HC Deb 26 March 2002 vol 382 cc724-98

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

1.37 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This Easter, an innocent man—innocent of the monstrous crime that he has been found guilty of committing—languishes in Barlinnie prison in Glasgow. His name is Abdel Basset Al Megrahi. Before Parliament rises, the House ought to get an undertaking that the British Government—yes, the British Government—and not a highly controversial, devolved Crown Office in Edinburgh, will address certain questions.

Our country's relations with the Arab world have not been devolved to a Scottish Parliament, where, perhaps for understandable reasons, not one of the 129 Members has been prepared to take a sustained, in-depth view of the Lockerbie case.

Now that the appeal is over, what steps are being taken to preserve the productions amassed by the Crown for use in the Lockerbie trial? Can an assurance be given that they will not be destroyed in the same way as certain police note books have apparently been destroyed?

In particular, the British Government have a duty to look at the statement of my former constituent—she is at present a constituent of the Leader of the House—former Woman Police Constable Mary Boylan, a thoroughly credible retired police constable. She states: Towards the latter part of 1999, I was asked to attend at Dumfries Police Station, to give a statement to the Procurator Fiscal regarding my duties at Lockerbie. Almost eleven years had elapsed since the disaster, so I phoned 'F' Divisional HQ at Livingston Police Station to request my notebook to refresh my memory. I was told that someone would be in touch with me, and after a few days I was informed that my notebook could not be found. Shortly after this I read in a Scottish broadsheet that Lothian and Borders Police notebooks had been destroyed. Who gave the instruction for the destruction of notebooks? After all, this was the biggest unresolved murder trial in Scottish legal history. The answer to that question is likely to be found not in Edinburgh, but in London.

I have known and worked closely with the following distinguished police officers as heads of F Division covering West Lothian: David Garbutt, Tom Wood, David Mitchell, Kenneth Mackenzie, Gordon Munro and Allan Shanks. I have also worked with the chief constables of Lothian and Borders police: Sir William Sutherland QPM between 1983 and 1996, and Sir Roy Cameron QPM between 1996 and 2002. I simply do not believe that any one of them, off their own bat, would have allowed, for reasons of routine and storage space, the destruction of notebooks relating to the biggest murder trial in Scottish history.

Mary Boylan, the ex-police constable, states: A short time later, while searching in field F72"— this happened on 28 December 1988— I recovered the handle and rim of a brown coloured suitcase (Production Label No. unknown to me). This was entered in my notebook. PC Forrest corroborated the find and signed my notebook and production label. Her statement continues: Towards the latter part of 1999 … On attendance at Dumfries Police Station I was asked to describe some of the debris from memory. I was then shown the suitcase rim with handle I had found and was asked to identify it, which I did. The Production Label with my signature and that of PC Forrest, and of others whom I did not know, was still attached. A photograph was then shown to me of the said suitcase rim I had found, plus other pieces of the suitcase material. I recognised the rim but not the material. I asked the Fiscal about the significance of the suitcase and he said he could not tell me. What he did say was that the owner of said suitcase was a Joseph Patrick Curry and that I would be hearing and reading a lot about him at the time of the trial. Mary Boylan continues: After giving my statement I left Dumfries and drove to Lockerbie's Garden of Remembrance to pay my respects. I noticed a brass plaque there with the inscription 'Joseph Patrick Curry, Captain US Army Special Forces. Killed in the line of duty'. He is also remembered at the Arlington cemetery and, I believe, in the Pentagon.

In 1989, Police Constable Boylan was informed by a colleague that the suitcase belonging to Curry was that which contained the bomb that blew up Pan Am 103. That is what she says. I want to know who will verify the statement and show whether it is true or false. If the bomb was in Curry's suitcase, Mr. Megrahi is hardly likely to be guilty. There is a whole literature on this subject—one almost needs to be a professor of Lockerbie studies—and it would be inappropriate and selfish to take up more of the House's time to go into the matter, but these questions must be addressed.

It has been said that eight Scottish judges cannot possibly be wrong. I draw to the House's attention the conclusion of the Appeal Court's ruling, which some of us have read very carefully. At paragraph 369, Lord Cullen and his colleagues state: When opening the case for the appellant before this court Mr Taylor stated that the appeal was not about sufficiency of evidence: he accepted that there was a sufficiency of evidence"— "he" being William Taylor QC. The paragraph continues: He also stated that he was not seeking to found on section 106(3)(b) of the 1995 Act. His position was that the trial court had misdirected itself in various respects. Accordingly in this appeal we"— Lord Cullen and his colleagues— have not required to consider whether the evidence before the trial court, apart from the evidence which it rejected, was sufficient as a matter of law to entitle it to convict the appellant on the basis set out in its judgment. We have not had to consider whether the verdict of guilty was one which no reasonable trial court, properly directing itself, could have returned in the light of that evidence. As can be seen from this Opinion, the grounds of appeal before us have been concerned, for the most part, with complaints about the treatment by the trial court of the material which was before it and the submissions which were made to it by the defence. That is an extremely careful statement, as one would expect of Lord Cullen and his colleague judges. It does not go into the detail of the matters that were before the trial court at Zeist.

These are complex matters, and it would be wrong and absurd of me to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to respond off the top of his head. All I ask is that these extremely serious matters be taken on board by the Government in London, not just passed over to the Crown Office in Edinburgh. I ask for careful reflection on what I have said and proposed, and for a response in the fullness of time.

1.47 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I apologise in advance to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Previously, at the end of Adjournment debates prior to a recess, I have been called before Members on the other two Front Benches to respond on behalf of my colleagues to hon. Members' contributions. I have enjoyed doing so and felt that it was a valuable contribution to the general debate. However, I was informed this morning that that would not be possible today. I do not know the explanation for that change of attitude, so I have to speak when I am called—which is now.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

The hon. Gentleman is getting very close to questioning the order in which the Chair calls Members to speak. I think that he should get on with the points that he wants to make.

Mr. Tyler

That is precisely my intention. Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The situation does, however, give me an opportunity to ride a couple of important hobbyhorses of my own. Since my re-election to the House in 1992, I have been chairman of an all-party group concerned with organophosphate pesticides. Several hon. Members have been generous with their time and expertise in supporting the work that we have done, in co-operation with successive Ministers, to try to ensure that such pesticides are properly assessed, that appropriate warnings are given to the people who use them, and that anything remiss in the way those people have been treated in the past is rectified with proper examination, proper research and, if possible, some redress for those who have been so badly affected by their use.

In that capacity, the all-party group had a meeting yesterday with the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who has been meticulous—both in opposition and in government—in the care with which he has dealt with this issue, and generous with his time. I give him and his colleagues credit for the work that has been done to expand the research field, and to ensure that increased emphasis is put on the preventive principle. I should also like to give credit to the former Agriculture Minister, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), as she is in the House at the moment. She, too, played a proactive role on this issue, and I know that she has a constituency interest in it which will have informed her attitude.

The reason I mention this is that, unbeknown to us yesterday—and, I suspect, to the Minister—the Food Standards Agency was to issue an extraordinary piece of advice today. It seems to have been forced to disclose its change of attitude by an item on the news this morning from Friends of the Earth. This matter calls into question the expertise available to the Government, and the extent to which the Government's advisers are influenced by the commercial considerations of some of the largest chemical companies in the world.

In a statement that seems to have been forced out of it today, rather than voluntarily given to the media, the Food Standards Agency has concluded that washing fruit and vegetables is not required as a protection against pesticide residues. The agency was, apparently, worried that some consumers were being put off eating fruit and vegetables by the previous advice that they had been given; and it has therefore decided that it is perfectly easy, proper and safe not to wash or peel vegetables.

The extraordinary thing about this is that it became increasingly apparent from our discussions with the Minister yesterday—and, indeed, over many months—that the body of research evidence is far from conclusive on these issues. There is nothing in the agency's statement today to illustrate any change in the research basis for its advice. It would appear that the advice has been changed only because pressure has been brought to bear by commercial interests, not because of any change in the research base.

At our meeting yesterday, the Minister acknowledged that there was a body of scientific and medical opinion which continued to raise real concerns about the use of these pesticides, and in particular about children's exposure to them.

As recently as 15 February, in a letter sent to interested parties, the Food Standards Agency said of the action it was taking on the risk assessment of the pesticides: This followed concerns of a 'cocktail effect', particularly when potentially contaminated foods were to be consumed by children. Furthermore the impact of multiple residues of pesticides with similar toxic actions had been considered in the USA, under the Food Quality Protection Act. The letter—written on 15 February, just over a month ago—went on to set out in detail further anxieties on the matter, making reference to a whole number of research projects that are in hand, and to the way in which the results of that research programme could be assessed internationally.

The decision to issue the revised advice today is extraordinary, because it does not appear to take account of any of the research already seen to be extremely relevant to the issue, and which, in many cases, is not due for completion for months, or even years. Furthermore, other research projects now coming to fruition raise new concerns about the issue. The precautionary principle that scientists increasingly accept is a good start, and represents a good basis for their advice to Ministers. I understand from my discussions with Ministers that it is one that they accept as the proper starting position for any responsible Administration. It is, however, effectively being discarded as a result of this new advice.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The hon. Gentleman will know that I share many of the concerns that he is expressing today. As a former Minister who was obliged to advise the public about the preparation of vegetables, I have two points to make.

First, on the grounds of food hygiene—I say this as a former home economist—washing fruit and vegetables is a requirement anyway. Secondly, in the case of carrots, the evidence is clear that the top of the carrot—if it is sprayed with a substance that has an organophosphate base—absorbs far more than the rest of the carrot. Therefore, topping and tailing the carrots is sound, practical advice. I am astonished that there is no scientific verification or endorsement for the advice that is now being given to the public.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There were great hopes on both sides of the House that the Food Standards Agency would provide independent advice to Ministers that was clear of all commercial considerations. However, I think that she will agree that serious questions have been raised about the practicality of the advice given by the Food Standards Agency and the basis on which it is supporting that advice. Real concern is shared on both sides of the House that, after many food scares, we must be absolutely confident that Ministers have access to the best possible advice.

As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is a former Minister, she will agree that it is extraordinary that, at a meeting yesterday, Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—food is in its title, for goodness' sake—were apparently totally unaware of the U-turn by official advisers. I accept that the agency also has a relationship with the Department of Health, but if we have joined-up Government, surely Ministers with responsibilities for the environment and food should have been aware that a Government agency was about to change its mind.

This development has occurred at the very time when there are even more concerns about the way in which organophosphates have affected different people. Last week, I spent some time with the Gulf war veterans group, which is organised by the Royal British Legion and of which I am a corresponding member, in common with other Members of Parliament. There is increasing evidence that at least one of the possible triggers of so-called Gulf war syndrome is extensive exposure, as we subsequently discovered, to organophosphate pesticides. Work that has been undertaken in the United States points to that, too. I am seeking to pursue that matter with appropriate Ministers.

A few weeks ago, a preliminary report from yet another research group was published in The Lancet. It indicated that there may be a genetic propensity to the serious ill health that is associated with organophosphates.

Ministers and their advisers should not have been relaxing their guard; they should have been doing precisely the opposite. If the preventive principle means anything, this is a classic case where it should be applied. In layman's terms, that principle is, "If in doubt, don't." That is certainly not the current approach.

I had not intended to speak on this issue at all this morning. It was only because of the sudden appearance of the statement from the Food Standards Agency that I have done so. I had different speaking notes in my back pocket, and I now want to refer briefly to the issue of value added tax on church repairs and conservation work.

Hon. Members of all parties have shared anxiety about this issue over the years, not just because of the organisations concerned but because of this country's great historical heritage of churches, chapels and other places of worship. It was a nonsense and an anomaly that when VAT was first imposed by the previous Government, they insisted that repairs to buildings of all sorts—and particularly to those buildings—should be subject to that extra surcharge. In a way, that was against the spirit of an age in which we seek to conserve buildings of historic and architectural value. The measure did the reverse: it encouraged people to pull those buildings down and build new ones, which was nonsensical.

I recall that the then Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), made a spirited but totally absurd defence of the imposition of VAT on church repairs and conservation work. Thank goodness that the general view in the House in more recent years has been that that is an anomaly and that it should be corrected. The current Chancellor decided, 18 months ago, that action should be taken. Hon. Members will recall that the Chancellor indicated that he would seek to reduce VAT to the minimum level. Of course, that is impossible in the short term. As a result a few months later—in 2001—he introduced what was referred to subsequently as the listed places of worship grant scheme.

The last thing that I want to do is express to the Minister—he will be communicating with the Treasury—any regrets that the Chancellor introduced the scheme. However, we all recognise that it was a second best and that it is immensely cumbersome. It causes a great deal of administrative inconvenience. It would have been much better if VAT had not been imposed in the first place, and we know that we cannot remove it in the short term because of the agreement that previous Governments struck with the European Union Commission and our EU partners. Nevertheless the scheme is burdensome and creates administrative problems for those responsible for churches and chapels.

I appeal to the Minister to make urgent representations to the Chancellor so that all concerned—not just Members of the House—receive a careful explanation of how the scheme operates now and how it can be simplified to improve its efficacy. It is extremely inconvenient and it is not easy to work through. I shall not describe all the details for reasons of time, but it is significant that it was left to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who answers for the Church Commissioners, to try to explain how the system works. Surely, at the very least, the Treasury and the Chancellor should explain how it operates. The scheme does not apply just to the Church of England, so it was anomalous that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who happens to be a Member of the House, should try to explain what happened in the past, how the scheme operates at the moment and how those responsible for churches and chapels can access it.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that a question on this issue that I tabled to the Chancellor was not answered by his Department, but was referred to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? I am still awaiting a reply.

Mr. Tyler

That does not surprise me in the least. My hon. Friend touches on a subject that I would like to discuss again, but we had a debate in Westminster Hall last week on the way in which Ministers tend to juggle questions for their own convenience rather than the convenience of the House.

To give an idea of the scale of the problem, the hon. Gentleman answering for the Church Commissioners said that the total cost of repair work in the Church of England amounts to £120 million"— I take that to be an annual figure, but it seems incredible—and that the VAT on listed building work is about £10 million."—[Official Report, 21 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 614.] Those are quite large sums, and other denominations face a similar problem.

I appeal to the Minister to ask appropriate colleagues, by whatever means may be most convenient and speedy, to give us all guidance on how the schemes operates, to try to find a simpler way for those applying for grant support to obtain it, and to give us a clear undertaking about what will happen next. This is an interim scheme for the transitional period until it is possible to review the whole VAT scheme, and that cannot be before 2003–04, or perhaps even later. In those circumstances, those directly involved with the repair and conservation of historic churches and other buildings and those who represent them in the House feel that this is an important issue.

I have campaigned on this issue for years and, last year, when I tried to impress upon the Chancellor the urgency of the matter, I received more letters on this subject than on any other, including even cruelty to children or cruelty to foxes. I hope that that fact alone will persuade the Minister that the issue is of some importance. I suspect that he, too, has received a similar volume of correspondence.

2.4 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise some thoughts on local government before the House rises for Easter. Like many hon. Members, I served on borough and county councils before I was elected to this place. I first became involved in electoral politics 40 years ago when, I am pleased to say, I was still too young to vote. Several fundamental changes have taken place since then.

The fall in turnout at local elections exercises the minds of people both nationally and locally. When I first campaigned in the early 1960s in Southend-on-Sea, turnout was normally 50 per cent. It was poor if it was 40 per cent., and it often reached 60 per cent. However, over the years, turnout has gone down and down. Last Thursday, there was an election in my division of Braintree Central—I cannot resist adding that there has been a 4 per cent. swing to Labour since the general election—but the crucial point for my argument is that the turnout was only 21 per cent., which would have been unbelievable 30 or 40 years ago.

The only year that I can think of when the general trend was not followed was 1990, after the poll tax legislation. Some people thought that it was marvellous legislation, but others took a different view. Consequently, the local elections in 1990, in effect, performed the function of a referendum on the merits of the poll tax. In some ways, that was unfair because local authorities had no power to decide whether to have the poll tax, but electors saw a clear and divisive issue on which they could make a judgment, and responded accordingly.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Although he might be right to suggest that the elections in 1990 were a referendum on the poll tax, another possible interpretation is that people took more interest in what local authorities were doing because they had to pay for their services. One problem with the council tax is that it has reduced the number of people who actually pay for the services.

Mr. Hurst

I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the purpose of my remarks is to stimulate thought on why local government prowess has declined over such a long period.

I was first elected to the borough council in Southend-on-Sea in 1980 and I served on the airport committee and the bus or transportation committee. The borough owned an airport and ran its own bus services. I could speak to those who had served on those committees before me, and I could see the minute book for the Shoeburyness urban district council's gas works committee. Shoeburyness owned its own gas works, and I could also speak to those who served on Braintree rural district council, which owned its own water works.

By the late 1970s, a whole range of municipal enterprises, including electricity supplies, were in their final phases and had passed the more glorious stages of their development. However, if there was something wrong with our water supply, we could speak to Councillor Jones or Councillor Smith. If the gas service was defective, we would see Mrs. Brown, the local councillor on the relevant committee. There was an immediate connection between the voters and the supply of public services. Those we elected sat on the committees that could make changes.

These days, the problems are at their worst with bus services. When I served on the bus committee, I would be asked, "Why does the bus not stop at the top of Acacia drive?" Now, I can make representations to the local private bus undertaking in a town distant from the one that I represent, and it will provide me with many arguments. The main one is that it is uneconomic to provide such a service. I am sure, however, that the private undertaking thinks, "If we withdraw a service, the Government will come along with a subsidy to reinstate it." Because we have moved away from democratic local control, there is not the pressure on those providing services to respond to the wishes of the people in the localities that they serve.

There has also been a decline in the number of councils employing their own labour force. I entered municipal politics when that was a hot issue. Indeed, the borough of Southend had the great claim to fame that it privatised refuse collection in 1980. However, it is significant that it did not privatise anything else after that. The then Conservative leader of the council, Norman Clarke—he is still with us, but not as a member of the council—told me that privatisation might have been right in that case, but the ultimate advantage of a council having a direct labour work force is that they are accountable to the council. With contracts, councils have no day-to-day supervisory role and can judge only whether to renew them. By its very nature, that process could well diminish local councils' effectiveness and responsiveness.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Southend borough council, but will he consider unitary authorities, of which Southend is now one? Does he think that such authorities constitute a way to reconnect local people with councils and councillors, and will he comment on the fact that the council tax levied by Conservative-controlled Southend council for a band D property is just over £700, whereas Labour-controlled Castle Point council charges well in excess of £1,000 for the same category of property?

Mr. Hurst

It would be discourteous to other hon. Members to debate unitary authorities as such. I strongly opposed them when I served on Southend borough council and the county council. My purpose is not to argue that one form of council is better than another, but that we should consider the crucial reason why the influence of councils has declined. We have sought to change councils many times in the past 25 years, but without making a fundamental difference to the electorate's participation in local government.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

One other attitude is important. Has my hon. Friend noticed a change in reporting of what happens in council chambers since he and I served in local government? Virtually no reference is now made in my local papers to the work of the council; indeed, only pejorative references are made. Is it not clear that, if people do not know what councils are doing—other than through receiving political propaganda—they may fail to make any connection with their elected representatives?

Mr. Hurst

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I recollect when local papers would report almost word for word what councillors said. To read such verbatim accounts, electors must have had a high boredom threshold. Nevertheless, such accounts enabled people to ascertain what took place in local authorities, unlike the "crash" headlines that tell readers very little.

The rise of compulsory competitive tendering, which was introduced apace in the 1980s, followed fast on the decline of municipal enterprise and direct labour forces and sounded their death knell. There may or may not be an argument in favour of compulsory competitive tendering, but we should remember that, when a local authority bid for a contract, the overheads included the cost of the mayor's car, and a proportion of the costs associated with the town clerk, the running of municipal elections and almost every other element. There was never an argument in favour of that. Of course, the private contractor did not have to account for such factors in making his tender bid. I do not know whether such nonsense still applies, but the process was blatantly unfair to local authorities.

With the rise of so-called best value, I thought that the worst days of compulsory competitive tendering were over. However, some local councillors have forcefully drawn to my attention a procedure known as competitive procurement, which I thought had been abolished by the Street Offences Act 1959. Apparently, competitive procurement sets, and urges the adoption of, standards and values that make it increasingly difficult for councils to qualify as offering best value, unless they put most of their services out to tender.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem with local government is not the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering and the extensive use of private contractors, but the absolute failure of local government itself to monitor and assess what tendering companies are doing? Does he agree that the logical conclusion is to opt for compulsory private tendering, thereby allowing local government to focus on ensuring that the job is done efficiently, cheaply and properly? That way, people will, I hope, regain confidence in local government, and in the ability of councillors to do the job that we elect them to do.

Mr. Hurst

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to follow that course, it would be better to elect a clerk of works, rather than a councillor. A councillor's function is much broader than the monitoring of contracts, which is a job for professionals.

The decimation of local government continues apace, and extends to local authority housing. Many hon. Members doubtless represent towns with council estates that are an amazing credit to the councillors—some Labour, some Conservative, and perhaps even some Liberal Democrat—who oversaw their creation. We should consider the building style of the 1940s and 1950s, the spaciousness and sturdiness of the houses, the incorporation of village greens and greensward, and the concept that communities were created to be lived in as communities. One can still see such elements in council developments in small towns and villages throughout the land. In the 1960s and 1970s, decline set in as more and more was compressed into an ever smaller area—culminating, of course, in the ultimate folly of the tower block. We lost the concept of the community, and that loss has greatly harmed local government.

