HC Deb 20 April 2000 vol 348 cc1079-99

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

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

European framework directive 89/391/EEC may not be the stuff of headlines, but, since it was incorporated in our health and safety regulations, it has become apparent that its implementation could threaten the livelihoods of external health and safety consultants. It appears that firms are now being encouraged to use only in-house employees in that role, rather than employ external consultants.

I was alerted to the problem last June by constituents of mine who have run a very successful health and safety consultancy in my area for more than 35 years. They employ 23 people, are very good at what they do and are highly regarded.

For the past 10 months, we have corresponded with Ministers and with the Health and Safety Executive. My constituents have also attended consultation meetings and have met the chief executive of the HSE. However, although many issues have been resolved, it is obvious that the question of to whom firms should turn for advice still has not been satisfactorily resolved.

I understand that the present view in the corridors of power is that what, for want of a better term, I shall call the consultancy culture that developed in the 1980s and 1990s is to be overturned.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)


Ms Jones

My hon. Friend says that that is good, but I suggest that he listens to what I have to say.

There is a long tradition of self-employment and of small firms in my part of the country, which stretches back to the 19th century. There are very good consultants in my area, who clearly predate what happened in the 1980s and 1990s and who are good at what they do. If we are not careful, they will be swept away, and that will not benefit anyone.

We must stop swinging from one extreme to another. Some consultants who set up in the 1980s may not have been as experienced as they should have been. They charged large fees and did not do a particularly good job, but most people who employ consultants now know what to look for and can tell the cowboys from the true experts.

Another problem is that small firms needing health and safety advice often find that it is not viable to employ their own staff. They prefer to go to another business and buy in the expertise that they need. In some circumstances, therefore, the EEC directive is not entirely realistic.

The Ministers whom we have approached have been very understanding, and, in discussions, the HSE has been very helpful to my constituents. It will now produce leaflets and literature informing firms about the health and safety advice that they must get and where to find it. However, the trade press still seems keen to push the line that firms should no longer use external consultants. The February edition of the magazine Safety Management clearly stated in its first paragraph: Long-awaited changes to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations came into force … making it clear that employers should use competent employees for advice on health and safety matters instead of calling in external specialists. That is the advice being given in the health and safety industry, so it is no wonder that my constituents are extremely worried.

The many small firms similar to the one run by my constituents employ a lot of people, and many redundancies could follow if they are driven out of business and go to the wall. I know that that is not the intention of the Government, who have made it perfectly clear that they are business friendly and want to help small businesses. I am sure that they would say that I am reporting an unfortunate interpretation of the guidelines.

However, I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who will reply to the debate, will request that his ministerial colleagues keep a very close eye on the implementation of the directive. It will not do my constituents any good if their firm folds, and the future would be very bleak for other constituents of mine who might lose their jobs as a result.

The guidelines are being implemented. I hope that the Government will monitor very carefully to whom firms go for health and safety advice. It would benefit no one if excellent consultancies were driven to the wall.

9.39 am
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

My constituents would not forgive me if I allowed the House to rise for the Easter recess without raising yet again the issue of the Royal hospital, Haslar. It is overwhelmingly the most important issue in my constituency and in south Hampshire and one of the most important issues facing the Ministry of Defence, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

The background to the case is well known. In 1994, the then Government decided in "Defence Costs Study 15" that there should be one service hospital—one centre of defence medical excellence—at the Royal hospital, Haslar in Gosport. That decision was implemented over the next five years or so and the job of co-ordinating the work of the Army, Navy and Air Force was proceeding well. Then, on 10 December 1998, the Government announced to everyone's disbelief the closure of the only tri-service hospital as, would you believe it, a measure to promote better services within the defence medical services. It was proposed to close the only hospital that was thought to be a way ahead and to open a new centre of medical excellence somewhere else, as yet unknown.

A year or so later, it has been announced that that centre of medical excellence will be in Birmingham. I have not yet come across a single person serving in the Army, Navy or Air Force who is enthused about that idea. Birmingham has no particular service connection, unlike many of the other places that might have been chosen.

The reaction to the announcement was dramatic. I announced that we would hold a rally and march, and we thought that we might have 1,000 or 2,000 people, possibly 5,000. I was surprised when I heard that the police were planning for 10,000, and in fact 22,000 joined in the rally and march—quite a gathering. It was led by Members of Parliament. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) and for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) for joining us on that occasion and to the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth who, on this as on many other things, is giving a local lead. We marched across to Haslar hospital.

All the people in the Gosport peninsula, and virtually all those to whom I speak in the Ministry of Defence, want to see Haslar retained. They recognise that it has outstanding facilities. It has a world-leading MRI scanner, a hyperbaric unit and a burns unit, and £35 million has been spent on it in the past 10 years. To close it would be the most awful mistake. The fact remains, as declared in a number of speeches and in the outstanding publication that has been produced by the Save Haslar group, of which I am the chairman, that there is a case for retention of the hospital. All those arguments remain.

People in the armed forces are deeply worried that the loss of doctors and nurses will continue in the armed forces until Haslar is confirmed as a centre of defence medical excellence. The move to Birmingham would involve moving not only doctors and nurses but the school of defence medicine, which is at Fort Blockhouse adjacent to Haslar. That would cause intense local difficulty.

I have talked so far only about the defence aspects of Haslar hospital. As it is also a civilian hospital that is effectively the district general hospital for my constituency, cases arise daily that demonstrate how much it is needed. Only on Tuesday, I received a letter from an 82-year-old constituent who told me the story of a friend and neighbour who was admitted to hospital for a heart operation. He was prepared for the operation, taken to the operating theatre and then taken back and told that he could go home because no intensive care unit bed was available. His operation was postponed for two weeks. He returned home and the following day his wife died, perhaps as a result of the stress of having her husband home from hospital. That is just one story.

