HC Deb 24 May 2002 vol 386 cc499-567

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

9.34 am
Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham)

The issue that I wish to raise is one of increasing concern to local authorities across the country, and especially to those in inner London. It relates to abuse of the right-to-buy scheme for local authority tenants, which I realise the Government are investigating.

Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have surgeries that are booked up with constituents who are desperate for decent affordable homes for their families. Of course, the problem is particularly acute in London and the south-east, although I am aware that there is a severe shortage of affordable accommodation in most areas of the country. Whatever view one takes about right-to-buy legislation—I know that hon. Members will have sharp differences of opinion—I am sure that we can agree that the abuse that I want to highlight is one that should be stopped. I am advised by local authority officers working in home ownership units that a number of so-called investment companies that operate in this field are taking advantage of loopholes in current legislation. They acquire properties at reduced prices, rent them out for three years, and in disposing of them make a very significant return on their capital investment.

To achieve that end, such companies encourage existing council tenants to exercise the right to buy and, in return for a one-off cash sum, transfer the property to them on an under-lease. I understand that it is not unusual for these companies to leaflet entire council estates, enticing tenants to contact them by promising a one-off cash sum of as much as £10,000. When a tenant has contacted the company and agreed to the proposal, they vacate the property on the date of completion of purchase from the council.

At the same time as granting an under-lease, the tenant also enters into a contract of sale of the property, to be completed exactly three years and one day after the initial purchase and completion. Repayment of the discount on the property is thus avoided, as the sale is outside the three-year limitation period. The amount of cash paid to the tenant is dependent on the level of discount that the tenant qualifies for, which in turn normally relates to the length of time that they have been local authority tenants.

In my local authority of Hammersmith and Fulham, there have been two recent cases in which, having vacated their properties, tenants have attempted to present themselves as homeless and in need of re-housing. One of the tenants has a history of mental illness. Of course, the local authority will not accept such applications because the individuals concerned are in practice intentionally homeless, and therefore not entitled to local authority housing support. I am advised that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions believes that, in such cases, a landlord should be able to recover the discount because a contract of sale exists. The opinions of various counsel were sought on this matter, but regrettably they disagreed with the Department.

It is true that the actions of such companies in this market are not in themselves illegal. Although many hon. Members will agree that their behaviour is deeply disreputable and constitutes theft from the public purse, little, if anything, can apparently be done to stop this activity. Many local authority housing officers, who have to deal daily with the misery and frustration of overcrowded and homeless families, have told me that a single and minor change to current legislation could put an end to this practice. What is required is to make the granting of an under-lease, following a right-to-buy purchase during the first three years of the lease, qualify legally as a disposal of the property. As a result, full repayment of the discount that applied at the time of purchase would be required. Such a move would make the current scam much less attractive to the investment companies operating in this market.

Some people have expressed concern that such a change in the regulations would affect genuine hardship cases, in which tenants who have exercised their right to buy find themselves in financial difficulty through no fault of their own. I recognise the legitimacy of such concerns in cases in which leaseholders—in other words, ex-tenants—have been forced to sub-let their properties to meet mortgage repayments and have had to rely on the kindness of friends and relatives for accommodation. The fear is that the change in the law that I propose would prevent them from sub-letting their property and put them in even greater financial difficulties. However, I do not accept that such a rare occurrence—it does not happen all that often—should prevent us from stopping abuse of the right-to-buy legislation, because landlords already have discretion to waive the requirement to repay all or part of the discount in circumstances in which they believe that such relief is warranted.

I am aware that a combined Association of London Government and London Housing Unit right-to-buy working party is looking at various options that may be available in law to stop the abuse of the legislation. A legal opinion is being sought from a highly reputable local government and housing silk to see what can be done. London boroughs are also working together to identify a suitable case to take to court in a test action to try to recover the discount following the sub-letting of a property. Identifying such an opportunity has inevitably proved to be difficult, because of the covert operations employed by the investment companies, which normally mean that the tenant who has exercised their right to buy has vacated the property and no forwarding contact address is available. In practice, the tenant cannot be contacted.

I hope that the House will agree that action of some kind is required and will welcome the work being carried out by the ALG and LHU working party. I also look forward to the time when the people responsible for such conduct get their comeuppance in court and the necessary minor changes are made to the regulations to outlaw this odious abuse of the right-to-buy legislation.

9.42 am
Bob Spink (Castle Point)

It is a pleasure to join the usual suspects in this end-of-term report, and I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I wish first to raise the issue of street crime in Castle Point—something that I suspect also affects most other constituencies.

Street crime and youth nuisance is becoming an increasing problem for us all. Parents should have primary responsibility for controlling the actions of young people on the streets. Parents should know where their youngsters are, what they are doing and whether they are drinking alcohol. Parents need to take an interest in what their young people are doing and ensure that they are not getting into trouble. However, when young people do get into trouble, the police have a duty to deal with them: it should not be a matter for agencies such as the social services. The police should act to prevent street crime from becoming a nuisance and making our residents' lives a misery, which is what is happening in certain areas in Castle Point, and in many other constituencies.

We in politics also have a duty to ensure that we provide suitable facilities to give youngsters something to do other than gather on the street. In Castle Point, I am sad to say that we have fallen short on that duty. I am working with several groups to provide improved facilities on Canvey Island and in Benfleet, Hadleigh and Thundersley to give youngsters an alternative to getting into trouble on the streets. When they gather in groups, they sometimes do not even do anything wrong, but their mere presence—making some noise and being a little rowdy, as youngsters can be—is intimidating for elderly people. I welcome the initiatives by various groups in Castle Point to provide skateboard parks, BMX tracks and new scout huts. I am involved in those efforts and I congratulate the people behind them. The youngsters deserve our support.

I also congratulate all those people who are involved in youth organisations, such as the scouts, the brownies, the sea scouts and the venture scouts. All those organisations do a tremendous job and help to give young people exciting alternative activities and to guide them through their important, and sometimes difficult, developmental years.

I have already mentioned Canvey Island once and I could not make this speech without mentioning its third road. Canvey must have a third road for congestion, economic and, not least, safety reasons. Some areas of Canvey Island are 8 ft below sea level. Sea levels are rising because of climate changes, so we must be vigilant and ensure that the sea walls around the island are sufficient to protect it. Hon. Members may recall that in 1953, Canvey Island suffered a terrible flood, in which 53 people lost their lives. At the time, my predecessor, Sir Bernard Braine, was the Member of Parliament. I am sorry, I mean my last but one predecessor—I forget that I was careless enough to lose the election in 1997. Sir Bernard, who became Lord Braine, was much loved in the House.

Many people on Canvey Island still recall the flood so they are emotionally attached to the need for a third road. I hope to have a dedicated debate on the issue soon, so that I can invite the hon. Members for Basildon (Angela Smith) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) to explain to my constituents why the Labour-controlled councils in their constituencies are so intent on blocking Canvey's third road. Those councils do not want the road to go through their districts, although I cannot see any reason why the road would cause any harm to them. The only viable way that the road could go is through those districts, but the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), has told me that unless Thurrock council withdraws its objection to the third road, the Government will not support or seek to finance it. We need all the neighbouring local councils to agree to the plan. The roadblock on Canvey's third road lies with Labour-controlled Thurrock council, so I want the hon. Member for Thurrock, who is an excellent chap, to explain the council's reasons.

Canvey people want to march on No. 10 Downing street, because they blame the Government, or on county hall, because they blame the county councillors. I am sympathetic to their cause and I will walk on those marches with them, but that will do no good unless Thurrock council will remove its roadblock. We cannot hide behind blaming the Prime Minister on this issue, unfortunately.

We have excellent local hospitals. The two that serve my constituency, Southend and Basildon hospitals, were both listed in the top 40 hospitals in a recent survey. I congratulate the management and the medical, support and administrative staff of those hospitals on that fine achievement. We want to build on that achievement and improve provision in various ways.

We must remain vigilant and ensure that there are no cuts to the excellent cancer services provided by Southend hospital, which are much respected by the people of south-east Essex. We should improve and support them in every possible way. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) for their excellent work in supporting those cancer services.

In improving health care locally, we need to move some services such as simple tests, treatments, procedures and medicine applications away from the main hospitals into the local communities. That is more convenient, especially for vulnerable people such as the elderly, young people with babies in prams and those who do not have access to cars. It is difficult to get to the two hospitals from places in my constituency such as Canvey Island. I welcome the fact that we now have a Canvey out-patients clinic, something for which Sir Bernard Braine, many local politicians of all parties and I fought for many years.

I am delighted that on the mainland we also have the Tyrells out-patient centre which opened very recently. I am sure that it will develop and provide excellent treatment for local people. We must take every opportunity to look at further ways to extend and improve primary care provision in the local community, thus reducing pressure on our central hospitals.

I could not make this end-of-term report without mentioning c2c, our famous Fenchurch street rail line. This time, I have good news—the services have actually improved. I have not had a single letter of complaint in the past month, which is a first in my 10 or 12 years at Castle Point as Member of Parliament and ex-Member of Parliament. The strategic rail plan gave a target of increasing passenger numbers by 50 per cent. over the next few years. However, by the time the train arrives at Benfleet station, which is the busiest on the Fenchurch street line, it is often full. My constituents often cannot even stand on the train they want; they have to wait for the next one or endure a very uncomfortable 35 or 40 minutes travelling to London. How we can increase passenger numbers without increasing capacity, I do not know.

In looking at ways to increase capacity, it occurred to me that 500 or 600 people a day get on at the terminal at Shoeburyness at the end of the Fenchurch street line and more than 3,000 people get on the train from Canvey Island every day, yet there is no terminal on Canvey Island. As part of the Thames gateway and the Shellhaven port development, there is a proposal to double up on the rail line that goes along the south of the Fenchurch street line. That line could then easily be extended for the extra mile on to Canvey Island where there is a massive brownfield site that would make a superb location for a new rail terminus.

I have raised the matter with the Strategic Rail Authority and c2c. It has had a mixed reception, although we are having meetings to discuss it. Providing a new terminus station on Canvey Island would increase capacity on the Fenchurch street line as a whole, take pressure off the main Fenchurch street line so that other people will want to use it, and achieve the excellent target of the Strategic Rail Authority and the Government of a 50 per cent. increase in passengers.

On a lighter note, in a week's time we will be watching the first game in the World cup. I am delighted to be able to mention the World cup before the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) beats me to it. I wish the England team all the very best. We are all keeping our fingers crossed, and I am sure that England will do extremely well. Indeed, I am prepared to take bets that we will get into the quarter or semi-finals at least.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

That is very brave.

Bob Spink

I think that I have a fiver on the result with my right hon. Friend.

The first game is between France and Senegal. I pay tribute to the Senegalese team—it is a fantastic, exciting, free-flowing team. I ran the London marathon in the Senegalese team strip. I have an invitation to the first game, but I will not be able to attend because I will be giving out Queen's jubilee medals to one of the excellent primary schools in my constituency. However, I hope that the Senegalese win the first match against France.

Finally, I congratulate ambassador Mahbubani, the president of the United Nations Security Council on his statement on Cyprus on 2 May. The direct talks between President Clerides for the Greek Cypriots and Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, have completed their third round. As the House knows, the negotiations are geared to finding a comprehensive settlement to the Cyprus problem that takes proper account of the relevant UN resolutions and treaties. It is hoped that a settlement will be forthcoming before the European Union makes its decision later this year on the accession of Cyprus. It is also recognised that a settlement agreement does not stand in the way of Cyprus's accession to the EU. It is to be hoped that when the EU announces Cyprus's accession it gives some hope to Turkish aspirations towards entry into the European Union. Cyprus's accession will, I hope, be a positive factor in bringing forward an eventual settlement.