The end of council housing was probably foreshadowed by the right to buy. The right-to-buy legislation of the 1980s was entirely different from that pioneered by Sir Edward Heath, who wanted to put money from the sale of council houses towards building. We eventually reached the stage where there was no purpose beyond their being sold. As a result, local authorities' function was essentially reduced to that of a landlord's managing agent, managing properties and housing people as best they could in diminishing housing stock. Ultimately, the transfer of the entire housing stock to other bodies leaves local authorities with no function whatsoever in respect of housing its citizens, save making recommendations for housing lists that others will run.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) asked whether a unitary authority would deal with such matters better than a district or county council. The question of whether a mayoral or presidential local authority is preferable to the prime ministerial or cabinet form has been discussed. Some of those forms may have their attractions, but such discussions miss the central point that local government—be it Mayor Livingstone or a committee of a small district council—has lost responsibilities and the power to effect change.

Richard Younger-Ross

I fear that the situation is even worse than the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is a crisis not just with people voting in local elections, but with finding councillors to stand in some areas. In some parish and town councils in rural Devon, nearly half the councillors are unelected because not enough people contest the elections. Is there not a danger that, unless we can reinvigorate councils and, as he says, give power back to them, we will be fighting a losing battle?

Legislation is being enacted that will impose on councillors a duty to disclose their interests and land far more onerous than that imposed on Members of this House. As a result, many councillors in my area are considering resigning. Will that not undermine local democracy?

Mr. Hurst

I agree that it will hardly help. As I have said, if one makes the job of councillors difficult, unattractive and lacking in power and responsibility, people will not be encouraged to come forward. All hon. Members, particularly those who represent rural districts, will have met the old timer—perhaps an agricultural labourer—who served as county councillor, district councillor, magistrate, lay preacher and union official, brought up a family, did not own a car and used to pedal from village to village. They may be mythical figures, but each of us has met people like that who had a commitment to their community and made a difference to it.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Are not new regulations for parish councillors less stringent than the existing guidance, so although parish councillors might not be aware of that guidance, the regulations could be seen as an improvement? They provide a realistic and practical way forward for parish councillors.

Mr. Hurst

I do not feel as strongly about that as I do about some of the other matters that I have mentioned today. When we talk about modifying this or that regulation, there is a danger that we will dance around the issue rather than looking at it. Today, I noticed on the calendar in my office a quotation from Mr. Attlee, if one is permitted to mention Mr. Attlee these days, in which he observed: Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking. It seems to me that we do an awful lot of talking, and all of us, councillors and Members, have e-mails, computers and every other mechanical device to transmit information, knowledge and correspondence, but the danger is that we do less because there is less for us to do—we are permitted to do less.

I fear that if responsibility for education and social services is removed from local authorities, there will be very little left for them to do. The ultimate absurdity that I have come across in my county council of Essex—it may be taking place elsewhere—is that it proposes to undertake appraisals of councillors. I am sure that that is a best value method straight out of New York city, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy. The only appraisal of councillors that matters is the appraisal at the ballot box.

2.22 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I should declare an interest in that I have a contract with Vodafone for provision of a personal mobile phone, because I want to talk about mobile phone masts and the concerns that they cause in my constituency.

I shall come on to a particular case, but I am aware that people in many locations throughout the country are becoming so concerned about this rather grey area and the lack of scientific evidence to persuade them that masts are safe that some are even moving house to avoid living in close proximity to one. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is nodding. He has been extraordinarily helpful to me in earlier Adjournment debates, and I hope that he will be helpful again today. I wrote to the relevant Under-Secretary at the Department of Health on 14 February on behalf of my constituent, Mrs. Anne Cann of Crediton. Mrs. Cann has a six-year-old daughter who has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and the Canns live within 90 m of a mobile phone mast.

I raised the matter with the Under-Secretary following a report commissioned by my local daily newspaper, the Express & Echo. Despite sending a reminder to the Minister, I have still not received a response from the Department of Health. Will the Parliamentary Secretary ensure that I receive a substantive reply? In putting to the Under-Secretary the concerns of my constituent I also made available the information from the Express & Echo, and I offered to make available the detailed findings of research by Exeter university, commissioned by the newspaper and carried out in the Canns' home and the adjacent area.

Since I wrote to the Minister, we have identified four cancer sufferers living within 300 m of the mast. I am well aware from previous debates that one cannot snatch out of the air conclusions about cancer clusters. In the adult population in particular, one would expect to find people suffering from cancer in any community. However, my concern is that the Canns, to protect their daughter's health and to remain in the family home, have been forced to take measures to help to screen the house, and particularly the bedroom where their daughter Emma sleeps, from any harmful rays that may enter the property. The Parliamentary Secretary will be aware that families like the Canns live with not only the problem of having a child with a very serious illness but the constant anxiety that their home is not safe because of an external factor.

The research commissioned by the Echo was carried out by Dr. David Coley of the Exeter university centre for energy and the environment. The results show that the microwave emissions inside the Canns' home are more than twice the levels accepted in many other countries. Dr. Coley took measurements at nine locations in and around the property in George Hill, Crediton, and he recorded a figure of 6.5 volts per metre in the kitchen, in the garden in front of the daughter's bedroom window and just outside the property. That is more than the highest permitted limit in countries such as Russia, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, and it is more than 10 times the limit set in the Austrian city of Salzburg.

One of the problems that we face is that around the world there are differences in permitted levels of exposure. Most countries comply with the guidance of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, but Britain allows emissions of more than three times the Commission's recommended levels. Limits in other countries include 6 volts per metre in Poland, Russia and Italy, and half that amount in Genoa. In New Zealand the limit is 0.28 volts per metre, and in the USA it is 0.2 volts per metre for the average city dweller.

Around the world, authorities have taken decisions that are diverse and, in many cases, the permitted levels are much lower than those decided, on scientific advice, by the UK Government. When Dr. Coley visited the Canns' property, he said it was 100 per cent. certain that the microwave field was produced by the mast. There was no extenuating factor. He said:

Although this is well within UK guidance, it is interesting to note that it is above permitted, or recommended, levels in other parts of the world. Since the Government came to office they have commissioned the Stewart report on the subject for their own guidance. It was written by an independent group of experts led by Sir William Stewart, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government and the current chairman of the Microbiological Research Authority. The report recommended that in making decisions about the siting of base stations (masts), planning authorities should have the power to ensure that the radio frequency fields to which the public will be exposed, will be kept to the lowest practical levels that will be commensurate with the telecommunications system operating effectively". At the beginning of my remarks, I declared my contract with Vodafone. I suspect that I am not unique in the House in having a mobile phone. More and more of us rely on our mobile phones, and we are all aware of what a great boon they are. However, there has to be some balancing of the convenience to the individual of having a good signal to be able to use the phone and the significant concern about masts.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned the precautionary principle. The Government should be looking seriously at adopting that principle, especially as regards the UK permitted levels. We are at odds with other countries and we need to know the scientific basis for their decisions. The Stewart report also notes that we need to take the precautionary principle into account.

When I asked Health Ministers to look into the evidence about the Cann household in Crediton, I put some other questions; for example, in the light of the recommendations of the Stewart report, why has so little research been undertaken into the health effects of mobile phone masts? There seems little tangible evidence on which to make decisions.

Bob Spink

My hon. Friend makes an extremely sound point. A lack of evidence that damage has been caused does not prove that there will be no damage in the future. Surely, we should adopt the precautionary principle especially as regards our children, who have a long time to live on this planet and who deserve care. After all, in the past there has been a lack of evidence in matters that turned out to be extremely dangerous and we got our fingers burned, so the precautionary principle is right.

Mrs. Browning

Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

We should be careful about children's exposure to hazards—especially ionising radiation—that might not affect adults. We should always be extremely cautious about children's health. The situation of people who live in close proximity to the masts is different from that of people who are near them only occasionally.

Mr. Rosindell

In the light of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), does my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) agree that it would be sensible not to permit mobile phone masts at schools or in areas where there could be a large number of children?

Mrs. Browning

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is a responsibility for local planning authorities. They should be able to make enlightened decisions based on Government guidelines.

We have a bizarre attitude to regulation in this country. All too often, we over-regulate on absurd matters while taking a cavalier approach to life and death issues. I am only too well aware that the lay public are fearful of science because they do not understand it. However, it is worrying to feel that the Government do not have the scientific facts on which to make informed decisions to give guidance to the general public and to planning authorities.

What health research are the Government relying on? There is an audit—a series of measurements—but is there any research into the health effects? The audit is useful, but how do those figures relate to health research? The Government's claim that there is no evidence of risk from masts should not be based on a collection of figures but on proper research into what such figures mean for the health of individuals.

What have the Government done as regards the Stewart recommendations on research and on adopting new limits? There must be evidence from other countries to show why they have set permissible limits that are so much lower than those in the UK.

The Department of Health may be having difficulty in encapsulating all these points in a letter of reply to me. However, I should like an answer to my questions. Like many Members, I want to pursue the subject in debates, questions and—I hope—meetings with Ministers and those who can give us the proper scientific evidence that will either reassure us or enable us quickly to come to a conclusion about what is and is not safe.

I commend the Express & Echo, an Exeter-based daily newspaper that circulates in five or six Devon constituencies, for not only taking up the problem but devoting resources to investigating it, especially in relation to my constituents in Crediton. I hope that the Minister will take the paper up on its offer to make available the detailed research carried out by Exeter university on its behalf.

I should like to bolt on to my speech a small matter that is of grave importance in rural communities. In a previous existence—in the previous Parliament—I was the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The current Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was then the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He and I held many exchanges at the Dispatch Box about the Government's proposals for the future of the Post Office—the Royal Mail and the network of sub-post offices that are so much a part of our daily lives.

Many assurances were given—some of them are engrained in my memory. However, in recent weeks, all those assurances and reassurances have fallen like dust. For example, the right hon. Gentleman assured me that there would be every opportunity for people to get cash from their local rural post office. When I contended that there was no such thing as free banking, he argued me down by saying that the Government would provide Something. This weekend, there will indeed be a facility to obtain cash in many rural areas from cash dispensers—but at a cost of £1.50 per transaction. That is not free banking, especially for the many people who are dependent on state benefits and retirement pensions and who draw them from the post office. A fee of £1.50 is a big chunk from one's benefit if one is obliged to use that system to draw out money.

We were also given reassurances about the Royal Mail. Members may be surprised to hear me—old Eurosceptic that I am—pray in aid the European Commission. However, some time ago, when this matter was debated by the Commission, the importance of universal delivery in these islands was recognised by Commissioners—although, interestingly, not by British Commissioners. The Commission noted that the costs should be contained and that the next-day, or second-class, delivery on which we all rely should be maintained, despite the European plan to liberalise mail and parcel services. Commissioners suggested that when licences for mail delivery were issued a levy should be made to subsidise the universal delivery of mail, so that we could continue to enjoy that service.

When I read the rather obscure minutes of that meeting, I could not believe that Ministers had rejected that proposal and were prepared to let universal delivery go hang: in other words, if we do not get our post the next day, so what; and if the price of stamps cannot be kept at a reasonable level, so what. I asked the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he was prepared to consider a levy on licence holders to protect universal delivery. He sent me a one-word answer, which is on the record of the House: "No." The Government have allowed the Royal Mail and the sub-post office network to disintegrate and have made absolutely no effort to honour the pledges that the right hon. Gentleman made at that Dispatch Box in a former incarnation, just a couple of years ago.

I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot be expected to give a detailed answer and I do not expect him to, but I want to place my remarks on the record of the House. Under the Conservatives, the sub-post office network was guaranteed, in perhaps a rather uncharacteristic, subsidised way. We are always being told by the Labour party that it was down to us, and it was indeed down to us, in that we recognised the importance to the community of the sub-post office network. We developed plans to continue to allow people to collect their benefits from sub-post offices and plans to give the sub-post offices the right to charge for such transactions. Those charges were intended to be an important part of the remuneration of sub-post offices, to help preserve that network, which for years has faced competition from the local supermarket and other extraneous factors. To see the Royal Mail and that network disappear, as it surely will, should not come as a surprise to any hon. Member, because Conservative Members warned two or three years ago that it might happen. I am sorry that those prophecies are now—

Mr. Tyler

I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want to mislead the House but we all recall, I think, that the number of sub-post offices in the network fell dramatically during the period when her party was in government—and even more dramatically after the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), the then Secretary of State for Social Security, decided that in future benefits should be paid through banks. The hon. Lady is a very fair Member of the House and I am sure that she will agree that some of the current tendencies and trends did not start in 1997.

Mrs. Browning

Having agreed with the hon. Gentleman earlier, I shall disagree with him emphatically on the point that he has just raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who served not only as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry but as Secretary of State for Social Security, recognised the importance of making changes in post offices—moving away from the old benefit book, which was so open to fraud—but also established, with public financial support, the importance of maintaining remuneration for sub-postmasters in return for giving people the opportunity to claim benefits across the counter at their local post office.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall is right to say, as I said, that sub-post offices had been closing for many years, but such closures were largely due to the fact that many sub-post offices were also the village shop. We all know that the shopping habits of people who live in villages have changed. The proliferation of out-of-town supermarkets and the fact that people are working in towns and shopping in their lunch break have all too often led to a decline in the shop section of sub-post offices. Post offices closed for many reasons, but certainly not as a result of the policies of the last Conservative Government.

When we left office in 1997, we left in place a proposal that would have brought sub-post offices into the world of modern technology. Computers would have been introduced with, ultimately, swipe cards to reduce fraud, to ensure the guaranteed income of sub-postmasters. Sub-post offices are, after all, privately run, independent businesses. Now many people cannot sell their business for love or money although they want to because they can see that, in a year or two, their income will be halved because of the Government's policies.

The Government should address the problem, because time is running out. I predict that before the end of this Parliament our mail delivery service will be in chaos, and that thousands more post offices will go out of business and disappear from the communities that they serve. That will be down to one thing, and one thing only: the mismanagement of the Post Office by the Government.

2.44 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The management of a democratic society is never easy, and government becomes even more difficult when it appears that, for one reason or another, the Government are not explaining their policies sufficiently clearly that they take with them the members of the electorate who are most affected.

I believe that the House of Commons has a special responsibility. It has a responsibility not only to look carefully at legislation but to question and, indeed, to demand an open explanation of the decisions that are being taken, either in Whitehall, to use a generic name for Government Departments, or in local government. I would not like the House to adjourn without thinking seriously about two aspects of Government policy that I regret.

The Committee that I chair produced a very specific, detailed report on the public-private partnership for the London underground. We set out the problems. Some of the problems have arisen from the fact that the underground has never been assured of a firm and continuing programme of investment, has never been able to plan properly and has always faced difficulties that are common in our railway systems, with old systems not receiving the maintenance or improvements that they need, but others have simply arisen from the fact that, over time, various Governments' policy decisions have impinged directly on the finance available—in this case for the London underground, one of the most important systems for our capital city.

I hope that the House will have the opportunity to debate at greater length the topics covered in the report. We went into not only the problems that had arisen with the PPP but the difficulties that we foresaw. We asked, among other things, for a number of safeguards that we considered important enough to be debated. First, we said that the Health and Safety Executive should be given more time to consider the case than it was being given. Secondly, we said that that contracts for the London underground should not be signed until it was clear that the House of Commons had debated, on a substantive motion, the implications of the proposals. Thirdly, we said that it was important that the House should examine the finance and the financial dealings involved in the public-private partnership.

I was therefore somewhat dismayed to receive the news that the House of Commons was not to be given the usual full 14 days to debate the issuing of what are called letters of confidence. Sometimes the English language is used, in government and elsewhere, as a means not of telling us precisely what we are doing but of confusing the issue, and in my judgment letters of confidence come rather high in that category.

It may come as a considerable surprise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that a letter of confidence is really a guarantee. Either the Government guarantee a public-private partnership or they do not, but if they choose to call the arrangement that is entered into the issuing of a letter of confidence, it is not always clear to the electorate exactly what is happening. However, this week letters of confidence were issued on the PPP of the underground, and normally the House of Commons would have 14 days in which to discuss, examine and report. Because of the imposition—I withdraw that word—

Mr. Tyler

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Dunwoody

I gladly give way.

Mr. Tyler

I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to comment on the expression "letters of comfort", which is the term that she uses in her early-day motion, which seems to sound more like a letter of discomfort.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I should have called it a letter of comfort, not a letter of confidence. The lovely thing about the English language is that it can frequently be used in the most wonderful and flowery ways to confuse an arrangement to guarantee—a banker's undertaking. It is as simple as that. In effect, the Government tell someone who enters into what is supposedly a PPP that they will guarantee whatever happens in the future. That is the basic point that concerns me.

Many Labour and Opposition Members will have different interpretations. Some may say that PPPs are a good idea because they lever in extra money, about which many interesting arguments will be advanced. The difficulty is that if the House adjourns before it has debated those issues, it will foreshorten not only the period of time, but the responsibility of the House of Commons. That has happened not only in relation to the underground deal, because I have received a short letter from the Treasury in which it states that the Government's insurance undertakings to the aviation industry have been extended. That, too, will not be debated because of time constraints.

Let me make it clear that I have absolutely no objection whatsoever to the Government's undertaking to ensure that aviation is properly insured after the events of 11 September, so that airlines can continue to fly and people can continue to use them. I do not dispute the need for such a move. All I am saying is that the House of Commons has the right to debate such issues. If we are told that, unfortunately, such debates will not be held because of the Easter holiday, it is important to raise such issues on the Floor of the House.

I am sorry to say that that seems symptomatic of a rather real problem. Her Majesty's Government seem to have lost an ability that I prize among all others—the facility of explaining to us exactly what is their attitude on industrial policy and, above all, on a policy that directly involves the financing of major infrastructure deals. That problem should be debated, but I am very concerned about another aspect of this matter.

The House of Commons may be an inadequate organisation. Its procedures may not always be exactly what we want. From time to time, it may hold debates or behave in a way that others think are unacceptable, juvenile or even—dare I say it?—verbose and boring, but the reality is that the Houses of Parliament are the only safeguard that we and the voters have against an over-mighty Executive, who can push through decisions and decide that what is important to them is not necessarily important enough to be debated. I believe that both those tiny instances are examples of the sort of difficulty that we face.

I would have preferred the House to debate both those extensions in Government arrangements. I should have preferred to hear a clear statement from the Government on the PPP for the underground on a substantive motion. I should have preferred Treasury Ministers not to appear the Select Committee and say that they had such a narrow brief that they were unable to debate the full implications of the financial deals. I should have preferred it if all those things had happened because I do not think that the Government have a right to override the basic and vital rights of Parliament.

We may be inadequate. We may not do properly what we are asked to do. We may, as elected Members, fall short of what the voters demand of us, but if we ever stand aside and allow those rights to be pushed gently away on the basis that, somehow, it is administratively convenient—I have seen many Governments of all colours do that—we fail the electorate. We then have only ourselves to blame if people no longer want to cast their votes, and we fail in the most outrageous way to fulfil our duty as Members of Parliament. I hope that I never live long enough to see that happen in the House.

2.54 pm
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who has, for a long time, spoken to defend the rights of Members of Parliament, and she has done so again today with the passion that we have come to expect from her.

I want to raise several issues to show why we should receive better explanations from the Government on exactly what is happening with their policies. I shall start with perhaps one of the most worrying aspects for several hon. Members. Just over 24 hours ago, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a statement on the future of the Post Office and Consignia. Several of us were very worried about the issues that were omitted from the statement.

I do not believe that yesterday's statement reflected the full range of problems that the Post Office faces and the future announcements that will be made by the Post Office as it strives to compete and to turn around its business. I am particularly worried about the rumour that some 2,000, possibly more, rural post offices will close.

For just over 12 months during the last Conservative Government, I was privileged to serve as the Minister responsible for the Post Office at the Department of Trade and Industry. I asked other colleagues who held similar ministerial positions in that Government how many debates we had on the Post Office during the last five years of the Major Government. The truth of the matter is that we had very few, because the Post Office was not a national concern at the time—things were going quite well.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg)


Mr. McLoughlin

The Minister may say that from a sedentary position, but the only debate was on the Post Office Green Paper, and it was inspired by the then Government—I know that because I responded to the debate. I am not saying that the Post Office was not mentioned. Of course it was mentioned, but we certainly did not have the continual debates that have been held in the past few years. We have had those debates because hon. Members are concerned about the Post Office's future structure. We are very concerned about the way in which the Post Office is owned and managed by the Government.

I found out a fascinating fact yesterday. Apart from getting her geography wrong, the Secretary of State told us that the Government have decided that the Post Office will not have to pay a dividend. She also told us, however, that it is a wholly independently operated company—so why should the Government decide whether the dividend is paid? The Post Office obviously could not a pay dividend because it is losing so much money. If it were a company with proper commercial freedom, as the Government suggest, the Secretary of State or the Chancellor would not decide whether a dividend should be paid; the chairman of the Post Office would do so. Despite the mirage that the Government have created about the Post Office being a wholly separate company, we found out yesterday that it is still wholly controlled and operated by the Government.

