HC Deb 03 December 1993 vol 233 cc1275-319

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House, at its rising on Friday 17th December, do adjourn until Tuesday 11th January.—[Mr. Patnick.]

Madam Speaker

I have to inform the House that I have not selected either of the amendments. Of course, hon. Members are free to vote against the substantive motion if they are opposed to it.

9.35 am
Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I am grateful to be called this morning, Madam Speaker, and I am particularly grateful to be called so early. There were times in the old days when the House had Adjournment debates which were not restricted to three hours, and which went on and on. It was a good idea to change the format, because a three-hour limit on the debate means that we have quite short speeches.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Get on with it.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Get on with what?

I want to raise a subject that I have raised before, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not be surprised to hear it. It is not an airport or a hospital, but the question of affordable housing. I think that housing is a vital concern.

I fear that, if we are not careful, tenants in low-cost housing will increasingly depend on housing benefit. Any reduction in the housing association grant is likely to increase the numbers of tenants who are dependent on housing benefit, and more tenants would be trapped in the poverty trap.

I remind my right hon. Friend that the Select Committee on the Environment looked at the matter some time ago, and it fired a warning shot across the bows of the Government about the serious consequences if the rate of the housing association grant should fall below 67 per cent. The rate has fallen already to 62 per cent.

The Government must also bear in mind the effects, not just on people who need housing, but on the construction industry. I am told that around 500,000 construction workers have lost their jobs during the past three years. It has been said over and over again that the cost to the Government of every unemployed person is around £9,000 a year because of the cost of providing benefit, added to which is the amount lost in income tax and national insurance contributions.

The diminishing of the housing programme is bound to inflame that situation. We desperately need more low-cost housing. By building more, we will lower the unemployment figures, and also rehouse people who are in urgent need. I think particularly of the homeless, of people who are leaving institutions for care in the community, and of the increasing number of elderly people who require specialist housing.

I worry about people who want to help themselves and who go out to work, often for low wages. They sometimes find that they would have been better off if they had not gone to work but had sat back and relied on benefit. I do not want to see the growth of a benefit-dependency culture. I want more to be done to help people who try to help themselves. That particularly applies to younger people, but the elderly are also disadvantaged.

All hon. Members will have elderly constituents who, during their working lives, scrimped and scraped to put something aside for the proverbial rainy day. Those people find when they retire that their savings do not help them at all when it comes to getting assistance. As the rules apply at the moment, people with capital of between £3,000 and £16,000 find that interest is assumedx2014;that is the all-important word—at the rate of £1 a week for every £250 of capital. I wish that somebody would offer me those terms for my savings—I would put my money with them immediately.

That gives the elderly no encouragement to save; I believe that it gives them a disincentive. I asked the Government earlier this year urgently to re-examine the situation, so far without a response.

I am currently concerned about the annual development programme. In the immediate future, the rented programme will be protected, but I am worried about what will happen in a few years' time. The 12 October edition of The Financial Times correctly forecast a £300 million cut in the annual development programme.

Working on that basis, the Oxford Economic Forecasting Unit predicted the loss of a further 8,000 jobs in the construction industry. However, the increased benefit payments and the loss of income tax and national insurance contributions will mean that the net saving will be only £200 million in the public sector borrowing requirement, not the £300 million that the Government are apparently aiming for. The net effect will be more unemployment in the construction industry and more misery for homeless and overcrowded families. On social and economic grounds, therefore, I plead for careful consideration to be given to the housing association programme.

I must admit that I get very depressed when I see people sleeping rough on the streets of our cities. I realise that it is happening all over the world, and I know the reason for it—there are more broken marriages than there used to be, and young people perhaps have more independence and leave the nest earlier—but that does not alter the fact that it is a blot on everything that we British stand for.

Secondly, I want to refer to a subject that is of great concern to my constituency. In August this year, the Department of Trade and Industry asked local authorities to bid for designation as objective 2 areas. The key criteria for description as a declining industrial area under objective 2 are, first, the average rate of unemployment over the past three years must have been above the European Community average; secondly, the percentage share of industrial employment in total employment must have equalled or exceeded the Community average in any reference year from 1975 onwards; thirdly, there must have been an observable fall in industrial employment as compared with the reference year chosen. Trafford—the council area in which my constituency is located—is one of 10 districts that comprise Greater Manchester, and Trafford council has been working with the other nine councils to formulate a Greater Manchester operational programme for objective 2 status for European funding.

On 11 October, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry announced with a great fanfare that the Government were including more of north-west England in the bid for European funds. He said: This is good news for the region. All current Objective 2 areas are on the list, plus new areas which face job losses, such as Barrow. The new candidates from the North West include Central Lancashire, Fleetwood and Lancaster and Morecambe. All the existing Objective 2 areas of East Lancashire, West Cumbria, West Cheshire, West Lancashire and much of Greater Manchester stay in the list the Government has proposed.

The parts of Greater Manchester that have been excluded are certain wards in Stockport and Trafford. I want my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to find out why. I remind him that the west midlands areas included both deprived areas and areas of structural decline, and affluent areas on the fringes of the conurbation.

I want to know why there is one rule for the west midlands and an entirely different one for Greater Manchester. The whole of the Altrincham and Sale constituency has been overlooked. It is impossible to understand what sort of objective criteria formed the basis of the decision.

The exclusion of certain wards in Trafford is damaging. Without objective 2 status, European regional development fund money, which aids capital projects, cannot be claimed. The exclusion will have significant effects on proposed economic and environmental initiatives in the Broadheath and Altrincham wards. The loss of objective 2 will also have a serious effect on the borough. It will undoubtedly mean a substantial reduction in European social fund money for the South Trafford college.

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention in particular to the Broadheath area in my constituency. That area contains an industrial estate—not as large as Trafford park, which is world famous—that was once noted for the part it played in the machine tool industry. In 1975, there were more than 6,500 jobs on that estate; now there are about 2,000.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Terrible, isn't it?

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Yes it is, and the terrible thing is that the decline started when the last Labour Government were in power.

Mr. Cryer


Sir Fergus Montgomery

Oh, yes it did.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

When the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) was a Minister.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Yes, when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister. There is no point in trying to put the blame on a particular Government.

Mr. Cryer

Do you remember?

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Yes. We remember some of the hardships that occurred during that time; some of us have long memories. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman has something to say, I wish he would stand up and say it.

Unemployment locally is above the Community average. Major companies such as Churchill Machine Tools, Kearns Richards, Linotype, Luke and Spencer and Record Electrical have all been casualties of the structural decline and economic recession.

Mr. Cryer

Under the Tories.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Under successive Governments since the end of the war.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the exclusion of Broadheath. In my view, it should have been a prime contender for European funding, because it seems to fit the objective 2 criteria like a glove. European funding would have meant new infrastructure investment to help business with better communications and improvements in public transport, and the local community could have continued to enjoy vital training initiatives organised by the local further education college using European social fund finance.

Broadheath is a prime example of the unfairness of the Department of Trade and Industry ruling, but there are other examples in Trafford, such as parts of Altrincham, where we have redundant British Rail sidings right in the centre of town and other evidence of decline.

I have a horrible feeling that someone in the Department of Trade and Industry thinks that my constituency is an area of leafy suburbs. It is true that we have good residential areas—I do not deny that—but we also have areas that have problems, where there is an industrial base, and I believe that we have been unjustly penalised.

My right hon. Friend knows that I never lose my temper and never raise my voice. I am glad to see that the Whip agrees with me. Similarly, I never repeat gossip. I am staking my claim to go upstairs—I do not mean to the House of Lords but in the hereafter.

Mr. Dicks

You mean downstairs.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

If I go downstairs, I know who I will see there.

Mr. John Marshall

Those two below the Gangway—the hon. Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Yes, I will see lots of old friends.

I want to tell my right hon. Friend that all those virtues that I possess will disappear overnight unless something is done about this matter. I hope that he will go to whoever made the decision in the Department of Trade and Industry and say how angry I am. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is being subjected to all my rage, but if nothing is done, whoever made the decision will be subjected to it, too.

I hope that, before we rise for Christmas, my right hon. Friend will ensure that the relevant Ministers at the Department are aware of the anger in our area at the fact that Altrincham and Sale and other parts of Trafford have been excluded. I hope that my right hon. Friend will have some good news for me before I go home for Christmas.

9.46 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I agree with the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) about the need to build houses in Britain. For many years following the end of the second world war, we built more than 200,000 houses a year, but in the past 14 years there has been hardly any local authority building.

As for unemployment, I would merely comment that it stood at 1.25 million when the Labour Government left office. I voted against that Government 150-odd times; I was not altogether happy with what they were doing. But I can tell the House that most of my constituents would settle for 1.25 million unemployed now, given half a chance [HON. MEMBERS: "And the inflation?"] And the inflation, caused largely by the previous Tory Government, who left a right old mess, and by the quadrupling of oil prices and the rest. I am not here to talk about that: I just mention it en passant.

From the top of the hill where Bolsover castle is, near New Station road and High street, there is a beautiful view over the edge of the Pennines across from the industrial side straight over to the edge of the Peak district. About two years ago, some of my constituents in High street and New Station road asked me to see them regarding what was referred to as a landslip at Backhills.

The local newspaper reports talked about gardens that were disappearing down the side of a hill. Greenhouses were demolished, then garages. I immediately raised the matter with various Ministers, because I could foresee the possibility, given that we were talking about the side of a hill, that eventually some houses might go. That is what happened.

Having watched the television and seen the hotel at Scarborough disappear down the cliff face, and knowing that the Government had given more than £1 million in grant on that occasion, I thought that it would be feasible for the Government to assist people in the landslip area by allocating similar sums.

I was told by the Minister concerned that the Scarborough hotel received money from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Coast Protection Act 1949. We could not apply under that Act, but landslips that occur on the coast and landslips that occur inland should not be treated differently; we should not hand out grants on one hand and, on the other, tell people that they will have to grin and bear it.

I hope that the Leader of the House will pass a message on to the relevant Ministers that some way should be found to ensure that the people in the Bolsover area—four have seen their houses demolished, and another two houses are likely to be demolished in the next few months—are compensated in some way.

Derbyshire county council immediately tried to find out the cause of the problem. At first it was difficult because, very cleverly, British Coal, which had mined underneath the area, had ordered what it called a Mott Macdonald study to find out the reason for the landslip from its point of view. British Coal was very quick to get the study into operation, and it came up with findings that the landslip was nothing to do with coal mining—even though British Coal had been mining under the area as recently as 1973.

I believe that British Coal has some responsibility in the matter. I asked British Coal to compensate these people for the loss of their houses and other assets. British Coal said that, according to the Mott Macdonald study, it was not its responsibility. The study did not include, however, the fact that British Coal had been pumping out millions of tonnes of water in the area. Many local people consider that the dams of water that had built up were part of the reason for the landslip and the houses falling away.

It is significant that a few yards from the landslip stands the church, which is approximately 40 or 50 yd from the escarpment face. Several years ago, I raised in the House the subject of subsidence in Bolsover church, because of the problems that had been created. Arising out of my questions, a settlement was eventually made by British Coal. If it can pay for subsidence in the church, which is a few yards away from the escarpment face, there is surely an argument that the same should apply to the owners of the houses on High street and New Station road that have been demolished. British Coal still refuses to pay, and that is why the Department of the Environment and/or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should find some way of assisting the residents of that area.

As I have said, the Scarborough hotel came under the Coast Protection Act 1949, but perhaps the houses in Bolsover could come under another heading. In the mid-1960s, there was a disaster in Wales at Aberfan, where 200-odd kids were killed in a school. I was a member of my local authority at that time. The Government of the day decided to send an inspector to every area in Britain where there were pit tips and said, "If these tips are dangerous, shift them—the Government will find the money." At Clay Cross, we managed to get rid of a pit tip during that period. The money was provided by the Government.

If it was possible in the aftermath of that awful Aberfan disaster for the Government to find the money to get rid of all those dangerous tips—not only in coalfields but in many other areas around Britain—it should be possible to draw the same parallel for the people in the Bolsover area.

Probably more than 80 houses are blighted. The house owners cannot get their homes insured—certainly not for the same price that they paid before—because the insurers have said that it is a bit dodgy. Those house owners have suffered in many ways over the past two years.

British Coal says that it is not its responsibility. I believe that it is, but let us assume that British Coal can sustain its argument that it is not. We then come to the question whether it is a natural occurrence that the people in the area could not have foreseen. It that is the case, it could be argued that Ministers should take a fresh look at the matter, and study the reports sent in by people in the area and the local authorities, to see whether they can assist.

Bolsover district council and Derbyshire county council have set up an assessment to find out what is causing the problem and what the cost of draining the area of the escarpment would be. There is a lot of water in the area, which we contend has built up from pit workings in the past. It is estimated that to find out what the problem is and how to eliminate it will cost £50,000, and that to eliminate it will cost more than £1 million.

