended in 2004, so it has the power to review and reopen a complaint, to take a view that its earlier decisions might be flawed, to take new evidence into account and to act. It is considering a review of the complaint lodged with it about a doctor involved in this case and we expect a decision imminently.
The General Optical Council and the General Pharmaceutical Council have similar powers; the General Dental Council does not. At a time when complaints from patients are rising and pressures on staff are increasing, if we are to maintain trust and confidence in our health professionals and the NHS, we must have a better and more open system of complaints and we must have regulators with the powers to do the job they are set up to do: safeguard professional standards and safeguard patients and the public, too.
I know the Law Commission is reviewing the common enabling legislative framework for all health regulators. That could take three years, so I want the Minister to confirm today that he knows that there is a problem and that in the meantime, in advance of the Law Commission’s report, he will act to change the operating rules and orders so that those professional bodies can do the job. Otherwise, many other patients and parents will face the same fight for the truth—
In September 2012 the Royal College of Physicians published a report, “Hospitals on the edge? The time for action”, which sets out starkly the challenges facing our acute hospitals. It begins:
“All hospital inpatients deserve to receive safe, high-quality, sustainable care centred around their needs and delivered in an appropriate setting by respectful, compassionate, expert health professionals. Yet it is increasingly clear that our hospitals are struggling to cope with the challenge of an ageing population and increasing hospital admissions.”
It highlights the consequences of failing to meet the challenges and refers to the history of my own trust. When the public inquiry reports next month, we will have the opportunity to consider its implications for the NHS. Today I wish to concentrate on the Monitor review of my trust in the light of the continuing rise in pressure on acute services that the Royal College of Physicians highlights.
There are three common themes that I hear in the NHS these days. The first is that we need to do much more in the community and at home and much less in acute hospitals, and that we must therefore close acute hospital beds and use the money in the community. Although I agree with the premise, I dispute the conclusion. Community care is essential, but it must work before it results in a reduction in admissions and lengths of stay. The fact that admissions are rising and, according to the RCP, the fall in length of stay has flatlined in the past three years, even rising for patients over 85, indicates to me that the shift to the community either is not happening fast enough or indeed will not happen as expected.
The conclusion also seems to ignore demography. In the area served by the Mid Staffordshire Trust, the population is expected to rise by some 10% in the coming 23 years. The number of people over 60 will rise by nearly half, and the number of those 75 and older—those most likely to need acute services—will double. I suspect that is the situation in many parts of the country.
Increasing admissions, rising and ageing population, flatlining length of stays—all of these indicate an increased demand for acute services in the coming 20 years, yet the talk is, and has been for many years, of further reductions in acute beds. It makes little sense to do that until community services and other medical advances mean that those beds are proved to be no longer necessary. In Stafford, there is a shortage of step-down beds, so rather than closing acute beds altogether why not keep them as community beds on the same site, leaving the door open for increasing acute services in the future, if and when the need arises?
The second theme is that we need to integrate primary and secondary care more closely. I agree, yet actions sometimes have the opposite effect. The previous Government took away the responsibility for providing 24/7 primary care cover from GPs. I regret that, as it detracts from integration. It may also be responsible for placing a greater burden on accident and emergency departments at night. If out-of-hours care is not to be the responsibility of GPs, let it be centred, where geographically possible, on acute and community hospitals. This makes better use of NHS premises and, by being adjacent to A and E or other emergency units, can help take the pressure off them while providing the hospital with extra income. That would certainly work at Stafford and Cannock.
Tariffs can produce strange results. The University Hospital of North Staffordshire has a block contract for A and E admissions. For any admission in excess of that, it receives only 30% of the tariff, so what is it supposed to do—reject emergency admissions on the basis that they will be loss-making? Of course not. I would propose that emergency departments are funded at what it costs to provide that service safely. In Stafford, the emergency department has a deficit of some £2 million per year based on throughput and tariff. The number of patients attending—more than 50,000—could not possibly be safely accommodated elsewhere. Surrounding hospitals are already at capacity, so it makes little sense to impose a national tariff, which inevitably results in a loss and which in turn puts pressure on the hospital to prove that it is sustainable.
The third theme is that medicine is becoming increasingly specialised, so most work will inevitably migrate to large specialist units. There is truth in this belief, but there is also danger. There are 61 approved medical specialties in the UK, compared with 30 in Norway. As the RCP says, this has
“rendered the provision of continuity of care increasingly difficult.”
For older people, who often have complex and multiple needs, this can result in poorly co-ordinated care. This has not been helped by the introduction of shift-based systems under the new deal and the European working time directive, to replace the teams that took responsibility for individual patients. Specialisation also means that there is a much smaller pool of staff from which to select for each post.
If we were to design from scratch a hospital where those who will need it most— the elderly, as the statistics show—will receive safe and caring care for their complex needs as close to home and loved ones as possible, integrated into primary and community care, we would end up with something pretty much like the district general hospitals and community hospitals up and down the country, such as Stafford and Cannock.
This is not an argument for no change. I believe there must be much closer working between the larger and smaller trusts, for instance, and much more sharing of common services than at present. But it is a warning that national tariffs are not impartial arbiters. They generally work, I believe, against acute care.
I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying most carefully, as this is part of the problem that we experience in Lewisham. Does he feel, as I do, that instead of reflecting the needs of the population across the country and providing services that correspond with that, the Department of Health is trying to implement a template or a framework of its own making and inflict it on the nation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not convinced that that is the case at all. I believe Ministers are listening and are considering matters very carefully, but there is a danger, of course, that a template will be inflicted. The hon. Gentleman and I both earnestly trust that that will not be the case.
As I said, I believe that national tariffs are not impartial arbiters. They generally work against acute care, and there is a risk that the constant pressure which they are placing on acute care, particularly in district general hospitals, will make much of the sector unsustainable, yet without it, we do not have an NHS.
Finally, I wish to raise a specific point about Monitor’s review of Mid Staffordshire. Clearly, the population served by the trust is a very important consideration. The trust’s 2011-12 report said that it was around 276,000, yet I have heard reports that the Monitor team considers it to be as low as 220,000 and therefore potentially too small to sustain certain services. The facts that I have clearly support the trust’s figure, not the one that I have heard rumoured.
I have spoken much today about figures, because they are an important part of the Monitor review, but more important is the quality of services, for which Monitor also has a legal responsibility. Early next year, the Secretary of State will bring to the House the report of Robert Francis QC from his public inquiry into Mid Staffordshire. Julie Bailey and the Cure the NHS group, who from their own experiences brought to light the harm that was done, have set out radical and clear ideas for turning the NHS the right way up, with the patient at the top, not the bottom—right first time with zero harm to each and every patient. That is something which caring, hard-working staff in our NHS in Stafford and Cannock—where waiting times and mortality rates are improving, although there is much to be done—and right across the country went into the NHS to provide.
The NHS, as the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said, and the nursing and medical professions must make it clear that there is no place for anyone for whom quality patient care does not come above all else. The regulations must show that.
The Monitor review is an opportunity for Stafford and Cannock hospitals to become a model of how to provide sustainable high quality emergency, acute and community care to a mid-sized population. If Monitor succeeds in achieving this there and elsewhere, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) mentioned, it will have done the nation a great service, and I am sure the Minister will be remembered as someone who played a major part in improving our NHS. I urge Monitor to rise to the challenge.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making this debate possible before the Christmas recess. I shall raise an important issue, access to advanced therapeutic radiotherapy. I have raised this previously and I make no apology for doing so again. I intend to keep raising it until my constituents and those all across the country have proper access to advanced and innovative therapeutic radiotherapy systems.
I remind the House that prior to the Conservative party conference the Prime Minister pledged that from April next year cancer patients who need innovative radiotherapy will get it. That pledge was confirmed to the House by the Secretary of State for Health on 23 October and by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for cancer services, in written replies on 30 October.
The Department of Health’s press release on 8 October expanded on the Prime Minister’s statement, indicating that a new £15 million cancer radiotherapy innovation fund was being created, drawn from the underspend of the cancer drugs fund. I bring to the House’s attention the fact that the £200 million cancer drugs fund has been under-spent by an average of £150 million each year since it was established. That was reported to the House on 16 April 2012—column 134W in Hansard.
The Health Minister confirmed on 30 October that the pledge meant three specific things: patients would have access to appropriate radiotherapy wherever they lived; the new national Commissioning Board would be responsible for funding; and intensity-modulated radiation therapy, known as IMRT, stereotactic ablative radiotherapy, know as SABR, and stereotactic radiosurgery would be included.
Since the Prime Minister’s pledge, the Department of Health has contacted all cancer centres to inform them that the cancer radiotherapy innovation fund is a revenue fund only and that its use is to be focused on getting as many centres up to the standard of delivering 24% access to IMRT by April next year. In a letter to all cancer centre chief executives on 17 October, the cancer tsar, Sir Mike Richards, stated that only four of the 50 centres were reaching the 24% requirement set by the national radiotherapy implementation group.
In a letter to all radiotherapy service managers on 25 October, the national cancer action team stated that the cancer radiotherapy innovation fund was to be used effectively so that the Prime Minister’s pledge could be honoured and that if they are not delivering IMRT at the required 24% they were to submit an action plan by the end of November indicating how they would achieve that.
The letter also stated that the radiotherapy service managers could access initial funding of up to £150,000 to help them reach the target. However, the Health Minister, when questioned about funding for the pledge on 30 October, told the House that there would be no extra or ongoing funding similar to the cancer drug fund for commissioners to draw on and that any capital funding requirements would have to be met from the current £300 million bulk purchase fund announced earlier this year. In other words, there was no extra money. It seems to me that the pledge cannot be met, in terms of both revenue and capital.
Over the past two years adequate revenue funding has never been available to local commissioners to fund all the radiotherapy patients who have needed it. I know that full well from cases in my constituency. There is no indication that the new national Commissioning Board is to receive any additional funding. Without extra money, how will it fund care for the new 8,000 to 10,000 cancer patients the Prime Minister claims his pledge will help?
I would like to consider capital for a moment. I received an e-mail last night from the charity Breast Cancer Campaign, which indicated that, given the current age profile of the linear accelerators in England, an additional 147 new LINACs will be needed by 2016, at an average cost of £1.5 million. I want to ask the Minister how those will be funded. There are simply not enough advanced radiotherapy systems in the NHS to deliver the pledge. The Department of Health has admitted that only four of the 50 cancer centres are able to deliver IMRT to the required standard. At full capacity they could treat between 1,200 and 1,500 patients a year.
There are only four systems in the NHS delivering SABR up to the required standard, as the Minister has confirmed in written answers, and I have been to see one of the machines in St Bartholomew’s. At full capacity they could treat 1,000 patients a year. There is only one Gamma Knife in the NHS delivering stereotactic radiosurgery—in Sheffield—and at full capacity it could treat around 300 patients a year. With no extra capital available to fund new machines, it will be impossible for patients in most of England, including my region, to be treated by the NHS. There are some machines in the private sector, but the treatment is very expensive.
I am asking not for more money for cancer care, but for a more equal distribution of resources. The Department of Health is telling commissioners that radiotherapy, in conjunction with surgery, is very effective, curing 70% of all cancers. I have come here neither to lambast the Minister, nor to condemn him with faint praise; I have come bearing gifts, as it is Christmas, in the form of a potential solution. If the total underspend from the cancer drugs fund was transferred to radiotherapy in each of England’s regions, the systems could be upgraded with the most advanced radiotherapy equipment by 2015, which would enable constituents in my region and across the country to access life-saving therapies and allow the Prime Minister to fulfil his pledge.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). I share the concerns of all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far about the importance of our national health service and our concerns about its current state. I think that the Minister—I have said this to him privately—is one of the most effective of the junior Ministers who have appeared at the Dispatch Box since the reshuffle. Because he is a doctor, I hope that he will take the concerns that I raise today on diabetes extremely seriously.
I suffer from type 2 diabetes—I declare my interest—having discovered it only five years ago after a routine test. I thought I had it under control, because I was taking my medication and doing a little exercise every day, walking from Norman Shaw North to the Palace of Westminster, until I read the national diabetes audit report published on 10 December. It states that people with diabetes are 48% more likely to suffer a heart attack, 65% more likely to have heart failure, 144% more likely to need kidney dialysis, 210% more likely to have leg amputations, 331% more likely to have part of a foot removed and 25% more likely to suffer a stroke. Overall, those with diabetes are, on average, 40% more likely to die each year than those without it. Members will understand my concern, as we approach Christmas, after reading statistics of that kind.
I know that other hon. Members have subsequently discovered that they, too, have diabetes. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), who is in the Chamber, discovered he had it only after being tested here in Parliament by the Silver Star charity. He went to see his GP and then knew that he had been diagnosed.
We are facing a diabetes epidemic, and I ask the Government to take more note of what is happening as far as diabetes is concerned. Generally, people with diabetes look fairly normal—I do not know whether you think I look normal, Mr Deputy Speaker—and do not make a virtue of telling people we have diabetes, except in debates of this kind. That normality lulls us into a false sense of security. We need a national campaign on diabetes in the same way as for other illnesses. Because people are getting treatment and are able to go and get their Metformin or other medication on a regular basis, they feel that everything is going to be all right.
This issue will not only not go away but will get worse. At the moment, 3.7 million people have diabetes, and that figure will rise by another 700,000 in a few years. Some 80% of amputations are preventable with proper care and management. I say to Ministers that this is something we can help the population with now. If we do so, we can save the 10% of the budget that is currently spent on diabetes care and the £1 million an hour that is spent on medication and care in our hospitals. These issues are very much in our hands.
I welcome the new Minister with responsibility for diabetes, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has made an excellent start. The first thing she did was to hold a summit for those with an interest in diabetes. It included Diabetes UK, which does some fantastic work on the subject, Silver Star, a charity of which I am privileged to be the patron, and others, including clinicians. She said what very few Ministers have said in my career in this House—“I want you to tell me what I should do about this subject”—and she was given a lot of good advice and ideas about how to take these matters further.
One thing that we could do immediately is to send out the message to GPs, even in the current climate of ongoing changes within the NHS, that it takes only a minute to offer each patient who comes to see them a diabetes test. I know that we are having screening for those of a certain age and disposition, but people go to see GPs for all kinds of reasons. Campaigning organisations such as Silver Star and Diabetes UK are able to go out to communities and conduct these tests. Indeed, anyone can conduct them. I have my kit with me, and although I am obviously not medically qualified, I can still conduct the test on people and am happy to do so. It is very easy to do. We should say to GPs, “Don’t wait for the screening process—begin now by testing anyone who comes to your surgery.”
We need to send out through the Department of Health a message about what we eat. You have changed physically, Mr Deputy Speaker, in all the years I have known you. I know of your great interest in rugby. You used to be a very beefy character when you were first elected to this House, but you have slimmed down, perhaps since you have been an occupant of the Chair. If people look after their lifestyles better by taking exercise and being careful about what they eat, that could help them. Every time anyone drinks a glass of Coke, eight teaspoons of sugar go straight into their system. When I went over to Atlanta and met the chief executive of Coca-Cola, I asked him what he was doing about it, and he said that Coke Zero is the answer, but it is only part of the answer. The kids in our schools are offered drinks in vending machines which have a huge amount of sugar, and then they get addicted to it for the rest of their lives. This is about things that we can do ourselves and things that parents can do to bring down the bill for the NHS.
When I finish this speech, and after I have listened to the Minister, I will be going to the Tea Room. When we get to the very helpful people there, we find that we have chocolates and mince pies on offer to us. If we turn to the left, we see a lot of food that is totally unfit for diabetics. Of course, I continue to eat this food because we do not have a choice, but it would be possible, through labelling of the drinks and food that we consume, as for people with a nut allergy, to add the words “Suitable for diabetics” or “Unsuitable for diabetics”.
My right hon. Friend is making an absolutely excellent speech. Does he think that we should take the bull by the horns and legislate to reduce the amount of sugar in all food products? If we look at any kind of food, we often find totally unnecessary sugar in it as well as in all the soft drinks that he mentions.
No, that is not true. I wish to place on the record that my right hon. Friend has been deeply misled on this matter. I have not taken my sons to McDonald’s, I have no intention of taking them to McDonald’s, and I have no intention of visiting McDonald’s myself. Is that clear?
I will not tease my hon. Friend, but I think that the word “McDonald’s” did enter the conversation somewhere. However, I accept that his response is now on the record.
I would support legislation aimed at ensuring that we are very careful about the amount of sugar, and salt, in our diet. Indeed, I have introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that says exactly that. Denmark started a “fat tax” but then decided that it was unworkable because the food industry lobbied so heavily against it, and so the tax was removed. I am not saying that the Government are going to legislate on this; I do not think they will. The food industry is one of the most powerful in this country. The sugary drinks industry, from Red Bull, a can of which contains more than eight teaspoons of sugar, right down to the people who make Coke and all these other drinks, will fight very hard on this. In the meantime, let us send out a message and work together to stop this epidemic consuming and subsuming our country.
I have very much enjoyed sitting through this debate on health. I remember that when we had the equivalent debate last year, many speakers did not have the time they wanted to make their speeches. The fact that we have had longer today has enabled many right hon. and hon. Members to make valuable contributions on a number of subjects, focusing not only on health care issues in their constituencies and on important individual cases that highlight the need for changes in the system, but on the big challenges that face the NHS in tackling long-term medical conditions.
In the time available to me, I will do my best to answer the questions and points put across by Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and I have met on a number of occasions, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), to talk through the challenges facing Mid Staffordshire trust. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has been a great advocate for, and a great support to, the patients and staff at that trust. I would like to put on record my thanks to him for all that he has done for all his constituents. His advocacy during his time in this House has been tremendous.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford raised some important issues. We know that it is desirable, not only because it makes good health care economics but, more importantly, because it is good patient care, to keep people well and looked after in their own communities and in their own homes. My hon. Friend threw up a legitimate challenge when he said that if we are to deliver good care in the community and in people’s homes, we need to find a way of moving from the current situation. At the moment we have a crisis management response by default, where people are rushed into A and E, and he is right to highlight the fact that some parts of the country do not have an adequate GP out-of-hours system to look after people around the clock. We need to ask how we go from a system set up around crisis management to one that is better placed to meet the future needs of preventive care and looking after people with long-term conditions such as diabetes, dementia and heart disease in their own homes and communities. The Government are taking steps to address this issue by making sure that GPs and local health care commissioners, through clinical commissioning groups at a local level, will hold a lot of the health care budget. That will ensure that the focus is on primary preventive care and on better looking after people with long-term conditions.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we need sufficient numbers of hospital beds, but as time passes there might less need for beds in some hospitals if local CCGs effectively meet the challenge of ensuring that that they invest in community and preventive care. In the interim, we need to support good commissioning of beds locally. We must have intermediate care beds available at community hospitals and in other care settings in the community for step-up care, step-down care and respite care.
