HC Deb 20 May 1998 vol 312 cc871-912

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

9.34 am
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

A serious incident, which could have been disastrous, occurred in north-east Derbyshire last Thursday. It happened at about 5.30 pm in Killamarsh in my constituency on the Leigh Environmentals site which, since autumn 1997, has been owned by Sarp UK Ltd., which has a French parent company. A tanker leaked sulphuric and nitric acid, which led to the formation in the area of an orange cloud whose vapour threatened the Killamarsh community and, later, other communities as it moved around.

Vapour from sulphuric acid can quickly damage lungs, burn and eat away flesh and strip paint from cars. Sulphuric acid in water kills fish, and plants survive the vapour little better. Laboratory technicians know that sulphuric acid burns holes in their coats. Nitric acid is similar, but it vaporises more easily and was perhaps the basis of the cloud in the area.

The incident was so serious that emergency planners considered evacuating thousands of people from the Killamarsh area. However, they decided not to do that as they feared that they would move people into the path of the shifting cloud. The situation could have been worse if the fire brigade had not already been on the site dealing with a minor leak to which the management had alerted it. When the fire brigade arrived, the leak became much more serious and the vapour cloud developed. It could also have been worse if children had been at a nearby primary school and had had to be locked away in the school while their parents worried about what was happening.

The site is next to the Rother Valley country park. Fortunately, few people were there at the time of the incident—although its many fish, birds and other wildlife were in danger from the cloud. The vapour cloud moved into the Rother Valley constituency, then moved towards Halfway, which is part of the Sheffield, Attercliffe constituency, before changing direction in the wind and moving towards the Bassetlaw constituency and dispersing. Therefore, it moved through at least four parliamentary constituencies located in three counties—Derbyshire, South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire—where different authorities are responsible for public protection.

Inquiries and investigations are being conducted by the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, environmental health officers and the county council. The four Members of Parliament from the constituencies that I have mentioned, including me, have asked the Minister for the Environment to co-ordinate action and to conduct his own investigation. I reinforce that call now. I also wish to raise some matters that must be pursued in the ministerial investigation.

At first glance, the emergency action at the plant seems to have gone according to the book. However, off-site emergency arrangements were ad hoc because there was virtually no plan on which to act. Some people did some excellent work in trying circumstances, but existing planning provisions must be examined closely.

The police blocked off some, but not all, of the roads into Killamarsh. Many of the drivers of the cars that were turned away had families in Killamarsh whom they wanted to reach. Buses were stopped, and passengers left them and walked into Killamarsh. Helicopters were sent to the area to tell the people of Killamarsh to get indoors, to close their windows and generally to close themselves in. Unfortunately, people had to go out of their homes to hear the messages. I have come across only one constituent who heard what was being said.

Other firms are situated next to Leigh Environmentals, and they seem also to have been in the dark. They did not know what was happening or what they were supposed to do.

Unfortunately, the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazard Regulations 1984 do not apply to the plant. The regulations call for an off-site emergency plan—for example, having a siren system, providing instructions to householders about what they should do in the event of an emergency, and ensuring that emergency exercises take place so that the population in the area is used to what is done. That provision operates, for instance, in my constituency at Staveley Chemicals. People in the area have cards in their homes that explain what provisions are made when an emergency arises. Nothing like that was available when the incident took place at Killamarsh.

There are the questions whether the CIMAH regulations should apply to Killamarsh and whether they should be extended. Even if they are not to apply legally, should they not voluntarily be acted on quickly? Should there be alternative regulations operating in respect of the chemical reclamation plant that is known locally as Leigh Environmentals?

The 1982 European Union's Seveso directive is not yet fully in place. It sets up the EU regulations on the control of major accidents and hazards. A consultative exercise is taking place under the Health and Safety Executive, but it will not report until September. At the very least, the situation at Killamarsh needs to be taken on board by the HSE. Every encouragement needs to be given to ensure that the HSE's report is produced quickly, that it is a serious report and that it is acted on.

The incident arose from a leaking tanker, not from a failure of any of the on-site processes. There have been failures at the Leigh Environmentals plant. Following one such failure, I initiated an Adjournment debate way back on 20 February 1990. The current incident at Killamarsh was the result of a leak from a tanker, which could have occurred anywhere between British Aerospace in the west midlands, where the material was collected, and Killamarsh.

The tanker was one of Sarp's fleet of tankers. That fleet needs to be checked out thoroughly. Following this incident, the implications of all tankers carrying dangerous materials should be investigated closely.

Residents in the area continue to complain of nauseating smells, especially from the main drains and sewers in Killamarsh. They blame Leigh Environmentals for those smells. There is confusion over who is to be held responsible when complaints are made. The environmental agencies, environmental health officers, the district council and Yorkshire Water are contacted. People often find themselves moved from one authority to the other without any clear action being taken. Greater co-ordination is needed, as is greater clarity on who is responsible for what, so that when problems arise and are fed into one agency and it is decided that another agency should act, the relevant information is passed on quickly to the other agency and every effort is made by the body that received the information to assist the process.

The Environment Agency grants consents for the disposing of liquids from Leigh Environmentals to the sewers. When those liquids are discharged they may be subject to bacteriological change, which may cause the hydrosulphide smells. That, or something similar, may occur, given the mixture of elements in the sewers. That should be faced when the Environment Agency grants consents in the area. It needs to be taken on board by the Minister for the Environment.

I shall summarise what I see as the immediate requirements. First, we need a proper investigation through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that is openly reported. Secondly, we want a full off-site plan to be operated in the area. Thirdly, we want regulations requiring stringent community safety, which will be part of that plan. Fourthly, we want a checking of tankers, especially the Sarp fleet. Fifthly, we want clear environmental controls to tackle dangerous discomforts in the communities involved.

Unless there is a dramatic improvement, this will not be the last occasion when I shall endeavour to raise the matter in the House. However, this is my first opportunity to do so. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will ensure that the information that I have put before the House is passed to the Minister for the Environment and that there are responses to the points that I have raised.

9.46 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, I wish to raise four brief matters. Probably the Leader of the House is thinking, "My goodness, here he goes again. It was all raised during the Easter Adjournment debate." First, there is the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons. Again, probably, the Leader of the House will be suggesting that I attend the debates of the Modernisation Committee. I thoroughly disapprove of what is going on here. This place is slowly but surely being destroyed. I think that the Labour party was primarily to blame for the appalling turnout in the local elections. We have only to think of Salford, where only 11 per cent. of the people voted. In many areas, the turnout was 20 per cent.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman is blaming the Labour party for a turnout of 11 per cent. at Salford. Would I be correct in thinking that, of the 11 per cent., probably only 1 per cent. was voting Conservative, if the Conservative party was lucky? The apathy lies with the Conservative party in Salford.

Mr. Amess

I have no detailed knowledge of the politics in Salford. Whatever the 11 per cent. who voted were, surely it is something which all Members should be depressed about. It is clear that 89 per cent. of the electorate did not think that it was worth voting. That is all about the way in which this place is being run.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the turnout at local elections has some relationship to the amount of literature that may be put through constituents' doors to remind them that the elections are taking place and to encourage them to vote? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in most of the wards that were up for election in my constituency, the Conservative party did not put a leaflet through anyone's door? I wonder whether that contributed to the low turnout.

Mr. Amess

Obviously, I regret that. I have no knowledge of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. However, the style of government since 1 May has meant that fewer and fewer people are interested in politics.

Mr. Hoyle

As the hon. Gentleman has so much knowledge, could he tell us how many people turned out to vote in Basildon?

Mr. Amess

The hon. Gentleman may be a little out of touch—I no longer represent the Basildon constituency. I am the Member of Parliament for Southend, West. My former seat is now represented by two hon. Members, one Conservative and one Labour.

The House will be delighted to know that I worked in six areas in the local elections. On election night, I worked in the constituency of Basildon, in the ward where the Labour Member of Parliament lives. I am delighted to say that we won the seat from the Labour party, so it was a Conservative gain. We also gained five seats in Basildon.

In the Easter Adjournment debate, I complained to the Leader of the House that the Prime Minister's attendance in this place was appalling. He might have listened to one or two people because he has made two or three statements since then, but his voting record is only 5 per cent. The voting record of his two predecessors, who were older than he is, was 30 per cent. The right hon. Lady will no doubt mention Ireland when she eventually sums up the debate, but the Prime Minister's two predecessors had just as important matters to deal with. For whatever reason, the leader of the Labour party simply does not think that this place is as important as talking to newspapers and appearing on television.

My main point is that, while some Ministers are excellent in dealing with constituency correspondence—their replies are courteous and they do everything possible to help—others take more than three months to reply, which is simply not on. Moreover, when letters are continually signed "pp", it is deeply insulting to hon. Members, and constituents will draw their own conclusions. I have tried to be non-partisan by praising those Ministers who deserve praise, but I hope that the Leader of the House will have a quiet word with one or two Government Departments—I am not prepared to name them now.

My second point concerns British Rail. I doubt whether hon. Members here today recall my "Public Journey" shown on television, which I undertook with one or two Essex Members of Parliament and a former British Rail chairman. It was a most unsatisfactory public journey—we used to call the Fenchurch Street line the "misery line". The chairman did not remain in place for long after that. I hope that a number of hon. Members saw the Evening Standard article last night, in which many of my constituents and others in Essex were interviewed. They have been very pleased since our line was privatised. Before that, the general manager on the line was second in unpopularity to Saddam Hussein. They now think that he is doing a splendid job. The punctuality of trains has risen to 95 or 96 per cent., and the service has improved immeasurably.

Would the Leader of the House be prepared to comment on the privatisation of the LondonTilbury-Southend line as it affects the area that I represent? Is she prepared to say that privatisation has been a success?

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that that satisfaction is far from universal? In my area, which is served by Great Western, satisfaction levels have declined to such an extent that the company has written to us apologising for the fall in standards. I missed a meeting chaired by the Leader of the House last night because my train was an hour and a half late. If the hon. Gentleman has a good experience to report to the House, it is unique.

Mr. Amess

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. I am quite satisfied to represent one constituency at the moment, although, for 14 years, I represented another. I am not prepared to get involved in the local matters of other hon. Members. I simply make the point that, throughout my time in this place, I have campaigned for the privatisation of British Rail and, in Essex—an important part of the country—people are delighted with the privatisation of British Rail. I just wondered whether the Leader of the House has plans to renationalise British Rail.

My third point concerns Southend borough council and Essex county council. I must be very careful with my language, because I am only too well aware of what has been going on in the House since 1 April. The Prime Minister is being fed completely inaccurate briefing. It is absolutely disgusting that the Labour party in the House thinks that it can blame everything that is unsatisfactory in Essex on the Conservative administration since 1 April, while the Labour Government, who have now been in office for more than a year, are not prepared to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong. We hear endlessly about the Conservative Government—

Mr. Hoyle

The hon. Gentleman says that the trains now run well in Essex, and the Labour party should take the blame. Should not the Labour party therefore take the credit for the punctuality of the trains?

Mr. Amess

I should be delighted if the Leader of the House would come to the Dispatch Box and say that privatisation has been a great success and that Her Majesty's Government will take the credit for that. Unfortunately, the record in Hansard will prove that the Labour party fought the privatisation of British Rail from the very outset.

As I was saying on the subject of Southend borough council, a little while ago we had a by-election in Southend. We won the Chalkwell seat from the Liberal Democrats, so Southend borough council now has 19 Conservative, 13 Liberal Democrat and seven Labour members. Thus, with their majority of one, the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties together vote everything down. Interestingly, since Southend became a unitary council, the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties have voted for an increase in social service charges, which will come into effect on 1 June. The cost of meals on wheels will rise by a third, and home care charges, about which we heard endlessly before the Labour party assumed government, will rise by 70 per cent. Home care charges are being increased from £6.20 to £10.50 a week, and meals on wheels charges are being increased to £1.80 for a main meal. The Conservatives voted against all those rises.