The people who live on the side of that hill should not be expected to find £1 million to resolve the problem. The Department of the Environment should take the problem into account when making grants available to the Derbyshire county council, which is taking part in the study, and to the Bolsover district council, which is helping to pay for it.

The massive amount of money that it will cost to drain the whole area should also be taken into account. I hope that the Leader of the House will inform the relevant Ministers of the need to look at ways in which this problem can be settled. I have discussed it with the various local authorities of the area during the past few days.

Will the relevant Ministers in the Department of the Environment and-or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food meet Bolsover district council, Derbyshire county council and other local representatives of the tenants—the house owners have formed an action group —with a view to considering the possibility of building into the grant settlement, if nothing else, a sum of money to enable the local authorities to eliminate the problem once the assessment has been made?

The Department of the Environment should meet British Coal and ask all the relevant questions that I have sent to it from D. C. Carter Associates, which is acting on behalf of the residents. It is contended that the dams of water that built up in the area as a result of coal mine workings are part of the problem.

Will the Leader of the House pass those messages to the relevant Departments, so that a meeting can be arranged with the local authorities concerned? Those authorities will be pleased to come down to discuss the matter.

I do not believe that the settlements made yesterday took into account the amount of money that will be needed by that area. If British Coal refuses to accept responsibility, that money can come only from the people who live in the area and the local authorities responsible for its administration.

I hope that the Leader of the House will pass on those messages, and that he will be able to impress on the relevant Ministers the need for them to meet the local area representatives and the residents as soon as possible, so that we can get to the bottom of the problem and ensure that the matter is dealt with as speedily as possible.

9.59 am
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)

I am delighted to be called to take part in the Adjournment debate. My subject is the family—at this time of year, as we approach Christmas, that topic is perhaps more important than ever.

Tuesday's Budget represents a turning point in the economic fortunes of the nation. All the economic indicators point to a period of sustainable growth and a gradual return to sound finance. It might be said that some of the social indicators are less favourable. The numbers of young people involved in criminal activities continue to cause concern. Our divorce rate—at four out of 10 marriages—remains at a high level. In fact, it is the highest in the European Community. The number of children born outside wedlock has soared in the past few years.

Teachers up and down the land pull their hair out over the unacceptable behaviour of a rising number of five-year-olds who are encountering school and authority for the first time. Policemen express concern at the number of teenagers who take their names and numbers and threaten to report them for assault or wrongful arrest. The nation wrings its hands and searches its soul over the James Bulger case.

What can be done to stop the apparent rise in the number of young people growing up with no respect for others or for authority, and no apparent knowledge of right and wrong? I wish to make my contribution to the debate on the social issues facing society today. I welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in raising the priority of social issues in today's political agenda.

I strongly support the range of measures to be introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Certainly, the balance of the criminal justice system needs to be restored—away from the criminal and towards the innocent. I also welcome the wide-ranging debate now under way about the size and shape of the welfare state. Those who oppose such a debate have obviously never read some of the speeches of Beveridge and the other founding fathers of the welfare state.

I wish to explore one aspect of our social fabric that remains undervalued in modern society. I feel strongly that the role of the family in the past 30 years has been sidelined in a way that has become a significant factor in many of our social problems today. I am delighted that 1994 is to be the United Nations International Year of the Family, providing an opportunity to promote the importance of family relationships.

As I draw on my own experience of 38 years, as I read report after report and article after article, and as I talk to those involved with law enforcement, I increasingly take the view that children who grow up in a balanced and stable home, where they receive care and affirmation, are much less likely to become involved in crime or to seek financial support from the state, and more likely to achieve well at school. Those factors are becoming as plain as a pikestaff.

A recent article in The Guardian written by Paul Webster stated: A French study of violent adolescent crime puts most of the blame for aggression on the failure of parents to provide role models … Psychiatrists Bernard Zeiller and Tony Lainé examined 600 files on violent juvenile crime in Paris for the national institute of health and medical research. These included seven murders, one by a child under 13. Sixteen children aged 13 to 18 took part in a study aimed at drawing up a portrait of juveniles likely to become criminals. All had an image of a failed father who had not protected them from criminal impulses as they were themselves delinquent, or alcoholic. Mothers had failed to provide an environment in which the child's personality could develop. The offenders suffered from narcissism and a constant feeling of insecurity and the fear of abandonment. A recent article by Janet Daley which appeared in The Times on 25 November 1993 stated, about two thirds of the way through: Scientific rationalists that we are, we cannot accept the central mystery of the human condition: that we are all born with a capacity for evil and a readiness to be good. How most of us learn to be good rather than evil is a secondary mystery, but there is little doubt that it requires the presence of other people. Good behaviour is taught and measured by others, whereas bad behaviour may grow in perverse isolation, feeding on its own introversion. Instructing the young to suppress their innate evil impulses is the individual and collective responsibility of adults. Without constant supervision (and the kind of moral instruction now regarded as authoritarian) the young can and will run amok into amoral, sadistic egoism. Surely she hits the nail on the head.

Can we any longer doubt that each child is born with a potential for good and for bad? Each young life, if properly nurtured with love and consistent discipline, is able to learn from a responsible role model, and is much more likely to develop into a predominantly law-abiding citizen.

Of course I recognise that some children will have psychological difficulties whatever their parents do. There are also those well-raised children who are derailed by incidents of circumstances later in life. However, as a general rule, children raised in stable and secure homes are overwhelmingly more likely to make a positive contribution to society, and are also more likely to pass on that capability to the next generation. As we debate the Christmas Adjournment, it is an appropriate time to consider the implications of the family in this nation.

An article in The Evening Standard on 4 March 1993 states: Mrs. Roberts, chief probation officer for Hereford and Worcester, told the association's annual conference in London: 'Tackling shortcomings and equipping young people with basic social skills are the components of the successful reduction of offending behaviour. These skills include dealing with people in authority, learning how not to lose your temper, getting what you need by legitimate and acceptable means and finding positive opportunities for creativity and achievement.' In a reasonably stable and supportive home environment, young people were tremendously responsive, Mrs. Roberts said. 'But sadly, in some of the more desperate urban settings, motivation is less easily tapped,' she added. 'What is needed to reduce persistent offending is what most people acquire during childhood through stable family life, education, the learning of skills and the availability of opportunity.'

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

We all agree about what we wish to see in society. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman does not appear to be willing to define the family. Much has been written about the family as a nuclear family, with male and female parents and a number of children. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that many studies have shown that, although the trauma of divorce greatly disturbs children, if they come through the divorce and are left with one caring, loving parent who teaches them as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, that parent can be just as successful in bringing up the child in a balanced way and keeping him or her on what the hon. Gentleman would call the right path?

Mr. Streeter

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I accept what he says. If he is patient, I shall come to that issue.

Sadly, it is also true that children raised in a setting in which mother or father or both do not care, do not love and do not discipline consistently, are much more likely to develop into adolescents and adults who live in conflict with others and end up in trouble with the law. Importantly, there is also a tendency to pass those problems on to the next generation.

I realise that I am making generalisations, but I trust that the House will not condemn me for that. I recognise that exceptions to general principles can always be found, but I believe that the evidence in support of my general premise is overwhelming.

The way in which a child is raised does not involve simply financial circumstances. Children from rich homes who are deprived of love and consistent discipline are also likely to develop into irresponsible adults. Children from the poorest home, where a mother and father valiantly try to bring them up well, are likely to grow into citizens who make a positive contribution.

My argument is that whether each child born in this nation develops into a predominantly law-abiding citizen, or someone likely to slide into crime or lean on the state, depends largely on the forces that shape and nurture that life in its early years in the home and then in school. Care and affirmation produce children who are at peace with themselves and others. A strong and stable family unit is the best vehicle—perhaps the only vehicle—for delivering children who make a positive contribution, because a stable family offers the best context for parenting and a role model for children.

If we are to find long-term solutions to rising crime or welfare dependency, we must find ways of encouraging and strengthening stable relationships between parents and their children. So many things that we now seek to do as a Government, or as local authorities or other statutory agencies—whether it be seeking to prevent crime or caring for elderly people—should and can be done better by the family. Many of our social problems would gradually disappear if we established family relationships as the cornerstone on which our society is based.

For that reason, I believe that Government should actively seek new ways to support and encourage the family. That would have long-standing and far-reaching benefits to our nation. If we strengthen family relationships, that will also strengthen individual responsibility and responsible citizenship. If we strengthen family relationships, that will foster a great sense of community and neighbourhood. The healthy future for our nation lies in the proper balance of individual responsibility, the stable family and active community, not in ever-increasing state provision.

Many will shake their heads and say that it cannot be done, that it is not the role of Government to tell people how to live their lives. I agree that freedom of choice is paramount, but surely it is the job of Government to set the direction and create the environment in which those choices can be made. When better to consider those matters than now, as we approach Chistmas?

It is also right to give a lead in social policy, and not merely follow behind people's choices, picking up the pieces no matter how high the cost. We must be prepared to make value judgments. If it is right that the personal, social and financial costs of family breakdown are so damaging to our nation, should we be reticent about saying so? If we believe that family relationships are important, we should say so and seek to give a lead.

We have allowed the fear of upsetting minority groups to undermine our moral leadership and social policy for far too long. It is now considered discriminatory to say that we wish to encourage the family. We fear a critical backlash from those who choose an alternative life style, so we remain silent. We must now move the agenda forward. The family is better because it is better for society as a whole. It is sound common sense. People who chose an alternative life style are free to do so, but we must not let the tail wag the dog.

The stable family unit should be our goal, not because of some fancy moral argument, but because it delivers maximum social benefits. It is a practical matter. We have the right to make that call. I do not hark back to a golden age of perfect family life, for it never existed. My call is to learn the lessons of yesterday and today to make tomorrow better.

It is important to stress that, in promoting the family, I am attacking not lone parents but neglectful parents. Research appears to support the view that two parents are better than one. The presence of mother and father enables the burdensome responsibilities of child care and breadwinning to be shared. Let me make my view clear: thousands of single parents up and down the land are doing a magnificent job in raising their children in difficult circumstances. They deserve our support, not our condemnation.

The challenge is to find ways to prevent so much family breakdown in the future, to produce better parents and reduce the number of children who grow up outside a framework of security and discipline. I hope that, as we approach Christmas, we can debate those issues.

Our divorce statistics are truly horrifying, yet when I speak to young people about their aspirations for the future, I find that they aspire to long-term commitment. Most people are looking for a partner to whom they can commit and with whom they can share their life. They want a secure home in which to raise their children. That is their dream, but sadly today, too many lack the skills, the understanding or the benefit of a role model to make that dream a reality for them.

In seeking to support and encourage the family, we are not cutting across the grain of people's aspirations; we are cutting with the grain, seeking ways to help people to achieve their goal in life. We have helped people to own their homes. Let us help them to achieve the personal security that we all seek.

What can be done? We need to reach a consensus that family is important, that family is better and that family can deliver the social benefits that we rightly seek. I suspect that we are much closer to that consensus now than we were even three years ago. What we lack is any clear view on how to take the debate forward and convert it into practical action.

In closing, I shall make some brief suggestions. First, it is clear that too many young people grow up without learning the skills of being a parent or a spouse. We must commit ourselves to educating young people about their relationships and the complexities of partnership and parenthood. A great deal more can be done in our schools to educate young people in those areas. Of course there is no magic formula to being a good spouse or partner and a good parent, but there are timeless principles involved that can be taught and passed on.

Secondly, there is value in more proactive counselling, and teaching young couples before marriage is entered into—and during it. For several years, my wife helped run a pre-marriage counselling course in our church in Plymouth. In some cases, it was amazing how little some young couples on the threshold of marriage knew about each other.

In every case, the course proved of benefit to those taking it. Approximately one in five young couples decided not to get married, or deferred their marriage, as a result of being confronted by important issues that they had not previously considered. Surely that should be seen as a success, not a failure.

We also know from our own experience and with being involved with other couples that expert and wise counselling at the right time for all couples going through a bad patch can mean the difference between reconciliation and separation. We need to explore ways of reaching couples before marital problems become marital crises.

Thirdly, having taught people the skills, and having given them the counselling and backup necessary, parents must be made to face up to their responsibilities. The Child Support Agency has made a valuable start in addressing financial responsibility. Although there is some concern about the way in which the Child Support Act 1991 is being implemented, no one appears to dispute that the principle is right.

We need to extend that parental responsibility to areas of conduct of children for which parents must be responsible. There should be few exceptions to that. There is no doubt in my mind that if parents knew that they would be increasingly responsible for the actions of their children, they would be more careful in how they sought to raise their children in the first place.

Fourthly, our primary school teachers can spot the extreme potential troublemakers and lawbreakers at an early stage of their time at school. Often, such a child is simply reflecting its background, and is unlikely to change its ways without special attention. We can do more in directing resources at that point in a child's life to seek to place that person on the straight and narrow, rather than waiting until he or she has broken into our homes or stolen our car. I should like to see more active thought given to how direct intervention into that child's life might take place in a way that would make a real difference.

