§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hill.]9.33 am
§ Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)
I do not usually waste the time of the House and I shall be brief today. I raise an important issue that did not arise until last weekend. The reports that appeared in many newspapers must have emanated from the Department for Education and Employment; they said that work permits for foreign footballers were to be changed drastically. Work permits are required for footballers who were not born within the European Community, and who come from Africa, south America and eastern Europe.
In general, the game welcomes an examination of the rules; they were originally made in 1975 when Britain was not in the EC, when there were only a handful of foreign players and when large amounts of cash were not involved. Criteria were laid down stating that foreign players had to be internationals, that they had to make 75 per cent. of appearances, that their work permits had to be renewed every year and that they were not permitted to take British jobs. That situation has trundled on for 20-odd years despite massive changes in the game and the involvement of huge sums of money.
There are good reasons for re-examining the rules. I shall not go into the details of the squad system, the Bosman ruling on transfers, the enormous amount of television money through Sky and all the other changes that have been made, but I believe that the system is unfair in that some clubs seem to get work permits for their players and others do not.
This is not a discussion about football, but about jobs and work. I am raising the subject today because of the unfortunate timing of the press release. All players' contracts expire on 30 June, which is the deadline by which clubs must say to players, "We are very sorry, but you are not good enough. Your contract is over and you are free to go without a transfer fee," or, "We want to keep you on." The fact that the announcement was made five weeks before that deadline, with the House rising until 8 June, has plunged many clubs into doubt and uncertainty. We are talking about some 48 players, some of whom are very high calibre, have contracts worth millions of pounds and are being paid thousands of pounds per week.
I understand that the Department for Education and Employment met the Football Association and the players' union this week for talks, but there must be an announcement from the Department in the next week or 272 so about certain issues. We have to know whether new rules will start at the beginning of next season or at the beginning of the 2000 season. How long will the talks continue?
Last season—and practically every season—600 professional footballers were made redundant. Their clubs tell them that they are not good enough or say that they want to change the team. Many of them are British. The Professional Footballers Association protest that they can be replaced by players from eastern Europe, who are probably paid only £25 or £50 a week and who think that £200 for playing in the English third division is a great deal of money. The Professional Footballers Association is worried about that and about the effect on the English national team. It feels that if all our teams carry nine or 10 foreign footballers, there is not much scope for future Beckhams to come through the ranks. Their entry at an early stage is blocked.
Those doubts have created a great deal of uncertainty concerning the 48 professional footballers from outside the EC. This very week, their clubs are deciding whether to renew their contracts and apply for new work permits starting on 30 June, or whether to take a chance on the rules being changed. They do not know what to do. I have been asked by the chairman of the premier league and other representatives of the game to make approaches to the Department and to ask for a statement. I rang the Department for Education and Employment yesterday and told them that I was raising the matter today. Instead of leaving everyone in limbo, there should be a moratorium or a freeze, and a statement saying that existing or renewed contracts will be exempt from the old regulations and will be covered by the new regulations, which will be more lax, until clubs and players know what to do.
Some of the players come from the former Yugoslavia and places such as Moldova, where there is a war. They do not know whether they will have to go home, whether their clubs will renew their contracts or whether they should go to Spain or Italy. What advice or reassurance can they get?
The new proposals, which were extensively leaked in the press, talk about young African footballers being sent here as apprentices, their schooling being paid for by British clubs that have their own outlets in Africa. African footballers have come to this country regularly via Belgium, which has strong African connections and less strict work permits. Some of the youngsters who have gone for trials in Belgium have done so without a return ticket home and have finished up virtually on the streets of a foreign country, unable to speak the language.
The situation needs explaining. I hope that Ministers can make a written statement, preferably before the end of the week, because the announcement two days ago has thrown the game into chaos.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the House this morning a situation affecting a group of elderly constituents. This is a problem of which many hon. Members will have had experience.
The problem concerns those people who, in the 1980s, were sold home income plans—very often by companies or independent financial advisers—and who remortgaged a house. The mortgages on most of the houses had been 273 paid for. People did this to release capital, which was then reinvested into bonds, usually comprising solely equity funds. As a result of the transaction, when the people who were then remortgaged tried not only to draw an income from the investments, but to pay off the new mortgage, they found that the funds simply did not marry up.
I am well aware that there are some bona fide and useful home income plans on the market of which many retired people may wish to take advantage. I am talking particularly about a period when these plans were sold—sometimes deliberately—quite fraudulently. I want to draw attention to a group of pensioners with mortgages against the property in which they live. The vast majority of them no longer have any income from the original plan, and are in a situation where interest is accruing against the value of their property.
Many have been concerned that they will be turned out of their homes. In other such cases, the building societies or the lenders—it is mainly building societies—have said that they can remain in their homes. However, when they die, or if they have to move, the building society has first call on the value of the property. The matter has gone on for so long that the vast majority of those concerned are in a situation where if the house had to be sold and the capital realised, the mortgage would have to be repaid. The building society would then recoup the whole value of the property.
As people get older, this is an anxious situation for them. Before I was elected in 1992, some of those cases were brought to me. After I was elected, I had some satisfactory outcomes in one or two places with the help of the insurance ombudsman. In some cases, but not all, the underwriting attached to the new mortgage fell within the remit of the insurance ombudsman. In the early 1990s, he and his staff were extremely helpful to some of my elderly constituents.
I still have a batch of cases which fall into a particular category. A lady called Sonja Thompson, who resided in Devon—although she has a track record of living elsewhere—was brought to court on a charge of fraud. I have examined carefully the papers that she completed on behalf of my constituents in seeking to organise home income plans for them. There is no doubt in my mind that, although she was acquitted in the court case, it is as a result of her work that many of my constituents now find themselves in an anxious and difficult situation.
One of the problems has been that the building societies concerned appeared to take no notice of the lending parameters that are usually enforced when considering making a loan or offering a mortgage to someone. It was the norm for people such as Sonja Thompson to go to one particular branch of a building society because they had made contact with an individual member of staff—one assumes the management—in that branch. Given the volume of cases over a short period that were processed by a particular branch of a building society, one must question the role of the building societies.
In my constituency, the group of people who are left in this unhappy situation have mortgages primarily with the Britannia building society. I asked the Britannia building society to discuss the matter with me last year—which it did—and I was given a written pledge that my elderly 274 constituents would not be turned out of their homes simply because the interest on the mortgage was accruing at a rate much faster than any of them could hope to repay.
That is not a satisfactory situation, and there is a need for some examination of the role of building society branches. It is incumbent on the head offices of building societies—which have reputations that they would wish to uphold—to take more responsibility for examining the way in which their staff dealt with such cases.
At the moment, I have five constituents who live in a home that has always been their home, but which they feel no longer belongs to them. They are living there by grace and favour of the building society. They know that when they die, the proceeds from that home will not go to their children or heirs, but will be reclaimed, under law, by the building society concerned. We appreciate that building societies will not turn people out of their homes, but the justice of the case needs to be examined. Clearly, these elderly people were conned, fooled and—in some cases—quite deliberately defrauded into signing an agreement that they did not really understand.
In one case, I have seen copies of documentation that has been altered by the person writing the details of somebody's income. Building societies accepted case after case without any proper scrutiny, and without checking that the information was bona fide or that the people concerned could afford to take out a plan that was in their best interests. We must look to bring some pressure to bear on building societies to take responsibility for the actions of their own staff.
Many societies will say that mortgages do not come within the Financial Services Act 1986. I accept that, but that is not the point. A building society wants to know what one earns and how one will afford to repay a mortgage, as is right and proper. I have written to the Economic Secretary this month, as I feel that I have exhausted every avenue left to me through the ombudsman, the various other bodies and direct representations to building societies.
I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to reiterate my request to the Economic Secretary to receive a delegation to talk this matter through. Some of these are complex cases, and solicitors have said that they would be happy to reintroduce some of them into the courts. However, there are difficulties because of the age of the client group. A solicitor to whom I spoke last week was willing to take the case on a no win, no fee basis, and he told me that he knows of barristers who are prepared to accept cases on the same basis. However, we must bear in mind the fact that we are talking about people who do not have a lot of money.
The problem that the solicitor has encountered has been with the Legal Aid Board. He told me of one couple, aged 82 and 79, with a total income of £137 a week. They would qualify for legal aid, but the Legal Aid Board requires them to pay £67 a month towards their legal aid costs. That is clearly prohibitive for people on a modest income, and even though the lawyers are prepared to proceed on a no win, no fee basis, the need to find £67 a month to qualify for legal aid is holding up the case.
Not all the cases are exactly the same. I have introduced the additional element of running a test case through the courts because if such a case is successfully prosecuted, many more could be resolved pretty rapidly. I stress that 275 the age of the people involved means that unless something is done quickly, even more of them will die without a satisfactory resolution.
Many hon. Members have dealt with many complex and difficult constituency cases. In the previous Parliament, we had an ad hoc all-party group that invited the building societies and everyone involved to come and meet us. I think that it was useful, although I do not know that we resolved any individual cases. Now is the time for individual action. We should call in the building societies to discuss their role, and consider how to get over the legal aid block.
Will the Minister endorse my application to the Economic Secretary? There are too many complexities for us to go into every individual case on the Floor of the House, but a meeting with the Economic Secretary and her officials, with appropriate representatives involved, would be of great assistance to my elderly constituents and those of many other hon. Members.
§ Mr. Ashton
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise to the House for having forgotten to declare an interest when I spoke. I am a vice-president and shareholder of Sheffield Wednesday, although I do not get paid. I intended to declare that earlier.
§ Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)
I want first to say one or two words about my late colleague, Derek Fatchett. I know that much has been said in the House following his untimely and tragic death two weeks ago, but I want to add to the generous comments made by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, by the shadow Foreign Secretary and by the new Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon).
When Derek's funeral took place on 14 May, there were well over 1,000 people at Leeds parish church—from all over the city of Leeds and from all walks of life, religions, races and backgrounds—who had come to pay tribute to a man who had served them very well indeed as a constituency Member of Parliament. Much has been said about his work in government, but let us not forget that he was a constituency Member for Leeds, Central for 16 years. He was a good friend of mine, and a mentor to me and to all the other Leeds Members who worked so closely with him.
I want to raise an issue that came to me through two of my constituents, a couple in late middle age with a daughter who is now in her mid-20s and who, sadly and for all sorts of complex reasons, went into prostitution. My constituency covers the area of Chapeltown, which is well known, unfortunately, for its link with prostitution. I stress that my constituent does not live in the area, but in another part of my constituency.
The couple who came to see me raised the issue not of prostitution itself, but of the pimps who make so much money in immoral earnings. Those pimps abuse the women who earn so much for them, and often steal their money and possessions to feed drug habits and expensive life styles, with fast cars and designer clothes. The women are made to suffer.
276 My constituents told me that their daughter's pimp, who must be typical of many throughout Leeds and the whole country, abused her, beat her and raped her. For all his violence towards her, it seems impossible to bring him to justice. When he is arrested after she has been beaten all night by him and his friends, she gives a statement to the police, but is forced to withdraw it because he sends his friends round. She is intimidated by his friends and allies, even while he is held in custody. The statement never sees the light of day in court, despite her bruises and the violence perpetrated against her.
