HC Deb 22 July 2002 vol 389 cc733-821

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

7.30 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I should like to raise a number of issues regarding regeneration initiatives in the Orchard Park ward of my constituency.

I remember the negative impact that Conservative policies had on the people of Hull, North during the 1980s and 1990s, especially on those living in the Orchard Park ward. There were high levels of unemployment and long-term unemployment, no commercial or retail activity, housing that needed improvement, and rising crime and delinquency. The Tory financial constraints imposed on local government meant that the council's Labour group had to look for other ways to raise funds, such as the flotation of Kingston Communications, to improve the quality of life for the people of Hull.

It seems strange that an article on the subject in The Guardian last Saturday expresses shock, horror and disgust that a Labour council is spending money on repairing dilapidated schools, repairing houses, installing central heating and double glazing, and building a suitable stadium for the people of the city—a shocking waste of money.

Thankfully, the election of the Labour Government saw a tide change for the people of Orchard Park. For the first time, central Government policies were having a direct impact. The new deal started to break the cycle of generational unemployment. The sure start scheme in Orchard Park aimed at child health and development is having a great and growing impact. The city learning centre at the Sir Henry Cooper school offers courses for local people to improve their basic skills and is helping to raise the standard of adult education.

In addition, the regeneration of Orchard Park has started, and it is about this that I shall voice most of my concerns. Those stem from what seems to be the political inexperience of the new Liberal Democrat leadership of Hull city council. Bit by bit, its decisions are unstitching the regeneration programme that had been put in place, and I fear that that will have a devastating effect on the local community, the quality of their environment and their hopes for the future.

Surplus housing stock had been a major problem in Orchard Park and the surrounding area. After much debate, the Labour council agreed a programme of demolition, and remodelling commenced. On the Danes, an estate in Orchard Park, I recently witnessed—to the delight of local residents—two tower blocks being demolished, as had been agreed by the Labour council, with a further 150 houses due for demolition.

I fully support the demolition of surplus housing stock. I equally support the remodelling of those areas but, worryingly, it is this second factor that the Liberal Democrats are refusing to acknowledge. There are plans to halt any further demolition in the Danes area, pending a re-examination of the entire future of that area. More importantly, the council has removed the £800,000 available to carry out the remodelling of the Danes area. That will mean that my constituents who live there will have to live in unacceptable conditions, with boarded-up houses next to improved properties and uncertainty about their future and their future housing.

In addition, the council's cabinet has agreed to delegate plans for further demolition to remove surplus stock to private consultants and the newly established citywide residents and tenants groups, which do not cover all the groups in my constituency. That will put on hold for at least a year the identification of surplus properties and the demolitions already agreed with the Danes residents. That is an unacceptable situation and is unfair to the people of Orchard Park. It is not consistent with the original council plan or the policies of the Labour Government, which advocate revitalising the area.

Given the content of the Deputy Prime Minister's statement to the House last Thursday, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary could relay those concerns to the Minister in charge of housing and regeneration, to see what can be done to prevent any delay in the demolition of surplus housing and the remodelling of the area.

The second and more urgent issue is the proposed Department of Health LIFT scheme for Orchard Park. In his sustainable communities statement, the Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the need for adequate health services, but that seems to have gone unnoticed by the Liberal Hull city council. Hull was one of the 18 areas to be given approval for LIFT funding, with the aim of improving primary care services where they are desperately needed. That is of particular importance to the Orchard Park area, which has low health status compared with other areas of Hull. Unfortunately, it seems that that much needed investment is unlikely to occur—again, because of the decisions of the Liberal Democrats.

To summarise the situation, a regeneration plan for Orchard Park had been agreed between Hull city council and the West Hull primary care trust. The outline business case had been drawn up for the project and private finance initiative credits had been provisionally approved for the replacement community centre, citizens advice bureau and a new retail development to replace the substandard shopping precinct. In addition, it was agreed that, through the LIFT scheme, a number of retail shops would be purchased from the council and that the one-stop health centre costing £5.5 million would be located there.

The council's and LIFT's funding sources are interlinked, and failure by either party to fulfil its commitment would put in serious doubt the whole regeneration scheme. It is here that my concern lies, because Liberal Democrat-led Hull city council has indicated to West Hull PCT that it is not in a position to buy the retail shops.

That poses a number of serious issues for the future of the Orchard Park LIFT project. If the council had owned the shops, that would have reduced the risk and ensured the managed transition from existing retail units to the shops planned as part of the regeneration project. Without that, and leaving the shops at Orchard Park in third-party ownership, as the Liberal Democrats seem to demand, is inappropriate. If the shops were vacated piecemeal, that would result in some shops being boarded up, which would not add to the expected improvements resulting from the regeneration scheme. The council's purchase of the retail outlets is key to the entire LIFT scheme.

As a result, it seems that the burden will fall on the PCT to buy the shops. Current advice that I have received is that that option is likely to be rejected under the LIFT funding scheme. It therefore puts in doubt not only the viability of the Orchard Park regeneration project, but the whole Hull LIFT scheme, both in my constituency and in that of the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). Without the Orchard Park project, the Hull LIFT scheme would have a £5.5 million hole and therefore not enough critical mass to interest a private developer. That could delay the Hull LIFT scheme for at least a year, if not more, as new plans are drawn up.

It is sad that the actions of the Liberal city council are jeopardising Hull's LIFT scheme, which the Department of Health has described as one of the most exciting schemes in the country". The Department is keen that it should proceed.

The Orchard Park regeneration scheme is vital not only to ensure better health provision, but to deal with employment, environment and community involvement, yet the Liberal Democrats are turning their backs on it. As it seems that the council is reneging on earlier promises, I should be grateful if my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Health and the Minister with responsibility for regeneration could work together to investigate whether any alternative funding methods are available, so that the Orchard Park scheme can be included in the LIFT scheme, and the LIFT scheme can go ahead. That is most important in one of the most deprived wards in the whole of the United Kingdom.

7.39 pm
Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

It is a great privilege to speak in this debate and I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I have an especially high regard for the vice-chancellor of his university, David Drewry, whom I have admired for many years. As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I was reminded that I am bereft, as an undergraduate from Hull who has been with me for the entire year, James Holden, has now returned to sunny Hull, abandoning me to a state of chaos and incompetence. I therefore have two reasons to be especially appreciative of his constituency. I also have a very strong point of contact with him in having to bemoan the destructive effects of much of the Liberal Democrat activity in my constituency.

It has been my privilege to represent my very beautiful tract of the country for the past 18 years, but I want to raise three issues that I think are especially serious. They relate to the good will and tolerance in areas such as mine, which pay very high taxes and are aware that increasingly high taxes are being charged through national insurance and the everlasting array of stealth taxes being introduced by the Government. Their tolerance of the inadequacy of the way in which the funding formulae work is growing very thin. The Prime Minister constantly says that such concerns are a plea for more money, but they are a plea for greater equity in the funding formulae.

I have the latest information, which shows that in Durham, the Prime Minister's health authority area, of the 12,000 patients waiting for in-patient treatment, only one has waited more than a year. In my health authority area, 13,700 patients are waiting for in-patient treatment—another 1,000 people—but 558 are waiting more than a year. I regret that, since the Government took office in 1997, they have consistently distorted the funding formula. There is genuine inequity in health service delivery and they know full well that that is the case, although I am sorry that the Department of Health provides such paltry responses to letters. The current state of affairs is entirely unsatisfactory. Some 558 people in west Surrey are waiting more than a year for in-patient treatment. The Government have announced a very substantial increase in health funding, but my constituents feel extremely strongly that the money that is allocated should be delivered equitably.

With that in mind, two particular issues are causing concern in South-West Surrey. I give credit for the fact that Farnham's community hospital is at last under construction after many years of campaigning. Haslemere has the largest elderly population in Surrey. Very many elderly people live alone and they must be completely secure in terms of their community hospital. Frankly, I am confident that the hospital's future is secure, but following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Hull, North, there has been some scaremongering in the Haslemere community. I ask the Minister to use his good offices to obtain confirmation from Health Ministers that the Haslemere hospital is indeed secure.

In Godalming, the pressure in local accident and emergency departments and extremely serious waiting time problems have led to a request that a local care centre be developed. I strongly endorse that request and I know that Waverley borough council would act as co-operatively as it is able within the constraints of its resources. There is a serious issue: general practitioners are extremely cramped in their premises and there is a serious need for a local care centre. County councillor Maureen Nyazai and many others are working towards that, but if the Minister felt able to communicate with his colleagues, I would be more than grateful if he gave a fair wind to both those initiatives.

In passing, I should like to applaud the industry and endeavour of the health service managers who serve my constituency and the country generally. There has just been a meeting of our new strategic health authority, involving our new chief executive, Simon Robbins, and our chairman Terry Hawksworth, as well as our primary care trust chief executive Elizabeth Slinn and chairman Chris Grimes. People rarely thank health service managers, but I think that they are wrong not to do so, as the country is well served by their commitment and their trying to deliver services in the face of huge obstacles and, I am afraid, unrealistic rhetoric.

Our problems are compounded by the acute care sector crisis. I applaud the initiatives of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and their consistent approach in drawing attention to the problems of care homes. My hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and many others have drawn attention to the degree to which excessive regulation, lack of regard for the cost of living and many other issues have made the delivery of care home services acutely difficult. Woodlarks in Farnham is an example of a specialised and wonderful facility for women with physical disabilities, but it is having the greatest difficulty in managing to continue its work. The Meath home is somewhere that any of us would gladly wish any relatives with mild learning disabilities or epilepsy to stay. The pressure on those voluntary homes to make ends meet is formidable and unacceptable when one considers allocation of funding.

That brings me to the recent consultation paper on the local government finance formula on grant distribution. I speak on behalf of TACFIG, the town and country finance issues group. Waverley, my borough council, has led on much of the preparation in advancing the case. There are problems in areas with a high cost of living and a population that is not densely packed, and where the presence of several towns means that the service has to be delivered in rural and urban areas. The needs of such areas are not sufficiently or fairly recognised by the formula. If there is to be a sense of equity and justice throughout the country with regard to the use of taxpayers' money, I urge the Government to accept that it is inappropriate and wrong to force areas such as mine to confront a situation of public squalor amidst private affluence.