Fifthly, we need a gradual increase in the penalties for crime. Having given the help and the skills to encourage people to develop as law-abiding citizens, we must then punish severely those who choose to offend. The absence of a realistic deterrent is one of the biggest issues facing us today. I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for his excellent attempts to redress that imbalance.

Finally, it has long been my view that we should encourage responsible behaviour and discourage irresponsible behaviour through our tax and financial systems. More thought needs to be given to how our tax system can be designed to enable people to come together in long-term relationships and to stay together. Having recognised the importance of stable families, we should be ready to defend that institution through our tax and benefit structure. That would represent the investment in excellence that we need to see in our nation.

Not for a moment would I suggest that that is a matter for Government alone. I call upon the Church and all opinion formers to recognise the importance of strong family relationships and to redouble their efforts to promote the right message. Let us all work together on that vital task.

There are no short-term, quick-fix solutions, but we can do positive things to build for the future quality relationships in the home. It is a mighty mountain to move, but the lessons learned from some of the more extreme incidents of the past few years compel us to start that task. The tragic James Bulger case is but one.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given an important lead in his call to get back to basics and to espouse traditional values. It is for all of us to respond. As we approach Christmas, let us trust that the strong and stable family unit will once again become the foundation on which our nation is built.

10.21 am
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I shall raise a rather more parochial issue—although one that is of concern in other constituencies apart from mine—than that addressed by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter). It is that of the A34, the Euro-route that passes from Southampton up towards the midlands and is the main trade route from our south coast ports to the midlands. The road has been improved year after year in its various different parts, until now the only remaining section that is not at least dual carriageway is that just to the south, and through parts, of Newbury.

Hon. Members will no doubt remember that in March this year the Government made a dramatic announcement that the route for the Newbury bypass had finally been agreed, and it would therefore go ahead. Interestingly, that announcement was made only a short while after it became clear that there would be a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Newbury. I am sure that the Government would not wish it to be felt that that announcement had been made purely because the by-election was about to take place and that they would not wish the electorate to believe that any such announcement could be made before a by-election and then not fulfilled after it.

Therefore, it is disappointing, to say the least, that since May this year, there has been no firm guarantee that the money for that bypass will be forthcoming. Indeed, we have heard from the Minister that he is conducting a review of the full roads programme, and it seems likely, in view of the Budget announcement, that at least some of the roads that we had believed would go ahead will not be built—or, at the very least, will be deferred.

I spoke to the Minister the other day about other problems on the A34, when I and those with me suggested that the traffic could only get heavier once the bypass had been built and the road was dual carriageway from Southampton to Birmingham. He said that we could not make the assumption that the bypass would be built in the near future. That was a great disappointment to me and the people of Newbury.

The problems on the A34 are many and numerous. There is the immediate problem that the traffic through the centre of Newbury is extremely heavy and there are long queues, particularly during the rush hours in the morning and the evening. Those are a cause of great annoyance not only to those trying to get across the country from Southampton to Birmingham and vice versa but to the inhabitants of Newbury trying to go about their daily lives.

There is also the problem of blight along the route of the A34 bypass. A number of people live in houses that are not close enough to the route to be subject to compulsory purchase but are close enough to be severely affected once the bypass is built. Those people cannot sell their houses on the open market, and the Minister, sadly, is being slow to use his discretionary power to purchase them.

Thirdly, there is danger on the route itself. The section of the A34 immediately to the south of Newbury is a notorious accident black spot, with acccidents every month, if not every week, frequently causing damage not just to vehicles but to people. If all those problems are to be solved, we badly need the money to be firmly allocated to that project.

Another problem with the A34 is the noise it creates. I am speaking here particularly on behalf of the two communities of Chieveley and East Ilsley, just to the north of where the A34 crosses the M4. New road surfaces, some of which are still being researched but some of which have been proven, can reduce the noise on trunk roads. Sadly, they are more expensive and harder to maintain than the normal surfaces.

There is a major noise pollution problem near trunk roads, and the A34 is a case in point. I urge the Minister to ensure that we take note of the need to introduce one of the new surfaces wherever there is a significant noise problem, even if that means a greater expense.

The Government have often made it known that they wish to do something about pollution, and I suggest that they do something about noise pollution, just as they are aiming to do something about atmospheric and water pollution. Apart from the new noise reduction surfaces, a number of other measures, such as noise reduction fencing or banking, can be used. I urge the Minister to consider those solutions as well in our case.

Perhaps the most significant change that could be made would be to legislation on noise pollution. It is ridiculuous that some people are eligible for grants to install noise insulation and others are not.

Let us take a hypothetical case of two towns joined by a major road, which passes through two villages, which constitute two bottlenecks. The Government decide to improve the road on the route, and remove one bottleneck through one village. Unfortunately, the other bottleneck still exists, so the increased traffic on the road will not reach the level at which grants for noise insulation are triggered.

The Government go ahead with the futher improvement in the other village at that point, and because both bottlenecks have been removed, the traffic up that route suddenly increases considerably. The grant level is therefore triggered, and the second village becomes eligible for grants for noise insulation. Unfortunately, although the traffic has risen by exactly the same amount in both villages, only the village where the work is being done is eligible for grants. That does not seem to be either logical or fair. As I said, it must apply not only to Newbury, but to other parts of the country.

If a route is improved and traffic levels increase, all affected houses on the route should be eligible for noise insulation grants—as in Chieveley and East Ilsley—not merely those immediately adjacent to the final work.

In the case of those two villages, the main reason why they are not eligible for grants is that the road running through was improved in advance of the new grant mechanism coming into play. Nevertheless, they suffer, because the road has since been improved in many other places and has gone from being a small, rural route to a major Euro-route that carries all the freight traffic that passes between the south coast and the midlands. That has led to considerable noise pollution in the villages, and so far Government have refused to do anything about it, either through noise reduction methods or by allocating grants for insulation.

Those problems on the A34 deserve urgent attention. I urge the Minister to ensure that something is done to address the problems with the bypass, which will solve some of the traffic problems in central Newbury, and the problems of noise pollution along the line of the A34 as it passes through Berkshire, and I ask that the necessary legislation is introduced before Christmas.

10.32 am
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

It is somewhat ironic to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) when I, too, wish to discuss roads in my constituency and would not wish the House to adjourn until I have had some response to the special issues that I wish to raise. The hon. Gentleman's complaint is that there is too much traffic on the A34; my complaint concerns the need to upgrade the roads to make Hastings prosperous. I make no apology for once again returning to the subject—one which my predecessor raised regularly as, I suspect, shall I. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me.

The economy of Hastings is exceedingly fragile and, as if in recognition of that, while unemployment fell across the country in the past month, it rose in Hastings. I know exactly where that unemployment arose. Some of it related to what I consider to be a welcome decline in the need for such an extensive defence industry. However, I have enormous sympathy for the people who are consequently on the unemployment register. This shows how large decisions can have a dramatic impact on a small town such as Hastings.

Because our problems in Hastings were recognised, it was granted assisted area status, which is exceedingly welcome, especially as the Department of Trade and Industry has received well over 100 grant applications for assisted area status grants. However, the Department of Trade and Industry was clearly not prepared for the sheer volume of applications. Hastings is perilously close to losing potential business because the Department is not responding as quickly as it originally thought it could and it is even extending the revised period in which grants will be awarded to people in Hastings.

The key reason that Hastings has assisted area status is the appalling state of our roads. One local business man in my constituency recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport and he has gone even further in his condemnation of the roads than my usual argument that they would be recognised by 18th-century smugglers. His view is that if the current state of our roads had pertained in 1066, King Harold would not have been killed at the battle of Hastings as nobody would have been able to get in and out of town.

The A21 is a single-track country lane—the main road through which 40-tonne trucks carry goods and services in and out of Hastings and it is almost blocked because of resurfacing work. The A259, the main south coast route, is undergoing significant remedial work to the west, and the eastern part has been totally closed for what has become seven weeks, but was allegedly to be 10 days. That has caused enormous problems not just for business but for residents trying to do what little shopping they can in Hastings in the run-up to the Christmas period. Clearly, local business men and women are exceedingly upset. Our problem is not just that the roads are worn out, hence the remedial work, but that they are not of good enough quality to create the stable economy that Hastings needs.

I was struck with terror during the Budget speech when I heard that there were to be reductions in, and a slowing down of, the roads programme. It is ironic that almost every roads proposal produces instant and aggressive reaction but few hon. Members do little other than recommend more roads for their constituents. There must not be any further delay in the upgrading of the A21 and the A259 in Hastings. I understand that the Department of Transport is actively considering a number of bypass proposals, any one of which should improve our roads. However, they are all at different stages of development and none is linked. The A21 ceases to be a dual carriageway south of Tonbridge. There are at least six different proposals—all at different stages—for draft orders and public inquiries, but none has been given the go-ahead. None of the proposals for the A259 has yet reached public inquiry stage.

The problem is not only that delays are being built into the schemes and that the Minister for Roads and Traffic promised draft orders for the Hastings bypass in spring, but that he is now promising the orders in late autumn. As I reminded him in a recent letter, there are only four weeks before the end of the year. How is late autumn defined?

The links between the various proposals are out of phase and are not logical, resulting in excess costs. Each time a bypass is proposed, and because it is not logically linked to a subsequent portion, we dodge backwards and forwards across the A589 and it becomes a zig-zag instead of a straight line. That costs extra money, when the road is eventually built, and takes extra time. I am not surprised that the Department of Transport has come up with ideas to reduce from 11 years the time taken to get a road from the original proposal stage through to final planning permission stage.

When I was first selected for Hastings and Rye, a venerable gentleman metaphorically patted me on the head and said, "Don't worry about roads. We have been trying to improve them since before the first world war." I should hate to think that there would be another world war or that we could not get our roads improved. We must ensure that we link many of the bypasses and that we use the speeded-up process so that we get a logical road. We must move quickly so that my constituents can benefit from logical and sensible roads which will help them to build up the economy of Hastings, which we all wish to see.

It is dispiriting to talk to people wishing to invest in Hastings who say that it is only half a town and that the other half is the fish in the channel. It is hard enough to attract business to a small town on the south coast without penalising ourselves and without the Department of Transport penalising us by slowing down the roads programme, which is so crucial to ensure that our unemployment goes down and that our average wage, which is one third of the national average wage, becomes a competitive wage so that we can ensure that we have prosperity in a town that desperately needs it. I should hate us to go into the Christmas recess without some comment from the Department of Transport about its proposals for the A21 and the A259 to benefit my constituents.

10.41 am
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Having heard several pleas for roads, it comes to my mind that everyone has a road in which he or she wishes to see some investment. I put on record my disappointment that the Scottish Office is unwilling to fund the bypass that would avoid the Avon gorge between Lothian and Central regions. There have been a number of serious accidents there, although, thank goodness, no deaths, over the past 20 years. However, that is not the reason why I stayed in the Chamber to speak today.

I was interested that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) let us know that he was involved in church work and I was interested by his definition of the concept "saved". He spoke about pre-marriage counselling for some of the people in his church and said that he saved one fifth of them from taking the step of getting married. That is a new definition of "saved" for me. I refer him and other hon. Members who listened and nodded sagely to a new book by my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), the second-in-command on our Front-Bench Treasury team, called "The Century Gap". Males especially should read the book. Her thesis is that whereas men are living in the 20th century, women have advanced into the 21st century, and that it is about time that men joined them before they find themselves out of step. We would achieve better results for our children if we regarded their upbringing not as a family matter, but as a parenting matter. It is not only the structure, but the quality of relationships that is important for the future.

I stayed to speak today because I was informed that there would be a debate on agriculture on the motion for the Adjournment. Scottish agriculture is suffering badly at the hands of the European Community. I feel some debt to the National Farmers Union of the Forth valley and I wanted to speak on their behalf. It is a pity that we are not having such a debate and I hope that we shall have it at some time. I recall the change to the sheep meat regime causing consternation among the hill sheep farmers. We had a debate here about that. People in Scotland are suffering.

Another problem is the milk quotas. When I was leader of the council in Stirling district, it was predicted that one tenth of farmers would be out of business, and would have to sell their farms or give up their tenancies by the end of the decade as a result of the quotas because they had invested heavily in new milk parlours. That has come to pass in the Forth valley and it is a great shame. There is a deficit in the milk supply in Europe, yet we do not transfer quotas across boundaries to this country. As a result, many of the companies that process milk have gone to other European countries, taking manufacturing jobs with them. That was verified when we met the Food and Drink Manufacturers Association just before the Budget statement. We have been remiss in a number of areas.