The mother addressed a conference organised by the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, known as CROP. The names have been changed to protect those involved. She said:Until she was thirteen, Frances was a quiet, shy, generous, gentle child. A sudden change came with her going to high school. She was blind drunk at thirteen, egged on by new acquaintances, truanting, absconding all night, getting stranded in Manchester, shoplifting and in trouble with the police. She might have come through such a phase as many do, but at this disturbed time she fell prey to Yosh. At the time we had little idea what was going on, no sense of where it might lead and so, no chance to do anything.The mother continued:With charm and presents—and sex and drugs—he laid siege to this vulnerable young girl with no obvious hard family protection … We were, however, also suspicious and one day when challenged she said that she could not tell me what she was actually doing which was acting as a courier for drugs. It is interesting that in the hierarchy of social problems, drugs are more respectable than prostitution. Prostitution is a complete taboo, and for years we could not talk about it to anyone, not even our close friends. It is too painful to think about your daughter's life having come to this.My constituent said:She has been raped, beaten, robbed and emotionally abused. She has lost her possessions, including money from her grandfather and any jewellery, her self worth and, most recently, she has lost the care of her adorable son …Sometimes there were signs of hope. In 1995 she made a complaint to the police and Yosh was on remand for four months. It was wonderful to have him out of the way and we could sleep knowing that she was relatively safe. She had been assured, however, that if she made a statement others would come forward with corroborative evidence, but unfortunately apart from ourselves, no-one else completed what was needed. These cowardly men induce great fear and a sense of loyalty that seems to those outside quite incredible—and most frustrating! Eventually Frances was no longer able to live with the pressure that Yosh exerted from inside prison, both through phone calls and messages through his agents, male and female … she withdrew her statement … There is something wrong about a system of so-called justice that has to depend on the evidence of frightened vulnerable, essentially unprotected young women, it is not surprising that they often do not hold on through the inappropriately long delays in bringing a case to court. In addition, this episode highlighted another issue. One of Frances's friends was prepared to make a corroborative statement but on at least three occasions the police failed to keep an appointment with her,so Yosh was released.
Yosh returned once again, demanding money, and Frances returned to prostitution because that was the only way of paying for his drugs and designer clothes. It is not just the life of this vulnerable young woman that has been ruined; her family has also been destroyed. Frances has no life: she lives alone in a house and is subject to emotional and physical violence from this man. She has nothing and she has nothing to look forward to.
We need to ensure that, when there is plenty of evidence against that kind of individual, cases are brought to justice quickly. People such as Yosh should be 277 prevented from exerting pressure on vulnerable young women from inside a jail. A distinct but important point emerges from this episode. When someone is charged with various offences, they should be heard together. A dismissal of some of the charges should certainly not result in release—especially when the majority of charges have been dropped because the complainant is afraid. There is a danger that this case will never come to court because Yosh again has an opportunity to reach those who have brought the charges against him. The fear, misery and destruction of vulnerable people will go unchecked.
I hope that, as a result of the points that I have made this morning, the Home Office will examine cases such as this involving not only the pimp, Yosh, and Frances, my constituent's daughter, but other vulnerable young women in the Chapeltown area of Leeds who are at the mercy of such individuals. I hope that the police will be able to gather the necessary evidence, and that the law will ensure that those people are brought to justice and removed from the lives of so many vulnerable people—especially women who have been abused.
§ 10.1 am
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I am pleased to make a brief contribution to the debate this morning. Recess Adjournment debates provide an ideal opportunity for Back-Bench Members to raise constituency issues that it is difficult to discuss on other occasions. I raise this matter this morning on the advice of Madam Speaker. I have referred briefly at Question Time to the road infrastructure in my constituency, and particularly to the need for a dramatic improvement in the A523 road leading from Macclesfield to the village of Poynton.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) is in his place and he will know precisely to what I refer. That road improvement, allied to the Poynton bypass and the Manchester airport eastern link road—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I refer also to the A6(M)—is absolutely essential to the on-going economic development and prosperity of my constituency and the surrounding areas, particularly those represented by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), who is not in his place.
I make a vigorous plea to the Government. I managed to get the Poynton bypass and allied road projects—the A523 road improvement and the Manchester airport eastern link road—included in a priority road programme in the last months of the Conservative Government in 1996–97. Unfortunately, one of the first acts of the new Labour Government was to remove that vital road project from the road improvement and construction programmes.
The second runway at Manchester airport received substantial support in my area on the basis that an appropriate road and transportation network would be constructed to service that runway and the huge increase in traffic and customers using Manchester International airport. I am sure that all hon. Members can appreciate the concern felt by my constituents, especially those who live in the villages of Poynton, Prestbury, Withinlee and Mottram St. Andrew. The relief that they thought would be provided by the construction of new roads has not come to pass, and those villages are being submerged under a huge volume of traffic.
278 Much of the traffic from east Cheshire to Manchester, and from the south-east of Macclesfield to Manchester, the airport and towards the M56 and the M6 uses those villages as rat runs. The environment of those villages is being undermined, eroded and I would even say destroyed. Some of those areas are really delightful. Properties are expensive and people pay a great deal of council tax. I believe that they deserve greater consideration than the Government are apparently affording them by removing those vital road improvement and construction projects from the road programme.
An event of considerable importance not just to my constituency and Manchester, but to the country as a whole, is the 2002 Commonwealth games. It is essential to ensure that the appropriate road infrastructure and transport and communications networks are in place to service those games. Such projects will be vital in the lead-up to the games and the new facilities will be used increasingly upon their conclusion. I make a special plea for the Government to consider those schemes as a matter of urgency. The south Manchester transportation module—I think that is what it is called; I am sure that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove will correct me if I am wrong—must conclude its deliberations and consultations about those projects, and decisions must be taken urgently.
I am aware that the Government are seeking to transfer responsibility for those roads from the Highways Agency to the highway authority, Cheshire county council. If that is to be the Government's policy, I hope that they will allocate appropriate funds to Cheshire county council to enable the construction of what I would describe as strategic roads. They are part of the country's infrastructure. I am sure that every hon. Member will accept that Manchester International airport serves not only Manchester and its surrounding areas, but the whole country. There will be a huge increase in business when the second runway comes into operation in 18 months to two years. No roads will be built for five, six or seven years, even if the Government give the go-ahead in the near future. However, this is an urgent matter to which I hope the Minister will respond sympathetically.
The road projects are supported fully by Cheshire county council, Macclesfield borough council, Poynton with Worth parish council, local people, the chamber of commerce and enterprise and the large employers who generate so much wealth and so many jobs—Ciba Specialty Chemicals and Astra Zeneca, the pharmaceutical company. Many other companies are also urging the Government to act in this regard.
I turn now to one or two other matters that need to be raised, and on the first—developments in the health service—I make a particular plea about the East Cheshire NHS trust. I understand that there may be changes in the health service and that where community and mental health services are currently part of a united trust, they may well be separated. My area has one trust that deals with everything within the national health service, including community health, mental health and acute services.
The East Cheshire NHS trust is highly successful and efficient, and very well regarded by general practitioners, who look to the hospital to provide all the services and specialties. It has an excellent chairman in Mr. Peter Hayes, a fine executive board and non-executive directors who reflect the interests of the whole area. It would be a 279 total waste of Money to separate services from that trust, thus duplicating or triplicating the bureaucracy and costs of managing the health service. If separation took place, the trust would be a less viable proposition.
I have represented Macclesfield for 28 years, and its people feel immense loyalty to the local hospital. I put down a marker that I hope that where an area is keen to retain a united, single trust covering all NHS services which has proved to be successful, it will be able to do so.
Finally, I turn briefly to building societies, particularly mutual building societies. The Cheshire building society, which is based in my constituency, is excellent. It is Macclesfield's own; its head office is in Castle street, in the centre of the town. I got my mortgages from that building society. Another, the Vernon building society, is just outside my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove. That is also a highly popular, regional building society which does an excellent job. It is competitive and well run, as is the Cheshire building society.
A few people, however, seek to manipulate the market by buying into those building societies and then trying to turn them into a bank, which is not in the best long-term interests of the investors or those who borrow from the building societies. I am interested to note that a Liberal Democrat Member has, in the past day or so, tabled early-day motion 681, which says:That this House urges the Government, in the interests of equity, to consider raising the percentage of borrowers needed to support conversion or take-over of building societies to 75 per cent., on a minimum 50 per cent. turnout, to bring them into line with the criteria required for savers, recognising the long-term interest of borrowers in the future of their society.I have corresponded with the Government on that matter, and they are concerned, but they do not know exactly how to deal with it without, perhaps, in some way distorting the free market. However, I believe that the proposals in early-day motion 681 would be ideal. I say that as a Conservative Member who believes in the free market, but I believe also that the mutual building society movement has done a magnificent job for many decades, servicing those who want to buy houses and providing sensible, rational investment opportunities for those who want to put their money into them and receive a fair return.
I hope that the growing concern in all parts of the House about a few people who want to earn a quick buck and who have no interest in the building society movement will prompt the Government to take the matter seriously, and to limit the takeover of building societies and their conversion into banks.
I am grateful to have had this opportunity to speak. I hope that action will be taken on the road projects in my area which impact on adjoining constituencies. I know that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle fully support my remarks. I hope that the Government will respond and that even if the Minister cannot himself give a substantive reply, he will ensure that the matter is passed on to the appropriate Minister and the necessary response made.
§ Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)
I should like to associate myself entirely with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) about the mutual building society movement. I am sure that his views are shared by Members in all parts of the House.
280 The matter that I would like to raise appertains to a subject that is not only close to the interests of my constituents but, is of national importance. That matter is the Essex and Southend-on-Sea replacement structure plan, but, before eyes glaze over, I point out that beneath that tranquillising title are some important issues that affect the lives of not only my constituents, but those of other right hon. and hon. Members.
Taken at its most simple level, the structure plan deals with, among other matters, housing need and allocation in the county of Essex and the borough of Southend-on-Sea, and covers the years from 1996 to 2011. The initial plan identified certain potential growth areas in the Al2 corridor. The Al2 runs out of London towards the east coast and passes through or by Chelmsford and Colchester. It also runs through my constituency, which is between those two towns.
The identification of that corridor as an area for growth caused considerable consternation not only for Braintree district council but for Chelmsford and Colchester because the road is not sufficient for the traffic now on it, without adding substantially to the housing in that part of Essex. Following representations to that effect, which were supported by the strangely named GOER—the Government office for the eastern region—that aspect was withdrawn from the structure plan.
The plan has now been released, and the panel will inspect and receive representations, and therein lies the concern of my constituents and people from other towns and districts in central and north Essex. The inspectors on the panel have an ominously named matter No. 4, on potential strategic development locations. Amazingly, in the light of the history of this matter, those locations are Chelmsford; Hatfield Peverel, Witham and Rivenhall in my constituency; Colchester; the western side of Tendring, and Uttlesford. Four of those places are in or adjacent to the A12 corridor.
Those who have been invited to make representations to the panel include developers who have already expressed a strong interest in green-field site development on the western and north-eastern sides of the town of Witham and the eastern side of the village of Hatfield Peverel. The proposals for housing allocation on pure green-field sites could add as many as 10,000 new dwellings to those being built in or close to my constituency. Another area of concern is further north in my constituency, abutting the constituency of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), in or near to the village of Feering. All those locations are prized by developers as locations for mini towns or expanded villages.
The district of Braintree, which was created in 1974 following one of the periodic local government reviews, was allocated 10,300 dwellings for the period between 1996 and 2011. My district council assures me that all those dwellings are already built, planning-consent granted or identified except for 1,150. I am assured by my local authority officers that sites for those remaining dwellings can readily be found, and that, indeed, some of them will be brown-field sites.
The investigation of green-field sites adjacent to existing settlements under matter No. 4 makes the equation an entirely new one, going way beyond what was previously contemplated. If the district requires only 281 1,100 new dwellings, why are we considering debating and taking evidence from those who say that we should have in excess of 10,000 dwellings?
Save for the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), hon. Members may not be entirely familiar with some of the villages and towns that I have mentioned. One of the proposed developments is west of the town of Witham, which was a market town in the 1960s and 1970s, taking to itself what was then called London overspill. The building of houses in Witham at that time was entirely linked to employment; hand in hand with that development went the growth of an industrial estate to provide employment for those going to the town. These new proposals are purely speculative and will result in more and more commuting to and from Witham, Hatfield Peverel and other villages near the railway line to London.
I am concerned about this matter—I am sure that other hon. Members have similar difficulties in their constituencies—because it seems to fly in the face of our concepts of housing development and location. I try to avoid as much as I can the strange languages adopted by those in public affairs, which include such terms as "hierarchies", but I understand that if there is a hierarchy in development, it starts with brown-field sites and, only at the very last, occurs on a green-field site. Another notion, that has great merit is that of integration—integrated transport policy, for example. As I understand that, it must surely integrate with housing requirements.
