I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to ventilate the important issue of housing. A number of my colleagues applied, successfully, to speak on this subject as it is of intense importance to us. Although I and many of my colleagues are London MPs, we do not claim for a second that the housing crisis is unique to our capital city. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has a housing waiting list of nearly 3,000 in his idyllic constituency. This problem affects all of us.
The housing situation in London has gone beyond inconvenience, awkwardness or even embarrassment to something that it is now in a profound state of crisis. In Ealing, the borough in which I have spent virtually all my life, we have 23,416 people on the housing waiting list and there is no chance whatever of them finally finding accommodation. One reason for that is that in London the average house price is £421,395, and the average London income is £26,962. Even in dear, dear Ealing, the average house price is £374,707, whereas median earnings are £25,392.
Does my hon. Friend think that the Government’s recent proposals in the Budget to provide cheap mortgages to anyone will help the situation?
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. In doing so she has rather stolen my thunder, but I forgive her in that as I do in all things. The Government may well have a policy, but it is retrogressive. The idea that the solution to the housing problem in London is to sell off the last few remaining properties at vast, eye-watering discounts and somehow assume that, in extremis, property can be sold as cheaply as £10,000, and that that money will then go forth, multiply and create a new property, is absolutely absurd. The other strand of that—somehow to blame the whole housing crisis in London on the immigrant community—proves once and for all that it is a lot easier to find a scapegoat than to find a solution. The scapegoat is being identified; the solution is not.
Boroughs such as mine in Ealing are having to take incredibly exhaustive steps to build houses. We have a commitment to 500 new build houses over the next five years, but we also have an estate regeneration programme. We are using existing land to increase the estates that already exist, so that with hard work—exhaustive work—and a great deal of extremely fine officer time, we can create 5,044 units from a total of 3,653. I pay tribute to my colleague Councillor Hitesh Tailor in the London borough of Ealing, who has somehow managed to square the circle in the case of Copley close, an absolutely typical old Greater London council estate. Allegedly—I have never heard anyone disprove this, but I am told it is true—the architect who designed the estate never set foot in the borough of Ealing, let alone on Copley close. She took the scheme down from a shelf somewhere, ran it along the side of the railway line at Castle Bar Halt and left the people to get on with it. That is the scale of the problem we face.
What is the solution? On the figures I gave earlier for median house prices, the solution is not to unleash some great entrepreneurial surge or for everyone somehow to manage to do 15 jobs and buy their own property. One of the solutions is to do as my children, aged 24 and 22, have done and start sending away for loft extension catalogues anonymously. They pour through the door at an extraordinary rate—and I have finally accepted the hint. However, one thing we really can do—I want the Minister to give particular attention to this—is to consider raising the housing revenue account cap, which was discussed in the other place on 12 March in a debate on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Three amendments were tabled by three distinguished Members of the upper House, all with considerable local authority experience.
The idea at present is that there are streams against which local authorities can borrow, and not just the traditional ones, such as the Public Works Loan Board or the general fund. Some people have rather imaginatively —and in a way that is almost suggestive of Robert Maxwell in his prime—talked about borrowing against pension funds. That slightly worries me, but the housing revenue account, which has traditionally been massively in surplus, despite what some would have us believe, is a good thing to borrow against. The recent relaxations in this area are to the Government’s credit. Let us be honest: the Government have done the right thing on that. However, the present cap limits local authorities massively. They include not just boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith and Fulham, which have a property portfolio worth well over £2 billion, but even small, modest boroughs such as Ealing, which could borrow more and build more.
Ultimately, let us never lose sight of first principles. A person who has no home has no hope, no job, usually no family and certainly no future. If someone loses their home, they lose everything. A person can lose their job and get another job; they can lose their health and get healthy again. Without a home, a person has nothing. Every single one of us in this House has a bounden duty to try to provide that simple, most basic of needs: accommodation. Raising the HRA cap to a more realistic level would give local authorities the power to do much, much more.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal or lead to permanent health damage. Carbon monoxide is tasteless, odourless and colourless. It is very much a silent killer. It makes no distinction among its victims—however, the young and the elderly are more vulnerable, as in many other cases—and it creates risks for pregnant women and their unborn children. The symptoms include headaches, tiredness, dizziness and nausea. These are common symptoms, often associated with other things; therefore, carbon monoxide poisoning can go unnoticed for many years.
The recent “Carbon Monoxide Incident Report”, published by the Gas Safety Trust, shows a welcome reduction in the incidence of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, the report deals only with the gas industry and gas-related incidents. Carbon monoxide poisoning is not solely a gas appliance issue. Carbon monoxide can emanate from many sources. It is caused when carbon fuels do not burn properly, so although there is a perception that the problem is restricted to gas fires in the home, it can go much wider than that. Any fuel-burning appliance that is not properly maintained has the potential to be a source of carbon monoxide. Cookers, AGAs and hot water heaters can all emit carbon monoxide.
At this stage I would like to refer to my constituents Dave and Mary Jane Worswick. Their daughter Mary Ann was 15 years old. She was in her last year of school and dreamt of going on to study law. Owing to bad weather, she was studying at her friend’s house, in which there was a boiler that subsequently proved to be faulty. This fault was to cost Mary Ann and her friend their lives. I do not want to dwell on the subsequent legal processes that followed Mary Ann’s death, but I do want to pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Worswick who, having tragically lost their daughter, have continued their fight to raise the awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide. As the Worswicks say to me, everyone is aware of the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, but awareness of carbon monoxide remains low and way behind. The opportunity to raise the matter today will, I hope, help raise the awareness of this killer among us.
I want to highlight a further particular area where carbon monoxide can be fatal. My High Peak constituency is under about 12 feet of snow at the moment; it may seem odd, but I would like to raise the issue of camping, caravanning and barbecues. In a short while when the snow goes, I hope people will turn their thoughts to the summertime pursuits I have listed. As we sit outside a tent, caravan or motor home watching the sun go down in the summer, there is naturally a feeling of contentment, and possibly a barbecue shimmering in front of us, but we should be aware that this smouldering barbecue could be putting out carbon monoxide. Portable barbecues and portable heaters can and have been responsible for tragic deaths in campervans, caravans and mobile homes across the country. In Cornwall, Shropshire and other areas, tragedies have resulted from carbon monoxide emissions from this sort of appliance.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is widely thought of as an issue caused by appliances in the home and in the winter. That is not true, as it has claimed victims in the summer months, too. As summer approaches, I want to highlight the dangers of this gas—not just in the home, not just in the winter, but all year round and seemingly in some innocuous conditions.
Returning to the issue of carbon monoxide in the home, the Minister may well ask me what he can do. Over the years, numerous measures such as the removal of open-flued heaters from bathrooms and bedrooms and some landlord legislation have reduced the risks. The number of incidents is falling, but that is no reason for complacency.
We heard last week that the Chancellor has announced some excellent measures to help people to buy new build homes. The Minister himself has advocated the building of more homes that are needed across the country. May I ask him today to consider making mandatory the inclusion of carbon monoxide detectors in all new build homes? I understand that there are concerns about increasing burdens on house builders in these difficult times, but I am sure that at a cost of a little over £10, carbon monoxide detectors could easily be fitted in conjunction with smoke detectors into new homes. This small step would ensure the safety of many people and spare many families the heartache suffered by my constituents, the Worswicks.
I rise to speak about the Government’s proposal to free up planning to allow offices not in use to be converted into homes. I want to talk about the overall policy, its impact on my constituency and, if there is time, the more general issues of housing need.
In short, the Government believe that if all empty office space in the UK were converted into residential property, it would create 250,000 new homes, saving nearly £140 million in planning system costs. The Government tell us that, following the recession, between 7% and 9% of commercial space in the UK is empty, but that many developers have been put off converting buildings into homes because of the costs and time required to secure planning approval. That may be true in some parts of the world, but in my Hackney South constituency and particularly in Shoreditch, many developers have land banked old offices and warehouses to cash in on rising housing prices as housing demand increases. They have been sitting on this for investment reasons rather than because they have been put off by the conversion costs. The conversion costs could soon be recouped, but every day that the developers sit and wait, the price of housing goes up.
In Hackney, the legislation will have a major impact on our business and creative communities and on the local economy. We sit right on the edge or fringe of the City. In fact, Broadgate used to be in Hackney until a boundary change some years ago, and many of our business locations will be adversely affected by this policy. The area is coveted as a residential location, but not for local people. It has fancy loft apartments for those with very deep pockets. This will put business at risk, potentially leading to forced relocation and loss of jobs for local people in an area where unemployment is already high. Of course, all of us speaking in this debate are keen to see more homes built, but this policy will encourage landlords and freeholders to dash for the short-term gain of changing offices to residential homes, at a big long-term cost to our area and to one of the engine rooms of our current economy.
Hackney South and Shoreditch, as business development hot spots, have often been visited by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I cannot seriously believe that No. 10 Downing street is enthusiastic about the policy as it applies to Shoreditch. Business growth is under threat from the proposal. Without an exemption, existing businesses will be under threat, too, so I strongly support full exemption for Hackney, which Hackney council has bid for. I urge the Minister to give us some comfort today to ensure that the area remains a thriving business location making an important contribution to the economic prosperity of London and the UK.
To date, more than 1,000 businesses locally have signed a petition supporting exclusion. None of the active housing campaigners—whether they live in digs, are Hackney Homes tenants or members of tenants associations—have objected to the council’s stance on the policy because they see that the sort of housing we need is very different.
Even the British Property Federation does not necessarily support the policy. Ian Fletcher, its policy director, talked about the acute shortage of houses but, in welcoming the step, said it
“won’t work for all buildings, or in every area”.
I say to the Minister that it will not work in Shoreditch and it should be stopped now.
On general issues to do with housing, what we need in Hackney is not more high-price right-to-buy sales but more affordable family-sized homes. About a quarter of my constituents are under 16. We have families who need housing who cannot find it. Instead many of those families are being hit by this invidious—
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that one of the great flagships of Government policy, the spare room tax, will not have anything like the effect that they anticipate because most of the people with extra rooms are pensioners, who are exempt from the bedroom tax anyway? Does she share my despair that that is the mast to which the Government are nailing the flag of housing hope?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. This invidious little tax is having a disastrous impact on many of my constituents. For example, if a family who occupy a three-bedroom property have two children of the same gender between the ages of 10 and 16, or two children of opposite gender under 10, they will be counted as under-occupying and be forced either to find the extra money to pay for the bedroom, until their children reach the age at which they qualify for the extra bedroom, or to give up their home and try to find, magically out of nowhere, a two-bedroom property. There is heavy demand for all types of social housing, while pensioners remain exempt.
