HC Deb 16 December 1998 vol 322 cc887-926

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.33 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I want in this debate to talk about child welfare and protection, issues that, in view of recent court cases, should be raised in the House before the Christmas recess. The subject involves us all. I am sure that hon. Members will have been appalled and sickened by the latest court case involving a young child, who was abused for a long time and who died from her injuries. She was killed by her mother's boy-friend, who last week was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment; the mother was convicted of cruelty and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The case was heard at Norwich Crown court; the jury listened to the most appalling history of violence that the five-year-old girl had suffered for a long time.

Hon. Members from both sides of the House know that such events happen far too often. I found it appalling that the very organisations that were supposed to protect the youngster failed abysmally to do so. I am sure that those hon. Members who represent Norfolk constituencies will be asking themselves searching questions, as the social services, the health authority, the police and the RAF—the tragedy happened in RAF accommodation—all let down the youngster appallingly.

Last week, we also heard details of child abuse in Newcastle, where it is said that some 60 children were abused while they were in care. The council is now saying that hundreds of children may have suffered sexual and physical abuse in its care.

On 1 December, I asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to say how many men and women had been sent to prison in England and Wales in the past three years for cruelty to children. I was told that there were 398 cases in 1995, 498 in 1996 and 581 in 1997. I stress that those figures apply only to England and Wales; there has plainly been a substantial increase in child cruelty in the past three years in two of the countries that form the United Kingdom.

I am pleased that you are still in the Chair, Madam Speaker, because, many years ago, we served at the same time on the London borough of Hammersmith, whose children's committee I chaired. I now serve as a member of the British parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe; I chair the social, health and family affairs committee of that Parliamentary Assembly. The committee considers all kinds of family issues in the 40 member states, but the welfare and protection of children, whatever their age, is our top priority.

That is why I am so concerned about the two cases that I have mentioned. I believe that I have a right, as a Member of Parliament, to ask why such tragic cases continue to occur. I am sure that we can all remember similar cases over the years in which youngsters were brutalised for long periods; many of them, sadly, died from the beatings and suffering that they were forced to endure.

Every time that such a case was heard in court, we were told: "We really must learn from this tragedy. There must be closer co-operation and a better exchange of information. At the first signs of abuse, action will be taken." Those things certainly did not happen in the recent case of the five-year-old girl in Norfolk.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I am listening with great attention to the hon. Gentleman, and I share much of his anxiety. Does he agree that, in addition to much better co-ordination and co-operation between the agencies, what this country needs more than anything is a change in the whole public attitude towards children and towards child abuse? Is not that even more important?

Mr. Cox

I fully agree that we need a combination of a much greater awareness of the evils of child abuse with much greater co-ordination of the organisations that are in place to protect children. However, many of those organisations, sadly, fall down in that area. We must not simply ask authorities about the procedures that they should be following, but demand that they follow those procedures—whether they involve education services, health services, social services or the police.

When I chaired the children's committee of the London borough of Hammersmith, I had a clear policy. All officers dealing with children would, at the first sign of concern for the welfare of a youngster, report that case to me. It was my responsibility, in co-ordination with social workers, to keep a close eye on the well-being of that child.

I accept that many social services departments are under great pressure. When they investigate concerns within a family, they are often told that youngsters with bruising on their bodies fell down the stairs, caught their faces on the table or fell down while playing. We know that youngsters do those things, but social services departments must take a far tougher approach when there are concerns about a family.

Very often, abused children who make known their suffering are told, "We just do not believe you." We know that children do lie; I am sure that all of us told fibs as children. However, when youngsters' bodies are covered with bruises, they are not lying. They did not obtain those bruises simply by falling down or by playing around at home. Case after case shows that children have been seriously brutalised by the mother, the father or the boy-friend of the mother. That concerns me greatly.

I wish to refer to the number of cases appearing in our courts where youngsters in residential care have been abused, either physically or sexually, by the clergy or by those responsible for their welfare. This morning's The Daily Telegraph carries a report of the case of a man who was the house parent at a Barnardos home who was sentenced at York Crown court yesterday to 11 years' imprisonment for sexually abusing children in his care over some seven years.

In another case in the courts at the moment, the prosecution has said that a clergyman charged with the abuse of children knew they would be very unlikely to make any complaint. Their word against that of a priest would not be believed. Knowing that he had that protection, virtual immunity from discovery, he committed sexual offences against young people in a calculated and callous manner. Sadly, we hear of such cases more and more. I hope that we will start to listen to youngsters who express concerns, because when such cases are concluded in our courts, many of the youngsters who have been abused—many of whom are now middle-aged—say that while the abuse was occurring, no one ever listened to them or believed them.

All of us are deeply shocked and appalled by the cases that we hear about in our courts. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will, in the coming year, propose legislation to compel authorities to follow the tough and constructive guidelines for the protection of young children—whether at home or in residential care—that I hope my right hon. Friend will introduce. We have heard of far too many cases in recent years of the most appalling abuse of children. It is time that a country such as ours did everything possible to stop that abuse.

9.47 am
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I start by congratulating the newest member of the Government, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his Front-Bench appointment—an appointment so new that most of us had not heard about it until this morning.

There can be a strange irony in debates such as this, where colleagues do not know the issues that one another will raise. This is a wide-ranging debate, and speeches can spread across the whole sphere of Government policy. I wish to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) in my main theme, which involves child care and child protection. I did not know that the hon. Gentleman was going to raise that matter, but the concerns that he raised will be shared across the House.

I have a different constituency case which, although it is of a similar nature, is not as horrendous as the cases to which the hon. Member for Tooting referred. It concerns the care of children, and the role that grandparents often play in looking after their grandchildren in certain circumstances. As this matter relates to Derby city council, I raised it with the Leader of the House a few days ago—I thought that she might be replying to the debate—to set out my concerns. The case involves the way in which grandparents have stepped into the breach and, I believe, have saved and will save social services a great deal of money by looking after their granddaughter, who otherwise might be put in care.

I wish to outline the circumstances of the case, but I will not be mentioning any names, as I want to deal with the general principle rather than the individual. In July 1998, the Derby city council social worker who had been involved in the case for four years reported that the mother was a drug addict and could no longer care for her two children—a daughter aged 11 and another very young daughter. The grandparents stepped in and have been looking after the eldest girl on a semi-permanent basis.

A case conference was held. The grandfather said: The conference apparently recommended that both children should be the subject of 'care and protection' proceedings and removed from their mother's custody. Long-term problems were discussed, as the grandparents felt that they could look after only the elder child, because of the great stress involved. The grandfather's letter continues: The social services worker told us that once care proceedings had been taken we would be 'vetted' and become foster parents…and would receive a monthly cash allowance towards her keep. In September 1998 when nothing appeared to be happening…we again spoke to the social worker. She informed us that her senior line manager had decided that 'care' proceedings would only be taken in respect of the younger girl. It was stated that if we wished we could take a 'residence order' out in respect of the elder girl (at our expense), and also we could expect no financial support or assistance for her care whatsoever. The rationale behind the decision being that if she stayed with us she would not be at threat (though she still remains on the 'at risk' register) and therefore there was no need to take out "care' proceedings in respect of her. On 25th September, 1998, I had a telephone conversation with Derby city social services, to ask us if we could care for the younger child as well, as they were unable to find foster parents. I declined to accept…but went on to mention our concerns about lack of progress regarding our financial position with the elder child. The social worker wrote to us on the 12th October 1998, and I spoke to her by telephone on the 24th. She listened to what I had to say and promised she would respond…within 14 days. I have never received any letter or further telephone calls from her. How do they expect us to finance everything…without some form of support? Surely the bringing up of the girl should be a shared partnership with all parties contributing towards decisions… The financial implications…concern us greatly. My wife has no income whatsoever. I am on a pension, having been retired for nine years. We are not even in receipt of child benefit. I hope that the child benefit will be sorted out soon. The letter continues: We have no public transport near our home so we have to transport the girl to and from school every day and sometimes more than once if she has special events at school. We have just fitted her out with a new school uniform when she started senior school in September. Application for retrospective financial assistance for this uniform was refused. Clothes, food, pocket money, guides, drama classes, dancing classes, everyday expenses, mean we now have to seriously deprive ourselves of little luxuries (no foreign holiday this year). The whole cost of her life is such that we feel hurt and angry with the impact it is having on us. The school is organising a trip to Germany…We were forced to tell the girl that we could not afford the trip—application for financial assistance for this was also refused. What hits me about this case is the fact that if the grandparents refused to take responsibility for the child, it would create a major expense for Derby city social services. The grandparents' good offices are being used, if not abused. If elderly people need to be looked after in a home, attendance allowance can be claimed. It seems a great pity that no such allowance is made when grandparents take over in loco parentis.

There are questions in the case that disturb both the grandparents and myself. I hope that they can be speedily resolved. I was encouraged by the story in The Times on 5 November, under the headline, Straw aims to put focus on the family which specifically mentioned grandparents. In the review that is taking place, we need clearer guidelines on what should happen in cases such as the one I have cited.

I have no doubt that Derby city council has sufficient flexibility under the current rules to pay an allowance to the grandparents as carers. That should happen. The child is being looked after far better by her grandparents than she would be in a foster home, especially considering the disruption that she has already experienced.

It is a great pity that the most sensible solution, provided by the grandparents, is to some extent being abused by the city council, which is relying on their good will and on the fact that, although they are not wealthy, the grandfather has a modest pension from the public sector, in which he worked for many years in a fairly distinguished role. I seek an assurance that the Government will consider the matter seriously.

My next point may not elicit as much sympathy from the Minister. This has been an unusual year; I am speaking of the calendar rather than the parliamentary year. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) is here. Before the general election, he and his colleagues travelled around Derbyshire telling everyone that Labour would get a fair deal for Derbyshire and all our problems would be sorted out by the new, vibrant—well, he might not have used those words—Labour party; so it was astounding to me that this year was the one in which the Government decided to cap the county council.

We went through 18 years of Conservative government in which the council was capped only once. Within a year of a new Labour Government, they had managed to match that record of capping Derbyshire once. They capped it to the tune of £1 million. To an individual, £1 million is a lot of money, but in a budget of £470 million it does not have much bearing on the overall costing.

The capping has resulted in rebilling every household, which has cost an estimated £320,000. It was a token gesture, and I consider it deplorable. The people in Amber Valley have still not had their new bills. Is it a sign of new Labour efficiency that, almost six months after the capping, we still do not have our new bills? By the time we get them, it will be time for the bills for next year's council tax. That is wholly regrettable. The cut for 40 per cent. of the properties is £2.82; more than that will be spent on postage and printing. The move was ridiculous and nonsensical, and is typical of the Labour Government's approach to local government finance, which they have not thought through. We wait with interest to see what happens over the next year.

Child care is a very important issue. I hope that when the Government consider it, they will also consider some of the wider implications of what I have said today about whether it is necessary or desirable for each city or county council to be able to set its own guidelines and rules, when they should really be working within a national framework.

9.59 am
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I am delighted to make a brief speech this morning, but first I wish to join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his sneaky elevation to high office. I was green with envy and wondered what he has that I have not, but the answer is, of course, that he has a beard. I had thought that beards represented old Liberalism, but I am rethinking my position and my turn may come in 2000.