Mr. Mahbubani expressed the regret of the Security Council that more progress had not been made in the talks. The council said that the time has come to set down areas of common ground between the two sides, with the aim of establishing the component parts of a comprehensive settlement and, where differences remain, to narrow and remove those through a process of negotiation focused on compromise formulations.

Compromise is the key word for both the Turkish and Greek Cypriot sides. There are many heads of terms—I am sure that most of us know what they are—and everyone wants everything on each of those heads of terms. That is not the way that a settlement will look. There will be difficult and painful compromise for both communities, but in the long run it is necessary and right to get a long-term solution.

The Security Council urged both sides, particularly the Turkish side, to co-operate fully with the Secretary-General's special adviser in achieving the compromise solution. Everyone in the House must recognise our special responsibility, and hope and pray that a settlement can be achieved.

9.59 am
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I endorse his good luck wishes to the England team, and invite him and other hon. Members who want to make a patriotic punt to do so with Ladbrokes—the excellent betting firm based in my constituency.

I want to raise four entirely different issues. The first is the rise in hate crime that, sadly, has occurred in the United Kingdom. I shall focus my comments on the increase in anti-Semitism, although I hope that the House will soon have the opportunity to explore the wider issue more fully.

In the month of April alone, 51 incidents of anti-Semitism were recorded—the second highest monthly figure on record. They included the attack on Finsbury park synagogue, which was entirely ransacked. Swastikas were daubed on the holy ark, religious scrolls were ripped, trampled on and covered with paint. It is both sad and ironic that the vandalised scrolls came from the book of Esther, which includes the story of a tyrant's attempt to murder the Jewish community in ancient Persia. In addition, prayer books were ripped up and windows were broken. The synagogue was entirely desecrated.

Jewish communities throughout the country were utterly shocked by the scenes at the Finsbury synagogue, which is used by a mainly elderly congregation, many of whom escaped from the terrible events in Europe during world war two. The Jewish community in my constituency is worried—rightly—by the steady increase of anti-Semitism.

Other incidents included the stabbing of a Jewish student on a London bus and physical attacks on visibly Jewish people wearing head coverings or other religious clothing. Synagogues and Jewish schools, charities and community buildings are on a heightened state of alert following the rise in the number of attacks. In Manchester, vandalism has occurred in two Jewish cemeteries where tombs and headstones were deliberately desecrated. More than 80 gravestones in a cemetery in Hull were vandalised.

Sad to say, these are not isolated events, but part of a trend. During the past four years, there has been a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents monitored by the Jewish community. In 1998, there were about 385 such incidents; by 1999 that figure had risen to 402, and in 2000, it was 576. Last year, there were about 521 incidents. This year, to date, there have been about 126.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

May I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning those outrageous attacks? Our country has a strong tradition of religious tolerance that all Members try to uphold, so I am sure that, in principle, he has the support of Members on the Opposition Benches for everything that he is saying.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I realise that there is cross-party concern about those incidents.

There is a sense that the number of incidents has risen as a consequence of the tension in the middle east. There is of course a genuine debate to be had about events in the middle east, but we must not tolerate the demonisation of Israel or extreme anti-Zionism, as that may legitimise anti-Semitic attacks. Such demonisation can embolden existing anti-Semites and create new ones.

Internationally, too, there is concern at the increase in holocaust denial. I am especially worried by the activities of the Iranian Government, who have granted asylum to several European neo-Nazi activists who fled their countries of origin after conviction for holocaust denial. Those activists have been involved in the organisation of conferences that promote holocaust denial, such as those that took place in Moscow and Trieste recently.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has held a series of meetings with Ministers at the Home Office and I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will pass on our appreciation for those discussions with the Jewish community. I hope, too, that he will continue to express the ongoing concern of my constituents and of Jewish constituents throughout the country.

The second issue that I want to raise is the need to speed up the Government's consideration of reform of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. In our general election manifesto, we rightly gave a commitment to tackle the activities of loan sharks. We noted that the Act provided that a court, at a debtor's request, could consider whether a credit agreement was extortionate and, if so, change its terms so that they were fair and reasonable. Unfortunately, a series of cases has highlighted the fact that the law is deficient.

In the autumn, consultation documents were published, which proposed the redefinition of the term "extortionate credit" in the 1974 Act; the reduction of some of the qualifying barriers before cases could be considered by the courts; and the introduction of a requirement for responsible lending. The consultation period has closed and I understand that consideration is still under way at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. I hope that my hon. Friend will pass on my concern that consideration of the issue should be accelerated.

My specific interest arose from the case of one of my constituents who took out a mortgage in the 1980s with National Home Loans Ltd.—now part of Paragon Finance plc. National Home Loans has had a somewhat turbulent career. In the 1980s, it was one of the new type of mortgage lenders known as centralised lenders. Such companies did not operate like traditional building societies or banks which take deposits to raise funds for their mortgage lending; instead, they raised funds on the wholesale markets and lent money at a higher rate.

Many of those companies were especially exposed to the property recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that may explain some of the more recent actions of Paragon Finance in respect of the National Home Loans book. The annual reports of Paragon Finance have alluded to the problem facing my constituent and several others. The reports show that charging rates are much higher than those in the market, and that reflects the overall profile of the company's home loan portfolio.

After a recent court case, an article highlighted the fact that National Home Loans borrowers typically paid double the market interest rate. Back in October, two sets of borrowers challenged the company's interest rate policy. They did so because Paragon was seeking possession orders on their homes after they had fallen into arrears. They tried to argue in the High Court and the Court of Appeal that the high interest rates applied by National Home Loans or Paragon were extortionate under the terms of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and unfair under the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.

Sadly, in those cases—the cases of Nash and Staunton v. Paragon Finance—the borrowers were unsuccessful in persuading the court to endorse their case. The Court of Appeal decided that a lender's discretion as regards the way that it sets its interest rates, although not completely unfettered, should only be restricted according to the terms of the 1974 Act in a very limited way; and that crucial, very narrow, definition of the constraints on the lender's discretion meant that the two borrowers' arguments were struck down.

I have raised this issue in the House before, and the concerns that I voiced then were picked up by a law firm, which recently highlighted to me a case of a client who is due very shortly to be evicted from their home by Paragon's solicitors. The firm, in its preparation and its attempts to persuade the courts and Paragon Finance not to take such action, called in expert evidence to examine how the rates that National Home Loans was charging compared with those charged by more than 100 more conventional mortgage lenders. It concluded that although National Home Loans' rates had initially been very competitive, now they were traditionally 4 or 5 per cent. higher than those charged by other lenders and, in some cases, were utterly out of line with the market.

I hope that hon. Friends in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury will accelerate the review of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 so that this bunch of loan sharks—I can think of no other term to describe the way Paragon Finance has operated—can be brought to book and vulnerable people who took out loans in the 1980s can have proper protection, which I am sure those who initiated the 1974 Act expected it to offer.

The third issue that I want to mention concerns funding from learning and skills councils to local authorities and colleges when they are attempting to change the structure of post-16 provision in their area. In essence, there are no sixth forms in Harrow's many excellent high schools. That has increasingly become an issue of concern to constituents. On occasion, some 30 to 40 per cent. of Harrow's 16 to 18-year-old students are educated out of the borough, the bulk of them in sixth forms in Hillingdon, Watford or Barnet.

Although we have very high standards of education in our high schools and primary schools, many head teachers and parents are drawing to my attention as their Member of Parliament the fact that many parents are taking their children out of primary school in the last year, at age 11, to get them into high schools with sixth forms. They are concerned about the ethos of the tertiary college system in Harrow, and whether their child is mature enough to cope with the structure and nature of education in a tertiary college.

I should place on the record the fact that the tertiary colleges do have high standards of education, but we cannot ignore the concerns of parents in my constituency. I am pleased to say that a debate is under way locally, initiated by the Labour council and led by the excellent leadership on that local council, as to how we can change post-16 provision to protect the excellent provision offered by the tertiary colleges but also to recognise parental concerns for a more sixth-form style ethos in local post-16 provision. Obviously, to change the structure of post-16 provision locally will require additional funding, and I hope that the Government will ensure that learning and skills councils serving north-west London are properly funded for this purpose.

The last issue that I wish to raise is that of fees for registration as an industrial and provident society. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to introduce a private Member's Bill, the Industrial and Provident Societies Bill, to reform the legal form of industrial and provident societies. During the course of discussions with a series of organisations in the co-operative movement, including the Village Retail Services Association and the National Federation of Women's Institutes country markets, they have flagged up to me not only their desire to see the legislation that governs industrial and provident societies brought up to date but their concern about the Financial Services Authority proposals to levy a tenfold increase in the annual registration charges that must be paid to enable them to remain an industrial and provident society.

There has already been debate on the Floor of the House about this issue. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and I have met the Financial Services Authority to press the issue and I know that Treasury Ministers are already examining the issue, but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, when he feeds back to other Ministers concerns that have been raised on the Floor of the House, will continue to impress on Treasury Ministers the genuine concern that exists in this area.

Mr. Greg Knight

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was one of the Members of the House who supported what he is saying now when we debated his Bill, and I tried to bring about a change by moving a new clause. I hope that Treasury Ministers will mull over his words and decide to take action on the matter. However, if they do not, will the hon. Gentleman consider introducing my new clause to his Bill in another place?

Mr. Thomas

On Report, on 19 April, the right hon. Gentleman made a powerful case. His proposals attracted a huge amount of sympathy on the Opposition Benches, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) attempted to offer another proposal for consideration by Government to solve the problem. I fear that I will not be able to support the right hon. Gentleman's new clause. I could not support it when he proposed it, and I could not support it if it was moved in the other place, since it would serve to kill off the Bill, simply because the Bill would have to return to the Floor of the House and there will be not be enough time to allow that.

I hope that there will be no need for the right hon. Gentleman to press his new clause, because I know that there is considerable sympathy and increasing understanding of the concerns that have been raised by the industrial and provident society sector about the Financial Services Authority proposals. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has heard the cross-party concerns that have again been raised on the Floor of the House. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for contributing and hope that he will press the Treasury and the FSA on that issue.

Having drawn attention to those few issues, I hope that other hon. Members will also get their turn.

10.19 am
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Not being one of what the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) refers to as "the usual suspects", I am particularly grateful to have caught your eye this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am conscious of the fact that, when we return from the Whitsun recess, I shall have been a Member of the House for one year. When I first came here, I was told, "You'll get used to it; it's just like being at public school." No doubt, almost every new Member is told the same. I had the good fortune to be educated entirely in the state sector, so I cannot judge whether that is true, but my good teachers—the nice teachers—always allowed us to bring in games on the last day before the holidays. It seems to me that this debate is somehow the parliamentary equivalent of that, so I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to be part of it.

I represent a constituency that does not often hit the national headlines. If I get a phone call from someone on the "Today" programme, for example, it is invariably about some cosy or couthie little story about Norway wanting to take back sovereignty of Orkney, or something crucial like that—it is never going to be about reform of the common fisheries policy, or anything that matters to my constituents.