On the other side of the River Thames, the clinical director of St Thomas’ hospital, Ian Abbs, is looking into year-of-care tariffs, which look after patients with long-term conditions such as diabetes and heart disease in a holistic way that enables them to be supported when they need a hospital bed and need to be looked after in the community. That has to be the right way forward. We in the Department’s ministerial team will work with clinicians, medical directors, trusts and commissioning boards to make sure that Eurocare tariffs are in place, so that we can shift the focus away from the community, but in a managed way that means that hospital beds will still be available as people require them.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) has been a strong advocate—he has raised his concerns many times—for constituents and others throughout his part of the country who are patients who need access to cancer care, cancer services, the cancer drugs fund and, indeed, high-quality radiotherapy. It is worth setting out some of the background—he outlined it himself in his speech—to the Government’s commitment to improving care for patients with cancer.
In 2011 the Government made a commitment to expand radiotherapy capacity by investing more than £150 million more over four years from 2011. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that was to increase the utilisation of existing equipment, support additional services and ensure that all high-priority patients with a need for proton beam therapy get access to it. In April 2012, the then Secretary of State announced that the Department had set aside up to £250 million of public capital, to be invested by the NHS in building proton beam therapy facilities at the Christie hospital in Manchester and the University college London hospital, to treat up to 1,500 patients each year. In October we announced a £15 million radiotherapy innovation fund for 2012-13, which brings this Government’s additional investment in radiotherapy over the spending review period to more than £165 million. The fund is designed to ensure that, from April 2013, radiotherapy centres will be ready to deliver intensity-modulated radiotherapy to all patients who need it.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that, in spite of that increased investment, there are ongoing concerns about the variability of access to radiotherapy services in the NHS. I hope that it will reassure him that, in response to the requests of radiotherapy centres to the fund, we will go beyond the original commitment and will this week notify the centres of allocations totalling almost £23 million. We have taken on board the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and are making sure that we continue to invest in high-quality radiation in the years ahead. I know that he will hold the Government to that task in the coming years.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has rightly raised issues of principle arising from the Vinny Duggan case. I want to put on record my best wishes to the family concerned. I will deal with two issues: first, the issue that arose from the way in which the trust handled the complaints procedure, and secondly, the wider point about the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
First, as the right hon. Gentleman has highlighted, the trust clearly failed to acknowledge to any adequate degree that mistakes happened and that the quality of care was not of the standard that it should have been. That much was clear in this regrettable episode in the trust’s history. Two years is an unacceptable amount of time to wait for an apology or for an adequate explanation for what went wrong. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that what patients want when things go wrong is a sincere apology and an explanation as to why things happened. We all know, no matter how good the care is in the NHS, that bad things will sometimes happen, but we need to know that that mistake has been recognised, that there has been an apology and that lessons have been learned for the future. We cannot rewrite history or always unpick mistakes, but we can learn lessons for the future and make sure that such bad things do not happen again. That is what good medicine is about. Clearly, in this case there were problems with the way in which the complaints were addressed.
Secondly, on the wider point raised by the right hon. Gentleman about the NMC and the disparity between how different professional regulators approach the complaints process, he is right that the NMC can review or reopen a case only when new evidence is available. If old evidence is reconsidered or if it changes, as in this case, it is very difficult to review it. There are differences between the medical and other professional regulators with regard to how such cases are handled, and the Law Commission has rightly highlighted those inconsistencies. There needs to be more consistency throughout all parts of the medical, nursing and allied health professional groups, in order to make sure that patients know that, when complaints are made and concerns are aired, they will be looked into and, where necessary, complaints can be reopened and reinvestigated.
The Law Commission proposals are expected to be introduced to the House in 2014. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we could do anything sooner than that, but, as he will know, if we brought in a section 60 order, it would take about two years for it to get through the full parliamentary process. Given that the Law Commission proposals are holistic and apply to not just the NMC, but all health professions, we believe that the right approach is to consider those proposals in 2014. We hope that that will bring a lot more consistency, which I think we all feel is desirable, to future cases involving the professional conduct of all medical, nursing and other health care professionals.
I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for her kind comments about the work that I, other Suffolk MPs and, indeed, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), have done in relation to problems with the East of England ambulance service. People in more rural counties, particularly North Norfolk and parts of Suffolk, appear to be getting a service that is not of the standard that we would expect. We need more transparency with regard to response times, not just on a regional level, but on a county-wide level. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal asked whether there could be a breakdown by postcode. That is a little more challenging, because it is possible that, in any given month or response period, not enough people in a particular postcode will need an ambulance. There is a desire, however, for more transparency with regard to sub-geographical regions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has also taken a keen interest in the issue and has recently been out with the ambulance service on a number of evenings.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)for raising the issue and to my hon. Friend the Minister for responding. Having been out with the ambulance service, I have two observations. First, does the Minister agree that we have tremendous, dedicated staff and that we owe it to them to work with the management and others to get the service right? Secondly, the problems facing the service are diverse and multiple, but they can be solved with a lot of effort. For example, on the particular problem of blocking at hospitals and handing over to them, James Paget hospital in Galston has shown that, when the hospital and ambulance service work together, the problem can be solved.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I pay tribute to him for taking the time to go out with the ambulance service and see first hand the problems that have been experienced in some parts of Suffolk and Norfolk. There have been problems with the handover time at some hospitals in the east of England and that is clearly unacceptable, because if the ambulance and hospital staff are engaged in lengthy handovers, it means that other patients are not being treated and seen in a timely manner. Those issues need to be addressed by some trusts in the east of England.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has written to the ambulance service and his letter was made available to my noble Friend Earl Howe. In it, he highlighted the trust’s decision to publish more performance information online from February and stated that it was important that that was done by geographical area to ensure that there is greater transparency in the quality of response data in areas such as Beccles and Bungay, relative to more urban areas such as Ipswich. That is an important point. I urge him and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal to continue pushing for transparency in the ambulance service’s data, and to continue their fight for improved response times for more rural areas of Suffolk and Norfolk. I know that my noble Friend Earl Howe would be happy to meet hon. Members to discuss the matter further.
Let me turn to the issues that were raised by the other three Members. I will be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I take your hint. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) raised concerns about a number of ambulance stations, including one in Buxton. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who lives in a nearby constituency, shares those concerns. A review is currently taking place. We all welcome reviews if they are going to improve the quality of care for patients and improve ambulance response times. However, there are local concerns that the review must take into account issues such as rurality and the difficulties that patients on high land or in harder-to-access areas have in accessing all types of health care services.
I note the concerns that the review is making proposals that do not necessarily take account of those factors. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak has put those concerns on the record today. If that has happened, I echo his concerns, because it is important, in the review of any service, that issues such as rurality and difficult-to-access areas are taken fully into account. This is, of course, a local health care decision. If he wants to discuss the matter further with Ministers, we are happy to discuss it with him.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) put across his strong advocacy for Lewisham hospital. I trained in south Thames and have colleagues who work at Lewisham hospital. We all know that Lewisham faces particular challenges. It has demographic challenges, given its difficult population groups with considerable health care needs, and great health care inequalities. It has a large migrant population, which brings particular health care challenges and means that people do not always have English as a first language. Such people need to be looked after properly. It is important that those issues are taken into account during the discussions.
I take on board the concerns of local staff that they are being drawn into the big financial concerns with South London Healthcare NHS Trust. However, we also have to recognise that no one hospital operates in a vacuum. We must ensure that hospital services and the care that is provided reflect the needs of the wider geographical area. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be looking into these issues.
I will do so, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take those considerations into account when he receives the report and comes to his conclusions in due course. I know that the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge will continue to make his views clear.
Finally and importantly, I turn to the good remarks made by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). He is right to point out that one of the big challenges facing this country in health care terms is to better look after people with long-term conditions. Diabetes is a key challenge. Patients with diabetes have a higher risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, amputation, vascular disease and a number of other medical problems. One key way to deal with that is to focus more on prevention, rather than cure. That means investing in more GP-led care and primary prevention, rather than picking up the pieces in hospital. We should focus on helping people with type 1 diabetes to have a normal life by educating them to understand their condition, through the use of insulin pumps and by helping younger people to manage their condition.
The Government are committed to preventing diabetes and bad lifestyle habits from developing in the first place by focusing on better education in childhood. When local authorities have control of public health budgets, that will be a key priority for them. We must set good lifestyle habits from the early years to ensure that people do not develop diabetes later on.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I want to take this opportunity to raise an issue that is helping to fill my postbag at the moment: the state of rural bus services in County Durham and Darlington. I know that that is a concern for many MPs, especially those in County Durham. Only yesterday, I received a petition from Aycliffe village signed by 300 people, which complains about the state of rural bus services in the area and the lack of buses, especially in the evening.
Sedgefield covers part of south Durham and all the rural parts of Darlington borough. It covers about 150 square miles and, for people without a car, travelling from A to B can be a big problem. Car ownership in County Durham is below the national average. Almost 30% of households are without a car, compared with about 25% nationally. For those on low wages, the elderly, young people and disabled people, getting around the constituency can be a chore. The Government’s approach to cutting bus subsidies and their more general cuts to local government are making the situation worse.
I could spend the rest of my speech talking about the severity of the Government’s cuts, but the Government would just say that the problem is the way in which the local authority is introducing the cuts. We could go on in that vein, but it would not resolve anything. When a constituent comes to my office—as constituents do from time to time—and says that he cannot get to work because the buses have changed, he wants a solution. He does not want to hear what will happen in the future or an argument about who is to blame; he wants me to tell him how he can get to work in the morning. I want to say a little about what some of my local communities are doing to provide community transport, because what people are looking for—the elderly and the low-paid—is a solution to the problems.
People in communities such as Hurworth, Middleton St George, Sadberge and Brafferton in the Darlington part of my constituency are working with the Community Transport Association and Darlington borough council to assemble a workable community transport service for the area to help people who are suffering because of the lack of an adequate bus service. I hope that the Minister can offer his support and encouragement to the stakeholders of that scheme to ensure that it is a success.
Durham county council already runs a community transport service called Link2, which provides a community service in areas where commercial bus services do not want to go. I congratulate the county council on providing that service. It has seen its budget for bus services reduced by about £1.3 million. The rural bus subsidy grant for the county has been cut by about 40%. Companies such as Arriva are therefore not receiving the subsidy that they received in the past, so they are pulling buses off routes, which is making it difficult for my constituents to get around. I have constituents who are having difficulties in getting to work, whose journeys have been lengthened and who cannot take up jobs that they want because they are unable to get to the place of work. Does the Minister agree that although cuts to bus subsidies might make savings in some areas, they create costs elsewhere? Will he say whose responsibility it is when vulnerable people fall through the transport net because of the cuts?
To give an example, I have an elderly constituent who does not want to be named, but who wants me to relay her story because she believes that what is happening to her is also happening to others. My constituent is a 75-year-old pensioner who looks after her 50-year-old daughter who has Down’s syndrome and serious medical conditions. They often rely on friends and family to get to a doctor’s appointment, but one day family and friends were not available, there were no taxis, and buses no longer ran a convenient distance from their home. The doctor’s surgery was about a mile away so my constituent decided to walk there with her daughter. Such a journey might take a fit person about 15 minutes, but it took my constituents considerably longer and on the way back they had to stop at the community centre and ask someone for a lift to get back home. Such things are happening day in, day out, not just in County Durham but all over the country. The Government may argue that this level of cuts is necessary. That is fair enough, but surely someone must take responsibility for the consequences of those cuts.
Another constituent of mine, 16-year-old Lauren Peters, attends New College Durham. A few weeks ago she was stranded at Durham bus station. The bus service had been cut due to inclement weather, but the bus company did not alert local colleges about the difficulties. My constituent was stranded without any money and the battery on her phone was about to run out. She had to wait in the cold, damp, bad weather for three hours before her father could come to pick her up.
We understand that bad weather can cause disruption, but where was the customer care from companies such as Arriva, one of the biggest bus companies in Europe? There was no phone call to local colleges or major employers. I have written to Arriva and the county council, and although I have received a reply from the county council I have yet to hear anything from Arriva. Mrs Peters contacted me the next day to raise the issue and complain. If bus companies are now running merely commercial routes—I believe the route in question was commercial—surely we need better alert systems when there is disruption to help people to get home. There seems to be no customer care.
Lauren was not the only vulnerable person affected by the disruption that day. I want solutions to the issues I have raised. I want to work with community groups to establish community bus services where possible, and available funding to be used to that effect where subsidies to existing bus services have been withdrawn.
I know that Durham county council has gained about £374,000 from the rural sustainable community transport initiative, but that is a one-off grant; it does not happen every year. These are austere times and we should be all in this together. My question to the Minister is this: if this level of cuts is necessary, who is taking responsibility for those who fall through the net? Although I will help local authorities and communities as best I can to establish community bus services, does the Minister agree that there is only so much that the local community can do?
I will start by telling the Minister that there is great concern in my Derby constituency about the possibility of a pre-Christmas betrayal of the Bombardier work force in the city. In March 2011, the Prime Minister brought the Cabinet to Derby because he felt it was an excellent backdrop that would give credibility to his assertion that he wanted to rebalance the economy. Derby provided a perfect illustration of the sort of economy that the Government—who at the time were relatively new—wanted to create. Within a few weeks, however, that rhetoric sounded hollow. It was followed up in the Budget statement when the Chancellor spoke about the march of the makers:
“We are only going to raise the living standards of families if we have an economy that can compete in the modern age. So this is our plan for growth. We want the words: ‘Made in Britain’, ‘Created in Britain’, ‘Designed in Britain’ and ‘Invented in Britain’ to drive our nation forward—a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers. That is how we will create jobs and support families.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
However, just a few months later, when the Government could have done something positive to show that they meant those words, they awarded preferred bidder status for the Thameslink contract to Siemens rather than to Bombardier in Derby.
Ministers seem to have ignored the provisions within the invitation to tender documentation. The ITT states that the successful bidder must demonstrate that it can exploit advances in technology and have a world-class proven solution in one package, but Siemens did not have that. It had not developed a lightweight bogie; indeed, plans were still on the draughtsman’s board and had not even been tested or put into any form of production. In spite of that, however, Ministers decided to appoint Siemens as the preferred bidder.
That decision has already led to 1,400 job losses in Derby at Bombardier, and considerably more jobs have been lost in the supply chain. The Department for Transport seems not to be acting in the national interest and to be completely out of control. We saw the fiasco of the franchise for the west coast main line and, as we know, that process was suspended. The same civil servants who gave rise to concern over that franchise also worked on the Thameslink contract, yet Ministers seem to draw a veil over that.
Ministers have also tried to blame EU regulations for the decision to award preferred bidder status to Siemens. However, that simply will not wash because, when convenient, Ministers have ignored EU regulations on the issue. EU regulations are enshrined in English law. Regulation 4 is apposite and states:
“A contracting authority shall (in accordance with Article 2 of the Public Sector Directive)…treat economic operators equally and in a non-discriminatory way.”
That did not happen. At the fourth stage of the evaluation process, the DFT adopted a complex methodology involving the use of discount rates as shown in the Treasury Green Book, which is complicated for a layperson like myself. When the Transport Committee took expert evidence, Professor Karel Williams from the Manchester business school stated that there was a
“bias in favour of Siemens because they had a superior credit rating and that gave them an advantage of maybe several hundred million pounds”.
It therefore seems clear that the Government are in breach of their obligations under regulation 4.
The Business Secretary reportedly said that the end result of the evaluation process was inevitable. The ITT makes it clear that the Secretary of State will let the contract. In my view, that makes the Thameslink contract a Government contract. Regulation 23(b) of the public contract regulations makes it clear that, where a bidder has been found guilty of corruption, it should be excluded from the process. We know that Siemens falls into that category, yet the Government have proceeded regardless.
When the matter has been raised with Ministers, they have claimed that Siemens should not be excluded from the bidding process, and to some extent I agree. Siemens plc is not part of the special purpose company—Cross London Trains—which has been created to take forward the Thameslink contract. Siemens Project Ventures GmbH, which is a division of Siemens AG, is part of that special purpose company. Siemens AG has been convicted of corruption which, in my view, makes it ineligible for the contract unless there is an overriding requirement “in the general interest” to include it—that is what the regulations state.
As I have said, Ministers say there are no grounds to eliminate Siemens but they are applying the wrong test. They should have been looking at whether it was right to include the special purpose company that includes Siemens AG as part of the consortium. I therefore hope that when he sums up the Minister will give a commitment to look at the issue again. I believe that the Government are in breach of regulations 4 and 23. We will not get value for money, although Ministers claim we will—they are adopting a very expensive model to procure the trains and there are less expensive ways of pursuing that.
The industry is in great shape and the market is expanding, and we have huge potential and a massive opportunity, so I urge the Minister to ensure that he does not allow the industry in this country to slip through his fingers. He has the power to stop the contract—the invitation to tender makes that extremely clear—to do the right thing and to look at it again. Hopefully, he will give Bombardier in Derby the opportunity to continue to deliver a train manufacturing industry—
It is a pleasure to follow my Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). I pay tribute to him for the incredible campaign he has run in support of the workers in his constituency and the skills that have been brought to the country by the decades—over a century—of train manufacturing in Derby. It would be a crime if we lost that. The danger is that, unless the Bombardier contract is issued, there will be further job losses and further loss of train-making skills in this country.
We do not understand or value enough the heritage of the rail industry in this country, the skills involved in train manufacture and railway development, or the future of the industry. Following the closures, we have around 10,000 miles of track. We have a programme of railway network expansion, and more people travel by train than at any time since the second world war. The majority of the public who have access to railways prefer to use them—there is no question about that.
If we involve ourselves in a procurement process that specifically encourages sustainable, local-ish or UK-based employment, we will develop our industrial base and provide great opportunities for railway expansion in this country and other places. However, sadly, the model of privatisation adopted by the Conservative Government in the 1990s not only broke up our railway system but handed all the rolling stock to rather dubious leasing companies. Huge profits were made as a result, but 10 years into privatisation the Department for Transport’s procurement policies have moved much more into a totally market-based international comparator system rather than the system used for Transport for London, which has deliberately sought to develop UK-based employment, and fair wages and employment practices and so on.
If privatisation has been as bad as the hon. Gentleman describes, why, since privatisation, have the number of journeys taken and the number passengers doubled, and why, in 13 years in government, did Labour not seek to reverse it?
I had a discussion in 1997 with the then Transport Secretary, Lord Prescott, in which I suggested that we would serve ourselves well if we took the railways back into public ownership. In fact, our discussion took place very close to where the Minister sits now. We were standing next to the mace during a Division—it was an historic moment. His reply was, “We haven’t got the money for that kind of thing. We can’t afford it. It would cost too much”, but the figures show that we are putting more money in subsidy into the private sector-run railways than we ever did into British Rail in the days of public ownership—and the private companies are making considerable profits. The increase in passenger numbers and train services is welcome, as is public investment in railways, but if, for example, we put £8 billion into the west coast main line upgrading, the public should gain the benefit rather than Virgin Trains or another train operating company making a considerable profit.
I support the points made by my Friend the Member for Derby North on fair employment practices. I hope the Minister can give us some good news. I hope he is not befuddled by Siemens’s claim that it is financially sustainable, because a company that owns its own bank is quite likely to claim that—the two things tend to go together—but instead will consider the huge skill base and traditions in Derby. He should also think forward to the electrification programme and the new rolling stock that will be needed in five, 10, 15 and 20 years’ time. We will have problems if we allow our manufacturing capacity to disappear.
My Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is in his place, has supported the railway cleaners around the country because of the problems they face. I hope the Minister spares a thought for them. In the midst of all the money that goes into the railway system and the profits that are taken out, some people working for distant contract cleaning companies and others are appallingly paid and badly treated, but nevertheless do important and valuable jobs. Will he say he is in favour of a living wage for everyone working in the railway industry as an absolute basic, and in favour of companies employing station and cleaning staff far more directly?
Virgin Trains has apparently been given a contract to continue running its service because of the collapse of the train operating company tendering process a few months ago. I have five brief questions for the Minister, and I hope he will help us. What discussions were held in the EU prior to awarding the 23-month west coast main line contract to Virgin Trains? Is a copy of the new agreement available? Will existing staffing levels and catering facilities be protected? What taxpayer subsidy will be paid to Virgin for the duration of the contract? Finally, what non-taxpayer or fare payer-supported investment will Virgin Trains make during the 23-month contract? We have reached a pretty pass. The incompetence of the process resulted in a gap, which would have been the ideal opportunity to return the service to public ownership and run it, which is what happens on the east coast main line—a very good service runs on the east coast main line as a result. The east coast main line is a ready-made example of running an effective, publicly owned railway system.
The Minister will not be surprised that my last point is a local one—I have often spoken of the need for a wider system of electrification. I welcome the Government’s announcement that the midland main line and the Great Western service will be electrified, and that there will be an electrified service in Wales. That is very good indeed. I have raised many times the question of the north London link. The Barking to Gospel Oak line is not electrified, which means that electrically hauled freight services from Felixstowe or Harwich must change to a diesel-hauled locomotive, or that the freight must be diesel-hauled all the way through. Proposals for the electrification of the line have been made and costed, and the Secretary of State assured me that the Department was considering that again—he also promised to meet me and a delegation of north London MPs in that respect. Electrification would make London Overground more efficient and effective and be far more environmentally sustainable for heavy-hauled freight that currently uses the line.
I welcome this short debate on transport. Given the shortness of time I have and the wide ranging number of questions raised, particularly by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I assure hon. Members that if I do not manage to cover all their points, I will write to them.
To begin with, I should like to deal with two specific issues, the first of which was raised by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson). As he will accept—he referred to this from time to time during his comments—tough decisions have had to be taken across the board because of the economic deficit we inherited, and support for bus services could not be exempt. This has meant not only getting the best value for every pound of taxpayers’ money spent, but prioritising the spending that can best support growth, jobs and prosperity. That is one of the reasons transport came out of the spending review in a much stronger position than most people expected.
I recognise that public transport is, as the hon. Gentleman eloquently pointed out, important for the sustainability and independence of rural communities. Decisions such as where to run services, the frequency of services, the type of vehicle used and the fares charged are mainly a matter for the commercial judgment of the operator concerned. However, where there is not enough demand for a bus route to be commercially profitable in its own right, local authorities do have powers to subsidise bus services. It is essentially a matter for these individual authorities to decide which services are most appropriate for support in their respective areas. These could be traditional bus services or other, more flexible options such as the Link2 service in Durham—a bookable dial-a-ride bus for people making local journeys of up to five miles for which there is no other suitable bus—and the Access Bus scheme, which provides a similar service for people with limited mobility.
It is for local authorities, working in partnership with their communities, to identify the right transport solutions that meet the economic and environmental challenges faced in their areas and deliver the greatest benefits for their communities. It is heartening to note the proactive role that Darlington and Durham councils have taken to engaging with local people, for instance through the area action partnership boards set up by Durham county council in 2009 as a key way of listening to and working with communities, and the Darlington community partnerships, led by residents, working in partnership with the local authority and other bodies, which take a lead in regenerating their local neighbourhoods. I would also encourage smaller communities such as Hurworth, Sadberge, Middleton St George and Brafferton to continue their excellent work with the Community Transport Association to secure a reliable and affordable local transport network service.
In the past year, the Government have provided £20 million of new funding for distribution to rural local transport authorities in England, of which around £400,000 in total has been allocated to Durham and Darlington councils to support and kick-start the development of community transport services in their areas. In addition, the local sustainable transport fund has provided both areas with a combined total of more than £6 million, specifically for transport related projects.
For reasons that we are all aware of, times are tough and we have to be careful with our money, making sure that we get the best value. But I am pleased about the work that has been done locally by local communities and local authorities in the hon. Gentleman’s area to seek to develop the best forms of sustainable transport with the best value for money available.
I turn now to the final point raised by the hon. Member for Islington North, about the Gospel Oak to Barking scheme, which he has rightly raised on many occasions in the House. I recognise the case for electrification of that line at the same time as we electrify the strategic electric spine route from Southampton to Yorkshire. Transport for London has said it is prepared to pay a share of the Gospel Oak to Barking electrification costs, which I welcome, but the cost is very high—approximately £90 million for 12 miles of railway through suburban London.
We will work with Network Rail, Transport for London and rail freight operators over the coming year to see whether electrification costs might be reduced and to explore ways of funding. The national rail funding for the five years to 2019 has been committed on our strategic priorities, but if further funding can be found and the business case continues to be robust, I would welcome adding another 12 miles of railway to the 850 route miles we have already funded and authorised for electrification this decade. Either my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation of Members from north London if that would be useful.
In that spirit, I hope that any meetings we have would be positive so that we could make progress.
I now turn to the contribution from the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) about rail procurement and Bombardier. The coalition Government are committed to continuing to invest in rail, building on its success and facilitating future economic growth. As he knows, we are investing £18 billion in this spending review period alone on a programme of rail improvements as large in scale as anything seen since the Victorian era. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), for Erewash (Jessica Lee) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) have been active campaigners on behalf of Bombardier, which has a key role in Derby’s economy.
Therefore, I am pleased to be responding to this debate shortly after Southern has announced its intention to exercise an option for 40 additional rolling stock vehicles to be delivered by Bombardier in 2014. Furthermore, Southern is working with the Department to develop proposals for a potential competitive procurement for 116 new vehicles, including options for further vehicles. Ministers expect to be able to make a further announcement on this matter shortly. Bombardier is also among the shortlisted bidders for the Crossrail rolling stock procurement.
These procurements offer Bombardier and other train manufacturers new opportunities to bid for work. The Thameslink rolling stock contract is complex, as the hon. Gentleman understands, and it introduces much greater responsibility for the train’s performance in service on the part of the train manufacturer and maintainer than is traditionally the case. Therefore it has—quite rightly— taken some time to get the details right. Siemens and its partners in Cross London Trains have been working very closely with the Department for Transport to reach commercial agreement on the Thameslink rolling stock project. I am pleased to say that there has been substantive progress in recent weeks and the Department has now reached commercial agreement on the key elements of the deal with the Cross London Trains consortium. Last night the Cross London Trains consortium published its information memorandum to potential funders.
This important milestone enables the next stage of the process of further engagement with the debt market to continue to put the necessary financing in place for the deal. Our target, once the necessary credit approvals have been secured, is to reach financial closure as soon as possible in the new year. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate the importance of the statement I have just made, which is crucial as part of the continuing investment in improving and enhancing the infrastructure and performance of our railways.
In passing, I note that the hon. Gentleman suggested that the same civil servants who were responsible for the franchising deal for the west coast main line were working on the procurement deals, but I can assure him that that is not the case. I hope that that reassures him.
Regarding the Crossrail rolling stock contract, we are clear that our priority is to secure the right train at the right price, through a strong and fair procurement competition. This competition is different from rolling stock procurements such as Thameslink that were launched by the previous Administration. It has taken account of the package of measures to reform public procurement announced in the 2011 autumn statement, and it also includes, for example, the commitment of £350 million of public investment to this £1 billion programme. Four bidders—Bombardier, CAF of Spain, Hitachi and Siemens—have submitted initial bids. Crossrail Ltd is responsible for the procurement and is currently assessing bids received at the end of October.
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point about the final part of that process, we expect a conclusion early in the new year, though I cannot provide a precise date at this point. On Crossrail, as I said to him earlier, the procurement contract is going ahead and normal processes will be abided by and gone through. It is premature at this stage to start speculating on the detail of future processes, because there is an element of commercial confidentiality and the deals, checks and balances that one would expect from a normal major procurement of this nature.
The Crossrail procurement is the responsibility of Crossrail Ltd. It is currently assessing the bids received at the end of October. I expect that all bidders will have submitted strong, competitive bids that meet the exacting requirements of Crossrail, while providing best value for money for the UK taxpayer and future fare payers. Crossrail and Thameslink will have a transformational impact on travel in London and the south-east. They will significantly boost jobs and growth more widely in the economy. Their benefits are vital and urgently needed, and the Government remain firmly committed to their delivery.
The hon. Member for Islington North mentioned a number of other issues. I will write to him about them, except to say—this will come as no surprise to him—that I do not share his enthusiasm for what would in effect be a renationalisation of the railways.
I should like to ensure that the House is fully aware of what is being done to help Bombardier and Derby. The hon. Member for Derby North will be aware that Bombardier recently secured a £188 million bid to build 130 new railway carriages following a procurement competition run by Southern Railways. Last week, Southern Railways announced that it was exercising an option to invest in 40 new Electrostar carriages from Bombardier. Bombardier is among the suppliers who have bid for the new Crossrail rolling stock, which I referred to earlier, but as the procurement process is live it would be inappropriate to go into details. The Department for Transport is working to develop proposals for a further procurement of 116 rolling stock vehicles, which Southern, if it goes ahead, will be able to bid for. Through its talent and expertise, Bombardier has secured a considerable amount of work. There are a number of significant opportunities for it to seek to make more procurement bids successfully, which would lead to a bright future for the company. If it secures all the potential bids, it will help it to strengthen its capabilities and work force, and allow it to develop its potential.
In conclusion, the Government do not just talk the talk, they walk the walk. In the past two and a half years, we have invested record amounts of money—billions of pounds—to play catch-up from the failure of successive previous Governments to invest in our railway infrastructure, so that we have a first-class, fit-for-purpose railway network that can compete with our European competitors and ensure that we get a higher standard of journey for passengers and more freight on to the railways. In recent years, since privatisation, we have seen freight on our networks increase by 60%, with all the benefits that follow on from taking the freight off our road networks. [Interruption.] On the prompting of one of my hon. Friends, I would like to wish you and the staff, Mr Deputy Speaker, a very happy Christmas, secure in the knowledge that we are investing significantly to improve our railways. If you are returning to your constituency for Christmas on the west coast main line with a Virgin train, I wish you a prompt, enjoyable and speedy journey.
As we move on, maybe this is the time for me to talk the talk and wish all hon. Members and staff working at Parliament a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2013. It would not be a Christmas general debate without a contribution from Mr David Amess, so let us start with Mr David Amess.
Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, there are a number of points I wish to raise. Members are familiar with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. A number of constituents have raised with me the fact that they think it perverse that they cannot have the name and address of the person who raises the FOI inquiry. I agree with them; I think the law should be changed.
In October, I met Paul Atkinson, from Prysmian Group, who is very troubled by the state of electrical cables. He fears that safety regulation of imports is not currently strong enough, and that this is causing fires, as well as the loss of British jobs. Having recently met fire officers in my constituency, I think this is a real problem.
Earlier this year, I secured a debate on the lack of burial space. There were excellent contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), and a very good reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). I hope that further work will be done on this issue because, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, the only things we can be certain of in life are death and taxes.
I have long campaigned in this House on the role of the Iranian resistance movement. There have been gross violations of human rights in Iran and the sharp rise in public executions continues. Her Majesty’s Government need further to support democracy and change in Iran, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran must be recognised as a legitimate opposition movement.
A few weeks ago, there was a power cut in my house and that of my next-door neighbour. I complained to E.ON, with whom I settle the bill, as did my neighbour. It was passed on to UK Power Networks, who passed me on to the energy ombudsman, which was an absolute waste of time. No one seems to be responsible for these matters, and my neighbour and I want compensation.
One of my constituents is particularly worried about postal vote fraud. To prove a point, he put five fictional names down at his address to register them as voters, and received postal votes for all of them. The census was obviously not checked to verify the residents in the property. He was arrested for electoral fraud, but the police brought no charges. We are both anxious about what appears to be a very lax system.
Last month, I visited Broadway Opticians in my constituency to see at first hand the different enhanced eye care services that optometrists and opticians can deliver. Community optometrists offer patient-centred, cost-effective quality eye care services in convenient, accessible locations. A key benefit of implementing those enhanced services is a reduction in referral rates to GPs and A and E units. These services are very patchy in our area. I ask what plans my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has to make sure that these enhanced services are available across the country.
No doubt the whole House would like to see driving become safer—according to my wife, if anyone drove with me they would see why. I was contacted by the Association of British Insurers, which is seeking to change the law on learning to drive. It wants a minimum one-year period for learning to drive and a ban on intensive driving courses. At the same time, it would like to allow teenagers to start learning to drive at 16 and a half, although as a politician I am not so sure about that.
On an issue of great concern to senior citizens, constituents of mine have been informed that their pensions will no longer be paid into the Post Office, but instead will be paid into a bank account. The letters informing them of the change came from Her Majesty’s Treasury, not the Post Office. This change is very difficult for many senior citizens to manage, and I urge Her Majesty’s Treasury as well as the Post Office to think through this change very carefully.
Another constituent of mine has raised with me his issues with Wonga, the pay-day loans company. He is particularly concerned about its television advertising, which does not mention the annual percentage rate of 4,214 applied to loans. It is worrying how easily one can obtain money from such companies. Its website guarantees quick decisions and money delivered swiftly. Any company making such quick decisions on loans can hardly be spending much time considering how the loans might affect the person’s life or how it could be paid back.
Dredging is damaging the environment in my constituency. It is affecting the cockle and the fishing industries, and is fundamentally changing the Southend coastline and affecting Southend pier, the longest in the world. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. There has been a huge reduction in the amount of mud on the foreshore in Southend and Leigh. The pace of change is very dangerous. I have mentioned it in the House before, and I will continue my ongoing campaign to look after the Southend coastline.
Yet another constituent met me recently to discuss the creation of the supermarket watchdog, which is part of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, introduced in September. Supermarkets can treat suppliers badly without fear of any consequences. Although supermarkets are clearly beneficial to society, we must be careful to protect their customers and suppliers. I congratulate ActionAid on its long campaign and look forward to seeing the watchdog ensure fairness for producers, supermarkets and customers.
A constituent of mine, James Price, who belongs to the Plymouth Brethren, has been in contact with me on a number of occasions regarding the Charity Commission’s plan to remove charity status from the Brethren’s gospel halls. Not only should this group be able to keep its current status, but I am worried about the implications if it cannot do so. I was pleased with yesterday’s ten-minute rule motion on this subject. What is to say that other religious organisations, such as the Church of England or my own Catholic Church, will remain safe if the gospel halls are not?
The final subject that I wish to raise is art. Art is wonderful and should be cherished. Southend West is a centre of cultural excellence. I enjoyed hearing the inaugural concert of Southend youth orchestra and was particularly delighted to hear from David Stanley’s group, the Music Man Project, which offers a unique service for people with learning disabilities. It is absolutely wonderful. David and the orchestra deserve a national audience, and it was my joy to go to No. 10 Downing street yesterday and present the Prime Minister with the DVD. Furthermore, I will be organising an event called “Southend’s Got Talent” on 15 February further to promote the arts in my constituency, and I hope that hon. Members will join me on 4 March in the Jubilee Room, where we will be celebrating all that is wonderful in Southend.
This year, my mother turned 100, and we enjoyed the diamond jubilee and the Olympic games. I do not know what can top it next year, but some of us will be celebrating 30 years in Parliament. I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all the staff a very happy Christmas, and everyone else good health, peace, prosperity and a wonderful new year.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) is always a difficult act to follow, but it is always a pleasure to do so, and I look forward to hearing the result of his talent contest.
I wish to inject a serious note, because I am asking the Government to rethink their consultation paper, “Judicial Review: proposals for reform”. I speak as someone with experience working for the previous Government on judicial reviews. Yes, they come in thick and fast, but in my view they are a necessary safety valve for society and uphold the rule of law. They are the foundations of our democracy. What is a judicial review? It is a review of a decision by a public authority—a review of legality, unfairness or reasonableness, or of whether there was a personal interest in any decision taken by a public authority.
My first concern is about the consultation period. The paper was published last week, and, in my view, the consultation period is not long enough. I have been in many judicial reviews where judges have expressed concern that there has been little or hardly any consultation. This consultation is taking place over the Christmas period. It is not even the length of a legal term. It will last for six weeks, at least two of which will be taken up by Christmas and new year. That might even be grounds for a challenge. What is the case for change? Page nine of the document states that judicial review has developed far beyond its original intentions. That is not a proper reason based on evidence; it is an opinion.
We are dealing with old powers that go back centuries. Some of the remedies have Latin words such as certiorari, mandamus and even habeas corpus. They have been exercised more extensively, because there has been much more legislation, and that is my second point. The Government are concerned about the growth of judicial review, but, because there is more legislation, there will be more challenges. When decisions are made and discretion goes beyond what Parliament has laid down in legislation, of course there should be challenges. These proceedings are not brought before the court lightly. Judges take very seriously the use and abuse of the court process and do their best to filter out vexatious claims.
My third point is that the Government want to change the process for granting permission to bring judicial review proceedings. Their own evidence shows that permission hearings—first on paper, then orally—are a good filter of cases, so what are the figures? In 2011, 7,600 applications were considered by the court, but only one in six was granted. That makes 1,200. That, to me, shows a court doing its job. It is one gigantic filter. Furthermore, only 300 permissions were granted for an oral hearing.
The oral permissions are important, because they are about getting a fair crack of the whip—to use a judicial review term—and it is right that those cases that have been filtered out get a second chance, because there might be new evidence. Even when they get to the stage of a hearing and an appeal, judges, particularly in immigration cases, are now ordering that the appeal can be pursued from abroad. I am astounded at the suggestion on page 11 that a victory in a judicial review is only a pyrrhic victory. It is a victory in terms of court. It is referred back to the original body for consideration, either because the decision was exercised unlawfully or unreasonably, or on one of the other grounds of judicial review. That is a proper victory within the grounds of judicial review.
I am also concerned about the timeliness aspect. The Government say that judicial review cases take a long time. These are not cases in the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce mould. Where is the evidence that there is delay beyond the three months? Most cases are dealt with in a timely fashion. There is a pre-action protocol that allows information to be exchanged before a case goes to court to be settled. The Government want to reduce the time limit from three months to six weeks in planning cases. That will not make them go away or get dealt with any quicker. What has to be looked at is the listing for a hearing. That is where the delay is. I have said before in the Chamber that we need more judges and more court time. The fact that some of the cases have been heard outside the Strand—in Cardiff, Manchester and other areas where the administrative court sits—is taking cases away from London, and that is a good thing.
My next point concerns fees. The Justice Secretary said that judicial review was being increasingly used by organisations for public relations purposes, but increasing the fees will not make them use it any less. Those organisations can afford it; it is the individuals or the residents groups who will not be able to afford the fees and therefore will be denied access to justice. If we remove access to justice, we remove one of the important parts of a democracy. In my view, the Justice Secretary has not made the case for reform. I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to ask the Justice Secretary what discussions he has had with those who drew up the civil procedure rules about these changes, and what representations he has had from the judiciary, lawyers and others who use the administrative court stating that there is a need for reform.
