Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 15),
That, at this day’s sitting, the matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment may be proceeded with, though opposed, until 8.00 pm.—(Mr Evennett.)
Question agreed to.
I want to address the issue of the mis-selling of interest rate swaps by commercial banks and to ask in particular why tailored business loans—or fixed-rate loans with embedded or hidden swaps—are not included in the Financial Services Authority’s review. This issue took up a whole Back-Bench debate last June and I know that we will return to it.
The pilots of the FSA’s review into interest rate swaps revealed evidence that up to 90% of products had been mis-sold by commercial banks, but the question is: why is the review not looking at TBLs? Many businesses in my constituency and, I would hazard a guess, across the whole country are affected by them. We need a review of those products if our constituents and business people are to have any chance of redress.
TBLs are remarkably similar to other interest rate swap products: they involve exorbitant exit fees for the businesses concerned, profits are booked immediately to the banks and there are huge incentives to sell them to customers. When the all-party group on interest rate swap mis-selling, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), met last December, Clive Adamson of the FSA told us:
“If there is no understanding of break costs given to the customer and if there was a poor disclosure of exit cost, then it was highly likely that there was a mis-sale”.
Yet on the grounds of a mere technicality, TBLs, which are fixed-rate loans, will not be included in the FSA review. That is unjust nonsense.
I can best illustrate that point by referring to two businesses in Aberystwyth in my Ceredigion constituency. First, Huw and Jackie Roberts of Minhafan Estates Property Development took out a £750,000 quaintly named vanilla swap over 10 years, which Barclays bank referred to as a “simple swap”. The breakage clause to get out of that agreement is £155,000 and their business is included in the FSA review. Secondly, the Beechey family who run the Black Lion pub in Aberystwyth took out a £750,000 fixed-rate loan—a TBL with embedded swap—over 15 years with Clydesdale and Yorkshire bank. Their breakage fees are £200,000, but the business is not included in the review. Both of those businesses are in the same constituency and suffering severe financial distress, yet one is in the review and the other is not. Both were involved in a trade call with an FSA-regulated derivatives expert when the hedging product was sold.
For 12 years the FSA has worked on the assumption of a principle-based system of regulation. The results of January’s pilots found that poor disclosure of break costs was one of the most significant issues in assessing compliance. However, banks such as Clydesdale and Yorkshire are telling customers that they have no legal or regulatory obligation to inform customers who have been sold a fixed-rate and that they have no redress whatsoever. If a feature is worthy of regulation when it is contained in one product, why is it not worthy of regulation when contained and concealed in another?
In Ceredigion there are well over 30 types of the Clydesdale and Yorkshire fixed-rate loan with hidden swap, and that is in one community alone. Hotels, pubs, lucrative shops and farms are being targeted by the banks. The stories are heartbreaking. These toxic loans mean that hitherto successful businesses are burdened with unmanageable interest rates. Owners are unable to exit the arrangements because of extortionate breakage penalties of between 20% and 40%.
What about the consequences? Job losses resulting from trading for four years in a severe economic situation while locked into an inappropriate product—a product that has sucked out every surplus the business has generated, preventing development and the engagement of staff and precipitating redundancies—are forcing people in my constituency on to benefits.
The challenge for the Government is to put all pressure imaginable on the FSA and the successor organisation to ensure that such embedded products are considered part of the review, so that the growing number of businesses affected have the redress and justice I believe they deserve. I hope my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House answers favourably.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), with whom I shared a trip to Nigeria last year, and to participate in the David Amess Adjournment debate. We heard my hon. Friend’s tour de force earlier, but I will concentrate on one subject.
I am always pleased to reassure my constituents that Harrow has one of the lowest crime rates in London. In fact, we are the second-safest borough in London for crime. For the past three years, crime has come down overall. However, I first got involved in dealing with knife crime when two savage incidents occurred in my constituency. To my horror, knife crime in Harrow has increased by 16% in the past two years. The overall crime figures show a reduction, and we see ourselves as a low-level borough for crime, including knife crime, but that increase prompted me to look at the wider figures in the country as well as in London.
Nationally, the knife crime figures are going in the right direction—they show that knife crime fell by 15% in the past three years, with the number of crimes coming down to around 30,000. However, in London in the comparable period, knife crime has increased by 15%. London accounts for nearly half of all knife crime committed in England and Wales, which is a serious concern.
The Government have seen fit to address that trend in the new tougher sentencing regime introduced as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which created the offence of aggravated knife possession—it is now an offence to threaten or endanger others with a knife or offensive weapon. The offence carries an automatic custodial sentence of six months for over 18s. I was one of a number of MPs who supported my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), who tabled an amendment to insist on an automatic custodial sentence of four months for 16 and 17-year-olds.
The offence came into operation only on 3 December 2012, so we are unable fully to judge its effectiveness yet. However, we can say that this is not the end of the fight against knife crime, but only the beginning. We need to look at the recently released figures to know the trend, particularly the figures on knife possession—if people do not carry knives in the first place, they will not commit knife crime. In 2012, nearly a quarter of the offensive weapon possession offences were committed by repeat offenders—I would add that they repeated the same offence. Of 4,000 individuals, 43% escaped a custodial sentence. Forty-four per cent. of those offenders had three or more previous convictions, but also escaped a custodial sentence. Even more gallingly, 5% of repeat offenders escaped with nothing more than a caution. Both the rates of reoffending and the sentences show that something is going wrong.