The other issue that I want to raise is the Government's continual increase in stealth taxes. Council tax increases throughout the country represent one of the biggest stealth taxes. I have the council tax figures for Derbyshire Dales district council, which forms the greater part of my constituency. In 1997–98, its precept on a band D property was £88.78. Council tax bills are just going out and the figure is now £118.23—an increase of £30 in five years, but that is a small element of the overall council tax bill.

In 1997–98, Derbyshire county council's precept on a band D property was £576. It is now £846—a huge increase over a limited period for people who live in band D properties.

The Government should be more honest and open about council tax rises, which are mainly a result of Government policy. As we are always being told that we have to brace ourselves for tax increases because people want better services, it was strange to discover in a small parliamentary written answer slipped out this morning that big business will pay less tax. On the one hand, we are told that the population must be prepared to pay extra taxation; on the other, the Government announce another course for big business.

The Chancellor uses stealth taxes and applies them to the British people. When I dug a little deeper to get more detail to explain the increases in council tax, I received worrying information from Amber Valley borough council. It told me: All pension schemes have to be actuarially revalued every three years. At the last revaluation late last year it was found that the Derbyshire Fund was significantly under funded. The major reason for this was that the returns made by Derbyshire, although well above the average achieved by local authorities in general, were not as great as had been anticipated by the actuaries in 1998. The shortfall was due to poor performance on the stock market which was itself due to a poor perception of the strength of both the world and, in particular, the British economies. The increased charge is necessary to recover the shortfall over the life of the fund. It should also be noted that the Council is also paying over £300,000 per year to compensate the fund for the effects of the cancellation of Advance Corporation tax levied by the Chancellor in 1997. That is one reason why Amber Valley had to increase its council tax.

One of the first things that the Government did when they took office—one has to admire them to a degree—was to do away with advance corporation tax. They said that we should not worry because the pension funds will be able to manage. That policy took £5 billion a year out of the pension system, which is fine in a bull market, but when things start to go wrong on the stock market it is not so easy to compensate for shortfalls. That is one reason why council tax is increasing throughout the country. Indeed, I understand that one of the largest increases is in the Prime Minister's constituency and I hope that his constituents make representations to him. However, council tax often falls hardest on older people because they tend to live on more fixed incomes. If the Government are not aware of that problem, they will become aware of it as the anger rises when people realise that the rate of inflation is 2 per cent., but the increase in council tax is, in the case of Derbyshire county council, 8.9 per cent.

The funding of sixth forms concerns me. Some time ago, the Government announced that they would de-layer the education funding system, which I favour. There is too much smoke around the allocation of the standard spending assessments to local government and the various spending bodies involved. The Government say that they have made a start by de-layering the funding system for sixth forms. Under the new proposal for sixth form funding, the Government will make grants to learning and skills councils. Those councils will make a further grant to local education authorities, which, in turn, will fund the sixth forms in their areas. I do not know how much simpler that is, but secondary heads in my constituency do not think that that does much to de-layer the system.

There are two issues to consider: the amount of money and the way in which it is funded. On the new proposal, a Derbyshire secondary head teacher wrote to me and said: For 24 hours in December, this was very good news indeed. Our provisional allocation from the LSC was £170,000 in excess of the RTG"— the real terms guarantee. The head teacher went on: However, the next day we received a letter from the LEA stating that this excess has to come from the LEA and that the LEA would therefore have to recoup it from our 11–16 allowance. The school is told that it is getting a bigger allocation for its sixth form, for which it is grateful, only to discover the next day that the extra money for 16 to 18-year-olds is to be taken from the 11 to 16-year-olds—so extra money there is none.

The Government are supposed to be working on a new funding allocation for all LEAs and on school funding in the future. I just hope that they do not try to use the same card trick that they used on the 16 to 18-year-olds because they will soon be found out and that will cause greater resentment in schools. What happened in Derbyshire is a prime example of that.

Some Labour Members have argued that education in Derbyshire has been underfunded for some time. One headmaster told me: If the problem of the resourcing of Derbyshire schools is ever to be sorted out, it must start with Central Government accepting the premise that there is an entitlement for funding levels for each pupil in the country from 5 to 18. Any adjustment can then reflect the disadvantage or cost. The fact that they have now done so for post 16 only makes the pre 16 situation even more shambolic. The Government is aware of the facts—they are simply ignoring them in the hope that somehow schools will cope. The truth is that schools will cope because the staff are dedicated to ensuring that their pupils get a good education. However, they want to be treated more fairly. The introduction of the LSCs has not sorted out the problem; instead, it has added to the problem of the overall funding of schools for 11 to 18-year-olds.

On a separate issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned that she had written to a Health Minister. I have had the same problem with getting answers from that Department, which I wrote to on 13 February and 6 March. A former health centre in Wirksworth would make a tremendous care home facility, which is desperately needed. Such a facility was built in 1985 at Under Hall in Darley Dale. It has 40 flats and offers short-term care. Meals on wheels are administered from there—a service that does a great deal of good for the local community.

I am sure that the Government are concerned about residential care, but we have no idea how they intend to address the problem. Residential beds in care homes are being lost, partly because of the Care Standards Act 2000.

Some 35,000 care beds have been lost over the past three years throughout the country, which adds to the problem of bed blocking. It is not a problem in isolation because it feeds back to the national health service. The Government must address the problem of residential care.

Local people are keen to establish a centre that offers residential care in Wirksworth. The project has been on their minds for more than five years. A hearty local campaign team has worked to establish a care home project, and a health care centre has now become available, but we find ourselves in an awkward position. All the trusts are about to change status, PCTs are to come online, the area health authority is to change, and so on and so forth—all of which is to take place in the next few weeks. The result is to make it difficult to assemble the combined effort needed to make our scheme work.

One of the trustees has written to me saying that the process for funding long-term care is "constantly changing", and that The Government's 'Supporting People' initiative will limit the funding mechanisms applicable to the project and so the ability to generate finance for development purposes. All of this unexpected and legislative change needs to be taken into consideration in order to ensure that the overall viability of the project is established. This is all rather difficult when planning within a 'fog' which sometimes seems to clear and then … becomes much thicker as local people try to secure a solution that will have a great impact on the quality of life of elderly residents of small villages and towns in the area.

I should like to pass on to the House some information that came to my attention this morning. I shall also take some time to praise Derbyshire constabulary. Various hon. Members have heard me raise with the Prime Minister the case of Stephen Downing, whose conviction for murder was quashed by the Appeal Court in January. Since the quashing, I have called on Derbyshire constabulary to re-open the case, but there has been some question about whether it would do so. Mr. Downing's conviction was regarded as very unsafe by the appeal court when his case was heard, after he had served 27 years in jail—an horrendous length of time, as any hon. Member would agree.

This morning, I received a statement from the chief constable saying: Following consultation with Stephen Downing, his representative and Wendy's widower, David Sewell, I have decided to carry out a re-investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Wendy Sewell. In short, the case is to he re-opened by Derbyshire constabulary. I want to put on record my gratitude to the chief constable for ensuring that that is to happen. I first met Mr. Downing's father nine or 10 years ago, when he first raised his son's case with me. The fact that such a miscarriage of justice could occur and last so long in this country, in this day and age, shows an appalling failure of and gap in our judicial system. I am extremely pleased by today's announcement that the police are to re-open the investigation. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, some sound solutions will emerge as a result.

When we returned to the House in January, it looked as though the Government could be confident. That has changed in the past few weeks, however, as the issues surrounding Railtrack and the Post Office—two major industries for which the Government are responsible—have blown up. As the Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee has just made clear, important questions remain to be answered and we will return to those subjects on our return after the Easter recess. I think that the issues I have raised today are also of great importance to local people and communities, and I hope that they will be addressed.

3.14 pm
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) who, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), raised issues relating to the Post Office. Hon. Members on both sides of the House share their enthusiasm for the Post Office, but it should be pointed out that the closure of 3,500 post offices under Tory Governments is not a record of which those Governments should be proud.

At a time when the market is changing, the Labour Government are trying to help the Post Office to adapt. Investing £480 million in computerisation of the post office network is a step forward, and those of us who represent rural communities consider important the ring-fenced £270 million to invest in rural networks support. Both measures are important means of ensuring that key parts of our communities survive. As other hon. Members have said, there are issues relating to urban post offices, especially in disadvantaged communities, and some of that money has been set aside to ensure that those post offices survive.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton voiced her opinion, without quoting much evidence, of the Government's intentions regarding the universal postal service. In all the statements made in the House it has been made clear that that service is important and should remain—indeed, the Postal Services Act 2000 created the independent regulator whose very function is to ensure that the universal postal service continues. I joined those Members of Parliament who criticised the regulator for being too keen to promote competition rather than to stand up for businesses in the sector. I believe that the regulator's No. 1 role should be to protect the universal postal service, and thanks to the pressure exerted by Members of Parliament and others we are in the process of impressing on the regulator that that should be its No. 1 goal. That is what the Government also want to achieve.

No one could doubt that the Government have throughout all their work borne in mind the continuation of the universal postal system. To voice doubt about that is unfairly to increase anxiety in the population—just as the hon. Lady did when she spoke about people on low incomes having to pay £1.50 to cash a cheque. The hon. Lady misunderstands the proposals made by the Government and the Post Office for the post office card account, which is for people who do not want a bank account but want to continue to collect their pension or benefits in cash. That account allows them to do so. There is nothing in the proposals about a £1.50 charge on the payments, and when hon. Members start to say things like that, fears are raised unnecessarily in the general population, especially in the more vulnerable groups.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

All of us want the post office card account to succeed, but is the hon. Lady confident that it will be up and running in time for April 2003, which is when, under new legislation, credits will have to start being paid through our sub-post offices? The contracts were only let in November, prior to which no preparatory work had been done. Is she confident that the machines will be in place, people will have been trained and the migration policy will be settled by April 2003?

Ms Drown

I am confident that the House can ensure that our constituents are able to get their pensions and benefits. We must ensure that the Government and the Post Office deliver that. There is no question but that that has to happen, and we can all play a role in ensuring that it does. To voice fears unnecessarily simply increases fear among the most vulnerable members of our population.

Recently, we have spent much time discussing international affairs. That has produced a significant response in my constituency postbag, and I shall take this opportunity to summarise that response for the House. One of the most positive responses has been to the Export Control Bill, which has been widely welcomed as a huge step forward in ensuring that Britain behaves responsibly in its international trade. As the Bill passed through both Houses, I witnessed a most constructive dialogue between Back Benchers and the Government to ensure that the best Bill possible was produced.

I am especially pleased that, with other hon. Members, I helped to ensure that the Government included in the Bill provisions making sustainable development a key criterion by which exports are judged. I hope that dialogue will continue and that there will be further improvements to the Bill, particularly the inclusion of a ban on offshore brokering, before it completes its passage through the House.

There is a wider issue about balancing our responsibilities to the defence industry, British jobs and exports against our international responsibility to promote peace and security. One does not need a degree in economics or marketing to realise that if our foreign and international development policy of conflict prevention is successful, that will lead to a decline in defence sales. However, the Government do not seem to have anticipated that outcome; sensible work is still not being done on defence diversification. My constituents are suspicious that, as the second largest player in defence sales, we are partly responsible for fuelling some conflicts by giving Governments and rebel movements the ammunition to fight, rather than discuss a solution. If we expect our policies to be successful, and if we hope to create a better world with less conflict, should we not do something to get the most talented people in the defence industry into more productive sectors of the economy?

I shall give two specific examples. First, my constituents are concerned that Ministers have spent Government time promoting to India and Pakistan the sale of Hawk jets, which could be used in conflict between those countries. The Government have also promoted the sale of a military air traffic control system to Tanzania—there are deep suspicions that that technology is both out of date and exceeds Tanzania's needs. Money spent on that system could be spent on health and education, which are more important for Tanzania, given the stark facts of life there: 45 per cent. of the population do not have access to essential drugs, and 160 of every 1,000 children die before the age of five. The statistics are getting worse, not better—at the beginning of the 1990s, 140 of every 1,000 children died before the age of five.

Those stark figures demonstrate the need to use our international aid budget to try to reverse that awful trend. My constituents welcome the Government's initiative to increase overseas aid and the commitment of the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development to that goal. We should try to reach the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent. of our national output on aid as soon as possible. There is still a long way to go, but huge steps have been taken. In our diplomatic engagements, we should encourage others to follow suit, notably the United States, which has spent a pathetically small proportion of its budget on aid. Indeed, even after the recent increase of $5 billion, which will come into force in 2004, it will not spend even 0.2 per cent. of its national output on international aid.

Last week, we heard about a further increase at Monterrey but, given America's influence in the world, it is inexcusable that it is not spending more on aid. I hope that the Government will use their influence to get the United States to make a commitment to the target of 0.7 per cent. and deliver on it as soon as possible. Our society increasingly recognises that international aid is not just a moral duty but is in our interest. We need to make it clear to civil society in America that aid is about promoting peace and stability as well as creating more markets for our products and services in future.

My constituents have two further anxieties about international development. First, they are seriously concerned about possible military action in Iraq. They appreciate the fact that there are appalling human rights abuses in Iraq, that Iraq poses a threat to its neighbouring countries and that it is flagrantly ignoring UN resolutions, but they are also concerned about the situation in the middle east and our involvement in Afghanistan, and do not feel that now is the right time for the UK and the USA to embark in isolation on further military action. They urge that we should use the coalition built up to tackle terrorism to keep the pressure on Iraq and introduce via international institutions new UN resolutions to take action. They also want the international coalition to take more action against Mugabe and the problems in Zimbabwe.

Finally on international issues, I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions about the need for Britain to take a lead on the problem of child soldiers. There is no justification for sending children into conflict, yet our Government have still not fully signed up to the UN optional protocol on child soldiers. There is no reason why we could not have a separate training organisation for 16 or 17-year-olds who are interested in military service. Only when they reach adulthood at 18 should they join our military personnel. Until such an arrangement is made, we cannot be sure that we will not send 17-year-olds into conflict. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can raise that with the relevant Ministers. I should like an assurance that there will not be any 17-year-olds among the troops who, it was recently announced, are to be sent to Afghanistan. I trust that no 17-year-olds will be sent into that conflict.

Briefly, on domestic issues, my constituents' primary concern is funding for public services, which is especially relevant in the light of the forthcoming Budget. Concerns about health, social services and education regularly appear in my postbag. I accept that the Government have taken major steps to deal with all those issues, but people are still waiting too long for treatment in the health service and too long for social services.

There is a particular educational issue worrying my constituents. Like the constituents of a number of other Members, they believe that the existing funding formula cannot be justified. Swindon is the lowest-funded unitary authority and is among the six lowest-funded education authorities, although the standards achieved by its students do not justify that low funding. There are huge disparities across the board: some authorities have hundreds of pounds more per pupil, even though those children achieve higher standards. That cannot be allowed to continue. I am pleased that the Government are reviewing the formula, as a new one needs to be put in place as soon as possible. It needs to be simple so that people can understand the figures, and it must increase the funds of the lowest-funded authorities like Swindon borough council. I have received that message loud and clear from my constituents. I can guarantee to the Government that more money for Swindon will be well spent in raising the standards achieved by my constituents' children.

I hope for good news about that in the forthcoming Budget which, I hope, will also deal with another concern raised by a number of my constituents—restrictions on the working families tax credit. At the moment, that credit provides a huge amount of help for many of my constituents, rewarding them for the first time for being in work. However some of my constituents, particularly those who do shift work, have a problem: they want to employ nannies to cover them at night, rather than use child minders or nurseries, which are not as flexible. I understand that the Government have been looking at that and I hope that we will get good news in the Budget so that more people will have access to the working families tax credit.

Before I conclude, I should like to raise with the Parliamentary Secretary my concern about how we make decisions in the House, and the speed with which we do so. A year ago, I requested that we e-mail oral and written questions to save the time involved in running to and from the Table Office. That issue has still not been resolved.

Two years ago, we asked for a revision of the rule about breastfeeding in the House of Commons. We have made progress on that. After our request two years ago, the previous Speaker—having referred the matter neither to the House nor to any relevant professional organisation—changed the sensible ruling allowing breastfeeding in Committees subject to the approval of the Chair, and simply banned it. The present Speaker has gone about this in exactly the right way, ensuring that professional organisations are approached and referring the issue to the Select Committee on Public Administration.

Given that all professional organisations consulted said that breastfeeding should be allowed in Committees, given the Select Committee's view that it should be allowed and given that Members are in favour of it by a ratio of three to one, it is odd that the ban continues. I am very pleased that the Speaker has said we have a responsibility to promote breastfeeding. He has been very accommodating, and I hope that further progress can be made in the near future.

What worries me is this: if we cannot secure a decision on an issue like breastfeeding, which should be non-controversial, how can we get things right when it comes to other issues on which more finely balanced judgments must be made? How can we respond to criticism from our constituents who say that we constantly pass laws insisting that people note and act in accordance with the views of professional organisations if we are not doing that ourselves?

Some may say that this is not important. It is important. Parliament should be seen to be leading the way in regard to breastfeeding, which hugely benefits both mothers and babies. Throughout the world, 1.5 million babies die every year because of low breastfeeding rates. We all have constituents whose children are readmitted to hospital owing to infections, because our breastfeeding rate is one of the lowest in Europe.

There are less clear-cut issues on which our decisions should also be right. I congratulate the Leader of the House on what he has done about some of them. One is often raised with me by constituents: why, they ask, do we start work so late? Why do we not start until 2.30 pm? If we consider this to be a serious place of work, it is hard to answer that question. Why do we start at 2.30 pm? I agree with the Leader of the House that we should at least match Thursday's hours on Wednesdays.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am sure the hon. Lady would not wish to mislead her constituents. I am sure she explains to them that Westminster Hall sits at 9.30 am two days a week, and that many Committees meet at 10.30 am. To say that an MP's day starts at 2.30 pm would be misleading, and I hope the hon. Lady will point out to her constituents that the House is working in one way or another at many other times.

Ms Drown

I entirely accept that point, but if this is indeed the supreme Chamber, why does its work start so much later than the House's other work? Of course, Members have two places of work. It is right for us to start at 2.30 pm on Mondays, so that constituency surgeries and the like can be dealt with in the mornings. But there is no reason for us not to work from 10 am until 7 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and start at 10 am on Thursdays. Then, perhaps, we could leave at 3 pm on Thursdays, and more of us could be in our constituencies by the evening.

The House is divided over the report on Select Committees. I do not think we should pay Select Committee Chairs extra; I do not think that that will change the culture in this organisation. I would prefer the money to be spent in other ways.

I hope we shall see two more measures in the Queen's Speech. Earlier today, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) presented a ten-minute Bill to draw attention to continuing antisocial behaviour on the part of travellers. My constituents regularly experience such behaviour, and I fully expect them to experience more in the summer. We could make sensible changes, which I think would he supported throughout the House.

Then there is the issue of legislation on sexual offences. The Government have rightly reviewed it, but it is outrageous that in rape cases the defence of honest but unreasonable belief in consent remains on the statute book. It has a real impact on all rape cases: it deters rape victims from coming forward and pressing charges, as they rightly should. I hope that the issue will be a key priority in the Queen's Speech.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise so many of the issues that my constituents have raised with me. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will in turn raise them with the relevant Ministers.

3.35 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I want to raise three constituency issues, each of which is the responsibility of a different Department—thus landing the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy-Council Office with a varied task.

The first issue, the future of the sub-post office network, has already been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). I hope that the Government will act on the commitment that I understood the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make yesterday—to keep the House informed of further developments in the planned reorganisation of what we must now think of as the company formerly known as Consignia.

I willingly acknowledge that for many years sub-post offices, like other small retail businesses, have experienced the squeeze experienced by most high-street shops as shopping habits have altered. I believe, however, that their plight has been worsened by the present Government's policy of requiring all pensions and benefits to be paid into bank accounts from next April, rather than being collected in cash over the counter. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned that.

Coupled with the drastic restructuring of the Post Office organisation announced by the board in the last couple of days, that shift in Government policy raises serious questions about the future of the sub-post office network. All of us who represent rural or part-rural constituencies will know of sub-post offices that have closed for various reasons in recent years. My constituency has lost sub-post offices in villages such as Loosely Row and Great Kimble, and even Butlers Cross and Ellesborough. My weekend constituent, the Prime Minister, cannot just walk down the drive from Chequers to visit his sub-post office on a Saturday morning; he must mount his bicycle and cycle several miles to Wendover or Great Missenden to perform whatever transactions he has in mind.

I agreed strongly with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said earlier. Given the Government's record of handling information technology projects, the question of whether the new system will be up and running on 1 April 2003, as promised, is at the very least subject to some doubt and apprehension. When we look back on the national insurance computer system or on the systems of the Passport Agency and the immigration and nationality directorate, or if we even consult the 1901 census website, we see a track record of promises which—although I am sure they were made in good faith by Ministers and officials—have not been delivered. It is members of the public who have lost out.

In her statement yesterday, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry acknowledged the need to focus on the impact of the reorganisation of Parcelforce and, probably, to update the House on further developments regarding Post Office reorganisation on future occasions. We know from the way every newspaper had been briefed over the weekend and on Monday that it is a part of the Post Office's new corporate strategy to reduce the number of urban post offices, to follow the reduction in the number of rural sub-post offices that we have seen in recent years.