The case for reform is flawed. As Tom Bingham, the eminent judge, wrote in his excellent book, “The Rule of Law”, judges review the lawfulness of administrative action taken by others; they are the auditors of legality—no more no less. If we are to live in a democracy, we have to expect decisions to be made in cases which are not acceptable to the Executive or Parliament. We would not wish to have a judiciary that agrees with everything the Executive or Parliament does. Judicial review is one of the pillars that hold up a just society. Unforeseen consequences of legislation and the exercise of discretion can be tested in the courts through JR. We not only have great expectations but—in JR jargon—legitimate expectations that the safety valve for society that is judicial review will remain intact. In judicial review, judges exercise a constitutional power that the rule of law requires them to exercise. That is the way it should be.
May I add my voice to others in wishing everyone a merry Christmas and a happy new year and in thanking the staff for all their hard work over the year? Let me also say, on this auspicious day—20/12/2012—that I hope everyone’s dreams come true.
I do not intend to take up anywhere near my allocated time, Mr Deputy Speaker; instead, I hope to be punchy and pithy.
Everyone in this House will remember the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Because of that disaster, Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, like other charities, was set up in 1991. It works hard for the children affected by the disaster. I need to declare a small interest in the charity. In 2001, when I was chairman of Heptonstall parish council, Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline was my charity of the year, and many of my constituents in the Calder Valley, along with people from all over the nation, host those young people on recuperation holidays.
Belarus and Ukraine, where most of the charity’s work is focused, received more than 70% of the radioactive fallout from the nuclear explosion. As a result, thousands of children are still born every year with, or go on to develop, thyroid cancer, bone cancer or leukaemia. The charity does much work to help these children. It provides ongoing supplies of multivitamins and basic health care products to the children, having delivered thousands of tonnes over the last two decades. The charity helps children too sick to travel by providing chemotherapy medicines to children’s cancer hospitals in Minsk and Gomel, as well as other regions. It provides support with medicines and equipment to babies’ homes in Minsk and other orphanages around the country. When needed, the charity brings children to the UK for long-term medical care and education.
I want to speak about the charity’s work in bringing child victims of the Chernobyl disaster over to the UK for four-week recuperation breaks. More than 46,000 young children have been brought over to stay with UK host families since the breaks started in 1992. Traditionally, for the last 16 and a half years our Government have provided gratis visas for these recuperation breaks, like every other country in Europe. The breaks help to prolong those young children’s lives and give them good clean air and good living for just four weeks of their lives. The gratis visas are due to cease in March next year. The charity will have to find an additional £89 per child to bring them to the UK for four weeks’ recuperation.
The visas are currently paid for by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from a budget of £250,000, but the actual cost is only £130,000. The money is transferred to the UK Border Agency for the service it provides. I have received a written reply from the Minister for Europe who has explained the reasons why the visas will cease. The money will apparently keep one of our smaller embassies open, it equates to full-time equivalent staff whom the FCO does not have to make redundant, and he feels that he gave the charities enough notice of the FCO’s intent when they were advised of the change back in November 2010.
I would ask my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House whether a solution can be found, because this charge, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Home Office, is just that: a charge. There is no physical product, apart from just the process. The true cost of providing the visas is much less than the budget spent on them, and given the 0.7% of GDP that we spend on international aid, the amount is so small that it is almost embarrassing that we should be cutting support for those young, dying children. May I also ask my right hon. Friend whether, rather than giving a blanket no, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will please seek a solution with the Home Office—and perhaps even the Department for International Development —to ensure that we continue to do the morally right thing and help this and other charities to prolong these young lives?
Mr Deputy Speaker, may I, like others, take this opportunity to wish you and the whole House—Members, staff and their families—a wonderful Christmas and an incredibly peaceful new year?
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your now traditional role of the Speaker’s version of Santa Claus, giving presents to the Back Benchers. I hope that next year we will see you enter into the spirit a little more, with something less sombre than your morning suit—perhaps a pair of antlers, a red nose or some such. We look forward to that with great expectation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), who uses these debates in the way they should be used by Back Benchers. He had great support in all parts of the House as he spoke. We commend him on the resilience he has shown in looking after the interests of the children from Chernobyl. In a way, that shows the value of these debates and, indeed, the Backbench Business Committee, which some colleagues who are new to the House might rather take for granted. Those of us who have been here a little longer know what a hard fought campaign it was—including on our side of the House, through those on our own Front Bench—to get the Backbench Business Committee and give Back Benchers the voice they deserve in their own legislature. I hope we will soon add the other half of the brace that was recommended by the Wright Committee, which is to have a House business committee—the promise is to do that this year—which will allow this Chamber some measure of participation in setting the business of the whole legislature, rather than leaving it entirely to the Government. I hope that colleagues will join together in progressing that over the next year.
I would like to place on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for announcing yesterday that medals will be awarded not only to Bomber Command, but to the Arctic convoys. I have followed this issue for the best part of two decades. If I can be blunt, I think it was a stain on the record of the last Government that so many of us had to work so hard—and fruitlessly—and that by the time the Prime Minister announced this recognition yesterday, so many of the brave men and women who fought in the Arctic convoys, Bomber Command or elsewhere had sadly passed away. Only their families will now have the honour and admiration from all of us for the sacrifices those men and women made. I hope that the Ministry of Defence, which is notorious for its bureaucratic ways and failing to recognise the sacrifice of service people, will have learnt a lesson and will now act expeditiously where the needs of servicemen are raised by colleagues in this House, from whichever part of the House they come.
My understanding is that those in Bomber Command are getting a clasp to an existing medal, probably the Europe Star, that says “Bomber Command”—I hope not, but that is my understanding. I would like to see a medal, just like for those in the Arctic convoys.
It is important for those who served in Bomber Command and survived—it had the highest attrition rate of any theatre of combat in the second world war—get the full recognition they deserve. Finally the Arctic convoy veterans have got it. They have been honoured effusively in the former Soviet Union—what is now Russia—and indeed continue to be, in a way that we had to struggle for in our own country.
Having said that these are valuable moments for Back Benchers, let me raise a number of constituency and Back-Bench issues that are sadly all too familiar in my constituency. The first concerns the treatment of disabled people in my constituency. Many who are applying for incapacity benefit have to go through work capacity assessments with the Department for Work and Pensions through its stand-in, the French firm Atos, which colleagues in all parts of the House will have had experience of.
The waiting time for a disabled person in my constituency to be refused what they regard as their rightful entitlement because of their incapacity is 57 weeks, in some cases. It is unacceptable in a civilised society that they should have to wait that long for a decision on appeal. That is not the way we should treat our disabled people. It would not be good if it happened to just one person, or even if it happened to 10% of the people who appeal and who get what they deserve at the end of the day, but in fact, one in three cases are overturned on appeal. Those people need their incapacity benefit to live their lives effectively. The situation is unacceptable, and I have recently written to the Justice Secretary to express my concern. I was assured, in a letter from him dated 5 December, that extra resources were being brought in to press the numbers down and to enable the cases to be dealt with more expeditiously. I am very grateful for that but, sadly, two days later I received a letter from the Tribunals Service saying that the waiting times had gone up, and that it was now taking an average of 57 weeks for these cases to be dealt with.
I have a constituent named Susan Goldsmith who had her assessment in August 2011. She heard in October that she had failed. She felt aggrieved and immediately appealed. She lodged her appeal with the Tribunals Service in November and, following interventions by me, her appeal was finally heard this month. The judge took only a few minutes to decide to allow her appeal and to dismiss the opinion of Atos. My constituent, who needs her incapacity benefit, had experienced a delay of 54 weeks. I have had many similar cases, as have colleagues throughout the House. The system is a shambles, and I hope that colleagues will continue to write in about it until we get this right and start to treat our disabled people with the respect they deserve and to deal with their cases in a timely manner.
There are more than 500 young children in Nottinghamshire who are deaf or have a degree of deafness, and the National Deaf Children’s Society has asked me to raise a specific issue that is pertinent to them. I am going to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and ask him to look again at the personal independence payment that will replace the disability living allowance on 26 April next year. I am afraid that the change could result in a step backwards for many of those deaf young people. Following the abolition of the bottom rate of DLA, all those affected will have to apply for the bottom rate of the personal independence payment but, inexplicably, that will not be available to deaf young people unless they use sign language. In other words, those who use lip-reading or some other means of communication will fail to qualify for those payments, despite having previously been entitled to DLA. Only 10% of deaf young people use sign language, which means that 90% of them will not be entitled to apply for the PIP. I hope that that is simply an unintended consequence, and that my writing to the Secretary of State will result in his looking at the regulations and putting this right, so that all those deaf young people will not be hit disproportionately by this measure.
Another group that I would like to talk about came to visit us some time ago—
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for presiding over our last debate before Christmas. I have one specific subject that I want to raise, and a couple of very little things that I shall mention at the end.
A lot of my constituency casework—about 40%—relates to the Home Office and to the UK Border Agency, and many of the cases involve people who are here legitimately and who want to renew their visas. The process is simply not working, and we need to sort that out. All sorts of people are affected, including people who are working here and need to renew their visa in order to carry on doing their job, and people who came here as spouses and need to renew their status to be able to continue to live with their wife, husband or partner.
People can choose how to apply to renew their visas. They can apply by post, or in person after booking an appointment online. The applications are not free. The minimum cost is about £300 and the maximum is about £2,000, so people are making a significant contribution. Both application systems have problems, and they are causing my constituents, and those of many other colleagues, severe inconvenience. It is possible to use the premium same-day service, and it costs between £300 and £400 more to apply in person than to apply by post.
My constituents tell me that the system often releases new appointments at midnight, which is inconvenient, and because everyone logs on to the website at midnight, the system regularly crashes. The website also has basic technical errors. One constituent, a friend of mine named Selcuk Akinci, found that it was offering appointments only for 2020, which was not particularly useful. There are rarely any appointments available within two months, although that fact is not advertised anywhere. Most people, quite reasonably, think about applying to extend their stay only one or two months before their current visa is due to expire. Many therefore find that they cannot get an appointment before their leave expires. They then have to apply by post, which often means a six-month wait without being able to travel. People will not have expected that, and it can cause real problems for them, especially if they need to visit family regularly or if their work involves frequent travel. This problem can often prevent people from doing their job, if they need to travel for work.
Appointments can be made at any of the seven public inquiry offices in the UK. The system tells people where the next available appointment is, and they might find that they have to go from south London to Glasgow or Birmingham. Many people have to travel a long way for their appointment. When they arrive, even if they have booked the premium same-day service, there is no guarantee that the application will be processed on the same day. If the UKBA decides that further checks are necessary, the application is taken out of the premium service queue and put into the postal applications queue, which means that it could take up to six months to process. There is no refund of the premium fee in those circumstances.
People have no way of knowing whether their case will require further checks, which can be triggered by many different factors. There can be genuinely good reasons for carrying out such checks. For example, the person’s name might generate a hit on the police national computer, they might have used a different identity in the past, or they might have no leave to remain at the time of their application. However, further checks are sometimes triggered for bad reasons. Whatever the reason, the person concerned is not allowed to talk to anyone. They are taken out of the premium application process and told that their case has gone into the postal system and that they have to go home and wait, perhaps for more than three months. The case is placed in a kind of “cannot process it today” queue and sent away to a casework centre.
Cases are sometimes referred for further checks for illegitimate reasons. My senior caseworker, James Harper, deals with such cases every day in our Bermondsey office, and I deal with them often. For example, a person’s records might not have been properly updated on the UKBA database. In a recent case, a Ghanaian couple travelled all the way to Birmingham so that the husband could apply to extend his marriage visa in the normal way. However, Mr Kusi’s records had not been properly updated on the Home Office system to show his existing leave to remain. It therefore appeared to the officers at the inquiry office that he had no right to apply, even though he did, and the couple were turned away and left with only three days to apply by post before his existing visa expired. The couple pleaded with the officers to ring the visa office that had dealt with the original application, but were told that that was not possible and that they would have to leave. This is really unacceptable.
In a further case, an Iranian woman in my constituency was applying to extend her stay as the wife of a British citizen. Her case was referred for further checks because it was believed that she did not have high enough English language test scores: level 4.0 on the IELTS—International English Language Testing System—scale in reading and writing. In fact, this was a misinterpretation of the rules, as level 4.0 is required only in speaking and listening. My constituent qualified and her case was sent on, but it was subject to a long delay; only after we intervened did the UKBA admit that an error had been made and then refund the additional premium fee.
I am grateful, and I hope there will be a lot of common ground on these issues.
When people apply by post, the system often takes far too long. We need a system whereby people have certainty, because they are trying to organise their lives, and UKBA gets its act together.
I offer some suggestions for a solution. First, if someone has paid the premium fee and gone to the office but a question arises, they should not automatically be told, “It’s going off to the casework centre.” A real person should speak to the individual and seek to resolve the question there and then—it cannot be beyond the wit of people to sort that out—as with any other normal customer service operation.
Secondly, when people have paid a premium fee, they are entitled to expect a quicker service than if they had applied by post without paying the premium fee, even if their case is referred for further checks. That does not happen, but it should do, and I hope UKBA will change it, as such cases should not just go into the same pool as the postal applications. Lastly, if it emerges that somebody’s case has been referred for further checks in error, as is frequently the case, there should at least be a partial refund of the premium fee, if not a total refund.
I hope that this part of the UKBA operation, which is clearly not fit for purpose, can get its act together. I will be grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), for taking this matter away with him, passing it to the Home Office and, hopefully, getting it sorted soon.
To finish quickly, I entirely endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz): the Government should be very careful about reducing the judicial review system. We have developed administrative law in this country for a purpose. There are many more Government decisions so we need to be careful about taking away people’s rights to challenge administrative decisions. I shall certainly put in my submission, and I hope that the Government will pay heed to it.
I join in the congratulations to the Government on at last and belatedly announcing the honour for the Arctic convoys veterans. I have regularly raised the issue with Ministers, and constituents have regularly raised it with me. These brave people, who went through the most difficult circumstances to make sure that the lifeline between us and our Russian allies was kept open, did a phenomenal job. They rightfully deserve to be honoured. Thank God some of them are still alive to enjoy that honour.
This year has been not only jubilee year and a fantastic Olympic and Paralympic year, but the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. I end with a quote from him:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and keep it all year.”
Thus said Dickens, who had big Southwark connections. To that, I add greetings to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to all my colleagues, and my thanks to House staff for looking after us so well. I also give my particular best wishes to two people: the oldest woman in Britain, a constituent of mine who became 113 on 7 December and who still lives in her own council flat in Bermondsey; and my older brother, who has a significant birthday tomorrow.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who spoke so eloquently about issues relating to the Border Agency.
I would like, if I may, to raise four issues before the House rises. The first is about a constituent who was recently subjected to a serious assault in his own home. There had been a dispute between neighbours and the perpetrator came round and head-butted and assaulted my constituent, leaving him with a broken nose and requiring ongoing treatment for post-traumatic stress. He obviously had to have his broken nose repaired, but he also had to attend a head injury clinic.
It is regrettable, to say the least, that as a result of the changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, my constituent is no longer eligible for compensation, despite all the trauma he has suffered. It is worth pointing out that under Scots law, the serious assault charge brought against his neighbour is the second most serious of all after attempted murder. I hope the Minister will say whether the Government will reconsider such important cases.
Secondly, it is right that we have heard such eloquent words across the House about the Arctic convoy and Bomber Command. Some men and women will not be spending their Christmas with their families and their loved ones because they are serving our nation, often in very difficult and dangerous places. Not the least of those places is Afghanistan, but we have personnel around the world who are away from home in Germany, Cyprus, the Falklands and elsewhere.
Thirdly, I want to raise the issue of the financial challenges that many of those personnel face. I shall use the example of one of my constituents who is posted in Germany. This soldier is now a sergeant, and she has been in the Army for going on 20 years. When she was first deployed to Germany in 2009, she received £650 a month from the living overseas allowance. At that time, she was mother to one child. While she was a single parent, she received the married/accompanied plus one child element and one “get yourself home” claim for her and her child each year, amounting to £180 for a flight or a ferry. As a result of changes introduced by the Ministry of Defence in the last year, she now receives just £350 a month in allowances, although she now has two children and is married. She is more than £300 a month worse off.
Frankly, there is little difference between the rate of support my constituent receives in comparison with what a single soldier receives. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether the Government view that as entirely equitable. She receives slightly more in travel allowances with three “get yourself home” payments, but each one has dropped in value. Rather than getting £180 for her and her children, she gets £150, which anyone travelling will know does not really cover the cost of travel from Germany back to Scotland. As she rightly points out, this makes it difficult for service personnel to serve our country overseas. It is particularly difficult for those with young families to volunteer for service in places such as Germany.
On the issue of housing for ex-service personnel, we greatly welcome the military covenant as a step in the right direction. Like the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), I had the privilege of serving on the Armed Forces Bill Committee, which took the legislation through the House of Commons. I welcome the fact that many local authorities are now doing more to support service personnel who are leaving the military. I would like to praise Councillor David Ross, convener of housing in Fife council, as he has taken a particular interest in this matter.
We have a problem, however, in that someone from Scotland whose last posting was in England, Northern Ireland or Germany, will not, on leaving the Army or the other two services, go to the top of the housing register. Such people are effectively at the very bottom. Despite giving perhaps 18 or 22 years of service to this country, such people are treated iniquitously. I hope the Minister will talk to his Ministry of Defence colleagues and write to let me know whether the MOD is going to work with English local authorities and the three devolved Administrations to ensure that, no matter where someone’s last posting is—in the UK or overseas—they will receive equal treatment for housing. That is the least we can do for our servicemen and women.
Finally, I want to raise the issue of the regulation of postal services. The Royal Mail continues to be regulated by Ofcom, as you will be aware, yet its rival services do not have the same level of regulation. Local representatives of the Communication Workers Union have met me, as they have done right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, to flag up this concern. The current position allows a firm such as TNT to cherry-pick its services. Whereas Royal Mail has to deliver on six days a week, come wind, rain or—certainly in Scotland—a bit of snow, other companies are not subject to such regulations. The CWU has therefore rightly asked Ofcom to consider taking on a regulatory responsibility for the rival services. They should not be subject to any additional burdens, but they should have the same level of regulation as Royal Mail. Will the Minister write to me, outlining what he is doing to correct this anomaly?
Finally, may I wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, your colleagues and the whole House a very safe and prosperous Christmas and new year, and may I also thank all those who support us, including the Hansard writers who turn our utterances into something a bit more coherent, the Doorkeepers, the Clerks and in particular those in the private office of the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House, who do so much good work on our behalf, and who have helped the Deputy Leader in getting his responses right for today?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). He talked about the military covenant and, as it is Christmas time, I wish to carry on that theme and remind Members of what is happening to our soldiers in Afghanistan. I shall talk about current operations there. We have lost 438 people so far, while 2,000-plus have been very seriously injured, and a considerable proportion of them are triple or double amputees. This year alone, we have lost 43 men killed in action.