There is no obvious employment need for this housing in the middle of north Essex. The road system and structure is beyond capacity at the present time. Save for the Witham and Hatfield Peverel link road, which I was pleased to be able to put before the House soon after I was elected, and which the Government approved, there are no major schemes for improving that section of road. Yet developers appear to wish to destroy what in many ways is idyllic countryside. Some who do not come from the eastern counties might not take such a poetic view as those of us who do about the scenery of that part of England. Parts of the areas that I have described are completely unspoilt countryside, which should be preserved in any event and not earmarked for speculative development.
I hope that the Minister and, indeed, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), the Opposition spokesman, will concur with my view that the Government and local authorities must be ever vigilant in staying with our principles on housing, transport and employment development, and that we should not be led along to build in areas where it is easy to build, and, in so doing, destroy our heritage and create innumerable problems for us and those who come after us.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
I assure the House that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and I are not colluding in this debate. It is fair to say that we relish the political differences between us, despite sharing membership of two Select Committees and a constituency boundary. However, even without collusion, we have reached the same conclusion.
To make it an all-party plea, I very much support the hon. Gentleman's words about the Cheshire building society in his constituency and the Vernon building 282 society in Stockport in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will be able not only to say warm words but to give some indication of positive action on that issue. I do not discount the fact that the Government have made some helpful moves, although, as we have seen with rogue shareholders in ballots, to whom the hon. Member for Macclesfield referred, such moves have not been sufficient to damp down pressure on such building societies.
The more urgent issues for my constituents relate to transport and the environment. Again, I very much sign up to the comments of the hon. Member for Macclesfield, although I should correct him on one point. It may help the Minister to know that the study to which the hon. Gentleman referred is called the multimodal study of the south-east quadrant of Greater Manchester—superb gobbledegook.
My constituents are astonished to find that they live in the south-east quadrant of Greater Manchester—I am sure that the residents of Macclesfield would be even more astonished to discover that they do so. This multimodal study is the replacement offered to me and my constituents for the necessary transport infrastructure to deal not just with today's congestion and difficulties but that which we can reasonably predict as a result of the expansion of Manchester airport.
The second runway at Manchester airport is under construction. I live in a house that backs on to a freight line on which every night a trainload of stone travels from the quarries of Derbyshire to the runway. I am grateful to the Government for arranging a rail freight grant to enable that; I do not mind my house shaking gently as the trains go by. The number of passengers at Manchester airport is expected to rise from 16 million a year to 30 million a year in three years' time. Manchester airport is of course also a substantial freight airport in its own right, so there may be further expansion in that area, too.
As a result, there will be a tremendous increase in road traffic going to the airport. The airport has an integrated transport plan. I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). I shall not comment on the Essex countryside, but when it comes to integrated transport, we know a thing or two about its absence in Greater Manchester, just as they do in Essex. The airport plans to receive 50 per cent. of passengers on public transport, which is excellent. However, if the number of passengers doubles, the number of road users will increase immeasurably regardless of the doubling of the number of passengers who use public transport.
There are several park-and-ride car parks for the airport in my constituency. Therefore, some of those who travel to the airport by public transport go by car to my constituency, park their cars and then take a bus or coach. So, for my constituents, it is something of a joke to be told, "Don't worry, half the new passengers will go to the airport by public transport."
I should like to link the pressure not just of existing commuter traffic but of the growth of the airport to the wider issue of the absence of an integrated transport policy.
The Government have made some tactical moves to improve public transport, but have not produced the strategic overview that we need. For example, they have made available rural bus grants—in my constituency, the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive is 283 taking advantage of those grants—but the grants have some unworkable restrictions. Half of a rural bus route must be on a derestricted road. None of the route can be on the route of an existing bus service. Our new rural bus services make long detours up and over Werneth Low and down country lanes in order to achieve the 50 per cent. qualification for the rural bus grant. The links between the communities are needed. On the whole, my constituency consists of hilltop communities with river valleys running between, but it is not sensible for the bus to dodge in and out of the river valleys to get the rural bus grant.
We have 40-year-old trains on our commuter lines, and there is no sign yet that North Western Trains—which now calls itself First North West—is able or willing to provide the investment that is needed.
On the specifics of these issues, which affect my constituents, and on the wider national stage there seems to be a lack of co-ordination between Government Departments and Ministers. I shall briefly draw attention to two other issues. I have mentioned the problem with transport policy. Road schemes have been cancelled and more reviews are taking place. The Labour Government have produced a weight of reviews and consultation documents on the environment and on transport which far outweighs anything that the Conservatives did. I do mean outweighs—it is a substantial volume of paper. However, there are not yet any clear policies leading to development of strategies that would help.
I have talked about road cancellation. Fuel duty has increased and there are proposals for an energy tax. I have my rural bus routes, I have my old trains; I have not got my roads, and the airport is opening. The situation cries out for co-ordinated Government action.
Transport is not the only environmental issue on which there is discontinuity between Government Departments. I am thinking of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Trade and Industry and, to an extent, the Treasury.
When I complain about that, everyone that I talk to—civil servants, pressure groups, even Ministers—tells me that co-ordination is better than it has ever been. That makes me grateful, for the first time, that I was not in the House previously, when, apparently, the integration of thinking was even worse.
We have some classics with energy—an area on which I keep a careful eye in the House. For instance, the Department of Trade and Industry is promoting renewables and trying to ensure that there are more wind farms, but, surprisingly enough, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is turning down planning applications for wind farms in great numbers. I understand that the proportion of wind farms rejected by Government inspectors is higher than that of takeaway food shops similarly rejected. That is hard to believe.
There are problems regarding other environmental issues. In relation to the achievement of the carbon emission reductions required by the Kyoto agreement to avoid climate change, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is being the good guy and the Department of Trade and Industry is not. Discussions on the reconstruction of the electricity pool system are likely to result in squeezing out of the market those who produce renewable energy and combined heat and power.
284 I ask the Minister to listen carefully to the local constituency pleas that are being made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield and myself, and to be aware that these local issues are indicative of a wider issue. We like the consultation documents, and it is great to be asked, but please may we have some decisions—some action? A multimodal study for the south-east quadrant of Greater Manchester is no substitute for a decent strategic road system.
§ Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate. I know that hon. Members have been quite brief, but I have much to say today, so I apologise in advance. I shall try to finish as quickly as I can.
I wish to use this opportunity to highlight issues affecting the spending profile, performance and abilities of one of the local authorities in my constituency—Redcar and Cleveland borough council—resulting from the present operation of the revenue support grant, the standard spending assessment and the national non-domestic rate.
Initially, I shall say a few words about the social and economic background of the community for which the council is responsible. Then I shall comment on matters affecting the SSA and the revenue support grant for the council. In doing so, I want to make some suggestions for change in the context of the present review of the revenue support grant arrangements—suggestions which I hope chime with the recent report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs.
I have been galvanised to raise that matter in this place today by the operation of the present formula, which has caused the critical barrier of £1,000 for local band D property to be broken in the borough in the current financial year. Paying a bill of £1,000 is a serious matter, but it is a far more serious matter if one must pay such a bill in an area where there is continuing high unemployment and poverty, and where, as a result of social demography and trends, the local authority is simply running up a downcoming escalator.
Let us consider some of the facts about Redcar and Cleveland. In 1984, there were 44,000 people in work in the borough area, but in 1996—the last year for which we have proper figures—there was a reduction in the employment base of 10.5 per cent. Of the adult population, 42.8 per cent. are economically inactive, and long-term unemployment, at 26.6 per cent. of registered unemployment, is rather high.
Despite all the work of regeneration agencies, there is still little evidence of independent entrepreneurship being able to change these figures. Customs and Excise figures from the VAT registration figures show low levels of new company formation.
A low level of economic activity and a history of working lives in unhealthy and dangerous conditions in shipyards, steel mills and mines leave an indelible stain on the fabric of local society. People are simply more liable to ill-health in my constituency. Sixteen per cent. of local people are seen as suffering from persistent health problems, against an average for England and Wales of 13 per cent. The morbidity ratio is 127 against a national average of 100.
285 People die earlier, too. The average standardised mortality ratio for Redcar and Cleveland is 115 against the average of 100 for England and Wales. I stress that these are averages for the borough as a whole; in some wards, the figures are far, far higher.
Low car ownership impairs mobility; 37.8 per cent. of local households have no car. That is a real problem, leading to social isolation on many of the borough estates and far-flung industrial villages.
Not surprisingly, there is a high level of dependency on welfare benefits. Twenty-three per cent. of households depend on income support, and 34 per cent. of the child population is being brought up in households where a weekly giro is the only cash lifeline available.
The index of local deprivation—an official measure, to which I shall return— sums up graphically what it means to live in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland. It is ranked as the forty-third most deprived borough in England, with 13.5 per cent. of its population in the worst 10 per cent. of all electoral wards in the country. It is simple, then, to see the scale of the problems that face my local authority—stupendous problems across the whole spectrum of service delivery.
Poverty and unemployment have an impact on schools. It is harder to motivate children whose life expectations are formed by the unemployment that has affected their parents, and possibly their elder siblings, too. It is far harder to teach children who come to school with empty stomachs, which is one reason why there is an initiative to give our children a school breakfast.
Sickness, ageing and debility have a heavy impact on the personal social services, and more than physical sickness is involved; there is a wealth of evidence linking poverty and unemployment with mental distress, failed relationships and broken homes. Human beings affected by those ills need a lot of help, delivered over a long period.
Demography also has an impact on the social services in areas such as mine, where there is a significant population loss as younger people move out in search of better opportunities elsewhere. That means that there are more elderly people isolated from family support, who need additional local authority help and support if they are to maintain their independence.
Poverty also has an impact on other aspects of local authority services. Where many people live on credit, the need for good trading standards and money advice services is paramount. People have to buy food cheaply, so the need for good environmental health protection is obvious.
Good partnerships are being built up with all the agencies within the borough, so that those problems can be tackled jointly. We need good relationships with the local health authorities so that ill health and health inequalities can be fought. We also need good relationships with the local universities, training and enterprise councils and colleges, so that lifelong learning can become a reality, and with the local business community, so that local industry can be competitive and meet the challenge of the coming millennium.
286 However, Redcar and Cleveland is being starved of the resources to deal effectively with those issues and to contribute more meaningfully to those partnerships. The impact of the standard spending assessment is totally negative.
That brings me to the second part of what I have to say: the revenue support grant needs-based formula does not reflect actual need. I merely need to point out that, under the health formula, Redcar and Cleveland's notional SSA per head, at £917, is below the £964 per head allocated to the neighbouring authority of Middlesbrough, a borough dealing with exactly the same problems.
Our £917 is dwarfed by the sum of £1,152 currently awarded to Westminster council, and by the £2,972 per head awarded to the City of London and adjoining districts. I do not dispute that there is social need in the inner city, or that the impact of a large non-resident working population has to be taken into account—but I must point out the sheer scale of the differences between the high unemployment, ill health and social isolation of the string of small ex-mining villages in my constituency, and the job and life style opportunities afforded by living in, or on the fringes of, one of the most vigorous labour markets in western Europe. The gap is enormous.
I will not go into detail about all the anomalies within the formula as it relates to elements of spending within the borough council, but I will highlight a couple of them. It is absurd that a council with a widespread pattern of settlements and towns, with the consequent need to keep the highway network up to scratch to maintain social cohesion, has been awarded £2 million less per annum for highway maintenance than the nearby town of Middlesbrough.
There is a very silly anomaly in the formula for salting and gritting snowed-up roads, which could only have come from "Yes Minister". It seems that Redcar and Cleveland has a low weighting under that formula, which is rather odd, as much of the borough is hilly and borders on high moorland. Indeed, in old Norse, Cleveland means "land of cliffs". However, the weather station on which the formula is based is outside the borough in Whitby, nearly 20 miles away, which is warmer and lower. That is not much comfort to a motorist stuck in a snowdrift.