When it comes to the under-occupancy subsidy, is the hon. Lady not also concerned about the 250,000 people who are living in overcrowded housing and the 2 million people on the housing waiting list who are desperate to get into some of the 1 million excess rooms held in the social housing sector?
Of course, and as I mentioned earlier, this is a big issue, but that is to do mostly with the supply of housing and there are other ways to incentivise people to move out of their homes, rather than taxing them. Over the years, there have been schemes to provide money to help, for example, pensioner households with their removal costs and the costs of new furnishings for their new home to encourage them to move at a small price to free up the larger properties that are desperately needed. In my constituency, where about a quarter of residents are under 16, we need affordable family homes to be supplied. We also need reform of the private rented sector, which in this short speech I do not have time to go into, but the Government abolished the register of private landlords and are doing nothing to tackle the issue. “Generation rent” in my constituency is among the biggest in the country.
The bedroom tax is an invidious policy. It will not free up rooms in the way the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) expects. Up and down the country, people are being forced to move from their larger homes, although smaller homes are not available in their area, and they are being penalised if they cannot move. It is illogical. The policy provides a good cheap headline for the Government, but it will not deliver and it is having a negative impact on families’ lives. There are better ways to tackle the housing issue. Cross-party, we should look at supporting an increase in supply and ensuring that there are no loopholes in any schemes. In the Budget, the Chancellor talked about the mortgage guarantee, which will enable people to buy second homes. The Government have still not come up with a comprehensive rejection of that approach, so we can only take that as an assurance that people can buy a second home with a mortgage guarantee from the Government, while many of my constituents will continue to struggle to get on the housing ladder, or into a form of tenure that provides them and their families with security and the strong base in the community that we all want to see.
I begin by making my usual declaration of indirect interests.
I am raising an issue brought to me by a constituent who has serious concerns about the way in which gas safety certificates are dispensed. She recently bought a bungalow, and was supplied by the previous owner with building regulation compliance certificates, including gas and electricity safety check certificates. Having got those certificates, she trusted, as anyone would, that all the work and inspections had been carried out to the required standard, as did her conveyancing solicitor and surveyor.
It later emerged that all the traders and engineers who had issued those certificates were personal friends of the previous owner, and it appears that the certificates were issued without them either checking that the work had been carried out or that it was up to the correct standard. Electrical and gas appliance installations such as the underfloor heating, boiler and heating system had been blindly certified by Gas Safe and ELECSA-registered engineers as a favour to a mate. There have been some consequences, such as de-registering the ELECSA trader, but the main concerns remain. The Electrical Contractors Association has accepted that its engineer was very wrong to issue a certificate for work he had neither carried out nor inspected for safety. However, it appears Gas Safe has been reluctant to take the same approach.
I by no means pretend to be an expert in the field of building regulations and appliance safety, but I do find it incredibly odd that although gas and electrical engineers can be struck off the register if they negligently leave an appliance unsafe, the same does not apply to those who issue certificates without doing or inspecting the work. There really does appear to be not simply a loophole but a gap in the legislation that endangers lives. My constituent sustained an injury as a result of the faulty appliances, and informed me that it was pure luck that the later inspecting engineer, who condemned the appliance, was not electrocuted.
Clause 57(1) of the Building Act 1984 states:
“If a person…recklessly gives a notice or certificate that…purports to comply with those requirements, and contains a statement that is false or misleading in a material particular, he is guilty of an offence.”
Should the same rules not apply to those issuing gas and electricity safety certificates? My constituent has had to re-check one appliance after another after they failed to operate. The inspecting engineer found that the consumer unit was faulty and the sockets were not earthed. The boiler had parts missing, such as the mini-expansion vessel and the pressure-reducing valve. The underfloor heating system had parts missing: the pump, balancing valves and the heat-reducing valve. Also, the boiler was not earthed and the isolation switch had not been wired in. It appears that another blind certificate was issued, falsely to certify the safety of the boiler.
These are not just small mishaps or omissions, but fundamental issues that could have had very serious consequences. There is an urgent need for both Government and the industry to take this matter very seriously indeed. There has also been a considerable financial cost for my constituent. We need to establish who has the power of enforcement in such cases. Trading standards said that my constituent had misunderstood the issue, and she was repeatedly told that the engineer was certified to carry out the work. He might have been, but he still did not do the job properly. Trading standards also apparently said to my constituent that these things happen all the time—all the time!—but there is very little scope for pursuing the issue owing to the lack of relevant legislation.
It is my understanding that Gas Safe decided to investigate the engineer after persistent communication from my constituent. At present, the engineer is still on the register, even though the appliance certified by him failed to meet even the most basic safety checks. Yet Gas Safe, while seemingly not acting in this instance, took space in my local paper in January advising DIY-ers not to take risks with gas.
Legally, my constituent is also in a tricky situation: as she does not have a direct contract with the engineers in question, she cannot bring a case against either of them. Her conveyancing solicitor advised her that it was a matter of “buyer beware”. My constituent is frustrated because she was aware—she had done everything by the book and had accepted, as had her surveyor, that the certificates were valid and had been issued by a “trusted” professional. This practice of false or blind certification has to stop. Plymouth’s director for place has said that
“in essence the fact of the matter is that we are used to the presence of consumer protection legislation when we buy goods from a high street trader but those protections are considerably lacking when we buy our largest purchase, a house”.
What can the Minister do, through his Department, to liaise with those involved in consumer protection to put an end to this deceit?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), I wish to discuss the housing crisis in London, although five minutes is a very short time in which to try to describe a truly appalling situation. Some 360,000 families are on the housing waiting list in London—that excludes the large number of single people who usually cannot even get on the waiting list—and 750,000 Londoners are living in grossly overcrowded accommodation. The housing solutions for them are non-existent, and will be unless there is an enormous change in Government policy and in the policy of the Mayor of London towards this crisis.
My hon. Friend is an inner-London MP for an area that has a particularly severe overcrowding problem, but does he agree that this issue affects the outer-London suburbs as much as inner London? Does he acknowledge that a huge number of people in Harrow in my constituency are also waiting, without a great deal of hope, for a new home?
This is indeed a time for inner and outer London solidarity, and I am happy to declare that act of solidarity with my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North, for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and with many other outer-London boroughs. To be homeless in London is to be homeless in London, to be overcrowded is to be overcrowded, and to be on the waiting list is clearly to be on the waiting list.
The solutions to this situation have to be sought. Sadly, what was offered in the Budget is not a solution; I suspect that it will result in those with deep pockets being able to buy yet more properties, which they will then keep empty, as part of the disgrace of private sector land banking that is going on in London. I will discuss the other solutions concerning owner-occupation, social rented housing and private rented housing in a moment. First, I wish to deal with the issue of the large number of empty properties, often at the high end of the market, deliberately kept empty by people who have large amounts of money that comes from dubious sources. They have bought these properties in order to make a great deal of money out of them at a later date when their value increases. Given the current housing crisis, we should be giving powers to local authorities to take over properties that are deliberately kept empty, so that the people in desperate housing need can get somewhere to live in London.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. There is no clear definition of how this subsidy being offered by the Chancellor will be used, so it seems to be an opportunity for those with deep pockets to make a great deal of money for themselves. The people in desperate housing need, such as those represented by me or by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West or for Ealing North, will not have that same opportunity.
I will not give way any more, because I would lose my time.
The second area I wish to discuss is the social rented sector in London—council housing. The problems of housing in London are not new; they were acute in the 19th century and in the early 20th century. It was the inspiration and idealism of the Labour-controlled London county council in the inter-war years that did a great deal to build decent homes for people who were living in appalling slums. Indeed, in my constituency and others one can see the products of the inspirational work done by Herbert Morrison and others. The post-second world war council house building did an incredible amount to give people decent places to live.
I had the great honour of being a member of Haringey borough council from 1974 to 1983 and I remember complaining in 1979 that we had built only 1,000 council houses that year. I was complaining that we could have done more, but 1,000 is more than have been built in the whole of London in most of the past few years. I am critical of my party in government and of the current Government for not doing enough to build new council housing.
The Government’s solution is to suggest to local authorities that they should raise rents to 80% of the market rent to raise some funds to develop new housing. In my borough and those of most colleagues in London, council house rents would more than double. Islington borough council, to its credit, has refused to do that and has managed to develop a substantial building programme on its own land from its own resources. But obviously, there are limits to that programme, imaginative though it is.
We need central Government involvement in the building of new council homes as a matter of enormous urgency. The Mayor of London does not seem fully to grasp all that. In fact, there are quite a lot of things the Mayor of London does not fully grasp, but one of them is the essential need for the building of new council houses. The number of social rented properties—that is, council or housing association properties—built under his watch and by his means has reduced from 11,000 in 2010-11 to only 983 in the current year. Goodness knows how much lower than that the numbers will go in future years. We must kindly ask central Government to get a grip of the situation and do their best to intervene with the Mayor and with borough councils to ensure that there is a rapid increase in the supply of council housing in London. That is the best and most efficient way of solving the housing crisis. It provides jobs, provides homes and helps people to have a secure place to live.
The final area I want to mention was covered in a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced and it is the private rented sector. In London, 800,000 families live in that sector—it is the fastest growing housing sector by a long way. In my constituency, a third of all households are in the private rented sector and that number is rising fast. Generally speaking, people who live in the private rented sector pay the most to live in the least efficient, worst repaired and worst maintained properties and in the least regulated sector. Not all landlords are bad—some are very good—but the lack of regulation means that those who are bad can get away with it. We need regulation of the letting agencies, registration and regulation of all private rented accommodation and, in my view, rent controls.
The housing benefit cap is acting as an agent for the social cleansing of the poorest people on housing benefit all over central London. They are being driven out of their areas and driven out of London. For that reason, we need not just to control housing benefit expenditure but to control it by controlling the rent levels instead, rather than forcing tenants out of their homes—
I want to speak about the protection of the green belt in Hillingdon. I have lived in my constituency and represented it in various guises for nearly 40 years. From the earliest days I shared a dream that we would surround our largely industrial and urban area, which is encircled with factory sites, offices, major motorways and airports to north and south, with country parks and open spaces. Decades on, we have succeeded, with new country parks to the south, west and east and the regeneration of our traditional parks and green-belt open spaces. That has been a tremendous community achievement. I have set up friends groups for each park and worked with organisations such as the London wildlife trust, A Rocha and Hillingdon natural history society to improve and open up our open spaces.