The enemy in Afghanistan—the Taliban—is deadly and skilful. When we first went into Helmand in 2006, the enemy took us on very strongly. The Taliban tried to take us on conventionally, face to face. We had our troops in what were called platoon houses, which were isolated and unsupported. That was a mistake. The Taliban surrounded them and tried to take them out in bitter slugging matches. Some of our troops had to spend very long periods in stand-to positions—their sentry positions—and even had to sleep in those positions. In the case of several platoon houses, it was touch and go whether they would be taken out, and only massive bombardment—which was not good, as it destroyed so much around the bases—prevented that. In the end, however, through the long summer of 2006, the Taliban were defeated.
The Taliban then changed their tactics. They turned to improvised explosive devices and hit-and-run tactics—guerrilla tactics. That proved devastating, because our vehicles were not equipped to take hits from land mines. More important, we did not have the helicopters to fly in and get our men when they were hurt or resupply troops. After a while, however, we again got our response right: we got better vehicles and more helicopters.
The Taliban’s tactics therefore changed again. Now they are coming in close to us, using uniformed Afghan national security forces personnel, some of whom are Taliban, but others might just be people with grudges. They are coming in close to our soldiers, who are trying to mentor the Afghan forces to get them as good as possible, so that when we leave they will be in a great position to carry on and secure their country, which is in our interests. Nine of the 43 men killed in action this year were victims of what is called insider murders or, euphemistically, green on blue attacks. We are paying a very high blood price, therefore, and the people responsible are hiding among our friends.
The situation is very difficult for our soldiers, but they have an incredible generosity of spirit. I have spoken to a number of them and the vast majority say, “We can’t do anything else, because if we don’t mentor and keep close to the Afghan national army and police, we will not be doing our duty by them and we will not be supporting our friends, because the majority of the people who come to kill us are not the people we work with. They are usually strangers—strangers in uniform.” Most of our soldiers say, “We’ve got to continue with this dangerous activity. The dilemma is that if we stay close to the Afghan army and police to mentor them, we stand a much greater risk of being killed, but if we leave them, they will think we are deserting them, and we will fail in our objective, which is to help the Afghan national security forces get up to speed.”
I have the privilege of serving on the Defence Committee with the hon. Gentleman. On the issue he is discussing, I recently had some correspondence with the Minister for the Armed Forces and I would be happy to share that with the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him that those responsible for these attacks are a tiny minority of the population. Does he agree that we should recognise the incredible bravery of the men of the Afghan national forces, as many of them face intimidation for having joined up?
Yes, I agree. In the last month, some 700 members of the Afghan national security forces have been dismissed as they are considered unreliable, and the Afghan forces are taking a very high casualty rate, which is greater than our own.
It is extremely tricky to withdraw from a military operation. There are two years to go now, and I am sure our Army will be up to it, because we are good at tricky operations. I want our soldiers to leave with their heads held high, feeling that at least some of the sacrifice has been worth it.
When we went into Afghanistan in 2001 and again in 2003, the mission was simple: to stop the threat that emanated from that country against our country and our allies. Other missions that have been talked about—bringing democracy, countering drugs, improving the lot of women, education—are extremely laudable, but they were not the mission our soldiers were sent into Afghanistan to achieve.
I want us to leave Afghanistan having got it into a condition whereby it will never hurt our country or our allies again. That is the mission I want us to achieve by the time our soldiers leave. If we do that, we will have achieved something. If we do that, at least it will be some compensation to those 438 families who have lost their loved ones. If we do not succeed in doing that, it will not be the fault of our courageous and gallant sailors, airmen and soldiers who have fought this bitter conflict for 11 years. We must not blame them if we do not succeed.
I want to end by sending my personal best wishes to our soldiers, sailors and airmen who are fighting at the moment. On behalf of everyone in this House, I wish them the very best at Christmas. When we go on recess, their job does not change. They are still mentoring the Afghan national police and Afghan national army, they are still patrolling and they are still putting their lives at risk. I spare a thought also for the families at home who remain terrified that the people from their family who have been sent, at our behest, to do their duty in Afghanistan might not come back or might be hurt. God bless them all, and merry Christmas to them.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and say to him how much he epitomises the benefits to the House of having people with so much experience and so much to contribute to our understanding of military matters?
I wish to talk about the economic situation of my constituency. Some 100 years ago, the north-east was the main driver of economic development not just in this country, but in the whole of the British empire. Today, the north-east is still the most successful exporting region outside London. That is because it has the largest car plant in Europe; it has the largest chemical plant in the UK; it is leading in electric vehicle manufacturing; it is at the centre of sustainable energy innovation; and it can lead in the new industry of offshore wind. So I wish to pose the question: in this Government’s quest to restart growth, why do they not look to the north-east?
In order fully to develop the north-east’s potential, we need a region-wide approach that brings together the public and private sectors; concentration on those industrial clusters where the region’s university research and development can be translated into innovation; skills and retraining for adults and young people, so that people losing jobs in public administration can reasonably take up new opportunities in the private sector and so that young people are given a fair chance; a fair share of the Government’s infrastructure spend, particularly to improve transport and connectivity; and investment in housing and place making.
Unfortunately, what the Government have delivered to the north-east is massive cuts. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the scale of the cuts in 2010 was huge—in 2010 it came to £2.8 billion, which was 7% of the value of the regional economy. The cuts were also unfair; the cuts to the north-east’s local authorities were three times the scale of those in the south-east. In other words, the Chancellor of the Exchequer took £1,000 from every man, woman and child in the region. The cuts in the north-east are even larger than the cuts being faced by the Spanish people.
I had some new analysis undertaken by Oxford Economics on the second-round effects—the knock-on effects on the private sector—to see why we have such a high level of shop closures on the high streets in our region. Its analysis showed that there had been a further £1 billion in lost output; that is a 10% drop in the size of the regional economy. If the International Monetary Fund is right, the second-round effects are even greater, at £3.5 billion.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech, and I accept that difficult struggles lie ahead. However, on skills, does she not accept that the number of apprenticeships has doubled in her area? On infrastructure, does she not accept that this Government have done the A1 strongly, all the way to Newcastle and potentially beyond? The north-east also had the third largest increase in employment in the whole country in the last quarter.
I am afraid I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. I was about to point out that last year, of the £40 billion infrastructure budget put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the north-east received 0.03%. As a consequence, unemployment in the north-east is the highest in the entire country at 9.9%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that public sector job losses so far are already at 45,000 and Oxford Economics projects that total job losses will be 68,000, whereas 46,000 new jobs will be created. So, in 10 years’ time, we will be left with a jobs deficit of 20,000.
The Government talked a lot about rebalancing the economy but have tipped the scales further against the north. Given the opportunities for growth in the north-east, that is at the whole country’s expense. [Interruption.] If I may say so, it would be more polite for the Deputy Leader of the House to listen to my speech rather than to the chuntering of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman).
How did the Chancellor of the Exchequer use the chance he had in the autumn statement? On 5 December, he announced new capital spend in the region of £142 million, with £64 million spent on road improvements near Gateshead and £78 million on housing. At first blush, as the hon. Member for Hexham said, it sounded quite good. In fact, however, once again it was only 3% of the total capital spending proposed by the Chancellor.
Let us look at the other measures taken by the Chancellor, which will dwarf that capital spending in the long run. Yesterday, we heard that he had taken another £42 million from councils in the north-east, not just next year but every year. He also introduced the strivers’ tax on people on low incomes, which will take £25 million from people in the north-east next year, £90 million the year after that and £180 million in the third year.
At the same time, of course, the Government are giving millionaires a tax cut. What does that do? It puts £40 million into the economy of the north-east and £640 million into the economies of London and the south-east. That is not simply unjust; it is foolish. The north-east is contributing all the time to the savings the Chancellor of the Exchequer demands, but it is not receiving its proper share of investment.
What is the justification for those disproportionate cuts when the north-east economy plainly has so much to offer? Could it be that the Chancellor thinks the political battleground for 2015 will be the marginal seats in the east and west midlands? The Government appear to be playing politics with public money.
I am calling for a one nation approach in which the assets of the north-east are valued and nurtured, in which there is a fair funding formula for public services based on need, and in which investment in infrastructure is based on economic potential not political calculation. I hope very much that the Deputy Leader of the House can pass those messages on to his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It merely remains for me to wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the whole House a very happy Christmas.
I want to thank and salute many hundreds—possibly even thousands—of people in my constituency who make a huge contribution every year to the communities in which they live, often on a voluntary basis. I know that it is very fashionable nowadays to suggest that communities are constantly under pressure, disintegrating, transitory or being disaggregated in one form or another, but I am here to reassure the House that in Central Devon community is alive and whole.
It is invidious to single out individual organisations and individuals, of course, because for every one I mention there are many I will not have time to mention. None the less, some have been particularly special to me as a Member of Parliament over the past couple of years. I want to start with a gentleman called Brian Warren, who has run an organisation called Farm Crisis Network for the past decade or so. It provides pastoral support to our farming community, which, as you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, has been under considerable pressure over many years. The foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 had its epicentre in Hatherleigh in my constituency, and many of us still remember to this day the pyres burning, the burning cattle and the pall of black smoke that filled the skies above Devon. It was a very difficult time. We are also aware of the difficulties associated with bovine TB and the challenges of milk prices, which are under pressure from supermarkets. Brian has done an extraordinary job with his colleagues on an entirely voluntary basis, providing compassion to many farmers in my constituency who have much needed it.
I want also to thank all those who are involved in the 125 town and parish councils that I have scattered across my 550 square miles of Devon. I can assure hon. Members that I do not manage to get round all of them on a regular basis—there are too many—but many people give up a great deal of their time, and that is much appreciated. I particularly thank the town clerks of my larger towns—Judith Hart in Buckfastleigh, John Germon in Ashburton, Terry Westwood in Bovey Tracey, John Carlton in Chudleigh, Martin Maggs in Crediton, and Don Bent in Okehampton. For all the people they serve, a big thank you.
I have had quite a lot of involvement with the Royal British Legion this year. It does an extraordinary job for many well deserving men and women and the families of those who fight on our behalf. We have heard much about Afghanistan this afternoon. The Royal British Legion is not just the custodian of remembrance. It also provides practical help to individuals and families, and I am particularly grateful to the Royal British Legion in Ashburton. I should like to thank Maurice Mann, David Lewis, Kath Pugh and Bob Shemeld for the support they have given to the legion locally.
I thank Sandra Coleman, who has looked after the museum, the Valiant Soldier, which was a pub that was closed in Buckfastleigh in 1965 and has been preserved exactly as it was the day that it closed, including the coins and the change in the till. In addition to looking after the museum, Sandra has started a project to preserve and archive the history of the town. I was privileged to have been present when she was awarded the freedom of the town of Buckfastleigh in July this year.
I salute Sue Eales, a lady who has fostered many children in and around Ashburton. She provides them with the love, happiness, respect and security that we would all like to see our children receive. She is a very special lady, one of those great unsung heroes, and I am very proud to be able to mention her in this debate. I mention also Deborah Sterling, who has fought hard for youth services in Ashburton, especially a new skateboard park, and her son, for his imagination in designing the park.
Peter Mallaband, who lives in New Park near Bovey Tracey, has assisted me a great deal in the work that I and many others in the House have done in respect of park home legislation and in trying to improve the rights of park home owners. Peter has always been immensely generous with his time, not just to me, but to other local residents in other local parks in my constituency, including those who live in Buckingham Orchard in Chudleigh Knighton, who have had a particularly difficult period over the past few years.
I thank Wendy Brown and Sue Goode, who run the Crediton food bank and whose services will be much appreciated and in many cases much needed this Christmas. I thank Chris Gibbs, who has done a huge amount to support his community of Tedburn St Mary, so much so that he was in the vanguard of that village being voted the best village in England and Wales some years ago on the strength of its community cohesion and the vibrancy of the community there. I was privileged to work with him in fending off a proposed permanent road closure that would have much inconvenienced the local villagers.
I would like to mention Sally Hordern, who lives in the village of Exbourne and has fought very hard to get a new community store there ever since the village store closed just over a decade ago. She fought through all the obstacles. I had the privilege earlier this year of opening that extraordinary store, which is partly underground. It has a beautiful design and is a great monument and tribute to her and all those who worked on the project.
I would like to pay tribute to the people of Kennford and Buckfastleigh, who endured some of the worst flooding the country has seen recently, and I was grateful that the Prime Minister was able to come down to Buckfastleigh to meet some of the residents. One of the things that struck me was that, although it was an absolute tragedy, particularly for those affected, it was also an opportunity for the community to come together, and they did so magnificently.
I would like to salute Mary Stephenson, a constituent who has done a great deal regarding prisoner rehabilitation and looking after families whose loved ones have gone to prison. I spent some time with her at Channings Wood prison earlier this year and was much moved and impressed by her project and by her work and dedication and that of her colleagues.
I would like to thank Paul Dobbie, who runs the Room 13 youth facility in Okehampton, a vibrant and positive place, and Chris Marson, who lives in the small village of Northlew in the west of my constituency. He has managed to improve the broadband connection significantly by employing ingenious new technologies, which has helped the village a great deal, and he has also furthered the new community store there.
It remains for me finally to thank the staff in my office, Chris Yeo and, in particular, Dominic King and Mike Knuckey, for supporting me and all my demanding ways. I also wish to thank my family—
I will thank my hon. Friend in due course.
I thank my wife Michelle and my three daughters. I also wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, your family and, indeed, your millions of admirers up and down the country a very happy Christmas and hope that I have many more speaking opportunities at your behest in 2013.
I think that the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) has reduced the number of Christmas cards he needs to send this year—the rest of us have taken note for next year. I congratulate him on his remarks.
Many hon. Members have seen fit to talk about our armed services this Christmas and to help us reflect on those serving abroad. It is right then, as I begin my contribution, to recognise that Christmas is a time when families come together and people often drink quite a lot. In those circumstances, we should also reflect on the police service, because sadly there are accidents on our roads, scenes in our clubs and bars and, as is sometimes the case in family life, there are domestic disputes, which increase over the Christmas period. Our police will absolutely be on duty this year, as they always are.
Sadly, in the past two years London Metropolitan Police Service has lost 16% of its work force. Thanks to the coalition Government’s cuts of 20%, the Met faces a £148 million shortfall over the coming year, which is equivalent to 2,690 officers. Of great concern to Londoners at the moment—indeed, it is in this afternoon’s Evening Standard—is the fact that London looks set to lose many of its police stations, moving from 133 24-hour police stations across the capital to 71.
Hon. Members will recognise that some London boroughs are very large. The idea that in a London borough such as Lambeth, or Hackney, or Haringey, which stretches from Highgate and Muswell Hill right across to the corner of Tottenham, Edmonton and up to Finsbury Park, there could be only one 24-hour station is hugely alarming. I fear that the Mayor’s understanding of helping to reduce crime might be helping to reduce the ability of the public to report crime, which is what will happen if this set of closures goes ahead.
In fact, it will be worse than that, because the London borough of Haringey, which has a population of about 250,000, will have one 24-hour police station. My hon. Friend will understand the concern in my constituency, which was the epicentre of riots in August 2011, when my constituents watched their homes and shops burn in front of their very eyes. She will recognise that in the days following those riots, the big thing that people in London and, unfortunately, other cities were saying was “Where are the police?” It is deeply worrying to tell them that there will be a diminution of police stations on this scale, as well as fewer police officers.
Boris Johnson was in my constituency last week, and he said that the police station in Tottenham would not close. However, we want to drill into the detail, because on the basis of the figures that have been presented to us, with borough commanders touring their MPs’ offices with proposals, it looks as though in fact it will close. Even if it does not close, it is possible that no police will be in it, because there is a difference between those who run the police property services, and therefore the police stations, and those in charge of actually marshalling the police. It is outrageous that we could be in a situation in Tottenham where there are no police officers in our police station.
You, Mr Deputy Speaker, and others will have seen in the newspapers the discussion about access points, points of contact and pop-up shops. Yes, of course we want to make our police station accessible, but constituents who come to me to talk about gang crime, and are worried about the young man they know is in a gang and want to report it quietly, do not want to negotiate with someone having a latte in a coffee shop or with someone in Sainsbury’s. We need to be very careful about access and contact. What people understand, all over the world, is a police station. People know what it is and they know that the police have a freehold on the building so that when they move into the area it will still be there in five years, 10 years and 15 years. They have seen these neighbourhood offices but know that so many of them have the shutters down because there is a short-term lease and it could be gone next year. That is not what they want from the police service.
The Mayor’s office has palmed off the task of stakeholder consultation to borough commanders, many of whom are finding themselves in deeply politicised budgetary decisions. The deputy Mayor, Stephen Greenhalgh, has deigned to visit every borough as part of a public consultation process in the new year, and we should be grateful for that, although I am deeply concerned that he might find himself embroiled in an inappropriate situation. I hope that he will spend more than just an hour in Tottenham discussing this very important consultation.
This is happening at a time when we see not only a threat to our police station but to our fire station—the second-busiest fire station in London—which is facing closure under proposed budgetary cuts. The fact that closing or, at least, halving the capacity of such a vital fire station is even being considered shows how uninformed, ill-judged and reckless is the way in which these efficiencies and cuts are being handled.
My right hon. Friend will know that the fire brigade in London has requested that the Mayor review the strategy to see how quickly fire appliances can get to fires. It believes that, at present, the strategy is inadequate, but the process has been put back by a couple of months, so the public are not able to review it. Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the ability of appliances to reach fires in time?
Order. The clock does not tick during interventions, so they have to be short. When a Member intervenes, somebody will have to have their time cut at the end, and for those who have already spoken to intervene afterwards is unfair on other Members. The Member who will speak next will be very upset if I put him down the list. We can all work together; it is Christmas, so let us have a bit of good will.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. People are deeply concerned about the ability of the fire service to get to fires. When serious flames stretched on to the high road in my constituency and went on for hours, we needed our fire service. Even during that incident there were concerns, given what was happening, about the ability of fire services to get to those fires. This is serious. We are seeing the decimation of the London fire service. No fewer than 17 fire stations are earmarked for closure across the capital.
I am conscious that other colleagues want to make important contributions, so I will end my remarks. Over the Christmas break, which is a serious time, we will see how important our emergency services are, and that is always the case. This House will need to return to the subject. I hope that the Mayor will go into the detail of what is being proposed in London, because I am deeply concerned that, over the coming months and years, many Londoners and, indeed, many in this House who might need to rely on the police or fire service will find that they are not there for them in the way that they require.
May I take this opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker, to wish you and, indeed, all the officers and servants of this House the season’s greetings and the very best for Christmas and the new year?
It has been a privilege this year to attend the 25th anniversary of the Brent pensioners forum in my constituency. The forum has been led and championed by Vi Steele.
The hon. Gentleman knows the forum well from his time in Brent. It has done a fantastic job over the past quarter of a century, fighting for elderly people and ensuring that their voice is heard.
The impact of fuel poverty on people such as members of the Brent pensioners forum has led me to consider the UK’s energy policy, which focuses on three things: first, how to drive investment of £110 billion into our electricity infrastructure and £200 billion into energy as a whole; secondly, how to avoid the cliff edge of 2016 to 2018, which Ofgem has characterised as a period when reserve margins will be dangerously low, or, as other people say, when the lights might go out; and thirdly, how to tackle fuel poverty.