The House should not adjourn until we have had a statement on the future of a freedom of information Act. That has become important because the coalition between Tory peers and Labour Front Benchers is now working and we were promised an early freedom of information Act if that were the case. The Labour party has rightly promised a freedom of information Act for the past 25 years. As each of the secrecy scandals—Ponting, Tisdall, "Spycatcher", Matrix Churchill, Pergau, BSE and cash for questions—broke, we said that everything would be different under Labour, because we would have a freedom of information Act. We put it in our manifesto in 1974, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1997; it is probably unique in the history of broken manifesto promises in lasting 25 years. I hope that before the House rises, we shall have a statement to say that the manifesto promise will be kept in 1999.

I know that I have the Prime Minister's support, because he is often quoted as saying that a freedom of information Act is not an add-on, but essential to Labour's thinking. He has said that such a change is absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country over the next few years…It would also signal a culture change that would make a dramatic difference to the way that Britain is governed. It is also important that an Act should be introduced early in this Government's term of office, rather than later, because once Ministers have been in office for a while they tend to become more cautious. They tend to think that a freedom of information Act might arm their critics. If we should have an economic downturn, which I hope that we do not, Ministers will become ever more cautious. Therefore, the sooner an Act is introduced and the sooner we have a statement, either today or tomorrow, the better.

A freedom of information Act would answer all those smears about new Labour being run by spin doctors and control freaks. We know that there are no spin doctors and no control freaks in new Labour. An announcement today on a freedom of information Act would get rid of all the banter. It is good fun, but it has become a little tedious.

The concomitant of a freedom of information Act is a fair, responsible and independent press. Therefore, I hope that we shall have some time between now and Christmas to consider the claim that Dominic Lawson, the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, is a paid MI6 agent. That is an odd claim and would be very damaging for the press if it were true. The allegation has been made by Richard Tomlinson and I have no idea whether it is true, but we should consider it. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would respond to those two points.

10.3 am

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly about a threat to our democracy that arises from the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, which has just reached the statute book. I know that it has just reached the statute book because I received a letter from the registrar asking, rather flatteringly, whether I wished to register myself as a political party. Alongside that, I saw a press release from the Home Office which said that under the terms of the Act it is not possible to register as an Independent. That is strange, because I stood in the election as an Independent and I sit in the House as an Independent. What else should I be? The Tatton Park party, the Flat Earth party or the Knutsford Heath party? It does not make sense.

My complaint is not, however, on my own behalf, but on behalf of many other independent-minded members of established parties. One of the provisions of the Act is that certain qualifiers may not be attached to the name of an established party, and one of those qualifiers is "Independent". From now on, it will be against the law to stand as Independent Labour, Independent Conservative or Independent Liberal Democrat. That clause arose from the Literal Democrat fiasco, when an individual stood as a Literal Democrat deliberately to confuse the voters and so far succeeded in doing so as to draw enough votes from the Liberal Democrats to cost them a seat in the European Parliament.

However, the provision was extended in such a way as to prohibit the right of an individual who has fallen out with his party to stand as an independent member of that party. Suppose, for example, he votes against the party Whip once too often, is seen in Westminster during a constituency week, fails to answer the vibrations of his pager or upsets his local constituency party. For one of those reasons or a combination, he might be deselected and might, rightly, wish to fight for his seat under the label of Independent Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat.

In the extraordinary circumstances of the Tatton election, in May last year, a well-established member of the Tatton Conservative Association, who was not happy with the way things were going, thought seriously of standing as an Independent Conservative. I wished that he would not and told him so—and he did not—but he had a right to do so. If that situation were repeated, he would no longer have a right to do so.

The Act also applies to local government. There is an Independent Labour group on Hull city council, with three elected members and two who have crossed the floor. They will no longer be able to stand as Independent Labour. I have nothing against parties. They are necessary for Government and may even be necessary for Opposition, but some space must be given to free spirits, independent-minded people and people a little outside the system, such as citizen politicians. They do not threaten the system, but reinforce it by adding legitimacy to the members of established parties who get elected.

Threats to our democracy come in many forms and sometimes arise from not very large issues. Yesterday, in the Ecclesiastical Committee, we fought off and blocked a move by the Church Synod to allow a bishop to suspend a church warden for up to two years for a cause that seemed to the bishop to be good and reasonable, which is the very language of the abuse of power. We have had a democracy of one kind or another for hundreds of years and this was the first time that a person elected by many could have been removed by one.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that we have not yet seen off that proposal?

Mr. Bell

We have not, but my goodness, we will. If it comes to the Floor of the House, we shall make a mighty fight of it.

As I have said, one threat to our democracy comes from the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, and another comes from a measure that is being railroaded through now—the European Parliamentary Elections Bill—which seems to have come straight out of the rule book of the old Albanian Communist party. In both cases, the interests of parties are being put ahead of the rights of individuals. On all those issues, as on many others, we in this House stand on the ramparts of democracy and we have a duty to defend them.

10.8 am

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make some comments on regional government and regeneration in the north-west of England. I have been keen to do so for some time, but first I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his well-deserved promotion. In the north-west, we have a strong regional identity and we can show that a track record of successful partnership already exists between Members of Parliament and key public and private stakeholders. For example, in 1994 we created the North-West Partnership, which has now smoothly evolved into the North-West regional chamber. We developed a north-west regional economic strategy in 1993 and revised it in 1996, and developed a family of strategies on transport, human resource development, social inclusion and economic development. We have also developed a regional innovation and technology plan, and a regional rail strategy is in preparation.

We have created a unique agency—Sustainability North West—to co-ordinate environment and sustainability initiatives across the region, including innovative work on climate change. We have a long history of working on information society issues. The GEMISIS project, based at Salford university, acts as the host to similar initiatives in the region that aim to improve the capability of small and medium-sized enterprises through the information super-highway. Leading work has also been done on the year 2000 issue.

The potential for growth and prosperity in the north-west is undeniable. The region's economy is larger than those of four European Union member states, and it generates a gross domestic product of more than £67 billion, accounting for 15 per cent. of the United Kingdom's manufacturing output. Eight of the Financial Times top 100 companies have a presence in the region.

The region also has pressing needs, however. We are ranked seventh of 11 in regional GDP per head, and the index of local deprivation identifies 15 of the 55 most deprived local authority areas in the country as being in the north-west, including two of the top three.

What are the region's next steps? I have always strongly advocated full regional government, and I see regional development agencies as a first step towards that goal. When guidance was issued recently on the roles and responsibilities of new RDAs, I was disappointed that there was no formal or proposed statutory role for regional chambers. Moreover, the Government's regional economic, social and environmental agenda can be successfully addressed only by a more formal partnership between bodies such as the North-West regional chamber, the RDA and the Government office of the north-west.

If we are to further an integrated approach to many of the region's pressing needs, we need clarity about how both strategic and day-to-day operation functions will be discharged by the RDA, particularly as regards key regional players, such as the regional chamber. I should appreciate clarification from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on whether designated regional partners have the ability to make their own formal agreements to deliver Government targets and objectives.

In response to the covering paper that accompanies the draft guidance, I suggest the following qualitative and quantitative performance indicators for the regional development agencies: job creation targets for long-term and/or permanent-contract jobs; job-related terms and contract conditions targets; and sector and skill-specific job-related targets. In addition to existing measures on competitiveness, regional GDP must also be assessed in terms of north-west business growth sectors and the expansion of inward investment-connected supply chain links. The regional baseline against which such indicators could be assessed is a further issue requiring clarification and agreement. We should be fully involved in determining a baseline position for the north-west region.

I turn now to the regional development agency and the improvement of economic performance. The direction of draft guidance is towards integration and a framework for delivery of Government programmes. Given the absence of executive responsibility for delivery, the institutional map of local economic development will become complicated over such issues as the single regeneration budget, the role of training and enterprise councils and business links. A regional review of who does what should be incorporated in the aforementioned agreement to ensure that there is no danger of overlapping competencies and unprofitable competition for resources. That should be associated with an honest assessment of capability and the championing by the RDA and the regional chamber of centres or providers of excellence.

In the north-west, skills and reskilling needs are being tackled in a strategic human resource development context, and it is very much my view that the guidance should take that approach. Strong links are required with the national action employment plan and with European guidelines under the employment chapter.

The draft guidance emphasises the need for close collaboration between work on the RDAs' strategies and work on the broader based regional planning strategy set out in regional planning guidance. The role of the regional planning body as a key regional player for the RDA is highlighted, and the regional chamber will effectively fulfil that function in the north-west. The timing of work on the two strategies will be significant, and I propose that guidance should acknowledge the status of the chamber's advice on regional planning guidance—as should any final document—given that it will be subject to non-statutory examination.

Let me offer some thoughts on the RDA, regional partnerships, cross-regional working and Europe. I expect published guidance to acknowledge that the overarching partnership for regional development agencies is that with the respective regional chamber or assembly. Experience tells us that the logical conclusions for that area of the guidance should be that closer links should be forged with members of the Committee of the Regions, and that the regional focus of future Members of the European Parliament should be acknowledged and developed.

I seek confirmation from the DETR that our well-developed partnership approach and the route to EU structural funds should be consequent on strategies and bids prepared by the chamber, its stakeholders and its member bodies, following the consultation on the regional economic strategy with the RDA that I mentioned earlier. That said, it should be made clear that while the RDA will have a role in resource allocation, it will also work closely with local authority partners to identify priorities and to implement local strategies. Throughout the guidance, reference to regional partnerships should give more prominence to the building of social partnerships, and that should refer explicitly to relevant economic, social and ethnic groups.

Sustainable development and social inclusion have a lower profile than was anticipated in the White Paper "Building Partnerships for Prosperity", which placed both at the heart of Government programmes. Those two initiatives are not optional, but fundamental to the progress of the north-west.

In conclusion, I shall refer briefly to two other important issues—housing and transport. In November, I hosted the launch of the Greater Manchester and Merseyside housing manifesto at the House of Commons. The manifesto rightly acknowledges that the availability of housing of the right quality in a good environment is one factor that inward investors take into account in considering a region as a location for their business. It recognises the need for co-ordination and co-operation between the public and private sectors to develop housing strategies, and to link them to corporate strategies and plans for urban regeneration. I am pleased that the Minister for Local Government and Housing has agreed to meet authorities in the north-west to discuss the manifesto.

On transport, the chairman of the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive, councillor Joe Clarke, has said: Public transport is an indispensable element of a vibrant economy. I agree. I praise the Greater Manchester transport integration project, the largest quality partnership in the country, which has brought together the Greater Manchester PTE, 10 local authorities, local transport operators, Manchester airport and the Highways Agency. In my own constituency of Eccles, metrolink is being extended with enormous economic and environmental benefits, and with an anticipated 10,000 jobs when the full network is on stream.

The Government's proposals for an integrated transport system are crucial to regeneration in the north-west. If the region's publicly owned airports are to play their part in the regeneration process, they need to be freed from legal constraints that prevent them from working in full partnership with other transport operators.

I feel sure that the Minister will not mind if, in Salford parlance, I indulge in just a little more mithering. We all want to see the upgrading of the west coast main line, and the upgrading of the gauge between Glasgow and the channel tunnel should be a priority. That would assist the transfer from road to rail, which I fully endorse, and it would ensure the full co-ordination of the upgrade with engineering work needed to allow faster tilting trains to operate on the west coast main line. I know that the north-west regional chamber is anxious to achieve early progress on the issue.