One of our greatest achievements is the creation of the award-winning Lake Farm country park. That land next to Hayes town centre was owned by EMI, which in the early 1990s sought to dig gravel from it and turn it into a rubbish tip. I set up a friends group, mobilised the local community and persuaded the council on a cross-party basis not only to reject the planning application but to buy the land to create a country park.
Ironically, it is the council that is now planning to build on our country park. It proposes to build a three- form entry primary school on the park, putting at risk the natural habitats of the skylarks and other abundant birdlife and wildlife on the site as well as taking away a considerable portion of the park from public enjoyment. That has caused uproar in our community.
The council argues that although the development is contrary to local and national policies, and those of the Mayor of London, on protecting the green belt, there are exceptional circumstances because of the need for additional school places and because there is no other site for the new school in the area. The planning process by which Hillingdon council reached that decision has plumbed the depths of disgraceful, mendacious and, at times, farcical local government incompetence.
I urge my hon. Friend to resist this even more strongly that he is already inclined to. Were he to enter London along the broad, majestic A40, he would see the three mounds of Northarla fields, which were achieved by Ealing council and the Northolt and Greenford countryside park, influenced by, in admiration of and in tribute to the work of his borough of Hillingdon.
If this goes ahead, all green-belt open space in west London will be vulnerable to attack.
On the demand for pupil places, it is only three years since the council proposed closing and selling off a local school because it was surplus to requirement. Then, 12 months ago, we were told that the projections for pupil numbers had rocketed and new schools were desperately needed. In particular, a three-form entry school had to be built.
Bizarrely, the council has failed properly to take into account a new four-form entry school being built, with the enthusiastic support of the Secretary of State for Education, at Guru Nanak college, which is in the same ward. The overwhelming number of pupils applying for places at the college have come from the local area, thus freeing up places in local schools. The council has also refused to take into account the request by a new two-form entry school in the same wards to expand to at least three, if not four, forms of entry. That would obviate the need to build on our local park.
The council failed to search adequately for alternative sites for the new school. Initially, it refused to release its search site report to the general public, or to me, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. When the report was finally released, we discovered that the council was rushing to sell off the most obvious alternative site to a developer for housing. The council’s planning meeting, where the council gave itself planning permission, descended into farce, as petitioners were ignored, new figures were presented to councillors on the night and it was revealed by a Labour councillor and committee representatives that the land in question is subject to a section 106 agreement from the 1990s, which the planning chair and the officer seemed oblivious to.
Nevertheless, the planning application was sent off to the Mayor, who we hope will adhere to his election pledges to protect the green belt. I know that he has stated his concern about school places being used as an excuse to make incursions into the green belt in London.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is telling a familiar story. My local Conservative-led council is in the process of selling off a third of a public park in the most deprived part of my constituency to a private owner, who will then charge £90 an hour for people to play football there.
I hope that the Minister and the Department will monitor this in London. The Mayor has raised his concerns. A pattern is emerging of excuses relating to the number of pupil places needed. Alternative sites that have been discussed, particularly brownfield sites, are not being examined properly, and then the issue is used as an excuse for incursions into the green belt, sometimes for profiteering, as my hon. Friend suggests.
My concern is that if the council gets permission for a primary school, it will then roll out to a secondary school, and then it will argue for housing on the site. We will then lose the whole park, which is award-winning, and which we achieved on a cross-party basis. The planning application has gone to the Mayor, who we hope will reject it or refer it back. However, this morning I discovered that the council has withdrawn the application from the Mayor and rushed off to a barrister for counsel’s opinion on how to get over the section 106 problem, to which it has now clearly been alerted.
Hillingdon council—I raised this point before Christmas —is in chaos. That is not a party political point, because I would say the same whoever was in control. I was in local government for nearly 30 years. I think that the council is degenerating into incompetent farce. At the moment, planning is left in the hands of consultants, who have no knowledge of the area or its planning history. Indeed, they often ask for directions to sites during visits because they are unaware of the sites’ existence. Councillors have too much interest in development or housing, and many of them have associations with developers and as landlords.
Before Christmas, I appealed to the Secretary of State to intervene on Hillingdon council, and, if necessary, to take the drastic action of sending commissioners in, because I was worried about how contracts were being awarded. I understand that there is now an internal investigation into a number of those contracts. However, I have had enough. This planning issue has now gone beyond anything that is acceptable. I appeal again to the Secretary of State, and I am willing to see him take direct control over Hillingdon council and restore some semblance of good governance within the area.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate following my Select Committee meeting and in advance of the planning Minister’s response.
Earlier this month, Natural England declared Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill in my constituency to be a site of special scientific interest. In numerous plans over 18 years, the site has been clearly designated for 5,000 homes and for employment opportunities for 5,000 people. A total of £35.5 million has been spent to get to the point of planning consent being granted. After all this time and money, the council is concerned, to put it mildly, to be thwarted at the last hurdle by Natural England, which does not consider the economic impacts. The council leader, Rodney Chambers, responded as follows:
“This is very disappointing news to receive from unelected quangocrats at Natural England. As a local authority we are eager for this scheme, which is on government owned land, to progress and deliver the houses and jobs we badly need.
The government is constantly telling us that we should be going for growth, kick starting the economy and fighting the recession and yet here we are with a shovel ready project that would deliver 5,000 much needed homes being delayed by a government agency.”
The reason for this, we are told by Natural England, is that a study of some description has discovered that 84 nightingales might use the site. The comparison to be drawn is between those 84 nightingales and homes for 12,000 people and jobs for a further 5,000 people. We are told by the Prime Minister that we are in a global race, but it is not clear that that message has yet filtered through to bodies such as Natural England.
There have been similar instances locally. On the Isle of Grain, a proposal for the generation of 6,000 jobs on a site owned by the National Grid Company has been delayed for some three years because it is possibly the habitat of a certain type of bug. Near Medway, in the Swanscombe area, a proposal that would deliver 27,000 jobs has been delayed because of concerns about a breed of spider. At Dungeness, there are concerns about vegetated shingle that has to be considered in the context of the development of power generation.
It is not surprising that council leaders in the area say that we need to end the absurd situation of a non-elected Government agency dictating to national and local government on how to run things. Medway is an example of a council that is pro-development, that wants to support the Minister and that wants to show that it is open for business. Will the Minister assure me that our local council will be able to decide where it is best for development to go, not Ministers or their inspectors, and still less these quangos? We have heard of the bonfire of the quangos; in the case of Natural England, it appears to have fizzled out.
I understand that the executive board of the body has taken this decision, that it is going to be reviewed and that there is, as ever, some consultation process, but I am not sure whether that is a mere formality or a genuine process. We are told that in July the decision will be reviewed by the full board of Natural England, but we do not know if that will be anything more than a rubber-stamping exercise. I would appreciate the Minister’s views on whether it will be a genuine exercise and whether the board will really consider the wider representations or the Government’s policy. If it is not able to consider Government policy, how can democratic Ministers have their way when competing in what they call the global race? When councils such as Medway have planned to develop land for many years and have spent millions of pounds, will they be able to make the decisions that are required?
Having heard the range and quality of the contributions from Members from all around the House, I feel like an unwitting contestant on “Just a Minute”. I fear that after I address the subjects that have been raised, on which I am so profoundly inexpert, Members may conclude that I am actually a contestant on “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”.
First, I will address the hon. Members who have spoken on behalf of their constituencies in London on a range of issues. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) spoke about the cap on borrowing against the housing revenue account. I am glad that he welcomed the flexibility that the Government have provided to authorities to undertake prudential borrowing. I reassure him that within the cap for the 29 stock-holding authorities in London, there is £1.4 billion of borrowing headroom. I would encourage local authorities to take advantage of that. He will be aware, although his party often professes not to be, that unfortunately we have to maintain strict controls on the deficit and to limit increases in our national debt. That is why the Government are not considering relief of the cap.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made an eloquent argument for the exemption application against the new permitted development right for change of use from commercial to residential. She will be aware that we are considering a great number of exemption applications from authorities across the country and will understand that we need to apply the criteria that have been set out fairly and objectively to all authorities. I therefore hope that she will understand that I cannot give her any specific reassurances about the result of the application from her local authority. I can reassure her that the process is happening as quickly and fairly as possible, with outside expert help to assess whether the criteria apply.
The hon. Lady also raised the removal of the spare room subsidy from people in her constituency who are in receipt of housing benefit. I remind her, as she will have heard many times from this Dispatch Box from people who are much more senior than I am, that the housing benefit bill has doubled to £22 billion a year. The removal of the spare room subsidy will save half a billion pounds a year. When she or her colleagues come up with another way to save that money, the Government will be delighted to hear it.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) raised similar issues about the housing crisis in London and spoke of the need to build new council housing. He will be aware that councils can build new council housing. Many councils of all stripes are seeking to do so. I disagree with his idea that rent control would be nirvana for his constituents and for those who have to manage the housing benefit bill. The last time that we had rent control, there was a collapse in the private rented sector because investors were unwilling to invest in it. Our approach is very different. We are investing in the private rented sector through a generous scheme of guarantees that has been over-subscribed and to which the Chancellor committed more money in his Budget last week.
What would the Minister say to my constituents who are faced with a gap, in some cases of more than £100 a week, between their housing benefit and their new private rent and who will be forced out of the community where their children go to school and their families live, leading to community disruption? What would he say to them when they are sitting across the table in an advice bureau?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have spoken to a number of people in my constituency who face the same situation and not a great deal more housing is available. I accept that it will be very difficult for certain people, and I, as I am sure that he is, am doing everything that I can to work with councils on their local housing solutions and with Citizens Advice to put people in touch with alternative options and to encourage them to explore the possibility where appropriate—often, with families, it will not be, but for single people, it might be—of renting out spare rooms to offset the reduction. We have to save money from the housing benefit bill, however, and we have not yet heard any better or fairer suggestions from the Opposition on how to do that. When we have heard that, perhaps we will be able to discuss it.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised a different but important issue about protecting the green belt and how that is assessed against the importance of providing new school places. He will understand that because he has asked that the proposal about which he is concerned be called in by the Secretary of State, I cannot comment on it. I can reassure him, however, that the national planning policy framework is clear about the protections for the green belt: there can only be development on the green belt in very special circumstances, so planning authorities would have to meet quite a tough test in law, if they wished to approve such a proposal. That has to be balanced, however, against the equally explicit commitment that great weight be given to the need to create and expand schools. I cannot prejudge how that will be arrived at in that case, but he has made an eloquent and passionate argument. Officials in my Department and I, as planning Minister, have heard it and will take it into account when we consider the proposal.