Across London, 62% of knife crime is accounted for by personal robberies involving a knife. Knives are used primarily as a weapon of threat, and in only a small number of cases is someone injured, but 40% of homicides in England and Wales involve a knife. That leads to the utterly wrong view that possession is the least dangerous aspect of knife crime, and therefore unimportant. We must address that. An attitude needs to be introduced in this country by which knife possession is completely and utterly unacceptable. If we allow repeat offenders to escape with nothing but a caution, that attitude will not come about. If we had such an attitude, we would not allow nearly half of all repeat offenders to escape prison.
I believe that possession of a knife or offensive weapon needs to be taken much more seriously, which is why I call on Ministers to assess whether it would be appropriate to introduce a two-strikes policy, by which anyone found in possession of a knife who has a previous conviction for a knife-related offence should receive an automatic custodial sentence. That would make it clear, in the strongest terms, that the Government stand against knife crime and are prepared to challenge its root causes.
This is holy week, when Christians celebrate Easter, Jews commemorate the Passover and the deliverance from Egypt, and Hindus celebrate Holi. I wish people of all religions a very happy holy week.
I call Sir Bob Russell, on his birthday.
My birthday is on Sunday.
I draw the House’s attention to what I said in the pre-Christmas recess debate on 20 December at columns 1082 to 1085, with reference to the scandalous financial transactions made by the then leader of Essex county council, courtesy of the public purse. It is estimated that, from 2002 to January 2010, he spent nearly £450,000, an average of £1,000 a week, through credit card payments. It is ludicrous for anyone to say that those payments were for the benefit of the council taxpayers of Essex, who were paying for his life of Riley, including 62 overseas visits in five years.
Official documents detail every item of his expenditure, totalling £287,000, from March 2005 to January 2010. Records for the previous three years, according to Essex county council, are not available. I would be surprised if the council did not have bank statements which would reveal the total expenditure claimed by the leader of the council via the credit card the council issued to him even if the details are not on file. I ended my speech by saying:
“Only a full independent inquiry into the stewardship of the council from 2002 to 2010 will serve to draw a line under this most disgraceful period since Essex county council was established in 1889.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 1085.]
I regret to inform the House that Essex county council has refused to implement an independent public inquiry.
The Tory leadership is in denial. No amount of whitewash of county hall will prevent the stains of financial chicanery from remaining visible for all to see. Sadly, the situation can now be revealed to be even worse than I told the House three months ago. Last week it was revealed that council employees working directly to the leader of the council were also milking the system. County council staff, working in what it is now obvious was a party political manner for the leader of the council, had their own council-issued credit card and ran up bills of their own totalling £70,000, which would appear in every respect to have been for the benefit of the political career and aspirations of the council leader rather than for the people of Essex. Let me give one example.
The leader of the council was accompanied to the 2009 Conservative party conference by council staff. That in itself is in breach of the local government code of conduct: council staff should not be engaged in party political activities. They certainly should not be attending party conferences, and they should most certainly not expect the council taxpayers of Essex to pick up the bill. In this case, it came to £5,080.98. A breakdown includes not just accommodation and meals but £248 for wine at a reception. This has so outraged the distinguished political commentator Mr Simon Heffer that in his column in the Daily Mail last Saturday he wrote:
“Tory-controlled Essex County Council let its former Leader off the hook by failing to pursue him over a £286,000 credit card bill he racked up while flying around the world with cronies and dining in style.”
That was outrageous enough, considering that the former council leader was jailed for fiddling his expenses, but it turns out that the council also paid this crook’s £4,600 Westminster bar bills, and its audit committee has learnt that his staff claimed £70,000 for trips abroad, hotels, restaurants and hiring clothes to attend Ascot. I am an Essex ratepayer and I want to know who sanctioned this wicked waste of money and what steps will be taken to reclaim it.
Mr Heffer concluded his article by saying:
“Meanwhile, no-one in Essex should vote Conservative in the Council elections on May 2.”
As Essex county council refuses to hand over this financial scandal to an independent investigation, I call on the Government to do so; otherwise, trust in Essex county council will remain at a very low level. To my mind, it is inconceivable that the leader of the council acted in the way he did—and for so long—without it being known at the highest level of the council: chief officers and those councillors closest to the leader must, surely, have suspected something was not right. Was he really the only rotten apple in the barrel?
What of the financial line management? Were suspicions not aroused when details of the credit card were listed? Where was the council’s internal audit? Did they not notice, or were they too afraid to raise concerns? I gather that there was a culture of bullying and intimidation at county hall, but that, surely, would not have applied to the external auditors.
The total sum involved tops £500,000. The Government must step in and order a full independent inquiry into the financial scandal at Essex county council.
The excellent statement this morning by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on the Government’s response to the Francis report on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust shows just how important that inquiry has been and how the findings will help to change the NHS for the better for patients. I particularly welcome the emphasis on zero harm and quality of care, including the proposals for the training of nurses and for a chief inspector of hospitals.