On Monday this week, I received an updating letter from another constituent who lives in Stubbington, but prefers not to be named. In January 1999, she was told that she needed a triple heart bypass and that if it were delayed by up to two years she would have a 40 per cent. chance of surviving. She was told that the waiting time would be nine months. In November 1999, she was told that the waiting time would be between 12 and 15 months. She is now told that it is perhaps 17 months or longer. The hospital hopes to give her a waiting time of 18 months. So in a year, the waiting time for a cardiac operation in my constituency has increased from nine to 17 months. There is no immediate prospect of that lady being given a date for her operation. Civilian cases are being severely postponed and beds are needed that are not available elsewhere. My constituents believe that it would be lunacy to close a hospital that is superbly equipped from both a civilian and defence medicine point of view.

The main reason given for the closure of Haslar hospital is that it is impossible for doctors and nurses to receive accreditation from the royal colleges. I submit that that problem can be overcome. Accreditation is entirely a matter of training and it must be possible to co-ordinate the work at Haslar with that in Portsmouth, Winchester and Southampton, and to provide training in conjunction with other local hospitals. It would be madness for Haslar to close.

My constituents are becoming concerned and several are rather frustrated that the campaign to save Haslar has not resulted in an announcement by the Government that they will change their minds. I should like to send them a message of hope and determination. We believe that we will win. If at this point I demand that the Government state, yes or no, whether they will save Haslar hospital, of course they will say no, that they will not save the hospital; that they made the announcement 16 months ago that they would close it. Faced with such a demand, of course the Government will stick to their guns.

What I say to my constituents is that the facts are changing around us. The intention is to move to Birmingham, but there is no enthusiasm in the defence medical services for such a move. I therefore predict that the move may not take place, or at least will take place in rather different circumstances. It is also intended to build up a Ministry of Defence hospital unit within Haslar and then to transfer that to Queen Alexandra hospital, Cosham. I maintain that that, too, is unlikely to happen. It was intended that the move should happen in about 2002. Now it will happen in about 2005 or 2007—do I hear 2009? I suspect that the move will not take place.

I have received a number of reports from senior personnel who have visited Haslar and have been surprised to see what the facilities are—the MRI scanner and the hyperbaric unit—and to see the administration unit. Haslar administers hospital units deployed in times of emergency. There is a large number of ancillary units within Haslar that it would be extremely inconvenient to move to Birmingham or somewhere else. I suspect that that, too, will be an argument in favour of retaining Haslar.

Two hospital ships are to be constructed. It is logical that they should be based at Portsmouth. Where better than Haslar to link with the hospital ships? I cannot imagine that it would be easy for hospital ships to link with Birmingham. In that and in so many other ways, I suspect that the need for Haslar will gradually become more clear.

Casevacs—emergency casualties removed from the field of operations—can readily be moved to Haslar. There is no space for them in Birmingham and no arrangements have been made for them so far. I suspect that the Government will realise that the failure to fast-track medical treatment for people in the armed forces is becoming a serious problem. Another constituent of mine is a young Marine reservist. While on a Marine operation, he incurred an injury to his back. He will have to wait 18 months to have that injury rectified because he is joining the queue with all the civilians. I suspect that the Ministry of Defence will realise that it will be advantageous to be able to fast-track medical treatment for military personnel. The only way to do that is to have a dedicated hospital.

The health authority has consulted locally on retention of Haslar as an out-patient unit seeing 60,000 patients a year compared with the 55,000 who are currently seen at Haslar. All that consultation procedure is predicated on the cross-link unit being made available by the Ministry of Defence to the civilian authorities. If the cross-link—the centre of Haslar—is not made available, the consultation procedure will have been invalid, and we shall have to start again.

For all the reasons that I have given, I say to my constituents, "Do not fear that the campaign to which you have committed yourselves so wholeheartedly is faltering or that the taskforce will lack determination." We are determined to retain Haslar not only as a civilian out-patient unit but as a hospital serving the defence medical services. I say to my constituents, "Have faith and join us in the determination to do that."

9.49 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, will be aware that, a few years ago, the Government inherited the responsibilities of the then ill-fated British Coal, including the long-standing problems of payments for bronchitis and emphysema to about 100,000 miners. No one can deny that a prompt start was made. Under British Coal, it had seemed impossible for us to make any headway whatever.

Not long after the Government inherited that problem, we were able to celebrate success in the courts: the money would be paid. After that Manchester decision, the Government declared that they would spend between £2.5 billion and £3 billion to compensate those miners. That was a good start—a fast start; we were on our way.

However, the difficulties have been many. I have raised them in the House on several occasions and feel it necessary to speak about the matter again today. When the Labour Government introduced pneumoconiosis payments in the 1970s, we managed to make the payments quickly because not many solicitors were involved and because we were dealing with only eight or 10 sections of the National Union of Mineworkers, and with the solicitors for NACODS—the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—and for the British Association of Colliery Management. That was it. They were able to agree a scale of payments, and in next to no time every beneficiary under that scheme had received their money.

The position was not acceptable for a minority of people, but, after a few grouses, most people accepted the sliding scale and the system has worked happily ever since—except, of course, for those who did not achieve the 10 per cent. threshold in the first place. There are arguments about that. However, it was a success story.

The current problem is different. First, the NUM was shattered by the previous Government—the union was in fragments. Some areas had no pits left; some had no officials; and the whole superstructure of the NUM had been almost dismantled in many places. The net result was that some solicitors had an eye for an opportunity. We can all see their adverts on telly: they can get us money for anything—for tumbling over the pavement and God knows what else. They must be making a small fortune and their advertisements cost more than the ones for a general election, but I shall not go into that.

Those solicitors saw an opportunity; they saw that £3 billion and thought, "We're going to have a slice of that." Before we could bat an eye, they were in the pit villages, taking over the town hall for a few days. They said, "Come and meet us; we'll get you the money." The situation is different in Scotland, where the NUM still has its own solicitors, and in areas such as the one represented by my hon. Friend the Minister, but in the pit villages where there is nothing left of the NUM, those fly-by-night solicitors went through like a dose of Epsom salts. They told people that they would get them the moon, but people are still waiting.