I think that I can now move away from London to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who spoke movingly and effectively on behalf of the constituents of his who faced the unbearable tragedy of losing their daughter, Mary Ann. He will be aware that the Government constantly consider ways to raise awareness of the risks of carbon monoxide, and I can tell him that there will now be a label on barbecues to warn people of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. He will also be aware that building regulations require a carbon monoxide alarm when a solid fuel appliance is installed in a home. It is not currently proposed to make it mandatory to install those alarms in new homes, as he suggests doing, but he has made a strong argument, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), will be keen to listen to his concerns and consider them as he reviews building regulations.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) told a tale of woe on behalf of her constituents about what appeared to be the fraudulent issuance of a safety certificate. I cannot comment in detail, because it is not my area of expertise; I can only reassure her that we will write to the Health and Safety Executive and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, who oversee the HSE, to ensure that she receives an adequate answer on how her constituents’ interests can be properly protected.
I turn, finally I think—no doubt, someone will holler if I have missed them out—to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). I can well understand the dismay of Medway council, which is seeking to do what all hon. Members across the House understand is necessary: to make provision to build more houses. I can well understand their dismay that such a major scheme should be put at risk by a declaration that the site is to be viewed as a site of special scientific interest. I cannot comment on the merits of the decision or the scheme, but I can reassure him of two things. First, notification of a site as an SSSI does not necessarily mean that it cannot be developed, but it does mean that the developer must make advanced efforts to mitigate, or, if they cannot do that entirely, to compensate for any impact on the site. Only last week, I met the chairman of Natural England, and I would be happy to explore with him the status of such a notification, how it came about and whether it can be managed to ensure that the houses needed for people in my hon. Friend’s constituency are built. I hope that has answered all the questions raised by hon. Members.
Thank you for keeping your remarks short so that we can have as many speakers as possible in the next general debate. If everybody turns up, there are 28 Members who would like to contribute to the David Amess debate—[Laughter.] I mean the general debate. We will start with a five-minute limit on speeches, but if we need to we will reduce it to four minutes so that everybody can at least get in and get something on the record before the Easter recess.
I do not know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am rather tired of all the mitherers and doom-mongers. We know the types: those quick to criticise, quick to talk down, and quick to jump on any passing hashtag bandwagon. However, as Lord Mandelson said recently, those without a plan of their own should not be criticising those with plans. Many knowledgeable business folk have told me that the only thing holding back big levels of growth in our country is confidence, and we can get that only by recognising and celebrating success. Therefore, in the next few minutes as we head into the Easter recess I want to celebrate some of the many wonderful things going on in my Colne Valley constituency.
In Colne Valley, 1,220 apprenticeships started in the last academic year, and another 360 in first quarter of this academic year—a 74% increase on the last year of the previous Labour Government. Right at the forefront of that increase in apprenticeships is Kirklees college, under the leadership of the inspirational Peter McCann. A couple of weeks ago during national apprenticeship week, I went to meet one local apprentice who has a dream job. Helen is working up at Holmfirth vineyard—what a great place to work!—which not only hosted thousands of wine tours last year, but also offers quality homemade food and drink. Ironically, it is in Holme valley, which hosted many visitors on the back of the famous long-running BBC TV series “Last of the Summer Wine”. It is therefore fitting that a vineyard is now proving to be the big, new honey pot for tourism in my part of the world.
As we know, apprentices need full-time jobs to go to, and I am particularly proud that manufacturing is going great guns in my part of Yorkshire. I am proudly wearing a lapel badge that says “Huddersfield—the Place to Make It”, which is a manufacturing campaign in my part of the world. Even in London I see great examples of that manufacturing. The glass pods on the London Eye are made in my constituency at Novaglaze in Lockwood, and the textiles for the suit that David Beckham wore at the royal wedding a couple of years ago were manufactured in my constituency. On the way home tonight, those who go on a London bus should look at the flecked upholstery, which has probably been manufactured by Camira Fabrics in Meltham—we are very proud of that.
Down the road from Meltham is a wonderful engineering company, CNC Mill Turn Solutions, which is taking on apprenticeships and winning new contracts. Many of those are defence contracts, including for the new Ocelot Snatch Land Rover. Those are companies that I have visited recently, and the facts back up my remarks. Statistics from an independent consultancy firm show that 1,187 new companies started in Huddersfield and Colne Valley last year—an 8% increase year on year, and a record for any year.
On food and drink, I have already mentioned the vineyard, while local breweries on my patch—including the Linfit, Mallinsons, Magic Rock, Empire, Golcar, Milltown, Nook Brewhouse and Riverhead micro-breweries —were very pleased with the Chancellor’s news that he was cancelling the beer duty escalator. They are pleased with some of the Government’s moves. Pure North Cider also makes cider in my constituency, so it is not just wine and beer that we make.
We are very lucky with regard to education. Huddersfield university will welcome 5,000 new students this year. On the sporting front, Huddersfield Town are holding their own in the championship and have a big game against Hull City at the weekend, and the Huddersfield Giants rugby league club are currently proudly top of the super league. On Sunday 6 July 2014 the Tour de France will come to Huddersfield and the Holme valley, and even to my village in Honley.
I am pleased that the Tour de France will go through my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I am sure he realises that that will only be the warm-up for when it goes through my High Peak constituency and the hills the cyclists will encounter.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but the cyclists will be very tired by the time they get to his constituency because they will have taken the long climb up Holme Moss to the top of the Pennines, where it is very picturesque.
I will leave Members with all those positive things going on in my constituency. It is really important, given all the doom-mongers, to celebrate things and back business, enterprise and entrepreneurs. Let us also back apprentices and Yorkshire.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), who did not say whether he was made in Colne Valley. I apologise to Members and the Official Reporters for the speed at which I am going to speak, but it is because this Back-Bench day has been hijacked by various other issues.
I want to raise two issues, one local and the other national. The first relates to a constituent of mine, Mrs Brenda Pressdee, a senior citizen who faces the prospect of having the home she has lived in for 38 years sold, but she cannot remember why. It is important to highlight this case because it could happen to any one of us, our family or our constituents.
It is unclear how Mrs Pressdee came into contact with Dream Money Ltd. It brokered an agreement and she had to pay £3,000 in fees because she signed a loan agreement for a second charge on her property of £36,000. Once the brokerage fee and all the fees for lawyers, solicitors and title insurance had been paid, the total charges and interest came to £32,995, which is 99.9% of the £33,000 Mrs Pressdee had initially requested. By December 2012, with interest and charges and charges associated with arrears, Mrs Pressdee’s total debt was £51,713.74. She is unable to keep up her payments and now has to sell her home under the mortgage rescue scheme while living there and renting it out. As a result, Blemain Finance will receive a £55,000 redemption from the sale of her home.
The situation is heartbreaking. Mrs Pressdee signed a piece of paper saying:
“I can confirm that I intend to repay my loan at the end of the term by the sale of my property.”
The note is dated 19 December 2007 and she clearly did not understand what was going on. I do not think that she received legal advice on the loan agreement.
Who can protect Mrs Pressdee? The Office of Fair Trading’s guidance on irresponsible lending only came into force in March 2010, so she was not covered with regard to the finance company’s actions. I do not think that she had the capacity to enter into the agreement. She was continually charged for every letter written. On two separate occasions she was charged £230 in legal costs, so the bills went up.
The OFT cannot help Mrs Pressdee, but what about the Consumer Credit Act 1974? Section 140A centres on the unfair relationships between creditors and debtors. Thanks to the Library, we have managed to find two cases against the company concerned. Under section 140A, Peter Bentley challenged the right to repossession of his property. The High Court judge in Cardiff asked both parties to rewrite the loan agreement, and they have done so.
In the second case Blemain Finance took repossession proceedings against Mrs Thomas from Penzance. Three loan agreements had to be rewritten. The judge held that they were unenforceable, because the amount of credit on them was incorrectly stated, so those repossession proceedings were dismissed.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who passed it on the Office of Fair Trading. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), wrote to me yesterday to say that she had nothing further to add, but the Department can do something—it can consider winding the company up in the public interest. The Minister could also meet me and the Pressdee family to see what we can do to help Mrs Pressdee, a vulnerable pensioner who has been driven out of her home. We should be protecting her.
I raised the issue of marine conservation zones with the Leader of the House, who suggested I should have an Adjournment debate, and here we are. What is the problem? Some £8.8 million has been spent on a consultation. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance states that the lack of scientific certainty should not postpone the decision. For two and a half years, we have had a steering committee of 44 industry representatives and 12 conservation non-governmental organisations, and the announcement of the 21 designated zones, and 28 species of mammals and fish are under threat. I am a member of the National Trust. It is important to protect not only the seas, but the coastline, because it is a finely balanced eco-system.
I therefore have some questions for the Minister. What is the timetable? Can he state whether there will be a re-consultation on redefining the guidance on an ecological coherence network? Parliament needs to know before any more public money is wasted on a further consultation. If not now, when?
I should like to talk about the Maldives. People often ask why the Member of Parliament for Salisbury is so concerned about the smallest Asian country. I am concerned because the ousted President of the Maldives has a strong association with my constituency. He was educated just outside it and has spent a lot of time in exile there. Since I came to the House, I have taken a great interest in the Maldives. The situation there is dire and appalling, and it deeply concerns me. I am also very worried by the reaction of the international community.
After many years fighting for free elections, in 2008 Anni Nasheed was elected as President of that small country. Last year, a few weeks after I went out there to help his party prepare for the upcoming elections, he was ousted in an appalling coup. The country is now in a critical state. The free and fair elections that should happen later this year are in the balance. It is difficult to get clarity from the international community, and even from the British Government, on how assertive it is prepared to be to deal with the country.
There is systematic corruption among the judiciary, and almost every week new stories of human rights violations reach the press. Although the ousted Nasheed is expected to run in the forthcoming elections, it is difficult to say that he will have a clear pathway to the elections, given the legal machinations put up against him almost every week.