All in all, the future of the north-west can be positive, but we shall need national and European assistance to sustain our progress and to reach our full and exciting potential.

10.20 am
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

There are four reasons why the House should not adjourn. The first subject that requires debating is the channel tunnel rail link. Railtrack is really British Rail in modern clothes and the truth is that British Rail personnel always wanted Waterloo—their glossy station—to be the terminus of the channel tunnel rail link. To my anxiety, they are close to ensuring that the only part of the channel tunnel rail link that appears likely to be built is the one that will do exactly what they want—finish in Waterloo.

In fact, the line between Waterloo and Fawkham junction cannot be turned into a high-speed line, so we face the glamorous probability that our high-speed rail link will run from Brussels or Paris to Fawkham Junction—a destination whose name has all the resonance of a wet blanket. It is worrying that Railtrack has actually admitted that, under current plans and despite the upgrading of Fawkham Junction, it is highly unlikely that there will be any train paths to enable passengers on the channel tunnel rail link phase 1 to go through Fawkham Junction during commuter periods. The Government say that that is perfectly all right, because phase 2 will undoubtedly be built. However, I very much doubt that: there is no assurance that Railtrack, which has guaranteed to buy phase 1, will ever buy phase 2.

It is worth considering why Railtrack should have bid for phase 1. If no bank in the City would touch it, how was it that, on the day that Railtrack announced that it would buy phase 1 of a clearly unprofitable line, shares in the company rose? The answer is, first, that Railtrack wanted one part of its activities not to be subject to the Rail Regulator, so it bought into the channel tunnel rail link. The company was perfectly open about that; its representatives told a meeting that I chaired that that was the company's principle objective.

Perhaps more revealing is the fact that, on the day that the Secretary of State turned the first sod in the building of the channel tunnel rail link, the chief executive of Railtrack was heard on the "Today" programme to say, "Of course, our bidding for the second part of the channel tunnel rail link will depend on whether the Rail Regulator leaves us with enough profit to be able to buy it." In other words, Railtrack has taken a clear decision to attempt to blackmail the Rail Regulator into allowing the company to levy access charges on the private train operators at a level that will enable it to secure a profitability capable of enabling it to buy phase 2 of the channel tunnel rail link.

That has never been admitted by the Government, but it is clearly Railtrack's strategy and the reason why its shares went up. It is disgraceful, because if, through access charges, Railtrack exerts enough squeeze on the private railway companies to force those companies to cut back services, the Secretary of State will be able to come to the House and say, "There you are—we always told you that private railway lines don't work." In fact, it will have had nothing to do with private railways, and everything to do with Railtrack, in connivance with the Government, having been excused from proper regulation of its charges.

There is a shadow hanging over Railtrack. I understand that the provisional report of the Rail Regulator suggests that Railtrack's profits are too high—the company is said to be overcharging train operators already. If that is so, the Government might decide that that is an improper way in which to deal with Railtrack's charging and start to regulate it. If they do that, Railtrack will turn around and say that it will not bid for phase 2 of the channel tunnel rail link.

If that happens, my county of Kent will have been ploughed up for a line that does Kent no good at all. The development strategy of Kent and the Thames corridor depends on phase 2 going through Ebbsfleet, around to St. Pancras and linking the north-west to the channel tunnel. Without phase 2, the entire expense of phase 1—theoretically £1.7 billion, but I suspect that it will have risen to £2.5 billion by the time that construction is completed—will have been wasted, but the effort will have destroyed my county. I have asked the Public Accounts Committee to look into the case and I am glad to say that it has agreed to do so. The Committee does not often get the chance to investigate the waste of Government money before it happens, but on this occasion it has a chance to intervene.

There is no prospect of the channel tunnel rail link making a profit, even if it were to be completed within the next 10 to 20 years. The annual loss on Eurostar, which is currently the only source of revenue of London and Continental Railways, is £150 million. The company is proud of the fact that it believes that, this year, that loss will be reduced to £90 million. At Railtrack's extraordinary general meeting, it was forced to reveal that it was looking for an even higher rate of return than the 8 per cent. the Government have guaranteed. I believe that a deal has been done—one that our open Government have not put into the public domain—to ensure a considerably higher guaranteed return for Railtrack.

As I told the National Audit Office, the best estimate is that phase 1 of the channel tunnel rail link will entail a subsidy of £40 per passenger journey; and that, if phase 2 were to be built, that figure would rise to £60 per passenger journey. I did not want the line to use the tracks it is to use, nor to be designed as it has been, but I now want it to be built, because it is our future. However, we are proposing to throw £1.7 billion or £2.5 billion down the drain; think of the number of alternative transport routes and improvements that that money could have bought.

The second reason why the House should not adjourn is that it is time we took a quick look at the fruit industry in Kent. Hon. Members smile, but they should bear in mind that it is a big industry and an import-saving industry at that. It is difficult to make accurate calculations, but we think that as many as 30,000 full-time equivalent jobs are operated by the fruit industry in Kent alone. There are several fruit farmers in Kent whose annual wage bill exceeds £1 million. We are talking about not some tinpot little local industry, but one of Britain's major industries. I might add that it is one part of the agricultural sector that does not receive one penny in subsidy.

The industry is under threat from several sources, but I shall mention only three. The first is supermarket bullying. It is time that the supermarkets of this country were called properly to account. Let me give two examples. The other day, a local fruit farmer who is one of my constituents received a letter from one of the big supermarket chains—

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

Name it.

Mr. Rowe

All right: Marks and Spencer. The letter asked for a donation to charitable funds of £3,000. However, when that donation is made, it goes in not as a contribution from the fruit fanner, but as one from Marks and Spencer. If that is not an abuse of market power, what is?

Another supermarket—I will not name it as I believe that the farmer concerned is taking the wrong approach—told one of my constituents that it had rejected a load of strawberries. The next day, the farmer went to the supermarket and asked to have his strawberries returned. He was told that it was difficult to know exactly what had happened to them. So he walked around the supermarket and found his strawberries upon the shelves.

Mr. Clark

That is criminal.

Mr. Rowe

I think that my constituent should prosecute the supermarket, but he does not want to risk damaging his capacity to supply supermarkets with strawberries in future. If that is not an abuse of market power, what is?

The Government have a direct opportunity to intervene and address another difficulty in this area. A major, although not the biggest, problem facing the fruit industry is that it cannot find pickers. Sadly, the only reliable pickers that may be easily employed are foreign students. They work extremely hard as they want to make money and take it home. However, only a very small quota of such workers is allowed and we would like it to be enlarged. The opposing argument is that those workers are taking jobs away from British pickers. However, we cannot get British pickers, partly because complex and hostile social security arrangements make them difficult to employ.

For example, it takes anything up to six weeks for pickers to re-enter the social security system. If it rains for a fortnight, pickers will have no income. Most of them have no savings, so they will be in serious trouble. When the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was Minister for Welfare Reform—before he was sacked—I took him to visit a fruit farm. He understood the difficulties facing workers and the industry, and I hope that current Ministers are examining that serious issue.

There is also a problem with the national minimum wage. Pickers are paid for piecework. If they choose to spend half an hour or an hour chatting to their friends or picnicking on the edge of a field on a lovely hot day, they might not pick enough fruit to ensure that the piecework rate comfortably exceeds the minimum wage. Farmers are worried that they will be compelled to pay the minimum wage to workers who have been in the fields for a number of hours but not yielded any product. I hope that the Government will consider that issue.

The social security arrangements for part-time work are terribly important on a much wider scale. A recent survey showed that 24 per cent. of workers in the Dover area now work part time. I have always argued for a minimum income and, with the introduction of the national minimum wage, that is now a possibility. However, unless we can encourage people to take part-time work, we will never persuade them into a habit of work in this fluid labour market.

The third issue is the price of diesel. That sounds humorous, but it is a serious matter. The price of diesel is so much cheaper in France than in Britain that it pays hauliers from my county to take their lorries across the channel, fill their tanks and run for a week on cheap French diesel. More importantly, with the removal of cabotage, French and Belgian truckers can operate at much cheaper rates and take work from Kentish and other truckers in the south of Britain. They will gradually push the local truckers out of business.

The noble Lord Whiny sent me not one but two absurd replies on that subject. He said that the Government keep increasing diesel charges in Britain because they want to reduce pollution. He has never explained how it helps to reduce pollution by substituting French for British lorries—I would love to know how that works.

My final point concerns the future of Kent and Canterbury hospital. We are still awaiting the Secretary of State's judgment on the matter, and many of us are comforted by the fact that he is taking so long to make up his mind. The hospital's work load has increased since the review reached the Secretary of State. It has been shown to be the third most cost-effective hospital in the United Kingdom and several of its teams have been singled out as excellent. Opinion in my town of Faversham is unanimously against downgrading the hospital, and I hope that the Secretary of State will find in its favour soon.

10.35 am
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his elevation to the Front Bench. In my brief contribution, I shall concentrate on how English Heritage allocates its conservation area funding. In particular, I shall highlight how Harrow on the Hill—a key historic part of my constituency, with eight conservation areas in a relatively small geographical area—has been unable to access English Heritage funding for environmental improvements and tackling traffic management problems.

In essence, the problem lies in English Heritage's insistence that a large component of its conservation area grants must be directed towards building repair work. I state at the outset that I think English Heritage does an excellent job. Its annual report details 409 properties and sites under its control, which received more than 11.5 million visitors this year. English Heritage membership is at an all-time high of 384,000 and it has managed to achieve a 60 per cent. increase in its non-government income in the past few years. I am pleased that, since the general election, English Heritage has reorganised its service on a regional basis in order to ensure that its work has a much more local public face, which enables it to be a key partner in regeneration activity.

Nevertheless, I think that further changes to at least part of English Heritage's funding streams will be necessary if my constituents are to be truly able to enjoy the beauty and the history of Harrow on the Hill. History there is aplenty. The hill can claim to be the only remaining former pagan site of worship in London. Records dating as far back as the seventh century refer to Harrow on the Hill, and it is featured in the Domesday book. For more than 1,000 years, Harrow on the Hill was the centre of Harrow. Only the onset of the railway precipitated a gradual shift in Harrow's economic life from the hill to its present location in the Harrow-Wealdstone corridor.

The hill retains many of its key historical features. Beautiful St. Mary's church, which was founded in 1078, has key links with the Archbishop of Canterbury and was visited by Thomas a Becket a few days before his murder. Lord Byron is reputed to have composed some of his early poetry while lying on a tomb in St. Mary's churchyard. The Kings Head complex, which is currently in desperate need of restoration to its former incarnation as a hotel, dates back to 1535 and was used as a hunting lodge by Henry VIII. Seven Prime Ministers have attended the famous Harrow school at the top of the hill, as did the great pacifist, G. M. Trevelyan, who became a Labour Member of Parliament and served in the first Labour Cabinet in 1924. Roxeth school, which is now an excellent state first and middle school, was established in 1850 thanks to the generosity of the then Lord Shaftesbury.

In the past 10 years, it has become clear that Harrow on the Hill is experiencing several significant interconnected problems. I shall give two examples. First, changes in shopping patterns, including the development of large supermarkets off the hill, have led to the closure of most local retail outlets at the top of the hill. Secondly, the increasing impact and volume of traffic—particularly the speed of vehicles moving across the top of the hill—have caused significant problems. I hope that the Government office for London will quickly endorse the view of Harrow council, which is now run by an excellent new Labour administration, that the main road over the hill should be downgraded so that traffic management schemes can be implemented.