There is a big problem in that the Government and the other agencies trying to tackle it are having to deal with as many as 300 solicitors instead of only a dozen sets of solicitors. Imagine that: 300 solicitors, who work on the principle that if they can stretch it out, they will get more money for themselves. There are rare exceptions—there are bound to be some good solicitors—but the general principle is that they do not answer letters, as I did this morning. We send off our letters straight away and our constituents thank us. Solicitors do not work like that. They work on the following basis: they do not answer letters but make people think that they are working hard for a week or a fortnight. That is what is happening to the poor old miners, heaving their lungs up—some of them dying—who want that money paid out.

During the past 18 months, I have not been backward in coming forward to explain the problem. I am still doing that. Despite that, the Government announced that, in order to hurry things up, there would be a handling charge for every solicitor for every case. The Government will pay the solicitors money—taxpayers' money—to speed the process along.

Not content with a handling charge paid for by the rest of us, some of those solicitors decided that they wanted commission as well. In some settlements that had been made, they took from 5 to 15 per cent. extra. It is time that that was stopped.

There are other delays. My hon. Friend is probably aware of them. We now have to pay the doctors as much as £100 a day for getting out miners' medical records. The miners had to go before the agency, Healthcall, to have their chests examined for a percentage assessment. The doctors are being paid £100 a day and they too are dragging their feet.

On top of that, some of the tinpot health authorities are involved in the delay. A ring-fenced sum of up to £3 billion is being handed over by the Government—no problem, the money will be paid—but, for the reasons that I have outlined, we are not able to get that money into the pockets of miners or miners' widows. That is why it is important to bring the matter to the attention of the House today—to get the show on the road.

I have mentioned that there are variations between regions and coalfields. We want to make sure that, when the payouts are made—some have been made, as my hon. Friend knows—and speeded up, there are no regional variations. Payments must be made on a similar basis, even in those areas where there is no NUM structure and where we have to deal with some of those fly-by-night, touting solicitors.

That is my first point. My second point is that the Government will be the beneficiary of about £20 billion—maybe more—from the licence auction of the new generation mobile phones. I do not have one, nor do I have a pager, so I am not into the technical stuff at all, but people tell me that there is real money involved. It is certainly more than we are paying out to the miners—a lot more.

In the run-up to the next election, we should not drag our feet over that money. I was delighted at the announcement on Monday that £100 million would go to the mining areas in order to save the few pits that the Tories did not close. I would have done things differently, but the money is better than a poke in the eye with a big stick.

I was pleased to see the faces of the Tory MPs who did not know what to do about that statement. Some of them wanted to oppose it on principle, because they do not believe in public expenditure, but once they had thought about it, they said, "Oh, I'm not sure about that." Their reaction was mixed. I like that disorientation—I enjoy it. When I hear that there is £20 billion to spend, I should like to do that once a fortnight. [Laughter.] Seriously, I have a list that I sent to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is important. We have had two years of Tory spending plans. I am pleased that is all over. We should never have followed them, but that is gone; it is behind us. We have all this money: we have paid off the national debt and there is £20 billion or even £25 billion extra.

Just as a starter, we have to sort out the pension problem. We did not accept the Tories' unemployment figures. When we came into government, we decided there should be two sets. They were announced yesterday. We should have a cost of living index for pensioners and those who are not in work. There should be an index that identifies the costs for those pensioners who are at the bottom of the pile. We must get these current decisions settled, with a view to ensuring that the Government can announce before the next general election—probably in the autumn spending review—exactly what the new index is and what the new payments will be. I am trying to get the Government off the hook. [Laughter.] This is only friendly advice.

In that brown envelope that I sent to the Prime Minister, I submitted a long list of things that need to be done, because I am absolutely sure that Madam Speaker would be utterly pleased if she thought that these statements were being made by the Government before John Humphrys got hold of them on the "Today" programme. I am trying to kill a lot of birds with a lot of stones here.

The Government have £25 billion, or whatever, to use. A statement has been half-heartedly made about what will happen to those who are in long-term care. This is the first time that any Government have even thought of tackling that issue. Some pensioners finish up in warden-assisted accommodation, of which there are many examples in our constituencies, but some others have to go into long-term care—some, sadly, with senile dementia—and lose everything. Now that we have had a study on that subject, I have reason to believe that there will be another announcement on the subject shortly. I would like it to be made before the local government elections, and I have a proposal to make about what should be done with that money.

When the Government came to power, they used money from the public utilities, which had been making vast profits under the previous Government, to introduce the new deal. It was not a bad idea to use that money. The Government tell me that unemployment figures are about 800,000 or 900,000 less than they would have been had the Labour Government not come to power. Therefore, the new deal was a success in its way.

We should have a new deal on long-term nursing care. It should be launched with the use of some of the largesse from the licence auction. I am not saying that that could be done year after year, because the payment is a one-off and that new deal would have to be financed out of general taxation afterwards, but the launch could be made of a free long-term nursing care payment straight out of that money.

Those are a couple of the things that I wanted to draw to the attention of the Minister and all the relevant Ministers. I am saying that we must speed up payments for chronic ailments and bronchitis, and we must ensure that vibration white finger payments are made speedily. Let us try to get the job completed before the next general election. If we do, there will be a lot of satisfied customers in the coalfields.

If we can also announce in the next few weeks that long-term care will be free for everyone who, unfortunately, has to spend their declining years in those places, it will be of benefit not only to those people—in one fell swoop, we shall have won the support of all pensioners, feeble or otherwise, if they know that a Government at long last have managed to grasp this very important issue and settle it, with the result that not only pensioners but all their families will thank us for ever.

10.4 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

It is a pleasure to follow two such powerful speakers as the hon. Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I agree with every word that the hon. Member for Gosport said about Haslar.

There was much with which I identified in the speech by the hon. Member for Bolsover. It may surprise the House to learn that I too represent a mining constituency. The coal mines are closed but there are still miners, and I very much identify with the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I hope that areas such as the Somerset coalfield will not be forgotten, and that the miners who are suffering in exactly the same way as their colleagues elsewhere in the country will have access to the money that they should have.