For those of us who represent urban or part-urban constituencies, as I do, there is a real concern that the people who will be most seriously and adversely affected by such a change in the Post Office's strategy will live in the poorer areas of our towns and cities. In places such as Southcourt, Quarrendon or Elmhurst, in Aylesbury, or in large council estate areas of the town, people regard their local sub-post office and the small parade of shops that surround it as providing an important service in the local community and as an important focus of community life. I impress upon the Minister my hope that the Government will provide early opportunities to brief the House on further developments and to provide it with ample opportunity, in Government time, to debate the future of the Post Office system once we return from the Easter recess.

My second subject concerns the approach of the Ministry of Defence to the future development of the Princess Mary hospital site at RAF Halton, in my constituency. The site is part of the extensive RAF base at Halton. The hospital itself has been closed since 1996; two years later, the Ministry declared that the hospital was surplus to military requirements, and the site was handed over to Defence Estates for it to plan for its future.

Every organisation in the villages of Wendover and Halton, which are separated by the base at RAF Halton, accepts that it is reasonable and proper to have development—probably residential, in the main—on that brownfield site. The argument locally, which is now with the Ministry, is about the scale and density of the proposed development and about the way in which the Ministry has handled this local controversy.

This is a sensitive site; it lies immediately below the scarp of the Chiltern hills and is on the fringe of the green belt and the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. Wendover, the parish within which the site lies, is a small community of just under 7,000 people. The local services have been developed to deal with the needs of a community that size. Even so, the schools, the family doctor practice and parking facilities in the village are all under considerable pressure.

The Ministry of Defence wants a return on its site and planners want to squeeze houses into rare brownfield development sites. The local village communities are fearful that the development will make a sudden and drastic change to their size and character. Surely the right forum in which to resolve these competing demands should be the planning system, particularly the local plan inquiry for Aylesbury Vale district council. That had been proceeding for a considerable number of months in 2000–01 and is subject to an inspector's report. The initial conclusions are expected probably in July this year.

There have been competing interests as well. During the course of the public inquiry, Aylesbury Vale district council argued that the site should be developed to provide 230 homes, a hotel and a sports pitch, while the Ministry of Defence argued for a more densely packed development, with some 330 or more homes and a small play area. What came as a bolt from the blue was a letter dated 12 October 2001 from GVA Grimley, the Ministry of Defence's advisers and agents. It wrote to Aylesbury Vale district council, while the evidence from the public inquiry was being considered by the inspector, to submit a planning application for no fewer than 480 homes on that one site.

The application went in despite the fact that all the evidence and arguments were before the inspector, whose conclusions should be known in July this year. It went in despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence had argued for a significantly lower number during the course of the inquiry. It went in despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence had spent £67,500 of taxpayers' money in fees for its legal and other professional representation in the course of the public inquiry.

What aggravated and sharpened the sense of grievance in Wendover and Halton was the written answer that I received on 27 November 2001, reproduced at column 763. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr Moonie), made it clear that the decision to instruct agents to submit the planning application had been made as early as December 2000, while the inquiry was taking place. So while the Ministry was submitting its evidence for 330 houses to be put on the hospital site, it was secretly authorising a later planning application for a much higher figure, without consulting anyone in the local community.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that one of the recommendations of the planning Green Paper is that planning applications such as he has described should be outlawed. The hon. Gentleman expresses concern on behalf of his constituents about density, a concern that is shared by people up and down the country. Yet we must recognise, especially in urban areas such as my own in London, that we need to increase densities if we are to respond to housing pressures. Was that taken into consideration in the planning inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman refers?

Mr. Lidington

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that that is a perfectly legitimate line of argument. The answer to his question is yes. The Government's new guidelines about density in brownfield areas were available during the course of the public inquiry and they will be considered by the inspector, no doubt when he comes to draw his conclusions. My point is that these contrary arguments should be resolved through the proper planning process. The action of the Ministry of Defence is subverting, in what I can only describe as an underhand manner, the planning process in which local people had put their trust and to which they had submitted their arguments in good faith.

I believe that the Ministry of Defence would be well advised to withdraw the application that is before the council and accept that the right way forward is to await the inspector's conclusions and then, in the light of his findings, submit whatever planning application may be appropriate for the whole of Aylesbury Vale district. The Ministry of Defence should take into account the inspector's analysis of what a dense development of the site would mean not simply for housing provision but in terms of the impact on other local services such as education and primary health care.

The third and final subject that I want to bring before the House is the Central Railway project. That, as many hon. Members know, is a private sector scheme to construct a freight line from Liverpool to Lille. Part of its alignment would run along the former Great Central Railway route. As regards my constituency, Central Railway would propose to take over the line operated by Chiltern Railways. The project would adversely affect my constituents in Saunderton, Bradenham, Princes Risborough, Longwick and Ilmer.

Ever since the scheme was mooted, I have been clear that the proposal would be detrimental to the quality of life of the people in my constituency whose homes were near the track. The railway would pass through the middle of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and would have an impact on National Trust property near Bradenham and West Wycombe.

When the scheme was first proposed, I thought that it might be a case where I would have to try to balance the competing interests of my constituents anxious about noise and development, and the national interest, which is to encourage rail freight. However, as I came to study the detail, I found the case for the project less and less persuasive. I have never been able to understand Central Railway's assertion that it could somehow raise the £4 billion or more that would be needed to finance the development, yet recoup that money at a reasonable rate of return for its investors, while still keeping charges to hauliers low enough to attract freight off the road and on to its railway line. I do not see how its figures add up.

I have also been influenced greatly by the consistent and clear statement from Chiltern Railways, the passenger operator in my constituency, that Central Railway's proposals as published are incompatible with its current, let alone any improved, level of passenger services. That is why I voted against the Central Railway Bill when it was introduced in 1996.

Central Railway later came back for a second shot. First, it sought an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992, then in January 2001 it asked the Government to support a hybrid Bill to authorise its scheme. For my constituents, the hybrid Bill procedure would have the considerable disadvantage of limiting the right of local people and organisations to argue their case in full before an inspector at a public inquiry.

Where do the Government stand? A recent written answer from the Minister for Transport states that he is not yet persuaded of the case for a hybrid Bill to authorise the scheme, but that he nevertheless wishes to go ahead with a further six months' study, led by the Strategic Rail Authority, to analyse further evidence as to whether the scheme is workable.

My constituents, particularly those whose properties are being blighted by the proposal, are becoming increasingly impatient. The request for a hybrid Bill was made by Central Railway to the Government at the end of January 2001. The Government later asked the Strategic Rail Authority to provide them with an analysis. The SRA commissioned expert consultants to look into the detail. The SRA reported to the Government at the end of last summer. It has taken the Government the months until now to come up with a decision, which turns out not to be a final decision. We cannot even examine the arguments that the SRA and the Government have considered, because both the SRA and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have so far refused to make public the SRA's report to Ministers or the consultants' report on which the SRA based its recommendations.

There has been a recent, very important change. A couple of weeks ago, the Government finally announced their welcome decision to renew for 20 years the franchise for Chiltern Railways—an operator which none other than the Secretary of State described to me in the House as a company offering a premium service. Chiltern Railways, as I said earlier, has consistently taken the view that there is insufficient capacity on the existing line to accommodate both Central Railway's proposed freight service and the current level of passenger services. It says that Central's objectives could be achieved only by building two separate dedicated freight tracks alongside the present Chilterns line, which is not what Central Railway is proposing.

Central Railway has always asserted the contrary. It has said that plenty of capacity exists, and it has adduced a study that it commissioned from the consultants Halcrow in support of its case. However, a letter that I received earlier this week from the managing director of Chiltern Railways sets out his case in trenchant terms. He states that, in particular, Central Railway suggests that a frequent freight service could operate with only modest changes to the infrastructure. I attach a briefing note which sets out why this is not true. The managing director summarises his case. He states, first, that the train timetables produced by Central Railway in support of its argument include a high proportion of freight trains which could not actually be fitted in. He continues: The notion of a frequent long-distance international freight service between Lille and Liverpool operating to the level of accuracy required to get anyway near their proposed frequency is not realistic. The managing director argues that the expansion of passenger services committed to the Government by Chiltern Railways in the new franchise—it envisages a 50 per cent. growth in passenger numbers in the first 10 years alone— further erodes the limited scope for the sort of frequency proposed by Central Railway. He goes on: Central Railway state that the only extra tracks required would be loops at a few locations. However, the wide gauge of the Central Railway trains would require every station platform on the Chiltern Line to be rebuilt and new tracks installed through every station—a major undertaking, with implications for land-take, disruption to services during construction, and loss of space for station parking. It would be ironic if, in order to support what I consider at present a misguided freight project, and in order to support the laudable objective of getting more freight on to the railways, the Government gave support to a scheme which severely damaged probably the most successful passenger operator in the country, and drove thousands of people into their cars because that efficient, frequent passenger rail service from Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire to London and the west midlands was no longer available to them.

Why is there the need for a further six-month review? Surely the studies of capacity that were carried out in the 16 months while the Government were considering the Chiltern franchise renewal provide all the evidence that Ministers need. Finally, if the Minister wants us to have confidence in the good faith of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, I ask him please to publish the Strategic Rail Authority's report and the consultants' review on which its recommendations are based. I do not see the difficulty for the Government in letting Members of Parliament and, more importantly, our constituents understand the detail of the arguments that Ministers must now consider. Greater openness will breed greater trust and better decisions.

3.59 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I sometimes wonder why we are all here, but then I remember that we fought a civil war and a revolution centuries ago so that Parliament could keep its eye on the legislature and, above all, on public spending. After all, that is why we had our civil war. Essentially, that is the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature.

As I recall, we won that conflict and that is why you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and why Parliament should, nominally at least, be supreme in the politics of our nation. However, although the principle then was that not a penny should be spent without parliamentary approval, it seems to have slipped somewhat. The Executive have begun to entrench their power. Let us be honest: they have taken over most of the functions that should fall to this House.

What would have happened more than 100 years ago, in a typical day in the House for looking at expenditure? Let us consider 10 May 1966, when Mr. Gladstone was—[HON. MEMBERS: "1866!"] Forgive me—if only.

In 1866, Mr. Gladstone was being held to account about pay for rectors and missionaries in the Canadian colonies. The estimate was £2,513, which is equivalent to about £118,000 today. He had to defend the estimates. During the rest of the day, he had to defend the amount of money for the Indian Department, the governorship of the Cape of Good Hope and the amount going to the Pitcairn islands. One of the greatest political figures ever to grace this House was called to account by Parliament to justify his Government's spending.

Today, the principle of control of supply is only a principle. It has died in practice and is preserved only in the rituals of this House. The Government spend £418 billion on behalf of ourselves and the electors and yet scrutiny of that spending is purely ceremonial in this place. We have all sat here for Consolidated Funds, spring and winter estimates, estimate and Supply days. There is little holding the Government—of any complexion—to account.

In the last Parliament, we spent more time discussing the contents of the millennium dome than the Government's spending plans over the four years. The very terms "Supply day"—at the heart of the conflict in the civil war—or "estimates day" have become something of a misnomer. They are simply an excuse for general debate. They are part of the arcane theatre of Parliament.

Just before Christmas on an estimates day, we nominally nodded through £1 billion in expenditure for culture, media and sport, but the debate was in fact on the world athletics championships. That should not have happened, important though those championships are. On the next day, almost £1 billion was nodded through for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with an excuse for a debate on waste disposal. Important though that matter is, it is not the heart and soul of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature.

That is not the scrutiny that makes our role here important and legitimate. There is a place for that role in many other legislatures. This place is the odd one out among western democracies. The classic example is the United States, which took the lessons of our struggles in the 17th century far more to heart than we did and, unlike us, has not forgotten them.

The United States created a system based on the separation of powers that made the legislature an equal partner in creating the federal budget. Indeed, many might argue that it is an over-mighty partner, but would that that were the criticism in this House. That is why some presidents have sought the line-item veto to strike out individual items of spending proposed by the legislature, Congress, without wrecking the entire budget. That is a significant contrast to the situation here. In one great democracy, the Executive think that they have too little control over public expenditure and in another, they deny the legislature any real control at all.

There is another significant contrast. The Americans constantly debate their system of democratic control over spending and we do not. As in so many ways, Parliament has acquiesced in a complete take-over of the functions of the state by an over-mighty Executive, controlled by whichever party happens to be in power. There is a long, almost mystifying, list of things that this House cannot do as regards public expenditure and scrutiny. It would amaze our constituents—if they were bothered to take any interest in the matter, or we allowed them access to some of the arcane procedures by which we disguise the process.

First, we cannot ask for money to be added to a Department's budget. We still maintain half of the 17th century formula that the Crown proposes expenditure, even though the second half—that the Commons grants the money needed—has become obsolete. Secondly, we cannot suggest that a Department's budget be reduced without it ending with the farce of a vote of confidence. We cannot suggest that any particular programme or spending on a policy area might be transferred from one Department to another that seems more appropriate. For example, we cannot suggest that the Department of Health should become the lead Department for spending on food policy, or that constitutional and electoral matters should be reassigned to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Within the estimates for each Department, we cannot suggest that money be switched from one programme or policy objective to another. In the Home Office, for example, we cannot suggest a different mix of spending between policing, crime prevention, community development and victim support, thereby expressing not only a policy view but getting to the heart of how it becomes live by changing the balance in public expenditure. We cannot suggest such a change or, unlike many other legislatures, negotiate a change in partnership with the Executive.

Before making such suggestions, we would need to know how money is assigned to different objectives. In spite of improvements in the presentation of our public accounts, that is still a difficult task not only for us but even for Ministers who are nominally in charge of public spending in particular areas.

For example, could my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health tell me with any certainty how much his Department spends in a year on preventive medicine compared with hospital care? Without effective scrutiny, can Ministers, let alone Members of Parliament, identify the main beneficiaries—our electors—of public expenditure by their Department? Could my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions tell me how much of his budget serves the needs of different classes of transport user? How much does he spend helping car drivers compared with public transport passengers? How much of his spending benefits inner cities, compared with the suburbs or rural areas? Those questions are barely thought about. The departmental Select Committee thinks about them, but this House, as a Chamber and an institution to hold the Government to account for policy and spending, rarely touches their surface.

Who gets what is the issue at the heart of our democracy, but Ministers, let alone this House, cannot get to grips with it. We spend money or we give it away almost with no idea of where it ends up and that applies to parties of all political persuasions.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The hon. Gentleman has a long pedigree in these matters and a great interest in them. Indeed, he has written about the subject. I have a three-part question. First, has he explored these matters through written questions to Ministers? Secondly, in his analysis he seems to ignore the role of Select Committees, especially the Treasury Committee, on the departmental matters he raised. Thirdly, I am surprised that he has not mentioned the Public Accounts Committee, which is particular to our Parliament—there are parallels in other democracies, but our Committee is a good model. How does he view the role of those Committees in bringing the Executive to account in the way that he recommends?

Mr. Allen

The hon. Gentleman has followed my logic so impeccably that he anticipates the very points that I am about to make.

As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I believe that it was the doyen of all our parliamentary Committees. I felt uneasy that it was jealous of the 900 accountants who worked for it in the National Audit Office. I have even suggested to its Chairman, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), that that incredible asset should be shared with other Select Committees without being diluted. It is for the Liaison Committee to discuss how the change might be made. Perhaps it could involve commissioning with the authority of the Public Accounts Committee one, two, three or four reports a year to be debated by individual Select Committees.

Mrs. Dunwoody

My Committee has already availed itself of the sterling efforts of the National Audit Office. I not only strongly support such an approach, but believe that there is a case for widening the remit and moving closer to arrangements such as those in America in relation to the General Accounting Office.

Mr. Allen

My hon. Friend is very experienced in these matters and has attempted to move the agenda along in the Liaison Committee, as have other colleagues in the Modernisation Committee. Good work is being done, but, perhaps at her expense, I must say that unless Opposition parties above all realise the weakness of this House in the face of the Executive, there is not much hope for the rest of us. It is very important that Oppositions of all parties come together to discuss and agree where they wish to go if they reach power. Many Labour Members discussed for long and barren years how we would make progress on greater and more effective parliamentary scrutiny of finance. It is all well and good for Opposition Members to chide particular Ministers, but the long-term answer must be that commitments and promises of a read-my-lips nature should be made by parties of all descriptions inside and outside the House, so they are committed wholly and irrevocably in opposition to do things when they get into power, as were Norman St. John-Stevas and the Conservative Opposition before 1979. When colleagues become members of the Executive, they seem to lose that radical edge on needing to keep the Executive under control, with the implication that it is okay providing that they are pulling the levers. It is not okay, and I hope that Opposition Members will add to that radicalism and ensure that their promises are very clear.

Mr. Tyler

I apologise for intervening on the hon. Gentleman during his speech, which I have followed with great interest. Will he comment on another extraordinary anomaly? After a general election, or at the time of a reshuffle, the Prime Minister can completely alter the geography and architecture of the administration of Whitehall. He can give different responsibilities to different Ministers, perhaps making continuity in policy and allocation of resources even more difficult, without any reference to the House of Commons or any opportunity for Parliament to hold the decision to account.

Mr. Allen

The great loss of potential in our democracy is that Executives of all parties fail to see Parliament as a possible partner. Parliament is always an institution that can undermine or deflect Government from their given course. Those in government are increasingly beginning to realise that they cannot do everything, and need partners. The work of hon. Members on Select Committees makes it clear that they can assist the Government in achieving policy objectives, providing better value for money and chasing policy initiatives to fruition.

If the Government could only give of themselves by becoming a partner and listening to both Chambers, and make that approach clear to the Governments of the nations of our country and to local government, we could achieve a lot more. We could certainly achieve a great deal more in getting value for the tax pounds that we all pay in public expenditure and which nominally go through this House—the issue to which I should like to return. The House has some fundamental weaknesses in scrutinising expenditure. It is still largely backward looking. We consider money as it is being spent or wasted, or afterwards, rather than before, and we still do so against narrow criteria. We ask whether money was correctly accounted for and supervised rather than whether it was spent productively. We do not ask whether it was spent in the best way, or even whether it was sensible in terms of achieving the declared object.

Involving the House in considering how we might better spend public money would not merely be a political investment but a sound financial investment on the part of the Government. Although the Executive sometimes appear not to believe it, there is immense talent in the House and great specialist expertise that should be put to work on the nation's behalf. Our system still militates against creative spending by Ministers. Departmental spending is still locked into particular programmes or departmental functions.

Ministers are penalised for having a new idea about what to do in their Departments. They are faced with a choice between begging the Chancellor and then the House for a supplementary estimate, or, far more likely, carrying through their brilliant new idea at the expense of equally valuable existing projects. We all have experience of the results in our constituencies, especially in health and education. Many ideas and initiatives have been proposed that could deliver genuine improvements in their respective services, but when they are rolled out locally, they are often achieved only by squeezing existing initiatives in health, education and other sectors.

An allied problem is that public expenditure proposals and their scrutiny are still locked into an annual cycle. Despite a great deal that was said early in the current Administration's term of office, many of those accounting regimes persist in government, even though it is clear that many policy objectives need sustained investment rather than what is provided when there is a need to bid again every year. The House has almost no opportunity to examine the progress of public investments over a longer cycle, and still less ability to call for new objectives of sustained public spending and investment. The consequences of annual budgeting are felt locally and will be familiar to every hon. Member. Important local programmes live from hand to mouth and are never certain whether the central funding that sustains them will be maintained from one year to another.

There are a couple of examples in my constituency. The Bulwell toy library involves one person who provides a service in the local community by getting toys to kids from poorer areas, but who did not know until a week ago—just a couple of weeks before the end of the financial year—whether she would be employed from 1 April. What nonsense. It is a waste of time and effort for a dedicated person to have to bid for their job and not know whether it will continue. The result is that we lose good, public-spirited, community service-oriented people who decide that they cannot tolerate it any longer and seek more stable positions elsewhere. I found out about another local example by talking to my chief constable, who laid off 100 people connected with our burglary reduction initiative. As a serious manager who was uncertain whether the initiative would be renewed at the end of the year, he had to decide whether to keep on the employees until the end of that period, when there might be no funding, or to make a rational managerial decision and lay them off.

We must do better in spending public money and sustaining such projects. What about the answers? I shall leave them to my hon. Friend the Minister. He seems to have many answers to many issues, and I am confident that he can come up with a few in this context. We have talked about the Liaison Committee, the Modernisation Committee, a wider role for the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committees themselves. I propose a more general answer to my own question by urging Governments of whatever political colour to view parliamentary scrutiny of public spending not as a threat or an insult, but as something that will benefit government and Government programmes. No Minister should feel affronted by the House having different ideas on how to spend their Department's money or suggesting that they could spend it in a different way. The House should be a valued partner in matching spending to policy—not a lapdog, a scold or an enemy.

I hope that my hon. Friend will consider these matters seriously, as he did those that I raised in the Christmas Adjournment debate, and I look forward to his comments. This is a long-term question for all hon. Members and for all parties. We must decide whether to give our Parliament a real role as we enter a new century or to continue to play at discussing policy issues without getting to the heart of policy implementation, which is finance. If this place does not scrutinise finance and get involved in the detail and authorisation of public expenditure, it is nothing.

