HC Deb 25 May 2000 vol 350 cc1143-79

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

2.33 pm
Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Like other hon. Members, I wish to raise a particular constituency issue, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas)—the erection of telecommunications masts for the burgeoning mobile phone industry. This issue has received a great deal of attention in the House. There have been three Adjournment debates, and, more recently, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) tabled two early-day motions on the issue. In March, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill on the matter, and raised many of the issues that I want to raise today.

We now have the Stewart report, produced by the Stewart group, which deals with the problem of mobile phone masts. On the issue of the medical risks that might or might not be entailed by the erection of masts, the Stewart report equivocates to some extent. However, there are some interesting passages in it.

In the foreword, Sir William Stewart states: the balance of evidence does not suggest that mobile phone technologies put the health of the general population of the UK at risk. There is some preliminary evidence that outputs from mobile phone technologies may cause, in some cases, subtle biological effects although, importantly, these do not necessarily mean that health is affected. Without wishing to be alarmist about the issue, that is enough to create doubt in people's minds.

The report also states: Exposure to radiofrequency radiation below guideline levels does not cause adverse health effects to the general population. However, the Stewart group concludes that there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines. This does not necessarily mean that these effects lead to disease or injury but this is important information. The prevalent fears of medical risks have led to 39 states in the United States banning any further development of mobile phone masts, while in Australia there are exclusion zones of 500 metres around hospitals, schools and residential areas, within which masts cannot be erected.

In most cases there tends to be a presumption that we will allow things to develop to some extent until there is some evidence to show that there is a medical risk. In Australia and the United States, however, there tends to be the reverse presumption: that such developments will not be allowed—at least, not where people are living, going to school or in hospital—until there is evidence to conclude that there is no risk attached to the erection of this kind of technology.

I have many constituency cases concerning the erection of mobile phone masts. One example involves Towers junior school in Hornchurch. Orange—a big corporation, as these corporations tend to be—plans to erect a mobile phone mast a few yards from the school. Understandably, that is causing some alarm. I do not wish to be alarmist, because there is no substantial evidence of a risk, but there are fears and suggestions that there may be risks.

There are also fears that there may be particular risks to the young. It is ironic that Orange wishes to put the mast near a junior school. The brains of young children under 12 are still developing and their skulls are less resistant to radiation. The Stewart report mentioned that, saying: If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head and a longer lifetime of exposure. That suggests that there should be some changes in the way in which we treat mobile phone technology.

The Government's response to the report contained some welcome elements. For one thing, they plan extensive research into the medical risks. I would like to ask them to consider sending the relevant Minister to the House to make a statement explaining what kind of research will be done, how long it will take and what its nature will be. The statement could suggest what the Government's intentions for the research were.

More immediately, there are planning issues in connection with the erection of mobile phone masts. At present, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West pointed out, masts lower than 15 m do not require planning permission. In their response to the Stewart report, the Government said that they were minded to change that, so that masts under 15 m would need full planning permission. That is extremely welcome, but PPG8 gives a presumption in favour of giving the go-ahead. I should like PPG8 to be made more neutral so that communities' concerns could be taken into account.

Mr. Oaten

The Government, in their response to the report, felt that they should err on the side of caution and advised that youngsters should not use mobile phones, even though there is no evidence that they are harmful. Would the hon. Gentleman recommend the same cautious approach to positioning masts near schools, even though there is no evidence that they are harmful?

Mr. Cryer

The hon. Gentleman is right about the advice on the use of mobile phones. I have said that there should be exclusion zones around hospitals, schools and residential areas and that mobile phone masts should be placed in more isolated positions.

There are problems with planning permission for mobile phone masts because the companies behind the telecommunications industry tend to be extremely large, often multinational, corporations. Although councillors on a planning committee may feel inclined to reject a planning proposal, they will not do so because that would go against council officers' advice that there are no legal grounds for rejection, and the corporation could take its case to a higher court, which might lead to the council being surcharged. It is unlikely that such action would be taken, but that fear has led councillors to give masts the go-ahead when they would rather reject the application until there is more evidence about the precise effects of the mobile phone industry.

I turn now to the recent announcement by the Ford motor company that it is to end car assembly at Dagenham, where there has been a Ford plant since 1931. Henry Ford had the marshes drained and created that plant, which covers a large area. Ford's land is mainly in the Dagenham constituency, but some of it is in my constituency.

Ford has announced that car assembly will end, but the diesel engine plant will remain. I have talked at length to trade union officials, many of whom were instrumental in negotiating the deal that seems to have saved Longbridge. Their fear, and that of the work force, is that in the modern car industry it is highly unlikely that a stand-alone engine plant will survive for long. They fear that if car assembly disappears from Dagenham, the engine plant will eventually go, and everything else with it. Those fears may turn out to be unfounded, but I think that they are probably right.

I have talked about this many times to my hon. Friends, including Ministers, and expressed my fears. Pressure must be put on the Ford motor company to introduce new car assembly to Dagenham, perhaps through Mazda, which Ford now effectively owns, or Volvo, which has recently closed a plant. There may be other avenues, which the unions are exploring. It does not bode well for the plant that Ford has recently taken over Land Rover, which gives the company access to another diesel engine plant in Solihull. One has to ask why a big company, which previously had only one such plant, now needs two.

The matter involves global issues and more fundamental questions about how the economic system works. The car industry may start to move eastwards over 10 or 20 years, to central and eastern Europe, and, perhaps, the Pacific rim. That is a separate matter that can be dealt with only by Governments and international bodies, but it is the underlying fear of the trade unions and work force at Dagenham and elsewhere.

I also want to respond to the comments of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about how the House conducts itself. I have some sympathy with the idea of programming legislation, particularly at 3 o'clock in the morning when we are hanging around waiting for the next vote. However, Members' views tend to change when they move from opposition into government and vice versa.

There is a very good quote from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), when he was in government, in which he says that programming is a marvellous idea. He thought that all legislation should be timetabled because that would stop all the whingers and time-wasters on the Opposition Benches. That is ironic when one considers how he behaves these days—although he used to be a supporter of the Common Market and a member of the Communist party, so he has not been averse to changing his mind on several issues over time.

When we are in government, we think that the Opposition should not delay and that legislation should be passed—and on the whole, that is the right attitude. I remember that our first all-night sitting was on the National Minimum Wage Bill. The Tories had stayed up all night to do their best to delay that Bill, but at 6 o'clock in the morning, when the final vote happened, we were able to rub their noses in it, which was brilliant because that legislation is one of the best things that we have done since we came into government.

On the other hand, in the early 1990s, the Tories were passing the poll tax legislation. Obviously, I was not in the House at the time, but I have many friends who were. Labour Members were up night after night trying to delay that Bill, and we were right to do so because it was one of the most iniquitous pieces of legislation that any British Government have passed, certainly since 1945. Programming therefore involves the consideration of many issues.

I shall always be opposed to electronic voting because it would encourage hon. Members to feel that they could stay away from the House, and there would be less participation in its business. We are here to scrutinise the Executive, and I certainly hope that the hon. Member for Winchester, as a member of the Opposition, would say that that is why he is here.

Turnout at elections has very little to do with the behaviour in this place. We could introduce electronic voting, change the procedures of the House and programme every piece of legislation, but I bet that there would not be a significant increase in turnout in any of the elections that followed. The real reason for the fall in the number of people voting during the 1980s was the enormous increase in deprivation and unemployment caused by the previous Administration, which led people to feel alienated from the electoral process.

I remember reading in a national newspaper, about two years before the last general election, about a man in Wales who was prosecuted for pinching four lumps of coal to keep his family warm. It is difficult to imagine that one could convince people living in such poverty that they have a direct connection with the democratic and political process.

I think that such deprivation and unemployment were deliberately created by the previous Administration, because they tended to affect Labour areas. The closure of the pits and the steelworks and the complete decimation of the shipbuilding industry were politically motivated because they helped to undermine the base of the trade unions and the Labour party, and removed the traditional avenues into political activism. At one time, Hornchurch, and parts of the east end such as Beckton and Canning Town, had many dockers. When the docks went, the basis of political activism disappeared, and the same is true in mining and steel areas. A conscious effort was made to remove that basis.

Those are the issues that we must address. What can be done by people in Beckton, Barnsley, Glasgow or Liverpool, who might be the third unemployed generation in their family? The Government have started to tackle those issues, and there have been moves in the right direction, particularly in the redistribution of wealth. However, we still have a long way to go before we bring the people who suffered enormously during the 1980s and 1990s back into political participation.

2.49 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

We have had an interesting debate so far, and I am sure that it will continue in that way. Many demands have been made for Government replies and action, and I am sure that the Minister will have plenty of excuses and explanations to offer.

During business questions earlier, my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), raised the matter of north-west devolution. Many people in the north-west want that project to go ahead, and I am sure that the same is true in other parts of the United Kingdom. I can illustrate the need for devolution by the failure that I have experienced in persuading the Government—or, more accurately, their agencies—to install a right-turn filter at a set of traffic lights on the A6 trunk road in my constituency.

That is a small example of how my constituents cannot get what is manifestly needed in their area because the necessary powers are exercised 200 miles away by people who do not know that the A6 is a trunk road, that it goes through Hazel Grove, and that it lacks a right-turning lane. The matter is not trivial: there have been several serious accidents in the area in the past six months, and one fatal accident, when a pedestrian was knocked down and crushed by a heavy goods vehicle.

It would be simple to make the road safe, but my constituents cannot secure the small change needed because it does not fit with the criteria set in London. I acknowledge to the hon. Member for Cheadle that I do not receive long petitions demanding devolution for the north-west, but constituents and relatives of the person who was tragically killed have asked me why the straightforward safety measures that I have described have not been put in place. I believe that ensuring that power is exercised nearer to where it makes a difference will be an important change.

Mention has been made already in the debate of the problems associated with mobile phone masts, and I doubt that any Member of Parliament has not had difficulties in that regard. The original relaxation of planning guidelines was designed to accelerate the development of the technology, but it has also caused problems.

The Orange company has erected a mast in Station road in Hazel Grove. The company claimed that the mast was less than 15 m in height and that therefore no permission was needed for its erection, but subsequent investigation found that it was taller than 15 m. The mast is situated in what I can only describe as a courtyard formed by the back yards of four streets of terraced houses, and it causes local residents a good deal of concern and anxiety.

The council has placed an enforcement notice on Orange because of the height discrepancy. The company—rather cheekily, I believe—has accepted that the mast is more than 15 m tall and has said that it is prepared to chop a bit off, but it has pointed out that the antennae on the mast would then be closer to the first-floor bedroom windows of the surrounding houses.

