HC Deb 31 March 1999 vol 328 cc1007-48

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

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

On Tuesday 23 March, The Mirror ran an exclusive story on Anita Froggatt, a constituent of mine from North Wingfield, who had had a healthy breast removed. She had been wrongly identified as a cancer victim at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital, where a mix-up had occurred with the slides. On reading the report in The Mirror, I immediately contacted Avril Toland, the unit manager at the hospital. I was informed that a consultant pathologist had been suspended. There had been a similar case the previous year, involving the same consultant pathologist, which had resulted in an internal investigation. Obviously, the results and recommendations of the investigation and the procedures that were set in motion were inadequate to deal with the problem.

The second person involved is Kuldip Sumal, who is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). The hospital serves my constituency as well as those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.

I then contacted the office of the Secretary of State for Health and Anita's solicitor, Phil Bowen. I talked to Anita, who was at the solicitor's when I called. Also, I raised the matter on a point of order with you, Madam Speaker, and discussed the case that evening with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, whose concern is revealed in an answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled on 23 March and to which I received an answer yesterday.

I asked my right hon. Friend what reports he had received on errors made by the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital in diagnosing breast cancer and if he would make a statement. The reply states: We are aware of the two terrible cases which have been the subject of media attention and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to both women to express his feelings of deep regret that they have had such an awful experience. We have asked the regional director of public health in Trent to commission a comprehensive review of the circumstances to ensure that everything possible is done to avoid this happening again. The review team will include an expert nominated by the Royal College of Pathologists. My right hon. Friend will be kept informed of progress and will be fully appraised of the conclusions and recommendations of the review team, which will be published."—[Official Report, 30 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 647.] A serious matter of confidence is involved—the shattered confidence of my constituent and women's confidence in breast cancer screening and treatment in general. Anita is reported in The Mirror as saying: It's horrific. How can I come to terms with this? My life is ruined. I've been to hell and back for nothing … Now I look at my wedding picture and want to turn the clock back. I was so confident and happy. She has the close support of a loving family, including her husband Paul and 10 year-old son Dane, but she, and they, need help to rebuild the confidence that she once had. Kuldip Sumal has been through the same shattering experiences, as did Margaret Nicoll in 1992 at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley, Renfrewshire.

Women in general need their confidence in breast cancer screening and treatment restored. The importance of screening was shown by statistics from the Department of Health in evidence to the Select Committee on Health in 1995. About 13,000 women die of breast cancer each year in England alone. Cases of breast cancer increased by 22 per cent. in England and Wales between 1979 and 1988. The United Kingdom is 22 out of a list of 23 nations for breast cancer mortality—23 being the nation with the highest mortality. The 1995 Select Committee report, "Breast Cancer Services", does not deal with the problem that I am raising, but contains evidence from the Radiotherapy Action Group Exposure—RAGE—on women who have suffered injury from radiotherapy treatment following breast cancer.

To ensure that such errors never happen again, we need not merely another internal inquiry at the royal hospital, but the wider inquiry detailed by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, that inquiry should go beyond the situation at that hospital. Throughout the national health service we want the best practice that operates in any trust hospital. We want that best practice established in north Derbyshire so that these problems do not occur again.

We also need a full examination of all the royal hospital's breast cancer slides because many other women in the area are worried about their treatment, or lack of treatment, if the wrong slides have been examined and related to their cases. The slides supervised by the consultant pathologist concerned must be examined as quickly as possible. I also hope that the Health Committee will revisit the 1995 investigation to cover the problems that have been revealed at the hospital. In its examination, it would find a visit to the hospital valuable.

Breast cancer screening is important. Women need to be encouraged to use the service, but to use it they need to have utter confidence in it. That confidence has been shattered in this case, especially in north Derbyshire. The sooner that the investigations take place and best practice is adopted, the better for everyone concerned.

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

There are three reasons why we should not rush off to our Easter break before considering them. First, before we get back, hedges all over the country will have grown by at least an inch or two if they are leylandii hedges. The matter may cause amusement when a hedge grows from 8 ft to 8 ft 2 in, but when it is from 30 ft to 30 ft 2 in many people suffer distress.

The organisation Hedgeline already has 2,200 members. The problem is growing as fast as the hedges. One in five trees planted in England is a leylandii or something very like it. We all understand that when one moves into a new plot, it is nice to get some greenery as fast as possible, but many people, either because they are genuinely malevolent or paranoid about being overlooked, plant such trees as close as they can to their boundary, regardless of the damage that it causes to their neighbours. That can mean the removal of a view, not from the ground floor but from the first and second floors of people's houses.

The problem should be controlled. That is why I had hoped to bring in a Bill, but the Government not only objected to it but are in disarray. They had a special unit examine the problem for about six months. They say that they have no idea how to deal with it, but when presented with a Bill that they could have amended as much as they liked in Committee, they refused to allow it even to proceed that far, which is a shame.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

They cannot see the wood for the trees.

Mr. Rowe

My right hon. Friend is right. It is a serious matter that we should consider. It is going to get a great deal worse. I was somewhat dismayed by my meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale). At the start, he said that he was worried about my Bill because an appeal mechanism against a local authority decision that a hedge was causing a nuisance to neighbours would mean that he would have to set up an entire department to deal with appeals because there would be so many. However, at the end he said, "I am not at all sure Andrew that you are not exaggerating this matter. It doesn't seem to me that it is as big as you think." One cannot have it both ways unless one is new Labour.

The second reason that we should not adjourn is that this is a proper moment to note on the Floor what many hon. Members on both sides of the House have already recognised in receptions and other meetings: the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children campaign to abolish cruelty to children. I acknowledge a vested interest in that I am proud to be a trustee of that organisation.

Before we return from the Easter break, at least one child under five in this country will have died following abuse and neglect. One child under five dies every week of abuse and neglect and 150,000 children are physically abused each year. Many of my colleagues who heard him speak will have been outraged when Jim Harding, the director of the NSPCC, told us that 30 years ago, one of his first cases involved a baby the end of whose little fingers had been cut off with nail scissors. Such awful cruelty not only continues but may even be on the increase. It is difficult to be sure, because, fortunately, abuse is becoming more commonly reported.

With 11 per cent. of adults saying that they were sexually abused as children and an estimated 450,000 children being bullied at school, it is appropriate that the NSPCC should have launched the largest campaign this century by a non-governmental organisation. It is comparable only to the anti-slavery campaign of Wilberforce and his friends. When they set out, the public did not believe that anything could be done about slavery or the slave trade. They were derided for even thinking that something could be done. The same is true now. However much they want the get rid of cruelty to children, a great many people believe that it is pie in the sky to imagine that a campaign can abolish it.

No one suggests that we will get rid of every incident of cruelty to children, but just as Wilberforce and his friends abolished slavery in this country, ended the slave trade and impacted enormously on slavery worldwide, so I believe that the NSPCC campaign against cruelty can be expected to have a similar impact. In 50 years' time, this country will be a kinder place for children to grow up in, and it will be much easier for children to report abuse when they are in misery.

A telling reason why children do not report cruelty is that they believe that the public services will break up their family. However bad life is for them in it, they know that it is all that they have got. If brothers and sisters are going to be separated by social services, what else have they got? This is an insensitivity in our public life that we must tackle. The ever more clamant new thrust towards listening to children is the beginning of wisdom.

I am glad to remind the House that I am chairman of a steering group of all parties and many NGOs that is trying to establish for 2000 the first sitting of a United Kingdom youth parliament. That will be part of listening to young people and allowing their voices to be heard on matters on which the Government do not listen to them. The Government introduce legislation on literacy hours, curfews or changing the nature of support for young people at universities, but they never ask young people what they think. It is time that they did.

The last reason why we should not adjourn is that in the great debate on the Metropolitan police and the Lawrence report, I did not hear anyone wonder whether we ask the police to do too much. This is an important issue. We expect our police to do all sorts of things. We expect them to look after lost property, to register every insurance claim and to police crowds going to football matches or demonstrations. Sometimes reluctantly, we expect them to enforce the law on dangerous drivers. We expect them to act as human traffic lights when the computer systems break down. When the social services are closed, the citizens advice bureau is shut, and the doctor's surgery has gone to bed, we expect them to pick up confused old women with compassion and sympathy. We expect them to find places for people with nowhere to sleep. We expect all that from a group of people who are also expected to respond to crime, assault and violence effectively, efficiently and with power.

Those qualities are difficult to find in one group of people. The Government need to consider carefully whether the young men and women who are brought into the Metropolitan or other police forces are not expected to have too wide a range of qualities because the range of jobs that they do is so diverse.

To take one small example, Ministers might consider carefully whether when I lose my wallet or credit card I should have to get a number from the police before the insurance company will pay attention to my claim. That is surely one of many tasks that could be outsourced to an organisation that would keep in touch with the police. I hope that Ministers will consider the three matters that I have raised before we adjourn.

9.50 am
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter of concern to my constituents in the town of Witham who are residents of Bridge Learning Difficulties hospital. It was built in Victorian times, not as a hospital but as a workhouse and asylum. It has all the hallmarks of such a building. It is forbidding and depressing in character. It has been used for many years for people with learning difficulties. Although the hospital was originally on the edge of the town, close, as the name suggests, to the bridge across the river, it is now closer to the heart of the town.

An important factor for those with learning difficulties is that they are in the community. A warm regard and affection has grown up between those who live in the hospital and the residents of the town of Witham. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will not be surprised that there are now proposals to close that hospital and move the residents out into the community. Progress has already been made towards reaching that objective. Like many buildings erected in former times, the hospital has a considerable area of land attached to it. A large part of the land has already been sold for residential housing development. It is expected that if the balance is sold, that too will be used for residential housing. The consequences of that will be that those who have lived in the hospital—some of them effectively for all their life and many of them for many years—will be scattered away from their friends and in some cases from their families, into circumstances that will be alien to them.

I have been approached on a number of occasions by a group called the Friends of Bridge Hospital, made up of the parents of the children who are residents. When I say children, I am talking about some people who are in their middle age. Most of them are men and their parents are now in some cases becoming elderly. The children naturally go home to visit their parents at certain times during the year, but I am told that it is touching that when they leave the hospital they want their parents to assure them that they will be going back there after their holiday. That is because many of them regard the hospital as their home.

I do not defend the layout or structure of the hospital. In many ways, it is an appalling building. Some of the residents are still living in communal wards, with all the humiliation and lack of dignity that that implies. Others have their own private rooms. To their great credit, the hospital authorities have made great strides in making those rooms homes for those who live in them.

I believe that the way forward is not to cling to the ideology of care in the community. That ideology, like the ideologies of eastern Europe, is waning, and we should take a more balanced view. Every ideology, by its nature, imposes a philosophical and intellectual straitjacket on those who practise it, and care in the community has in some ways been as thoughtless as other ideologies. The tendency to care in the community is now beginning to change in other areas. I hope that the New Possibilities NHS trust will begin to consider sheltered community accommodation for people with learning difficulties so that they remain together. They could live in bungalow developments rather like those for our older people, with wardens and medical staff on hand to assist them. In such circumstances, the community would still be there, the residents would still have their relatives close at hand, they would still be bonded to the place where they had always lived, they would maintain the relationship with the wider community and they could move forward with dignity and reassurance. I hope that it is not too late for that to be achieved.

I know that the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), whose constituency is not far from my constituency, has a similar residential home for people with learning difficulties run by the same trust. I know that he shares some of my concerns. I hope that the Minister will say that there is a way forward within which we can gain the benefits of community living, but maintain the dignity of those who spend their lives in the hospital.

9.55 am
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am most grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. The subject that I want to talk about is one that the journalist Christopher Booker has described as farming's forgotten crisis or, in other words, the plight of small abattoirs and the crisis in the pig industry. I shall explain in a moment why I believe that the House should not adjourn until these matters have been resolved.