A further measure that is causing deep concern is the pressure on debt-free local authorities to hand over the proceeds of council house sales to so-called "more needy" authorities. It is well understood that every time the Government weight a formula with regard to deprivation measures, it is a veiled attack on areas such as mine. I have long believed in the principles of the welfare state, even though it should be modernised, updated and altered, but if there is such a sense of injustice, it will not be sustainable to suggest that the good will of constituents such as mine can be maintained.

Let me turn to the last concern to which I should like to draw the House's attention. I ask for the Minister's assistance in getting confirmation that the plans for the A3 at Hindhead are on target and that there has been no moving back from the commitment that there should be a tunnel past this appalling transport trouble spot. The Devil's Punch Bowl is a beautiful area that is scarred by the problems of traffic. The traffic lights at Hindhead are the only ones to be encountered when driving between Scotland and Portsmouth, as I have frequently told the four Scottish Transport Ministers. The Highways Agency has been extremely helpful, but in accordance with what the hon. Member for Hull, North said about the mischievous behaviour of the Liberal Democrats, scaremongering and rumourmongering are rife in the Hindhead area to the effect that the scheme has been abandoned. I do not believe that to be the case, but I urge on the House and the Minister the importance of the Hindhead tunnel not only for my constituents, but for the regeneration of Portsmouth, Southsea and, of course, that very important area, the Isle of Wight.

I hope that the Minister will take up those points and reply to me in due course before the House adjourns.

7.49 pm
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I want to cover two issues of crucial importance on which I should like progress to he made before the House goes into recess. I make no apology for the fact that in the 19 years I have been a Member I have raised one of those issues in the House on more than 300 occasions, either in debate or in written and oral questions—that is, the empty housing in my constituency. More than 4,000 houses in Burnley are empty, many of them derelict and abandoned, and the problem gets worse week by week. Dozens of Ministers—virtually every housing Minister in those 19 years—have been to Burnley to look at the problem and accepted that it exists. Then, a year later, it is worse than when they came. This is our last chance to do something. The Government have to give the council the means and the ability to tackle the problem. If, in 12 months' time, the people of Burnley cannot clearly be shown that progress has been made, we will face serious difficulties.

Last Monday, I welcomed the Chancellor's statement, in which housing moved up the agenda for the first time in several years. It identified two key problem areas: first, the south—I do not in any way want to diminish that problem—and, secondly, parts of the north such as Lancashire and Yorkshire, where we face the problem of empty houses that nobody wants. The statement said that money would be available to deal with those problems.

When we heard Thursday's statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, I hoped that we would get further information about what was to be done to help. He mentioned the figure that would be available, but unfortunately did not give much detail. I do not say that as a criticism—I realise that he had difficulty in covering every issue that he wanted to cover in the course of that statement. Nevertheless, Burnley needs to know more than what was said last Thursday. On Friday, I attended a meeting in Accrington, which had been arranged before the statement, in which east Lancashire council leaders, the chief executives of the councils and local Members of Parliament discussed the pathfinder housing renewal project. There are nine such projects, one of which is for east Lancashire, of which Burnley is a part. We know from a statement that was made a few weeks ago that £2.66 million has been made available up-front. That is welcome, but it will not scratch the surface of the problem that we have in Burnley, let alone in east Lancashire as a whole. Of course, it is not intended to—it is there to help to prepare the way for what local authorities are going to do. But local authorities need to know how much money will be available over the next three years in order to be able to plan the right type of programme to match the resources that they will get. Will it be £150 million, £50 million or £250 million? Everybody recognises that at least a 10-year programme will be required to solve the problem.

On 16 May, I took part in a debate in Westminster Hall and made several points that I do not intend to repeat today. I also referred to the issue during the debate on the Queen's Speech on 20 June, the very first day of the new Session.

A few years ago, the Bishop of Burnley, Ronald Milner, who is now retired—we have had two bishops since then—produced an independent report in which independent experts from several sources, including housing associations and the industry, considered housing in Burnley and east Lancashire. It identified a real crisis. A few weeks ago, the bishop was back in Burnley celebrating the fact that Burnley has had a bishop for 100 years. If he had gone around Burnley or east Lancashire he would have been amazed to find that the situation that he so clearly described in his report is no better—indeed, it is far worse—than at the time he published it.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been to Burnley twice in the past 12 months. He has seen the decay and despair and understands the problems that so many people in Burnley face. We have to recognise that many houses are beyond the stage at which they can be improved and therefore have to be demolished. About 2,000 houses need to be demolished very speedily—in my view, within the next 12 months. We then need to be able to concentrate

on improvements, whether it be knocking two houses into one or knocking alternate terraces down, according to the area. That is necessary because there is an oversupply of houses to meet an underdemand from people who would not want them even if they were in good shape and good repair, yet many are in an absolutely appalling state because they have been vandalised or used by drug addicts, causing great fear to people living in the area.

However, demolition is an extremely expensive option in a part of the country where after houses have been demolished there is very little or, in many cases, no site value available. That is completely different from the situation in London and the south. In Burnley, the houses are demolished and the area is cleared but there is nothing to go there. We cannot bring people into the area. If we could, we would do so, but we have to accept that we do not have the jobs for them. There is no point in saying, "Let's bring people from the south to relieve the pressure there", because there are no jobs to give them the security that they would want.

Every day I get at least one letter identifying a different problem. Today, I got a letter from the daughter of two old age pensioners aged 81 and 82. The father is critically ill. They are in an area that is to be demolished, but the resources are not there to allow for that, so it is not in this year's phase. I hope that it will be in next year's phase. Once the father is in hospital, it is likely that the mother will have to leave the house. Compensation will be based on the value of the house at the time when the council compulsorily purchases it. It has already lost a tremendous amount in value owing to the deterioration of the area. Just imagine what that house will be like in six months' or a year's time if the family leaves. Many of my constituents now live in negative equity. The value of their house has gone down, and the price that they are offered in compensation if they move out when it is to be demolished is less than they owe on the mortgage. When they get a new property, straight away they owe more than it is worth. It is a real problem, and the Government must show what they are going to do to help the people of Burnley, east Lancashire and the other pathfinder project areas.

I could speak for ages about this, because I am so concerned about it, but other hon. Members want to speak. The other issue that I want to discuss is mentioned on pages 1,4 and 5 of today's edition of The Mirror in an article by Steve Dennis. He spoke to me about it on my way to London today, as have people from other newspapers. The report is about the death of Christopher Alder at Hull police station in 1998. Hon. Members might wonder what my involvement in that case could be. His sister, Janet Alder, lives in my constituency, and she raised the matter with me just after her brother had tragically died in police custody.

Over the years, I have had considerable correspondence with the Police Complaints Authority, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Hull police force, Ministers, the Home Secretary—the present one and the previous one—and the Attorney-General. You name them, I have written to them about this case. It is a matter of great concern that a youngish lad who had been a paratrooper in the British forces could have died on that day. I have seen the video that is referred to in the report, as has the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), whose constituency is close to my own. Anyone who sees that video will be appalled at what happened at that time.

I have deliberately not raised this matter in the House before today, because I wanted to ensure that, when the case went trial, I would in no way have prejudiced that trial or assisted the police in saying that it should not proceed because I had prejudged the issue. The trial has now been heard and the case was thrown out a few weeks ago. The jury did not, in fact, take a decision on the case. So, it has gone.

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, who also represents a member of Christopher Alder's family, and I wrote jointly to the present Home Secretary a few weeks ago. My hon. Friend and I said in a press statement on 25 June that we were calling for a public inquiry into the matter. We stated: The decision to end the trial by the Judge last Friday raises many questions and all the issues flowing from that tragic night"— in April 1998— involving the Police and others, and subsequent investigation and actions on behalf of the Police Complaints Authority, Crown Prosecution Service and the Court System need to be investigated fully by a Public Inquiry. Only this action will answer all the questions clearly and the family understandably feel justice has not been done. Our statement went on to say that we were asking for an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary. He has said that he would prefer to wait until the police disciplinary action had taken place, and I understand that. Indeed, for that very reason, I have not tabled an early-day motion or called for an Adjournment debate in the House on the matter. In view of the fact that the case has now been made public, however, I want to make it absolutely clear that both my hon. Friend and I will pursue this case vigorously, because we are very concerned about it.

I do not want to make any judgment on the facts that have been reported in the press, and I am not going to refer to them tonight. All I will say is that I believe that the House should be concerned about what happened on that tragic night, and about what has happened since in all the investigations, and recognise that the only way in which we can satisfy the family and the wider public—because wider concerns are now being expressed—is by having a full public inquiry. I believe that it is right that I should make that point in this debate tonight.

8.3 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The problem with these debates, particularly with the prospect of a long—in fact, over-long—recess ahead of us, is always one of what to identify as the key issues facing our constituencies. It would certainly have been possible for me to have spoken at length about the findings of the report on foot and mouth disease that were announced this afternoon, the catastrophic effect that the disease had on the whole of the west country's rural economy, and the implications of those findings for the treatment of future catastrophic epizootics such as foot and mouth. Suffice it to say, however, that the report underlines the lack of an early application of the advice of epidemiologists with relevant experience. It also illustrates that the ongoing paucity of numbers in the state veterinary service has to be rectified, and that the present import controls are insufficient for the task and not commensurate with those of other countries from which we could usefully learn lessons.

It would also be possible to talk at length about the formula for funding local authorities, to which the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) referred earlier. Indeed, many of my constituents will have looked with care at what the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to say in his statement on the comprehensive spending review last Monday, and will have read with interest the funding figure of £4,900 per pupil by 2006 that he promised. They will compare that with the present funding for a child in Somerset, which I believe is £2,529.18, and will assume that the funding per child is going to double in the space of three years. Nothing would please me more than to have it confirmed from the Dispatch Box tonight that that is the case, but my fear is that it will not be. I fear that this is another misapprehension on the part of my constituents. Indeed, the more I look at the proposals for the reform of the local authority funding formula, the more I see that they actually put those authorities that are already massively disadvantaged—in terms of the funding that they receive for education and other services—at an even greater disadvantage on most of the options offered. That is a matter of considerable concern.

I could also raise the matter of care homes, as did the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey. I have to say quite plainly to the Minister that the care home sector is in crisis in my county and in most of the south of Britain. The measures that have been taken so far have not been adequate for the task. The funding is still insufficient to keep the private sector care homes in place, which means that there are huge problems in store for our social services departments and for the acute services in our hospitals.

I could also ask for further information about the universal bank and the post office card account. I am not convinced that they will be ready by 1 April next year, and if they are not, that will have a catastrophic effect on the sub-post office network in my constituency, in all rural areas, and, indeed, in urban areas.

