HC Deb 19 December 2002 vol 396 cc1022-103

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House, at its rising on Thursday 19th December, do adjourn until Tuesday 7th January.—[Mr. Ainger.]

1.16 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Like all my colleagues, I wish you, Mr. Speaker, everybody in the House and my constituents a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

In the debate prior to the summer recess, I warned that the ruling Liberal coalition on Hull city council was unstitching the regeneration plans put in place by the previous Labour administration. Sadly, my concerns have gone unnoticed by the Liberals and things are getting worse in one of the most deprived areas of the country. In the short time since my last speech in the House on this matter, regeneration in the most deprived areas has halted; the housing demolition programme has ceased partly completed, with no environmental remodelling; and the planned high-tech citywide closed circuit television system for Hull as a whole has been abandoned. In a nutshell, as a result of recent decisions taken by the Liberal Democrats, there is little for residents in my constituency to feel happy about in the run-up to Christmas and the new year.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

My council is also controlled by the Liberal Democrats who, in a spirit of support for the local community, have just put on sale for £28 million a series of community centres, local disability groups and advice centres to any property speculator who cares to buy them and who, given half the opportunity, would redevelop and evict those groups. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a trend on the part of the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. McNamara

That is a difficult question to answer, because half the time I do not know whether the Liberals know what they are doing and what they are not doing. As a consequence of what they have been doing throughout the country, they have made many local communities fear for their future and for the security of their institutions.

In the summer Adjournment debate, I expressed concern that the Liberals would rescind the previous council's commitment to revamp the shopping centre in Orchard Park as part of a joint initiative with the Department of Health's LIFT programme, which included a pledge to build a one-stop health centre, for which the Government had given private finance initiative approval.

Sadly, I have been proved right. The Liberal Democrats have pulled the plug on the regeneration scheme, stating that the Orchard Park shopping centre could be regenerated through the LIFT scheme. However, that option was not accepted happily by the Department of Health, which advised me that it was not possible for the West Hull primary care trust to purchase the ownership of current retail developments. Surely the council should have taken the basic step of checking what the situation was before reaching a decision.

So a council regeneration scheme in my constituency, which scored higher than any other capital scheme in the authority's capital programme review, is being abandoned. The council has been strangely quiet about its reasons for abandoning such an important project. I think I know why. No sooner had they been elected than a document sent to Hull city council's cabinet for consideration recommended that the council rescind the shopping centre regeneration project. In it, the chief financial officer stated that the continuation of the planned regeneration could be justified only if Orchard Park remained a priority. Orchard Park is at the centre of one of the most deprived wards in this kingdom.

So there we have it. The Liberal Democrat administration were given the option to make the regeneration of one of the most deprived wards in the country a priority, but they turned their back on it. We now have a precarious situation in which councillors are supporting a Labour Government initiative to establish a new health centre in the area through the Department of Health's LIFT scheme, possibly providing a council customers' office, a community centre and a citizen's advice bureau through the private finance initiative, whereas what the community wants—the regeneration of the eyesore that is the Orchard Park shopping area—has been stopped.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the ruinous policy of the outgoing Labour council, which sold off the telephone company and blew all the money on useless projects?

Mr. McNamara

The money was not squandered. Let me tell the House how it was used. More than £22 million was used for a new stadium, which happened to be opened last night. It was supported by the sporting authorities and aimed at regenerating part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). It includes a community centre, special facilities for the whole college and its sporting courses, special facilities for the disabled and facilities for all the schools in the area, all situated under the north stand.

We also spent the money on double glazing houses, installing central heating, and ensuring that roofs were secure and doors draught-proofed. Those seem to me to be reasonable measures for a Labour council to take. They were all done out of capital expenditure, with no impost on the community. We then spent a great deal of money on resurfacing roads and rebuilding pavements. Those were all capital projects requiring no ongoing support. We used the money to repair schools, build new schools and help various community projects. I am proud of what the council did with the money, although I am deeply disappointed that my own Government used our improvement of the highways as an excuse to cut our highways grant. That was disgusting.

The money was not blown, and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) should be aware that money raised from such a flotation, which was urged on the council by the Government, cannot be used for reducing other forms of Government expenditure: it can only be used for proper capital projects. Had the hon. Gentleman done his homework, he would have realised how the council spent the money. The way in which it was spent had the full support of the citizens of Hull, because it was spent on improving our environment and social amenities. Had the council had twice the amount of money, we could have used it just as well and for better purposes. We would not then have been left with a Liberal Democrat council putting on hold all the schemes to regenerate my constituency.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain whether the citizens of Hull, having had that utopian paradise created, were being ungrateful in rejecting a Labour council?

Mr. McNamara

The citizens of Hull bitterly regret the fact that the Liberal Democrats are now in power because they have opposed everything and created nothing. We are still waiting to see whether the council will deal with those problems, rather than leaving my constituents in Bransholme and the Orchard Park wards with areas that look like bombsites because the council stopped the demolition of buildings and halted the environmental and other urban programmes. That is what we are concerned about in Hull, and I am certain that at the next elections the Liberal Democrats will find that they spend the same time in office as the Tories did in the mid-1960s—at best, a couple of years.

The leader of the council promised people in the area that regeneration would be a priority and that she would listen, care, consult and learn. She said: People's opinions are important, and so is our commitment to listening and acting upon their views and concerns. That was a patronising attitude for her to take having scuppered a regeneration scheme that my constituents had wanted for many years. We now do not know whether regeneration is a priority for the Liberal Democrats, or what the new action team will do. The people of north Hull and Orchard Park are fed up about that, and showed their feeling in a recent strongly worded petition which they sent to the council, to which they are still awaiting a reply.

My second concern is the council's decision to halt the surplus housing demolition programme on the Danes estate and in Bransholme. Many local people were pleased with the programme to demolish surplus houses on the Danes estate. Crowds gathered to watch the pulling down of two blocks of flats, and residents thought that that represented an end to living next to boarded-up houses and vandalised garage blocks. They believed that the demolition programme was the beginning of a fresh start for the estate. There was great excitement about how the estate should be developed, with safe play areas for children and a better environment for families.

Furthermore, the independent councillor Chris Jarvis, a cabinet member with responsibility for housing, raised residents' expectations by telling the Hull Daily Mail: The city is entering a period of change. Remodelling public and private housing is something we intend to do in full consultation with communities. He went on to say: It is fitting that their views have been taken into consideration and the blocks are to be demolished. Would that that were happening. Demolition has ceased; there is no environmental regeneration; and the councillor involved has turned down several opportunities and invitations to talk to Danes residents about what will happen in their area.

Finally, I want to talk about something that is tied up specifically with living conditions on the estate—the Liberal Democrat council's decision to abandon their share of a proposed closed circuit television scheme in the area. In parts of Bransholme and Orchard Park, mindless vandals frequently set houses alight. One Saturday afternoon, three houses were torched and the council did the bare minimum to deal with the problem, employing just three security guards. Elderly residents are afraid to step outside their homes and, when they go to bed at night, they wonder whether the vacant property next door will be set alight. Areas that were once thriving are now very much in decline, with just a few houses occupied.

Therefore, when my constituents heard with joy that the Government were advancing plans to fund the demolition of surplus houses, they wondered what the Liberal Democrat council was doing on the estate. That point relates to the CCTV projects in Hull. As all hon. Members know, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime are the main concerns of all our constituents. I fully support Hull community safety partnership's plan to implement a high-tech, citywide CCTV scheme. The digital scheme is based on a model on the Thornton estate in west Hull, where it reduced crime dramatically. Within the first 18 months, overall crime plummeted by 50 per cent., burglaries were cut by 48 per cent. and criminal damage by 49 per cent.

Not surprisingly, the community safety partnership put together a proposal for a citywide digital scheme and, due to its high-tech and innovative approach, secured a £5 million grant from the Home Office and £1.6 million from UK Online. The council had to contribute £3.6 million—a third of the overall cost. The project received international interest and in the light of the innovative approach adopted in the Thornton scheme, the city could have recouped a considerable part of its initial expenditure.

However, the new Liberal council opposed the scheme and it is now questionable whether the £5 million from the Home Office will have to go back to the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can give me some precise advice about that. Instead, the council wants the existing city centre analogue CCTV system to be expanded when possible, but that is a very poor relation to a citywide project covering the areas where most vandalism and burglary occurs and giving back confidence to people who live in the remoter areas and more deprived estates. It took its decision without consulting the community safety partnership. One worries whether it is serious about tackling crime. We wanted that scheme, especially in our most deprived areas, although it is interesting that the decision of the leader of the council means that people in her own area, where burglary is rife, will not have the satisfaction of knowing that their houses are protected against it in the day and during the night.

The scheme would have been of immense importance to the city. It would have been a pioneering scheme that brought to my constituents and those of my hon. Friends security and the certainty that they were safe to go out in the day and could sleep safely in their beds. That would have had a profound affect on Bransholme, Orchard Park and the Danes, where people could have felt that their interests were being catered for. Instead, the Liberal council's wanton abandonment of the scheme has put the most deprived areas in my constituency into further distress.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will talk about the matters that I have raised with those responsible for housing, as well as the Home Office and the Department of Health, and find out what he can do to ensure that we get the money and get the schemes back on track.

1.33 pm
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

I draw the attention of the House to my interests, which are clearly set out on the register.

I have two purposes today. First, I should like to wish Mr. Speaker and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all the servants of the House, a very happy Christmas and a prosperous new year. Secondly, I want to do justice to the constituent who approached me in the middle of Sutton Coldfield last Saturday, when I was out dispensing Christmas cheer and seasonal good will, and said—I think that I quote him exactly—"Please, Mr. Mitchell, go down to Westminster next week, and before Christmas, stuff it up this rotten, useless Government." That is my second purpose today, but although the Minister may regard me as the Victor Meldrew of Sutton Coalfield by the time I sit down, I mean no disrespect to him, as he is a decent cove and indeed a fellow cyclist in London. Like me, he has no doubt despaired of Labour's transport policies and is therefore driven to using a bicycle in London.

This is a truly dreadful Government. It is now six years since they were elected. We heard the refrain—indeed, we heard it in music—that things could only get better and many of today's Ministers have made a career out of belittling the achievements of the previous Conservative Government, of whom I am most proud to have been a member. However, this country has now enjoyed 10 years of unprecedented economic growth—there has been no other time since the war when we have seen such extraordinary economic prosperity in Britain—and it derives principally from the groundwork done by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and indeed by Lord Lamont from 1992 onwards. It is because the Labour party has stuck to a number of key tenets of that approach that that prosperity has continued for 10 years.

That is all now turning to dust. Having started so well, the Chancellor has now been shown quite simply to be wrong. His projections are wrong and in the autumn statement, as it used to be called, we did not even receive an apology for the fact that his forecasts had been so seriously awry. We now face the prospect of an old-fashioned Labour spending crisis, enhanced by the new jobs tax that the Government are imposing from next April. It is very likely that next year, we will see the traditional Labour economic crisis of out of control spending and reduced taxation receipts. The Government will be forced either to increase tax, in contravention of their promises at the last election, or to increase borrowing massively.

It would not be so bad if the money was being well spent. The Government are obsessed with inputs and insufficiently concerned with outcomes. In every Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and recites a mantra to one of my colleagues, saying that if they do not approve his spending plans, they should please tell him which hospital in their constituency they would close. That is absolute nonsense. What Opposition Members are saying is that it is very important that the Government focus on outputs. We want to improve our public services and that is not always about money; indeed, it is frequently not about money. The Government have missed about 40 per cent. of the targets that they are so fond of imposing on people.

That brings me to the health service. We now see that there has been a 20 per cent. increase in spending on the health service, but only a 1 per cent. improvement in services. That is a classic example of where the Government go wrong. Of course, there is great dissension in the ranks and concern about foundation hospitals on the Labour Benches. I think that the concept of foundation hospitals is extremely good in seeking to improve outputs and patient services. However, on this morning's "Today" programme, we heard the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) reaching for his cudgels to lay into the Government on that important policy. That shows how they will inevitably fail in their bid to improve services, although I am sure that it is sincere. Although they are prepared to throw taxpayers' money at the issue, they are not prepared to take the necessary measures.

During business questions, we heard reference to the Good Hope hospital, which has this morning been awarded no stars for its recent performance and whose chief executive has now gone. Although the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) had not received a letter from the Secretary of State, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for getting one to me before this debate. I do not disagree with the outcome and the fact that a hospital will now be subject to franchise arrangements. However, I believe that the investigation that led to such criticism of the hospital, many of whose staff are my constituents and work very hard and in a very dedicated way on behalf local people in our area of the west midlands, was disproportionate.

I understand that there were 36 reporting errors in relation to almost 10,000 patients. If the same amount of time and money was spent on investigating any hospital in Britain, I suspect that 36 errors might well be found in respect of 10,000 patients. The whole process that the hospital has undergone has been too slow, and I fear that it has also been intimidatory. There is a feeling around that the Department of Health and its Ministers are concerned to demonstrate that hospital managers who do not reach Government targets will be held accountable, rather than to deal with the underlying problems. I am very concerned about that.

Through the Minister, I should like to ask the Department of Health when it intends to address the serious underfunding problem that afflicts the Good Hope hospital. The problem was highlighted in the report produced by the Commission for Health Improvement, which found that the hospital is funded at the lowest reference cost of any hospital in the midlands. I hope that we will have a chance to return to the nature of the inquiries, but I want to put on record my respect for the dedication and hard work of all those who work at the hospital, especially during these very difficult past six months, and have served my constituents and others so well throughout the years.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I do not go along with his general comments despite the season of good will. However, I declare an interest in Good Hope hospital because the former chief executive, Jeff Chandra, is my constituent, and I have been dealing with his case. I do not want to go into detail, other than to say that his allegations are worth investigating. He resigned and was subsequently dismissed, which is extraordinary, but the conduct of the inquiry left him with little alternative because it appeared as though the result was already known. That is not acceptable, and I join the hon. Gentleman in asking for a full inquiry to ensure that natural justice is seen to be done and genuinely done.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that his constituent, the former chief executive, has been treated unusually. Although he is also right to say that it would be wrong to pursue the matter on the Floor of the House, I hope that the point about natural justice will be heard.

Let us consider the Government's next disaster—pensions—about which we heard a statement this week. When the Conservatives left government, our pensions system was the envy of Europe. In a few short years, the Government have destroyed that position. Means-testing is running riot. Who could believe that more than half of all senior citizens would be means-tested? There is enormous confusion in the system, and the pension credit underlines that point.

The Government may be in danger of being sued for mis-selling the stakeholder pension, given that many people who take out such a pension may not benefit because of the minimum income guarantee regime. Stakeholder pensions are a flop and the Government have presided over a crisis in the pensions industry. I am not sure whether they understand the extent of the problem, although they made a reasonable start with the Green Paper, which was published this week, and contained several good points. However, there is undoubtedly a crisis.

It is generally agreed that there is a shortfall of approximately £37 billion a year in our pensions savings. If the Government do not believe that they contribute to the problem by taking a further £5 billion a year from pensions through tax, they do not have a clue. They have the great advantage of being able to listen to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who speaks such good sense. I hope that they will have also have the benefit of the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, on which I have the honour to serve. When possible, those matters should be tackled on an all-party basis, and I hope that the Select Committee will help to do that.

The Government will have to make a decision on pensions. It is not rocket science. Either the employer, the employee or the taxpayer will have to find the extra money that is essential for people to enjoy security in their retirement. Someone once said that to govern is to choose, and the Government will have to make some tough decisions. That is right. Instead, we are wasting time on ridiculous measures such as the anti-hunting Bill, which is a peripheral matter at best and should not receive the time that it will take up in the House and the other place.

If I had time, I would lay into the Government about their appalling record on crime and law and order. They introduce too many knee-jerk public relations measures and focus too little on the massive increase in violent crime in much of the country, the growth of illegal immigration, which requires their urgent attention, and the loss of special constables. The latter has proved a great disadvantage to Sutton Coldfield.

On the "Today" programme, we heard that a competition is to be launched so that people will be able to vote on whom they would most like to eject from Britain. My nomination is the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I refer specifically to her recent attack on British senior management, which she described as "second rate". She has found a learned academic to undertake a study into British senior management, but for the right hon. Lady to make such a comment shows breathtaking arrogance and ignorance.

The Government have drowned business in red tape. They are the prime problem for businesses. Since May 1997, there have been massive changes in employment law. They include the contract workers regulations, discrimination legislation, the information and consultation directive, the Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000, the temporary agency workers directive, the prospectus directive, the climate change levy and the physical agents (vibration) directive.

Many of my hon. Friends know people who run British business. Life is tough out there, and the Government, especially the Department of Trade and Industry, make matters worse. The people who run British business battle day in, day out in a tough, complex and testing market. Many are fired for not performing, regardless of justification, unlike Ministers in the current Government. As they battle away with the problems, many of which the Government created, the Secretary of State lectures them. Yet the Department has missed most of its public service agreement targets. That is breathtaking. I advise the Secretary of State to listen carefully to what business men are trying to tell her and the Government, rather than lecture them on their under-performance. It is astonishing that a bossy, nanny-state Government, who exceed their competence and stray into matters about which the Secretary of State and her ministerial team know almost nothing, lecture business men.

Six years ago, we heard that things could only get better. However, most things in this country, especially in Sutton Coldfield, have got worse. The Prime Minister said in 1997 that we should judge him on his record. Now we can do it. The Government have run out of excuses. Clever spin can buy time but cannot hide the results of bad policies. The problems are crowding in on Downing street, and I hope that 2003 will be the year when the Government are found out.

1.47 pm
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the Christmas Adjournment debate and raise several issues that affect the people whom I represent in Morecambe and Lunesdale.

There is no doubt that the majority of my constituents continue to do rather well under the Labour Government. Unemployment is at its lowest for 25 years, inflation is under control and at its lowest for decades, and incomes continue to increase at a faster rate. Home owners have seen the value of their properties rise and those with mortgages have benefited from low interest rates. The working families tax credit has enhanced the earnings of many families, especially those on low incomes. They are set to benefit even more from the child tax credit. Pensioners, especially the poorest, have fared extremely well, and I welcome the introduction of the new pension credit next year. It will provide extra cash for pensioners with modest secondary pensions and savings.

All in all, the majority of my constituents are reasonably content with the Government's economic performance. However, I do not believe that the same satisfaction exists with the Government's handling of public services. Although there is undoubtedly widespread support for the Government's massive public service investment programme, even it there is less enthusiasm about paying for it, there is growing dissatisfaction about the provision of high class, modern public services in return for the investment.

Improvements have doubtless been made on some matters, but there is a long way to go on others. We must be honest about that. For example, let us consider education. My constituency has benefited from additional funding to schools and colleges. Hon. Members have only to visit their local schools to see refurbished buildings, extra equipment, new books and clearly visible staffing resources. Thanks also to the literacy and numeracy hour and the efforts of the dedicated teaching staff, standards have risen across the board. I am confident that, as the extra investment continues to flow in, standards will continue to improve.

However, there are still concerns—some of them grave—about the over-testing of pupils and the overuse of supply teachers, as well as question marks over the introduction of the AS-level examination and the expansion of specialist schools. Of course, the shortfall in further and higher education funding needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. Strong representations have been made to me by Lancaster and Morecambe college in my constituency, which has great difficulty paying lecturers' salaries and keeping up, as salaries are falling behind those of primary school teachers. We must address the issues of higher and further education.

There is no doubt that Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS trust has received real-terms increases in recent years, but they have been sufficient only to stop the rot. Ever-increasing demands on its services have eaten up the extra resources provided and prevented comprehensive improvements from being made to them. Waiting lists for consultations and operations across the board remain far too high.

I am grateful for the huge funding increases that the Government will provide over the next three years—a massive 30 per cent. in my area—and confident that they will make an enormous difference, but again I am extremely concerned, as the Government have so far been unable to secure a new contract with the NHS consultants. It is fundamentally important that a deal be reached as soon as possible.

I have a final point to make on the NHS, which I have raised in the House previously. In my constituency, it has become virtually impossible to register with an NHS dentist. Those who can afford it and many who cannot are forced by pain to seek expensive private dental treatment, while the remainder simply have to suffer until they can be dealt with. Although the Government have provided extra funding for a dental access centre in Morecambe, it has yet to open. It will help, but it will not solve the problem on its own.

We have only to look at what is happening in dentistry to see what would happen to the rest of our health service if the private sector held a dominant position across a wide range of medical services. Surely that must be one good reason for not voting Conservative at the next election.

Crime and antisocial behaviour are constantly raised with me by my constituents and frequently debated in the House. They remain matters of grave concern to us all and to our constituents. As Members are aware, a range of measures has already been introduced to combat crime and disorder, with varying success. I have my doubts about how successful antisocial behaviour orders have been. They are right in principle, but the police tell me that they have great difficulty collecting all the evidence required to obtain an order, with the result that not many ASBOs have been issued throughout the country.

Further measures are under consideration by the House, and I am sure that many of them will play a useful role in our efforts to combat crime. The introduction of street wardens and community support officers will prove to be extremely successful, I believe. Wardens and CSOs are already operating in my constituency and I am pleased to say that they are providing a valuable service. They are clearly visible, they gain valuable intelligence and they reassure the public. In fact, they are the eyes and ears of the police; they detect minor crime and help to stop vandalism. However, we must remember that they are not police officers and they should never be used as substitutes for them.

It remains a fact that the vast majority of the public are far from convinced that the fight against crime has been won. Public confidence in the police's ability to win the war against crime will not be restored until the police are able to provide a regular, high-profile and visible presence on the streets of our towns and cities, particularly in the evenings and late at night. There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of my constituents feel that it is essential to have more police out on the streets. I entirely endorse that view.

I accept that transport has been a disaster area. I have to say quite bluntly that there is absolutely no doubt that the rail and road systems are in a dire mess and need to he sorted out urgently. The public need to see some improvement in the near future, and last week's motorway improvement announcement by the Secretary of State is a step in the right direction.

In my constituency, there is a long-standing bid to build a link road from the port of Heysham to the M6. There is almost universal acceptance at all levels of government that a link is required, but there is a dispute about the routing of the road. The city and county councils, the North West Development Agency, local businesses and I all favour the western route, which offers the best prospect for economic development of the area. Some Green councillors and the Government office for the north-west prefer the northern route, as it appears that it would have a less adverse environmental impact. Both routes are undergoing environmental impact studies.

Access to Morecambe and Heysham is poor, whether by private car or by public transport. Rail services are infrequent and, in the main, run only as far as Lancaster, where visitors to the town of Morecambe are required to change trains. They frequently encounter lengthy delays. The ticket office and waiting room on Morecambe station are closed from early afternoon and in inclement weather passengers have to huddle together under an open-ended shelter on the platform. After the ticket office is closed, no information on late-running or cancelled trains is available to passengers. I know that from experience. I missed a train to London from Lancaster, because the train from Morecambe to Lancaster was cancelled. No information was available. That does not encourage people to use public transport.