I should preface my remarks by declaring an interest. My financial interests in the meat industry are as listed in the register. I am president of the Meat Training Council and of the British Pig Association. Both positions are unremunerated and honorary.

It is certain that Parliament will go into recess today. I invite the Minister to consider the uncertainty that currently faces the small abattoir sector. If the original plans announced by the Government were to go ahead, it would face tomorrow an astronomical increase in the charges that it has to pay for meat inspection. It will not be difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to appreciate the position of any business facing increases of the order of 23 per cent. Bishop's Castle Meat Company in my constituency faces an increase from £4,800 per month to £8,000. That is not untypical. I am told of another slaughterman in Devon, John Coles, who currently pays less than £300 per month but faces the prospect of charges increasing to £3,500 per month. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) will acknowledge that. That is an astronomical increase by anyone's reckoning.

It is unfair to expect the industry to continue in uncertainty. Ministers have not said that the charges will not be imposed tomorrow or announced when they will come into effect.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will my hon. Friend concede that those businesses will not continue to trade? They will go out of business. There is no way in which they can take the costs. Many butchers in my constituency who butcher their own meat are in a similar position. If the proposals go forward, they will go out of business. Yet they provide an excellent service to the local community.

Mr. Gill

My hon. Friend is right. I have a lifelong experience of the meat industry, and I understand the economics of running abattoirs, both large and small. I know that the small abattoirs simply will not be able to bear the astronomical costs that are supposed to kick in from tomorrow. The effect on other parts of our economy will be serious. The House will recognise that many small abattoirs are located in rural areas and provide vital wealth creation and employment prospects. They also provide an outlet for many livestock farmers, especially small farmers, who may produce a specialist product for a niche market and will be deprived of a slaughter point.

As my hon. Friend appreciates, when such a farmer cannot get his specialist product slaughtered in a small abattoir, where there is total traceability, a whole raft of economic activity is lost. We must bear it in mind that a large abattoir is not interested in doing the job. It is extremely serious that small abattoirs are closing at a time when people in the countryside are desperate to find ways of diversifying. There will also be serious implications for the welfare of animals which will have to travel much further to the point of slaughter.

On 17 March, I accompanied a small deputation of people who are involved in that sector of the meat industry to meet the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Minister of State at the Ministry. The deputation included representatives of the Humane Slaughter Association, who are especially interested in welfare matters, the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, which represents small butchers, whose work will be handicapped if small abattoirs are closed, and the chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, who is concerned about the niche marketing that his members have established using small abattoirs.

I must give credit where it is due. It is only fair to say that the Ministers were most attentive to our case and they acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. They confessed that the proposed increase in charges will be more than many sections of the trade can bear. They acknowledged that some of the small abattoirs will have to close—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) pointed out. They also stated that Government policy was that animals should be slaughtered as near as possible to the farm. They assured us that they were considering all possible ways of reducing the overheads of the Meat Hygiene Service and that they were doing their level best to minimise the cost increases due to take effect next month.

Ministers are on the horns of a dilemma; on one hand, they are under enormous pressure from the European Union to implement fully the meat inspection directive, but on the other, they know that if they do so, scores of small abattoirs will close and there will be a knock-on effect for other small businesses.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on setting up the meeting to which he referred. He was kind enough to invite me and a Labour Member, which made it an all-party occasion. Does he recall that, at that meeting, the Ministers acknowledged that the meat inspections directive did not seem to be biting equally across Europe? One of the most ludicrous matters is that there seems to be a surplus of inspecting veterinary staff in most continental countries, to which we have to apply so that there are enough vets to carry out inspections in this country. There seems to be a trade imbalance in vets.

Mr. Gill

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In this country, inspection has to be carried out by fully qualified veterinary surgeons, but we are led to believe that in other countries it is carried out by auxiliary vets who are trained to a much lower standard. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in this country we do not know what the charging regime is in other countries. Presumably, if we did know, the Minister would have answered the question that I tabled on 11 March. I also received a very patchy answer to an earlier question on the level of supervision and the implementation of the regulations in other countries. The matter creates difficulties for Ministers because they cannot say that we are doing as much, more than, or the same as other countries; we do not have the information. That is a powerful argument for a stay of execution on the new charges, unless and until it can be established that other countries throughout the EU are operating the same scale of charges on the same level of supervision and inspections.

Four years ago, the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) and I tabled an early-day motion criticising the fresh meat hygiene and inspection regulations, especially the short notice with which they were being introduced. It is somewhat ironic that in the same week, on 13 March 1995, the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, tabled early-day motion 778, praying that the Fresh Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations 1995 … be annulled. Bearing that in mind, I would have thought that the Prime Minister might influence Agriculture Ministers to stay their hand until the situation is clearer and some way had been found to reduce the charges from the amount proposed.

In an earnest attempt to help, I have suggested to the Minister that the new charges should not be implemented in the United Kingdom until there has been a technical review of the whole question of meat inspection and charging for meat inspection throughout the EU. I am conscious that other countries, such as the United States of America, Australia or New Zealand, have adopted an entirely different method in which inspection and charging are related to the degree of risk, rather than the cumbersome and expensive method being imposed by the EU.

Members of the pig industry have made a number of suggestions to the Government and, on their behalf, I want to reinforce their plea that the Government should implement the recommendations of the recent report into the pig industry by the Select Committee on Agriculture. Greater efforts should be made to ensure that all pigmeat coming into this country from other countries is labelled so that the consumer can exercise an informed choice. The industry would also appreciate any influence that the Government can exert on Departments and on local authorities to ensure that they source their pigmeat from UK-produced pigs.

10.8 am

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I want to raise the subject of Kashmir. I chair the all-party group on Pakistan in this House. As we all know, Kashmir is thousands of miles away from the United Kingdom, but it is not a country with which we have no involvement. When one looks back over the events of the past 50 years, one recalls the conflicts and tensions that existed—sadly, they still exist—between India and Pakistan. Wars have taken place between those two countries and one of the issues has always been the Indian occupation of Jammu Kashmir.

Sadly, last summer we saw the testing of nuclear weapons in the region; first, by India and then by Pakistan. According to the spokespeople of those two countries, one of principal reasons for that testing was the continuing conflict in Kashmir. One hears repeatedly from the Government of Pakistan—whichever party is in power—that the issue must be resolved to bring peace to that region and to improve relationships between India and Pakistan. I am sure that all Members of the House would wish to see that.

India and Pakistan are members of the Commonwealth and have close links with the United Kingdom. The last viceroy of India, Earl Mountbatten, said that the issue of Kashmir must be resolved. Sadly, it has not been and that is why the conflict continues. We know that there are thousands of Indian troops occupying part of Jammu Kashmir and that Pakistan has troops and equipment alongside Azad Kashmir. The conflict creates many problems for both India and Pakistan and tension between the two countries. The enormous military build-up in both countries, which was highlighted by last year's testing of nuclear weapons, and the huge financial cost of that military build-up prevents the development of other aspects of the two countries' economies and social structures.

In addition to all those problems, there is the on-going suffering and denial of human rights to the people of occupied Kashmir who live under the control of the Indian security forces. Without doubt, the country is occupied against the will of its people—and as we have seen many times, when a country is occupied, its people will fight for its freedom, and that is what has been happening for many years in occupied Kashmir. That has led to oppression of the people by the Indian security forces: there is vivid documentation of killings, torture, rape of women and other measures taken against the people of occupied Kashmir. It is now estimated that India has 600,000 troops in occupied Kashmir. Human rights groups have repeatedly reported the brutality of the Indian army toward the people of Jammu Kashmir.

There have been many United Nations resolutions calling for India and Pakistan to enter into discussions to resolve the conflict. The attitude of Pakistan has been made clear by successive Governments: they want such discussions to take place, with the firm commitment that the people of Kashmir must have a role in such discussions. Regrettably, India has said that that request is unacceptable, that the area of Kashmir now occupied is part of India, and that the occupation will continue. Pakistan—and, I am sure, the whole world—wants the people of Kashmir to be able to involve themselves in a constructive debate that will end the conflict and the tension between India and Pakistan.

As I said, India and Pakistan are Commonwealth countries, as is the United Kingdom, and our links to them are strong and undoubtedly respected. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has shown a clear commitment to attempting to bring about discussions between India and Pakistan, but it must be said that the Indian response to my right hon. Friend's involvement has been extremely unhelpful. I am pleased to say that, recently, a meeting took place between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan. Such dialogue gives our country an opportunity to offer to play a role in discussions which, although complex and difficult, might succeed if the will is there.

Recently, President Mandela of South Africa said: All of us remain concerned that the issue of Jammu Kashmir should be solved through peaceful negotiation and should be willing to lend all the strength we have to the resolution of this matter. I am certain that that is the wish of many hon. Members, and it is what the Government of Pakistan and the people of Kashmir certainly want. A week ago, a major military parade took place in Islamabad, and President Rafiq Tarar of Pakistan said that the settlement of the Kashmir dispute was the only guarantee for peace in the region. We, as a fellow Commonwealth country, have a definite role to play. In September this year, the annual Commonwealth conference is to take place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and I hope that we will work to ensure that Kashmir is on the agenda. We could seek the involvement of a fellow Commonwealth country to act as co-ordinator between India and Pakistan—I refer back to President Mandela's remarks.

The whole House acknowledges that, in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we have a person who is held in the highest regard and who, as he is currently demonstrating, has a great personal commitment to the human rights of men and women. I do not doubt that, as he has done in Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend could play a major role in bringing India and Pakistan together in discussions to resolve the continuing tragedy. That has to be done, first, for the sake of its people, so that they can lead the sort of life that they want for themselves; and, secondly, to reduce the tension and danger that the unresolved conflict has caused and continues to cause in that region of the world. I believe that the UK can play such a role, and I look to the Government to become involved in resolving the issue.

10.17 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, there are several matters that I believe we should debate. As there are many hon. Members waiting to speak, I shall run though the issues rapidly and not expect the Minister to comment on more than two.

I agree with everything the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) had to say, until he mentioned the leader of the Labour party—but never mind. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) would expect me to mention the Palace theatre, Westcliff. I have to report that, unfortunately, it closed three weeks ago, but two weeks ago I presented a petition signed by 6,000 people and I am delighted to tell the House that the new chairman of the Eastern arts board has promised to be at the first performance of the Christmas pantomime, which is to open in November. However, I expect Her Majesty's Government to give the Eastern arts board decent funding, so that the Palace theatre can continue as a producing theatre.

Mr. Hurst

As a constituent of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), I hope he will accept what I have to say. Does he agree that the Eastern arts board has, for many years, discriminated in favour of the Mercury theatre, Colchester and severely against the Palace theatre, Southend in matters of grant funding? It is not solely a question of the amount of funding the board has at its disposal, but of how it distributes it.

Mr. Amess

I am delighted to have given way to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want any discord between me and the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell)—actually, I would not really mind if there was such discord. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) is quite right about the unfair level of funding: our receiving only £48,000 is an utter disgrace, and if we had had parity with Watford, Ipswich and Colchester, the lights would not be out on the Palace theatre, Westcliff.

In my time as a Member of Parliament, I have never heard any hon. Member say anything original about crime—we all have crime in our constituencies. I realise that the Home Secretary—a former Essex lad—does not accept this point, but it is an utter disgrace that my area is to suffer underfunding after the latest announcements, because the increase of only 1.7 per cent. does not keep pace with inflation. Civilians now have to do jobs that policemen did previously, and that is not good enough. Southend has lost its four police horses and that is a disgrace.

Will the Minister find out what is meant by the response that is given whenever we submit our bid for closed circuit television funding? We are told that our bid is not good enough. Visitors to Southend will see the graffiti that is spoiling our sea front. It too is an utter disgrace. We cannot rely on Southend's struggling businesses to fund CCTV projects: we need specific funding. If cameras are installed by Chalkwell station and along Marine parade, I am sure that we will capture on film those disgusting individuals who think it is a good laugh to paint graffiti everywhere—including on the underground. Southend will open for the summer season next month, and I hope that the Minister will explain before then why our bid is not good enough.

