HC Deb 13 December 1999 vol 341 cc83-120

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

7.26 pm
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I wish to raise the issue of Cyprus. I chair the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Cyprus group in this Parliament, a group made up of Members from all of the main parties in this House.

Next year will be the 26th year in which the Republic of Cyprus has been a divided island, occupied by troops of a foreign power—namely, Turkey. Cyprus is a Commonwealth country, and the United Kingdom is one of the guarantor powers for Cyprus. This in itself shows to many people the inability of many countries, including the UK, to resolve this long-running tragedy.

Cyprus is a small and beautiful country. For more than 25 years, nearly one third of the territory of the island of Cyprus has been occupied. It is the only country in Europe that is divided. The capital city, Nicosia, is divided by a wall, barbed wire and troop emplacements. All who walk along the dividing line have the same thought—why, after 25 years, is this island still divided? How do we allow a Commonwealth country to suffer as, sadly, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots suffer from this divide?

Since 1974, there have been countless meetings in Cyprus, London and the United States, and many meetings of the United Nations Security Council. Resolutions have been passed that clearly outline the views of the United Nations on what should be the basis for a settlement to this long-running tragedy.

Many promises have been made. One has only to think of the promise made many years ago for the return of Famagusta—a town that is still deserted some 25 years after the invasion. Once, it was one of the most beautiful towns in Cyprus. Yet the promise made by Mr. Denktas, the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, to return that town has never been honoured, any more than the resolutions passed by the United Nations have been honoured.

Report after report has stated clearly that, under successive presidents of the Republic of Cyprus since the invasion, there has always been a willingness to enter into meaningful talks. Regrettably, however, that has always been refused by Mr. Denktas and so, sadly, we have got nowhere.

Mr. Denktas, fully supported by Turkey and the Turkish army, plays by his own rules of non-co-operation. Thousands of Turkish settlers—no one knows the correct number—have come from mainland Turkey to live in the occupied area of northern Cyprus. At the same time, thousands of Turkish Cypriots have left the country.

In a debate such as this, it is interesting to highlight the views of the countries of the world. After some 25 years, the only country that recognises the so-called independent state of northern Cyprus is Turkey. No other country in the world does so.

I referred to the many meetings held over the past 25 years to try and find a settlement. At the G7 meeting at Cologne earlier this year, the heads of Government issued a statement calling for the President of the Republic of Cyprus, President Clerides, and Mr. Denktas to meet to discuss the grounds for a settlement. I and many other hon. Members warmly welcome that commitment by the G7 countries.

The group that I chair has always made it clear that we want a settlement in which the rights and security of Turkish Cypriots will be just as important as those of Greek Cypriots. Guarantees to that effect should be written into any such settlement.

The talks called for by the G7 nations have started. Discussion is, sadly, slow, but the deadlock is of long standing, so we must accept that the talks will take a long time and be difficult. However, the House, the United Nations and other countries involved in the Cyprus problem must be clear that the settlement that we hope to achieve must be based on the resolutions passed by the UN. Those resolutions require that Cyprus must remain a single sovereignty, that there must be total withdrawal of all Turkish troops, and that all refugees who so wish must have the right to return to their homes. The resolutions also call for the final resolution of the fate of the missing people, and state that there can be no recognition for a separate Turkish state in any part of the island of Cyprus.

I have referred to the repeated willingness of the President of the Republic of Cyprus to enter into meaningful talks on any aspect of a settlement. Cyprus is now a candidate for membership of the European Union, and it has every right to be considered. Its economy is far stronger than that of many of the other applicant countries now under consideration.

President Clerides has called repeatedly on Mr. Denktas to join in the discussions about the EU membership application. Regrettably, Mr. Denktas has refused on every occasion. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, will fully support Cyprus's application for membership of the European Union. I hope, too, that they will make it clear to Mr. Denktas and the Turkish Government that they have no veto over Cyprus's application.

The events of the past few days have altered considerably the issues surrounding a settlement in Cyprus. At the weekend, the Helsinki conference of European Union heads of Government decided to invite Turkey to attend meetings to discuss its possible EU membership. The House knows how much Turkey wants that to happen, and I have no doubt that, in time, Turkey will have a role in the EU. However, I hope that the Government will be at the forefront of those telling Turkey what is expected of it.

European Union membership sets very clear rules. Countries must respect human rights and have no political prisoners. Above all, however, their troops should not divide and occupy another European country.

I understand that the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr. Ecevit, attended the European Union meeting in Helsinki. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not forget that it was the same Mr. Ecevit who said not so long ago that there was no Cyprus problem, and that

"the invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus solved the issue."

I hope that the leaders of the European Union will leave Mr. Ecevit in no doubt that membership of the European Union will bring responsibilities and clear obligations to resolve disputes and conflicts. No dispute requires resolution more than that over Cyprus.

We in the United Kingdom can never say, "It's sad, we hope the problem will be resolved, but it isn't our responsibility." It certainly is our responsibility. As I said, Cyprus is a Commonwealth country, and the United Kingdom is one of its guarantor powers. I hope that, in the coming weeks, we will be in the forefront of those countries supporting the Republic of Cyprus and working towards a settlement there. Such a settlement will bring benefits to the country and its people, be they Turkish Cypriots or Greek Cypriots.

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

Order. May I explain to the House that a number of Back Benchers wish to speak and that brief contributions would therefore be appreciated.

7.38 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

I shall certainly adhere to your request for brevity, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I wish to raise the subject of policing levels in Hampshire. My contribution arises from my experience as a local Member of Parliament, and from recent headlines in the Chandler's Ford and Romsey newspapers. Examples of those headlines include "Safety Fears as Police Shortages Affect Local Residents", "Bobbies Cut as Shops Face Vandal Problem", and "Precinct Folk Frightened". Another story, headed "Police Cuts Row", had a sub-headline describing how angry traders feared more vandalism if police officers were transferred elsewhere in the district.

Many hon. Members will be familiar with such headlines in their local press. In my constituency, they have been prompted by the anger felt by shop traders in Chandler's Ford's troubled central shopping precinct in Bournemouth road. They are angry that police officers are to be transferred from that area to make good personnel shortages elsewhere. As reported in the Southern Daily Echo, they complain that the precinct is "a magnet for vandals" and say that matters will only get worse if fewer police are on patrol. I think that all hon. Members would agree with that. The article continued: In the past few months, gangs of youths and young girls have vandalised seating, upturned concrete plant pots. scrawled graffiti on buildings and verbally abused anyone who has challenged them. Several shops have regularly had windows smashed, takeaway food has been smeared over windows and rubbish and excrement pushed through letterboxes. In some cases, attempts have been made to set fire to items pushed through doors. Such stories show how bad the situation is.

On 29 November, the Home Secretary launched his crime-reduction strategy and stated that the Government had embarked on a crusade against crime. Laudable though the aims of the strategy may be, I am having difficulty in relating them to what is happening on the ground. Page 2 of the strategy's summary refers to: a new ring-fenced crime fighting fund part of which will be used to enable forces to recruit, train and pay 5,000 new officers, over and above the number that forces would otherwise have recruited, over the next three years and commencing in April 2000. I suggest that it is a little optimistic to promise to increase our police forces by 5,000 new officers when there are 3,000 gaps in the thin blue line every day due to unfilled vacancies and sickness. Still, the Home Secretary has challenged police authorities to agree plans for more bobbies on the beat, and, if they meet their targets, they will receive more money from the Home Office.

About half our police force funding comes from council tax payers, with the other half coming from the Home Office. In recent years, Hampshire is fortunate to have received additional grants of £2.7 million to enable it to increase its police establishment by 222 full-time equivalent police officers, bringing its total establishment up to 3,491. But the force is currently 66 constables short. That may not seem a lot, but, coupled with the pressures that officers are under, it has a significant impact on the area.

Superintendent Tribe, the divisional commander in the Eastleigh police station, which serves my constituency, says: Our problem lies in that we are supposed to be all things to all people. We are expected to provide anything from a traditional policing with a 'bobby on the beat' that people know and recognise to a round-the-clock emergency service response. The public, rightly, has increasingly high expectations of our performance and we are constantly having to expand into new areas. He cites establishing a dedicated domestic violence officer, as well as sending officers into school to help prevent the children from getting into trouble, and in Hampshire we are participating in the new Youth Offenders Team pilot with probation officers and youth workers. For all that extra work, over and above normal requirements, the Hampshire police authority receives no additional resources.

If my constituents want more bobbies on the beat, the Hampshire police authority will have to meet the Home Secretary's challenge. Council tax payers will have to pay more, or cuts will be made elsewhere in Hampshire county council's budget. Even if the establishment is increased, we must find suitable recruits and retain more police officers.

I do not think that police officers are paid enough, and that applies to many other forces in the south-east. On appointment, a police officer receives £16,635 per annum, which rises to £18,612 after one year. That salary is not attractive enough to compete with commercial and other industrial employment in a prosperous part of the country—my constituency has virtually full employment. Moreover, in such an economically sound area, there is more to steal. Although recorded crime figures are decreasing—following the trend started in the previous Government's term of office-an awful lot of crime, such as the vandalism and thuggishness that I mentioned, is not reported.

I have three or four points to raise, and should be grateful for the Government's view. First, what about having a differential in rates of pay for police constables across the country? I am told that there is no problem in recruiting police officers on Merseyside and in similar areas of high unemployment. Recruitment is particularly difficult in the south-east and I think that the tripartite police negotiating board on pay and conditions of service should consider that possibility.

Secondly, we must think again about housing allowance. When I first started taking an interest in the police, officers were provided with dedicated housing, which they retained throughout their service. The housing has all gone—a victim, perhaps, of the right to buy.

Had that legislation excluded police houses, they might have been retained, but that chance has been lost. I am not suggesting a return to such provision, because buying the housing would be expensive. We could, however, reintroduce the housing allowance. It was phased out at the same time as dedicated houses, and reintroducing it would make the job much more attractive, particularly to police officers' families. It would improve retention as well as recruitment.

Thirdly, we should think again about reintroducing police cadets. I believe that the Metropolitan police force still has cadet units. There is no doubt that the Territorial Army units' sponsorship of local cadet forces has helped to recruit youngsters into the armed forces. The same can be said of the police forces, and local police authorities might like to reconsider whether there is merit in reintroducing police cadets to build up the ethos of both public service and service in the police forces.

Fourthly, we should look at the retirement rules. At present, police officers retire after 30 years of service, or when they are 55. There is a provision for that age limit to be extended to 60 if applicants wish it and if they have a good service record. Many jobs can be done by people over the age of 60. I am one such person and, looking round the Chamber, I can see plenty of others over the age of 60 who are still contributing to society by serving their constituents in Parliament. I do not see why police officers should be forced to retire at 60 when they could probably come off the beat and go into an office, with all the experience gained from their years of service, and continue to add to the establishment of the police force.