The recent Care Quality Commission report on Stafford hospital was encouraging too—a hospital that failed so badly has now met the standards expected—and I thank the retiring chief executive Lynn Hill-Tout, staff, governors and board for all that they have done. Yet, just at the moment when the people of Stafford should be emerging from a decade or more of pain and uncertainty, we are faced with another huge challenge. The report to Monitor by the contingency planning team, published at the beginning of this month, recommended the removal of most emergency, acute, maternity and possibly even elective services from the Mid Staffordshire Trust which runs Stafford and Cannock hospitals.
This puzzles me. Emergency and acute admissions to hospitals in the west midlands are rising sharply and departments are at full stretch. Just last month—February—West Midlands ambulance service reported delays to its vehicles of more than 30 minutes on more than 1,000 occasions at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire. That is not a criticism of that hospital, just a reflection of demand. The proposal, however, is to remove a substantial amount of that capacity, which is already stretched: 300 acute beds at Stafford, in addition to the 250 that have already been lost at UHNS as a result of the new, smaller PFI hospital. In fact, at least 60 have had to be reopened at the old site, as demand is so great.
The reason given for this is, as always, that if we move care out of hospitals and into the community, the demand for emergency and acute admissions will fall. That is only half the truth. It will fall, but only from the much higher levels it would have reached. Moving care into the community will stop the need to provide much more extra emergency and acute capacity, but it will not allow for substantial reductions in that capacity. This is the flawed assumption under which NHS leaders seem to be working.
There is a squeeze on emergency and acute tariffs that started under the previous Government. I have raised this issue before and I will continue to do so, because unless it is addressed it will eventually result in dangerously low levels of emergency and acute cover in parts of the UK. It cannot be sensible for trusts that deal in elective work to pile up surpluses while many acute trusts, on which we all depend, struggle to cope with mounting deficits.
It would be nice to believe that all hospital admissions could be elective—that all work could be programmed to fit into an ordered day—but life is not like that, especially when we have large numbers of people living longer, which I welcome, and then becoming ill suddenly with acute, complex conditions. That is why I firmly believe, as do most of my constituents, that acute district general hospitals have an important role to play. Indeed, if they did not exist, we would probably decide to create them, precisely because they are the best place for the initial treatment of the elderly with complex, acute conditions, who could be close to home and to their loved ones.
We do of course need to learn the lesson of Mid Staffordshire and other places. Such district general hospitals are usually too small to sustain many of the specialist rotas that are needed, but the solution is not, as is proposed for Stafford, to cram all serious emergency and acute cases into already overstretched neighbours; it is to work closely with those neighbouring trusts—even become part of them—and thus enable clinicians to work across neighbouring sites. This solution has the merit of combining the benefits of scale with providing care close to patients.
I met Monitor two weeks ago, and I welcome the assurance I was given by the chief executive, Dr David Bennett, that the trust special administrator, shortly to be appointed, will consider options other than those recommended, which are wholly inadequate. Monitor has the chance to show how smaller, acute general hospitals can not only survive but prosper under the wing of a larger trust. If it does that, it will have done the NHS and our country a great service.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who speaks with such authority on health matters in his constituency.
Having set up and run a business for 25 years before entering this place, I am always keen to meet businesses in my constituency. Some 18 months ago I arranged to meet a retailer with a new business called Smoke No Smoke, run by the very entrepreneurial Jim Lacey. The business sells e-cigarettes. On my visit I learnt about the product. Its customers are often people seeking to give up smoking, who have come to include a member of my staff. It was through his contacts and visits to the shop that I became aware of a potential EU directive that is a particular concern to the sector. The directive could bring the business to an end and affect many people who are trying to stop smoking.
Most smokers know that smoking is bad for their health. Many have wanted to quit, but quit rates are extremely low, with only 3% to 5% of people trying to quit managing to do so. Many have turned to e-cigarettes as a substitute. E-cigarettes consist of an electronic inhaler that vaporises a liquid into an aerosol mist, simulating the act of tobacco smoking. E-cigarettes are the same size and shape as cigarettes. They are held in the same way and treated as cigarettes. The difference is that while cigarette smokers smoke for the nicotine but die from the tars and gases released by the burning of tobacco, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine in an aerosol form but, crucially, without the hazards that accompany tobacco smoking. There are, of course, other ways of getting nicotine, such as patches, gum and lozenges, and nicotine is not harmless. However, Action on Smoking and Health states that there is little real-world evidence of harm from e-cigarettes. There are some trace toxicants present, but at a much lower level than in cigarettes.
A recent article in The Economist sums up the position very well:
“People smoke because they value the pleasure they get from nicotine in tobacco over the long-term certainty that their health will be damaged. So it seems rational to welcome a device that separates the dangerous part of smoking (the tar, carbon monoxide and smoke…) from the nicotine. And that is what an e-cigarette does.”
The article finishes by asking rhetorically, “Who could object?” It seems the EU can object, because it is introducing a draft tobacco products directive, which proposes to regulate non-tobacco nicotine-containing products, including e-cigarettes, by classifying the vast majority of these products as medicines. Every product with more than 4 mg of nicotine per millilitre would have to be reclassified. E-cigarettes come in a range of concentrations, from zero—that is, nicotine-free—up to 48 mg per ml, with the average user choosing about 18 mg per ml. Choosing 4 mg per ml would mean a de facto ban on such products. E-cigarettes are not medicines; they are recreational nicotine products.