We—the Government and Parliament—have been like industrious phlebotomists transfixed by the diseases of the blood, but ignoring how the blood supply contributes to the health of the whole organism, which is the UK economy. Energy is the lifeblood of industry and manufacturing in this country. It should be seen as an integral part of a wider industrial and economic policy. Where this Government have gone wrong is to treat energy policy as ancillary to—or, if one believes the Treasury’s rhetoric, sometimes even running counter to—our wider economic goals. The key question that we should ask about the Government’s Energy Bill, therefore, is not about the strike price or whence the single counterparty will get its money, but how it will promote sustainable growth and jobs in the UK.
The Committee on Climate Change was established to act as an adviser to Government to present coherent proposals about future energy policy that meet our need for sustainable growth, while respecting the cross-party commitment to reduce CO2 emissions. That was intended to depoliticise energy policy as far as is possible. Earlier this year, the Committee on Climate Change recommended three things in its report to Parliament. It said that
“a carbon objective should be set and a process put in place to ensure that this objective is achieved”.
That target is not in the Bill. It said that
“it is important that technology policy objectives are set to resolve current uncertainties about the future for less mature technologies.”
Those objectives are not articulated in the Bill. It said:
“There should also be a clear statement as part of the Government’s planned Gas Generation Strategy that there will not be a second ‘dash for gas’”.
The Chancellor has given what amounts to a clear statement to the contrary and the Department of Energy and Climate Change is banking on 27 GW of new gas capacity. The Energy Bill is an unprecedented and wholesale rejection of the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change. Politics has been given primacy over evidence.
This year, hopes ran high that we would see the go-ahead for the Don Valley carbon capture and storage for coal scheme. The European Commission had rated it one of the top 10 most attractive schemes in Europe. Even though £3 billion of the original £4 billion budget was cut, the Government still had £1 billion earmarked for a coal-fired CCS pilot. The other day, when the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was asked why his project had been ditched by the Government, he replied that what the UK really needs is CCS for gas, because it fits better with our future power mix. Insanity! The International Energy Agency projects that at current rates, the world will be burning 59% more coal in 2035 than it is today. Even if every country were to fulfil its mitigation pledges, the rise in coal burning would still take it to 21% above current levels. Gas CCS might help the UK to reduce its emissions during the dash for gas that the Chancellor wants to foist upon us, but the future of the UK economy lies in developing the technology for coal CCS that we can export around the world.
I am an environmentalist. I believe that the world must move to decouple growth from carbon emissions. However, I understand that coal is the major world fuel and will continue to be so for many decades to come. To have a sustainable future, therefore, we must sequester the emissions from coal in the medium term. It must be part of our integrated energy, climate and industrial strategy to develop CCS for coal. Was the £1 billion ever really there? I do not know. Was this a project that we should have prioritised? The answer is clear: yes it was.
The recent report from Cambridge Econometrics has tried to link energy policy with wider industrial strategy. Its findings are significant for a Government who appear to be determined to move us away from renewables and into gas. The report shows that although offshore wind currently costs more than gas, it also creates more jobs in the UK and has a bigger beneficial impact on the UK economy. The trouble with the new dash for gas is that it will limit the capacity for investment in other technologies that ultimately may be more important for both our energy policy and our industrial policy.
It is important to recognise two things. Gas is an essential part of the energy mix in the UK, as it has the flexibility to cope with intermittent peaks and troughs in the supply from renewables, and the peaks in demand from industry and the public. Gas is being proffered as a solution to the 2016-18 cliff edge, when electricity demand could exceed supply. But it is not a solution. Even the gas stations that already have consent will not come on stream quickly enough to meet that potential shortfall. A possible solution is to make the capacity mechanism available to coal-fired power stations in the short term and use them to provide the load that we need. That might also help to stop the loss of jobs and the closure of pits, and avoid the building of numerous new gas-fired power stations that will lock us into much higher levels of fossil fuel emissions in the long term, while making us feel virtuous in the short term as coal emissions fall.
The recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change to include carbon targets in the Bill is important because this is about the long-term certainty and stability that business and investors need. The Government argue that the legally binding targets for 2050 are still in place, but few of us in Parliament or business will be in our current positions in 2050. Business needs not just a 40-year aspiration, but clear staging points and standards in 2020, 2030 and beyond, to ensure that our energy infrastructure is invested in and properly structured so that it can deliver our emissions reduction targets by 2050.
It is a pleasure to follow my near neighbour and constituency MP, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), in this debate, and I join him in celebrating the 25th anniversary of Brent pensioners forum, and that of St Luke’s hospice, which is on the border of our two constituencies.
May I pay tribute to the late Betty Geller who sadly died in the early hours of Sunday morning? Betty was a leading light of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Harrow East Conservative association and, most particularly, the campaign for a fitting tribute for Bomber Command and its veterans. Sadly, her husband died some 30 years ago—a premature death that was probably as a result of strain put on him during the war. I was privileged to attend Betty’s funeral on Monday morning, and it is fitting to pay tribute to her in the House. Sadly, she did not live to hear the Prime Minister’s announcement that, at last, her husband and all those who put their lives on the line to allow this country to be free from fascism are to be honoured.
I want to take this opportunity to mention some of the problems caused by the use of pre-packed sales when companies enter administration, and the related pre-packed phoenix companies that can be created. It is right to encourage and promote entrepreneurship in this country. Indeed, in this tough economic climate we desperately need entrepreneurs who will put their spirit and creativity into protecting jobs that the UK needs. In some cases, however, it appears that the law is being abused by unscrupulous company directors for their own purposes at the expense of hard-working employees. I have heard of a number of examples of that, and it gives me no pleasure to note that one such case comes from my own constituency.
On 16 June 1997, Medi-Vial Ltd was founded. By 2008, because of the financial crisis, the company had fallen into difficulties and sought to manipulate its employees into working for a period of time without pay. The 55 members of staff, who were naturally desperate to protect their employment, took the directors at their word in the hope of securing the company’s long-term future and ultimately obtaining the money they were owed. On 3 August 2008, Medi-Vial was liquidated and the entire work force was left without work—except for the directors, Mr and Mrs O’Connor.
I am able to say that with confidence because on 2 September 2008, Mr and Mrs O’Connor established Vial Manufacturing Ltd in what one presumes was a pre-packed sale. They were able to secure all the assets for the phoenix company, without the liabilities of the debts such as the money owed to the employees. So well did that work and so easy was it to achieve that they went on to establish Glass Vials and Closures Ltd on 27 October 2011. Once again, that was preceded by the liquidation of their previous company.
Although I have no details about the second and third companies, I can provide greater insight into the first. Many of its 55 employees spoke English as a second language, and that lack of proficiency in English made it easier for the directors to make excuses and avoid explaining why wages were not being paid. My constituent, Mr Pacey, was an employee of Medi-Vial who went to great efforts both during and after its liquidation to obtain justice for him and his colleagues. It is worth noting that he went to a list of agencies and individuals as part of his campaign. He won an employment tribunal relating to the compensation of his earnings. He also took the matter to the police, the Insolvency Service, my predecessor as MP, the Serious Fraud Office and others.
None of those institutions could offer any remedy whatever—hon. Members can imagine how frustrating that was to Mr Pacey and the other employees, who obviously had a problem seeing their previous employers go on to operate a new business just one month later, in the same practice, on the same premises, using the same equipment, employing the same management, using the same suppliers and having the same customers. The only difference was that the employees had all lost their jobs.
I have previously brought the matter to Ministers’ attention. In January, the then Minister with responsibility for employment relations, consumers and postal affairs, now Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, informed the House:
“Having taken account of all the issues…the Government will not be seeking to introduce new…controls on pre-packs at this time”.
He continued by assuring the House that:
“The Insolvency Service, an Executive agency of BIS, already monitors compliance by insolvency practitioners”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 23WS.]
The overall benefits of pre-pack sales are doubtless genuine and substantial. Statistics show that all employees are transferred to the new company in 92% of pre-pack cases, compared with 65% of employee transfers in a business sale. That is to be welcomed, but we must not turn a blind eye to cases in which directors deliberately abuse the process.
In those circumstances, insolvency practitioners are required to report the directors’ conduct to the Insolvency Service and suggest that they should be disqualified from being involved in the management of the company, but that system does not appear to be working, as is suggested by declining disqualification rates in the past decade. In 2002, 45% of reports from insolvency practitioners resulted in a disqualification, but by 2011, only 21% did.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has said that legislation is not the right option for solving the problem, but will the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills explore other measures? It is largely a matter of ensuring that we prevent those who abuse their position from doing so, but in order to protect the benefits to the system, I suggest that extra resources are needed so that the Insolvency Service can concentrate its efforts on disqualification. It could introduce an electronic system so that insolvency practitioners can submit reports online. In making those recommendations, I am conscious that we should not attack those who, through no fault of their own, place their companies into administration and wish to carry on their business—on the contrary, I have every sympathy for people who seek to create wealth and jobs—but the key point is that we cannot allow people to abuse their position and their employees.
I conclude, Mr Deputy Speaker, by wishing you, the staff of the House, all colleagues, the staff of my office, and Members who have given me support in the past few days, and, in particular, my wife, who has been long-suffering for many years, a very happy Christmas. I wish everyone a happy, peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year, and trust we can look forward to returning to the House and enjoying many such debates in future.
I wish to draw attention to the mismanagement and—some fear—worse of contracts by Hillingdon council and to call on the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to send in commissioners to take control of the council, clean up its affairs and restore confidence in local government in my area. For some time, I have raised in the House my constituents’ concerns about the administrative competence and probity of Hillingdon council, but recent events have confirmed the need for more serious and urgent action.
The recent background is as follows. Two years ago, I learned of Hillingdon council’s proposal to demolish a residential home for the elderly in my constituency called Triscott House and to rebuild it as a modern elderly care facility. The elderly residents were decanted to other establishments, and the new facility was to open in September 2011, but the unit was not ready. Many of the elderly people who had been allocated a place in the new residential home were promised that there would be only a short delay. Ten months later, in July 2012, the home was still not open, and I was contacted by the families of the elderly people who were promised a place. The situation was extremely distressing. A lady in her 90s, with all her belongings packed in packing cases, was waiting to move, in tears. She had been promised, month after month, that her move was imminent. Others in their 80s and 90s were equally upset at the delay. I made representations to the council on behalf of them and their worried families. I, too, was promised that the situation was being resolved and each month told that the move was to take place. Eventually, the new facility opened, after a 14-month delay and dreadful distress caused to my constituents.
Rumours were flying in the area about the delay, and I called for an independent investigation into the catastrophic failure of the council to deliver the new facility on time. The council refused. There was coverage in the local press, and after that I was sent anonymously information on the cause of the delay. Information is difficult to retrieve from Hillingdon council because the administration places any reports that expose failings or poor administration—or worse—in the secret element of its cabinet meetings. It argues that this is done on grounds of commercial confidentiality, but it is certain that it is to cover up incompetence and possibly worse. In this case, the information I received confirmed that the delay to the new elderly care facility was because of a dispute with the contractor for the project.
The contractor was a company undertaking another contract for the council that required additional expenditure. The contractor was told to load the cost of that additional work on to the bill for Triscott House, the residential home for the elderly, and then told to charge the amount as “design fees”. Effectively, this was laundering money from one contract to another to the builder. Other works were undertaken by the contractor on other sites, it appears without contracts, and also charged to the Triscott elderly care home account, again as design fees.
Major contracts are approved either by the leader of the council or a cabinet member, and the responsibility for overseeing the performance of council officers in relation to such projects lies with the leader of the council or cabinet members. The question I have been asked by residents is what those people were doing when all this was going on.
After the exposure of the Triscott House fiasco in the local press, the floodgates opened, with information being sent anonymously or by residents about other council contracts. The information revealed that the new swimming pool leisure centre, recently constructed in my constituency at a cost of £30 million, began construction without a contract, only by exchange of letters of intent. Now the centre has sprung leaks, and without a contract the council is exposed to the cost of repairs.
Five years ago, and again in 2010, I raised the disgracefully poor performance of the council contractor with regard to the repair and refurbishment of Avondale flats in my area, which resulted in one of my constituents, Mr Bernard Fagan, being injured and then compensated by the council. It has now been revealed that, as we suspected, there were irregularities in the award and administration of these housing maintenance contracts. They do not comply with council standing orders.
Complaints have repeatedly been made about the delays to adaptations funded by the disability facilities grants. Concerns have now been raised that there were irregularities in the process for awarding those contracts. Another Hillingdon resident has contacted me because he has challenged the council over its expenditure of £1.17 million on three consultants since April 2010, which the council legal services department has now confirmed was without tendering, with no specification for the works and with no contracts.
I have raised these issues with my local councillors in the ward I live in, but they are unable to respond to me as virtually all these issues have been forced on to the secret part of the cabinet agenda by the ruling councillors. My local councillors have been threatened with the criminal law if they discuss matters with me. However, my ward councillor has informed me that he has written to the chief executive, the borough solicitor and the leader of the council to urge that the district auditor and the police are now brought in to investigate these activities. So far he has received a truculent reply from the leader of the council, claiming that it is an attack on staff. It is not an attack on staff: it is an attempt to hold councillors and senior well-paid officers to account.
The situation has gone beyond anything that is acceptable. Up to £50 million of work and contracts are now associated with irregularities in Hillingdon. My constituents and local tax payers are suffering now and cannot wait any longer for redress. At meeting after meeting, residents are alleging backhanders, brown envelopes and various fiddles. I have no answer for them. We need action now, and that is why I am urging the Secretary of State to send in commissioners to clean up this mess. Before I came to this place, I was in local government for 20 years. I have not seen anything on this scale since the 1980s, when some activities caused so much concern in local government. There may be reasons why contracts were not awarded and why a £30 million swimming pool was done with a letter of intent. If those reasons are valid, then fair enough. However, my understanding is that they have opened up the council to real risk. The scale of mismanagement is appalling.
People know me in this House for my independence of mind. I do not care whether this council is controlled by Labour, the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. If this was happening under any political administration, I would be saying the same thing. We need action now. We cannot rely on the existing administration to tackle these issues. That is why I think the drastic step of the Secretary of State sending in commissioners to clean this stable out, which I have never called for before anywhere, is absolutely essential if we are to retain any confidence in local government and local administration in my community.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these end-of-term Adjournment debates. Their value has just been aptly demonstrated by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who has sent a chilling note through the Chamber, and a warning call that I hope the authorities will listen to. It is always a great pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), with his tour de force of constituency issues. Sadly, I can take no pleasure in having to raise in this House access to flood insurance and support for flood-hit local authorities yet again.
Last night, we saw torrential rain across the south-west cause considerable damage to businesses and homes, and disruption on many key travel routes. In my constituency, the villages of Par, Bugle, St Blazey, Gorran Haven and Mevagissey have been flooded again. Across Cornwall, other communities in Polbathic, Altarnun, St Keverne and Gunwalloe have all been hit too. This is not uncommon for the people of Cornwall—just four weeks ago we were hit with flooding. The House may remember that shortly after the general election in 2010 Cornwall was hit with serious flooding too, occasioning the Prime Minister to join me in some of the communities I have just mentioned.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks and give praise to the work of the emergency services overnight—the firefighters, the police, ambulance workers across Cornwall and the south-west, and the 100 Cornwall council staff—who were out all night helping people to move to safety, and trying to minimise the damage to properties and to life. However, we are not out of the woods yet. The Met Office and the Environment Agency are predicting continued severe weather in the south-west. The EA currently has 19 flood warnings and 52 flood alerts across the region—stark warnings about large swathes of the south-west being at imminent flood risk due to the saturation levels already in the ground.
It is clear that we cannot always build flood defences that will protect people against all eventualities. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) was in his place—he is an assiduous campaigner on environmental issues—he would agree that with climate change we will see increasingly unpredictable weather across our country for years to come. However, we in this House should be able to ensure that everybody has access to insurance when the worst happens. That sounds very simple, but the Government, flood groups and insurers have been grappling with the problem for a long time and seem no closer to resolving it. The typical cost of flood damage to a home is approximately £30,000, and approximately 200,000 homes are at risk of flooding.
The last Government agreed a statement of principles—a five-year agreement—that meant that flood insurance had to be included in house insurance. It was a worthy goal and a good step forward, but it was not perfect. For example, it did not apply to homes built after October 2009 and, more importantly, made little attempt to help those in the severest flood-risk areas, which was bewildering, frankly. Despite that, however, that statement of principles was a worthy effort to ensure that when flooding hit a community, people were able to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, it expires next June, and at the moment the House is yet to see any concrete proposals for how this important issue will be dealt with after that point. Communities across the country, including those that I represent, are already struggling to get affordable flood-risk insurance, even though it might technically be available. I urge my right hon. Friend to look into this issue and ensure that the proposals come forward in a timely way and can be adequately debated by the House.
I have raised before my concerns about the Bellwin scheme—the threshold at which central Government support comes in to help local authorities hit by flooding. In Cornwall council’s case, the existing Bellwin scheme has a threshold of 0.2%, which is currently £1.41 million, as the amount it must defray before any assistance is forthcoming from central Government. This scheme is outdated and does not seem to make any allowance for the new unitary authorities. If Cornwall still had a two-tier local authority system, that threshold would be just £58,000. That, coupled with tight rules limiting funding to the additional costs incurred in dealing with the immediate emergency only, basically means that the likelihood of an emergency incurring eligible expenditure greater than the threshold is now significantly less than if the two-tier were still in place. We need to modernise and update the Bellwin scheme. Cornwall is also a fire and rescue authority, but the scheme does not factor in those parts of the country where the principal local authority is on a unitary basis and also the fire and rescue authority.
I turn to the final reason why I would like my right hon. Friend to investigate whether the Bellwin scheme can be reconsidered. Why is the dedicated schools grant used in the calculation of when a threshold is reached by a local authority? It is another instance of where the Bellwin scheme has not kept pace with the change in how local government across our nation is administered. At the moment, Cornwall council estimates repair costs of £2.5 million on the highways alone. When flooding occurs, it is not only a threat to life, but it destroys homes, wrecks businesses and leaves a significant clear-up operation in its wake, and that operation often falls to the local authority to fund.
The biggest Christmas present for all those across the country facing flooding risk would be to ensure that, as we go into next year, flood insurance is available and affordable, and that, when floods hit, local authorities have the support they need from the House and the Government to ensure that the clean-up can happen in the swiftest possible way.
Northumberland has much that it could teach the rest of Britain. My constituency is home to a vast number of civic groups, charities and volunteer organisations and people who give up their time to get involved, help their communities and improve people’s lives. They are passionate about the place in which they live. From the team in Tarset who organised the first oil-buying groups, pioneered a bastle trail and created the famous Murray henge, to Joan Russell, who runs her fantastic community allotment in Prudhoe, and Tom Martin, who led the creation of a community orchard in Wylam, there is a real sense of engagement, of getting involved and of local people creating the community they want.
Of all the places in the country that would engage in the concept, spirit and actuality of localism, this is the place. Indeed, when the previous Labour Government wanted to get rid of the district councils and move to a single unitary authority, the people robustly said that they would like to keep Tynedale and Castle Morpeth. The Labour Government famously held a consultation, complete with referendum, lost it and pressed on regardless. As a result, we now have Northumberland county council in its current form.
The Conservative party manifesto in 2010 promised specifically that
“people in each neighbourhood will be able to”
“what kind of development they want”.