As I have mentioned, there are the most vile human rights abuses in the Maldives. A 15-year-old girl has been sentenced to 100 lashes in public when she turns 18, and to eight months of house arrest. It is appalling that the international community can apparently do nothing about the situation. I stand today to generate some publicity, I hope, so that people are aware of the direness of the situation in the country.
The prosecutor-general stated that the 15-year-old was charged with the crime of pre-marital sex, which emerged from a police investigation. That followed a completely ludicrous allegation. It was alleged that the 15-year-old had given birth and that her step-father had murdered the baby and buried her. The step-father was accused of molesting the 15-year-old, and the victim’s mother has been accused of concealing a crime and failing to report the molestation. We will only get changes in the Maldives if there is public awareness of what is going on. Similar things are happening in many countries across the globe, but I am not prepared to just stand back and let these things happen.
The Maldives need free elections later this year, so that Anni Nasheed, that honourable and decent man, who was educated in this country, can stand as a candidate, unimpeded. The illegitimate president must ensure that those elections take place. Recently, Anni Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic party organised a mass rally with 7,000 or 8,000 people participating, but when the rally reached Dr Waheed’s residence—that is the person who grabbed control last year—riot police aggressively charged the crowd. Many people reported that the police used excessive force in breaking up the rally, and many injured women remain in hospital. Video footage shows the police attempting to arrest bystanders and using excessive force.
I urge the British Government to acknowledge what is really happening and to stand firm later this year.
I rise to bring to the House’s attention the resolution passed in the European Parliament on January 2009 to commemorate the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. My interest in Bosnia and Yugoslavia arises from having worked for the United Nations mission in Kosovo between 2000 and 2002.
The background to the massacre began after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s which led to conflict within Bosnia. That war sparked numerous atrocities, including the “mass rape” of women, as defined by the United Nations war crimes tribunal. Studies estimate that as many as 20,000 to 50,000 Bosniak Muslim women were raped by Serb forces and many were abused for months.
One of the most prominent and gravest incidents took place in July 1995. The Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was, at the time, an isolated enclave stated to be a protected zone by a United Nations Security Council resolution of 16 April 1993, fell into the hands of the Serbian militias. During several days of carnage, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys, who had sought safety in this area under the protection of the United Nations forces, were executed by Serb forces which had entered Bosnian territory from Serbia. Nearly 25,000 women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, making this event the biggest war crime to take place in Europe since the end of the second world war.
This tragedy was declared an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In January 2009, the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution to proclaim 11 July a day of commemoration of Srebrenica throughout the European Union. It is a day on which we should express condolence and solidarity with the families of the victims, many of whom are living without final confirmation of the fate of their relatives and a day on which our thoughts should be with those who were killed and those who lost loved ones.
The European Parliament resolution called the Srebrenica genocide
“the biggest war crime in Europe since the end of WWII.”
The Assembly called it
“a symbol of the international community’s impotence to intervene and protect civilians.”
I call on the Government to commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica act of genocide by supporting the European Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. I also urge the Government to make further efforts to bring the many remaining fugitives to justice. We should be doing more to support the valuable work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Finally, I cannot stress enough the importance of reconciliation in the European integration process, particularly with regard to the role of religious communities, the media and education, so that people of all ethnicities can overcome the tensions of the past, move forward, and begin a peaceful and sincere co-existence in the interests of enduring peace, stability and economic growth. In working to move forward, we must not forget the lessons of the past. It is therefore vital that this genocide, which has been described by the United Nations and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as the worst since the end of the second world war, is appropriately commemorated in the United Kingdom and in all European countries.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). They have shown that Backbench Business Adjournment debates can provide a real insight into different issues, and they have put them on the record. Both hon. Members were sombre in their tone, but I was pleased to note that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I have something in common: we have both been members of Haringey council. I was slightly surprised to find out—because I know him reasonably well—that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) describes himself as an optimist.
The policy of incineration is being pursued across the country. Specifically, an incinerator is planned in St Dennis in my constituency. Since before I was a parliamentary candidate, I have said consistently that Cornwall should not go down the route of incinerating its municipal waste. I have said consistently that St Dennis is the wrong place for an incinerator and that incineration is the wrong solution and technology. I have argued for several years that cheaper, cleaner and greener alternatives are available to local authorities, yet in Cornwall and in other local authorities across the country we see a determination to continue to pursue this one-size-fits-all solution and off-the-shelf easy win to deal with municipal waste when alternatives are available. Yes, they might require a little extra effort, but in the long run they can deliver huge savings in carbon emissions and money. Road movements would be reduced as less waste is ferried around, and that would be better for our country and our planet.
I was delighted that the respected environmental waste management consultancy, Eunomia, which has previously advised Cornwall council, looked recently at the council’s plans and decided that savings could be made. Those savings are not insignificant. It suggests that potentially £320 million of savings can be delivered to taxpayers in Cornwall if the council revisits its waste strategy. It makes the point that the contract is outdated and not fit for purpose, that it no longer fits the overall policy context of either the UK Government or our European counterparts, that the PFI credits are poor value for money, and that with some simple changes Cornwall can find a different solution that better meets its needs.
Cornwall currently recycles just 37% of its waste and has no real plans to improve that rate. Recycling rates cannot be improved while trying to feed an incinerator that is ever-hungry for material to burn. The best local authorities now recycle more than 60%, and recycling alone could deliver £12 million-worth of savings a year to the council. Indeed, if we went as far as Surrey county council, which is hitting a 70% target, there is potential for still more significant savings. Eunomia reports that the PFI contract that Cornwall council agreed with the previous Government is outdated and not fit for purpose, and that savings can be made there too.
None of this comes at a time of plenty. We know only too well in this House that local authorities face a difficult financial environment. We know from the representations that we all receive from our constituents that the money that could be saved—the £320 million that Cornwall council is throwing away—could be better used to help to meet people’s needs in their day-to-day existence.
Perhaps I can put it best by leaving it to the director of Eunomia, who said:
“Cornwall used to lead the recycling league, but now languishes in the bottom 25% of local authorities. In the 15 years since the PFI plan was hatched, the world of waste has moved on and far better alternatives now exist. Our analysis shows that the PFI contract is a very expensive way to ensure that Cornwall continues its poor environmental performance on waste for decades to come.”
I urge the Minister to get our right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to look at this issue on a value-for-money basis. We are in the last-chance saloon, but it is not too late.
I wish to raise two very different issues.
First, Marlborough and Vaughan schools—both excellent schools in my constituency—are in urgent need of rebuilding. They were built in the 1960s as temporary schools. They have problems with asbestos and other serious defects. Given Harrow’s growing population of young families, both schools also need to expand to become three-form entry schools. The council wrote to the chief executive of the Education Funding Agency last July to propose a financial agreement involving funding provided through the priority school building programme and Harrow’s share of the basic needs allocation. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will use his influence, at the very least to speed up a response to Harrow council’s letter to the EFA—one containing, I trust, positive news.
Secondly, I hope that the Competition Commission will investigate the funding of premiership rugby teams. Together with the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby is the body that distributes funding to England’s top rugby clubs. It does so on an uneven and unfair basis. I understand that London Welsh rugby club received some £1.4 million from Premiership Rugby to help to fund players’ salaries, while other premiership clubs—notably the so-called founder clubs, such as Sale, Bath, Leicester and Gloucester—receive some £3.5 million a season. Indeed, figures I have seen for January suggest that Worcester, London Irish and Sale all received about three times the funding that London Welsh received. Given that they are London Welsh’s rivals for the relegation place, this hardly suggests that a fair contest is being played out. Indeed, bizarrely, recently relegated Newcastle also appears to have received three times more funding in January than London Welsh, while Bristol and Leeds, which were relegated some time ago, received almost double the funding that London Welsh received in January.
In short, there is a clear bias in how funding is distributed against teams promoted to the premiership. The funding arrangements have all the appearance of a cartel. They make it extremely difficult for newly promoted teams to survive or thrive. To their credit, Exeter and Worcester have done so, but the vast majority of promoted clubs struggle to survive beyond a season or two. I have therefore written to the Office of Fair Trading today asking it to request an investigation by the Competition Commission into the funding of rugby clubs. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will speak to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and encourage them to use their influence to support such an investigation.
There is, too, the fiasco of the five points deducted for messing up the registration paperwork of the London Welsh scrum half, Tyson Keats, even though no one disputes his entitlement to seek employment in the UK, his eligibility to seek work as a professional rugby player or indeed—should the call come—his eligibility to play for England. I very much regret today’s decision to turn down London Welsh’s appeal against this grim five-point deduction. Quite why the crime is so severe that it should merit such a huge penalty, when other clubs making similar mistakes have not been hit so hard, is frankly difficult to fathom. Exeter fielded an extra overseas player in one of its matches last season and was hit with only a two-point fine. Leicester fielded Manu Tuilagi some seasons ago, despite his effectively being an illegal immigrant. The club was not penalised any points at all. One would think there would be some expectation by the RFU that Leicester would have checked his status; instead, the RFU rallied round to help him to get his status resolved.
The premiership should surely be a genuine competition in which clubs battle it out on a level playing field. At the moment, sadly, a newly promoted team first has to climb a mountain to get to the playing field and is then expected to play with one hand tied behind its back. It is time that the funding of premiership rugby clubs became much more transparent and that newly promoted teams received appropriate funding.
Following last week’s Budget debate, I welcome today’s opportunity to highlight some key business-related issues affecting my constituency and my constituents.
The House will be well aware that Essex is a county of entrepreneurs, as there are many successful small businesses. That is why the first item on my list is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which continues to act as a barrier to businesses and many small firms in my constituency. To put this into some kind of context, HMRC has spent over 10 years relentlessly pursuing and seeking to punish my constituent, Mr Philip Wright. His case relates to a complex issue surrounding tax paid in the construction industry. Despite Mr Wright losing his business, being unwell and being of very limited means and having previously won an initial court hearing, HMRC continues to drag this case on, persecuting my constituent. HMRC has made many errors, yet it seems to be determined to secure a precedent-setting victory over Mr Wright at a further court hearing later this year.
This case shows how HMRC has targeted its efforts on the defenceless and on easy targets, while letting larger firms off the hook. It also shows once again how inept HMRC has been. My constituent had built up his own business and spent years doing the right thing. It is about time that HMRC did the right thing. I urge the Government, and particularly the Treasury Minister responsible for HMRC, to leave Mr Wright in peace. Today is quite a significant day, as we have to ask ourselves whether the official who presided over so many failures at the UK Border Agency is the right person to fix HMRC, with all its backlog of cases and problems.