4.21 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). I agree with much of what he said, and if he had included Crown prerogative in his discussion of the role of enhanced scrutiny, I would be able to agree with all of it. He has done the House a great service.

I always become concerned on behalf of the Parliamentary Secretary at this stage because it seems that he needs such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the workings of government that it will be almost impossible for him to respond to all the points that hon. Members have raised. To assist his economy of thought, I will touch on elements that have already been discussed by the hon. Members for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and for South Swindon (Ms Drown).

My subject concerns almost the fundamental point of why we are here—to represent our constituencies in matters of taxation. The taxation that I have in mind is not nationally derived income tax, but the council tax, demands for which are currently landing on everybody's doorsteps. Our constituents would expect us to have an opportunity to discuss that before we adjourn for Easter.

As the hon. Member for West Derbyshire said, this year's council tax increases are unsustainable and unfair to individuals—as they were last year and the previous year, and have been for a considerable time. Those increases have the greatest impact on people with fixed incomes, limited incomes, or both—especially pensioners who find that whatever minimal increase they receive in their pensions is more than wiped out by their council tax demands.

The Government have two traditional responses when the size of council tax increases is discussed. First, they announce to an inquiring world that some completely mythical figure will be the average council tax increase across the country. This year they suggested that it would be about 5 or 6 per cent. Yet we have only to look at district and county council tax increases across all our shire counties to realise that that is a myth. The vast majority are having to impose an increase that is greater than the suggested average, and many are hugely in excess of that.

The second defence is that those councils are uniquely incompetent or profligate. It is often suggested that that depends on local political control, and that a party in one part of the country has simply decided to impose massive increases on council tax payers in that area. That will not wash any more. It is not true, and the public increasingly understand that because newspapers are getting their heads around local government finance and are not prepared to accept Government announcements at face value. That applies to successive Governments, not only the current Administration.

The Daily Express announced an increase in council tax of 15 per cent. in a banner headline. The Times considered the reasons for the changes in council tax and the shift from national to local taxation. In my area, the Western Daily Press reports that all councils in the south-west face the same problems. It does not matter whether councils are controlled by Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party or the Labour party because they have the same problems. No council wishes to increase the council tax any more than it has to; every council finds that it has to do that, not to improve services or to add value to them but because the system functions in that way.

People in Somerset are upset by the increases there, but that also applies to our neighbours in Dorset. For example, the newly elected Conservative district council in Christchurch—elected on a manifesto commitment to cut council tax—has increased the council tax by more than 30 per cent. It did that because it had no choice; taxation has been transferred from national to local level. That applies to many councils.

Shire counties that are increasing their council tax by more than 20 per cent. include district councils in East Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, Surrey, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. Such increases are universal.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

To help our deliberations, let me give the example of Bromley borough council, where a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition managed to increase the council tax by 35 per cent. in the past three years. The Conservatives regained control last summer and announced an increase of 4.5 per cent. for this year, as well as the ridiculous Assembly surcharge. How has it managed to do that?

Mr. Heath

The right hon. Gentleman shows what a lottery the council tax is. One Conservative council increases it by more than 30 per cent. and others decrease it. For example, Islington and Liverpool, which are urban, Liberal Democrat councils, have cut the council tax this year, unlike the Conservative council in Bromley. A system whereby decisions are taken nationally and based on a clearly defective formula is nonsensical.

I am making the same argument as the hon. Member for West Derbyshire when he objected to the impact on Derbyshire. The formula is currently dysfunctional. Local thrift and good management are not rewarded, and many councils face impossible decisions about providing services that people want. That is wrong. I shall not go into detail about Somerset because that would overtire hon. Members. There has also been an Adjournment debate on the subject.

The Government are in denial about social services expenditure and the effect of delayed discharges and closures of elderly persons' homes. They do not appear to understand the impact of what is happening, especially in the south-west and the south-east, on social services departments. It is no good saying that much more money has been spent and that the problem is therefore solved. It is not; the extra money was given with one hand and taken away with the other.

Flooding is another example of such denial. Everyone is aware of the effects of flooding over the last few years, and of the need to invest more in flood defences, yet the Government are not providing the cash for that. That is a matter of great concern.

Another small, but important illustration of this phenomenon was provided when I visited the Cary environmental site in my constituency last week. It is a marvellous area, and I put on my wellies and trudged through the bulrushes in the marshes, which have been created from a waste disposal site. The site has been restored, recovered and put to good environmental use—an excellent concept, brilliantly executed—in providing real environmental advantage and educational opportunities for children.

I was in the company of the chairman of the trust that runs the site, and he told me about his tee-shirt, which says on it, "Somerset Levels Mountain Rescue Team". For those who do not know the Somerset levels, the concept of a mountain there is a rather strange one. This was a joke. There is, however, a mountain of fridges—of all things—developing next door on the Dimmer waste disposal site, about which I have had my doubts for all sorts of reasons associated with its situation, rather than its management.

It is ludicrous that local authorities have to pay for the storage of mountains of fridges. It is estimated that it is going to cost this country £75 million this year to store them. Why? Because a Minister and our civil service could not, apparently, read the piece of paper that was put in front of them to sign by the European Union, and because they did not understand the consequences for the country of signing it. This will have an impact on local council tax payers, and on the environment, which could have been avoided but was not, because it was not foreseen, and because the Government have been slow to come forward with solutions.

Other Members wish to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. I would, however, like to make just one more point. I have spoken at length about the aggregates levy in the past, because I represent the Mendip area and the limestone aggregate quarried from there supplies the products from which a great deal of the infrastructure of the south-east is probably built. The three counties of Somerset, Leicestershire and Derbyshire between them provide the majority of the stone that is quarried in this country.

I have my quarrels with the way in which the aggregates levy has been imposed, and is to be administered. I am greatly disturbed at the moment by the so-called sustainability fund, which was supposed to be the reason behind the levy. The argument was that people who lived near quarries suffered unacceptable detriment to their environment and amenities, and that the levy would be recycled to provide a solution to some of those problems. Apparently, however, the Government now intend to siphon off all the money into national funds for national purposes—all very worthy ones, I am sure, but it will not be used to make a jot of difference to the people who live cheek-by-jowl with the quarrying industry in the three counties that bear the brunt of its activities.

That cannot be right in principle, because that was not the basis on which the aggregates levy was sold to us. It cannot be right in detail, because the levy is due to come into effect in a couple of weeks' time and we still do not know how the sustainability fund will operate, which again shows extraordinary incompetence on the part of the Government. Furthermore, it cannot be right because, even if Somerset, Leicestershire and Derbyshire were to take up the offer on the table from the Government to have a certain amount of money top-sliced from the sustainability fund, that would still be less than half of what the Government had proposed, and less than half of the additional cost to those counties of the operations of their local authorities in terms of the effect of the aggregates levy on building in the counties.

This so-called environmental tax is, therefore, not going to have the desired effect at quarry level, for the reasons that we have debated at length. It will not even have the effect of environmental betterment on localities, because of the way in which the Government propose to operate the funds. I ask the Government to reconsider this issue as a matter of urgency, and I hope that this message will be delivered to the Treasury and to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I also hope that we will develop a system for funding local government that is transparent and fair, and that does not include the absurd addition of the area cost adjustment, which so distorts the funding systems in this country at the moment.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

My hon. Friend has rightly raised concerns about the council tax and the lack of transparency of the funding mechanism—the mechanism by which central Government badly fund local government. Does he share my view that a necessary part of the package is to get rid of council tax, to introduce a much fairer system of local income tax, based on people's ability to pay, and to combine that with a system in which a greater proportion of the money that is spent locally is raised locally, with a corresponding reduction in national income tax? Under such a system, people would know who to blame when things went wrong, and, of course, who to praise when they get things right.

Mr. Heath

My hon. Friend is right. A great criticism of the council tax is that it is so sparingly progressive in its effect, and that it impacts horribly on people who can least afford it, in a way that is inappropriate. It is transparently unfair—if such a concept exists—in the way in which it operates. I think that the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made the point earlier that the difficulty with such a system is that councillors in local government simply get the blame for everything and the credit for nothing because they can take no decisions—or only those that would have a marginal effect—that allow people to connect their actions with the amount of tax being paid. That devalues the whole process of local government.

Local government today is not the local government that I entered back in 1985. When I was running a county council, I had the capacity to change the way in which Somerset operated. The decisions that my colleagues and I took then made a difference to the way in which local authority services were provided. There was a cost to local people of our taking those decisions, and we had to persuade them that we were justified. That is the way local government should work. A system that makes that relationship impossible to discern devalues the whole process of local government, and allows central Government to hide behind the mask of local government when taking decisions centrally in Whitehall.

If we can replace council tax and the uniform business rate—about which I could speak at equal length, because it is an iniquitous tax that disconnects local businesses from the services provided—with a fairer system that would re-establish those connections, we might start to see local government doing the job that we want it to do, taking local decisions for local people in the local interest. That is what it is all about.

It is wrong that the overlaying effects of the standard spending assessment make a child in a Somerset school worth £1,500 a year less—in the Government's terms—than a child in an outer-London suburb. It is also wrong to have systems that unfairly penalise the whole of the west country, the north country and the midlands in favour of the home counties. It is time to introduce the new system that the Government have promised us for so long. It must be in place next year, and it must correct these evils if we are to see proper connections being made and people voting at local government level on proper facts relating to the performance of their local councillors and councils, rather than a myth, which is all that they have to go on at the moment.

4.39 pm
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being in my place at the start of this debate. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) but I wish that he had shared with the House the fact that Liverpool city council, in setting a budget, not only cut social services expenditure substantially this year, but will do so in the coming year. Of course, there is a distinction between that and the comments made by Liberal Democrat Members in relation to Government expenditure.

I want to raise briefly an important issue for my constituents, which, I suspect, is reflected in constituencies across the country. I know that it has been raised in the House on many occasions. That issue is the scandal of energy mis-selling, which has not been dealt with adequately up to now. It was brought home to me a year or two ago by a retired aunt of mine in Scotland, who is relatively frail and quite elderly. She was doorstepped by a salesman, and the pressurised sales tactics that he undertook meant that she signed a form almost without knowing what she was doing. She did, however, contact me almost immediately. Because of that contact, I was able to take the necessary steps to undo the damage that she had suffered. She would not have spoken to anyone else about it—she came to me because she is a relative. Many people who suffer from these tactics do not come forward, but I have noticed a significant increase in this sort of abuse in my constituency. Let me give a couple of recent examples.

A constituent of mine, Mrs. Brimmicombe-Wood, unexpectedly received a letter from Virgin Energy recently. She was surprised and shocked to read that her husband had authorised a switch from her previous company to Virgin Energy. The reason that she was shocked and surprised was that her husband had died 18 months previously. His signature, which she requested to see, must therefore have been a forgery. Her reaction was: I am absolutely disgusted, it is a scandal that should never happen. It was very upsetting. Mrs. Brimmicombe-Wood then wrote three times to Virgin Energy to try to get things changed. It was only because of my intervention as her Member of Parliament that she received an apology. Indeed, she was able to transfer her account back to the company of which she was previously a customer. Virgin Energy wrote to her: It is clear that the signature does not match that provided by yourself. Clearly it was not your intention to transfer your supplies to Virgin Energy. The sales agent concerned will be interviewed and please be assured that the appropriate action will be taken—this may result in dismissal". I understand that it did result in dismissal. Although I have no sympathy for the salesman concerned, I would sympathise if he were to say that the problem relates to the pressure of commission selling in the industry, which has caused such abuses.

Let us consider a second case of someone who does not want to be named—I shall call her Mrs. X. Mrs. X was, to her great surprise, transferred to Scottish Power. She was particularly surprised because, when the salesman came to her door, her partner was with her continuously throughout the interview, and both of them totally contradict what Scottish Power has said. They signed nothing, and I have requested on her behalf a copy of that signature. We await with interest—this is a very recent case—the company's response to Mrs. X's claims.

Some would argue that we should go back to the old days of the electricity boards and British Gas, when the supply of utilities was a simple matter. I do not accept that. I believe that deregulation of the energy industry has been good for consumers in general. We must also recognise, however, that many companies are falling over each other to win the custom of consumers. Although it has delivered consumer benefit and greater choice, it has also created enormous pressure for all the companies that have come into the market to sign up customers. That is for a simple reason—there is a fixed number of customers. This is a zero sum game. If a company wants new customers, it must take them from one or other of its competitors. What has happened is that consumers have become somewhat confused by the choices available to them. As can be shown, there is a worrying trend of mis-selling in the marketplace. That issue has been raised on numerous occasions in the House, and I want to quote a recent response by the Minister for Industry and Energy: I have recently written to all gas and electricity suppliers to express my concern about the distress caused by incidences of sales malpractice and demand that suppliers improve their performances."—[Official Report, 16 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 918W.] I would be interested to know what progress the Minister has made in seeking reassurances from the industry.

There are many advantages to having competition in energy markets. There is evidence to suggest that it keeps prices down, and there is some evidence—although less—that it provides a better service for the customer. That type of market requires regulation, which was why Ofgem was originally set up. I shall consider whether Ofgem is responding to the real concerns about the way in which the market operates. I also want to commend the work being done by Energywatch, which is an independent consumer watchdog that tries to represent the consumer in a relationship with some of those companies.

Many investigations are taking place—hon. Members have referred to the work being done by the Public Accounts Committee. I am also a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, and it does a tremendous job. It highlighted not only some of the advantages that have come from deregulation but the disadvantages in the marketplace. It made three recommendations in relation to those. First, it recommended that Ofgem should provide a standardised approved form—and a simplified form—for all the companies that want to change customers over. That will ensure that every consumer knows exactly what they are signing up to before they do so. Secondly, it recommended that Ofgem should focus on some of the measures that it needs to take to curb high-pressure sales tactics and some of the misleading information that has gone out to consumers. Consumer information is critically important. Thirdly, it recommended that Ofgem should make use of the powers that are available but that it is not currently using. For example, it can fine companies that are found guilty of such activities.

Energywatch has also recognised some of these concerns and its recent "Stop Now" campaign tries to make it clear to consumers that such sales tactics are unacceptable and must be dealt with. It also encourages consumers to complain to the energy companies. Consumers did not complain much in the past, but I hope that they will do so in future. Some developments, however, are heartening. The statistics show that, from January to October 2001, Energywatch received 2,205 complaints about the gas market and 3,442 complaints about the electricity market. There has been success in encouraging people to bring their complaints forward, and recent statistics show that the number is increasing. We have yet to see whether that is because more people are coming forward or because abuse is increasing.

Echoing some of the comments in the Public Account Committee's report, Energy watch has also made recommendations that it hopes that my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy will take up. I shall mention one or two of those recommendations. Energywatch believes that Ofgem must strengthen the rules with which energy companies have to comply. That is important, because we need compliance to ensure that abuse does not continue.

Energywatch says that Ofgem must use the full range of its powers, because it does not use all those that it has to make the energy companies comply with the rules. Ofgem must investigate ways to tighten the controls that currently exist, so that it ensures that the companies are doing everything necessary to create an adequate market. Finally, Ofgem must ensure that proper compensation is paid when someone suffers distress and inconvenience. Because Ofgem believes that the current market operates solely to the benefit of the consumer, it often does not recognise the distress that certain practices cause, particularly to the elderly.

My hon. Friend the Minister will valiantly have to answer for every Department on every issue raised, but I ask him to raise these issues with my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy, who I know shares my concerns and is somewhat frustrated that Ofgem does not use all its available powers. In recent months, I and many other hon. Members have expressed concerns about the activities that I have described, and action needs to he taken. Ofgem has the powers, and it is for Ministers to put pressure on Ofgem so that consumers do not suffer in future.

4.52 pm
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Before I raise my main subject, may I reiterate the concerns about the Post Office expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)? The Post Office will be a difficult problem for the Government to tackle and I hope that careful thought is being given to how we can best preserve the role of local community post offices, many of which, including those in urban areas, are likely to close.

I represent a constituency that is mostly urban, and I know from my experience that the Post Office is the centrepiece of a community. Elderly people, for example, require such a facility to collect their pensions and to meet their friends. They use the post office as an everyday facility that benefits the community. I hope that there will not be mass closures of post offices across the country. Rural areas are likely to be particularly affected, but I hope that consideration will be given to the consequences in urban areas such as my constituency of Romford.

Two years ago, I led a local campaign to save the post office in Rise Park. We succeeded, and I was amazed by the response that we received from the entire community. It thought that it would lose its post office and that elderly people would have to travel long distances simply to claim their weekly pension entitlements. I hope that such issues will be given careful thought in the months ahead.

The main issue that I wish to raise is this Government's and all Governments' attitudes in recent years towards British people who do not live on these islands. I refer to the people who live in the British overseas territories and, in particular, to the loyal British subjects who live on the rock of Gibraltar. They have been treated appallingly by the present Government.

Only last week, we saw on our television screens thousands of people demonstrating not for better hospitals, better schools, wage increases or better working conditions, but simply for democracy—for the right to remain British subjects. How can it be right that anyone should have to demonstrate in such numbers, simply to defend their right to remain British? How many Members of this House would tolerate their constituents being treated in the same way as this Government appear to be treating the good people of Gibraltar?

Yesterday, a delegation of the Gibraltar Women's Association visited Buckingham palace—in fact, it is still in London—to present a 16,000-strong petition to Her Majesty the Queen, asking for the issue of Gibraltar to be given the prominence that it deserves, and for Gibraltarians' rights and freedoms to be defended. Last week's demonstration and yesterday's petition are two examples of how betrayed the people of that territory feel by the way the Government are treating them. They are indeed loyal British people, and they deserve better. They deserve to be treated in the same way as we expect our own constituents to be treated. No Member of this House would tolerate such attacks on their own constituents, so why do we tolerate them in respect of the people of Gibraltar? It is time that we gave them an equal, democratic say in the things that affect their everyday lives.

The kingdom of Spain is a democracy, a NATO ally and a so-called partner in the European Union, but it bullies the people of Gibraltar. How can that be right? At the moment, at least, Spain is not behaving as an ally or a friend. Indeed, given its treatment of British people, I consider it a fair-weather friend, and I have recent first-hand experience of that.

Just over a month ago, I flew from London to Gibraltar, accompanied by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride). The weather was atrocious, making it too dangerous to land on the Rock of Gibraltar. However, our flight was not diverted to Malaga—in the kingdom of Spain, our ally—as one would expect; instead, we were told that Spain would not allow the plane to land because it was a Gibraltarian flight. We were diverted to Tangiers, in Morocco, where we had to wait some considerable time for the flight to be re-designated as a Tangier-Malaga flight. On arriving at Malaga several hours later, we then had to travel to Gibraltar.

The most appalling aspect of that incident was not the fact that five Members of the British House of Commons were delayed on their trip to Gibraltar, but that on board the flight was the coffin of a young Gibraltarian, who had died in tragic circumstances. His parents were waiting at Gibraltar airport for the coffin to arrive, and the funeral was due to take place that same day. The Spanish authorities would not allow the coffin to be transported from Malaga to Gibraltar, so his poor family—distressed and distraught at the death of their son—were made to wait, only to discover that the funeral could not take place. The coffin then had to be flown to London, and was flown back again some days later. How can that be right? How can we stand by and watch British people be treated in such an appalling and unfair manner?

Although I am a Conservative Member and I speak for almost every other Conservative Member in respect of this issue, I should point out to the Minister that many dozens of Labour Members also feel very strongly about it. I should like to quote the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for whom I have the utmost respect because of his principled stance on this issue. In a recent letter to a newspaper, he said: Unwilling to take Spain to the European Court for her behaviour, the British Government has resorted to appeasement and bribery, waving the promise of sovereignty of Gibraltar in return for more telephone lines. Is it any surprise that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar refuses to attend talks based on such a premise? If Labour Members have such views and feel the same as many Conservative Members, surely it is time for the Government to address this issue.

I want to develop my remarks to take in not only Gibraltar but the overseas territories in general. I am very proud to speak as secretary of both the Gibraltar all-party group and the Falkland Islands all-party group. The way in which Britain has administered her remaining overseas territories is a national disgrace. Uniquely among European countries such as France, the Netherlands and Spain, Britain's attitude towards her remaining colonial possessions has resulted in her pushing them further away, offering them a baffling array of constitutional arrangements and forms of citizenship that never fully equal those on the British mainland.

Although I welcome the move to award full British citizenship to all inhabitants of the overseas territories, we must go further. It is time that we stopped regarding them as mere colonial relics and offered their citizens equal status with everybody else in the United Kingdom, including representation here in the British Parliament.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

The hon. Gentleman implied that the Netherlands treats its overseas territories rather better. What overseas territories does the Netherlands have?

Mr. Rosindell

The Dutch Antilles.

Dr. Vis


Mr. Rosindell


The people of the overseas territories, who are British, as we are, do not have a democratic vote for this Parliament, which is their Parliament too. The people of Gibraltar should have their own elected Member of Parliament. It was recently announced that the Western Isles is to retain its MP. I believe that its electoral population is about 20,000. I believe that Gibraltar has slightly more voters, so there is no reason, in numerical terms, why Gibraltar should not also have an MP to represent it in this Chamber.