Those interconnected problems have led to an overall decline in the environmental quality of the hill area. In 1995, in recognition of those problems, the council secured the support of English Heritage to undertake an environmental study of the area to analyse its problems and suggest solutions. Harrow council introduced a series of key policy commitments and initiatives. A key part of that was the establishment of the Harrow on the Hill forum, which is a partnership between the business interests that remain on the hill, the school, Harrow council and local residents' associations, including the excellent Harrow Hill trust.

The forum has drawn up a strategy for the hill's future, a key part of which has been to secure funding for much-needed environmental improvement works appropriate to the area's character. In my previous role—it seems almost like a previous life—as a councillor in Harrow, I served on the Harrow on the Hill forum. The vision that we developed, which still holds, was of a regenerated core area around a refurbished, modern Kings Head hotel, appealing to a niche market of tourist-based businesses such as those dealing in arts, crafts and antiques. That would reflect the businesses left on the hill and be in keeping with areas similar to Harrow on the Hill.

Crucial to the implementation of that vision was funding to improve public access to and enjoyment of the hill area. With that in mind, in 1997 a bid was made to the heritage lottery fund's townscape scheme. Unfortunately, it was rejected due to a lack of focus on building repair schemes. Building repair is not the key issue in Harrow on the Hill, thanks to the high commitment of local residents and owners to the maintenance of their properties.

At the same time, English Heritage had a similar funding scheme—a conservation area partnership scheme—but that, too, required a great deal of building repair to be necessary before funding approval would be considered. The final round of that scheme, in the form of a partnership between English Heritage and the heritage lottery fund, has recently been announced, together with the heritage lottery fund's new townscape heritage initiative. Again, the funding available under those schemes is aimed primarily at building repair, with too little focus on environmental improvement of the public realm and the space around buildings.

Grants for building repair are clearly important, but it is important also for funders to recognise that, in many areas, the key is not building repair but the environment between buildings and the impact of traffic on those areas. The failure to invest in environmental improvements in public areas can have, and indeed has had, a detrimental effect on the perceived commitment to an area. In the case of Harrow on the Hill, that has been demonstrated by a lack of investment by businesses and other bodies and hence a lack of economic viability and vitality. The repair and improvement of the actual street scene is crucial if we are to preserve the area's special character and interest and then build up its economic viability and vitality.

There is strong public support for the environmental works envisaged by the council. We know that from the many responses to the public consultation, which was part of the original English Heritage-funded study, and from the partnership support generated by the Harrow on the Hill forum for the failed heritage lottery fund bid. Those environmental improvements could be achieved for sums that are relatively modest in comparison with those needed for building repair schemes.

I welcome the new initiative to improve green spaces and create sustainable communities outlined in the consultation paper, "New Links for the Lottery", which was recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. That will be funded through the new opportunities fund, which is a key reform of the lottery that the Government have introduced. That may go some way to fill the gap in non-building repair-based conservation area funding. English Heritage is currently reviewing its role and the way in which it allocates conservation area funding, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that it takes on board the points that I have made so that we can protect and enhance the Harrow on the Hills of our nation.

10.45 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the Minister to his Front-Bench position. In the light of a briefing from, and discussion with, the Disability Benefits Consortium yesterday, I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who represents Sherwood, will guide the Government and, like Robin Hood, take from the rich, not the poor. The figures given by the consortium suggested that, although it has been claimed that more and more money is being given to disabled people, much of that money has been taken from them. We should like an assurance that it will be given back in the form of investment in the development of services for those with disabilities.

I shall not follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) because he dealt specifically with constituency issues. He presented his case very well. When the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) was speaking about his position on regional government, I smiled wryly because I thought of how the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), chided the previous Government because they were slow to give devolution. He said that we should not be worried about that because we gave Germany devolution. However, we gave Germany not devolution but federalism.

Having propounded federalism 20 years ago, I regret that we are only now beginning to think it through and are engaged in devolution of power without knowing what is our aim. At the time, I suggested that we should not spend so much money on developing new buildings around London because we should be developing regional assemblies and diversifying power to the communities, and should have a central Administration—a federal Government—dealing with the bigger issues.

As we have moved, rightly, towards regional devolution, I want to raise issues, particularly health issues, that affect the emerging Administration in Northern Ireland. In the past 18 months, we have grown used in this place to yah-boo politics, whereby each side blames faults on the other. The new Northern Ireland Administration will not have the luxury of being able to blame any faults on people who have administered Northern Ireland for more than 20 years. They must therefore tackle the issues.

About a week ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who is responsible for health issues, was reported in the media as saying that Northern Ireland had to make progress because its health problems and hospital provision were far worse than any other area in the United Kingdom. I am not sure that he was right, and he has subsequently been praising the health service in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the moves to improve the ambulance service in Northern Ireland, which are long overdue. There is still a long way to go, particularly if we are determined to go ahead with the golden six hospitals, because that means that, in many areas of Northern Ireland, there will be difficulties in transporting patients speedily to hospital. Circumstances are changing and if, as we hope, they become more peaceful, the health service will not have the provision of, for example, the helicopter service of the Army Air Corps. A helicopter ambulance may be required to serve the Province in emergencies to transport people faster to regional provision in Belfast.

At the same time, I hope that those serving in the ambulance service will not repeat some of the follies that were committed in England during modernisation and the introduction of computer technology in an attempt to direct ambulances speedily to where they were to pick up a patient. At first, it was thought that there were spies in the cab when in fact they were meant to be aids. Technology is vital if we are to progress.

I recently read the minutes of the Eastern health and social services board. They were challenging. I know that, since those minutes were taken, more money has been promised to the service, but one of the concerns that they raised, which was revealed again last week in a Northern Ireland Grand Committee, is that some figures show front loading. In other words, there seems to be more money up front for the next two years and then a decline in the third.

It is 50 years since the establishment of the national health service. Although we have a fine health service, we do not seem able to reach the point where all diseases are treated. The harsh reality is that modern developments in the health service mean that we have given longevity to many people, which means an increase in the number to be treated, but, in addition, new strains of viruses are coming into the country.

My plea is that Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the kingdom where, for years, there has been core funding for the Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Association. The Minister has said that he will examine the matter, but a disease that is having such an impact on our society should at least have some core funding in Northern Ireland as well.

The health board's minutes also show problems with residential provision, especially for people with learning difficulties. Commitments were given to parents and guardians of people at Muckamore Abbey hospital that those people would not be moved without their consent. I understand the need for change. I recommended community care, but I accept that that system needs a great deal of improvement. However, commitments should be honoured if we are not to lose the trust of our people.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) mentioned the care of children. As many of the statutory homes have been closed, we no longer have the necessary provision, which means that there is pressure on social services to provide emergency accommodation for young people in urgent need of care and protection. I urge the Department to examine that again.

As for waiting lists, we have been promised the moon time and again. One problem that the House and the Department have not faced up to is that the greater success we have in ministering to people surgically and medically, the more come forward. In times of financial stringency, we have to accept the harsh fact that the first few days after any operation are the most costly, so a greater through-put of patients means greater pressure on the health service. I do not believe that the Department, or the Treasury in particular, has yet recognised that.

Waiting lists continue. According to recent reports, in 1997–98 fewer patients were seen within the accepted time scale. Of course, there seems to be discrepancies between hospitals in the quality of service that they offer. I should like that to be highlighted so that we can solve the difficulties.

One of the difficulties that I have is reading the tables, which do not compare like with like. For example, the recent figures show the breast cancer mortality ratio aggregated over the years 1994 to 1996. The tables also show breast screening figures for 1995, 1996 and 1997. Would it not be possible to compare like with like so that we know what is really happening? I welcome the fact that the Northern health and social services board has the best figures, while the Southern board apparently has the worst. Interestingly, the Eastern board is second in terms of mortality rates, yet, over the previous three years, had the lowest screening rate at 69 per cent. That leads one to ask to what extent screening helps.

Talking about children took me back to the problems of security and its impact on hospital care. That issue was highlighted when Omagh hospital came to prominence as a result of the tragic bombing in that town. People are demanding that that event means that the hospital should stay. Those responsible for the review will have to take into consideration the need for provision, but the people who have supplied the finances in Northern Ireland have not properly understood the impact on ordinary care and elective surgery of the emergencies created by terror.

Vincent McKenna is a constituent of mine. I doubt that he will ever vote for me, as we come from entirely different backgrounds, but he has done meticulous work in highlighting what has been happening even in the past eight months of peace. During that period, some 1,000 children in the Province have been affected by terror. Some have been brutally murdered, some have been traumatised by seeing their families and other relatives shot before their eyes, some have been injured, some have been sexually abused, and many have been expelled from the Province with their parents by terrorist organisations. The authorities—I especially indict the Northern Ireland Office—constantly hide behind the claim that they are acting on the best security advice, but men like McKenna, who was himself brutally beaten by those he knew to be members of the Provisional IRA, are discounted because the mythology is that we are keeping the peace. We have to wise up.

It is interesting that, the last time an attempt was made to change the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a Labour Administration were in power. It is also interesting that, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) can confirm, one of the folk involved at that time was Sir Arthur Young, who came from the Metropolitan constabulary. If my memory serves me correctly, we now have on the Patten commission a former deputy commissioner of the Met. One can understand a certain cynicism in Northern Ireland about that. There is a serious charge of corruption against the Met, but a former deputy commissioner from the Met is now seeking to reform the RUC. Charity begins at home—

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

And reform, too.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Indeed; reform begins at home, too.

I have received communications from various people about the provision of sweaters for the Northern Ireland police service. I asked how many were ordered for the RUC, and when, and received a rather interesting reply: No sweaters marked NI Police Service have been procured for issue to the Royal Ulster Constabulary."—[Official Report, 19 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 740.] The reference to the Northern Ireland police service and the RUC in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 seems to concern ancillary bodies, office personnel, and so on. I doubt whether receptionists will be wearing sweaters marked "Northern Ireland Police Service". Have we been spending money wisely, or are we repeating the folly of the past, when we insulted a proud force of men and women who served their country faithfully? Admittedly, there are those who have overstepped the mark due to pressure, but I am not defending them. I am speaking of the force collectively. Are we to insult them as we did with the previous attempted reform, when tailored uniforms were designated for change and second-hand blue uniforms were sent from England? The House should consider more the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and those who serve them—not the terrorists who plague them—before we adjourn for Christmas.

There is a concerted campaign, headed by Sinn Fein, to discredit the RUC. In an attempt to help people in Belfast at this busy time of year, when people are Christmas shopping and there is much ancillary pilfering, the RUC has opened a cop shop in the middle of a shopping area. Did Sinn Fein welcome it? No. That may be due to a guilt complex; we recall that it murdered people in the area when that shopping complex was built. Sinn Fein's protest at the open door through which people can go to meet the police in the service of the community impeded people's shopping.

Mr. Ross

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Patten commission has turned into about the most divisive device in the police force and in Northern Ireland politics for a good many months? I would not say for longer, because there are always divisive influences. Is it not evident from remarkably large attendances at meetings in every part of the Province that there is immense resentment among the law-abiding community—the 80 per cent. of those who support the police in Northern Ireland—at any interference with the force's ethos?