On roads, Southend has a Liberal-Labour controlled council and the Government have cut local roads funding by £600,000. The council understands that, while the Government are not supporting extensive new road building projects—which I think is absolutely barmy—they will make additional funds available for the maintenance of existing highway infrastructure.

I do not mind the Government's having it in for me as an individual, but it is a bit tough when they have it in for Southend. Why has Southend suffered that funding cut? All other areas in the eastern region have had funding increases, but we have had a 12 per cent. reduction. When the Queen visited my constituency two weeks ago and travelled down Southbourne grove and Westbourne grove, she saw at first hand—despite her outriders—the traffic congestion in Southend, West. The Al27 has been improved somewhat, but the A13 certainly has not.

The Deputy Prime Minister suggested in the education White Paper that parents should walk their children to school. The right hon. Gentleman should visit Southend, West where parental choice has vanished as a result of the Government's decision to reduce class sizes to 30 and below this September. It is an absolute disgrace. I draw the Minister's attention to what has happened to voluntary aided schools. There will be parental choice in Southend, West only if Our Lady of Lourdes school, which a number of my children attend, is allowed to expand.

I do not wish to cause trouble in the House, but two Labour Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in the London borough of Havering and I are seeking a meeting with the Minister to discuss the matter. I have a copy of all the relevant correspondence. We have not been able to secure that meeting and the House goes into recess for Easter tomorrow. The situation is completely unsatisfactory. The diocese of Brentwood has not received a clear steer from the Government. It is not a matter simply for the trustees, because Our Lady of Lourdes school is being forced to expand as a result of Government initiatives that clearly have not been thought through properly. It is all very well telling schools what to do in key stage 1, but that impacts on key stage 2. Parents in Southend, West must walk all over my constituency or travel half a mile or two miles because the sibling rule no longer applies to the allocation of school places. It is absolute chaos.

I hope to be lucky in the ballot and to initiate an Adjournment debate about assisted area status for Southend, West. However, perhaps the Minister will have a word in advance with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about regional selective assistance for my area. Fourteen companies in Southend wish to benefit from that initiative, which offers particular assistance to manufacturing industry. Unemployment in Southend is approximately one and half times the national average and about twice the average for the east of England. Unemployment in Southend is 2 per cent. higher than in Luton and is about the same as in Brighton and Hove. Total employment in Southend over the next decade has been forecast to decline by 6.8 per cent. I hope that the Minister will do what he can to persuade the Department of Trade and Industry to grant the area regional selective assistance.

I am sick to death of writing to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. Under this Government, we read about new policies in the newspapers. An article in The Times of 25 March entitled "Swifter justice for victims of bad lawyers" stated: Ombudsman will be given power to speed up complaints process". I had absolute proof that a particular solicitor was guilty of entrapment—I will not detain the House by recounting the details. The case went before the Solicitors Complaints Bureau three times and the ombudsman found in favour of the complainant three times. Yet the Solicitors Complaints Bureau threw out the case.

A few weeks ago, hon. Members were invited to a reception in this place. We were told that our constituents would be able to call a dedicated telephone line and have their legal matters dealt with immediately. However, there is a backlog of 32,000 calls at present, and it is obvious that Government have not funded the service properly. I am not having a dig at any solicitors who are in the Chamber this morning—[Interruption.] Perhaps I am having a gentle dig at them. It is unfair that the adjudication panels should contain a majority of three or five solicitors.

My final point is about modernisation of the House of Commons. I do not care where we are on life's journey: everyone's life is of equal value. I am sick of all the garbage that we are being fed about modernisation. I think the House is being treated with contempt. We all know what is happening on the Floor of the House—which is why I have had to raise seven items—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)


Mr. Amess

That is why I have been forced to raise eight items this morning. According to the report of the Select Committee on Modernisation, hon. Members will soon conduct debates in the Grand Committee room.

The so-called experiment on Thursday mornings is not working. I am a member of the Select Committee on Health and my colleagues are suffering withdrawal symptoms when I must attend debates in the House on Thursday mornings. They believe that the Committee process is weakened because I am not there to question witnesses, and the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), is finding it impossible to rearrange meeting times. I think that the whole modernisation process is absolute garbage. Our constitution is being destroyed, and the wonderful opportunity we have to raise issues for three hours on Wednesday mornings is more valuable than the time we spend debating many other matters in the House.

10.28 am
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I am delighted to participate in the Adjournment debate this morning. I assure the Minister that I have only one issue that requires his attention: the closure of a printing works in my constituency.

The works has been operating for 50 years and used to be known as Carlisle Web Offset. It had some problems in the 1960s, and was saved by a then Member of Parliament, Robert Maxwell—some hon. Members may remember him. All sorts of things have been said about Mr. Maxwell, but the reality is that he saved workers' jobs in my constituency and the company has been viable ever since. It became part of the British Publishing Company and was later subject to a management takeover.

Recent events, however, have proved rather disturbing. On 13 March last year, Richard Warner from Investcorp wrote to me to say that the company was making a bid for the British Publishing Company, to which the printing works in my constituency belongs. He asked me whether I would support the bid in his dealings with the Office of Fair Trading. I was not happy about it at the time and I suggested that we should meet to discuss the issue.

I met Mr. Warner in the House on 24 March last year, when he gave me assurances about job security at the Carlisle plant and future investment in the plant, which had old equipment and needed modernisation, as printing works regularly do these days. He asked me again if I would support his bid to the Office of Fair Trading. I declined to do so but assured him that I would not oppose the bid.

On 4 April, the Financial Times carried an article about Investcorp's promises to the Office of Fair Trading. It quoted Mr. Richard Warner as saying that there would be no more than 350 redundancies over the next four years and no more than 140 redundancies in the first year. On 16 April, The Independent carried a similar story saying that the only redundancies would be due to the merger of the two headquarters. I have a copy of a press release from Mr. Warner in which he gave assurances that there would be no manufacturing job losses if the takeover went ahead.

On 26 February this year, the work force received an ultimatum from the managing director of Polestar, which is a subsidiary company of Investcorp and runs the printing works in this country. The ultimatum was that the plant would close unless there was 100 per cent. acceptance by the work force of a deal that meant that there would be no future investment in the plant; 52 redundancies, leaving a work force of 169; an immediate pay reduction of 10 per cent., and a reduction in overtime rates. The company wanted the answer within a week.

To summarise, the workers were told that they had to increase productivity by 25 per cent. and take a pay cut of 10 per cent., and if they did not agree within seven days, the plant would close. The management knew that the proposals would be totally unacceptable, and the entire work force rejected it. Not one member of the work force could bring himself to vote for those proposals.

The first that I knew about that was when I was contacted by the local media—in stark contrast to the lobbying that was done when the company wanted my support for its bid to the Office of Fair Trading.

I understand that the Department of Trade and Industry approved the bid last April, but because of the serious situation at the factory, I agreed to meet a member of Polestar's senior management, Mr. Tony Rudston, at his office last week to try to negotiate a rescue package. I was told that there was no chance of the decision being reversed. He said that the printing work done at the Carlisle factory was being sent to other Polestar plants in the UK and that the redundancy package offered to the work force in Carlisle was considerably less than that offered to the workers at a similar factory in Milton Keynes which had been closed. Mr. Rudston said that that was because the Milton Keynes work force were not to blame for the redundancies.

I know that the Graphical, Paper and Media Union was anxious to negotiate with Polestar to try to save the plant, but Mr. Tony Rudston refused to negotiate. I understand that he is difficult in negotiations and that the union finds him difficult to work with. Having met him, I can understand the union's problems.

I raise this matter in the House to put on record what has happened in my constituency because of Investcorp. That is not a British company; it is an asset-stripping company and its money comes from Bahrain. Investcorp lied to me, to the work force and, I suspect, to the DTI and the Office of Fair Trading. If that is the case and the Government were misinformed, we need to know whether there is any possibility of the Government taking legal action against the company to find out if any redress can be made. The company has robbed my constituents of their livelihood and is cheating them on their redundancy money.

10.35 am
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I think that the House will have great difficulty adjourning at all. I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and on the problem of hedges, about which I have had any number of letters. I have also had a great deal of correspondence on the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill).

I want, however, to follow the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). Yesterday, we had yet another glossy document full of soundbites and the language of the business school. Frankly, its announcement was a moment of hilarity. There were references to "modernising government", "developing", "involving", "listening", "supporting", "helping" and "engaging". The Prime Minister said: The new issues are the right issues: modernising government, better government, getting government right", and he talked of joined-up government. The statement was an all-time low for this Government.

I say that because I have a specific constituency concern that preoccupies not only me, but almost every Member of Parliament in the south, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the hon. Members representing Portsmouth, Southampton and the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand). That concern is the Government's absolute refusal to take any responsibility for the A3 at Hindhead. In the past 18 months, I have communicated 26 times with the Government on that subject. Every response is an exercise in Sir Humphrey techniques.

Initially, we had every hope that the A3 scheme would be approved as part of the trunk roads review. The A3 at Hindhead is the most appalling spot on that road; it is the only single carriageway stretch. The A3 is a strategic route on its way to Portsmouth and the continent. A modern country needs a modern transport system. I am sure that the Government would endorse that language. They have refused to give a straight answer on this issue.

The Government's transparent stalling device was to announce a consultation exercise on whether tolls would have a part to play. No Government will ever approve tolls at Hindhead because they would lead to rat-running, and that problem is already destroying villages. In December, I wrote to the Minister of Transport and asked specific questions, and I received the following reply: Government Offices will shortly be consulting the Regional Planning Conferences … on the specific terms of reference for each study. They will then discuss among themselves the priorities for the studies. That is Sir Humphrey language, and it is buck-passing. I had asked the Minister of Transport what the timetable for that consultation process is, who is responsible and when he will visit Hindhead. For the past three months, I have been unable to discover the answers to those questions.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office to give a categoric assurance that his Government do not use ministerial visits and the receipt of delegations as a form of patronage. Do they use them to reward their Back Benchers for good behaviour, as it is widely said they do? It is unacceptable for Members of Parliament, who have been misled by all the undertakings given during the trunk roads review, to be unable to secure a visit from a Minister concerning a scheme as serious as that as the A3 at Hindhead.

With great difficulty I managed to get a delegation to the former Transport Minister, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), but only by stressing the fact that I was a Privy Councillor—when we were in government, we would never have turned down a delegation led by a Privy Councillor. However, almost all my colleagues say that they cannot get access to Ministers.

The Government proclaim the importance of modern, joined-up government, but what about accountability? Ministers are responsible for the trunk roads scheme and for the fact that motorists are now charged £33 billion to support the Chancellor of the Exchequer, although only one sixth of that sum is ploughed back into road schemes. If the Government are not prepared to act, they should at least be prepared to tell those concerned directly and straightforwardly. It is not good enough that Members of Parliament should be passed from pillar to post.

We now have the Government office for the south-east, the regional planning conferences and the Highways Agency. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire and I have had more embarrassing meetings with some of these authorities than at any time in our parliamentary careers. The individuals involved simply look embarrassed, shuffle their papers and say, "These are political decisions", or, "These are ministerial decisions." The personnel change and, on occasion, a different agency will be said to be responsible. That is not satisfactory in terms of ministerial accountability.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to point out to his colleagues that if the Minister for Roads and Road Safety is placed in the Lords and is a former general secretary of the Labour party, he is not someone with whom many Opposition Members have natural contact. I seek information about the timetable, the individual responsible and when the Minister will visit.

There have been delegations, petitions and Adjournment debates, and we have contributed fully to all the consultation exercises, but that is not enough. The Minister needs to come to see the A3 at Hindhead for himself. Only in that way can I be sure that he is fully aware of the problem and understands why there is such great concern.