In cereal production, set-aside is being forced on Scotland next year because of the quality and productivity of Scottish farming. I deprecate the fact that Scottish farmers will be punished when cereal production quotas could be transferred to Scotland to allow them to continue to produce cereals. It is a pity that we did not have an agriculture debate today. I would have been happy to take part in it and to speak on behalf of farmers, although there are few in my constituency. It is a national problem in Scotland and it is probably also a United Kingdom problem.

I intend to speak about a matter that is not as specific as the roads pleas earlier. I shall speak about the orange badge scheme—the disabled sticker scheme. I do not know whether the scheme works in the same way in England and Wales. In Scotland, it is becoming a regime that takes away a small benefit which gives disabled people a quality of life that they could not otherwise have.

I hope that the House will think about the scheme. It is not a great financial gift and it is not a licence for people to park wherever they like. Many road traffic schemes, especially double yellow line schemes, mean that people cannot park on certain roads even with an orange badge. Last Christmas, Strathclyde clamped down heavily on parking. A person with an orange badge who did not know the regulations well enough parked near the shopping centre. When he came back to find his car, he saw that it had been towed away by a private security firm hired for the purpose. He had to pay more than £50, and he was lucky enough to have money and a credit card with him so that he could get his car out of the pound. However, he had to walk and to take a taxi for almost a mile and a half.

People cannot use the scheme to park wherever they like, and that is correct. However, I wrote to Strathclyde council saying that it was being rather harsh and that there should be some zoned parking on roads that had double yellow lines near the shopping centre at Christmas for people with orange badges. The incident was a great shock to my constituent, and there has been great hardship for many orange badge users who have had to park far away from the shopping centre.

The scheme has been amended by regulation, not by debate in the House. The purpose of the regulation was to stop abuses, and I applaud that. There were many abuses. When the Labour Government were in power, my good friend Lord Ewing of Kirkford, from whom I took over, was a Scottish Office Minister. He spoke to some of my pupils when I was a teacher of children with learning difficulties. He told them about the orange badge schemes and he pointed out the many abuses. The problem became greater as the 1980s went on. It is right that the regulations should be used to stop abuses, but they have now gone too far and the scheme is far too rigid.

The regulations seem to make it practically impossible for people to get a new orange badge unless they can prove that they have had a double amputation and that they cannot even wheel themselves along. They are asked whether they can travel 200 yds by any means. Let us consider the case of my constituent Mr. Andrews of Grangemouth which illustrates the point well. He had had an orange badge for more than five years and he was told that he had to fill in a new form. He is a very honest gentleman in his mid-70s who has for some time suffered a number of problems with walking and who has had several operations. He said that if he leant on his wife's arm and stopped every 20 yds or so for a rest, he could probably travel 200 yds without a wheelchair. He was then denied renewal of his orange badge. The bottom line was that he could travel 200 yds by some means. It would not have mattered if he could only get himself over 200 yds on his hands and knees. He would still have been denied renewal of his orange badge.

I applaud Mr. Andrews's attitude, which I recommend to anyone who finds himself in such a situation. With personal advocacy that would have done any hon. Member proud, Mr. Andrews took the matter up in the press and contacted the television company; he fought a battle. The council did not say that it was wrong. It said that it would send him a new form and that if he wrote that he could not travel 200 yds under his own steam, it would give him a badge. That is ludicrous. He had to be less honest than he wanted in informing the authorities of his circumstances, to obtain an orange badge. The scheme is now so strict that people who need badges are losing them and that small addition to their quality of life is taken away.

I am reminded of the new incapacity allowance. The suggested method of proving that one qualifies for that allowance reflects the same attitude. One must prove that one is so incapacitated that one cannot do anything for oneself. I hope that is not the purpose of the allowance, which should be to add to an individual's quality of life, not to transform people from being vegetables into active citizens. The inflexibility of the new orange badge regulations works against those who are temporarily incapacitated for one or two years and who have been advised by their doctor that they cannot get about under their own steam. The provision of a badge would help such people more easily to shop and in other ways. The regulations do not allow for a temporary badge. Must the applicant lie and state that he or she is permanently incapacitated, and not admit that—if the doctor is right—they will be able to get about in one or two years? Are such people merely to state that they are disabled and, after a couple of years, hang on to their badges as long as they can? To use a phrase that is common in politics and in life generally, such people are caught between a rock and a hard place. It is time that the Government examined the scheme's inflexibility.

Mrs. Reid from Bo'ness is one constituent who has written to me on that subject. The Scottish Office says that the regulations are set, but that a flexibility clause allows a local authority to use discretion but not grant temporary badges. There is something wrong if flexibility and discretion cannot be used to assist a person who is temporarily disabled or incapacitated. I will be harsh on the Scottish Office and say that it sets the regulations and then passes the buck. That is a favoured way of doing things. I was for 10 years the leader of a council that was weighed down with regulations with which it had to conform, but it was not given the resources to do so.

The transport planning authority appears to have chosen a person—I will not name the gentleman—having the least heart and soul in the bureaucracy to administer the scheme. The terms and tone of his letters upset people, in that he does not countenance any flexibility if he can get away with it—and the regulations allow him to deny flexibility. The Scottish Office Minister responsible should add flexibility to the regulations and exhort local authorities to use the discretion that will give the incapacitated the small addition to their quality of life that the orange badge scheme can provide.

The regulations appear to give plaudits and prizes for being rigid and inflexible, and I am sure that is not the scheme's true purpose. I enter a plea on behalf of my constituents and other people in Scotland and in England and Wales who find it difficult to renew their orange badge, and who are expected to enjoy a lower quality of life. The Government are providing a lower quality of life in everything that they do, but I am sure that they do not want publicly to be found out. I ask the Minister responsible to reconsider the scheme and to introduce a regulation that will provide for easier orange badge renewal by people who have owned one for a number of years—and certainly for those who are in the later years of their life—but which still keeps abusers out of the picture. I hope that we may see changes in the next couple of months.

10.53 am
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

The House should address four matters in the context of my constituency before it adjourns for Christmas. The House will not be surprised to know that they are the high-speed rail link, as it passes through Kent; grant-maintained schools; the application for objective 2 status within the European Community; and the routing of ambulances.

The high-speed rail link has been a major problem for the people of Kent, as alternative routes have twisted and turned across my constituency and elsewhere in Kent over the past five years. I will highlight the plight of 90 households at Pepper Hill, under whose properties Union Rail currently wants to drive a tunnel. Union Rail blatantly states that those residents will suffer no noise or vibration. That is why I called for a geological survey to be commissioned, to assess the noise and vibration impact on those residents—what I call the rumble.

As the A2 action group of local residents and I are not experts in geological surveys, I asked the then Conservative-controlled Gravesham borough council to appoint a geological expert to investigate the Union Rail survey. I understand that the council eventually did so, and that that expert is already at work.

The ball is now in the court of Union Rail. Last month, it delivered to me and to the borough council a preliminary report on its geological survey. It promised—we know about British Rail's promises—that the result of laboratory tests would be delivered to Gravesham borough council by 29 November. They have not yet been delivered.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport kindly gave Gravesham borough council and myself until 31 December to give our views, which will not least be based on the results of the geological survey. I ask that all pressure be put on Union Rail to deliver the test results now, as they are already nearly one week overdue.

I believe that the rumble will be felt by those residents living over the proposed tunnel, which strengthens the case for the alternative route 226. It would take the tunnel—and a tunnel would be of advantage to all residents of Northfleet—away from properties, to run under an electricity substation.

I understand that the National Grid Company, which owns and operates that substation, produced an option report on the costs and practicalities of renewing that ancient switching substation or resiting it. I hope that the Department of Transport will study that report with a positive mind, to ascertain whether a solution can be found. One must be found, because the existing plan is totally unreasonable for the residents concerned.

The Department of Transport paper for the channel tunnel rail link high-level forum, "Property Purchase and Compensation Policy", commented on compensation safeguarding when the route is announced by Ministers in January. That paper states: Safeguarding also brings into play the statutory blight provisions (and purchase notices) of Part VI of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. A blight notice may be served by the owner of any domestic property within the safeguarded zone seeking purchase. I cite the case of six householders sandwiched between the A2 motorway, which itself will be widened southwards nearer to their homes, and the high-speed rail link route announced. Those houses have for many years been sandwiched between two main transport arteries. They are four houses at Longview off Henhurst road, Cobham, and two houses in Scalers hill, also in the parish of Cobham.

The capital and amenity values of those properties have been ruined by public transport, and their owners must be compensated. I am told that their owners want to move. Those properties should be included in the safeguarded zone, so that their owners' rights will be taken into account. Reverting to the 90 households over the tunnel, I note that the same document states: Blight notices would not be accepted for properties within safeguarded zones over bored tunnels except where there are surface works such as ventilation shafts. That is quite wrong as a policy. The tunnel does damage to the capital value and amenity of the 90 households that live above, and it is not fair to claim that the costs of that compensation make the high-speed rail link that much less viable. It is not fair to the residents, because the other side of the coin is that the proposal makes the capital value, and amenity value, of residents' houses equally less valuable, and they are less capable of sustaining that loss.

I shall now discuss grant-maintained schools. Conservative Kent county council was traditionally in the forefront of local financial management. It put, as a matter of policy, 90 per cent. of the funding of schools directly local financial management. It was not surprising, therefore, that, with the advent of grant-maintained school status, many Kent schools advanced to take 100 per cent. responsibility for funds and decisions relating to education.

It is not surprising that the support of parents of children in so many schools for adopting grant-maintained status was overwhelming; indeed, 50 per cent. of secondary schools in Kent have already become grant maintained. In my borough of Gravesham alone, five of the eight secondary schools and two of the primary schools have voted to become grant maintained, and two further schools are balloting for such status at the moment. Those that have become grant maintained have been successful. They are vibrant; they are go-ahead; they give good education to the young people concerned. The response of the new Labour-Liberal coalition that runs Kent county council has been one of unremitting hostility. The Lib-Lab coalition that is running Kent has allocated £100,000 of education funds to the mindless pursuit of opposing the will of parents in grant-maintained schools—£100,000 from the education budget, which could have been spent on new classrooms, on repairs to school buildings and on new equipment for our schools, just to pursue the petty party political prejudices of the Labour and Liberal parties.

What justification do they give for that approach? The Labour education spokesman on Kent county council, County Councillor Mrs. Esterson, said that, in previous votes of parents before the most recent county council election, parents voted against Conservative Kent County Council. Let us consider that. Now, at St. John's Roman Catholic Secondary School in Gravesend the parents have voted on the matter, and 75 per cent. voted for the school to become a grant-maintained school.

Let us see the logic of Councillor Mrs. Esterson. Presumably the parents voted against the Lib-Lab coalition that runs Kent county council. What rubbish! Of course they did not. They did not vote on political grounds. They voted on the grounds of the education of their children. They voted positively because they felt that in that school they had a good headmaster, good governors, good teachers—indeed, a very good school—and they believe that they will get better education by having 100 per cent. power over the decisions and the spending of the education funds relative to their children.

That does not bother the new Lib-Lab coalition that is running Kent county council. The council is now circulating a misleading letter to parents who are due to vote in such cases. I shall take as an example the letter sent to parents of children at the St. Joseph's Roman Catholic aided primary school in Northfleet.

The first claim made to the parents by the Lib-Lab Kent county council is: The Grant Maintained sector has not grown as Government Policy had hoped.

That is an odd statement to make, because what the Government hoped is irrelevant. What counts is what the parents decide, and progress has been made, because in those schools the parents have decided that it is in the interests of their children.

That letter goes on to ask, rhetorically: Do you want your Headteacher and senior staff to be heavily involved in non-educational duties? Or do you want money spent hiring extra staff to do such work?

Non-educational duties? When one has those "Headteachers and senior staff' working on the delivery of quality education locally in their school? That is what they are working on, and they are deciding the best means of so doing. When one bears in mind the fact that the school gets an extra 10 per cent. of funds, they can judge what to spend it on, and that may be partly on administrative and clerical support if they so judge.

The letter also says: There is no published evidence whatsoever which indicates that standards in the Grant Maintained sector are either better or worse than in Local Authority Schools. Where have the authors of those letters been living in the past few weeks? We have seen lists of exam results from schools up and down the country, and what does one note? The grant-maintained schools predominate in the top of that list.

I would point out that high up in that list is the Northfleet school for boys in the borough of Gravesham in my constituency—not a grammar school—a school which is exceptionally well run. The parents are so supportive that the school has become grant maintained, and it has done exceptionally well, as those lists prove.

Here is another extract from that letter from the Lib-Lab county council: Whilst the early schools which joined the Grant Maintained sector received significant additional money this was not 'new' money. It has been and is being removed from existing schools, in other words robbing Peter to pay Paul. That claim is the most pernicious of all. The logic of transferring that 10 per cent. of funds is that that is the amount of education funds that had to date been spent on administrative and advisory support to those schools from county hall. The grant-maintained decisions show that the schools believe that they can get better value for the same money locally in the school than can the county hall bureaucrats.