Although the three points that I shall raise are well worn, they deserve to be addressed yet again before the House rises. The first—the issue of post offices—has been discussed ad nauseam in the past few weeks, but I make no apology for returning to it. I believe that we are making progress with the Government, not entirely as a result of the efforts of hon. Members. That progress has much to do with the 3 million people who were prepared to put their name on a petition and make plain their concerns about what was happening to their local post offices, not just because of the people directly involved in the post offices, but because of all the people who depend on the presence of that service in their communities—the pensioners who do not want to be encumbered with bank accounts with which they are not familiar, but want to continue to use cash, drawing it from a post office, from people they know, in their local community.

We have made progress in three ways. First, the Government have recognised that there will be a continuing need to allow people the choice of drawing benefits in cash from their local post office. Secondly, the Government have recognised that there is a need to maintain the integrity of the sub-post office network. Thirdly, an amendment has been introduced to the Postal Services Bill that provides for a subsidy to be paid.

Unfortunately for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, there is a lack of definition on all three aspects. Business decisions are being taken now. People are deciding whether to invest in a post office business, whether they can safely retire and whether there will be a buyer for their business. More clarity is needed.

Therefore, I make a plea for the Government to talk now to the Post Office and to sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, and put flesh on the bones of the arrangements that they are starting to develop. I do not take a partisan view of this. The issue is too important to use as a party political weapon. I believe that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who recognise the value of sub-post offices. I was sorry that the Government took so long to respond to the legitimate concerns. I congratulate them on the fact that they are starting to do so, but they must finish the job. We must have clarity.

Secondly, I want to discuss the rural economy. I make no apology for doing so, because so many people—not only those who are involved in agriculture but all those in businesses that derive their income from agriculture, directly or indirectly—are still in a desperate position. I saw a tenant farmer, a dairy fanner, a man who had worked on the land all his life, a strong man, in tears in my presence because I mentioned the word "retirement" and it suddenly came to him that he had no means of retiring; he had nothing. His business was on its last legs, and once he retired he would be left with no house, no business, no capital—nothing. We must address that issue.

The only thing that is keeping the agriculture industry afloat at the moment is the extraordinary maintenance of the value of land prices. Land and quota are maintaining their prices, not because people are investing in agriculture but because they are investing in farmhouses, parkland and paddocks for their horses.

A farm in my village is for sale, and the estate agents who are selling that land have advertised it as a leisure dairy farm. Anyone who lives in a rural area knows that if there is an oxymoron to end all oxymorons, it is one involving the use of the words "leisure" and "dairy". That is how the estate agents describe that farm, which has provided a living for generations, in order to sell it. I find that offensive.

The Government have made moves in the right direction in terms of the farm summit, but they do not go far enough. The pig sector is still in desperate straits despite the measures that have been taken, as is the dairy sector, which is so important in my area. Those sectors are not asking for more subsidy. They do not ask continually for more money. They simply want a fair deal for their effort. At the moment, they are not getting that from the processors and supermarkets. Until milk prices are set at a reasonable level, businesses will continue to fail. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry could help by sorting out the successors to Milk Marque to ensure that we have the vertical integration that enables milk to be sold profitably.

My final point on this subject concerns the need to consider carefully the position of the tenant fanner—the farmer who does not have capital and who is seeing his business disappear, and, with it, his home. We need to find some way of providing security for those people. We need to find for them pension arrangements, which they do not have. The retirement scheme which we proposed, but which the Government rejected, would have gone some way towards meeting that need.

Thirdly, I turn to schools and education in my area. On this, too, I follow a well-worn track. How can it be right that a child in my constituency in a local education authority school can receive from the Government £1,400 a year less than a child in a leafy suburb of London? It is not just in Somerset that children lose out, but in many areas across the country. The extraordinary distribution system does not recognise the value of the child.

All sorts of academic arguments can be advanced in support of a better deal for our children. I do not want to go into that today, but simply want to say that a child, wherever he lives, is entitled to have a reasonable sum spent on his education. That is not happening. It is no good talking about three years of stability when those are three years of injustice to children in Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Derbyshire or wherever education authorities are losing out under the present formula. The Government need to address that.

The Government must also address the problem of capital. As the hon. Member for Bolsover said, we had two years of sticking to Tory spending guidelines, which meant that there was no money. Now, at last, there is beginning to be some improvement and I give the Government credit for that. Temporary classrooms in my constituency are being replaced by permanent ones. I have a list of five or six this year, but we have 800 temporary classrooms in the county of Somerset and some have been temporary for 40 years. Until we address the problem of capital expenditure in our schools, we will not provide the environment in which children can learn successfully and teachers can give of their best; nor will we give parents the confidence in the state education system that I believe they should have.

For all those reasons, I ask Ministers to look again at the distribution of resources and to make sure that the education, education, education pledge works for all, not just those in city areas which sometimes seem to receive a rather better deal.

10.14 am
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

I want to raise an issue that I know is troubling many of my hon. Friends and which is causing a lot of anger throughout the country. I refer to the wave of bank closures that are hitting all areas of our nation. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the rural economy, and it is in the rural areas that banks are being closed. I want in particular to talk about my constituency, where some of those bank closures have recently taken place.

East Cleveland has seen the sudden announcement of the closure of two small branches of Barclays and a large branch of NatWest. The villages affected are Skelton, Brotton and Loftus. They are not small, sleepy hamlets, but sizeable villages that could be seen as small country towns. They are neighbouring communities on the fringes of urban Teesside. Barclays has now closed branches in Skelton and Brotton. NatWest is planning to close its branch in Loftus.

The closure of the Skelton branch of Barclays follows an earlier closure of the local branch of NatWest. There is now no effective banking presence in a town of some 6,000 men, women and children. The closure of the Barclays branch in Brotton means that there are now no banking facilities whatever in a community of some 4,000 people. Loftus is the largest settlement in that part of East Cleveland: the town, with small villages and estates, has a population of some 7,000. The NatWest branch there is the biggest bank in the town. If it closes—the closure is expected in early May—it will leave the town, indeed most of east Cleveland, with only one branch of the big four clearing banks: the Loftus branch of Barclays. You will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that most of my constituents are sceptical about that branch remaining open for the foreseeable future, in view of the track record of that particular banking concern.