I want to focus, however, on another roads issue. It is one with which I think that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), will be familiar, because it deals with the A303, which runs through my constituency and on to the south-west. The hon. Gentleman will know that the long-awaited south-west regional multi-modal study report—the SWARMMS report—has now been published, and that it contains proposals for the A303. He will also know that there are controversial aspects to the proposals relating to the road where it runs across the top of the Blackdown hills, and to the alternative plans, proposed by consultants, for the A358 to Taunton to be dualled, and to direct traffic by that route.

I have to say to the Minister that I do not wish to debate the rights and wrongs of dualling over the Blackdowns; I have strong opinions on that, but those hills are not in my constituency. I see huge merit in the proposal for the A358 route, because it would provide not only the least environmentally damaging option but an additional north-south route, which the despoliation of the Blackdowns would not offer.

My concern, however, is to separate out from that issue the improvements to the A303 between Sparkford and Ilchester that have long been agreed—not just considered, but agreed. That is a piece of road that needs improvement not to increase its capacity, as most measures propose, but to make it safe. It is a place where there are fatal accidents every year, and there will be fatal accidents there this year as the holiday season comes upon us, with the huge increase in traffic from London and the south-east seeking the resorts of the south-west.

It is unfortunate that an inadequate piece of road should coincide with the point at which people get tired on their journey to the south-west. Their concentration is at its lowest, and, at that point, the road ceases to be a dual carriageway. It becomes a rather strange single carriageway plus, then recedes to a single carriageway over a rise where there is no visibility. That section of road clearly needs some attention, to make it safe.

All this was agreed years ago. We had a public inquiry. Uniquely, for road schemes of this kind, it was not seriously opposed by any particular group. Everyone agreed that the plans presented by the Highways Agency constituted the right way of dealing with an accident blackspot on a major trunk road. A public inquiry submitted proposals, and agreement was reached a long time ago, before the 1997 general election.

A moratorium was then imposed on road building of this kind. We were told that we would have to await the outcome of the multi-modal study. I do not know why: as I have said, not a capacity issue but a safety issue formed the basis of the multi-modal report. Anyway, we have waited and waited, and we now learn that this is somewhere in a queue of schemes for the south-west and, according to current plans, will almost certainly not be proceeded with until much more contentious issues further west are dealt with.

That cannot be acceptable to my constituents who, every day, run the risks involved in trying to use or cross the A303. It cannot be acceptable to those who want to use it to gain access to the south-west. Surely the safety issue can he detached from the capacity issues further down the road, and dealt with as a matter of priority. Surely it is possible to use plans that have already been agreed in order to make the road safe.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Marsh to Honiton section of the A303 goes to my constituency. It is not just a question of capacity; that single-carriageway stretch of road has a very bad safety record.

Mr. Heath

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but, as I have said, I am not qualified to talk about the road further west, and I do not want to enter into an argument with her or with any other Member about that.

I am simply saying that the scheme will stand or fall on its merits. It is solely to do with safety. There is no effective opposition to it, and the plans are ready to run; yet it has been held up by other considerations. I do not think that acceptable, and I ask the Minister to think about it. Perhaps he will pay attention to this stretch of road when he next travels to his constituency, or perhaps he will break his train journey to have a look at it. Sadly, breaking a journey on First Great Western is often quite easy nowadays.

Let me make a more important suggestion. Will the Minister ask his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), to go and see what needs to be done? Perhaps he will then meet me, along with local people, so that we can discuss the matter.

This is very simple. All that is needed is a ministerial fiat. I urge the Minister to treat the issue as a priority, before another life is lost on the road

8.13 pm
Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

I invite all Members to visit Manchester over the next fortnight or so. If they do, they will find the streets awash with red, blue, green and yellow bunting and flags to celebrate the start of the 17th Commonwealth games on Thursday.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) is not here, because I would have liked to pay tribute to her. What has made the event in Manchester possible is the support of Ministers in the last Government, including the right hon. Lady, the former right hon. Member for Henley—now Lord Heseltine—and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). We have also received support whenever we have asked for it from the Liberal Democrat party leadership, and from our own Ministers. Before I sound as though I am being too nice to the Liberal Democrats, let me add that the excellence of their leadership has not always been mirrored by the behaviour of one or two nasty Liberal Democrat councillors "on the ground", whose perspective has been non-existent and who are now eating their rather unpleasant words.

I hope that people will go to the games and will recognise the work that has gone into their organisation. I am thinking of work done by Charles Allen of Granada Television, chair of the organising committee; Frances Done, chief executive; Howard Bernstein, chief executive of the city council; and Councillor Richard Leese. They have made major contributions, as have the Commonwealth Games Council for England and many sponsors, as well as thousands of volunteers.

No doubt over the next fortnight those people will be lying awake worrying, or having nightmares about things going wrong—as of course they could. I am sure that everything possible has been done to prevent that, but we should bear in mind the fact that the event will involve 4,000 athletes and that hundreds of thousands of people will attend 17 events, one of which—the shooting event—will take place as far away as Bisley in the south-east. The potential for organisational difficulties is enormous, but I have every confidence in those who have organised the event.

Three outcomes can be identified now. First, there will be no white elephants. All the sporting facilities will have an after-use, which is generally funded in partnership with other organisations. For instance, the aquatic centre is in partnership with the universities, which provides an excellent use for it afterwards. I confess to finding it difficult that Manchester City—not my favourite team—will be able to use the stadium afterwards. One of the oddest features of my career is the fact that I spent some of it securing an excellent stadium for the team in Manchester that I do not support. In any event, there will be no white elephants. That was not the case in Kuala Lumpur, and has not been the case after many other international sporting events in a stadium holding 100,000 people—a stadium that is now sprouting weeds.

The jobs benefit and the economic spin-offs are already there. The Commonwealth games will create more than 6,000 jobs, and independent financial advisers have told us of more than £600,000 of direct investment in the area. That is certain, whatever else happens over the next fortnight to the biggest youth and sporting festival that this country has ever hosted.

Moreover, those who organise sport throughout the world will be in attendance. The perception of English, or British, sport will be changed by what people say. I am sure that they will be impressed when they see the facilities.

Finally, let me compare and contrast that with what has happened in the south-east and London. Money has been pledged, and things have not happened. Picketts Lock is just one example. It would have aspired to be a white elephant, but never quite made it. Another example is the world athletics championship. I believe that this country could have hosted it in Manchester or elsewhere, but we have damaged our standing with the international sports community by not getting the organisation right. The bid for the World cup, which I supported passionately, was not helped by the fact that we managed to support—shall we say—the less honest side of the FIFA organisation, continuing with the corrupt Havelange dynasty followed by Blatter. That was not a smart move in terms of our standing in Europe and the rest of the world. Finally, more money was spent turning Wembley into a derelict site than has been spent on producing an excellent stadium in Manchester for the Commonwealth games.

I make those comments not to have fun but to make a serious point. Some time ago—I have asked questions in the Chamber about it—the British Olympic Association, supported by the Government and much of the establishment, said that if Britain were to bid for the Olympic games again, they would have to be in London. London is a great world city with many facilities. However, that decision was not subject to a competition, unlike Manchester's bid for the Commonwealth games or different cities' bid for the Olympic games. In the light of the mistakes in relation to facilities in the south-east and what I am sure will be a success in Manchester, this country would have a stronger international bid for the Olympic games and would get more support around the country if there were a proper competition between the United Kingdom cities that wanted to host the Olympic games, be it Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds or London. The issues could be fully aired in the light of the experience of the past four or five years. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that issue up because competition in these issues strengthens our position in the international community. Often, assuming things will happen does not work.

I leave the Minister with one further thought, as the Government bring forward legislation to provide for direct elections to regional assemblies. What Manchester has done and what to a large extent London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow do to project their image in competing to host events—whether it be the international city of culture, the Commonwealth games, the Olympic games or whatever—is very healthy. Had the north-west had a regional structure 10 years ago, I am not sure that it would have been as easy for Manchester to achieve investment of £250 million in sporting facilities—there has been a lot of private sector investment. It might have got stuck in a regional body where lowest common denominator politics predominated.

I believe that people associate themselves seriously with cities, are happy to support competitions such as that for the international city of culture, and are less happy to associate themselves with the regions, most of which are named after a point on the compass and have no real economic, cultural or political community association.

I shall finish on a positive note by inviting you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and everyone else to come and enjoy the events in Manchester over the next fortnight, and to reflect on the fact that our cities and towns are often the public face of this country. They are its economic engine and powerhouse. We need to ensure that our political structures reflect that.

8.23 pm
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), who made a telling speech about the excitement that he expects in Manchester over the next few weeks. Many people will watch with great interest as those games unfold, and recognise the tremendous amount of effort that the hon. Gentleman put into securing those games when he was leader of the city council.

This debate often gives us the opportunity to raise a number of issues that concern us and our constituents, the people we represent, before the House rises. This time, it rises for a long summer recess, but if the rumours are right we can rest assured that it will be the last time we have such a long recess. In future, we will be sitting in September. I for one welcome that. I would have welcomed sitting in September this year, but the Leader of the House told us that it was not possible because of works taking place outside the building.

I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House called for us to have extra time to debate a number of important issues that we have not had time to cover before the House rises. A number of hon. Members have said that one of the great sorrows is that we will not have time to talk about the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for local government finance reorganisation. By the time we come back in October, many fundamental decisions will have been taken and the House will not have had a chance to give its opinion on that important subject. A number of us were led to believe that the proposals would lead to a huge flow of new money into our counties, and it seems on a first reading of the consultation paper that that will not happen.

I want to raise some other matters that are local to my constituency of West Derbyshire. On 31 March 1987, I had an Adjournment debate that started, as they used to in those days, at 2.48 am. I had secured the debate the previous week. I rang some of the parents concerned and said that the Adjournment debate would take place the following Tuesday. They said, "Great. Can we come down to listen to it?" I rang on the Monday night and asked how many were coming, and I was told 170.

I was a new Member at that stage, and I found that I always learned something in this place. I went along to the person who was then sitting in the Serjeant at Arms chair and said. "Can I have some tickets tomorrow night for my Adjournment debate?" He said, "Yes, of course. How many would you like?" I said, "170." He said, "Can you come back in a few minutes?" I did so, and I got the 170 tickets. I learned that one could get 204 people in the Public Gallery. When I spoke to the organisers, I said, "You must make sure that you are down at 9 o'clock, because I expect the Adjournment debate to start at 10 and it will not wait for you if you are late."