None the less, the Labour Member of the European Parliament has been running round Essex petitioning people to sign up because of changes that the Conservatives in Essex county council have imposed since 1 April. Not a word has been said by the Liberal Democrats locally or nationally about the disgusting increases in social service charges in Southend, but plenty has been said about Essex county council, and plenty has been said from the Dispatch Box in the House. It is disgraceful.

On education, the main platform in Essex and Southend, the Labour party has broken its promises. Class sizes in my constituency are going up all the time. Some 1.3 million primary school pupils are in classes of 31 or more, which is the highest figure for 20 years. That has happened not as a result of 18 years of Conservative government, but because of Labour and, to an extent, Liberal Democrat party policies.

Westborough school, in my constituency, is the largest primary school in Essex, with more than 800 children, and the headmistress does not even have a room from which to work. All the schools in my area are full. Many parents come to my surgery to complain. Parental choice cannot apply to them because the nearest secondary schools with vacancies are about four miles away.

In terms of local government, will the Leader of the House say what the Labour party will do to rectify the problem in my constituency, given that the local authority, which has become a unitary authority, is controlled by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties?

Incredibly, the Government allowed for increases of only 0.5 per cent. across all services, although inflation went up to a six-year high yesterday. The Prime Minister has the cheek to come to the Dispatch Box and pretend that the Conservatives are to blame for changes since 1 April. Every week, different figures are used by Labour Members in the House, so I am delighted to put the record straight. We should compare the Conservatives' spending proposals since 1 April with those of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, which cut education spending in real terms by £12 million last year. The Conservatives in Essex are spending £12 million more on social services than the Government set out in the standard spending assessment, and they have to deal with the dreadful mess left by the previous administration under which a huge amount was raided from our reserves.

My final point relates to young people. On Monday, I had the privilege of participating in an all-party forum that was organised by Essex county council. Young people aged from seven to 17 put their points to parish councillors, councillors and Members of Parliament, which was worth while.

I am the vice-chairman of the all-party scout and guide group. Last week, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) and I visited Baden-Powell house. We met the international secretary of the scouting movement, who shared with us a comprehensive programme to cater for the needs of young people in today's society.

The programme has a global educational background and I should like to share with hon. Members a few of the movement's thoughts. It believes that young people, first, should develop themselves to test their abilities and to discover the world around them, in whatever forum; secondly, require access to knowledge and competence to understand the real world; thirdly, need an active and responsible role in social life; and, fourthly, will acquire status and a stake in society through such a role.

Although some people may smirk at that, I believe that the scouting and guide organisations do a magnificent job. A huge army of volunteers are offered an opportunity to learn beyond the traditional boundaries of formal education. The organisations base their strategy on four pillars: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be. They offer an environment in which non-formal education can flourish and, in today's society, where there are more dangers than ever before, non-formal education is an essential part of the education process. The scouting organisation believes that schools teach more and more, but, in some respects, educate less and less; that families give more freedom, but not more autonomy; and that we teach the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.

Many local authorities throughout the country are trying to launch youth initiatives. I praise Leigh parish council, which is the only parish council in my constituency, and congratulate its first chairman, Councillor Mike King, his successor, Councillor David Johnson, and the current chairman, Councillor Mike Dolby, on their initiatives to promote and encourage young people.

I hope that every hon. Member will take careful note of the Whip this week, because, thanks to the hospitality of Madam Speaker, the scout and guide organisations will enjoy a tea party in her state apartments on 18 June. Perhaps newer hon. Members are not aware that every hon. Member is entitled to invite scouts, guides, beavers or rainbows from their local organisations to enjoy the hospitality of the Speaker. On that non-controversial note, I hope that hon. Members will agree with my sentiments and do everything they can to support our annual tea party.

10.4 am

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I am sure that hon. Members will wish Madam Speaker well on the 25th anniversary of her election to the House. It should be a glorious day for her, as the sun is shining.

I want to speak about something radical and different—the reorganisation of police forces. Crime knows no barriers, and there is a great opportunity to consider restructuring. Police officers do a tremendous job in impossible conditions: resources are badly stretched, police officers are thinly deployed—they are the thin blue line—and there appears to be an impossible conflict between targeting major crimes and providing essential community presence and service locally.

The solution to that conflict of interest lies in reorganisation of the structure of our police force. I should like my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider reforming the police structure to make it similar to that used by many other nations, especially on the continent, where there is two-tier policing. We would benefit from regional policing and local policing by a district police force.

Regional development agencies are being discussed, so there is no better time to consider reorganisation of the police force structure. There could be a north-west police force instead of the existing five forces, five chief constables and several assistant chief constables, which is a costly way to administer the area. In addition, we could provide community policing at local level with the introduction of local forces. Instead of separate county forces, pooled resources in one region would achieve a greater police force, with more officers being employed in the fight against crime.

Police forces no longer reflect crime areas. Using the motorway network, criminals can be in different counties in minutes. The north-west is best placed with motorways and has a good network of roads. Logistics ensure that people can be here, there and everywhere in a short time, but also that crime moves throughout the region. The north-west is not unique, however. In the south-east, for example, the M25 gives mobility to criminals.

The police force structure should be reorganised to reflect the new regional nature of crime patterns. That should involve rationalisation of the county constabularies, which were established when car ownership was low and crime was locally based. We should consider a single chief constable for each region. What person would be better for such a post than the chief constable of Lancashire, who is doing a wonderful job? We must consider the great specialism within the force and achieve even greater professionalism.

Chorley is between Greater Manchester and Merseyside. A gang from a neighbouring force area could commit a series of burglaries in Chorley and be back home in half an hour—and back in an area covered by a different police force, which makes it difficult to track such criminals. The region has shrunk with the advent of mass car ownership, so I want a force that is more co-ordinated and can share operations and intelligence much more closely.

We should consider air support. The Cheshire force has an aeroplane, and the Merseyside, Lancashire and Greater Manchester forces have helicopters, but I believe that the Cumbria force has neither. What could be better than them combining and developing their resources in a north-west region? Instead of competing with each other, they could position that air supremacy to be better deployed to deal with crime.

Sharing expensive resources would allow costs to be redirected into other operations. Police horses, which are an important part of policing, put a presence on the streets, but each force has its own horses. Instead of each force in each region having separate mounted divisions that are not used daily, would it not be better strategically to position mounted sections and move them to wherever they are required? I shall forward those ideas not only to the Home Office, but to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales and the Police Federation, the people on the ground with expertise.

I think that all hon. Members would agree that community policing is important. Although I wish to maintain a highly motivated, highly efficient police force, that should not detract from the presence on the ground and in the community. Sir Paul Condon has stated that there is no longer a place for the bobby on the beat. That is not acceptable, and I do not believe that anyone supports that. Highly visible policing makes people feel secure, comfortable and able to relax in the community in which they live.

Perhaps, as a complement to the more specialised regional force, district police forces might be set up to concentrate on lower-level crime in the local community. For example, if a car radio is stolen, it is expensive for a constable to come round and, more often than not, people are given a crime number over the phone. A new generation of district police forces could deal with minor crimes such as a kiddie's bicycle being stolen, vandalism and petty theft. People feel that such crime should be covered and they would feel more secure because they would have a district policeman, not someone who has had specialised training and is a community policeman, who is with them for 18 months and is then moved when he is suddenly asked to train in another specialism or when the CID takes him for 12 months.

We do not have that community identity, that link with the bobby on the beat. We should re-establish that and this is a way. The Home Secretary talks about truancy and the police taking children back to school, but, to be realistic, that is impossible unless we can generate a new police force. There were many arguments when traffic wardens were introduced. People said that, by putting tickets on cars, they took away the rights of the police, but traffic wardens have proved to be successful. Without them, the roads would be clogged and we would not have been able to manage.

We have an opportunity to develop a district police force. It could give an enhanced role to the special constabulary, which performs an important, much-needed and valuable function, and which could be expanded to help police local communities.

It is farcical that highly paid, highly trained police inspectors in traffic divisions spend their time changing the film in Gatso speed cameras or setting up speed traps. Surely someone else should be doing that job. Local police forces would have the time and resources to make our local areas safer. Local police officers would have a better opportunity to build a rapport with the local community, improving relations between the local bobby, residents and local businesses, and having a specific knowledge of local trouble spots and problems.

In addition, a reorganisation would provide the opportunity to establish a national force for the motorway network, coverage of which varies greatly from county to county. It is interesting is that, when I go up the M6, I go through Cheshire, and, within minutes, I am in Merseyside and, again within minutes, I reach Greater Manchester and Lancashire. Surely the policing of different counties covering small sections of the M6 is not viable and should be examined. Crime on motorways does not take place in just one county area.

Those suggestions would require much work. I hope that the Home Office will look at them carefully and establish an all-party working group to look into new policing in the next millennium.

10.12 am
Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I should like to address the House on the subject of the nine volumes that have been compiled by English Heritage cataloguing 1,500 grade 1 and grade 2 listed buildings that are deemed to be at risk. I must declare an interest as I am the owner of a grade 1 listed building. That building has been identified in the directory. I ask the House's indulgence because not only am I speaking from personal experience, but, having been "named and shamed", I can try to illuminate from personal experience what exactly is involved.

I think that we would all agree that naming and shaming is a dubious practice at the best of times and never more so than when practised by the Government or one of their agencies.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Or a diarist.

Mr. Clark

I named, but did not shame. My right hon. Friend interrupts me with a flippant reference to my authorship, but I do not think that I have shamed anyone in my life, although often perhaps brought opprobrium on my own head, but that is another matter.

The House will remember with respect, if not affection, a former President of the United States, Mr. Lyndon Johnson. He ran into difficulties before he was President when fighting a primary. It was in a state that was distant from his home and where he was not well known, and he was fighting against a very worthy opponent, a church-going, greatly respected pillar of local society.

Johnson was not making much impact and polling day was approaching. He and his staff had to make a decision. They had a little council of war, of a kind familiar to us all when we are behind in the polls, as to what they should do. Johnson said that they should leak the news that their distinguished and church-going opponent had been guilty of vile and unnatural practices, which I will not identify on the Floor of the House. The entire council said, "We can't do that. No one would believe it and, anyway, it is not true." Johnson replied, "I just want to hear him deny it."

I revert to personal experience. The sub-editor of The Times writes in fairly large type: Tory MP denies claims he applied for a grant". An unnamed, unidentified member of staff at English Heritage had said: We have discussed this with the owner"— untrue— there seems to be no resolution at the moment"— true enough, as there was no discussion— I think his inquiries have centred on grants. Note the use of the word "think".

I weary the House with that only because we do not know how many people that has happened to, and they do not have the immense privilege of being able to rise immediately on the Floor of the House to ventilate their view. However, a member of a Government agency is revealing what should be confidential—although, as it never happened, it is even more preposterous. The Times was told: I think his inquiries have centred on grants", which I denied. I have never taken a penny-piece from the public purse for anything and never applied for the grant. However, the article goes on: English Heritage confirmed last night that there was no correspondence on file with Mr. Clark about grants. In other words, the whole thing was pure invention.

The reason I cite that is that, the charge having been made, the sub-editor can enjoy himself and say, "MP denies it." It is totally bogus and totally without substance, but immediately there is a slight taint in the air. That practice is okay, I suppose, for Fleet street editors. It is standard practice by reporters to say things, get people to deny them and then say, just like Lyndon Johnson, that those people have denied this or that charge. Whether that is appropriate for Government agencies is another matter, as the House may agree. However, English Heritage is unrepentant. That or another spokesman went on to say: The register is intended to open constructive dialogue"— not one of my favourite phrases and utterly, as we know, without meaning of any sort— but if we don't get it, we'll name the names in next year's edition. The House may, in passing, ask what is meant by "constructive dialogue".