Finally, there should be more special constables back on the beat, as they have an enormous contribution to make. First, they are volunteers, so they are dedicated to the task of policing. Secondly, they are free—we do not pay them. They receive a free uniform and their expenses are covered. Most importantly, they have strong local community links. That is the real value of a bobby on the beat. In addition to the 3,500-odd police in our establishment in Hampshire, there are another 700 special constables, and I only wish that there were more.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

When visiting my local police station, I discovered that many special constables want to see what the police force is like, with a view to joining it later. Allowing special constables to have that role would be useful in recruiting police.

Mr. Colvin

That could well have been my fifth point. My hon. Friend makes a most valuable contribution. Job tasting is an important part of recruitment and could be tried in the armed forces as well as the police service. Some Members of Parliament who are taking part in the armed forces scheme may be tempted from this place to serve their country in other areas.

In conclusion, I do not want to give the impression that Hampshire is a lawless place. It is not. Recorded crime continues to go down, following the trend established in the previous Government's term of office, but we do not know how much unrecorded crime there is. We do know, however, that there is a problem right across the south-east of England in recruiting and retaining the very high-quality police officers to whom we have become accustomed. I hope that my suggestions will be listened to seriously by the Government, and I look forward to hearing their response in due course.

7.49 pm
Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

My reason for speaking is to try to prevent an impending deadlock over the sale and redevelopment of the former Wolverhampton Royal hospital in my constituency. As we speak, important decisions are being made about the site's future, and the situation is not hopeful.

The former hospital is a grade 2 listed building in the middle of Wolverhampton. It dominates the All Saints area, and is situated in one of the most deprived wards of the west midlands. The area has been subject to regeneration initiatives for some years. The decision to close the hospital was taken in the early 1990s and was controversial, partly because the hospital contained the town's accident and emergency services, but partly because it was held in great affection. I was against closure, but by the time of the general election in 1997, the plan was too far advanced to be reversed. It seemed a more positive use of energy to seek to ensure that redevelopment would benefit local people and the whole of Wolverhampton.

From the outset, Wolverhampton council and the local community made it clear that the site's redevelopment required what planning jargon refers to as mixed use. In other words, there could certainly be commercial development that would bring in money, but there must also be social housing and facilities for local people. The redevelopment of the hospital site was seen as the focus of the area's regeneration, and the plans were enshrined in a document titled "Royal Hospital Development Area—Wolverhampton Town Centre Urban Village". The plans were also included in the council's unitary development plan, and were subsequently approved by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, a point to which I shall return.

When the hospital was handed over to estates officials of the national health service executive for disposal, they were made aware of the plans and of what the town, the council and the local people wanted. The site was first marketed in 1998, but that attempt was not successful. A second attempt to market the site occurred earlier this year. In between the two, I facilitated a round-table meeting in All Saints involving residents, council officials, councillors, churches, schools, voluntary groups, housing associations and the NHS executive. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the expectations of the local community and the council, and to make officials aware of what people wanted from redevelopment. After the meeting, everyone was positive, feeling that a greater understanding of the community's needs had been achieved.

However, the result of the second attempt to market the hospital site has been disappointing. The NHS executive seems likely to agree to a food superstore. That option does not fulfil the needs of local people and, as it is counter to the council's unitary development plan, it probably will not receive planning permission. There is a supermarket 200 yd away, so the proposal does not seem to make sense, and the council has already earmarked a further site within half a mile of the hospital for a food superstore.

The reaction of the NHS executive officials is that Government guidelines bind them to achieving the best value for money deal. The hospital has been closed for two years. The building has been vandalised. The executive has changed its security firm three times, and the costs of patrolling the building are likely to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. If the executive goes ahead with the plan for a food superstore, the council will probably not give planning permission, and we shall be locked into appeals to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The local community will campaign against the development, and the hospital building could stand empty for at least another year.

I have written to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), to outline the problem. I asked whether his officials might be able to exercise discretion in the disposal of the site so that we could achieve mixed use. I wrote to my hon. Friend at the end of October and have not yet had a reply, although I am fairly confident that I shall receive one soon.

A food superstore is not what we need. My constituents and the rest of Wolverhampton deserve a lot better. The hospital was originally built and maintained by public subscription. The people of Wolverhampton built that hospital. It would not be acceptable if the NHS executive walked away from the site with maximum financial gain and without contributing to regeneration of the immediate area. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office to pass on my message to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, and, although I know that the latter is busy, I would like a reply to my letter.

A wider issue is at also stake. I cannot understand why a plan accepted by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions appears to be being thwarted by the criteria applied by the Department of Health—perhaps some joined-up government is needed.

7.56 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I am sorry to start on a carping note, but I regret the absence of the Leader of the House this evening. Those of us who served in previous Parliaments recall the tradition that the Leader of the House should attend this debate. That was a good tradition, and I hope that the practice is reinstated.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise two constituency matters that have a wider import. The first is the availability of beta interferon in Lincolnshire health authority's area. The second is funding of Lincolnshire police, on which I shall make some remarks not dissimilar to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin).

My interest in beta interferon arises from my concern about two constituents. I do not think it right to name them, so I shall call them N and E for the purposes of the debate. Both are young ladies in their late 20s, who have recently developed multiple sclerosis. Both have been seen by general practitioners and have been referred to the consultant neurologist responsible for decisions in this area, to whom I shall refer as Professor B. He is responsible for identifying those among those referred to him who would benefit from beta interferon.

In both cases, Professor B concluded that my constituents would benefit from beta interferon. Having regard to their ages, he concluded that the treatment would be particularly appropriate. In a letter to the health authority concerning N, he wrote: Here is another patient with very active multiple sclerosis who is having frequent attacks and a high risk of significant disability. She has had six attacks in the last 12 months. As we have no currently available funding in Lincolnshire Health for incidence cases I would be grateful if you would let me know when additional funding will be made available for patients like N. He continued: We now know that treatment as early as possible in the disease course is critical in order to avoid long-term disability and I would be grateful if you can support additional funding for such patients. In respect of patient E, her GP wrote: The only available treatment for relapsing and remitting multiple sclerosis is beta interferon, which is indicated for the reduction of frequency and the degree of severity of clinical relapses. It is only effective if given in the early stages of the disease process. It is imperative that she receives the best treatment available. Clearly, at present this is not the situation. As her GP, she has my complete authoritative support and I think that the health authority should be responsible for and fund her treatment. I regret to say that funding is not available. Lincolnshire health authority has ring-fenced a budget of £200,000, and it adopts the position that it cannot go beyond that sum. Mr. Jeavons of the health authority wrote to me about its policy. His letter stated: Within the fixed sum available only Consultant Neurologists can judge which patients will benefit the most from treatment, and thus should receive priority. We cannot increase our level of funding for beta interferon because we face many competing demands for resources, most notably the rapidly rising demand for emergency medical admissions. That is profoundly unsatisfactory.

Budgetary constraints operating in Lincolnshire—and, no doubt, elsewhere—actively prevent the prescribing of drugs to those for whom the clinical neurologist recommends them. A letter to me from the professor makes it plain that one cannot prioritise within the groups of people who satisfy the clinical criteria; all of them are equally eligible and would benefit to a like degree.

That is a clear example of rationing by budget—I have no doubt that it is true elsewhere.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to point out that there are similar problems elsewhere. This morning, I received a most disturbing letter from a constituent who complained of rationing not by budget but by postcode. I understand that my health authority has no budget at all for beta interferon.

Mr. Hogg

I am sorry to hear that. In another letter to me, the professor pointed out that, because of budgetary constraints, perhaps only one in six of the patients who would benefit from beta interferon is receiving it.

Ultimately, the Government are responsible and I am entitled to know where they stand on the following options. The first would be to do nothing but simply say, "Well, that's tough. Too bad, we are not going to do anything." If that is the Government's position, we should know. Secondly, they could tell the Lincolnshire health authority to allocate more money to the budget. The authority would then have to move money from another spending head. Is that the Government's position? Thirdly, the Government could say that they will allocate more money to the health authority. If that is their position, we should know about it. If that is not their position, we should know why.

For aught I know, there are various other possibilities, but it is the Government's business to tell us what the alternatives are. I realise that the Minister is not able to comment in detail; I do not blame him for that. The Leader of the House would also be unable to comment in detail. However, the Minister could tell his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health that the House is entitled to a considered reply to the points that I have made. I trust that he will persuade his right hon. Friend to write to me and, furthermore, that a letter will be placed in the Library.

In relation to the funding of the Lincolnshire police, we find that rural areas are being disadvantaged under the Labour Government. There are two general points. First, the number of police in the county is lower than when the Conservatives were in office. In April 1997, we had 1,214 constables in Lincolnshire. A year later, in April 1998, the number had risen by four. In April 1999, there were 1,165 constables—a decrease of 49 since 1997. I suspect that that is matched in many shire forces.

Secondly, Lincolnshire receives the second lowest grant per head of the population. In consequence, as in the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey, council tax payers in my constituency are paying about 34 per cent. more than the average rate. As all those Members who represent rural areas are well aware, the problem is sparsity. For obvious reasons, it costs much more to provide a police service in a sparsely populated region. I need not go into the reasons, as they will be well known to those who are interested in the matter.

I am not usually fair to the Government, but in this case I will be and will point out that, in April 1998, the Home Office commissioned ORH Ltd. to produce a report, which was received in May 1999. A letter sent by the Home Office to police authorities stated that the working party to whom the consultants had reported found that there was a serious sparsity factor. The consultants recommended a heavy shift in spending priorities to take account of the sparsity factor in the formula. In Lincolnshire, that would increase the cash by about £2 million, or about 3 per cent. That is a significant amount in a budget of about £60 million. That is important.

In September, I received a letter from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), in which he stated, in effect, that there was problem but that the Government were not in a position to address it. Indeed, they could not give me any guarantee for the next three years.

Plainly, in Lincolnshire, we have too few policemen—fewer than there were two years ago. It is acknowledged that sparsity is a serious factor, but the Government completely refuse to pay any attention to the report that they commissioned and which has been endorsed by the Home Office working party. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. I realise that the Minister will not be able to give me a considered reply—even the Leader of the House would not be able to do so. I do not complain about that. However the Minister can certainly draw my remarks to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and suggest that a considered and sympathetic response would be in order. A copy of that letter should go to the Library of the House.

Mr. Colvin

I draw the attention of the House and of my right hon. and learned Friend to the excellent Adjournment debate initiated by our right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) on 2 December on the policing of rural areas. Our right hon. Friend listed the 14 police authorities—including Lincolnshire—which face the problem described by my right hon. and learned Friend and which have jointly lobbied the Home Office. I recommend that my right hon. and learned Friend joins forces with those authorities and perhaps he will receive a better answer from the Minister of State, Home Office than our right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon received on 2 December.