The problem for Kent county council and other councils is that they are losing that 10 per cent. of funds. How do they react? They should either win contracts from the grant-maintained schools to provide those same services, or they should cut the bureaucracy that provided those so-called services proportionately. Given the petty warfare of Kent county council, under its Lib-Lab control, against the grant-maintained schools, it is unlikely that they would win any such contracts.

My constituents, and even hon. Members, are great enthusiasts for that television programme "Yes Minister". We remember that Sir Humphrey always presented to Ministers painful cuts in services rather than cuts in Sir Humphrey's empire. That is precisely what is happening at the moment at Kent county council. Let us remember that the letter referred to "existing schools". The new Lib-Lab masters of Kent county council go on about cutting schools and nursery schools as a consequence, but they are addressing the wrong options. At the very first test of its competence, the Lib-Lab pact in Kent has failed. It claims that Kent taxpayers are confronted with only two options: either to pay higher council tax or to cut education services. That is not the choice. The bureaucracy has a responsibility to scale down accordingly, and we shall be watching to see whether it does so.

Incidentally, I welcome the 13 per cent. increase in the revenue support grant from the Government to Kent county council, and I would think that, with that 13 per cent., it should be well able in the coming year to develop services and impose no council tax increase whatsoever on the people of Kent.

Lastly, I shall discuss the British application to the European Community for designation of north Gravesham—indeed, of a wide area of Thames-side in Kent—for objective 2 status for European structural funds. My hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and I have long campaigned for such status, with the support of our Member of the European Parliament, Ben Patterson, and the local borough councils.

We particularly appreciate the enthusiasm of our right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry in making the application, and I should like to highlight two projects to which objective 2 funding from the European Community could contribute.

The first is Northfleet town bypass. Northfleet is an historic urban area which has always been dependent on heavy industry, but its roads were not built for heavy goods vehicles. Northfleet high street and the Springhead and Dover roads are quite inadequate for the heavy goods vehicles that daily pound along them.

There have been long-standing plans for such a bypass known as the Thames-side industrial route fourth phase. It is now known apparently, as the south Thames development route fourth phase. It would extend from the Springhead lower roundabout westwards to Dartford. This would be a very good project, with which financial support from the Community would help.

The second project that I wish to highlight is the north-east Gravesend access road. There is poor, ancient access to the two business areas—the Norfolk road industrial area; and the Old Denton industrial area, which has large companies such as Comma and Southern Water. We need a new road from the Lion roundabout to the Denton industrial estate, over the north Kent line and onwards to Denton wharf.

This road would bring relief to the residents of Old Denton, an historic and compact area. Heavy goods vehicles are currently rumbling along ancient roads such as Range road, which are lined with very small terrace houses that cannot withstand the vibration those vehicles generate.

We have heard in the House that paramedics on our ambulances now have the expertise to diagnose emergency patients and therefore take them directly to the most appropriate medical centre. In particular, Ministers have highlighted the fact that paramedics can identify appropriate cases and take them directly to trauma centres —intensive care units. My belief is that if they can diagnose up to specialist cases, surely they can diagnose down.

Our intensive care unit in Gravesham is at the Joyce Green hospital, Dartford—an excellent unit, but many miles away. The accident and emergency unit to which all ambulance cases are taken is at West Hill hospital in Dartford, which is also excellent but is miles away. If we now have highly specialised paramedics, I do not see why they cannot diagnose down emergency cases that require, for example, stitches or treatment of burns, which could easily go to the casualty unit at Gravesend and North Kent hospital, which is in our town and is far more convenient. I hope that the national health service will consider this proposal for convenience and for cost-saving.

11.12 am
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I shall speak reasonably briefly because time is, alas, too short, which is one of the reasons why I tabled an amendment. On Thursday, 21 subjects were requested for debate. The proposal that we should abandon Parliament from 17 December to 11 January seems wrong. The notion that we should occupy only three hours of a Friday when five hours are available for debate is entirely wrong. There are enough Members here well to fill the three hours available and I have no doubt that other hon. Members, had they been presented with the opportunity of a five-hour debate, would have been here to debate issues.

Mr. John Marshall

Where are they?

Mr. Cryer

It is inept of the Government to allow a three-hour debate when five hours are possible.

If the Parliamentary Private Secretary, behind his master, keeps making little jokes, I shall have to analyse in great detail all his silly comments. The Conservative Members behind him, who wish to take part in the debate, will be very reluctant for him to continue his silly antics.

May I continue last night's Adjournment debate on the Child Support Agency? I was here for part of the debate, which was instituted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), and was particularly interested and concerned by the Minister's reply, because, like many hon. Members, I have been presented with cases that are disturbing and distressing for the people involved and for hon. Members.

The Minister's response to my hon. Friend's valid points was simply lacklustre and inadequate. There is a head of steam to get the Child Support Agency legislation changed; the Government should take note of it, because people from all walks of life are adversely affected.

It is worth remembering that the Child Support Act 1991 was presented to the House as legislation to ensure that irresponsible fathers who were not paying maintenance would be traced and would make a contribution to their children. Everybody regarded that as a perfectly just and proper aim, but the aim of the agency is now to tackle the easy money—that of fathers who are paying, who are known, but who are being subjected to an entirely restrictive and unfair formula.

Hon. Members who write to Ministers who piloted the Act through Parliament are shrugged off with an inadequate response, and told that the chief executive will reply. When a reply is received, it is simply a straightforward computer printout that tells Members, for example, that courts previously made decisions about this matter—something, apparently, that the agency believes only people on Mars knew.

Of course we know that information, and that cases varied from court to court. Sometimes that was a strength, because courts took into account differing circumstances. The letter goes on in a pedestrian way, saying that the person can ask for a review, and if they are dissatisfied with it they can appeal. In the meantime, they have to pay for the assessment and collection, which is rubbing salt into deep wounds.

Last night, as the Leader of the House will confirm, the Minister admitted that, in 616,000 cases, the agency has traced only 9,000 absent fathers. I believe that Government policy is to use the Child Support Agency not as a child support agency but as a Treasury support agency. It has been given the task of raising money from people who already accept their responsibility and pay maintenance.

I have a typical constituent's letter. I shall not give his name, because these circumstances are always private and distressing to the people involved. He writes: I am an 'absent Father' who firmly believes in the paying of maintenance for my 3½ year old daughter. I made a voluntary arrangement with the DSS … to pay £28.00 a week. I have never missed this payment ever since it was agreed by all parties concerned, approximately 18 months ago. I am currently making arrangements through my solicitor to transfer my equal share of the matrimonial home and its contents into my ex-wife's name. I parted from the marriage with my car (value £1,800.00). The house has equity of approximately £12,00000 plus contents. I am now in a relationship with a Divorcee who has two children from her previous marriage. She receives £5.00 per week for child maintenance on an irregular basis. I have recently had a form from the CSA and find that they do not take into account the fact that I am now in a new relationship with my new partner and that I also provide for two children aged 9 and 4 years. The CSA say they are not my responsibility. I am their Daddy as far as they and everyone else is concerned. They together with myself are going to suffer badly, to a point where we may have to sell our home, if the CSA is allowed to continue. I ask you to look at the CSA formula and tell me if you agree with it. For the sake of my family, myself and thousands of other absent parents who willingly pay maintenance, I implore you to do something". That is not uncharacteristic for a person who is acting fairly and handing over equity in the home.

The Minister's response is that it is simply nothing to do with the formula that the Government have laid down. That is grossly unfair. If the Tories claim that they are the party of the family, the Child Support Agency is bringing pressure to bear on families which will lead to further break-ups. If they are trying to save taxpayers' money, if there are further break-ups, that will mean further claims on the welfare system. I strongly urge the Leader of the House to pass the information to the Minister who replied so inadequately last night. Things must be changed.

I shall conclude my remarks about the Child Support Agency by mentioning a female constituent who has written to me. She has received six maintenance payments in three years and has complained about the lack of maintenance. She is the sort of person whom, we were told, the Child Support Agency was designed to support.

The Child Support agency took several weeks to write a letter. It then got the address wrong, although it had been given the correct address, and then said that it wanted information about the income of the former partner within two weeks. The former partner refused to give that information, so the agency allowed another two weeks. The woman wrote to me within the past few days to say that the information was still not available. On that example, even when the Child Support Agency is doing the work, it is not effective, and the figures given by the Minister bear that out.

Another young women wrote me an appealing letter. She had a baby and does not seek maintenance. She did not say so in her letter, but she said that she wanted the name of the father on the birth certificate. She does not have much money, but she would like the DNA test to be taken by the man, who disputes the claim. She is having great difficulty.

I referred her to the Child Support Agency, which told her that it would be three years before it could tackle her case. She is an ideal young woman for the agency to help, because she is a single parent and simply wants the name of the father on the birth certificate so that the child is not fatherless. That is not an unreasonable aspiration.

Another example is that of a man in a high-earning category—he earned as much as a Member of Parliament. He fathered a child and accepted his responsibility. His marriage has recovered from the sense of betrayal that had been incurred, and he and his wife were settling back. He has two teenage children to look after, and they are ready to go to university.

Through the door came a letter from the Child Support Agency. There was nothing private or confidential about it. His wife opened the letter—they were exchanging correspondence—and all the old wounds reopened. That day, when he returned from his well-paid, responsible position—a pillar of society, if one likes—his wife had packed her suitcase ready to go. He told me that it had been a difficult week, but it looked as though the marriage could be saved.

That is the effect in thousands of houses up and down the country. Yet the bland, ineffective reply of the Minister yesterday made it sound as though it was all some sort of administrative procedure. We are talking about an area of great sensitivities and difficulties. Relationships are being trampled on with hobnailed boots. I hope that the Minister will take the message. It is fair to say that the message is not simply coming from Labour Members. Some Tory Members have criticised the agency—there are anxious mothers and fathers battering at their doors as well.

Another subject that I shall mention is one that I have raised in the House previously—wheel clamping. I am raising the subject again because it has been raised again in Bradford—wheel clampers have been about again. In this case, they clamped the car of an articulate young women who, I am happy to say, will sue them. They held on to her and kept her by her car for two hours while she organised the recovery of the imposition of £75. I have had an Adjournment debate on this subject, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar).

Wheel clamping is taking place in Bradford, and women are being placed in jeopardy. They are often clamped late at night, at 11 or 11.30 pm. We are not talking about people parking cars in other people's back or front gardens—we are talking about what appears to all intents and purposes to be wasteland. People come out of the Alhambra theatre in Bradford to find that their cars have been clamped and they must find £75. A few months ago, the fine was increased from £50—an arbitrary imposition.

Many people are angry, because they are placed in danger by these cowboys. Indeed, in one case—it is not West Yorkshire Outdoor Securities Ltd., although that is the most prominent cowboy organisation in Bradford— one clamping company was clamping cars without the permission of the owners of the land. It was simply putting on a clamp and extorting money from innocent car owners.

A consultative document was issued by the Home Office, and responses to it had to be in by the end of May. However, there is still no sign of any activity by the Home Office. It should produce some proposals as soon as possible. The matter is causing concern.

I must tell the Minister about a woman who came to Bradford—she is not one of my constituents. She came 10 miles with a companion to go to the Alhambra theatre. Her car was clamped. The last bus and the last train had gone, and she had no other means of getting home. Fortunately, her companion had £50, which was handed over, and she was able to get her car. She went to the police. The police sat on their elbows and said that it was nothing to do with them—it was not a breach of the peace.

I shall tell the House what I say to people who are clamped and do not have the support of the police. I tell them to say that they will picket on behalf of the National Union of Mineworkers, and see what the police will do then. During the miners' strike, the police discovered all sorts of laws that could be utilised. However, in the case of men and women whose cars are clamped late at night, they cannot do a single thing.

The law needs clarifying along the lines of the Scottish court decision that clamping on private land in this way is extortion and theft. Since that court decision, there have been no traffic jams in Scotland, following the removal of those cowboy crooks.

My final point relates to a matter raised yesterday—the "Dispatches" programme about Aims of Industry and British United Industrialists, which have been raising money for the Conservative party. In response, the Leader of the House said that there were all sorts of conspiracies, and that it was not worth troubling his mind about them.

The Conservative party is a continuing conspiracy. On the programme broadcast on 1 December, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), a former Prime Minister, made the clear statement that, if people were asking others for money for political parties, it was a political donation. A Scottish Minister said exactly the same thing about British United Industrialists. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup made the point generally, but specifically referred to Aims of Industry.

It appears that not only Labour Members are concerned about this—distinguished former Tory Prime Ministers are saying that such donations are for political purposes and therefore should be recorded as political donations. If that is the case, firms such as Lucas, which was named on the programme, are in breach of the law in not declaring such donations as political donations.

It was made clear that Aims of Industry and British United Industrialists know what they are doing. They are raising money which they have repeatedly said is to help the Conservative party at general elections. That should be sorted out and, if the 1985 legislation has been breached, the Government should call on the relevant Departments to institute prosecutions.