Occasionally, however, we hit the national and international headlines—usually because of something for which the communities that I represent would rather not be known. One such incident occurred on 5 January 1993—the day on which the motor tanker Braer ran aground on the island of Horse, south of Shetland. It was, by all witness accounts, a scene of total devastation.

At a meeting in Dunrossness on the south end of Shetland last year, a constituent gave me a photograph showing the tanker on the rocks. The scene that it depicted, some days after the grounding, was unspeakably awful. The pollution was such that people could not live in their houses, and they could not go outside without breathing apparatus. It is remarkable and, indeed, regrettable that, some nine years later, the implications of the Braer's grounding continue to occupy me as the Member of Parliament for the northern isles.

Before the grounding, Shetland salmon farmers enjoyed a premium for their product, but the premium was lost and has never been recovered. We will probably never know about some of the remaining implications because, as a community that relies on our reputation for being environmentally clean, we would be mad to ask about the impact of the heavy metals in the ground off the south end of Shetland. That is occasionally mentioned to me, but so much recovery has taken place that we would not wish to look too carefully at it.

One group of constituents still feels particularly aggrieved. The group had perfectly serviceable asbestos roofs until the Braer was grounded, but as a result of the oil spillage and of oil being in the atmosphere, or possibly as a result of the detergents that were sprayed on the oil, the roofs very quickly perished, became unusable and most of them had to be replaced. That was the subject of litigation between the residents and the international oil pollution compensation fund.

For reasons that I have never been fully able to understand, the local residents lost their case. I would have thought that it was almost a case of res ipsa loquitur—something that speaks for itself. They had a perfectly serviceable roof one day, a tanker dumped 84,700 tonnes of crude oil on their doorstep the next day, and the day after asbestos roofs start to fail—yet the judge said that the residents had not established a causal link. Having heard the evidence, the judge was in a better position to judge that than I am, but I have not been able to get it straight in my own mind.

The conduct of the IOPC during the litigation might best be described as playing hard ball. One of my constituents, Mr. Rae Tulloch, prepared a report for the IOPC on the background to the failure of the roofs. People in Shetland widely believed, for whatever reason, that the report, having been prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Braer's grounding, would go a long way to establish their case in court.

Regrettably, however, the IOPC refused to allow the report to be released. It resisted the legal procedures on the basis that the report was post litem motam—it was prepared in contemplation of litigation—and that therefore it was entitled to hold on to it. That has left a very sour taste in the mouths of many of my constituents, who feel that the report contains information that would demonstrate that their case was well founded.

The IOPC has told me that Rae Tulloch gave evidence during the litigation. That is absolutely true, but he was not able to refer to his report and counsel for the IOPC made several objections to information that he would otherwise have put in the public domain. From the IOPC's point of view, a line can now be drawn under the matter. The litigation has run its course and the IOPC can move on. From my constituents' point of view, however, the feeling remains that they have somehow been short-changed by the IOPC and that the legal system has not worked as it should.

That is why I hope that the Minister will stress to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that this country needs to put pressure on the IOPC to release the report. The case will not cost it anything now and it cannot be sued again. If it has nothing to hide in the report, surely it also has nothing to lose by putting in the public domain.

It might be said that the IOPC was perfectly correct not to pay out for the roofs, or indeed any other claim, because, over the past two years, further information has been brought into the public domain by one of my constituents, Dr. Jonathon Wills, suggesting that the initial accident inquiry, which blamed bad weather and seamanship for the loss of the Braer after her engines stopped south of Sumburgh head, did not get to the root of the matter.

According to Dr. Wills, and there is much merit in what he says, the Braer was, in fact, unseaworthy by any normal standards long before heavy seas damaged the air vents and let water into the fuel. It also seems that the American shipowner, Michael Hudner, has been obstructive in the release of information that could settle the issue one way or the other.

The Braer's steam boilers were badly corroded and their water supply was dangerously contaminated. As a result, during the planned journey from Norway to Canada the engineers could not warm up the heavy fuel-oil to burn in the main engine and the auxiliary boiler, and used diesel instead. Even if the water had not got into the fuel tank, the Braer risked running out of diesel and steam long before it reached the refinery in Quebec for which it was destined. The boat was described by its owner, in the aftermath, as first-class—

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Don't go second-class.

Mr. Carmichael

As my hon. Friend says, one should not go second-class. There is a great deal of truth in that if those are the standards by which ships are to be judged.

The director of the marine accident investigation branch has examined this matter, and he has described Dr. Wills's views as opinion. With all due respect to Admiral John Lang, whom I have met and whose views I would take seriously, I suggest that this matter needs to be considered again. It is more than opinion—new facts have emerged that deserve a proper public airing. A substantial body of opinion now says that the Braer inquiry needs to be reopened in some form or another. It is tempting, nine years after the event, to say, "Well, it's all happened." I suspect that the civil service attitude is that it can be put away in a box marked "sorted." These are important issues, however, which have an importance beyond the shores of Shetland.

The Government have an avowed policy—I commend them for it—of improving the standard of the merchant fleets and the safety of the ships using our waters. I commend them particularly for stationing a tug in the waters of the Pentland Firth and the Fair Isle channel. Significant improvements have been made. It seems, however, that this issue remains outstanding, and runs contrary to the whole thrust of Government policy. This is the sort of incident that will happen again, some day, somewhere. I would like to think that the lessons that are there to be learned from my constituency might be properly learned and applied in the event that something similar happens elsewhere.

I now want to deal briefly with a subject that is of immense concern to my constituents—reform of the common fisheries policy. The common fisheries policy is now an issue of fundamental credibility for the European Union. The scandalous practices that have developed as a result of its current form—I take the view that it is accepted as having failed because of the terms of the Green Paper on reform—cannot be tolerated by the House or by the fishing industry. After 30 years of the common fisheries policy, they will not be tolerated any longer. This is very much the last chance for proper reform of the common fisheries policy.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

I fully support the hon. Gentleman's view of the need for reform. In response to a recent question, the Government stated their concern that, under the Spanish presidency, reform has been delayed because of the illegal activity of and Spain's protectionist policies towards its own fleet. Will the hon. Gentleman persuade our Government to stop Spain's illegal activity?

Mr. Carmichael

I am immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because that was exactly the point that I was about to make. My understanding is that the Spanish are seeking to delay matters because it would be inappropriate for them to be seen to be wrecking while they hold the presidency. They are trying to kick the issue into the long grass until after the next summit, when they will be able to take a much more robust approach to it.

I have received indications—I have yet to hear anyone deny this—that the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Aznar, has been making telephone calls to Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, and that that has brought the reform process to a grinding halt. It is remarkable that the Spanish Prime Minister is prepared to intervene to protect the interests of his fishing industry; I wish that our Prime Minister would do the same. If the Minister takes back no other representation today, I ask him to impress on the Prime Minister in particular the immense frustration that exists in fishing communities, as we see the prospect of reform, which is so crucial to our industry and—I speak as a fervent pro-European—to the credibility of the European Union, being delayed and perhaps denied. The Prime Minister could make a substantial difference through a personal intervention, and it would benefit not just the fishing industry and communities such as mine—in Shetland, for example, a third of our economy depends on it—but the case for reform of the European Union, of which I know the Minister and the Prime Minister are generally in favour.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to air these subjects, and I hope that the appropriate messages will be heard elsewhere.

10.36 am
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said that this debate was like games on the last day of term at school. Being a workaholic, the other thing of which it reminds me is catching up on that little bit of extra work that one never got round to doing. I always find it useful to air some of those issues that I have spent several hours bobbing up and down in the Chamber trying to raise without having the opportunity to do so.

I would also like to use this time to highlight to the Government the major issues that are still being raised in my postbag. The first of those is concern about those basic services on which we all rely—education, health, social services and transport. What is coming through still is a demand for more funds. In some ways, that is surprising given that, unquestionably, there are more funds in all of those areas, and we are seeing the benefit of that. Time scale may be an issue, however, as recruitment frustrations mean that the delivery of those services does not always meet people's expectations.

In terms of education, Swindon is the lowest funded unitary authority in the F40 group, and among the lowest sixth in terms of funding. The standards, however, do not justify such a low level of funding. I am delighted that, only yesterday, it was announced that we are still on track to have a new system of education funding, and that there will be a consultation period over the summer. I was particularly pleased by the recognition that there should be a baseline for every local education authority, and that money will be allocated so that everyone can be sure that a reasonable level of services can be provided. Of course, the argument will be about what that level should be. I very much look forward to that consultation, however, and I hope that it will be very specific so that schools can recognise how that reasonable level of service can be provided.

Of course, not only the level of service but the speed at which we move towards those new allocations is important. I hope that, in the spending review, the Government will ensure that there is enough money to provide additional funds to schools in Swindon, and that growth money is properly given to those areas that have not had enough funds in the past because of unfair distribution.

Mr. Francois

All hon. Members have an interest in the review of the standard spending assessment system that is under way. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if give a quick plug on behalf of Rochford district council and all the other authorities that are members of the town and country finance issues group—TACFIG—and that have done particularly badly out of the old SSA formula. They hope that they might get something positive out of the new one as a result of the review.

Ms Drown

The issue is a bit of a nightmare. A consultation carried out with local authorities showed that 98 per cent. thought that they would benefit from a new formula. However, we will not all be happy, so will continue to argue our case. I have received representations from the south-west unitary authorities as well as from the F40 group. Clearly, we shall have to have a mature debate, but I hope that the House will be able to support the proposed baseline and the simplified formula that emerges. However, the debate will be hot until that formula is determined.

It is clear that money is available for social services and health funding. People in Swindon have seen the benefits of that. We will get a new hospital later this year, and it will have 19 per cent. more space so it will be able to attend to more patients: it will be able to see more patients and it will have more beds. I know that the staff at our existing Princess Margaret hospital are looking forward to the change.

To double the amount of money in the health service in real terms by 2008 seems almost unbelievable. The fear is that we shall raise expectations that then cannot be delivered. However, frustrations exist when trying to deliver health and social services to people in need. Recruitment is an issue, but can we not be more flexible over the years so that those areas that face particular pressures can more quickly develop the services that they require?

I also wish to raise a few concerns about the recent announcements for foundation hospitals and delivering the NHS plan. Many of the reasons used to push for the creation of foundation hospitals, such as the argument that not everything can be run for Whitehall, do not apply to just a few hospitals. If everything cannot be run from Whitehall, why will selecting just a few hospitals deliver a better health service? Let us face it, not everything is run from Whitehall. It does not sign every invoice and contract for staff; things have already been devolved. If more issues need to be devolved, should they not be devolved across the whole health service and in the interests of all patients?

The announcements contained statements such as: NHS foundation trusts will be freed from having to respond to an excessive number of prescriptive central demands, guidance and reporting arrangements. If there are an excessive number of demands, should they not be reduced for everyone? It is odd to talk only to the most successful trusts, as defined by a fairly crude set of indicators that mean that hospitals fall into one of three categories. Should we not talk to all hospitals, all community trusts and all primary care teams about how we should develop the trusts further?

The main thrust of the Government's approach to the health service is absolutely right. The NHS plan has received solid support from across the whole health service—from the professions, unions, staff and patients. However, my concern is that we are carrying out reorganisation for the sake of it. The Government have already recognised that the service is undergoing great reorganisation and although, it might be boring to continue with the same NHS plan, it is a solid plan and should be delivered. We should stick to it.