The A3 at Hindhead is crucial to the economic development of Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight. The Confederation of British Industry has made that clear, as has the trade union movement. The part of the A3 in question lies in some of the most internationally significant landscape in this country. It is magnificent National Trust land, which is why some years ago a tunnel was announced as approved Government policy. This part of the A3 is destroying beautiful villages throughout the area.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the extent to which the shire counties were treated vindictively in their funding settlements. Their settlements are such that they are having great difficulty maintaining health, transport and social services. The Government's refusal to act at Hindhead means that Hampshire and Surrey are under ever greater pressure to come up with transport packages that will help to mitigate the damage to villages such as Churt, Thursley, Haslemere and Grayswood. This is their number one priority.

This year, I believe that my right hon. and hon. Friends have had more letters about transport than any other subject. When my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) recently held an Opposition day debate on road schemes, I and many others without success tried to contribute, such is the interest in this subject.

It will be difficult for the House to adjourn because of the many issues that hon. Members want to raise, but it will be especially difficult if our adjourning involves a journey through Hindhead. Those who spend their high days and holidays on the Isle of Wight will once again find that it is almost impossible to move.

To summarise, I want specific answers that the Minister may like to put in writing. Please will he help me get answers to questions that I first asked in December? I want to know who is responsible, not the name of the agency. Who is the individual project manager? What is the timetable? When will the Minister visit?

10.45 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is always a delight to be present for the three-hour Adjournment debate, and it is just the same for the Opposition. It is especially delightful this morning because despite the great philosophical sweep that we sometimes hear from Opposition Members about where they stand on market forces, non-intervention and all the rest, when it comes to constituency cases, all those grand ideas fade away.

We heard first from the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) who wants more money. He blames the new Labour Government for the fact that hedges are growing too high, although I rather suspect that they were growing 18 years ago, too. He wants regulations to control hedges—let it be known that a Tory Member of Parliament asked for more regulations, despite moaning about the other 2,000 for the rest of the year.

We then heard the butcher from the midlands, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). Given that he is anti-Europe and anti-Common Market, although he developed such attitudes long after I did—after the single market, as a matter of fact—it is remarkable that he was asking for harmonisation of abattoir charges within the European Union. I would have thought that, as a purist anti-marketeer, the hon. Gentleman was off message.

Mr. Gill

I take this opportunity to confirm that I am implacably opposed to economic, monetary and political union in Europe. I want that on the record for everyone to see. I was not saying that I wanted harmonisation; I was saying that we should do nothing in this country until we have a level playing field with the rest of Europe.

Mr. Skinner

I thought that a level playing field meant harmonisation—the hon. Gentleman can twist the words as much as he likes, but that is what it sounds like to me. He was followed by another Tory who wanted, among other things, a lot more money. Of course, the same fellow walked through the Lobby in the debates on the Budget, saying that the Labour Government were taxing too heavily. He voted God knows how many times against spending money.

We then heard from the representative from Surrey who also wanted a lot more money, not for just anyone but for Hindhead and her constituency, and for the Isle of Wight where she spends her holidays.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey said that she wanted assistance for Portsmouth and Southampton, but above all she wants a straight answer to a straight question. She wants to avoid evasiveness.

Mr. Skinner

Now that the right hon. Lady can no longer resort to talking about the grand business of government—she was involved for the best part of 18 years—she has to talk about the blockage in Hindhead. She has raised the issue several times. Had she asked me for advice when we were voting on the Budget, I would have told her: "For God's sake, don't vote against tax increases because you'll need that money for Hindhead." If we sit here long enough, we see and hear all the contradictions.

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman says that if we sit here long enough, we see all the contradictions. Does he accept that I saw the contradiction when he voted to cap Derbyshire county council last year?

Mr. Skinner

As a matter of fact, I feel quite happy about that. We asked for an extra £3.9 million from the Government. Ours was the only county that made it. Because I am a good old-fashioned trade union negotiator, I managed to persuade my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to come up with £2.9 million. I thought, "Get the cash." So everybody in Derbyshire, including the hon. Gentleman's constituents, is deliriously happy that Skinner and his mates—not the hon. Gentleman—decided to get an extra £2.9 million for Derbyshire. To get £2.9 million more than the original settlement is not a bad day's work.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) raised the important issue of breast cancer operations at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital in the light of a tragedy involving one of my hon. Friend's constituents, who unnecessarily had a breast removed. To compound the tragedy, we now know that there was a recent case of unnecessary breast removal in Bolsover, which apparently was not known about until further investigations took place. It happened a short time ago. That tragedy has now been revealed and we suspect there might be others.

I am calling upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, in his inquiry, to require that the records be examined of all cases of breast cancer over the past 10 years at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital, with a view to ensuring that there are no more of these tragic cases. This would put the minds of many people at rest.

Secondly, there is the white finger issue and the chronic bronchitis and emphysema settlements. As a good trade union negotiator, I think that we have pulled off £2 billion for the chronic bronchitis and emphysema payments, not £2.9 million, for up to about 100,000 miners. I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a few weeks ago at Question Time to give us a chuck on. I was not too sure whether he understood my language, but 2 billion quid ain't a bad figure.

We have secured another £500 million for the white finger settlement, which will affect another 30,000 claimants. That must be good.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows a bit about this subject and he will understand that the lawyers will be taking a slice of the money. I want him to help me and others to ensure that they do not get their hands on too much of it. The money should go to those who need it, such as retired miners who are coughing up their lungs. Where husbands have died, the widows should receive their entitlements.

Medicals will be taking place, and we do not want to spoil the ship for a hap'orth of tar. Let us not have stories coming out from the coalfields that doctors and other medical people are telling various claimants who are on the borderline that they will not be getting the money. Let us err on the side of the claimant so that a great achievement, which we worked on for seven years, is not made less good. After seven years of struggle, the Labour Government inherited the problem in January 1998, and they have managed to settle the issue within about 15 months. That is not bad. We do not want some of the doctors and lawyers to spoil what is an extremely good achievement.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will hear many more complaints during this three-hour debate. I am sure also that many of them will be contradictory. However, will he pass on all relevant information to ensure that we can resolve the problem of the breast cancer business at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital? Will he ensure also that the 2.5 billion quid that is going out to former miners will be paid in full?

10.54 am
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Before the House rises for the summer recess—

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

The Easter recess.

Mr. Maclean

Yes, the Easter recess. We have a modernising new Government and I am very progressive. I went ahead of my time.

Before we rise for the Easter recess, like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), I have a number of issues to bring to the Minister's attention. Like my hon. Friend, I find this three-hour Adjournment debate to be one of the most important features of our parliamentary calendar. Given the way in which the Government are sidelining, ignoring, bypassing and diminishing the status of the House, this debate, which may be of amusement to those outside the House who do not understand our procedures, is one of the few and vital opportunities that we have to present certain issues to the House.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is no longer in his place. I listened with fascination to his plea that action should be taken against 30 ft leylandii hedges. I can tell Labour Members that, as a deregulator, I do not think that we knew that we needed new Government powers to control these hedges; we merely need to deregulate pesticide legislation to some extent. I can tell the House that I had a springer spaniel who could kill a 30 ft high leylandii hedge within two days of adequate watering. That may be a solution that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals may approve of.

I wish to bring to the attention of the House the effect of the Budget on our constituents. The past week in my constituency was very interesting. The constituents whom I met and the letters in the constituency postbag suggested that people were beginning to fume about the Budget. It seems that only now have people become aware of some of the details, and they do not like them very much. They believed the Chancellor's wonderful spin on Budget day and the gullible news reports on it afterwards. However, the pensioners with savings have now discovered how they will be fleeced. Married couples have now spotted the Chancellor's rip-off, in that the married couple's allowance ends one year before the tax credit comes in.

Motorists have spotted the extra 17p per gallon of petrol. No wonder our hauliers are planning to register in France when we consider the punitive rates for diesel and vehicle registration that the Chancellor has imposed on them. Every commodity will rise in price as transport costs for British lorries rocket. Alternatively, we shall find that foreign hauliers will take over goods haulage traffic in this country. I am certain that that will be of great benefit to our environment!

My constituency postbag has been inundated with complaints from parents who are concerned that the Government are destroying local playgroups. Of course they are destroying them. Playgroups just do not fit the Government's dogmatic model of council-funded nursery education and their minimum wage proposals. It is rather a fitting memorial to this touchy-feely Government, who assure everyone that they share their pain, that among the first victims of the minimum wage will be young women who are looking after children.

Everyone in my constituency and throughout Cumbria is deeply concerned about roads in the area. We are concerned at the Government's destruction of the roads programme. Roads are essential to us up in Cumbria because an integrated transport network is, and always will be, just a fantasy. If we do not have good motorway links with the M6, the M74, the A66 and the A69, the region's economy will die. I appeal to the Government to press ahead immediately with completion of the so-called Cumberland gap, the last remaining stretch of dual carriageway between the M74 in Scotland and the M6 in England. The project was signed up with private finance initiative funding before the general election. Indeed, the Labour party in Cumbria was boasting that, after the election, it would get the link built faster than the Tories because it could run PFI better than the Tories.

Mr. Martlew

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the previous Government knocked the project out of the roads programme? I was told by a senior member of the Highways Agency that the then Government considered that the road from Carlisle to the Scottish border was going nowhere. It was the right hon. Gentleman's Government who knocked it out of the roads programme.

Mr. Maclean

I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. That is nonsense. Before the election, the project was signed up with PFI funding. If it was not, there was no point in the local Labour party saying that it would get the road built faster because it could arrange for PFI funding faster than the Tories. The funding agency made it clear that all the contracts were ready to be signed. Such contracts are never signed during an election period. However, what has happened to the project now?

Before the election, when Labour was in opposition, it promised that the Cumberland gap would be completed rapidly after the election. In fact, the project has been in limbo for the past two years. That is nonsensical. Everyone knows that this stretch of road must be built sooner rather than later. The Government should authorise the project to go ahead now. I am not calling for Government funding for it. Instead, I am calling for the PFI and the deal which is on the table to be given the go-ahead.

Almost every week there is a fatal accident on the A66. The accident rate seems to have increased alarmingly in the past few months, and I suspect that it will get worse as traffic volumes increase and the pressures on that road get worse and worse. I argued with the previous Government, of whom I was a member, for dual carriageway along the whole length of the road. I have not changed my argument one iota and I am putting it to the present Government

None of us is asking for the road to be completed immediately. We are not asking for miracles, but there is deep concern in Cumbria that the Government's road strategy does not contain a long-term plan for the road. We would have been satisfied if the Labour Government had said, "We can't build dual carriageway immediately, but, over the next 10 or 15 years, we will pick off the worst stretches and build a bit of dual carriageway here and another bit there. We can't go any faster than the last Tory Government." I could not have criticised the Government because I would not have had a leg to stand on, but that is not what they have done.

The Government seem to have adopted a ploy that my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) has come across on her patch. The ploy for stalling work on the A66 is a safety study. We will, of course, co-operate with the safety study, but we do not need a safety study on the A66 to tell us that the bad stretches at Temple Sowerby and at Warcop are absolutely disastrous. The safety study is being used to kick the issue into the long grass. We need a long-term plan and the Government to say, "Yes, we will continue the slow progress of the last Government. We will continue as we can, picking off bits and building the dual carriageway sections." That is all we are asking for; we have not even got that.

I wish to touch on the deep concern in Cumbria about the continuing collapse of the rural economy. The £120 million announced by the Government for special aid for farmers is nothing compared with the billions being lost by the farming industries. In any case, in the near future, farmers will bear the cost of the cattle movement scheme, the specified risk material costs, the rocketing and out-of-control meat hygiene costs and possibly even a pesticides tax. Added together, those measures entirely wipe out the £120 million special aid package.