There is more to come. When I am trying to assist constituents who are angry and perplexed about the closure of our neighbourhood library, it does not help to learn that Redcar and Cleveland has been awarded less in the environmental and cultural block than any other unitary authority in the former county of Cleveland. Indeed, it receives less than the average for all unitary authorities.
There are other absurdities. A key element in the distribution formula is the number of flats in a local authority area. That means that a borough such as Redcar and Cleveland, in which past generations of town planners, architects and housing specialists avoided the quick fix of building high-rises, and chose traditional terraces—the houses that people wanted—is penalised in comparison with those who took the alternative course.
I would like some of the experts from Eland house to explain why a poor family living in a poorly maintained street-level house is less deserving than a family living in the same circumstances on the third or fourth floor of a block of flats in a neighbouring authority. That is a riddle worth solving. They could explain, too, why the same 287 formula means that wealthy towns on the sunny south coast can benefit when their stocks of expensive privately rented penthouses and flats are assessed.
Such bizarre examples mean that Redcar and Cleveland, like many authorities, has to spend far more than its SSA if it is to deliver the services that local people demand and deserve. Such councils run slap into the gearing problems that face any authority that spends more than the nominal level. They also face the disbelief of local people, who see the contradiction of common sense presented by a constantly rising council tax combined with cuts in services.
The non-domestic rate has also hit the borough. Despite unemployment, heavy industry is still a pervasive part of the local economy—a pattern of industry which often has an adverse impact on the resident population. To say that is not to be anti-industry, and both the local council and I recognise the vital contribution that our steel and chemical industries make to both the local and the national economy, and we work with them to assist their competitiveness and vitality.
None the less, the council still has to manage the environmental and visual impact, and the effects on the highways, which it does through air pollution monitoring, maintaining a proactive planning department, and constant upkeep of the highway network.
Our local industries are big contributors to the national non-domestic rate pool. The borough collects £41.5 million to pay into that pool, but gets only £35.5 million back. That means that the council exports £6 million to other parts of the country—money which helps to keep down council taxes in other areas, which may be far wealthier than Redcar and Cleveland, and whose local population and local councils would violently resist any thought that their district, too, was a potential site for new large-scale chemical or metal processing plants.
I am pleased that the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has recommended that the business rate return to local control and determination. I hope that the Government are considering that idea seriously, and I shall make one practical suggestion that may override the resistance from the local business community.
Local businesses expect services from local authorities, exactly as any house owner or tenant would, so why can the local business rate not be ring-fenced? That could pay for the services from which industry expects to benefit—a good planning service, a good environmental health service, a good highways maintenance programme and a well funded economic development department. Those activities could be wholly or partly underpinned by a local business rate. I do not mean that Redcar and Cleveland, or any council, should expect the Government simply to write out a cheque.
My local authority has been carrying out a modernisation programme. Local councils have set up a full, rigorous process of peer group evaluation. They must accept a full, in-depth and no-holds-barred examination of their systems, procedures and methods of working. They will be expected to show convincingly that they are in touch with the electorate, and that they have built up robust and meaningful partnerships with other actors on the social stage. Their internal methods of political operation must be relevant to today's world, not yesterday's smoke-filled committee rooms.
288 I have raised many serious issues concerning services and providers. That work must be part of a two-way bargain between central Government and the local council, between Whitehall and Redcar and Cleveland's town hall. I urge my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and Housing to examine carefully the council's financial position. I hope that I will receive support from the Front Bench today.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in the Adjournment debate.
§ Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the important issue of tourism in Cornwall. Many representations have been made to me about the eclipse that is about to take place and its effect on tourist activity there.
On 11 August, there will be a total eclipse in a corner of Devon and right across Cornwall. The rest of the country, by contrast, will experience only a partial eclipse. This is an important moment in the life of Cornwall and its all-important tourist industry.
The eclipse will take place in the middle of the tourist season, and Cornwall is perhaps more dependent on tourism for its revenues than any other part of the country. Cornwall is less prosperous than the rest of England, measured by gross domestic product per capita or in employment terms—hence its success in obtaining objective 1 status.
Unfortunately, there has been ridiculous and damaging hysteria connected with the eclipse and its effect on tourism, with lurid tales of traffic gridlock, food shortages and overcrowding. In the Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on 25 November 1998, that was all graphically described. Talk of tourists being fleeced, hordes of journalists and amateur astronomers arriving, and water purification and distribution problems have led to press comment that has been deeply damaging to the crucial tourist industry in the county and for the entire United Kingdom in the run-up to the millennium celebration.
In south-east Cornwall, bookings are down by 30 per cent. so far for the entire season. The Cornwall tourist board has told me that in respect of eclipse bookings to date, the percentage of hotels with accommodation still available are Newquay 60 per cent., Falmouth 16 per cent., Padstow 31 per cent. and Looe 37 per cent.
Speaking on behalf of the self-catering industry, which is vital throughout the United Kingdom, Alice Mumford from Canonstown, near Hayle, described the situation in these terms:Self-catering has been vary badly hit by the hysteria surrounding the eclipse week. The knock-on effect of all this has meant that people are staying away for the whole summer. It has definitely affected us—we are way down on last year—I would say roughly 50 per cent.Last year, she obtained eight weeks of bookings from advertising in the national press. So far this year, regrettably, she has had none. Incidentally, she lives directly under the path of the eclipse.
On 24 May, The Times carried an article about the matter. It told us, for example, how farmers who had set up campsites to cope with hundreds of thousands of 289 visitors are now facing huge losses. We already know about the terrible state of agriculture in the UK, which has arisen particularly in the past two years.
The west country has traditionally been a major holiday area. The West Country tourist board tells me that one in six tourists come in August—the very month in which the eclipse will take place. The area's reputation is fully deserved. According to the latest Cornwall holiday survey, 35 per cent. of respondents stated that they were fully satisfied with the provision of tourist services in the county. The tourist industry in Cornwall is in most cases operated by small businesses. They are already suffering from the imposition by the Labour Government, egged on by their Liberal Democrat friends, of a whole raft of job-destroying and additional cost measures, including the working time directive, the part-time workers directive and the parental leave directive. Those impose huge additional burdens on an industry whose umbrella organisation, the English tourist board, has had its marketing function axed by the Government.
The fact is that tourists will not be fleeced in Cornwall. Extensive and comprehensive arrangements have been put in place to minimise any problems that may arise. Such arrangements do not include the crackpot ideas such as visitors road taxes that have apparently been advanced by some local councillors. There is a Cornwall county eclipse planning co-ordinator, Gage Williams, who is heading the contingency arrangements.
The Highways Agency already has a helpline in place. Two million explanatory leaflets are shortly going out to all motorway service centres throughout the country. A comprehensive traffic plan has been devised by the police, Devon and Cornwall county councils, the Highways Agency and the emergency planning services to keep the traffic moving not only in Cornwall, but on the approach to Cornwall during August in particular.
I am told by Steve Winston, the county emergency planning officer, that there will be a test run this weekend. A number of minor diversionary routes will be created with one-way traffic flows at such congestion spots as the village of Dobwalls, to get greater movement along the key A38 arterial route.
The Highways Agency is putting in more CCTV cameras along the A30 and A38 and feeder roads. There will be a contingency centre based in Cornwall, with information fed in from Devon and elsewhere. The information plan extends right up the A5 and beyond. Trafficmasters will help the police control and monitor traffic movements. So-called minutemen will be available at the time of the eclipse to help with possible breakdowns of cars. Electronic signboards will be fully operational. In other words, comprehensive measures are in place for any additional major congestion. If, indeed, the figure of more than a million people in the county in August is realised—almost twice the usual population—the matter looks clearly in hand in contingency planning terms.
§ Mr. Spring
I should like to complete my comments. Cornwall remains one of the great jewels of the British Isles. It would be tragic if the negative comments about 290 the effects of the eclipse damaged the hugely important tourist industry in Cornwall and the rest of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Tyler
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech outside the Chamber, and I am grateful to him for giving way. Is he aware that the control of the county council is not in the hands of the Liberal Democrats? It is in the hands of an all-party alliance, including members of his own party. The instructions given to the gentleman to whom he referred were given on an all-party basis. I respect the hon. Gentleman's views, but he is making an unworthy speech by making a party point.
§ Mr. Spring
Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to a word that I said. I have made no critical reference to the county council. I have made no critical reference to any Liberal Democrats or anyone else. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the speech. It is appalling that he should come in and introduce party politics into the matter, which is nothing of the kind. Had the hon. Gentleman been here at the beginning of my remarks, he would have heard me speaking about the concerns that have been expressed about tourism in Cornwall during August because of the eclipse. I very much regret the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
In conclusion, it is about time that a positive message was sent out about Cornwall and the eclipse. It would be good if all hon. Members from Cornwall could help the tourist industry there by projecting a positive image and message, as I have tried to do this morning. That would be welcome to their constituents and the entire country. The message needs to be heard loud and clear.
§ 11 am
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I should like to express vehement opposition to the proposal to use ground troops in Kosovo. In particular, a substantive motion ought to be debated by the House of Commons before any decision is taken on the matter. It is simply not the case that there is no such precedent, because substantive motions were tabled on the Falklands and Iraq.
My specific question is, how is it proposed to conduct such a campaign? The port of Piraeus will not be available to us, if the mayor of Athens is to be believed, and not a finger will be lifted by any dock worker in that port to transport supplies or personnel to a war in Kosovo. The railwaymen and others of Thessaloniki have made it abundantly clear that that port will not be available for our use. I ask a straight question: is it true, as military pundits have said, that, without the availability of Thessaloniki as a port, it would be impossible to sustain a military engagement in Kosovo for more than a fortnight?
Furthermore, precisely how is it proposed to conduct such a campaign? Macedonia has made it clear that it will not act as a springboard for an offensive against neighbours with whom Macedonians will have to live in the coming centuries. The Hungarians have the problem of 350,000 ethnic Hungarians living in northern Yugoslavia, on whom retribution could be wreaked. As for Albania, what consideration has been given to the inadequate facilities of the port of Durres and to the fact that the roads peter out into dirt tracks near the Kosovo border? Furthermore, there are 6,000 ft high mountains. 291 Before any decision is made—and if any decision is to be made during the recess, Parliament ought to be recalled—a thorough explanation of what we are up to should be given to the House of Commons. It is entitled to that.
On this day, when India has threatened an air strike against rebel peoples, as it puts it, and has defied Pakistan to interfere, I can remark only that, once people embark on the kind of action on which we have embarked in Yugoslavia, it can be catching. I ask for the Government's reflections on the report of Lieutenant-General Satish Nambiar, the head of mission of the United Nations forces deployed in the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1993. He is a former deputy chief of staff of the Indian army and is currently director of the United Services Institution of India.
Lieutenant-General Nambiar says:My year long experience as the Force Commander and Head of Mission of the United Nations Forces deployed in the former Yugoslavia has given me an understanding of the fatal flaws of US/NATO policies in the troubled region. It was obvious to most people following the events in the Balkans since the beginning of the decade, and particularly after the fighting that resulted in the emergence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, that Kosovo was a 'powder keg' waiting to explode. The West appears to have learnt all the wrong lessons from the previous wars and applied it to Kosovo.Lieutenant-General Nambiar makes four points. First, he says:Portraying the Serbs as evil and everybody else as good was not only counterproductive but also dishonest. According to my experience all sides were guilty but only the Serbs would admit that they were no angels while the others would insist that they were. With 28,000 forces under me and with constant contacts with UNHCR and the International Red Cross officials, we did not witness any genocide beyond killings and massacres on all sides that are typical of such conflict conditions. I believe none of my successors and their forces saw anything on the scale claimed by the media.I should like to hear a comment on that.