The document "Delivering the NHS Plan" talks about introducing full-cost charging for patient services. Given that the NHS always faces pressures and must balance costs exactly with income, the introduction of full-cost charging might create the instability and problems that we faced under the Conservatives' internal market. Most people in the health service recognise that that market failed, as do the Labour party. At the general election in 1997, we stood on a manifesto to change it. I agree that our proposals are not the same as the internal market and would not introduce one to the same extent, but we must be careful that we do not create exactly the same problems that the internal market caused.

On transport, the Potters Bar crash again raised people's concerns about safety. We need to reiterate that the railways are still the safest form of transport. Although there is always something psychologically difficult about a rail crash, more people are killed on the roads. However, we do not relate to that fact in the same way as we do to rail crashes. Although we must stress that rail is still the safest way to travel, we clearly need to do more to improve rail safety as well as punctuality. Infrastructure continues to be a major issue and causes huge frustrations with my constituents who want to travel by rail.

Certain aspects of rail services, however, do not require major investment. I recently received a letter from a constituent who has a disability. She travels from Swindon to Harrogate and back again using three different rail services—Great Western, Virgin and Arriva. All of them let her down. People are not there to offer her assistance in getting on and off trains. That is not only a disappointment and a terrible thing to happen, but undermines her and other people's confidence in the next journey that they will make. They fear that people will not be there to provide the assistance that they need to get on and off trains. In the 21st century, it should not be hard to make such service provision. Train companies should be able to provide it.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred to criminal activity and antisocial behaviour. I recognise the points that he made, because that issue features in my postbag. We are undoubtedly ready for a real push and investment in youth work, so that people have positive things to do rather than getting involved in criminal and antisocial behaviour.

In Swindon, antisocial behaviour is still associated with some travellers. Many travellers pass through Swindon and do not cause any problems, but some still cause a real nuisance to the resident community. Legislation is not strong enough to deal with the problem, but I am pleased that, in this Session, there has been a ten-minute Bill and an Adjournment debate on the issue. There has been a move in the House to promote cross-party work and we are looking to set up an all-party group on illegal camping and traveller management so as to try to push the issue up the parliamentary agenda.

Residents in my area also suffer from the antisocial behaviour associated with prostitution. It makes many of their lives a misery because they are hassled by some prostitutes and kerb crawlers. The Government have taken big steps forward by making kerb crawling an arrestable offence. However, we need to do more and we were particularly disappointed when antisocial behaviour orders failed in Swindon's magistrates court because of the evidence base. Such orders should be considered in the county courts, which are more familiar with the evidence base that must be created to have the orders imposed. That would make a real improvement to the lives of those who live in areas affected by prostitution.

Another issue that features in my postbag—and that of other hon. Members—is the problem created by fireworks and airguns. They injure many people and animals. Only last month, a man in Swindon was shot by a gas-powered ball-bearing gun. The ball-bearing went into his skull and missed his eye by inches. That is just one incident, and many animals are also injured. The Government should consider introducing firework and airgun controls so that we can reduce injuries.

In addition to receiving correspondence, I also try to take many Government consultations out to my constituents. Recently, I helped to undertake the Government's consultation on radioactive waste, and from that came the clear view that people—68 per cent. of those surveyed—wanted nuclear energy phased out. They want the skills of people working in the nuclear energy industry, of whom there are many in Swindon, used in other industries. People are keen on the development of renewable energy sources. I know that the Government are already carrying out a lot of work on that and, only yesterday, permission was granted for the largest wind farm to be built in Ceredigion. I congratulate the county council there, the people of Ceredigion and the Government on letting that proposal through. However, we must do more.

Nearly all the 506 applications for wind farms have been rejected, and 238 have been opposed by the Ministry of Defence. That raises questions about joined-up government. Why should the Ministry of Defence object to wind farms when other European countries can manage to build many of them without such objections? The Ministry of Defence should not object to this country moving from risky energy sources, such as nuclear energy, which itself poses a danger to the Ministry, to less risky energy sources.

Mr. Carmichael

Does the hon. Lady agree that if Saddam Hussein wants to prevent an attack on Iraq by this country's low-flying aircraft, his best defence is to build wind farms?

Ms Drown

That is an interesting point. I am sure the Ministry of Defence would come up with another way of tackling the problem. Obviously we need to consider such matters.

On defence diversification, if our foreign policy is to be successful and our world more peaceful, which I hope all hon. Members want, it makes good business sense to diversify now. We have incredibly skilled engineers and scientists in the defence sector, yet we are not actively trying to diversify. We also know that the availability of weapons fuels conflicts.

The Prime Minister emphasised the importance of science in a major speech this week, and he was right to do so. He did that for two reasons: first, because science is vital to our continued prosperity and, secondly, because he was struck by a meeting that he had with academics and entrepreneurs in Bangalore in January. They were in business in the biotech industry and told him that Europe has gone soft on science". In particular, on the GM debate, they thought that we were completely overrun by protesters and pressure groups who used emotion to drive out reason. In his speech, the Prime Minister said: if we don't get a better understanding of science and its role, they may be proved right. He is keen to prove those people wrong and wants to develop a culture that values a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to new opportunities. I share and support that aim, but it is not consistent with having a neutral attitude to creationism.

Creationism is not an alternative to science which can be taught alongside it. However, it is being taught in schools and the Government seem to have a neutral attitude to that. They are not equally acceptable ways of understanding the world. If we teach fiction alongside fact, it does not lead to a more diverse and exciting curriculum; it simply blurs the boundaries between truth and untruth. It is like teaching children that two plus two equals five alongside standard numbers and then wondering why they have problems deciding which is the better. As the Prime Minister said, we need to focus on science, and that must begin by insisting on rationality in the school curriculum.

Excellent work is being carried out in the health service. The work that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is doing to get rid of the postcode lottery about which many hon. Members have complained relies on getting the best treatments in the NHS. Those have to be based on good science and that has to be based on rationality. We will not achieve that aim if we take a neutral stance to teaching unfounded theories alongside evidence-based science.

I am not saying that those schools that teach creationism are bad; nor am I objecting to people believing in divine causes. However, we need a rational debate on that. We need to be able to say that schools can be good schools without teaching creationism. We need to keep creationism outside schools so that they can concentrate on the scientific facts and on teaching children the skills that they need in the world.

On international issues, we had an excellent debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on the United Nations in which we mentioned children and the millennium development goals on debt relief. The early-day motion that calls for more debt relief has 345 signatories, which is the third largest number of signatories of any early-day motion. It reflects the desire to ensure that the poorest countries get more debt relief.

Trade was also raised in the debate. When we return from the Whit recess, one of the largest lobbies of Parliament for a long time will take place on that subject. I get many letters pushing for all those issues to be raised more and for the aid budget to have a clear timetable so that we reach the 0.7 per cent. target. The Government have done fantastically well on that. When Labour last left power, aid as a proportion of gross domestic product was up 0.5 per cent. Unfortunately, under the Conservatives, it went right down to 0.26 per cent. I am delighted that we are reversing that by increasing the aid budget by more than 40 per cent. and ensuring that it is effectively targeted on the poorest people. Not only do we have a moral duty to achieve the 0.7 per cent. target, but it is in our interests to do so, in terms of security and of delivering future markets.

We did not have time in Westminster Hall to raise the problem of child soldiers. Approximately 300,000 children are involved in military and armed conflicts around the world. The United Nations Children's Fund has been working to stop the involvement of children in conflicts. We must consider how the United Kingdom can help UNICEF to do that. In September 2000, we recognised children's rights by signing the optional protocol to the UN convention on the rights of the child. However, the Government submitted a declaration to make an exception to the convention, reserving the right to deploy under-18s in certain conditions. That runs contrary to the spirit of the protocol and undermines the message.

The UK actively targets under-18s to join its armed forces. More than 9,000 under-18s were recruited between 1998 and 1999. The UK is the only European country that is incapable of organising itself so that it avoids deploying under-18s in conflict zones, although they fought in the Falklands and the Gulf war, and four under-18s have been killed in combat since 1981.

The issue is important for two reasons. First, it is wrong that children under 18 can fight and die for a country when they are unable to vote for its leaders. They cannot even go into a pub and have one drink. Secondly, by flouting the UN recommendations and sending children into conflict situations, we cannot censure those military regimes that use even younger children in armed conflicts without being labelled hypocrites. When UNICEF recently raised the problem with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, it wanted to know why it should stop using under-18s when the United Kingdom has not agreed to do so, especially as it is not in a state of civil war. We need to support the UN in its work on child soldiers and apply the same standards to ourselves that we want to apply to the rest of the world.

I have no objection to having a separate training organisation that recruits under-18s as long as they can make a fully informed decision at 18 as to whether they want to join the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence says that it cannot recruit unless it gets people when they are young. There is no reason why it should not recruit to separate training organisations, however. Other countries can do it, so why not us? That would get around the operational problems. For example, if we suddenly need to send a ship that is out at sea into conflict and there is one under-18-year-old on board, we have to decide either to lift that person off and break up the team, or not to send the ship into conflict. If we had separate organisations, the operational problems could be avoided. It would not be hard for the Government to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned modernisation. We have had an interesting debate on that. However, I am frustrated that we did not achieve everything this Session. In particular, I am concerned about the idea of paying Select Committee Chairmen more. I worry about what signals that sends out. I want to make the House more effective at representing constituents and scrutinising the Executive. An important aspect of that is to get more respect from our constituents. It is not sensible to pay a few individuals more.

Mr. Greg Knight

It is not a wish to pay Select Committee Chairmen more—it is a decision. The House has spoken.

Ms Drown

I fully appreciate that. I hope that we might have an opportunity to think about the issue again, because we did not have long to debate it. Some Hon. Members suggested that there should be a career structure, but it is a pretty flat one. If Select Committee Chairs are to be appointed for eight years or two terms, that will benefit only a few Members and the decision will be made very early on. There is a possibility that Members will be discouraged from becoming Opposition spokespeople. Money should not be the only incentive to move forward, and I do not think that it motivates many Members. A better motivating force would be to have better debates and to give Members more opportunity to influence legislation. Making the House more effective is a better way forward than rewarding just a few Members financially. It is not as though the House has terrible morale or a great problem in recruiting Select Committee Chairs.

Another issue that was debated was restricting Select Committee Chairs to two terms or eight years. That is a good idea. Some Members thought that was not fair to those who have great talents and should be able to stay on Committees for longer, but there would be nothing wrong with their taking a term off to share their skills elsewhere, then returning to chair a Committee. A degree of fluidity in that respect could help to bring in new blood and new angles. It would increase respect for Parliament and improve both the way in which we scrutinise legislation and the way in which we are seen by our constituents.

I have covered a whole range of issues, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put them on the record.

11.2 am

David Burnside (South Antrim)

I send my best wishes, on behalf of all those in Northern Ireland, to the English team in the World cup. I remember the finals in 1966, when my parents brought me to stay at the Charing Cross hotel before going to the match between Portugal and Russia to determine third and fourth places. On the Thursday night I got a phone call from my brother in Wolverhampton who said, "I've bought a ticket in a pub for 10 shillings—you're at the final on Saturday." At the age of 15, that was some present. On behalf of the holders of the home international championship, Northern Ireland, I want to issue an invitation to the England team. When they return, at whatever stage of the tournament, we are prepared to defend the championship if England, Scotland and Wales are willing to restart that fine tournament, which should be held at Wembley.