Furthermore, in the reform of the House of Lords we have a great opportunity to give all British people in the overseas territories the right to send representatives to the British Parliament. Some Members may recall that I spoke in a debate a few weeks ago in which I proposed that we reform the House at least partly on a territorial basis, which would give all overseas territories at least one representative in the newly formed, democratically elected House of Lords. Why should not the overseas territories have a voice in this Parliament, which is their Parliament too?

Most of the overseas territories would welcome with open arms integration and representation of that type. Their current Governments could remain in place as devolved authorities. As we see in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the principle has now been established that it is possible to have a devolved Assembly or Parliament and still have representation in the House of Commons. There would be no inconsistency in Gibraltar retaining its House of Assembly and having representatives here.

Opinion polls held in Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, St. Helena, Montserrat and the Pitcairn Islands consistently show that for their inhabitants integration is the preferred form of constitutional settlement. It has worked well for their French and Spanish equivalents. Uninhabited territories, such as South Georgia, could be integrated immediately.

Some territories, such as Gibraltar, enjoy a special tax status, and the argument put to me by the Foreign Secretary during a recent debate on Gibraltar was that that status would be lost by integration. However, that is not necessarily the case; it is not a barrier to integration, as experience in other European Union member states proves. For example, Spain secured the duty-free status of its integrated territories in North Africa—Ceuta and Melilla—despite their being inside the EU. Similarly, the Netherlands secured special tax status for the Dutch Antilles.

I want to devote the rest of my comments to Gibraltar, given the profound constitutional uncertainty that the Government have chosen to engineer there. The Government's policy on Gibraltar is obsequious and wrong. Rather than force Madrid by all available means to abandon its unfounded claim, the Government have put the future of the territory up for negotiation—believing it to be, as the Minister for Europe claimed, an anachronism.

Madrid's stance betrays the many occasions on which Gibraltar has aided Spain. When British forces liberated Spain from Napoleon, they came through Gibraltar. During the anti-fascist campaign against Franco, Gibraltar gave Spanish refugees food and shelter. Franco never forgave the territory for giving succour to his enemies. For all its democratic reforms, modern Spain, sadly, maintains Franco's line.

The Government try to justify their negotiations by claiming, in effect, "Short of gunboats, what else can we do?" The answer is that Gibraltarians must be given the same status as mainland British citizens, with their own Member of Parliament. An opinion poll commissioned by the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation found that a plurality of Gibraltarians support integration, while a lesser number support other options, including free association with the United Kingdom and independence. A much smaller number want shared sovereignty or Spanish control.

Integrating Gibraltar in that way would end Madrid's perception of a half-open door against which she can continue to push. Spain herself provides a model for that policy, having integrated most of her overseas territories—with the result that they are now celebrated and constitutionally stable, and not subject to repeated referendums on their future.

Last year, in evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Europe claimed that integrating Gibraltar would contravene the treaty of Utrecht. The treaty is, however, no obstacle to the integration of the territory. Under the treaty, Gibraltar is forfeit to Spain only should Britain "alienate" the territory. Integration scarcely constitutes alienation. The right hon. Gentleman also commented that integration of that sort is not compatible with the modern era—whatever he means by that. Does he think that our European partners, including France and Spain, are living in the past?

Meanwhile, Madrid clings to her dictatorial claim that the Gibraltarians' views are irrelevant. The Spanish Foreign Minister claims that by holding talks the UK and Spain are "building a house". Gibraltarians, he adds, may be allowed to choose the colour of the rooms". Unfortunately, under the treaty of Utrecht, he actually has a point. Under the treaty, Gibraltar must be in either British or Spanish hands, without regard for its inhabitants' opinions.

Times and opinions change. The treaty of Utrecht was written in the age when monarchs signed over territories with little regard for their inhabitants. I hope that the Prime Minister is not hoping to emulate an ancient monarch. When Gibraltar had little civilian population, of course there was no need to give those people the right to decide, but nothing could be further from the truth today.

The legal and political standards of the 21st century leave the treaty of Utrecht in tatters. The many ways in which the treaty has been broken include the existence of Jewish and Moorish populations on the Rock. Spain's many sieges of the territory also breached the treaty. As well as being broken, the treaty has been superseded by the treaty of Rome in 1957 and the United Nations declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples in 1960.

It is time that all sides acknowledged that the treaty of Utrecht—broken, superseded and incongruent with the democratic age as it is today—is not worth the parchment that it is written on. It is the treaty that is an anachronism, not Gibraltar.

We must end the crude and illegal pressure placed on Gibraltar by the kingdom of Spain, but negotiation is not the way to do so. Spain is in direct breach of international law and lacks any support in Gibraltar, yet for years London has squandered opportunities to force the matter—failing, for example, to block Spain's accession to the European Union or, more recently, to NATO until it dropped its claim. Rewarding Spain for its intransigence would be a betrayal of the loyal Gibraltarian people and of their right of self-determination.

We should be proud that the Gibraltarians wish to remain British, and not treat them as a colonial anachronism. It is time that we gave the people of Gibraltar and all British subjects, wherever they may live in the world, the same democratic rights, the same liberty and the same freedoms that we would demand for our constituents.

5.12 pm
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

My comments will be brief and will address only one local issue—the Finchley Memorial hospital, which I have visited many times.

On Saturday, I attended the 45th annual general meeting of the friends of the Finchley Memorial hospital. They are a seriously good group of friends, extremely ably led by Mrs. Marion Randall, who chaired the meeting. The friends have just secured a new ultrasound scanner, after a funding campaign this year that collected £25,000. Local residents therefore do not have to wait for weeks, as the scanner is on the premises.

Equally impressive is the fact that this small community hospital treated some 24,000 local people in the past year, and all within a few minutes of their arrival. I know that the national health service is under tremendous pressure, but there are many success stories that seem to go unnoticed about health in this country. The latest report of Finchley Memorial indicates that the level of appreciation and satisfaction with treatment there is close to 100 per cent., and that certainly is due to high staff morale, excellent doctors, nurses and other staff and the friendly atmosphere that exists in that community hospital.

Vice-chair Peter Packer has also been a stalwart for many decades and I have enjoyed rattling the collection box with the treasurer of the friends, Jim McLauchlan, on several occasions. The shop Homebase has been particularly helpful in allowing that to happen on its premises.

As in many other hospitals, the friends are getting older by the day, and it would be good to attract some younger constituents to assist them. That point was put in a characteristically endearing way by Miss Valerie Chapman, the honorary membership secretary.

Of course, I realise that there are differences between a community hospital with only a minor casualty department run by excellent local general practitioners and larger hospitals that perform the whole range of NHS work. I also accept the need for economies of scale and specialisation. However, it is good to have community hospitals, particularly as their out-patients tend to have to make only short journeys.

A vote of thanks to the officers and committee members of the friends was given by Mrs. Jenny Chung, who looks after the day hospital and sometimes does night duty on the wards.

The senior person with overall responsibility for the hospital is Mr. Anil Sohun, and the friends have an excellent relationship with him. He was also mainly responsible for setting up the mental health ward and the mental health team to look after those patients.

I also much enjoyed the excellent talk given at the AGM by local resident Professor John Hartley, who is professor of cancer studies at University college, London. He is a foremost cancer research expert and the title of his lecture was "An Exciting Time for Cancer Research". I had met Professor Hartley only socially before, so I was much looking forward to his address, and we were not disappointed—he was able to capture his audience about cancer, which is, after all, a frightening disease. In conclusion, he talked about his new love of bringing science and arts together with local artists, and I am looking forward to the exhibition, which will take place soon.

I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to convey to the Secretary of State for Health the fact that he will be very welcome to visit Finchley Memorial hospital any day.

5.17 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I wish to raise several issues before the House adjourns for the Easter recess. First, it is clear that the Government are not in good order. Indeed, they are in complete disarray. Although it might be an illusion at the moment, if the Government Benches were packed we would see a seething mass of discontent. The reason for that is clear: after Labour were elected in 1997, they said, "Yes, we are having some difficulties, but it is all the fault of 18 years of Conservative government." That line used to wear well on the doorstep, but Labour Members find that it no longer does so, as the Government enter their second term in office. The general public are sick to death of the blame culture that comes from Labour Members.

The present situation is dire. Whether in education, law and order, the health service, transport or defence, the Government are in crisis. The Leader of the House may shake his head. [Interruption.] Well, he has a certain way with him. I thought that he was shaking his head. My constituents feel that the Government have made a complete and absolute mess of things.

Let me start with law and order. The Prime Minister made his name with the cry, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." That has become a sick joke. Just a few weeks ago, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis addressed a conference at which he told everyone that the criminal justice system does not work. What sort of signal does that send to my constituents? The leading police officer made a speech, which he knew would be widely broadcast, telling everyone that the criminal justice system is in disarray.

Some may have thought that the Commissioner's relationship with the Home Secretary was such that that speech would not be made. Of course, we then find out that a conference was hastily arranged at 10 Downing street. After the conference, the same gentleman came out and said, "Yippee! It's the greatest conference we've ever had. We've been listened to and everything will be fixed."

Of course, two weeks ago hon. Members were lobbied by serving police officers. They lined up peacefully outside the Palace of Westminster to express their concerns to Members of Parliament about pay and conditions. It did not seem to me that all was well. The officers were unhappy about how the Government were treating them. In addition, it was announced that people in prison who have committed certain crimes will be released early. If that is the Prime Minister's idea of joined-up Government, God help us. He has been shot out of the ground on law and order issues.

Police launches in Essex are a major concern for my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has also been lobbied on the issue. Leigh-on-Sea town council wrote to me recently to say that there is a proposal to reduce the number of police launches in Essex from two to one. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) lives in Southend, West so he, too, may have been lobbied on that 50 per cent. reduction.

The town council wrote to the chief constable and was not reassured by the reply. It thinks that reducing the number of launches will, in turn, reduce the valuable service provided by the police marine section at a time when criminal damage on and to boats is increasing. In a letter to me, it states: It makes working and recreational boats in Leigh-on-Sea and other areas more vulnerable, and when the reduction becomes public knowledge may well encourage more criminality in the estuary if criminals think that there is a reduction in the chance of them being caught. The line is that there is no reduction, just a reorganisation that has nothing to do with money. However, that claim has been blown out of the water. Essex yacht club wrote to the police and received the following response: Following several cost-cutting reviews, the Essex Police Marine Unit is being reduced in size both in manpower and equipment, with one launch being disposed of, with four officers being redeployed to core policing roles. There was no mention of safety: nothing about looking after our constituents or preventing children from getting into difficulty when they play near the estuary. The reduction is the result of a cost-cutting review. I am disgusted, as are my constituents.

My hon. Friends mentioned the Post Office. I listened carefully to yesterday's announcement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. She mentioned the difficulties that Consignia is in. In spite of the huge job losses, she explained that the changes were necessary. Time after time, the Government accuse the Conservative party of forgetting what it did when it was in government. However, Labour Members forget how they reacted to job losses when in opposition. Every time a job loss was announced, the Labour Opposition did not say that it was because of the prevailing market or because we had to keep up with technology. Instead, they made the straightforward political hit that it was all the fault of the Conservative Government. The Labour Government have to defend job losses all the time, and it is a bit rich for them to say that such losses are fine because they are in government and they always look after working-class people. As far as I am concerned, the Labour party is out of touch with working-class people, and they have abandoned them the length and breadth of the country.

I am concerned to learn that Southend might lose Parcelforce. I continually receive complaints, not about the postwomen and men, who are wonderful, but about the service overall—the mail arrives late, there is only one delivery a day, and there are all sorts of other problems. Losing Parcelforce would be a huge blow to Southend and my constituents.

I raised the issue of Southend airport at Christmas and I shall do so again today. The Civil Aviation Authority has visited the airport, which has existed for many years, to say that a change must be made to the runway. It suggests that as part of that change St. Laurence and All Saints church, which is 1,000 years old, should be moved. For obvious reasons, the proposal has not gone down well with parishioners, not least because the church is consecrated ground. Although whether one is a Christian is a private matter, the church is dear to local residents, who are extremely upset about the proposal.

The issues surrounding the airport have now grown. The airport has and always has had a licence to operate, but for various reasons the number of commercial flights from the airport has been declining for some time. Now, we learn that there is a body of people who are greatly concerned about the airport itself—in fact, one might think that some of that group were suggesting that the airport should close.

The way in which the issues have become muddied is most unfortunate. A large number of people depend for their livelihood on the jobs that the airport provides, and I hope that the issues triggered by the CAA's requirements for change will be carefully considered. I appeal to the Leader of the House to have a word with the appropriate Minister to see whether the CAA can provide more help.

I commend to the House early-day motion 1021, tabled by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), who has done the House a service by drawing to its attention the fact that the network card is to be withdrawn. As hon. Members know, that card encourages off-peak travel and makes short journeys far more attractive to non-commuters.

The Association of Train Operating Companies has acted quickly and sent most hon. Members a letter. Some might not yet have had time to read it, but I hope that those who do will not be seduced by it, because a careful reading reveals that it in no way means that what the companies are offering is a substitute for the network card. As far as I can see, they definitely plan to get rid of the card altogether and they will offer no discount on short trips in future. Our constituents will be extremely upset about that.

On education, the Government know only too well that it is extremely difficult to recruit and retain teachers. Several local teachers who do supply teaching or who teach for as little as one day a week have brought to my attention the registration fee charged by the General Teaching Council. Hon. Members might think that £23 is not a lot, but I can assure them that some teachers have strong feelings about the fact that they are asked to pay the full fee, rather than a scaled down sum.

I shall not bore the House by going through all the correspondence. The Minister for School Standards, who has been most helpful, has offered to examine the issue. A payment to teachers of £33 is suggested, but it will not be built into the teachers' pay award. In a letter I have here, the GTC admits that it has been overwhelmed by teachers' protests about the fee and says that The possibility of a scaled fee structure in the future will be kepi under review by the Council. It would be helpful if a Minister got onto the General Teaching Council and said, "Look, we've got a problem, but it can easily be fixed."

Finally, on animal welfare, a few weeks ago I had the privilege of introducing a ten-minute Bill which would increase the prison sentence that could be imposed for illegally importing endangered species from two to five years; at the moment, that is not an arrestable offence. I know that not everyone is interested in animal welfare, but all Members were interested in foot and mouth. A number of zoologists and scientists have told me about the dangers that illegally imported exotic animals may pose. For instance, exotic Newcastle disease is a viral disease that affects all species of birds and is probably one of the most infectious diseases among poultry. There are a number of examples across the world where disease spread by an illegally imported bird has led to all the stock over a wide area being culled. When my Bill comes up for Second Reading on 16 April, it would be terribly helpful if there were no shouts of "Object".

In conclusion, I am involved in a charity walk, and am walking down every road, cul-de-sac, footpath and byway in my Southend, West constituency, where there was an election last year. I am doing so to raise money for Fairhaven hospice, the local branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the mayor's charity. If our legs are in good order, it is a good thing to walk. Young people are seduced too easily into thinking that it is all right to get into their car with a mobile phone under their chin; in my constituency, walkers are overwhelmingly elderly people. I hope that Members will reflect on that.

Bob Spink

I congratulate my hon. Friend on recently achieving a ripe old age, and hope that he has a wonderful birthday celebration this evening. If I sponsor him for his charity walk, will he sponsor me for my charity run in the London marathon?

Mr. Amess

I know that the House is quietly groaning, but yes, I will. I shall go on my charity walk, and wish all hon. Members and the staff who work here a happy and joyful Easter recess.

5.33 pm
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

I wish to discuss a local issue—a dispute with my local community health trust—which I regret having to raise in the House. For over three years, I have pursued all formal means of following up my concerns, but have been left with no option but to take this means of making them public.

At stake is the important democratic principle of whether Members of Parliament should be allowed to represent the interests of their constituents and whether they should be allowed to hold bodies such as NHS trusts to account. The original issue was simple: a constituent of mine was summarily dismissed from her staff post on what I have demonstrated was a trumped-up charge of professional misconduct. She appealed, and her post was filled while her appeal was pending. She won her appeal—there is no evidence from the records of the appeal to suggest anything other than thatmbut management treated her as if she had lost. She was redeployed to another post on a salary £8,000 lower than her original salary.

Over the past three years this has become a very complicated matter, and my file on it is now very thick. Each attempt I have made to question the actions of management, which I believe amount to maladministration, has been met by the same sort of response. The responses are characterised by a determined attempt to block me. They have used evasion, selection of facts and distortion of the history of events, and have generally imposed layer upon layer of obfuscation.

There have been dirty tricks, too. There have been insulting references to me. I can wear that: I am a Member of Parliament. But there have been allegations, totally unfounded and untrue, that I pursued the matter only in return for sexual favours from the member of staff concerned. I have met her only once, in the boardroom of the community health trust. Another health service employee has received warnings not to pursue a relationship with her if he values his career in the NHS, and I believe there have been many attempts to block her opportunities of obtaining other posts. It has been very, very dirty.

The management have protested that, according to their solicitors, nothing wrong has been done—that the North West regional executive has examined the situation, and can find nothing wrong. That is naturally true: the case was presented to it by the very people whom I wish to call to account.

For three years I offered repeatedly to present my case directly to the board, and for three years I was steadfastly ignored. I therefore went to the board's December meeting and intervened, directly requesting my own meeting with the board to present my case in person. That request, too, was ignored. I wrote to the chairman in January in order to put my request in writing. He eventually refused it, on the specious ground that it concerned a confidential matter that the board could not discuss with me—specious, because it avoids two issues.

The member of staff strongly wishes me to present confidential matters affecting her to the board. There is nothing to stop the board from listening to what I have to say, and then going into private session to discuss it along with, perhaps, other confidential matters. I wrote to the non-executive directors pointing out that they too were being deprived of an opportunity to listen to what I had to say and to exercise their own judgment. They requisitioned a meeting of the board so that they could indeed hear what I had to say. Last week one of them contacted me to ask why I had not attended the meeting. It was then that I discovered that, a month earlier, they had received copies of a letter addressed to me inviting me to a meeting. Strangely, I had not received the letter.

Given my bitter experience of dealing with the chief executive and chairman of this trust over three years, I do not believe that the letter went astray in the post. I do not believe that it was ever sent. Yesterday the chairman offered to conduct an internal investigation. I told him not to bother.

Yesterday I attended the final meeting of the trust, which, because of the reorganisation, is going out of existence at the end of this week, and voiced my objections once again. The chairman insisted even then that he would not allow me to present my case, but said that I could meet the non-executive directors informally after the end of the final meeting—the winding-up meeting—of the board. That was the only option left to me, and the only option after that was to take the matter public, in the press or in the House. I chose the House.

I met the non-executive directors informally at the end of their meeting and was interested in their response. They had had a very interesting closed session before meeting me. When I presented my case, they were happy to accept that it fitted a pattern of malpractice that they had identified in other, more serious, areas which they had been discussing in a fraught closed session and which had been referred to the district auditor and up to the Secretary of State for Health for investigation. I feel vindicated—I am not the only person to believe that there was malpractice in the trust.

I ask the Leader of the House to refer my complaints also to the Secretary of State. The former non-executive directors will agree with me. I hope that the Secretary of State will make it clear to all NHS trusts that he will not tolerate attempts to prevent local MPs from holding them democratically to account for their actions.

5.42 pm
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

This is the first such Adjournment debate that I have sat through, and I have found the subjects discussed both enlightening and educational.

I have two local issues to draw to the attention of the House. The first is infrastructure planning—or, rather, the lack of infrastructure planning. Lack of long-term planning is a hindrance to the United Kingdom. It is a hindrance to the economy and local businesses and a pain to individuals. There is not even a joined-up system. The planning process can be painfully drawn out over a number of years, or it can be extremely quick. Things can be built overnight before local residents realise that there was any intention to construct anything.

I know that the Kingskerswell bypass has been mentioned in the House on numerous occasions, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) in recent times. The village of Kingskerswell has the third greatest amount of traffic in Devon. It is beaten only by the traffic flow at the end of the M5 near Exeter and by the traffic crossing the Marsh Mills flyover in Plymouth. However, I am talking about an ordinary road, with sets of traffic lights and houses on either side.

During the summer, the traffic bottleneck delays tourist and business traffic trying to get to and from Torquay. During the winter, there is less of a bottleneck, but the road is still gridlocked at many times of the day. Traffic is forced to use country lanes as a rat run to avoid the slow crawl between Torquay and Newton Abbot.

Lack of planning is a major concern. The road was planned for many years. In the 1970s a length of dual carriageway was built from the end of the M5 as far as Newton Abbot; then it stopped. It is clear from the road layout that it was designed to go on towards Torquay. It is clear from the estate layout and the roads on Buckland, where new estates were built at the time, that they were designed to have feeder roads coming across towards Newton Abbot, so that there was no bottleneck and not just one roundabout to cope with all the traffic.

The local authority in its infinite wisdom allowed a supermarket to be constructed right at the roundabout. That severely restricted the options available to the county council, or the Highways Agency before that, for the design and construction of a road. If it were a major trunk road, there would be a compulsory purchase order and the supermarket would be knocked down; but sadly, that is not in the gift of the county council, which has been left with responsibility for the road, after the Conservative Government removed its trunk road status and said that it was no longer the Government's responsibility. It may be the third busiest road in Devon, but it is now the responsibility of the county council. It was a sad day when the Tories reneged on promises to construct the bypass.