However, I do not want Members present or the Government to take my word for it about the benefits of this product. Let us take my constituent, Mr Preston. He and his wife started using e-cigarettes 12 months ago. Previously he smoked 30 a day and his wife smoked 20 a day. They had tried all cessation methods available on the market, none of which worked. Since starting to use e-cigarettes, neither has smoked a conventional cigarette. Mr Preston estimates they have saved up to £400 a month alone. He is 65 years old and tells me that he now wakes up each morning without a heavy chest and an immediate cough. He describes it as
“no longer waking up with that ‘bottom of the birdcage’ feeling”.
Another user said:
“After 32 years of being a smoker I love my e-cigarette and never want to try having a cigarette again! Am on day 50 now, the longest I’ve ever managed”.
Although I am not proclaiming that e-cigarettes are a positively healthy alternative to conventional smoking, I believe that the removal of the hazardous tar from cigarettes, while still providing the nicotine that smokers look for, means the product should be studied closely and be saved from the forthcoming EU directive.
I refer the House to my declaration of interest as the chairman of the Justice for Families campaign.
I remain concerned about cases in all the secret courts in the UK. The more secret the court, the more the system acts against the rule of law. Narrow freedoms of speech are at least as important as broad access to publicity—reporting wrongdoing to regulators and asking for advice are important narrow freedoms. Without academic scrutiny, nonsense can be spouted and experts can lie for money with impunity.
Care proceedings are an area of difficulty. I remain of the view that around 1,000 children a year are wrongly forcibly adopted in the UK. Gradually, I am getting more Government support in this area—sadly, still not from the UK Government. Last week I spoke at the Polish embassy, at a conference about care proceedings. Concerns have now also been raised by Nigeria, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Latvia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Spain and Turkey.
For the avoidance of doubt, my concern is that a material proportion of care proceedings go way beyond being plainly wrong and hit the threshold of “totally nuts”. I must stress, however, that I see the appointment of Sir James Mumby as president of the family division as a positive step. I also welcome judgments such as  EWHC 521 (Fam) of Mostyn J.
When the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) apologised to the children who were forcibly sent to the Commonwealth, I asked what confidence he had that such an apology would not be issued in the future for what we are doing today. His response was to ask me to send details of individual cases. I have, of course, sent many individual cases to UK Ministers. The standard response is, “It’s nothing to do with us, guv.” The fact is that, according to our constitution, the UK Government must publicly accept judicial decisions, although in practice they often criticise them—except in the family division.
More recently, Australia has apologised for forced adoption. The question was put by Florence Bellone to Professor Eileen Munro about whether in the future we may see an apology in the UK. Her response was:
“I would not be surprised if a future generation looks back and thinks how horrific the quality of our work was and the damage that we did to families.”
What we have developed—this is mainly through a mathematical error in the use of the number of children in care for the denominator of the adoption target—is a care system that is obsessed with adoption. It is so obsessed with adoption that it does things that objectively have to be seen to be irrational. I will not go into the details of Angela Wileman’s case, as I have referred to it before and I do not have time. I was pleased to hear that the arrest warrant was removed from Susan McCabe, the daughter of Councillor Janet Mockridge, who has been living in France with her two children for over five years. The attempts to remove her son for adoption in England, while leaving her daughter, gave the message of a system more concerned about winning than about the best interests of the child.
In another recent case, I read a note about the effect of the proposal for a child to be adopted out of her family. The report said:
“Since being told about the adoption, A’s mood has changed, she is clearly concerned and upset by this move, which perhaps is to be expected. However, she has nightmares most nights and is not getting adequate sleep, two weekends ago she vomited 5 times in one night.”
This case is not unique. There are even international cases where the system has taken children from people visiting the UK and refused to give them back, even though the system clearly does not have jurisdiction. That is damaging to the children, and I am prevented by the sub judice rule from giving more information here.
The international cases are particularly interesting as the assessments in England can be compared against assessments from professionals in other countries. Professionals in other countries wonder why such strange things are done—things that cause serious psychological damage to children in the UK. Working with Slovak politicians, I have managed to establish an inquiry by the Human Rights Commissioner in the Council of Europe. However, it remains the case that a problem that arises basically in secret courts is constitutionally difficult to fix, because it needs scrutiny to fix it. There is an additional challenge in that the people affected who are UK citizens are generally poorer people and less articulate. Hence, although stories about people who are foreign citizens maltreated in the UK get substantial coverage in the foreign media, there are only a few journalists such as Sue Reid, Christopher Booker and Ted Jeory who are willing to report on these cases. The speech of Denise Robertson, “This Morning’s” agony aunt, at the justice for families conference in Birmingham last December should be broadcast on TV to explain the truth.
What we actually have is a failure of democracy. In the same way as we had the cover-up over Hillsborough and the failures at the Mid Staffordshire hospital, we have a system that is going wrong in a large number of cases and maltreating families. In maltreating families, it is maltreating the children and the adults. It is reasonably well known that this is going on. However, the Government deny it. The inquiries that occur in Parliament do not look at the individual cases. Without looking at the individual cases, we cannot see the things that are going wrong. Inquiries such as the family justice review are dominated by the people who run the system, and hence are unlikely to recognise the failures of the system.