The company is challenging the council to say whether it wants to stick to the letter of the law in the matter, with a possible increase in hazard. The alternative is to let Orange get away with having a mast that is taller than the law permits.

The mobile phone companies have a poor reputation. They are losing the battle to convince residents that the development rights and relaxations that they enjoy are justified. I support the hon. Members for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) and for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) in hoping that the Minister will emphasise the importance that the Government attach to the matter.

Modernisation of the House, is a matter that has been raised a number of times. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said, it is almost impossible to debate this matter, in the House or elsewhere, without appearing to whinge about terms and conditions of employment for Members of Parliament. That inhibits some hon. Members with more moderate and considered views, who keep silent as a result. The more strident voices are the ones that get heard, which reinforces the impression that we give to the outside world.

I hope that the Minister will accept that, in my three years of service on the Modernisation Committee, I have tried to suggest some ways in which we might improve the House's procedures. Some improvements have been made, and I believe that they are to the benefit of the House.

On the assumption that there is a wider audience outside the House, however, I want to stress that modernisation is not about acting as a trade union for Members of Parliament. Our aim is not to ensure that hon. Members eventually only need to vote on Wednesdays before 7 o'clock, and that we can do so from our constituencies. Rather, we want to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Parliament. It is not about working shorter hours, or getting lots of money, or having access to lots of computers and assistants. Our goal is to ensure that Parliament's procedures are strong enough to enable us to hold the Government to account, to pass sensible legislation, and to represent our constituents effectively.

Many people, both in the House and outside, believe that Parliament is not effective in any of those ways. The Minister is a seeker of consensus and is, I know, concerned about these matters. I hope that he will reassure the House that the appearance that the Government's initial burst of modernisation has petered out over the past 18 months is deceptive and that the Government will support further modernisation.

I said earlier today that the Government's response to "Shifting the Balance", the report of the Liaison Committee on the work of the Select Committees, was extremely disappointing. I hope that the Minister will reassure hon. Members that the paper written by his boss, the Leader of the House, was just the opening shot in a process of negotiation, and that the House will be able to reclaim some more powers from the Government.

Finally, I must mention the plea made by the hon. Member for Cheadle about road schemes in our area. He and I fight shoulder to shoulder on this matter. The review of transport problems in the region is called the multi-modal study of the south-east quadrant of Greater Manchester. That title is a mouthful—if an acronym of it were possible, it would have eight letters—and it is a replacement for a policy.

As was noted earlier, the second runway at Manchester airport will open early next year. It is projected that the number of passengers using the airport will more than double between now and 2015, rising from 17 million to 40 million. An extra 30,000 jobs are forecast to be created at the airport, and a significant proportion of passengers and workers will travel to the airport on the existing road network through my constituency of Hazel Grove.

That network cannot support the traffic that it has to carry at present. There is an urgent need for the multi-modal study to reach a favourable conclusion about investment in roads and other transport options, in my area and more generally in the borough of Stockport.

I hope that the Minister, when he answers the debate, will reassure the hon. Member for Cheadle and me that the problem will not be relegated to the "too hard to do this year" tray. I hope that the problem has not been palmed off on to a study as a way of deflecting pressure and aggravation. The consequences and impact for my constituents and constituents across Stockport are severe. The existing congestion problems will become worse with the expansion and development of the airport.

Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise these matters in the debate.

3 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I wish to raise four issues on behalf of my constituents.

South Swindon has had significant problems with bus services over a number of years. Of course, many services are fine and a huge proportion of drivers do all that they can to meet their timetables. However, I frequently receive letters and comments from constituents about buses that do not turn up on time, or are dirty, or have drivers who are not sensitive to the fact that my older constituents take time to get to their seats. Such problems put people off using the buses. Unless we can ensure that our bus services are reliable and pleasant, with fares that are easy to understand, we will not deliver on our huge transport agenda which relies on buses as a main form of public transport.

I welcome the Transport Bill, which gives local authorities powers to strengthen their control over local bus companies. However, I am concerned about whether those power go far enough. We should not be shy about giving maximum powers to local authorities. It is clear that the market does not work when it comes to many local bus services. It is in the interests of two competing bus companies to ensure that their bus gets to the bus stop 30 seconds before the other company's to pick up the passengers. The more powers local authorities have to deal with bus services, the better the bus services will be in my constituency, and the more likely we are to be able to try to get rid of the worst ones. Dealing with the problems will make the buses work in the interests of our constituents—the passengers. I should like the Government to look at whether we have done everything that we can on fare policies and frequency of services so that we can deliver the services that our constituents need.

I have regular talks with my local bus companies. I think that they are doing everything that they can to make services more reliable, but they are very concerned about the competition authorities, which virtually tell them that they should not co-operate to deliver the services that our constituents need. The bus companies feel the push from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to deliver a service, while the competition authorities are ready to slap them down if they are seen to co-operate too much in the market.

There remain real difficulties, which I hope that the Government will consider as we follow the Transport Bill through to delivery in our constituencies. Unless we can have really good-quality bus services, we will not be able to deliver the whole of the transport and environmental agenda.

The second issue is child care. The impact of the working families tax credit has been incredible. Family after family has told me what a huge difference it has made. When a bill comes through their door, they do not need to go into a panic or a sweat, because, for the first time, they are being rewarded for being in work, and it is making a huge difference.

I have had a few letters from constituents who have looked to the working families tax credit to help them with child care costs. They were very pleased that the Government launched a national child care strategy and delivered more child care places in my constituency. However, many of my constituents who are in low-paid work, particularly shiftworkers, want to use nannies, because they want their children to be looked after at home. Not many child minders are willing to look after children at night, which is what shiftworkers need. They are disappointed that, when they look into the detail of the working families tax credit, they find that it does not cover those costs. The Government should look at that problem. I know that the Government are concerned that if they are putting public money into supporting child care, it should be regulated in some way, and I understand that concern. But how much difference is there really between child minders and nannies? Is it not just a case of whether children are looked after in their home or in their neighbours? Surely we can come to a compromise to help low-paid workers in my constituency, particularly shiftworkers, who cannot use child minders. Some people want to have their children cared for at home, and they should have Government support for child care so that they can benefit from the working families tax credit as so many other families are.

My third point also comes from my constituents. There are strong environmental groups in Swindon, and people have an environmental focus to their thoughts. They want to see much more recycling and much greater emphasis placed on the environment. I know that they will be pleased that the Government published their waste strategy earlier today. It emphasises the need to increase recycling and composting, and to reduce waste at source.

There is one section of the strategy that immediately raises concerns with me and I know that it will with my constituents, and I hope that we will be able to debate it in the future. It has put the recovery of energy, as it is described—incineration, in other words—on an equal footing with recycling and composting in the waste hierarchy. That has watered down the Government's desire in the consultation paper "Less waste more value" to move away from the previous Government's approach of putting energy recovery on a par with recycling.

We know the problems that can occur with incineration, such as hazardous emissions, an increase in traffic going to the incinerators and disputes over location. No one wants an incinerator in their back yard. Given those problems, and the huge enthusiasm for recycling, I hope that we can look at the issue further. Recycling creates jobs and contributes to our global environmental aims of carbon dioxide reduction targets. I hope that we will have a chance to debate that in more detail to focus more on recycling.

There has been some debate about Members of Parliament, and what happens in the House. A while ago I did some research on what happened to the waste from the House. I started it at a time when, unbeknown to me, the House authorities were reconsidering the contract for waste. When I started my research, it was fantastic: all our waste was sorted and, sure enough, the paper went off for recycling. I thought that this was great, and that we were leading by example.

A little later, I was very disappointed to hear that the contract had changed, and that now all this paper—what some people might regard as all the hot air that is produced in the House and recorded—goes to contractors who make more hot air out of it by incinerating it. I hope that there will be a change in the House and at a national level. We are incinerating our waste and creating energy out of it rather than recycling it in the first place. That is an important issue for the House and the country.

My fourth and final point is an international one. International issues feature largely in my postbag at the moment. The debt campaign is still alive and kicking, and I am pleased about that. It is a really big issue affecting many countries. I know that the Government have done a lot, but we need to do much more, particularly with the summit in July coming up.

A number of constituents have also written to me about arms exports and the need for further arms controls. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) presented an excellent ten-minute Bill that would stop British people and companies being involved in selling arms to countries where arms embargoes apply. We must take a responsible attitude to arms sales, which do huge damage—often to civilians—that can rarely be repaired. Arms sales fuel conflicts, and we should minimise our involvement in them. We should use our talents in more productive engineering and manufacturing, and promote reconciliation and development, not arms sales. I know that the Government recognise the need for further legislation. Four years ago, the Scott inquiry recommended urgent legislation. We should register arms dealers and licence all the deals that involve United Kingdom companies and nationals.

My constituents have made it absolutely clear to me that dealing with arms sales is a priority. We must find time to take action now. The issue is not only of concern in Swindon but has widespread support in the House. An early-day motion on the subject has attracted support from 153 Members.

I hope that the Government will continue to look at those four issues, which are regularly raised by my constituents, who look forward to further progress on all of them.

3.11 pm
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to address the House before it adjourns for a short break. I shall declare an interest; everyone does so these days. I am a member of the Essex wildlife trust. I say that because I intend to speak about its marvellous venture at Abbots Hall farm in Essex, which stems from a former constituent of mine—Miss Elliot. Those who are not intimately familiar with the Braintree division may not have heard of Lake and Elliot's major engineering works in Braintree—a major employer. Alas, it left the scene some years ago, but Miss Elliot continued to live in the town and left more than £1 million in her will to promote nature conservation in the county.

Having been interested in such matters since I was a boy, I am amazed how rapidly the awareness of nature conservation has grown during the past 40 or 50 years. I was tempted to join a natural history society when nine years old, under the fine example of a teacher at Westleigh school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I was enthused by the prospects that it holds for people. At that time, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had 7,000 members; it now has more members than all the major political parties added together, which shows its popular appeal.

I originally come from Southend, which had the claim to fame of having one of the first municipal nature reserves in the county. A Southend Member and a former Southend Member are in the Chamber, but, in 1938, some far-sighted citizens had a tremendous battle on the borough council to acquire about 50 acres of ancient woodland on the edge of the town and preserve it for posterity before developers expanded estates over it.

The accounts of that great battle show that it was not easily won. The same arguments were used. Those who were opposed it as an absolute waste of public money said, "I went to those woods; all I saw was a crow." On that basis, they would have bulldozed the woods. That was not done, and the far-sighted borough councils expanded the woodlands to 100 acres after the war.