In 2010, I found that that commitment to localism resonated loud and clear with local voters, who wanted a better kind of local politics. Very rarely if ever do Government know best on local issues. For the first time since Queen Victoria sat on the throne—not dissimilar to you, Mr Deputy Speaker—this Government’s Localism Act 2011 saw real power going from Government back to the people, putting into reverse gear 100 years of centralisation. My simple phrase is: “Trust the people”. The Localism Act 2011 did just that.
Planning is the key aspect of the 2011 Act. It is most welcome for its transformation of the process that people have to deal with. We ripped up the previous top- down regional spatial strategy, which was a Westminster-enforced, target-driven system, which in any event failed to produce any houses, with the lowest house building since 1929. To deliver the change, a local development plan is required from each local authority. The plans will be crucial to deciding planning applications. The Government guidance is that local plans must be in accordance with section 20 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the national planning policy framework. The only mandate is that the authority must complete a plan. Already, 48 local plans have been adopted since May 2011, and more than 65% of councils in the country have published a plan for public consultation. Those are accompanied by more than 100 smaller neighbourhood plans. The vast city of Manchester, for example, went from start to finish in less than 18 months, finishing in the summer of 2012.
I entirely agree. It does not really matter which political party is in charge of the local authority. I am criticising Northumberland county council, which happens to be Liberal Democrat in its persuasion, but I would still be criticising it if it were Conservative or Labour. It is a question of competence and leadership, organisation and logistics; it is not about money. Lots of authorities up and down the country have been able to sort this out over an 18-month period—we should bear it in mind that authorities have up to three years to do so. Otherwise, 65% would not have gone down this track.
Everybody knows that the plans have to be completed by spring 2013. Indeed, I was present when the then Communities and Local Government Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), came to Stannington in Northumberland in August 2011 and met NCC planning officers and developers. He stressed the need for NCC planning officers to press on with their plan. It is not as if the local authority has not been warned. It appears certain that Northumberland will now not complete its plan by the March 2013 deadline. I have had that confirmed to me in person by senior councillors and it is an open secret at county hall. Indeed, it appears that the situation is worse: the plan might not be produced and finalised before 2014.
The county council’s failure to deliver the local plan will be an unmitigated disaster for Northumberland. The law is absolutely clear. If a planning authority has an up-to-date local plan, with identified sites to meet five years of objectively assessed need, it has all the powers it needs to resist speculative applications for development. However, if an authority does not have a plan in place or even a draft plan containing an objective assessment of housing needs and identifying five years of developable, deliverable sites, it runs the risk of speculative planning applications from developers and its decisions being overturned on appeal. As the Minister with responsibility for planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), told the House on 7 November 2012, an authority with a local development plan has nothing to fear from the Planning Inspectorate.
The Liberal Democrat county council’s failure will, I sadly suggest, be a green light for developers to run amok—in Ponteland, in Darras Hall, in New Ridley, in Ovingham and possibly in the west of Hexham. All those applications are mooted and the list is growing every month. Nor do we have minerals or renewables plans as part of the local development plan. That makes it hard to resist applications to do open-cast mining on green belt land, and our landscape is being affected by the random development of wind farms with little consideration of the cumulative impact.
I am not against development; far from it. I see the need for more houses. I have supported developments at the police headquarters in Ponteland, on the Prudhoe hospital site, and in villages such as Allendale. I must be the chief advocate for house building on the redundant Stannington hospital site. I even brought the developer to Westminster to meet a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to try to make it more likely that that development could happen in a sustainable way.
In the past, I have been harsh in my criticism of developers and big business seeking to cash in on the council’s slow progress in delivering a local plan. Perhaps that is just the old socialist in me, but I do not believe that the market always knows best. However, I am all too aware that Northumberland county council is the architect of all our problems. By failing to create a local plan, it is failing Northumberland. I do not blame the staff at county hall, who are as bright and capable as those at any county hall in the land. I do not blame the squeeze on council budgets, as more than 50 other councils have delivered a plan. A comparison with the other authorities shows that that is not the issue. This is an issue of competence, leadership, management and organisation.
The situation is not satisfactory; it is divisive. Worst of all, it creates a sense that democracy is not working, that big business holds all the cards and that the protector of local people’s rights, the local authority, is failing them. I am helping local people all I can, but as the county council is stuck in the slow lane, I must ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether there is anything the Government can do to aid that incompetent administration. How can we ensure that cumulative impact is considered so that applications are not treated in isolation, creating a patchwork quilt of development with no real thought to its impact on local people? How do people challenge developers when local authorities are not prepared to fight challenges to their local decisions which are appealed?
I know that, if we had a local plan, we would have the tools to fight, and the local will to create a sustainable Northumberland, created by the people, for the people, and with appropriate development for the people. The sad fact is that there is a fundamental lack of leadership to drive things forward and get things done. To say that there was better leadership on the Titanic would be unfair—accurate perhaps, but unfair. An expedited plan would provide a way forward. Without one, I fear for my county, and I fear the sense of unfairness that local people will feel. That cannot be good for sustained locally driven development, and it is not good for democracy.
These are difficult times for local councils, and with further financial constraints confronting them, I pay tribute to the councillors of all political persuasions and officers who find themselves in ever more difficult situations. This is not an experience that I faced as a council leader, but one thing I do understand is the importance of ensuring that public money is not wasted or used for purposes that are inappropriate for a local authority or ultra vires under local government legislation.
In the hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will pursue the matter with vigour, I bring to the House’s attention the extraordinary situation involving the former leader of Essex county council, whose exploits have been much publicised in recent weeks in local newspapers and on local radio, and in some national newspapers. It has been revealed that, from March 2005 to January 2010, he spent £287,000 using the council tax payer-funded credit card that he had been issued. That equates to a rate of more than £1,000 every week for five years, all tax free. Items of expenditure included 62 overseas visits to such places as Uganda, New Zealand, China and the United States—not places normally associated with the local government activity of Essex county council—often accompanied by council officers and councillors.
I can now reveal, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request that I made to the council, that the same leader first had a credit card issued in “mid-2002”. On the assumption that his spending pattern in the years from 2002 onwards was the same as that in the five years following the first published item on 9 March 2005—£89.21 for a lunch at the Barda restaurant in Chelmsford for the leader and an unnamed county councillor—it is likely that the leader’s credit card spending to fund his lifestyle of expensive tastes in the UK and overseas, paid for by Essex council tax payers, was in the region of £450,000. His last entry, funded by the good people of Essex, was on 27 January 2010 when, with an unnamed county councillor, he billed £77 for lunch at the Loch Fyne restaurant in Chelmsford. Last week, a motion was put forward at a meeting of Essex county council in respect of the credit card bills of the former leader, who resigned from the council in 2010, but it was not agreed.
I can perhaps best describe what happened by quoting distinguished journalist Mr Simon Heffer, who is a council tax payer in Essex, from his column in the Daily Mail of Saturday 15 December:
“Tory-controlled Essex County Council decided this week not to sue their disgraced former leader…for the £287,000 of ratepayers’ money he spent flying around the world with cronies and dining in style. This is a rash move. In four and a half months, the council is up for re-election. I am appalled that Essex Tories have such a cavalier view of financial accountability. Anyone who votes to put them back into office next May is mad. Did they take this view…because some of them, too, have things on their conscience?”
Simon Heffer may say that; I could not possibly comment.
In fairness, the current leader is a breath of fresh air. He was issued with a credit card on taking over in May 2010, and it was cancelled in August 2011 having never been used. That shows how much the previous leader abused his position and took Essex council tax payers to the tune of circa £450,000 to fund his expensive tastes and lifestyle. It is also fair to say that a new broom at county hall has ensured that new procedures will not allow such a situation to happen again, but it is not enough to clear up the stables—although pigsty might be a more appropriate description.
What has happened needs to be investigated. As the council is not prepared to have an independent investigation—I believe that is important; otherwise all county councillors will be tarred with the same brush—it must be for central Government to do so. Unless there is an independent inquiry, the stench will remain. That is not in the interest of Essex county council, its councillors and officers—a whitewash is not acceptable.
It is difficult to believe that the former leader was able for eight years to live the life of Riley paid for by Essex council tax payers, without others knowing. After all, many of the credit card bills refer to the leader being accompanied more often than not by officers and councillors. Why did the internal audit not notice the monthly credit card payments and ask questions? Why did the external audit not notice and ask questions?
On 17 October last year, a council spokesman said:
“All employee expenses are subject to audit and public scrutiny”—
but not, presumably, those of the former leader. How is it that the entire finance department and line management within it, leading in due course right into the office of the chief executive, did not notice and draw attention to it? Or is it the case, as has been put to me, that some people did try, but that there was a climate of fear and bullying at county hall? People were afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. This attitude was not confined to the leader, as some councillors and some senior officers were involved. Only an independent inquiry can get into that barrel of apples to identify any rotten ones that are still in place.
I have been advised by a lawyer that he is prepared, at no personal cost to himself, to look at the paperwork and help draft a claim against the council and its officers for an apparent, and I quote,
“breach in fiduciary duty to Essex ratepayers who are owed the opportunity to see these matters rectified.”
It is said that the credit card records from 2002 to 2005 have been destroyed, but I believe the council’s records should still show the total credit card sums claimed by the former leader, even if the individual items cannot be listed. Perhaps the credit card company’s records exist, which an independent inquiry could look at.
The roll-call of countries visited by the former leader between 2005 and 2010 could well make him Britain’s most travelled politician. At 62 visits, that is probably more than the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, and it is certainly not what one would expect of the leader of a local authority. Usually with at least one officer, his Cook’s tour reads as follows: United States of America, eight times; Belgium, 15 times; Poland, twice; Croatia and Sri Lanka, twice; Cyprus, Bulgaria and Austria, three times; France, three times; Slovakia and Italy, three times; China, six times; Hungary, Germany, Holland and India, three times; Australia, New Zealand, Uganda, Hong Kong and Finland, twice; Vietnam, Albania and the Bahamas, ending with his last overseas trip to Canada. In December 2005 Essex council tax payers funded the leader, a councillor and an officer to attend the winter Olympics in Italy at a cost of circa £1,400.
Perhaps an example of the leader’s extravagance is a visit he made, accompanied by a council officer, to Hungary on 17 May 2006 for a one-day meeting described as the “First Assembly of European Regions”. Putting to one side the fact that the wonderful county of Essex is not a region, which begs the question why he was there in the first place, the visit was stretched out over a total of five days and involved staying in three separate hotels—two in Budapest, which is 230 km distant from where the one-day conference was held, one of them five-star, with the other described as “art-nouveau extravagance” and “the World’s most famous spa”—having expensive meals at restaurants and hiring a car. This is a grand total, including flights, of £1,530.
Other interesting entries, completely contrary to local government rules and expenditure legitimacy, relate to the council leader using his credit card to pay for attendance at Conservative party conferences for himself and up to three officers of Essex county council, including their travel and hotel accommodation costs. One of his popular watering holes was an establishment in Chelmsford called Muddy Waters where in December 2007 he treated county officers to a meal, paid for by council tax payers, which came to £736. In July 2008, he claimed £42.94 for a Little Chef breakfast. I know that the Little Chef Olympian breakfast is good, but I think customers can get four for the price he paid, as he pigged himself into some sort of record book. Another interesting item is the £327.50 he paid for
“gifts purchased for Transformation Awayday”
from the Crooked House gallery in Lavenham, Suffolk.
That list surely in itself comprises an appalling betrayal of the people of Essex by the then leader of the council, but I must now refer to a further abuse. Throughout this period, the leader was also based at another establishment for which five full-time employees of Essex county council had security passes. A sixth, listed as his secretary in the directory of this other establishment, was actually based at county hall, and taxpayers paid all the office costs. When not on council business, the leader was frequently chauffeured here and there at all times of the day and into the early hours by a car and driver provided by the council. The five council officers were providing services that were not part and parcel of the leader’s position with Essex county council, but the council tax payers of Essex were paying all the costs. It is difficult to estimate what they amounted to over what was an eight-year period.
Order. Mr Gilbert, you knew when you rose to intervene that your colleague’s time had almost run out. You have already spoken, and I hope you want other colleagues to have a chance to speak as well. I do not want to have to shave a couple of minutes off other Members’ speaking times. I think you would agree that that would be totally unfair.
I agree with what my hon. Friend said.
As I was saying, it is difficult to estimate what the costs amounted to over what was an eight-year period, but staff salaries and all associated costs would easily take the sum over the £1 million mark, excluding the approximately £450,000 costs incurred through the leader’s credit card, to which I have already referred.
What has happened in Essex brings all local government into disrepute, which is unfair on hard-working councillors and officers, including those in Essex. Only a full independent inquiry into the stewardship of the council from 2002 to 2010 will serve to draw a line under this most disgraceful period since Essex county council was established in 1889.
I rise to celebrate Christmas. In particular, I want to celebrate Christmas in Dover, where we will have a new hospital built next year, after a decade in which our hospital services were decimated and progressively withdrawn. It is therefore great that health care will be moving forward.
I also rise to celebrate the fact that Dover has won the lottery. A £1 million grant has been awarded to Dover for the betterment of the community.
Most of all, however, I rise to celebrate the fact that today we have had news that the port of Dover will not be sold off to the French, or whoever, but will instead stay as it is and, I hope, become a community port and a landmark of the Prime Minister’s vision for the big society.
It was a shock to everyone in my community when in 2009 the former Prime Minister put the port of Dover up for sale as part of his car boot sale. That dismayed my community, and it became a key issue. A key pledge of mine was that the port of Dover should not be sold off, but should remain for ever England.
In autumn 2010, therefore, we launched the alternative: Dover should become a people’s port owned by the community. Our concern was that if it were to remain a trust port, every decade or so there would be a proposal to sell it off, and we do not want the port to be sold overseas. Rather than have to face that future threat ever again, we decided it would be better for the community to come together and buy the port.
The community bid was launched by none other than Dame Vera Lynn, to whom I and the community owe the deepest thanks and gratitude. Without her support, the port and the white cliffs above it would probably have been sold overseas, and we would be waving goodbye instead of celebrating a great Christmas present.
I thank Kent county council and Dover town council for their staunch support throughout this period. I also thank everyone at the Emmaus homeless charity, which is based at Archcliffe fort in Dover. Although they have no home themselves, they are concerned about our community and our port and the stake all of us hold in our society, and they agree that Dover should remain for ever England. They supplied the stewards for our rally back in 2010 when we launched the proposal for a people’s port. I also wish to thank Unite the union—Alan Feeney and his colleagues. They are not natural bedfellows for a Conservative MP, but they came together to support us all in working together, across party, across area and across disciplines, to get the best for our community.
Together, we set up the People’s Port Trust, which is chaired by Neil Wiggins. Its president is Sir Patrick Sheehy, who used to run British American Tobacco. That is a large company, so he is an experienced business man who knows what he is doing. We also have Algy Cluff, who opened up the North sea to oil exploration, Pat Sherratt, Councillor Nigel Collor and many others. They all came together to set up the alternative. We got funding from the city—we raised the money that was needed—and we tabled a counter-offer to the Prime Minister in November 2010. That was really important because there is no point in just saying no to a proposal; we have to put forward an alternative. Our alternative was that we, the people—our community—should come together to buy the port.
We then held a referendum, because we thought that it could not be a people’s port without the people endorsing the proposal. In March 2011, a referendum was held in the Dover parish asking:
“Do you oppose the private sale of the Port of Dover as proposed by the Dover Harbour Board and support its transfer to the community of Dover instead?”
Some 98% voted in favour, on a greater turnout than the previous district council elections. So I am pleased that Ministers have listened to our community, held a proper consultation and decided that it would not be the right thing to sell off the port of Dover overseas.
The current situation is that the sell-off will not happen under the Ports Act 1991. The real issue is what happens next. I hope that Ministers will look at the position, at how the community can come to own the port and at how we can have the big society in Dover. That really matters because it is not just the community, the local authorities, my electors and the unions who want this; the ferry companies and businesses want it, too. So we have complete unity of purpose and unity of desire across all strands of our community that the port of Dover should become a community port. This is important because a community port could be an engine for the regeneration of Dover and returning Dover to being the jewel in the crown of the nation that it once was. This could be a template for Newcastle, for Belfast and for how we can have renewal and regeneration in our seafronts and coastal towns to ensure that they can achieve maximum employment, success and attractiveness once again. I thank the Government for their decision today to chart the way ahead, and I hope that in the new year we will get great progress towards delivering the Prime Minister’s vision for a big society and the people’s vision for a community port.
It is a great pleasure to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and I am particularly interested in the port of Dover becoming a people’s port. Interestingly, until 1528 we actually had the whole town of Calais, so it would have been a terrible shame to have sold off Dover.
I wish to discuss the situation in my constituency. Ever since the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs talked in the spring about a drought we have had nothing but rain. We have had a series of floods throughout my constituency, and I want to pay tribute to all the people who have gone out to try to protect their homes. The communities have pulled together extremely well. We have had flooding in Bampton, which has caused a great deal of problems, and in Tiverton, where the Grand Western canal burst its banks. Of course it will cost a huge amount of money to put the canal right. I ask anyone who wants to support the Grand Western canal to do so, because it a great asset to not only Tiverton but the country.
We have also had huge problems with flooding throughout the Axe valley, particularly in Axminster. There is another high flood alert today on the River Axe and we have had a lot of flooding through there. There have been problems with blocked culverts and blocks under the railway, and they need to be sorted out for the future. There has also been flooding in Uplyme and Seaton.
In the village of Feniton, we have had a real problem with a great deal of flooding. The village is like a funnel, and the water comes right down to the bottom of the village and floods several bungalows at the bottom because it cannot get underneath the railway line. Recently, an inspector’s decision has allowed more houses in Feniton on appeal with no money to contribute towards a flood prevention scheme. It seems to be absolute madness to add to the village before we have got the water under the railway line and away. We need to consider these questions very seriously.
When the rain finally stops and we can look back on what has happened, we need to consider, despite the fact that the Environment Agency has worked well in providing flood warnings, how we manage our rivers and waterways and ensure that they are properly dredged. It is perhaps not feasible in this day and age to have staff from the Environment Agency who can go around, look at the sluices and reduce the water levels, but I do not see why an honorarium cannot be paid to individuals—farmers, perhaps, or local residents—who can reduce the water levels much more quickly because they are on the spot and can deal with the problem at that moment. We must learn the lessons from what has gone on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) talked about the agricultural problems. Not only did we face foot and mouth disease in 2001, but we have seen the problems with TB, the weather and the high price of feed, silage and cereals. We also have a problem with Schmallenberg again, which is a disease that affects new-born lambs and calves. Even with the early lambing flocks, some 30% to 40% of lambs are being born dead. I hope that that is just happening at the start of lambing and that the situation will improve, but we have a vaccine that is being looked at and validated and I urge the Government to put it in place. It will not help with this year’s lambs, or with calves, but it will help in the future. We cannot just take it for granted that the disease will go away. It is spread by midges and last year it affected only a few sheep and cattle, but this year it has had a big effect, so we need to deal with it.