It was made clear by a member of the Wallasey Conservative party that Aims of Industry had campaigned on behalf of the then Lynda Chalker in Wallasey. If that happened—the programme has strong evidence that it did—the election laws of 1983 must also have been breached.

The Leader of the House is cautious and believes that the Conservative party is the party of law and order. Here is a test: if it is the party of law and order, he should pass on the message to the Home Office to institute prosecutions against Lucas and other companies that have made illegal donations without admitting them, and certainly to ensure that Aims of Industry is prosecuted over its activities in Wallasey.

Everybody knows that public buildings and taxpayers' money are being used to subsidise dinners at No. 10. Many of us believe that those who turn up for such dinners include representatives of tobacco companies, which is why there is no ban on advertising cigarettes. The industry influences the Government through the money that it donates to the Conservative party. I believe that the beer barons are also making massive contributions to the Conservative party, which is why they did so well in the Budget.

If I am wrong, I expect that the Conservative party will want to raise its head over the sleaze surrounding it and start the prosecution process, so that it can refute, clearly and firmly, any accusations by people like me on the basis of evidence provided by television.

11.31 am
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I wish to discuss the subject of credit card fraud, which is particularly important at Christmas because we are expected to spend some £15 billion in the shops this month, much of which will be transacted on plastic. Unfortunately, fraud using credit cards has doubled in the past five years.

People in this country have far more credit cards than our European neighbours. The French have 20 million cards and the Italians have only 5 million, yet we have 83 million credit, cheque guarantee or retailer cards.

Banks and retailers that issue cards are losing more than £400 million a year, or £761 every minute of the day, at the hands of fraudsters. Last year, more than 2 million cards were reported stolen. Of those, 150,000 were taken as a result of muggings and 300,000 during burglaries.

Black market prices in London suggest that, once stolen, credit cards can be sold to a middleman for between £50 and £150. The platinum cards—whatever they look like—can be sold for some £300. Once a middleman has bought a card, he passes it on to an encasher who uses a team of petty criminals to buy as much as they can using the cards. Those goods are then sold at knockdown prices from the back of a lorry, at car boot sales or elsewhere. By the time the process is completed, the average loss on a stolen card is £600.

Another problem is counterfeit cards from the far east. The police estimate that between 25 and 50 per cent. of gold card fraud is committed on counterfeit cards. So what measures can be taken to cut that fraud? Credit cards can be passed through an on-line system, which detects whether a card has been stolen. However, that system is expensive and not all retailers are linked up to it. Another system is to check the signature on the back of the card. Hon. Members will have noticed how many times their credit cards are returned to them without the signature being checked. Unfortunately, that is happening too often. Moreover, how many times do signatures differ during the day? Mine certainly differs from time to time, so even that checking procedure is made more difficult.

The result of the over-reliance on signatures and the reluctance to use on-line system means that 60 per cent. of all card fraud is committed after a card has been reported stolen. Barclays bank has its own system for Visa and Barclaycard. It looks at the purchase pattern of the person using the card and, if it is irregular, staff check up on it. However, the scheme to which I am most attracted uses photo identification and laser-etched signatures on the back of credit cards. It is being used by the Royal Bank of Scotland, the National and Provincial building society and the Trustee Savings bank. The Royal Bank of Scotland launched its pilot scheme in October 1991, when 30,000 customers at 39 selected branches in Edinburgh, London, Glasgow and Manchester were invited to apply for the new-style cards. They are "highline" cards with a photograph on the back and an etched signature.

The results achieved during the trial period were remarkable. Of the 360 cards lost or stolen, only three were used fraudulently, with a total loss to the bank of £494, as opposed to the £45,000 that it would normally have expected. Following that success, the card is being tested further in Lancashire and is now available to all Royal Bank of Scotland customers.

The National and Provincial building society has experienced similar success with its photo credit card, which differs from the Switch and hole-in-the-wall card of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Just five months after it was made available to the society's 300,000 Visa card holders, more than a third of the customers have taken up the offer to have their photograph put on the back of the card. It is an encouraging take-up rate and 1,000 customers a day are now applying for those new credit cards. Staff at those branches have Polaroid cameras with which they can take photographs of the customers. They charge £2 for a photograph, which is what customers would expect to pay commercially. Remarkably, no fee is charged for the cards. Too often, customers are asked to pay £12, £20 or even more for credit cards, even without photographs and laser-etched signatures.

The beauty of having a signature etched on to a card is that a third of cards used fraudulently are intercepted between the time a company sends out the cards and the time the recipients receive them. If a signature is already etched on a card, it is much more difficult for a fraudster to put his signature on it, thus helping to crack down on such fraud.

The public seem to like the new system. All the polls show that people using the cards back the use of photographs and laser-etched signatures. Retailers also like it and it has been endorsed by the British Retail Consortium because it helps it to crack down on crime. Scotland Yard has also welcomed the scheme. It pointed out that, even if a fraudster could remove the picture of the owner and replace it with his own, he would be reluctant to do so because, where suspicion occurs, the card is retained by a member of staff and the police then have a good idea of what the fraudster looks like. So thieves and fraudsters hate such schemes.

I am not enamoured of the idea of making such a scheme compulsory, but the evidence shows that companies issuing cards should embrace such new technology. It is a wonderful addition as a form of identity in general. I favour the idea of identity cards. A cheque guarantee or credit card with a photo on the back is an absolute boon. The cost of a card without a photograph is about 25p and with a photograph it is £1.20, but the massive savings that can be achieved will more than pay for the extra price.

Banks should not drag their feet over implementing new technology to reduce credit card fraud. It wastes police time, when such fraud could be stamped out. Given the fantastic reduction in fraud through using that technology, why should police time be wasted by not using it? Consumers who do not use that technology pay for the fraud every month through credit card protection schemes, inflated borrowing rates and card charges. It is up to us as elected Members to call on the banks to make every effort to tackle this problem. Our constituents have the right to be protected against credit card fraud and no stone should be left unturned in pursuit of that aim.

11.40 am
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for his kind comments. I had better not go further because if I did the political editor of New Statesman and Society will see yet another conspiracy. The Leader of the House will be pleased to know that I will not go into the subject of the Child Support Agency which I spoke about yesterday in the Adjournment debate. As I said then, many of the problems being experienced with that agency were raised when the right hon. Gentleman, as Secretary of State for Social Security, introduced the measure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South spoke about wheel clamping. I shall give a brief history of how that matter has been pursued in the House by a number of Members, including myself. In the summer, I secured an Adjournment debate on the subject and had some meetings with Ministers and civil servants. Unfortunately, that did not bring any results, so I introduced a ten-minute Bill, and a consultation document was published. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South said, responses to that were due by the end of May, which was a fairly short response time. Since then, there has been nothing from the Home Department. I have tabled questions and had correspondence with the relevant Minister, but there is still delay in taking a decision.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South said, for well over a year private wheel clamping has been banned in Scotland and there have been no horrific consequences or enormous traffic problems. Such wheel clamping still takes place in other parts of Britain, although there has been a bit of a lull recently. I was interested to hear that there are still problems in Bradford. During the Christmas period, people drive into areas with which they are not familiar to do Christmas shopping or to go to pantomimes. From previous years, we know that that is the peak time for clamping. There will be an upsurge in cases and more unfortunate people will be subjected not only to considerable indignity and inconvenience, but to occasional danger and certainly considerable cost. Given the increased charges in Bradford, it is obvious that the clampers there do not think that inflation is only 1 per cent., as the Chancellor said in his Budget speech.

The construction industry is facing a bleak Christmas and is experiencing its longest recession for years. As we know, many famous companies, household names, have gone out of business, and the industry believes that at least one other major contractor is likely to go under. The problem affects not just the big names but it is widespread in the industry. Subcontractors are being squeezed at all levels. More than half of the brickwork contractors who were in business a couple of years ago have disappeared. They are experiencing dramatic reductions in orders and a considerable squeeze on their cash flow.

There has been comment about the time that it takes to get money from main contractors and clients, and I am pleased to see that such matters are being addressed. A former Member of Parliament, Sir Michael Latham, is looking at the issue of contracts in the construction industry, and the industry is looking forward to a report from a man who is knowledgeable in this area.

I was pleased to hear the Chancellor acknowledge some of the difficulties that are being experienced not just in the construction industry, although that is the industry in which difficulties have been exacerbated, but by small companies who experience delays in the payment of their bills. The Chancellor is looking at some remedial measures including, I am pleased to hear, the German system of compulsory interest after a specific delay. That will help companies to stay in business.

Such difficulties are also experienced by the work force, the operatives in the industry. There have been major reductions in the number of people working in construction. One of the industry's worries is that many people with valuable skills who have been made redundant two or three times during the prolonged recession will have left the industry never to return. The industry wonders what skills shortages it will face when there is an upturn in building.

Those who are still lucky enough to be in work face considerable problems over pay reductions and the worsening of conditions. Wages for skilled craftsmen in London have reduced by about a third over the past two or three years. Many of them have been forced into casual employment and, effectively, companies are nodding and winking at such people who also claim benefit. Many companies would not be able to price jobs at current levels and people would not be able to work for current wages if they were not illicitly claiming benefit with the collaboration of companies. If the Chancellor is looking for cuts, I suggest the return of some degree of regulation and proper contractual employment in the building industry.

Quite apart from what will happen on deregulation, companies face pressure on health and safety standards. Underlying all the problems is the fact that the industry is experiencing its worst slump since the war. A couple of weeks ago an east midlands builder told me that that week he had advertised for bricklayers and for the next three days he was inundated with calls. Many of those who called had been laid off in the previous few weeks because house building companies had constructed to the first level and were leaving the sites vacant over the winter while they waited to see what would happen in the housing market. Far from being static, the situation is declining further.

The Secretary of State for the Environment should give some encouragement to the building industry about future prospects. The Chancellor of the Exchequer could have done that. Although there was a welcome announcement about the Jubilee line, the commercial property sector is quite flat and house building is still just staggering along and is the only area in which there is likely to be any development. It is worrying that public sector housing is not receiving the necessary support through the Government allowing councils to use capital receipts or encouraging housing associations. Such moves would give a much needed boost to house building.

Government Departments have not been helpful to the industry, as we have seen with the celebrated Bristol case. The curtain walling contract for the Ministry of Defence procurement office in Bristol will be awarded to a foreign company because only overseas companies were allowed to tender for the project. That was based on an out-of-date, 18-month-old report from the Bath technical institute. That situation has now passed, and British companies would have been able to complete the project.

The House does not have to take the word of the institute. I have talked to major developers who have been involved in similar projects who say that they have had satisfactory work within an adequate price from British companies. Unfortunately, the attitude of many Departments is to encourage overseas competition in a futile attempt to cut prices. That is done in a way which is inconceivable to any of our foreign competitors. It is unlikely that the French army would allow a British contractor to tender for a curtain walling contract or that the European Parliament in Brussels would invite any non-Belgian company to tender for its roofing work.

It is also as unlikely as the Bundeswehr inviting a number of overseas companies to tender for its ammunition contracts, as occurred in the infamous bribery case involving a Ministry of Defence official. The core problem is that the Government are encouraging overseas competition to the detriment of British companies. That occurs in a number of areas, but particularly in the Ministry of Defence.

Finally, I think that the House should review the period of the recess. Prolonged breaks are damaging to our standing with the public. It is not bad for hon. Members, who are thick-skinned about the matter, but it is bad for democracy when the parliamentary representatives are constantly attacked in the press. Hon. Members may safely rebut criticism from highly paid journalists who write about our pay, because they always seem to be reluctant to put their wages and conditions alongside ours. That is a challenge that they seem reluctant to take up.

We make ourselves targets by having prolonged breaks. There are so many issues which the public are crying out for us to debate and scrutinise. We should hot adjourn until those issues have been fully discussed.

11.52 pm
Mr. Stephen Milligan (Eastleigh)

In the Christmas spirit which should characterise the debate, I should like to begin by asking my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Dicks

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With great respect, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Milligan) has not been here for a great deal of the morning. Some hon. Members have been here from 9.30 am waiting to speak.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. It is entirely for the Chair to choose who is required to speak. To my knowledge, the hon. Member for Eastleigh was here before the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Milligan

I am grateful for your ruling on that issue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will try to keep my remarks brief, so that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) will have a chance to make points for his constituents.

In the Christmas spirit, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to pass on the thanks of my constituents to three of his ministerial colleagues for actions they have taken to help my constituency during the Session.

First, will my right hon. Friend thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport for receiving a delegation from Eastleigh to consider the future of the British Rail Maintenance Ltd. works? There has been considerable concern about how the jobs there will be affected by rail privatisation. My right hon. Friend received the delegation in a sympathetic way and suggested the setting up of a railway liaison group, which is meeting later today to consider ways in which those jobs can be saved, and my right hon. Friend has promised to attend meetings of the group regularly. In view of his busy schedule, we are extremely grateful for the interest which he has shown.