Although I am not calling for Government funding for the pig sector, it receives no aid at all. The situation is disastrous: 50 per cent. of our nation's herd could be wiped out by the end of the year, with up to 12,000 jobs being lost and more than £1 billion of pigmeat imports being sucked into this country to replace our home-produced pork and bacon. That foreign pigmeat—you will know this from your constituency experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, if you could, you would support us in our plea—will be everything that the Government and consumers apparently detest.

That foreign pigmeat will be fed on the BSE bonemeal material, which is banned in this country. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office nodding his head at that. The sows producing the pigs will be kept in stalls and tethers, which were banned on welfare grounds in this country. British pigmeat is the cleanest, most welfare-friendly product in the world, which the Government and the supermarkets apparently all want. In that case, the Government should support it and take action against inhumanely produced imports, which are killing off our welfare-friendly products. Time is not on the Government's side; they must act now, before it is too late.

I will say nothing about small abattoirs and local butchers. I could not match the eloquence or the knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who spoke earlier.

The Government must also make sure that Milk Marque is not carved up in answer to the pleas of the big dairy companies. I know that the Department of Trade and Industry is looking at a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on Milk Marque and I appeal to it not to listen to the siren voices of the dairy companies, which wish to destroy it. In European terms, Milk Marque is not large; nor is it a monopoly. If it is carved up, dairy farming in this country will be put back to the bad old days of the 1930s, when even the Milk Marketing Board was not invented. That would be a further tragedy for our hard-pressed rural industries.

My last point on the rural economy is a simple reminder to the House that we still have the ridiculous beef on the bone ban, and the ban on beef exports has still not been lifted. We had a great fanfare announcement from the Government many months ago—it was like yesterday's announcement—that the beef export ban would be lifted and that they had achieved agreement because of their wonderful, cosy relationship with Europe. It is still in place and our beef farmers are no further on, after two years of the Government boasting that they could change things radically—faster than the previous Tory Government—because of their special relationship with Europe. All that that special relationship has brought us is more words, more spin, more glossy booklets and no real action.

I conclude on an issue of major concern for all the people of the United Kingdom, which has a different tone from the other points that I have raised—the wholesale release of terrorists without a single gun or bullet being handed in. When the legislation was rushed through the House, some of us warned the Government and appealed to them not to be so naive; but, of course, nothing must be allowed to stop the so-called peace process, which cannot be questioned. The evil Omagh bombing was swept under the carpet, almost as if it were a slight abberation, rather than a deliberate, cynical act by Sinn Fein-IRA to exact yet more concessions from a British Government who are willing to do anything to keep the peace process going, which is what it really was.

If the killings are all carried out by means other than the explosion of big bombs, they do not seem to be properly reported, in case that slows down the peace process. Some peace process; Sinn Fein-IRA have used it to regroup. After all, they do not have to rearm, do they? The Government have let them keep their weapons.

The figures released by the Northern Ireland Office and quoted in Hansard, which I have researched during the past few weeks, speak for themselves. These are the terms that the Northern Ireland Office uses: Casualties as a result of paramilitary style shootings". There were 24 in 1996 and 72 last year. The Northern Ireland Office refers to Deaths due to the security situation".—[Official Report, 4 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 697–702.] There were 14 such deaths in 1996 and 54 last year. It refers also to "Bombing incidents"—14 in 1996 and 117 in 1998. There were 84 "Shooting incidents" in 1996 and 132 in 1998.

That is the record of what the Government have achieved so far in the peace process. The knee-capping and bludgeoning rate is three times what it was, the murder rate is four times what it was, shooting incidents have almost doubled and there are eight times as many bombing incidents. There is not much peace there for the people of Northern Ireland, if I may say so. To add to their misery, the Government have released 248 of some of the worst terrorists and murderers that this country has ever seen—and we have had not a single gun or bullet in return. There will be a return—one in the back from Sinn Fein-IRA.

Last week, we saw the sorry spectacle of the Home Secretary—a man whom I respect—trying to stop the release of three terrorists from prison. That is a bit late from a Government who have already released early 245 pals of those terrorists. What other concessions to terrorism will the Government make this week, or even as we speak? I do not share the belief of some of my hon. Friends that this is the last day on which the House will sit before Easter. The House may not adjourn today and, if circumstances continue to deteriorate in Northern Ireland, I hope that we do not adjourn until we have had a proper discussion on what is happening and full statements from the Government.

It looks to me as though the IRA has been given everything that it has asked for from the Government. It is demanding that the current deadlock, which it has created, should be removed in its favour. Its members have been released from prison, without a single gun being handed in. They are permitted to be elected to a democratic Assembly, without a single gun being handed in. I am very much afraid that, soon, the Government may let them become Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, without a single gun being handed in.

As we approach Easter Sunday, we will see one group of men, who are responsible for the deaths of thousands, being invited by the Government to sit round the Executive table in Northern Ireland, with a gun in one hand and the equivalent of a Red Box in the other. Some miles away, in Yugoslavia, other evil killers will be bombarded with all the bombs and missiles that we can throw at them. Slobodan Milosevic's big mistake was not employing Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein as his negotiators. If he had done so, perhaps American Senators might have wanted to rush over to keep the peace process going. Then, Milosevic could have continued to commit atrocities and kept his arsenal intact, just like Sinn Fein-IRA.

As a former Territorial Army officer, I totally and utterly support our armed forces whenever they are engaged in the service of this country. They always do their duty unquestioningly, and I give them my full support for the difficult task that they face in the Balkans.

The Government have adopted a high moral tone over Yugoslavia. As Easter approaches, I am reminded that their pronouncements on Milosevic sound like the denunciations of Christ by Caiaphas, the high priest, while their behaviour with Sinn Fein-IRA reminds one of Pontius Pilate washing his hands. Perhaps the only accurate description can be found in the words of Jesus himself: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

11.10 am
Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

A recent article in The Observer described my home town of Wolverhampton as one of the country's greenest and cleanest cities. An analysis of the Government's statistics on nitrogen dioxide air pollution has shown that my constituents can breathe cleaner air than the residents of Mayfair, Kensington and Knightsbridge, as well as many other towns and cities in this country.

The newspaper did get one thing wrong; Wolverhampton is not a city—yet. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the council is bidding for city status, but he can rest assured that I am not asking him to leap to the Dispatch Box to say that Wolverhampton is to be granted city status—although we hope that that takes place.

I wish to refer to the importance of urban forestry and the threat that it faces. Wolverhampton's air quality is due to a variety of factors, one of which is the large number of mature street trees in the town. We have more than 13,000 trees lining the main highways—we have more trees by our highways than in our major parks—most of which were planted at the turn of the century.

The importance of mature trees in our towns and cities goes beyond their aesthetic beauty. We now know that they filter air pollution, counter the impact of rain storms and reduce the risk of flooding, increase biodiversity and aid economic regeneration. However, we know that they must be looked after and carefully managed. Currently, the responsibility lies with local authorities. The experience of conscientious local authorities, such as Wolverhampton council, has shown that that task can no longer be left to them; there is a role for central Government.

The greatest threat to mature street trees is open-cut trenching by utility and cabling companies. Any Member of Parliament whose constituency has experienced extensive large-scale cabling knows the damage that that can cause to trees. Open-cut trenching—particularly by machinery—can damage tree roots, and leaves trees susceptible to drought, pollution, pest disease and instability. As it can take up to five years for a 100-year-old broad-leaf tree to die, the consequences of open-cut trenching are not immediately obvious. Wolverhampton council has calculated that open-cut trenching is responsible for 75 per cent. of the loss of mature street trees.

Utility companies are aware of the problem. In April 1995, the national joint utilities group introduced guidelines for working near mature street trees. However, the guidelines are voluntary. They do not carry the same obligations on utility companies that tree preservation orders place on individuals.

Some utility companies take their responsibilities seriously; others do not. The practice of paying contractors what is effectively a piece rate on the length of run that is excavated encourages careless open-cut trenching, which does the most damage to tree roots. Reducing the number of inspections on contractors' workings means that there is less effective monitoring. The number of times a highway is opened up by utilities increases the chances of damage.

One of my constituents is Professor Chris Baines, a well-known environmentalist. He lives in one of my constituency's most beautiful roads, which is characterised by its 100-year-old broad-leaf trees. He told me that, last year, the entire length of the road was opened up five times by different utility companies, all by open-cut trenching. Frankly, it will be a miracle if those trees are still there in 10 years' time.

There is one utility company known to me that takes its responsibilities seriously. Last year, Midlands Electricity—noticing that I had tabled questions on the subject—invited me to its headquarters in the black country to see the development that it had made in trenchless technology.

Midlands Electricity now has a policy of avoiding open-cut trenching whenever possible—partly to reduce the disruption to traffic and pedestrians and partly to reduce damage to the environment and those wonderful trees. It has developed something called computer-assisted three-dimensional digital mapping, assisted by pneumatic moles and directional drills. Time prevents me from going into the technical details.

The important point is that the result is that Midlands Electricity does most of its work using trenchless technology. The company has found that open-cut trenching is more expensive. By using trenchless technology, it has reduced the cost of cabling by 46 per cent. Not only is the policy environmentally friendly, it is cost-effective. If Midlands Electricity can do that, why cannot other utility companies?

I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to pass on the message to Government colleagues that there is a need for a national strategy from the Government. Leaving it up to local authorities will not work, and relying on tree planting will not solve the problem either. Utility companies need to be encouraged by various means—the carrot as well as the stick—to make greater use of trenchless technology.

We need more effective tree preservation guidelines for street trees. People with a tree preservation order on a mature tree on their property know exactly what can happen if they do not look after the tree. I would like the same tough guidelines to apply to street trees. I am reluctant to use the phrase "joined-up government"—it seems to cause mirth—but that is what is needed. The responsibility lies with various Departments; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Trade and Industry and, possibly, the Treasury. They must work closer together, and with practitioners and experts such as the national urban forestry unit, whose headquarters is in Wolverhampton.

It is easy to take our mature street trees for granted. We often do not notice them until they are gone. I would argue that urban forestry is not an optional extra, but a necessity. If my constituents are to continue to enjoy breathing good-quality air, we must ensure that these mature street trees are safe for generations to come.

11.18 am
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I urge that the House should not adjourn until further consideration is given to the crisis in the defence medical services. As we hear of the tragedy in and around Kosovo, we become aware that nothing could be more useful to our armed forces than to have access to first-class medical facilities. Unfortunately, those are not readily available now. It is widely accepted by the Government that the defence medical services are in crisis.

"Defence Cost Studies 15"—which was implemented from 1994—proposed to focus the defence medical services in one single centre of tri-service excellence, which would have been the Royal hospital, Haslar, in my constituency. It was intended that the hospital should be built up from 200 beds to 330 or 375. In fact, following management difficulties, that did not happen.

We now have a service in crisis. Most of our armed forces have been cut by 30 per cent., but the defence medical services have been cut by about 40 per cent. We now have about half the number of doctors that we need, and about three quarters of the nurses. Many facilities and faculties are on the edge of collapse. There is a need for 11 surgical posts, of which seven are overseas. There are not enough surgeons to man those posts. These facts come from a Ministry of Defence booklet, "Defence Medical Services—Strategy for the Future", where the crisis is widely accepted.

The Government's solution is—would you believe?—to close the only tri-service hospital, Haslar, although it is widely recognised in the defence medical services that removing the current centre of medical excellence and building another elsewhere will exacerbate the crisis. As I have told senior officials, if Haslar is closed, it will take 20 years to rebuild defence medical services. If that rather extreme analysis is questioned, let me point out that such services are consultant based, and that it takes 20 years to train a consultant in all the skills required in the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force. We cannot man defence medical services with migrant Australian doctors and pull them in when they are needed; we need people who are trained in war skills as well as medical skills.