Lieutenant-General Nambiar's second point is that itwas obvious to me that if Slovenians, Croatians and Bosnians had the right to secede from Yugoslavia, then the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia had an equal right to secede. The experience of partitions in Ireland and India has not been pleasant but in the Yugoslavia case, the state had already been taken apart anyway. It made little sense to me that if multiethnic Yugoslavia was not tenable that multiethnic Bosnia could be made tenable. The former internal boundaries of Yugoslavia which had no validity under international law should have been redrawn when it was taken apart by the West, just as it was in the case of Ireland in 1921 and Punjab and Bengal in India in 1947. Failure to acknowledge this has led to the problem of Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.Lieutenant-General Nambiar's third point is that itis ironic that the Dayton Agreement on Bosnia was not fundamentally different from the Lisbon Plan drawn up by Portuguese Foreign Minister Cutilheiro and the British representative Lord Carrington to which all three sides had agreed before any killings had taken place, or even the Vance-Owen Plan which Karadzic was willing to sign. One of the main problems was that there was an unwillingness on the part of the American administration to concede that Serbs had legitimate grievances and rights. I recall State Department official George Kenny turning up like all other American officials, spewing condemnations of the Serbs for aggression and genocide. I offered to give him an escort and to go see for himself that none of what he proclaimed was true. He accepted my offer and thereafter he made a radical turnaround. Other Americans continued to see and hear what they wanted to see and hear from one side, while ignoring the other side. Such behaviour does not produce peace but more conflict.292 Lieutenant-General Nambiar makes a final point. He says:I felt that Yugoslavia was a media-generated tragedy. The Western media sees international crises in black and white, sensationalizing incidents for public consumption. From what I can see now, all Serbs have been driven out of Croatia and the Muslim-Croat Federation, I believe almost 850,000 of them. And yet the focus is on 500,000 Albanians (at last count) who have been driven out of Kosovo. Western policies have led to an ethnically pure Greater Croatia, and an ethnically pure Muslim statelet in Bosnia. Therefore, why not an ethnically pure Serbia? Failure to address these double standards has led to the current one.The Indian view—that of a man who had first-hand experience—at least ought to be reflected on before we embark on the folly of starting a ground war, the result of which can be known to none of us.
§ 11.8 am
§ Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)
I wish to raise a number of points before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, but first I want to congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. Following our previous debate—and unlike some Ministers who say that they will write to hon. Members, although we never hear from them—he wrote to me on every subject. I am grateful for that and if he does the same again this time, I should be delighted. However, I should be grateful if he tried to get some information on the final point that I shall raise.
I enjoy the history and tradition of this place, although that enjoyment is not shared by everyone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on organising the banquet which will celebrate the 900th anniversary of Westminster Hall. The first recorded great event held there was the Whitsuntide banquet of 1099, which was attended by William II, who was known as William Rufus. I understand that the event has been organised by the all-party arts and heritage group. It is a wonderful idea. There has not been a banquet in the hall since the coronation of George IV in 1821, although a lunch was served there for the Queen shortly after her coronation.
It is in that connection that I take this opportunity to say that the House's decision on Monday to devalue this Chamber further was a disaster. I stood in despair as I watched hon. Members vote. I am totally opposed to what has been proposed. Some people patronisingly remind me of what was said about Select Committees. However, in the same way that I believe that the decision to televise our proceedings was disastrous and devalued this place, I think that it is utterly ridiculous to have a second Chamber. The House will come to regret it.
On the same patriotic note, and given the way in which the United Kingdom has been broken up, increasingly I think that St. George's day—a subject that in some respects is a little controversial—should become a national holiday.
The Minister will not be surprised by my second point. It concerns the Palace theatre in Westcliff-on-Sea, about which I am sure that the House awaits a report. Sadly, it is still closed. I and my constituents are not at all happy about that. When I telephoned the theatre's support group, I was told that the theatre's board has been seeking bids to run the theatre, either as a package or in small, franchised pieces. The latter option would involve, for example, running the bar as a separate business.
293 Apparently, the decision is to go for one company to run the lot. Several companies have been spoken to, and an announcement of which will run the theatre will be made. However, the support group feels that time to organise the Christmas pantomime—which I understand will be entitled "The Labour Government Since I May 1997"—is running short. However, lottery officials are to visit my constituency, and all interested parties can turn up to find out whether extra money will be available. I hope that I will soon be able to report that the Palace theatre has reopened.
My third point concerns the organisation representing the combined Irish regiments. At my last constituency surgery, a very important person in that organisation came to see me. I shall not name him, as he does not want any publicity, but the April edition of that organisation's journal stated:The M.O.D. has decided to seek the sale of the Duke of York's Headquarters which is government property and … within a year or two the Regiment's period here, begun in 1912, may come to an end.It adds that the council of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea—"and others"—is entirely opposed to the sale. I have received a letter stating thatthis unique and historic Headquarters is home to a number of famous London Territorial Army Units, some of which have been there since the turn of the century, and have gone off to Two World Wars from there.To allow the site to be sold, just to realise"—money—from commercial developers, would be an act of extreme folly and would deal a tremendous blow to the morale of the Territorial Army. The start-up costs of transferring Units out of the Headquarters to smaller, overcrowded premises should be seriously considered and this move out will certainly have a serious effect on the recruiting and retention of TA soldiers.This is a serious matter. I am horrified to learn that, so far, two rooms in north London have been offered as a replacement for the headquarters. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those soldiers. I know that the Government are trying to save money, by redeploying forces and selling off property, but this treatment is appalling. I hope that the Government will do something about the problem. If they cannot, perhaps a wealthy benefactor exists locally who will save the property.
My fourth point has to do with the Consumers Association. At a splendid reception here, the association's key message was that theright to secure adequate redress in cases of maladministration or inadequate service provision has long been regarded as a key consumer principle.As Members of Parliament, we are used to people coming to us with all manner of complaints. I naively hoped that the citizens charter would be a cheap way to get redress for such complaints, as it costs a huge amount of money to have recourse to law. People groan when the working classes are mentioned, but the question of redress is very important for those on low incomes. They want to know to whom they can complain when discussions with the supplier, institution or body involved fail.
I support the Consumers Association, which considers that a comprehensive list should be available to the general public that would include the names of the 294 relevant ombudsmen. Such a list should be available in post offices, libraries, local authority offices and so on. To their credit, many companies already give such information to customers, but not all do. All utilities and public services should be included in such a list. The feedback would benefit consumers and suppliers, and reduce considerably the work load of Members of Parliament. Technically, after 1 May 1997, hon. Members have been very enthusiastic about being here, but now it seems that they cannot wait to get away.
My fifth point concerns the disabled. I shall speak not about the shambles on the Government Benches last week that led to the Government's majority being reduced to 40, but about the problems caused by the requirement for medical examinations. I am sick to death of people who are clearly unwell coming to my surgery and complaining about the medicals that they have to undergo. They are humiliated by the experience, and often lose their benefits.
I am not a doctor—there are any number of doctors among all the other experts in the House—but any fool could see that the people who come to me are unfit and clearly suffer from a range of disabilities, such as ME. They are not fiddling the benefits system.
§ Mr. Amess
The Government Whip, from a sedentary position, says that the previous Conservative Government are to blame, but, for more than two years, we have had a Labour Government who said that everything would be different. If the Government do not like the present system, they can forget all that hogwash about working with the amounts of money already committed and change the system.
My constituents believe that the Government are trying to save money by reducing benefits to the disabled. I am beginning to think that they are right. I am not at all happy that, when my anxious constituents undergo a so-called medical—from doctors whom I shall not name—which at best is perfunctory, they then stand to lose all their benefits at the subsequent tribunal. I hope that the Minister will try to do something to help, as my constituents are not trying to con money out of the system.
My final point is really urgent, and I hope that the Minister will try to respond to it. Yesterday, a distressed constituent, Mrs. Kim Ansell, telephoned my office. Her husband, Barry Swain, a self-employed lorry driver, owns his own truck and at present is in prison in France, awaiting a hearing on 28 May. Barry and Mrs. Ansell took the truck to Lille two weeks ago, acting on behalf of a shipping company for which they usually drive. The company had asked them to pick up the trailer and load of another trucker who had been arrested. The trailer was at the Lille police station.
When they arrived, they were led into the back of the police station. Unbelievably, Mrs. Ansell was stripped and intimately searched by a young female student in front of two male officers. Her husband Barry was not stripped or searched. Both were questioned at intervals of three hours. They were told that the police were looking for stolen or forged credit cards. I know that there are always two sides to a story, but I have not had time to get the other side. I hope that the Minister will do that.
As a result of the investigations, Mr. Swain is being held in prison. Mrs. Ansell was released, and is now back in England. Her husband Barry has not been arrested but 295 is being held. She has not seen him since, and she has not been allowed to speak to him by telephone. She has been told that if she wants to go to France to visit her husband she must send her passport, birth and marriage certificates to France, which will be reviewed by the judge dealing with the case, Judge Madame Stella, who will decide whether she can see him. This is the Common Market for goodness sake.
While Mr. Swain and Mrs. Ansell were being questioned, they were told that a number of drivers are being held on remand in France in connection with credit card fraud, and that one of them had named Mr. Swain as being involved. They were shown photographs, but neither of them had seen any of the men before. Barry was not found to have credit cards on his person; nor was he on any security film with credit cards. They were told that the main culprit had been arrested in England on six charges, but was out on bail and had gone to France and was arrested. I do not think that I should name that person.
Mrs. Ansell was upset about the nature of the questioning. The subject of the death of her son was raised. He died in Scotland some years ago, and she wonders how the police knew about that. The main point that I should like the Minister kindly to help with is the length of time it took the British consul to visit Mr. Swain and the lack of legal representation. Mrs. Ansell contacted the consul on 17 May and was told that she would have to get an appointment for the visit. The consul still has not seen Mr. Swain, but apparently may visit him on 27 May.
This is a serious matter, and I should be very grateful if, before the House adjourns, the Minister could get some help for my constituent.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
These Adjournment debates are popularly referred to as consisting of short speeches, so I shall keep my contribution brief. I have three items to raise.
First, constituents are facing problems obtaining passports. We are coming to the recess, and some hon. Members may be lucky enough to be popping overseas for a short while. Many of our constituents are having considerable problems obtaining passports so that they can go on holiday. My constituents use the Liverpool passport office, and it is claimed that passports are sometimes sent out but have not been received, so duplicate copies must be sent and that involves much organisation. Some constituents have waited 10 weeks or more: their cheques have been cashed, but they have not received their passports. There is a last-minute panic, and finally the matter is brought to the attention of their Member of Parliament and arrangements must be made so that those constituents can obtain passports.
People can obtain a passport quickly by going to a post office and paying £3.20 under what is termed a partnership scheme. Whether there should be such a scheme when the general waiting list for passports is not moving is debatable, but such a system should be operated properly.
I had a case of constituents who made use of the post office facility on 28 April. As it is supposed to take 10 days to receive a passport, they should have received theirs on 8 May. They had not received them by 19 May and were due to leave for their holiday on 20 May. When the chief executive's office of the UK Passport Agency 296 was contacted, arrangements were made to post the passports that day so that my constituents would receive them in time to go on holiday. A check was made of whether they had received them. They had not, so a courier had to be sent from Liverpool to north-east Derbyshire. The courier left late, and arrangements were made by telephone that one of the relatives of the people concerned would go to junction 29 of the motorway to meet the courier. Meanwhile, a taxi was waiting to take my constituents to the airport. They managed it, but that shows the serious state of affairs.
I dealt with another case yesterday. I contacted the chief executive's office, and was told that it was also having difficulty contacting the Liverpool passport office and was obliged to send material by fax. We are checking whether the people concerned receive their passports in time. This is a serious matter, and needs to be dealt with, given that the recess is approaching. I hope that the appropriate Department will take my comments on board, and that improvements will be made so that constituents are not placed in that position.