Mr. Hogg

I should put it differently—they might join forces with me. Lincolnshire is one of the counties that suffer most acutely. It is perfectly true that 14 forces are affected by the sparsity factor. They are referred to in the ORH Ltd. report and by the Home Office working party.

In respect of the police and beta interferon, we must acknowledge that those who live in rural areas are being disadvantaged by the Government. Those of us who represent those people must ensure that the whole country knows and understands that.

8.8 pm

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

The debate gives us the opportunity to raise grievances that have not been dealt with. I demand redress for my constituent, Andrea Morgan. Some months ago, I raised her case in a debate on myalgic encephalomyelitis—ME—initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright). At that time, I believed that, after a long struggle, the case had been resolved.

However, tragically, the sorry tale of a bureaucracy pursuing a lengthy and virulent campaign of harassment against my constituent continues, because, although she suffers from ME, she has dared to stand up for her right to fair treatment from the local authority. Since the Lawrence inquiry, there has been much debate about institutional racism. Andrea Morgan's case is an example of institutional discrimination on grounds of disability. I hope that, by exposing the case again, I will halt in its tracks the campaign against her by the malevolent bureaucracy of the London borough of Hillingdon. I shall explain what can happen to people with disabilities if they dare to demand fairness and justice.

The background is that Andrea was an employee of the London borough of Hillingdon. Ironically, her post was to assist long-term unemployed people—especially those with disabilities—to return to work. After six years, she was redeployed within the council to assist members of the public with their problems—providing information, advice and assistance. She was generally considered to be good at her job—competent, committed and sensitive to the needs of the community.

In January 1997, Andrea was taken ill and eventually, in May 1997, she was admitted to hospital after collapsing, and was diagnosed as suffering from ME. The full details of the condition were outlined in a report by Dr. Sevitt, the Hillingdon hospital consultant. Andrea was treated by her general practitioner and was in regular contact with Dr. Thompson, health adviser to the London borough of Hillingdon.

Andrea Morgan is a worker, not a shirker. She is keen to get back to work as soon as possible, and was so at that time. So Andrea herself arranged appointments with the borough's health adviser, which produced in September 1997 from that adviser, Dr. Thompson, the following advice to the London borough of Hillingdon personnel department: If at all possible she would be able, from a medical point of view, to start work at home with a view to a slowly graded return to work, which can only be decided in terms of her symptoms. The doctor continued: I would be grateful if you could let me know if this would be possible. No response was received from Hillingdon, despite Andrea's phone calls and messages left in the personnel department, so, in November 1997, a further memo was sent by Dr. Thompson to the personnel department, saying: I would reiterate my last memo of 26 September that Miss Morgan is fit to start work at home when this is possible and that this should be followed by graded return to work in line with her symptoms. It is important that, even though she remains well, the gradation of her return does not increase, and that her symptoms are monitored carefully, as too much too early could cause a recurrence of her symptoms. There was no response from the borough, so Andrea yet again arranged for an interview. She took with her her GP's note, saying: Andrea is now ready to return to work but needs a period of part-time work to ease herself back into routine. I hope that this is possible". This is a woman struggling to get back into work, despite a severe illness, diagnosed by several doctors, including consultants at Hillingdon hospital and her own GP.

Andrea eventually did return to work, in November 1997, but what did the London borough of Hillingdon do? Was there any assistance for her? No. The borough refused to allow her access to its own recuperation programme. On the day that she returned to work, her own manager was late. There were no arrangements for prior induction. She was set up to fail. She could not cope in those circumstances, and left her employment on that day.

The occupational health adviser informed the council: This sort of stress is likely to be detrimental to her health and could quite possibly cause a relapse. Andrea again tried to return to work. She sought redeployment. She was willing to do everything within her abilities to get back to work, and she was referred to the borough's corporate monitoring panel to match her to any vacancies that arose. Departmental managers were also asked whether they could provide some work for her to do at home. Although in other instances the borough paid other employees a full salary and found them work to do at home, that was not the case for Andrea. It seems that it is all right if one is able-bodied, but not if one has a disability.

Having done nothing to help, the borough's personnel department suggested that Andrea be psychologically tested. In a debate earlier in the year, we heard that many ME sufferers have endured similar treatment. The argument is that they are not sick—that the problem is not physical but psychological. It is the modern-day equivalent of "it is all in the mind" or "it is psychosomatic". It has revealed the attitude of the personnel manager to ME sufferers that they all seem to be classified as "mental malingerers".

Time dragged on. The borough made no real effort to find an appropriate job for Andrea and, in January 1998, after months of trying to get back into work, she could cope no longer and resigned her employment with the borough. In February 1998, Andrea, through her union, Unison, lodged an industrial tribunal application with regard to the borough's treatment of her, on the grounds of discrimination on disability.

In October 1998, the industrial tribunal found unanimously in Andrea's favour. It said: The London Borough of Hillingdon unlawfully discriminated against her, a disabled person". The tribunal did not believe that, in an organisation of 8,000 employees, the borough could not find some work for her to assist in her return to work. It cited numerous examples of other employees who had been assisted in such a way.

What did the borough do? Immediately, in the local paper, it distorted the judgment, claiming that it would appeal because it could not create work for Andrea when there was no work for her to do—a complete distortion of the decision.

The decision should have been an end to the case, and Andrea was looking forward to putting the whole issue behind her and starting a new life, possibly in new employment—but no, bizarrely, the London borough of Hillingdon appealed. Personnel officers lodged their own industrial tribunal appeal application, using the borough's resources. Although that was subsequently denied by the chief executive, I have the paperwork on which they lodged the claims in their own personal names, on London borough of Hillingdon headed paper.

In May 1999, the appeal was dismissed. The personnel officers dropped their own case, and they were refused leave to appeal further by Lord Justice Morison.

In June 1999, the London borough of Hillingdon applied to the Court of Appeal for refusal of leave to be lifted. In November 1999—only a month ago—Mr. Justice Sedley refused leave to appeal and said: Even if there were not a second tier appeal requiring particular cogency, I would not consider it a proper case for permission to appeal. It has in my view no real prospect of success. I understand that, even now, the borough is considering further appeals and further pursuits of this case. In the past year, the borough has settled numerous employee cases at industrial tribunals, and settlements have ranged from £4,000 to £45,000, but in this case it is determined not to settle.

The costs incurred by the borough in pursuing its vendetta against my constituent—a disabled woman—are staggering. They must now amount to more than £100,000—the costs of counsel's opinion, counsel's representation in court, legal officers' advice, personnel officers' advice, occupational health advisers' advice and the administrative tasks involved in this escapade. The matter has been referred to the district auditor, but he seems incapable of investigating the matter.

I am demanding a full investigation by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I believe that, if there have been issues of unreasonable behaviour, the district auditor should surcharge officers and, if necessary, members in this case. What we have on our hands is a grubby, hurtful conspiracy to victimise my constituent, which should not go unrecorded and must be remedied. That is what these debates are for—to draw attention to that type of disgraceful behaviour by a public body.

8.17 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on matters to be considered before the Christmas Adjournment—or, perhaps more apocalyptically, matters to be considered before the end of the millennium. It may be the right moment to place on the record my appreciation of the efforts of the bodies in my constituency to celebrate the millennium.

I shall not be polite about the dome—I shall be entirely consistent on that matter. I have been rude before and I shall be rude again, and I suspect that, as a result, I am not on the Christmas card list of the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am talking about the individual community efforts that are taking place throughout the country—small-scale schemes in villages and small towns, which have much to commend them. I think of the church bell schemes—I saw some instituted in Isle Abbotts recently. I think of millennium greens. I think of the excellent work done on Jack and Jill hill—the hill that Jack and Jill went up to fetch their pail of water, in Kilmersdon in my constituency—which has now been reconstituted by the efforts of local people. All are excellent schemes.

I do not intend to spend my entire time in congratulating my constituents, tempting though that is. Instead, I shall address a serious matter, which I believe that the House should consider, and should consider time and again in the next few months. That is the very real threat that has been posed by the Government's actions to rural sub-post offices—and urban post offices because they will face the same dangers.

I do not believe that the Government have grasped the scale of the problem. They cannot have grasped the extent to which people are concerned about the threat to their local sub-post offices. They realise, if the Government do not, that half our rural sub-post offices could disappear in the next few years, as a result of Government actions. Regrettable is not a sufficient word to describe that. It would be worse than a decimation.

I am indebted to the actions of our major regional newspaper, the Western Daily Press, which has been running a vigorous campaign on the issue. If Ministers need proof of how upset people are about the issue, they need only look at the coverage in the Western Daily Press and consider the number of people who are queueing up to sign a petition in their tens—I think hundreds—of thousands. People are even demanding a petition in their sub-post office, if there is not already one there, so that they may add their name to the list.

I had a valuable meeting with the postmasters and postmistresses from the smaller post offices in my constituency. It took place at 2 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon when most of them were trying to run their businesses. My constituency is large—it can take an hour and a quarter to drive from the far end of it to Frome where the meeting was held—but, despite all that, the postmasters and postmistresses were there in number. The majority were represented and they were unanimous in their view. Every one of them saw the Government's plans as a threat to their businesses over the next few years.

I do not dispute that the Government's proposals for automation will unlock potential in sub-post offices. I want that to happen and I want such post offices to extend the range of services that they provide. However, the Government's plans for the payments of benefits and pensions and for the changeover to automated credit transfer will have a simultaneous and opposite effect. It represents a real threat to those businesses. I am told that up to 35 per cent. of the turnover of the post offices in my constituency comes from the payment of pensions and benefits and that, in urban areas, that figure can rise even higher. However, post offices will lose not just that business, which they undertake on an agency basis, but the added business that goes with it. When people come into a post office to collect their pensions, they do their shopping or pick up a newspaper; they do other business.

Postmasters and postmistresses also see a second threat—a threat to the value of their businesses. Those of them who are thinking of retiring and believe that they have served the community for long enough find it almost impossible to dispose of their businesses in the present climate and with the uncertainty that lies ahead. It is difficult to produce a realistic business plan. If someone wants to buy a post office, he cannot produce a realistic business plan that will satisfy the banks enough to lend him money. They do not know what sort of business will be there in future.

The continuation of such businesses, the loss of jobs and, most of all, the loss of community facilities are real issues. Villages have lost so many things in recent years. Many villages do not have a village shop, post office or pub. However, the Government's proposal is a further threat to village life and it will encourage villages to become dormitories and museums rather than the living communities that we want them to be.

Coupled with the difficulties to the businesses themselves are the difficulties that will be posed to the many people who collect their pensions or benefits from post offices. Pensioners are an important group in that respect, but they are not the only people in that position. Those with disabilities and young mothers who do not have transport of their own may find that the post office is an essential resource if they are to lead their normal lives. They will be placed in an almost impossible position if, at some stage in the future, they cannot use post offices to collect their pensions or benefits.