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for his sympathetic view of the future of Hampshire in the context of the local government review? There is a strong feeling in Hampshire that it would be wrong to move towards unitary government. Hampshire county council is older than this Parliament, and it is an effective county council which is widely respected. Hampshire brought in the lowest shire council tax in the country last year, and I believe that it would be wrong to abolish the council. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for saying that Hampshire might be an exception which would be allowed to retain a two-tier system.

Thirdly, I am particularly grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor. Only 10 days ago in the House, I made a speech about unemployment and suggested two measures which I though would be of concern, particularly in my constituency, but also across the country. I thought also that those measures would help to reduce unemployment.

The first measure was more help to small business and, in particular, action to penalise companies that did not pay their debts on time. The second was more help to provide training. I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend adjusted his Budget at the last moment to take account of those two concerns and that he made recommendations in those directions.

I should like to address my main remarks not to either Front Bench but to the Press Gallery, which is characteristically packed for today's debate. I spent 20 years as a journalist and I have great sympathy for those who ply the trade. I think that journalists come in for a lot of unfair criticism. People do not realise how speedily journalists must produce their articles. One need only look at the coverage this week of the Budget. It was remarkable that most newspapers were able to produce such detailed and extensive coverage within a few hours of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor sitting down.

I believe that most journalists do a remarkable job. This country is blessed with a press which is much more entertaining than most papers abroad. When the British press is compared with Die Welt, Le Monde or the New York Times, one sees that it is a pretty good read. It is also diversified. We have the highest newspaper readership of any country in Europe. We must admire the quality of the press, which maintains a high standard of language, unlike some of our television companies. One reads much less bad language in the press than one hears on BBC 1 or ITV of a Sunday evening now that swearing and bad language have become commonplace on television.

Two issues concerning the press have been raised. 'The first is the question of privacy, which has been extensively discussed and which I do not wish to discuss further this morning. The second—which I believe most people would regard as more important—is the accuracy of the press. I was interested to note that the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission said that 70 per cent. of the complaints that the commission receives deal not with privacy but with accuracy.

As I said, producing accurate articles soon after an event is difficult. Inevitably, mistakes are made. We all make mistakes. Only this week, we have seen typing mistakes in the transcript of the messages between the Government and the IRA. The information was produced quickly and mistakes were made, and that happens in journalism, too. I once made a terrible mistake when I was working for the BBC. The former leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) was standing in the European elections in Italy. We followed him around for a day and watched him eat spaghetti and talk to the Italians, then rushed to the studio to record a piece for the six o'clock news. The opening line in my commentary was, "Sir David Steel is the first Englishman to stand for election in Italy." Within a few minutes, the BBC switchboard was jammed with hundreds of thousands of calls from people complaining that I did not realise that the right hon. Gentleman came from Scotland.

It is easy to make mistakes, but sometimes there is too much of a rush to produce an article without properly investigating the circumstances. Only last week, I was rung up at 11 o'clock at night and asked about a report that money was being filched from the railway pension fund to pay for the royal train. Late that night, I contacted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who made it clear that there was no truth whatever in the report. I pointed that out to the BBC "Breakfast Time" programme, but those concerned were not interested in whether it was true—it was too good a story, so they ran it, with comments from Opposition Members.

I regret to say that two newspapers did the same, not just reporting the untrue allegations but suggesting that they were true. The Guardian said: The Government has taken £730,000 from the British Rail pension fund and transferred it to the royal train's budget to make the train more attractive for private investors to take over. We do not look for favours from the Daily Mirror, but we do expect normal standards of journalism to apply sometimes. That newspaper ran the headline: BR regrets that £730,000 has been diverted to Royal Train". The story reads: Transport Secretary John MacGregor has shunted hundreds of thousands of pounds away from British Rail pensioners to keep the Royal Train running. The Guardian at least had the grace to publish a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport two days later pointing out how untrue the story was—although, interestingly, right at the bottom of its correspondence column. To my knowledge, the Daily Mirror has made no such apology. Newspapers have a duty to try to check the accuracy of stories before they print them, and when they get them wrong, as inevitably they will, to print proper corrections. Some newspapers have now introduced local ombudsmen who look into complaints and that is a significant improvement. I should like to suggest another simple change. Most newspaper editors could adopt the practice of American newspapers such as the New York Times and print a regular corrections column—not dictated by politicians but in the interests of their readers, and put things right where mistakes have been made. That would be good for the readers and for the reputation of newspapers. The Times, when it was the top people's newspaper, made a regular habit of printing corrections. Alas, that happens no longer. If local and national newspapers introduced a regular corrections column, they would be doing their readers a great service. In the Christmas spirit, I offer that suggestion, and I look forward to hearing my right hon. Friend's comments.

11.59 am
Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

I was in the Chamber for the start of business and, except when I went to the toilet on one occasion, I have been here ever since.

I should like an answer before the Christmas recess to the issue that I am about to raise. It is almost a business question and, as the Leader of the House is here, perhaps he will agree to a debate on airport capacity, particularly as it affects Heathrow airport in my constituency.

Everyone knows that Heathrow airport is the busiest international airport in the world and that there is a great deal of pressure on it to expand. A planning application for terminal 5 is currently with the Secretary of State for the Environment, and we are expecting the pre-consultation approach at the beginning of next year.

Linked to that, the British Airports Authority has asked the Department of Transport for permission to contribute towards the widening of the M4 in my constituency. It is amazing that the Department of Transport can have consultations about the widening of the M4, as it relates to terminal 5, before there has been a planning inquiry and an acceptance of the need for terminal 5 and the proposal to build it.

A working party looked at runway capacity requirement for the south-east into the next century. The working party sat for many months and came up with the wonderful recommendation that it would keep all the options open and make no recommendations. I do not know what it cost the public purse, but it was a joke.

The Department of Transport has said that it will require from August of this year until May of next year to consult on all the options, about which the working party could not come to a conclusion.

One of the options is a third runway at Heathrow. That is one of the most nonsensical ideas that I have ever come across, since I have been a Member of Parliament or before. Even the air traffic control people have said that if there were a third runway at Heathrow it would never be more than 30 per cent. utilised because the congestion is not on the ground but in the sky.

I do not know why that was an option, especially as Stansted has capacity for approximately 8 million passengers, and only approximately 2 million use it. If ever there was a case for Stansted to use its vacant runway and terminal capacities, it is this.

The Secretary of State for Transport has said that he must keep the consultations open. He said, "Unofficially, Terry, I can tell you that in my view there will be no third runway at Heathrow." His spokesman for aviation has said much the same. The Department of the Environment has said that it would never agree to pulling down thousands of homes in three villages in my constituency in order to put a third runway at Heathrow.

While all this behind the back, nudge nudge, wink wink attitude is taken, the issue is driving people crazy. My constituents want a definite assurance that there will be no third runway at Heathrow. People are concerned that their homes are blighted, that, having lived there for many years, they will have to move away. They are concerned that they will not get the right compensation if they have to move, which they do not want to do. I cannot understand why this situation should be allowed to go on.

The Labour party has earned no great credit in this matter. Its candidate at the last election has been winding up people there. Old people have been worried sick because he told them, prior to the 1992 election, that within six weeks of the Tories getting back into power there would be a Cabinet announcement that a third runway would be built at Heathrow. All this time later, there has still not been such an announcement. There will not be such an announcement, but he is trying to get people in my constituency worked up. He has linked the opposition to the runway with the opposition to the fifth terminal, and he has united people in the battle.

Another issue is that we still have night flights. Anybody who was in London overnight will know that the first flight coming in from east to west, across central London and above the M4, was at 5.25 am. I am told, "Don't worry, Mr. MP, people do not usually stay awake after they have been woken up by an aeroplane; they go back to sleep." That is another nonsensical report that has been produced by idiots who have nothing better to do with their time.

There should be a move towards the complete abolition of night flights. We should say to the aviation industry—to the airlines and the British Airports Authority in particular—that Heathrow is situated within a community and that that community should not be manipulated for the benefit of airline passengers, airlines and airport owners. They should adjust to the needs of the community.

Many of those people were there long before the airport. Others came later, and obtain good-value properties under the flight path. However, the airlines tend to believe that because the economic benefits come from Heathrow, that is the overriding factor and nothing else should be considered.

I have a simple answer to solve much of the problem. There are 77,000 domestic flights a year in and out of the world's busiest international airport. There is no reason not to halve that number by telling people flying from airports such as Manchester, Liverpool and Plymouth that they cannnot come to the world's busiest airport, but must go to other airports such as London City, Luton or Stansted. We cannot continue to have 77,000 movements a year, plus general aviation movements at Heathrow, when there is a demand for international airlines to use it. If we halved the number of domestic flights to Heathrow, we could use some of the space created for international flight use. We could also cap the level of movements.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House must tell his colleague, the Secretary of State for Transport, that I want an answer to the problem before Christmas. I want an announcement before Christmas that there will be no third runway at Heathrow—it is unnecessary and impractical. I want the fears of my constituents, especially old age pensioners, who do not understand what is going on, allayed immediately. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, does not allay their fears, he will face the biggest row and fight that he has ever experienced over transport.

12.6 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to raise three issues. They do not, on this occasion, include Pitsea post office, as I am prepared to let the guilty parties, the post office and Tesco superstore, wrestle with their consciences.

I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for his magnificent effort in yesterday securing more than £300,000 in Konver from the European Community. I also pay tribute to the excellent European Member of Parliament, Miss Patricia Rawlings, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. My constituents and the rest of Essex will benefit greatly from that extra money.

First, I have been the unpaid spokesman for hospital radio broadcasting for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament. I am beginning to think that I have not done a fat lot of good, as, each year, I have made the same speech, but have been unable to deliver the goods to interest the House in that important issue.

All Members of Parliament receive letters from constituents about hospital radio broadcasting. They make the right noises, but there has not been the will in the House to deliver to hospital radio broadcasting what it wants. At first, we tried to obtain zero-rated VAT for hospital radio broadcasting. We then tried to get hospital radio broadcasting its own frequency. We have now reduced our expectations and merely want to replace the present induction loop system with a generalised frequency.

There are 640 hospitals with more than 260,000 beds. The organisation employs more than 12,000 volunteers, and is the largest voluntary organisation in the country. It broadcasts more than 10,000 hours of programmes every week to 8.2 million people. I hope to goodness that the House will take the subject seriously. We all have constituents who work as volunteers in hospital broadcasting. Let us give them what they want—the Christmas present of their own frequency.

My second topic for discussion is China. I was appalled that, by just one vote, Beijing failed to win the Olympic games. What is the world thinking of? Have we forgotten Tiananmen square and the disgraceful events that took place there? It is outrageous that we seem to have forgotten the atrocities that took place in China a short time ago.

Basildon constituents are interested in matters in China. I wish to bring to the attention of the House the position of Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang. He is a Catholic bishop who is loyal to the Vatican, which puts him at odds with the Chinese communist authorities that require Catholics to be submitted to the Government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. I suppose that he is in an old folks' home. In reality, he is in detention. I hope that, before Christmas, the Government will do everything they possibly can to secure the release of that bishop.

Thirdly, in 1991, I introduced a ten-minute Bill to amend the Pet Animals Act 1951. I appeal to the House to explain to our constituents that purchasing pets before Christmas is a serious matter. It is a disgrace that that Act, which is more than 40 years old, enables children under 16 years of age to go to pet shops and purchase kittens, dogs, alligators and other amphibians without proper parental consent and information on how to look after them.

I hope that the House will have a happy Christmas recess. I hope that the nation will enjoy the Christmas break. From one Essex man to another, I have great expectations of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I hope that he will give a Christmas present to hospital radio broadcasting, to the Chinese bishop and to pets throughout the country.

12.10 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

It seems like only a few weeks ago that we last held a debate of this kind; indeed, it was only a few weeks ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) was right to draw our attention to the way in which people view what must seem to them—they even seem to me—to be protracted breaks. They are longer than the electorate expect the House to have.

The Leader of the House seems anxious to pack us off for the Christmas recess as soon as he can, so much so that the debate is held on a Friday, and many of my hon. Friends anticipate the wishes of the Leader of the House on those matters. It is not hard to see why. The debate today has focused on deprivation and hardship. It has been demonstrated from the Conservative Benches that deprivation and hardship can be found in parts of the country where Labour Members, perhaps, do not look for it closely enough.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), who opened the debate, spoke movingly of affordable housing, of the importance of objective 2 status and of economic deprivation. I thought that he might talk about Jarrow, where he used to be a teacher, or Hebburn, where he served on the urban district council, as it then was. I thought that he might talk about Consett, in the north of England, which was his first parliamentary battle.

But no; instead, he told us of the economic deprivation in his constituency. I thought of Prestbury and Alderly Edge and the communities that seem to be having a rough time. I thought of the industrial decline, to which he referred, since the end of the war—I assume that he meant the Falklands war—his cry that something must be clone and his hope that the Department of Trade and Industry would do something before he went upstairs. I took that to be a reference to the Committee Corridor and the 1922 Committee.