The next business example from my constituency highlights problems with the Valuation Office Agency. The VOA, as it is fondly known, is an executive agency of HMRC, and it has spent the past three years sitting on a firm’s business rate re-evaluation appeal. In June 2010, the business requested a reduction on the basis that the rateable value applied was
“incorrect, excessive, contrary to law and a disproportionate reflection on the change in rental values in the locality”.
The VOA has sat on its hands for three years and done nothing. This is yet another example of bureaucracy not understanding how businesses operate in the real world, as a result of which I understand about 250,000 further appeals in similar instances are outstanding. I urge Ministers to take action to end this bureaucratic shambles and to press the VOA to get its act together.
Last week’s Budget has been positively welcomed by business, which is why I urge Ministers and the Government to press local councils to unleash local businesses from business rates and to tell local authorities to use their new powers to reduce rates and take a more flexible approach to local business taxation. My constituent, Duncan Clark, is an outstanding local entrepreneur who converted a redundant out-house building into a cookery school, creating two full-time jobs. He has taken a risk to set up that business and has a great “can do” attitude—the type of attitude that this country needs to grow into a more prosperous future. He should be congratulated on what he is doing; instead, of course, he faces a £6,000 bill for his rates. I hope that the Government will urge local councils to use their powers over business rates to foster a competitive spirit of business enterprise in this environment. That would help start-ups and help business men such as Mr Clark.
Many of the problems that I have highlighted demonstrate that the public sector needs to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the private sector. If those public bodies engaged more constructively with the private sector, they would enhance their own understanding. A great example of that happened in Witham town, when Essex county council listened to a body called Witham Industrial Watch, whose business members monitor criminal activity on our industrial sites. The county council was on the verge of taking away the street lighting on the industrial estate, but Witham Industrial Watch made a persuasive case to the council. I pay tribute to the council and to the cabinet member for highways for realising that it made business sense to work with Witham Industrial Watch to get the right outcome.
I look forward to hearing the Government’s response. Let me take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all the staff of the House a very pleasant Easter recess.
The world is still divided, as we know. The plight of poor children in that divided world preoccupies tens of thousands of the finest of our citizens. The proximate cause of my applying to speak in this debate, for which I am grateful, was a visit that I had from campaigners from religious organisations and others from Bradford university. The campaign is based around the organisation Enough Food For Everyone If, which will have lobbied most hon. Members in the run-up to the Budget, seeking an important relief for poor children in poor countries. Sadly, the Government, on that occasion at least, failed to rise to that challenge. It is my hope that that campaign can continue and that the Government will take on board its demand to introduce some requirement on British companies operating in poor countries.
In parenthesis, every 45 seconds—the length of time I have been speaking—a child in Africa dies of malaria, let alone all the other ailments that kill so many children in poor countries. In the world as a whole, 110 million children under 10 go to work instead of school. For those children, there is no Easter, Christmas or holiday. There are none of the basic comforts that we wish for our own children. Yet in the midst of that, we discover, contemporaneously, that many British corporations and companies, some of them well known, are not only operating in those poor countries to take advantage of the very low wages that workers labour for, but doing their best in those poor countries to avoid, even evade, the minimal rates of taxation that those countries require from them. Therefore, that campaign is asking for something like the disclosure of tax-avoidance scheme that will be applied to British companies under the Finance Bill to force them to disclose the tax-avoidance schemes in which they are involved in poor countries.
Of course, child poverty is on the march in our own country, too. Yesterday, I had a brief moment with you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to allude to some of the child poverty in my constituency, which has the second highest child poverty and the second highest child mortality in the entire country. I know that I will not melt the hearts of the Government on that point, so I want to raise a practical point with them that, even in their own terms, is an anomaly. More than 10,000 children in Bradford are not receiving free school meals but are officially under the poverty line. The reason is that their parents are working and receiving working families tax credit. They are officially poor, officially below the poverty line, but cannot get free school meals. However, if their parents gave up their jobs, they would immediately be eligible for free school meals.
How can that conceivably fit with the Government’s oft-claimed intention to try to encourage the unemployed into work and to help the working poor? According to the Children’s Society, in one city alone—Bradford—more than 10,000 children are living under the poverty line but are not receiving free school meals. Therefore, they are likely to go an entire day without proper nutrition.
I would like the Deputy Leader of the House to explain to me, in writing, at least, how this anomaly can be tolerated. Why not give the working poor at least the same break that we give the unemployed, by giving their poor children something to eat at lunchtime?
Easter is one of the most important Christian festivals and as we speak, across the world, particularly in the Punjab in Pakistan, Christians are being systematically traduced, attacked, tortured, imprisoned and even killed. The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement said in a recent letter to me:
“The ongoing abuse of blasphemy laws against Christians in Pakistan is a violation of their human rights and the laws themselves are in direct contravention of various human rights charters. Pakistani Christians are accused of blasphemy to settle personal scores and without being given the chance to prove their innocence are locked up in jails.”
If the UK’s soft power means anything, it means exercising influence and withdrawing funds if necessary, to make sure the Pakistani Government know that this is completely unacceptable.
The House will know that in October 2011, I led a debate in Westminster Hall on Tourette’s syndrome, an inherited neurological condition that affects children from the age of six or seven. Many of those children are not well educated because they struggle to keep their tics under control and end up being excluded and in the criminal justice system. I remain unconvinced that the new NHS and education reforms take account of children who desperately need to have their issues addressed. I hope the NHS Commissioning Board looks at that.
The House will also remember that during a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, I raised the issue of the fortification of basic foodstuffs with folic acid, particularly for women of child-bearing age. Many countries across the world have done so, and although they have not eliminated the dreadful, tragic conditions of hydrocephalus and spina bifida, they have reduced their incidence. It is my great good fortune to represent the city of Peterborough, in which the Shine charity, formerly the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, is based. It gives help, support and guidance to children affected by spina bifida and their parents. I remain hopeful that the Government will work with the Food Standards Agency—the Department of Health will work with others—to do the right thing and fortify foodstuffs such as bread and flour with folic acid to prevent these terrible conditions.
Turning to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), I will not dwell too much on the Budget, other than to say that I was disappointed that, although we could find time for something was not in the manifesto and the coalition agreement, such as same-sex marriage, we could not do so for something that was, such as a marriage tax break. Senior members of my party, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, have said that that will happen under this Government, and I sincerely hope they are as good as their word.
Representing as I do the city of Peterborough, in which the headquarters of Thomas Cook is located, I was disappointed that the Chancellor also avoided the issue of air passenger duty, but I remain ever hopeful that that will change.
On a more positive note, philanthropy and the voluntary and community sector in my wonderful constituency, which I have had the good fortune to represent for eight years, is thriving. The Peterborough cathedral “900” appeal, which is seeking to raise millions of pounds from business and others for a heritage and education centre and a centre of excellence for English choral music to celebrate 900 years of a Christian settlement on the banks of the River Nene—an abbey, and then a cathedral—is doing well. Of course, something very dear to my heart is the Sue Ryder hospice at Thorpe Hall. A grade I listed building which was the home of Oliver St John—Oliver Cromwell’s money man—it is no longer fit for purpose as a hospice. The fundraising committee, of which I was a member for five years, is raising money for a purpose-built £6 million 22-bedroom hospice on the site. We desperately need the funds for that and good work is being done. So my city is generous and it is raising money for good causes.
May I end by wishing all hon. Members, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means and all staff a happy, peaceful and restful Easter recess?
May I begin by apologising to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the House and the Deputy Leader of the House for that fact that I will not be able to stay for the duration of the debate? I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on his contribution, as he took the opportunity to raise a kaleidoscope of issues. I also congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Backbench Business Committee on this excellent initiative that I am taking advantage of for the first time. Although I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on tax breaks for married couples, I hope that he would extend them to same-sex couples who choose to marry.
Such great issues of human rights have been raised by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway), who discussed child poverty, a shameful and deepening scar on this country. However, I wish to be a little more parochial and concentrate on issues closer to home. This may feel like groundhog day to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I spoke about the future of Cockenzie power station in yesterday’s Budget debate, but it is an issue of real importance to my constituency.
Cockenzie’s coal-fired power station closed on Friday 15 March, after 45 years of electricity generation which powered approximately 1 million homes every year during the station’s lifetime. Some 10,000 people have been employed there during its lifetime, through construction and generation. In some cases, three generations of families have been involved in the plant. It was a sad and emotional day when we saw those grown men in their hard hats having soft hearts about the closure of such an important part of East Lothian’s history, which has made such a great contribution to its economy. For many, including me, as I frequently fly into Edinburgh airport, its twin chimney stacks are the place that marks home.
I wish to praise ScottishPower, which has a good record in managing such closures. I praise the way in which it has worked with the trade unions in the workplace and with individual employees to ensure that there have been no compulsory redundancies. Many employees are moving to other stations, while others have opted for retirement or severance voluntarily. Having said that, this was still a tough day for East Lothian, as Cockenzie now lies like a sleeping giant, waiting for a decision from this Government.
There has been uncertainty about the future of Cockenzie for some time, and I do not lay this all at the door of this Government; the previous administration in East Lothian council, a Scottish National party-Lib Dem coalition, opposed planning permission for the plant’s conversion to gas. Fortunately, that decision was overturned by Scottish Ministers, who are also from the SNP—indecision is not limited to those on the Government Benches. Thankfully, we have a new administration in East Lothian council, a Labour-Conservative coalition—that is how democracy can be at times. It results from the single transferable vote, and I do not think it is a coalition we will ever see replicated in this place.
ScottishPower is calling for clarity on a capacity mechanism for thermal generation in the Energy Bill. Speaking at the annual meeting of the shareholders of Iberdrola—the Spanish owner of ScottishPower—its chief executive officer, Mr Galan, said that ScottishPower would increase its planned UK spend of £10 billion by £3 billion to build new gas-fired power stations, but uncertainty caused by market conditions and a lack of clarity from the UK Government was holding back that further investment. Some of that money could be used to refurbish the station at Cockenzie, creating 1,000 construction jobs in my constituency in the process and with further knock-on benefits to the local economy. When completed, it would be a welcome source of skilled jobs and apprenticeships for young people in my constituency. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to take that message back to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. This is an opportunity for investment in the UK and in my constituency to create jobs and to keep the lights on.