The second problem that I want to mention concerns an issue that I have already raised in another Adjournment debate. It is about the payment of jobseeker's allowance when a firm goes into receivership. This matter was brought to my attention by the collapse on 22 April of Bryan Donkin Foundry Limited at Renishaw in my constituency. So far, 160 out of a work force of 180 have been sacked. They were entitled to moneys from their ex-employer when the receivers moved in, but must wait for the redundancy arrangements to be worked out. According to a parliamentary answer that process takes nine weeks on average.
In the meantime, those sacked workers are not entitled to jobseeker's allowance and must be dealt with through income support, which is means-tested. They are from my constituency or neighbouring areas. Out of the 160, only 10 per cent. or so receive income support, because other income coming into the family is taken into account. In one case, the claimant does not receive any payment because of his wife's disability benefit.
The Government are well aware of this problem. I wrote to the Department for Education and Employment immediately, and I raised the matter in an Adjournment debate. I received a letter from the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities, which says:As things stand … any notice payment due must be taken into account in calculating JSA during the notice period, even though it has not yet been actually paid. The Department of Social Security, rather than this Department, have the lead responsibility for this area of JSA policy. They are considering the matter in conjunction with DTI, but I understand that the issues involved are proving complex.I am not sure what the great complexities are, but this matter requires three Departments to co-ordinate their activities.
§ Mr. Stunell
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the injustice is even greater, because the longer the individual's service with the firm and the greater the redundancy payment, the longer he will be denied support from the state system?
§ Mr. Barnes
As the average period to sort out the redundancy payment is nine weeks, and the payment 297 depends on the number of years of service, the people who have waited nine weeks or more are the most seriously affected by this problem.
The Minister's letter goes on to say:There are also practical difficulties—for example, surrounding the early identification of whether or not an employer is insolvent.A distinction is made between a firm that goes into receivership, which is the case with Bryan Donkin, and one that becomes insolvent. The letter also says:DSS are unable to say when the work will be completed, but I am assured that efforts are being made to conclude the matter as quickly as possible.If the relevant period is nine weeks, my constituents are halfway through it. I hope that the matter will be resolved in time, but it seems obvious to me that it will not be, and I feel that something must be done on my constituents' behalf.
Finally, I want to say something about Yugoslavia and the NATO bombing. I have always supported the bombing of military targets, and I accept that some civilians are bound to be caught up in that and that there will be unfortunate accidents. However, I feel that the number of civilians who are being killed and injured, and whose lives are being disrupted in what is allegedly not an all-out war, is excessive, as is the number of errors. Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has argued in favour of proportionality, and I think that what she says should be seriously considered.
It should be possible to make a reasonable distinction between military and civilian targets. Military targets are military hardware and troops; civilian targets—which, obviously, should be avoided—include schools, hospitals, health care centres, housing estates, monasteries and religious shrines. A number of those have been hit, it is claimed by accident. But in which class should we place bridges, railway stations, civilian airports, public institutions, factories, agricultural complexes and telecommunications facilities? Some of those might be said to have military links, but most are basically civilian, and often civilians will be hurt the most when they are attacked. In a number of cases, civilians are being hit while military targets are merely suffering collateral damage.
The NATO high command strikes me as both inept—in terms of the number of accidents that have occurred, and to which it has admitted—and cavalier in its attempt to distinguish between civilian military targets. I hope that our Government will take account of the pressure on NATO to stick to what a number of us signed up to at the outset: an attack on military targets, rather than on the Yugoslavian population.
§ Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
I fear that I cannot emulate the grand tour of Southend, West to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) treated us earlier, as he customarily does. I shall limit myself to a single subject.
I am pleased to bring the House what I consider to be very good news of an excellent project in my constituency called First Check Point, which is proving to be 298 dramatically successful in combating the menace of cowboy builders. That is entirely due to the tremendous work of one Mrs. Hazel Jones, who set up the project and initially ran it almost single-handed.
I am sure that all hon. Members will have dealt with constituency cases involving cowboy builders. Home owners are told that a job urgently needs to be done before further costly damage is caused; builders turn up, invited or uninvited; the resulting charges may bear no relation to the cost of the job, or the time that it takes. Elderly people in particular are faced with myriad quotations for larger jobs especially, having no idea what the cost should be or how well qualified the workman who takes on the labour will prove to be.
Some unscrupulous builders take deposits and then abscond. Smaller jobs that would not be profitable for reputable traders are not taken on, and the home owner is left to the mercy of smaller, less scrupulous traders. When doing one job, a builder may create faults that require a second, more expensive job. Builders may start the work although their quotation has not been accepted, or they may make the job out to be much bigger than it is by not doing the minimum work required to deal with the problem. They may take on work that is beyond their capabilities, or they may do the work in a hurry, which results in a poor standard of workmanship. Some use the wrong materials in order to save costs; others may have too many projects on the go at the same time and consequently move from one job to another, spending only a short time on each and disrupting the householder for far longer than is necessary. Such cases lead to what Mrs. Jones describes as "builderphobia".
Let me give some examples from my constituency. A female householder who heard water running in her loft telephoned a plumber—a member of the Confederation of Registered Gas Installers—whose name she had found in Yellow Pages. The plumber visited the attic, and reported that the whole system needed replacing—and that if the householder did not have the work done, she would be replacing the ceilings. The price quoted was some £800. A CORGI-registered plumber from First Check Point then visited, and found that all that was required was replacement of the ballcock at a cost of £35, which meant a saving of £765.
An elderly female householder needed the rotten woodwork around her garage door replacing. She asked for two quotations: one was for £2,340, and the other for £1,430. Both included the cost of replacing the whole garage roof. First Check Point sent a surveyor, who found that all that needed to be replaced was the woodwork surrounding the garage door and the lead flashing above it. The roof was not damaged in any way, and no part of it was leaking. The quotations were for £595 and £650 respectively. I am sure that hon. Members could give many other examples.
I know that the Government are aware of the problem. Last year the Department of Trade and Industry produced a welcome consultation paper entitled "Combating Cowboy Builders", and various working parties are taking action. First Check Point, however, has already achieved dramatic results.
A year ago, a little lady in her 60s came to my surgery. She had a curious mid-Atlantic accent, and wore a large fur coat. Her name was Hazel Jones. She brought with her many ideas from the United States, where she had spent 299 a lot of time in industry and the voluntary sector, working on federal housing projects with, in particular, elderly people. She said that she needed mental stimulation, and something to keep her busy.
Subsequently, last October, Hazel Jones, the mayor of Worthing and I—along with others—launched First Check Point. It was initially funded by Hazel herself and a local builder, who was keen to help because cowboy builders give the reputable trade a bad name. The project was tied in with local voluntary organisations and the police. A team of retired volunteers manned the telephones in the office to which part of Mrs. Jones's house had been converted, and a team of semi-retired professionals came on board to give quotations and assess what work needed to be done.
First Check Point works like this. Someone needing a job, big or small, to be done telephones the organisation. An approved volunteer—all those involved have at least 40 years' building experience—visits the property, lists the items of work that need to be done and specifies the type of trader who will be required. There is then a choice of two schemes. For small jobs, there is the approved handyman scheme, involving a list of skilled tradesmen, usually semi-retired, who want the odd one or two days' work a week. They are closely vetted. They must prove that they live locally, they must have at least three references in relation to jobs done in the past, and they must have no police record. The work is awarded on the basis that they have indemnity insurance of at least £1 million. Those smaller jobs may be electrical or they may involve plumbing, roofing or carpentry.
Larger jobs are dealt with through the approved trader scheme, which involves a list of approved local traders with proven track records and references from people who are prepared to guarantee their work. Two or three appropriate tradesmen will be asked to give quotations, all of which must be itemised and signed by both builder and householder.
Both lists are reviewed regularly, and householders who have had a job done are required to answer a questionnaire about the quality of the workmanship. First Check Point will monitor the work to ensure that it is done properly; if it is not, First Check Point will bring back the builder to ensure that it is done to the required standard.
The scheme was originally funded voluntarily, with help from Worthing council grants and charities such as New Horizons—which was so impressed by the quality of the scheme that it doubled its initial donation. Following the mushrooming of the scheme, First Check Point now levies a 5 per cent. commission on approved tradesmen, and a commission of £5 per day of work on approved handymen. There are no direct costs to the customer.
I mention the scheme because it has been spectacularly successful. Earlier in the month, we reached the mark of 1,000 jobs done since 1 January: in the space of just four months, more than 1,000 people have been helped with jobs. There has been a torrent of thank you letters, and letters of congratulation saying, "I do not know how anyone could go to Yellow Pages or any other local trading body without coming to you first because the scheme is so successful."
The scheme now covers the area from Brighton to Littlehampton and is under great pressure to expand. Age Concern is sending some of its national officers to 300 consider the scheme seriously, with a view to helping to establish pilot schemes in other parts of the country. The National Neighbourhood Watch Association is coming on board because First Check Point is a useful scheme to combat crime as well. It could deter unscrupulous traders who knock on the doors of little old ladies to offer their services, but who may have ulterior motives. The local neighbourhood watch has been helping to distribute window stickers that are based on neighbourhood watch window stickers, but which have First Check Point on them, thereby deterring cowboy builders from trying to take advantage of people who need work to be done.
I said earlier that the Government's work on cowboy builders is welcome, but the consultation paper addresses only the quality of the builders' workmanship. It deals only with national projects, but the success of First Check Point has been the local supervision and the local factor: the capacity of local people to monitor the standard of the work and to award a sort of kite mark. In addition, the national lists proposed in the consultation on cowboy builders would not include the small firm—the two or three-person family firms that are the lifeblood of First Check Point.
First Check Point works very well. It works largely because of the absolute dedication of Mrs. Hazel Jones and the people who work with her, such as Norman Tilley, who has been on board from the start. They would be the first to admit that it is not perfect, but it is simple, it addresses the problems that have been experienced and gives the public, particularly the elderly, someone to turn to for objective advice.
The scheme is self-funding; it does not rely on any public money. Its purpose is also preventive because it aims to stop problems happening in the first place, rather than to solve them once they have occurred.
I hope that, by my mentioning the project today, other hon. Members may gain something from the experiences of what is a simple, but effective scheme for their own constituencies. I should be happy to provide information. However, I fear that, if they are looking to set up a similar scheme in their constituency, many will be hard pressed to find their own version of Mrs. Hazel Jones.
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
I take this opportunity to add my support to hon. Members who have voiced their support for the building society sector. The continuing mutual status of building societies is an essential part of retaining competition in the financial services sector. It is vital for savers and investors that we continue to have competition in that sector.
The other issue that I should like to raise has not been raised yet, but dominates my postbag: the technology of genetic modification and its impact on the safety of food and the environment. The Government's announcement just last week of measures to make the vetting and monitoring processes for genetically modified foods even more rigorous are welcome, but more needs to be done to reassure the public continually and to make them feel confident about the Government's approach.
My constituents may raise the issue more than others because we have a GM crop trial site in a neighbouring constituency, which understandably raises the profile of the issue. Many of my constituents have written to me 301 about their concerns on both the local and national situations. They want to be assured that their health and the environment are protected.
My constituents want to be sure that trials are taking place scientifically, with a proper base line of information established. They want monitoring of all the environmental implications—for example, how bees carrying the crop for miles will affect other crops—and of what happens to scatterings of the crop as it is carried on trucks in and out of the area.
My constituents are naturally uncertain about the implications of such a site because the information that they receive via the press is not consistent. While the Government seek to allay concerns and, rightly, to play down some of the more scaremongering claims, they and the companies involved are not yet taking on all the justified concerns from our constituents, many of which are backed by scientific experts who contest the Government's and companies' statements of reassurance.
I accept that many of the discussions in the sector are technical, but that should not be an excuse for blinding the public with science. It is part of scientists' job to make their results understandable to lay people, particularly when so many may be affected by them, as in the case of GM crops. We do not need to be drowned in detail to get to the important issues around GM crops. However, the complexity may mean that we need more time to debate the matter when we return after the break.
I recognise that a major problem in the sector is that no one can make categorical claims for or against the safety of GM crops and foods because, at this stage, no one really knows. We also need to recognise that, even when more information is available, we will still be unable to expect categorical claims either proving or disproving the safety of GM foods. We will instead be faced with probabilities and risk assessments.