Rev. Martin Smyth

My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I am aware of the concerted attempts from different angles to discredit the force, although the bulk of people stand by it. One recognises that the vocal minority does not represent the 80 per cent. of people who certainly support the police service.

It is naive to allege, despite the Patten commission's denial, that a document has not already been prepared. Anyone who has been in this place for years knows that people are beavering away writing papers which will ultimately be put before the chairman for his consideration and marks. Vehement protests that such things do not happen devalue the system.

11.4 am

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I congratulate hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his well-deserved appointment as Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. It gives hope to us all. I have always considered him an element of the awkward squad—not that his awkwardness is deliberate. He is often diplomatic, and it is good to see that someone does not have to tow the line all the time in order to be promoted under new Labour. In saying that, I hope that I have not damaged his career on the Front Bench.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), as I did in the debate on the Queen's Speech. I would dearly like to pursue many of his points, but I shall content myself with a few short comments because I want to spend time on a constituency matter. I should point out, however, as I did when I followed the hon. Gentleman's previous speech, that a report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Royal Ulster Constabulary certainly does not downgrade the organisation. Such a document should be given serious consideration in the current review.

I was pleased with the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, South on intimidation, terror and exile in Northern Ireland. I have stated that, in association with Families Against Intimidation and Terror, I am willing to table a series of early-day motions on incident after incident, as they have occurred, so that the House is alerted to what is happening in Northern Ireland despite the ceasefire and the pursuance of a peace process. Often, a terrorist organisation seriously attacks its own community to bring it into line.

I wish to raise the matter of Avenue cokeworks in Wingerworth in my constituency. Unfortunately, I have to keep finding opportunities to raise matters of contamination and pollution in north-east Derbyshire. The following issue is another key incident that must be raised before we adjourn for Christmas because developments may occur very early in the new year.

The Avenue cokeworks plant was closed almost six years ago, with the loss of 313 jobs in Coal Products Ltd., save for one or two people who found work elsewhere in the company. The plant stands derelict on highly contaminated land. If one puts a stick in the River Rother, which runs by the plant, tar and oil bubble up. The plant is clearly an eyesore, which must be tackled.

For five years before the plant's closure, when I was a Member of the House, it was a source of serious pollution. Oven doors fitted badly, for instance, and I received numerous complaints about the plant's operation. I pressed a host of authorities for improvement. In fact, I pressed the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who was then the Minister responsible for the environment and the countryside, for assistance in modernisation in an attempt not only to save jobs, but to ensure decent production standards. At that time, the previous Government were getting around to setting up an independent environment agency, and there was hope that it would be strong and provide an opportunity for such a problem to be tackled. Nevertheless, the plant was closed because of low-quality output and a decline in the market for coal products.

A proposal to opencast the site and some of the surrounding area and to move the contaminated land into a waste cell made available by opencasting eventually emerged, and was put to Derbyshire county council for planning permission. There was opposition to the proposal from North East Derbyshire district council, parish councils, residents, environmental groups, which are very strong in the area, and me. I submitted my formal opposition in July 1995, even though the applicant, Fitzwise, is based in my constituency. The firm now operates as Tawnywood Ltd and Tawnywood (Avenue) Ltd in connection with the project.

Unfortunately, Derbyshire county council accepted the application. The issue is probably the biggest dispute that I have had with the council. The matter of Derbyshire county council was raised by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). On the subject of the council's grant and problems of capping, I have always been a solid advocate on the council's behalf, so in the present matter it was not a case of the council scratching my back because I had scratched its back, as it rejected the line that I had taken.

Let us consider the arguments that are still pressed vigorously against the Fitzwise-Tawnywood plan. Opencasting will harm the neighbouring communities of Grassmoor and Wingerworth. Grassmoor directly overlooks the plant and will overlook the opencasting activities. Those communities and surrounding areas will be seriously disrupted as coal is moved by road, although a main railway line runs through the centre of the site. It would be easy to use rail facilities to move the coal, but that is not part of the proposal. Few communal benefits will come from the development, apart from the cleaning up of the site, which needs to be done in any case, and the addition of a road and some trees.

More serious than the problem of opencasting is the problem of contaminated land. There is grave concern that methods employed to move contaminated land to the waste cell will involve considerable health risks for the community. The Avenue site is acknowledged by its current owners, English Partnerships, to be the most contaminated in its portfolio of 50 sites throughout the country, with the exception of the Greenwich millennium site.

There are high levels of benzene at the Avenue site. I shall quote from a report produced by John Gower, whose views I respect greatly, on behalf of Communities Opposed to Environmental Pollution. He states: there are a minimum of 23 types of carcinogenic chemicals on this site and their cumulative effect on health pose a major risk both to communities around the site and the work force who are to undertake the reclamation scheme. He continues: The levels of volatile organic compounds…pose a most serious threat to health if disturbed, with levels reaching 41 times the safety thresholds in soil and 51 times in water. At locations on this site, levels of benzene have been found at 240 ppm. Benzene can cause leukaemia and chronic blood disorders, and levels at less than 1 ppm are known to cause serious health effects. Mr. Gower goes on to outline the problems associated with dioxins and PCBs—polychlorinated biphenyls—and later states: Other nasty chemicals including arsenic, cyanide, phenols, cadmium and nickel are known to cause asthma, respiratory illness, cancers and birth abnormalities and levels of very small particulates smaller than PM 2.5 enter the bloodstream through inhalation and cause heart disease and cancers. Indeed, there is considerable evidence of the existence of a cancer cluster in the Wingerworth area from the time that the plant was in operation. I am dealing with the case of a local worker who died at the age of 37. It is the most serious case among the massive cancer problems that have occurred in the area. His wife believes, and the evidence suggests, that his work at the plant was the source of the cancer. The situation is similar to that reported in 1997 by the director of public health in Wales with reference to a plant in the Cynon valley. That was a valuable report, with implications for the situation in Derbyshire.

Can the Fitzwise-Tawnywood plan still be replaced? Even if the plan was abandoned, English Partnerships, which owns the site, has a statutory responsibility to clean it up, possibly by using bio-remedial techniques rather than opencasting. Even though Fitzwise has planning permission, various conditions must still be fulfilled. Is Fitzwise-Tawnywood financially viable, with safe insurance to cover its operations? Fitzwise was a subsidiary of NSM Mining, which went into liquidation in 1998.

If pumping stops at the former Williamthorpe colliery, that will cause problems in the water table in the area. It is suggested by Tawnywood that an adjustment is required to the planning permission to allow the use of landfill and sub-surface deposits to prevent contamination of the ground water. I am pressing Derbyshire county council to treat this as a new application, so that planning assessments must start from scratch and the situation can be re-examined in the light of new developments. Manpower planning guidance note 3, drafted by the appropriate Ministry, toughens up the conditions for opencasting. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood will keep the relevant Minister informed of my views.

A remedial method statement prepared for English Partnerships by Scott Wilson Fitzpatrick in February 1998 has recently been agreed to by the statutory regulators, although many of us are unhappy about elements of it. Likewise, discharge consents for opencast working have been issued by the Environment Agency. Derbyshire county council has accepted a submission from the Environment Agency of intent to issue the waste management licence, so work could begin soon. However, there has not yet been an application for tar treatment on the site, as required.

The Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the health authorities and the planning authorities have agreed to demolish the chimneys by remote detonation. Given the known presence of dioxins in the chimneys, many of us are worried that the work will go ahead quickly, whereas considerable safety action is needed first to protect the community and the work force. There is also great concern about the asbestos remaining in the ovens when that dismantling takes place. Safety plans for the demolition work are vital.

Attempts have been made by Tawnywood to bounce the authorities into accepting an early start to work on the site. A great deal of money is involved. A working programme starting on 4 January is being circulated. I am keen to block that, especially as the original planning application states that no soil handling can take place between October and April because of the weather, unless such work is approved in writing by the Mineral Planning Authority. I hope that the authority will not be persuaded that work can begin as early as 4 January.

I have played another card by asking the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning to call in the planning agreement and examine it because of the new developments under the draft MPG 3. If that had been in place when Derbyshire county council considered the original application, the council would have been obliged to refuse it. I have used the same card before with the previous Government, but I hope that this time, unlike the previous occasion, I will get a sympathetic response, especially in the light of MPG 3.

Everything has been done that could have been done in an attempt to resolve the situation in respect of the site. I first met English Partnerships on these matters in January 1997, and have since regularly chaired an English Partnerships liaison group concerning Avenue cokeworks, made up of what might be described as the two sides in the argument. On one side are English Partnerships and Scott Wilson Fitzpatrick, which obviously are keen to have things developed and for the work to be done according to the plans that they want. On the other are councillors, environmental groups, myself and other interests, which think that the matter should be dealt with differently.

The secretary of that group is John Gower, whose work on these matters is invaluable. I want the site cleared as quickly as possible, but only by the safest possible method. That would be best resolved through call-in of the planning application by my hon. Friend the Minister. It would be valuable if he agreed to meet a deputation of the people who have these concerns to pursue the matter further—perhaps before he makes a decision that may go against us—so that we can argue as strongly as we can about the seriousness of the situation.

Unfortunately, Avenue cokeworks is not alone in north-east Derbyshire in presenting problems. In a previous debate, I discussed the situation at SARP Killamarsh, which has considerable problems, and we always have to keep a look out for developments at Staveley Chemicals, which has an emergency plan operating in the area. Opencasting is always a tremendous issue in the constituency and in the district.

Hon. Members would not think that an area with so many such problems because of industrial development would be at the bottom end of the Government's standard spending assessments. That needs to be looked at, but I shall venture down that path on some other occasion.

11.22 am
Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

In congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, on his elevation, I also commiserate with him on having landed feet first in a pretty tough, broad-spectrum assignment. We have heard a number of extremely interesting contributions, many of which deserve a full, considered response.

I intend to draw the attention of the House—it will not be difficult—to another case where the Government have not fulfilled their manifesto commitment. In 1996, the year before the election, a paper entitled "New Labour: New Life for Animals" was published. Animals do not have a vote, but there is a lobby—not the activists, but a general aura of sympathy—that disapproves of abuse and of cruelty. That feeling is widespread in the electorate and, if it had not been, the Labour party would not have bothered to compose and publish a paper.

The essential premise of the paper was the promise of support for a royal commission on the justification and effectiveness of experiments on animals. That promise was repeated in the manifesto on which the Labour party was elected. Others have drawn attention to the failure to fulfil that promise, although it is no part of my intention to advocate the devices in which those hyper-enthusiasts—to give them a polite term—have and are indulging in. As hon. Members know, someone in prison at present has been starving himself for many days. That is evidence of the high degree of commitment—the House must accept this—that pervades certain sections of society on the issue.

I do not know whether other hon. Members saw "Dispatches" on television about 10 days ago. It used its standard technique of infiltration and betrayal of the trust that the infiltrator had acquired. There was selected editing, cutting and presenting, and a totally biased image was produced, focusing on individuals who, admittedly, probably would not shrink from breaking the law. The programme, however, did not bother to say that those people are the very tip of an iceberg of a large number of well-intentioned and genuinely concerned individuals.