The answer often given is that such people should use bank accounts. However, there are several problems with forcing people to have bank accounts. First, there is the question whether the clearing banks would be prepared to accept their business. People on low incomes are very often not considered to be good credit risks by banks and credit is often determined by the postcode of where one happens to reside. I foresee real problems. We could end up with the Government having to pay the banks to take the business rather than paying post offices to continue the business that they carry out.

People on low incomes can ill afford the charges on bank accounts. Perhaps Ministers have forgotten the problems in living from hand to mouth and managing a very small budget over a month rather than over a week. It is intensely difficult for people to manage in those circumstances, as any citizens advice bureau and any Member who has held a surgery knows. However, the Government's proposal would take away a facility that enables people to budget more easily.

Transport is another problem. Many people cannot get to a bank. They are airily told that they can use an automated telling machine. However, in some areas of my constituency, the nearest automated telling machine is 30 miles away. How on earth are people supposed to use that? How on earth are they supposed to find the public transport, which does not exist, to get them to a bank, which does not exist, so that they can withdraw the money that is rightfully theirs?

There are also societal problems. Post offices provide a much wider resource than simply paying over money or selling a jar of coffee. They perform a social function that is critical in these days when people are often terribly isolated and find it difficult to meet others. The post office is the place where they meet, do business and can find a friend or a contact who they know will be on their side and who will assist them when they need help.

The Government's suggestion is based on making savings to the social security budget. No one in the House would deny the desirability of making savings on that budget if the money can be used elsewhere. However, those savings should not be made at the expense of people or of individual or community interests.

If the Minister agrees that the post office network is valuable—I believe that it is invaluable—will he tell us how the Government will sustain it to the point that it can benefit from automation? It is no good saying that there will be jam tomorrow if post offices go out of business today. How will the Government help those who rely on post offices for their pensions and benefits? We have heard much about the social exclusion unit, and this job, above all others, is one for that unit. It should provide a strategy to deal with a problem before it is created by a Government who, in this instance, have taken the wrong turning.

8.27 pm
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I associate myself fully with the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am sure that I would not be alone among Labour Members in expressing that view.

I wish to raise two issues that have been brought to my attention by my constituents. The first is the position of slaughterhouses within the rural economy. Over many years, the number of small slaughterhouses serving their own localities has sharply declined. That decline has been hastened by the expression—quite rightly—of new concerns about hygiene and animal welfare. It is proper that such issues should be at the forefront of our minds. However, large operations find it much easier than small family-run businesses to adapt their premises and mode of business to the relevant regulations and changes.

Of course, on top of that we have had the crisis that has emanated from the concern over BSE, the complete collapse of the rendering trade and the collapse of the economies in the far east and Russia, which has deprived producers of an outlet for the sale of hides. The burdens placed on the proprietor of the small slaughterhouse have become greater and greater and his margins have narrowed.

That has a great effect on the rural economy, particularly on farmers. If the local slaughterhouse closes, farmers must transport their beasts much further afield. That has a consequence for them because their costs rise, particularly when fuel prices are high, but it also causes concern about the welfare of the animals being transported. On the one hand, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, we are making improvements through modernisation and by being concerned about welfare, but, on the other, we are increasing welfare risks by lengthening the journey time for animals.

That issue is more vividly in my mind because of the actions of the Intervention Board, which recently reduced from 29 to 21 the number of approved slaughterhouses that can operate in contract with the board on the over-30-months scheme. It said in its press handout that the remaining slaughterhouses will be geographically appropriate and the change should not greatly increase the journey time. In East Anglia, there is no contracted, approved slaughterhouse. From 22 December, the slaughterhouse in Brentwood will cease to have a contract, and the venue nearest to East Anglia will be in Derbyshire or Kent. Whatever the ambitions of our Saxon forebears, I never thought that Derbyshire was part of the eastern counties or East Anglia.

That change has exactly the same consequences as the closure of small slaughterhouses: the journey time and distances over which the animals are being transported are enormously lengthened. Indeed, there will be trips of up to 150 miles, some of which will be on country roads, with aged, and in some cases, frail or unwell animals that are subject to the over-30-months scheme. Such journeys can hardly be beneficial to their welfare.

The consequence of the change is, allegedly, that the Intervention Board will save some £5 million. It may well do, but the world is a strange place and, as with all savings, when money is saved in one area, costs seem to crop up somewhere else. As the Intervention Board saves £5 million, the farmers who produce the beasts are laden with the cost of making that saving as they transport their animals further and further to slaughterhouses.

My final point about slaughterhouses relates to the system of double inspection, which I am sure all hon. Members who represent rural areas will have been told about by local producers. Slaughterhouses or, as they are now normally known, abattoirs, are inspected not only by somebody from the Meat Hygiene Service, but by an approved official veterinary surgeon.

Slaughterhouse inspection is not the most attractive occupation for veterinary surgeons, and there is concern that because this country has a shortage of vets who want to undertake what is, in essence, a monotonous and low-level occupation, vets are being brought in from abroad. Their English is often, initially at least, poor, but an agency charges the slaughterhouse a high fee for those vets, which is passed on to the producer.

Many people say to me that they believe that it is unnecessary to have two inspectors present at the same time. I submit that it would be helpful if the Government's red tape working group, which I know is greatly

welcomed, could attend to that matter. It could find out where savings could be made and consider how to switch the burden to high-risk areas, where increased supervision might be needed. Where there is a low risk, other approaches could be taken. Tomorrow, we shall hear the first results of the working group's deliberations, and I hope that it will take those matters into account thereafter.

The second matter that I wish to discuss is one that I raised the very first time that I spoke in an Adjournment debate, in the autumn of 1997—the Hatfield Peverel to Witham link road, which is in my constituency. Some hon. Members may have heard of the town of Witham; fewer, perhaps, will have heard of Hatfield Peverel. I suspect that its main claim to fame is that it is the home address of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), but, in our locality, we do not broadcast that fact more often than necessary.

The Hatfield Peverel to Witham link road is an essential feature of transportation safety in that part of Essex. The Al2, which runs between Witham and Hatfield Peverel, is notoriously congested and dangerous, and the accident statistics are way above what would be anticipated on that section of road.

I raised this matter in the House in one of my early speeches in the Chamber in autumn 1997. I then went to see the Minister responsible, and I thought that things happened easily and quickly thereafter because I soon had a letter saying that the road, which is only about a mile long, had been approved as one requiring a safety measure, and, that summer, it was incorporated into the roads programme as a minor scheme. In spring 1998, it was referred to the Highways Agency for progress to be made.

The scheme has been in the intended budget of Essex county council for many years, and I am sure that it was pushed in this House by my predecessor and, indeed, by other Members who are greatly concerned. The scheme was announced on safety grounds in January 1998, yet nothing further of any substance has occurred and it is now December 1999.

I have been to see representatives of the Highways Agency, who told me in the spring that substantial progress would be made by July. July has come and gone and we are now in December. Colleagues from the county and district councils have approached the Highways Agency and been told that progress will be made by spring 2000—a vaguer date than July—but still nothing further has occurred.

I raise the matter because I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will have the ear of those concerned. I hope that they will grab by the ear those in the Highways Agency who are responsible for the development of the road. What a dreadful thing it would be if there were further deaths on the road because of the apparent inertia since the safety scheme was announced.

8.36 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I beg to move that this House should not adjourn until it has considered a clear and present danger: nuclear terrorism.

New York City Under Threat From Iranian-Backed Terrorist Group would be an alarming headline, but not one without precedent. If we knew that those terrorists were armed with a primitive nuclear device stolen from a loosely guarded Russian stockpile, it would be the stuff of nightmares. Yet, unknown to most people, that was a genuine threat investigated by the CIA and the FBI only months after the bombing of the World Trade Centre.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has made nuclear terrorism more likely. We rightly fear that terrorists and rogue states might gain access to Russian nuclear weapons and use them, or threaten to use them, against us. Despite Chechnya, it is in our enlightened self-interest to provide generous international financial assistance to Russia in order to reduce that threat.

Incidents of nuclear terrorism have already occurred, though they have received little publicity. In November 1995, the Chechen guerrilla leader, Shamil Basayev, informed Russian television that his group had placed a container of radioactive caesium 137 in the Ismailovo park in Moscow. Although Russian officials subsequently dismissed the threat, the fact that teams were sent around the city with Geiger counters underlines the seriousness with which it was taken at the time.

Another incident occurred in spring 1997, when a blackmailer telephoned the president's office threatening to sabotage a nuclear power plant. According to Russian security services, the threat was not an empty one and there was great relief when the blackmailer was arrested.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear terrorism was virtually non-existent. What the Soviet Union called the Nuclear shield of the Motherland", was one of the state's top funding priorities and was protected from the "Imperialist West" by one of the most efficient police states in the world. Internal security was never seen as a potential threat. Therefore no investment was made in alarm systems, closed circuit television cameras and radiation detectors. It is only in today's Russia of severe budgetary difficulties and widespread corruption that the unthinkable has suddenly become possible.

At times, the lack of concern shown by Russian authorities over nuclear security issues in Russia would be risible if it were not so serious. The northern fleet had its electricity cut off by the local power company for not paying its bills. That action posed a severe risk of a meltdown in one of the fleet's nuclear-powered submarines. In November last year, 20 soldiers of the strategic missile force—the body responsible for guarding nuclear weapons—were discharged as mentally unfit.

With the collapse of the economy, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Russian Government to fund security measures for civil and military nuclear establishments. Military personnel have been withdrawn from most civilian research and weapons production centres. Those civilian centres must now provide their own security, despite dramatically reduced budgets.

Thousands of former employees who are currently unemployed retain their security passes. Military sites are guarded by soldiers whose pay is often erratic and who must often operate out-dated, if not dangerous, facilities. The results of an official Russian inquiry into conditions at nuclear storage facilities are horrifying.

The 12th main directorate of the Defence Ministry, responsible for security at military nuclear sites, reported that, at one facility, officers and men had not been paid for three months and had thus suffered malnutrition that was severe enough to cause fainting fits. The officers were forced to borrow money to pay for the protective slippers used when working close to nuclear warheads.

All over Russia there are inadequately guarded facilities. In some places, nuclear materials are stored in no more than glass jars protected only by padlocks. The lack of proper inventories aids potential nuclear proliferation, for, if no one is aware exactly how much uranium or plutonium is stored, it is easy to make unauthorised withdrawals.

Such a scenario prompted President Clinton to authorise what is known as Project Sapphire. That was the covert removal of 600 kg of highly enriched uranium from the Kazak storage facility near the Iranian border. The laxity of the Kazak accounting was underlined by the fact that when the shipment arrived in the United States, it was found to contain 4 per cent. more uranium than that for which the US had paid.