For example, we will be told that X per cent. of a GM crop will be blown Y metres beyond the field boundary in normal winds and that more severe winds will carry crops further. We will be told to expect that, in so many years of a century, there will be those more severe winds; so I accept that categorical claims, one way or another, will be difficult.
I can see that Ministers want to be able to say that GM crops are totally safe, but they cannot and they recognise that. They have referred to "justified concerns" about GM crops and to the "risk of cross-pollination". They have even acknowledgeda small, but finite, chance that unprocessed maize as an animal feed stuff could lead to a transfer of antibiotic resistance.They have recognised also thata number of research studies have indicated potential interference with ecological systems from GM crops, with varying degrees of permanence".Those responses accept the lack of certainty and the current gaps in knowledge, yet that lack of certainty does not always come across to the public.
My constituents tend to think that the Government have not accepted that lack of certainty. They believe that the Government have no concerns whatever about the safety and impact of GM organisms. The inconsistency in messages being received will have to be resolved if the public are to gain confidence in the Government's stance on what is an important issue.
302 I need to stress that it is not only an issue of responsibility for the Government. The companies involved also need to take consumers' views more seriously. In the case of the trial site in my neighbouring constituency, the press notices did not go out in the local paper until after the seeds had been planted. Companies will need to do much better than that if they are to gain the confidence of consumers.
I suggest a number of ways in which the Government should be reviewing and refining their approach to GM crops and foods. First, they need to convince the public, as they have done with the risks of BSE—bovine spongiform encephalopathy—that, if there is even the smallest doubt about the safety of GM technology and its possible long-term consequences, steps will be taken to protect the public and our environment, whatever the cost in terms of a reduced contribution by biotechnology companies to the United Kingdom economy.
Secondly, there is the question of why and whether we need GM foods at all. That simple question does not seem to feature enough in debates on the GM issue. Where is the evidence that it is impractical to use traditional crops or organic fanning methods to meet food needs in future?
Some proponents of GM technology say that GM crops will help the environment by reducing the use of pesticides. However, some GM crops would encourage the use of pesticides. Encouraging organic agriculture, rather than GM agriculture, would much more directly and reliably address the problem of the over-use of pesticides.
Although the Government have greatly increased support for organic farming, yet more could be done. Last year, they spent £1.7 million on research into organic farming, but £52 million on agricultural biotechnology research. An adjustment in that ratio could have a huge impact on organic farming.
I have in my constituency one of the most successful organic farms in England. Its success shows that there is a clear and increasing market for organic food. Organic food is sometimes described as a niche market; but on current attitudes, it seems more likely than GM food to become a mainstream market.
Organic farms are also more labour intensive, employing more people, and thereby meeting another Government objective. Therefore, surely development of organic food should be a higher priority than development of GM food.
I realise that some GM food farmers and companies assert that, in time, GM foods will be accepted, particularly once they bring food prices down. Currently, however, consumers seem equally concerned about the risks of GM foods. In short, the public are not yet convinced of the need for GM foods.
Thirdly, we should consider the wider benefits that GM technology may bring to health care. Undoubtedly, the technology has huge potential in the health sphere. We may have to understand more about GM technology in plants before we are able to understand how it will affect animals and humans. However, that is not a justification for planting GM crops; it is a justification for continuing genetic research in laboratories.
Fourthly, the Government could allay public concerns and ensure properly conducted development—if there is to be development—of GM crops by addressing the issue 303 of GM trial site management. Currently, neither the Government nor the companies involved clearly state the objectives of each trial, or what results will lead to what actions.
I should like to be able to assure my constituents that if, for example, it is demonstrated at a trial site that the local bird population has decreased by a certain proportion, we shall not allow commercial planting of that GM crop. Such a criterion would give the public the type of assurance that they need. They could watch the trials being openly assessed against predefined criteria.
Fifthly, in addressing many of the issues of GM crops, we have to work with our partners in Europe, and lead our European partners in ensuring that we all take a cautious approach to the matter. European Community directive 90/220/EEC is clearly a matter of concern, as it provides that once a GM crop receives marketing consent under the directive, the consent will apply across all member states, and there will be no automatic requirement to notify the authorities either of where the crop is grown or of the size of the area covered.
I hope that our Government will be urging reform of the directive, so that—in the interests of freedom of information, transparency and accountability—the relevant authorities will have to be notified in advance of plans to grow GM crops commercially in a given area.
The directive makes the European Economic Community sound as if it is very much in favour of GM foods—but that line is not taken by all its members. The Greek Government have informally called for a Europewide moratorium on planting GM crops, but that call has not received support. However, rumour has it that, at the European Environment Council on 24 June, the Greek Government will again state their wish for a Europewide moratorium—thereby providing another reason why more British parliamentary time should be set aside to discuss the issues.
I am sure that many of our parliamentarians would like to try to influence the British position on the proposal. Many of my constituents favour the Government supporting such a moratorium until more information on GM crops is available.
Sixthly, the Government have to tackle very directly the fears about antibiotic marker genes. Sir Robert May, chief scientific adviser to the Government, has stated:Often marker genes in GM plants are antibiotic resistant, so that there is a risk that humans could acquire these antibiotic genes from their food, thus accelerating the already existing, and very troublesome, world problem of increasing resistance to today's antibiotics".The European Parliament has been very helpful on the issue, approving an amendment to the EEC directive on GM organisms, which states that GMOsmust not contain any antibiotic-resistant genes or traces of toxic or pathogenic substances".However, the amended directive will not take effect unless it is adopted by member Governments.
Austria and Luxembourg have both imposed bans on an antibiotic-resistant gene crop. Our Government should ban all GM organisms that have been modified to have antibiotic-resistant genes or traces of toxic or pathogenic substances.
We have made significant progress on labelling—particularly by contrast with the previous Government's complete inertia on the matter. However, there are 304 still concerns. Products containing GM derivatives, and products that were processed with GM ingredients but do not ultimately contain those ingredients, are not necessarily labelled as GM products. However, consumers who object to GM technology should be able to choose not to buy or support the manufacture of those products.
The absence of labelling on GM animal feed is another concern, which is reminiscent of farmers' worries over BSE. If we are truly to uphold and safeguard consumer choice, labelling must be comprehensive.
The Government could encourage developing countries that wish to be entirely free of GM crops to become so, thereby ensuring greater consumer choice. Such a decision could be a real bonus for those countries, and ensure that they not only have a market for their products, but benefit British consumers.
Segregation is the final issue. Although segregation may incur extra costs, those costs are a consequence of the new technology. The cost of segregation should, therefore, be placed on the costs of GM foods themselves. If segregation makes GM foods too expensive, we shall again have to ask why the products are being produced.
I should like the Government to investigate how we might ensure that companies promoting GM technology take full responsibility for any future health or environmental damage caused by GM foods. Although I realise that that may raise even more issues, it also demonstrates the need for more parliamentary time to be allocated to debate this important subject.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
The situation in the Balkans is so dire, and the suffering of the Kosovars so abject, that I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will forgive me for raising issues that have I raised before, in debates on 19 April and 18 May.
In the first debate, I said:This is not a phoney war. I use the word 'war' advisedly although the Foreign Secretary does not like it. It is certainly a war for the people of Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia and for the aircrew of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, who have now joined the conflict."—[Official Report, 19 April 1999; Vol. 329, c. 635.]I said then, and say again, that a declared state of war is important to ensure that our aircrew have the protection of the Geneva convention if they are taken prisoner. I made it clear then, and make it clear again today, that I support the air campaign as a necessary prerequisite for the liberation of Kosovo from the occupying Serb forces. But the Government really must ensure that their war aims are clearly defined and spelled out properly, both to the House and to the British public.
During the Falklands war, I was the parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Defence, and I recall how assiduous John Nott was in making statements to the House at every stage of the conflict, even late at night, and even when the news was at its worst. Perhaps it was even more necessary that the news should be broken early if it was bad, when a ship went down or some other disaster befell our forces, so that their morale, and that of the British public, should be sustained.
I recall, too, the totally trustworthy Mr. McDonald of the Ministry of Defence, who was almost daily on our television screens, informing the British public of the objectives of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and of 305 the sorties flown, the numbers of Argentine and British aircraft shot down, the outcome of naval engagements at sea, and the progress of the land campaign as it yomped its arduous way towards Port Stanley. There were no concessions to sentimentality, and no regrets about what was being done, but only a determination to win which was continually communicated to the British public. We shall need their full support in the very difficult days ahead.
By contrast, the NATO spokesman, Mr. Shea, seems always to be in apologetic mode, coming on television screens to apologise for the sad bombing errors committed, but never emphasising sufficiently the undoubted successes of our British armed forces and NATO forces—successes which outnumber the tragic errors.
I should add that it would be helpful if the Ministry of Defence had senior Royal Air Force officers, preferably with recent operational experience, as spokesmen while the air war predominates, to explain the capabilities and limitations of modern airborne weapons systems, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of the air offensive as the essential prerequisite to the physical removal of Serb forces from Kosovo. Once troops are inserted into the province of Kosovo, the spokesmen should be from the Army, but, for the time being, the British public need a better explanation of the air war.
Today, NATO is due to increase its military deployment in Macedonia and Albania by one third, to 48,000. How I wish that we had more Gurkhas, more paratroops, more reserves and more helicopters, but we are going to have to make do with what we have. We have to win. Military men understand that only infantry can hold ground. Kosovo is difficult territory for armour and a multitude of helicopters will be required. The military appreciate the challenges ahead of air supply and fighting off the partisan attacks for which the Yugoslav army has trained assiduously for two generations. So effective was that training that the USSR was dissuaded from invading Yugoslavia while Tito was in power. To this day, we have kept Russia out of the Balkans.
NATO needs all the friends it can get to take the war to the enemy. That must mean the establishment of a NATO military mission to the Kosovo Liberation Army. In the April debate, I also advocated the arming and training of the KLA.
Beyond the victory that NATO must achieve if Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are to be safe from Serbian aggression, NATO must win the peace. A messy, inglorious compromise would be a recipe for further conflict—hence the need for clear political aims. They should not be dictated by Russia, which we have always successfully kept out of the Balkans, or by a desire to appease the pusillanimous tendencies of the weakest members of the NATO alliance. They should be decided by the Kosovar people, freely expressing their sovereign political will entirely democratically through the exercise of a universal adult franchise via the ballot box.
Regrettably, Her Majesty's Government have set their face against self-determination for Kosovo. I recognise that the human rights of the Serb minority will have to be safeguarded in Kosovo, but the Yugoslav federation as a 306 legitimate polity is dead and should not be resurrected by NATO. Its disintegration is by no means complete, but the establishment of a free, democratic, independent Kosovo is the first step towards a better system of security for the Balkans. Beyond that, perhaps the secession and full independence of Montenegro might ensue.
I urge the Government to explain at every stage the clear objectives for which this bloody and difficult war is being fought. It is the vilest conflict that we have known in our continent since the second world war. It will get harder rather than easier. I hope that we have the courage to see it through. The Kosovars deserve nothing less. They have suffered enough already.
§ 12.4 pm
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
We have had 14 speeches since 9.30 am and the debate has lived up to the tradition of recess Adjournment debates. Perhaps the House will forgive me if I begin by referring to someone who is not here. I have missed seeing the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in his accustomed place. I have attended most of these Adjournment debates over the past 29 years and have replied to every one over the past two years. On almost every occasion, the hon. Gentleman has been present and has frequently taken part in his inimitable way. I am sure that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) will convey the greetings of the House to his hon. Friend, whom we hope to see back in full health and vigour after the recess.