We were told that the royal commission would be ineffectual because it would be expensive, cumbersome and time consuming. I detect in that—and so will the Minister quite quickly, if he does not think that impertinent—the language of the civil service. It will have put before him reasons for not doing anything. A royal commission probably would be inconvenient, time consuming and troublesome for the Government, but there is also a risk that, if it discharged its duties properly, it would conclude that a large tranche of animal experiments are repetitious, cruel, unnecessary and indifferently supervised in the various and scattered laboratories where they take place, and that an enormous proportion are still being conducted purely for the commercial gain and profits of a large number of powerful corporations—or even multinational corporations—in the private sector.

I hope that the Government will think again. I recognise that that would be difficult for them in the atmosphere that is being created, where the temperature is being raised in some quarters and they find themselves under the kind of pressure that we—who are democratically legitimate in this place—should never either bow to or endorse. None the less, it would be a fine gesture if they admitted that a royal commission is necessary, that there is substantial public demand for that and that they committed themselves to it in their manifesto.

I shall conclude by quoting one of our leading essayists, who wrote recently: Passionate belief in the rights of animals may seem quirky and extreme". I have had no diffidence about admitting to being an animal freak throughout my political career, and I made my maiden speech many years ago in support of a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). In my brief period away from this place, I was behaving as I could not behave once I was again a Member of Parliament—going to animal rights protesters' funerals, going on picket lines and so on.

The essayist continued: passionate belief in our responsibilities to and for them, whether in laboratories, battery sheds, farrowing stalls, milking parlours, in transit by road and sea, in abattoir, Islamic slaughter-house or farmyard should inform the judgment and behaviour of all men and women who lay claim to reason and compassion.

11.29 am
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I apologise for my delayed entry into the Chamber. There was gridlock in west London this morning and I was on the school run.

I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping), on his appointment. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) caught in him a whiff of the awkward squad. I see less of that and more the sinew of principle. I am sure that he will serve us well in government.

Before we enter the Christmas recess, I want to raise briefly two injustices. First, I draw attention to the plight of my constituents who, for the past three years, have been in dispute with Hillingdon hospital, and who, this year, will be on the picket line for their fourth Christmas. The dispute involves Hillingdon hospital cleaners, which some will recall I raised previously.

More than three years ago, the cleaning service was privatised, and the company that took over the contract was Pall Mall, which immediately introduced a substantial reduction in wages, eradicated certain conditions of service and refused to negotiate. As a result, the cleaners, largely Asian women, were forced to take industrial action. Throughout, Pall Mall refused to negotiate. Now, after three years, the Hillingdon Asian women strikers have won the right to reinstatement and full compensation at an industrial tribunal.

Unfortunately, the new company which took over from Pall Mall, Granada, refused to implement the industrial tribunal's decision. That means, as I have said, that this Christmas the strikers will once again be out in the cold on the picket line. The women have lived off donations, not social security benefits, and limited strike pay for nearly four years.

As a result of that experience, we should consider our industrial relations legislation and the worst offenders. The fairness at work programme that the Government are introducing will overcome many of the problems that we have seen in past industrial disputes—

Mr. Alan Clark

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly as I have just finished speaking on a completely different subject. Does he agree that a strange anomaly is present in Granada, which is a great supporter of the Labour party, which he represents, yet displays a particular expertise in ripping off the consumer and abusing its work force whenever it suits it?

Mr. McDonnell

I am surprised at the way in which Granada is treating these women. We hoped that, when Granada took over the contract from Pall Mall, it would see sense, settle the dispute amicably, reinstate the women and provide compensation. A representative from Granada has been appointed to the Government's Low Pay Commission. For that reason, we hoped that the dispute would be resolved amicably, but that has not happened.

It is with extreme disappointment that we now find that Granada is seeking to challenge the industrial tribunal's decision and to overturn, not necessarily the compensation order, but the reinstatement order. It is on the principle of reinstatement that the women have stood for three and a half long years.

As we debate the new legislation, we need to ensure that we design it so that it tackles the worst employers, rather than just ensuring that we have standards for the average employer to abide by. We must consider the hard cases.

The second injustice which I want briefly to mention has already been referred to the House on a number of occasions, most recently by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). It relates again to the Inntrepreneur cases. I have in my constituency a Mr. and Mrs. Luke, the landlord and landlady of the Crown public house in the beautiful village of Harmondsworth, one of the last lovely villages around Heathrow. They took over the pub 11 years ago and have run it successfully ever since. Their original lease was with Courage breweries.

Mr. and Mrs. Luke agreed a business plan for the pub on the basis of a five-year lease, plus a five-year continuing lease, with a contract to sell a certain barrelage. During the past 11 years, Mr. and Mrs. Luke have worked hard. They have invested their own money in the pub. They have an excellent new kitchen, serve food, have increased their clientele and have been in the "Good Beer Guide" for the past 10 years. For Mr. and Mrs. Luke, this was their investment for retirement which they plan in the next five or seven years.

Inntrepreneur took over the contracts and leases from Courage breweries and immediately increased the barrelage and renegotiated the contract on an unrealistic level, a process which has occurred in many constituencies. As a result, an impossible demand has been placed on Mr. and Mrs. Luke. The lease and rent prices have been forced upwards, again to an unrealistic level, and the company's response to an attempt to negotiate a reasonable level which could be expected from the pub is, "If you don't like it, walk away and leave the keys."

Mr. and Mrs. Luke now face the loss of their pub, their investment, their retirement nest egg and their home shortly after Christmas. This is a tragic story. There will be no room at the inn for Mr. and Mrs. Luke after Christmas. They will be evicted.

Inntrepreneur is now part of the Nomura bank, which is going further in ensuring that the barrelage rates for other landlords are forced up even higher and the renegotiated terms inflict more damage on individual pubs. In addition, it refuses to renegotiate sensible rates at a sustainable level.

That action stems from earlier legislation which was an attempt to break down the breweries' monopolies under the previous Government. That was well intended, but it had these unforeseen consequences which have affected many constituencies. Action needs to be taken to review the legislation and to protect constituents such as mine, Mr. and Mrs. Luke, who are about to lose their homes.

11.36 am
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I urge that the House should not adjourn until it has had an opportunity to consider the position of the defence medical services, particularly the royal hospital, Haslar, in my constituency.

It is common ground that there are shortages in the defence medical services. It is much under strength in terms of doctors, nurses and other staff. I am convinced that the fortunate circumstances of the Falklands war, where there were fewer casualties than was generally expected—some 250 or so—and certainly the Iraq-Kuwait war, where, mercifully, the number of casualties was small, meant that those who urged that defence medical services should be strengthened and maintained at a good level were defeated by those putting forward Treasury-type arguments, who pointed out that the defence forces might not need the strength of medical services that had previously been needed. I am convinced that that is wrong and that medicine is an essential part of our defence forces.

The study under the previous Government's programme, "Front Line First", was carried out under the heading "Defence Costs Study 15"—the study of defence medical services. That concluded that there should be a single tri-service defence hospital at Haslar. That decision was taken in 1994. It was an integral part of that decision that Haslar should be increased in size to 375 beds and that all the other services should be increased commensurately.

As part of that overall programme, some £35 million has been spent over the past 10 years. Haslar has some exemplary facilities. It has an outstandingly well-equipped burns unit which, because the Government have not carried through the programme to expand Haslar as was originally intended, despite its excellent facilities, has not yet been opened. Only now has an arrangement been reached with the burns unit at Odstock hospital near Salisbury. It is hoped that the burns unit at Haslar will soon be opened.

Haslar has the only hyperbaric unit in the area. It has a helicopter landing facility, which is helpful in cases of air-sea rescue and when casualties need to be moved quickly. Haslar deals with about 110,000 patients a year, of whom 80 per cent. are civilians. When I visited Haslar a month ago, instead of the intended 375 beds under "Defence Costs Study 15", I found only 187 beds were manned. There are severe staff shortages.

The Government's publication this week of a document entitled "Defence Medical Services: a strategy for the future" reveals that the armed forces have only 50 per cent. of the doctors that they need for establishment and only 75 per cent. of the nurses. There are similar shortages across the defence medical services.

So serious is the situation that there is a defence requirement that the Regular Army should be able to have four field hospitals, and that the Territorial Army should be able to have 11 field hospitals. However, in the whole of the Army, there are only four orthopaedic surgeons. It would therefore be impossible, because of a shortage of medical staff, for the armed forces to deploy at proper strength. It is a deeply serious problem.

Proposals to close Haslar are being made at a time when the medical environment has been changing. Fashions in medicine have changed. Five or so years ago, the view was that a district general hospital could be sustained by a hinterland population of about 250,000 people, whereas the latest thinking is that a district general hospital requires a hinterland population of about 500,000. There has also been increasing sub-specialisation within the royal colleges. Decisions on the future have had to be made within that context.

The Government have considered the shortages within the defence medical services. I ask the House to consider the chain of logic that Ministers have followed in dealing with the shortages. First, they spelled out the degree of the shortages and the size of the problem. Subsequently, they concluded that they should close the only tri-service hospital. Surely it does not take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon—it takes someone with O-level common sense—to realise that, when there are already acknowledged shortages, it cannot make sense to close the only hospital.

The Government's strategy is to open two medical district hospital units—one at Northallerton, to take over from Catterick hospital, and another perhaps at Cosham, in Hampshire, which will provide facilities for military specialists within a civilian hospital. The Government's overall strategy is that there should be one centre of medical excellence—which they have yet to define.

It simply cannot make sense to seek a centre for medical excellence when such a centre was already selected and chosen in 1994. Haslar is that centre of medical excellence. The college of military medicine was moved to Haslar to be adjacent to Haslar hospital. The Institute of Naval Medicine is near to Haslar hospital. There is the centre of medical excellence.

I tell the House—from my absolute conviction and from talking to many nurses, doctors and other medical staff at Haslar—that, if the Government press ahead with the insane scheme to close Haslar and to find another hospital to become the centre of medical excellence and cannot make an absolute, firm and long-term commitment to Haslar, Haslar's staff will leave. Doctors, nurses and other medical staff have very transferable skills. In recent months, many staff—scores of them—at Haslar have told me that they simply are not prepared to stay in an environment unless the future of that environment can be confirmed to them.

I really do believe—although initially I thought that the point, when it was put to me, was extreme and over-excited—that the defence medical services will collapse inwards and implode if the future of Haslar hospital cannot be confirmed. We would find ourselves facing a serious crisis in which our armed forces cannot deploy because there is not the medical staff to back them up.

So far, I have spoken entirely on the basis of the national military medicine crisis. However, Haslar hospital is in my constituency, and there are also some civilian aspects of the problem, about which my constituents feel very strongly.

This week, I was given a categorical assurance by a Minister. He said, "If we do close Haslar, I can give you my absolute assurance that medical facilities on the Gosport peninsula will not be diminished in any way." I shall not name the Minister, because the assurance was such transparent rubbish that it would shame him if I were to name him.

Facilities in the Gosport peninsula will, of course, be closed if Haslar hospital—which is effectively the district general hospital—is closed, and of course medical facilities will be affected. How can anyone expect medical facilities in the Gosport peninsula not to be affected by the closure of a hospital that deals with 110,000 patients a year, 80 per cent. of whom are civilians, and on which doctors in the Gosport area rely greatly? It is absolutely preposterous and total nonsense to suggest that there would not be such an effect.