There has been a total lack of planning. A proposal is to be made by the county council, which will have to look for private funding. The process is so long and drawn out, despite the demonstrable need and the desire of local people for the road. There will have to be a consultation process, then planning, and we will end up with a public inquiry. After the funding has been put in place, construction might begin in 2007 or 2008. For the people who live on the road, use the road and suffer the existing road, that is not an acceptable way of planning highway needs. It is also immensely damaging to the economy, particularly of Torquay and to some extent of my constituency.

In addition to infrastructure planning, we must consider road design and the quality of the end product. With the move towards private sector funding for roads, I am worried that we will end up with a result similar to the worst of 1960s housebuilding or motorway design, where everything was done on the cheap.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to drive to Brussels. I shall not comment on the roads in Belgium, but on the roads in France the design of the lay-bys, service stations and toilets is of strikingly high quality. The standard and quality of the design of the bridges, too, is striking. That is the case in other parts of Europe as well.

We tend to end up with cheap, mundane design, which is damaging to the environment and to those who live near the roads or use them every day. We ought to think more clearly about the fact that what we construct will be there for a long time. It is said that doctors bury their mistakes. Architects and civil engineers can only grow ivy in front of theirs, and hope that they disappear one day.

Public transport services are also characterised by a lack of thought and infrastructure planning. I shall not deal with the local bus problems and the lack of rural buses, as that has been dealt with on other occasions. However, I must comment in passing that it is sad when a rural bus service from somewhere in the middle of Dartmoor—Moretonhampstead, say—which takes people to work in Newton Abbot by 9 am has to be withdrawn because of lack of funding, and the earliest that people can get into Newton Abbot now is 10 or 10.30 am. That does not strike me as joined-up thinking about transport systems.

I must also mention rail transport and the use of the rail network—not the big scheme of things, but local services. We need to put in extra local stations. People in Kingskerswell have been campaigning for a new station for a long time.

People in the Bovey Tracey/Heathfield area of my constituency have also been campaigning for some time. A parish council that I met the other night mentioned the matter to me. The rail link to Heathfield, where there is a large housing estate and an industrial estate, could be reopened to passenger transport. The county council has been asked about that, but says that it does not have the resources for an impact study to consider the viability of the options. Again, it all comes down to a lack of planning. I cannot say whether a rail link to Heathfield is a viable option, but if the local community regards it as important, it ought to be considered.

I referred to the problems with the Kingskerswell bypass and the road from the Buckland estate toward Newton Abbott. Not long ago, I asked the county engineer what detailed planning he could undertake on traffic flows east to west across Newton Abbott, which tends to be bottlenecked for most of the summer months, in particular on market days. He said that he did not have the funding to look into that. It is vital that all those areas be considered before viable options are ruled out. The supermarket that was built in Newton Abbott has caused immense problems for the building of the Kingskerswell bypass.

I mentioned the problem that some processes are painfully drawn out, but some are painfully quick. Just after the war, a number of authorities were granted in legislation, for good reason, the right to construct and build without having to refer to or get the consent of local authorities or any other authority. The railways have some such rights, but I am thinking in particular of the docks.

Teignmouth is a viable local port and I wish it every success. I cannot but worry, however, that the port authority has the right to build storage sheds along the entire length of its quay, completely obscuring the views from, and putting a wall of steel in front of, the houses in Alexander terrace and the other streets up the hill behind it—although I realise that there is no right to a view. It cannot be right that no one can question the port authority's right to do that. It goes against all that I understood to be local democracy that that should be allowed to happen. I am saying not that the authority should not be allowed to do it, but that the proposal must be questioned and local residents must have the right to their local authority questioning the proposal. I am told that a port authority could build a silo 100 or 200 ft high without having to get any consent, which would have a severe environmental impact on the area.

On another subject, in a social care debate in January I raised the lack of funding for social services in the south-west. I drew the attention of the Minister present to a report by the 15 authorities in the area, which said that they were having to divert funding for elderly people to cope with child protection requirements. I have been told since that the funding available to many local authorities will only just cover the bare legal minimum without all the other requirements that they must meet to ensure that children are not abused and have a fair and reasonable start in life.

The Minister responded that what had been described was clearly unacceptable and promised that she would investigate the matter. To date, I have heard not a word from her. I raised the matter three weeks ago with the Leader of the House, who promised that he would raise it with the Secretary of State. Again, I have heard nothing, so I hope that this will be third time lucky, and that we will get a response on this important issue.

5.55 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I apologise to the House for not being present to hear earlier speeches. I am glad that many hon. Members will have had the opportunity to contribute.

I should like to echo the words of some of my hon. Friends who have spoken about the state of post offices. Worthing has the highest proportion of retired people in the country. The future of rural post offices is a matter of interest, but urban post offices are often of greatest interest. None the less, I know that many of my villages will feel very miserable if their post offices are withdrawn because of Government mismanagement of Post Office issues.

I should have liked to speak at some length about overseas British pensioners, as half of them live in countries where they get upratings in the state retirement pension, while the other half do not. The issue may soon come before the courts, but because I want to raise another pressing matter, I hope that those pensioners will forgive me if I do not deal with the issue at the same length as I have done previously and hope to do in future.

I want to turn the attention of the House to the situation not of a Louise Woodward, who was young, female and white, but of Krishna Maharaj, who, at 63, is just about a pensioner, male and black. He has an Asian background; he was born in Trinidad, and born British. For those who are concerned about the proprieties of the House, let me say that I am not going to speak about the hearing that is under way in Miami, Florida about whether Krishna Maharaj should go back on to death row. I want to raise a question that is excluded from that hearing: whether he is guilty.

In the years since 1986, when Krishna Maharaj was convicted, the question whether he is guilty has not come forward, but it matters. I am part of a group that believes that he deserves his life and liberty, and justice. I am aware of the growing help from Foreign and Commonwealth Office consular staff. It is the convention that we do not name civil servants, and I shall not break it, but I am pleased that the help being made available is growing. It is a shame that the Florida prosecution authorities did not notify the British consul when Krishna Maharaj was arrested. They broke their international obligation. Some may regard that as a technicality, but I think that it might turn out to be more. I believe that if Krishna Maharaj had had effective representation from the beginning, he would not have been convicted of the murders for which he was sentenced.

I shall turn in a moment to some of the particular issues in Krishna Maharaj's case, many of which are listed on the Krishna Maharaj website at www.krishnamaharaj.org, where the Florida supreme court knocks down a number of the arguments that in this country and most others—and probably in many other US states—would have gained an order for retrial. Before going into detail, I want to point out that more than 300 people are on death row in Florida. Krishna Maharaj has not been on death row in a technical sense since the evidentiary hearing in 1997 in Miami, which I attended. He came off death row because the second judge in his case had asked the prosecution for a draft death sentence before the jury reached its conclusion. It is a convention of the courts that judges maintain an open mind until a jury has reached a conclusion, and asking for a draft death sentence does not necessarily support it.

In respect of the past 20 or 30 years, I have received information on 24 people who have had death sentence murder convictions either quashed or listed for rehearings. I will not talk at length about people who were almost certainly innocent but were executed, and this speech is not about the death penalty as such. I am grateful to the organisation Reprieve and to Andy Lamb, who helped to provide some of the information. Some of the details may not be precisely accurate because of the short time that has been available to bring the information together.

The first case that I want to discuss is that of James Richardson, who was convicted in 1968 and released in 1989—a period of 21 years. Krishna Maharaj has been in jail for 16 years. James Richardson was convicted and sentenced to death for poisoning one of his children. The prosecution argued that he had committed the crime to obtain the insurance money, but in fact no such policy existed. The primary witnesses against James Richardson were two jailhouse snitches, as they might be described, to whom he is said to have confessed. Post-conviction investigations found that the neighbour who was caring for Richardson's children had a prior homicide conviction, and the defence provided affidavits from people to whom he—probably the real killer—had confessed.

James Richardson's conviction was overturned after further investigation by the then Dade county state attorney-general, Janet Reno, which resulted in a new hearing. Hon. Members will recall that she has since been United States Attorney-General and may be the Democratic challenger to Governor Jeb Bush at the forthcoming Governor's election. I will not give a view on whether she or Governor Bush would be the better choice—that is for the people of Florida to decide—but I hope that both the present Governor and his possible challenger will consider whether there has been an injustice in this case in Dade county and give their backing to law, order and justice by asking for a review so that the Florida courts can decide whether the conviction is safe. If, having been given a list of some of the issues involved, the prosecution still thinks that it can secure a conviction, it should not object to a retrial, and if it fears that it would not obtain a conviction, it should jolly well join people like me to argue for a retrial.

I should advise the House that I have notified the registrar that on my visit to see Krishna Maharaj in jail at the Raiford Union correctional institution 11 days ago, two legs of my flight were arranged by the Krishna Maharaj support group and the other two legs and other expenses were paid for by myself.

Another example involves Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts, who were convicted in 1963 and released in 1975. They had 12 years in jail. Although no physical evidence linked them to the deaths of two men, their guilty pleas, the testimony of an alleged eye-witness and an incompetent defence counsel led to their convictions. The men were sentenced to death but maintained their innocence. After their convictions, someone else confessed to the crime, the eye-witness recanted her accusations and the state attorney-general admitted that the state had unlawfully suppressed evidence. The men were granted a new trial and were again convicted and sentenced to death. They were released in 1975, when they received a full pardon from the then Governor Askew, who stated that he was sufficiently convinced that they were innocent. I suggest to Governor Jeb Bush's advisers that they should ask an independent person to review all the points that have been put together, some of which I shall list and others of which are available, to decide whether Krishna Maharaj should benefit from a similar declaration and executive action by the governor.

I could go on to discuss the case of Joseph Green Brown, in which charges were dropped after the prosecution had knowingly allowed false testimony to be introduced at the trial. That came within 13 hours of the execution, when a new trial was ordered. Brown was released a year later when the state decided not to retry the case.

The following elements exist in the Krishna Maharaj case. He was arrested on the day the two men were killed. The detective did not take a paraffin test on his hand to see whether gunpowder was there. For anything other than a professional contract killing, that paraffin test is always introduced. Another factor in the detective work is that the detective concerned took 21 witness statements, 20 of which were notarised, typed, signed by the witness and recorded. The sole exception was the interview with the suspect, Krishna Maharaj. I would suggest, putting it gently, that that allows room for dispute or error in what Krishna Maharaj actually said in answer to questions. This is not one of the cases in which it is suggested that the accused was tortured, bullied or coerced into making a false confession. In this case, Krishna Maharaj always denied the charge.

Furthermore, it is acknowledged—it is possible to check this—that an assistant state prosecutor, Myra Trinchett, went to Mr. Maharaj's cell before the trial and said words to the effect of, "Why don't you take me or somebody else on as your defence attorney for $50,000?" Krishna Maharaj says that she told him everyone knew he was innocent, and that he would be treated leniently. That visit is acknowledged.

What has not yet been acknowledged—although the prison records ought to demonstrate it—is whether a man called Harvey Swinkle went to Krishna Maharaj's cell before Myra Trinchett and asked for $75,000. The reason that the price dropped from $75,000 to $50,000 is that Krishna Maharaj had passed a lie-detector test in the meantime, and his innocence was rather better established. The prison ought to have a record—it has not yet disclosed it—of whether that visit by Harvey Swinkle was made.

A further piece of factual information that the Governor's advisers should ask for is whether either of those visits to Krishna Maharaj was recorded under the FBI's Operation Court Broom, in which the bureau secretly taped a number of discussions between prisoners and people claiming to be there on behalf of judges. If so, can the tapes and transcripts be released? Is it true that, of the 13 judges in office in Dade county at the time of Krishna Maharaj's trial, five were subsequently sent to jail for irregularities? Is it also true that a detective involved in his case was taken off murder cases for misusing witnesses' testimony?

There are a whole series of issues surrounding the pre-trial procedure that are worth checking. I will not go on at any length about the fact that, three days into Krishna Maharaj's trial, the trial judge was taken away in shackles, accused of accepting bribes in a different case. I acknowledge that Krishna Maharaj and his lawyer, who is new to capital charges, decided not to ask for the case to be re-started, so it continued for another week and a half. Krishna Maharaj's assets put him just above legal aid level, but do not allow him to employ his lawyer for very long. I have mentioned the mistake by the second judge in asking for the death sentence in draft before the jury came back with the verdict, and I shall not make anything of the fact that the first appeal judge was later taken off the case because he had been in the state prosecutor's office at the time of the prosecution.

There are a number of similar issues, which are technical, but, taken together, they begin to draw a picture that at least introduces an element of severe doubt—in fact, a whole series of doubts—about whether Krishna Maharaj could have committed the crime. There is no doubt that he had been in the room at the time and, as the excellent Channel 4 film, "Murder in Room 1215", made by Roger Bolton and his associates about seven years ago showed, there are a number of other elements involved.

I shall conclude by focusing on the key prosecution witness, Mr. Neville Butler. He is known to have lied. At the trial, it was accepted by the court that Krishna Maharaj had booked the room in which the murder took place, because Neville Butler said that he had done so. Am I right in saying that, after the trial, the FBI discovered that Krishna Maharaj could not have done so, because Neville Butler had booked the room himself? Is the key so-called eye-witness therefore implicated in booking the room in which the murders took place?

These issues matter a lot, because Krishna Maharaj might have been convicted of crimes that he did not commit and, because he is British, it is our responsibility—and the responsibility of our Government—to try to help the Americans to get things right. I am not making broad accusations against the Miami police, the Dade county judges, or the supreme court in Florida. I am saying that they should be as concerned as we are in this country about discovering whether justice has been seen to be done.

I could raise a number of other issues, but I shall finish by saying that, in Illinois, immunity has been taken away from state prosecutors. In that state, because of various scandals, any prosecutor who knowingly uses perjured evidence is exposed to investigation and prosecution. That is not the case in Florida. Although I was not given a rough time yesterday, I was shut up quite often by the judge when I was giving evidence, as the state prosecutor objected to most of the things that I wanted to say. If it turns out that any state prosecutor in any of the cases or hearings in which Krishna Maharaj has been involved knew that evidence had been given that was not true—or it turns out that they knew of evidence that ought to have been made available to the defence and to the court—I hope that Florida will consider what action ought to be taken. To take one relatively small example, the murder victims in the case, the Moo Youngs, were said to have been innocent business men. In their case, the prosecution knew in advance of the trial that they had been setting up drugs accounts around the Caribbean and had been involved with some pretty suspicious characters. That makes it possible that they suffered contract killings, which is far more likely given the circumstances.

I hope that, in time, the Foreign Secretary will be able to come to the House and announce that Krishna Maharaj has been set free and allowed a new trial. When I saw him, his words to me were, "I don't just want to be released from jail. I want a new trial so that I can be found innocent, not just discharged with a cloud over my head."

6.11 pm
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your permission to join this debate at such a late stage. I want to speak about three issues, which might be called the three Ps: Post Office, planning and police. They are all national issues, but they all have a direct bearing on my constituency.

First, if we reach the stage, as appeared to be prefigured by the news yesterday, at which there will be a mass closure of sub-post offices the length and breadth of this country, I predict that there will be enormous dissatisfaction, upset and complaint from every conscientious constituency MP, irrespective of the party to which they adhere. The reality is that, in five years in the House, I have never seen such anger among Back-Bench MPs as I saw when similar moves were being carried out by the large banks, and when Barclays bank came to make a presentation, not to consult with MPs about what it proposed to do, but to try to explain the mass closure of local branches. The result of that was a scale of protest that eventually led the banks to agree a sensible policy among themselves: where there was only a single branch of one of the big four banks left in a given locality, that branch would not close. I do not know how the Post Office will he able to deal with the analogous uproar that I anticipate, but deal with it it will have to. I say to the Government in the nicest possible way that they are vulnerable on this issue. As the Opposition are now full of concern for the vulnerable, I wish to advise the Government that they should not neglect the people who will be sorely hit if many sub-post offices go to the wall.

The second issue is planning. I am deeply suspicious of the Green Paper on proposals to change the planning regime. Even as I speak, a major public inquiry is under way about a proposal to build a huge container port at Dibden bay in my constituency. I am confident that, day by day, as the inquiry proceeds, the weakness of the case for carrying out this massive project will steadily become apparent. At the end of the inquiry, I expect to see a detailed and dispassionate report on the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments deployed. Let us suppose that the inquiry concludes that there is no overriding national need for a container port in New Forest, East, given the more suitable alternative sites at Shell Haven, Felixstowe and Harwich among others. It will then he up to the politicians to decide whether to override the inquiry result and insist on allowing Dibden bay to be built regardless. In the Green Paper, however, it is intended that Parliament should take a "decision in principle". Can one honestly believe that even the more salient arguments in favour of or against a project such as the Dibden bay container port development would receive an impartial or dispassionate hearing in the Chamber or a Committee room that was divided along party lines?

At present, the Labour party enjoys a huge parliamentary majority. The Labour-dominated city of Southampton, which is next door to my constituency, wants Dibden bay to be built and it would have every reason to believe that such a Parliament as we have today would be heavily biased in its favour on purely political grounds. The idea that Parliament should take a decision in principle first, with the detailed inquiry coming later is plainly to put the cart before the horse.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I have listened to my hon. Friend's remarks with great care, because it is a subject in which I am also interested, not least because of my chairmanship of the Procedure Committee. It will very shortly begin an inquiry into the way in which the Government's proposals impinge upon Parliament and its procedures. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions is similarly considering this dramatic change from the normal planning process. I hope that my hon. Friend will be somewhat reassured that Parliament as a whole is apprised of the problems.

Dr. Lewis

I can think of no one in whom I would have more confidence than my hon. Friend in trying to protect the interests not only of Parliament but of the population as a whole when such an amazing reversal of priorities is being proposed by the Government.

If that reversal of priorities took place, the result would be prejudiced in advance and the task of objectors would be turned into a far greater uphill struggle than that which they already face. In short, what is proposed would, if implemented, destroy local democratic control of the planning process. Any Government with a large parliamentary majority may be tempted to try to bury local democracy in that way. Sooner or later, however, the boot will be on the other foot and it will be a Labour Opposition's turn to complain about a prejudicial arrangement such as is now being sought. I hope that it never comes to pass.

Finally, I shall talk about the police. On 2 November 2001, I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on community policy in Hampshire. I was fairly tough in my criticisms of the way in which local policing was being centralised and about the invisibility of policing in the town of Totton and the villages on the waterside and in the New Forest that are in my constituency. I am pleased that, since then, there have been very clear steps in the right direction.

The new head of the police force for the New Forest, Superintendent Paul Colley, is a proponent of the proactive policing that I referred to in that debate. That means going out, looking for trouble and nipping it in the bud before it can develop. It contrasts with the centralised and reactive way in which so much policing is carried out today. Superintendent Colley has set up a proactive unit that will operate precisely as I have described, and I look forward to seeing how it works in the not-too-distant future.

Having put last November the case for the prosecution against the police, I now feel obliged to redress the balance as I promised to do to the chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation, Mr. Alan Gordon. He organised an excellent open forum on 18 January, which was attended by several Hampshire Members of Parliament. The forum was the result of the growing protest about the reforms, particularly of pay and conditions, that the Government are proposing. I promised at the time that I would do my best to air in Parliament some of the police's concerns, and that is what I hope to do in the few remaining minutes.

Members of Hampshire constabulary who have complained to local MPs range from those at the top of the tree to those in the front line. At the top of the tree is the chief constable himself, Paul Kernaghan. His letter addresses in particular the point that the Police Reform Bill contains provisions enabling the Home Secretary to effectively sack Chief Constables at will. He says that he has some concerns about those provisions, and he is quite willing to say exactly why: Chief constables have no right of appeal against the Home Secretary under the proposed legislation and the body to which they are immediately accountable, namely the police authority cannot retain their services if the Home Secretary wants them to go. I respectfully suggest that the lack of safeguards and the effective bypassing of police authorities will result in a cadre of Chief Constables obsessed with pleasing the Home Office, regardless of their own professional judgement. Chief Constables cannot be above account but the current proposals will result in increased central control at the expense of local representatives. A vast range of concerns has been expressed from the front line. On 15 December, I wrote to the Home Secretary, setting out, in their own words, the specific concerns of about half a dozen police officers who had written to me. I received a reply exactly three months later, on 15 March, but I have to say that it was a very general one. I am sure that it was a standard letter, and if that was all that we were going to get it could easily have been sent out much sooner. As the specific complaints were not addressed in that reply—a letter signed by someone on behalf of a junior Minister, who was writing on behalf of the Home Secretary—I shall pick out a couple of examples that give a flavour of what is so upsetting to today's front-line police officer.