I want to refer to the situation involving Equitable Life. I had not realised that there was a crisis until constituents came knocking on the door of my office in South Antrim. More than 1 million people have pensions with Equitable Life. I believe in free markets that are allowed to operate for good or bad, but the Treasury has a role to play in putting pressure on Equitable Life to reconsider the position. It does not affect me personally in a disastrous way, but it affects many of the 1 million policyholders who are in dire financial straits owing to the company's bad management. Will the Minister ask the Treasury to use its influence to represent the needs of those policyholders?

I realise that we Ulstermen are meant to be dour and boring and to lack a sense of humour—that is part of our image—but we tend to get stuck with serious subjects because of where we are from and what we have lived through. I wish to raise a subject that gives me major concern and affects not only my constituents but all law-abiding people in Northern Ireland—the lack of consent for the way in which we are governed. I was one of those who with optimism and enthusiasm, although with many reservations, supported an agreement in 1998 that we hoped would take us on a path from the bad days to a better and brighter future. It has not worked, and those who say that it is working are deluding themselves.

Following a point of order that was raised in the House on Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had the courtesy to respond to a question that I had tabled in April. He declared once again that he saw no threat to the Provisional IRA ceasefire. I have tabled another question to him asking if he would define a ceasefire and on what conditions he would state that the ceasefire had ended. I do not know what a ceasefire that is not under threat means, given that those on ceasefire have carried out 14 murders in Northern Ireland since they signed it. They have carried out major robberies and other criminal activities in Northern Ireland, and they are the main line of inquiry in the Police Service of Northern Ireland's investigation into the theft of intelligence information from special branch at Castlereagh.

Sinn Fein-IRA received $2 million from FARC, a terrorist organisation in Colombia that started off in rural terrorism and has been trained in urban terrorism by 15 members of Sinn Fein-IRA, three of whom are awaiting trial in Colombia. That is supposedly an organisation on ceasefire. One of its leaders, Martin McGuinness, says, "We are not involved in drug dealing." What greater involvement could there be? FARC supplies 70 per cent. of the heroin and cocaine that enters the United States. The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein receive $2 million dollars from that organisation, yet say they are not involved in drug dealing.

Mr. Francois

I understand how passionately the hon. Gentleman feels about these matters. Is it not bizarre that, because of the IRA's involvement with FARC and the US Administration's determination to fight a war against terror around the world, the US Administration are now taking a tougher line against Sinn Fein-IRA than the British Government?

David Burnside

I agree completely. Earlier this week, Mr. Haas, the member of the Administration responsible for Northern Ireland matters, stated that further action must be taken against the Provisional IRA, and I hope that that action will be taken, including re-establishing the ban on members of Sinn Fein visiting the United States.

I was giving examples of the farce of this ceasefire, which includes dealing in drugs and importing arms from Florida and continental Europe. Decommissioning has become a joke: it has been turned upside down. Decommissioning made sense only when it had a short deadline and could be credible and verifiable in ensuring that republican and paramilitary terrorists put guns and arms behind them. When the Government extended the deadline to 2008, they made a joke of the process. It is now used as a tactical ploy to the advantage of those in Sinn Fein-IRA, who say, "We will undertake a little bit of token decommissioning, so give us more concessions."

What disillusioned me, the people who elected me last June and the people of Northern Ireland who no longer give their consent to the institutions of this process—the next election will prove it—was the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. How, after 30 years, can the finest police force in Europe be destroyed as part of a peace process? Its royal title was ripped away. Chris Patten was sent to Hong Kong, where he had to constitutionally take away one of only three police forces in the world with the royal title, the Royal Hong Kong police, the other two being the Royal Canadian mounted police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The RUC had its royal title stripped away, while the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) recommended to the Crown that it should receive the George Cross. The RUC has been humiliated and thrown into the dustbin of history. That is disgraceful and has contributed to the total disillusionment of the Unionist people. The force now has the worst sickness record of any force in the United Kingdom; it had the finest record. It has been demoralised and humiliated. A peace process that does that is not worth considering.

Let us consider loyalist ceasefires. There has been a little token decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries. There has been no deadline; they got their prisoners out and all the concessions, and gave nothing in return. The way in which the peace process has been managed is farcical.

I wish that the Government would realise that those in Sinn Fein-IRA were trained in old-fashioned Marxist socialism. They therefore have no moral or ethical problem with lying in public. Those who carry out such crimes are Machiavellian; they lie. We have an uneducated Minister of Education in Northern Ireland—Martin McGuinness. He is an elected Member of the House who will not take the Oath. McGuinness, Adams, Keenan, Ferris and Slab Murphy are members of the Army Council of the Provisional IRA. One is Minister of Education in Northern Ireland. The Government of the Irish Republic will not accept Sinn Fein in the Administration because of its illegal army. As the recently re-elected Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said, nowhere else in Europe would allow members of a terrorist organisation that had not moved to full democracy to participate in government. Yet Martin McGuinness is in charge of education in Northern Ireland.

People, especially those who are paid to be in Stormont, tell me about the benefits of devolution. The current Minister of Education is about to destroy one of our most valuable assets—the grammar school system. There are two grammar schools in my constituency, Antrim grammar and Ballyclare high. McGuinness, the uneducated Minister of Education and old-fashioned socialist claptrap, is embarking on a course of action, supported by the badly written, badly prepared Burns report. He is attempting to destroy our grammar schools. If someone said that we could have the show in Stormont or retain the grammar schools in Northern Ireland, I would be tempted to safeguard the schools because they contribute a great deal more to society than much of what happens at Stormont.

I began on a lighthearted and optimistic note by mentioning the England team and I want to end more optimistically. I do not want to be depressed about the future in Northern Ireland, but I raised the subject today because it will not go away. The Secretary of State's refusal to answer questions from elected Members or delay in replying will not make it go away. The Government must come clean.

The Prime Minister must come to the House and admit that if he, like the majority of law-abiding people, both Protestant and Catholic, wants democracy and accountable institutions in Northern Ireland, and people to work together for a more peaceful and better future, he must recognise and accept that consent for the current peace process has gone. The bulk of the Catholic community—70 per cent.—and just over half the Protestant community voted for the peace process, but the consent no longer exists. The contract with the people must be re-established, and based on democracy and accountable institutions. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister must act on the phoney ceasefire by the Provisional IRA.

Northern Ireland questions will take place on the first Wednesday after we return from the recess. The Secretary of State will have to tell the House the truth. The ceasefire does not exist and if the Government, like the majority of people in Northern Ireland, want accountable government and a forum for local administration in Stormont, it cannot be based on the hypocrisy and farce of the current institutions. It is not acceptable to have Martin McGuinness as Minister of Education; it is not acceptable to have a member of the Army Council of the Provisional IRA in charge of our children's education.

If Martin McGuinness was invited to a state school, how could a child of any age stand up and ask, "Minister of Education, have you ever been involved in murder or terrorism?" McGuinness is not even big enough to apologise and express remorse or regret for what he has done; he believes that all his actions were justified.

We cannot have credible institutions, a peaceful society and a prosperous future when the process has been bastardised by the Government's hypocrisy. They allow such things to happen without putting pressure or sanctions on Sinn Fein-IRA. The process does not have the support of my constituents or the majority of law-abiding people in Northern Ireland. It cannot be fudged any longer. I hope that the Government will listen to the democrats in Northern Ireland and stop responding to pressure and influence from terrorist organisations that have not yet embarked on truly accountable democratic methods.

11.15 am
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

As a fellow Ulsterman, I thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) for his good wishes to the England team and his timely reminder that Northern Ireland retains the domestic international championship. His call for the renewal of that championship is also timely; I have supported it for some time. I accept that it used to mean a lot more in the past, but it is a good competition and it should be reinstated. That could be done in conjunction with forming a United Kingdom team. That might not find favour in Scotland, but for some unknown reason, it has support in Ulster.

While on the subject of obscure sporting facts, it is worth remembering that the French are still the Olympic cricket champions. As they say, not many people know that. The French would probably retain that title if cricket were reinstated as part of the Olympic games. England remains the Olympic tug-of-war champion. I shall not turn my speech into a pub quiz, but the hon. Member for South Antrim set off the nerd in me.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was perceptive when he said that he thought I would mention the World cup. One would have to come from outer space, let alone Castle Point, to miss the fact that the World cup begins next Friday. It is on the front and back pages of our newspapers today. I have a lot of time for the hon. Member for Castle Point, but I was surprised by his support for Senegal. I think that his constituents should know about that. I hoped that he would explain why he is supporting Senegal. Football and politics are strange worlds and the hon. Gentleman managed to make them even stranger this morning.

The papers are full of the fact that Roy Keane has walked out of the Republic of Ireland squad. I deeply regret that, because with him he took the guts of the midfield from my World cup fantasy team. I had linked him with Paul Scholes. I hope that Roy Keane thought about that before deciding to flounce out. Clearly, it did not stop him though. The Daily Telegraph's cartoon conveyed that at least he could walk out, which is more than several England players could do.

Bob Spink

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to explain about Senegal. It is a wonderful, democratic, free African country with a free press. It recently held free elections, which changed the Government without a blow being exchanged. That is more than can be said about our election, when the Deputy Prime Minister was involved in an incident. It is a wonderful nation in the north-west of Africa—a nation that believes in doing away with the begging bowl and in trading internationally to get development. Senegal is a beacon for the rest of Africa, which is why I support its team.

Mr. Banks

The world can now rest easy: the hon. Gentleman has explained why he supports Senegal. In next Friday's match, I shall be supporting France, mainly because most of the French team seems to play in the Premier league and its captain, Marcel Desailly, is a great Chelsea player. After those revelations, it appears that the hon. Gentleman and I will continue to be on opposing sides for next Friday's football.

There has been a tremendous build-up to the FIFA World cup, which everyone acknowledges is the greatest single sports event on the planet. We are all looking forward to it. When I was Minister for Sport, I was asked whether England would win the 1998 World cup, and being an honest sort of bloke who knows a bit about a football, I replied, "I don't think so, but who knows? Anything can happen in football." For that fairly unexceptional, not to say clichidden, comment, I was ripped to pieces by the tabloid press and accused of being a traitor. Apparently, I did the wrong thing as Minister for Sport: I now realise that I should have said that if Glenn Hoddle, who was then the England coach, chose 11 good Englishmen from a bus queue on the Tottenham Court road, they would be capable of beating any team of Johnny Foreigners. Unfortunately, I told the truth instead, and if we did win the World cup that year, someone should tell me and explain why the French went off with the medals.

One has to be honest about our chances. We all send great good wishes to Sven-Göran Eriksson and however many of the England team are still able to walk, but the fact remains that we are in a tough group. I expect the team to do well, but I expect England to do far better at the 2006 World cup, when some of our younger players will have come through. I know that our team will acquit themselves well, and we in this country will be shouting our support for them.

Because I love football, I shall watch the matches, but I shall also watch the behaviour of English fans, because once again this country's reputation will be on the line. Hon. Members will remember Euro 2000, when the violence in Brussels and Charleroi was nothing short of a national disgrace. As I have said before, it killed off our—admittedly slim—hopes of hosting the 2006 World cup. We were told that there was no way the 2006 World cup would be given to England, because it would look like a reward for hooliganism. At that point the big teams asked why they should continue, given that it was pointless, and we recommended to the FA board that the bid be dropped—to which the board replied that we could not do that because it would look like we were bowing down in the face of hooliganism. I remain clear that, apart from being a national disgrace that shamed this country and English football, that violence dealt the death blow to our 2006 World cup bid.