What are owners of listed buildings meant to do when they have been named and shamed? It appears that they are meant personally to spend enormous sums on repairing the degradation, much of which has occurred over centuries. But at whose behest? In my case, at that of some nameless, faceless officials at English Heritage; I have never seen one, to my recollection. A couple of people came to Saltwood and meandered around about 20 years ago. I like to think that we treated them with courtesy. I have not heard from them since; nor have I been given any indication of what I should be doing to avoid being shamed, never mind named.

The House is being indulgent and treating this matter lightly—perhaps I am not doing the subject justice. There are 1,500 buildings listed in this directory as being at risk. In every case where the building is owned privately, pressure can be put on the owners to take action through legislation passed in this place—by Orders in Council, I believe. If they do not spend what is, in many cases, a virtually unlimited amount, the property can be confiscated. A compulsory purchase order can be issued if the property is held to be in danger.

It is not clear into whose possession the property would then be taken. Would it be taken by English Heritage, the local authority or the state? Would the property then be immediately repaired? Is there an enormous sump of public money with a tap that can be opened to pay for the repair of every building that has been compulsorily purchased? I rather doubt it. We need to know more. Threats have been made in a most pugnacious and menacing way, and we need to know what will happen if we do not engage in "constructive dialogue" within the next 12 months. Big brother will appropriate all the buildings. One could say that if big brother were then to write an endless series of cheques to repair them, a kind of service would be discharged. However, the buildings would be empty, and empty buildings are much harder to maintain than those that are occupied.

English Heritage has got much too big for its boots. Its director is a prominent figure in what is sometimes referred to as café society and he is seen enjoying hospitality in many locations, but what exactly does he want to achieve?

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

He is the chairman.

Mr. Clark

Is there a director?

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Forth

They are all apparatchiks.

Mr. Clark

They are all apparatchiks, and I do not doubt that they all have huge expense accounts.

The House may take the view that the conservation officers employed by local authorities could do most of the work themselves using the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have far greater knowledge and easier access to the buildings within their purview. They could do the work more simply and more cheaply.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am not at all surprised to hear that my right hon. Friend has not applied for a grant from English Heritage. Does he agree that he is, in a sense, rather fortunate not to have done so? A number of my constituents have complained to me, and I have reported to the Leader of the House, that they have found increasingly commonplace waits of up to six months before English Heritage determines whether their application for grant in aid is successful. Might that conceivably be because an individual member of staff at English Heritage is preoccupied with leaking inaccurate information about the intentions of my right hon. Friend instead of focusing on the responsibilities of his or her office?

Mr. Clark

I do not want to engage in extended research into the motives of the officials at English Heritage. However, I could claim to be bitterly affronted that someone to whom I have in the past extended hospitality—if it is the same person—and from whom I never heard again should have suddenly decided that I need to be named and shamed. In addition, that official has spread the extraordinary and, in some ways, mildly defamatory falsehood that I applied for a grant when, by his or her own subsequent admission on being questioned by reporters, there is no correspondence about a grant on file, still less an application.

It remains true and very sad that a number of important listed buildings are decaying. I would not feel comfortable taking money from the taxpayer to repair a building that I live in privately. That would not be appropriate. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer should consider certain points. Hectoring the owners of historic buildings will not improve matters. The majority cannot even afford to do the repairs that they have apparently been asked to do. I have never been asked to do any repairs; I have simply been told that my building is at risk.

The key to preserving old buildings is to keep them in good repair and, where possible or necessary, to find a way for them to earn their keep. Such grants as there were have been cut. I have never had one, as I said. VAT has to be paid at the full rate on repairs, although new buildings are generally VAT free. It cannot be right that if a part of our heritage is at risk, VAT should have to be paid on its repair bills, when that is not the case for a brand new building.

Estate owners are not allowed to offset the cost of repairs to the building against other estate income in assessing their tax. In other words, the building must be an absolutely net liability—it is cum the income tax that has already been paid on the money that will be used to make the necessary repairs. The Finance Bill will end any such relief, so all income from the estate will be taxable and no offset can be made for repairs to any aspect of the building, even if it is listed grade 1 or grade 2.

One does not like to be too party confrontational in holiday Adjournment debates, but this attitude is part and parcel of the distasteful posture adopted by the Government. It is part of the pop culture, cool Britannia ethic that they will live to regret. People are already uneasy with that. This disdain for our heritage is part of a package that has led the Government to have the millennium dome constructed not in marble or granite, so that it could conceivably be a heritage building in future centuries, but in plastic. That is the culture of the image consultant; it is the culture of obsolescence. This is pop culture at its worst—top of the charts one month, bottom of the charts and taking an overdose of narcotics in an Australian lavatory three months later.

That is the culture to which the Government, like it or not, are trying to attach a part of their ethics. It is high time that we rejected that and said that there is a more permanent culture. Theirs is part of the move to modernise—if that is the word—the royal family by dressing the Household Division in fatigues instead of bearskins, even at the birthday parade, by making sure that when the Queen arrives to open Parliament she is wearing a suit, possibly, for all I know, even a shell suit, and by ensuring that she arrives not in a Rolls-Royce, which will not be possible anyway in 10 years, but in a black cab, perhaps. It is part of a deliberate attempt to extinguish our heritage in all its different aspects, a heritage which has illuminated and invigorated our society for so long.

Our heritage is nothing to do with class or with party, but everything to do with the intrinsic nature of what we are as a people. Pop culture is irredeemably opposed to it, and the cool Britannia ethic is distant from it.

I invite the House to consider the matter—the narrow topic—of dealing with heritage buildings, to discover how, consciously or subconsciously—complete with a leaking official in a Government Department, and an attempt to name and shame and to invoke overtones of class division—the matter is part of a total fabric which I believe that the House should reject. I know that many Labour Members would agree with that.

10.29 am
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

I should like to express some concerns about management of the reorganisation of magistrates courts by the county magistrates courts committee in my area, and, more generally, about the lack of guidance of that process elsewhere in the country.

On Monday, Derbyshire magistrates courts committee confirmed its proposal to reorganise the magistrates courts in my county through a private finance initiative. Among its proposals was a proposal to close the court in Swadlincote—which is the only court in the 120 square miles of my constituency.

I realise the need to rationalise courts. Some courts are antique and expensive to run, and others are relatively close together. My concerns fall into five categories, several of which relate to the general process of court reorganisation.

The first category concerns access to justice. The original private finance initiative consultation document issued by my magistrates courts committee sought to define the meaning of "local justice"—words that we often hear used in discussions about how we should run our magistrates courts system. The suggested definition was: Magistrates drawn from Petty Sessional Divisions sitting in judgement on cases arising in those divisions using accommodation which is reasonably accessible to Magistrates and Court users. The phrase "reasonably accessible" in the definition is clearly material, and the committee consequently sought to define it, which it did in the following terms: within 20 miles of the major centres of population that it might serve … and accessible by public transport with a travel time of up to 60 minutes … and within 15 minutes walk from the nearest public transport node". In earlier correspondence with the committee's chief executive, I attempted to obtain some definition of a 15-minute walk. I can walk a lot further in 15 minutes than many other people can. No attempt was made further to define that term, however.

What about the 60-minute public transport time criterion? I think that we can reasonably assume that the chief executive of the committee was not a regular bus user: he had certainly not chosen to consult the bus timetable for the South Derbyshire area. My constituency is rural; the town of Swadlincote is essentially a necklace of villages; and getting to the bus station is an exercise in itself. It takes 67 minutes to travel from Swadlincote bus station to Derby bus station, which exceeds the time specified by the committee in its consultation document on the key criteria for the siting of a magistrates court—and the 67 minutes does not include the time it might take to find the magistrates court on leaving the bus station.

Was the committee swayed when those facts were drawn to its attention? Regrettably not. The committee took the view that its failure to calculate the times correctly was an unfortunate accident. Although I am sure the committee thought that the 60-minute criterion was quite sufficient to provide for the areas affected by the closure, it miscalculated—and there we are.

My second category of concerns is convenience of access to other components of the justice system. Swadlincote magistrates court incorporates facilities for the probation service, which is thus readily able to make its important contribution to the court process. The court premises also provide the probation service with a local base. However, no proposals have been made on the integration into the court process of the critical role played by the service in the area should the court be closed. It seems likely that a visiting service into the area from Derby will be provided, using currently unspecified premises—at greater cost and less convenience both to existing staff and, more critically, to users of the service.

The Swadlincote court is immediately adjacent to the local police station. Currently, the attendance of the police to act as witnesses and—in very rare cases in my constituency—in other capacities, such as dealing with someone who is misbehaving in the court, is efficiently operated, with police being called from the station as needed. The alternative would involve a substantial increase in police travelling and attendance time. My area is already thinly policed, as the Derbyshire police force is one of the least well funded in the country.

The part of my constituency south of the Trent—the bulk of it, geographically—is policed usually by four to five officers and one sergeant. If we are to chew up substantial proportions of police time by requiring them to travel to and from a court in Derby, we will obviously have fewer police available to deal with issues in our community to which they should be attending.

The third category is community identity. The committee made the assumption that Swadlincote was in some sense a suburb of Derby. That is not how the citizens of Swadlincote view themselves. The bus time probably says as much about that as anything because, if people used the service more often, someone would no doubt have found it worth while to run a faster bus. People do not look towards Derby as the main centre for jobs, entertainment or shopping; they use other urban centres in the area, or choose to stay in South Derbyshire. The mistaken view of the community of which Swadlincote is a part does not seem to have concerned the committee—and I think that such views have been more broadly applied elsewhere in the country.

The fourth category is the importance of the convenience of court users. Only a tiny minority of people ever attend court. In a generally very law-abiding community such as South Derbyshire, only a very small number of people ever attend court—which, in some senses, is part of our problem, as the committee has claimed that the court is not used very heavily. We are actually rather proud of that, and do not wish to encourage greater court use because of wrongdoing in our community.

Although only a tiny minority attend court—and then only very rarely, perhaps once or twice in their lifetime—their rights and convenience should not be ignored. The chief executive of the magistrates courts committee was quoted as saying—and chose not to deny in correspondence with me—that criminals should allow in their activities for the cost of transport to a rather more distant magistrates court; perhaps they should thieve a little more to raise the funds for the bus fare to a court in Derby, rather than Swadlincote.

I drew to the chief executive's attention the fact that court users were not merely those rightly or wrongly accused of offences, but witnesses. We already have a problem nationally in persuading people to give up time to attend court as witnesses. I cannot believe that expecting people in my constituency to spend half a day travelling to and from a court in Derby—in addition to attending the court and waiting to be called—will encourage more of them to bear witness in cases.

Others also attend court. Magistrates handle the distribution of licences of various kinds to perfectly law-abiding people running businesses, and those people want to go somewhere locally convenient, rather than some distance away. I do not see why they should be put to that inconvenience either.

My fifth category of concern is the court premises. I could well understand that there might be concern if those were crumbling and decaying, but they are not. They were opened in 1978 and I readily concede that they are not a thing of beauty—they are an example of the architecture of the time. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) referred to our heritage: I do not think Swadlincote magistrates court will feature in the list in the foreseeable future. I also concede that some routine maintenance would be desirable, but it is nothing serious.

Space is certainly sufficient to allow the separation of witnesses and defendants. One of the key problem areas in cramped, old-fashioned magistrates courts is that witnesses and defendants have to sit together, which can occasionally cause some friction. That is not the case at Swadlincote court. Also, the cells are appropriate for their purpose, although I would not say that they are luxurious. So, there would be appear to be no structural reasons to close the premises.