I mention that not because I come from Southend originally or because I represent a different part of Essex, but because it shows the tremendous strides that we have made. In Essex alone, the wildlife trust, which is now 40 years old, has 16,000 members. There are 92 nature reserves and 7,000 acres under nature conservation management in Essex, and it is not unique in such matters. The importance of conserving natural heritage is appreciated across the country. The late Miss Elliot's bequest is especially appreciated because she left so much money in her will to further that cause.

Abbotts Hall farm takes nature conservation a step further forward because it will never be entirely successful in our country unless there is a partnership between agriculture and nature conservation. Some 80 per cent. of Essex is arable farmland. Unless farmers and conservationists can co-operate we shall not preserve the flora and fauna.

We often read about the decline in common birds. The English partridge—so called to distinguish it from the French, but now called the grey partridge—has declined by 80 per cent. in the county. The skylark has also declined. People say, "I saw a skylark yesterday." No doubt, they did, but the point is that a few years ago they would have seen 10 or 20 skylarks.

We must be mindful that common birds are declining at an enormous rate. The only way to reverse that trend is to have a co-operative partnership between conservation and farming. That is why the scheme at Abbots Hall farm, which is on the Essex coast, is so farsighted. The money originally came from Miss Elliot's will, but the lottery and the World Wildlife Fund have put money forward and the Environment Agency is co-operating in the scheme, which raises every important issue in agriculture today.

The first issue is the managed retreat or managed realignment of coastal defences. The proposal is to adjust the coastline in co-operation with the Environment Agency, which is working closely with the Essex wildlife trust to create lagoons, cattle marsh and salt marsh, the effect of which on bird life is immense.

Secondly, the Essex wildlife trust intends to run 300 acres of arable land, mindful of the factors that can be used to improve nature conservation, enhance the environment and make a profit. That is a bold test to take upon itself. It could be a beacon—a word that I dare not use normally—or, to put it in English, a way forward as to how it may be possible for farms to make a profit if they are farmed in a conservation-friendly way.

Those of us who are not farmers should not say, "Yes, we want nature conservation and all the wonders of wildlife, but we want you, Mr. Fanner, to pay for it." If we are genuinely to make great strides in nature conservation and enhancing our farmlands, the state must be more generous in the grants and support given to the farming community for such projects. I hope that the Essex wildlife trust can lead the way at Abbots Hall farm and show how that can be done. If it is successful, I would urge the Government and the European Union to be more broad based and generous in the grants that are available.

We often hear stories of doom and complaint, but I have referred to a story that, thanks to Miss Elliot's generosity and the co-operation of various agencies and the foresight of people in Essex, is an enormous contribution of which we can all be proud. Some people in the Braintree division say that the reserve should have been created in Braintree. Some earlier parliamentary redistribution took away our coastlines, but Braintree people are nevertheless more broad minded than to say that everything should stop at the Chelmsford boundary. In fact, the scheme will be benefit the people not only of Essex but of the whole country, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to bring it to the attention of the House.

3.19 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I shall take this opportunity to mention two matters that affect my constituency but that have a national application. As that is the case, I appeal to the House to give them support. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and to the Government whom he represents, as well as to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who is on the Opposition Front Bench. I am sorry that my parliamentary neighbour the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is not with us for today's debate, but he has a happy, family engagement to keep him away from us. He always enjoys such debates and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman enjoys this one in his place. Finally, I appeal to hon. Members who are present for their support—I am content for them to express it by saying, "Hear, hear" at the appropriate moment.

The first matter concerns the magnificent response to the sad job losses in Stafford. The second is a national project that is planned for Stafford, a national centre for food.

First, ALSTOM, the power company—a great international company which has 100,000 employees throughout the world and has a base in Stafford dealing with the electrical power industry—unfortunately announced the loss of 730 jobs in Stafford in one go, which is one third of the total work force in the town. The company is the largest private sector employer in Stafford, so the House can imagine the devastation and sadness that that caused. There was a great dip in morale in the town because of the announcement.

Stafford has a proud history of connections with the power industry. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Siemens brothers established a factory in Stafford. They moved out with the first world war and English Electric took over, making a great business of it. At the peak, 14,000 people in Stafford worked for that company. With modernisation, the General Electric Company became the owners. It started a joint company with Alcatel, called GEC-Alstom, and eventually sold its share to that company. The business was then floated on the stock market as ALSTOM, with headquarters in Paris, and it remains the owner of the site.

Transmission and distribution equipment is sent around the world from those premises in Stafford. Recent contracts have been completed in Canada, China, India, south America and south-east Asia. Stafford has a great reputation in the power industry throughout the world, which brings me to the first national application.

The state of manufacturing in this country takes up much of our time at the moment. The business in Stafford was the sort that we are proud of, with highly skilled, value-added work and a reputation to match any in the world. However, the company has laid off a third of its work force in the town because of difficulty in securing overseas contracts. That is partly due to the present oversupply in the industry, but many of its major competitors are based in euroland countries and are benefiting from the mismatch between the euro and sterling. They have a huge price advantage in every competition to win contracts throughout the world. That is the heart of the difficulty.

I happen to agree with the Government's argument that there is nothing that we can do in this country to solve the problem of the weakness of the euro. Other organisations and other countries must take the decisions to solve that part of the problem. The job of our Government is to give practical support to manufacturing and to the other sectors that are exposed to the problem—farming and, increasingly, tourism—to get them through this difficult time. That means measures such as setting up British Trade International and giving support with exports, modernising export credit guarantees as we are doing, tax changes, giving capital allowances and research and development tax credits. All those are to the good and we must be determined to target them at our manufacturers.

When jobs have, sadly, to go owing to restructuring, as we are witnessing in Stafford, it means giving help to the poor people who lose their jobs—giving them the opportunity to find other jobs in their locality. We must not waste the skills that these ALSTOM employees have. Again, that brings me to the national application of the Stafford problem: how do we get those people jobs? There is not a huge number of other employers in the power industry near Stafford, but we have a great reputation in electrical power.

My vision is that we should carry forward that reputation into a new generation of power. The Government are trying to re-balance our energy demands and supply so that we use more new and renewable energy sources. I would like Stafford to take its part in that agenda of re-balancing the country's energy supplies. I want to make Stafford a centre of excellence for new and renewable energy sources.

To that end, I have taken the advice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, rolled up my sleeves and approached local people to establish a project to do just that. Between us we have arranged for business people, a solicitor and an accountant to give their time for free and for a banker to give free banking for the project, which is proceeding under the company name Renew Stafford. Our aim is to establish Stafford as a centre that is recognised throughout the world for this century's power needs and demands. I hope that in due course we will receive some Government support—after all, it is their policy to promote new and renewable energies—to get that project off the ground.

The management of ALSTOM throughout the United Kingdom have been extremely co-operative. The company is sad that it has had to dismiss a third of its work force in Stafford and it wants to help, so it is working co-operatively with the directors of the new company, Renew Stafford. I have no direct interest in the company as the business men who are giving their time for free are the directors. I praise ALSTOM, which has given the new company such enthusiastic support, for its responsible attitude. I hope that together we will be very successful.

Another national dimension of the job losses in Stafford is that the local authority, Stafford borough council, has also accepted its obligation to do something to help and has produced an exceptionally good-quality bid for the sixth round of the single regeneration budget. Its aim is to try to improve business services to link up more businesses in Stafford to the most modern information and communications technologies and to draw in new enterprises along those lines. It has had discussions with me and with the directors of Renew Stafford about how the SRB bid can link in with promoting Stafford's reputation as a centre for modern energy sources. I am pleased that the SRB bid and our proposal for a centre for new and renewable energy seem complementary. I am optimistic that the bid will have a successful outcome when it goes to the Government later this year.

Therefore, the first item was a sorry story that, I hope, will have a happy ending—we will find out later this year. The second item that I wish to raise is the proposal for a national centre for the culinary arts to be located in Stafford. Clearly, the national application is obvious—it is a national centre and will be the one and only showcase for British food and catering. It is a tremendously ambitious project and I am proud of the people who have had the vision to embark on it—mainly, the board of the British Food Trust. I do not know how many hon. Members know that Prue Leith, the famous cook, chairs the trustees. Having met her, I am delighted with her vision for the scheme, her enthusiasm for it and the breadth of her knowledge and contacts. I hope that she will be successful in locating the scheme in Stafford.

Stafford has been chosen because of its location in the centre of the country, with good communications by road and by rail. Also, it is in a beautiful part of the country, on the edge of Cannock Chase, with the Staffordshire moorlands to the north. It is an industrial heartland, with Stoke-on-Trent to one side and the black country to the other. Therefore, the site is excellent and premises have been located. English Partnerships, as it was, bought the site of the old St. George's hospital, which covers 28 acres and is in talks with the trust to deliver the project.

If it is successful, we will have a place in Britain that we can all visit and that will have exhibitions and displays about British food that is produced and cooked in this country. There will be exhibitions of catering, food processes and kitchens through the ages. People will be able to attend courses on the production, preparation and cooking of food. Related activities will include conferences and displays. There will be hotels and eating places on site, as well as retail outlets linked to the theme of British food.

I am sure that many Departments will want to support the scheme: the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; the Department of Trade and Industry; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport because of the tourism aspect; and the Department of Health because of its responsibility for food safety. The scheme offers endless opportunities to attract their interest and support. Indeed, hon. Members too will want to visit this new and exciting development in Stafford. The scheme has tremendous potential.

Dr. Kumar


Mr. Kidney

I shall be happy to give way to my hon. Friend as long as he is not about to tell us that there are plans to build such a centre in Middlesbrough.

Dr. Kumar

Is my hon. Friend asking for cluster development support from the Government? From his description, the scheme would seem ideal for that form of development, which the Government promoted strongly in the competitiveness White Paper.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion.

I mentioned new and renewable energy sources. We are certainly trying to get support from the DTI for a cluster of power-related industries and suppliers. I know that there is Government money to support such development.

However, the national centre for food will stand alone. It will attract visitors from all over the country and will offer a superb showcase internationally for British food and catering techniques. I am not sure about cluster development for that scheme, although as I live in my constituency, I am optimistically looking forward to the great new eating places that are going to open there. That will be superb.

In relation to funding and to the point made by my hon. Friend, I think that the food industry, which is extremely successful in the UK, will be interested in supporting the project. I should like to see other developments around Stafford as a result of the industry's support for the national centre. If there is a cluster of locations and jobs, that would be an excellent development.

There will be much private investment because the idea is unique; it has exciting potential and there will be obvious gains for investors. However, it is intended that entry would be free to the centrepiece of the scheme—colloquially known as the great British kitchen. There would be no fee for displays of, and an education in, the history of British food—the public parts of the scheme. There is no doubt that that aspect will not be so attractive to private sector developers. The trust is concerned about whether the Government would consider the scheme worthy of public support if there were a gap between what those developers would pay for and the overall funding needs of the project. However, I have mentioned so many Departments that it is inconceivable that there would not be some support.