Bus services to our resort are also infrequent and often become entangled in the traffic chaos and congestion that pervade the Lancaster and Morecambe area. Those who travel to the resort by car experience similar difficulties. There is no doubt in my mind that poor access to Morecambe is the biggest single barrier to investment and regeneration. It is therefore vital that, as soon as the difficulties over routing the M6 link road are resolved, the Government provide the funding to complete the link.

It is clear to me that all the problems with the public services, whether it be transport or health, have been caused by years of chronic underfunding and outdated working practices. I lay most of the blame at the feet of the Opposition, who for 18 years let our public services slip into such a terrible condition. However, I warn the Government that, after five years in power, the general public's patience is wearing thin. They want to see real progress being made with our public services.

At the outset, I referred to the fact that the majority of my constituents have done well under this Government, so it is only right to refer to those groups that have done less well. I must begin with the farmers, who even before the foot and mouth disease outbreak were having a very difficult time. Things have certainly not improved, and nine farms in my constituency have gone out of business since January.

Farmers came to see me to ask me specifically to raise in Parliament the 20-day standstill period imposed on livestock movements after the foot and mouth outbreak. It is having a terrible effect on their businesses and they would like it to be removed. I understand that the Government imposed those restrictions to help to prevent another foot and mouth outbreak, but it is important that they obtain a proper risk assessment as soon as possible to establish whether the 20-day rule is necessary. Is it not doing more harm than good for British farmers?

Farmers are also concerned about illegal meat imports, which they consider a much more likely cause of a future foot and mouth outbreak. We must think about what can be done, through Customs for instance, to stop such imports. British farmers need a level playing field. They must abide by high animal welfare standards and regulations, and that is right and proper, but those standards and regulations often do not apply to countries whose meat is being imported into Britain and can be produced much more cheaply. Consumers still need clearer labelling on products, although some progress has been made. Many dairy farmers are struggling with poor milk prices. I urge the Government to take all possible steps to deal with the serious position of British farmers, and to help the farming community to survive a difficult time.

Equal consideration should be given to those who are desperately trying to earn a living in tourism. The collapse of the holiday trade means that a huge stock of former guest houses and hotels in Morecambe are now sub-standard houses in multiple occupation. The proliferation of HMOs has acted as a magnet for the urban poor, in much the same way as the Sangatte centre in France attracted asylum seekers and economic migrants. HMOs in Morecambe have attracted many socially disadvantaged and mainly transient people to the town, which has put enormous strain on all our public services. The Government recognised the need to work with France to break the magnetic attraction of Sangatte, and took exceptional steps to do that. Now they must do the same for Morecambe: they must break the magnetic attraction of HMOs.

High unemployment is endemic in several wards, and deprivation and social exclusion are widespread. Much of Morecambe's infrastructure is old, decaying and in need of refurbishment. The resort's premier attraction, Frontierland leisure park, has closed, as has Bubbles leisure complex, and it still has no theatre. Productions are occasionally put on at the local market hall, but stallholders must forfeit their businesses to accommodate them, and shops in the main Arndale centre and the surrounding area continue to become vacant with alarming frequency. In short, the resort urgently needs regeneration.

The North West Development Agency has been helpful, paying consultants to produce a report and an action plan to assist Morecambe's regeneration. Early in the new year I will seek funds from the Government to make the plan's implementation possible, but we need more than money: we need assistance and expertise on the ground. Councils often do not have the resources or the expertise to engage in regeneration projects, especially large regeneration projects. I would welcome further assistance from both the Government office for the north-west and the North West Development Agency in the new year.

Finally, I wish everyone a happy Christmas and—hopefully—a peaceful new year. I shall watch closely to ensure that improvements are made in our public services.

2.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

It is the season of good cheer. Let me convey the Liberal Democrats' best wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to Mr. Speaker's team and to the House authorities.

So far the debate has been lively and entertaining. Let me start by saying that on many previous occasions I have sympathised and agreed, to an extent, with the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—particularly on Northern Ireland matters—but on this occasion I think he got it wrong. I am sorry to say that the elections that disposed of his party in local government in Hull did exactly what local elections are supposed to do: clear out the bad guys and give a once proud city an opportunity to make a fresh start.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, the district auditor and others have criticised the council strongly, and it was recently judged one of the 13 worst councils in England in a comprehensive performance assessment. The new administration has inherited ruinous housing policies—and, of course, it replaces an administration every one of whose members was elected in the Labour cause only a few years ago.

I am sorry not to be able to agree with the hon. Member for Hull, North, who I think is showing himself to be something of a bad loser.

Jeremy Corbyn

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have every reason to agree with me. Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington council has decided to sell off community centres, advice centres and many other buildings. Some are licensed and some are leased out, but all of them could be bought for redevelopment by property speculators. That is the only reason anyone would buy a community centre now. Would the hon. Gentleman be so kind as to contact Councillor Steve Hitchens and tell him that he is working outside Liberal Democrat policy?

Mr. Stunell

I am in frequent contact with Councillor Hitchens, and I am sure we will discuss many things when we next meet. Let me point out, however, that not just Islington but a number of other Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities, including Liverpool, have been at the cutting edge of implementation of new Labour's policy of using private funds to improve public services at a time when it is impossible to persuade the Labour Government to provide enough public money.

We could have an interesting discussion about local government around the country and I would be more than happy to engage in such a discussion either now or some other time, but I do not want to strain your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will say this, however. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) set out to "stuff it up the Government"—I think I quote him correctly. I felt that his subsequent comment that the Conservatives' pensions policy was the envy of Europe rather spoilt a speech that had some factual material buried deep within it; but then such a description of the Conservatives' pensions policy would be somewhat beyond the pale at any time.

One of Hazel Grove's small claims to fame is that when the first state pension was introduced—by a Liberal Prime Minister—there was such a surge of people wanting to collect the pensions, which in the early days were issued by police stations rather than by post offices, that the police came out with their truncheons to try to quell the enthusiastic crowd. I think it fair to say that pensions policy has been contentious ever since.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), a fellow North-West Member, had some wise words to say. I hope the Government takes note of them. I was particularly struck by her observations about the difficulty of securing NHS dental treatment. That is a problem for many Members' constituents, especially those who move around the community. Those with long-standing arrangements with NHS dentists may be protected. In my constituency, as in many others, dentists have swapped into the private sector, leaving established patients with little option but to pay substantial private fees or to cast themselves adrift and look for alternatives.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The Liberal Democrat party cannot possibly oppose private dental treatment, because the party political literature put out by its chairman, the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), is sponsored by Denplan.

Mr. Stunell

I am sure that my hon. Friend can speak for himself. If private enterprise companies are prepared to support the Liberal Democrats I would not stop them. [Interruption.] It might be wise to move on.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale made a further point about transport. We have a shared interest in the development of the west coast main line. I am sure that, like me, she is disappointed that the first phase of renewal is to be the last, and that the improved links from the north-west that she and I want will be a long time coming.

During the year, as well as considering issues that affect our domestic and local circumstances, the House has discussed important international issues in some depth. They include global terrorism, the crisis in the middle east and the plight of the world's poor. The House has had many opportunities to quiz Ministers and to hear about the Government's work on these matters. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the recent impressive lobby of the House in support of the third world and the need for debt reduction. The Government sent a strong team to Johannesburg, and the Prime Minister spoke there. There are plenty of good intentions, but on outcomes Johannesburg gave at best a six out of 10 performance. A great deal more remains to be done on the world stage if those key matters are to be tackled.

I am sure that the Government would acknowledge that unless we tackle the underlying problems of poverty, disease and the absence of education, the more immediate problem of global terrorism and the difficulties in the near east, the middle east and elsewhere will become more deeply entrenched. The words that the Prime Minister uttered in Johannesburg should be translated into positive initiatives by the United Kingdom in the coming year.

It would not be right for me to move away from international affairs without drawing the House's attention to the deep unease in the country about developments in Iraq. Liberal Democrats believe that it is of the greatest importance that the House has an opportunity to decide prior to the commitment of UK military forces to the Iraq conflict. It cannot be right in this day and age, and with our new, proper and developed understanding of what accountability means, for the House to be bypassed when such major decisions are taken. When that debate takes place, many of us will want to make it clear that it is not solely about the feasibility or legitimacy of military action, but about the utility of military action in an inflammatory situation such as the conflict in the middle east.

When we have got rid of Saddam Hussein and have successfully completed the conquest of Iraq, what will happen next? Many of us find it difficult to understand plan B. If the House is unable to understand clearly what the Government believe should happen with regard to the international situation, to express a view and to vote decisively on it, it will be a struggle to convince the public of the legitimacy of military action.

It would also not be right if I did not give the Minister and the Leader of the House credit for their efforts over the past year to make the House more effective and to improve our law making, our work on behalf of our constituents and our ability to hold the Government to account. I welcome the decisions that the House has taken this year to make our Select Committees more effective, to provide for more draft Bills to be considered by the House and by outside experts, instead of their being introduced in a fossilised form for the ritual, formulaic debates that we so often have, and to improve the pre-legislative scrutiny system.

I am looking forward with great anticipation, as the Leader of House ironically suggested earlier, to the debates on the reform of the House of Lords and to the changes in the upper Chamber in due course.

Unless we make changes and improvements to the workings of the democratic system in both Houses we cannot expect the public miraculously to come to the view that we are doing a good job. If we want the public to be engaged in politics, we must do a good job, and the mechanisms of the system must work properly. Although I entirely support the view that we should develop our visitor centre, make it easier for visitors to come here and give them a proper education in democracy, I also firmly believe that unless we improve that democracy we cannot expect greater respect from the general public.

I hope that all Members of the House enjoy a peaceful 2003, and that our constituents may continue to look forward to an improvement in public services and public safety.

2.18 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I hope that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) will forgive me if I do not follow him down some of those important avenues. Third world poverty and the situation in Iraq are matters that I would use other opportunities to raise. I have just returned from Mozambique, which has come through a fantastic transformation. It is 46 years since I did my national service in Iraq, which led me to take a key interest in development in that country. I do not want the people of Iraq to be subject to invasion, mayhem and cumulative damage.

I want to refer to the problems surrounding certain trading schemes. A person who runs a business under a franchise from a company falls under such arrangements. The company is known as the master franchiser, and the smaller business, which is often run from a person's home, is referred to as the franchisee. I have been pursing this matter with the Department of Trade and Industry since May 1999. Unfortunately, the individuals about whom I am concerned have lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own. They suffered at the hands of two sources: first, the illegitimate actions of their master franchiser; secondly, the failure of the DTI to use its legislative powers and duties to regulate or to prosecute the offending master franchisers.

I want to begin by covering the illegitimate moves undertaken by, and the pressures brought to bear by, the master franchisers Chem-Dry Midlands and London, and Chem-Dry Northern and Southern. First, they obliged franchisees to register for VAT in order to continue receiving Chem-Dry's insurance work, irrespective of the franchisees' turnover. This probably involved the tort of conspiracy. Secondly, franchisees were forced to purchase non-compliant Velda machines, which proved an entry barrier to their operations. Thirdly, franchisees were not offered revised contracts under the terms of the Trading Schemes Act 1996. Fourthly, the master franchisers did not exercise good faith and care in executing contacts with the franchisees. Other points, which could be added to my list, have been presented fully to the DTI.

I turn to the failings of the DTI in this matter. The relevant legislation that the DTI should have acted on when the matter was brought to its attention was part XI of the Fair Trading Act 1973, as amended by the 1996 Act, and its subordinate legislation; and regulation 3(a) of the Trading Schemes (Exclusion) Regulations 1997, as amended. Much rests on exactly who was exempted from the DTI's controls under the 1997 Regulations. Companies that are excluded from DTI controls are known as "single-tier" bodies, as defined in the relevant statutory instrument. It took an inordinate amount of time for the DTI to agree that Chem-Dry was not single-tier, and that it was therefore subject to the DTI's regime. Even then, the DTI still did not act. I tabled five parliamentary written questions on the matter. They were bundled together, and a written answer was given to me on 18 April 2002. It stated: Where a breach of legislation over which the Department has oversight is identified, and that breach is addressed by way of criminal sanction, the Department will consider bringing a prosecution, taking account of the evidential and public interest tests set out in the Code of Crown Prosecutors."—[Official Report, 18 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 1152–53W.] However, that was not acted on in the cases that I am referring to.

In the meantime, some people left the franchise system, as they correctly believed that Chem-Dry's contractual arrangements were in conflict with the legislation. They were then in no position to sell their businesses on, and they folded. Unfortunately, a control of, or prosecution of, Chem-Dry by the DTI is probably no longer feasible, because the DTI had previously sent a letter to Chem-Dry Northern and Southern incorrectly stating that it is a single-tier body and is thus exempted from the requirements of the legislation. The letter is both incorrect and inconsistent with later DTI responses to me and to others, including the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).

Matters have now reached the stage where the DTI should provide compensation for the former franchisees, who have lost their businesses and suffered considerable disruption and stress. The DTI should at least meet some of the franchisees and the MPs involved, such as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and me. My requests for such meetings have been rejected in the past. The DTI's suggestion that the franchisees should take civil action against Chem-Dry is inappropriate. The responsibility rests with the DTI; the franchisees have suffered enough traumas, having held on for a long time, waiting for the DTI to undertake its duties. Nor does the parliamentary ombudsman constitute an avenue that can effectively be turned to—although we did attempt to do so—as this matter is overlaid with strong legal considerations.

Although the DTI seems to me to be guilty of serious acts of maladministration—if not illegality—it is clearly time for it to act and clear up this mess. When this account is relayed to it, I hope that such action will begin, perhaps initially through a meeting such as I suggested.

It will not be a very happy Christmas and new year for the franchisees, but I wish them the best. I hope that, by raising their concerns, I have advanced their cause in some way, so that we can attempt to rectify the problem. To Members, my constituents and everyone else, I offer the best wishes of the season.

2.27 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made effective use of the time of the House by raising a significant issue; however, in the interests of brevity I shall not seek to follow up the important points that he made.

I would not be doing my duty if I did not seek to discuss today the state of the national health service in my constituency, because the situation is indeed dire. I plead for the gift of tongues to do justice to the anger, frustration and disbelief of my constituents about the withdrawal of services, and the bad services that are now being offered, in my area. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not in any sense criticising the staff of the national health service, whom I have always found to be devoted, committed and very hard-working; it is the system that is wrong. The staff are trying to cope with enormous organisational problems that are simply insuperable.

I want to discuss five issues, the first of which concerns podiatry, chiropody and general foot care. Under the breathtaking headline "Improvements to Footcare", a circular was sent out to those who had chiropody services in south Hampshire, in effect pointing out that their service was being terminated. It stated that, although some individuals have specialist problems such as diabetes, those with "ordinary problems" would be left to cope for themselves. Such people include a woman in her 80s who is blind, and who suffers badly from in-growing toenails. How on earth is she to cope with her problem, which to her is serious?

I have received scores of angry letters from constituents who simply cannot believe that their foot-care service is being terminated. The problem is not confined to my area, although it is worse there than in many others. A number of Members, including me, signed an early-day motion on the matter. It notes that the Government is fully aware of the situation but has failed to act; and calls on the Secretary of State for Health to publish the report of his review, known as Feet First II, and to make a statement on how he intends to respond to these concerns. These are serious concerns for those affected, and it simply is not good enough for the Government to turn their back on people with serious foot-care problems.

The second problem in my constituency is dentistry. One dentist has exercised his right to leave the NHS, which means that 2,500 patients are now without NHS dentistry care. They are advised to contact NHS Direct, which refers them to Cosham, Southsea, Farlington, Havant and Chichester, which many hon. Members will know is a long way from Gosport. One constituent—unemployed and a non-driver—was referred to Bracknell in Berkshire. We think that that was a mistake, but we do not know how he would have got there. For those who do not know my area, I should explain that non-drivers who are referred to Portsmouth must travel by bus, then boat, then bus again. The last leg of that journey to a simple NHS dental appointment might even require two buses.

Time and distance studies by primary care trusts specify how far and for how long NHS patients are expected to travel to receive NHS dentistry treatment. The PCT in my area is making valiant efforts to encourage dentists to opt back into the NHS and provide emergency treatment for local people. At the moment, however, no dentists in Gosport are taking on new adult NHS patients. People seeking NHS treatment have to travel for as long as an hour to reach a dentist providing NHS treatment. That is completely unacceptable.

The third problem in my constituency to which I wish to draw attention is the situation at the Gosport War Memorial hospital, which used to be a cottage hospital. There was a campaign to close it, but I was part of a campaign to keep it open and it became a community hospital. It is very highly regarded, conveniently located in Gosport and has caring staff, and its league of friends—as active as any in the country—is very successful at raising money for what is a much appreciated and loved hospital for which people used to have nothing but praise.

In the long period during which I have represented Gosport, I never received any complaints about Gosport War Memorial hospital until a woman who lives in Eastbourne complained about the death in the hospital of her mother, who was in her 90s. Deeply though one regrets that lady's death, the complaint was that she had been put on diamorphine. In those days—we are talking about 1998—prescription practice was rather less specific than it is now. It was not unusual for a doctor to prescribe a range of diamorphine levels and leave decisions about how much a patient needed to the discretion of nurses.

That practice is what I would expect in a hospital where doctors and nurses know and trust each other. However, that did not satisfy the woman, who complained bitterly and demanded a police inquiry into the alleged illegal killing of her mother. The police conducted an inquiry and concluded that there was nothing further to inquire into. The woman made a further complaint, and a second police inquiry reached the same conclusion as the first.

Further agitation, and by that time the keen interest of local newspapers, led the PCT and others to decide that it would be appropriate to hold a further inquiry so as to reassure all the people dealing with the hospital. The Commission for Health Improvement carried out that inquiry and produced an action plan that is now being followed. That brought the total number of inquires to three.

However, the complainant kept going. By then, other people had begun to wonder whether they might have something to complain about after their 80 and 90-yearold relatives had died in the hospital. Eventually, Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, appointed Professor Baker to carry out a clinical audit of the hospital. That made four inquires. However, the press was by then building up interest, and 57 people complained that their relatives might have died because of inappropriate treatment. Another police inquiry—the fifth inquiry overall—has been launched, and a firm of solicitors that took part in the Harold Shipman case has also become involved, possibly helpfully, although the name Shipman means that newspaper reporters have become even more excited.

The strategic health authority decided that there should be a further inquiry into the hospital's management over the past 10 years, and the chairmen of the two PCTs concurred. That makes six inquiries. Meanwhile, the General Medical Council is carrying out a seventh inquiry, and the Nursing and Midwifery Council an eighth.

The House can imagine the cost, and the effect on management, of all those inquires. I only hope that they all conclude quickly. I have visited the hospital twice recently to meet patients and staff and to say that I know the hospital o be highly regarded. I want to thank again all the staff and everyone involved in the hospital for what they have done to maintain a high standard of care in the Gosport area. I hope that the matter is resolved soon.

The fourth problem centres on my area's district general hospital, the Queen Alexandra, which is the sixth largest hospital in the UK. In a letter that I received this morning, the Secretary of State for Health told me that the hospital has once again received no stars. Waiting times in its accident and emergency area are up to about six hours, and the hospital has been criticised for its lack of cleanliness. On several recent occasions, ambulances with patients waiting to be admitted have queued up outside the hospital in serried ranks, but the patients could not be admitted because no beds were available.

The hospital is in crisis. I pay tribute to those working desperately hard to improve matters, but there is a risk of catastrophe there. I wish the hospital well in the forthcoming private finance initiative bid, which may result in its being improved in the next five years. However, I mention the Queen Alexandra hospital in my contribution because it has an impact on another hospital in my area, the Royal Hospital Haslar.

Hon. Members who know me well will not be surprised that I should raise the fate of the Royal Hospital Haslar as my fifth point. That hospital was scheduled for closure, although not before 2002. It is dependant on the PFI bid at the Queen Alexandra hospital, and is presently scheduled for closure, but not before 2007. It is being built up as a diagnostic and treatment centre, and is very successful. Its accident treatment centre is being reviewed with a view to its being more widely used, which would take some pressure off the Queen Alexandra hospital.

I had a meeting with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), on 19 March, at which others from my constituency were present. I pleaded with the Minister to bring joined-up Government to bear on the issue of the NHS taking over Haslar hospital, so that its undoubtedly superb facilities can be used for the benefit of the NHS and all patients in the area.

I have not yet heard from the Minister following that meeting on 19 March, although I have submitted verbal and written reminders. I hope that I will hear from her soon. I yearn to hear that she is reviewing the possibility of reconfiguring the hospitals in my area and making sure that Haslar is used in the longer term for the benefit of everyone in the area.

I shall look now at the effect of all that I have recounted on one family in the area. I was talking to my constituent Mr. Barry Martin last night, and have his permission to use his name. What has been the cumulative effect of the defects in the NHS in my area on his family?

Mr. Martin is a war pensioner. He used to receive foot care for about 15 minutes every quarter. He told me that the treatment used to make him feel that he was walking on air. He has a war wound, and problems with his spine mean that he cannot bend. He needs foot care, but he is not getting it.

Recently, his daughter was admitted to Queen Alexandra hospital. She was discharged at 1.30 am with no money, and had to negotiate with a taxi firm to take her home. The firm was paid the next day. Mr. Martin's wife took a friend to the same hospital to see another friend who had undergone an operation, and found herself stuck in a big traffic jam that surrounded the hospital. That is not unusual, and Mrs. Martin's friend had to walk the last few hundred yards as it was impossible to drive closer. So bad are the traffic problems around the Queen Alexandra hospital that buses often do not complete their journeys there but have to stop at the bottom of the steep hill that leads up to the hospital. Patients and visitors then have to walk up that hill.

Whose fault is all that? It is not the fault of the people involved, who work very hard and are devoted and committed. It is the system that is wrong. Many decent constituents have said to me over recent years, "I wouldn't mind paying a bit more for health care if I thought that it would improve." Well, they are paying much more but are getting a much worse service. Why should that be?

Let me share two vignettes with the House. First, a senior NHS manager said to me, "I know that people are not getting the service that they should be getting from the health service but I promise that I will improve the situation. I will increase the size of the public relations department and I have dramatically increased the size of the complaints department." Those were his priorities. Secondly—and I love this one—someone in education, whom I know quite well, said to me recently, "We have a problem with funding in education; schools take 88 per cent. of all the spending, leaving us with only 12 per cent. for administration."

These examples show that the Government are wrong. Thinking that they know best and that services can be centralised and controlled leads not to improvements but to deterioration. I hope that the Secretary of State for Health will read the report of this debate and respond to the points that I have raised, because there are serious concerns about the national health service in my area.