The theme of deprivation and neglect by Government departments was taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who referred to British Coal's responsibility, or its attempt to avoid it, for subsidence and housing damage in the high street and New Station road part of his constituency.

The theme found an echo on Conservative Benches. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) also spoke about tunnelling undermining property and property values. Although one appeal was directed at the Department of Trade and Industry and British Coal, the other was directed at British Rail.

The theme, however, is the same. If those great engineering works are to be undertaken, responsibility must be accepted for the homes of those who will be affected by them. The rapid abandonment of Britain's coal mining industry by the Government leaves environmental problems behind. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is quite right to draw the attention of the House to that and to demand an adequate response from the Government.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) spoke of a turning point in the economic fortunes of the nation and drew our attention to crime, divorce, badly behaved children and the undermining of the institution of the family, perhaps pointing to the direction in which he thought that our economic fortunes had turned. I agree with the emphasis that he gave to poor parenting. He chose a French study as evidence, but there is also evidence to be drawn from a study by Professor Colvin, based on samples drawn from Newcastle, which makes much the same point. At the heart of the problems is poor parenting, rather than single parenting, so it is on that that we should concentrate, but the study also drew attention to economic deprivation.

The hon. Member for Sutton drew attention to the duty of the tax system to underpin the family. I take that to suggest that he will oppose the Chancellor's pinning of the married couple's allowance to the new 15 per cent. rate and that he does not fully support the way in which the Child Support Agency works. That theme was taken up later by others.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) hoped that the Government would reward his constituents for voting Liberal by building them a new bypass, which suggests that he does not quite have the measure of the present Administration.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) gave us a reprise of "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" by telling us that average wages in Hastings were only a third of the national average. Presumably, she will have something to say to her constituents when their disposable income is hit by the 4 per cent. extra tax burden resulting from the Budget, when those in the public sector have to get by with their wages frozen and when the council tax for Hastings and Rye, like that of every other council, goes up well ahead of the rate of inflation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) rightly drew our attention in this pre-Christmas debate to the plight of the disabled and, in particular, to the inflexibility of the regulations governing the orange badge scheme.

I was pleased to see the hon. Member for Gravesham making common cause with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover about the effects of underground works on property values and the right to a compensation scheme. If he focused his complaints on Kent county council rather than on the Government generally, we can understand the political reasoning behind that. I hope that I do him no harm by identifying him with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. My hon. Friend is as well known in his constituency as the hon. Gentleman is in his. That unique partnership might carry a certain bipartisan value in Kent. I understand that that is the way in which public administration is now conducted in that county.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) spoke for both sides of the House when he drew attention again to the shortcomings of the Child Support Agency. Hon. Members are complaining not aboout the principle of the agency but about the way in which it operates in practice. People who made agreements that they thought were lawful and reasonable, and that were accepted by both parties, are being hunted down for more money and those whom we assumed that the legislation and the agency were directed at are getting away with not making payments.

The sums of money involved can be high, as I know from my constituency case load. In one case, which is not unique, a constituent is having to pay £60 a week from a £200 income. Not only is that a substantial amount of money, but it is not the sort of money that he would be able to pay, or be expected to pay, were the child still within his household.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) spoke with authority about counterfeit credit cards and credit card fraud and rightly drew to the attention of the House the spectacular rise in crime under the present administration. My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West drew our attention to another aspect of crime: the way in which the wheel clamping industry is operated by cowboys against the interests of citizens who do not deserve to be punished or penalised in such a vigorous manner.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Milligan) drew our attention to unemployment and to what I hope is an unrelated matter, the standards of journalism, and suggested that regular corrections columns should be carried in newspapers. He especially referred to The Guardian. The idea that a newspaper should have a corrections column as a regular feature says something about standards of accuracy that are now expected. It is probably right that there should be some facility for putting right yesterday's errors. Perhaps that suggestion should also be recommended to the Editor of Hansard so that such a facility was available to us as well as to our friends in the press.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Disgraceful—an attack on Hansard.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman shouts disgraceful as if Labour Members would want to make exclusive use of such a facility. Of course not; it would be available to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) spoke of the defence industry in Essex, of the Konver programme and of defence diversification. It is a policy that Conservative Members seem to oppose in general but are happy to have specifically applied to the areas that they represent.

I should like to comment on the area that I represent, which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale knows well. It is, of course, the area that contains the Swan Hunter yard. It is a yard in receivership, which some six months ago directly employed 3,000 people and now employs fewer than 1,000 people who can expect to lose their jobs if no action is taken in the next six months. I accept that there is a case for defence diversification in Essex, but I expect that, if the Government still pretend to represent the whole country, they should accept that areas that once relied on defence industry employment, such as Tyneside, Merseyside and Barrow in Furness, deserve and need assistance, and they need it now. The work force at Swan Hunter have served the country well in peace and war and deserve better from the Government than neglect, the rundown yard, the redundancies and long-term unemployment that will be their fate if something is not done and done shortly.

12.23 pm
The Leader of the House (Mr. Tony Newton)

I shall mildly correct the wrong impression given by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) in saying that it had only been a few weeks since we debated such a motion. He may have misremembered or misthought that we had such a debate before prorogation. In fact, the previous recess motion debate was some considerable time ago—in July, when large numbers of hon. Members were complaining that it had not come earlier.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

I was referring to parliamentary weeks. We were not sitting throughout the summer.

Mr. Cryer

Very good: what a mistake to make.

Mr. Newton

I missed that, but I am sure that it was entertaining.

The other thing that struck me was that nobody referred to the other amendment on the Order Paper or whether it is the official policy of the Opposition not to have a recess. I see from the Order Paper that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) wants the House to sit until 24 December, and among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), assiduous as are all Essex Members of Parliament, wishes the House to resume on Sunday 26 December. [Interruption.] If every motion before the House today were passed, hon. Members from the northern parts of the country would not even get home for Christmas lunch before they would have to turn round and come back.

I am not sure whether that point applies to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East, but I know that it applies to a number of hon. Members. I find some of the complaints a little ironic in view of the constant pressure —not, I accept, from the hon. Members for Bradford, South and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—for me to seek to advance the Jopling report to ease the burden of work in the House so that hon. Members can spend more time on their other work in their constituencies.

I shall not be able to comment in full on every speech. However, in view of the friendly references to the county to whose representation we both contribute, I shall make some quick reference to what my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) said, not least because he was kind enough to pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who has just appeared in the Chamber, and to myself as the right hon. Member for Braintree. At this moment, we also have here my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris). Indeed, we have one third of the parliamentary representation of the county of Essex in the Chamber. No other part of the country can make that claim.

Mr. Dicks

Only for the past five minutes. It is a plot.

Mr. Newton

I am prepared to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) publicly that there is no conspiracy in this. I did not know that any of my hon. Friends from the county would be here today. The quality of their representation has been revealed.

I shall not be able to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon on every point, but I have one important point to put to him. According to press reports in Hong Kong and in the European Catholic press, Bishops Shi Enxiang and Chen Jianzhang—fortunately there is an aid to pronunciation in the notes in front of me—were released on or around 20 November. Both names were on the list of cases of concern prepared by Amnesty International and they have been the subject of western representations. I am not sure whether there has been absolute confirmation of their release, but I know that the reports have appeared. Both my hon. Friend and I will welcome the bishops' release if it proves to be the case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) made a number of points about housing matters, about the social security system and about the position on objective 2 assisted area status for his constituency. I will, of course, draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. I know that my right hon. Friend regretted that it was not possible to propose Altrincham and Sale for objective 2 status. The straightforward reason was that the unemployment rate in the relevant period was well below the national and Community averages.

I hope that, in considering what he said to us about housing matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will acknowledge that the Housing Corporation's programme will provide for 53,000 new homes next year, producing a total output of around 173,000 over the three years 1992–93 to 1994–95. That is 20,000 more homes than we promised in 1992. It is important that I should put that point on the record.

One other contribution to which I especially wish to refer is the speech by the hon. Member for Bolsover, because it was different from the contributions that he sometimes makes in proceedings in which I am involved. I much respected the way in which he put the case on behalf of his constituents, who clearly have an extremely difficult problem. I will ensure that his comments this morning are looked at thoroughly by the Ministers concerned. He will know that the Government, with the support of both sides of the House, have approved the subsidence regime under the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991, which provides extensively for the repair of or compensation for properties damaged by coal mining subsidence.

I realise that the question whether coal mining has caused the subsidence is one of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. I will ensure that the specific issues raised by him are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. My right hon. Friend will consult local authorities until 10 January on his proposals for the revenue support grant in 1994–95.

I understand that no approach has been made on the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but my right hon. Friend stands ready to meet any right hon. or hon. Member or authority to discuss proposals during that period. That responds to some of the hon. Gentleman's requests. I cannot promise a successful outcome, but I can guarantee that the hon. Gentleman's representations will be carefully considered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) made a lengthy and thoughtful contribution to the debate on family matters, which I am sure will be studied by Ministers in the Home Office, Department of Health and Department of Social Security. My hon. Friend will accept that it is not possible for my response to be as wide-ranging as his speech.

My hon. Friend recognised the importance that people generally attach to the traditional family and that many lone parents are doing a magnificent job in difficult circumstances. I am sure that he much welcomed the proposal in the Budget speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor, amplified in a statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, to help towards the child care costs of those who seek to maintain or to regain their independence by making use of family credit. They will include many lone parents, but not only them.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) remarked extensively on the importance of road schemes in their localities. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the statutory orders for the scheme with which he is concerned have been made. Construction is not due to commence in the current financial year, but is a priority in the programme, and it is being considered in the review announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in August. At this stage, I cannot pre-empt the results of that review, which are due to be announced early in the new year.

Progress on a number of schemes in the Hastings area—where there are currently five schemes in the national road programme for improving various stretches of the A21—will greatly depend on the time needed for the statutory procedures. My right hon. Friend recently announced a package of measures to cut the time that it takes to progress new roads, and it is hoped that the A21 and A259 schemes mentioned by my hon. Friend will benefit from those proposals.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) commented on the tightening up of the orange badge scheme, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) raised a large number of matters relating to his constituency—in particular, those arising from the channel tunnel rail link, which he also raised in an Adjournment debate a month or so ago. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has promised that the Government will take full account of the comments of my hon. Friend and those of Gravesham council in reaching decisions. I have no doubt that they will carefully consider the points that my hon. Friend made today.

The Government share his view that it is unacceptable for local authorities to seek to obstruct or to undermine the case for grant-maintained status through the dissemination of inaccurate or partisan information. I urge my hon. Friend to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the information that he revealed today.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

I have done so.

Mr. Newton

I am glad to learn that.

I am about to run out of time, so I will not add much to the comments of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in last night's Adjournment debate on the Child Support Agency, when he acknowledged genuine concerns and the need to investigate them, as Ministers are doing—which the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) might have acknowledged.

I assure all those right hon. and hon. Members to whose speeches I have not been able to respond that their messages will be faithfully transmitted, and I hope that they will receive an appropriate response—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 22 (Periodic Adjournments).

The House divided: Ayes 99, Noes 5.

Division No. 8] [12.34 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Malone, Gerald
Aitken, Jonathan Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Amess, David Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Arbuthnot, James Merchant, Piers
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Milligan, Stephen
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Baldry, Tony Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Booth, Hartley Nelson, Anthony
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Bowis, John Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Brandreth, Gyles Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Norris, Steve
Browning, Mrs. Angela Ottaway, Richard
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Paice, James
Burns, Simon Patnick, Irvine
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Pickles, Eric
Conway, Derek Rendel, David
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Richards, Rod
Couchman, James Riddick, Graham
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Davis, David (Boothferry) Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Dicks, Terry Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Dover, Den Sackville, Tom
Duncan, Alan Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Shaw, David (Dover)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Evennett, David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Soames, Nicholas
Forth, Eric Spencer, Sir Derek
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Sproat, Iain
French, Douglas Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Steen, Anthony
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Stewart, Allan
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Streeter, Gary
Hague, William Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Hayes, Jerry Thomason, Roy
Heathcoat-Amory, David Townend, John (Bridlington)
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Jack, Michael Tracey, Richard
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Trend, Michael
Key, Robert Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Kilfedder, Sir James Waller, Gary
Kirkhope, Timothy Wells, Bowen
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Wood, Timothy
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Yeo, Tim
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Lightbown, David Tellers for the Ayes:
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Mr. Sydney Chapman and
MacKay, Andrew Mr. Robert G. Hughes.
Maitland, Lady Olga
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Macdonald, Calum Tellers for the Noes:
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Mr. Bob Cryer and
Spearing, Nigel Mr. Dennis Skinner.
Wise, Audrey

Question accordingly agreed to.


That this House, at its rising on Friday 17th December, do adjourn until Tuesday 11th January.

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