The one difficulty that has arisen in my discussions with the trust, with Advantage West Midlands—our regional development agency—and with the Government office of the west midlands is that Stafford has never featured on any map of areas of deprivation or those in need of assistance. Sometimes, that is the key to obtaining investment. The Government may need a little ingenuity to justify investment in Stafford.

I hope that they will show such ingenuity for the following reasons. I described how well Stafford responded to a great shock recently. I am proud to represent an area whose people show such a great can-do attitude. We have never been an area of great deprivation because we have always managed for ourselves. However, at present, we have hit some choppy water and we shall be in some difficulty if we cannot pull through it. We have the right attitude; we want to overcome the problems. A helping hand from the Government at the right time will help us, so that we never appear on a map as an area in need of extra assistance. I hope that a little bit of preventive action from the Government will help us to continue to be the successful area that I am delighted to represent.

3.34 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

The Minister will notice a difference in my tone on local matters. That is because on the first Thursday in May there was a political sea change in Southend. The council moved from Labour-Liberal control by one to Conservative control with a majority of 11. Every Labour candidate was defeated—as were all but two of the Liberal candidates.

The Conservative party campaigned on several issues; now, it is up to the party to deliver. The Minister will recall that, on occasions such as this, I often share my feelings on such issues with the House. I am, therefore, delighted to tell the House that the new Conservative council has decided to stop the ridiculous idea, introduced by the previous Lib-Lab council, of bus lanes all along the London road. They would have destroyed businesses and damaged the general environment of the area.

I am also delighted that the Conservative council has decided to change the ridiculous proposals for double yellow lines on either side of Hainault avenue, and that an especially vindictive action of the previous council—charges for people with learning disabilities—has been overturned. If the Minister can come up with a solution to how the Conservative council can defeat graffiti, I should be only too happy to pass it on.

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to be invited to the Barbican centre to attend the presentation of a bronze award to my constituent, Mr. John Foster. The event was organised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was the first time for 20 years that a Southend lifeboat man had received such an award. Mr. Foster was supported by helmsmen Michael Whistler and Ian Rees.

I shall not go into the full details of their heroic actions on 24 October, when they set sail in the Lady Jane. However, they were undoubtedly responsible for saving the lives of three people. We heard two magnificent speeches at the presentation. The first was from the Princess Royal, who shared with us her experiences of the bravery of lifeboat men. Apparently, she launched the boat that rescued the three people—that was a nice touch. The second speech was given by the lady who has presented "Songs of Praise" for the past 13 years; she made a wonderful speech.

On that occasion, I was struck by the crazy circumstances in which the general public go out to sea—although I am not referring to the events that led to the award for my constituent. I am not a sailor. As soon as the water gets choppy, I feel desperately ill. However, when I learned from private conversations how some members of the public risk not only their own lives but those of lifeboat men, I could hardly believe it. In my extreme ignorance, I did not realise that one could buy any boat and immediately set out on the water. I knew that there was no test such as those for driving cars and motorbikes, but I thought that at least people received some training and a certificate before they could be in charge of a reasonably sized craft.

I heard of people going out in rough weather—despite all the warnings—without wearing a life-jacket. That is crazy. Will the Minister reflect on that point? If he does not have time to deal with it when he sums up the debate, perhaps he could write to let me know whether the Government have any plans on that matter. Although I applaud the bravery of all our volunteers, it is extraordinarily irresponsible of members of the public to risk not only their own lives but those of others.

My second point, which is about mobile telephones, has already been touched on. As a result of what I shall say, I will never ever be offered a consultancy by a mobile phone company. I am proud to say that I loathe the things. When I go on a train, I hear members of the public use their mobile phones. Their conversations are not private and they tell so and so—one cannot help listening—that they will be home in 10 minutes or that they have got on to the train. I do not know what their loved ones can do about the fact that they have got on a train. One cannot help listening to inane conversations, which presumably cost money.

I often wonder whether things are so desperately important that we have to be immediately accessible to a person at the other end of a phone. I have to admit that I own a mobile telephone, but that is because I won it in a raffle. I suppose that I could have given it to someone else, but I thought that it would be churlish to do that. I am not running up a telephone bill, but I buy units and use the phone in a mean fashion just in case someone genuinely thinks that he needs to contact me urgently.

I do not understand the technology, but, like the technology for fax and other machines, it is wonderful. However, our constituents are alarmed by what is going on. The Minister will probably say that it was all the fault of the Government whom I supported that companies are allowed to put up telephone masts. I must have had my eye off the ball, because I would have been more vocal if I had known that that was happening. If they did, I do not know why this Government cannot intervene to stop the process.

I wish to share with the House the flavour of the correspondence that I have had on the issue. In Cottesmore gardens, a mast was installed on 16 May. The residents received late notice of its installation and the possible dangers of transmission of electromagnetic radiation. Although there is no evidence available that shows that such masts damage health, it is reported that children have been seen as most vulnerable to mobile phone radiation because they are still growing and their immune systems are not fully developed. The letters that I have received were triggered by an article that appeared in the Daily Mail. It said: The Stewart Inquiry, led by Professor Sir William Stewart, is also expected to advise that mobile phone transmission masts should be kept away from schools, hospitals, and residential areas. I have been inundated by letters, but I shall quote from just two of them. The first says: I understand that the Stewart Inquiry is expected to advise against the installation of mobile transmission masts in residential areas. If this is indeed the case, surely any morally responsible and reputable company would not have continued with such a plan. The second asks: Is this really necessary? If it is dangerous to the health of our youngsters, we do not want it. Other letters make similar points. I genuinely do not understand the technology of mobile phones; it might be marvellous. However, if it is true that the way in which they work somehow endangers people's health, we need to consider the issue carefully.

The masts are monstrosities. They look like rocket launch pads, they are being erected all over the country and they are hideous. On that count alone, we should unite against them. That might make us very unpopular with the companies, but so what? The matter is out of control, but I hope that the Minister will offer me some encouragement on that point.

I notice that hon. Members are beginning to twitch, so I shall make three final points. I asked my secretary to look up constituency correspondence that highlights policies that the Government have failed to deliver or that are unfair. Two of my constituents are happy for me to quote them, but the other one will have to be known as Mr. X.

The first letter is about Mr. Bowden's jobseeker's allowance. I was contacted by Mr. Bowden who wished to travel out of the country with his wife to attend his sister-in-law's funeral in Paris. However, as he was claiming jobseeker's allowance, he was informed by the Benefits Agency branch in Southend that, on leaving the country, he would have to provide it with a letter stating the dates that he was going and the reasons why. He would then have all benefit stopped while he was out of the country—in his case for a day, because he was going there and back on Eurostar—and, on his return, he would be asked to submit a completely new claim for jobseeker's allowance. The whole application process would begin from scratch. Goodness, that is ridiculous. Anyone with common sense would hope for discretion. Because Mr. Bowden had to travel to a bereavement, surely the behaviour of the agency was unreasonable.

My constituent contacted me because he thought that he was penalised for being honest. He honestly contacted the Benefits Agency to inform it that he would be absent for a day and because he thought that it could not be reasonably argued that attending a funeral in a close European country, such as France, makes one less available for work—perhaps, he could have had a wretched mobile phone if he needed to be called urgently for an interview—than if he had had to attend a funeral in the United Kingdom.

I wrote to a Minister, but I shall not name that Minister. However, I will quote the letter that I received in reply. It said: Decisions on availability for work, or whether restrictions placed on availability are reasonable, are made by the decision makers, who make decisions fairly and impartially on behalf of the Secretary of State. No one, including Ministers, can interfere with the decision making process. The decision maker is the first tier of the decision making process. Their decisions carry the right of apply to The Appeals Service with a further right of appeal, on a point of law, to the Social Security Commissioner. My constituent was obviously deeply comforted by that ministerial reply.

Sometimes we are guilty of hurriedly passing on by phone the covering letter that goes with such ministerial replies. However, that reply was not a very good one. Apart from the fact that it endlessly repeated the word "decisions", the answer was crazy. If the Minister gets a chance, I hope that he will send a message to the Department of Social Security and that, if he has the time, he will write to me about this issue.

I have the correspondence in which Mr. X wrote to me about television licences for the over-75s. He was concerned about the concession and he pointed out that when a married couple have enjoyed the benefit and the elder partner dies before the younger one reaches the age of 75, the concession will be taken away from the widow or widower until that person reached that age. As the survivor, particularly a widow, will almost certainly be worse off financially, it seems unfair that he or she will have to start paying the cost of the television licence on the death of a loved one. Before Labour Members ask about what the Conservative party suggested yesterday, may I say that I recognise that point? However, we have a Labour Government and it was their idea for television licences. I hope that the Minister will lean on the Department in the hope that we can have a sensible reply to my constituent's point.

My final point is about a concern expressed by Mrs. Day, a teacher at West Leigh school. This is what has happened to her over the past few weeks. She took up the Government's offer of the computers for teachers scheme in February this year. In order to take advantage of the offer, Mrs. Day borrowed the money from a friend. She paid £1,000 for the computer and duly sent off the completed form, expecting her £500 to be forthcoming.

The application form states: Please allow one month from despatch for receipt of payment. It is almost June and Mrs. Day has not received the payment, nor has she been contacted by the Department, despite more than 20 telephone calls. Not one of them has been answered by a human being—just the usual answerphone. She has tried telephoning at all times of the day.

Finally, on the 21st attempt, the phone call was returned. However, that was in the middle of a teaching day, and Mrs. Day, who did not have a mobile phone with her, was not available to take the call. The lady left two numbers on the answerphone but—surprise, surprise—calls to those numbers have not been acknowledged.

In April, Mrs. Day wrote to Caxton house. To date she has not received a response. Shortly afterwards, undeterred, she e-mailed and finally got a response. "Thank goodness!", I hear everyone cry. Unfortunately, the response to the e-mail bore no relation to the query that she raised. She has since found out that it was simply a standard reply.

We heard the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mention West Leigh school earlier. Besides Mrs. Day, six other teachers there took up the offer and are still waiting for their money. Without my pouring poison on the situation—I have no idea what the politics of those seven teachers are—I can report that they feel let down by the scheme.

I have found that locally, since the first Thursday in May, things are improving, but nationally, there are still matters that trouble my constituents, and I hope that the Minister will have good news for them.