Not long ago, a Slovak national, Mr Peter Pavlisin, badly beat up his pregnant Gloucester girlfriend, Natasha Motala, threatened her with death and had to be subdued by several policemen. He was sentenced to four years in prison in the Gloucester Crown court and the judge revealed during sentencing that during Mr Pavlisin’s four years in the UK he had been convicted of 14 offences from 21 charges. When I read that in our local paper, The Citizen, my immediate reaction was relief for my constituent Natasha, who had given birth safely, and for my other constituents, as the criminal would be off the streets of Gloucester. There was something missing, however. Where was the instruction to the courts to deport the prisoner at the end of his sentence?
I rang the judge and he explained that judges have the authority to deport non-EU nationals but not EU nationals. That can only be decided by the Home Secretary. I did more research, and I discovered that if an EU national is sentenced to more than two years, or 12 months for certain crimes, the National Offender Management Service is supposed to make recommendations to the Home Secretary on deportation some months before that sentence is over. That system is unsatisfactory in several ways. First, the victims, the court, the media and the community are unaware of it. No one in Gloucester knows that Mr Pavlisin should be deported in due course. As the judge is silent on the issue—indeed, judges have to be—the implication is that he will not be deported and will emerge with a strong likelihood of extending his frequent appearances in our courts.
Secondly, there is no clear responsibility for action, no audit trail and no measurement of the Ministry of Justice’s ability to ensure that dangerous EU nationals are deported at the end of their sentences. Thirdly, as the law allows for deportation but the process does not highlight it, my constituents and everyone else’s are unlikely to have confidence in the system.
That gap in the process could, I believe, be fixed relatively simply through an amendment to the UK Borders Act 2007 and a memorandum of conviction that would require judges to say when the sentence for any EU national is of a length or severity that obliges NOMS to consider recommending deportation to the Home Secretary well ahead of the completion of the sentence. That would spell out to everyone, including EU nationals, an important likely consequence of serious crime in our country. It would remind everyone that we decide who is deported and who is not, wherever they come from, and give us all more confidence in the process of law.
Let me be clear: this is not about bashing the EU or stoking xenophobic paranoia. Immigrants to Gloucester, from Roman legionaries to Norman monks, Jamaican nurses, Asian engineers, Polish makers of shirts and many others besides, including some great European rugby players, have contributed hugely to our city. We have thrived on immigration but not on foreign criminals. This is about the safety of my constituents and justice for all our constituents and it is a plea for more certainty and rigour in the process of justice. I am sure that Ministers in both the Ministry of Justice and the Home Department share my concerns and I hope that they will act to ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done and that all foreign criminals will be deported when they deserve to be.
Let me take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and everyone in this House a happy Easter.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about sport and fitness for women and girls. I spoke about it during the debate on international women’s day last year and from that debate we managed to get cross-party agreement to support the development of a new all-party group on women’s sport and fitness. We launched it, it is supported by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation and we have had some great meetings. Our first meeting was with the presenter and sports commentator Clare Balding and the Olympic rowing gold medallist Kath Grainger, and most recently we have had a meeting with the Paralympian Martine Wright, who survived the 7/7 bombings and went on to compete in the Paralympics, and Claire Lomas, who was the first paraplegic to complete the London marathon, doing so in 17 days walking in a robotic suit.
It was great to listen to those inspirational women from those different sports. It is needed, because women’s sport faces a crisis in media coverage and lack of sponsorship. Outside Olympic years, women’s sport receives less than 5% of the total sport print coverage, and even then, unsurprisingly, women’s sport receives only 0.5% of the total sponsorship income. There was the recent case of the England women’s football team being offered a salary increase from £16,000 to £18,000 a year. They eventually settled on a contract of £20,000 a year. In the same week, the Arsenal football player Theo Walcott signed for £100,000 a week. I know that we have some talented girls and young women playing football now, and the difference in reward levels for women’s football must be offputting for those talented enough to seek a professional career.
Appropriately enough for a debate at this time of year, it is a case of the chicken and the egg. More media coverage is needed to provide girls and young women with positive role models in sport, and that would encourage participation and future achievement, but media coverage is elusive and without it we do not get the sponsorship and salaries remain low.
Let me turn quickly to school sport, because we currently have a crisis of activity levels among children, especially girls, with just 16% of girls and young women reaching the recommended levels of activity by the time they leave primary school, compared with 29% of boys, and only 12% of 14-year-olds are active enough to benefit their health. In fact, girls leave school only half as likely to meet the recommended activity levels of boys, and nearly a third of 16-year-olds do no physical activity at all.
In that context, the Government’s announcement of £150 million for primary school sport is welcome, but I have some questions about the funding. How will Ministers ensure that the investment helps to close the gender gap in activity levels in primary schools? Do they have any plans to provide similar, much needed support in secondary schools, where sport among girls really drops away? How do Ministers plan to measure the success of the investment, given that there is no comprehensive annual measurement of children’s activity levels in sport? The status quo is that 51% of girls say that school sport and physical education actually puts them off being active, and they are only half as likely as boys to meet the recommended activity levels.
I commend the Rugby Football Union for its All Schools programme. At a recent event in the House, I met three young women who had taken up playing rugby at school and at a local club. The RFU has done a great job in enthusing teachers and coaches, who in turn enthuse and inspire young women, such as the three I met. I also congratulate FC United of Manchester on commemorating international women’s day by holding events to celebrate women in football, including an event called “A woman’s place is at the match”. Its women’s team was awarded Manchester Football Association’s “Team of the Month” award. They also won a recent semi-final to win through to the league cup final against Manchester City’s women’s team. I commend them and all women and girls working to break down barriers in women’s sport.
Finally, I would like to give the customary thanks to all staff of the House. I particularly want to thank Noeleen and the staff of the Tea Room, who I think do a wonderful job, the Hansard reporters, to whom I think we should all be very grateful, and you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wish all a happy Easter. I will end by wishing a happy birthday to my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). I do not know whether any Government Members have birthdays today, but if they do I wish then a happy birthday, too.
In fact, today is also my birthday. I am grateful for the opportunity, on this jolly occasion, to draw the House’s attention to proposals for a Congleton link road that would run from Sandbach road to the west of the town, past the north of the town centre and on to Macclesfield road to the east. The potential benefits have been excellently summed up in an appropriately titled document, “The key to unlocking Cheshire East: Securing jobs and a future for the local economy”, which has been compiled by a forward thinking partnership of Congleton business people and the East Cheshire chamber of commerce, collectively called the Link2Prosperity group—L2P.
The road would improve connectivity right across east Cheshire by improving links to Manchester airport, the M60 and the M6, the latter being just 10 minutes away at Sandbach, junction 17, in my constituency. It would also improve connectivity to the rail network, particularly the inter-city connection at Crewe, and would help alleviate heavy traffic problems that the people of Holmes Chapel have endured for 40 years.
On my hon. Friend’s birthday, she is making a characteristically powerful speech. I agree wholeheartedly that the Congleton link road will be vital in improving connectivity in east Cheshire and to stimulate economic growth. Does she agree that it is also important to have a similar road—the Poynton-Woodford relief road—to help to improve connectivity in the north of our borough?
I absolutely do agree. It is interesting to note that both these roads are priorities in Cheshire East council’s draft development strategy.
The Congleton link road would reduce the daily traffic congestion in the centre of Congleton that impedes businesses, residents and school pupils and has been described by Siemens, the town’s biggest employer, as “chronic”. It would also reduce the consequential high levels of nitrous oxide at pollution hot spots in the town.
The benefits of this road involve far more than traffic improvements alone. Its route north of the town would open up much-improved access to industrial and business park sites that are small, land-locked, in poor condition and under-occupied, which means that existing businesses looking to expand are being forced to relocate. Moreover, the sites offer minimal opportunities for inward investment by new businesses. All this could radically change with the investment in these sites that improved connectivity both locally and regionally would justify. The benefits of opening them up are cited not only in the L2P document but in Cheshire East council’s draft development strategy, which states in its foreword that the council has
“a jobs-led development strategy, supported by improved connectivity through sustainable infrastructure such as the…Congleton Link Road”.
It goes on to say that the strategy
“seeks to promote the right conditions for jobs growth—by boosting the delivery of existing major employment sites, improving connectivity and identifying new areas for future investment and expansion.”
The Congleton link road will do just that.
Let me give a case study. The L2P document talks about Senior Aerospace Bird Bellows, which is based at Radnor Park estate, one of the business sites to the north of Congleton. SABB manufactures key aircraft components, and it is Congleton’s second largest employer. Key visitors to SABB include Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce. Sadly, as the L2P document states, the condition of Radnor Park estate does not reflect its status as the home of a high-tech, world-class manufacturer. SABB is set to grow; indeed, 100 jobs are about to be attracted to the company very soon. However, if it is to remain in Congleton, it is crucial that Radnor Park estate is improved. Improvements to the Radnor Park site, and indeed to other business sites in the area, could provide knock-on benefits in terms of attracting additional new businesses and much-needed employment opportunities, particularly for young people, that cannot be overestimated. That is why over 60 local companies listed in the L2P document support the link road proposal, including the town’s biggest employer, Siemens, which says that
“this new artery has the potential to pump new levels of economic activity into this town.”
The proposals are also supported by Congleton town council, Congleton Partnership and the retail arm of Congleton Business Association, which say that there is a need to focus on contemporaneous support for the town centre’s public realm and retail sector to ensure that that part of the town flourishes, in conjunction with this redevelopment, just as much as the business parks. I believe that with appropriate creative thinking and investment, the town centre will indeed benefit, not only as a result of the improved traffic flow and access to the town centre, but because it will provide a more pleasant shopping and leisure experience, and, one hopes, increased footfall as a result. Other key supporters include Congleton high school, Eaton Bank school and Congleton Town football club, all of which have ambitious aspirations to develop their facilities—something that could be facilitated by the link road development, with its improved connectivity and release of land.
In association with the link road, there would be additional housing developments. These must be sensitively planned, taking into account the existing communities’ views. That is a very important consideration that we must continually be aware of.
I ask the Minister to raise this important local proposal with his colleagues in the Department for Transport in the hope that I, and others, will be able to meet Ministers there in the near future to discuss this project in greater detail.
May I join the House in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) a very happy birthday? I will keep my remarks brief because I know that other Members are seeking to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am sure that the House has seen the sad news today that Dunfermline Athletic has gone into administration after owing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about £130,000. I hope that the Minister can say whether the Government, through HMRC and the Treasury, will be sympathetic to that problem.