It is not just a matter of future dangers if nothing is done—there is already a small but growing trade in radioactive material. The largest seizure came in August 1994, when 580 g of MOX—mixed oxide, used as fuel in light water reactors—was discovered at Munich airport on a Russian airliner. Of that 580 g, 300 to 350 g was plutonium close to weapons grade. The following year, 8 g of plutonium–239 was discovered on the Swiss border. As the plutonium was more highly enriched than is usually found in nuclear weapons, it is believed to have been smuggled out of the Arzamas–16 research centre.

Nuclear proliferation has three major components: plant, fissile material and personnel. Russia is witnessing a haemorrhage of experienced personnel from the formerly closed nuclear weaponry design and production centres. During the Soviet era, personnel in those secret establishments were some of the best paid and most highly respected members of society. However, since 1991, they have been periodically unpaid for months on end, their salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation even when they have been paid, and they have lost their status.

The situation worsened in April 1998 when the Russian Parliament stopped closed cities, where most of those facilities are located, retaining all taxes collected within their borders, and returned them to dependence on uncertain central Government funding. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that some Russian scientists are tempted to offer their services elsewhere. The average wage for a scientist in one of the closed cities is about $70 a month. Iran is offering up to $5,000 a month to the same people.

The scale of the problem is huge. In 1992, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy estimated that up to 3,000 former Soviet scientists had a detailed knowledge of nuclear weapon construction. That does not take into account the thousands of other specialists whose knowledge, although not directly related to weapon construction, could still be of use to a state or group looking to produce a nuclear device.

What can be done? The United States has taken the lead. Since its inception in 1991, Congress has appropriated more than $2.2 billion to the Nunn—Lugar co-operative threat reduction programme. The programme has been a success and has made a vital contribution to United States and global security. Under its auspices, 3,300 strategic nuclear warheads were removed from Belarus, Kazakstan and Ukraine, which are now free of nuclear weapons, and 4,700 former Soviet warheads have been removed from strategic weapon systems that used to point west. Hundreds of launchers, missiles and nuclear test tunnels have been destroyed.

It is clear, however, that the scale of the problem is so great that the programme does not go far enough. Russia needs western financial help to assist it to ratify the START 2 treaty. One of the major reasons for Russian delay, apart from nationalist opposition, is the $7.5 billion estimated cost of implementing START 2 for Russia. I suggest that self-interest should prompt the international community to assist with funds for this purpose. If the treaty is not ratified, the United States alone will have to spend $4 billion maintaining weapons that eventually will have to be destroyed.

Secondly, the west must provide money to improve Russia's nuclear safety and security infrastructure. According to General Maskin, head of the Defence Ministry's 12th main directorate, "reliability of personnel" is still a key. Physical security must also be addressed. The co-operative threat reduction programme will provide the Russian military with an automated system to track its nuclear materials. This system should be offered to non-military research establishments and the nuclear power station network. Investment funds must be made available to improve the physical security at nuclear facilities.

Links must be forged between Russian nuclear scientists and their counterparts in the west so that the Russians feel that they are fully integrated into the international scientific community. Russian research facilities should be twinned with American and European centres so that their work can be directed towards civilian research. The United States agreement to buy at least 500 tonnes of highly enriched uranium is an important non-proliferation measure and provides research centres with funds for conversion. Can we not go further? Could we not pay Russia to destroy an increasing part of its nuclear stockpile?

The United States and the international community are facing a huge potential proliferation problem, but one that can be brought under control with sufficient funding. Without further funding, the Russian nuclear weapons complex faces almost certain collapse. That will usher in a free for all among rogue states and terrorist groups, which will then pick up the radioactive pieces.

8.48 pm
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

I return to the issue of Cyprus, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). I am a member of the various groups that are associated with Cyprus and I have been to Cyprus three times. I have declared this information.

As my hon. Friend said, the United Kingdom has a grave responsibility for the future of Cyprus as a guarantor power. As he also said, a recent decision was made in Helsinki to allow Turkey to become an aspirant member of the European Union. I understand that that was due to the enormous pressure that the United States put on the leadership of the EU. I am concerned about the issue and, in the next two or three minutes, I shall attempt to explain why that is.

I shall mention five issues that count against the Turkish state. The first is Cyprus, an issue which my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting presented so well; I shall not repeat his points. The second, which is known to us all, is the unacceptable discrimination of the Turkish state against the Kurdish people. Thirdly, there is the Loizidou case. Hon. Members may ask, "What is the Loizidou case compared with Cyprus and the Kurdish question?" It does not seem as important, yet it is crucial. A Greek Cypriot woman overwhelmingly won her case against the Turkish state in the European Court of Human Rights. She cannot go to her home, and is thus deprived of enjoying her home. She was offered a huge sum of money, but, a year and a half later, Turkey has not abided by the Court's decision. A nation cannot remain a member of the Council of Europe if it does not observe the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

The fourth issue is vital, and it was raised by a British Conservative delegate at the Council of Europe. Western European nations and other countries all over the world are overwhelmed by refugees and asylum seekers from Turkey. How can that be if Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe? It should uphold the human rights that are laid down by that organisation. The fifth issue is the death penalty, which will be meted out to Mr. Ocalan by the Turkish state. Again, that is against the Council of Europe's rules. If the Council of Europe has one achievement, it is speaking out against the death penalty. That is admirable.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting said earlier, Turkey has not adhered to many United Nations resolutions on Cyprus. We may be in a conflicting position, in which Turkey is thrown out of the Council of Europe while simultaneously being accepted as an aspirant member of the European Union. That would be most embarrassing. Those five issues should be raised repeatedly with Turkey before we progress further with relations between the Turkish state and the European Union. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to pass on those comments to the Foreign Office.

8.53 pm
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I want to speak briefly about the procedures that the Government will pursue for considering regional planning for the south—east. Before I do that, I want to make some personal remarks because I do not know how else they can be placed on the public record.

On Sunday 5 December, The Sunday Telegraph published an article which made some critical comments about me. The next day, I brought the matter to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards because it seemed right and proper to do that as soon as possible. The substance of the complaint in the article was that I had failed to register a loan in the Register of Members' Interests.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards considered the matter and concluded that, because the difference between the interest that I had paid and the market rate at the time was not greater than £215, registration of the loan was not required. She also concluded that there was nothing wrong with the donations that were made to my constituency association. However, she ruled that I should have registered my involvement with Asian Business Breakfast, although I had not gained financial benefit from that body. I took her advice immediately and registered my involvement.

I briefly draw the matter to the attention of the House because, given that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had made a ruling, I expected The Sunday Telegraph to make some comment about it in yesterday's edition, not least because it had published the original article under a headline that contained the word "sleaze". I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to see no mention at all of Miss Filkin's adjudication in yesterday's paper. When a colleague of mine approached another paper that had published the story, he was told that had I been found guilty of every offence by Miss Filkin that would have been news, but being exonerated for the main offence was not news. Such is the life we live, but I think that I should put those matters on the record before the House adjourns. Otherwise, I see no way of hon. Members knowing what has happened.

My real concern is the regional planning guidance process, and I say that as a former junior Minister for inner cities and for planning. Ministers cannot be unaware of the genuine concerns that exist throughout the south—east, but we have a problem because the Minister for Housing and Planning, for whom I have enormous respect, is sidelined: through no fault of his own, he is campaign manager for a Labour candidate for the London mayoral election. Early next year, the Government will publish new regional planning guidance for the south—east, for which there is a consultation period, and I suspect that a large number of people from villages and parishes throughout the south—east will want to take part.

I wrote to the Under—Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), asking whether she would consider visiting Oxfordshire during the consultation. My letter—which was courteous, not aggressive—asked her to come and listen to the concerns of local people about over—development in the south—east. To my total surprise, I received the fairly bureaucratic, dismissive response that Ministers had not yet worked out how they would deal with the consultation process. When I was a Minister, I considered it a particular obligation to visit the constituencies of Labour Members whenever they asked me to do so and I spent a great deal of my time, as did my ministerial colleagues in the then Department of the Environment, making such visits to listen to people's concerns. It seemed to be an important part of the democratic process that constituents should not feel that Ministers were not interested in their problems simply because their Member of Parliament was of a different political party.

I say to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who will reply to the debate, that there are genuine concerns about the proposal to build 1.1 million new homes in the south-east by 2016. It has been noted that not one Labour Member signed the letter to the Deputy Prime Minister expressing concerns about that, but it must be in the interests of the Labour party and the Government for Ministers to get out and about early next year when the draft regional planning guidance for the south—east is published. I can guarantee that Conservative Members, along with colleagues from other political parties in the various shire counties concerned, will be more than willing to arrange properly organised, sensible meetings at which local authorities, local people and local amenity groups can reasonably and rationally express their concerns direct to Ministers.

It must be in the interests of democracy for everyone to feel that they have a part to play in the process. Democracy will be damaged and enormous resentment caused if people think that they have not been heard on this important issue, and the Government simply produce a new set of figures at the end of this nominal consultation process on draft regional planning guidance. In the short term, that will be bad electoral news for the Government and the Labour party. Much more significantly, it will undermine confidence in the planning system for years to come. I hope that the Minister will be able to convey to his ministerial colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that it must be in everyone's interests for them to listen during that crucial consultation period.

8.59 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

One of the advantages of speaking at the end of the debate is that I have had the opportunity to listen to right hon. and hon. Members. I should like to comment on the rural issues raised. I could comment on the views of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on nuclear terrorism, because I have read some of the same source material. I could also be taken along the planning route, about which the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) spoke. However, I shall stay with the rural theme that has been explored mainly by Opposition Members. I shall deal with funding issues, and then come back to what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said about rural sub-post offices.

It is a canard that the problems with the funding of rural authorities started in May 1997. Those of us with a legacy of involvement in local government and national politics in the rural domain could argue cogently and coherently that these problems have a much longer legacy. I take no pleasure in so saying, but it is important that we put that on the record. I want to draw attention to three problem areas, using examples from my constituency of Stroud and from the county of Gloucestershire. They do not result from immediate policy changes, because their antecedents occurred much further back. The three areas are health, education and policing.

On health, the problem for Gloucestershire is that the formula has been rejigged, which is causing concern among constituents and health professionals. I would argue that the formula should be reconsidered because of the lack of sensitivity in dealing with some of the problems that it is trying to address in difficult and varied circumstances. I would not demur from the view that we should try to deal with the biggest problems in the most deprived areas, which are usually the urban centres because of the number of people who live there. I strongly concur with the Government's approach of prevention rather than cure. We should deal with the worst excesses of health inequality and deprivation, but that should not be done at the cost of the health of others.