3.52 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Before I outline the main item that I intend to raise, I shall comment on one or two of the contributions made so far.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who discussed the employment problems and potential in his area, developed a theme that many of us could expand in relation to our own areas. I find that in North-East Derbyshire, although we are doing quite well in terms of economic growth and development, new jobs coming up, and the new deal, dramatic problems continue to arise.

Two major firms in the area have gone into receivership. One is Brian Donkin, a foundry at Renishaw, with the loss of 180 jobs. The foundry industry is particularly affected by the problem of sterling, which my hon. Friend mentioned. The second firm is Dema Glass at Chesterfield, which also affects North-East Derbyshire. A third firm that has gone into receivership, although that has not led to any unemployment, is Westwood Care, which runs five nursing homes in the north of Derbyshire. Whether receivership arrangements should apply to nursing homes, whose collapse could create a major problem for social services, is a matter worth considering.

In response to economic trends, there are moves by an outside firm to take over Biwaters of Clay Cross and Stanton plc in the Staveley area in my constituency. Both companies produce pipes, which are much needed for the movement of water in the third world, and both firms have had good contracts there. Both firms should have great potential, but instead there is considerable worry about what the change and rationalisation will mean. The level of sterling is not helpful. If that were tackled, the picture would be one of steady progress, rather than of steady progress associated with particular problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke about the bus service problems in her area, and we have many similar problems in North-East Derbyshire. We used to have excellent bus services—to the north, the South Yorkshire Transport provision was a beacon to the rest of the country, and Chesterfield Transport, which was well respected and served a large part of the area that I represent.

Now the major problem that we face involves Stagecoach, which operates 60 per cent. of the services in the area. A public inquiry is to be held in Chesterfield on 26 June into the operation of one of its licences, and I have received many complaints about other licences. A massive problem has arisen in the Mansfield area nearby, after 72 out of 80 Stagecoach buses were taken off the road—40 after the inspectors had issued notices, and the others removed by the company itself. That has a tremendous knock-on effect on other areas, such as Chesterfield, from where 19 buses have been taken away to serve Mansfield, which has led to a cut in services in the Chesterfield area. I endorse the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon with regard to the Transport Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) made a valuable contribution on recognition for those who had served in places such as the canal zone. I wondered whether I might be eligible for recognition, because in 1955—one of the years mentioned by my hon. Friend—I spent five days in the canal zone, but that might not qualify, as I was only in transit. I did the rest of my national service in Iraq, and if that had been a few years later, I might have acquired all the medals in the world for the action that was undertaken there. However, during my national service, I only ever heard one shot fired in anger.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) spoke about modernisation and told us that he served on the Modernisation Committee. I was struck by the thought that here is someone who is into modernisation, whose trousers do not even match his jacket. Perhaps there is hope for us all—as regards not just modernisation of the House, but the notion of modernisation that is part of new Labour. Some of us whose trousers do not match our jacket may come to terms with that in future.

The principal matter that I want to raise concerns junk mail, which causes disruption and concern to masses of our constituents. A constituent came to see me at one of my recent surgeries and dumped a large black binliner on the table. It was packed full of unsolicited letters, all of them glossy and professional-looking, which had been sent to her mother.

The bag contained 390 letters which had been delivered to a 73-year-old over the past six months. The number is now up to 415, as 25 fresh items of junk mail have arrived in the past few days. Those letters are only a small part of what has been sent to a local pensioner. Piles of unwanted mail have simply been thrown away, especially those that arrived before the daughter started to collect a selection of them six months ago.

I have a handful of letters with me. Some are from addresses in this country, including Rainham, in Essex; Chelsea; a post box number in London; Chiswick high road in London; Surrey; and Luton. The great bulk of letters come from overseas, from Spain, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, France, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States of America. A lot come from Canada and the United States, often from different places, but, even if they come from the same place, such as Kansas, often from different companies. This huge problem affects not only my constituent, who may be an extreme case in terms of the quantities received, but many others.

The letters come from a wide range of organisations, but they follow a similar pattern. They give the impression that the recipients will receive a big cash payment if they reply quickly. Among the enticements are sums of £4,000, $25,000, and even a chance to win £30 million. Only when one reads the small print does one discover how the sender gets out of tipping up the money. The returned entry obtains only a lottery place and there is no way of checking that the lottery will even take place.

The scam is completed by asking the recipient to send a small entrance fee of, say, £19.95. Such fees are sometimes called a judging fee, a processing fee or a service fee. Others do not ask for a fee, but offer an object for purchase instead. Some people might then buy the object in the mistaken hope that it will give their lottery entry an edge. In one case, our pensioner was asked for £12.97 to obtain a stylised love-knot necklace. I am informed that when people send such money, only junk is returned.

Unfortunately, it is not illegal for a company to send out unsolicited mail unless the material is obscene, threatening, or deliberately, and, probably, entirely misleading in the offer that it makes. The scams that I have described generally avoid such pitfalls, although a number probably sail close to the wind.

Mail from overseas is particularly difficult to tackle. In late 1998, the Queensland postal service estimated that it had processed hundreds of thousands of responses from the United Kingdom to a lottery scam operated by a PO box in Australia.

Avenues to stem the flow of unwanted mail include the Mail Preference Service, the Direct Marketing Association, the Office of Fair Trading and the Advertising Standards Agency, but those are unlikely to staunch the flow of unwanted letters to my constituent. She cannot tackle this wide range of rip-off merchants either collectively or through a one-stop shop.

My constituent is not alone in her plight. The "Sorted" column in the Daily Mirror has pursued the problem on behalf of thousands of its readers. A standard letter that it sends to readers caught up in such junk mail states: Sadly, this is a persistent problem which prompts more letters to Sorted than any other subject. We have repeatedly exposed the bogus nature of many of these contests and always advise readers not to send money to claim prizes. Many of the mailings use PO boxes and addresses abroad. especially in Holland, Australia and Canada. When there is a UK address, it is usually a PO Box which forwards to another address abroad. The Canadian government is investigating several companies after we alerted them to the problem. Canada is a major source of such letters, but I hope that our Government will undertake a similar investigation. I have numerous details of companies from my binliner to pass to the relevant Minister.

The starting point for such an investigation has been raised with me in a letter from Michael Greenwood, a reporter on the "Sorted" investigation run by the Daily Mirror. He states: The last article we wrote on junk mail was directed at Royal Mail. In my opinion they are one of the few organisations that can help the consumer fight the problem. There are so many of these bogus mailings it is impossible to keep track of the companies concerned, let alone confront anyone who runs such firms. But what is consistent is that many of the mailings come into this country in envelopes marked with Royal Mail prepaid "HQ" codes. Not only does this give the mailings credence of such a respected national institution but it means the con men are getting a reduced postal rate. One code, which we mentioned in the March 24th report, is a particular problem and we have repeatedly raised this with the Royal Mail. That is the code HQ5810. It appears on a letter that I have here which is addressed to my constituent, and it is the most common code used on mail in my bag where Royal Mail is employed. Other HQ codes among my constituents' mail are 6050, 4896, 4144 and 2137.

The reason my constituent receives unsolicited junk mail from numerous companies is that those companies are likely to be interlinked, or perhaps two or three separate junk mail consortiums hold her details. Such organisations have a tendency to prey on pensioners and others who may seem vulnerable. The interlinking of such operations is shown in articles in the Daily Mirror dated 16 April 1999 and 11 June 1999. They show one man, in Australia, Terrance Morris, to be behind campaigns operating under a variety of names in Canada, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland.

It is said that we live in a global economy—in a global village. We are certainly seeing the globalisation of rip-offs and scams. Therefore, the Government will need to work with other nations to develop an effective strategy to stop such unhealthy developments. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to inform the Department of Trade and Industry and others that I am more than willing to bring them my black binliner full of letters and to discuss with them this serious problem.

4.8 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

I start by echoing the concerns of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), which I am sure are shared by all our constituents. I am concerned about not only junk mail but junk faxes. I am also perturbed that, from time to time, I receive letters suggesting that I enter a prize draw, which often emanate from the Consumers Association and Which?, which I find rather strange. That is not a scam, but it is certainly a marketing ploy.

While we are on the subject of postal services, I want to raise a matter which is of great concern in particular to those of my constituents who live in Ickenham who, for many years, have regarded themselves as a separate community with well-defined boundaries. Their postal code of UB represents Uxbridge as the postal town. They are aggrieved that the Post Office does not include Ickenham in that address. This is not just a matter of pride in one's community, although that should be taken into account, and, from time to time, it has led to much confusion.

Many Members may have had the experience, for instance, of booking tickets by telephone and being asked for first their surname and then their postcode. When they have told the company concerned their postcode, they are told the rest of their address. For instance, people living in the Greenway in Ickenham will be told that it is the Greenway, Uxbridge. However, there is already a Greenway in Uxbridge and another in Cowley, and the postcodes of all three have UB prefixes.

I know of a sad case in which a golden wedding bouquet from a relation did not arrive at the right address because of the confusion that I have described. I raised the matter with the Post Office, but it was not willing to undertake the simple task of adding just one line to the computer database. The situation is not confined to the people of Ickenham; a member of the Cowley community experienced exactly the same problem.

I agree with what many hon. Members have said about mobile telephone masts. I can think of three that are causing concern in my constituency, which, in geographical terms, is very small. It is proposed that one should be built in Long lane, Hillingdon, very close to St. Bernadette's school. Another is already on site in Honey hill, Uxbridge, and an application has been made for retrospective permission. It beams straight into the bedroom of the teenage daughter of one of my constituents. The third, on Uxbridge common, must have an effect on people in a residential care home for the elderly in Harefield road, Uxbridge.

Some of the side effects of the masts seem to be affecting electronic devices. A security officer to whom I spoke recently said that it was not uncommon for home security alarms, or even car locking devices, to be activated by the radio waves sent out by the masts. I am far from convinced that we know enough about the masts. If they are activating those alarms, what might they be doing to individuals? I am sure that we are all concerned about people's safety, and I hope that the Government will consider the matter.

Several Members, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), raised the question of roads. In Uxbridge and the surrounding area, what we are after is not more roads, but more road safety and less traffic. In the near vicinity, we are threatened by what are, in theory, worthy causes—the construction f two rail freight depots. It may be thought that is difficult to oppose in principle: we are all in favour of taking more freight off the roads and putting it on to rail. However, the construction of the depots would dramatically increase large traffic movements of heavy lorries in and around roads in my area.

One of the developments is proposed by Central Railway. It has not yet got round to an application, but the development is part of a scheme covering Liverpool and extending, eventually, to Lille. A terrible problem is being caused by the blight that is affecting people along the line. I think the Government should consider the problem of blight when developments have not even been put forward—and this has been going on for a long time.