None the less, we learned a lesson. It is a great credit to Parliament—not only the Government, but Parliament as a whole—that there was all-party support for new, much tougher legislation, which took the form of the Football (Disorder) Act 2000. I have held many discussions with police on the issue of football violence, in which I take a close interest, and I believe that that Act is working. More than 1,000 banning orders—section 14B orders—have been imposed. When an order is imposed, the person on whom it has been imposed has to surrender their passport before and during a competition. As I said, more than 1,000 football hooligans have had to surrender their passports.

It is interesting to compare the 1,000-plus banning orders secured in the run-up to this year's World cup with Euro 2000, when only about 100 banning orders were in place. During Euro 2000, 965 English fans were arrested, only one of whom was subject to a banning order; however, closer analysis revealed that more than 40 per cent. of those who were arrested had previous convictions for public order offences. That prompts the question: what were they doing there? At that time, there was legislation in place that the courts could have used to impose banning orders, but they clearly had not done so, despite the fact that 40 per cent. of those arrested had convictions for public order offences.

Given the number of banning orders now in place, it is obvious that this country's courts are far more ready to impose section 14B orders. However, the statistics show great variations between different court areas; that is a matter of considerable concern which the Government should investigate. Let me give a few examples. In 2000–01, 108 Everton and 78 Liverpool fans were arrested for football-related offences—a total of 186 arrests; however, the breakdown of the banning orders reveals that only 11 have been imposed on Everton and Liverpool supporters. Taking Merseyside as a whole, the courts there have imposed only 15 banning orders. Hon. Members should keep those facts in mind as I give the statistics for another area of the country. Again in 2000–01, 49 Stoke fans were arrested for football-related offences and 98 banning orders were imposed in the Staffordshire court area. In total, the Staffordshire courts have imposed 149 banning orders.

There is no simple correlation between arrests and banning orders, because not all arrests end in an appearance in court and conviction, but I could have given a range of examples to illustrate the inconsistency. That gives rise to a series of important questions. First, why is there such a wide discrepancy in the number of bans imposed by courts in different areas when the arrest figures for those areas are comparable? Secondly, does the small number of banning orders in Merseyside indicate that the Crown Prosecution Service does not press hard enough for prosecution, or are the Merseyside courts too lenient in their view of football-related offences and too reluctant to impose section 14B banning orders? Thirdly, what training is given to magistrates in respect of football-related violence, and what advice do they receive from their clerks?

I have been examining the figures carefully, and I am concerned. We need far more information if we are to discover why the impact of the Football (Disorder) Act is so patchy. We must try to achieve a degree of uniformity across the country in the application of justice following the commission of arrestable football-related offences.

Football violence and hooliganism in this country have decreased. That improvement has happened for a variety of reasons: legislation has been introduced, and the clubs are doing far more within their grounds with CCTV cameras, greater police involvement, better stewarding and more publicity. All those things have contributed to what one can only describe as a much improved situation within our game, but there is much more that we can and must do.

I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members have been watching the BBC's programmes on football hooliganism. Last Sunday's programme was about hooliganism in and around Cardiff City football club. It made chilling viewing. It was extremely scary and at the same time highly informative. Perhaps the BBC's timing in raising the matter of football hooliganism was not brilliant, but it needed to be done. I suppose the same criticism could be applied to me, because instead of extolling the virtues of the beautiful game I am underlining some of its darker aspects.

When watching the programme, it became obvious that some serious matters need to be addressed at Cardiff City football club, not least the behaviour of the club's chairman, Sam the Man, whose behaviour was extraordinary. I know Sam the Man pretty well. He was helpful to us during the 2006 World cup campaign, when he was chairman of Wimbledon. However, something has happened to him on the road down to Cardiff, and it is not nice to see. It is not surprising, given what we saw during the programme, that Cardiff City fans top the section 14B banning league table, with no fewer than 112 banning orders.

It is not only Cardiff City. The scenes that were witnessed, and the violence, following the Millwall-Birmingham City play-off match were equally disturbing. Statistics show that only 23 banning orders have been imposed on Millwall supporters. I suspect that a much larger number will be imposed when the police have finished studying the video evidence and making their inquiries about those who were involved in the recent appalling scenes outside Millwall's ground.

Yesterday, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis continued to amplify his suggestion that Millwall football club might be sued for damages. I do not agree with that. In the ground, the football club has absolute responsibility for the behaviour of the fans. As I have said, the level of football hooliganism has improved significantly because the clubs take the matter seriously.

I do not see how we can extend responsibility for the behaviour of football fans to way beyond the confines of the football club. Once fans have gone outside the club, it is a matter for the police and a law-and-order issue. There are those who say that the only reason for the fans being outside the club is that they were previously inside the club, so the club should take more responsibility. That is a perverse piece of logic because it would mean that any drunk who came out of a pub and caused problems down the street could cause the pub to be sued. The same could happen to a night club.

I suppose that we could reduce the argument to the absurd by saying that if someone's house was burgled by a couple of Millwall supporters that person could sue the club. I do not think that the Commissioner is correct in his assumption and I still do not believe that it is one that we should support, although I entirely support the action that the police are taking in respect of football violence and the fact that they are working closely with others to implement the laws that we pushed through.

If a club is not prepared to take seriously the violence of its fans or to deal adequately with them where there is sufficient evidence that they have behaved badly or criminally but have not been arrested, the football authorities should think about expelling clubs from the football league. The imposition of a £20,000 fine on Cardiff is hardly a big deal. Sam the Man is a rich man and the club can easily afford £20,000. However, the threat of expulsion from the league might concentrate minds. I am not advocating that Cardiff City should be expelled from the league, but I argue that it is one of the sanctions that the football authorities should consider. That would send a stern message to the football clubs.

Images of the Cardiff-Leeds cup match earlier this year and of violence after the Millwall-Birmingham match went around the world, because our television is seen in so many countries. English language newspapers are circulated more widely throughout the world than other countries' newspapers. Football violence in the United Kingdom is swept round the world. People pick up their newspapers and say, "It has happened again." That reinforces the image that our game is riddled with violence, which is the most pervasive and corrupting influence on our game.

Unfortunately, as I know from bitter experience of the 2006 World cup campaign, that is still the abiding image. Despite everything that we have done in this place and despite the actions that have been taken by the police and the clubs, it is still thought worldwide that English football is riddled with violence. There are far worse cases of football violence in Italy, other parts of Europe, Argentina and Africa, but they do not get the same media coverage. To an extent, other countries manage to get away with it.

It is gruesome television on a Sunday evening, but I suggest that right hon. and hon. Members try to catch the next edition of the BBC programme on hooliganism. It will deal with Lazio and the extremely racist and violent gangs that surround that club. We might think that the situation in the UK is bad, but the programme will show that it is nothing compared with that in Italy, especially at Lazio. The wrong message tends to be sent out.

The great majority of our fans are decent, law-abiding people who follow the team to enjoy the football, and hope to get a good result. We shall have 8,000 of them in Japan for the first phase—more than any other country, excluding the host country.

I have been examining the security arrangements that have been organised by the Home Office, the police and the Football Association, and without doubt they are the most extensive that have ever been put in place for an overseas tournament. Despite what we might read in newspapers, and knowing that there has been much discussion between the Japanese and the English authorities, I hope that the Japanese authorities do not treat every English fan as a potential hooligan. Of course, that is the result of hooliganism. When English fans travel abroad, the police authorities see an individual fan and say, "Hooligan," and many innocent people are caught up in violence.

It was to protect the interests of the innocent that we put legislation in place, and we might have to revisit it. We know, despite the fact that the great majority of the fans are law abiding and decent and go to enjoy a game of football, that it takes only a few individuals to ruin things for everyone.

I know that it is difficult for sane, rational people to understand this—however, it is important to do so—but there are people whose only attraction to football is the violence that they can engender. They will go to the most extraordinary lengths to beat the system, and we must be ready for that. We are not talking about the dispossessed—they are wealthy professional people. One of the individuals involved in the programme on Cardiff was a millionaire. It is behaviour that crosses economic divisions and class barriers. We must be concerned about it and be ready to deal with it.

A number of people travelling to the World cup are probably already in Thailand. They could go straight to the country where the match is taking place, but the chances are that they would get caught, so they leave as early as possible, go to a neighbouring country and jump off into the country where they want to attend the match. According to statistics that I have seen, there will be 200 or so English fans travelling whose names are known to the police and have been passed on to the Japanese authorities. As I said, many, if not all, of them are probably in Thailand already. The Japanese immigration authorities, having received those names, will refuse them entry and they will be put on planes and sent back to this country.

Given that the police knew who those people were and could identify them, why were they allowed to travel in the first place? They should not have been allowed to travel. As I said in the debate about banning orders and the Football (Disorder) Act 2000, I am convinced that there are still loopholes in the legislation and we will have to return to it. Those 200 or so should not have been allowed to leave the country. Their passports should have been surrendered to the police. We must consider extending the scope of banning orders and give the police powers to impose section 14B orders on the authority of a justice of the peace. Such a banning order should automatically apply for three months prior to a competition and one month prior to an international match.

I know that there are those who say that that is rough justice. I agree. I do not demur—it is rough justice—but we must do all we can to repair the damage to our reputation as a footballing nation and protect the rights of decent, law-abiding English fans.

I shall make one last suggestion, which I have proposed in the House many times. There are a number of ideas that I tried years ago. Eventually, someone picks them up and decides that they were not quite as mad as they seemed at the time. We will be seeing a lot of English flags—the Union flag and the St. George flag—flying in the grounds. Fine. It is good to see the national flag, but we will be seeing flags that have been defaced with slogans or club affiliations. That is totally unacceptable.

The flag is supposed to be unifying force in a country, but when it is carried by supporters of a football club who have written the club's slogan across the flag, or when supporters of a political party have put their slogan on the flag, it becomes a divisive symbol. I suggested years ago that the House should pass legislation or find some way of banning anyone from defacing the flag or using it as an adjunct to a political party. That goes for the Conservative party, the Labour party, which recently picked up the practice, and the National Front, which has been doing it.

When one sees one's flag linked to a party that one disagrees with—whether one disagrees violently or marginally—the symbol of unity is being used in a disunifying way. We will see that during the football matches. It should not be allowed and the Government should take the matter up.

Like all civilised and rational people, I look forward to an exciting, colourful and, above all, trouble-free World cup in Japan and Korea, but if there is any trouble—I hate to say that I suspect that there will be some, although it will be nothing like Euro 2000—when the perpetrators return to this country, I hope that there will be no Mr. Nice Guy waiting for them. We will revisit the legislation, and any lessons that we learn—I hope that there will not be very many to learn—from the upcoming World cup will be reflected in changes to it.

In the end, we must win this one. If people feel that football hooliganism is like waging a war on authority, we must show them that authority will win the war. I send my best wishes to the England team and all the law-abiding English fans, and hope that they all return safely and, who knows—maybe, but I doubt it—return with the World cup.

11.44 am
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who always speaks knowledgeably about sporting matters, especially football. I join him in wishing the England team all the very best as they go off to compete in the World cup.

It is a pleasure to participate in the end-of-term debate today. I reciprocate the kind remarks of my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who has been representing his constituents in the Chamber this morning. I do not have a firm view about the third road off Canvey Island, but I can attest to the strength of feeling on the island, which my hon. Friend ably articulated.