One officer wrote to me as follows: There was a time when the five operational stations within the New Forest Division were staffed with 5 detective sergeants and up to 20 detective constables, now it is 2 detective sergeants and 11 constables, the pressures on the officers within the New Forest and Hampshire as a whole are immense yet we are still meeting or heading towards the increased performance indicators set for us, though God only knows, we must remember that quantity does not mean quality. We are reaching breaking point and offering a sub-standard service to the public. Another officer wrote: If these proposals were to be implemented in their current state I have no doubt we would suffer the biggest reduction in numbers ever known…in fact I wouldn't be surprised to see as many as a quarter of the strength up and leave. A woman police constable said the following:

I feel that I am the owner of two distinctly undesirable labels. I'm a Police Officer…I am also a 'single mother'…I make suitable arrangements for my son when I am required to work on short notice, work late, and when I am on unpaid call-out…and now the government want me to work an extra 2.5 hours a week for absolutely nothing at all whilst I pay my childminder at triple time…I have what I consider to be a good sickness record. Since April 1989 I have been sick on a total of 28 days. However, my sickness record shows that I have had 118 days off sick. This is because my Maternity Leave of 90 days is included in the total. Finally, I should like to quote the following extract from the letters that I originally received:

As my local MP, I would be grateful if you will try and convince the Home Secretary not to underestimate the strength of feeling that his Reform proposals have drawn from virtually every officer I have spoken too. Morale is at its lowest that I ever recall in almost 25 years service, it will fall lower. The key to the problem was summed up in a letter handed to me during the mass rally by the police when they lobbied Parliament a couple of weeks ago. Constable Andrew McDonnell, a police traffic motorcyclist, who said that I could name him and quote him in the House if I had the opportunity, gave me a letter in which he said: The Government has very deceitfully handled the current situation, which should deal with two very different issues, Police Reform and Pay and Conditions. In February, there was a vote by the police federated ranks in response to the proposals for pay and conditions. I am sure you are aware of the unprecedented rejection, a 75 per cent. turn out of voters with 91 per cent. rejecting the Home Office's offer. The constable believes that the rejection of the Government's proposals on pay and conditions is being misrepresented as a rejection of necessary reforms to which the police do not object at all.

The letter concludes: I cannot emphasise enough how let down the vast majority of Officers feel by The Government. We have an unenviable job by most, constant verbal and sometimes physical abuse and we are restrained in carrying out the most simple tasks by red tape. The final twist in the argument is that even when, against all the odds, the police succeed in making an arrest and bringing someone before the court, time and again, red tape and bureaucracy, the inefficiency of court proceedings and a tendency by magistrates to bend over backwards in favour of the defendant frustrates their best efforts.

If we are, from time to time, critical of the police, we must also, from time to time, realise why they are fighting with one hand behind their backs. I hope that the Government will not lock themselves into a corner on police reform but realise that they have made an honest mistake, back track and recognise the debt that we owe to those people who maintain law and order on our behalf and on behalf of our families.

6.28 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

By my calculation, we have had five hours of very wide-ranging debate, in which we heard 18 speeches that lasted about 17 minutes each. That leaves the Minister and me less than one minute per speech to make some sort of response, so I hope that the House will forgive me and even the Minister if our responses are not as full as they might be.

The Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), in his typical way, focused very precisely on the question that he wanted to raise with the Government. On the face of it, that was a proper and simple question, as is characteristic of the hon. Gentleman, and one to which I am sure he deserves a straightforward answer. As I understood his main question, it concerned the fact that key evidence on the prosecution side in the Lockerbie case has disappeared. He would like to know, as would I, on whose authority such evidence has disappeared and where it is. I hope that the Minister, if he cannot give a precise answer to that simple and direct question today, will ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets an answer because he directed his question at Ministers in Westminster and specifically asked that it should not be passed sideways to Edinburgh.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised a number of issues, not least of which was that apparently the Food Standards Agency—of all people—has given advice that, on the face of it, seems rather odd to most of us: we no longer need to wash fruit and vegetables before we eat them. The hon. Gentleman made a rather serious allegation when he suggested that the Government's advisers might be unduly influenced by commercial interests. That is a grave accusation and it should be taken seriously by the Government.

If we cannot obtain reassurance today, I hope that the allegation will be looked into closely. If the agency set up to protect our food is somehow under the improper influence of commercial interests, we certainly want to know about it. Something should be done about it very quickly indeed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the problem of VAT on church repairs. I would not be so uncharitable as to tell him that that is one of the many benefits flowing from our membership of the European Union. I should not be as crude as that—[Interruption.] In any case, he denies it. However, I sympathise with him: the problem appears to be intractable. Like him, I hope that the Government are hard at work on it.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), in a thoughtful speech, posed a question that occurs to all of us: why has the turnout in local elections fallen over the years? He suggested that it results from the demise of municipal enterprise and the reduction in the number of direct employees of local authorities.

I am not sure that that provides all, or even much, of the answer. If one considers the varying turnouts—at parish, district, county, Assembly, Westminster and European elections—one realises that it is difficult to find a direct relationship between turnout rates and the influence of different levels of government on their voters or through their employees. Nor can one relate—as should be possible—the directness of contact through, say, parishes, districts and small wards, to the turnout in elections. The problem remains intriguing and intractable. We are all obliged to consider it seriously; politics—our livelihood—is most affected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) spoke about telecommunication masts. She made the valid point that it appears that sufficient research has not been undertaken into their health effects, and referred to what we might be able to learn from other countries.

As my hon. Friend is aware, we are keen to learn from other countries nowadays—it is one of the new Conservative new approaches that, as we know, has such appeal to the electorate. Perhaps my hon. Friend can persuade Conservative central office to fund an extensive tour of other countries so that she can look at telecommunication masts. Failing that, she makes a fair point. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of Government, with all the resources available to them, to investigate what is done in other countries and why those countries seem to achieve such a superior result.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in a most succinct and pungent speech—as ever—questioned why the Government appeared to be saying that lack of time prevented the House from fully considering Select Committee reports, despite the fact that we are about to go into what I can only describe as "premature recess", when we shall be away from this place for a two full weeks. Meanwhile, the other place will be sitting for a further two days and will return earlier than us. That mystifies me as much as it does the hon. Lady. Perhaps the Minister, with his legendary ingenuity, will be able to tell us why we are bunking off for a long recess, when the Government tell us that we do not have enough time to debate Select Committee reports.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), in a comprehensive and all-embracing contribution, covered several important points. His final point—on the crisis in care homes—was the most telling. We are all becoming more and more aware that that is a major problem in all our constituencies. The Government bear almost the entire responsibility for the problem and it will give them serious difficulties. However, that is not the issue.

The important issue is the welfare of the people who are supposed to be looked after in those institutions. I hope that a solution can be found quickly; otherwise, the problem will have a severe effect not only on the well-being of the folk who want to stay in care homes, but consequentially on the health service through bed blocking. The problem must be closely considered.

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) will be glad to hear that I shall not dwell on breasts on this occasion, because she would not want to hear what I had to say on that subject anyway, but I take issue with her analysis of the time for which the House sits.

I do not regard this place as a legislative factory—I do not believe that the House of Commons exists to churn out more and more Bills. Therefore, I take issue with the Government's approach of ever more routine, systematic and vicious timetabling. However, I do not believe that it will be to the benefit of the House and its workings if we regard ourselves as a sort of office block where we work from 9 to 5. Apart from anything else—this is what I find so curious about the hon. Lady's argument—I fail to see how, unless one has one's family within easy travelling distance of the House of Commons, working from 9 to 5 adds in some way to family values or contributes to the family.

Most hon. Members, especially the hon. Lady's colleagues, have their families some distance away from London, in their constituency, so I wonder what the families think when they believe that Members of Parliament, instead of being tucked up securely in the Palace of Westminster until 10 o'clock every night, are out roaming London promptly after 7. I will leave that to the hon. Lady to explain; I certainly will not try.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made some important local points. If he will forgive me, I shall deal with only one—Central Railway and Chiltern Railways. My hon. Friend asked, very reasonably, why the matter could not be resolved more quickly. In particular, he reasonably asked why we cannot obtain more public information about the analysis performed by the Strategic Rail Authority and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Why is the matter being dealt with so secretively?

That issue pervaded some of the other speeches, not least that of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara). One of the keys to the fascinating but horrifying tale of his constituent seemed to be the secretiveness with which the matter was dealt with, and the plea for far greater openness. All hon. Members know that our individual constituents all too often get into confrontation with powerful bodies and institutions, and that those disputes must be resolved one way or another, but it is unforgivable that the powerful use secretiveness and failure to divulge information as one of their main weapons. Without judging which side of the argument is right in each case, surely the key must be that people must be given all the relevant information on which a proper judgment can be made, and that applies to the case that the hon. Gentleman raised as much as to any other.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was very critical of local government funding—aren't we all? I was involved peripherally in that process in my years in the foothills of government, and I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that whenever one tackles this problem, one runs into what is known in the trade as winners and losers. No one has yet devised a system in which everyone wins. One ends up redistributing both the goodies and the burdens across local authorities, and between local authorities and central Government, in a way that usually makes a few happy and a large number unhappy. I caution the hon. Gentleman about this; there is no easy answer.

Mr. McLoughlin

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth

I cannot possibly give way. I promised the Minister that I would sit down in two minutes' time, and that is what I intend to do.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made an excellent speech and some very positive suggestions. He identified a problem and, unusually on these occasions, provided some solutions. I congratulate him on that. He said that he believed that a standard form for changing energy suppliers would be a good thing, which it surely must be. He also believed that Ofgem should make more use of fines, which would be a perfectly proper solution. I thought, although I doubt that he made that connection, that the money from the fines could go towards compensation, where appropriate, for those who had suffered damage. I congratulate him on his speech. I hope that the Government listened to it and will pick it up and follow it through.

I shall finish soon. I ask some of my hon. Friends to forgive me—I cannot now possibly do justice to all of them—but I shall take my life in my hands by saying something, in the friendliest way possible, to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). I listened carefully to what he said. As it happens, I am going to Florida on Friday, but not for the purpose that he was there recently. Let us consider the sort of cases that he cited—for example, the recent tragic case in Georgia, where the death penalty was applied. I am not convinced that well-meaning intervention in a country's judicial process by people from outside necessarily always bears the desired fruit.

I say that particularly of the United States, which, with all its faults, prides itself on having a proper, democratic judicial system in which—whether we like it or not—judges and attorneys are elected at county and state level. One should be very cautious in seeking, even with the best motivation, to intervene in the judicial process of the United States. I suspect that that is why such action is not as successful as my hon. Friend and others would wish. Having said that, I wish him well in his endeavours, and I hope that Florida's judicial system will come out of this latest case with as much credit as possible in the circumstances.

I have over-run my time, so I ask the Minister to forgive me for taking a minute of the time that I promised him. I also ask for the forgiveness of those of my hon. Friends whose speeches I have not been able to mention.

6.41 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

Like the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I apologise if I fail to respond to all the points made during the 17 Back-Bench and two Front-Bench speeches. At least 50 issues have been raised during a five-hour debate—matters ranging from mountain rescue in Somerset to the best way to wash carrots. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) reminded us of the origins of the control of supply and the English civil war. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) even referred to the spectre of the Prime Minister getting on his bike in search of a post office close to Chequers.

I have been impressed by the Conservative party's new-found concern to learn lessons from other European Union countries. It even has a new-found concern for the vulnerable, although I felt that perhaps the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) could not quite keep a straight face as he expressed that concern at the beginning of his remarks.

Let me address the issue that has been raised most often during the debate—the Post Office's future. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the fact that we need to ensure that the Post Office is successful and that it gives our constituents the service they deserve. I do not believe that that would be a party political issue in an ideal world, but it has been raised as such during the debate, so it is worth reminding ourselves of the Conservative party's record of post office closures. Post office closures did not start with this Government; there were very many such closures previously. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) laughs, but during his time as a Minister the Conservative party seriously contemplated the full privatisation of the Post Office. Those proposals were defeated only because of a very sustained and popular campaign, which had some support from Conservative Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the Father of the House, referred to Lockerbie, as he has done on several occasions in the House, and sought careful reflection from the Government. I certainly take note of his concerns and his long-standing involvement in seeking to get to the truth of that dreadful episode. He will not be surprised to hear that the only response I am able to give him today is to say that he has had the opportunity to ventilate that issue. He will be aware that most of the issues that he mentioned are devolved; they are matters for the Scottish Executive. I will ensure that the Lord Advocate is made aware of the points that my hon. Friend has made and seek an answer from him.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) referred to the Krishna Maharaj case, and I am aware, from media coverage of his involvement in that case, of the work, commitment and dedication that he has shown in seeking justice in that case. He will be aware that I am not able to comment on the detail of what he said today, but I am grateful to him for his kind remarks about the support that he has received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. On the broader issue, I look forward to the day when no country has the death penalty. Many of the miscarriages of justice in different corners of the earth are greatly compounded by its existence.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised a number of issues about organophosphates and VAT on church repairs and conservation. Although the advice issued by the Food Standards Agency states that washing or peeling fruit and vegetables is not required as a protection against pesticide residues, it also says that it is sensible to wash fruit and vegetables before eating for reasons of general food hygiene. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I am glad that the House is enlightened. I was not aware of that until I was briefed for my closing remarks. It is still considered sensible to wash fruit and vegetables before eating them for reasons of general food hygiene. I am also advised that the FSA's nutritional advice is that consumers should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day as part of a healthy, balanced diet. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would concur on that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned listed places of worship and mentioned the scheme launched by the Treasury on 4 December last year. He acknowledged that the Treasury is trying to address the problem, but raised concerns about the bureaucracy surrounding the new scheme. The European Commission has said that it will consider the United Kingdom's proposal to introduce a reduced VAT rate for church repairs when the reduced rate provisions are reviewed in 2003, so that matter clearly needs to be pursued in the European Union.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) addressed the issue of the decline in turnout and, in particular, the decline in the status of local government. I have much sympathy for his remarks, which could form the basis for a full debate in the House in their own right. I concur with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst: the issues that relate to turnout are complex. Although the problems that surround the decline in local government powers are real, there has been a general fall in turnout, not simply in local government elections. We need to address that in a full and comprehensive way, and certainly not in the short amount of time that I have left.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) spoke from the Back Bench today, having spoken from the Front Bench in the two other pre-recess Adjournment debates since the general election. She was concerned about mobile phone masts, a problem that has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. That issue is raised with all Members of Parliament. Indeed, I have several such cases in my constituency. I nodded vigorously when the hon. Lady described people having to move home. A family in my constituency was about to move into a new home when they discovered that a mobile phone mast was to be put directly outside the house, which was opposite a church with two nurseries. They pulled out of that sale and made an alternative purchase only to discover that another mobile phone company wanted to erect a mast close to the home that they had moved into. We are still fighting that case.

On the specific issue that the hon. Lady raised, the North and East Devon health authority is aware of the concerns that have been raised and is collecting further information. I will chase up the Department of Health to ensure that she gets the replies she deserves. I am afraid that I do not have time to deal with the other issues that she raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) dealt with transport. She mentioned the tube and aviation, and I can tell the House that announcements have been made today. She sought to emphasise that it is important for us to have the opportunity to debate such matters. I am well aware of her concerns and it is important that we provide such opportunities whenever possible. That is one reason why the debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons is so important.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire was concerned about the Post Office. He also mentioned council tax. I am sure all hon. Members agree that council tax has a particular effect on those who live on fixed incomes, especially retired people. As his colleague the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, local taxation has troubled Governments of both main parties for decades. We had rates, which everyone wanted to see the back of, then the poll tax, which still retains one or two advocates and champions in the House but which did not prove overly popular with the wider general public, and now we have the council tax, which was introduced by a Conservative Government.

The current Government do not have a policy of reducing grant to local authorities to shift the balance towards local sources of income, but we are aware that council tax increases have been considerably above the rate of inflation in recent years. In the recent local government White Paper, the Government made it clear that we would separately consider the balance of funding, but it is too early to say what the outcome of that review will be.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire spoke about sixth forms. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware of the concern felt by schools with sixth forms that they should not be worse off as a result of new arrangements of funding via learning and skills councils. All local education authorities were told last month in a letter from the Department for Education and Skills that the Government do not consider it reasonable of an authority to do what the hon. Gentleman described as having been done in his constituency—make adjustments to other elements of funding for a school with a sixth form that have the effect of cancelling out 100 per cent. of the potential gain that it stood to receive from the learning and skills council.

We have changed—the hon. Gentleman looks impressed, but much as I would like to say otherwise, I assure him that it is not as a consequence of today's debate—the financing of maintained schools regulations for the coming financial year to require that a school sixth form must gain at least one third of the potential increase that the LSC allocation would have given it above its real-terms guarantee level.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of social care and residential care, before speaking about the case of Stephen Downing. I am pleased to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's hard work on behalf of his constituent. As he said, Derbyshire's chief constable has announced the opening of the reinvestigation. I am advised that it will begin next month, in April 2002, and will we hope be brought to a conclusion by autumn.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) raised a large number of issues, to some of which I shall respond. I shall pass on to colleagues her positive comments on the Export Control Bill and the aid budget. On Iraq, I am pleased to repeat the assurances given by the Foreign Secretary on Sunday, that any proposal for action in that instance will of course be subject to international law and our international obligations. However, as my hon. Friend said, it is Iraq and Saddam Hussein's regime that are in contravention of their international obligations today, and we seek to bring them to book for that.

In respect of public services in Swindon, I am advised that it has been announced today—perhaps not as a consequence of my hon. Friend's speech, but if she wants to take the credit, that is a matter for her—that Swindon has received £57 million in private finance initiative credits, which will enable, among other things, the building of two new secondary schools and a new primary school in Swindon, in the constituency of the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, our hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills).

I share my hon. Friend's view on breastfeeding and hope that the matter will progress as she said it should. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is perhaps not quite as much of a moderniser as his party's leader. No one to my knowledge has proposed that the Commons should become a 9-to-5 Chamber. Anyone who enters the Commons is aware that being a Member of Parliament is a hard job, and rightly so. We should all work hard at that job, but we do want to consider changing the hours to ensure that we more effectively scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account, and become a Parliament that is genuinely representative of all the people.

Parliament remains 80 per cent. male and has very few ethnic minority Members. I know that the Conservative party is now tackling that issue—albeit apparently not with the support of the shadow Leader of the House. I look forward to the day when the House of Commons truly reflects the diversity of modern, 21st-century Britain.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon also raised issues that may be mentioned in the Queen's Speech. On the specific and important question of sexual offences, I am pleased to be able to assure her that the Government are committed to introducing new sex offence laws and intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows. She will understand that at this stage I can go no further.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) set out in detail a number of specific concerns relating to his own constituency. I undertake to draw them to the attention of my colleagues and seek a reply for him. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, in a characteristically thoughtful speech, set out concerns about scrutiny of the Executive in relation to public expenditure and the democratic control of supply. He demonstrated once again that he is a serious reformer; I am sure that his suggestions will be considered as debate on the modernisation and reform of Parliament progresses.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who may have wondered whether I would reach him in my list of speeches to which to respond, raised the issue of the fridge mountain. I am advised that both the Local Government Association and the Environment Agency have not reported a significant increase in the fly tipping of fridges, but I am aware that there are a number of cases such as those to which he referred. Local authorities have a statutory obligation to accept and collect all household fridges and freezers; significant extra funds have been provided through government to meet that obligation. Clearly, the issue needs to be closely monitored.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who is also my neighbour, raised important issues about energy mis-selling, which I shall draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy.

The hon. Member for Rumford (Mr. Rosindell) has taken a close interest in the British overseas territories since entering the House last year. As he said, he is an officer of the all-party groups on Gibraltar and on the Falkland Islands. He will be aware that the Government's position on Gibraltar is clear: no proposal affecting its sovereignty will be implemented unless its people agree. On the broader issues of the British overseas territories, he will be aware that the British Overseas Territories Bill is now an Act, having received Royal Assent, and represents an important advance in citizens rights for the people of the British overseas territories.

I apologise for not being in the Chamber while my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) was speaking, but I watched his speech on television while eating my cheese sandwich. He talked about a recent meeting of the friends of the Finchley Memorial hospital. I certainly concur with him about the high quality of service at the hospital; my grandmother was there two years ago, and I visited her. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising a number of issues and shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health his invitation to visit the Finchley Memorial hospital.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made a characteristically robust speech, as is his wont during these debates. Again, I apologise for missing most of it because I was still eating my cheese sandwich, but I shall ensure that he gets a response to the specific issues that he raised. He mentioned the network card. The Strategic Rail Authority's review of fares policy will report late next year, and I suggest that he makes a submission to ensure that his concerns are properly reflected in that review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), in a disturbing contribution, made a number of serious points, putting them on the record in Parliament. I undertake to ensure that he gets a response from the relevant Ministers and that the lessons to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred are learned. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) raised many issues of concern to his constituents. I am well aware that there are anxieties about the funding of social services on both sides of the House which reflect concerns in all parts of the country. Social services funding is currently being reviewed by the Government as part of the comprehensive spending review.

Finally, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) discussed the three Ps—the Post Office, planning and the police—and aired a number of issues to which responses will be forthcoming.

However, as the minutes tick away, I should just like to thank everyone who has taken part in our debate. Pre-recess Adjournment debates provide a good opportunity for the House to air issues of concern, whether local, national or international. Members on both sides of the House have done so, and I join the hon.

Member for Southend, West in wishing people a happy Easter and a good recess; I also wish our Jewish constituents a happy Passover.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That this House, at its rising on Tuesday 26th March, do adjourn until Tuesday 9th April.