The three coach loads all arrived at 9 o'clock. I was slightly embarrassed as I went to tell my constituents that the debate was running somewhat late. However, 170 people insisted that they did not want to miss the Adjournment debate and went into the Public Gallery. At the time, my majority was 100. It concentrated the mind somewhat sitting in the Chamber, watching and waiting with eager patience for the Adjournment debate to start. A number of my colleagues kept coming in, looking at the Public Gallery and saying, "Who are all those people?" "It's McLoughlin's Adjournment debate," came the reply. "That'll teach him," they said.

The debate was on an important issue. At that time, the sixth form of a successful school in my constituency, Ecclesbourne school, was threatened with closure. That was eventually rejected by Kenneth Baker. It is a popular and successful school. As I said in that Adjournment debate, Ecclesbourne is

of proven worth not because the headmaster says so and not because the teachers say so. It is of proven worth because the parents and pupils say so."—[Official Report, 31 March 1987; Vol. 113, c. 1069.] The school has been consistently led for quite a few years by Dr. Robert Dupey, who retires at the end of this term. The problem is that, as a very successful school, it tried to redraw its catchment area, part of which goes into the city of Derby. It tried to make a more sensible arrangement for its future. Both Derbyshire county council and Derby city council agreed that its proposals were sensible, but unfortunately they have now been thrown out by somebody known as the adjudication officer.

Children in the villages of Kirk Langley, Weston Underwood and Mugginton now do not know whether they will be able to go to the school. That is a big problem because the next nearest school for those villages is quite some miles away. It is not just a matter of getting a bus for another five or 10 minutes, as in urban areas. Such a decision in a rural area could add at least 12 to 14 miles to the journey, along some unfortunate country lanes.

A further housing development is now planned for Duffield in the next couple of years, and we can expect a high proportion of the properties sold to go to families with school-age children. Did the adjudicator consider that? No; the adjudicator did not even visit the area. The governors could see the problem looming and undertook a consultation process earlier this year. Sadly, the adjudicator chose to ignore that and told the school that it could not proceed.

The result is real disaster for families in the rural parts of my constituency. Because they live furthest from the school's flagpole, they may not get places when the demand is high. The situation will vary from year to year. The adjudicator has said that the catchment area must be based on the radius from the school's flagpole.

Derbyshire's local education authority is unhappy about that, because it will have to find the children places elsewhere in the county. It will have to provide and pay for transport to another town, quite some distance away. In my part of Derbyshire we have no nice straight dual carriageways with bus routes.

The school is unhappy, because it spent a lot of time and effort making what was a very difficult decision. I raised the matter a few weeks ago with the Leader of the House. As we have come to expect of him, he was very open and honest. He said that such matters and local issues are best determined locally, wherever possible…I understand the frustration of the hon. Gentleman's constituents if a decision is imposed by people outside their locality." —[Official Report, 27 June 2002; Vol. 387, c. 965.] That is at the heart of the problem. It was not a local decision and did not take into account the local issues, such as transport and communities. The adjudicator listened only to those parents who had complained about the school's decision and did not consider the consequences for those who believed that they were unaffected and were therefore not invited to comment.

Even though there is no right of appeal, the Secretary of State takes no responsibility for the decision, and nor does the Parliamentary Commissioner. The only avenue open to parents is costly and time-consuming legal action. No wonder they are deluging everyone they can think of with desperate letters.

I urge the Government to look at the whole matter again, and with some urgency. I would be naive to think that they could do that within the next two days, but it is their creation of the adjudication office that has brought the problem about, and they should very quickly review the consequences of what has happened in this case.

West Derbyshire is a large rural constituency and we have a huge number of visitors to the national park—it is the most visited national park. I have consistently raised the problem of transport and roads in the area. A new link road, the A50, which runs between the M1 and the M6, has recently been built. It has done a lot to relieve certain traffic congestion, but it has created several traffic problems that were not investigated thoroughly enough when it opened.

The A50 now attracts a huge number of heavy goods vehicles. The section through Doveridge was, unaccountably, given a concrete surface. We were promised that it would be resurfaced in the Government's 10-year plan, but we all know what has happened to the 10-year plan: two years on, we are told that the Secretary of State for Transport is rewriting it. We want to know when that section will be resurfaced, for the sake of the people of Doveridge and Somersal Herbert.

Just a few weeks ago, the A6 in another part of my constituency was de-trunked. There is growing demand from people in the Darley Dale area for more pedestrian crossings. There are two campaigns, which I support. A tremendous number of road deaths occur every year, but because they happen in ones and twos, we tend not to regard them in the same way as accidents in the public transport sector. One way to address that problem, particularly where roads are being de-trunked, is to consider the entire subject of pedestrian crossings.

The A515 comes off the A50, and since the A50 upgrade—the M1-M6 link road—there has been a huge increase in traffic on what are very narrow and winding lanes. I raised the matter two years ago with the then Minister responsible for transport, the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), whom I now shadow in another position. He said that there would be good news on those roads and that he would ask the county council to investigate them as a matter of urgency. Perhaps he did ask them to do so, but nothing has happened since, and I hope that something will happen in the not-too-distant future, for the sake of the people in those areas.

I turn to the final issue that I wish to raise. Last week, the Government published a document entitled "The Review of English National Park Authorities". As I said, the Peak district serves a huge area in my constituency. It receives some 19 million day-visitors a year—a huge number—and covers some 143,000 hectares. Its national park authority comprises some 38 people. In referring to the governance of national parks, the Government document suggests that the number of people who serve on national parks should be reduced. I ask the Government to proceed very carefully in this regard. When I was first elected to the House of Commons, there was great local dissatisfaction at the fact that insufficient local people were being appointed to national parks bodies. When he was Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) introduced what he called parish representatives. Parishes were joined together, and they could have representation in respect of the national parks.

Having read the document, I very much fear that such appointments are under threat. That would be a grave mistake, because they bring a locally elected element to national parks that did not exist before. I urge the Government not to take the view that we need smaller authorities and a smaller decision-making process. The Peak district national park is unusual among national parks. It includes representatives from Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire county councils; Barnsley, High Peak, Kirklees, Macclesfield and Oldham borough councils; Derbyshire Dales, North East Derbyshire and Staffordshire Moorlands district councils; and Sheffield city council. It includes those councillors because it covers their boroughs and areas. I urge the Government not to change that level of representation, and to reject the recommendations—if only in respect of the Peak district. The Peak district is unique: it has the highest number of visitors of all the national parks.

It is said that the Peak district is within an hour's drive of some 60 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom, including the people of Manchester, the west midlands, Nottingham and the Sheffield conurbation. It deserves to have a large governing body, and it is very important that that local element be represented, but such representation is under threat through the document's proposals. I hope that there is plenty of time to consider this issue, and that the Government do not proceed with their plans.

8.39 pm
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I shall speak briefly, as many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. I want to raise two issues of concern to my constituents, the first of which relates to the previous portfolio of the Deputy Leader of the House, who was Minister with responsibility for entry clearance.

Last weekend, I was inundated at my constituency surgery with complaints about the lack of visa facilities in respect of posts abroad, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and India. I was astonished to discover that the Government have closed the personal services that are offered to visitors who seek to come to this country for short-term visits.

As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, the entry clearance operation in India and Pakistan is the largest in the world. In 2000, 73,000 visas were issued in Mumbai, 70,000 in New Delhi, 64,000 in Islamabad and 32,000 in Karachi. The House will therefore understand the seriousness of the present situation. This is the busiest period for visitors visas, because this is the wedding season for the Asian community. That is acknowledged, because in the old joint entry clearance unit in London—now renamed UK Visas—additional staff were taken on at this time of year to deal with the extra applications. At the moment, very few applications are being dealt with, because the posts have closed to those who wish to make applications for visits.

We all understand the background to that decision—the tension between India and Pakistan and the decision taken by the Foreign Secretary to issue travel advice and to withdraw staff from India and Pakistan. However, the situation has improved. Indeed, tensions between India and Pakistan have receded and the ban on direct flights between Islamabad and New Delhi has been lifted. However, there has been no consequential increase in the staffing of our high commissions in those two countries.

The result is that I and, I am sure, other hon. Members have had constituents ringing to say that they cannot make simple applications for visitors visas. They are expected to drop their applications in a box in Mumbai or New Delhi. The applications are taken away and sifted, and the applicants are then contacted. People have little chance of getting a visa to come to a wedding or for a short visit to the UK if they have not applied before. That was confirmed to me by UK Visas just before the debate began. Those applying for a visa for a wedding or a visit for the first time will not be able to come this year. Indeed, they will not be able to come until the level of facilities has increased.

I have arranged a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), for Wednesday, but I hope that before then some rapid progress can be made in the way in which those applications are handled. If the House rises before the difficulties have been resolved, constituents will make representations to hon. Members throughout the summer and we will have to contact the Foreign Office and disturb Ministers on their holidays or on other important business. That will not be popular. Therefore, I urge the deputy Leader of the House to pass on a message to the Foreign Office and remind his colleagues that the matter must be resolved immediately.

One constituent was told, when he visited the high commission in Delhi today, that he would be notified of his visa being issued through the national press in India. He has to make sure that he buys the newspaper every day to learn when the high commission is ready to issue the visas. That is unacceptable and I hope that something can be done.

My second point also relates to the travel advice in the subcontinent. I received an e-mail from the former chief justice of Goa. I declare an interest, because I went to Goa for my honeymoon, although it lasted only three days because I was summoned back to vote on the Maastricht treaty by the present Foreign Secretary. The e-mail informed me that because of the travel advice, bookings for Goa—probably the most popular destination in India—have reduced to a trickle and flights are on the verge of cancellation. Annually, the bookings for the winter holiday season in Goa start in June and, by 31 August, 60 per cent. of the bookings have been made. The chief justice's message is that unless we receive some clarification about the travel advice that has been issued by the Foreign Office, the tourism industry in India will suffer greatly.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will ask the Foreign Office, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, whether he is in a position to review the travel advice that he has issued so far. We all understand why the advice was issued and when it was issued. We understand entirely the important role that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has rightly played in the war against terrorism, and his efforts to bring a diplomatic solution to the problems between India and Pakistan, and no one but him could have done it because of his knowledge of the sub-continent and his interest in the affairs of the Asian community. However, on reaching an important stage, we should consider the advice again and ascertain whether it can be refined and changed to allow British citizens to travel to the subcontinent.