The debate began with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who is a great authority on football. He talked about a subject on which I have no personal expertise—the issuing of permits for foreign footballers to play in this country. He seemed to make a powerful, logical plea and I hope that Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment will respond positively. However, I could not help feeling a little nostalgic sadness as the hon. Gentleman spoke about the vast sums of money. I am one of those who feel that sport has been rather ruined by money. I regret the passing of the days when local teams were local teams. As a boy in the early 1950s, I used to go and watch Grimsby Town. All the players came from the area and it was a true local team, as were most others. I greatly regret that money has intruded so much that in some famous teams almost none of the players is eligible to play for this country.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) about the way in which certain too trusting, perhaps even gullible, pensioners had been misled by those selling home income plans. She spoke movingly of the distress that is caused, even going to the extent of naming an individual, making proper use of parliamentary privilege. I hope that her plea will be heeded in all the appropriate quarters. I hope, in particular, that those who have charge of our building societies will have regard to what she said.
The hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) began with a brief but eloquent and moving tribute to the late Derek Fatchett. I associate myself with what he said—as I am sure does every hon. Member present—about a colleague who will be much missed for many years. I hope that when he goes home to Leeds this weekend he will convey those views to the family of Derek Fatchett.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the terrible problems caused to young women who are subjected to the appalling physical and mental brutality of pimps. He made 307 a plea for summary justice so that people can be tried for offences that it is generally known they have committed. That is too complex a subject to deal with in proper detail in a mere moment in responding to this debate, but I hope that the Law Officers heed what he said and that we may see some action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) spoke of a building society as Macclesfield's own. I thought that he was Macclesfield's own—he certainly has been for the past 28 years in this House. Nobody has spoken up more vigorously for their constituents over those years. This morning, he made a plea for the improvement of the A523 and the A6, referring to the problems that would be caused by the opening of a second runway at Manchester airport and the traffic that the Commonwealth games would bring. For good measure, he might also have talked about the world cup coming here in 2006. I hope that Transport Ministers will respond.
My hon. Friend also made a plea for the East Cheshire NHS trust to be maintained, and talked about wanting to protect the Cheshire building society—Macclesfield's own—from the predatory actions of get-rich-quick merchants. I have great sympathy with that point.
The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), who has become a regular at these debates, raised a constituency matter. I cannot begin to have any expertise on the Essex structure plan, but I know from personal experience the threats of urban encroachment in lovely rural areas. I can assure him that there are lovely rural areas in South Staffordshire as I well know there are in Essex. I sincerely hope that his campaign for the green belt will be heeded. I could not help but think of the immortal remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister a few months ago when he said, "The green belt is a Labour achievement and we shall build upon it." I hope that he will, but in the right sense.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) expressed his support for building societies and echoed almost to the word what my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said. He spoke with understandable consternation about the multi-modal study for the south-east quadrant of Greater Manchester. What awful gobbledegook we are subjected to these days! May his bringing that appalling mouthful to the attention of the House teach those a lesson who really ought to know about plain English.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), who has the longest-sounding constituency, made the longest speech of the morning, although he did warn us he would. I must be kind to him because when he was briefly here in another incarnation, he was my pair at a time when I desperately needed one, so the gratitude that he then inspired in me will not easily evaporate. He seemed to be speaking from rather over-copious notes when he gave us a sort of essay on the demographic profile of the north-east—perhaps the north-east quadrant of Middlesbrough.
We all have problems with the revenue support grant and the standard spending assessment and it was right that the hon. Gentleman should bring these matters to the House. Just as I was longing for an eclipse, lo and behold my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) talked about one. At that point, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East seemed to shuffle away quite a lot of the speech that he had prepared.
308 In an entirely non-partisan, non-party political way, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk talked about the eclipse in Cornwall. He explained that bookings were down and that Cornwall could easily cope with ordinary tourism. No wonderful part of England could have had a better and less partisan advocate than my hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who uncharacteristically is not in his place, talked about the Kosovo crisis. He expressed misgivings about sending in ground troops and expressed a need for the House to debate a substantive motion. As the Leader of the House has made plain on a number of occasions, there is no recent precedent for a debate on the conflict on a substantive motion because of the dangers that that can pose to those who are upholding our country's honour and integrity. I shall say no more, as the hon. Gentleman is not here.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) raised no fewer than seven issues. I am most grateful to him for his plug for the banquet that I am organising in Westminster Hall on 1 July. I believe that there are about 10 tickets left and applications will be received later. I hope that it will be yet another wonderful event in the history of that great hall, which encapsulates the history of our nation.
My hon. Friend then talked about a slightly less illustrious building—the Palace theatre. His speech was a bit like "The Archers". We look forward to a new episode on the Palace theatre every time we have one of these Adjournment debates. If it is dark in August, I suggest that, in preparation for the winter pantomime, my hon. Friend hold nightly public meetings there and entertain his constituents in the way that he entertains us here. That would be a lovely curtain raiser for the pantomime about which he told us—in which I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister will be playing Widow Twankey.
My hon. Friend also talked about the need for proper consumer protection, about the indignity to which disabled people are sometimes put by medical examinations, and about his constituent, who is in prison in France. That was a deeply disturbing tale.
The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who regularly contributes to these debates, talked about the problems at the passport office in Liverpool. We all know about them. He also spoke of the difficulties faced by those who are made redundant by firms that then go into liquidation. He then referred to Kosovo and the need for very careful targeting, and expressed some misgivings about recent events.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) gave a splendid testimonial to Mrs. Hazel Jones, who set up the First Check Point organisation to deal with cowboy builders. It is obviously a marvellous initiative which I hope will be emulated in all parts of the country.
The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke with great knowledge about genetically modified food and asked the central question: why do we need it? I hope that, in the weeks ahead, Ministers will provide detailed answers to that question above all and to the other questions that she legitimately raised.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made some extremely realistic comments about the conflict in the Balkans. He gave the Government strong support. This 309 gives me a chance to return to the speech by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, who has now resumed his seat. He and I have differed on the issue for many years, although I respect his integrity. My own views are closer to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who, at the end of his speech, said that NATO must win and that we need a realistic assessment, with facts being put daily before the people in a convincing way that instils confidence in our troops. That must be taken very much to heart.
We have had an interesting, wide-ranging debate. I am delighted to have had the chance briefly to refer to every speech and I hope that I have kept my part of the bargain by sitting down now and allowing the Minister to respond.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
It has indeed been a varied, interesting, stimulating and sometimes vigorous debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken the opportunity to argue for their constituencies, for local interest groups and at times for individuals. In addition, some big themes have been raised. A particular theme that permeated several speeches was the conflicting interests involved in encouraging development, transport and industry and sustaining and enhancing the environment.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) talked about the development of wind farms. I am very keen on the idea and I assure him that the Government will reach their 10 per cent. target on renewables by 2010. However, wind farms have a downside, particularly in an attractive landscape. Those who advocate wind farms need to remember that a wind farm that could produce as much electricity as a conventional coal power station, depending on wind speed and other factors, would have to be the size of Greater Manchester.
Some hard issues were raised by the hon. Members for Hazel Grove and for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and by my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) and for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), who talked about the problems of inner cities. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke of the balance between developing and protecting the environment in the context of genetically modified food. That was a key theme in the debate.
The second key theme this morning, which is extremely important, is the conflict in Kosovo. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will know that there will be yet another statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. It is important that, as the House adjourns for the recess, hon. Members should be kept up to date with developments. He asked what would happen during the vacation. If significant events take place, he can be sure that there will be calls for Parliament to be recalled, and I can assure him that they will be considered seriously. It has been important to keep the House up to date with developments, and there has been a statement or a debate roughly every fortnight.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) pointed out that there was a need not just to keep the House involved, but to talk to the wider public about our aims and whether they are being achieved; and about the real difficulties.
310 My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow spoke of the dangers of ground troops, and he will know that that matter is being looked at closely. He will know also that the issue of precedents for debates in the House has been considered on a number of occasions and, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said, precedence is with us, not my hon. Friend, on this matter.
I very much enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), and I was pleased that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) talked strongly in favour of the benefits of mutuals. We must let mutual building societies speak for themselves and demonstrate—as I think they can—in a market economy that their interest rates are lower than those organisations have converted to banks.
We must get the message across to members of the mutuals, because they must have the right to decide on the future. It may well be that the rules are not right at the moment, and I have raised that issue in the past. However, I know that Treasury Ministers are aware of the issue, and I am sure that they will be prepared to meet the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and others to talk about mutuals.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred also to failed income support plans, and she was right to say that there are problems in this area. Financial Services Authority regulators have paid out £69 million in compensation to 4,500 individual claimants, but there is still more to be done. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary will be prepared to meet the kind of delegation that was asked for this morning.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield spoke out strongly about transport issues to the south of Manchester and in the Cheshire area. I ought to admit that I am perhaps one of the culprits who has despoiled and helped to damage his village. I come from north Nottinghamshire, and I regularly use Manchester airport. The route from north Nottinghamshire to Cheshire is an extremely attractive one, which I have admired. I am sure that people do not admire my own car going there.
I am pleased to note that a multi-modal study of the south-east quadrant of Greater Manchester is now taking place. It is important that such studies report early, as the length of time that planning decisions take is an issue. People can often live with bad news, but they cannot live with uncertainty. It is important to pursue the campaign to try to integrate transport and to put money into rural bus services.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove talked about petrol prices going up, and referred to a lack of communication in the Government. Petrol prices went up as a result of Treasury action, but, as a result of interdepartmental discussions, the rural bus grant—which the hon. Gentleman acknowledged had merits, and some demerits—was introduced at the same time.
I heard what the hon. Member for Macclesfield said about the NHS trust in his area, and it is important that people deliver services in a way that best benefits consumers in the area. My message to those reorganising the health service would be to wait a while and see what happens to primary care groups before moving to trust status.
311 I understand all too well the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) about housing development. I applaud his action in making sure that the voice of local residents and local councils is heard. We must ensure that brown-field sites are developed before green-field sites. We must ensure that the 60 per cent. target is met, and that sequential development takes place, so that derelict sites are developed before the more profit-rich, green-field sites that developers in his area are clearly looking for. We ought to keep an eye out for the urban task force report, which is due shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) talked about the needs in his area and the desires of his local council. I was in local government, and I used to complain vigorously about the standard spending assessment formula and the way in which it disadvantaged my county. However, every council takes that view. The best way forward is to look at making the best use of resources and making do with what one has, rather than devoting effort to what one does not have.
I am confident that the council in Redcar and Cleveland is modernising, and I understand my hon. Friend's point about the need to review local government finance. This issue is on the desk of the Deputy Prime Minister, and a review is taking place. Again, these are hard issues, but Redcar and Cleveland received the best settlement—a 5.2 per cent. increase in SSA—for many years.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) talked about Cornwall. 1 was in St. Ives a few days ago, and I appreciate the importance of the tourism industry to Cornwall. It is a high-quality industry which provides value for money, and I am going back on 11 August to see the eclipse. While I was there, people talked to me about raising the quality of the tourism industry, and they are doing that. They see the minimum wage not as a 312 threat, but as an opportunity. The county council, the police and the staff at Truro general hospital are working hard to ensure that everything will be right on 11 August.
I will write, as I always do, to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who raised a number of issues. On disability, it is important that we make progress in providing work for people with a disability who can work, while providing security for those who cannot. I understand the difficulties that have arisen at medical boards, and I know that complaints are made. The wait until the tribunal deserves further attention only.
The problems at the UK Passport Agency—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)—also deserve attention. The situation is not good, although a new system has been put in place. There are difficulties, but 99 per cent. of applications are being dealt with within the time frame.
On the jobseeker's allowance, I assure my hon. Friend that Ministers from various Departments are tackling the problems.
I wish I had a Hazel Jones in my constituency. There has been talk of transfer fees in the Chamber today, and we could have a discussion on transferring Hazel Jones to Nottinghamshire so that she could set up a First Check Point group in my constituency.
I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East had a chance to mention Derek Fatchett.
Also, there is a great deal to be done to tackle crime, prostitution and drugs in Leeds, and we must work hard to ensure that that happens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) opened the match by talking about problems about employment permits. I am told that decisions will be made by 30 June—