I want to raise a very interesting issue about dogs going into schools. I recently visited a charity called Dogs Helping Kids. It is run by a lady called Tracey Berridge, who trains the dogs for up to 18 months or even two years so that they can go into schools. She has taught the dogs to read. I have not gone completely mad, Mr Deputy Speaker—the dogs probably do not actually read—but I have seen the process demonstrated. The dog is shown a sign saying “Sit”, and because it is a short word the dog sits. It is then shown a sign saying “Lie down”, and because it is slightly longer the dog lies down. Every time the dog is shown a sign, it does what it says.
I am not joking—hon. Members can imagine how impressed the children are when they see the dog reading, and then sitting and lying down and so on. The children are then very keen to read more. The dog sits with the child and there is a person with them—it is not the dog talking to the child, because, as I said, I have not gone completely mad—who explains to the children more about reading. Those who find difficulty in reading react very well to the dog. In many schools children who were playing truant or had many problems at home and did not want to come to school now want to come to school because the dogs are there.
There is a serious point here. A charity such as Dogs Helping Kids is a good one to support. I have always been a great lover of dogs, as are many people in this country. Dogs can be therapeutic and useful in schools. The charity run by Tracey Berridge trains the dogs properly before they go into schools. It is no good just taking any dog into a school. If it hurt a child, that would cause major problems. We should encourage dogs going into schools, possibly as part of the curriculum, so that children learn that a relationship with a pet can be good for them. I recommend that to the House.
I am not sure I can follow that, but I will follow Members who have been somewhat critical of their local authority. I cannot compete with the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), and I am usually reluctant to criticise the local authority publicly as I, like all Members, have to work with it for the betterment of the local area. However, one issue has been dominating the local media in north-east Lincolnshire in recent weeks—the closure of the Scartho road swimming pool, following a sham consultation.
The pool is approaching 50 years of age and it is accepted that significant investment is required to give it a new lease of life. I should mention that the pool is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who is unable to be here today but is aware of my intention to raise this matter as the pool serves both our constituencies and the wider area reaching into the Gainsborough and Louth and Horncastle constituencies.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been supporting local residents, and in particular members of the Save Scartho Baths campaign. There is overwhelming local opposition to the proposal. The hon. Gentleman went so far as to use his Christmas card to highlight the council’s folly. Members may have seen that, as it reached the pages of the national press. When we met the council leader and his deputy a couple of weeks ago, it was clear that this was, shall I say, not entirely welcome. Whether or not it will take hold as a campaigning tool for other council members, only time will tell.
In fairness to the council I should mention that it proposes to build a new 25 metre pool on the site of the Grimsby leisure centre, but this is smaller than Scartho baths and will not include a diving bay. Following the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, I know the Government are keen to ensure that local authorities undertake proper consultation before making decisions about major local facilities, such as the one that I described. I acknowledge that it is not unknown for councils to go through what could be described as sham consultations, but the one undertaken by the North East Lincolnshire council on this issue reached a new low.
The consultation was undertaken following a public outcry, and residents were expecting to be able to indicate whether or not the Scartho pool should be refurbished. The only mention of the pool was in one of the questions which said, “The following facilities are coming to the end of their life, which would you replace? Please choose one of the following: Grimsby swimming pool or Grimsby leisure centre.” Other questions were, “Should the council continue to provide quality leisure facilities within the borough? Yes or No.” It would be difficult to answer anything but yes. Question 2 was, “Given the tough decisions the council is having to take around substantial reductions in funding, should it replace ageing leisure facilities?” Again, it is hardly possible to answer no. That is no way to run a taxpayer-funded, democratically accountable local authority.
The hon. Gentleman and I have met representatives of a company that is offering to carry out a free survey to determine whether an alternative proposal is viable, which might result in more being done with the funding available, but the council has refused the offer. The council has been contacted by another company which thinks that an alternative specification or a change of policy would give better value for taxpayers’ money, but it has again refused the offer. The council has refused to consider these alternatives. It is possible that those companies, having studied the proposals, met council officers and visited the sites, would conclude that the council’s proposal is the best way forward. It is unlikely, but it is possible. It is a disgrace that the council is denying those opportunities to deliver more for taxpayer’s money.
Campaigners have consulted a wide range of experts, and I am sure that the demand for transparency suggests that the council should at least stop and consider alternatives. It is also possible that additional funding might be available. Having spoken with the sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I believe that it is now time for the council to pause and reconsider how best to move forward with the backing of local people.
It would be difficult to summarise the situation better than one of my constituents has done in a letter to the local paper, that excellent journal the Grimsby Telegraph. My constituent states that, having heard the council state that
“this current administration is committed to investing in tourism and leisure, I find it very reassuring. My difficulty is understanding how and why they seem to be getting it so wrong. Any reader of this paper will have noticed that they are getting little or no support for their proposals. The majority of the public, especially those who use our leisure facilities, find no justification in pulling down Scartho Baths. Indeed, it is just the opposite.”
I hope that that plea will reach the local authority and further consideration will be given to its decision.
I want to mention another issue of particular concern. East Coast, which is of course a Government-operated rail service, has just published its new local timetable. It states: “This new timetable shows you all our train services as well as local train services that connect conveniently with ours.” Compared with the previous edition, East Coast has removed Grimsby and, by implication, Cleethorpes, as well as Scarborough, Huddersfield, Sunderland and Middlesbrough from the timetable. I have written to its managing director but, as the Department for Transport has some influence in the matter, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will convey my thoughts to the Secretary of State for Transport and that by the time the new timetable comes into force next May, Grimsby and the other towns I have mentioned will have been restored to their rightful place.
The range of subjects we have heard about this afternoon is unparalleled, from dogs that teach children to the merits of funding trips for council leaders to spa towns. I will try to respond to the individual points Members have made but, given the time constraints, will focus on those who are in still in the Chamber.
The contribution we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) contained an unparalleled range of issues. Were I to address them all, there would be no time left to respond to any of the other contributions. I hope that he has been able to get all his concerns off his chest. It will probably be simplest if I draw his speech to the attention of all Departments, because it contained something for them all, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I would love to spend more time on that, but I hope he will understand that time constraints prevent me from doing so.
I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for giving me notice of the issue that she wanted to raise about judicial reviews. She said that they come thick and fast. Indeed, the Government have found that since 1974 the number of them has risen from 160 to 11,000 last year, so they are coming thicker and faster year on year. We want to address that. She expressed concerns about the consultation, but I hope that she will none the less participate in it, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who said that he would do so. The purpose of the consultation, among other things, is to hear Members’ views. The hon. Lady might simply provide it with a copy of today’s Hansard so that it can refer to the important points that she made and the experience on which she has drawn to highlight her concerns. The Government are embarking on this with an open mind in seeking to address the balance between reducing the burdens on public services and promoting access to justice and the rule of law.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) raised very effectively the issue of visas for Chernobyl children. The Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair earlier was described as Father Christmas in that he was able to offer speaking opportunities to all Members this afternoon. I am afraid that I cannot bear the gift that my hon. Friend would like, which is the extension or renewal of the scheme to support Chernobyl children. He will be aware that in November 2010 the Government set out their intention to stop funding that scheme, although they have agreed to provide a total of £200,000 in the last year that it will run. I will put to the FCO his request that the Home Office and the Department for International Development liaise to see whether there is a way in which they can move forward collectively on this.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) raised several issues, including the House business committee, a matter that is still ongoing and on which progress is being made. He welcomed the medals that will be given to those on the Arctic convoys who supported and saved our country at a very difficult time. He raised concerns about Atos Healthcare that I suspect would be echoed by many Members in all parts of the House. In his case, he focused on the length of time that it is taking to process appeals. Delays that run into 57 weeks are clearly unacceptable, and that must be addressed. He expressed concern about deaf children in relation to the personal independence payment and said that it might be a step backwards for them. Although he is not in his place, I urge him to raise that with the Department for Work and Pensions to see what its response is.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark talked about visa renewals and the so-called premium service whereby people pay a substantial sum of money to ensure, theoretically, that their visa renewal is dealt with more quickly. Unfortunately, all too often their experience is different, and if something about their visa needs further work they end up going back into the slow lane with everyone else and therefore derive no benefit from having paid a premium. He identified a solution that I will draw to the attention of the Minister for Immigration, who, I am sure, would want to draw it to the attention of the UK Border Agency. My right hon. Friend welcomed the announcement on the Arctic convoy medals, expressed concerns about judicial reviews, and finished with a quote from Charles Dickens.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) raised his concern that the criminal injuries compensation scheme would no longer be available in the case of a constituent of his. I do not know whether he has asked the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority to investigate that specific case, but he will be aware that the Government have made changes to the scheme. We want to focus on the victims of the most serious crimes, which is why we have retained the maximum compensation available for a single injury at £250,000.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the local overseas allowance, the specific purpose of which is to contribute towards the necessary additional local cost of living for service personnel who are assigned overseas. It is also supposed to be flexible in order to address the different circumstances of people abroad. If he has not already done so, he could refer the details of the case he raised to the Ministry of Defence to see whether it assessed the allowance entitlement correctly.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned housing allowance for service personnel and called on the MOD to work on it with the devolved Administrations and local government. It is principally the responsibility of local governments to decide what systems they use to prioritise housing for ex-service personnel. The Local Government Association might be able to take up the issue, in order to achieve a collective, more positive local authority approach.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Ofcom and asked whether the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills could look at providing a level playing field, so that Royal Mail could operate under the same level of regulation as others in the same business, such as TNT.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) brought his extensive expertise on defence, which the House values greatly, to the issue of British personnel deaths in Afghanistan. I would like to take this opportunity to commend our service personnel for operating in the most demanding of environments and demonstrating immense personal courage. As the hon. Gentleman has said, 438 members of our armed forces have died while serving in Afghanistan and their loss is keenly felt. On behalf of the Chamber, I extend my sympathies to those families and friends who have lost loved ones. A much greater number of personnel have also been seriously injured or wounded in Afghanistan.
Our strategy is designed to enable the country effectively to manage its own security and prevent its territory from ever again being a safe haven for international terrorism. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s point that no one in this House will blame our servicemen and women if their mission is not successful. They have fought the battle that they needed to fight, but it is clear that many of the enormous problems on the ground are beyond their control. Their remit has also gone beyond the military remit set at the outset.
I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for giving me advance notice of her speech. She is concerned about the impact of Government policies on the north-east. At the same time, however, she highlighted that the north-east is still the most successful region in the country, with the biggest car plants in Europe and the biggest chemical plant in the UK, so in some cases things are working very well in her region and we support that. Whereas in the past there was an awful lot of focus on financial services in London, the Government are trying to ensure that we focus much more on the manufacturing industry, which would, of course, benefit her region. We are starting to see some improvements, with manufacturing exports going to the world’s emerging economies. There has also been an increase in exports in the past 12 months, so her region should benefit from that too. I could reel off other statistics if she would like, but she may get frustrated by that. She referred to the £64 million for the upgrade of the A1. There is also £61 million to build more than 3,300 new homes for affordable rent and £17 million to return more than 1,500 empty properties to use in the north-east and Yorkshire. Although the scale of Government activity is perhaps not what she would like, there are positive developments in her region, which I hope she will welcome.
The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) referred to a large number of people. Other Members alleged that that was to cut down on the cost of his Christmas cards. I am sure that that is not the case. I cannot possibly mention all the people he mentioned. I say to him, however, that the risk of mentioning a large number of people is that everyone in Central Devon who reads this debate and whose name is not on the list will wonder why they were excluded. I congratulate him on highlighting a number of important community activities, including the new community school, the youth services and the fostering work of people in his area. He has put on the record his thanks to a large number of people and groups, and we would all like to echo that.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who is not in his place, mentioned first that people can drink quite a lot at Christmas. Those who attended the Leader’s reception last night will know that there was very little drinking at all. On a more serious point, the right hon. Gentleman said that we need to think about the police at this time of year because, although we may be about to go on recess and will relax over Christmas, they have the responsibility of dealing with some of the fallout of Christmas. Regrettably, as many Members will know, one of the fallouts of Christmas is an increase in domestic violence, which the police have to deal with.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the threat of a police station closure in Tottenham. He will know that the Mayor of London has said that the police station will not close. However, he is clearly concerned that the hours of operation may be different. I say to him that this issue is surely not just about the availability of a building, but about ensuring that people have a way of quickly and effectively reporting crime. Many people would want to report crime from home if they could, rather than having to go to a police station.
There are ways and means of dealing with some of his concerns that do not necessarily require the number of police stations to be maintained exactly as it is throughout London. London Members will be aware that some counters in London receive very few visits, if any. There are strong arguments for saying that police resources could be used more effectively by supporting people in other ways, such as patrolling the streets, rather than sitting behind a counter, waiting for a caller who does not come.
I certainly echo the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tottenham about fire station closures. There is a risk of closures throughout London. I am sure that the Mayor’s press office will have been following this debate closely and will want to respond to him about those concerns.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) made such a short contribution in relation to medals that I was not quite sure what he was talking about. I think that he was talking about the fact that men who served in Bomber Command will receive only a clasp. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence will have noted his concern that that is not sufficient recompense for the sacrifice that they made for us 60 or so years ago.
The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) commended Brent Pensioners Forum on its 25th anniversary. We certainly join him in that, but there are other areas where I am not able to join him. He clearly feels that the Government’s energy policy is ancillary to the wider economic goals. I do not accept that; I think that the two are intrinsically linked. I hope he agrees that clarity on the investment that will go into the energy industry is as welcome as it has been lacking. I know he has concerns about the extent to which the Government are addressing fuel poverty, but a wide range of different measures are in place at a time that is challenging—as he knows and as the Government know—in terms of energy prices and because we are seeking to address a substantial deficit.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) paid tribute to Betty Geller and the role that she played in his constituency. He also referred to the important issue of phoenix companies, and businesses have raised concerns about that with me as a constituency MP. One business in my constituency provides insulation. It tends to go in at the end of a contract and is often not paid because it arrives at the end of the whole process. It has seen phoenix companies re-emerge with the same directors in place. The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the system is not working. If he has not already done so, perhaps he will write to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and set out the precise details of the case of Medi-Vial to which he referred, so that we can consider whether there are ways of improving the system to ensure that directors who are not fit to run companies are precluded from doing so. He made a sensible suggestion about the Secretary of State exploring further measures such as electronic systems to report problems on line.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)made serious allegations about the activities of Hillingdon council that have not gone unnoticed. Those allegations are now on the record and I expect the council will want to respond. If he has not already done so, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will communicate his concerns to the local district auditor, which will want to investigate those serious allegations. I am surprised if a new swimming pool has been built without a contract—
The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position whether I would like to see the report, but I trust that he has read that report carefully. If what he says is the case, it concerns me greatly. I am sure that Hillingdon council and—if he communicates his concerns —the district auditor, will want to pursue the serious issues raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) spoke about flooding and listed villages and towns in his community that have been affected. Flooding is clearly a real and ongoing risk to his constituents, and he mentioned the 19 flood warnings currently in place and the £30,000 of damage that is typically caused to a home by flooding. The future of flood insurance is a priority for the Government and discussions with the Association of British Insurers are continuing. However, the Government do not want to comment on the detail of those negotiations at this stage as conducting such negotiations from the Dispatch Box is not good practice.
We continue to seek a new approach that is better than the statement of principles—which, as my hon. Friend said, is not perfect—and that genuinely secures affordable flood insurance without placing unsustainable costs on other policy holders and the taxpayer. The Government’s primary role is to reduce flood risk, and in recognition of that an extra £120 million was announced in the autumn statement for flood defences in England over the spending period. That is on top of the £2 billion that has already been committed. My hon. Friend raised interesting issues about the Bellwin scheme, and I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will respond to his specific point about what he believes are anomalies in the way it works.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) named a number of constituents whom he thought worthy of mention, and I certainly agree. He also highlighted how the Government are committed to localism and reversing the decades or indeed centuries of centralisation in this country. That reversal is probably welcomed by Members on both sides of the House, who recognise that the pendulum had swung too far. We are now swinging it back the other way.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific concerns about Northumberland, the Government have set out clearly our commitment to the protection of the green belt, ensuring that more than a third of England is safeguarded from inappropriate development. The national planning policy framework states that the Government attach great importance to the green belt, the fundamental aim of which is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.
Subject to the outcome of consultation, it remains our policy to abolish the previous Government’s top-down regional strategies, which threatened the green belt in around 30 towns and cities. We have not built enough housing for decades. Unless we tackle that, future generations will have nowhere to live. That does not mean that the countryside will be concreted over for housing. There is no Government policy on the amount of land needed for housing provision, and local councils and communities are best placed to determine how housing need should be met.
The hon. Gentleman went on to ask a number of specific questions for the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which I am sure it will want to respond.
I am afraid I did not make a note of the different countries that were visited by the ex-leader to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) referred. Clearly, it was a large number of countries. Like him, I express some surprise that the ex-leader of said council has found it necessary to visit quite so many continents. He could learn about local government in some of the countries my hon. Friend named, but I suspect he took more to them than he took away. My hon. Friend needs to raise the matter with the local district auditor, as I am sure he has, so that he can investigate. I thought my hon. Friend would call at the end of his speech for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to be brought in to introduce an expenses system to keep control of expenditure at Essex county council. I waited, but the call did not come.
I should tell the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) how much my family enjoy visiting Dover castle, which is a fantastic destination for families. He welcomed the new hospital coming to his constituency. If I could temporarily abandon my hat as Deputy Leader of the House, I would say, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, that I would welcome a new St Helier hospital in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman referred to the port of Dover remaining as a community port. I lived in France for 10 years, so I hope he objected to the French not because they are French, but because they are not British.
The hon. Gentleman nods in agreement, so he does not object to the French because they are French. I understand why he welcomes the news that his port will be kept for local people—it is a positive development.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) was concerned about flooding. Many Members in flood-risk areas are worried about developments in areas that are liable to flood. He made an interesting proposal on dredging and whether an honorarium should be introduced. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might want to investigate that sensible idea of an honorarium so that local people can take responsibility for ensuring that sluice gates are open at the right time.
The hon. Gentleman referred to—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. It is not something that I encounter often in my suburban constituency. He highlighted the risk of Schmallenberg and said that it is a growing challenge for sheep farmers.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of dogs helping kids. He may not have noticed, but at that point, Mr Deputy Speaker raised a sign encouraging the hon. Gentleman to sit, which I thought was cruel.
Indeed—the hon. Gentleman ignored it. I had an interesting conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who tells me that pigs are nifty football players. Perhaps there is a role for pigs in helping kids.
Last, but not least, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) demonstrated very well the purpose of the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which is to enable Members of Parliament to raise constituency matters. He raised, very effectively, the issue of Scartho baths; as a frequent swimmer myself, I like longer pools to swim in, not smaller ones like that proposed in his neighbouring constituency. His plea for his local authority to listen is now on the record, and I hope that it will do so. He also raised concerns about the east coast main line, and I will ensure that the Department for Transport is aware that Cleethorpes has disappeared. That is significant, and I know that the Leader of the House is also concerned about that as a user of that service.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, your staff, the House staff and staff in the office of the Leader of the House for helping, supporting and advising us, and I wish everyone a happy Christmas.
I wish to take this opportunity to wish Members all the best for Christmas and the new year. I am sure that Cleethorpes will be returned. If not, those responsible will no doubt find out that they are shark bait.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.