On the cancer unit at Southend hospital, to which my hon. Friend referred, he, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) and I intend to maintain a close watch on the issue, to defend our cancer centre at Southend hospital, which is immensely respected locally. Suffice it to say that the cancer centre there is in no way broken, and we implore Ministers, as we have been doing for several months, not to try and fix it.

I turn to the issue of tidal defences in my constituency, particularly at a place called Hullbridge. A proposal has been extant for some time to upgrade the tidal defences on the River Crouch at Hullbridge. As the work may result in the loss of some salt marsh, that requires compensatory habitat to be provided under the European Union habitats directive. A site for that purpose has been identified at a nearby location in Brandy Hole. The Environment Agency is seeking to purchase the site from a local landowner and the Blackwater Wildfowlers Association, which would manage it.

However, although the scheme has already been given planning consent by the local authority, Rochford district council, because it has a tidal defence scheme, it also requires planning approval from the wildlife division of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which to date has been withheld. To make matters more complicated, DEFRA's flood and coastal defence division is refusing to release the capital funding for the scheme until planning approval has been given by its sister division within the Department.

A number of agencies are now involved, including the Environment Agency, English Nature, Essex county council and Rochford district council, and all of them are awaiting approval from DEFRA in order to proceed. The issue has been running for more than a year, and I tabled a priority written question about it back in March. There is a strong local desire to see the work achieved this year, in which case, I am informed, construction would need to begin in June or, at the very latest, by early July.

As I understand that the purchase of the land by the Environment Agency is virtually complete and that the requisite section 106 agreements are awaiting signature, ministerial intervention might be needed to speed matters along, so that approval can be granted, the work can still begin this summer, and my constituents who live in the area can be reassured.

I acknowledge all the work that has been done on the matter by county councillor Tracey Chapman, in whose county division Hullbridge is located, and who is also the cabinet member for environmental matters on Essex county council. I also acknowledge the work undertaken by county councillor Ray Howard, who chairs Essex county council's southern area committee and who has been active in promoting the proposal.

I have asked for a meeting with the relevant Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), and I hope that he will accede to that request, to help bring about a successful conclusion to the issue before much longer.

On a related point, there is also a wider issue about the preservation of sea walls in my constituency. Some Government agencies are now claiming that even traditional maintenance work, which has been undertaken on the sea walls for many years, cannot now take place without compensatory habitat being provided. As a result, hardly any maintenance work has taken place for over a year, and obviously there will be safety implications if the situation is allowed to pertain for much longer.

The problem is due to an over-zealous interpretation of the EU habitats directive, which was never intended to be as constrictive as that. I see that the Minister is nodding, and I am grateful that he has taken the point on board. I sincerely hope that the agencies concerned will in future be able to take a much more pragmatic and realistic view, which would allow the maintenance work on the sea walls to continue as it has done for many years, and thus to provide protection to my constituents and to the livelihoods of those who work in agriculture in the area.

I turn now to a pressing issue in the town of South Woodham Ferrers in my constituency. Chelmsford borough council, within whose local government area the town lies, has a proposal in its draft local plan to build some 1,700 houses and an industrial estate on land to the north of the town in an area known colloquially as Radar hill. The proposal is deeply unpopular with the people of South Woodham Ferrers. The town's infrastructure simply cannot accommodate development on that scale. There is a range of reasons for that, but I shall highlight just a few.

First, the rail line connecting South Woodham Ferrers to London is single track, at least to the interchange at Wickford. That means that it is technically possible to run only a very limited number of trains along it, and already those trains are often extremely overcrowded, particularly during the morning and evening peaks. For technical reasons, it would be very difficult to generate extra capacity, and it is a reasonable assumption that many of the people who would come to live in those houses would want to work in London, as many of the people who now live in South Woodham Ferrers do. It seems simply nonsensical to attempt the development when the service would not be able to accommodate that number of commuters because it can barely take the number that it has to deal with already.

Secondly, the medical services in the town are barely sufficient for the extant population. There is a small health centre with limited facilities, although there is a local campaign called South Woodham Ferrers health care 2000, with which I am glad to be associated, which is doing its best to improve the range of facilities.

I am personally indebted to a local GP, Dr. John Cormack, who is very active in the town and, one morning, took me on an impromptu tour of all the GP surgeries in South Woodham Ferrers. I was able to speak to a number of them. The average number of patients on a GP's list is between 1,700 and 1,800. Most of the GPs in the town already have a list of more than 2,000, and one has a list of nearly 3,000. I do not see how the medical facilities in South Woodham Ferrers can possibly cope with increased development on the scale that is proposed.

Thirdly, the local secondary school, William de Ferrers, has good results and is popular, but it is already one of the largest in the county, and it is bulging at the seams. Essex county council simply does not have the money to build and, importantly, to staff another secondary school in the area. Again, I do not see the large number of children requiring secondary education who would be generated by the development of 1,700 houses could possibly be accommodated by the town's one secondary school, effective and popular as it is.

Fourthly, there is an engineering matter concerning the power lines that intersect the proposed site. National Grid Company, which has responsibility for the lines, is adamant that it does not intend to move them, and it is difficult to see how the houses could be built while the lines are in the way.

Last July, shortly after I was elected, I attended a public meeting in the town which was called to discuss the proposal. It was due to take place in the hall at William de Ferrers school, which accommodates some 300 people. Fifteen minutes after the meeting was due to start, the hall was packed and there were at least as many people outside waiting to get in. To prevent a minor riot, the then town clerk, Mrs. Peggy Carter, rapidly came up with plan B, which proposed moving the meeting from the hall to the market square in the middle of the town.

We all processed down to the square, where there is a convenient bandstand, and the meeting took place around that. We spent about three hours discussing the matter in theatre in the round, as it were. At the end of that thorough discussion, in what the Americans would call a town meeting, a vote was taken in which one person voted in favour of the development proposals and every other person in the packed town square voted against.

Subsequently there was a formal consultation exercise by Chelmsford borough council, and some 6,000 forms were returned, the vast bulk of which were from South Woodham Ferrers objecting to the proposals. When one considers that there are only some 12,000 adults in the town, that gives the House some idea of the intense feeling about the matter. I pay tribute to Mr. Malcolm Farrington and the members of the South Woodham action group for all the good work that they have done in connection with the issue.

Partly as a result of that opposition, Chelmsford borough council has delayed its response to the consultation exercise. When I spoke to the council recently, it was still unable to give me a firm date for its response, although it has promised to write to me in due course. I very much hope that when the council, which is under Liberal Democrat control, responds to the consultation, it will heed the strong feelings of the residents of South Woodham Ferrers and accordingly abandon those deeply unpopular proposals.

That takes me to a related issue with an impact on South Woodham Ferrers. I refer to national housing targets. As we know, the current system means that the Government set a national housing target, which is then broken down by region, by county and by district. I first raised the issue last autumn in my very first oral question to the Prime Minister. The practical effect of that policy is to cram ever more housing into already highly populated areas against the wishes of the people who live there.

That seems especially pernicious when empty council estates are being demolished in the north of England, particularly in the north-east, even though they are in a state of good repair, because people simply do not want to live in them. Yet at the same time we are trying to cram more and more houses into southern England, not least into my county of Essex. We have to give local people greater influence over those decisions if we want to encourage them to keep participating in local elections. One very good way to do that is to abolish the whole system of national housing targets and give local people the power to decide how many houses should be built in their area.

Ms Drown

I would expect businesses and families in my constituency to press for the provision of houses for their workers and children, to enable them to settle in the area. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that national planning guidance would restore the balance and reinvigorate the northern towns and cities that he talks about? Is he confident that local people, left to their own devices, would produce the best scheme? Surely the fact that the Government have recently begun pressing for sequential development and the development of brownfield sites will help everybody?

Mr. Francois

I disagree, because it is not true to say that, if all local authorities were left to their own devices, they would simply not allow any houses to be built. I believe that most local councillors, regardless of the party that they represent, are by and large fairly reasonable people. I am sure that they would want some housing development in their local authority areas. They are locally elected and know the areas that they serve, and they are best placed to judge where houses should be sited and—critically—how many should be built. The problem with the current policy is that, by setting arbitrary targets, houses are in effect rammed down people's throats, causing tremendous resentment. Far better to give such power to people who are locally elected, so that they can make a balanced judgment on how many houses each area can take. The Conservative party has a long-standing saying: trust the people. This is a perfect instance in which that principle should be allowed to apply.

Finally, I want to refer to the outcome of the recent Rochford district council local elections. Before 2 May, the council was run by a loose coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent members. I am pleased to report that it is now run by a Conservative administration, with a majority of 17. I offer my congratulations to its new leader, councillor Peter Webster, and I wish him and all his councillors the very best for the future. I also pay tribute to the late councillor Sylvia Lemon, the previous chairman of Rochford district council, who tragically passed away just a few weeks before her term of office was due to conclude. Although not a Conservative, she was highly respected by everyone in the area. She was a very special lady indeed, and we shall all miss her greatly.

I end by offering my best wishes to Robin Allen, an independent councillor who is Sylvia Lemon's successor as chairman of Rochford district council, and who did a great deal to support Sylvia during her term of office. I wish councillor Allen and his wife Helen the very best for the year ahead.

12.1 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

As has been said, today's debate feels a little like the last day of a school term, but I cannot help wondering where the rest of the pupils are. There seem to be few of us here today.

The debate offers a good opportunity to raise constituency issues, and other matters that are not discussed sufficiently in this House. I could mention many matters that we should perhaps discuss, although I realise that time is limited. For example, we do not give enough time to certain social issues. On Radio 4 this morning, the subject of ambulance chasers was discussed. Reference was made to companies leafleting areas surrounding schools to find out whether anyone wanted to sue a school because their child had fallen over in the playground. That shows how our society is becoming increasingly prone to approaching the lawyer first. The attitude is, "I have hurt my little finger; can I sue someone?" We need to consider introducing legislation to control that development. Despite the existence of no-fault insurance, the matter still gives cause for concern, particularly in respect of hospitals. It is sad to note that time and resources are being spent on defending cases that should not go to court.

Reference was also made on the radio this morning to an American footballer who tried to sue his coach for dropping him from the team. I point that out not to give Mr. Keane, who has been sent home, any ideas, but because the situation is getting ridiculous. We have talked a lot about football, and wished England all the best. Had he still been in his place, I would have pointed out to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that I suspect that Senegal will be beaten by a French side that is in effect the Arsenal team, albeit with a captain who is the Chelsea captain.

I turn to an issue that was brought to my attention by Teignbridge youth council. I recommend that those hon. Members with youth councils or youth parliaments in their constituencies visit and talk to them. They are a valuable source of information, and a good way of learning about the concerns of young people, which are not heard and represented as much as they should be. I was impressed by several of the issues that it raised, but it asked me to raise one in particular—teenage self-harm. I hope that the Government will take the debate on this, and several of the issues raised today, further.

The Samaritans have done much to raise the issue of teenage self-harm in recent years, including publishing a document called "Youth Matters 2000: A Cry for Help" two years ago. It said that 43 per cent. of the population knew someone who had committed self-harm. My youth council took a poll of the youth councillors and it found, frighteningly, that 55 per cent. of them knew someone who had committed self-harm. Those councillors come from different schools, so it is not a question of them all knowing the same person who does it. That small group of people can identify three, four or five people in different schools who have committed some form of self-harm.