In Gloucestershire, we have identified vulnerable areas, particularly to do with older people, and they need to be addressed. Many people want to retire to Gloucestershire, and there may be good reasons for that—I am sure that other hon. Members have similar experiences in their areas. People usually retire when they are fit and healthy, but, in their latter years, their health may deteriorate. Health authorities are sometimes not capable of dealing with the skewed nature of the health problems. That is particularly acute in Gloucestershire, which has a good reputation for dealing with people with special needs and learning difficulties. Some of them are older, and they are cared for by the residential and nursing sector. To be fair, that is accounted for in social services funding. We do not get as much as some of us would like, but we tend not to get equivalent and appropriate funding for health services.

My hon. Friend the Minister may care to comment on that, or pass on my remarks to his colleagues in the Department of Health, who need to be made more aware of the acute problems faced in Gloucestershire. The existing budget has to take much of the pressure, and that is neither fair nor reasonable. I can state categorically that we are pleased with many of the changes that the Government have introduced. The main acute hospital in the west of the county, Gloucestershire Royal hospital, is being refurbished, but much still needs to be done.

Gloucestershire's education has traditionally received low funding. We were part of the E8 group, which has now grown to become the E40. Heads are always approaching me to tell me about Gloucestershire's problems: it does not benefit from an area cost adjustment and, in both the secondary and the primary sectors, it has been relatively underfunded in comparison with other counties. There is a considerable difference—about £1,000—between the funding of Essex schools and that of Gloucestershire schools. That did not arise overnight, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise the problems that it causes and the need to re—evaluate the formula.

A particular problem has been caused by the fact that many schools in my county chose to become grant£maintained, not for any philosophical reason but because more money was involved. Those schools have now returned to local control. There has been no blood—letting or arguments, either between the authority and the schools or, more particularly, between the schools, which says a lot for the professionalism of the teachers—including heads—and, indeed, for the attitudes of parents and children. An anomaly has been thrown up, however. The schools involved now have less money, which means redundancies—redundancies that will have to be shared throughout the LEA sector. That is unfair to schools that have remained under LEA control and also means that there is less money available generally.

As for policing, I do not disagree with the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) or with those of the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), but the sparsity factor is important. I thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a bit negative: I understood that the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), had accepted—certainly in principle—that the arguments were sound and should be reflected in the rejigging of the formula. The problems relate to when we deal with the matter, where the money will come from and who may lose out as a result, but at least we have made the point.

By pure chance, a meeting took place with my local police authority this morning, attended by four Gloucestershire Members. We heard a doom—laden catalogue of the results of the current low increase,

but there was also some good news: if we can have the new police officers that the Home Secretary has said we will have, it will make a considerable difference. It will improve security, which is always a bone of contention in Gloucestershire, and may enable us to make progress with the radio project—a project that involves a good deal of capital expenditure in areas such as ours. I know that that is true in every part of the country, but it applies especially to a small rural force.

All those factors prove to me that there is a problem of funding in rural areas. I will not hide from that; I will not say that the Government should brush it under the carpet because it happens not to be convenient for them to talk about it. The reasons for the problem are obvious. They relate to how we measure distance, how we deal with isolation, the lack of economies of scale in our most rural areas, and, indeed, the ever—increasing likelihood that we need a debate on minimum standards. Obviously, in rural areas standards sometimes fall below the norm that is expected in urban areas.

I do not disagree with what was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. There is a real threat, but, as always in the case of threats, there are also opportunities. Last week, when I spoke in the debate on the Post Office, I said, "For heaven's sake, let us realise the opportunities." When I visited ICL last week to view the horizon project, I thought that there was a real chance to put the Post Office at the forefront of the new technology and of any competition, whether it came from within this country or, more particularly, from outside it. What worries me is that I am not sure whether that has been totally understood. I am not criticising Post Office management, and I am certainly not criticising those who are trying to run sub-post offices, but it should be realised that there are enhanced opportunities to extend postal and communication services.

On my Christmas visit to my post office, I heard that mail is up by 15 per cent. That shows what sub-post offices can do. On the back of that, they have to break into the network banking system, rather than view it as a total threat. What better way of turning the position round than to realise that banks which have lost all those branches can regain them again? They cannot do so through their own businesses as they have sold them, but they can use local sub-post offices, particularly those in rural areas. That is what people want and are looking forward to.

I am aware of the time, so I will not speak much about the matter, but the e-government debate is crucial. Sub-post offices could become the centre point of their communities, where people genuinely use the internet, find out information, but, more particularly, change passports, get a driving licence and use local government services in all their different forms. That shows that there is a nexus between commercialisation and the way we liberalise the system and democratising it and making it fully available.

I have tried to show that there is a need for a proper rural debate. That was no more clearly shown than by the publication of the performance and innovation unit report, "Rural Economies." There was a rumour that it was slipped out on a Friday. I hope that that is not true. I have read it quite quickly, so I will not pretend that I am an expert on it, but it contains many good ideas. It is about putting forward a debate as a starting point to the rural White Paper, which will come some time next year.

There are many challenges in rural Britain, as those of us who are interested in the agricultural scene know only too well. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) spoke about one aspect of that. There are many challenges, but agriculture is not the whole rural scene, although it is an important part of it. We can show that we are capable of doing many things in the rural domain.

The planning process needs to be completely reformed, but not by going away from any controls and throwing away the green belt and the greenfield protection that we need. We have to recognise that some flexibility is required in the way in which we use old buildings and bring back communities that no longer have the opportunity to work in agriculture so that they can genuinely find work where they live.

I could make many other comments, but time is against me. I urge the House to start a proper debate on where we want to take our rural economy, rural services and, indeed, democracy in rural areas.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If they could confine their remarks to six to seven minutes each, all will be satisfied. Otherwise, I am afraid that all will not. I call Mr. David Amess.

9.13 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to make several points. The first is a happy one. The Palace theatre opened last Wednesday. I am missing tonight's gala performance, but I am delighted to tell the Minister that he will not have to listen to any more complaints from me about that matter.

I congratulate all those who have been responsible for the constructive pressure that has resulted in the theatre reopening. In particular, I am delighted that the chairman of the Eastern Arts Board has supported the theatre and Key Med, the theatregoers club. I congratulate everyone associated with the reopening of the theatre. As I went on Saturday, I can commend to everyone "A Christmas Carol." It was a magnificent performance, better than any West End production.

The rest of my five minutes is not happy at all. I am sick to death of the Government, their photo opportunities, their press releases and their non-delivery of services. For two years, I have worked with all the people who wished to achieve objective 2 status for Southend. I had meetings with the Minister. I went to Europe. A few weeks ago, a letter was delivered to me by the Minister telling me that we had successfully achieved objective 2 status for Southend and, in particular, for Leigh and Chalkwell in Southend, West.

Leigh and Chalkwell have worked on various programmes to uplift those communities—with objective 2 funding, the creek would have been dredged, the jetty would have been enlarged, housing would have been redeveloped and various leisure facilities would have been provided. I am, therefore, sure that hon. Members will appreciate the astonishment and deep anger I felt when, last week, as I was about to help switch on the Leigh lights, my attention was drawn to an item in the evening edition of the local newspaper, stating that Leigh and Chalkwell were not to benefit from objective 2 status.

The way in which I learned that information was a disgrace. At the very least, a Minister could have written to me about the matter, or contacted me on the telephone. Instead, the Government have treated me with complete contempt, and it sickens me. I have yet to receive a letter on the matter signed by the Prime Minister. Although I know only too well that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Trade and Industry are responsible for the matter, I cannot even get a signed letter on it from the leader of the Labour party. I have received one letter on it, but it was from the correspondence secretary, who will pass on the matter to the appropriate Minister.

It is an absolute disgrace that Ministers think that they can adopt a cavalier attitude towards hon. Members. I am sorry, but the way in which they have chosen to handle the matter demonstrates political spite. It is disgraceful to take it out on my constituents.

I have had one letter from a Minister—[Interruption.] The Government Whip shakes his head. I have received a letter from a Minister telling me that Leigh and Chalkwell would benefit from objective 2 status, but I have also read the opposite in a newspaper—as Ministers did not show the courtesy of sending me a letter to that effect. It is disgusting, and I blame no one other than the Prime Minister.

All my other remarks are on the same topic. Southend council has 19 Conservative councillors, 12 Liberal Democrat councillors and eight Labour councillors, and the Labour and Liberal Democrat members work together to keep the Conservative party out of power. The Liberal Democrats are constantly wringing their hands publicly, whereas, privately, they hang on to power. Although they make terrible noises, saying, "It's awful that Leigh and Chalkwell are being deprived of objective 2 status", if they were serious about it, they would withdraw from the alliance and give the Conservatives the chance to govern.

The closure of Lulworth Court—a respite centre for disabled people—has been announced, not by the Conservatives but by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. Blenheim house—a residential home for elderly people—has been closed. That was the fault not of the Conservatives but entirely of the Labour—Liberal council.

There has been hypocrisy over Hainault avenue, in Westborough—where a Labour activist has been campaigning to get the Liberal Democrats out and trying to hoodwink everyone into believing that, if they vote Labour in the May elections, the situation will change. As everyone knows, there are double yellow lines in Hainault avenue entirely because of the Lib—Lab council. If residents in Westborough want a change, they will have to vote Conservative in the next election.

There has been a scandal with asylum seekers, affecting—although we cannot obtain a firm figure from the local authority—more than 600 people. The treatment of asylum seekers in Southend has been cruel, and it is entirely the fault of the Labour Government. Schools have written to me about unfair funding arrangements for asylum seekers. Southend has more asylum seekers than Thurrock; it has received £17,000, whereas Thurrock has received £150,000.

We have generally had an education fiasco in Southend. Although some hon. Members have said that they have not had many problems with formerly grant—maintained schools, I have had problems with them in Southend—in Westborough, for example, with nursery schools. I have also had complaints about the pupil retention grant and the standards funds.

We have the Labour Government to blame for underfunding of police. We do not have enough police.

Social services in Southend are charging. Day centres for the mentally handicapped are charging, and charges to many handicapped and elderly people have been increased vastly.

Finally we have the fiasco over mobile phone masts. I have problems in Chalkwell lodge, Cottesmore court and Highlands boulevard.

Sadly, apart from the performance of "A Christmas Carol", the scene in Southend, West is not a happy one. I entirely blame the Labour Government and our 12 Liberal councillors and eight Labour councillors.

9.20 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I had thought that mine might be the first partisan remarks tonight. I had not counted on the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I found a great deal to agree with in what he and others have said, but I shall not waste time going over that.

I should like to tell the House a story of two reports that I received in the post in the same week. One was the Worcestershire health authority's health improvement programme. For all I know, it may be a controversial document with some members of the medical community in Worcestershire, but it is admirable in the sense that it is specific and can be pinned down. It has clear, measurable objectives and targets, and anyone can understand what the Worcestershire health authority is seeking to deliver.

In almost the same post, I received the West Midlands regional development agency's strategy document, Advantage West Midlands. I am a long—standing critic of regionalism. I have spoken against the concept in the Chamber on many occasion. I hope that even the staunchest friend of regionalism would admit that this document is awful. It is facile gibberish of the worst possible kind. Apparently, it has been awarded the plain English crystal mark for clarity.