In addition, the local district council, having identified cost as one of the issues that might concern the magistrates courts committee, has said that it might be able to contribute towards the cost of the building by leasing it from the committee for training activities and so forth, thus supplementing the income drawn from the building.

Clearly, the proposal is ill founded and I very much hope that the paying authorities, Derbyshire county council and Derby city council, will not endorse it when they decide their position. The project will also be expensive—this is not a PFI that will save us a lot of money.

The proposal also raises some general concerns. First, I urge the Lord Chancellor's Department to review the rules under which magistrates courts committees operate. In this case, the committee has invented its own rules and then broken them. I am unhappy about that process in Derbyshire and would be surprised if it were unique in the country. I want the rules under which the committees operate when they consider the reorganisation of court premises to be reconsidered.

Secondly, I want a review of the way in which my magistrates courts committee, having drawn up a PH document that made specific pledges on public access to the new court premises, has chosen in its proposal to break that promise. The Lord Chancellor's Department should also consider that matter and ask for an explanation from the chief executive of the courts committee as to its behaviour in this matter.

10.42 am
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I wish to draw attention to a number of concerns that have been expressed to me by constituents in Somerset, which I know to be matters of concern to a great many people. There is growing discontent—one might almost say resentment—at the emerging discrepancies between the rhetoric of the Government on so many issues and the reality of what is happening in rural counties such as Somerset. As is often the case, the issues are not at the forefront of the political debate in this country, but nevertheless they are important to me and to my constituents.

I would not ascribe particular motives to Somerset electors a year ago, but I well understand their feeling that things had to change markedly. They had certainly lost confidence in the Conservative Government's ability to provide the sort of services and quality of life that they wanted and to which they aspired. The feeling of optimism at a change of Government has quickly been overtaken by a feeling that we have simply had 19 rather than 18 years of Conservative government. That is a shame. I am not ungenerous to the Government, who have done a number of admirable things in their year of office. There are areas in which I would whole-heartedly support them, but I feel I must draw attention to the patchiness of the outcome of their performance.

The first and most pressing reason for my addressing the House this morning is the vexed question of household numbers. That has been a contentious issue, and there have been strong expressions of concern from both sides of the House about the rationale and methodology used to calculate those numbers through structure plans and the degree to which that is putting unwarranted pressure on green-field sites and rural counties such as Somerset. Our debates have largely been constructive and I applauded the change of policy indicated by the Deputy Prime Minister in his statement a couple of months ago.

That statement was widely welcomed in my area. We recognise that we have a major difficulty, with which the county and district councils, as well as local people, have been wrestling for the best part of a year or more. The methodology indicates a level of housing requirement that simply cannot be met in a rural county without vastly expanding villages, extending the fringes of small market towns, eating into the countryside and creating an environment different from that which we have enjoyed historically—in other words, suburbanisation. We do not want that, and for good reason: it is not nimbyism or simply a reluctance to embrace change. We certainly want the houses that are needed for the local community, but we do not see the need to destroy the rural environment simply to accommodate aspirational developments to provide more and more high-cost housing so that people can move into the area, with no benefit to the local economy. That is a proper concern.

We thought that we had made progress. I entered a caveat when the Deputy Prime Minister made his statement, asking how it would change what was happening since a draft structure plan was being discussed and, having considered the matter carefully, the county council had rejected the idea that 50,000 homes was a sustainable level of development in Somerset and cogently argued the changes to the methodology that we believed were required. The council had brought the number down to 44,300, which was still too high to be accommodated within a rural county, but nevertheless was nearer to what people felt was appropriate. That proposal had still to be considered at an examination in public, however, and no change in Government policy had yet happened, despite the declaration of intent by the Deputy Prime Minister. I suggested that one way out of the dilemma would be to freeze the structure plan to enable the Government to put in place the policies that they wanted before they became locked into a forward structure plan that would extend to 2011 and lock in place unacceptable changes in the structure of the county.

Sadly, my plea fell on deaf ears. The examination in public has proceeded and, to our astonishment—I think the astonishment is shared by members of all parties in Somerset and independent observers of the scene—the inspector has not only rejected the view strongly expressed by all representatives of the local community that the 44,300 figure in the structure plan was too high and would have to be changed to accommodate the Government's new policy, but has replaced that figure with a new one of 51,600, which is higher than the number first thought of, and an increase of 16 per cent. How can that be reconciled with the Government's change of policy? What is the point of having debates in this Chamber and of Ministers making statements if the reality on the ground is that unsustainable increase? Whatever their political backgrounds, Members of Parliament who represent Somerset constituencies—and, indeed, members of the local authorities—want to press that point strongly. The argument is not yet over, but I ask the Leader of the House to consider how we can change the course of the policy juggernaut that seems to be out of the Government's control.

The simmering discontent that I mentioned is also felt about education. I believe that the Government have changed the rhetoric on education and have genuinely sought to provide additional resources, although it is a matter of political debate whether those resources have been sufficient or allocated quickly enough. However, the reality in some parts of the country is that there has been no change—teachers are still being laid off and class sizes are still being increased. The patchiness of provision means that, in some areas, it seems as though the Conservative Government have not gone away.

There are technical arguments about why rural counties lose out under the current formulation. We call the iniquitous area cost adjustment the tax on the west, although I suspect that the right hon. Lady regards it as a tax on the north—

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

And on the midlands.

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman rightly includes the midlands. I see no reason why, simply because of where they live, our children should be funded at a substantially lower level than children in the home counties. We face higher costs in rural areas—we have to accommodate the school transport bill, and we have smaller schools, whose unit costs are high, because there is no easy access to centres of population. We accept all that, but we want a fair deal from the Government—we want the Government to recognise the fact that the local authorities are having to spend vastly in excess of the standard spending assessment because of the additional costs. We do not want our local authorities to be capped, and we do not want to be told that we are receiving more money when we are not and when schools are still losing ground.

Agriculture is facing the greatest recession that I can remember. In the south-west, the incomes of dairy farmers have fallen by 35 per cent., and those of sheep and beef enterprises have fallen by 65 per cent.—that is a colossal drop. Again, I do not lay all that at the Government's door, but the Government should respond positively. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food does his cause no good by failing to turn up, for the second year running, to the Royal Bath and West show, where he would have been able to talk directly to west country farmers about their plight.

Mr. Todd

The hon. Gentleman says that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should respond more positively. Will he give an insight into what that actually means?

Mr. Heath

I should happily do so at length. We are debating the common agricultural policy tomorrow, when some of the issues can be discussed, but I am particularly concerned about agrimonetary revaluation—I first mentioned the subject in the House last July, I think. There is a serious problem with the green pound. I accept that the Government have moved some way on upland farmers, but they seem to reject the idea that there is any difficulty in the lowlands. The small farmers on the Somerset levels are not rich—they have smallholdings and are struggling to make ends meet with relatively few cattle—yet they are not included in the schemes because they happen not to live high enough above sea level. There is no logic in that. The Government seem to think that the lowlands can look after themselves, but I am saying that they cannot—people in those areas face real difficulties.

I make a small plea—I would have it made on Monday evening, but, unfortunately, I was representing the House elsewhere—about the Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry. I know that, in the lead-up to the strategic defence review, all hon. Members will want to mention the territorial regiments in their constituencies—it is a commonplace—but I make no apologies for doing so. The Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry was formed by the amalgamation of two proud regiments, the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and the Somerset Light Infantry, which goes back to the stormy days of 1685, with which hon. Members who know their history will be familiar. It is the only Army presence in the county, and I believe that it does an extraordinarily good job.

It would be a great shame if the Army were not represented at all in Somerset. I do not believe that that will happen, but the Government should recognise the role of the Territorial Army and its associations with the counties. The process of reduction and amalgamation has gone far enough; if it continues, we shall lose something that has been of great value to the country for many years and has served us well. I do not dispute that the role of the TA may need to change, but that role should be strengthened in the local community. The reserve forces make an important contribution to the regular forces in times both of war and of civil emergency.

I believe that some of the changes after a year of the Labour Government have been wholly beneficial, but there is still much more to be done. The funding of services in rural areas is inadequate not only to meet people's aspirations but to meet their needs. I ask the right hon. Lady and her colleagues to ensure that distribution across the country is as fair as the Government's rhetoric would have us believe.

10.57 am
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I have listened with interest to this morning's speeches on the built environment, but I want to return to the theme of youth, echoing the sentiments of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who is no longer in the Chamber, about how we should invest more in the youth of today, as they will be the active citizens of tomorrow. I want to focus on those tens of thousands of children who are looked after by local authorities under care orders. In particular, I shall refer to an event in Stafford over Easter that gives some grounds for optimism about the future care of those children.

Some children are in local authority care for short periods and then return to their families. Others, regrettably, are looked after for many years. When they reach the age of 18 and adulthood, they must leave local authority care. As statistics show, many children are 16 or 17 when local authorities make arrangements for them to move on and to look after themselves. As policy makers, we need to pay more attention to that group. I sometimes fear that society does not feel the urgency of the need to save those people, who are peculiarly vulnerable to homelessness and joblessness, and to becoming victims of crime, drugs and prostitution.

At Easter, I convened and hosted a conference at Stafford college on that very subject. I warmly thank my guest presenters, people of national reputation, who attended to share the benefit of their experience for no remuneration other than their expenses, which was marvellous. They were Martin Ayres, a consultant to the Department of Health, James Cathcart of the National Childrens Bureau, Peter Hardman of First Key, and Janet Manders of the National Foster Care Association.

Every possible local agency was represented that day, from the statutory agencies such as social services, to all the health and education services and right through to the voluntary sector. Some of those present told marvellous stories of the excellent services that they already provide for children and adolescents, but one of the worrying features of the day was that some had not met others and did not know of the marvellous services that they provided. The picture was of fractured rather than complementary services.

One example given by a presenter showed how badly things can go wrong. A social worker told us of a boy who, in the 1990s, was coming to the end of his time in local authority care and was placed with a landlady. They got on well, for once he had a secure home, and he developed well. His 18th birthday came and went with no official recognition, except for the significant fact that the money stopped arriving. Neither of them understood at first why that was.

By chance, the landlady met the social worker at the market several weeks later. The landlady mentioned that the money had not arrived and the social worker explained that it had stopped because the boy was 18. The landlady rushed home to tell the boy—now a young man—that he should apply to social security for benefit. There was a delay, and she got so fed up waiting for the money that she evicted him. The next time she and the social worker met at the market, neither of them knew where he had got to. That is how things can go wrong.

The situation has improved in Staffordshire, but there are still problems. Under the Children Acts, local authorities can give help to people leaving care beyond the age of 18, but that is discretionary rather than mandatory, so they can wash their hands of young people at 18, either because they do not consider them important or because their funds are so stretched that they consider it better to spend the money elsewhere. More needs to be done nationally.

It is a good start if everyone collects information and makes plans on a common basis, and the Department of Health is trying to ensure that authorities collect the same information and plan in the same way. I am told that nine out of 10 English social services departments now follow the same planning processes and keep the same records. Part of those records consists of the individual care plan for each child under local authority care.

The best care plans should be co-produced with the young people themselves; involve other family members, if possible; try to take account of wider community ties; involve other agencies, such as housing and training providers; be positive about education and health outcomes, which are often overlooked; and, most important, plan for continuity of care, including the leaving of the looked-after system.

The conference at Stafford was very positive and told of collaboration between social services and housing associations to provide suitable housing and training opportunities for care leavers. Employment and careers representatives explained that they were willing to come out of their offices and visit the young people, rather than sitting back and waiting for them to come to the offices.

A good idea arose from the day, and I am taking it up with the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities: if the new deal could be extended to 16 and 17-year-old care leavers—a small number of people, and a marginal additional cost to the new deal—it would be a terrific boost for their support networks.