My remarks will concentrate on the Royal Navy’s presence in Scotland. At this time of year, when we are all thinking about spending time with our families, loved ones and friends, we should remember the armed forces personnel of all services who are serving overseas and are apart from their families.
There have been recent announcements about the British Army lay-down in Scotland and there was a written statement yesterday about the RAF lay-down. Obviously, the Royal Navy plays an important role as well. Not only is Faslane the home of the deterrent; over the coming decade, it will become the home of the Astute class submarines. The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and I were up at Faslane just two weeks ago to see the fantastic work that goes on there. About 8,500 personnel will be based there and bring their experience to it. That base is an important source of employment. The Royal Marine base outside Arbroath at Condor is also an important presence in Scotland and it, too, provides jobs.
The other major site for the Royal Navy is Rosyth dockyard in my constituency, where the Queen Elizabeth class carriers are being assembled. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will recognise what fantastic pieces of engineering those carriers are. They are 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers that will form the centrepiece of the Royal Navy.
As the construction of the carriers progresses, the Royal Navy will have to increase its presence at Rosyth. Although there was understandable disappointment in west Fife that the Army would not be coming to Caledonia, I hope that the Minister will confirm that there was an important reason for that, which was that the Royal Navy has an important requirement for Caledonia and the wider west Fife area. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on the number of personnel who may be based there. I understand that at its peak, there may be somewhere north of 500 extra personnel.
I hope that the Ministry of Defence will meet me and others over the coming weeks to discuss how best we can accommodate those personnel and whether they should all be based inside Caledonia or whether work needs to be done with the council. Fife council has said that it is happy to talk to the MOD about what support it can offer to make them feel welcome.
I am sure that the Minister will want to confirm that were Scotland to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, not only would 8,500 jobs be lost at Faslane and the Royal Marines leave Condor, but there would be no future for the Rosyth dockyard. Not only would hundreds of jobs be lost at Caledonia, but the next 50 years of work that are coming to the dockyard would be lost. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined the view of the Royal Navy on the future requirements.
Finally, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I wish you and the whole House a happy Easter? You are a benevolent boss and have no doubt bought your staff an Easter egg. I am quite sure that the Deputy Leader of the House has bought an Easter egg for Mr Mike Winter, the head of office, Ben Sneddon and everybody else who works for him in his office. I am sure that every colleague will ensure that all their staff are looked after at this important time of year.
Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, there are a number of points that I wish to raise.
A constituent of mine, Katrine Kuzminas, recently sent me a DVD called “Earthlings”. I share her concern about the proposed badger cull.
Planet Leasing is a car leasing firm in my constituency that does a wonderful job in taking on school leavers to serve internships. In October 2012, it won the employer of the year award and celebrated its sixth birthday on 14 March. I am proud to have it in my constituency.
Honeywell, which makes switches and lights, is a Fortune 100 company that created many of the sockets that we use, including those at the Olympic games. During my visit to its factory, the topic of carbon monoxide detectors came up. Its particular concern is that, when a house is draught-proofed, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning increases. Under the green deal, we have been promised that carbon monoxide detectors will be fitted as a legal requirement. I hope that that will happen.
Hospitals do a marvellous job, but do not seem to work at the weekends. Recently, my 92-year-old aunt was in hospital for a day. She returned home, but no one was there to look after her. She was standing on the side of the road, fell down and broke her hip. It was a disaster.
Jill Allen-King, a blind constituent of mine, has raised an important issue—the eligibility criteria for the higher rate of the mobility component part of disability allowance. Those who reach 65 lose that benefit, which seems extraordinary.
Essex county bowling club is currently £26,000 worse off, because it has been refused re-admittance to the community amateur sports club. As a result, it has not received the tax relief that it was previously given. I think the Inland Revenue needs to be more helpful.
The East of England ambulance service is struggling with several difficulties. I have heard first-hand accounts of how one addict called an ambulance nine times in one day. As of 2010, ambulance calls have been increasing at a rate of 6.5% each year. Considering that each call costs £200, it is an absolute disgrace that the service is being abused.
Gas prices are far too high. I was proud to introduce the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. I hope that the Energy Bill will deal with current high gas prices.
Small claims courts give our constituents a wonderful opportunity of getting redress relatively cheaply, but we need to consider carefully how they are financed and how they operate.
Whistleblowers seem to be the flavour of the month. In 1998, I publicly defended in the House a lady called Sharon Tattoo, but the NHS establishment of the day won, and the chairman of the health trust who defended her was forced to resign. It was an absolute disgrace. I hope that Health Ministers will look at that case again.
Spinnaker, led by Phil Parry, is a wonderful company in my constituency specialising in shipping, maritime and marine world recruitment. It has an exemplary customer relations record and should be congratulated on all the work that it does at home and abroad.
A constituent of mine has written to me. He is 38 and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unbelievably, bereavement allowance only operates from the age of 45. That needs to be changed. Another constituent of mine has a brother, Abid, who is a British national sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in Pakistan for supposedly murdering his father. The case details are an absolute disgrace, and I call on the Foreign Secretary to do something very quickly.
I end with Southend. It is clear to me that everyone is getting behind Southend’s bid to be city of culture in 2017. Southend United are playing in the cup final on 7 April. I hope they win. I wish everyone a very happy Easter, including you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and particularly José and Fedel, who work in the gift shop down below and who are retiring after a combined period of 60 years’ service. If anyone wants a destination this year, I can only say that the only way is Essex.
It is a pleasure to make a few comments about Ulster Scots culture, on which I am very keen. Last week, I took some of my staff round the House. It was a privilege to show them the history of the place. It reminded me of the pride that we all take in the Chamber. We are a small part of this great place and of the great nation that is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am proud to hail from the unparalleled shores of Strangford. I am proud of our rich history and culture. I am proud to be an Ulster Scot.
I want to highlight the rich cultural links between Northern Ireland and the nations that make up the United Kingdom. Some Members might be unsure about what I mean by “Ulster Scots”. For nearly 400 years, the term has referred to a people, not a place—to the people who migrated from the lowlands of Scotland to Ulster and to the Ulster Scots communities they established across the nine counties.
The first large wave of permanent migrants were not soldiers or mercenaries but ordinary Scottish families seeking a new life. They were mainly Presbyterian in faith and outlook, and overwhelmingly spoke the Scots language. I understand that they were descended from the Stewarts of the lowlands of Scotland, and there are many people down the Ards peninsula, where I make my home, who can—and have—traced their ancestry back to Scotland and who hold their history very dear.
Ulster Scots refers not only to those people and their descendents, but also to their heritage and cultural traditions. The lowland Scots brought industry, language, music, sport, religion and myriad traditions to Ulster. Many of those have now become mainstream—not narrow cultural markers, but broad themes in our society. The Ulster Scots folk and the Scots alike have much to gain by strengthening our deep historic ties and understanding the Ulster Scots story.
Throughout schools in Northern Ireland, the Ulster-Scots Agency is working to instil in our children a pride in their heritage, safe in the knowledge that when we have a good foundation, we can build a sturdy home. One school in my constituency, Derryboy primary school, has an Ulster Scots dance in its PE class—that is something to behold—as well as having after-school clubs in Ulster Scots. We have children who can recite poetry and dance a jig and who understand that to enjoy their history and heritage is not being offensive or bigoted but simply being who they are.
In Strangford, we have strong links with Ulster Scots. We run programmes in the summer with the Lougheries Historical Society in Newtownards, with individuals reciting poetry at events and children being taught Ulster Scots in schools down the Ards peninsula, at Castle Gardens primary school and Movilla high school in Newtownards. The interest shown by those young people is second to none, and poetry is one of the things that they enjoy.
I am going to recite one verse—I have spoken to Mr Deputy Speaker about this—from one of those poems: Leevin in Drumlister:
“I’m leevin in Drumlister
An’ I’m gettin very oul
I hae tae wear an Indian bag
To save mae frae the coul
Theires naw a man in this toonlan
Wus claner raired than me,
But I’m leevin in Drumlister
In clabber tae the knee.”
I would love to read all three verses, but I was told I could not, so I will not.
Hon. Members who may be questioning what links they have with the Ulster Scots all enjoy the benefits of Ulster Scots ingenuity. Hans Sloane from Killyleagh in my Strangford constituency invented milk chocolate. Ladies love chocolate; men love chocolate. I used to love chocolate before I became a diabetic and I can no longer have it. Nevertheless, we have chocolate in our society because of Hans Sloane and Killyleagh.
More than 7,000 lives have been saved by the Martin-Baker ejection seat, which is now used by more than 90 air forces and navies. The number of lives saved increases by an average of more than three a week—again, ingenuity of the Ulster Scots. James Martin was a famous Ulster Scot who invented that ejection seat, and Frank Pantridge—also an Ulster Scot—developed the world’s mobile defibrillator and became known as the father of emergency medicine. We are doing our bit for society when it comes to inventions.
Perhaps some hon. Members have a Massey-Ferguson tractor, but if they do not, it was the first tractor and was perfected and built by an Ulster Scot. Twelve American Presidents have been of Ulster Scots heritage. We are a small nation, but we punch well above our weight producing 12 Ulster Scots Presidents with our heritage, history and our nation as best ally.
Some of the greatest inventions in the world and the funniest poetry is by Ulster Scots, as well as the most beautiful turns of phrase and dance. It is little wonder that I am proud to be an Ulster Scot. I cannot wait to see more people from the Chamber today and from outside the House travelling to my constituency to enjoy a rich culture and beautiful scenery.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution, but on a serious note, the 100th anniversary of the first world war will soon be coming up. Will he acknowledge that, during the great war, Ulster Scots played a role with great heroism as part of the wider British Army? One thinks particularly of the battle of the Somme.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, our heritage is not just cultural but historical. We fought alongside and within the British Army at the battle of the Somme, and we commemorate that contribution of our soldiers every 1 July. The history stories that I was taught as a boy are so important to me and to us as a nation because of our contribution and our heroism and courage. Young boys of 16 and 17 told lies about their age to join the Army and contribute at the battle of the Somme—I was going to say the battle of the Boyne, but that would be going too far back.
We Ulster Scots are very proud to have beautiful scenery, a rich culture and the warmest of people, who are anxious to welcome others to our heart and heritage. I invite all Members to Strangford to discover our Ulster Scots heritage, and I look forward to seeing them.