2.41 pm
Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham)

I should like to take the opportunity of today's Christmas Adjournment debate to raise a subject that is a matter of grave concern to me and many of my constituents in north Fulham, namely the proposal of the Post Office to close a Crown post office in North End road. That area of north Fulham has recently been the subject of a successful bid for the new deal for communities regeneration programme, which I cite as evidence of the fact that it is a deeply deprived area, certainly the most deprived and poorest in my constituency.

The area served by the post office is bounded by the Queen's Club tennis estate and Baron's Court underground station to the west, Talgarth road to the north and Lillie road to the south. The area has five housing estates built between 1912 and 1977 and the housing tenure in the area is 67 per cent. social housing, 14 per cent. privately rented and 19 per cent. owner-occupied. The area has been in long-term decline and the rate of unemployment is well above the local average at 11.2 per cent.

Some 12 per cent. of the households in the area have an income of less than £5,000 per annum and 25 per cent. of households have an annual income of less than £10,000. Single parents head 15 per cent. of the families living in the area, which has a significant non-white population—well above the Greater London and national average. Eighteen per cent. of the population have English as a second language and, of that figure, 15 per cent. have no or little English. Educational attainment is significantly below the borough and regional average. Some 36 per cent. of residents of working age have no recognised qualification, compared with a borough average of 12 per cent.

Crime in the area is high—nearly 50 per cent. higher than the regional average. Victims of crime are much more likely to be black, from an ethnic minority community or to be elderly residents.

Poor health is a fact of life for far too many of my constituents in this area. The social services have a much higher mental health case load and the area has a disproportionately large number of children on the child protection register. Because of poor diet, very high levels of smoking and drug and alcohol abuse, life expectancy is well below the national average.

I should like to outline concerns not only on the decision to close an extremely important local facility but on the manner in which the Post Office conducted the whole consultation exercise.

On Monday 25 November my office received a telephone call from Ms Jackie Illsley, a senior regional Post Office manager, asking my staff whether they had received a letter posted on the previous Saturday—23 November—advising me of the Post Office's proposals to close the Crown post office in my constituency. Bearing in mind the poor record of the mail service locally, I was frankly surprised that the Post Office had any realistic expectation that a letter posted on Saturday would be likely to arrive in my office by Monday morning. My office said that no such letter had been received; an hour or so later, a fax arrived from Ms Illsley advising me of the Post Office's intention to close the Crown post office.

I learned later that at the time that the letter physically arrived in my office, the staff at the local post office had already been informed of the intention to close their place of work, despite the fact that under the Post Office's own procedures, the local Member of Parliament is supposed to be given adequate prior notice of any closure proposals.

The next day I met Ms Illsley in the office of the leader of the council, Andrew Slaughter, and one of the other local ward councillors, David Williams. The three of us made clear our strong objections to the proposal to close the post office. I asked Ms Illsley 'whether she could advise me why that particular post office had been singled out for closure and how much money it would lose in the current financial year. She advised me that she was unable to inform me of that figure, although she said that it was somewhere between £100,000 and £500,000.

During a rather acrimonious meeting, the leader of the council and I made it clear why we thought that it was inappropriate to close the post office and why the proposals for other locations for people to use as an alternative to North End road were unacceptable. One alternative that Ms Illsley gave us was a post office in Earl's Court, which is more than a mile away from the North End road post office and extremely inaccessible, particularly to the many elderly clients who use the one in North End road.

At that point, Ms Illsley admitted that she was unaware of the fact that the Earl's Court post office was in a different local authority. It was quite clear to Councillors Slaughter and Williams and me that no real thought or effort had gone into identifying other appropriate alternative locations.

At the end of the meeting with Ms Illsley, I spoke to a journalist from the Fulham and Hamrnersmith Chronicle who advised me that earlier that morning she had been sent a press release from the Post Office informing her that the North End road post office had to close because it was losing £107,000 a year, a figure that Ms Illsley was unwilling to give me, the local Member of Parliament, later that day.

Last week I attended a public meeting at the Bhavan Indian cultural centre in Castletown road, which is next to the North End road post office. It was extremely well attended given the short notice and bearing in mind the inclement weather and the fact that it was so close to Christmas. Councillor Slaughter and representatives of the Communication Workers Union were present, as were three senior managers from the Post Office, including Ms Illsley.

It was the unanimous view of those attending that the Post Office proposal was unacceptable and that the Post Office had failed to take into account the damaging effect that the proposed closure would have on this very disadvantaged community. The overwhelming view expressed by local residents about the proposal was that no serious effort had been made to analyse the effect of the closure on the area and that the Post Office had made no attempt to take into account its duty as a public body to provide a key public service for the local community.

I am pleased to report that following representations that I know were made by Kay Dixon, the chairperson of Postwatch—the independent body that is supposed to look after the activities of the Post Office—who chaired last week's public meeting, the Post Office has now agreed to extend by one month the consultation period on its proposed closure.

Throughout this whole débâcle, the Post Office has claimed to the leader of the council and to me that this was and is a genuine consultation exercise and not a "done deal", to use Ms Illsley's phrase.

The council is running a very vigorous public consultation exercise and more than 1,000 postcards have already been returned to the office of the leader of the council expressing residents' grave disquiet about the proposal.

I am pleased to report that the local Labour party has run a vigorous campaign and that more than 500 signatures have been received separately by my office expressing support for the campaign to keep the post office open. Only last night, Hammersmith and Fulham council passed a unanimous resolution, with support from all the parties represented on the council, calling on the Post Office to reverse its decision. I am hopeful that, bearing in mind the strength of feeling locally, the Post Office will recognise that its proposals are unacceptable and that the decision will be made to renew the lease on the post office, which Ms Illsley has confirmed is an option, and that this important local facility will remain open to serve the interests of some of the poorest people living in this area of London.

Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to bring this important matter to the attention of the House. May I take this opportunity to wish you and all hon. Members the compliments of the season?

2.50 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

The House should not rise for this Christmas until it has heard about the experience of my constituents whose Christmas three years ago was ruined because their homes were flooded, and who now realise that they are very unlikely to be better protected in the future.

The area under threat is the Iford bridge park on the banks of the River Stour, the site of about 100 so-called mobile homes although, like many such homes, they are actually permanent homes—in this case for retired or semi-retired people, some of whom are disabled. Some of them have sunk their life savings into their homes.

On Christmas night 1999, the river overflowed its banks and the homes were flooded. The residents were evacuated by the police, to whose efficient response I paid tribute at the time. I visited the site as the residents were returning home to assess the damage and to retrieve what they could. Twenty years before, in 1979, the site had been even more seriously flooded when it was under water for more than a week, after which it was understood that measures would be taken to reduce the risk.

In response to representations that I made about the experiences of Christmas 1999, I was amazed to learn from the then Minister with responsibility for fisheries and the countryside, now the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), that after the 1979 experience the then owner of the site had declined the offer of flood protection at public expense. That was also news to residents of the site when I arranged for officials of the Environment Agency to meet them. It was then agreed that a new protection scheme should be investigated.

Last year, the agency proposed a one in 15 to 20 year protection scheme and the residents were willing to accept it. Sadly, however, at my public meeting with the residents on 25 October this year, we were told that the scheme would not meet DEFRA criteria for public funding. Instead, a much more modest one in seven year defence scheme, costing about £170,000, was to be investigated. However, there was unlikely to be any funding for it because we are located in the south-west region, which is not to benefit from the Government's new funding for flood protection—apparently.

The week following that meeting the river overflowed again and the residents were evacuated. Two weeks later, on 14 November, nearly all of them were evacuated for a third time because the site was under two feet of water, which internally damaged 13 homes. Two homes were severely damaged and one was written off. Power to all the homes could not be restored for several days.

This Christmas, after three major evacuations in as many years, my constituents understand that they cannot expect any better protection from the Government in the future.

I have asked Bournemouth borough council to produce a report on the situation for its members to consider. The council is the planning and licensing authority for the site and is responsible for providing emergency services. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and I look forward to supporting the representations that I anticipate members of the council will want to make to the Government.

In the meantime, it will be helpful to learn from the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies to the debate, whether the Government's flood protection policy differs for the residents of mobile homes and those who live in more conventional properties. Do the Government give the same weight to mobile home parks and permanent dwellings in the provision of flood defences in flood risk areas? Will any of the extra £150 million funding for flood defences announced by the Government in June this year be available for the south-west region? I am told by the Environment Agency that it will not. If the answer to that question is yes, it will give some hope to my constituents this Christmas that £170,000 of that amount might fund some protection so that they do not continue to face the prospect of no protection.

Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you and Mr. Speaker, the other Deputy Speakers, the Officers of the House, every hon. Member and all my constituents a very happy Christmas.

2.54 pm
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I want to talk about Wandsworth prison, which is in my constituency. First, I pay the warmest tribute to Jan Croxford, the chairperson of the Wandsworth prison board of visitors and to all her colleagues for the many hours that they spend in the prison each week. I pay equal tribute to all members of the Wandsworth branch of the Prison Officers Association, especially the branch secretary Stewart McLoughlin and the chairperson Jim Shaw, for their involvement in the day-to-day running of the prison. Far too often, their work is not fully appreciated.

Wandsworth is an old prison; it was built 150 years ago and is the largest prison in the United Kingdom. At any one time, the prison's population is more than 1,400 inmates. The certified normal accommodation figure is only 1,163, so the approved number of inmates is exceeded by more than 200. The governor, the board of visitors and the POA have the right to ask how long that overcrowding will continue.

I often wonder whether the Home Office authorities fully understand exactly how such overcrowding affects the day-to-day routine of a prison. For example, in Wandsworth, more than 700 inmates are two to a cell. The daily regime suffers enormously because the problem of overcrowding has gone on for a very long time.

Association is extremely important in prison, but there is little association in Wandsworth owing to the pressures on staff. Phone calls are essential in enabling prisoners to keep in contact with their family and friends, yet they, too, have to be limited. Inmates are unable to take showers as often as they should.

Wandsworth has a vulnerable prisoner unit whose inmates follow a special regime. Their parole is dependent on their completing an offending behaviour programme, but that programme is subject to great pressure.

There are problems in scheduling adequate booked visits to inmates. I am sure that Members will understand the great anger often experienced by family members or friends when they phone the prison to try to arrange an appointment for a visit but receive no answer owing to the difficulties faced by the staff at Wandsworth.

All those problems are caused by prisoner overcrowding. When I have outlined such problems in previous debates, colleagues with prisons in their constituencies have often described similar experiences.

An adequate number of prison officers is vital to the running of a prison, as are their skills. Staff retention in Wandsworth prison is difficult. Often at weekends there are fewer than 50 officers on duty for a population of over 1,400 inmates. No one can possibly claim that that is acceptable; indeed, it is unacceptable because of all the potential risks and dangers that could result.

We now have a ban on the transfer of prison officers from Wandsworth simply because few officers wish to work in Wandsworth or, indeed, any prison in the London area. Can we really blame well established officers for not wishing to be transferred into the London area? To start with, where can they live? At one time we had prison officer quarters; now we do not. The price of local property in the borough of Wandsworth is well beyond the means of a prison officer. A housing allowance is urgently needed. Without doubt it would help recruitmen and retention.

Officers who have moved away from the Wandsworth area and drive into work at the prison face problems finding somewhere to park their car, because Wandsworth borough council gives them absolutely no help with parking facilities. Those are the problems facing skilled officers who stay and work in Wandsworth prison.

When I chat to experienced officers who have worked in the service for a long time it becomes clear that the salary of a prison officer is far too low. Moreover, London weighting for prison officers is only £3,500. They often ask me why their London weighting should be considerably lower than the £6,000 paid to an officer in the Metropolitan police. I have never been able to find out from questions to Home Office Ministers why there is this substantial difference.

Let me give the House an idea of the attitude of prison officers. A prison team is responsible for re-profiling—namely planning exactly how long each job takes and designing a strategy to enable the prison to deliver a proper service to the inmates. Members of the Wandsworth branch of the POA voted to accept the plan by 182 to 82. That shows clearly the willingness of officers to accept and work with change.

The Butler trust award was made to the prison's probation officer for developing good practices for dealing with foreign nationals held in prison; I understand that foreign nationals in Wandsworth and other prisons present a real problem. Foreign nationals who when sentenced were also recommended for deportation wait in prison for weeks and months before that deportation order is served on them. That adds to the pressures.

I understand that it is intended to close E wing, which holds some 160 inmates. The men will be transferred to other accommodation within the prison, not to other establishments. That will add further pressures to an already overcrowded prison. The Home Office may have good reasons why it wants to close E wing. It may want to do work on it, but because of the excessive overcrowding it should rethink whether that wing should be closed at this time. I have been in the House for a long time and Wandsworth prison has always been in my constituency. I have seen some real ups and downs there. At times I wonder whether the Home Office has a strategy, irrespective of what party is in Government, and a policy to deal with prison overcrowding. We have the largest prison population in Europe and it is increasing. We are told that it will continue to increase. I cannot honestly believe that we can be proud of that.

Bob Russell

The Home Secretary is proud of it.

Mr. Cox

If he is, I am not proud of it and nor are many hon. Friends who sit on the Labour Benches.

Another major issue resulting from the overcrowding pressures in Wandsworth prison and many other prisons is assaults on prison officers. Tensions build up among inmates when they are doubled up, denied association and face problems getting visits from family and friends, and prison officers are first in line. It is not right that prison officers should run the risk of being assaulted by inmates. What am I supposed to say to a prison officer who has been assaulted? Am I to say, "I am sorry that has happened to you. I hope it does not happen again"? We often know the reasons for such assaults and we have a right to ask for urgent action from the Home Office.

In March early-day motion 1072 was tabled, entitled "HM Prison Service and Golden Jubilee Medal". It called on the Government to award prison officers with more than five years' service with a medal. It was not done, it still has not been done and I have no idea why it has not been done. The refusal has caused great anger within the prison service. Why were officers not awarded the medal? Why are prison officers not awarded that medal or a proper long service medal? May I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that, even at this late hour, it could be done and it should be done? I ask him to make very clear to the Home Office the very deep disappointment and concern that many hon. Members and I share about the lack of the award of that medal to prison officers.

My final comment to my hon. Friend is that it really is time that we were allowed a proper day's debate in Government time on the Prison Service in England and Wales, and I ask him to convey that request to the Home Office. We need to debate the number of people now in prison, the great cost of that to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Office and why we have been told repeatedly that the prison population will continue to increase.

At meetings that I have attended in the House, I have been told that the prison population could well increase by some 10,000 inmates over the next 10 years. I ask my hon. Friend to make known to the Home Office my concern—I am sure that it is shared by many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members who represent constituencies with prisons in them—that we should have the opportunity to have a full day's debate on prisons early in the new year.

In all fairness to my hon. Friend, I do not expect him to be able to deal with the many points that I have made in this debate, but I am sure that he will convey my remarks to the Home Office and, in due course, I will look for a very detailed reply.

3.12 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Hon. Members who regularly attend these end-of-term Adjournment debates, such as myself, like to start with the matters arising from the previous term's debate. I commend the Minister on the way in which he has regularly picked up the issues that we have raised and fed them through to Ministers, but things are not quite as good as they could be because, only yesterday, I received a letter from the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, picking up a point that I made in the July Adjournment debate about the problem of gaining access to broadband in my constituency.

The fact that I have now received a letter makes me think that someone is saying, "If she is going to stand up and bat on about this again tomorrow, we'd better get a letter off to her quick." All I would say to the Minister is that, whatever issue I raise today, I hope that I will not have to wait until Easter to get a reply.

The Minister is, of course, my near neighbour in Devon—I hope that we enjoy cordial relations as neighbours—so many of the things that I want to touch on briefly today will be familiar to him. I am encouraged that, having come to office with a real vendetta against the motorist, the Government have decided this week that roads and motorists are good, so first I want to raise matters relating to roads in my constituency. I have raised these matters before, but I hope that, in this new, enlightened age of the motorists under new Labour, they will now receive more serious consideration.

The first issue is the desperate need for a bypass around the town of Crediton in my constituency. When I have raised this issue in the past, Ministers have said that Devon county council has not really made the case for a Crediton bypass, but I have to share with the House some information on road accident figures, not on the road through the town centre but on the road that approaches Crediton from the north. I have recently received information that has come to light in Crediton.

The chairman of Crediton town council, Mr. Charlie Haydon, has informed me that the council has just discovered that recent accident figures show that there were eight fatalities in six accidents, six serious injuries, 61 slight injuries and 90 accidents involving damage only, making a total of 163 accidents, on a two and a half mile stretch of road just outside the town in the five years from 1997 to 2002.

In the past, Devon county council has written to tell me why it does not think that traffic analysis suggests that a bypass should be built around Crediton on traffic grounds alone, but, clearly, those figures were not disclosed and shared with those of us who have taken a close interest in the needs not just of the local population, but of the travelling public for a bypass around the town. I have to tell the Minister that I shall put pressure on Devon county council, as will Crediton town council, and I hope that we shall have his support because he will know that the road from Crediton eventually leads to the outskirts of his constituency.

The Minister will be only too familiar with the other roads matter that I wish to raise with him. In July 2000, he was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister visited Exeter and made a personal promise to my constituents that the A30 dual carriageway from Honiton to Exeter, which goes through my constituency, would be resurfaced because it is a very noisy concrete road. Despite my many attempts to get Ministers to tell me when that promise will be met, as yet, I have still no idea. We keep being told that it may happen any time in the next 10 years.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, who was there at the time, that when a Prime Minister personally involves himself in something so localised and when he is put on the spot by a local newspaper and makes a commitment, the least he can do is flex his muscles, show his authority and make sure that that promise is delivered. So I am now looking for a date, as are the people who live near that road, and I look to the Minister to assist me in getting a date so that we can know when the road will be resurfaced.

I have just one note of disappointment: the Secretary of State for Transport told us this week that he has decided not to dual part of the A30. The Minister is now giving me a hand signal—I know that he is a cyclist, but I do not recognise it. However, I wish to tell him that the decision not to dual the A30-A303 from Honiton to Ilminster is wrong.

I agree that the road should be dualled from Ilminster to the Taunton junction on the M5—I made that clear in the House this week—but the Minister will know that we need more than one main arterial route in and out of Devon and Cornwall to develop the south-west's wider economy. Again, I seek his assistance in supporting me and many others, including the CBI in the south-west and all those parish councils along the route that support the proposal, to ask the Secretary of State to think again and consider dualling that piece of road.

I want to deal with just one other subject today that has local and national resonance. Again, the Minister will be only too well aware that several wards at Wonford general hospital in Exeter, which serves both our constituencies, are currently closed because of infection. We have not yet grasped the fact that some solutions to hospital-acquired infections could be implemented very quickly.

I know that some of the so-called superbugs are resistant to antibiotics and some new drugs, and I realise that there is no single solution. However, as someone who once worked in a hospital operating theatre and who taught cookery many, many years ago—in those days, hygiene was taught automatically as part of the cookery course—I know that some basic practices in hospitals wards, among trained and untrained staff, could be corrected tomorrow, without a huge tap into the national health service budget.

Of course all members of staff at whatever level, including doctors and nurses, should wash their hands, but recent hospital practice in my area has been reported to me. For example, to clean the floors, the cleaners have moved things from the floor on to the beds. Anyone who knows how infections travel and how germs are passed on knows that as much distance as possible needs to be kept between the patients and certain things that could come into contact with them, particularly those with open wounds post-surgery. Basic things like that are important.

Nurses have been observed putting things into pedal bins on wards without using the foot pedal. They have been using their hands to open bins and put things inside. They then touch things that come into direct contact with the patients. For years and years, people of all political persuasions have demanded that Hattie Jacques return and that matrons are reinstalled on our hospital wards. I agree with that, and if I were not so busy I would offer myself to the Government as someone who could go round and put best practice in place.

The cost need not be great. It is a question of good management and good supervision and it could greatly reduce the number of hospital-acquired infections. This is a serious matter. Without mentioning names, I have no doubt, having read the medical records, that following routine orthopaedic surgery one of my constituents acquired methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus in hospital, and, as a result, he is now confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady. She said at the beginning of her remarks that her proposal could be achieved without a great tap on NHS resources. Does she agree that the National Audit Office report on this issue suggested that up to 5,000 lives a year could be saved in this area, not by putting one tap on NHS resources but by putting one tap on each ward, so that nurses were able to wash their hands each time they touched a different patient?

Mrs. Browning

Absolutely. Those practical measures are so simple and low-budget that I do not know why someone does not get a grip and implement them tomorrow.

MRSA is a killer, as are some of the other hospital-acquired infections. I do not agree with those who say that people who acquire an infection in hospital or whose treatment in a public service causes them pain, injury or even death should not have the same rules applied to them in terms of compensation. I realise that vexatious complainants exist, and that there must be a sense of balance in terms of the public purse to make sure that people do not bring forward negligence and compensation claims that create an industry that benefits only lawyers who want to fly kites, but as in any other business, professionals must be accountable for the work that they do and the service that they provide. People who, in all innocence, go into a hospital expecting routine treatment and come out with a different problem that affects the rest of their life or even kills them should not have to put their houses on the line to battle through legal action for fair and just compensation. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

3.23 pm
John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Like most other hon. Members who have spoken today, I want to raise one or two constituency issues.

Problems related to antisocial and criminal behaviour have occurred in the Elm Park area of my constituency, near a tube station, which is the main issue. A few months ago, a constituent of mine called Chris Ingrouille was almost beaten to death in the Elm Park area by a group of people who seemed to have travelled into the constituency by tube. My point is that whenever I use Elm Park tube station, which is on the District line in outer east London, the barriers are always open. The station is either completely unstaffed or there is just one member of staff sitting in the kiosk by herself or himself. If there is antisocial behaviour in the station, which reverberates around the area outside, that individual is not in a position to try to prevent it.

What sticks in my throat is that, in a long correspondence going back many months and probably even a year or two, London Underground Ltd. seems to have an obsession with trying to convince me—and, I assume, other London Members who have had this problem, particularly in outer east London—that the station is adequately staffed for, say, between 96 per cent. and 97 per cent. of the time. Clearly, that is mendacious, according to my experiences and those of my constituents. Conjoined with that is the fact that, often, trains travelling out of central London, particularly late at night, stop at either Barking or Dagenham East, as I know full well. Travelling back late at night to my constituency and my borough, I have often been turfed out of a tube train at 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock at night at either Barking or Dagenham East. That raises a safety fear, as women in particular—and, to some extent, men—travelling back late at night and abandoned on a platform for perhaps half an hour at Dagenham or Barking could be left vulnerable to attack. At times in the past they have been attacked.