I also have a request about roads. Many hon. Members may travel down the A40 tonight on their way to their constituencies. When they see the first bit of open road, they may want to put their foot on the accelerator. I can tell them that the residents of Uxbridge, Hillingdon and Ickenham will not be pleased about that, because traffic noise has been a constant problem to them for many years. Although some measures are now being taken, speed reduction would help. I was surprised to learn that reduction in speed levels could be brought about only for road safety, rather than environmental, reasons, and I hope that the Government will think about that.

I sometimes think that we hear a lot in this place about the real problems of inner cities and rural areas, but the poor old suburbs are forgotten. They are thought of as leafy, and indeed they contain leafy areas, but they nevertheless experience problems, which, if they are left to their own devices for too long, can only become worse. Hillingdon, for example, has lost many of its public services. We have lost several firefighting appliances, and police numbers are down because staff are sucked into central London.

Most people move to the suburbs to improve the quality of their lives, but I increasingly hear that that quality of life has been eroded to the point at which people want to move further away. There is, of course, the problem of affordable housing, which involves not just public services but finding people homes near their work, so that local industry can be maintained.

Finally, let me mention a problem that is near to my heart. I declare my interest as a director—nowadays—of a retail store. In the past, I have worked behind the counters and on the vans of the store.

We hear a lot about air rage, road rage and violent attacks on public service workers. A few days ago, we heard of the murder of a retailer in west London. That was an extreme incident, but many shop workers are subjected daily to much abuse and threatened violence. Sometimes the abuse and threats come from shoplifters; I am not sure that shoplifting is deemed to be as serious an offence as it seems to people trying to apprehend those who try to steal their property. Increasingly, however, shop workers are subjected to both physical and verbal violence by customers.

Nowadays, we rightly give consumers a great deal of protection, but I think we should also bear in mind the rights of those who serve the public.

4.18 pm
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I think that it would be wrong for the House to adjourn without considering the continuing problems arising from the British Coal respiratory compensation scheme. At least 100,000 claims have been made, and I know that many Members, including my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, have taken up complaints. I shall refer to only three cases, but those cases exemplify the tragedy that still exists because of non-payment of compensation to miners affected by diseases following the years of work that they have put into the industry. I am grateful that my three constituents have given permission to refer to them. They are Enoch Rollo, Jack Betts—via his daughter, Frances Haywood—and Joseph Moore and his family.

The starting point is an impressive Government policy under which £2 billion has been put aside for compensation payments—a commitment that I hope has the support of the whole House. In March, however, in common with many other hon. Members, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, which set out the problems that continue to bedevil the scheme's ability to deliver compensation to miners who rightfully have a claim. My right hon. Friend also expressed her frustration and concerns at the delays: The first stage of the medical testing has almost been completed. I am, however, frustrated that we have not yet got the volume we hoped for going through the Main Medical Assessment procedure… We have in place facilities to complete 2,500 MAPs a month by now, but we will make only around 50 this month. That hoped-for completion rate has not materialised—and certainly not in time for Joe Moore, who died last week after 25 years of suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema. His funeral is tomorrow.

Joe Moore joins 620 miners in Nottinghamshire who died before their compensation claims were dealt with, and they are among 40,000 or more miners nationally who died before the scheme delivered compensation. I am concerned at the failure to deliver a commitment made in the House to the households of miners suffering from the lifetime effects of working in the mining industry.

My right hon. Friend the Minister hoped to deliver 2,500 medical assessments a month, but the fast-track system has not materialised in Nottinghamshire. The 620 miners who died were in effect delayed to death. Since the introduction of the MAP process, only one miner in Nottinghamshire has been assessed.

The solicitors representing Joe Moore wrote to me earlier this year to express their frustration at the delays: When we pass information to IRISC— the claims managers for British Coal— they send it to Healthcall, the organisation appointed by the DTI to run the Medical Assessment Process. Healthcall then pass it to an organisation called MPS who then obtain each miner's medical and employment records. We understand this is taking some considerable time in each case. In addition, the main cause of the delay is that the Medical Assessment Process is, to the best of our knowledge, not running as yet in this area. At the time of writing this letter the only people that have been tested are miners resident in Wales. Earlier this year, we were informed that the Medical Assessment Process would begin in this area in March 2000 but, as of yet, no one has been tested. We have continuously asked IRISC for an explanation, as the doctors have now been appointed and the test centres have been established, but no answer has been provided. Although Joe Moore was close to death, the fast-track process was no track at all for him. It failed to materialise. We cannot allow that situation to continue. We should reflect on why it was so different when a Labour Government introduced a compensation scheme for pneumoconiosis—a scheme that was simpler in many ways, because the number of negotiations was fewer.

My right hon. Friend the Minister points out that another factor is the proliferation of agencies involved and the delays in the provision of medical records. If the Government have to introduce a defined time framework within which agencies are required to co-operate and supply the necessary information, the health or legal professionals must accept liability for their standard of work and the processing of legitimate claims.

None of that will be in time for the miners who have already died, but it will make a difference to their families. The debt that we owe to miners must be discharged to their families. Tomorrow, Joe Moore's family will say their last goodbyes to a man was brave, stubborn, honest and hard-working. He received a British Empire Medal for his services to the industry. It is saddening that he devoted his working life to an industry that repaid his commitment with delay and indifference.

That is not meant as a slur against Joe Moore or his family. He was fortunate to be able to draw on the support of his wife, Beryl, and his eight children—who were able to step in and provide personal support, although that should have been enhanced by the compensation payments that were due by right. Beryl and her eight children—Anthony, Teresa, Patrick, Jacqueline, Andrew, Catherine, Pamela and Yvonne—will be saying goodbye to a man whose life was honest, straightforward and principled. None of those characteristics can be associated with the mechanisms behind the delays that stood between Joe Moore and the financial and practical support to which he had a right, to alleviate suffering in the final years of his life.

Our continuing debt to miners is a debt of honour. I hope that the House will take whatever steps it can to discharge that debt quickly and honourably for all the miners for whom Joe Moore and his family would demand justice and their rights.

4.29 pm
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

It is a privilege and pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), who raises an issue of great importance to everyone in Nottinghamshire and no doubt to constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and other hon. Members who have represented coalfield communities for many years. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office has also been foremost among those who have campaigned for miners on many issues, including compensation—the payment of which should be made as quickly as possible. I hope that we will be able to do that, and that his constituents and ours receive the compensation that is their due.

Before the Whitsun adjournment, I want to raise three particular issues—two briefly and one in a little more detail—that affect my constituents and that have been raised with me several times. The first was also raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). It concerns an important point, which many hon. Members raise—the small pockets of deprivation outside inner cities and other city areas, and within suburbs or rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will know that I have long campaigned for areas within my constituency where there are small pockets of quite intense deprivation. Those areas often receive very little help through grant or additional funding, which they need to tackle poverty. My hon. Friend will know that I have campaigned for a long time for Netherfield, in my constituency, a very deprived ward—especially some parts of it—which has continually failed to get single regeneration budget money simply because it is the wrong side of the line and does not fit particular criteria.

In this day and age, we should be able to come up with statistical data that allow us to focus on small pockets of deprivation rather than allowing them to be overwhelmed by the general affluence that sometimes surrounds them. I hope that Netherfield—I am sure that hon. Members will have their own examples of such areas of deprivation—will be able to get the help that it needs to overcome its real problems of poverty.

The second issue is the iniquity of the education standard spending assessment system. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who is one of the leading lights in the Fair Funding 40 campaign, is in the Chamber. There are real issues in Nottinghamshire and in all the schools in my constituency. Funding for those schools varies significantly from that for schools in exactly the same circumstances in other areas. Primary schools receive tens of thousands of pounds less and secondary schools hundreds of thousands of pounds less.

The justification for that is the needs index, which means that some areas are funded differently from others. We all accept that: where there are particular problems of deprivation or particular needs to be met, it is fair enough. No one would begrudge that additional funding going to meet that additional need, but when the Fair Funding 40 group met officials from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, we were told that the main reason for the difference in the education SSAs was that staff pay varied. That beggars belief because, as we know, the salaries of teachers are set on a national pay scale and, apart from some London weighting, there is no real difference between the salaries of teachers and education workers in one part of the country and in another.

I know that a review is going on, and I hope that between us all, we will be able to rejig the way in which the education SSA works, to come up with a fairer funding mechanism that will allow schools in my constituency of Gedling, all schools in Nottinghamshire, and schools in the other authorities that are adversely affected, to receive some of the additional money that they need—a fairer slice of the education cake.

The Fair Funding 40 group has never argued that we should take funds from the authorities that already receive money. We do not want to set one authority against another, but we seek a fairer system. Perhaps that requires funding for us all to be lifted to a median level. Perhaps the size of the cake should be increased, so that we all share more.

Schools, parents and governors in my constituency are putting pressure on me to put pressure on the Government to change the system as soon as they can, and to come up with something that is fairer—something that will allow us to employ teachers, teaching assistants and cleaners, and to have all the other things that go to make up a school. We should have the same level and sufficiency of resources that are available to other authorities.

The third issue is raised by constituents old, middle aged and young. I say that to emphasise a point, because people often regard the topic as something that older people raise. However, when I have done sixth-form surgeries or talked to younger people, they are just as concerned about it as middle aged or older people. It is a concern that they see all around them—a perceived decline in respect in our communities, a lack of respect for others and, in the most general sense, for authority.

Whenever we try to address that issue and say that there is a problem with respect for authority, there is an immediate reaction: it is said that our suggestion is linked with fascism and a return to some jackboot type of authority. I do not mean that, and nor does anyone else in my constituency. What we are talking about is the perception in communities that there has been a decline in respect for some of the traditional things and some of those who traditionally exercise authority, which makes it difficult in many respects for our communities and our society to function.

A couple of examples show the problems. We need somehow to encourage greater respect for the police when they are called on to deal with difficult situations. No doubt we have all had examples quoted to us in which, when a particular problem occurs in a community, the police turn up and people are appalled by the reaction of the young people, or of others, to the police. That is of grave concern to us all, because if the police are not treated with the respect that they deserve, we have a problem.

Our teachers also struggle to receive the respect that they need to do their work. I remember that, often, when a teacher gave a detention or some sort of punishment for something that had happened in the school, what caused a lot of stress was that immediately, the authority of the teacher to do that—to impose a reasonable level of discipline within the school—was challenged.

I am not one of those who say that the police or teachers should never be accountable, but if every time a policeman, policewoman, or teacher takes any sort of action, they feel that their authority is challenged, it makes it difficult for them to do their job. I believe—I have argued this in a number of debates and also said it in private conversations—that if any Government, whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour, want to raise standards in city schools, and if they want to ensure that people all have the opportunities that they deserve, they must create the right sort of learning environment in some of the most difficult schools. However, we cannot create such an environment simply by turfing out those who are causing the problem. They should be included in an environment in which teachers can teach.