I put forward proposals in my private Member’s Bill, but it was squeezed out by the Government, who have still not explained why in detail. I have had a conversation with the Minister with responsibility for children, but I have no hopes from that. I have very little time left. I would like to give a much fuller speech, as a lot more needs to be said, but I will end by saying Happy Easter.
I rise to talk about the work I have been doing to try to encourage more people to take up being young entrepreneurs. When I went to university, I was one of 350 students at Oxford Brookes university studying business, but I was the only one who went on to set up my own business. With entrepreneurial flair, risk-taking and perhaps a touch of madness being drummed out of everybody else as they went on to their very successful corporate careers, I went off to set up my own business.
When I visit local schools and colleges and talk predominantly to business students asking whether they would consider setting up their own business, all their hands go up, probably inspired by TV programmes such as “The Apprentice” and “Dragons’ Den”, which generate lots of excitement. I then ask, “How many of you will actually set up your own business?” Suddenly the hands go down and tumbleweed floats past. I ask them why. I would normally expect them to say that the reason is access to finance, but it is not that—it is simply that they do not know how to do it. They are looking for mentors, opportunities and a set career path. If someone is applying to go to university, they fill in the UCAS forms and secure their grades. If they are applying for an apprenticeship or a job in the local economy, they send in their CV, yet there is not such clear guidance on setting up one’s own business.
To deal with that issue, I, one of the chief fundraisers at Prospect hospice, Amy Falconer, and Andrew Paterson, a lecturer at one of my local colleges, Swindon college, allocated £10 to seven teams and set them the task of trading at Blunsdon market. It is a challenging trading environment; an indoor market that is not at capacity and has limited footfall. I secured mentors from Smiths News, Nouble Furniture, Asda and Barclays to come along to support those teams to formulate ideas and to choose the products and services that they would offer.
We made sure that the teams understood that their stall would be simply a wooden trestle table that would need dressing up, but that, if they spent too much money dressing it up, they would not make any money. They needed to promote themselves. They competed against existing traders and the other teams. They also looked at promotion to ensure that they did not rely just on the footfall, on what turned out to be an exceptionally cold and wet Wednesday in the market, and got friends and family along. They also were told that they would have to stand on their feet all day, that being in retail is a real challenge, that customers would haggle and that they would have to do mental arithmetic and ensure that they had sufficient change.
When we got to the market, the seven teams set up. All seven managed to trade extremely well and to make a profit. In fact, the teams managed to raise £838.70 for the hospice. On a very quiet and cold day, that was an incredibly impressive performance. At last Friday’s presentation event, I saw how much they had changed from when they first decided to take up the challenge.
I want to highlight two of the teams. Art Creations focused on providing henna tattoos. My mother, who is a 72-year-old councillor, and my wife were covered with henna tattoos after visiting that stand. Art Creations managed to make over £100. The Double Trouble team was run by Jessica and Kay, who set up a 1950s cake stall. They were dressed in 1950s clothing. They sold hand-made bags and all the cakes were home-made. There was 1950s music playing. They gave incredible customer service. That team got over £100 as well.
The key point for those two teams is that they have been invited to return to Blunsdon market in the summer holidays. Those students are all sixth formers considering their career options. They can come back for six weeks to see whether their ideas can work beyond a day and whether they can work for themselves. They will be working with Forward Swindon and In Swindon, two of the organisations charged with re-energising our town centre using Government money to boost the high street. Those teams have both been offered opportunities to take advantage of the provision for pop-up shops; they will probably be the first teams to benefit from that. All things being equal and working in the real commercial world, they will have the opportunity to consider that as a career. That career path has been laid out for them.
With all these students, if they step up, volunteer and succeed, I will do all I can to get the mentors in place to support them. We all have the opportunity to support keen, young and enthusiastic people. They will be the next generation of wealth creators providing employment. We MPs will, I am sure, be queuing up to cut the ribbon and taste the fantastic cakes that they will have at their opening ceremony.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of accident and emergency provision at Milton Keynes hospital, which serves my constituents and indeed some of your constituents, Mr Speaker. The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), and I have joined forces with one of our excellent local newspapers, the Milton Keynes Citizen, to campaign for a new A and E centre.
The issue is simply one of space. Our hospital was built in the early 1980s and the A and E department was designed for approximately 20,000 patients a year. With population growth and other increases in A and E usage, it is now dealing with well over three times that number each year, and very soon it will reach four times that number.
At this point, I would like to put on the record my deep appreciation of and admiration for the many dedicated staff at the hospital. Although there are certainly long-standing problems in parts of the NHS that have rightly been highlighted and addressed, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), it is too easy to overlook the fact that the vast majority of NHS staff do an excellent job and deeply care for their patients. That is certainly what I have found on visiting Milton Keynes hospital.
However, given an existing population of some 250,000, the accident and emergency centre is already too small. With more than 20,000 housing permissions in place locally over the next 10 years or so and in the light of demographic changes, we will have a larger elderly population and there will be a constant upward demand on A and E services.
It is also pertinent to mention that the hospital site includes an urgent care centre, opened as part of the Darzi plans a few years ago. Although it was set up with the very best of intentions, far from reducing demand on the A and E department, it has led to an increase because, understandably, people can become confused about where best to go for treatment.