The conference was not a one-day wonder: the participants agreed to meet again to plan the co-ordination of their services and make them complementary, not fractured. New partnerships were formed before our eyes to maximise the support that can be given to young people. I am pursuing the idea of creating a Staffordshire forum where young people can meet and give their input to the planning of their future care.

Such young people are tremendously disadvantaged. They can help themselves, but they need our help to overcome some unusually large obstacles. Will hon. Members share my zeal and help those people urgently?

11.5 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The issue about which I want to speak is of national importance, but I am concerned with its parochial, or county, significance. In Cornwall, we have three core industries: agriculture, tourism and the extractive industries. I want to deal with them in reverse order.

Everyone in Cornwall is very sad at the loss of the last working tin mine in Europe. It has gone because of the artificial level of the pound. It has had insufficient investment in the past, but the crucial issue for the industry is the exchange rate.

The holiday industry is equally badly affected by the current exchange rate. I understand that the pound is now quite a bit lower than DM3, but recently it has been as high as DM3.1. Set against DM2.2 just a few years ago, that shows the extent to which the situation is causing difficulties. It is not only manufacturing industry that gets clobbered by the artificial valuation of the pound.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The hon. Gentleman's argument is extremely important. How does he judge the level of the pound to be artificial? In a free market, do not foreign countries and those who purchase our currency place a value on it that is a function of the competitiveness of British industry and the strength of the British economy?

Mr. Tyler

In that sense, the valuation put on any currency is always artificial; but stability is critical. If the sentiment is such that a currency continually goes up and down and causes huge problems to industry, the Government must deal with that artificiality. If the hon. Gentleman were to advance his argument over a longer period and in relation to some of our major industries, many in his party would disagree fundamentally.

Agriculture is perhaps the most obvious victim of the situation. Farm incomes suffered an appalling collapse in 1997. Most of the reasons for that collapse arose from the policies of the previous Government, but the cumulative effect is such that the present Government must take a long, hard look at what is happening. In 1997, there was a 47 per cent. drop in real incomes on our farms, according to the National Farmers Union. All authorities, inside and outside government, expect 1998 output prices to be well below 1997 prices.

Everyone acknowledges that the core issue is not BSE or the peripheral problems that may be addressed by tomorrow's debate: it is the strength of sterling. Despite a slight weakening in recent weeks, the pound has risen by 33 per cent. against the mark and by 30 per cent. against the franc since the beginning of 1996. The drop in farm incomes is having a huge cumulative effect on investment, not only in farming, but in supply. The prosperity of large swathes of rural Britain is threatened; that is symbolised by a 43 per cent. drop in new tractor purchases, following a 1997 figure already lower than that of 1996. No industry can afford that sort of haemorrhage over a long period. Most commodity prices have shown significant year-on-year falls. Milk prices have fallen from 22.5p a litre to 18.2p a litre, a problem that will not be speedily addressed.

The level of the pound is damaging in several areas. Agriculture is unusual, however, in that the Government have methods to hand to address some of the impact. The green rate, which affects direct payments to farmers as well as impacting on market prices, can be devastating, as is recognised in the mechanisms available to the Governments of European Union member states, and which several states have used to address the problem.

A difficult situation has arisen because an already uneven playing field is being made even more uneven. Countries that suffer valuation problems similar to ours have taken measures to mitigate the resulting difficulties, but the United Kingdom Government have done comparatively little. Over the next few weeks, more difficulties will arise. The increase in the pound's value during the first half of the year was large enough to trigger a 2.7 per cent. green rate revaluation on 3 May. Unless the pound falls significantly before 1 July, area payments to arable farmers will fall sharply from last year's level, which was not in any case encouraging. For example, payments per hectare for cereal will drop by £15.50 in England.

There have been several recent revaluations of the green pound under EU legislation, so our Government are permitted to pay temporary and degressive compensation to farmers. All other member states that were in the same position have done so, at least up to the extent of their EU contribution. The UK Government have so far applied for only £85 million as part of the December livestock aid package. However, they could have applied over the past 18 months for virtually £1 billion.

Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies appreciate that it is not easy for the Government to obtain such large sums, which have implications for the Exchequer. However, the continuing refusal to add to the aid paid to beef and sheep farmers in December 1997 is causing hardship to tens of thousands of farmers and their families all over the country, and to many ancillary industries. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to farmers in that category in Somerset, and it is also true of Cornwall.

Even if aid were paid in full, it would go only some way towards addressing the substantial fall in farm incomes. Again, I stress that, by allowing the problem to continue, not only the Government, but their predecessors, have built up a huge backlog that will be difficult to deal with. Even if the full sums were made available, they would not completely offset the loss that the industry has suffered, although they might provide a softer landing.

Some of the sum can no longer be paid, because EU approval must be sought within a year of revaluation. If the previous Government had taken the initiatives open to them, we might be in a better position, but the present Government could obtain about £424 million—half from the EU, and half from their own resources.

The Government's decision not to join economic and monetary union from its inception on 1 January 1999 will mean a continuing need for agrimonetary arrangements. More importantly, the freeze on the green rates of the UK and other countries, as applied to direct payments, will cease from that date. Unless steps are taken to offset change, British farmers' receipts will reduce by a further £165 million in 1999, and by £235 million in 2000. In view of likely developments in market receipts and costs, that will be a further severe blow to rural Britain.

The beef sector faces specific problems after two desperately difficult years since the fateful announcement by the previous Government on bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. There has been a welcome and sustained recovery in the home market, but beef farmers are suffering a double squeeze because of increased imports. Perhaps not all hon. Members appreciate that the strong pound is a major problem—not only does it affect how farmers obtain their income; it subsidises beef imports. Our inability to export makes that a double whammy. The strength of sterling has made the UK an attractive market for beef from other EU countries, just when our producers are handicapped by the additional costs of our having the safest beef in the world because we have the greatest safeguards.

I return briefly to the holiday industry, which is of equal importance to Cornwall. Over the next few weeks, would-be holidaymakers from Berwick, Brecon or Bermondsey will compare the prices of holidays offered in brochures for Cornwall and the Costa del Sol. They will find a huge disadvantage in staying in the UK because of the way in which sterling has moved. Worse still, the Germans, the Dutch or the French who consider coming to Cornwall this summer will reach the same conclusion, and they will also find it difficult to ignore the discrepancy between value added tax rates. We shall receive fewer visitors from the continent this summer than we should because of the strength of sterling, and the VAT position will make that worse. Meanwhile, UK holidaymakers will be more attracted than ever to the continent.

Cornwall has three great industries, and each of them is disabled by the artificial value of sterling. I hope that the Government will address that matter. The wringing of hands that we have had from those on the Treasury Front Bench has not given much encouragement. Along with all hon. Members who represent great manufacturing industries, I ask the Leader of the House and her colleagues to consider the impact of the strength of sterling on the extractive industry, the holiday industry and, above all, agriculture.

11.18 am
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a subject of enormous national importance and of special relevance to my constituency. I refer to the review of the fiscal regime that is applied to our offshore oil and gas industry, which is being carried out by the Government. I am not a taxation expert and I do not intend to take the House this morning through a mass of complex financial data, which the Treasury is no doubt evaluating.

My purpose is, first, to draw attention to the wider repercussions for the United Kingdom of applying significantly higher taxes to our oil and gas industry. It is essential that the Treasury does not simply take a narrow fiscal view. My second purpose is to explain that the industry no longer offers the easy pickings for the Treasury that many long thought there would be.

The review has been delayed. The Government announced early on that they would review the industry. Many people felt that some proposals would be announced in the last Budget, but the review is taking a long time. I hope that that signals a recognition that this is a complex issue and that the industry is not a simple cash cow. However, the delay is creating some drawn-out uncertainty for the industry that is not good, especially as the latest round of applications for licences to explore parts of the sea around our shores is taking place. Companies are having to bid almost blind. To that, we have to add the current moratorium on gas-fired power stations. I understand why that has come about. We have to consider the coalfield communities and the future of coal, but I remind the House that there are what might be termed oil and gas communities, too.

First, let me talk about the importance of the oil and gas industry to our country. It may be true that only 31,000 people are directly employed by oil companies, but 350,000 people are employed in the industry if one includes all the contractors and suppliers and many small and medium enterprises, right down to the tiny family firms that are involved in the business.

Shell alone is investing about £2.5 billion a year in the industry. We hear from time to time of £200 million, £300 million and £400 million investments by Japanese corporations and we rightly get excited about them, but let us put that beside the enormous annual investment by the oil companies. Three quarters of the investment is spent in the United Kingdom, benefiting the country. The oil and gas industry represents about 20 per cent. of national industrial investment. We are dealing with something big. So it is clear that the review requires extreme care. We must be careful not to damage the industry.

It is probably fair to say that the review is being driven by three commonly held views. The first is that big companies can afford to pay more tax. The second is that they were let off lightly by the previous Government, especially in the Thatcher years, and that an opportunity was missed for the nation to reap the fruits of our national resource. The third and most important is that the current fiscal regime is the most benign tax regime applied to the oil and gas industry in the world. I shall deal with those three in reverse.

It is true that the tax regime is the most benign in the world, but North sea oil and gas is also the most expensive to explore and produce in the world. We have deep water, deep drilling and hostile weather and sea conditions. It is also important to say that new higher taxes will not be retrospective but will apply only to new extraction. If ever there was a treasure boat, the previous Government missed it. I do not want to get into that argument; the important point is that the industry is now different from the one of the heady days of the past. The oil and gas industry around our shores is now at a mature stage. There are no great numbers of big fields to come on stream. What is happening is the mopping up of relatively small puddles of oil and gas.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like to move a few feet along the Bench. Apparently, the microphone into which he is speaking is not working and people cannot hear him.

Mr. Blizzard

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have never known anyone to suffer that before.

Oil and gas extraction in the North sea is continuing because we have developed new technologies that give access to those reserves of oil and gas that it was previously thought impossible to obtain economically. That is being done on the back of the existing infrastructure. The areas now being explored to the west of Shetland are extremely difficult to access. The conditions are very adverse.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the industry, it is worth remembering that, 10 years ago, it was thought that, by now, the industry would be packing up and leaving. The fact that it is not is due to the benign tax regime that we have been discussing. If the industry were pulling out now, we would be leaving behind valuable natural resources. We would be wasting a finite resource. We would be leaving behind most of those 350,000 jobs. So taking out from the earth what was previously thought uneconomic to extract is good eco-management. That would not have happened if we had had a much harsher tax regime.

As things stand, we have a bright future. We can look to 30 more years of the industry and of high value to our national economy. That is good news for constituencies such as mine, but it can be achieved only as long as we do not jeopardise it by introducing a new fiscal regime that could have the effect of shortening that period and bringing forward the time when the oil companies pack their bags and move on.

The present level of tax has encouraged the extension of the life of the industry. The Exxon Corporation, through Esso, in its worldwide operation has invested a disproportionately high amount of its capital in the United Kingdom, matching that of Shell, with which it is a partner in exploration. That has been good for the United Kingdom.

As for the view that the large companies are easy targets and big international organisations, increased taxes would not hit those companies. They could simply change their investment pattern. There are plenty of other places in the world where they could go and find oil and gas. The people who would be hit are British contractors, and that means British jobs and companies large and small such as those in my constituency.

The British contractors in the oil and gas business have been a huge success story. What was once thought unextractable is now in production. That is as a result of the development of new technology such as floating production and storage vessels, innovative drilling, remote control drilling and advances in health and safety and environmental issues. Our contractors have become leaders in the world. They have had to be in response to the difficult conditions to be found in the North sea. Their expertise, skill and technology are now being exported all over the world. British companies are winning contracts all over the world. There are jobs for British people all over the world. There is a great opportunity to continue that for up to 30 years to come as long as we do not have a fiscal regime that discourages it.