We must respect teachers and police, and re-establish legitimate authority in society. The hon. Member for Uxbridge also mentioned some of the problems experienced by shopkeepers. Respect for people working in that type of environment is important. We also have to respect health professionals. Many doctors, nurses and other health workers could tell us appalling stories of the difficulties that they sometimes have to face in simply trying to perform their professional duties. At times, late at night in accident and emergency wards, they are threatened. Some patients demand a prescription for pills that their doctors do not think that they should have.

Respect for police, teachers, health professionals and property is a fundamental issue for our society, and I do not think that it is a party political issue. We should discuss together how we can re-establish legitimate authority and respect in our society. Without such respect, we shall always be struggling to raise standards in schools, to improve the health service and to deal with the problems of crime and disorder in our communities.

Our shared response to the issue should be to ask how we can generate that respect, tolerance and self-respect in our society, without resorting to the type of authoritarian response that is sometimes seen. If we can manage to address the issue, it would be a great boon for many people in our communities—the people whom we represent.

4.42 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

We have had a debate in the best tradition of the House, with a wide range of themes. If there was one theme that ran through quite a few of the speeches, it was the theme of the environment. However, I think that what a wider public would notice, if they had followed the debate, was, first, the sheer range of different problems with which hon. Members have to get abreast; secondly, the detail that hon. Members go into to assist their constituents—the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was a good example of that; and, thirdly, the amount of technical knowledge that we have to acquire if we are to do battle on equal terms with the Government. I think that those qualities came through the whole of our debate today.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) spoke movingly about the consequences of alcoholism in relation to employment, marital breakdown, child abuse, unwanted pregnancies and accidents, and he pressed the Government for a strategy. I think that we would all endorse that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned, as did some other hon. Members, mobile telephone masts. Let me mention in passing the fact that, last month, the Conservative party came up with a policy changing the terms of trade towards the planning authority and the residents, and away from the providers of telephone masts. It sounds as if that policy would have a lot of support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) made the case for fines for straying off flight paths—fines for pilots who go off-message. He made the point that the regulations already exist. Of course, the principle of fining airlines for noisy aircraft has already been conceded, and the fines suggested by my hon. Friend would be a logical extension.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Chester's Croft, where his constituents do not get compensation because they live in mobile homes, as opposed to permanent homes. Again, it seems that progress is being made, but rather slowly—the Minister may have some good news on that. My hon. Friend also mentioned a road. It sounded familiar; in the previous Government, it may have been one of the roads that was in my programme.

Mr. Day

It was.

Sir George Young

If it has dropped out, well, the responsibility lies elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) spoke rather movingly about our railway heritage. I pay tribute to the work of Worth Valley. I think that that was the setting for "The Railway Children", which is how most of us have come across it. The hon. Member reminded us about the age of steam. She also mentioned that she was looking for temporary storage space for some rolling stock. It just occurred to me that the millennium dome might possibly be able to help.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), my neighbour, spoke about modernisation, which is a very topical issue. As a member of the Modernisation Committee, I can say that it is an issue with which we are grappling at the moment. I shall make one or two points in passing. First, whatever hon. Members think about the conditions in this Parliament, they are infinitely better than conditions in previous Parliaments.

Secondly—looking round the Chamber—I do not think that anyone has been kept out of their bed later and more often than me, and I have been kept out of my bed by Labour Members and Liberal Democrat Members. It is somewhat paradoxical that it is Members from those parties who are now urging me and my colleagues to be more restrained.

Thirdly, it is not only a matter for the Opposition: the Government have a role to play, in the size of the legislative programme, the complexity of the legislative programme and the quality of the drafting.

Finally, one has to be careful, under cover of making this place more civilised and more user-friendly, not to shift the terms of trade even further in favour of the Government and against Parliament. If anything, the terms of trade need to be shifted back.

On electronic voting, I declare that I am not a supporter. In the most recent survey, the most popular method of voting was the one that we have now. I should be surprised if opinions had changed enormously since then.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) spoke movingly of Mr. Whittaker being denied a General Service Medal because he was not in an active service area. The hon. Gentleman reminded us that, even when this country is not directly involved, our soldiers and armed forces are at risk. He listed the number of fatalities in conflicts in which we were not a direct party, but in which, sadly, members of the armed services were killed. He reminded us of the debt that we all owe to those who are in the services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) spoke about asylum seekers and made a very reasoned case for looking rather carefully at the 10 per cent. of asylum seekers who come from countries that are actually free of persecution, because they are members of the Council of Europe. The pressure on his local authority and on the Home Office would be less if that 10 per cent. were not part of the queue.

My hon. Friend also referred to a key appeal that is about to take place in the House of Lords. I am sure that the Government will be watching that carefully, because, if the case goes in favour of the Roma, there are very wide implications indeed. My hon. Friend then went from the macro to the micro by explaining the consequences in his constituency of the increased number of asylum seekers who have arrived and the impact on residents and the wider economy.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) was one of a number of Members to mention problems involving telephone masts, particularly when they are sited close to schools. Many schools have welcomed the income that they derive from having those masts, although they may be reconsidering that. The hon. Gentleman made a sound case for more research and for caution in the mean time. He expressed concern about the future of Ford and the viability of a stand-alone engine plant. I hope that his fears are unfounded.

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that opinions about modernising can change. The plea from the hon. Member for Winchester was sandwiched between speeches from the wife and the son of one of the Members of Parliament who kept me out of my bed more often than almost any other—Bob Cryer. The hon. Member for Hornchurch implied that the Conservative party had conspired to close huge sections of British industry to reduce the number of trade unions and weaken our political opponents. That is a rather simplistic approach to the changes in industry in this country. It was containerisation that led to the closure of the docks. The present Government face the same challenge as the previous one in trying to respond to changes in patterns of industry and to provide new jobs when jobs have been lost.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made the most modest request of the debate, asking for a left filter at a traffic light.

Mr. Stunell

A right filter.

Sir George Young

I am sorry. If it is a right filter, I am certainly able to support the hon. Gentleman. He also reminded the House of our duties as Members of Parliament. We should not lose sight of that when we talk about the related issues of our conditions and working hours. He pointed out that it was up to the House to reclaim from the Executive some of the powers that we have lost. I certainly endorse that. Government Back Benchers are the only ones who can do that. The Opposition cannot reclaim powers from the Government on their own. Government Back Benchers have a heavy responsibility if we want to get the terms of trade back.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said about buses. They are the dark horse in the public transport debate. They can do most of what light railways can do, but at a fraction of the cost. I agree entirely with what she said about a constructive partnership between local authorities and bus companies to provide a better service. In my experience, information about buses is often missing. People would like to go by bus, but they do not always have sufficient information about where buses run and at what times.

I was interested to hear what the hon. Lady said about the working families tax credit. There have been problems in my constituency with the transition from social security payments to payment by employers. One or two people in my constituency have been without funds for some time. I hope that those transitional problems will be resolved.

I hope that we can have a full debate on the important White Paper on waste that was published today. Like the hon. Lady, I have been impressed by the sheer volume of correspondence about the debt campaign. The postcards keep rolling in month after month. That has an impact on Members of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) spoke about his local wildlife trust, its broad base of support in his constituency and the pioneering work of Miss Elliot. He focused on the crucial interface between agriculture and conservation. Farmers are often the best conservers, as long as they have the income with which to do it. The current debate centres on what to do about conservation when farm incomes fall. He said that there was a case for the Government to step in on conservation grounds to ensure that farmers were able to look after the heritage.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who would normally wind up this debate, but is attending an important family occasion. We were sorry to hear about the redundancies at ALSTOM. I hope that it can win fresh contracts elsewhere. The weak euro means that we must do all that we can to ensure that we are competitive in other areas by remaining deregulated, having low taxes and attracting inward investment. I was interested to hear about the single regeneration budget bid. That innovation of the previous Government was not wholeheartedly welcomed at the time by the Labour party, but I gather that it has now been embraced.

I am not sure whether the Minister took the precaution of having something to eat before we started business questions. When the hon. Member for Stafford started talking about the national culinary centre, I realised that that was the closest to nutrition that I was going to get for some time. We hope that his constituency is successful in establishing that important new institution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) reminded us of the Conservative party's success in the recent local elections and the transformation that is now taking place in Southend as a result. He reminded us of the work of the RNLI, which gets no help from the Government, not because the Government refuse to give help, but because the RNLI has not asked for help and does not want any. He reminded us that prevention is better than rescue. My hon. Friend declared himself to be an enemy of mobile phones, particularly on trains, and spoke about phone masts, as did other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire has obviously done an enormous amount of research on junk mail. My experience is that writing to the mail preference service solves most of the problems, although there are still problems from Nigerian citizens who write to Members of Parliament asking for details of our bank accounts so that they can expatriate some funds that they have somehow accrued and in return pass on a small percentage to us. It is, of course, a scam. All that they want is details of our bank accounts so that they can access them. I hope that there can be a response to the problem that the hon. Gentleman raised. He has done a service just by publicising it, because that will alert more people to the risks of subscribing. Junk faxes have virtually stopped since the law was changed. At the beginning of this Parliament, one found in one's office a stream of faxes inviting one to buy a holiday or fax paper or to recruit staff. That has virtually stopped, but junk e-mail is becoming slightly more of an issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) referred to the problem of mobile phone masts and to rail freight depots. We all want more goods to be transported on the railways, but there is a problem with depots and of an increase in rail traffic at night. We need to think that through. My hon. Friend mentioned also the suburbs; the suburbs are, after all, where most people live, and one should not ignore their needs by focusing too much on inner cities and rural areas.

There was a moving speech from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) about compensation for miners from the coal industry and I hope that the bureaucratic process can be speeded up. The Minister is probably closer to that problem than anyone else, and will have sympathy with it.

The hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) mentioned pockets of deprivation. When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment responding to debates, there was a "Yes, Minister" reply which said that a well-resourced authority ought to be able to cope with pockets of deprivation, and that resources were focused on those areas with lots of pockets of deprivation. No doubt that response is still on the wordprocessor at the DETR and will be wheeled out. The hon. Gentleman's comments on respect for authority struck a chord with all of us.

This may be the last Whitsun Adjournment debate of this Parliament. As we go away, politics is beginning to get more exciting. I hope that the Minister will not be distressed if I say that, recently, we have seen some fumbled responses from the Government to some of the initiatives from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—they have been rather like a rabbit in the headlights.