The second constituency issue that I want to raise is that of the c2c railway line, which I have raised probably two or three times on the Floor of the House in previous Adjournment debates. The line runs from Fenchurch Street in central London out to Shoeburyness; at least, it should run from Fenchurch Street, but, late at night, after 10 o'clock, the trains run from Liverpool Street. After 10 o'clock, therefore, people catching trains to, say, Upminster, Shoeburyness or West Ham, must go to Liverpool Street. Occasionally, however, c2c, in its wisdom, decides to run all its trains from Fenchurch Street, so people arrive at Liverpool Street to find out that trains are running not out of Liverpool Street but out of Fenchurch Street.

I recently received a letter from one Dominic Booth, the managing director of London Lines, the parent company of c2c, which contains this explanation: The reasons for the arrangements are the need to maintain the line between Fenchurch Street and Lime House, an intensively used stretch of line. Well, it is not the only intensively used stretch of line in the country—I do not remember British Rail or its successor companies telling the nation that they had to start running trains out of St. Pancras instead of King's Cross because the railway lines outside King's Cross were pretty intensively used and they had to do maintenance work on that stretch of line. It is an exercise in mendacity. Recently, a report by the London Transport Users Committee made it clear that a majority of those passengers surveyed wanted all trains to run out of Fenchurch Street, but I do not seem to be able to get an adequate answer from London Lines, c2c or the managing director, Dominic Booth. That is another lesson arising from the folly of privatising railways. I want to make it absolutely clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that we should renationalise railways without delay and without compensation.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Dominic Booth has told me that the reason why c2c switches to the Liverpool Street line occasionally is to maintain driver familiarity and training on that line, so that when they need to switch, the drivers are able to do so.

John Cryer

Mr. Booth gave me an entirely different reason. There we go—let us renationalise the lot. Do not just play around with Railtrack. Take it all back into public ownership. That is what we want.

The next issue that I wish to touch on briefly is policing in the borough of Havering, which I represent. I have outlined before on the Floor of the House the problem faced by the people in my area—particularly those in Rainham, Elm Park and Hornchurch—because of the number of night clubs in Romford. The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) is in his place, and he will be aware that night club capacity in Romford is between 12,000 and 14,000, which is the biggest in the south-east of England outside the west end. That draws police officers away from other parts of the borough and particularly from my constituency. The rest of the borough is bereft of policing. If there is an emergency late on a Friday or Saturday night in my constituency or that of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), there are often not sufficient police officers to deal with it.

The Government should seriously consider charging night clubs for the policing of the disturbances that emanate from their premises. I know that legislation is coming up to cover such matters, but we should tell night clubs that we will charge them for the 60 or 70 police officers who are needed to deal with the criminal and antisocial disorder that emanates from their premises. Police and local authorities should also be able to tell night clubs that they will withdraw their licence. That could be done for a trial period of two or three weeks. We could then see how the night clubs get on, and we could return their licence to them provided that they behave more decently and keep an eye on the behaviour of the people who use the club.

The length of GP lists in Havering, Barking and Dagenham is another constituency issue. My health area tends to have fairly lengthy lists, and there are historical reasons for that. There is no doubt that more resources are going into primary care, but we do not seem to be attracting the younger GPs that we need. We have many older GPs who are coming up for retirement. Many of them have done a very good job, but they obviously want to retire at a decent age. Many of them will retire within the next five years, and that will present us with a serious problem. I hope that the Department of Health will deal with that specific problem in the Barking, Havering and Brentwood health areas.

I recently tabled a written question to the Department of Health about the length of GP lists, but it refused to provide me with the details. It said: We are not able to provide information on which individual practices have list sizes higher than the national average and what the size of the list is in each case. The GP census data held by the Department is collected for the purposes of research and statistics, as defined by section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998. As such, we are unable to release identifiable data on GPs where it is possible the data could be used for purposes other than research and statistics. I assume from that answer that the civil servants at the Department of Health think that I have an ulterior motive in asking for the information. I want to use it for research and statistics, but they seem to think that I have a wicked ulterior motive and that I might use it for something else. That demonstrates an element of contempt among senior civil servants in the Department of Health for elected Members of Parliament.

I know that elected Members are a bit of a pain and that they put down awkward questions that need answering. They can make life difficult. However, such questions should be answered. To hide behind the Data Protection Act is absolutely absurd. I want the answers to those questions for the benefit of my constituents. I represent them and they send me here. I hope that the Department of Health will take notice of that.

I wish to raise the local and national issue of medals for the servicemen and women who served in Suez between 1951 and 1954. [Interruption.] That got a cheer from the Liberal Democrats. There is a first time for everything. I raise the issue because I recently attended the unveiling of a memorial at the Larkhill base near Salisbury, with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and the former Member of Parliament, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, who campaigned for a long time on the issue. It was a unique ceremony because the plaque is to the people who served in Suez between 1951 and 1954 and not just to those who were killed.

Those who served in Suez in 1956 received a campaign medal at the time, but those who served there between 1951 and 1954 did not receive any sort of campaign medal. I have many constituents who are still around and who are still campaigning strongly. They want that omission rectified. Historically, we do not treat our former servicemen and women particularly well in this country. The sovereign's head on campaign medals from past eras often dates the medal at 20 or 30 years after the campaign took place. In this case, the campaign took place nearly 50 years ago. About 200 servicemen were killed in Suez in the early 1950s, so the idea that has been put around that it was not much of a conflict is illusory. It was a serious conflict, but international sensibilities at the time meant that it could not be recognised as such and that a campaign medal could not be issued to the people who served there. That point should be recognised.

The issue is now before the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. I hope that it gets on with its consideration—it has had enough time to do so—and issues a medal to put right a folly of many years ago. It just remains for me to wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the servants and Officers of the House a good Christmas.

3.34 pm
Bob Russell (Colchester)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) on his comments about the medal and hope that he achieves his aim. I also support what the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who made an excellent speech, said about the Jubilee medal for prison officers. I hope that the Minister will take on board the needs of those in the retired officer corps who served king, queen and country for 30, 40 or 50 years. Technically, they are civil servants, but they must be the only civil servants who serve in uniform. It was pretty mean minded that those people and the prison officers were deemed unsuitable recipients of the Queen's Jubilee medal.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and hope that the Minister and his colleagues take on board my concerns about important issues to do with roads in my constituency. Perhaps in the spirit of joined-up government we will get the results that the people of Colchester want.

Those of us who represent constituencies in the east and south of England know that for the last half century successive Governments have decreed that our communities must take increasing numbers of new populations. The only question is whether local councils are allowed the freedom to decide roughly where the new developments take place. The county of Essex has had more than its fair share of urbanisation. Indeed, more land has been urbanised in Britain's oldest town in the past 40 years than in the previous 2,000 years, from the time when the Romans arrived and made Colchester the capital. That cannot continue, but if we do release additional land for development, we should let the local community determine where it should be.

The problem is that central Government are delaying the connection of a road link between Colchester's northern approach road and the Al2. The developer and the Highways Agency are unable to agree where to put the junction. The irony is that the main developer is the national health service and the second largest landowner is Colchester borough council. The greatest length of the road is virtually complete and only the last section leading to the A12 has to be finished. In answer to a parliamentary question in July, I was assured that just a few of the finer details needed to be resolved, but when I asked a virtually identical question two weeks ago—some five months later—I was told that those issues have still to be resolved. That comes at the end of a 10-year debate that has been going on since the land was released.

The project is important to the NHS because it affects a former mental institution, which is part of a large landholding in north Colchester. There are also massive new developments in the garrison and the Hythe urban regeneration area, so not just one part of town is affected. The borough has carefully planned where it must absorb the new housing and other development that successive Governments have said we must have.

With the closure of large mental institutions under previous Conservative Governments and the Labour Government—there is no political divide on that—the NHS has had to dispose of those institutions, realise the assets and reinvest the money in the health service. The NHS, which is one arm of government, has to sell off surplus land and reinvest the money, but the Highways Agency, which is another arm of government, has not reached an agreement with the developer, which is the NHS or whatever the privatised wing of the landholding part of the NHS is called. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to get to grips with that. The big loser is the development in that part of north Colchester. If it does not go ahead there, it will be moved somewhere else. As we will get it one way or another, we might as well have the development where it will benefit, rather than disbenefit, the community.

I have mentioned the borough council and other landowners. Some of us would say that if the scheme does not proceed, an even bigger loser would be Colchester United football club. The new stadium for the club is an integral part of the development. In a week when two smaller clubs have gone into administration—Port Vale and York City—I am sure the Minister will appreciate that the smaller clubs need all the help that they can get. We do not want to be kicked in the teeth.

I take the opportunity to place on record my appreciation to the chairman of Colchester United, Mr. Peter Heard, who by my reading of the balance sheet must be putting in about £10,000 a week to keep the club going. As a keen Ipswich Town supporter, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will know that my club can survive only by moving to a new purpose-built ground with modern facilities. I urge the Minister to take the message back to his colleagues that this is one road junction that the local community wants.

I move on to a road junction that the community does not want. Although this may be a constituency issue, I ask hon. Members to listen carefully to what could well be a national precedent if the junction is allowed to proceed. Those of us who represent urban constituencies can visualise our neighbourhoods as areas of streets built 100 years or so ago, mainly terraced or semi-detached houses close together, some with small front gardens and some without, but in virtually every case no off-street car parking.

I have an area of Colchester known as New Town ward, which I had the honour to represent on the council for 31 years. In this area there are backland allotments that can be reached only by a narrow track. Vehicle access to serve an estate on this privately owned allotment area is being acquired by stealth—that is the only way to describe it—by a local property speculator. The only way to gain access is down the track, which of course does not meet highway standards. The speculator has come up with a cunning wheeze to overcome that slight problem.

Up till the summer of this year, every time an application was made for residential development on that backland, Colchester borough council rightly refused it for a variety of reasons, one of which was inadequate access. The solution is simple, my friends. The developer has comes up with a scheme that encloses half the width of the road in front of a dozen or more houses, turning a two-way road width into a single width, and builds out the pavement where the narrow access is, in front of houses on either side, thus creating the sightline that he cannot otherwise obtain.

Those of us who have been in local government long enough know that usually, when a developer wishes to develop a piece of land that he does not own, he has to buy up property to get the sightline, and he has to acquire what is known as the ransom strip. The value of the ransom strip, according to a formula, can be anything between a third and a half of the value of the development land. In this case, the developer, with the acquiescence of the local highway authority—I hope that that will change, because of the national precedent that would be set if the scheme were allowed—is acquiring part of the Queen's highway at nil cost to himself, other than the cost of the roadworks. That is land that would cost more than £600,000 to buy. That is the low estimate; other estimates put the value at nearer £1 million.

Surely it cannot be right that the Queen's highway—public land—can be appropriated in this way by a private developer in order to secure access to his land by taking the road from in front of other people's houses, which he does not own. The national precedent is such that I have already been approached by the PR consultant of one of the national building companies, who said, "Please let me know what the outcome is. I think my clients would be interested." I bet they would. All of us who represent constituencies with such backland development must be fearful.

If appropriating the public road is now part and parcel of what a property developer can do in Colchester, hon. Members can rest assured that the big boys will do it elsewhere in the country. It is a worrying precedent, and I urge the Minister to make sure that the matter receives a full public inquiry. I am talking not about the principle of development on the allotments, but about a private developer appropriating the public highway to secure a development, which he could not otherwise do because he does not own all the land or have control over it.

3.45 pm
Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). He and I worked on a serious issue that arose in his constituency, and although I was not able to produce a result that was completely satisfactory to him, the only fault that I could see in the hon. Gentleman was his misjudgment in changing political parties. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not follow the hon. Gentleman down his highways and byways, but he has raised a serious issue about the appropriation of public land.

I want to talk about corporate governance, because it is an issue that we rarely address in the House. There is an inverse relationship between economic success and the exposure of corporate wrongdoing. When times are good, the forces leading to the discovery of wrongdoing are weak, but with an economic slowdown, bad practice comes to light. In extreme cases when businesses become insolvent, outsiders such as liquidators start to pick over the bones, and sometimes the carcase is not a pretty sight.

Let me begin with the assertion that this country cannot be complacent about our standards of corporate governance. When the wrongdoings of Enron and WorldCom came to light in the United States, the reaction in some parts was that this country did not face the same problems. For example, our auditors did not have a tick-the-box approach, but adopted a more rounded assessment of a company's health. That might be true, but it is not an excuse for inaction.

We have a great deal to learn from the United States in adopting good standards of corporate governance. They have thought about it more than we have. The American Law Institute's two-volume "Principles of Corporate Governance" contains a great deal of valuable learning. The Americans also have much more practical experience than we have. After all, they introduced anti-competition legislation more than a century ago in the Sherman Act of the 1890s. They were the first to introduce a sophisticated securities regulation regime in the 1930s. They introduced a foreign corrupt practices Act when we in Europe had barely thought about the problem. Now, they have the Sabanes-Oxley Act.

Unlike the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), I come to praise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, not to bury her. She has given a lead in addressing problems that have arisen in this country as a result of Enron and WorldCom. She established the Co-ordinating Group on Audit and Accountancy to look at matters such as auditor independence, financial reporting and auditing standards. Although an interim report has been published, the final report will not be published until early next year and I hope that it will address matters such as audit firm rotation.

Nor has the rest of Government machinery been idle: the Financial Services Authority has been reviewing the listing rules and addressing auditor independence issues, and the Office of Fair Trading has looked at competition. For example, there was concern about the increased concentration and supply of audit and accountancy services. The OFT inquired into that, but has found nothing to act on for the present. As a result of the OFT report on competition in the professions, certain anti-competitive practices of the accounting and auditor professional bodies have been removed.

Business itself has not been idle, either. The Business and Society report published earlier this year—the second report on corporate social responsibility—pointed out that CSR has become part of the culture of many organisations. I am not one of those who will not give credit where it is due. When corporations adopt good practices, we should praise them for doing so. For example, in respect of financial services, the so-called FORGE group has produced guidance on corporate social responsibility management and reporting. The Pensions and Investment Research Consultancy has led the campaign for more independent directors of companies to run audit committees. Again, we can learn from the American experience, as the most recent PIRC report pointed out that the New York stock exchange regulations are tougher in requiring a fully independent board. Incidentally, the PIRC reports also provide a useful monitor on the cash emoluments of directors, to which I shall return in a moment.

However, while I applaud business initiatives in this area, we also need legislative action. Without basic legislative standards, there will be a temptation to slackness and sin to which some will succumb. On general legislative standards, I shall start with company law. Our company law has been built up by an accretion of provisions over the past century and a half and contains arcane provisions on, for example, the reduction of corporate capital and financial assistance to companies in the purchase of their own shares. Lawyers such as me have made money out of advising on those provisions, but frankly, they do not contribute to economic progress and a thorough review is needed.

I welcome the first stage of that process as it is set out in the White Paper "Modernising Company Law", which was published earlier this year, and I should like to flag up two provisions in that regard. On the disclosure of information, there is a proposal for an operating and financial review that would set out the environmental and social impact of companies. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) and other hon. Friends have tried to refine that proposal, but I welcome it in principle. In addition, the White Paper talks about codifying directors' duties. Although there is some ambivalence among corporate and company lawyers about that proposal, I certainly support it. I also support extension of the duty of directors to all of a company's stakeholders and not simply a limited number.

Historically, our company law has tended to emphasise the disclosure philosophy—the notion that, if information is disclosed to shareholders and others, it will act as incentive to good practice. However, we need enforceable standards as well. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) spoke about the relationships between franchisers and franchisees in the business community. We need enforceable standards in that area. On phoenix companies, I am sure that many hon. Members have had the same experience at the consumer end of the market and have seen companies come along, perpetrate bad practices and then dissolve themselves. Often, the directors will start another corporation the next day to carry on the same practices, so we also need controls in that area.

I should like to spend a little time on three specific areas of direct regulation. First, let me give two statistics on director remuneration. In 2000, directors' pay rose on average by about 28 per cent., while shareholder return fell by 11.5 per cent. That does not go down well with the public. Moreover, in the past 18 months or so, we have seen examples of directors receiving golden goodbyes—in some cases, they have been paid as much as £7 million—after presiding over spectacular corporate failures. Marconi is the most often cited example of a company in which employees have lost their jobs, but directors have walked away with very substantial sums. We need to do something about that.

Earlier this year, the directors' remuneration report regulations went through the House. They take a naming and shaming approach to directors' remuneration. The idea is that the performance conditions for directors' pay will be disclosed and that performance graphs will be produced for shareholders. The latter will also have some say about the report on remuneration. However, in a spirit of seasonal cross-party agreement, I welcome the principle behind the private Member's Bill that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) promoted. He proposes to deal with the problem of directors walking away with golden goodbyes by providing for the law to override the contracts that may legally entitle them to such a payment.

Secondly, I want to consider corporate killing. Approximately 18 months ago, on 10 July 2001, I obtained an Adjournment debate on the topic. Several hon. Members have mentioned the issue, which arose in the context of catastrophic events such as the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, the King's Cross fire, and the rail crashes at Clapham, Southall and Ladbroke Grove.

The law of corporate manslaughter cannot deal with the matter. Perhaps it can do so in the context of small companies, when directors can be identified with their behaviour. However, it cannot deal with large companies. The Law Commission reported on the matter in 1996 and the Labour party's manifesto commits us to a law on corporate killing. I appreciate the difficulties; for example, if corporations are guilty of the offence, does liability follow for directors? There are also other practical problems. However, it is high time that we took action on an ageing Law Commission report.

Thirdly, I want to consider whistleblowing. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, in which I played a small part, provides the country with an adequate la w. It began as a private Member's Bill, which the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) promoted. Consequently, we have an advanced legal framework to deal with whistleblowing. However, the practice does not appear to be adequate in some private and public sector organisations. If PIDA is invoked, it has failed, because it is designed to change the culture of businesses and public bodies so that they welcome employees' disclosure of practices that may lead to fraud, health and safety offences or other wrongdoing.

I want to raise a specific case, which I would like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to examine. It involves British Transport Police, for which I understand the Strategic Rail Authority is responsible. An appeal to the Court of Appeal was recently abandoned and the case is therefore no longer sub judice. I have read the two employment tribunal decisions and that of the employment appeal tribunal on the case. Something about it has featured in the press, and I know little beyond what I have read.

It appears that a lawyer called Irene Bhadresa blew the whistle on an inspector in British Transport Police who had thrown 75 live prosecution files in the bin. I understand that he resigned from the force before disciplinary action was taken. Meanwhile, Miss Bhadresa was dismissed. British Transport Police ultimately made a substantial payment to settle her claim. In fact, The Guardian reported that it was over £250,000, so clearly BTP was wrong to dismiss her.

As important as that individual case is what was uncovered about a force order promulgated by BTP, which apparently required all members of that force to inform their commanders if they were to give evidence in support of other members of the force or BTP employees such as Irene Bhadresa and that any character evidence given must not bring into question the integrity of members of the force. Is that general order still in force? We in the House recently legislated to bring police officers within the protection of PIDA. If there is such a general order still in force, it seems to me that it is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of what we, as legislators, have said.

For me, there remains only to wish season's greetings to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all those who work in the House and give us such good service as Members of Parliament.

4 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to put to the House before it adjourns a series of issues that face my county of Bedfordshire and my constituency of North-East Bedfordshire, some of which have wider ramifications.

We have all listened with admiration to a number of colleagues who have spoken this afternoon. We shall remember the passion and honesty with which the hon. Members for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and for Tooting (Mr. Cox) put their cases. We shall remember also the remarks of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who is still in his place, who spoke with apparent warmth and relish of the time when the police, under a Liberal Government, took truncheons to pensioners! We shall certainly remember the moment when the hon. Gentleman was stopped in his tracks by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who put to him a point illustrating something that remains shocking to members of the public, although it is familiar to Members from every other party in the House who have trodden the streets in a by-election: the Liberal party says and does one thing in one place, but says and does something totally different in another.

I do not envy the Minister, who has to deal with all the points raised by colleagues this afternoon. I know that if he cannot deal with certain points in detail, he will pass our comments on to the relevant Minister. I would appreciate him doing so in the cases that I shall raise. May I start with matters affecting the rural parts of my constituency of North-East Bedfordshire, which is predominantly rural?

I pay tribute to the work done by my parish councils, and I am sure that we would all do the same for the parish councils in our constituencies. I have met mine during the year and dealt with a number of matters on their behalf. Will the Minister pass on to his colleagues parish councils' growing frustration in dealing with the bureaucracy and extra regulation under which they are being forced to work?

Parish councils are staffed by valuable local social servants who are doing their best around our country. Their responsibilities are not enormous, but they carry them out conscientiously, so asking them to live under a greater burden of regulation, scrutiny and audit is probably overdoing it. Will the Minister say how many parish councillors have resigned over the past year as a result of the introduction of new regulatory measures? We would all be grateful if he took back a note saying that we could do with rather less regulation in this area, provided that there is sufficient to enable parish councils to do their duty. Perhaps the Government could ease up in certain areas.

A particular issue relating to youth provision has been brought to me by Mr. Andrew Gell, chairman of Riseley parish council. The council is looking to help youngsters in the village to establish a youth club. It has been in touch with Bedfordshire county council, which says that it would like to help, but that, owing to the provisions of the Connexions service, which puts the emphasis on youngsters aged between 13 and 19, resources for those who are younger are stretched.

Accordingly, I would be grateful if the Minister considered passing on to his colleagues the information that a number of other areas may find themselves similarly stretched. In developing youth provision through Connexions, will the Government ensure that much-needed support for younger people is not lost? Of course, the youngsters whom we may want to look after most could best be dealt with rather earlier. I would be grateful if the Minister took that issue on for me.

As I am sure the Minister knows, over the last six years some 67,000 jobs have been lost in the United Kingdom's farming industry, and my constituency is no exception in that regard. May I ask the Government again to bear in mind the difficulties caused to livestock farmers by the 20-day rule, which was introduced at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak but is still in operation. Inability to move stock quickly is a real problem for many small farmers, whose livelihoods are being affected. In September, the Farmers Guardian quoted Lord Whitty as saying that parts of the farming industry could be wiped out if the rule continued; yet it does continue. I know that it is under review, but the farming community would welcome any action the Minister could take to hasten that review.

Let me make another plea for the rural parts of my constituency. I support the demand for broadband access in as many rural areas as possible. BT recently brought the service to my constituency through its exchange in Sandy, and I went to see what was happening during the recess, but other parts of the constituency are not so fortunate. Broadband is particularly relevant to businesses and agricultural communities that are spread out in our rural areas. It could make a real difference to them, and anything the Government could do to help promote broadband would be welcome.

Bedfordshire is a small county, but it is being asked to take on more and more housing without regard to the consequent problems relating to infrastructure and congestion. Only this week, following a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport, I had an opportunity to raise the whole issue of joined-up government. I asked the Secretary of State why his congestion plans and railway plans—and the targets containing them—could be torn up like so much so much waste paper, when Bedfordshire and other counties were being asked to stick rigidly to Government targets requiring them to accept more and more housing. Bedfordshire has been due to take 50,000 new homes in the 20 years between 1991 and 2011. The Deputy Prime Minister suggested in July that the figure would be increased again, and the county council was told recently that as a result of the Milton Keynes study the county might be expected to take yet more housing.