The emergency care intensive support team recently reviewed the A and E centre and recommended that the NHS trust should seek capital support for what it calls a “common front door” provision. I am happy to report that all the relevant local stakeholders have developed plans for a single-point-of-access system in which those who need the full A and E treatment get it and those with less serious ailments get proper and timely treatment without being pushed from pillar to post.
The campaign that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North and I have launched has received strong local backing. Milton Keynes council recently unanimously backed it, and there is a large and growing number of signatories to the petition that has been launched.
I fully appreciate that it is not within the gift of the Deputy Leader of the House to write out a cheque for the new centre, but I hope he will relay the points that I have made to his colleagues in the Department of Health and that my contribution today has underlined the importance of this bid. It is now for the hospital to submit its detailed bid in the usual way, and I hope it receives a favourable and timely response.
Thirty years ago this month, I made my maiden speech. I want to make two brief introductory points, and then spend a couple of minutes on the subject on the Order Paper.
First, I want to say thank you to all the people who, for all the time that we have all been here, have looked after us so well in this place: not only the staff employed by the Palace, but the staff who work for us, without whom we could not do our job. If that is not enough and if Members have nothing better to do when the debate finishes, we are celebrating my having been here 30 years, and everyone is very welcome to come to the Attlee Suite for a drink. We are there until 9 o’clock. I want to couple with that a thanks to my head of office, George Turner, who is retiring and going to other things, having seen through the last general election and the first half of this Parliament. I am very grateful to him for his work.
Secondly, I was prompted to say something on a subject that has nothing to do with the main one: the Revenue and Customs consultation on whether tax offices should be closed or a face-to-face service should continue. I just want to make a very simple point. Many of us can use the internet and e-mail, but many constituents—not just the elderly—sometimes need to talk to somebody. I make a plea that the Government understand that, whether with careers, benefits or tax advice, doing it on the phone or via the internet is not always the answer. We must make sure that we keep face-to-face provision.
The substantive issue I want to address is the Thames tunnel proposed by Thames Water to deal with London’s sewage. I have been campaigning to clean up the Thames all my political life. Our sewers are overflowing. The wonderful Victorian sewer system cannot cope with the vast size of London and the now increasingly intermittent and heavy rain. As colleagues will know, every time it rains, water pours through the drains and gutters and floods the sewers, which overflow into the Thames. Some 83 million cubic metres of storm water, mixed with raw sewage—a horrible figure—went into the Thames last year. That hardly bears thinking about. The European Community has taken action. It is prosecuting the UK for failing to meet the terms of our waste water directive. I, like all other colleagues with riverside constituencies or in the Thames Water catchment area, have therefore questioned what the solution is.
The current solution is to pour millions of tonnes of concrete into building a super-sewer through the Thames to intercept the outflows from the sewerage system. That will be very expensive, costing an average of £80 a year for all of Thames Water’s household customers, and it will be hugely disruptive. In my constituency, for example, one site might be worked on for up to seven years. In addition, this solution deals with only one problem. It will efficiently keep sewage out of the Thames, but it will do nothing else.
Other countries across the world are doing things differently now. Places such as Detroit and Philadelphia and places in Europe started to think about building tunnels but have realised that greener alternatives may be better. Instead of building a big tunnel, Philadelphia now has small interventions: much more porous surfaces on roads, drives and car parks; and smaller sewage collection tanks across the city, rather than in a central place. People in those places believe that what they call a blue-green solution is a better solution and it allows parks to flourish, with the transformation of the city into a wholly greener environment. Such a solution also produces many more jobs at the lower skill levels more quickly than one big tunnel project does. Philadelphia and London may not be the same, but Greater Philadelphia has a huge population, just as London does.
I have had helpful engagement with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury and with the Minister for Government Policy. My plea to the Government is that we look at the blue-green experiences elsewhere. We should look at what has happened in Philadelphia and other cities. It is not too late to have an alternative to a super-sewer down the middle of the Thames. I hope that we can pursue an alternative. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will relay back to Ministers that that is very much supported by the community and that the Thames tunnel can be replaced by a greener, more sustainable and more cost-effective solution. Happy Easter to you, Mr Speaker, and do not forget the drink later, if you are thirsty.
We will not, and your good wishes are reciprocated, Mr Hughes. Thank you.
This year we have an early Easter, though not so early, perhaps, that we needed to provision ourselves with chocolate eggs as soon as the Christmas decorations were down at Epiphany. As some supermarkets seem to have substituted Easter eggs, fluffy chicks and chocolate bunnies for tinsel and crackers at cock crow on 7 January, the animals of spring have been a common sight in our supermarkets for some time. But even though the weather continues to be distinctly wintery, there is no reason to give the real egg layers the cold shoulder.
The cause of hen and cock welfare is one raised with me by many constituents, particularly with regard to beak trimming and battery cages. Although inhumane battery cages were banned at the start of last year, and even though we are assured by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers that beak trimming will be banned in 2016, hen welfare is not a done deal, and we on the green Benches should take a keen interest, both for the sake of animal welfare and because our constituents increasingly expect to eat food that either was or is from an animal that was treated well.