I did not interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) because I know that many others wish to contribute to the debate, but he missed one important name when he referred to the list of people who had helped bring the Commonwealth games to Manchester. His role in achieving that, as leader of Manchester city council, needs to be acknowledged by the House. We are grateful for all that he has done. I know that he wanted to get the Olympic games to Manchester in the past, but was not successful. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to support his home city.

A part of my constituency is the Hamilton estate in the northern part of Leicester. It is a new estate, and the pledge is to build 4,000 homes. Two thousand homes have already been built. I was pleased to hear the statement by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister setting out his radical reform of the planning system. I welcome his statement, which represents the most radical planning moves for almost a generation. However, I am worried that there is no clarity on planning gain, which is one of the most important ways in which the local community can benefit from planning permissions being given to big developers. We do not have firm and fair rules on planning gain.

On the Hamilton estate, there are 2,000 homes. When they were built, there were the promises of a doctor's surgery, a community centre, leisure facilities and an additional school. None of these promises has been forthcoming. We have only a large branch of Tesco. I am not opposed to Tesco, where I shop occasionally. However, when people buy pretty expensive houses in that part of the city, they expect to get more than a supermarket. They expect to get everything that was promised. I do not think that the local council extracted a sufficient degree of planning gain when planning permission was given to the supermarket.

It is important that we remind developers that in exchange for the huge profits that they make by building new homes and securing new supermarkets, they must give something back. I am sure that this issue affects other right hon. and hon. Members. It is important that developers realise that they must make a contribution at the start.

I hope that the message will go from the House before we rise for the summer recess that there is a need to ensure that the old section 106 agreements and the planning system are not merely made more efficient and more effective, although that is what we all want. We want a planning system that will not result in a huge amount of money being given to planning silks and planning inquiries, such as the terminal 5 inquiry, which cost almost £90 million. At a much more local level, developers who obtain planning permission should be told at the start that they will have to put something back.

I hope that the Minister will have sufficient information to pass on to relevant colleagues. If that can be done before the House rises for the recess. I know that my constituents will be grateful.

8.49 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I, too, wish to raise an issue with the Government that relates to the operation of the licensing system. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has spoken on behalf of those of his constituents who are affected by visa delays; I wish to raise two constituency cases involving very small businesses that are being starved to death by regulation and, in particular, the inequitable operation of the licensing regime for arms export licences.

I shall not quote the name of the small firm because this issue is commercially very sensitive to that firm. It is only after having failed to get satisfactory replies to parliamentary questions and to letters to Ministers that I have decided that I must raise the issue in the forum of this debate; otherwise, after Wednesday, there will be no chance to save it from what will be its certain demise, unless the Government do something about the problem that I shall describe.

The firm employs about half a dozen people and 90 per cent. of its business is supplying spare parts for military aircraft to the Indian market, many of which go directly to the Indian Government. It has operated under an open individual export licence. Such licences are normally renewed every two years.

Last year, the firm applied for the routine renewal of its licence, but it received a temporary six-month extension instead of a renewal. It was then led to believe that the renewal would be granted as soon as that extension period expired, but a few days before that six-month extension expired, it was informed that the substantive renewal application still could not be determined and that it could have a further extension, but excluding exports to India. Of course that was not very helpful to the firm because 90 per cent. of its business is with India, particularly the Indian Government.

So the firm has been pushed into making standard individual export licence applications for each spare part that it wishes to export to India. Many of those spare parts are for the Jaguar aircraft, which is being built under licence in India—still, I understand, with the Government's approval. The company has made those individual applications, but it cannot obtain any decision.

The managing director has now sent me a letter in which he says: My company's position is precarious. We are now receiving thousands of pounds of equipment, which we cannot ship due to the fact that we have not received any standard licences. So far we have despatched forty-five applications to DTI for clearance and we still have a considerable number to send which are being processed. He goes on to say that each licence application takes a long time for him to prepare and send, but he can get no result from the Department.

I have tabled parliamentary questions, and I have reached the conclusion that there is Government-inspired discrimination against that firm because another firm in Dorset still has an open individual export licence to supply exactly the same equipment to the Indian market. That firm has contacted the Indian high commission in the past 10 days to tell it that it is happy to supply the very goods that would have been supplied by the firm in my constituency. That is intolerable.

I have written to the Under?Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who has expressed some surprise, although he is meant to be in charge not only of small businesses, but of export licensing. In raising this issue this evening, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will ensure that the firm, which will be well known to the Department of Trade and Industry and to the Foreign Office, gets early responses to its licence applications because it will go out of business unless it gets justice, which it deserves.

That is not just an isolated incident. A much larger firm in my constituency has told me that it has had an application with the DTI and the Foreign Office for an export order to Turkey—not one of our well known enemies, but a member of NATO, which we are delighted to see taking on our responsibilities in Afghanistan. That firm won an export order to Turkey at the end of last year. It is still waiting for a result on that application.

The firm wrote to the Foreign Secretary about a month ago and copied the letter to me, and it was led to believe that there would a very quick result. It has still not had that result. It has written an incensed letter to the Foreign Secretary, saying, "Hasn't he the courtesy even to respond to our correspondence?" That order is not small beer: it is probably worth £800,000 or more to that firm in my constituency, with a prospect of follow-on orders as well.

Last Friday, the Quadripartite Committee issued a useful report on export control. At paragraph 92 of that report, the committee condemns the Government, saying: Delays in processing of applications can adversely affect the companies concerned and it is essential that such effects are minimised. The export control organisation is not small; it has a budget of £5.25 million and employs 137 staff, yet it seems totally incapable of monitoring its progress towards its own targets. It has a target of dealing with 70 per cent. of applications within 20 days.

The Department of Trade and Industry has been unable to answer a question that I tabled four weeks ago asking how many individual export licence applications had been outstanding for more than three months, more than six months or more than one year. The fact that it cannot answer that question in good time suggests that it is not compiling the basic statistics necessary to determine whether it is meeting its own targets, which is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

My final points concern a slightly different type of organisation, called Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd. It is a registered, limited company run by volunteers, one of whom, the secretary, although not a constituent of mine, lives very close to my constituency in Dorset. He has involved me and other bee-keepers in my constituency in the plight of his organisation. It comprises bee-keepers who subscribe 60p per colony of bees to insure against the destruction of the hives if the bees become diseased with foul brood. The company's total annual income is £20,000. It has been incredibly successful in ensuring that the disease of foul brood has not become a problem for this country to the extent that foot and mouth disease has been a problem and that it has not run rife here as it has in other countries. Australia and New Zealand are considering using the model established by Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd.

What are the Government doing about that small voluntary organisation? Until a couple of years ago, the company paid an annual registration fee of £25 to the registrar of industrial and provident societies, but that fee, which is now paid to the Financial Services Authority, has gone up to £375 a year—a fifteenfold increase. The company also has to pay £130 to the financial services compensation scheme because apparently it has to contribute to the losses suffered by the Chester Street insurance company. It also has to pay £279 to the financial ombudsman service.

Apart from dealing with the costs imposed on the company, which total 5 per cent. of its turnover, the secretary has to spend a great deal of time on administration. He sends off all the paperwork to be dealt with by highly paid officials in the FSA, but he finds that his whole life is being dominated by the voluntary service that he has been providing to the bee-keeping community, which I am sure we all recognise and praise.

In a letter, the secretary says: The support and protection of the environment, and particularly the area in which we are involved, is not the prerogative of any one person, industry or authority but we all have responsibility towards it, including for that matter the FSA. He continues:

As a retired man I am prepared to undertake a reasonable amount of work for the benefit of others. In addition to my personal responsibility to my wife, family and grandchildren, I have been a Welfare Visitor for a National Charity for twenty-five years and a Business Mentor for the Princes Youth Business Trust … Unfortunately because of the excessive amount of time this business with the FSA is taking I have had to stop my work as a mentor for the PYBT. However I have previously informed you in writing that in November this year my wife and I will be back-packing around the world for six months which all the young people are doing now. Because of the burden of regulation, that gentleman cannot find anyone who is prepared to take on the voluntary work he does running that important company, Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd. I am not asking the Minister to provide a volunteer to replace that gentleman; I am asking him to create a climate in which it is possible for a volunteer to come forward to work for the good of the bees of this nation, and for its people.

9 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Like the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) I am trying to save a firm in my constituency. I also intend to discuss insurance matters; that is the second of three matters that I intend to raise, all of which have a common theme.

It might be an exaggeration to say this—there are countervailing forces to be taken into account—but it often seems that people are trying to close down my constituency by various different devices, and we have to fight to ensure that firms remain viable and continue to exist. The first item in my speech is an issue that arose two years ago. It is well known to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), as I spoke about it at length in Committee and on the Floor of the House during proceedings on the Enterprise Bill, but it is also relevant to the points I shall make in this debate.

Two years ago, Biwater, a pipe manufacturer in my constituency, was taken over by a multinational company, Saint-Gobain. Biwater was profitable and had good export markets, and Saint-Gobain—to get rid of a competitor—quickly closed the firm, with the loss of 700 jobs. The area has suffered the loss of other manufacturing jobs. There has been a serious impact on Clay Cross in my constituency, where the Biwater works were centred. A once-thriving Saturday market is now much duller, and the pubs and shops are not as full as they once were, and several have closed.

The area is now in need of regeneration. There is plenty of effort and lots of plans, and the local councils and regeneration organisations work hard. A town centre development is in the offing, and a lot of work is being done by the East Midlands development agency and the Government office for the east midlands, but so far only bits and pieces have been put in place. There is an interesting development at Coney Green for small businesses, and some imaginative work has been done, but relatively few people have found employment in the small areas of growth. There is a large-scale plan for development at Markham, a former mining area, which will certainly bring employment and have a good knock-on impact in areas such as Clay Cross, but generally the area needs much more hands-on intervention by the Government, particularly the Department of Trade and Industry.

If there is a place that can be described as Labour's heartland, it is Clay Cross. Way back in 1931, when the Labour party was decimated in the general election, the Clay Cross constituency was held by Labour with a handsome majority. The area has always been a force in the Labour movement and it has produced many people who have been active in their communities and extended and developed their interests. It would be a pity if we did not repay their dedication over so many years. We must become more directly involved in ensuring better provision for the area.