When I mentioned the connection between increased building, more housing and congestion, the Secretary of State declined to answer. He said it was a matter for the Minister responsible for housing. He may not be able to see the connection between increased building, more housing and congestion, and he may not feel that he ought to answer questions such as mine—but the rest of us see the connection. Let me again make a plea for joined-up government, and ask this Minister to deal with such issues.

The county is greatly stretched. Its health services are stretched, and its police force is stretched. There will be more congestion, and more pressure on social services. There will be an impact on the services that the council can provide. Will the Minister convey my view that if the Government find it possible to relax their plans when they are under pressure, councils in a similar position may be able to relax the Government's housing plans for them?

I thank the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), who visited my constituency this week to open the Clapham bypass, for the courtesy he showed. May I repeat something that was said at the time, although perhaps not in the best possible circumstances? Will the right hon. Gentleman, as Minister of State, Department of Transport, consider the problems affecting areas of new development where the provision of roads has been tied to planning gain? In my constituency, where new housing is planned, a road that will act as a major link between two important areas will be begun only when 750 houses have been built. The section 106 provisions put a huge amount of power in the hands of the developers. What happens in such cases is that the houses are built and the amount of traffic increases before a new road is available to support it.

Bedford borough council has suggested to the Government a provision under which they, the Government, could provide up-front funding for necessary road schemes and then claim back the money. That would release funds for the much-needed road, and the Government would not lose any money in the long term because they could recoup it. I wrote to Lord Rooker in September, and he said that the matter was under consideration, but did not give a favourable response to what I thought was an extremely good idea. Could the Minister refer this suggestion back to his colleagues for further consideration, because many areas would benefit enormously from such a provision?

I received a letter this morning from the Secretary of State for Health, who informed me that Bedford hospital NHS trust, which had been zero-rated in July, had made satisfactory progress in the months since. I pay tribute to the hospital, which I visited this week, and to the chief executive and chairman, Andrew Reed and Helen Nellis, for the progress that they are making. The zero star rating was unfortunate, but the response of all hospital staff was to roll up their collective sleeves and see what they could do to improve services. I am grateful for that. It would assist an area where there is an increasing number of people and the health service is fighting under a deficit if those factors could be taken into account when targets are set. Many health workers work extremely hard, but sometimes the Government do not take all those problems into account when setting targets for them.

I remind the House that it is almost 12 months since the incident at Yarlswood in my constituency. The asylum centre was badly damaged by fire, and more than 300 people could have lost their lives. The Government instituted an inquiry, which began in the summer. It reported to the Home Secretary in September, but since then we have seen nothing of the report. The Home Secretary knows that court cases are pending, and we all appreciate the fact that certain material in the inquiry may be held secret until those cases have finished. However, the House badly needs to have other information that may not be pertinent to criminal cases. What were the reasons behind the decision not to fit sprinklers in the building that burned down? What was the reasoning that led to the change in the nature of detainees being held at Yarlswood, contrary to the assurances given to those who live around the area?

The Home Office has compounded the problem by announcing in October that it intends to allow new detainees to go to the remaining Yarlswood building, which is of the same construction as the one that burned to the ground and which will be reopened in April. How safe will those detainees be? How safe will the rest of us be, given that they are going back into the centre before we have any information from the inquiries into why the other building burned down?

The Minister should ask the Home Secretary to consider the matters that I have raised. I appreciate that some parts of the report may be kept secret, but other information needs to be brought out into the open sooner.

Jeremy Corbyn

What the hon. Gentleman says about Yarlswood is important. Many Labour Members are equally concerned about why the fire occurred, what the circumstances were and the terrible danger that many of those people suffered as a result of the way in which the fire was dealt with. I am not critical of the fire service, but of others, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I agree with him that the centre should not be reopened.

Alistair Burt

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. His hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has also taken a keen interest in the issues surrounding Yarlswood and the implications for my constituents. Unless further information is available to the public, why should the centre be reopened? For the reasons I have given, I should be grateful if the Minister would take those matters back to the Home Secretary.

It only remains for me to thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in the debate, and to wish you, your colleagues and all hon. Members the very best for Christmas and the new year.

4.15 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

In the five and a half years during which we have had a Labour Government and I have been a Member of Parliament, have the lives of the people in Hemel Hempstead improved? It is important to deal with this question, because if the answer is no, there is an agenda there that the Government must address. Even if the answer is only "a bit", that still leaves an agenda for them to address, because perhaps their ambition is for life for my constituents to improve rather more than just "a bit".

Of the observations that we have heard so far, I was particularly struck by those of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who commented extensively on the Government's achievements, such as low unemployment. On the employment chart, Hemel Hempstead is in the top group, with consistently high employment. On looking at such a constituency, we would say that the Government have done very well by these people, and that they have done very well by the Government. This is leafy Hertfordshire, where life is clearly good, jobs are readily available, house prices are rocketing, and so on.

An occasional visitor to Hemel Hempstead who gets out at the train station might be a bit surprised to discover that it is about a mile from the town centre, and they might wonder quite how they are going to get there. On leaving the station, they will discover, in the middle of the town centre, a field that often contains rare breeds of cow. It is a lovely field that belongs to the publicly owned Boxmoor Trust, and which is part of 411 acres of beautiful land. Among other things, the Duke of Burgundy fritillary butterfly is being introduced into a field of wild cowslips, away from plodding feet. So Hemel Hempstead is a lovely place, which has an arguably high starting-point, but perhaps the question whether the lives of its people have improved is one that is none the less still worth asking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale rightly said that particular progress has been made in primary schools. On visiting the primary schools in my constituency, I am struck by the sea change that has taken place between 1997 and now. However, it is worth reflecting on how that has come about. Three mechanisms have produced those changes, the first of which is a commitment to quality in numeracy and literacy schemes in particular. Secondly, there has been a commitment to make modest improvements to Hertfordshire county council to help it to perform its functions—they are many but often unsung—and to do a good job. Indeed, it has achieved an excellent rating for local authorities.

Thirdly, and crucially, it has been recognised that head teachers need a fair degree of autonomy in the performance of their functions, as well as the resources to exercise that autonomy. I disagree profoundly with the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), who pooh-poohed the extra money that the Government are providing for services. Money is a necessary condition—but not, of course, a sufficient one—for the kind of improvements that we have seen in our primary schools.

However, the issue is not simply that we have had the opportunity to improve some things. I have sometimes pointed out in the House that the Government are insufficiently mindful of philosophy, and the Prime Minister has sometimes been inclined to disagree with me. I want to bring two smidgens of philosophy to what otherwise might seem a rather parochial fixation on my constituency. There are two laws of which the Prime Minister and the Government in general should be much more mindful, the first of which is the law of protracted time. It sometimes takes time to develop good ideas; and when one has developed such an idea and decided to implement it, it sometimes takes time to get it to make a real difference to the lives and the lived experience of the people whom we are trying to represent. The bigger the idea, the longer it takes to have an effect. For instance, the splendid idea of curbing disorderly behaviour with antisocial behaviour orders in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was supported by many hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary once asked me what I wanted for my constituency, and I told him that I wanted the number of antisocial behaviour orders handed out to be multiplied by a factor of 10. That would be a start on improving something that oppresses the day-to-day existence of many people.

The antisocial behaviour order was a good idea, but how far has it got? Senior police officers embraced the concept, but constituents are still faced with foul and irresponsible behaviour that makes their lives a misery, and local police officers say that there is nothing to be done. The original idea has not percolated through to the consciousness of those responsible for its implementation. As a result, constituents' lives have not been improved.

Hon. Members of all parties have said that people want more police on the beat. I said as much to an officer the other day, and I was given the following statistic—an officer could walk the beat for 80 years before coming across a crime being committed. That may be true, but the idea was less to do with crime than with intelligence, understanding and working with communities. It was intended to root out a person's capacity for crime before it was translated into behaviour that wrecked people's lives. The idea exists, but it has not yet got through and effected the change that was intended.

Another law of a philosophical character deserves the Government's consideration—the law of unintended consequences. The Government have had good ideas in many areas. They must be frustrated that they have had comparatively little effect, even when combined with significant resources, but some of the ideas need to be questioned.

It is a very good idea, is it not, for people to have very high-quality health care? Of course it is, but implementing that idea a little too rigorously means that inspectors are sent in who find that the quality is not excellent. The result is that the facility involved is shut down and, instead of there being health provision that may be ropey but which gets people by, there is no provision at all. Setting standards too high lowers overall provision so that people end up with lower-quality provision. That is a most unexpected and unintended consequence.

I advert to that idea with some passion, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been my ally in my attempts to prevent the closure of Hemel Hempstead maternity hospital, which was only five years old when I was first elected in 1997. It is being closed because its special-care baby unit was one nurse short of its full staff complement. I was told that it was difficult to recruit nurses in Hertfordshire and that London weighting meant that people wanted to go and work in the capital. The result is that my constituents face a unique problem in that their maternity unit, even though it is so new, is to be shut down. That is in leafy Hertfordshire, and it is not a good experience for my constituents. A petition has been sent to Downing street and one has been placed before the House, with signatures from 88,000 people. That is what I call a community concern. Three weeks after the second of those petitions got the Prime Minister's personal support, the special care baby unit was shut down on the grounds that it gave cause for concern.

A month after the unit was shut down, two babies died in adjacent Watford general hospital in circumstances that I can only describe as appalling and exhibiting the utmost neglect. Staff there were inundated by the 3,000 maternity cases that had been shunted out of Hemel Hempstead. This is not a small maternity unit, but a middle-ranking one in terms of maternity provision. So their experience is worse.

Some 88,000 people have expressed their concern—four times the number who were wise enough to vote for me in the last election. It is a massive number. There is a sense in the community that sometimes the Government get an idea such as introducing higher standards for health and implement it in a way that has the unintended consequence of producing a lower standard of health. The Government must sometimes do more than introduce interesting initiatives. They must do more than have a good idea and back it with money. They must also realise that they have to work effectively with the people who will implement their good idea. The example of schools is vital. Many head teachers are now giving competent people the capacity to exercise their judgment over resources.

The worst examples in my constituency concern the way in which the Government relate to local government. I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members will agree with me here. The Minister responsible for local government is the Minister for hard sums because local government finance is so complicated. Every time the hard sum is calculated the Minister tells me from the Dispatch Box that we have had an increase in resources in real terms, yet the situation seems to get worse.

The only community provision in my area is a venue for rock concerts. A thousand kids went there on Friday and Saturday nights to hear the sort of music that only kids can listen to, and it has been knocked down. It is tempting to say that it is because of the Conservative-controlled council, but in fact the Government are still saying to local authorities that giving them extra resources means that they have a lot more extra things on which to spend the money. As a result, it is hard to see a real-terms gain. A 4 per cent. increase also means new duties such as having a community safety partnership that brings the police and the local authority together. That is a great idea, but it is wrapped up in the local authority settlement; it costs extra resources and the authority does not know where it will get the money for the other duties. My police authority is pleased with its new duties but has pointed out that it needed a lot more than 4 per cent. just to keep the show on the road.

I have taken my quarter of an hour, and that is probably as much as one should impose on the House. I conclude with the thought that the Government need to attend more to the submissions that so many Members have made today about how these matters impact on their area. Hemel Hempstead is in leafy Hertfordshire, but it is a new town and many parts of it are crumbling. The town has a wonderful environment and unemployment is low, but there are major pockets of poverty and deprivation. Its hospital is under great threat, even though the figures may look good on the charts.

On balance, despite everything that I have said, there has been an advance, but storm clouds are gathering. That could mean that when we hold next year's Christmas debate, I shall have to say that things are worse. The Government should attend to those storm clouds by paying more attention to the laws of protracted time and unintended consequences.

4.30 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) spoke a great deal of common sense. He is a Government supporter, so I hope that his Government will listen to him.

I want to raise a number of matters before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess. However, before I do so I want to clear the air about something that has been troubling me. The last time I spoke in this place, I said that I and a number of colleagues would be examining the Swedish model.

Several hon. Members—whether deliberately or not—misinterpreted my words, but I can now report to the House that we have examined the Swedish model and found it somewhat wanting. I refer to the debate on the Second Reading of the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill and the Government's decision to adopt proposals based on the Swedish model. The week before last, we discussed the matter at a meeting of the Select Committee on Health and the House will be interested to learn that, after two years, the Swedish Government are quite concerned about their solution to the problem of delayed discharges. It does not seem to be having the desired effect; beds are still being blocked in Swedish hospitals. I hope that the Government will reflect on their ideas, as they certainly did not work in the country from whence they originally came.

Several hon. Members have mentioned crime. If only I had a penny for every time that I have listened to Members on both sides of the House say that there was too much crime. What is happening about the problem? What are the solutions? The crackpot ideas for dealing with truancy are certainly not going to help one iota. They can only make things more difficult for the police.

Southend is no different from any other area. My constituents complain that youths gather outside their houses and disturb their general well-being. Such youngsters know their rights only too well so little can be done about them. What is the answer?

Even hon. Members who are more into high technology than me want to see more policewomen and men on the streets dealing with the problems. Are there more police officers on the streets of Southend or Essex? There are not. That is of huge concern, so it would be wonderful if the Government were able to come up with some positive, deliverable proposals in the new year.

My local authority advises me that young offenders from other local authority areas are being moved into Southend-on-Sea. That does not help our youth offending team, as moneys allocated by the Youth Justice Board to such teams throughout the country do not take account of the fact that offenders may be moved into an area from another authority. The Southend youth offending service has to make up any shortfall in funding. That is crazy.

The youth offending team in the authority that has moved the offenders to another area still receives money for them even though it no longer has responsibility for them. I am also advised by my local authority that although many local authorities are willing to be billed by the receiving authority, many others are not. Given the disappointing financial settlement that Southend had recently, it will make our situation difficult.

I now come to single-handed doctors. The Prime Minister said in the House: There has been a move over time away from single-handed practices so as to improve the quality of care that people receive."—[Official Report, 3 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 219.] Does he have any idea how damaging that statement was to single-handed GPs the length and breadth of the country? I applaud Doctor Magazine which has started a campaign on this issue. A petition will be presented at 10 Downing street in the early part of next year, with which I and other hon. Members hope to be associated. Single-handed GPs discussed the situation with me at my surgery. Apparently the Prime Minister cited a 10-year-old study which said that the number of partners failed to explain variations in standards. The health service faces a number of challenges and to insult and devalue the wonderful professionalism of single-handed GPs does no good, so I hope that the Prime Minister will take the opportunity in the new year to correct that impression.

On any number of occasions I have drawn to the attention of the House what hon. Members might think are my prejudiced views on mobile phones. I was extremely excited when last week I got a letter from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) letting me know that the Government have launched a new £7 million research programme into the health implications of mobile phone base stations and masts. That is splendid news. The House needs a clear decision on this. My local authority in Southend asks me, "What is the good of us turning down applications when we go to appeal, the appeals are overturned and the hard pressed council taxpayers have to pay?" This is a serious matter. I am not convinced that the health implications are trivial. Moreover, how often have Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box and said that it is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving a car? Not only does that happen every day, but people are now stopping suddenly and dramatically because they have reached an interesting point in their conversation. There is no point in Ministers saying that that is a dreadful practice when nothing is done to enforce the law.

I recall making a speech from the Government Back Benches on the Third Reading of the Bill to protect badgers. I have now had a well attended meeting with constituents that has made it clear to me that I had not entirely realised what I was signing up to. I am not prepared to give names and addresses of where we have a badger problem in Southend because when the Government tried to do something positive, violent demonstrations took place. A few years ago a crowd of badgers must have got together, walked down this particular road and set up home in a back garden. They did not stop in one back garden; they have now built their homes underneath the garages of a number of terraced properties in an urban area. I would not have believed that those cuddly animals could do so much damage. Walls are now collapsing and residents cannot go out in their gardens. No one could be stronger on animal welfare than I am, but, although badgers are beautiful animals, they should be approached at some peril because they can do considerable damage.

A representative from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and two other organisations visited the area, and we had a wonderful, positive meeting. I had no idea how difficult it is to exclude badgers from properties, but a course of action has been agreed that will, I hope, deal with the matter sometime next year after the breeding season.

The cost of dealing with the issue—putting up gates and chains—will all fall on the local residents, and I cannot believe that that is right because, obviously, the local residents did not say, "Come on badgers, come and occupy our gardens." All that will be very expensive and a number of the residents are elderly and certainly cannot afford the cost, so I hope that the Minister will have a word with his colleagues to find out whether something can be done about that.

Many hon. Members have referred to Cliffe airport, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I applaud the two local authorities for successfully extending the consultation period. All this has been said already, but an airport operating on 24-hour basis would be environmental and social disaster for my constituency. I have heard people say that that is a red herring. Well, if it is, it is a jolly expensive one because all local residents are being invited to become involved in the consultations. I hope that, given the extension to the consultation period, the Government will consult properly and ensure that all residents in my constituency receive a proper information pack and that we have some properly conducted meetings.

Finally, before I give my usual Christmas salutations, I wish to refer to the death of a local constituent. I must tell the Minister that I do not think that I can do justice to the circumstances surrounding her death now, so I am applying for an Adjournment debate, but I would be letting down Joanne Martinson's parents if I did not mention her death.

On 7 November last year, that young lady—she was 19—was driving with her partner, Adam Seomore. They were both wearing seatbelts. She was fit, in good health and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She was driving at approximately 25 mph. Adam has confirmed that there was no harsh acceleration and no high engine revs or any sharp braking. He was looking out of the nearside passenger window when he became aware that the car had swerved sideways and was moving towards a tree. Joanne was gripping the steering wheel with both hands. He did not see what caused Joanne to swerve, but clearly recalls that she was not distracted by anything in the car. According to her parents, she was a very careful driver, and I am sure that that is the case.

There were seven witnesses to the accident, and I am sure that all hon. Members would wonder how someone driving at less than 25 mph could end up losing her life, but she did. I make no criticism of the Crown Prosecution Service because my hon. Friends the Members for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Castle Point and I spent some time with the CPS last week, learning at first hand the circumstances under which its operates, but, according to two other witnesses, another vehicle seemed to be absolutely crucial in making Joanne swerve. The owner of the vehicle only had a provisional licence and only had sight in one eye. There was also concern about the vehicle's insurance and tax. This individual, however, has not even been prosecuted. I hope that I will be successful in obtaining an Adjournment debate on the subject in the new year, when the appropriate Minister can respond to the issue, because the parents simply want this matter to be dealt with fairly, and they owe it to their daughter to ensure that a proper investigation is completed.

Do I lament the passing of this year? Not really—I had been looking forward to it, but I have been disappointed by any number of issues. In fact, I seem to have spent most of my time attending funerals. I was at a funeral this morning, I will be at another funeral on Monday, and my secretary phoned me earlier to say that someone else had died and that I had been asked to conduct the funeral. That is going a bit too far. I am much happier in the role that I will play tomorrow as Father Christmas. The Government have not served the country well over the past year. In so many respects, they could be doing better than they are at present.

I should like to conclude on a non-political point. You and I will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we had a splendid regatta on the River Thames. The Thames is a wonderful asset, and I shall ask Mr. Speaker if he might consider giving permission to us to have a regatta in 2003, perhaps we can celebrate that next year. I wish all hon. Members and staff a happy Christmas and good health, peace and prosperity in the new year.

4.47 pm
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am particularly obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) for introducing philosophical notions into this debate, especially that of protracted time, of which I had not heard previously. His mention of that has caused me to make an addition to what I was going to say about a road scheme.

Those who follow these debates assiduously and study Hansard daily might be aware that on several occasions I have raised the Hatfield Peverel to Witham road. Several Essex Members are present who will be familiar with the A12 road, the number of vehicles on it, and the particular hazards if one travels out of Hatfield Peverel on that road on the way to Witham. As a novice Member, I was particularly pleased when, following an Adjournment debate, the Minister responsible announced that, for safety reasons, a link road would be built between the village of Hatfield Peverel and the town of Witham. I am about to congratulate the successor Minister on the fifth anniversary of that announcement in January—the road, however, has not yet been built. It has been approved, it has been in the hands of the Highways Agency, and it is about to be subject to a public inquiry, but not a single grain of sand has been put down.

Mr. McWalter

My hon. Friend is aware, of course, that, according to the law of protracted time, the bigger the idea, the more protracted the time to achieve it. As the idea to which he refers does not sound that big, what is the other reason for the extended period during which nothing has happened?

Mr. Hurst

It is a good job that those responsible were not planning to build the Great Wall of China, as the extended time would have been even greater. I might add that the road to which I refer is one mile in length from one end to the other. I pass it four or five times per week. If I had got out of my car, put down some sand each evening and eventually put down some concrete, I imagine that I could have built that road single-handedly in those five years. But the road has not been completed. Ministers have come and gone—some have come to and gone from the constituency, and a number have gone from office—but the road is still not there. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will pass that information on to the current Minister responsible, who is welcome to come down and see the site any time.

I also want to make a few remarks about an aspect of agriculture—the present plight of pig farming. It is a particularly interesting sector in the sense that it is unsubsidised. The big debate in agriculture at present is about moving away from subsidy and into a free market, and perhaps we can see the future if we look at pig farming, which does not have the benefit of support payments.

All of us had a notion about what pig farming was like. Some of us would have conjured up in our mind a picture of Lord Emsworth and his particular devotion to the activity. However, that was a pastime breeding of pigs rather than a commercial operation. Traditionally, farms in England had a pig. In the main, farms were mixed and a pig would form part of that mixture. Further back is the idyllic view of pigs running loose in oak woods and eating acorns. That is a rustic and attractive vision, but those methods would not serve our present consumerist society. A few pigs running in the oak woods would not suffice to meet our needs. Over time, pig farming has obviously become more commercial.

Pig farming was always something a farmer could move into when times were good and move out of when times and prices were poor. It required less capital investment than other forms of farming. One did not need vast acres of land or expensive equipment and it did not take years to build up a good breeding herd. Like poultry farming, one could move in and out of the sector.

Circumstances have changed as time has gone by. Although pig farming was always cyclical—it was subject to ups and downs—we now appear to be in an extended downturn that concerns all those Members who have pig breeders and pig farmers in their constituencies. In the early 1990s, the price was high and I suspect that produced a degree of overproduction, with the natural consequences of the law of supply and demand. Other factors have now come into the system and they do not bode well for the future.

By 1997–98, the price of pigmeat was down to 70p per kilogram, and the break-even figure is thought to be 90p per kilogram. I visited farms at that time and they did not know how they would survive. The truth is that a number of them have not survived and the number of pig-breeding units is down. The national herd is down, as is the whole production of pigmeat.