At one time, consumers would not deign to notice what, if anything, was said about welfare on food packaging. Now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of well-known TV chefs, we want to know from where our food has come. Indeed, the term “higher welfare” has even found its way into the ingredients list of the king of school dinners, Jamie Oliver, and there is undoubtedly a culture in which it is considered poor form to offer for sale food that is lower welfare. In a January 2010 survey, twice as many people as in 2006 said that animal welfare informed their shopping choices—that made 19%, and I am sure that the figure would be higher today.
The previous Prime Minister’s GOAT—his Government of all the talents—might have been a tur laid to rest by the British people, but that was either the exception that proves the rule on our love of animals or an act of mercy that confirms it. It should be the proud boast of British farmers that no land does more to ensure the welfare of its animals, and the success of the ban on inhumane cages in this country is a case in point. There was concern that increased prices would lead to a drop in demand for eggs, but the reverse was true and the British consumer bought 5% more eggs in 2012 than in 2011.
Concern for welfare does not stop at the good treatment of hens during their working lives, and the British Hen Welfare Trust should be cock-a-hoop about its successful record since 2005 of re-homing 360,000 laying hens of pensionable age that were otherwise destined for slaughter. The British public should be applauded for their adoption of so many of those creatures, and those acts of mercy will, I am sure, continue.
Keeping hens is somewhat in vogue at the moment, despite the prospect of heartache. Many a hen keeper will be prepared for the early morning discovery of scattered feathers and an empty coup, but how many are ready for the emotional business of dispatching unwanted chicks? In “The Good Life” idyll one imagines several hens and a single proud cockerel, but one strutting coxcomb will lead to many chicks and what is to become of the male contingent with not a layer among them? I encourage people to consider homes for hens, but to think carefully about a coop for a cockerel.
Despite the positive step of banning battery cages, many British consumers might be surprised that 17 million hens are still housed in cages, albeit of an enriched variety. These birds provide the eggs that are sold as a constituent part of another product and then, despite the efforts of the British Hen Welfare Trust, sold for the table. The Government should consider the value of labels that would show the origins of eggs when used as an ingredient and when a chicken is an end-of-lay bird as a means of promoting high welfare standards. I also entreat the Government to stick to their plan to hold a thorough investigation into beak trimming in 2015. When we eventually head into spring, let us have no cock-ups on hen welfare.
Given the time I have left, I shall have to set out some rules at the beginning of my speech. One will be that I will not take any interventions and the other will be that I will have to do my delivery in the style of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) if I am to refer to all the contributions made this evening.
I congratulate those Members who are still in the Chamber on their dedication and commitment to today’s penultimate debate and I hope that they will not be punished by not being able to get home again if the weather is inclement. I also understand that some Members, for obvious reasons, have had to depart early and I shall still try to refer to their speeches. I am particularly grateful for the attendance of the hon. Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on their birthdays.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) rightly laid into the doom-mongers with some relish. Times are tough, but he set out some of the success stories in his constituency, particularly on apprenticeships, where there has been dramatic growth. I am pleased to say that in the past couple of weeks I have hired my own first apprentice in my office and he is already making a very positive contribution.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) referred to the case of a constituent, Mrs Brenda Pressdee, and I commend the hon. Lady for her assiduous research on that case. I am sure that the relevant Ministers will have heard her request for a meeting on the matter and that they will want to respond positively. She also referred to a national issue, marine conservation zones. She expressed concerns about the cost of a further consultation and I am sure that the Government will want to manage those costs effectively.
The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) underlined one of the strengths of such debates and this Parliament, which is our ability to raise issues of an international nature. He wanted to generate publicity about the trial of former President Nasheed and I can confirm for his benefit—although I am sure that he is aware of it—that our Government have been consistent in saying that the international community will not find it tenable if the former president is excluded from the elections in the Maldives.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) mentioned the Srebrenica genocide, which all Members will remember. It was the biggest war crime in Europe since the second world war. The Government recognise that genocide through events such as Holocaust memorial day and we are working with the Srebrenica genocide memorial and educational project to see other ways in which we can mark that anniversary.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) referred to the controversy surrounding an incinerator or energy recovery facility. I can confirm that I am aware of the controversies surrounding such plants, because there is a proposal for one in Beddington in my constituency. He stressed the importance of ensuring that it provides decent value for money, which is the last issue he wants to pursue, because all the planning processes have been completed.
The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) talked about his desire to see work proceed on rebuilding Marlborough and Vaughan primary schools. He will be pleased to hear that there is no delay. He asked me to ensure that Ministers chase up the Education Funding Agency, and I am happy to pass that on so that he gets a prompt response. He also referred to problems relating to London Welsh, and I am sure that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will have listened carefully to what he said. He highlighted some inconsistencies in the penalties issued by the Rugby Football Union, but I do not think that is something I can pursue as Deputy Leader of the House. I am sure that is something he will want to do, and he has put that on the record.