The immediate leading edge of the damage that would be done to medical facilities in the Gosport peninsula is in accident and emergency cover. Haslar hospital has the only accident and emergency cover in the Gosport peninsula, backed up—as it should be—by intensive care units, anaesthetists and all the other specialists necessary for intensive care.

I should say, to my regret, that particularly the A32 road between Gosport and Fareham, but also the road between Fareham and Cosham, can become blocked, and that traffic on them moves extremely slowly for over two hours every morning and for over two hours every evening. My constituents are deeply concerned that—with a lack of accident and emergency cover in Haslar—they would have to be transported to Cosham hospital, as it would not be possible to create in Gosport a free-standing accident and emergency unit, as such units have to be part of a major hospital. My constituents suffering any accident or emergency would therefore have to sit in heavy traffic. They are deeply concerned that the delay between collection by ambulance and arrival in hospital could have serious consequences, and possibly cause loss of life.

The idea that medical facilities in the Gosport peninsula will not be affected by closure of its major hospital leaves me speechless. I cannot imagine what the Minister had in mind. Was he thinking perhaps of providing a fleet of helicopters?

I believe that Haslar hospital will not close. Many people have asked me what they can do to ensure that it does not close. Certainly, we are doing everything that we can to enable them to demonstrate the strength of their feeling. We are planning a public rally and march on Sunday 24 January, at 12 noon, when I hope that many people will go from Gosport town hall to Haslar hospital to hand in a petition against the closure of Haslar hospital.

I believe that Haslar hospital will stay open, not because of what will undoubtedly be a very widespread demonstration of support for it in the Gosport peninsula, but because the proposed closure will be overtaken by events. Ministers will discover—it will be demonstrated to them—what has been said to me by many constituents and by many doctors and nurses working in Haslar hospital: unless a firm commitment is given on the hospital's future, doctors, nurses and other medical staff will leave. Therefore, within two years Haslar would close and, consequently, the situation within the defence medical services would be catastrophic.

The Government have to do something about the situation. I am convinced that they have to give the assurance that I am demanding—that Haslar be kept open.

11.47 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before adjourning for the Christmas recess, there are four points that I wish to raise. However, before doing so I should like to join other hon. Members in congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his appointment. He may recall that when he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, he very generously invited me to a pre-Question Time briefing, thereby demonstrating that he is an inclusive politician. I shall watch his future career with great interest.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) is in the Chamber. His arguments for independence were totally unconvincing. Independence is a little like running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds. Both nationally and locally, it is a bit of a cop out. There is one well-established party that those who call themselves independent may join—it is called the Liberal Democrat party or the Literal Democrat Party. Nevertheless, I wish him well in his attempt to persuade the House's authorities that his own party should be recognised.

The first point that I should like to deal with is the Palace theatre, in Westcliff.

Mr. Viggers


Mr. Amess

Yes, again.

As we move towards Christmas, we think of pantomimes and of the Government. The Palace theatre will be inviting people to watch its latest production—a Christmas production of "Peter Pan". However, unless the Government accept responsibility for something, there will not be another Christmas pantomime at the Palace theatre. The trust board has announced that the Palace theatre will be closing in the spring and that its 42 staff will be made redundant because of a lack of funding. I have raised the issue before with Ministers, but they claim that they are not responsible and it is all down to the Eastern arts board.

I am not putting up with this. We need grown-up politics. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has some responsibility. It is not acceptable to say that it is all down to how much the Eastern arts board allocates. I should like the Minister to have a word with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to ask for fair treatment. When the Wolsey theatre in Ipswich gets £322,750, the Mercury theatre in Colchester gets £230,000 and the Palace theatre in Watford gets £204,000, it is not fair that we get £45,000. Our magnificent theatre was given to Southend at the start of the century so that children, women and men could enjoy productions there.

We are not being well served by the Government or the Eastern arts board. I support the Southend arts council in its endeavours to ensure fair treatment. I had a meeting with the chief executive of the Eastern arts board and his sidekick about a year ago. There has been some criticism of the management of the theatre for not putting on sufficiently adventurous productions. When the Palace theatre puts on so-called adventurous productions, not enough people turn up. When it puts on perhaps rather more down-market, popular productions, the place is sold out. The theatre seems to be doing the bidding of the Eastern arts board, yet one local production lost £50,000.

The Minister may not be able to give an intelligent answer in the time available, but if he is not able to say anything to me this morning, perhaps he will ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to write to me. I shall not remain silent on the issue. I do not blame the trust, which was under the superb leadership of Mr. Albert Reddihough, who devoted 12 years to the theatre. I do not blame the council. I am supporting the local community. We all understand that the arts have to be subsidised in some way. Compared with the amount of money being pumped into other theatres, our £45,000 is not fair.

My second point is on exclusion. Someone said to me the other day, "You can love your children, but you do not necessarily have to like them." We all know that children can break our hearts, but I am worried about the growing popularity of excluding children from school—not just secondary schools, but junior and infant schools. I am sure that I am not imagining the trend, given the number of parents making representations to me.

Before Labour Members groan, I should like to point out that I was here when we had a vote on the retention of corporal punishment. That vote was lost by one. I do not intend to rewrite history, but I believe that it was a mistake. It is difficult for teachers today. They can no longer resort to corporal punishment. They try to persuade children. We all know about the assaults that have taken place and the stress that teachers are under, but too many children are being excluded. They are eventually expelled, people are sent in to try to educate them at home, they all gather together and they are condemned to a life of failure. Is it any wonder that the peak age of offending is 15, given how we are treating children?

Under the new Government, we live in a land of milk and honey with apple pie and all of that. What is the Government's answer to exclusion? Many schools are cute, going for a fixed-term exclusion of up to 14 days. Parents may ask for an appeal, but when the governors meet, usually in a panel of three, they inevitably support the head teacher. The increasing popularity of exclusion is not good enough. I hope that the Minister will pass on my remarks to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

My third point is about the millennium dome. It is a disgrace. I could not care less if the Conservative Government thought up the idea. I was never consulted and there was never a vote in the House on it. It is a ridiculous project that the Labour Government have not only continued to support, but enhanced. A few weeks ago I visited the millennium dome. I make no criticism of the people who escorted me round the site. I was treated extremely well. In case there are any hon. Members who have not yet been there, I can tell them that it is a huge circus tent. When Big Ben strikes 12 and the year 2000 arrives, 10,000 invited guests—I realise that I shall not be one of them—will be asked to watch a circus. That is supposed to be how we celebrate the millennium.

All the talk about the project being behind schedule is rubbish. The 14 exhibition areas are all on time. I think that three of them have been handed over. It is no longer a temporary site, but a permanent one. I have no argument with it being at Greenwich because of the meridian, but anyone who knows London as I do realises that people cannot travel easily in Greenwich by car. The millennium dome is built over the Blackwall tunnel. The air vent even comes up in the middle of the dome. I am told that 12 million people will visit in the first year and will get there on the Jubilee line. We all know what happened when a Minister gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee last week. We are told that 35 trains will bring people in to see the millennium dome. That is cloud cuckoo land. Apparently, a few people will travel on water—a new jetty is being built—but the projections are implausible.

Never mind about the Pompidou building, we have the dreadful Lloyds building and other horrendous buildings, yet we have allowed the same architect to indulge himself further with the millennium dome. It is an ugly building. I bitterly resent the idea that future generations will feel that Members of Parliament enthusiastically agreed that it would be a good way to celebrate the year 2000. I think of the beauty of the Palace of Westminster and magnificent buildings such as St. Paul's. If we had to have a building, it certainly should not have been the millennium dome.

While I am on the subject, Southend has not had a penny to celebrate the millennium. With the huge amount of talent that we have, we shall celebrate it in a fitting way, but not with the millennium dome.

My final point is about the increasing Americanisation of this country and the Government. I have always been pro-America and Americans, but I am sick to death of America at the moment. For the President of the United States of America to lie to the grand jury and the American people and then be rewarded with a net gain of five congressional seats says a great deal about contemporary American culture. A British Prime Minister could not get away with such behaviour. I am talking not about sex, but about the suicides over Whitewater and other issues. Yet the leader of the Labour party could not be closer to the President of the United States of America. Consider his agreement with the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan. When Labour Members did not like the sinking of the Belgrano, we heard about it day in, day out, but they have said not a word about Sudan and Afghanistan. We are deeply damaged by the association of the British Prime Minister with the American President.

I am sick to death of the Government's glitz and the rubbish that they talk about the Post Office, pensions and social security. They have no original ideas, only rhetoric and glitz. In joining other hon. Members in wishing the House a very happy Christmas, my hope for the millennium is that the Government are replaced by a decent Conservative Government.

12 noon

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

None of us would disagree with some of the concluding words of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). Indeed, some of us emphatically agree with him about the replacement of the Government. It is rather good to end the debate with a typical bravura performance from my hon. Friend, who participates in every one of these debates. We have heard about the Palace theatre at Westcliff at least twice. Although I wish him every success in getting money for the theatre—and he makes his cause passionately and eloquently—if by any sad chance the theatre closes and there is no pantomime next year, his constituents have only to come to the Strangers Gallery to be suitably entertained.

I should also stress that my hon. Friend's views on the United States do not represent official Conservative party policy, nor do his views on the millennium dome. Although he made some interesting comments, he slightly over-exaggerated the transport problem. If the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State wish to go to the dome, they have only to walk on the water to get there.

I warmly congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on his appointment. When I walked into the Chamber this morning shortly before Prayers, I had no idea that he would be replying to the debate. He has been suitably rewarded with a ministerial post and I wish him long life and happiness in it. This morning he has the opportunity to answer his hon. Friends and Opposition Members with positive assurances in the certain knowledge that he can give a ministerial commitment but cannot be sacked within 24 hours of being appointed. So I look forward to assurances on picket lines, hospitals and everything else that hon. Members have requested.

Today's debate is one of the highlights of the parliamentary calender. It happens three or four times a year and it is an institution that I hope no Modernisation Committee will ever sweep away as it provides an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House to raise a range of subjects.