One could argue that the cycle will turn, prices will pick up and all will be fine. Prices have risen to more than 90p, which is about the break-even point, but they seem to have stuck at that level. Other factors, once unknown, now exist firm and hard. The major one is the strength of our currency against the euro, and the obvious conclusion is that imports have become cheap and exports have become expensive. In some products, that would not matter too much, but just across the sea are traditional producers of pigmeat who benefit.

We all know that Danish bacon has been advertised in this country, certainly since I was a child. An advertising campaign has been run for the best part of 40 years almost always on the basis that bacon equals Danish. Our producers have never been able to match that type of advertising. When economic circumstances are favourable to foreign exporters, they come into their own. The figures clearly show that, in the past two years, the amount of Danish bacon sold in this country has gone up from about 20 per cent. to about 25 per cent. of the market whereas sales of our product have gone down from about 43 per cent. to 37 per cent. There has been quite an imbalance in the change of trading circumstances. At one time, we would have had an export market perhaps to Russia or eastern Europe, but because of the difficulties in that region and the strength of the pound, that market has almost entirely disappeared.

In addition—it is one problem on top of another—we have rightly attained the highest animal welfare standards in the world. At the same time, we have gone a long way down the route of pollution control and environmental protection. We support all those measures completely, but they come at a price. At one time, pig breeding was an economic matter. It could be done on spare land and the owner could go into something else. Now, the amount of plant and investment is greater and greater in a market in which the margin is narrower and narrower. We also have the scourge of disease. Classical swine fever is a problem, and pigs currently have a wasting disease. Although diseases come and go in any form of agricultural breeding, pig farmers want the Government to invest more in research into animal diseases, on a co-operative basis with our European neighbours, so that a pool of information can be applied to protect native herds.

Another issue grows apace, although it is difficult to put one's finger on it as it is like a will-o'-the-wisp—the power of the supermarkets. It is almost impossible to pin down where the profit disappears for the grower and the breeder, and where it comes into the hand of the retailer. A number of Select Committees have considered the issue and there have been other inquiries in the House, too, but we have never got to the bottom of the mystery.

There is no mystery in the figures, however. Supermarkets account for about three quarters of retail bacon sales in this country. So in the main, someone in the pigmeat business has to be in the supermarket business too. Supermarkets exert an enormous contractual power over those who sell to them. The margin between the price of pigmeat at farm gate and at retail is widening. In January 2000, the profit margin was 221p; it is now 248p. It is growing step by step during an agricultural depression. The Government should approach the way in which the supermarket monopolies control almost the whole market with greater vigour than has hitherto been the case. That practice must be detrimental, not only to the producer, but ultimately to the consumer as well.

The Government could do more about labelling. We know that steps have been taken on that and that the Government, rightly or wrongly—many of us agree with them—are keen on clear labelling. We especially need that on food products. We are about to have lurid announcements on tobacco products so that the possible consequences are abundantly clear to the purchaser, but we often need a magnifying glass in a supermarket or store to track down a product's country of origin. I am not talking about the country of processing or packaging, but where the product was bred or grown. That is what the consumer wants to know. We make much of freedom of choice, but choice has to be based on knowledge. If the knowledge is so elusive that one cannot put one's finger on it, that choice is denied.

If that problem is severe enough in a supermarket, how much greater is it in a restaurant? If one says to a waiter, "Are these English pork sausages for breakfast?", he will undoubtedly say, "Certainly, sir," but there is no way of knowing for sure. When one looks at a menu, there is no way of knowing where the product comes from unless the restaurant chooses to advertise it. If we are to give our own producers and growers a fair chance, we must go much further down the route of clear, unconfused, large-written labelling, so that there is freedom of choice.

I shall say no more about the matter because I know that interest usually palls after the first few minutes of any speech, except that of certain hon. Members present today. I join others in offering you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all other Members and staff the very best wishes for the Christmas season.

5 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), who made a fine speech with which I heartily agreed. I am not sure about the roads that he mentioned at the beginning, but the rest of his speech certainly rang a bell with me.

I shall speak briefly about what will not be a happy Christmas for many of my constituents. On 7 July this year, The Sunday Times carried an article with the banner headline "Britain is to get a robot air force to fight terrorists as part of a multi-million-pound overhaul of its armed services". The article went on to refer to pilotless planes, which, it states, were the success story of the Afghanistan conflict and were credited with killing Mohammed Ater". The article reports: An American Predator, flown from McDill air force base in Florida, located a building where Atef was staying near Kabul and attacked it with an anti-tank missile. It refers to the strategic defence review and continues, interestingly: British equipment in future will be bought to be more compatible with that of its allies. That is bound to cause consternation among opponents of Britain's increasingly close military ties to America. For once, I am not critical of that aspect, and I shall explain why. The article went on to state: The planes will be flown by a pilot sitting in a cockpit in a ground station in Britain or from a mobile command centre. It refers to one location already shortlisted, Llanbedr in Gwynedd in my constituency, from where the drones can be flown over Cardigan Bay during training. Within a few weeks of the article appearing, the Ministry of Defence announced its intention to close that airfield. The announcement was met with shock and dismay. Several hundred constituents have worked there for many years and their loyalty was beyond doubt. It seems that the company was gearing up for that shock announcement at Christmas 2001, and that redundancy processes have not been followed. The unswervingly loyal work force have been kicked in the teeth by QinetiQ, a company in which the Government are a major shareholder. They have not been treated in the way that one would expect staff to be treated.

The decision to close the airfield at Llanbedr and with it the Jindivik target service seems to have been taken in the face of several contrary requirements. The current role of Jindivik is to provide the Air Force with an effective airborne target system at a reasonable cost. In order for the trials to be realistic, a full-scale representative target is required. That has been done successfully at Llanbedr for many years. Unfortunately, neither the UK nor the BVRAAM—beyond visual range air-to-air missile—partner nations have a full-scale target available. Jindivik was selected as the nearest representative target available.

That is no longer an option, because the company and the Government preferred Mirach, which will be selected for trials. The Mirach costs are based on each target completing 25 flights before loss. The longest-operating Jindivik has completed 204 flights, and the largest number of flights by a UK Jindivik is 265.

Given the above, it is difficult to follow the logic of closing Llanbedr airport as a cost-saving exercise. Each of the lost Mirachs cost £200,000, and on their trial runs in the Hebrides many failed. The most illogical aspect of the proposed closure of the Llanbedr target service is that when a UK project, or the Royal Air Force, requires a target, there will not be one available if Mirach does not come up to standard. If QinetiQ cannot provide that target, money will be spent on improving an overseas range to enable it to meet the requirements of the UK trial. Essentially, experts say that money would be spent in Sweden, France, South Africa or the United States to meet the UK's trial requirements rather than on improving range facilities in the UK, thus allowing UK plc to be a leader in ranges and target facilities.

The other concern about closure of the airport comes from the RAF. The airport is very important for emergency landings. Indeed, the RAF uses the base hundreds of time a year and, typically, 86 times a year for emergency movements.

On 24 September, a meeting was held with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), together with members of his staff, the unions from Llanbedr airport and my Welsh Assembly colleague. The response that we received was not encouraging, but the Minister said that he would reply in detail on each point raised. To be fair, he did so within a reasonable time. We heard earlier today about some Departments' huge delay in responding, but on 12 October the Minister wrote to me with a detailed response to the many points that had been raised at that meeting. I wish now to analyse the points in his letter, as it is important to have those on the record.

Significantly, the Minister's letter did not mention either the combined aerial target service procedure—he referred to a period before the CATS contract was being discussed—or the cost of introducing Mirach. Although the Minister said that he undertook to reply to all the points that we had raised, he responded only on the Jindivik-specific points. Many other issues were raised relating to the airport at Llanbedr. In particular, we required a response on use of the airfield by RAF Hawk aircraft and on the potential to use the airfield for testing and development of future unmanned aircraft vehicles.

The Minister said: QinetiQ's proposals followed an extensive review of the facilities it currently operates on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. The review confirmed that the MOD owns a large number of diverse sites and capabilities, and that a substantial surplus exists within the T&E"— 0 test and evaluation— environment as a whole. This highlights the fact that provision of T&E is not currently being conducted in a cost effective manner and that significant transformation is required to provide better value for money for the MOD and hence for the taxpayer. That shows that value for money is key to the MOD's thinking. Alas, the interim use of Mirach pre CATS will not provide that.

The Minister then said: In terms of aerial target provision, no single system can provide all the capability needed for all weapon systems. Jindivik has met our requirements well, but it does have limitations. Mirach"— the new one— has limitations too. He goes on to sing the praises of Mirach, which is, unfortunately, misleading. He says: Mirach can for example fly multi targets and in formation and is designed to be a fully mobile system. Jindivik also has a proven capability to fly multi-target and in formation.

The Minister then referred to the relative sizes of the Mirach and the Jindivik, and said that the requirement for a full-scale representative target is not so robust as stated. The choice of target for any T&E activity is inevitably based on an assessment of many factors and the choice of Jindivik as the nearest representative target for ASRAAM and BVRAAM in itself involved necessary compromise. QinetiQ has evaluated the performance of Mirach against the RAF's usage of Jindivik and in terms of flying performance and signature characteristics, the build standard of Mirach will provide an adequate replacement for Jindivik. Any target system has a series of limitations—no single system can provide all the capability needed to assess each and every weapon system. The experts' response to that argument is that the visual signature of Jindivik is substantially larger than that of Mirach. Jindivik is 7.1 m long with a wingspan of 6.3 m, while Mirach is 4.1 m long and has a wingspan of 2.3 m. The difference is likely to result in a substantial increase in the number of aborted missile firings, due to the fighter being unable to acquire the target. The wasted fighter target sorties come at a cost that will ultimately have to be borne by the MOD.

The Minister went on to say: QinetiQ has confirmed that Mirach is the replacement target for Jindivik. However, on 13 September, an announcement was made under the heading "Invitations to Negotiate" to three bidders for the new system—Team Firecats, Insight Global Target Systems and a team led by QinetiQ, in which the Government have a stake. They were bidding for the CATS contract. It seemed that no one would know which target would be the long-term replacement for Jindivik until the winner was chosen. Mirach has a guaranteed life of only a few months beyond the proposed demise of Jindivik. The point that I am making is that the Government were actively pursuing the Mirach system with their preferred bidder while inviting two other companies to submit bids for replacement. I think that that procedure is rather skewed. I question whether it is morally right and I do not know whether it was legally right either.

The Minister went on to state: The suggestion that no hardware costs remain is incorrect … There are also other costs associated with the retention of Jindivik which have to be included", and so on. Keeping Jindivik in operation for the short period between its proposed retirement date and the start of the CATS contract should not incur any extra cost. In contrast, procuring and introducing Mirach to run from the middle of 2004 until the introduction of CATS and then scrapping it if it does not form part of the CATS solution will be extremely costly. That will certainly not be a cost-saving approach for the Government.

The Minister also states: Our understanding of the capabilities and limitations of Mirach will develop as we gain operational experience". He thereby says that it will not be perfect when it goes into operation—a rather strange thing for a Minister to say. He goes on to state: the system and QinetiQ's processes will be modified where necessary", which is again questionable in terms of the way forward. That statement implies that many months, if not years, will be needed to identify, design and produce modifications to the airframe, system and procedures. Unless the CATS contest has been prejudged, Mirach has a guaranteed life of only a few months.

In referring to Jindivik and Mirach, the Minister said: Both systems have the capability to recover towed targets by a number of means. Depending on exactly which towed target is used, Mirach targets are either ditched into the sea after use (as with Jindivik), recovered with the aircraft if undamaged (as with Jindivik), or parachuted into the sea for recovery". The Jindivik solution of bringing the target back with the aircraft is superior. The targets do not have to be searched for by a helicopter or with boats before they can be recovered. The recovery of Jindivik is unaffected by sea state. In those circumstances, Jindiviks would not be lost where Mirachs would be.

As I said, until the CATS competition has been decided, the long-term replacement for Jindivik is not known, or should not be known. I am extremely unhappy about the way in which the base has been treated. The work force have been through a long period of indecision, the privatisation of the company, and limited contracts three or four times in the past 25 years or so. Their loyalty and specialisms are beyond question and they deserve better.

Mr. Viggers

Having shot down an RAF Meteor target from Llanbedr in 1968, I pay tribute to the concerned manner in which the hon. Gentleman makes his case. I understand that, after such a long period of dedicated service, the work force would feel deeply about the closure of the station.

Mr. Llwyd

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. It would clearly be a great shame to close the station and I cannot understand why the Ministry of Defence is considering mothballing it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is on the coast and does not affect populous areas. It has been run excellently over the years and is now doomed to close in 2004 under a procedure that is morally and possibly legally questionable. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support and for his comments based on his experience. I am no expert—I have never shot anything down.

Bob Spink

A few defendants.

Mr. Llwyd

Not while defending them, I hope.

Jindivik has a capability for simultaneous flight of multiple targets. The information that QinetiQ staff have witnessed four target operations by Mirach is spurious. Jindivik will he replaced not by a better model, but by one that has yet to be proven. Yet the Ministry of Defence is apparently hell bent on doing that. Almost the whole cost of Llanbedr airfield has been allocated to Jindivik. Charges to the Air Force and the Army for their use of the facilities are well below the proportionate rate. For example, RAF Valley Hawks are charged significantly less per aircraft movement at Llanbedr than at RAF Valley or RAF Mona. Again, that gives the impression that there has been a conspiracy to close down the place for some time. If it transpired that use by the Air Force in Valley required Llanbedr to be kept open, the airfield operation costs would pass to them. The overall saving to the Ministry of Defence would be much smaller—more than half the savings might not be achieved.

I do not want to go into further detail this afternoon. Suffice it to say that I am worried about the work force. As the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) confirmed, they are dedicated and they deserve better treatment. I call on the Government, even at this late stage, to reconsider the short-termism and the odd, questionable procedure that has been adopted to mothball an airfield that could he considerably useful not only to the military but to the civil authorities. That makes no sense in the short, medium or long term. I urge the Government to reconsider.

I extend the compliments of the season to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all hon. Members, but I remind the House that, as a direct result of the Ministry of Defence's conduct, many people in my constituency will not have a happy Christmas.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that time is running on and I fear that some hon. Members will not be able to speak. It would therefore be helpful if hon. Members could make their remarks as brief as possible so that not too many people are disappointed.

5.18 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I shall be brief. I want to raise two issues: one involves my constituency and the other is a national matter. The constituency issue concerns the way in which public money has been used on a portfolio of roughly 3,000 properties. I must relate a little of the history so that hon. Members can understand the point that I am making.

The properties constitute an estate that was built by a company called Warner Estates probably 100 years ago. For many years, it acted as a private landlord and was regarded as fairly philanthropic. It gradually decided to get out of the rented market and started to sell the properties, leasehold so that by about 1998, approximately three quarters were leasehold and a quarter were tenanted.

Late in 2000, the company decided to dispose of those properties. At that point, negotiations went on, which involved Circle 33 housing group. The focus was on the quarter of the properties that were tenanted or empty, because, quite clearly, if a social landlord could acquire those properties, that would be useful in an area with a rented housing shortage. All those who had the matter raised with them, including the local authority and me, thought that a sensible way to proceed.

In addition to the tenanted properties, however, there were about 2,000 leasehold properties and about another 300 properties involving two flats—one leasehold as well as one still tenanted—within a building. There were negotiations with Circle 33. Warner Estates had a subsidiary company called Benchlevel, which had a further subsidiary called Finalbrief. Warner Estates stripped out all the assets from the two subsidiaries and transferred all the freeholds to the ownership of Benchlevel.

Circle 33 then acquired the share capital of Benchlevel. In turn, it split the properties and took all the leasehold properties into the further subsidiary, Finalbrief. The share capital of Finalbrief was sold on to a company called Freehold Managers (Nominees) Ltd., in which all the shareholders were directors of HSBC Trust Corporation, which is based in the Isle of Man.

The question that arose involved the reason for using that mechanism to transfer the properties. The freeholds were transferred between companies that had been associated with one another for a number of years and the share capital of those companies was sold, not the freeholds. So, every single leaseholder was unable to apply the right of first refusal to buy their freehold, which they would have been able to do if the freeholds were being sold between the companies. That is why this mechanism was adopted.

Circle 33 said to me, "We have done that because Warner Estates insisted on selling the portfolio as a whole, and of course it moved the properties to its subsidiary before we bought them." That may be so, but I find it difficult to believe that all that was not thought out beforehand. Shell companies were created, which were then transferred along with the properties.

A lot of other issues arose involving the failure of Circle 33 to give leaseholders information on what was happening, the ownership of the freeholds and problems with the companies that had become the new owners. Many of those we can now solve, however, partly because of the good leasehold reform legislation that the House passed last summer, which gives leaseholders many more rights.

The central issue that concerns me is that public money—Housing Corporation money was involved in funding Circle 33's acquisition of those properties—has been used to fund that purchase through mechanisms that were deliberately engineered to prevent leaseholders from being able to exercise the right to first refusal of purchase of the freehold. Nothing illegal has been done, but there has been deliberate engineering to achieve that outcome, which causes me considerable concern. That is not how public money should be used through a social landlord.

A lot of problems remain. Those properties have been in place for many years. In all the years that I have been involved in politics in Waltham Forest, I have received very few complaints from Warner Estates leaseholders or tenants. Within 18 months of a social landlord taking them over, we have packed public meetings attended by several hundred people who are all concerned about what has been happening to their properties. The matter should be looked at by Ministers who were involved in some of the decisions at the beginning, when approval was given to Housing Corporation money being used in such a way.

Let me now raise a national issue that is likely to affect many Members early in the new year. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 contains a provision, which will come into force on 8 January, denying people applying for asylum in-country any support unless the National Asylum Support Service is convinced that they can produce a good reason for not having applied at the port of entry. Thousands of people could be destitute as a result, with no possibility of an appeal—but there will of course be appeals, because those denied support will end up in our advice surgeries.

I do not want to argue the case as to whether we should have acted as we did because I made my views clear when we were debating the Bill, but a good many questions were raised at the time—I raised some of them with the Home Secretary—about the way in which the scheme would operate, what criteria would be used to decide whether someone had waited too long before making an application, and what was meant by "special needs". The Act says that those with special needs will be exempt from the provision. What will happen if someone has a health problem? What will happen to a woman who is pregnant? I was told that we would be given the information; indeed, a Minister in the House of Lords suggested that codes of guidance might be issued. Nothing has been issued so far, however.

Mr. Gardiner

Are not those who can show that their destitution is a result of pregnancy, age or illness, including mental illness, specifically covered by the National Assistance Act 1948? Did not a recent court case prove that?

Mr. Gerrard

Some people will still be able to go to a local authority and cite that Act, but local authorities themselves will have to decide whether the Act covers those people. We need codes of guidance and criteria so that local authorities know where they stand, non-governmental organisations know where they stand, and we know where we stand when people turn up at our surgeries—as they undoubtedly will when they have been refused support by the NASS. We need to know the rules of the game.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will draw that problem to the Home Secretary's attention. As I have said, from 8 January it is likely to affect many Members of Parliament.

I join others, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in offering you and the staff of the House the compliments of the season.

5.28 pm
Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Let me offer you, Sir, and everyone at the Palace of Westminster Christmas greetings and good wishes. I extend those good wishes to the Minister, to Labour Members, and even to my own Whips!

I have a sad task to perform. I wish to pay tribute to Madam Mayor of Castle Point, Councillor Vera Elworthy, the charter mayor, who sadly passed away on Saturday last week. She was a lady of great dignity, charm and grace. She was one of the finest councillors that Castle Point, or any council in the country, ever had. She was loved by everyone, particularly the council officers. She had boundless energy and enthusiasm, and, even when she was in a wheelchair, she never failed to see residents when other councillors were often not to be found. She visited them and supported them when they needed her help.

Vera cared deeply for others, and her civic duties and service were eclipsed only by her voluntary work. She was chairman, president or fundraiser of more charitable institutions and good causes than I could possibly remember. She was always warmly and well supported by her husband George, who is a fine gentleman.

This is a significant point in the history of Castle Point, because it has lost a great servant to civic society. It is also a great personal loss to me, as Vera was a good and loyal friend. Her passing will be deeply regretted in Castle Point.

There are two other emerging local heroes in Castle Point, both of whom are ladies. Kate Meager has taken by the horns the problem of the local multi-modal study, which threatened many quiet communities with roads and changes to traffic management. Those proposals were deeply regretted by many local people. Kate Meager has been the voice of her local community, and has taken the battle on through the press and through councillors. She has done a great service to the community on the Bird estate. In particular, she has fought the Jotmans lane proposal.

It is recognised that Castle Point suffers from enormous congestion problems. Canvey island needs a third road, and I shall keep on mentioning that until we get it. These problems need to be solved. I do not point the finger at any political party. I just want to congratulate Kate Meager on the excellent work that she does for her community.

The other local hero to emerge recently is Jackie Byrne, who has taken up the cudgels on behalf of residents who oppose Cliffe airport, and that is virtually every resident in Castle Point. That airport is an inappropriate Government option. It is environmentally, economically and socially disastrous for Essex, yet Essex has not been consulted by the Government on this matter. That shows what little regard the Government have for the people of Essex, and how bankrupt and arrogant they have become.

The airport will have five runways, the nearest of which will be only 2,500 yards from my constituency. Planes coming in to land on the fifth runway will fly right over Canvey island and Hadleigh in my constituency, and it will be in use 24 hours a day. Despite all the problems of noise, aviation fuel smells, air pollution and the environmental damage that that would cause, the Government did not see fit to consult my community. When I persistently and repeatedly ask the Government to send a Minister to a public meeting that I would organise in my community, so that he can explain that option and answer questions, they refuse even to answer me. Ministers do not have the courage to explain to the community what their Cliffe airport proposal is all about.

A lot of money has gone into the health service nationally over the past two years. There has been an increase in funding of about 22 per cent., yet the number of patients admitted to hospital in that period has fallen by 0.5 per cent. There are 55,000 fewer patients admitted to hospitals. The gold standard is the number of finished consultant episodes, which is up only 1.6 per cent. as opposed to the 22 per cent. extra cash. That shows that the Government are failing to deliver on public services. Locally, we have difficulties with health, and we need improved health care services.

I welcome some of the changes that are taking place. We in Castle Point have great difficulty with succession planning for GPs who are coming up for retirement. Recruiting new doctors is a big problem, and one way in which the primary care trust has tried to tackle it is by setting up a single centre for health on Canvey Island, at the Paddocks. Various facilities will be provided there, including training, which will help us to attract junior GPs; a smaller practice would be unable to attract them.