We then heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who stated that Essex is the county of entrepreneurs—I am sure that is also true of many other counties—and made a couple of specific points about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customers and a constituent, Mr Wright. I am sure that HMRC has public relations people who follow these debates closely and that they will want to pick up on that point and, I hope, respond positively to her concerns. She also referred to some unhappiness about the way in which the Valuation Office Agency works and the need for more flexibility on business rates, particularly how high levels of business rates affect strong and emerging businesses in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) talked about the If campaign, which I am sure many Members on both sides of the House will want to support. That gives me an opportunity to underline the fact that the Government are delivering on the commitment to devoting 0.7% of gross national income on aid, which I think we should all be proud of. It was started by the previous Government and finished by this one. He also expressed concern about the difference in the way children from families with parents who are in work and those from families with parents who are not in work are dealt with in respect of free school meals. I am sure that is something the Department for Education, which has responsibility for free school meals, might want to respond to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) raised a variety of issues—another Member referred to it as a “kaleidoscope of issues”—and it would be difficult to respond to them all. He referred to the plight of Christians, particularly in countries such as Pakistan; the importance of recognising the need to support Tourette’s sufferers, through the Department for Education, and in schools and in health care; and the importance of fortifying foods with folic acid, and the charity in his constituency, Shine, which works on that issue. I have noted his concerns about equal marriage, but I am pleased that the Government are pursuing it. He talked about the important role the voluntary sector is playing in relation to the Peterborough cathedral appeal. He also mentioned the Sue Ryder hospice and the generosity of his city. I am sure that his city and its people are very generous and that we all want to recognise that.
We then heard a contribution from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) on the Cockenzie power station. She said that today might feel like groundhog dog. She will no doubt know that the groundhog is being sued at the moment. In fact, they are seeking the death penalty for the groundhog in America because he has failed to predict the beginning of spring accurately. She focused on the need for investment. Clearly, the decision on whether to invest in a new combined cycle gas turbine at Cockenzie is very much a commercial matter for ScottishPower, but I am sure that the Government would welcome that investment and the jobs and energy that would be created if and when the development goes ahead.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) said that the UK has thrived on immigration but not on foreign criminals, and I certainly agree with that sentiment. He made a concrete suggestion—I am sure that the Ministry of Justice will want to respond to it—about an amendment to the UK Borders Act 2007 that he thinks could address the issue of the deportation of foreign nationals who have served a prison sentence. I am sure that he will secure a response as a result of his speech.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), whose birthday I mentioned earlier, talked about sport and fitness for women and girls. She is right to raise that issue, and I commend her for doing so. We need more women and girls in sport, and the well-being that can be derived from that is considerable. She asked for responses to some specific questions, and I will follow those up. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about her local bypass and its importance in bringing industrial regeneration, particularly around Radnor Park business park in Congleton, and the possibility of investment in the aerospace industry.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I am sorry to hear about Dunfermline Athletic football club. I am sure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Her Majesty’s Treasury will want to look on that situation favourably and assist as much as they can. He also talked about Royal Navy personnel in Scotland. I can confirm that there will be a rise in the number of Navy personnel in Fife supporting the Queen Elizabeth-class build, peaking at about 750 personnel. I hope that he welcomes that.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) raised a very large number of issues, which are all noted. I am sure that the 20 Departments he mentioned will want to respond promptly.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) discussed Ulster Scots culture. I am pleased that he did, because one always learns something in these debates, and that was something new. I think he claimed that no fewer than 12 US Presidents had Ulster Scots heritage, and I am sure that that is entirely accurate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) spoke about interest rate swaps, which I am sure many Members are concerned about. He made a specific request about tailored business loans that I will follow up. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised the issue of knife crime, which the Government are clearly committed to addressing. He made a specific proposal on a two-strikes policy that the MOJ may want to follow up.
The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) was again a bit like groundhog day as regards Essex county council. He raised the expenses scandal, which he likes to mention in this place and I know he will pursue again and again.
We then heard about Mid Staffs, and I am pleased that we had had a detailed statement on that earlier. I have much sympathy with the concerns expressed about the future of the specialist accident and emergency services. That issue affects my local hospital, St Helier hospital, which is at risk in the same way.
The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about electronic cigarettes. He will be pleased to know that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has conducted research into this that will feed into the Government’s position on the European Commission’s proposals, to which he referred. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) pursued, as he does—I am sure that he will do so relentlessly—the issue of secret courts in relation to family justice.
The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about the apprentice scheme in his constituency. I commend him for that and hope that the young people he is working with will go on to make very successful business people in future. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) referred to concerns about his local A and E department.
I am afraid that I am running out of time and will not be able to complete my speech, but I commend the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who managed to talk seriously about hen welfare, but managed to make many references to eggs.
I conclude by wishing a happy Easter to you, Mr Speaker, and the staff of the House, including the Serjeant at Arms and his officers, Hansard, and José and Fedel in the gift shop. It is not eggs that I will be sharing this evening with staff in the Office of the Leader of the House, but liquid refreshment—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 15(5)(a) and Order this day).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance in your role as custodian of good debate. Is there a way in which the House could congratulate Richard and Jane Quirk, who are leaving the House service after approaching 30 years of public service?
The hon. Gentleman does not really need my guidance. He is too self-effacing. He has found his own salvation and a very proper means by which to pay tribute to two long-serving, distinguished and greatly appreciated servants of the House, who are indeed retiring today. That retirement has already been marked by a reception in Speaker’s House and has now been marked by the hon. Gentleman’s pithy and apposite point of order. I think that the whole House will thank them and wish them long and happy retirements.