I need to say something about what the closures and threatened closures will mean for many of my constituents. With the one exception of Barclays in Loftus, there will be no banking facilities between the town of Saltburn and Whitby—a distance of nearly 20 miles. That area is not uninhabited moorland. It covers large and small communities, many farms and a host of industrial employers—the largest being Boulby potash mine. Boulby is the largest deep mine in Europe, with some 700 employees, who have their wages paid through automatic bank transfer. Many of them have been hit by the Barclays closures, and 103 of them have been hit by the announcement of the intended closure of the Loftus NatWest. In no case was the company informed of the closure proposals by any of the banks concerned, and the same is true for other employers: the 30-odd firms based on the Skelton trading estate, the large Skinningrove steel plant of Corus plc, the nearby Skinningrove fabrication works of the multinational Caterpillar company, and the other varied employers ranging from the local bus depot to the East Cleveland national health service hospital facility.

The local authority first knew of the proposals in the same way as most of the residents—through the local paper. No consultation was built into the proposals. Many small shopkeepers are furious. In Brotton I was told that there were many small shops where the loss of cashing-in and change facilities could cause closures. That is because many of those shops are run by a husband or wife, leaving the other partner to take a job elsewhere. The closures mean that they may have to close shutters and drive the three miles to Saltburn and back just to exchange and bank some change.

Local employees are furious. Many of them have relied on a quick trip into the nearest village on a Friday to draw out some spending money, whereas now they have to trek to a distant town after work to get their cash from the nearest hole in the wall that may be working. For those without access to a car—some 30 per cent. of households on some of our local estates do not have such access—the outlook is bleak. From Brotton, the nearest branch of any bank is in Saltburn. It may be only three miles, but there is only one bus an hour. If a constituent misses a connection back, it could take him up to two hours just to cash a cheque. He could get a more regular bus to the market town of Guisborough, but that is several miles away and the return bus fare is £2.70.

The banks' attitude towards local feelings was contemptuous. Local management at Barclays has decided to preserve silence on the subject, relying on national press releases, but NatWest is worse. When the local newspaper for Loftus, the East Cleveland edition of the Evening Gazette asked what alternatives there were for NatWest customers, its press spokesman said: I think there is a small supermarket next door, and they do offer cashback facilities. That is true, but what a disgraceful attitude to suggest blithely that someone has to get a minimum of £10-worth of shopping merely to get cash out of the till. People are expected to queue at a public checkout to get cash, but no mention is made of other functions such as paying in cheques, dealing with loans and investments or inquiring about services such as mortgages or ISAs.

We should be more able to affect the levels of private sector investment in areas suffering from isolation or relative deprivation. We all know that financial exclusion is not just a problem for the deprived in rural areas. I mentioned the difficulties that the closures will mean for small businesses in loss of turnover and increased difficulties in acquiring change, and there are associated security issues of having more money on their premises.

Many elderly and disabled people experience mobility problems: for them, cash machines, even where they are available, are simply not a suitable option. Closing small local banks can mean the premature loss of financial independence and social interaction, because many local banks act as the linchpin for small communities.

Respected campaigning organisations such as Help the Aged and Age Concern have joined other campaigning organisations in a campaign for community banking services, and they have been vocal in their concern and dismay at the recent spate of bank closures. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, Friends of the Earth, Transport 2000 and others are concerned that, with bankless communities losing the lifeblood of the high street, people will increasingly travel out of town to shop, creating added congestion that is to the detriment of the environment.

Let us consider the figures, bearing in mind the fact that unless we do something about the problem, things will only get worse. In the 10 years since January 1990, more than 4,000 banks have been closed in England, Wales and Scotland. Independent consultants predict that a further 4,000 are set to close in the next five years. That will leave more than 1,000 communities across the United Kingdom without banking facilities.

Tackling social exclusion is one of the biggest challenges facing us. Only last week, we saw the publication of the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, about which I have tabled an early-day motion. I hope that all Members will sign it. That was the theme of a speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the message from Ministers is that social exclusion has been, and will remain, at the top of the Government's agenda.

In November last year, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury published the findings of the social exclusion unit's policy action team—PAT 14—which considered access to financial services. In her introduction to the report, she says: The banks in particular have a major task ahead of them, extending services to low-income households and developing delivery channels accessible to people in deprived neighbourhoods. She concluded: The banks have to recognise the importance of the role they play, the extent to which we all rely on them and their responsibility to sustain equal and open access to those who wish to use them. The whole point of the report was to identify ways in which the financial elements of social exclusion could be tackled.

In his recent review of efficiency, competition and innovation in the banking industry, Don Cruickshank singled out two main areas for criticism. The first was retail current account banking, which costs householders and small business users between £3 billion and £5 billion a year too much. That is the equivalent to £400 a year for every account holder. The second was the payments system—with indefensible delays, lack of transparency and high charges.

Earlier this week, the Treasury Committee took evidence from three of the big four banks—from the chief executives of HSBC, Lloyds TSB and Barclays. NatWest had to give a presentation in the City the following day, so its representative did not bother to turn up. That says a lot about NatWest. The chief executive of Lloyds TSB made a welcome concession, which obviously surprised his competitors. Mr. Ellwood promised to preserve Lloyds TSB branches where it was the last remaining bank in a remote community. That is a start.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will reassure us that the Government treat the issue seriously and that he will do everything that he can to protect our constituents in rural communities.

10.25 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, there are several points that I wish to make. I shall try to do that quickly and the House will be pleased to learn that I have no complaints about the Palace theatre, Westcliff. It continues to remain open, and I have been invited to attend a performance of a Noel Coward play next Thursday. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) has suggested, perhaps one day I shall also be invited to perform.

I had toyed with the idea of going into detail about a very serious allegation that I have received about the abuse of cadets at Winchester barracks. However, I hope that, when I return to my office, I will discover that my efficient secretary has called the Ministry of Defence and that I will be able to reassure a number of people. I hope that I will not have to go into detail on that matter.