But we must avoid over-centralisation, and be aware that we need centres for health care excellence on the east of the island and on the north. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend. West (Mr. Amess) said, the Prime Minister's attack on single-handed practices was absolutely intolerable; it was quite wrong to paint all such practices with a single broad brush. Members will know that many single-handed practices deliver an excellent, high-quality service, and we should be prepared to stand up and thank them for that, rather than criticising them in the manner of this Government.

On the problem of the post offices, as we know, the Government have said that they expect to close 3,000 of them over the next two years. Hon. Members may remember Labour's 1997 pledge that only it could be trusted with the future of the post offices. Labour said that it would maintain the network of post offices". Those are the words, but as I said, the actions show that the Government plan to close 3,000 post offices over the next two years. I give the Minister notice that we in Castle Point will fight for every single post office to stay open. They are more than just shops, or part of the economic infrastructure; they are an essential and deeply valued part of our community and social fabric. I repeat: we will fight to save those post offices in Castle Point.

Youth street crime is a great problem, and antisocial behaviour is a major issue in Castle Point, just as it is elsewhere. I was therefore sorry to discover that, through the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, the Government have removed the police's power to confiscate from people aged under 18 unopened cans or bottles of alcohol. I know that the Government realise that they have got this wrong, and that they plan to change the provision; indeed, I intend to introduce a 10- minute Bill that would do so. I know about this issue because it was me who introduced the legislation that originally empowered the police to remove alcohol both opened and unopened. If a group of nine to 11-year-olds are on the street at 10 o'clock at night—when they should not be there—with a six-pack, only one of which they are drinking from, the police can confiscate the three-quarters empty can, but they must leave with those children the five unopened cans, to be drunk as soon as they turn their backs. Then, those kids will get into trouble. It is a question of protecting not just our communities but those children. It is while under the influence of alcohol that most children are first exposed to drugs. This is an important issue, so I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support my 10-minute Bill, which I shall introduce on 15 January.

I have a five-point plan to tackle street crime and antisocial behaviour that is very simple. First, we need more police officers on the street. That means not only more bobbies, but using those whom we already have more effectively, rather than their sitting in the police station doing their administration. They must have the new computer systems that will release them for policing duties on the streets.

We need police stations to he kept open longer, so that people have better access to the police. We need zero-tolerance policing, so that youngsters know where the firm lines are drawn. My police force in Essex has been talking about going out on the street with social workers to negotiate acceptable behaviour contracts with gangs of youngsters. I have never heard such nonsense. The House fixes what is acceptable behaviour and decides the laws of the land, and the police enforce those laws. Social workers should not be involved in this.

We want parents to take seriously their duties to control their youngsters and to know what they are doing. We want there to be more facilities to distract youngsters from bad behaviour. In my constituency, for example, the excellent Legacy XS is opening a new youth centre and a skateboard park. We owe it to youngsters to give them viable alternatives, so that they are kept out of trouble and we are kept safe.

I visited internally displaced people in the Burma jungle two weeks ago. I went over the border from Thailand, and I also visited the 20,000 refugees on that border. I have seen for myself the disaster taking place in Burma, which is getting worse by the day as Burma's economic problems worsen.

The Burmese military junta, the SPDC, has made some positive moves, such as releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Also, about 10 per cent. of political prisoners have been released, but that is a small first step in a long journey, and much remains to be done. There are still massive human rights abuses against ethnic peoples such as the Karen, the Shan, the Mon and the Chin.

I hope to secure an Adjournment debate in which I can tell the House about my visit to Burma. We can then debate the two key things that need to be done there. The matter has attracted great support in the House, as it does not involve party politics. First, we must review the gut-wrenchingly awful human rights abuses being carried out against the ethnic groups. We must get the international community to focus on them urgently.

Secondly, we need to debate, the longer-term constitutional framework that will give justice and stability to the Burmese people. In that way, the problem of drugs from that country which affects Britain, of the drug money that funds terrorism around the world, and of the human rights abuses in Burma can be resolved permanently.

Homelessness is a problem in my constituency. I am meeting the chief executive of Castle Point borough council tomorrow to talk about the way in which homeless people in the area have been betrayed by the council's failure to deal with the problem. I expect to raise that issue in the House at a later date.

Finally, I want to talk about medals. Another Member spoke earlier about the need for a Suez medal, and I agree entirely. However, I want to raise a new matter in connection with medals.

Christmas is a time of good will. Will the Prime Minister consider awarding a campaign medal to recognise the service given and sacrifices made by the men who served in Polaris and hunter-killer submarines during the cold war? They maintained the peace for many years, but the people involved in the campaign have received no recognition. They were effectively on active deterrent patrol all year round, including at Christmas and the new year. A constituent of mine once left his wife over the new year to go on patrol, leaving her with one child aged five years, and one aged three days. There was no paternity leave for him, and I think that he deserves a medal. The Prime Minister had paternity leave so I hope that he will award a medal to reward those people. At this time, many of our service men and women are getting ready to fight for world freedom from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and they go with our blessings and good wishes.

5.45 pm
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I will be brief and speak on only one subject. This may well he the last debate that we have before this country is at war over the situation in Iraq and the middle east. While we are spending a huge amount of time, effort and money in preparation for war, the entire population of the country is involved in various festivities that are supposed to be about peace and justice.

I reflected on that when I visited a local school last night. The Islington arts and media school had a wonderful Christmas celebration, in which children from every religion and no religion took part. They had recently celebrated Eid, Hanukah and Diwali, and now they were celebrating Christmas. They were happily working, playing and learning together. There is something very poignant about young people's preparedness to work together and to have some understanding of the way in which the world is set. Many are refugee children who have come from war-torn communities; they have seen brutality that one hopes never to see and suffered indignities that one hopes never to suffer in a lifetime. They give us great cause for hope.

The policies pursued by the United States, unfortunately with the very active and vocal support of this country, do not give us cause for hope. We received an application a few days ago from the United States asking us to join in national missile defence, and we have been requested to join them in a war against Iraq. I will deal with the latter point first.

No one in the House is a supporter of the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein and all that it has done. Many in this House, myself included, opposed the sale of arms to Iraq in the mid-1980s and supported the right of Kurdish people to live in peace within Iraq's borders. Since that time, what has been the policy towards Iraq? During the war in 1991, it was to bomb the country using depleted uranium weapons among many others, creating the utmost terror and misery and causing many deaths. That was followed by a sanctions regime, which should have been restricted to military and financial sanctions that could have had some effect on the regime but which instead affected the ordinary, poorest people in Iraq, many of whom have suffered grievously. The death rate is very high as a result of the sanctions.

In the wake of 11 September, President George Bush named his axis of evil states and decided that Iraq had to be bombed and there had to be a war against it. He eventually went to the United Nations and Security Council resolution 1441 was passed. I submit that it does not give us the authority to go to war. What it does is to give weapons inspectors the authority to visit Iraq—or, rather, go back to Iraq, because they were withdrawn in 1998—and that is what we are doing. I find it quite extraordinary that when the Iraqi Government complied with the request that their dossier and inventory of weapons be produced within the due time—and it was, all 12,000 pages of it—and when it went to the United States to go to the UN headquarters, it was taken over by the US rather than the UN. Other UN member states were apparently given copies of the dossier, and a partial view of the US assessment of it.

It seems to me that the UN is being told by the United States that it does not really matter what the inspectors say or how successful they are in finding any alleged weapons of mass destruction and destroying them, because the focus is on going to war.

If there was seriousness about avoiding a war and about ensuring the success of the weapons inspection regime, why are so many troops being sent to the Gulf? Why is so much money being spent on preparations for war? Why does the US President constantly undermine any efforts to bring about a peaceful solution to the problem?

It is sad and extremely disappointing that the British Government are touring the world on behalf of the US and its putative war against Iraq and are apparently giving the US carte blanche to go to war. Many of us were not convinced by the statement made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Defence that there is to be a period of reflection on and consideration of Britain's involvement. If that is the case, why are reservists being called up? Why are so many preparations going ahead? Why is there such a high level of political and military preparation for war?

Many of us think that the US approach is deeply cynical. Like the UK, the US has always had a great interest in the middle east. Like this country, it has been involved in many coups over the years to impose regimes on countries in the region. I believe that the real motive behind the actions of the US is not democracy, peace, justice or human rights—it is all about the region's massive resources, especially the huge oil reserves in Iraq and other countries.

Throughout the world, many people believe that, fundamentally, the United States and Britain are going to war for oil, resources and military power, with no thought of the consequences in the region and of the number of people who will be killed—civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, and the soldiers of Iraq, Britain, the United States and other countries. In the end, the beneficiaries will be not the people of Iraq but those who have sold arms and those who are able to sell oil after the war.

We should stop now. We should support the weapons inspection regime, but we should pause and not get involved in a war. The consequences will be very serious indeed. A war will not bring about justice for the Palestinian people. It will not bring about human rights for the people of Saudi Arabia who are denied them. It will unleash other wars in the region and, above all, it will set the whole middle east and the whole Muslim and Arab world firmly against Europe and north America.

We are in the 21st century. We could bring about peace and justice but, instead, the Government produce a document entitled "Missile Defence: A Public Discussion Paper", which describes the protection of the United States from supposed missile attacks from the rest of the world. The US is the very country that is trying to abrogate and remove all the disarmament treaties of the past 30 years. In a world that is so deeply divided between rich and poor and between north and south, is it really sane for the world's richest and most powerful country to embark on this massive and probably unworkable experiment in national missile defence and involve us in it, too? Is it really sensible to go into the 21st century believing that an increased level of nuclear deterrence will bring peace to the world?

On 11 September last year, the United States suffered grievously when 3,000 people died in the attack on the World Trade Centre. The persons who committed those atrocities were unarmed; they took over planes with knives. They had skill and they were prepared to die because they believed that they were doing so for a cause. I have no time whatever for those who want to kill innocent civilians, but if we want to live in a peaceful world I am not convinced that going to war in Iraq, setting up national missile defence and labelling a series of states as an axis of evil—presumably in order to start a war in the future—is a sensible way forward.

The United States would be better advised by this country and others to get involved with the rest of the world, to support the Kyoto protocol and to attend the next earth summit—rather than ignoring it, as at Johannesburg. The US should sign up to a process that shares the wealth of the world rather than stealing it. Nothing angers people more in the poorest parts of the world, especially the middle east, when countries with huge rates of consumption which are ignorant of the reality of life for the poorest people in the world prosecute a war that seems to be intended to grab the resources of a region. At this time of the year—a time of peace and hope—I should have thought that we could pause for a moment and think of the terrible consequences of a war with Iraq in the new year, with ordinary Iraqi people and soldiers dying.

The past few months have seen massive political changes around the world and the rebirth and rejuvenation of peace movements in this country and elsewhere. On 28 September, 400,000 people marched through the streets of London; a million have marched through Florence; and many thousands have marched in New York, Washington, California, all over Europe and in many parts of the world. A generation is growing up in the wealthy west who simply do not want the policies of widening the gap between rich and poor and of a war between the first world and the third world to continue in their lifetime. They want to see a world based on peace, justice and on legal and moral principles. This war is about none of those things; it is fundamentally about US commercial interests.

The Government are well aware of the views of many people. I hope that the fact that a lot of ordinary British people have been to a political meeting for the first time in their lives in the past year because they do not want a war carried out in their names will give them pause for thought. In that spirit, I hope that we have a peaceful Christmas. Above all, I hope that we have a peaceful new year.

5.56 pm
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I, too, wish to address a number of constituency matters. Even if the Minister cannot reply to them today, I hope that he will ensure that they are followed up by the relevant ministries.

First, I wish to pick up on a couple of comments made by others. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) talked about the long-running campaign to secure a medal for the Suez veterans of 1951–54. Hon. Members of all parties have campaigned on this issue. Earlier this year I was pleased to take part in a delegation to the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, who was conducting a review of the matter on behalf of the Prime Minister, and to urge him and his colleagues to look favourably on the compelling case that recognition should be given to those veterans by means of a medal. It is disappointing that since the review was announced and since that deputation, events have continued to drag and we still do not have a decision by the honours and decorations committee. I hope that the Minister can pass along the line to those conducting the review the fact that time is pressing and that they should honour those veterans while they are still alive.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) commented on the daft repeal of legislation enabling the police to confiscate unopened alcohol containers. He is absolutely right to flag that issue. Alcohol definitely fuels antisocial behaviour. In terms of preventive policing, it beggars belief that the police were unable to confiscate sealed containers and could only take opened containers. When I raised that concern with the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety recently, I was told that the Government were now minded to reverse that change in the law to bring it back to the position which would allow the police to exercise the power of confiscation of sealed containers. Just two weeks ago I received in a letter the good news that the Licensing Bill will contain amendments to the law to give effect to that intention. That is welcome news.

The first constituency case that I want to raise concerns the operation of the blue badge disabled persons scheme. A number of my constituents have raised concerns about the regulations governing the scheme. In particular, Mrs. Jenny Herneman and Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, whose sons James and Cameron suffer from autistic spectrum disorder and who provide hours of love, care and support to them and to other children, have real problems with transport. Getting to and from the shops and transporting their sons safely to other places is very difficult and adds yet another obstacle and burden to their caring role. Walking is often not an option—not because of their children's physical impairment, but because of the challenging behaviour that they sometimes exhibit given the unpredictability that those conditions can result in—so they want to be part of the blue badge scheme for safety reasons.

That problem is not isolated: it is growing in my constituency and, I suspect, in those of many other hon. Members. Indeed, it prompted the local consultant community paediatrician, Dr. Benedicta Ogeah, to raise her concerns with Sutton council earlier this year, to clarify whether the regulations are flexible. It led me to write to the Department for Transport and, on 22 August, the Under-Secretary replied: The eligibility criteria for a badge are governed by regulations laid before Parliament. Apart from blind people and those with severe upper limb disabilities, the key criterion to qualify for a badge is 'a permanent and substantial disability which causes inability to walk or very considerable difficulty in walking'. People with Asperger's Syndrome and similar conditions will only be eligible if their walking ability is also very seriously and permanently affected. That is an unsatisfactory position, and it led me to table early-day motion 295, which attracted support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. That early-day motion calls on the Government to review the regulations to allow safety to be a consideration in circumstances such as those that I describe. I hope that the Minister will pass that serious concern on to the Department for Transport.

The second issue that I wish to raise relates to the television licence concessions that apply to sheltered housing schemes, particularly those in the public sector. I refer to the accommodation for residential care concessionary television licence scheme, following a case raised by my constituents, Mr. Daniel Davies and Mr. Freeman and others in Crown road in Sutton. The problem is that qualifying residents in sheltered schemes can lose their concessions if the level of warden provision, or the age or social mix in the scheme change.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been reviewing that anomalous and unfair situation for some time now, and it has promised to introduce a preserved rights scheme to protect residents from those changes. In November 2001, I was told in a letter from the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting that consultation between the DCMS and officials at the BBC on the formulation of the necessary amendments to the television licence fee regulations were currently under way. That is fair enough, but that was the position in April 2001—some six months before that letter was written—and it is still the case today, 12 months later.

Indeed, the Secretary of State told me in a letter dated 27 September: The structure of the proposed amending regulations is still under consideration. Surely the time for consideration has come to an end. Surely regulations should be introduced so that those who live in sheltered housing are not concerned that the concession could be suddenly swept away by dint of a simple change in the administration of their sheltered housing scheme. I hope that the Minister will pass that on as well.

The final concern that I wish to raise relates to changes in the way in which the basic state pension will be collected from next year. The chief officer of my local branch of Age Concern in Sutton, Marion Harper, recently sent me a copy of her correspondence with Postwatch regarding that change. In effect, the pension book will be withdrawn in April 2003, and older people will he given two options to collect their pensions: opening a bank account with the universal bank, or using the Post Office's keypad facility with a personal identification number.

In her letter to Postwatch, Marion Harper said: We are very concerned about the entire concept of changes to pension collection, but we would welcome an explanation as to how the new system will affect older people with mobility problems, particularly arthritis and older people who are visually impaired or blind. Please inform us what measures have been considered for these groups of older people. Postwatch's reply was very disturbing indeed, as it said: On the issue of difficulties that may be faced by older people, it will be possible for those people who have a regular carer to apply for an additional card and PIN number. This arrangement applies only to the Post Office Card Account. Customers using a current account with a cheque book to collect their benefit can write a cheque for their carer to cash or, alternatively, they can provide a letter of authority to enable the carers to use a building society pass book to withdraw money from the account. These arrangements apply to permanent carers/helpers. Despite the fact that we have persistently raised this issue with the Department of Work and Pensions, it is still not clear how collection of benefits by another person will be facilitated either where there is no regular carer or helper; or where the claimant has a Card Account and needs another person to collect the benefit suddenly. In these circumstances, the benefits recipient would need to give someone their card and secret PIN number, thus breaching the terms and conditions of the account. A further point of clarification we are still seeking is the position of those people who are not able to use a PIN pad but who do not have a carer/helper to collect their pensions for them. With just three months to go before monumental changes are introduced that will impact on the lives of many thousands of pensioners in this country, it is a real cause for concern that details of that kind are not clear. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the Department for Work and Pensions will work over Christmas and through the night to make sure that pensioners have this information, and that their carers and others can be assured that there will be secure ways in which they can gain access to their pensions.

In conclusion, I was heartened by the comments of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), especially about the opportunity that debates such as this provide to raise cases and concerns, and about how it is important that the Minister who replies, even if he does not have time to deal with all the matters raised, ensures that they are followed through. I look forward to receiving the results of that in relation to the cases that I have raised today. Like other hon. Members, I have many such constituency cases brought to my attention every year, and these few opportunities to raise them in the House are very precious.

I hope that the matters raised will be taken forward. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my brief remarks, and I pass on my best wishes for this season to you, to officers of the House, to hon. Members and, most importantly, to my constituents.

6.7 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Nobody knows better than you and the other occupants of the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, the importance of timing. Timing is critical in this House; it is important when somebody makes a killer intervention and in terms of the order in which Members speak. I am conscious, too, that the time that I take to make my remarks is important to a number of Opposition Back Benchers. I therefore promise that I shall try to ensure that the time that I take is commensurate with the importance of the subject matter with which I must deal.

When the Government produce a Green Paper two days before the winter recess, one can tell that the timing is critical—and not by chance. The Green Paper on pensions is about timing because nothing is more important than the time at which we choose to get involved in preparing a pension for our future and for our future well-being in retirement. The savings gap in this country is £27 billion. It has been estimated that every person in this country—pre-retirement—needs to save an extra £1,400 per year to prepare adequately for retirement. The timing issue that I wish to put to the Minister, however, is one that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did not answer the other day.

The Secretary of State announced many important things including the review to be conducted by Adair Turner into compulsion. He did not, however, announce the time scale for that review, which is absolutely critical, because we have waited long enough in this House to deal with compulsion once and for all. There cannot be many sensible financial commentators in this country who believe that we can continue with a voluntary system to prepare our population adequately for their old age, and that we can prepare for a decent pension in old age without compulsion. I am not suggesting that work will not be done on the matter or that the report that Adair Turner and the members of his commission will produce will not be valuable. However, the work is urgent and the timing is critical, and I urge the Government to make an announcement as to when it will take place.

The fact that a Green Paper is published two days before the Christmas recess means that it will not be given the full blazon of publicity by the Government, but the fact that the Cabinet Office's "Game Plan: A Strategy for Delivering Government Sport and Physical Activity Objectives" has been published on the final day before the recess—19 December—is a clear sign of contempt for the document. The document relates to some of the most important and fundamental issues facing all Departments, not just the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. For it to have been published today and for it not to have reached the Table Office until just before 1 o'clock so that hon. Members did not even have the chance to read it properly before this debate is a great pity.

Fortunately, I have spent many hours waiting to contribute to the debate, and I have had the chance to peruse the document with some care. I shall therefore consider some of the issues that it raises. My first point relates to the elements that it has failed to address altogether. We will not have the fundamental change in participation in sport and physical activity that the document argues for until we take seriously the issue of making it a statutory obligation upon local authorities to make provision for sport, physical activity and leisure services in the area under their jurisdiction. The fact that that question has been fudged in the document—it is not even mentioned, as far as I can see—means that the document cannot deliver to the time scales that it has set for what it wishes to achieve.

The document also fails to extend the powers of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to call in the development or sale of private playing fields. I welcome the moves that the Government took at the beginning of their period of office. Before then, playing fields were being sold off at the rate of 40 a month. The figure has now fallen to two a month, and I welcome that. It is a tremendous decrease, and I know that even those two a month are examined extremely carefully, but the Secretary of State should have been given increased powers to call in the development or sale of private playing fields.

From what I can tell in the time that I have had to peruse the document, it also fails to use the tax system to incentivise people to invest in their health. Small and medium-sized businesses should be able to provide their employees with tax-free gym membership. VAT on personal fitness equipment could also be reduced, as a way of incentivising individuals and businesses to get people engaged in physical activity.

Timing is critical. When a Department produces a 223-page document in which the targets it sets for achieving the goals is 2020—in 18 years' time—and it does not specify the individual medium-term targets on the way to that goal, that is another clear sign that it does not expect to be held to account for what it says it wishes to deliver. That is a great pity. What the document wants to deliver is commendable. It sets out a participation target among the population of 70 per cent., but that is by 2020. It is vital that we have key stages along that route to define exactly what medium-level physical activity and extensive physical activity constitute so that we know what the Government are trying to achieve at each stage and how they measure up against delivery.

If timing is important, then so is structure. One of the most important and radical things that the document does is to look seriously at the delivery mechanism of the Government and their capability to deliver what they want to achieve within the current structure. It is not possible within a departmental system of government to deliver many of the policies that we wish to achieve. That is particularly the case in sport. Sport does not just have an impact on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; many of the most profound impacts of participating in sport come under the mantle of the Department of Health. The National Audit Office has shown that the cost of obesity to the country is approximately £2 billion each year, some £0.5 billion of which is a direct cost to the national health service.

This country spends £1 a head on sport and physical activity per year. We spend more than £800 a head on our national health service per year. The imbalance is blindingly obvious. If we take £10 out of the £800 and add it to the £1, the preventive medical benefits of engaging in sport to combat obesity, coronary heart disease and diabetes are clear. It would save the Government money instead of costing them money. But a departmental system of government cannot deliver that because it has to focus on this year's departmental targets. A Department would have to say, "If we take this £10 and give it to another Department to achieve its objectives, can we actually show that we are going to match up to the short and medium-term targets that our Department has been set?" Of course the answer would often be no. The same thing happens in the Home Office. It realises the benefits of sport and of engaging young people in physical activity, but it cannot deliver through sport because that is not part of its remit. Home Office targets are not seen to be met by putting money into sport.