I said that the subject was of special relevance to my constituency. The mainstay of the local economy of Lowestoft, my main town, is the oil and gas industry. We have lost our traditional industries. We all know what has happened to fishing. Where once we had dozens and dozens of trawlers and hundreds of small boats, we are now down to no more than 10 trawlers and a few dozen small boats. Lowestoft once had two shipyards. Brooke Marine was a famous one. The last famous vessel built there was Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic craft. We had two canning factories—one called the Co-Op, with its brand name of "Waveney", the river which gives the name to my constituency. We had Eastern Coachworks, which used to build Leyland coaches. That has closed. We had Bally shoes. That has closed. Our only gain has been the oil and gas industry, which has been a saviour locally.

We have the headquarters of Shell's southern fields operation, which provides high-quality white-collar and high-tech work and is one of only two high-volume sources of such employment in my constituency. We have Odebrecht SLP, a fabrication company: people who come to Lowestoft ask what the blocks of flats being built in the harbour are and the answer is that they are accommodation modules for oil platforms. The benefit of that industry is that it has taken up some of the skills that were previously used in the shipyards. We have a company called KYE, which is a real local success story, having grown from being a family business into a company employing hundreds of people. It provides all sorts of services to the oil and gas industry and now exports its products and people all over the world. All those businesses are highly competitive, but we also have a college of further education that is submitting a bid to become an information technology centre of excellence, to provide high-tech training in the oil and gas industry. That is an exciting prospect and a successful bid would be good news for our town.

However, all those opportunities have not replaced all the jobs that were lost and we still have an unemployment rate of about 9 per cent. We look to the new Government to regenerate our area, especially through the regional development agency. We shall, in due course, apply for assisted area status and European funds. Since my election, I have pressed for improved roads to help increase the competitiveness of local industries. All that is a difficult task but we must not put at risk what we already have. Across the country, there are towns that, like Lowestoft, have little else but the oil and gas industry and, without that industry, the Government would face problems such as increased benefits payments to add to the already high bill. I hope that the Treasury will take the big picture into account when it makes its tax calculations.

It is not only my constituency that has this interest. A map has been drawn up showing all the constituencies colour coded according to employment levels in oil and gas. The black constituencies are those with more than 5,000 employees and the red are those with more than 1,000 jobs in the industry. The map has a lot of red, some black and a lot of orange, for areas with more than 500 jobs; there is not as much red as on the political map of the country, but the map shows that the industry spreads across hundreds of constituencies and throughout the country.

Nationally, the Government are committed to stimulating and supporting businesses and encouraging growth and investment. They have cut corporation tax and are reforming capital gains tax and the Department of Trade and Industry is setting up the export forum. All that effort to support business must not be undermined by damaging one of our major industries. If the Government get the tax review right, we shall have an industry with a 30-year future and there are few industries that can make that claim in the global economy of today. The Government must get it right. We have an opportunity to lead the world in the development and export of new technology, but that process needs the right fiscal climate in which to thrive.

11.32 am
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

My request of the Leader of the House is that she considers urgently referendums and the way in which they have become part of our political process. I am increasingly worried by the frequency with which the Government resort to referendums and by the lack of thought that has gone into the way in which referendums are used as part of our political process.

We have all become used to the process: the Government have an idea about change of some sort, usually constitutional change; public opinion is softened up, although details may or may not be provided as to the nature of the changes to be made; the question is put and an announcement is made of overwhelming support for whatever was proposed. That announcement is made regardless of the turnout achieved or the size of the majority achieved among those who did bother to vote—a widely varying pattern has emerged in that respect. My question, which urgently requires an answer, is whether that is a legitimate or valid political process. The answer depends on several key factors, none of which has yet been satisfactorily addressed. My contention is that the Government, who have resorted so frequently to the mechanism of the referendum, have not given serious thought to the way in which that political device is used or to its potential effects.

We all know how crucial is the question. The outcome of a referendum depends to a large extent on the question put, and the most recent example is that of the London referendum. There was much debate about whether there should be two questions—"Should we have a mayor?" and "Should we have an executive body or assembly?"—but the Government cleverly decided to put those two separate questions together in a single question. Many of us argued that that was the wrong approach, which invalidated the process because the proposal involved two quite separate new political entities for London, but the Government insisted that only one question be asked. They got a yes answer on an extremely low turnout, despite the fact that little detail was given of what sort of powers were to be exercised or the relationship between mayor, assembly and boroughs.

That problem became even more obvious in the Scottish and Welsh referendums. The only question put to the people of Scotland was, "Do you want a new Parliament?" but no reference was made, except in the broadest terms, to the relationship that might exist between that Parliament and any other constitutional body. Crucially, the people of Scotland were not asked, "Are you content with a one-chamber Parliament? If you are to have a separate legislature for Scotland, would you not prefer to have the constitutional and legislative security of a two-chamber mechanism, whereby there would be a safety mechanism available?" In the Welsh referendum, the people of Wales were not asked, "Do you want a strong Parliament of the sort proposed for Scotland, or are you content to have a much weaker body, which looks like a gesture assembly?" My point is that the question asked is always crucial and that, more often than not, the really important questions are not asked at all. They are assumed or subsumed into a single question, so that the people are not given the opportunity properly to consider the issues put before them or what other options might be available.

The next consideration is the vexed one of thresholds. Do we believe that any referendum on constitutional change in our country will legitimise that change by a simple majority of yes votes, regardless of the number of people who choose to turn out and vote? Is abstention to be seen as a positive political statement or as an expression of indifference? The classic example is the London referendum, in which only one in three Londoners bothered to vote. I should have thought that that turnout was in itself a statement of the indifference of two out of three Londoners to the question being put, yet the result was hailed by the Government as an overwhelming triumph and an endorsement for their proposals to change the whole basis of London government for some time to come.

Even more important is a question that might surprise some hon. Members: who should be asked? That might appear to be self-evident, but I resent the fact that the people of England were never asked for their views on matters relating to Scotland or Wales. Questions crucial to the future of the United Kingdom were asked, yet the vast majority of the population and the electorate of the United Kingdom has not, to date, been asked for its view on the issue of giving greater powers to a Scottish Parliament or to a Welsh assembly. The English people will be affected and are to be the paymasters for the whole process, but they have not been asked whether they want the process to continue, or whether they are prepared to continue to pay for it.

That argument even applies to the London referendum. London residents were asked, but the millions of people who travel to London, who work in London and who sustain London in many ways were not given an opportunity to express their views, even though their way of life might be seriously affected by the decisions taken by a London mayor and assembly. The answer to the question of who should be asked has not been properly thought through.

The timing of the question is always crucial. We should consider whether it should be entirely at the discretion of the Government of the day, as the timing of the referendum usually has a distinct bearing—or at least an influence—on its outcome.

One could draw many conclusions from all this. My preferred conclusion is that we should never use referendums; I doubt that they are a proper, valid or legitimate way in which to settle complex questions. For those who argue in favour of them, I shall review the deal that I make on such occasions and say, "I might be persuaded if you would grant me a referendum on the restoration of capital punishment—a subject that has long been close to my heart." If we are all agreed that referendums are to be a key mechanism of political decision making, why not hold one on that subject? Even that would raise the questions that I have mentioned. The choice of question would be crucial—a matter of life and death in some cases.

A question also arises about the irreversibility of referendums. Once a matter has been determined by that, in my opinion, dubious political mechanism, should there be a minimum period before the question may again be put? When will we be allowed to ask the people of Scotland—and, I hope, in future, England—whether they believe that it was a good idea to have a separate assembly, a completely new bunch of politicians, more levels of bureaucracy, more expense, salaries, offices and so on? When will they be asked again whether that was really what they wanted? Supposing, as a result of a referendum, capital punishment were restored—as I suspect would be the case were the question to be asked—when could we revisit the issue and ask again whether people wanted that?

The political mechanism of the referendum gives rise to so many questions—the way in which it is used, the timing, the content of the questions, even who is entitled to vote—that obviously no thought can have been given to those questions by the Government, as they have decided to resort to the mechanism so frequently to legitimise, or seek to legitimise, their policy proposals.

This is an issue of increasing urgency. The mechanism must be considered seriously, here in the House of Commons, in our Parliament—the only proper vehicle for such consideration. I hope that, very soon—preferably before the Adjournment, but I hold out little of that—the Leader of the House will provide an opportunity for the matter to be properly considered by the House of Commons, before we contemplate using the mechanism again.

11.41 am
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this extended Adjournment debate. Whatever modernisation of the House of Commons takes place, I hope that this institution will remain because it is valued, especially by new Members who have discovered the opportunity that it provides.

My short contribution, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), concerns child care, and especially the need to regulate people who work with children in individual private homes—nannies, an awful expression, but one that we are stuck with.

Last week, I had the pleasure of holding a parliamentary reception for representatives from the Playpen campaign. I thank hon. Members who supported that reception, and especially hon. Members who supported early-day motion 1262, which is sponsored by me and the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), in a display of cross-party unity on this issue.

The Playpen campaign was set up last year, in the wake of Louise Woodward's arrest in the United States, when it was recognised that there was an urgent need for Government intervention to protect children, parents and nannies from unscrupulous practices and unsuitable people in the child care profession. Playpen campaigns for the setting up of a non-profit-making, independent national nanny register to check credentials, exclude or deter unsuitable people and protect children from abuse and bad practice. It argues that there should be a requirement to register, which should be a condition of employment, and that the registration process should include checks on an applicant's identity, academic career and qualifications, work career, character and criminal record.

It is incredible that this loophole in the law remains, and was not plugged by the Children Act 1989. Playgroups, nurseries and child minders are registered by the relevant local authority, by the social services department and so on, but there is no requirement for regulatory controls or registration of people who work in the home of the child's parents. That anomaly must be addressed. There is not even a requirement for nannies, or potential employees who are on a nanny register, to hold a first aid certificate, never mind a professional certificate of qualification.

A recent television documentary highlighted some of the potential abuses in the profession. It showed allegedly reputable nanny agencies sending people into parents' homes without checks and with references that had not been taken up. A pornographer, heroin addict or thief could obtain employment through a nanny agency, and gain the trust of parents and the ability to look after their most precious charges, with absolutely no control, making possible tragedies such as those that occurred in the Louise Sullivan and Louise Woodward cases. That unacceptable situation needs to be resolved before further tragedies occur. We want no more Louise Woodwards or Louise Sullivans.

Playpen has representatives from several reputable organisations, including the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, based in Derby, and the Chiltern college for nursery nursing in Reading, in my constituency, and from respected child care trainers. I pay tribute to a founder member of Playpen, Cheryl Winton, a wonderful lady whose daughter, Jemma, was brain-damaged by abuse in her own home by an unqualified nanny. Cheryl is determined to ensure that other parents do not go through the private hell that she went through, and I suggest that we have a duty and a responsibility to plug that loophole.

How did we get where we are today? I do not believe that any hon. Member would argue that this situation is tenable and that the loophole does not need to be plugged. As usual, we have to look to the activities of the previous Government, especially the former Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs, one Neil Hamilton, who piloted through the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994.

I do not believe that the previous Conservative Government set out to deregulate nanny registers. Having studied the record, I am also aware that the Opposition failed to spot the consequences of the 1994 Act. Labour Members made representations in Parliament concerning models, actors, musicians, seafarers and agricultural labourers, but we all missed the consequences of de-licensing—deregulating—employment agencies. Now anyone could set up a nanny register and provide people to work in the privacy of people's homes, with their children.