The usual taskforce was sent in at the time of the closure, and various works were done. Some people have picked up jobs here and there, and some have started taxi firms and other operations in the area. However, the non-interventionist approach that is often adopted by the DTI led to the collapse of Biwater in the first place: the Department failed to ensure that the firm was defended, or that the matter was referred to the Competition Commission to try to stop the closure. Government must be more to the fore in the redevelopment programmes in the area.

Now, however, there are two fresh if smaller problems concerning employment in the northern end of the constituency in Eckington. One concerns Moorside Mining—the last underground coal mine in Derbyshire. It is a small mine; only 27 people work underground. It should have an assured future, as it has good order books and has over a period obtained two out of three tranches of state aid, which have helped to turn it round considerably. However, the mine faces immediate closure. Its problem is with obtaining a renewal of insurance for employer's liability, which it is statutorily obliged to hold.

I raised this matter in a debate last Monday under Standing Order No. 24. Shortly afterwards, a deal was done, drawing from the insurance of another company. It looked as if work would be able to continue, and for two shifts the pit went back into production. However, the firm with which the deal was made began to be worried about its renewal, and the deal collapsed. So, from 11 am on Friday, the pit has again been out of production. If it does not receive some cover, production will end entirely and in the end the pit will flood.

The problem with insurance companies is that they have been hiking the level of payments considerably. For instance, the insurance deal under which the firm had been operating temporarily is costing seven times more than just over a year ago. The mine cannot now get insurance through brokers contacting Lloyd's or through other areas at any price; no offer is being made.

The Minister for Energy and Construction is very much involved in these matters. There are arguments that there is a need for universal cover—perhaps for small mines, but perhaps for the whole of the coal industry—but if that cannot be achieved very quickly, a bond or a waiver operated through the Department of Trade and Industry will become increasingly important. We face a crisis, and that is why the matter needs to be dealt with and pressure applied before the summer recess.

The Treasury needs alerting to the matter—something that I have attempted to do. The problems concerning employer liability insurance do not just affect small mines. They may affect the whole mining industry, including quarrying, rail supplies and small-scale manufacturers. The question of the operation of an insurers' ramp needs to be investigated carefully, and appropriate action needs to be taken to overcome it, which may involve the Government playing a role or threatening to involve themselves in order to try to bring insurers into line.

The third point that I want to raise also relates to Eckington, where the Moorside mine is situated. We face the prospect that the Eckington jobcentre will close.

Four years ago, we were involved in a campaign to save it. At the time, there were rationalisation proposals to get rid of five jobcentres, two of which, unfortunately, were in neighbouring parts of north-east Derbyshire. We mobilised a campaign against the threatened closure of the Eckington and Dronfield job centres, including visits to the appropriate Minister.

We won one—we held on to Eckington; but we lost Dronfield. However, we are back to the same situation as regards Eckington, although, the context is different. The current reorganisation is related to the proposals for the Jobcentre Plus programme for Derbyshire, which will involve the closure of the New Mills, Bakewell and Eckington jobcentres.

The Derbyshire unemployed workers centre is greatly involved in the campaign to save the job centre and has christened the proposals "Jobcentre Minus". Jobcentre Plus will amalgamate benefits—apart from pensions—and employment services; that synthesis will ensure that they work together.

In effect, the proposals put flesh on the 1997 new Labour slogan "Off benefits, into work". I always thought that was the wrong way around and it should have been "Into work, off benefits", to show that heavy pressure would not be put on people who were in receipt of benefits. They also fit in with the idea that people should be given a hand up rather than a hand-out.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult and costly for people to use jobcentres in Staveley and Chesterfield instead of Eckington owing to the poor quality of the local bus services. A campaign was launched in Eckington on Friday.

The centre also serves Killamarsh, the very place where Moorside is hoping to produce coal. Given the amount that the Government were able to take from miners pensions funds, it is appropriate that great attention should be paid to the current insurance problems in the mining industry. In the light of the unfortunate experiences at Selby, small mines, such as Moorside, should have assured markets in future. Like Biwaters at Clay Cross, it is a viable firm and should not be closed.

9.13 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I do not want to delay the House for too long. Before we rise on Wednesday for the summer recess, I want to raise two very pressing issues of great importance to my constituents.

The first concerns the perennial problem faced by many Members—the erection of telecommunications masts in residential areas of our constituencies. During the past 14 months, there have been 29 applications in West Chelmsford, most of them in highly residential areas. Tomorrow, there will be an inquiry about an application in the village of Little Waltham, and on Wednesday an inquiry will be held about the decision relating to Linnet drive in a residential area of Chelmsford.

Many of us feared that the planning regime would be too antiquated to cope with the problems following the second wave of telecommunications and the resultant masts that would have to be erected all over the country, especially because—as hon. Members will be aware—masts of less than 15 m do not have to comply with the traditional planning rules that apply to many types of building. My own borough council has robustly reflected the wishes of local residents and has refused applications time and time again, although many of those refusals have been brushed aside on appeal. It is crucial that the Government do more to reform and update the planning regime to empower people so that they have more influence in their local community and more say on what they have, and do not have, to put up with.

The Government, and certainly the Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), would say that they have undertaken reform, as they have revised PPG8. In a recent letter to me, the Under-Secretary said: The general policy is to facilitate the growth of telecommunications systems while protecting the environment. Most of my constituents would certainly agree that the Government's policy facilitates the growth of telecommunications systems but does little to protect the environment outside the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It does not do a great deal to protect the environment of people who live in residential areas in towns and villages.

The Under-Secretary said that on 22 August last year the Government significantly strengthened the planning arrangements for telecommunications development, and listed what had been done. The Government, he said, had strengthened public consultation requirements on mast proposals of 15 metres and below and for masts on buildings and structures so that they are exactly the same as applications for planning permission". Frankly, many of my constituents would turn around and say "big deal", because nothing has changed. The local authority may refuse permission to erect a mast, but more often than not, permission is granted on appeal, so there do not seem many extra powers for local residents to express their views. The Under-Secretary said that the Government had

increased the time for authorities to deal with prior approval applications from 28 and 42 days to a uniform 56 days". Big deal if, in the end, the company gets permission to erect a mast.

Another grave concern for my constituents is the question of whether or not there is a significant impact on individuals' health. The Government's Stewart report cleared the masts of having any impact on health, but other reports do not take such a rosy or cosy view of their health implications. I am not scientifically qualified to determine whether the conclusions of the Stewart report are correct or whether those of other reports are more accurate. However, the perception is that there is a knock-on effect on people's health. The jury is out until there is conclusive scientific evidence that there is not a problem. I urge the Government to err on the side of caution before allowing masts to go up.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that the Stewart report advocated the so-called precautionary principle—in other words, playing safe—and that PPG8 does not allow local authorities to embrace it?

Mr. Burns

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is quite right—the precautionary principle has been brushed aside and PPG8 does not fully take account of conclusions in the Stewart report.

Tomorrow and on Wednesday, many of my constituents will be at the Chelmsford Civic Centre giving their views to the inspector on two inquiries. Sadly, once those inquiries are completed, there are more than a dozen applications pending. They have been submitted to Chelmsford borough council in the last few months, and all are in residential areas. It is a matter of urgency that the Government act to empower people, as we sought to do in our manifesto at the last general election, so that there is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to a significant problem for many of our constituents.

The second issue, which is also pressing, concerns housebuilding in the Chelmsford local authority area. On Wednesday night, Chelmsford borough council, which is a hung council but is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, will take its final decision on its draft structure plan. As I have mentioned before in the House, we have a problem in my constituency and in my local authority area, because we have been told that by 2010 we must build more than 11,000 extra houses, of which a significant number are to be built in my constituency.

It may surprise the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister, but my constituents do not want to see the greenfield sites of West Chelmsford concreted over and becoming one massive sprawl. As I have said on one other occasion in the House, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council will force one of my villages, Boreham, to be totally destroyed, because the council intends to impose 2,000 houses on that village, which currently has only 1,800 houses.

Hon. Members on the Labour Benches, and certainly my hon. Friends, will know better than most people the way in which Liberal Democrats behave. We know from the general election, as we do from other elections, that the Liberal Democrats can walk down a street, meet 30 individuals in 30 different houses and tell them different viewpoints if they think that it will win them a vote. That is their hallmark. We can laugh about it, because we are used to the Liberal Democrats' two-faced approach to politics. It is not such a funny matter to the people of Boreham.

Two years ago this month, a by-election was held in Boreham. It was caused by the retirement of one of the Liberal Democrat councillors who ironically had been the chairman of planning some years before, but who had become so disenchanted with the Liberal Democrats in Chelmsford that he resigned his seat, forcing the by-election. The Liberal Democrats presented their candidate, their leader was wheeled out, photographs were taken for their focus groups, and promises were made to the people of Boreham that the houses would not be dumped on Boreham—it was too important a local community, and a vibrant village that would be destroyed if the houses were dumped on it.

Funnily enough, the Liberal Democrats lost the by-election on a 31 per cent. swing to the Conservatives. A mere five months later, the Liberal Democrat council announced that 2,000 houses were to be built in the village of Boreham. They had promised that they would not do that to the village, but being Liberals, they can do anything. That is what we are faced with: a village destroyed by the swamping of the area with extra housing that the village does not want.

On Wednesday night, the council, with all the Liberal councillors turning up and the promises long forgotten, will vote through the structure plan which they hope will force the houses on to the village. I look forward to the public inquiry next year, when we will seek to get common sense to prevail and the decision overturned.

Given the Deputy Prime Minister's statement last Thursday; given that Chelmsford borders the Stansted corridor which has been identified as a significant area for development; and given that in the south of the county we have the Thames gateway, where the Deputy Prime Minister also identified significant development and housing, what will be the impact on mid-Essex? Two thousand of the houses that it seems we must have in Chelmsford have nothing to do with the anticipated housing needs of Chelmsford. The development is intended to relieve pressures in the south of the county, but if the Thames gateway is to be developed, with substantial housing to sustain that development, could not the 2,000 houses be given back to the Thames gateway instead of being put in an area where they are not needed to fulfil the housing needs arising in the next decade or so?

Finally, in the light of the Deputy Prime Minister's statement, will there be any impact on the timetable for a public inquiry on the structure plan next year? If things are to change because of new developments, especially in the Stansted corridor, what relevance might that have in the Chelmsford and Mid-Essex area and in terms of holding a public inquiry next year, when the proposed approach might be completely thrown out or altered because of changes that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced in the past week?