In the chapter on "Developing a diverse and dynamic business base" under the heading "Developing Business Growth Task Groups", we read: There may be opportunities for developing clusters as the networks become established. Its members (including sub-groups) may work on joint projects which have an end product. They would then be considered to be a 'cluster'… A force for converting into a cluster may be the action plans developed by the earlier networks. I hope that the House followed that clear exposition.

Under the heading "The West Midlands Economic Strategy in context", we read about action plans, which are to evolve from that strategy. The document says: Those working on the framework headings will be asked to advise the four pillar groups as to how the action plan should handle the framework. Ah yes, of course. I could not have put it better myself.

I hope that the chairman, Mr. Stephenson, did not write the chairman's introduction. Indeed, I hope that he did not even read it. It is either the worst kind of new Labour platitudes or simply wrong. It says: Innovation should be the touchstone for the actions we hope to facilitate to create the West Midlands' advantage. That is dubious grammar to say the least, but what on earth does it mean? The document rightly cites entrepreneurs of whom the west midlands are proud—Abraham Darby, Josiah Wedgwood and Frank Whittle. They did not rely on Advantage West Midlands. The touchstone of their success was their personal ambition and talent. That is what matters.

The chairman says: It is quite radical to attempt to tackle economic, environmental and social objectives at the same time … We have to develop the holistic framework in which policies can be effectively 'joined up' to meet local needs. He is condemned out of his own mouth. It is not radical anyway. Governments have always sought to tackle economic, environmental and social objectives at the same time. The Conservative Government tried to do that and, to be fair, the Labour Government are trying to do the same, but are not doing it particularly well in my judgment.

I had not intended to read the document, but I settled down to it on the train and found that it was better value than Private Eye. The tragedy is that it is supposed to be a serious economic strategy for the west midlands, but it is not. It sets out a series of spurious aims, which duplicate the work of Government Departments. There is only one that I agree with—the sixth aim

"to provide sites and premises of the right size and quality, and in the right place."

That was previously addressed by English Partnerships, led by Lord Walker of Worcester, my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Worcester. The advantage of English Partnerships was that it had one office, one chairman and one chief executive. Now we have seven regional development agencies, with seven chairmen, seven chief executives and seven bureaucracies. That is a hopeless over—provision of bureaucrats with much less work done on the ground.

The seventh aim is extraordinary. It is

"to encourage people to take part in economic and community life."

The document goes on: Regeneration programmes will deal with the need for childcare facilities, infrastructure, transport and premises … There will also be measures to tackle the problems of crime and ill health, as well as initiatives to improve health and housing conditions. The detailed exposition adds culture and sport as well.

The document comes not from the government of the west midlands—although the Government would like it to be so in due course—but from a regional development agency. How can it cope with all that? To use a seasonal metaphor, this is a Christmas tree of a document on which every bauble of interest to every passing local councillor has been hung in the most shameless way.

A longer speech would enable me to dissect this document in more detail, and I should have liked to do so. However, let me pick out a couple of other solecisms from the report.

It is the blend of cultures, unique histories and shared futures that defines the West Midlands. What about London, or the east midlands or Yorkshire? What makes that distinctive of the west midlands?

West Midlands economic development partners are working together to build the regions role as a region of Europe". We know what that agenda means—the Balkanisation of England and the sidelining of this House.

Where is the reference to cross-border co-operation? It is here. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) sitting on the Front Bench. We have many mutual, cross-border interests with Gloucestershire—but, of course Gloucestershire is in the south-west region, along with the Isles of Scilly. There is passing reference to co-operation with other regions, but it relates only to tourism. My hon. Friend and I sometimes fight, but we sometimes agree, and we know that many other more important issues than tourism unite and sometimes divide our two counties, which actually should be in the same region, not in different ones.

I could go on, but I shall conclude with a quote from this totally inadequate and woeful document, which the Deputy Prime Minister should send back to the West Midlands regional development agency saying that he cannot understand it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

He probably wrote it.

Mr. Luff

It certainly reads as if he might have written it.

The document says: Regeneration activity works best when the focus comes from within the community, with local people dealing with local problems. Local communities will be best at recognising their own individual needs. That paragraph should be the obituary for the whole wretched concept of regional development agencies.

9.26 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I wish to refer to a constituency case, which has implications for the whole Kingdom. It concerns the winter fuel grant to pensioners of £100. One of my constituents is a carer who is looking after her mother, who will be 95 next month. She received notification that she would receive £50 because there were two pensioners in the one household. She then discovered that there was no £50 for her mother. When she inquired, she was told that the dateline for allocation was September, during which time the care manager had arranged respite care in a residential home to allow my constituent and her husband to have a break. As the mother—who receives care and attention at home—was in a respite home for three weeks starting in September, when the weather is fairly decent, she was not permitted to have her £50 winter fuel allowance.

It so happens that, on appeal, my constituent will get the money. However, she asked me to raise the matter of the interpretation of the law. When she went to the citizens advice bureau for guidance, she was told that there had been a mistake. The CAB got in touch with the office at Newcastle, to be told that the law was being administered correctly. I ask the Minister to make sure that no other citizens are deprived of their genuine entitlement because they are in respite care during the application period.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to the millennium, and we heard from the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) that he has had difficulty with The Sunday Telegraph. We realise that those in the media and broadcasting have their own forms of censorship. I wish to put on record our congratulations to Sir Cliff Richard, who—despite the attention of those who, because of jealousy or other philosophical or irreligious reasons, were not prepared to allow him to have the best lyric of all, the Lord's prayer, set to a well-known tune in the tradition of Luther, Wesley and Booth—demonstrated that the devil does not get the best tunes. He has topped the pops and we congratulate him on celebrating the millennium and the year of our Lord, 2000.

9.30 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

The House knows that overwhelmingly the most important issue in my constituency is the proposed closure of the Royal Hospital Haslar. In 1994, the previous Government decided, after careful consideration, that Haslar should be the tri—service hospital. Since then, matters have gone well, so we in the Gosport area were devastated a year and three days ago when we heard, in December 1998, that the present Government intended to change the structure of defence medical services.

There were three elements in that decision. First, the Government intended to place more emphasis on Ministry of Defence hospital units. Secondly, they intended to open a centre of defence medicine in Birmingham; that announcement was made today. Thirdly, they intended to close Haslar.

After several discussions with defence medical services staff, I am convinced that, although the MOD hospital units may have some merit in medical terms, they are a disaster in terms of the retention of the military ethos and morale. As for the centre of defence medicine, I cannot believe that its location in Birmingham will attract people and make them want to study and practise medicine as part of the Army, Navy or Air Force to the same extent that a location in the south would. Haslar is fairly adjacent to a wide range of naval facilities, for example, and the Army facilities at Aldershot, Salisbury plain and Warminster are nearby, as are the Royal Air Force bases at Brize Norton and Lyneham.

I am therefore convinced that Haslar would be a better location for the defence medicine centre, and that Ministry of Defence medical services will lose personnel as a result of placing the centre in Birmingham. I plead with the Government even now to reconsider the matter. Defence medical services are crumbling, and we are losing doctors and nurses at an increasing rate. I have described to the House before the difficulties experienced by orthopaedic surgeons at Haslar. There should be eight such surgeons in the establishment there; the hospital in fact has six, and five have resigned.

From a military point of view, there is everything to be said for retaining Haslar. The development of the Birmingham centre would make matters worse, as it will take doctors and nurses away from Gosport. Moreover, people who moved to Gosport in the past five years will not be prepared to 'move again to Birmingham.

There are also persuasive civilian arguments for the retention of the hospital at Haslar. The Portsmouth and South East Hampshire health authority and the Portsmouth hospitals trust realise that the retention of at least part of the Haslar facility is crucial for the provision of civilian medical care in Gosport and the rest of south Hampshire. The authority already has a waiting list of more than 15 months for all operations, and the waiting time at the accident and emergency unit at the Queen Alexandra hospital at Cosham is a completely unacceptable five hours. Haslar already provides significant resources to assist the hospital trust and health authority to provide medical care for people in south Hampshire.

It is extremely important that the Haslar facilities, on which £35 million has been spent in the past 10 years, should not be closed. About 10 days ago, I wrote to the Prime Minister with the following plea. I asked that he or an appropriate Minister intervene to make the Ministry of Defence and the national health service display a co-operation that has not been greatly evident so far and ensure that medical facilities at Haslar can remain available to the local civilian community in the longer term.

The Ministry of Defence has made available several redundant military sites in my constituency, among them the HMS Daedalus site at Lee-on-the-Solent. What happens is that, years after closure, the MOD remains the owner while the local community waits for a developer to emerge who will acquire the site. When that finally happens, the developer then sells part of the site off to an authority or institution.

That would not be acceptable in the case of Haslar which, as I said, has had £35 million spent predominantly on the centre or cross block which contains the operating theatres. That would ideally suit the national health service as a facility to supplement those in the rest of south Hampshire and specifically to provide out—patient or other care in the Gosport peninsula.

My plea today is for the Government to practise what they are proud to call joined—up government. The Ministry of Defence must not be allowed to walk away from Haslar without providing facilities for civilians in the Gosport area. I plead that this be done urgently so that we can plan ahead for health care in the area.

9.36 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

We have had an extremely good debate in the past two hours. I congratulate all those who have taken part on responding to pleas from the Chair and, in some cases, cutting down their remarks. That has meant that for the first time since I have been replying to this debate, since July 1997, everyone who has wanted to speak has spoken. That, in the last of these debates to take place in the 1900s, is very appropriate.

I think that there is a real affection throughout the House for this debate. I am delighted that when the Modernisation Committee made its recommendations for Westminster Hall, it specifically excepted this debate and said that it should continue to take place on the Floor of the House. Whatever the future of what I like to call the

"Grand Parliamentary Committee" in Westminster Hall, I hope that this debate will always remain on the Floor of the House.

Hon. Members can use this debate to air grievances and hold the Government to account—the two prime responsibilities of any hon. Member. We have ranged tonight from the individual to the international. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) who, sadly, is no longer in his place, quite rightly decided to use this opportunity to highlight the case of a constituent who he believes is being victimised. I can make no comment on that, but it was an entirely proper use of the hon. Gentleman's time. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) used part of his speech to raise the case of a constituent baffled by regulation, and sought clarification for her. Although the Minister will not necessarily be able to provide that in his reply, I am sure that he will ensure that it is done, so far as it lies within his power.

Then there was the great international issue of Cyprus, raised at the beginning of the debate by one of the most familiar participants in these Adjournment debates, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). He has used this opportunity before, and he rightly used it again. I hope that, in due course, his remarks will be drawn to the attention of the Foreign Secretary and that he will receive a detailed and satisfactory reply. There is no more potentially explosive situation in our continent than that of Cyprus. We would all like to see true peace and justice return to that island.