I am thankful that the climate is changing. I welcome the publication of the Green Paper, "Meeting the Childcare Challenge", and I welcome the fact that the campaign has cross-party support. I also welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Social Security is prepared to meet a delegation from Playpen and that the Green Paper mentions the issue of regulation for all persons involved in child care.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to draw attention to this important issue. I look forward to a response from the Leader of the House and I hope that, as soon as possible, legislation will be introduced, building on the Green Paper.

11.47 am
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I urge the Leader of the House not to let the House adjourn for the Whitsun recess until her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made a statement in the House on why Her Majesty's Government did nothing to stop the European Union abolishing the sale of duty-free goods to travellers within the European Union from 1 June 1999. The right hon. Lady knows that we had a full debate on the subject on 6 May, and that there was unanimity in the House on the belief that the measure would be highly damaging to jobs in the United Kingdom—jobs in airlines, at airports, in ferry companies and at sea ports. Nevertheless, Her Majesty's Government proceeded to do nothing to prevent the abolition and the damage which would ensue.

The Government take great pride in their power and influence as holders of the presidency of the EU. At the Economic and Finance Council we saw exactly what that meant—that Her Majesty's Government would connive with EU initiatives and do nothing to protect Britain's interests. It is not as if the UK presidency did not have potential allies at yesterday's Council. There was strong pressure from Germany and Ireland to initiate a study on the effect of the abolition of duty-free shopping for travellers within the EU, and support also from France, Spain and Greece, yet the Economic Secretary sat on her hands and did nothing.

At least the Economic Secretary was following the Prime Minister's lead. In a written answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) yesterday, he put the Government's position clearly. The question was: To ask the Prime Minister, pursuant to his answer of 18 December 1997 … on duty-free shopping, what estimate he has made of the potential number of job losses that will arise from the ending of the trade in duty-free goods; whether, during the UK presidency, the Commission carried out the proposed survey; and if he will make a statement. The Prime Minister replied: The Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions has undertaken a study into the effect on the transport sector of the abolition of intra-EU duty and tax free sales in 1999. During the UK presidency, the Commission has not undertaken a survey of the potential number of job losses that may arise from the abolition of duty and tax free sales within the EU. The position of the United Kingdom remains that it would not oppose a study should there be a consensus amongst member states in favour of such a study."—[Official Report, 19 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 315.] It is noteworthy that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has carried out this study, but we have not been made privy to its contents—indeed, the House was not informed of its contents in the debate on 6 May, as it should have been. At the very least, the Chancellor should come to the House and say that a copy of the study will be put in the Library of the House. Furthermore, under their much-vaunted EU presidency, the Government have done nothing to advance a study by the Commission into the effect of the abolition of duty-free sales.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has the gall to shed crocodile tears. The Daily Telegraph today states: Gordon Brown, the Chancellor and president of the finance council, surprised many when he voiced regret that his colleagues had not given their backing to its study. In a belated"— one can say that— public conversion to the cause he said: 'I would have preferred a further study of the successor regime and the effect of abolition. I don't like the decision we have made today.' In other words, the Government cannot lead and cannot exert any influence in Europe. The employment of my constituents who work at Heathrow in the duty-free shops and in the airlines, of which there are many, and their counterparts throughout Britain will suffer as a consequence of the Government's inertia and inactivity as they connive at the EU's job loss creation schemes. Fascinatingly, the EU Commission hailed yesterday's decision as a great success—a great success in doing away with people's jobs and in damaging the profitability of British enterprises, and other enterprises within the EU.

We are told, if the article in The Daily Telegraph is right, that the Commission does not believe that the sale of duty-free goods is compatible with the single market. Duty-free sales exist for travellers within the Mercosur countries in South America, the North American Free Trade Agreement countries and the ASEAN countries in south-east Asia. The Commission wants to abolish them because it wishes to do away with fiscal differentiation—in other words, the power of nation states to set their own tax rates. It wants the EU to behave as if it is already a single fiscal entity—in other words, a single state.

The European Commission says that it will now report on aid programmes that might be available to help areas adversely affected by the abolition of duty free. It seems that, at the Commission's behest, our taxpayers, who may in some instances have lost their jobs because of the abolition of duty-free shopping, will now, through their purses—through their EU contributions—have to provide a subsidy, or a subvention, to areas where jobs have been lost because of the abolition.

That is a classic little vignette. It is a perfect example of how Britain is seeing more and more power going to the EU, how our Parliament is impotent, how even unanimity in the House is ignored by the Government, who kowtow to the EU, and how excellent early-day motions, such as that tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond)—early-day motion 1339 on the timing of the abolition of duty-free shopping, which he and I and nine other hon. Members have signed—are ignored. I hope that the Chancellor will come to the House and explain himself.

11.55 am
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise an issue of national, regional and local importance; it is certainly of great importance to my constituency. The issue to which I refer is the establishment of a new voluntary-aided high school in Leeds, a Jewish high school, for which many of my constituents have been pressing for a number of years.

The campaign started four years ago, when leading members of the Jewish community, a community which represents the third largest concentration of Jewish people in the United Kingdom, tried to establish, through the local education authority, a Jewish high school.

Previously, Leeds had a Jewish voluntary-aided primary school, Brodetsky primary school, and a Jewish voluntary-aided middle school, Morris Silman middle school. In 1992, the schools in Leeds were reorganised to do away with the middle school tier. At that time, the LEA applied on behalf of the Jewish community to the Secretary of State for Education and Science—then, I believe, Kenneth Clarke—to establish a Jewish voluntary-aided high school. Unfortunately, that application was turned down.

Since then, the community has set up a charitable trust and has struggled hard to establish that school. In my brief tenure of the office of chairman of the education committee, I tried to further that cause by commissioning a study from Leeds university into the viability of such a high school. That report was published after my election to the House and, unfortunately, my successor did not feel that it made a strong case. That view was different from the one taken by the high school's supporters.

Yesterday, I received the Jewish community's high school proposal, which is to be submitted to the Department for Education and Employment because the community wants it to look at its rational case for that school—and it has many strong supporters.

The mission statement in that proposal states: The school will: Teach Jewish pupils the beliefs and practices of the Jewish faith and an understanding of the responsibility for religious and cultural continuity; Afford the regular opportunity to non-Jewish pupils to worship in their accustomed manner as they choose, and to explore ethics and morality in a wider sense through regular RE lessons; Instil into all pupils of love of moral behaviour and a genuine respect, rather than a mere tolerance of other religions, races and cultures; Ensure that our able pupils strive for nothing less than academic excellence, and that our less academically able pupils are given every encouragement to realise their potential and to discover areas of study in which they can develop and grow. Those are aims to which we would all subscribe.

The school has many strong supporters. The late Councillor Patrick Crotty, Conservative councillor and former chairman of the education committee in Leeds, said that he was a firm supporter of the right of the Jewish community to educate its children in a Jewish environment. The office of the Chief Rabbi, of course, supports the establishment of the school and states: It is the Chief Rabbi's view that Leeds will prove to be a role model for the community with its educational facilities in general and the Jewish High School in particular. The Bishop of Ripon, the Right Rev. David Young, writes that in principle, he supports the establishment of a Jewish high school where a good case can be made for it, and continues: 1 would be happy to be involved in negotiations with the LEA if that would be of assistance.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds, the Right Rev. David Konstant, states that the dual system agreement was a milestone in the history of education provision in this country and established a unique and valuable relationship between public and voluntary bodies. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) says that he fully supports the proposal and understands the reasons why it is necessary. My worthy predecessor, Sir Keith Joseph—the late Lord Joseph—stated that he could not but applaud the thinking of the proposers and their colleagues. He continued: There is strong evidence that Jewish schools with the support of Jewish parents produce firstclass education. The fact that you propose that the school be open to non-Jews removes one of the only possible objections. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will respond to my plea to the Government to support the establishment of such a school, which will not only benefit the Jewish community, but further the provision of high-quality education and academic excellence in Leeds. The survey that Leeds university was commissioned to undertake when I was chairman of the education committee in Leeds found that the vast majority of Jewish parents in Leeds and many non-Jewish parents supported the establishment of the school. Of course there is a question about its effect on other schools in the area, but the survey found that many of the pupils who would come to the school were not in the system already. Some of them attended the independent school, Leeds grammar school; some attended schools outside the local authority area, perhaps King David school in Manchester or schools in Liverpool or Harrogate. The establishment of the school would meet the demands of the Jewish community in Leeds for a religious voluntary-aided school, and would contribute to the attainment of the higher standards for which we are all pressing.

I pay tribute to the proposers, including Victor Zermansky, retired solicitor and prominent member of the Jewish community in Leeds, who has pushed for the school for many years and who compiled the document to which I referred earlier, and Dr. Jonathan Bodansky, consultant physician at Leeds general infirmary and chairman of the charitable trust, who has pushed so hard, together with his colleague, Rabbi Ian Goodhardt. Those three men have worked extremely hard for the establishment of the school.

With the existence of Catholic voluntary-aided high schools and Church of England voluntary-aided high schools, it must be right to allow the establishment of a Jewish voluntary-aided high school in Leeds. That would be only equitable and proper. I hope that my right hon. Friend will pass the message on to the Department for Education and Employment so that such a school can be established before much longer.

12.3 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I cannot speak for the Leader of the House, but I can tell the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) that he has made a powerful and eloquent plea. He cited among his distinguished supporters the late Lord Joseph, when he was Sir Keith Joseph. I add my voice to those. The hon. Gentleman's plea seems to me to be worthy of support. Let us hope that the right hon. Lady will be able to give him some encouragement when she replies.

The debate has been, as such debates always are, an extremely interesting series of pleas from hon. Members in various parts of the House. In responding, it is difficult to be both courteous and thorough. I shall try to be as thorough as possible, but I shall not deal at length with the speeches of hon. Members who are not in their places. When hon. Members raise subjects in such a debate, expecting a response from the Opposition Front Bench and, much more importantly, from the Leader of the House, it is important that they should be present to listen to what is said.

As was said by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), who is not present, the Adjournment debate is a useful forum. He expressed the hope that modernisation would not sweep it away, and I echo that hope. I am sorry to have to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who seemed to think that there could be a vote. That used to be the case because we could vote on whether the House should adjourn, but we have already approved the Adjournment of the House, and now we are merely having a general debating exercise.

We heard from two Derbyshire Members. From the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) we had a plea for a thorough investigation into the circumstances leading to the leak of sulphuric acid from a tanker, but as he is not present, I shall not deal further with that. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) made an interesting speech about the closure of the magistrates court at Swadlincote. I echo his plea for the operation of magistrates courts committees to be reviewed. As one who comes from a constituency that is likely to suffer in a similar way, I believe that that plea should be heeded by Government. I hope that the right hon. Lady will respond to it.

I refer to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), not to deal with his points about the police force as he is not in his place to hear what I have to say, but to endorse what he said about Madam Speaker. She is commemorating today her 25th anniversary as a Member of Parliament. I am sure that I carry the support of every Member of the House in wishing her many happy returns of the day.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) appealed for co-ordination. We heard the appeal for the co-ordination of police forces in fighting crime from the hon. Member for Chorley, but the hon. Member for Stafford spoke with commendable brevity and lucidity—the hon. Gentleman is my neighbour and had the great good fortune to inherit part of my constituency at the last election—about the need for the co-ordination of care for a particularly important and vulnerable section of the youth community. I pay tribute to him for his initiative in convening the conference to which he referred. He spoke of the desirability of setting up a Staffordshire forum to assist that group, which seemed a sensible plea that would have my support and, I hope, the support of other hon. Members throughout the county.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has become a regular participant in these debates. He spoke about the scouts, and he always comes prepared—prepared to talk about not one or two subjects, but generally at least three and, today, four subjects. We all hope that the scouts' tea party will be well attended. Opposition Members may listen with sympathy to his criticism of the operation of the Labour-Liberal Democrat pact on Southend council, but that will not carry the support of Labour Members. He also made an important point about the style of this Government.