The first point that I wish to make is about the Lady McAdden breast unit centre in Southend, which is known as BUST. Sir Stephen McAdden was a distinguished Member of the House and represented the constituency of Southend, East. The townswomen's guild started a fund to build the centre in 1968 when 38p was deposited in an account. The centre was eventually opened in 1976 and Sir Stephen's widow, Lady McAdden, heads the unit.

I am sorry to say that, when I visited the unit on Monday, I found a rather unhappy situation. In short, there are great demands on the unit's facilities, but unfortunately it has encountered difficulties with Essex area health authority and the trust; I received a pleasant letter from the health authority this morning.

The unit is entirely maintained by public donations and £5 million has been raised so far; running costs are roughly £300,000 a year. A White Paper published a couple of years ago seems to be the source of disquiet at the unit, because it condemned the practice of palpation that is combined with mammographies at the unit. There has been a lack of proper consultation on that point.

All Members have attended breast awareness receptions in the House over the past few weeks and I pay tribute to all the organisations involved; I attended a local charity event in my constituency.

The Lady McAdden unit had been the only source of breast education and screening of women in my area before the breast screening programme was introduced in 1992 for ladies aged from 50 to 64. The unit deals with women of all ages and it had very good relations with the local hospital until 1997. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case; support for both medical and advisory services has been withdrawn. However, a report by the national health service quality assurance team in April 1999 recognised that the unit played an important part in health promotion of well women and it did not want its existence to be compromised.

When the Minister has time, will he have a word with the Department of Health? I am sure that heads need gently knocking together. The unit has been developed as a result of voluntary subscriptions, but many press reports about it have appeared, and BUST has not had the opportunity to respond to all the negative publicity. I very much hope that the true value of this wonderful organisation will be recognised. It has saved an enormous amount of money for the national health service. I have received many letters and petitions and I hope that the Minister will do his best with the Department.

My second point concerns private and residential nursing homes. In 1991, Southend, West was ranked 27th in terms of the proportion of the population receiving pensions, but I think that it is now much higher in the ranking than that. It is therefore little wonder that I occasionally have to shout at people because as my constituents grow older, they become a little hard of hearing.

I know at first hand the challenges that have to be met in Southend, West if we are to look after our senior citizens decently. Private nursing homes are being short-changed. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) touched on one or two of these issues. To save money, all such homes are being described as residential, even though they all have to provide nursing care. Some of the rules and regulations are barmy. Private home owners say that inspectors are telling them that the rooms are two inches too small, but the quality of care has little to do with chintzy curtains and other fixtures and fittings. This year, private nursing homes are getting a funding increase of 1.4 per cent., which is below inflation. Council-run homes, which have fees of £485.50 a week or £69 a day, are receiving an increase of £50 per week, whereas private homes, which are overwhelmingly in the majority, are receiving half that amount. Private home owners, who have underpinned the service for so long, deserve better treatment than they are receiving at the moment. When I visited Southend hospital on Monday, I found, sadly, that 74 beds were being blocked by men and women who would be better off in one of those nursing homes.

I turn now to crime. We all know that if we hold law and order meetings in our constituency, no criminals turn up, and we meet all the usual people who say how dreadful it all is. What is happening? In Essex there are cuts. I meet the chief constable and learn about all the new technology, targets and strategies, such as the community safety strategy; glossy magazines are produced, and the great and the good turn up to meetings. Some of those people are paid a great deal—I do not know who is running their organisation while they attend strategy meetings. They all talk about crime, but at the end of the day what is happening? In my view, not enough.

Over Christmas, I was summoned, in a nice way, by a local priest. I turned up, like Mother Teresa, because he was having a problem with local yobs and no one was available to deal with it. I thought that I would act like Joe public and use the council's emergency service. I got on the phone to the service and the person on the other end did not know who the hell I was or what a Member of Parliament was. I found out later that our emergency service is being run from Croydon, which is not particularly helpful. I do not know what the many senior citizens in my constituency would do in similar circumstances. The sad end to that story is that that priest has left the area as a result of intimidation.

Day in and day out, I find that the police are doing their best in difficult circumstances. How do we deal with graffiti? We seem to scrub the walls and receive publicity, and then the next person with a spray can comes along. Some people might think that this is a minor issue, but in fact it is very important. It lowers the tone of the neighbourhood when every wall has graffiti on it. Some councillors think that the solution is to have a wall dedicated to graffiti. How daft can anyone be? The idea that all the people spraying paint will gather at one wall and do nice designs is ridiculous. I hope that the Minister will have a word with the Home Secretary to find out whether he, as a former Essex man, has any bright ideas about how to deal with graffiti.

My next point concerns employment agencies. For many years, I was involved in recruitment. I used to think that employment agencies were the lowest of the low because, as a student, I used to register with them and find it jolly difficult to get a job. However, I ended up running my own employment agency and I have interviewed thousands of people, so I am now biased and think that such agencies do a good job in difficult circumstances.

Several constituents who run employment agencies have contacted me because they are concerned about the Government's proposals. If an agency supplies temporary members of staff to an organisation, there is a clause in their contract whereby they can join the organisation permanently, and the agency receives a part of their overall salary. There is also a clause that says that when the temp has left, the employer cannot engage that person after a certain period. For many agencies, that period is 12 weeks, and the Government are trying to reduce it to four weeks. Clever employers, who are practical operators, will find a way to get round that, and employment agencies will lose their money.

Jobcentres cannot manage all recruitment, and the private sector plays a valuable role. The Government are not being fair to small businesses and British entrepreneurs, so I hope that the Minister will have a word with a colleague in the relevant Department.

I turn now to proposed bus lanes on the A13. Southend suffers terrible traffic congestion. I do not have an easy answer to that, because one cannot simply knock down all the houses and widen the roads, but the council is absolutely potty to propose to run a bus lane all along the A13 in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor).