The document contains an important initiative. It recommends establishing SPAB, a cross-departmental sport and physical activity board, to pull together out of all the Departments—the Department for Education and Skills, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Office, the DCMS and the Department of Health—the resources necessary to invest in our sporting infrastructure. So we have the beginnings of lateral thinking about the straitjacket that the Government have got themselves into for years. Through departmental funding and short and medium-term target-setting, we cannot create across Government a body dedicated to delivering many of our policy initiatives. I hope that the document will not have a lifespan of just four hours of parliamentary debate this afternoon. If it is to achieve its goals by 2020, we must wish it much more discussion and a better wind than that.

I have spoken about time. There is perhaps no more moving or eloquent treatise on time than in the Book of Ecclesiastes, where the prophet teaches that there is a time to be born and a time to die. Earlier this week my good friend and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Daisley) issued a public statement advising that following recent surgery, doctors had advised him that he had only a short time to live.

Paul has devoted his life to serving the people of Brent. In the council and in Parliament he has constantly battled to improve their lives. Too often in life, we fail to say thank you to people before the time is too late. With characteristic bravery, Paul is publicly facing up to the doctors' diagnosis. We wish them to be wrong. We wish Paul more time, but I could not let this opportunity pass to let him know and to state publicly the depth of love and respect that the people of our borough of Brent bear him for all that he has given to us.

6.21 pm
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

May I tell the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) that that sentiment is shared throughout the House, and particularly on the Conservative Benches?

I should like to raise the case of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' quinquennial review of Horticulture Research International, its effect on the HRI station at Efford in my constituency and the effect that it would have on jobs. Clearly, the team at Efford impressed those conducting the quinquennial review. The review's conclusions relating to Efford state: Efford has an inspirational site manager who is taking active steps to remove the deficit and seek new income sources within the capability of the site. Although we consider that closure may be the best option financially, we recommend that Efford should receive the opportunity to consult with the local grower industry and scientific community about new income opportunities as an alternative to closure". The inspirational site manager mentioned is Mr. Ray Tucker, who has an excellent support staff in his work force. He enjoys support from the local industry, as I know from a number of horticulturists who have written to me. There is, however, a problem. Inspirational management is important, as is the quality of the work force and the support of industry, but resources are also needed. Mr. Tucker cannot he expected to manage existing projects very well, and at the same time to go out and find additional sources of income—to market Efford.

I use the word "cannot" loosely, because clearly Mr. Tucker is doing that, and doing so sufficiently well as to have produced the complimentary reference in the report. However, if Efford is to be given its chance to make itself viable, it needs to develop the business by acquiring an additional manager to manage projects, so that Mr. Tucker can get out there and win the business for Efford. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to raise with Lord Whitty the possibility of allowing Efford to recruit such a person, notwithstanding the current moratorium that the Department has placed on HRI. I hope that the Minister will be able to meet me, and perhaps Mr. Tucker, to discuss the matter.

6.24 pm
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

I begin by echoing the comments of other hon. Members in wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, your staff and all Officers of the House a very happy Christmas. I thank you for your kindness and courtesy over the past 12 months.

This has been a wonderful year for our country. We have celebrated the golden jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It has been a national celebration and I congratulate everybody in the country who organised street parties and celebrations to commemorate this momentous year in the history of our country. I was privileged to attend 50 golden jubilee events in my constituency of Romford. We should be proud of this wonderful year that we have celebrated. Long may Her Majesty reign over us.

I wish to raise one or two constituency issues—I shall be brief because I am aware of the short amount of time left. Hon. Members may have witnessed my question to the Prime Minister yesterday, when I asked him why his constituency of Sedgefield will receive an increase in local government grant that is nearly three times as much as the increase received by the London borough of Havering—Havering's increase is 3.5 per cent. and Sedgefield's is 8.9 per cent. The Prime Minister failed to answer.

As the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) will confirm, Havering has been shortchanged for many years under both Governments. That is borne out by a multitude of published figures. We are suffering in many other ways, too. Collier Row police station in my constituency has been closed, and we lost a fire engine from Hornchurch.

We are also suffering through a lack of funding through central Government, which must be addressed. Many pensioners are concerned at the prospect of losing their free bus pass. I support the Freedom pass, which should be extended throughout the United Kingdom to allow all pensioners to travel freely. It would give them something back in their later years for paying their taxes all their lives and fighting for their country. They deserve better than they are getting, and I would argue with anyone who suggested that the free bus pass should be removed.

Finally, in this golden jubilee year, why can we not fly the Union flag all year round from the Houses of Parliament, as her Majesty does from Buckingham palace when she is not in residence? It is a disgrace that Portcullis House's flagpole has not been used since the building was opened. In 2003 can we please see the flag of our country flying throughout the year to show that Members of the United Kingdom Parliament are proud of our heritage, our history and our nation?

6.28 pm
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

I shall use my two minutes wisely and join my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) in wishing everybody a happy Christmas. I have five issues to raise in my two minutes.

The misuse of fireworks is a big issue in my constituency, and I look forward to the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) making progress in the year ahead.

Post office closure is another major issue. More than 7,000 people in Edinburgh, West signed my petition to fight for the retention of the local post offices. Most of those are in urban areas, but there are also problems in rural communities where, because of the uncertainty of the post offices' future income, it is difficult to know whether postmasters and postmistresses will be able to take over the businesses.

On Iraq, I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on his passionate speech, to which I would only add that there is no hurry to move ahead with military action. Liberal Democrat Members have previously mentioned the need for a debate on this issue in the House, but we must let the weapons inspectors do their job.

The remaining two issues are not so much constituency as global matters. The first is the food crisis in southern Africa. While we are enjoying our Christmas dinners, people in Africa are about to experience another famine. Eritrea is now experiencing pre-famine conditions. On top of that, it faces the scourge of AIDS. These people are the most vulnerable in the world today and the best Christmas present that they could get would be for the international community to respond, feed them, lift them out of poverty and ensure that next Christmas, they will be able to feed themselves.

6.29 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Without hesitation, deviation or repetition, I, too, give my best wishes for the season to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Officers of the House. I had hoped to address the House in relation to phoenix traders, but I shall simply mention the issue in the hope that a little bit of Christmas magic might rub off in the Adjournment debate ballots in the new year.

There is one pressing matter that I should like to bring to Floor of the House, which caused me considerable distress when I came across a report about it yesterday in The Scotsman, and I hope that the Minister will raise the issue with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. It appears that somebody going by the name of Professor Eckhard Weidner of a place apparently called Bochum university has developed instant powdered whisky. I have to say that I am shocked and bereft at that development. Such a thing can only be regarded as an abomination.

I shall be spending Christmas in Orkney in my constituency, where we have Highland Park and Scapa, two of the finest single malt whiskies. Thereafter, I shall be on Islay with my parents, where there are no fewer than eight magnificent single malt whiskies. Can we have assurances from the Department of Trade and Industry that that is the proper sort of dram with which to celebrate Hogmanay, and that we will have none of these powdered abominations?

6.31 pm
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

I should like to begin by saying that we were shocked to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) about his colleague, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Daisley). We were not aware of those details and our thoughts are with him and his family at this difficult time. I am sure that I speak not only for my party, but for the others whose Members sit on the Opposition Benches.

We have had a very wide-ranging, constructive and good-natured debate, which I think has shown the House at its best. Before I refer to what others have said, however, I should like to raise one issue of my own, harking back to a theme that has featured in many of the speeches: the Government's road policy.

Both this week and last, the Secretary of State for Transport announced a number of changes to his policy, which some say smacked of a U-turn. I welcome his announcements. The Opposition feel that they are too little, too late, but I do not want to take up time by making party political points. The Government are now moving in the right direction. Although I thought that it was disgraceful that no road schemes were included for East Yorkshire, I was heartened by what the Transport Secretary had to say towards the end of his statement last week when he told us that further studies would look at corridors in a number of areas, including "through Yorkshire".

I can therefore live in hope. In particular, I hope that the transport team will look at the inadequacies of both the A614 and the A165, which run through my constituency. As the Minister may know, the A614 is the main route from the motorway network to the north-east's premier seaside resort, Bridlington, which I have the honour of representing, and it is badly in need of widening. In addition, on some stretches of that road—including, for example, where it passes through the village of Middleton-on-the-Wolds—a bypass is long overdue. I do not expect the Minister who is winding up the debate to give me a snap answer, but I ask him to pass on to the Transport Secretary my genuine concerns about the need to upgrade those two roads.

Hon. Members in all parts of the House have raised many issues. If I may, I should like to comment on only some of them, as I do not have much time. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) made an effective attack on the Lib Dem administration running Hull council, but he cannot claim the high ground on that issue, because of his party's murky record in running the same authority. An effective council leadership is in the interests of the future of Kingston-upon-Hull. That is yet to happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) made a somewhat intemperate speech by his standards. He was clearly angry, but he made an effective case. I advise any Conservative campaigner to buy today's Hansard and read my hon. Friend's contribution before going canvassing. It was a tour de force. I understand why my hon. Friend is not present to hear the winding-up speeches. Anyone who knows him realises that when he is absent from the Chamber, he is in his constituency.

Morecambe and Lunesdale is a long way from Sutton Coldfield and the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) painted a rather different picture. She initially presented a rose-tinted view of life in the UK under new Labour, but as she developed her case, I was heartened by the criticisms of her party that she introduced into her speech. Conservative Members appreciate her frankness. She said that transport was a disaster, and she is right. She said that farmers were having a terrible time and again she is right. She was also right to say that guesthouse owners were having a bad time. If she never makes it to new Labour's Front Bench, her willingness to tell the unvarnished truth will he the reason.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) broke his vow of silence as a Chief Whip and gave us his views on several issues. I was intrigued by his recollections of early Liberal pension policy under which it appears that the police clubbed over-eager pensioners on the head. He did not say whether that remained Liberal Democrat policy, although those of us who have studied his tax policy know that it would clobber us all.

Mr. Stunell

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is not party policy.

Mr. Knight

At least not this week. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's work on the Modernisation Committee, on which we both serve. I support his comments about a visitor centre, but those who campaign for it should appreciate that the House is, first and foremost, a working building. Space on the parliamentary estate is at such a premium that the more I look into the matter, the more I perceive an overwhelming case for a visitor centre outside it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees. The House of Commons Commission is considering the matter.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made a serious, detailed and thorough contribution. His allegations clearly warrant a full investigation. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will respond positively to his speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) told us about the dire predicament of the national health service in his constituency. The problem is not confined to his region. East Yorkshire also has difficulties, which I am trying to resolve. Ministers need to take action, and I hope that the health team will receive a full report of my hon. Friend's remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned flooding. He may not know it, but he could have prayed in aid the report of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which stated that Government policy was inadequate and piecemeal and that spending on flood defences should be doubled. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will pass on my hon. Friend's concerns to DEFRA. I also hope that, in view of clearly changing weather patterns, the Government will accept that more needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) had the courtesy to tell me that he would not be present for the winding-up speeches because he had to be back in his constituency. He raised some serious concerns about Wandsworth prison. The Home Office needs to examine those matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) expressed her congratulations on and enthusiasm for the Government's transport U-turn. I hope that that enthusiasm is not premature, that further road-building programmes will be announced and that the Government will consider a number of new, innovative schemes to tackle congestion that are not necessarily anti-motorist. They could consider the example of the United States, which is taking the lead in that area. On health, we were pleasantly surprised by my hon. Friend's willingness to audition for the Hattie Jacques role in "Carry on Matron". We shall watch her next move in that regard with interest.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) made an interesting contribution. He spoke about vandalism on and around the tube. All Members are with him in being against such behaviour, but he moved on to vandalism of another type—nationalisation without compensation, of which he is in favour. At that point, he lost the support of this side of the House. Although we cannot agree with everything he said, he made a number of points about the need for people to feel safe when they travel on the tube if we are to attract more passengers to it. If he decides to spurn the tube during the Christmas recess, get his Armstrong Siddley car out of the garage and drive north to East Yorkshire, he will be most welcome to call at the Knight residence.

Jeremy Corbyn

How about filling up the car for the journey back?

Mr. Knight

I will not do that, because I know what it does to the gallon.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made an interesting point about parish councils, which has been brought to my attention as well. The new rules are too heavy-handed. I hope that the Government, in the same spirit in which they are reconsidering road building, may be prepared to look again at the rules covering parish councils. In my constituency, at least two people have resigned because they feel that the new rules are too intrusive. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend's comments on broadband, which is essential if rural areas are to be able to compete with urban.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who is a rare but welcome free spirit on the Government Benches, called for effective implementation of deterrent sentencing and a more visible police presence. We can agree with him on that. He certainly struck a chord on the Opposition Benches, not only in those remarks but in what he had to say about over-regulation. He referred to over-regulation in the NHS producing a result that none of us wants, but that is not confined to the NHS. For example, I understand that if a speaker—part of the public address system—fails in one railway carriage, the Health and Safety Executive takes the train off the track and it cannot be run until the speaker is repaired. That is mindless over-regulation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) referred to truancy. I can say one thing with certainty: he is never a truant from these Adjournment debates and we look forward to the wide-ranging contributions that he makes on behalf of his constituents. If someone had listened to his opening remarks and then left the Chamber, they would have a different impression from the rest of us of what he was saying. He started talking about the Swedish model and ended up talking about the breeding season. In between, he raised a number of important constituency matters.

I have heard only one speech by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), and I was not sure whether I would agree with much of what he had to say today. However, I was pleasantly surprised to agree with him on all four issues that he raised: the need for road improvements, the problems of pig farming, the unfair power that supermarkets have over prices and lax labelling provisions that often do not allow the British housewife to know whether she is buying a product produced in Britain. I have personal knowledge of restaurants not only not disclosing where food is from, but sometimes deliberately mislabelling it as local to encourage customers to order it.

I have only one other matter to raise before the Minister gets to his feet. I remind him and the House of the words said by Benjamin Disraeli to a constituent on 24 December 1869, with which I associate myself: merry Christmas.

6.45 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

Like all pre-recess Adjournment debates, this one has been wide-ranging and highly educational. We have heard of issues ranging from continuing concern about the situation in Burma to the problem of badgers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), which has forced a conversion in the hon. Gentleman's opinion.

I am afraid that because of the time limit I shall not be able to respond to all Members. I am grateful, in advance, for the tolerance of those to whom I cannot respond. I had 50 minutes in which to speak before the summer recess and I have only 15 now, so Members will get less at the Dispatch Box and more in writing; but I will try not to make the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) wait six months for a response, which was the treatment meted out to her before. I shall try to ensure that all Members are given timely responses.

As is traditional in these debates, some Members concentrated on constituency matters while others took the opportunity to highlight particular interests that would not usually have an airing, or discussed the broad sweep of politics and the state of the nation—and, indeed, the world. Some ranged over all three subjects. These debates always provide a good indication of the amount of interest in particular issues. I shall try to respond to Members in order of the number of issues raised in relation to their chosen subjects. It will not surprise most to learn that health was raised most often.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) described the state of the NHS as dire. He is not usually given to hyperbole, and that is not a description I recognise or, I think, one that my constituents would recognise. Despite the huge challenges facing the NHS, all the research shows, all the opinion polls show and most of our local newspapers show that the vast majority of people feel they are receiving a very good service. It needs to improve, of course, which is why we are investing in it. Some of the other issues raised by Members illustrate the importance of ensuring that reform accompanies that investment.

The hon. Gentleman raised specific issues about his local foot care services, Haslar hospital and the March meeting. I will ensure that he receives a response. I will also ensure that a response is given to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who mentioned the problem at Good Hope hospital.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned hospital-acquired infections. We have suffered one in our local hospital, a three-star hospital which I hope the hon. Lady will agree is excellent. During the debate I have managed to find out that the infection she referred to is not connected with hygiene. I do not want to go into the details, because they are rather gruesome, but it is airborne. Anyway, I agree with the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) that the hon. Lady will make an excellent matron, when they come back.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) spoke of the shortage of young GPs in his constituency. That is a problem in many areas, partly because it takes five years to train a doctor and the last Government cut training numbers. We have set up two medical schools, the first to be set up since the 1960s. Moreover, I think that I am right in saying that funds for my hon. Friend's primary care trust will increase by more than 30 per cent. over the next three years, so I hope he will soon see an improvement.

A number of Members referred to the problem of finding NHS dentists. The Government are aware of the problem. We have committed an extra £100 million to NHS dentistry in the last two years. The number of dentists has risen in the past year, and it has risen significantly since September 1997. I accept, however, that much more needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Southend, West said that his experiences with a Swedish model might help the Government come to the right decision on delayed discharges. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman feed his experiences into the Bill currently going through the House.

What emerged from the speeches about the health service is the fact that there is still a wide and unacceptable variation in care standards from one hospital to another—the two may not be far from each other—and between primary care trusts. That shows that, at the same time as providing extra resources, it is important that we ensure good management and quality of care, so that there is no inequality of treatment.

The next most popular issue that hon. Members raised was transport. That is not surprising, as these debates are a great opportunity for Members to refer to their pet transport schemes. I am afraid that I do not intend to go through all of them, much as I am tempted to do so, because I do not have the time, but I shall ensure that hon. Members receive responses to their points.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) thought that delivery on transport was the area on which the Government have made least progress. I agree with her: she is absolutely right. I do not want to rehearse the reasons for that, as they have been much rehearsed in recent days, not least in the statements that the Secretary of State for Transport has given to the House. We have committed £180 billion over the next 10 years, and we are only 18 months into that 10-year plan. I remind hon. Members that we are the only major economy in the developed world that has increased public spending on the whole gamut of public services. Labour and Liberal Democrat Members who constantly ask for extra spending should sometimes recognise that fact.

I shall get the Department to respond regarding the individual schemes mentioned by the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton and for Southend, West, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).

Crime was the third most popular issue raised. The remarks of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) would lead people to believe that crime has not fallen more than 20 per cent. since 1997, which it has. This is the first incoming Government since the second world war who have got crime down. Police numbers nationally—not in every part of the country, but certainly in my area—are at record levels.

My hon. Friends the Members for Morecambe and Lunesdale and for Hornchurch, and the hon. Members for Southend, West and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised specific concerns about crime and antisocial behaviour in their areas. I am sure that they are aware of the legislation being introduced on antisocial behaviour, the criminal justice system, the courts and sentencing system and licensing, all of which should have a positive impact on those problems. I hope that those hon. Members will feed their views in to the consultation on those Bills as they go through the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) made an excellent and well-informed speech about the problems facing Wandsworth prison and prison overcrowding in general. I shall ensure that he receives a comprehensive response from the Home Office to the points that he made.

The issue of pensions was raised by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, who to my surprise, and probably to the surprise of most Members of the House, said that under the Tories our pension system was the envy of Europe. Tell that to the 3 million or more pensioners who were living in poverty when Labour came to power. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) asked when Adair Turner's review would be completed. I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that, but I shall find out and let him know. He also made a number of points about physical exercise with which I fully concur.

There were the usual complaints about bad councils. We should sometimes stand back and congratulate our councillors, most of whom do a good job and work hard for little material gain. Most councils do a good job, but it is right that poor councils should be named and shamed. That is exactly what the Government are doing. My hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) are right to complain about their local Liberal Democrat-run councils, because they have both been officially designated as poor under our recent comprehensive performance assessment. The best remedy for the voters of Hull and Islington is to make their feelings plain at the next local elections.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) rightly referred to the international situation. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove repeated the Liberal Democrats' demand, which we recently debated in the House and which was overwhelmingly rejected, that there must be a new vote before any military action is taken. The Government have made their position clear: that is our preference, but it is the safety of the men and women in our armed forces that is of paramount importance. No Government have entered into a commitment such as the Liberal Democrats are demanding, and no Government ever would.

I like my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North very much, but I fundamentally disagree with him on the Iraq issue. I hope that he can agree with me that it is important that we support the United Nations process, the work of the inspectors, and the integrity of the UN and its resolutions, and that perhaps occasionally we could congratulate the Government on securing resolution 1441, which makes solving this problem peacefully far more likely.

A number of hon. Members raised individual constituency issues to which I shall get the relevant Departments to respond. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned a local flooding problem that affects mobile homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) discussed the proposed closure of a post office in his constituency; my hon. Friend the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) talked about problems with trading schemes; the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) discussed the closure of an airport in his constituency; the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) spoke about the problems facing Horticulture Research International at Efford, in his constituency; the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) spoke about a number of problems affecting his constituency; my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) mentioned the loophole, as he sees it, in the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, and spoke about changes to the asylum rules; and in drawing on his great length and breadth of experience, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) made some very interesting points about corporate governance. I will ensure that all those issues are drawn to the attention of the Departments concerned, and I hope that Members will forgive me if I have not managed to answer them in detail. [Interruption.] I apologise for not managing to respond to all the specific points that were raised.

The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) made what sounded to me like a series of demands for more money; well, he should talk to the shadow Chancellor about that. I should remind the hon. Gentleman that local government spending has risen by 25 per cent. under this Government, and that it was cut by 6 per cent. under the Major Government. Perhaps he needs to let his constituents know about that.

At this time of year, and particularly during the Christmas adjournment, it is right that we stand back and contemplate the state of the nation and, indeed, of the world. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield described himself as a Victor Meldrew figure, but that was not fair. He is not nearly as old as Victor Meldrew; however, his litany of complaints did somewhat remind me of Victor. I should point out to the Opposition that simply repeating that everything in Britain is a disaster does not get us very far in our political discourse. It is simply not true; indeed, the latest opinion polls show that, were there a general election today, the hon. Gentleman's party would return even fewer Members than it returned only 18 months ago, when it was brutally rejected by the electorate.

A much fairer and more accurate assessment was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, who talked about the improvements that her constituents have experienced. In doing so, she admitted that there is a lot still to do, and that is absolutely true. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) said that we should ask whether the lives of our constituents have improved, and with one or two exceptions, he answered with a resounding yes.

I have discovered that part of the job of a politician, and particularly of a Minister, is being a permanent optimist. As politicians, we should all believe in the possibility of improving our country and the way in which it is run. I used to wonder whether I was the only person who woke up in the morning to give thanks for the fact that we live now, and not in a previous age—until I read the bumper Christmas and new year edition of The Spectator, which is no supporter of, or sympathiser with, this Government. I was delighted to read an article by Mr. Harry Mount entitled "The Blessings of Britain". He urges us to stop moaning, and lists the 26 things that we should be grateful for. I should say that some of them are rather idiosyncratic, and that I myself am not grateful for them; however, he is, so I am happy.

At Christmas, it is indeed sometimes worth standing back and thinking of some things that we can be grateful for. For example, we can be grateful for the fact that we live in a freer and more tolerant society than anyone else on these wonderful islands has ever lived in; and for the fact that, to quote a former Conservative Prime Minister, most of our people have never had it so good. In wishing you and everyone else a merry Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should say that I hope that, when we go back to our constituencies, we will raise a toast to celebrate some of those things with genuine Orkney and Shetland Isles whisky, and certainly not with the outrageous white powder, instant imitation that is being produced in Bochum.