We go away without having time to debate a number of early-day motions. Eleven Labour Members have signed an early-day motion on Britain's competitiveness, expressing concern at the level of sterling. Fifteen have signed an early-day motion critical of the Home Secretary's decision to admit Mike Tyson. Ninety Labour Back Benchers have signed an early-day motion on National Air Traffic Services, urging the Government to reconsider. More than 50 Labour Back Benchers have signed an early-day motion on the millennium dome.

I see before me a dispirited and demoralised party that is about to go on a recess that it desperately needs, confronted by a reinvigorated and confident Opposition, greatly encouraged by our success in the local elections. We, too, will return from our recess even more invigorated.

On behalf of the Opposition, I say to the occupants of the Chair, the servants of the House and all hon. Members that I hope that they have a well-earned rest.

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

This has been a useful and, as always, interesting debate. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) spoke about the theme that came to him from the debate, which was the environment. There were strong environmental themes, but what struck me throughout the debate was the praise given from both sides of the House to voluntary and community organisations.

Governments are not good enough at saying thank you to people, and there are thousands and thousands of voluntary organisations and community groups across this country that raise the standard of our lives. We rarely have the opportunity to say thank you. This evening, I want to thank all of them for their efforts to increase the quality of civic society.

I was struck by the moving and inspiring speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) about the Essex wildlife trust. I have not been to the site, but I will go and have a look. He was right to say that we must move away from our present means of support—support for production—to a system that allows for greater grants and input for conservation, lifting the landscape and enhancing the environment. There is a good moral there in Essex that is worth exploring.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) that I have done my bit for the Keighley and Worth Valley railway. It is an excellent railway that continues to develop and do well. As my hon. Friend said, it is run and managed by the stakeholders to whom it belongs. I am pleased that she is one of them, and I am delighted that the national lottery has been able to help, in a small way, with a heritage lottery grant of almost £600,000. There are hundreds of such railways around the country, and the people who run them also deserve our thanks.

We also need to say thanks to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and I too should like to put on record my appreciation for John Foster. The RNLI is not supported by the Government, because its members choose to be independent. They do an important and marvellous job, as do those who raise funds for the organisation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) spoke about other work done by community groups. He described the campaigns by the Pinner Green residents association and the Montesole Court residents association in connection with mobile phone masts—a matter to which I shall return later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) made a different point about community action. He said that, some decades ago, people used to organise around their places of work. That is where the Labour movement and the trade union tradition came from, and it is where the notion of solidarity was born. Perhaps I should draw to my hon. Friend's attention one or two of the papers that have crossed my desk recently, which have argued that the new place for solidarity is in the voluntary sector and in community groups. If we were organising now, that is the sector in which we would start.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) spoke about a related point—the need to devolve decision making and to empower people. He said that local people should be allowed to find local solutions to local problems. I regard that not as a difficulty, but as something that we ought to celebrate and support. The growth of community groups will help to bring back respect for authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) expressed strong concern about that, and his sentiments were of a piece with what the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said about the service given by shopkeepers. The hon. Gentleman said that the right to be served by a shopkeeper entailed a responsibility on the part of the customer.

I think that Members of Parliament are very good at arguing for rights—perhaps too good at it—and that we do not argue enough for responsibilities. In that connection, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) made a good and well-organised speech. He spoke of his constituent, Mr. Whittaker, who served in the Suez canal zone, and he made a very powerful case on behalf of all canal zone veterans—including those, such as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who were there only for five days. I shall certainly press the matter, and draw it to the attention of colleagues in the Ministry of Defence.

Several hon. Members spoke about transport and road issues, which formed one of the themes of the debate. The hon. Members for Cheadle (Mr. Day) and for Hazel Grove made it clear that they wanted a road, not a study. From previous encounters, I know the strength of the Hazel Grove action group in that regard. I confess that I may be part of the problem: I am not an infrequent visitor to Manchester airport and can confirm that it is an extremely difficult place to get to. If we are to achieve an integrated transport structure, we must establish an appropriate structure for access to the airport. I shall, of course, pass on the hon. Gentlemen's comments on that subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) talked about the importance of bus services. Buses are work horses, and they are dark horses too. They can deliver the goods, but only if the transport service that they offer is of high quality. If we are to be proud to use buses, they must be clean and tidy, and their drivers and conductors—where they have them—should be polite and ready to supply passengers with information. One of the things that has fascinated me recently is the growth of computer-aided bus stops. We can stand at the bus stop and see the bus coming towards us on a graph. If we can bring bus services into the modern age, more people will switch to using them. I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned very hard for this in Swindon, and all power to her elbow.

The hon. Member for Cheadle spoke about the problems of noise at Manchester airport. I am making inquiries about this. He is right to say that there is some kind of consultation exercise taking place. I confess that I cannot remember the details, but I will write to him about it.

A number of colleagues talked about job losses in their area. As always, it is extremely sad. However, what struck me from their comments was that out of decline is coming growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about the problems at ALSTOM, a world leader, but also the desire to move towards the cutting edge of technology, to get into the business of renewables and to ensure that ALSTOM and people who work in Staffordshire are at the forefront of the new technology.

That certainly seems to be the case with the great British kitchen. My hon. Friend asked what help could be given. Advantage West Midlands will be looking at the issue. I have in my possession a letter from the Prime Minister to Prue Leith. Armed with that supportive letter, I think that the project bodes well for the future. I commend my hon. Friend on his efforts in this regard. I know that within the last day or so he went to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to pursue the issue on behalf of his community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling was, as always, pressing the case for Netherfield. There is a case for doing better in areas of small-scale deprivation. Across Government, a whole range of initiatives to do with regeneration and reclamation are being brought together. They were sold initially as pilot schemes and experiments. We have not been as good as we might have been about learning the lessons from those experiments and making them a mainstream part of Government business.

The modernisation of the House of Commons was discussed at some length. What struck me, as always, was the amazing range of views that we heard. What also struck me is that politics is a circle. A party may be in government today and in opposition in, perhaps, 20 years' time—it might take about four elections. A sensible Government would always balance the needs of the Opposition.

There was no consensus about electronic voting or about the hours. Key members of the Modernisation Committee are in the Chamber this afternoon, and I have to say that it would be helpful to have some certainty about our hours. We can live with bad news, but we cannot live with the lack of certainty and the ability to make plans. If such a decision emerges from the Modernisation Committee, that would be a major improvement.

For my part, I would like us to experiment with electronic voting. The down side to that is that I frequently use the opportunity to lobby Ministers at the vote. As I said recently, in the Lobby Ministers may try to run but there is nowhere for them to hide. It is important to use our opportunities.

Several colleagues raised slightly smaller but more important points. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West told us that he had taken part in an Industry and Parliament Trust placement with a voluntary organisation. That is a good initiative, which should be praised. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has also been involved with Age Concern under the same scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West asked about the Government's alcohol strategy. We shall publish a consultation paper in the summer. I hope that that important document will help us to make progress on some of the issues that he raised.

The hon. Member for Cheadle referred to mobile homes—a subject that is close to my heart, too. They are an eccentricity in planning terms. Their tenants are in a difficult situation and have no real powers in law. He made a point, which had not occurred to me before, about their not being able to apply for compensation for traffic noise and the building of a new road. He will be pleased to learn that the mobile homes working party—which includes colleagues from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, mobile home owners and the parks' owners—has recently finished its work. Its report contains a range of recommendations. If we can make progress with them, we can make life much better for the occupants of mobile homes.

I should like to make life better for those who live in Bournemouth. It is especially sad that an area that people have cared about has suddenly and dramatically gone downhill and that an area of civic pride has become one of seediness and squalor. The Government are concerned about asylum. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 began to bite on 4 April, and I hope that it will make a difference. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) talked about membership of the Council of Europe and asked whether we could have a different regime. Those matters are governed by the 1951 United Nations charter on refugees and the change that he recommends would not be possible at present, but I know that the issue has been on the agenda of my colleagues in the Home Office. We shall certainly take his point very seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said that the working families tax credit does not apply to nannies. That issue is on Ministers' desks at the moment. I make no commitment that it will be resolved, but I noticed that, as she spoke, there was a lot of nodding around the Chamber so it is clearly a problem.

I, too, am keen to discuss waste management strategy, which is a big and pressing issue. Landfill sites are ticking time bombs. We must do better; we cannot go on filling holes in the ground with waste as we do now. We all have a responsibility as householders and consumers to recycle, to make compost in our gardens and to choose goods that are not over-packaged. If we behave better, we will make the difference for our children and their children.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) mentioned some hard cases, which seemed to involve bureaucracy and a lack of appropriate response from Government services. I will not comment on them now, but he can be sure that I will take them up in the relevant quarters.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire wanted me to take him and his black plastic bag to Victoria street to talk to Ministers about junk mail. I shall try to deliver that bag for him. I like the notion of his walking down Victoria street with a black plastic bag over his shoulder. There appears to be a problem, and we should try to make progress with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Royal Mail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling raised matters close to my heart—a better funding deal for schools. My. hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has also been involved in that campaign. I remind them that a consultation paper on the problem is to be issued this summer and I remind all hon. Members that schools throughout the country will receive cheques in the next few days, which will vary from £4,000 for the smallest primary school to £60,000 for the largest secondary school, so that they can do better. Labour colleagues are particularly proud of that initiative.

After I leave this place, my first appointment in the morning will be with the organisation that deals with compensation for chronic bronchitis and emphysema. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has joined us. We have campaigned hard for two decades to get such compensation. When we started, we were told that there was no chance, but we all worked together. We campaigned together and we won in the High Court—the biggest civil compensation case in history. We will pay out on 100,000 claims to former miners. We have £2 billion to put in people's pockets. What peeves us all is that we are not doing the job more quickly—£70 million has already been paid out, but much more remains to be done. Tomorrow, I will see the chief executive of IRISC, which is the body that is running that. I will have a full and frank discussion with him, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover would put it. I will poke the organisation in the eye a little on the matter because I want us to achieve the target that we set ourselves—to pay out to 2,500 people a month. These miners have given their health—in some cases, their lives—to keep us warm and we must do better.

I am conscious that I have been asked to pass on many messages and to ensure that ministerial colleagues are aware of a range of issues. I will do so. I will write to those colleagues who have raised matters that I have not answered.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said that we were going away for a few days of rest. What struck me was not that colleagues needed a rest, but that they would be going back to their constituencies full of vigour to deal with various problems and initiatives—the things that need to be done. I am conscious of a matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling. He was putting pressure on me to put pressure on Ministers to ensure that we get change. This debate shows that a lot has been achieved, but much more remains to be done.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.