There is some rationale in the Government's plan. They have said, for instance, that a district general hospital needs a catchment of 500,000 people, and that there are not that many people in the Gosport and Portsmouth area. It must, however, be possible for an arrangement to be reached between the national health service and the Ministry of Defence, whereby Haslar could specialise in fields in which it was already supreme, such as surgery, ear, nose and throat, burns, gastroenterology and dermatology, and doctors, nurses and other staff could be trained in other specialties in other hospitals in the south Hampshire area.

It has been said on the Government's behalf that MOD hospital units provide the training that doctors, nurses and other paramedics need. Although such units are widely praised in the Government, I can say—following extensive consultation with those in the defence medical services—that the units at Derriford, Frimley and Peterborough are not working well from a personnel point of view. They may provide the medical services that are needed, as well as providing medical training, but they do not provide the way of life sought by those who join the armed forces. People are leaving the defence medical services in droves because they are not given the back-up that they need.

As might be expected, this is an issue of deep concern in my constituency. We are having the time of our lives demonstrating its local importance. I called for a rally and march, which took place on 24 January. We thought that a few thousand people might attend; in fact, 22,000 marched to save Haslar. At the suggestion of a local councilor—a Labour councillor, it must be said—we manned the local park. We wrote "Save Haslar" in letters 11 metres high and 6 metres wide, and about 1,500 people formed a long line stretching to the hospital, which was indicated by an arrow. All that took place at 6.45 pm. Following a loudspeaker announcement, we held up torches and wrote "Save Haslar" in lights; that appeared live on television. Last Wednesday, we took a petition to No. 10 Downing street, and on the same day I presented a petition in the House. Each petition was signed by 50,000 people or more. We have demonstrated just how much local people care.

The Government have said that they will consult widely on the closure of Haslar and the future of defence medical services. I was able to present in the House a petition bearing the corporate seals of Gosport, Fareham and Havant borough councils, Portsmouth city council and Hampshire county council, all of which had pleaded for Haslar to be kept open to maintain proper provision for both civilians and defence medical services. Surely, if consultation means anything, that should be enough to show how strongly people feel. More than 100,000 people are treated at Haslar annually, of whom some 80 per cent. are civilians, and the hospital deals with more than 20,000 accident and emergency cases.

One question must surely force the Government to maintain Haslar. Anyone involved in politics will remember the war of Jennifer's ear, which involved the delaying of a little girl's ear operation at the time of the last general election. The Labour party, which was then in opposition, blamed the callous, uncaring Conservative Government for not providing funds to enable the operation to take place earlier. Let me make a different point. There is no doubt that, if the accident and emergency unit at Haslar is closed, lives will be lost between the Gosport peninsular and the nearest other accident and emergency hospital. What message will the Government send to the bereaved when those lives are lost?

I put that point graphically because it is a real point, which is of public concern. It should also be of political concern, and I therefore urge the House not to adjourn until the Government have undertaken to consult genuinely, and to allow a delegation from south Hampshire to speak to senior Ministers. Such a delegation should plead with the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Health to allow Haslar to remain—not just because it is a centre of local excellence for the civilian population, but because we in south Hampshire care deeply about defence forces, of which defence medical services form an integral part.

11.26 am
Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

I want to raise matters connected with the single gateway, a subject that does not sit neatly in one Department and, although important, is not urgent. It does not find a comfortable slot in our normal Chamber timetable, and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise it today.

I note that Ministers have started to refer simply to the single gateway, rather than the single work-focused gateway—possibly because those who get their hands dirty dealing with clients had started to use the near-acronym "Swarfega". It is fine to refer to the single gateway—a gateway to government support and services—but we must not lose the word "focus" in the implementation, even if we lose it in the name. There are three reasons for that.

First, the Government's specific aim is to provide a single point of access to a range of services, not just to the benefits system. Secondly, the general economic aim of the Government's welfare-to-work policies is to increase the sustainable level of employment by putting more recipients of benefits in touch with their local labour markets. We are already doing that with the new deal. Thirdly, the general aim of the single gateway and of welfare reform is to change the whole culture—to move away from the question "How much should we pay you in benefits?" and towards the question "How can we help you to become more independent?" Providing people with opportunities to work in the open, intermediate and sheltered labour markets is one of the principal ways of doing that.

I am proud to be a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, which visited Australia last November and, in January, produced a report entitled "Active Labour Market Policies And Their Delivery: Lessons from Australia". In Australia, separate Department of Social Security and Commonwealth Employment Service local office networks were integrated in September 1997, and a new agency, Centrelink, was formed. Centrelink offices act as gateways to benefits and a wide range of Government services, assisting unemployed people, students, families, homeless people and aboriginal people. They serve as a unified point of delivery for services that were formerly delivered by four different Departments. More than 400,000 appointments are booked each month, half a million decisions are made each week and 232 million payments are made each year.

The concept is, however, deeply compromised by the separation of the job network—a network of agencies competing to provide job search, advice and assistance for unemployed people—from the Centrelink operation. For unemployed people looking for work in Australia, Centrelink is the point of registration and classification, but Centrelink staff are not allowed to advise clients on their choice of job network provider. They are not able to act as personal advisers to those unemployed people. Nor are they able to access 90 per cent. of the vacancies that are available in Australia, as those vacancies are held by job network providers.

As we look to implement the single gateway, we need to learn such lessons from elsewhere. It is essential that the Employment Service and other employment and training agencies are built into the single gateway from the start. It is essential that the single gateway does not become benefits driven. I am happy to say that the Select Committee on Education and Employment is about to embark on a joint inquiry with the Select Committee on Social Security. That will be one factor that will figure prominently in our inquiry.

The single gateway has the potential to revolutionise the way in which people see and experience the Government's role in welfare and work support. There is an opportunity to realise the aspirations of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office in the White Paper that was published yesterday, "Modernising government", in which he states: Better provision of better services available from government at all levels is central to the approach of Modernising Government", and it is central to the concept of the single gateway. However, the first four pilots for the single gateway begin in June, and eight more are due to follow in November. I wish to register a concern that we may be missing a once-and-for-all opportunity in two areas as we move towards implementing the single gateway.

First, the pilots risk being an emaciated test of the potential of the single gateway. They will be run for three years, but will deal only with new benefit claimants—a total of no more than perhaps 30,000 each year in each area, 75 to 80 per cent. of whom will be jobseeker's allowance claimants.

Those pilots are much too modest in scale and too restricted in scope. For example, those who want to claim the new range of in-work tax credits, in-work housing benefits or child benefit only will still have to go through the existing system, which will be run alongside single gateway interviews and arrangements. The Government's drive towards greater integration of tax and benefits policies must be matched with greater integration of tax and benefits delivery. Indeed, we need to incorporate benefit "payments out" from Government with "tax payments in", just as they aim to do in Australia.

Secondly, the single gateway is justifiably championed as a significant step towards joined-up government, but we cannot have joined-up government unless we have joined-up information. The single gateway must be championed as a significant step towards electronic government as well.

Although face to face contact with personnel advisers will be central to the success of the single gateway, the concept of the one-stop shop is simply not location bound. Centrelink in Australia, for example, makes extensive use of the internet and plans in the near future for claim forms to be electronically available, completed and dispatched back to benefits offices.

That electronic access offers the potential to help the Government to achieve their policy aims, but it also raises important questions about how we prevent such access from adding further to social exclusion. Patterns of personal computer ownership and of internet access are skewed, with a male, middle-income bias. The same is true of card-based information access and storage methods. Smart cards and magnetic strips all display that bias in their use.

The most widely used technologies are those found in the home: telephones and television. Telephone call centres have been used extensively and effectively in Australia. They have been used in the UK successfully with Employment Direct. I welcome the fact that the call centre will be the base for four of the single gateway pilots that will start in November in Somerset, Buckinghamshire, Gwent Borders and Calderdale, Kirklees.

It is the development of digital television that presents the opportunity to ensure that we have service access through a medium with which people are familiar and which can be navigated using controls that need not be very different from those that people are already used to. However, that presumes that public information and public service channels are part of the digital television age.

Public information and public service channels are not a priority for digital television service providers. Jane Stephenson of Granada Sky Broadcasting spoke for the whole industry when she said recently that public service information "is not a priority". GSB's programme content, for the moment anyway, is largely driven by the commercial formats that it has chosen, so home shopping is much more of a priority than, say, information on social services. The danger is that structures will be set now in a way that will inhibit the use of DTV for electronic public services.

The issues are these. What regulation or incentive will be needed to ensure public service access through DTV? How will the costs of DTV access for people on low incomes be met? Now is the time to consider those questions: while the ground rules for DTV and its technology are being set, before a dominant provider emerges and before the negotiating hand of the commercial organisations is strengthened in relation to Government.

If the Government's vision for a single gateway can be expanded in that way, it can live up to its advance billing as a radical and far-reaching reform. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will play his part in that development and will pass my concerns on to those colleagues who are involved in that important project.

11.37 am
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

It has been a fascinating debate, as recess Adjournment debates always are. The problem is that, as the debate progresses, we find that we have many similar points and points of mutual interest when a constituency issue is raised, and that we want to comment on everything, but I will leave that to the other two Front-Bench spokesmen because I want to make one substantial point on a major issue of concern.

I am struck by the number of occasions when we have seen the connection between food and health. They are critical to our fellow citizens. For example, I take the contributions of the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who were both concerned about breast cancer. I am sure that every hon. Member has unfortunate, sad, tragic stories from constituents of how the system has failed our society in terms of diagnosis, prevention or treatment.

The specialist scientific report for the European Union directed our attention to an apparent connection—I put it no stronger than that—between hormone-treated beef that the United States is seeking to export to the European Union and the incidence—indeed the increase—in breast cancer. Food and health march together and we should never forget that.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) correctly identified a major problem in the way in which we treat our most vulnerable citizens. There is an almost precise replica of the situation that he described at Bridge hospital, in his community, at St. Lawrence's hospital in Bodmin in my constituency, which serves the whole south-west. Again, health is obviously central to our concerns.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) talked about the problems that our food industry is facing. Again, there will be major implications for the health of the nation if we do not get the right balance between nutrition, food quality and health. That is why I am so delighted to see the report of the special pre-legislative Select Committee on Food Standards. I take some responsibility for that Committee because, as a member of the Select Committee on Modernisation, I was enthusiastic about the idea of proper scrutiny before a Bill is set out in black and white. I shall refer briefly to the wide ranging and urgent implications of that Committee.

The problem with pre-legislative scrutiny is that it takes time, and we do not have much time in which to improve the situation. The Committee is saying that important nutritional issues are at stake.

I should declare an indirect interest in that my wife is a director of a famous traditional grocer's shop in Cornwall. Hon. Members who come to the best part of the British Isles for a holiday during the recess may care to call. Although, of course, I cannot advertise the shop, everyone knows that we have the best speciality food in the United Kingdom, if not the western world. My wife is a director, and I am a shareholder. Whether what I have to say about the Food Standards Agency will impinge on that enterprise, I know not. However, hon. Members would be well advised to head west over the next few days.

The Food Standards Committee report rightly draws attention to the continuum from food safety through quality to nutrition. It is difficult to divide those factors up. That is why I find it difficult to accept the Government's apparent limitation on the role of the agency. We should listen carefully to the Committee, because, particularly when it comes to information rather than advertising, it will be difficult to draw the line at which the agency should stop.

Recommendations 5 and 8 are extremely important. Recommendation 13 deals with connections to specific agencies that operate under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Other hon. Members may have dealt with the Pesticides Safety Directorate or the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. The hon. Member for Ludlow has joined me several times to look at the work of such directorates. If their work is totally divorced from the agency, the agency's work will be much depleted.

Most importantly, the Meat Hygiene Service must be brought under the control of the independent FSA, and it must be properly accountable to Parliament. The current crisis in the abattoir industry has been some time in coming. When Labour Members sat on the Opposition Benches, many of them joined me in attacking the previous Government over the MHS, recognising that it would not be properly accountable. It is critical that we should bring those burdens on the food industry under control.