9.26 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I am pleased to report that Stafford is in good shape. The town is currently ablaze with riotous colour, as flowers abound in baskets and beds because it is going all out to win this year's Britain in Bloom award. It has also just completed another very successful annual festival, whose highlights included open-air Shakespeare at the castle, where Matthew Kelly and Julie-Kate Olivier in "The Taming of the Shrew" played every night to crowded, sell-out audiences. My favourite was the folk dancing in the market square by dancers in traditional folk costume from our Spanish twin town of Tarragona on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with the sun shining out of a perfect blue sky, which must have made them feel very much at home and delighted the audience of Stafford people. At the same time, Staffordshire organised another successful young musician of the year contest, which delighted the audience, including me, who saw some glimpses of the talented artistes of the future. They performed with such skill and poise that I went home that night with great confidence and optimism for the future of a society in which we are bringing up such talented young people.

I should like to mention some concerns about two issues affecting my constituency: education and transport. On education, like several other hon. Members who have spoken, I am angry about a system of allocating central Government money to education that leaves Staffordshire at the bottom of the pile year after year. For several years, I have joined delegations seeking to persuade Ministers to change the system, and I have often been accompanied by my constituent Eunice Finney, a tireless campaigner on the subject, who likes to show the Ministers two school photographs. One of them is of her children, Richard and Amy, and the other is of a friend's children who attend schools in Hertfordshire. She asks Ministers to explain the difference between those smiling pictures of happy and healthy children. To all intents and purposes, they look the same, but she points out the difference in the value that the system places on the children in the schools that they attend. Richard, who attends a primary school in Stafford, is valued at £300 less a year than the child attending the primary school in Hertfordshire. Amy, who attends the secondary school in Stafford, is valued at £360 less a year than the child attending the secondary school in Hertfordshire. In a secondary school of, say, 600 pupils, that adds up to more than £200,000 a year by which a Staffordshire high school is losing out.

That issue is so significant that, when Ofsted recently inspected Staffordshire local education authority, it made a point of mentioning the underfunding of schools in Staffordshire. While many local education authorities have received a pasting from Ofsted about the abysmal state of their education service, Staffordshire received a glowing report, with the exception, I admit, of its special educational needs provision, which needs some attention. The Ofsted inspectors drew attention to the above average academic achievements that are made in Staffordshire while it is underfunded because of the way in which the Government distribute money for education. I know that the Leader of the House has allocated a full day in October for a debate about the Government's proposals to change that system of funding from next April, so I will wait until then to join in that debate.

I want to mention a scheme, which I followed from start from finish, that attempts to tackle bullying in schools in Stafford. It involved four schools and was sponsored by Barclays new futures, and focused on teaching children the skills of co-counselling. That enabled pupils themselves to confront bullying and to bring it out into the open, thereby overcoming it. It has been so successful that the talented teacher who led it, Netta Cartwright, is to promote the practice of co-counselling throughout the schools of Stafford, and hopefully beyond.

When we go off on our recess in two days' time, the busiest time of year begins for the parliamentary education unit as it starts to welcome more senior students from schools around the country for its summer educational programme, which involves Members of Parliament, peers and staff contributing their time to the education of those young students. The staff cope with some 8,000 students every September, while we are away, and they do a tremendous job. If we return to sit in future Septembers, we must give careful thought to how that successful education programme can continue at the same time. During the times at which we are sitting, the parliamentary education unit engages in teacher seminars, pupil parliaments, Wednesday visits for 12 to 14-year-olds and citizenship visits. On that last point, the Government have ordained that from this September all our secondary schools will teach citizenship as a curriculum subject—a move that I applaud. I hope that when hon. Members return from their summer holidays, I will be in a position to deliver to each of them a pack to help them to cope with the inquiries that they will receive from teachers in their constituencies asking for their help in teaching that new subject. I hope that that will be of assistance.

Turning to transport, the big story in Stafford at the moment is the way in which passengers are being treated by the national bus company, Arriva, which has a monopoly of services in the town. For the second time in two years, at short notice, it has made major changes to services, almost completely depriving elderly residents in Gravel lane of a service; depriving the elderly residents of Trent close of all services; upsetting all the Highfields residents who have to walk further to catch a bus and can no longer use it to go to their doctors' surgery; and upsetting all the Coton fields residents by rebadging their bus and sending it down streets about which nobody knows, so they cannot catch it. I recently received a petition carrying 139 signatures about the disappearance of the bus stop at the back of Marks and Spencer. I wish that the company would pay more attention to its passengers so that I did not have to receive that kind of attention from my constituents. Following those complaints, I tabled early-day motion 1405, which has so far attracted the support of 72 hon. Members, to draw attention to the great amounts of public money that bus companies receive through fuel duty rebates, concessionary fares and direct subsidies, and asking whether that money does not at least entitle us to a quality, comprehensive and accountable bus service from those companies.

The subject of transport brings me to the west coast main line, which is a very important transport link for Stafford and beyond. Today's news that £100 million has been paid to Virgin Trains out of public money is a stark exposure of what was wrong with Railtrack, the company that was supposed to be running our railway network. It promised in a binding agreement to upgrade the west coast main line for Virgin Trains so that it could take trains running at 140 mph. On the basis of that agreement, the company spent more than £1 billion on the new Pendolino trains. Now we learn that Railtrack was unable to complete the upgrade, and I cannot foresee when trains will be able to run at 140 mph on that line.

On the subject of railway companies that do not keep their promises, Stafford railway station was promised an upgrade for years. The two councils—borough and county—carried out their side of the bargain by improving the environment outside the station and moving bus stops next to it to provide integrated transport, but Railtrack has not completed the passenger lifts that it promised and Virgin Trains has not completed the foyer refurbishment or building of the car park that it promised. I have now arranged for representatives of the Strategic Rail Authority to come to Stafford and face local passengers, and to explain how the rail companies can expect to increase passenger numbers on trains when they cannot deliver the services that they promise to the public.

Looking to the future, I want to say a few sentences about renewable energy sources, and about Stafford's contribution to them. With a history in the power industry going back more than 100 years, Stafford is well placed to play its part in promoting renewable energy. Some hope came to manufacturing industry and farms in Stafford at the county show this year. when I was privileged to launch a new scheme for energy crops that would involve 20 farmers growing miscanthus, or elephant grass, for burning and conversion into electricity to sell to the national grid. That is very much a way forward for manufacturing and farming in many areas such as Stafford, and I hope that many hon. Members will consider it for their areas, too.

9.36 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I suppose I could say that it is a blooming pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I wish him and Stafford great success in the Britain in Bloom competition. I agree with his remarks about the House of Commons education unit, which does absolutely first-class work, and I hope that all hon. Members will try to give at least one day to the unit to help it with the education programme for children who come into this place from all over the country, and who, I believe, thoroughly enjoy what is often their first glimpse of our parliamentary system.

Before we go into recess, I would like to raise a few issues about my constituency of Chesham and Amersham, which is a pleasant and, indeed, highly desirable place to live. Non-residents sometimes perceive it as an area without problems, but we all know that things are not often as they first appear. Indeed, I wonder whether it is because the Government seem so obsessed with appearances rather than fundamental facts that they appear determined to starve my constituency and others in Buckinghamshire of resources, and to ignore the wishes of local people. Their policies, which result in financial deprivation, are now beginning to ride roughshod over the area, and are affecting the quality of life of my constituents in many ways.

I am not sure what we in Chesham and Amersham have done to the Deputy Prime Minister, but he seems to have it in for us. I hope to illustrate that tonight. At county level, the planning reforms trumpeted by the right hon. Gentleman have been greeted with dismay and disbelief. The proposals have been widely criticised by respondents to the Government's own consultation, with 90 per cent. opposing the abolition of county structure plans, and 88 per cent. rejecting a proposal to replace structure and local plans with a new local development framework.

Local decision making in Bucks is going to be significantly reduced, and there is now a great deal of uncertainty over future development in the county. The despair felt by my councillors can hardly be expressed, and our cabinet member for planning and transportation, Councillor Rodney Royston, is urging the Government to rethink their plans, and not to rush through ill-conceived proposals that have no widespread support. This is just the latest blow to our hard-pressed county council, which is facing growing burdens on its social services budget—not to mention problems in education—and which has been demoralised, not least by the restructuring forced on it by the Government's reforms.

The cabinet system of portfolio holders means that the roles of ordinary back-bench councillors are vastly diminished—so much so that their roles are marginalised while an unbelievably heavy burden falls on the portfolio holders. I actually think that the Government's ultimate aim is to get rid of county councils, but they appear quite willing to kill off some of the councillors in the process. Unless something is done about this structure, we shall face meltdown not only in my county council but in others as well.

The situation is much the same for district councils. Chiltern district council is one of the six local authorities that receive no revenue support grant from central Government. All that it receives is a refund of some of the national non-domestic rate. The leader of the council, Don Phillips, has pointed out that the revenue support grant and national non-domestic rate grant will be replaced by a formula-based grant. Chiltern starts with a disadvantage, because it does not receive revenue support grant. It seeks a compensatory payment to put it on the same footing as the vast majority of district councils. Councillor Phillips has described the new arrangements as "unjust and inequitable", and they will certainly impinge on council tax payers in Chesham and Amersham.

The local government settlement for 2002–03 continued the discrimination against shire district councils. Buckinghamshire county council's revenue support grant fails to acknowledge the level of spending required to support social services and, in particular, care for the elderly. It was hoped that reparations might be made in the proposals for future local government funding, but that has not happened. Proposals were made recently by—yes, again, the Deputy Prime Minister. It looks as if, rather than a recognition of the needs of shire counties such as Buckinghamshire. there will be an outflow of funds to other less prudently run authorities, whether in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Can that possibly be right? Council tax payers in my constituency should not be expected to shore up inefficient authorities, whether near or far.

There is a lack of funding in Buckinghamshire which needs to be redressed. It can be illustrated by an incident at Chalfont St Peter at a time when residents were looking forward to celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee. A contingent of travellers pitched camp in the village on Monday 3 June, and mayhem ensued. The police estimated that at any one time there were 30 to 40 vehicles with trailers and other equipment. The behaviour of the travellers—I regret to say that it was often children under 10 who behaved in an antisocial fashion, with no supervision by their elders—led to the logging of more than 60 complaints with the local police. Complaints about criminal damage, harassment and acts of vandalism were coupled with a disturbing list of allegations of physical assaults—including one sexual assault—and revolting behaviour such as public defecation, urination and indecent exposure.