This morning we began with a speech from the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who is a regular participant in these debates. This time he did not plead for peace in Cyprus, which was the subject of his previous offering, but underlined the acute concern felt by all hon. Members at the deplorable cases of child cruelty that have occupied so much space in the newspapers recently. He pointed to one or two particularly tragic cases and used his experience as a local councillor to underline how critical it is that the services responsible for ministering to those poor unfortunate children get their act together in a more co-ordinated and sensible manner.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) highlighted a particular case in his constituency involving the difficulties faced by children and their grandparents who have to bring them up because of their mother's drug addiction. Quite rightly, my hon. Friend did not mention the names of the people concerned, but spoke quietly and eloquently about their plight. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the concerns that he raised. My hon. Friend could not resist referring to the Government's capping of Derbyshire county council and made a trenchant point most effectively.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) made a commendably—and unusually—brief speech. He made only one point: that the Government should honour their commitment on freedom of information and produce a substantive Bill at the earliest possible date. Bearing in mind all the work that was done by the previous Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it should not be beyond the wit of the Government to do that. Let us hope that the hon. Gentleman's plea has been heeded. Of course we should want to examine such a Bill with great care and my commending his speech should not be taken as a blanket assurance that we will agree with every particular in the Bill. Nevertheless, we would like such a Bill. It was promised to us and we wish to debate it thoroughly.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) made a commendably brief and most eloquent speech about the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 and the peculiar anomaly in which he finds himself as a result of that measure. I must say that I do not agree with the uncharacteristically churlish remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West about the hon. Member for Tatton, who in his brief time in the House has already illustrated the real value that an Independent Member can bring to our deliberations. Although I cannot guarantee that I will not campaign against him if he decides to stand in the next election—

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

It might help.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Indeed it might. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Tatton has enlivened our debates and brings a degree of dispassionate commitment to the subjects that we discuss. This morning he made a valid point that should be taken on board—indeed, it was taken on board by the Opposition during the passage of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) spoke about the north-west, emphasising housing and transport needs. I associate myself absolutely with his plea for the west coast main line that goes through my constituency. It is crucial that it is upgraded as soon as possible. Of course I cannot do the same in respect of his plea for regional government. It came a little quaintly from the hon. Gentleman, who always looks so benign. One expects him to be speaking for the north-west of Scotland, but of course he represents the north-west of England and is himself a wonderful example of the value and virtue of the United Kingdom that is so menaced by devolution and would be further threatened by regional government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made an omnibus speech in which he raised four topics. He talked about the channel tunnel rail link and seems to suspect a manipulative coalition between the Government and Railtrack. It would be unfair to expect them today from the Minister, but I hope that we shall have some reassurances in a detailed letter from the Deputy Prime Minister to my hon. Friend, dispelling his conspiracy theory.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the fruit industry and some of the slightly strange practices of supermarkets. I was shocked by what he said about the supermarket trying to get the grower to give money to charity so that the supermarket could bask in reflected glory. I was even more disturbed by what he said about the fruit grower who found his so-called rejected strawberries being sold on the shelves. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) interjected from a sedentary position, "That is criminal". If that is happening it is indeed criminal and I hope that the fruit farmer in question follows the advice of his sage Member of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent also spoke about the problem caused by cheaper diesel fuel being available on the continent, particularly in France and Belgium, and he also made a short but powerful plea on behalf of the Kent and Canterbury hospital.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) talked about the fine historic buildings in his constituency. I have a great fellow feeling for him, although he was obviously a little embarrassed that a number of those buildings belonged to Harrow school, which received only a passing mention—one understands the political correctness that probably dictated that omission. As chairman of the all-party arts and heritage group, I entirely endorse his plea and what he said about the excellent work of English Heritage, both under its first chairman, Lord Montagu, and under its current chairman, Sir Jocelyn Stevens. I hope that Sir Jocelyn and Pam Alexander, the chief executive, will read and act on the hon. Gentleman's words.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) talked about the needs of the national health service in Northern Ireland, particularly the need to upgrade the ambulance service if what he called the golden six hospitals were to function effectively. He also spoke about the plight of children and those with learning difficulties. He made a powerful plea for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is right to salute the men and women of the RUC at Christmas, a season when they have had so many difficult tasks to perform—they have served with exemplary courage through some of the most difficult years in our nation's history.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who is another regular in these debates and has a commendable track record on Northern Ireland, is also an exemplary constituency Member of Parliament. He legitimately used this debate to make an appeal through the Parliamentary Secretary. I hope that his plea for a calling-in of the application that he mentioned will meet with some success.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea is, if one had to categorise him, the most unlikely candidate for any picket line that one could imagine. He nevertheless explained why his quietly passionate concern for animals led him to join a picket line during his temporary sojourn—self-inflicted but soon regretted—from the House of Commons. He made a powerful plea for the Government to honour their manifesto commitment for a royal commission. Although he recognised the delicacy of the situation, he did not, if I may say so, underline the fact that the Government have a real problem with Mr. Horne, who is a criminal guilty of terrorist acts—the Government would have been entirely wrong to give the impression of bowing to demands. We must put on the record our view that those who commit criminal acts in any cause are not to be condoned.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) made a plea for the cleaners of Hillingdon. I sincerely hope that Granada will heed what he said. He also talked feelingly about the licensee of a pub in Harmondsworth and his wife, whose life work is threatened by eviction. Let us hope that those responsible for that public house will heed what has been said this morning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) talked about the parlous state of the Defence Medical Services. He made a plea for Haslar hospital to be saved. The hospital is of supreme importance, not only in the context of the defence medical services, but to his constituency. He, too, has a fine reputation as a constituency Member of Parliament and has great knowledge of defence matters. There can be few hon. Members who realised that there are only four orthopaedic surgeons in the Army or the significance of the hospital in whose defence he spoke so passionately. Although I cannot promise to join him on the march on, I think, 24 January, I hope that many others will and that, even before then, the Government give him the assurances that he so rightly seeks.

I end where I began—with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. He has an inimitable style and is always capable of entertaining the House. Whether he performs on the boards at Westcliff, in the dome or anywhere else, I am sure that he will always be able to raise a hearty laugh among his audience. That laugh will be affectionate, as he is a man without an ounce of malice, who has served the House and his constituents well.

That is a good note on which to end. I conclude by reiterating my congratulations to the hon. Member for Sherwood and by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all hon. Members present a very happy Christmas.

12.15 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I apologise for the fact that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House cannot be with us today. She is involved in Privy Council business and, to my cost, I am at the Dispatch Box. I am grateful to hon. Members for their good wishes. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that he was surprised to see me here, but I doubt whether he was half as surprised as I am. I have tried not to become a smooth man, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) would say, and I believe that there is room in the House for a bit of sinew.

This has been an interesting debate on a number of themes. At Christmas, it is important that we talk about children, so it has been fascinating to hear how many times children's issues have been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and the hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) all mentioned children. I agree that it is important to invest in children and in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) used a word with which I am familiar—mithering. There has rightly been a good deal of mithering for hon. Members' constituents and community interests. The hon. Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) all made effective cases for causes and concerns in their areas.

Thirteen hon. Members have had the opportunity to speak; they have raised a number of important issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting took pole position yet again. I was delighted to hear his comments about the need to listen to children. Children often talk honestly; we should listen closely when they tell us things. The Government have set up a listening service for children and I hope that we will build on that work. I also hope that we will develop the "quality protects" programme announced on 21 September, which is investing an extra £375 million in residential services, so that we can give children in care a better deal. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should investigate any failures in the child care system and try to learn lessons for the future.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire spoke movingly about a case in Derby. He was right to stress the importance, where it is possible, of family care so that children can keep in touch with their family of origin and remain involved in the community. He was sceptical about the attitude of the local social services department; I will ensure that his concerns are passed to the relevant Ministers and that there is some discussion with Derby social services. He mentioned an old favourite of his, Derbyshire county council, in which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire also takes a great interest. He referred to this year's budget, but I know from my own experience how delighted council leaders are with this year's settlement, which far exceeds anything that they received under the previous Government. I hope that that will be a foundation for the council to develop and build services in Derbyshire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, in a short but effective speech, asked about the freedom of information Bill. I am delighted to reassure him that a draft Bill will be published early in the new year—towards the end of January, or perhaps into February—and there will be pre-legislative scrutiny. We propose legislation for the whole life of a Parliament, and my hon. Friend will have heeded the commitment of the Prime Minister to ensure that, during the lifetime of this Parliament, we will have a freedom of information Act. My hon. Friend also tried to tempt me into looking at MI6, but I will resist that temptation this morning.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) spoke about the effects of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, and their consequences for him. He is right to say that the word "Independent" cannot be registered—for example, "Independent Labour party" or "Independent Ratepayers party". However, it will still be possible for candidates such as the hon. Gentleman to describe themselves as Independent. One of the important parts of the new Act is a Committee of Members of this House, who will advise the registrar for political parties. I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will pursue that route.

I have a feeling that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles was a "Blue Peter" speech—one that he had prepared earlier. I know that he missed an opportunity to make this speech only a few days ago. People in Eccles are keen to make best use of their endeavours and not throw anything away. My hon. Friend made some important points about the need to set performance targets for regional development agencies and regional chambers. I agree that these are important new bodies which must be accountable and must deliver. I will draw the attention of ministerial colleagues to my hon. Friend's speech.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made a number of points—all, save one, with a European theme. European influences have a great effect on his part of the country. I have known for a long time of his concerns about the channel tunnel rail link and the dereliction and blight caused in his area. I support him entirely in his view that we must ensure that both the first and second phases of the link are completed. The two phases are linked, and there will be consequences for Railtrack if they do not go forward.

Like the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, I come from a rural background and I do not underestimate the importance of the fruit industry. It is important that we look at the power of supermarkets, and he may know that the Office of Fair Trading is currently looking at supermarkets. I hope that it looks closely at pricing policies, and that it will come forward with proposals for us to buy British—to buy Kent fruit and British beef and meat.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent was keen to point out the difficulties that haulage operators in his area face in terms of fuel duty. That is a problem, but some of our rates of taxation are lower than those in other parts of the continent. He referred also to Kent and Canterbury hospital, a subject that is before Ministers. I know that his representations will be heard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West spoke forcefully about the joys of Harrow. I entirely agree that we should encourage environmental initiatives and open spaces. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to Richard Rogers's task force on urban regeneration. Like my hon. Friend, I would like to see more greenery and open spaces in our urban areas.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South spoke movingly about the need to get away from "yah-boo politics" and get on with the real issues. He talked about the need to invest in the health service in Northern Ireland, the distances involved and the importance of making sure that services are close to local people.

I was particularly interested in the points that the hon. Member for Belfast, South made about the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is important to put on record our respect for the work of the RUC. We must ensure also that it has the right equipment, and I do not believe that any police force should have second-hand equipment. However, police forces can learn from one another; just as the RUC can learn from the Met, I am sure that there are things that the Met can learn from the RUC.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire mentioned the Avenue cokeworks, which I have had the opportunity of visiting. It is a difficult site, with many problems. I know of my hon. Friend's fight against opencasting, and he made a strong point about looking at bio-remediation measures, rather than dump-and-dispose measures, on that site. I know that he has met with Ministers and I will take up the case on his behalf.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) has a long-standing involvement in animal welfare issues, and talked about the Labour document, "New Labour: New Life for Animals". I must say that there was no manifesto commitment to a royal commission, but I am pleased to inform him that the notion of a royal commission has not been ruled out, and progress is being made. More inspectors have been appointed, there has been a ban on cosmetic testing on animals and there is a ban on testing animals in relation to alcohol and tobacco. A great deal needs to be done and we need to build on the work of the Animal Procedures Committee before moving to a final decision on a royal commission.

I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) said about the dispute. I believe that measures such as the minimum wage and the White Paper on fairness at work will provide the right balance.

The hon. Member for Gosport spoke strongly and with authority about the problems at Haslar hospital. I will ensure that his remarks are drawn to the attention of ministerial colleagues. I know that he gave a trailer for a demonstration on 24 March and I wish him and the demonstration well.

I will not be drawn on to the boards of the Palace theatre by the hon. Member for Southend, West.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

A fine place.

Mr. Tipping

A fine place, indeed.

Nor do I want to say much about the millennium dome, which will be a monument on which people can make a judgment for themselves. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about having a proper share of lottery funding across the country. We have made progress on this, although a lot remains to be done.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of truancy and school exclusion. I do not know whether he has seen the report of the social exclusion unit, which sets out a way forward.

I conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as is the tradition, by wishing you, the staff of the House and all my colleagues both a merry Christmas and, let us hope, a prosperous and peaceful new year.

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