Mr. Rowe

Is there not a serious danger that the FSA will find all sorts of ways to lay restrictions on the British food industry? If supermarkets are going to demand certain standards of production from British producers, should we oblige them not to buy from foreign producers who produce to a less stringent protocol?

Mr. Tyler

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says, and only wish that I had received such support during the previous Parliament: the problem was important then, and it has got worse. A level playing field is needed, not just to be fair to the industry, but to provide consistent quality for consumers.

The way in which the FSA is responsible to Parliament—and therefore to our constituents—is a critical matter. The special Select Committee has taken its own experience of considering the issue—drawing members from both the Agriculture Committee and the Select Committee on Health—as a template for dealing with the matter. Before the general election, I suggested that this matter was so crucial to the nation that the agency should not be responsible to any single Whitehall Department, but to a Select Committee along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee. Accountability will be crucial.

Funding is another issue. The Government initially proposed to impose a flat rate on all eligible food establishments—a food poll tax. The outrage expressed throughout the country has, I hope, made Ministers think again. I am delighted to see that the special Select Committee report discards that idea in no uncertain terms, saying: We believe that the flat rate principle is contrary to natural justice and we recommend that the Government implement a graduated system following its consultation exercise. I hope to hear an early announcement that that will happen.

I can illustrate the absurdity of the initial proposal with an example from Inverness. I visited a small family bakery last Tuesday. It has 11 small outlets in villages around Inverness, and the total initial bill for the 12 establishments would be £1,000 a year. The enormous supermarket a few hundred yards away would pay £90. There is something basically so illogical about that ludicrous proposal that I hope the Minister can tell us it has been kicked into touch.

Mr Gill

Does the hon. Gentleman support the principle that the cost of the FSA should be charged to the trade, or does he share my view that if the Government impose regulation or inspection on an industry, the Government should pay for it?

Mr. Tyler

As the point, principal and core objective of the new agency is public health, which must be a core responsibility of the Government, core funding should indeed come from the taxpayer's purse.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I am up against time, and the hon. Lady may not have a chance to speak herself if I go on too long.

If there must be some contribution from the industry—the Select Committee makes some suggestions but I have no time to go into them—it must be based on square footage. That is quite easy to work out; the House considered the matter in relation to Sunday trading. However, as the hon. Member for Ludlow said, funding is a core responsibility of Government because public health cannot be more important.

The report refers to the responsibilities of the FSA in international terms. Having recently been to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, I recognise that our agency will have an input within the European framework on issues such as BST hormone treatment, meat, milk and the American tendency to try to create a new food imperialism.

I shall refer briefly to a specific case in which the FSA is urgently required. In this respect I note the remarks made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) about the need for an even playing field.

Last summer, on 17 June 1998, in a debate on the Food Safety Act 1990, I referred to the case of Duckett and Aldridge, specialist cheese makers. I do not want to repeat all the arguments in that debate, except to say that I had the support of the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) in drawing attention to the extent to which the so-called hygiene police were disastrously overreacting in that case. If that case is to be a model of how the Food Standards Agency will operate, we are in big trouble, as we shall be imposing great and unjustified bureaucratic burdens on smaller specialist, craft food producers and processors.

We all owe a debt to Messrs Christopher Booker and Richard North. Some years ago, they published a wonderful book, illustrated by the inimitable Willie Rushton—it is therefore good Easter recess reading—entitled "The Mad Officials—How Bureaucrats are Strangling Britain". Incidentally, it was published in 1995 and deals with the 15 years of Conservative Administration prior to that date—so let none of us think that such bureaucratic burdens are anything new.

In last June's debate, I pointed out that the Ministry's attitude to small producers was entirely unacceptable.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I know a little about the case to which my hon. Friend is referring. I also know that excellent book. Is not one of the problems the fact that the offences he has mentioned are treated as absolute offences—in which no mitigation is available for having employed the best available technology and taken every possible precaution? If a company is found to have transgressed, it can be put out of business, despite the fact that it is doing an excellent job in producing a wholesome product.

Mr. Tyler

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend—who, coming from Somerset, will be very well aware both of the circumstances and of their repercussions over the entire food industry, not only in the south-west but across the country.

Just last week, at a special meeting of the Farmers Club, I met some of the people involved in the case, and for a specific reason. Although the Department of Health lost the case, it lost on a technicality. Consequently, one very good producer and one very good wholesaler of cheese are effectively uncompensated and are in danger of being run out of town and ruined. Moreover, currently, they have no redress; indeed, the very reverse applies. For reasons that Ministers will not explain to me, the Department of Health will appeal the case. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will be able—although not today—to extract an answer from the Department of Health on exactly what it is doing with taxpayers' money in trying devastate two extremely valuable food processors and wholesalers.

The text of last June's debate shows that the Minister for Public Health was woefully misinformed about the nature of the action taken by her officials. In attempting to explain to other hon. Members and to me what had happened, she was not able to give us the full picture. I shall give only one example. She said: A 12-year-old boy developed not a minor tummy upset but renal failure, was put on dialysis and was found to have an E. coli 0157 infection."—[Official Report, 17 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 343.] That is just not true. The boy had recovered by the time he was given renal treatment, which he had been put on for purely preventive purposes, to ensure that there was no recurrence of the disease. He was not put on dialysis because he was suffering from a major problem. The nature of the Minister's reply suggests that the hygiene police were in extraordinarily defensive mode. They not only overreacted, but subsequently covered up their mistakes.

If the incident is an example of the way in which the Food Standards Agency will operate, there is a very big problem of which all hon. Members should be aware. I trust, however, that the Government will take full account of the advice of the special Select Committee. We surely have to ensure that our fellow citizens are able to make an informed choice of food. They will therefore have to know when food comes from a foreign source with lower animal welfare standards, and less stringent legislation on labour and global environmental impact. We have to accept that it will not be sufficient for the Food Standards Agency simply to worry about risk; it will have to be concerned with the entire continuum, through quality to nutrition.

I believe that the citizens of the United Kingdom—our colleagues and our constituents—have every right to be confident in the quality of good British food. However, unless we are very careful, many manufacturers, processors and wholesalers of that quality food will be out of business before the Food Standards Agency has even started work.

11.55 am
Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

I should like briefly to speak about an injustice that is being done not only to my constituency but to most of the other areas in the former English coalfields. The injustice is compounding the problems caused by the industrial, economic and social cataclysm that followed the 1984 strike, in which 190,000 jobs directly related to the coal mining industry were lost. The jobs were lost not in metropolitan areas, where the unemployed might eventually have had access to other jobs, but in small towns, villages and hamlets such as those in my constituency—Featherstone, Hemsworth, Upton, Ackworth, South Elmsall, Crofton and South Kirkby. Those communities have little or no infrastructure, and no access to other local jobs.

The injustice is continued governmental underfunding in assisting those areas' regeneration. The injustice is unwitting and is, I fear, a product of how our statisticians work. Current measures of deprivation result in funding regimes that inadequately reflect the true deprivation of former coalfield areas. Local authority funding levels in all coal mining areas are very low, and, in the current review, European funding—which was previously the one saviour of our communities—is in danger of being lost.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is increasingly relying on only one index—the index of local conditions. Consequently, a variety of funding regimes will increasingly be based on that one index.

I do not want to engage in some type of competition, demonstrating how poor my area is compared with other deprived areas. I shall leave such a competition to other people, as I think that it would be unprincipled to argue that other deprived areas should lose funding. Nevertheless, I feel that the index of local conditions relies too much on housing condition and probably also on ethnicity—thereby discriminating against areas, such as mine, where the housing stock has, over the years, been well-maintained by the local authority, and where there is an overwhelming preponderance of people from an ethnically white background.

The European Union relies on various indices of deprivation. Eligibility for objective 1 funding—which is the highest-level funding that might be available to Hemsworth, or to any other area in the English coalfields—is determined on the basis of gross domestic product output per head. To be eligible for such funding, areas must be at 75 per cent. or less in the index. An independent analysis of the communities in my area shows that we are probably at about 75 per cent., or just marginally over it. Therefore, we should be able to receive objective 1 money. Sadly, however, the European Union does not propose basing its analysis on district level in determining eligibility for those funds.

In determining communities' eligibility for objective 2 funding, however, the European Union uses a secondary index, based on district unemployment levels.

Unemployment is notoriously difficult to measure. Over the years we have seen disputes in the House and elsewhere over the true level of unemployment. In Wakefield, which is the district in which my constituency lies, the official level of unemployment is 9.1 per cent., which is less than the European Union average. I believe that that dramatically understates the situation in Wakefield, Hemsworth and throughout the coalfield area. Wakefield district lost one in 10 of all jobs lost in the coal mining industry since 1984. A total of 190,000 jobs were savaged for reasons that we all know. Wakefield lost 20,000 of those jobs—one tenth of all the coalfield losses. That is the equivalent of 63 jobs per 1,000 people in my area.

How can the unemployment statistics get it so wrong? One clue that might lead to a solution to that riddle lies in the health-related statistics for the Wakefield area. In Wakefield, as in many other parts of the coalfield, the standardised mortality ratios are very high. Wakefield has 11 per cent. more deaths than could be expected on average in Britain as a whole. About 29 per cent. of our households—almost one in three—contains somebody suffering from a limiting long-term illness.

There is massive understatement of the true level of unemployment in the coalfield areas. In Wakefield, 29 per cent. of people of working age—it is higher in my constituency—are regarded as being economically active. That is the real clue to the understatement of the coalfield unemployment figures. I have no doubt that real employment in Wakefield as a whole is between 18 and 20 per cent.—one in five of the population. I reckon that about 40 per cent. of households—two out of five—have nobody who is economically active. How can the statistics used by the Government and the European Union so badly understate our position so that we are left without access to the resources we need for regeneration?

The villages that I represent and now live among are sinking gradually but inexorably further into poverty. Statistics show that before the introduction of the minimum wage, an increasing number of people were living on £2.50 or less per hour. The statistics on poverty and household income levels show that increasing numbers of households in Hemsworth, Wakefield and throughout the coalfield areas are sinking further into poverty.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office understands the coalfield areas and I urge him to take this message back to his colleagues in Government and tell them that the coalfields are suffering from an injustice as a result of the indices of deprivation that the Government have adopted. They understate the true level of suffering and poverty in our communities. We need help from people such as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who understands our area, in order to convince the Government that we need access to the badly needed funds for regeneration.

12.4 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I am sorry that there are many hon. Members on both sides of the House who have not been able to participate in the debate. That is most unfortunate. However, the Parliamentary Secretary and I have cut down our remarks considerably and will be speaking for rather less time than the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in order to try to answer the debate. We have heard 15 speeches which have raised some 31 or 32 issues. It would be almost impossible to deal with them all in just over 10 minutes, but I will deal with as many as I can.

Many of my colleagues have referred to the importance of this debate in the parliamentary calendar. As I saw the frustration on the faces of some hon. Members it occurred to me that the next time we do this we should continue the debate until 2 o'clock. That would give everybody an opportunity to participate. Perhaps we should ask Madam Speaker to consider limiting speeches to a maximum of 15 minutes. Those two changes would give everybody the opportunity to participate. Fifteen minutes is a reasonable limit and would enable more colleagues to get in.

This is one of the few opportunities that Back-Bench Members have to bring to the House issues that are causing them concern. Although there was no common thread running through the speeches—nobody would expect that—there was common concern to put before the House issues of considerable importance.

No hon. Member has been frivolous. We have heard some amusing comments and that is good. I am delighted that my omnibus Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) managed to contribute again. He does not abuse the time of the House. He spoke for only 10 minutes and raised eight issues. I am pleased for him that the Palace theatre in Westcliff, although dark at the moment, will have its pantomime horse back at the end of the year. I am sorry that the police horses will not be there to patrol the crowds as they go in to watch my hon. Friend's bravura performance.