My hon. Friend has raised in the House before, and need make no apology for raising again, the subject of the signing of ministerial letters. I know that the right hon. Lady, who is a person of impeccable courtesy, will agree when I stress the importance of Ministers signing their own letters. Unless a letter is sent as a matter of real urgency—when we all excuse the pp-ed signature—it should bear the signature of the Minister concerned. Some 90 per cent. of such letters are sent on to constituents who are worried about the topic that they have raised. They like to feel that, at the very least, the letter has passed before the Minister's eyes. It is a travesty of the system if letters come couched in fairly evasive language bearing the pp-ed signature. I hope that we shall see far less of that in the future. There are some Ministers from whom it is as rare to find a signed letter as it is to find an unsigned copy of a novel by Lord Archer.

We all appreciate that Prime Ministers bear heavy responsibilities. The Prime Minister bears many at the moment, and we wish him well in his journey to Northern Ireland today. We hope that the result for which he is campaigning will be achieved and that it will be a decisive majority. The Prime Minister goes to Northern Ireland with our total good will. However, as I have said before, he appears far too rarely in the Chamber.

When I first came to the House in 1970, it was common to see the Prime Minister pop into the Chamber to sit and listen to what was said in debate. That practice continued for many years. It was certainly very common to see all the Prime Minister's predecessors, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in the Division Lobby two or three times a week. The Prime Minister has voted in fewer than 5 per cent. of the Divisions that have occurred since 1 May last year, and that is frankly not good enough. It is not acceptable, and I hope that the Prime Minister will heed the advice of those of us who wish to see him more often. After all, he is the Prime Minister of this country and he should attend Parliament as often as his other duties permit. I believe that he is not here as often as he should be—especially in the Division Lobby.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to the discrepancy between the Government's rhetoric and their performance. I agree that there has been a significant discrepancy in that area. I would not be as charitable to the Government as the hon. Gentleman was—but he would not expect me to be. I entirely endorse his plea for a fair deal for the countryside. He talked about the pressures on green-field sites and the way in which structure plans seem to pay no regard to sensitive rural surroundings. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will use all the powers of his elevated office to ensure that we preserve our green belt. A few months ago, he made the immortal remark that the green belt was a Labour achievement and that it was the Government's intention to build on it. I hope it is the achievement that they intend to build on and that the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will be heeded.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a skilful speech—he generally does—about the problems for agriculture caused by the strong pound. It was, in fact, a veiled plea for signing up to economic and monetary union tomorrow—but he would not expect me to go along with that. However, I certainly endorse his comments about the need for the Government to make more provision for farmers. He pointed out with real force and eloquence that existing funds could be made available, and that more could have been done to help the hard-pressed beef farmers in particular. I hope that, in this season of agricultural shows, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I am sorry to hear that he has not visited the west of England show—will devote some concentrated thought to that matter and follow it with proper action to assist the farmers of this country who have had a very difficult couple of years.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) demonstrated that there is nothing like a constituency interest to concentrate the mind. He talked about the problems faced by the oil and gas industry and made a plea, which any Conservative Member would have been proud to make, for a continuation of sensitive tax treatment. There is more joy in the Chamber over one taxer who decides that he wants to repent than over a thousand who remain wedded to their previous principles. Let us hope that the Chancellor will heed his remarks.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) made an inimitable—as one would expect—and entirely impromptu speech. My right hon. Friend was stung by his "naming and shaming"—as he put it—by English Heritage. He knows all about that because although he said rather disingenuously that in his diaries, he had never shamed anyone, by Jove, some of those about whom he wrote must have felt a little less than chuffed when they read what he had to say about them.

My right hon. Friend made two extremely important points today which deserve the support of all hon. Members. It is quite unacceptable for unnamed officials to leak pseudo information—or even real information for that matter—of the sort to which he referred. My right hon. Friend told a quite appalling story of how he was quoted as denying something that was never an option as far as he was concerned. He also made a powerful plea for mitigating the burden of value added tax. I have campaigned for that for many years. VAT is particularly iniquitous for those who are charged with the maintenance of our historic churches, for instance. It is not fair that they should bear such a large VAT burden. The Archbishop of Canterbury made a speech last year in which he pointed out that more is paid in VAT on repairs to listed churches than is received in grants. That cannot be right.

Although I have taken the point a little further than did my right hon. Friend, his firm endorsement of the need to preserve our heritage should command our support and respect. I particularly enjoyed his comments about the plastic dome. Would that the building being erected to commemorate the millennium were able to stand the test of the millennium and be around for the next one. Many buildings in this country have stood for a thousand years or more, while I suppose that that trumpery piece of tawdry plastic will hardly last a decade.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) talked about the device of the referendum. In Wales and in London, only 25 per cent. of people endorsed a particular scheme, which does not signify massive popular support. I agree with the call by the hon. Member for Reading, West—who is now in his place—for the registration of nannies. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood asked to be informed about the details of the duty free studies, and I warmly associate myself with his remarks. However, if I associate myself with much more, I shall deprive the right hon. Lady of her ration of time. Therefore, I shall leave it at that.

12.18 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

I shall begin on a note with which I hope the whole House will agree. It is 25 years since Madam Speaker came to the House. Some of us were privileged to present her with a birthday cake this morning on behalf of the House, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) in his capacity as Chairman of the Catering Committee. I am sure that all hon. Members echo the congratulations that we offered to Madam Speaker.

We heard 13 Back-Bench speeches this morning and I have 12 minutes in which to respond to them. I shall be as thorough as I can, but if I miss some points, I shall write to hon. Members. I begin by echoing what has been said about the usefulness of a debate of this kind. To have three hours when Members can raise any subjects that they want is something that the House would wish to guard. 1 cannot speak for the members of the Modernisation Committee on all aspects of procedure, but I think that we want to preserve opportunities for Members to raise issues in this way.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who is a regular attender of these debates, raised a serious incident in his constituency, at Killamarsh. Obviously, my hon. Friend has not been able to return to the Chamber. He made important points and he asked me to pass his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and I shall willingly do so. However, action has already been taken to follow up the incident to which my hon. Friend referred. The relevant authorities—the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive—are looking into the causes of the incident and trying to learn lessons from them.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is a regular attender on these occasions, as he was in the previous Parliament when he represented Basildon. The hon. Gentleman raised, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said, four different issues. I shall not deal with them all in great detail, but there is one point, ministerial correspondence, that I wish to take up because the hon. Member for South Staffordshire did so from the Opposition Dispatch Box.

Members will know—I know that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire is well aware of this—that I have been taking up cases on behalf of individual Members. The hon. Gentleman may not have seen the parliamentary answer that I gave on Monday in which I stated that further to my comments in the House on several occasions, and in particular on 12 March, I had written to all my ministerial colleagues about the matter, asking them to take action where necessary. Sir Richard Wilson has written to all permanent secretaries asking them to make sure that replies are of high quality and timely.

It is not always possible for Ministers to sign every letter, as is wished by some Members. I hope that Departments that have had a vastly increased volume of correspondence will be able to take action to ensure that Members receive replies as quickly as possible.

I will not go into all the other points raised by the hon. Member for Southend, West, except to say that his boasting about rail privatisation contrasts with the usual questions that I receive at the Dispatch Box and the recent report on the failings of the rail service since privatisation. I know that those failings are of concern to many hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) talked about the possible reorganisation of the police force. My hon. Friend knows that the Government are committed to maintaining an efficient and effective police service. Of course, we are always willing to consider suggestions for improvement. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consider any representations that are made to him. I can tell my hon. Friend that at present, there are no plans for a merger along the lines that he is suggesting. I know that my hon. Friend may wish to pursue the matter in other ways.

I think that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) was inimitable. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was entertaining, as ever. He raised two separate points, one being that grades 1 and 2 listed buildings have been deemed to be at risk and, therefore, have been named so that attention can be brought to that fact. There is nothing wrong with making it clear that there are problems in that area. The Government hope that the register that has been published will alert people to the importance of historic buildings.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not approve of naming and shaming, but I thought that he took the view that all publicity was good publicity. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that there is a real problem with these buildings and that more needs to be done to help them. The right hon. Gentleman said that he did not want any financial assistance. However, he then detailed two ways in which he wanted my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give financial assistance for these projects.

Mr. Alan Clark

Not direct grants.

Mrs. Taylor

Not direct grants, but it would be direct financial assistance.

I reject what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Government not being willing to respect our heritage. We have welcomed the list to which I referred because of our respect for our heritage. We need to look to the future and to respect what is good in the past. That applies to changing the House of Commons or respecting buildings.

I take up the important question raised by the right hon. Gentleman about a leak. If there has been a leak along the lines that he outlined and an official has given information to the press in that way—

Mr. Clark

False information.

Mrs. Taylor

If false information or, indeed, any information has been given to the press in that way, the matter will have to be examined. I shall ensure that the relevant Minister is informed of that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) raised the issue of magistrates courts in Derbyshire and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned his interest in the matter. There has been a great deal of discussion and I think that the Derbyshire magistrates courts committee has sought to keep local people informed. At present, there are no plans to change the structure for consultation. However, if people have ideas, they can be passed to Ministers as well.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that the Labour Government had made no difference, but he then gave us support for some of the changes we have made, which he said were wholly beneficial. We welcome the usual Liberal Democrat approach to these issues. We have made significant progress in terms of our commitment to developing on brown-field rather than green-field sites. We are spending more than the Liberal Democrats asked for on education. I shall say more about agriculture when I respond to the comments of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

The hon. Member for North Cornwall said that the strong pound seemed to be the cause of most of the problems in north Cornwall. It is not the case that the Government have not provided help for agriculture; last year, we provided £1.8 billion of support. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that we could have had another £1,000 million from the European Union. He failed to remind us, although he made incidental mention of the fact, that that would have cost the British taxpayer a great deal. The British taxpayer pays 71 per cent. of money that is made available in that way.

I found the comments of the hon. Member for North Cornwall on the pound especially interesting. If he looks back to what his party leader said when the previous Government left the exchange rate mechanism, he will find that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said: Freedom to devalue is the freedom to suffer inflation, to have lower growth, to decline while others prosper and to boom and bust, just as we have done for the past 40 years."—[Official Report, 24 September 1992; Vol. 212, c. 33.] It is precisely because we want stability and not a return to that sort of economics that we are making sensible decisions. For the Liberal Democrats now to be the party of devaluation contradicts what the right hon. Member for Yeovil was saying earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made an interesting speech about children in care and their long-term needs. I think that there would be a great deal of support and admiration for his suggestion about bringing people together at local level to ensure proper co-ordination. These issues, especially the transition to independence, are important. I wish my hon. Friend well with this project. Other Members may wish to follow his example.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) mentioned a constituency interest with wider implications—the fiscal regime affecting the offshore oil and gas industries. My hon. Friend said that he was not a tax expert, but at times, he sounded like one and I commend him on that. He asked the Treasury to take a wider view, but he acknowledged that it was not a simple issue. I shall ensure that his remarks are passed to my ministerial colleagues. There will be proper consultation before any detailed plans are finalised.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to whom I always listen with great pleasure, raised the question of referendums. It is a little ironic that he is criticising referendums on the day when the leader of his party is, rightly, in Northern Ireland campaigning for a yes vote. He asked whether referendums were a legitimate or valid process. I am afraid that he will simply have to live with the fact that the House has approved legislation that he does not like, and he will have to live with the consequences.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) discussed the Playpen campaign. The Government are undertaking consultation on future regulation in that area, so it would be wrong if I said anything that might pre-empt that.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) mentioned duty-free goods. I remind him that it was the Conservative Government who, in 1991, signed up to the abolition of duty-free procedures. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire also mentioned that matter—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)


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