I criticise the council for failing to consult the majority of local traders. I am told that if the proposal goes ahead, it will have a considerable impact on them. Of the £2.3 million that has been earmarked for the scheme, a considerable amount—a quarter—has been spent analysing the proposal, which has caused tremendous upset among local traders. For example, Sancto, a company which has been in the town since 1910 and has been operated by four generations of the same family, was not consulted. That is not good enough when the Government are saying that we should have open government and more consultation. After all, the council is run by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Southend needs a bypass to the north. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has cut the road-building programme, and I hope that the Minister will ask his colleagues to reconsider that. I hope that he and other hon. Members enjoy a happy Easter, but it will be a happier Easter for Southend, West if he can come up with a few answers for my constituents.

10.37 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I declare an interest in the issue that I shall bring to the attention of the House. I chair the Cyprus Commonwealth parliamentary group in the House, and I want to raise the case of Loizidou v. Turkey. Mrs. Loizidou is a Greek Cypriot, and her home was in Kyrenia, which is now in the occupied area of northern Cyprus. As a result of the Turkish military invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Mrs. Loizidou was forced to leave her home and possessions.

The case involves two members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: Cyprus and Turkey. As hon. Members will know, the United Kingdom is also a member of that Parliamentary Assembly. I raise the issue this morning because Cyprus is a Commonwealth country, and the United Kingdom is one of the guarantor powers for the Republic of Cyprus.

The case goes back some years, and, while preliminary discussions about it were taking place, there was hope that the case would be resolved. It went before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in July 1998. Turkey and Cyprus had every opportunity to present their views on the case to the court, and they did so. The court found by 15 votes to two in favour of Mrs. Loizidou. The case came before the court under article 50 of the European convention on human rights, which clearly states: Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions. That is something that Mrs. Loizidou cannot do. Her property and possessions are in the occupied area of northern Cyprus, to which she is refused access by the Turkish military authorities. That action by Turkey violates article 1 of the first protocol of the convention.

Following the decision of the human rights court of which all Council of Europe states are members, there have been many attempts by the Council, by the Secretary General of the Council and by the Committee of Ministers, which represents the member states of the Council, to ensure Turkey's compliance with the judgment of the court. Regrettably, Turkey continues to refuse to recognise the court's decision.

As a member of the British delegation to the Council of Europe, I have put questions to whoever has been the Chairman-in-Office during the Council's sittings in Strasbourg. I tabled a question to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as long ago as October 1998. I asked the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), to set out the actions of the Government with regard to the judgment. On 3 November she replied: We are mindful of the obligation of all parties to the European Convention on Human Rights under Article 53 of the Convention to abide by European Court of Human Rights judgments. In the case of Mrs. Loizidou v. Turkey, and in line with Council of Europe procedure, the UK, along with other members of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, has invited Turkey to inform the Committee of the measures it proposes to take in consequence of the judgment.—[Official Report, 3 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 541W.] Despite that reply, there has still been a total refusal by Turkey to honour the judgment. Regrettably, no progress is being made.

At a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in January, the Chairman-in-Office of the Committee of Ministers, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Brian Cowen, made a statement of regret that the Committee of Ministers had made no progress towards the execution of the judgment in the Loizidou case. He said that it was the unanimous view of the committee that the compulsory jurisdiction of the court is an obligation that is accepted by all contracting parties, which obviously includes Turkey. He added that he had sent a letter to Turkish Foreign Minister Mr. Cem, emphasising the Committee's concern at Turkey's continued failure to meet its obligations.

Recently, I asked the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to express his view about the failure of Turkey to honour the court's decision. He said clearly that he deeply regretted the lack of response and commitment, and that it cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. So we have clear statements from the Chairman-in-Office of the Committee of Ministers and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

It is apparent to me and to many other parliamentarians that a decision has clearly been made by the European Court of Human Rights in favour of Mrs. Loizidou in a judgment supported by 15 votes to two. Yet we are still seeing a member state totally refusing to honour the judgment. This is at a time when on-going discussions are taking place, in which the Government are involved, about Turkey's possible future membership of the European Union. Is the deliberate flouting of a decision of the European Court of Human Rights acceptable behaviour by a future possible member of the EU? I believe that the Government have a clear duty. Is it acceptable that the case is allowed to drag on? Where do the Government stand on the judgment, and what action will we seek to take, along with our fellow member states of the Council of Europe, to see that Turkey honours the decision of the court, which many members of the Council and Governments believe should have been honoured long ago?

10.46 am
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I shall bring three issues briefly to the attention of the House before we rise for the Easter recess. The first is prompted by a petition that I placed in the Bag last Friday in the name of one of my constituents, Mrs. Holly, whose daughter was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident in my constituency a few weeks ago. I shall not go into the details because charges have now been brought. However, we would do well to have greater awareness of speed limits and their enforcement.

Largely, my constituency benefits from a 40 mph limit. That is consequent on the nature of the New Forest. However, as I drive through the forest, I am constantly overtaken by cars racing past me. Even when I move from a 40 mph limit to one of 30 in a village, I find it difficult to remember to make that accommodation in my behaviour.

Despite the fact that I speak from the Opposition Benches, I am not critical of Government policy in this respect. I support the thrust of it. My words are of encouragement rather than criticism, but we need to make a greater effort to achieve a change of cultural awareness as regards speed. We have achieved that for drink driving, and, over 30 years, the public attitude to it has changed fundamentally. I should like to see the same change achieved in the public's approach to the enforcement and observance of speed limits.

I receive constant representations about pornography, particularly that which is hard core. I have taken a rather different view from some of my constituents. I have felt that hard-core pornography tends to be less corrosive than other forms because of the lengths to which a person who wishes to acquire it must go to get hold of it. I have always been rather more concerned about the general reduction in standards in the diet of soap operas that people experience. Even before the nine o'clock watershed, they offer a view of sexual behaviour, language and violence which I do not believe represents norms of behaviour. I have always regarded that as a more corrosive influence on society than hard-core pornography.