No community should be expected to put up with behaviour of that kind, but the mechanism enabling the travellers to be moved on could not be put into action because public offices were closed for the bank holidays. The police, too, were hampered by a lack of resources over the holiday period. It was Wednesday 12 June before the county council could enact its eviction order.

I welcome what the Home Secretary has said about refusing to allow behaviour by travellers that would not be tolerated in other sections of the community. That is fair. Indeed, the local police sector commander has acknowledged publicly that there must be a good level of support from the police when such incidents occur. Incursion by travellers will be dealt with robustly. Funding for the police, however, is tied in with funding for local government, and, as we know, Buckinghamshire has been systematically starved of central Government support.

While I welcome the Home Secretary's approach, I want it to be backed up with hard cash for police forces such as the Thames Valley force so that when such incidents take place their hands are not tied by a lack of resources. Perhaps the Home Secretary should consider the impounding of vehicles if travellers do not leave any site promptly. Perhaps he will consult—yes, the Deputy Prime Minister. He has published the details of a new approach to tackling illegal encampments, and new guidance is promised for the autumn, but we shall have to wait until then, and yet again there is no extra money for the tackling of those illegal encampments.

It should not be forgotten that it cost £9,000 to clear up after the incursion. The impact on businesses is hard to calculate, but the events of that week will form part of residents' memories of what should have been a peaceful celebration.

Perhaps we would have a better chance of dealing with such incursions, and with other criminal and antisocial activities, if we had the requisite number of policemen in the Thames Valley area. At present we face growing problems, with little real recognition or action from the Government. Admittedly the incidence of burglary and robbery has fallen in the Chiltern area, but the number of car crimes has increased in the past year, as has the number of sexual offences. So many officers are now leaving the force that my local newspaper, The Bucks Examiner, reported this week that our chief constable is calling for the introduction of a £10,000 transfer fee. Other forces would have to compensate Thames Valley when officers transferred. Even if that bright idea were accepted by the Home Secretary, it would be too late for one of the great backbones of law and order in my constituency: the special constable.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in the Thames valley, we have lost so many police constables and there is such a recruitment crisis that the chief constable estimates that within 12 months one out of every two police officers will be a probationer?

Mrs. Gillan

I am familiar with that and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

We are facing a sad situation in the Thames valley. In 1997, when the Government took office, we had 694 specials in the Thames Valley constabulary. A written answer on Friday to a question that I tabled said that, today, the number stands at a miserly 377. The Government should be ashamed that they have presided over such a decline in a key element of our policing. How on earth will the Government prevent the haemorrhaging of special constables in the Thames valley and in other areas?

I pay tribute to the police in Chesham and Amersham, who are doing a fantastic job in trying circumstances. We all think a great deal of them. As the editorial in the Bucks Free Press said this week: we need to make sure police are responding to low level crime and disorder … we have every confidence our police can do it provided they are given the manpower. We need a police force that is manned to its full strength to ensure that my constituents are allowed to live in peace.

My constituents strongly value the peaceful enjoyment of their homes. I was particularly pleased when I was recently asked to open purpose-built housing for workers at Amersham hospital. I hope that the people who have moved in will enjoy living in Amersham. Indeed, I welcome them particularly as neighbours; they live just down the road from me.

The Government are concerned with housing and housing for key workers, but while they have been focusing on that they have slipped out something else. My constituents are very concerned about one of the ideas being floated by Downing street: a stamp duty on property that would increase the longer the family had lived in the home. The idea, a chief economist at the Department of Health told The Daily Telegraph on 9 July, is to encourage people to move around". As one of my constituents in Amersham put it, she had always understood that even in the Soviet Union one had to commit a crime before the state drove an individual into exile. [Interruption.] The Minister is laughing but I think that he understands that that is a daft Downing street dodge that would undermine the strong communities in my constituency. Rather like the mean-spirited child in the playground who sees another child with a toy he envies, the instinct is not to steal the possession but to smash it up. It is the strong communities in Chesham, Amersham, the Chalfont villages, Hazlemere, Penn and Jordans whose quality of life this Government are breaking down.

I hope that I have voiced some of the issues we face in Chesham and Amersham this summer, although there are many more: care home shortages, pension shortfalls, burdens on schools and teachers, teacher shortages, bed blocking, transport chaos and disastrous rural policies to name but a few. They all add up to an attack on my constituents quite unprecedented in previous years.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

It is such a deprived area.

Mrs. Gillan

You may mock but we do have deprived areas in Chesham and Amersham. I invite you to visit Pond Park.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would like to visit the hon. Lady's constituency but I am keen to get back to Springburn on Wednesday.

Mrs. Gillan

Mr. Speaker, you are always welcome to go back to Springburn via Chesham and Amersham.

All these measures add up to an unprecedented attack on my constituents. They are paying much more in stealth taxes and now they are getting much less. Let us face it: they contribute so much to our society that surely they deserve some respite from the relentless march of this over-regulating, over-taxing and under-performing Government.

I am sure, because he is very good at it, that the Minister will give the usual smooth answers in a speech honed by spin doctors, but as I said, we in Buckinghamshire are not taken in by appearances, and only real solutions will do. I hope that he will provide some tonight.

9.50 pm
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). I would like to see the real facts and figures on investment in police, the health service and social services in her constituency. I fully appreciate that there are pressures, as there are in many areas, but there is no question but that there has been huge additional investment in social services, for example, with a real terms increase to date of 3.3 per cent. a year under this Government, compared with 0.1 per cent. under the Tories—and it will be up to 6 per cent. over the next three years.

Mrs. Gillan

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has chosen to start her speech by attacking me. The figures for the reduction in special constables are from a parliamentary answer that the Home Office gave on Friday, and they are a disgrace.

Ms Drown

I do not question those figures, but I would be interested in the figures for investment in criminal justice as a whole in the hon. Lady's constituency, as well as the wider investment in health, social services and education. The Government's record across the board shows that they are investing significantly more than the Tories did. That cannot be questioned, just as I do not question the pressures that exist in her constituency and others throughout the country.

I want to refer to bids for Home Office action in the Gracious Speech, following serious concerns that have been brought to me by constituents. In proceedings on the Police Reform Bill I raised the question of being able to impose antisocial behaviour orders in county courts as well as magistrates courts for behaviour associated with prostitution. I was pleased that there was cross-party support for that. I appreciate the fact that the Government did not want to respond, because antisocial behaviour orders are very new and more guidance is to be issued, but I hope that they will keep the matter under consideration and, if it is seen to be necessary, introduce the changes soon. Antisocial behaviour associated with prostitution blights the quality of life of many of my constituents, especially in central Swindon, and they see this as a possible solution.

Last week, I introduced a ten-minute Bill on rape reform that was well supported in the House. It is essential to get the current laws on consent, which mean that many rapists still walk free from our courts every year, off the statute book.

Home Office action is also needed on fireworks, a subject about which I get an increasing number of letters. People are worried about the increasing number of fireworks being discharged and the dangers that they pose to people and animals. The initial response to a survey that I am conducting makes it clear that the majority of people want public firework displays to be controlled only by qualified people. They want fireworks to be allowed only at certain times of the day and sold only at certain times of the year. Current legislation does not give the authorities enough powers to deal with fireworks.

There is another matter that is increasingly raised in the House and that crops up repeatedly in my postbag and at constituency advice surgeries. The increasing number of incidents involving airguns and replica guns is an issue that has been raised in this House before, but it deserves to be raised again because such guns are causing an increasing number of injuries to animals and people. In South Swindon in the past 12 months, there have been 80 incidents involving the use of ball-bearing guns and replica guns, 36 of which involved shootings at people or at animals. Shots have also been fired at vehicles, houses and shops, there have been threats to kill, and three robberies were committed using such guns. In one case, a nine-year-old boy was shot at by teenagers. It is clear that a real problem exists, and something must be done to address it.

The Government banned handguns in 1997, but it is clear that far too many are still in circulation. Indeed, the number of incidents involving handguns has increased, which shows that more action must be taken to get them out of circulation. However, in doing so, we must ensure that the problems to which they give rise are not repeated—and that the good work is not undermined—through the proliferation of airguns, ball-bearing guns and replica guns.

People in South Swindon have made it clear to me that they want this problem to be addressed. I have heard from bus drivers who have been threatened with such guns, and I have received many letters from concerned people. They are concerned either because they have already experienced suffering as a result of such guns, or because they are scared of doing so. Police officers have visited my local surgeries and called for a ban on these weapons, not only because they have front-line experience in dealing with such attacks and the associated problems, but because they are genuinely concerned that, one day, someone will get hurt by the police themselves. The police might have to decide to take action because they cannot distinguish between a replica gun or a ball-bearing gun, and the real thing.

It is police officers in particular who have told me about the escalation in gun-related incidents, albeit involving ball-bearing or replica guns. That escalation is placing a huge demand on our specialist firearm officers. Toys and hobbies involving ball-bearing and replica guns put the police in an impossible position. Too often, they are unable to tell whether they are confronted with an airgun, a replica gun or the real thing. At some point, to protect others, an armed response unit will have to consider shooting someone who is carrying a gun, and the result could be a tragedy. For example, an armed response unit was called out in Swindon after two boys threatened passers-by with an air pistol. The unit had to make a difficult judgment as to whether it was a ball-bearing gun, or the real thing. I do not want a child or adult to be shot, only to find out later that they were merely playing, but that is getting very close to happening.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there have already been several cases of people being shot? In a recent incident, a man carrying a table leg in a plastic bag was killed because it appeared to the officers concerned that he was carrying a deadly weapon.

Ms Drown

I am very aware of those incidents, which show the huge dangers that we need to address. Such guns should not be regarded as toys or as some form of hobby; they are very dangerous, and they put the public at risk.

There are several different measures that the Government could adopt. Countries such as France and Belgium have banned uncertified look-alikes and toys, and have demanded that airguns be suitably differentiated from the real thing. That would certainly reduce the chance of a fatal accident involving the police, and it would minimise the use of such guns in robberies. However, it would not address the other problem: the injuries that such weapons can—and do—inflict on our constituents by being legally and freely available. The Government should listen to the Association of Chief Police Officers, which says: The police view the availability of replica and imitation firearms as a real risk to public safety … The police believe these weapons should be subject to strict controls or banned. I concur with that view, and I hope that the Minister will pass on to his colleagues the views of my constituents and the many others throughout the country who want an end to the availability of these dangerous weapons.

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