We began with a serious speech from the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) who is an habitual contributor to these debates. We are glad that he has made a full recovery. He talked about the tragic incidents in his constituency and that of his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) of the two ladies who had their breasts removed unnecessarily. He made a powerful plea for a national inquiry and some national standards. I hope that his words will be heeded by his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and, more importantly, by the Secretary of State for Health. It was an important issue to raise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) talked about the literally growing problem of leylandii hedges. There is probably not an hon. Member who has not had experience of this problem. He was right to draw it to our attention. He also talked about the NSPCC's important campaign on cruelty to children. He spoke with all the knowledge of a trustee of that most important organisation. I hope that all hon. Members will back that campaign. However, it is important that we never encourage those who make spurious allegations against parents. It has reached an absurd position in some cases where the most minor chastisement of a child is interpreted in some quarters as abuse. It is important to get the balance right. He also talked about the expectations we place upon the police and he was right to do so.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made what I would call a classic speech for this debate because he focused on one issue of great concern to him and his constituency—the future of Bridge hospital. He hopes that it will not be closed. I cannot comment in detail because I do not know the hospital, but he made a cogent case which deserves a cogent and well thought out answer. I hope that he will get that from Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) illustrated how important it is that we should have in the House hon. Members who have practical experience of the subjects about which they are speaking. There can be no hon. Member who knows more about an individual subject than my hon. Friend knows about the meat industry. The Government must take to heart his plea for the owners of small abattoirs and his illustration of the plight of pig producers. It is ludicrous that some of the owners of small abattoirs are facing, within a very short time, an escalation of costs up to 10 times or more what they are paying now. That can have only one catastrophic result, which my hon. Friend pointed out graphically, and that is the closure of those small abattoirs and nobody will benefit from that. He was also right to talk about the plight of the pig industry and how ludicrous it is that foreign imports of a far inferior quality will force out our own, wonderful, home-produced pork and other pig products.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who nearly always talks about international affairs in these debates, turned his attention to Kashmir. He did the House a service in so doing. It is an immensely complicated and almost intractable problem and I will be careful what I say about it. All I would tell him is that it is right to use the Floor of the House to raise such issues. Let us hope that, with the dexterity that was not apparent when the Foreign Secretary first ventured to comment on the issue, the right hon. Gentleman will return to it and may play a part in bringing together India and Pakistan. Without their complete agreement and a binding settlement the problem will fester into the next century.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned a problem in his constituency and made some serious accusations about a company. He made them with such quiet passion that I hope that they will be investigated. If the situation is indeed as he described it, that company has behaved very badly.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) talked about the A3 at Hindhead and asked for some replies to her questions, as she has a right to do. She also mentioned the fact that Ministers have refused to see deputations. I have had experience of that problem when roads and education issues have been raised. The Minister refused to meet Members of Parliament who represent Staffordshire—hon. Members from both the main parties—to discuss education funding there, which is utterly disgraceful. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) wanted to speak in the debate and I know that I speak for him in making that point.

The hon. Member for Bolsover made an inimitable speech. Again, he showed hon. Members how to do it because in eight minutes he made some extremely pithy points. In boasting of his acumen as a trade union negotiator, he perhaps boasted too much in the case of Derbyshire, but certainly not too much in the case of people suffering from emphysema and white finger. We are all glad about that settlement and it is important that the people concerned should be paid as quickly as possible because they have suffered enormously.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) obviously has an extremely versatile spaniel. He made some good points about the road haulage industry and play groups. He ended on a more serious topic. There is widespread concern in the House about events in Northern Ireland. Many of us find it difficult to see terrorists who have clearly been guilty of the most despicable crimes being freed. My right hon. Friend went considerably further than I would go in his remarks. We must all hope that this Easter does indeed see the furthering of the peace process that was embarked upon on Good Friday last year.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) made a classic Adjournment debate speech when she talked about trees in town streets. My constituency is adjacent to hers and I know that she speaks with knowledge and authority and I support all that she said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made another powerful plea for the Royal hospital, Haslar. If we wanted an object lesson in how to put forward a case, we have only to take advice from my hon. Friend. I hope that all the peaceful demonstrations with which he has been involved will result in the only just answer, which is the preservation of that extremely important hospital.

The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) talked about the gateway to services in the light of the White Paper that was published yesterday. The hon. Member for North Cornwall discussed the Food Standards Agency and made a good point about the so-called poll tax on food. I sincerely hope that the Government will take that argument on board. I also hope that we will not see more of the ludicrous interfering, which resulted in terrible problems for the Duckett and Aldridge cream cheese producers. The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight those problems.

We ended with the speech from the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett) who made a powerful plea for some regeneration in his part of the Yorkshire coalfield. He was magnanimous enough to say that he fully recognised the fact that other areas have similar problems. We have lost our coal mines in Staffordshire and although I would not wish to enter into a competition with him, I will merely say that I am aware of the importance of his arguments, which the Government need to tackle, perhaps, more satisfactorily they have been doing.

We have had a useful debate, in which a number of important issues have been raised. Obviously, I cannot deal with every last one. In the remaining minutes I shall mention a couple more. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, in his wide-ranging speech, mentioned graffiti—a problem that, literally, defaces many of our constituencies. I hope that we will have an onslaught on that appalling menace in the next year. Let us have a clean country to enter the millennium.

A number of hon. Members mentioned this House. One reason why so many Members wished to take part in the debate and why there is such frustration in the House is that the Chamber is becoming increasingly sidelined. Although it would be wrong for me to anticipate the report of the Modernisation Committee on the Main Committee—we must look at that, read it carefully and debate it thoroughly—as I have said before from the Dispatch Box, anything that detracts from the centrality of this Chamber should be resisted and anything that can put life back into it and will make Ministers more accountable and bring them here more often to be held to account must be supported.

I am delighted to see that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, is to reply to the debate again. Please will he tell his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—who we accept has many important issues on his mind at the moment—that we would appreciate seeing the right hon. Gentleman a little more often in and around the House of Commons. He has appeared in the Division Lobby far less than any Prime Minister in recorded history and we want to see a little more of him because, after all, he is our Prime Minister.

Mr. Skinner

You lot hate his guts.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I do not. The hon. Gentleman knows that hatred is not an emotion that I find easy to embrace. I am speaking personally but I am also speaking for my party—we are not a party that hates, but a party that tries to be constructive. In that spirit, I will end by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and everyone in the House a happy Easter.

12.18 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office(Mr.paddy Tipping)

I shall carry on from where the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) left off. I am conscious that, as we speak, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland doing extremely important work. I am also conscious that, last week, he was at the European Heads of Government summit in Berlin. I also know, because I took the opportunity to look up the figures, that my right hon. Friend has missed only two Prime Minister's Question Times since he came to office and he has answered more questions at Question Time than his predecessors.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that it is important to bring life into the Chamber. There has been plenty of life, interest and debate this morning, with 15 hon. Members aising a range of constituency and wider matters. I believe that we need to look into ways to give more hon. Members more opportunities to have a say. The Main Committee has been mentioned during our debate. The report of the Modernisation Committee will be available after Easter, and I look forward to an early debate and discussion on it. Hon. Members have made various suggestions about how we should give more Members more opportunities to speak, and I am keen to look into those. I shall certainly consider carefully the suggestion that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire made about extending the debate.

I apologise to hon. Members who had no opportunity to speak. Perhaps I should get my retaliation in first. It will not be possible to reply to all the points made this morning, but I undertake to write to everyone who has raised matters. That will destroy my Easter holidays and those of some officials. I may not have the chance to travel to the Isle of Wight or taste the delights of North Cornwall.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) put his case about the problems at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital well. I am pleased that the trust there has accepted responsibility. He asked for a wider investigation, and I am pretty confident that he will get one. He spoke strongly of the need for best practice. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is being launched today. I am delighted that we have achieved that and look forward to strong, positive work from it. I give him a hint that a colleague at the Department of Health will make a statement on breast cancer treatment soon and build on my hon. Friend's phrase about early treatment avoiding later pain. An extra £20 million has already been made available for breast cancer services. Another £150 million was announced this month. I hope that, in the next day or two, we will achieve our manifesto promise of early treatment for women with breast cancer. I hope that he and the women in Derbyshire who have been so cruelly treated do not have long to wait for that.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) raised three points. I agree that leylandii is a problem and that we must find a solution. His Bill may be a trigger for action. Colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are considering ways forward and are minded to give guidance and advice, but we may end up with legislation.

I join the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and others in celebrating and praising the marvellous, life-saving work of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It must work in partnership with others. I am sure that we can achieve more and that we would, if, as he suggested, we listened more to the voice of children. There is much to be learned from the youth Parliament that he has advocated for many years.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent wondered whether we ask the police to do too much. There are strong arguments on that. The police deal with crime but are also the ultimate emergency service. I know that there have been discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers and others to define the role of the police and learn from best practice. We could learn much by comparing police forces and authorities more effectively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made a strong case for the Bridge hospital in his constituency. He knows that the Secretary of State for Health shares his concerns about the failure over many years of so-called community care. For community care to be successful, we must have real, not artificial, support mechanisms in the community. We need to offer people in Braintree, Witham and elsewhere a range of choices from residential accommodation, through focused community care in the sort of sheltered housing that he mentioned, to more diffuse community care and advice. His case can still be heard, and I will ensure that colleagues hear it.

Like the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), I come from a rural area. I noted the strength of his comments. I know the value of local abattoirs both to local employment and to animal welfare. I am delighted that he was able to meet the responsible Minister and that the Minister listened to him. The hon. Gentleman knows that no decision has yet been made on the level of charges. It is important to get this right and to try to help the pig industry. I know from my own visits that the industry feels that it competes on a far from level playing field. I am glad that we have made some progress on labelling. We need to reconsider the role of the supermarkets in that. It is important to raise standards, as he put it, for the best across Europe. It cannot be right that our producers have more liabilities than their competitors.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) spoke about Kashmir. It would be nice to have the opportunity in the Easter holidays to visit the occupied part of Kashmir. That pleasure has been denied hon. Members for many years. He knows that we must build on the 1972 United Nations Simla agreement, the core of which is his argument that we need to bring people in India and Pakistan together.

I must progress quickly. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made many points. I will write to him on them all. He and other hon. Members should note that this year's local government financial settlement has been the best for local authorities, including shire counties, since the new financial regulations came in.

I know of the concern in Carlisle about Polestar printworks. If my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) feels that there has been what I think he called lying, he must contact the Director General of Fair Trading. My hon. Friend will pleased to know that inquiries are being made.

The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) asked about the A3. The Highways Agency is the responsible body for the study on behalf of the Government office of the south-east. I will ensure that the team leader is made known to her. The study will last two years. She asked for a meeting on site, and knows that there is an opportunity for a further meeting with the Minister responsible. I hope that she will take up that offer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) spoke strongly and movingly about miners in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and elsewhere. I am delighted that we are going to put real money into their pockets to reward them for what has not been achieved in the past. It is also important to act for coalfield areas such as Wentworth and Hemsworth and use new technology to change culture to ensure that they have new investment and a new future. I am very conscious of the bids for assisted area status for new regional funds from the European Union. I understand that the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry has written to all hon. Members this morning saying that he is happy to consult them.

I was pleased by what we heard about Wolverhampton. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) has been a strong advocate of city status for Wolverhampton. The area is on the up and up. I am delighted that there is urban forestry there and that the Government intend to build on the guidelines that she mentioned. I hope that we can green Wolverhampton.

As we move to the Easter recess, perhaps we should reflect that April is the cruellest month … mixing Memory and desire". We have had plenty of memories and many more desires in the Chamber today. In conclusion, we should perhaps reflect that Easter is a period of rebirth and renewal. Both Kosovo and Northern Ireland have been mentioned in the debate. Let us hope that the pain, cruelty and torture there will end and that, in the coming months, we shall see the signs of rebirth, new life and democratic renewal.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now come to the debate in the name of the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter).

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