A few weeks ago, a constituent approached me—a parent—to complain about the nature of pornography that is available on the internet, and the ease with which it could be accessed by adults and, more particularly, by children. In an idle moment, I accessed the internet in my office. Within a few seconds, I was able, without any ingenuity, without using any passwords and without overcoming any security arrangement, to access a number of pornographic sites. Most of the material was little more titillating than making a phone call from a telephone booth in most parts of London.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

How does my hon. Friend know?

Mr. Swayne

My hon. Friend does well to ask me that question. I have made several telephone calls from London telephone booths, where one inevitably sees such advertisements.

However, I was able to access some extremely disturbing and profoundly corrupting material, and I think it extraordinary that it is so easily accessible. I began myself to feel the powerful nature of that corruption: I could within moments have established my ability to access such material and then moved on, but I found myself lingering over it, with a sense of fascination. I reckon that I was saved by the Division Bell, which called me to my senses and forced me to leave. I felt profoundly the meaning of the words of St. Paul: your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. I wonder whether Ministers are alive to the potential for corporate evil that lies within those forces rampant on the internet. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to assure me that Home Office Ministers are indeed wrestling with the question of whether it is desirable—and, indeed, technically feasible—to restrict the ease of access by vulnerable people to such material.

My third and final point is one that has been raised in early-day motions this Session, in questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland and in questions that I have put to the Leader of the House of Commons. It relates to the desire initially expressed by Members of the Scottish Parliament to reopen the Act of Settlement. At first, the Secretary of State for Scotland gave only a dusty answer to those representations; however, the Government's attitude then appeared to change, and a suggestion was made that the issue might be included in the next Labour party manifesto.

I doubt the need to address the issue. I am not persuaded of the disadvantages that Roman Catholics might feel as a consequence of the Act of Settlement. Sectarianism on the mainland has been in steady decline for many years. After all, it is not long since numbers on the Conservative Benches were augmented by Members representing more than half the seats in Liverpool and Glasgow, elected entirely on the basis of the sectarian vote. Those times have gone, perhaps to the detriment of the Conservative party, but certainly to the benefit of society as a whole.

I speak as man who married a Roman Catholic, who has moved within the Roman Catholic community and who has worshipped in Roman Catholic churches. Never has any Roman Catholic told me that they feel disadvantaged by the settlement that we enjoy—with one exception: this morning, in the Members' bathroom, the Government pairing Whip made such a complaint to me. That extraordinary incident was the first time that I had ever received such a representation.

The historical justification for the settlement we enjoy lies in the English experience of political Catholicism before the glorious revolution. We must examine those issues in their historical context; I do not favour revisionism, whereby we judge the actions of our forefathers by the politically correct standards of the modern age. I accept that the Protestant succession would be difficult to defend in a modern setting, but I believe that those who advocate the reopening of the Act of Settlement have focused on the wrong target.

It is, in fact, the Bill of Rights of 1688 which establishes that the monarch can neither be a Roman Catholic, nor married to a Roman Catholic; and the Coronation Oaths Act of the same year requires the monarch to make a promise—take an oath—to uphold the Protestant religion by law established. Both those Acts were ratified by the Crown in Parliament Act of 1689. Only in 1701, as a consequence of settling the succession, after William and Mary died childless, on Anne, rather than on her Catholic half-brother, were those provisions reinforced and restated in the Act of Settlement, and again in the Act of Union of 1706. The consequence of those Acts is that the monarch cannot be a Roman Catholic or married to one.

The issue of the monarch's wife is rather more problematical: the legislation merely requires that she not be a Roman Catholic; it does not preclude her being anything else. However, the Coronation Oaths Act requires a promise to be made by both the monarch and his queen to uphold the Protestant succession and the Protestant faith. In addition, since the coronation of Edgar in 987, an act of communion according to the rites of the Church is required as part of the coronation. I suspect that it would be difficult for an adherent of another religion to take such an act of communion. Therefore, the position of the monarch's wife is circumcised—[Interruption.]—circumscribed to a certain extent.

Reopening those issues would present Parliament with a huge practical difficulty. We are struggling with 28 Government Bills in this Session alone. Consider the consequences of reopening all the constitutional measures that I listed—all of which would have to be taken on the Floor of the House—along with other measures, including the Royal Marriages Act 1772, the bishoprics legislation and the Statute of Westminster 1931, and having to deal with consequent negotiations with other Commonwealth Parliaments. An enormous unravelling of our constitutional arrangements would be required.

I remind the Parliamentary Secretary and the Leader of the House of the words uttered by Cardinal Wolsey when this country embarked on the process of creating an intimate connection between Church and state. On hearing that there was to be a reformation, he said that he wished that many things were to be reformed, but warned that others would come after and reform on that reformation, and that the results of so proceeding would be that there was nothing left. I suspect that that is the agenda of some of the advocates of reform.

In principle, I do not want the issue to be reopened for two reasons. First, the papal bull of 1570 that called on adherents of the Catholic faith to depose their Protestant monarch remains extant. It would be quite improper to reopen our constitutional settlement while it remains. Secondly, as the Prime Minister discovered to his cost, the Roman Catholic faith maintains an exclusiveness about the sacrament of the altar that I do not believe is appropriate in an age of openness and inclusiveness.

The argument has now moved one stage further, with the publication of the report commissioned by the Home Secretary, "Religious Discrimination in England and Wales" by Professor Paul Weller. The interim conclusions, on page 84, state: The religious composition of society has changed significantly since the last Coronation and the next Coronation will therefore highlight a series of very important issues and complexities, which it would be best to begin giving consideration to as soon as possible. I urge Ministers not to give consideration to those issues, for three reasons. First, the demand for such consideration is greatly exaggerated; there is no appetite for such reform. Secondly, adherents of minority religions—not least the Chief Rabbi—have themselves expressed satisfaction with the existing settlement. Thirdly, a society that is prepared constantly to reopen and unravel fundamental values will end up with no such values at all.

The link between the Church and state expressed in the coronation service is much more fundamental and more profound than that link as expressed in the statutes to which I have referred.

The model of monarchy in the coronation service is that of an Old Testament rather than a New Testament monarchy.

It being Eleven o'clock, MADAM SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).