The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) also used the opportunity, in an admirably brief four-minute speech, to raise that subject and also the position of Turkey, which many of us are glad to see accepted as a proper aspirant for membership of the European Union. Nevertheless, there are problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) went nuclear in a very literal sense. He talked about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, giving a chilling account of the consequences of the disintegration of a great super—power. Again, he brought to the attention of the House matters which we would all do right to ponder.

Then we had what I would call the classic speech. For seven minutes, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) talked about a local issue. I have some knowledge of the Royal hospital in Wolverhampton because it served many of my constituents for many years. She rightly indicated that the hospital was endowed and supported, as it had been created, by local people. She made a plea that the accountants' formula should not be forced into play to deprive local people of a new amenity on the site of a service that has served them so well for so long.

We heard next the bravura performance of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who was sadly deprived of an opportunity to speak in the last of these debates. He brought us the glad tidings that the Palace theatre is no longer dark, and urged us all to go to see "A Christmas Carol" there. Indeed, he said that he was missing the gala performance tonight, but I should think that it is him who is being missed as he would have been the star turn. Instead, he used his not inconsiderable vituperative talents to berate the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) did likewise, although he did not aim his remarks directly at the Government. He used the rapier of wit to puncture the balloon of bureaucracy. I am afraid that I did not read the dreadful document to which he referred. All of us were sent it, but I had a brief look, saw some of the perversions of the English language that so disfigured it and tossed it into the relevant filing cabinet, which was on the floor. I now rather regret having done so, as the document would doubtless have enlivened many an occasion on which I have been bored. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the utter pretentiousness of that sort of verbiage.

One thing that has shone through the debate is the concern on both sides of the House about rural communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) talked about the police. Anyone who sits for a rural constituency, as I do, knows that the situation described by my hon. Friend is by no means unique. We all see real pressure on the police in rural areas. My hon. Friend's concern was adequately and properly expressed, and he made some positive suggestions that I hope the Home Secretary will take to heart.

My hon. Friend was echoed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hykeham and Stroud—

Mr. Drew


Sir Patrick Cormack

I am sorry. By Jove, what a wonderful constituency that would be. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), which is in my native county of Lincolnshire, talked eloquently about the police, but also about the problems faced by two of his constituents, whose anonymity he rightly preserved, and who were deprived of a life—enhancing drug, beta interferon. My right hon. and learned Friend deserves a full answer to his questions.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also talked about the police. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst)—now a regular in these debates—talked about the plight of the small slaughterhouse, highlighting the iniquity of the double inspection and the enormous economic burden that it places on vital local services. The hon. Gentleman rightly indicated the real problems caused, not least to animals, by the closure of small slaughterhouses.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) talked about rural sub-post offices. He spoke most eloquently, and I could have thought that he was describing my own rural sub-post office in the village of Enville. It is a centre of community life, and it has been run by the Smith family for three generations. The latest generation took it over just over a year ago. The family provides a valuable social service as well as an excellent post office. All over the country, people such as the Smiths serve rural communities, but their future is in jeopardy. The hon. Gentleman performed a real service to them all by using their situation for his speech.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about what is being done in many villages to celebrate the millennium—God willing, I shall be in Enville on new year's eve—where there shall be proper celebrations, often accompanied by church services to mark not the end of the 20th century, which will not come for another year, but the passage of the 1900s. I was pleased, too, to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South highlight the significance of the millennium, and he paid a much—deserved tribute to Sir Cliff Richard, who has been vilely castigated in recent days.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) made a brief personal statement about the way in which he had been maligned by a newspaper that many of us hold in high repute. He was right to do that. Members on both sides of the House nodded in sympathy as he described what must have been a pretty rotten ordeal. He has the sympathy of all Members of the House. He also talked about the planning system. Confidence in that system is essential for a true balance in our rural and urban communities. He correctly pointed out that that confidence was at risk.

The hon. Member for Stroud, who echoed the concerns of other hon. Members about the police and sub-post offices, also talked about education and health. I find fellow feeling with him. Members representing Staffordshire constituencies believe that the county has been badly affected by the application of the funding formula. The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to the problems of health funding in areas to which people retire. When people retire, they are at the peak of fitness, but they spend their retirement years, which are also their declining years, in areas that are not necessarily funded to cope with that. He was right to highlight that point.

We ended on another health note with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). He must deserve an accolade as one of the most conscientiously consistent of campaigning Members in the House. He has fought for his hospital with great courtesy, but complete tenacity. I wish him well and hope that the Government will respond.

I now conclude my remarks because I promised that, as we had a few minutes extra for the winding—up speeches, I would, in true Christmas spirit, share them with the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. The debate has been extremely worth while. I wish you, Madam Speaker, all Members in the Chamber and all those who serve us in the House—all members of the staff—a very happy, joyful, tranquil Christmas and a peaceful and, if possible, a prosperous new year.

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

This has been a wide—ranging, interesting and informative debate. I am delighted that 15 Back—Bench Members have had the opportunity to pursue issues relating to individual constituents and to constituency matters. That is the purpose of such debates. However, we have also heard about wider issues—foreign affairs and the need to examine nuclear plant and nuclear weapon decommissioning in the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia. Several hon. Members have made important speeches—others supported them—on the countryside, health and the police. I have been asked to pass several messages to my ministerial colleagues. I have got the messages—I will ensure that they are passed on and that everyone who has spoken in the debate receives a reply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox)—a veteran of these occasions—was first off the grid. He was well supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis). They rightly told us of the challenges and opportunities in the long campaign to resolve the problems in Cyprus. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting told us of the slow and difficult discussions that were beginning in New York. The discussions that took place in Helsinki at the weekend, on which the Prime Minister reported to the House today, showed that, after 25 years of struggle, there are possibilities for progress, if there is good will on both sides.

Several hon. Members, led by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), made important speeches on the need for resources for the police. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman in two respects. First, he acknowledged that police forces throughout the country had received extra money. Secondly, he spelt out a range of possibilities, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to increase recruitment and improve retention. The hon. Gentleman spoke about difficulties in his constituency where, as I understood it, police officers were being moved from one part of the area to another.

One of the important initiatives that the Government have taken is to ensure that, each year, district commanders lay down a local policing plan, which is consulted upon. I believe that there will be increasing opportunities for people to have a say in how the police are used in their area. It is also important to get best value from the police. We look at failure in the public services too much and do not reward success enough. There is much to do on that.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) spoke about problems with the Lincolnshire police. I would simply say to him that the Lincolnshire police have a lot to do. They have a new chief constable. I believe that they have put a difficult period behind them. I am with the right hon. and learned Gentleman in wanting to do better for people who live in Lincolnshire.

It seems to me that there is a need to review how we allocate resources to the police force. Several hon. Members spoke about a new study that has been undertaken at the Government's behest. I cannot promise immediate action on it, but I remind colleagues that the Government gave a commitment that they would consider the formula for allocation not just to the police, but across local authorities, in a three—year review. We have just announced the results of the second year review, and there is much to be argued about.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham also spoke about the problems facing sufferers of MS. I know Professor B, whom he spoke about—a leading international expert on the matter—and I know his views and have some sympathy with them. That is why the Government have set up the National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness. The issue of MS and beta interferon is one of the first subject areas to be considered. Announcements will be made about that in the spring and summer. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that it is wrong that people in different parts of the country have different access to different services. I hope that NICE will enable us to move forward and meet his constituents' real needs, as he outlined in such a moving way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South—West (Ms Jones) also spoke about a health issue in a sense—a derelict health issue. Her arguments about local consultation on planning are extremely important. It must be right to change blighted properties—blighted areas. What she described as a village in the community is the right way forward. That chimes with the Government's thinking through Lord Rogers's task force. I will of course ensure that she receives an early reply to her letter.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has pursued the issue of Haslar hospital with vigour, in a robust campaign. He knows that careful thought has been given to that decision, and that it has been taken reluctantly. He knows of the volume of work and the patient mix at Haslar hospital, and he knows that the facility at Haslar will not close until new arrangements are in place at the Queen Alexandra hospital.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), who could not be with us for these winding—up speeches, spoke strongly for his constituent, Andrea Morgan. I do not want to prejudge the issue, but it seems to me that local authorities and all employers should treat such issues with sense and sensitivity. I felt that that might not have happened in this case. I remind the London borough of Hillingdon that it is subject to employment law and I undertake that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will consider the case closely to see whether we can reach a proper outcome.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke strongly on the important matter of the need for a post office network across the country and, especially, in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to opportunities as well as challenges and I think that the horizon scheme offers opportunities. The move to e—commerce and to new technology will also offer opportunities, but there is a real threat to post offices and we should not deny that. I offer the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome the undertaking that having a network of post offices across the country is a Government priority. We have asked the performance and innovation unit to consider closely how we can secure the future of sub-post offices. There are imaginative ways forward, but we have talked about how pubs and schools in rural areas have closed. Therefore, there is much more to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) also discussed countryside issues. He pressed the case for the road in his constituency and I shall ensure that the Highways Agency and the relevant Minister are made aware of the points that he made. He also spoke strongly in support of small abattoirs and about the need for them on animal welfare grounds. He stressed the need to maintain the industry in rural areas, and the Government have done a fair amount to help small abattoirs. There has been a review of red tape and regulation, we have deferred the Meat Hygiene Service charges on specified risk materials and, importantly, we have fixed charges in abattoirs for next year at this year's prices—that will save the industry £7 million.

Housing in the countryside raises other issues. The Crow report is before Ministers and the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) spoke properly and wisely about the need to consult people and to take communities with us. I shall ensure that his views on the need to visit are considered. I also acknowledge the personal statement that he made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud talked about a range of countryside issues and about the need for extra resources, particularly in his area. I remind him and other Members that the latest local government settlement is the best one since the council tax began. However, there is much more to be done.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) spoke about a millennium boom and the problems of nuclear plants and weapons in Russia. He made good points and I was particularly struck by the need for scientists in the former Soviet Union, the United States and western Europe to work together so that they are not isolated.

I inform the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) that I have had my spies at the Palace theatre and I know that "A Christmas Carol" is worth seeing. I also know that the announcement on objective 2 funding that will come soon will be worth waiting for. I cannot promise the House a decision before Christmas, but it will not be long coming.

There was pantomime season from the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)—a giant killer if ever I saw one. I also endorse the points that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made about Cliff Richard and his millennium message.

We go into a new millennium and a future that I hope will be better for our families, our children and our communities. I wish you, Madam Speaker, the staff of the House and all my colleagues a merry Christmas. In particular, I tell my friends in the Whips Office that both sides of the House look forward to a peaceful new year. I hope that they, in the spirit of Christmas, will grant us that.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.