By coincidence, after I had committed myself to raising the issue in the debate today if I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye—which I am grateful to have done—The Observer carried an interesting and insightful article on it last weekend. Nicci Gerrard summed up self-harm in her opening paragraph, saying: The 13-year-old girl rolls up her sleeve. She takes the blade in her right hand and draws it across her left wrist. She watches the blood start to flow. Then she does it once more. That image helps us to understand what we are talking about—young girls and boys, and some older people, cut themselves with knives, or abuse their bodies in other ways.

The issue is getting an airing. Lisa from "Hollyoaks" is cutting herself; the teenage magazine "Mizz" recently had a feature on a girl who cuts herself; and a book by Emma Forrest, called "Think Skin", features a film star who cuts her arms and legs. As Nicci Gerrard says in the article, self-harm has almost become a…gothic kind of fashion statement".

As the Samaritans pointed out, nearly half the population knows someone who has self-harmed. It is clearly a cry for help that is not being heard. It is an increasing trend. To those who ask why we should be concerned about a few cuts, the Samaritans point out that people who self-harm are at 100 times greater risk of committing suicide than the rest of the population. Youth suicide is a growing problem in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. In 1998, twice as many men aged between 25 and 34 committed suicide as in 1983. For young women in the same age range, the suicide level is higher than it has ever been. For young women aged between 15 and 24, the rate has increased by 15 per cent. We need to address that problem.

In 1998, the Samaritans estimated that 160,000 patients were admitted to accident and emergency units in hospitals for self-harm, some 24,000 of whom were aged between 15 and 19. That means that every hour three young people self-harm. By the time we finish this debate, some 12 young people will have done so.

Ms Drown

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government recently published a consultation document on their suicide strategy. I hope that he will take the opportunity to feed some of his comments into the consultation. Does he agree that attempted suicides need to be considered as part of the problem, because they are evidence of underlying stress and other difficulties that may lead to suicide? We discussed youth facilities and the need to help young people to express their stresses and concerns in other ways earlier.

Richard Younger-Ross

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Self-harm and attempted suicide are the same issue—it is all to do with self-harm, but some incidents are more extreme than others.

Two thirds of all people who commit self-harm are under 35. The highest rate is among women aged between 15 and 19 and men between 25 and 34. The self-harm rate for men in that age range has doubled in recent years. As the hon. Lady suggested, we need to find out the cause. Why has the rate doubled? People say that men have less emotional support, that there is a stigma attached to men who talk about their feelings. That is true, but it does not explain everything. We must consider the sort of society that we are creating and whether its pressures contribute to stress and strain. It could be pressure of work—because of the work ethic, people tend to work longer hours. Perhaps we have simply become more materialistic and the feeling of failure that some people have is heightened when they see the wealth and apparent success of others. There is a great deal of pressure to succeed.

We can take practical steps with regard to people who harm themselves. All accident and emergency units should have clear details of how to contact the Samaritans posted up. There must be awareness training in the health service for all medical staff who come into contact with those who self-harm. Accident and emergency units and mental health wards must have access to listening support. Hospitals cannot provide that support, so they have to go outside. Whether they bring in the Samaritans or other organisations is open to debate. There has to be someone who can listen, because that is a way of helping. Confidential emotional support must be given to medical staff if they take on that listening role.

There must be awareness in schools of the problem. Teachers must be able to say that it is a problem and pupils must be able to recognise when people harm themselves. They must be able to say that someone is hurting themselves. Very often, people will deny that they are harming themselves—they will say that they fell over to explain cuts on the arm, for example. They will say that they burned themselves in the kitchen or cut themselves when making their sandwich, and that it is nothing much. Those are excuses. Any repetition must be recognised; if people are cutting themselves regularly, they are not simply clumsy but causing themselves harm. I hope that this issue can be included in the consultation process and that we can debate it further.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) touched on the time that is given to debate European legislation. I am fortunate to serve on European Standing Committee C. We have met four times in the past year; all debates have been fairly short, all the measures have been non-controversial and have gone through. However, a lot of legislation is generated by the European Union and we do not appear to be taking enough time in this House to consider it. In particular, we are not considering proposals before they become directives. We know the process and what is being debated in the European Union. We should be considering those issues and telling our Members of the European Parliament what the views of this House are. If we are to make an impact and change those European measures, the earlier we begin to scrutinise them the better. The Government's initiative on pre-legislative scrutiny should be extended to EU measures so that we can consider them more fully.

The problem is that when we consider those European directives and other issues in Committee, they often seem to be harmless, common-sense measures, but we rarely get sight of the accompanying rules and interpretation. As the hon. Member for Rayleigh pointed out, the damage is often done by the interpretation of the legislation rather than its intent.

An example from my constituency demonstrates that point in relation to the shellfish hygiene regulations. For hundreds of years, we have extracted mussels and oysters from the River Teign—very good they are, too. A small industry has been built up but it has been almost decimated by the interpretation of European legislation at CEFAS—the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, previously, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In the UK, we block the extraction of shellfish for 12 months at a time, even though they are perfectly good and edible. In France and Holland, there is a far more sensible approach: when a test fails, extraction stops, but if subsequent tests show that there is no longer any pollution the shellfish can be extracted and sold. It is a stop-go system, but it works. In the UK, on the other hand, a couple of failed tests condemn that area for 12 months. That makes no sense at all. We have allowed civil servants to bury themselves in a pit of rules and they are finding it almost impossible to dig themselves out.

Before I had the good fortune to be elected a Member, I raised the issue with Graham Watson MEP who arranged a meeting with the then Minister with responsibility for food safety. As promised, there was a review. There were visits to France and Holland and consultations began, but since then we have heard nothing. In my constituency, people want to extract those excellent Teign oysters and mussels and make a living by selling them. They are being denied that opportunity by bureaucratic heavy-handedness in the interpretation of European legislation.

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke about funding for health and social services. That issue is extremely pertinent in the south-west, especially in Devon. There are a large number of care homes for the elderly in my constituency, 18 of which have closed during the past year because the county council cannot pay the going rate for the care of the patients. The reason is—bluntly—that the social services department does not receive adequate funds from the Government for the care of children and the elderly.

A report commissioned six months ago by the directors of social services for the 15 local authorities in the south-west noted that social service departments were having to divert money from the care of the elderly to children's care. When I questioned the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), about the matter in January, she said that it was scandalous and that it would be investigated. However, I have seen no sign of an investigation. The Minister has made no further reply and I have heard nothing more.

The Government tell us, however, that they will punish and fine local authorities if they are responsible for bed blocking. I prefer to use the term "bed locking" because it is not the fault of the patient but of the system. However, the cause of the problem is the lack of funds being made available to those social services departments.

The directors of social services estimated six months ago that they needed an additional £1 billion to start undoing that problem. That was nearly a year ago, so that figure will have increased with inflation. Social services departments now have the additional costs of the rise in employers' national insurance, which they have to pay back to the Exchequer, so those costs have increased even further. The Government have given additional funds for social services, but they have not given the money that was requested.

We must debate the issue urgently to ensure that social services departments are better funded, because the elderly and the frail are suffering from lack of funding and the problems that social services departments face. I do not know whether the worse of the problems is an increase in day centre charges or a need to move residents between care homes because the care home owners are obliged to shut up shop, but it is wrong to fine social services departments in those circumstances. If anyone is to be fined, it should be the Treasury, for not listening or putting adequate funding into social services.

12.21 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate; when the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said that he was reaching his final, final, final point, my hope rose that I might get the opportunity to do so. I am particularly delighted because in these debates one is unrestricted by the need to be relevant—a restriction which, most Members feel, usually limits their capacity to wax lyrical on subjects that affect their constituency and—dare I say it?—the wider world.

I do not want to engage in the habit that has taken hold in the Chamber from time to time of relating a travelogue around my constituency, less still around Lincolnshire, but there are one or two pertinent matters which preoccupy my constituents, and which therefore preoccupy me, to which I should like to draw the attention of the House.

The first, which will strike a chord with many hon. Members, is the state of agriculture. My constituency, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is deeply rural and very agricultural. A high proportion of people employed in my constituency are employed in agriculture or agriculturally related industries such as the food industry and haulage. I was lucky enough to meet farmers in my constituency recently and they raised with me three specific matters which I should like briefly to rehearse.

The first matter is the increasing number of imported foodstuffs. That is an issue in itself because it changes the balance between what we grow and produce and sell locally and what we buy in, but it also raises serious questions about standards of food safety, human safety and animal welfare. I hope that the Minister will address the matter when he sums up. If he cannot address it—I do not expect him to be the fount of all wisdom, so he may not be able to—I hope that he will pass it on to his colleagues.

The farmers tell me that, particularly in respect of the pesticide residue in foodstuffs, imported products are not required to reach the standards that domestically produced ones are. The standards are set by the country of origin, not the country of receipt, which poses real questions about healthy eating and healthy living in this country as the proportion of imported products grows.

That observation brings me to the second matter relating to agriculture, which is the power of the supermarkets—I would go as far as to say, the pernicious power of the supermarkets—over producers. I believe that supermarkets are commercially capricious. They know no loyalty to most of their suppliers. Of course the suppliers cannot say so because they would be talking about their customers, but I can say it. I do not hold a candle for anyone except my constituents, for whom I hold a very large candle.

The truth is that supermarkets have distorted the relationship between producer, retailer and consumer. They have done more than any other agency to damage the business of local supply. Although traceability will go some way to re-establish confidence between local consumers and producers, unless the Government, and perhaps the next Conservative Government when they come—sooner rather than later, I hope—face up to the issue of the unaccountable power of a handful of retailers, we shall not address the problems of the relationship between producers and consumers, or re-establish in the consumer base a degree of market intelligence.

I suggest that supermarkets produce undiscerning consumers. When my mother bought foodstuffs when I was a boy—in the recent past, I hasten to add—she did so with a high level of knowledge not just about their origin, but about their quality. She knew good meat, bread and cheese from bad. She bought food from a local supplier, who knew her well.

I once made a speech along those lines and said that my mother had a relationship with her butcher, which caused some hilarity among the audience, until I qualified it by saying that the relationship was entirely commercial—but it may explain why we got cheap meat, of course. The fact of the matter was that my mother knew the butcher and he knew that, if he supplied her with products that were not up to standard, word would travel in the locality, which would jeopardise his business; and that he needed to ensure that his customers were consistently provided with good-quality products.

Frankly, if someone goes to a supermarket, buys something that is a bit dodgy and complains about it, what does the supermarket care? That person is one of numerous customers, and they can come and go largely as they please. We are simply numbers to the supermarkets; we are simply anonymous characters among many other anonymous characters. I suggest that the supermarkets have produced a situation where people know neither the price nor the value of goods. That needs to be addressed by this Government—or by a Government—as soon as possible.

The third matter on agriculture that I wish to raise is drainage, which is critical in the fens. I say agriculture; perhaps I should have said the countryside, because most of my constituency would be under water if it were not for drainage. Some hon. Members might celebrate that fact—it would clearly mean that I would no longer be here—but I certainly would not celebrate it, and I hope that the majority of my constituents would not either, not purely as a matter of my self-interest, but as a matter of their survival, too.

Drainage in the fens is managed by internal drainage boards. Those boards do an excellent job of ensuring that the fens are saved from flooding, and they have done so for a long time. They are models of the relationship between the local communities and themselves, delivering a product efficiently. That was noted by the Select Committee on Agriculture when it considered those matters a few years ago, when I was a member of the Committee, yet there is a real possibility—again, the Minister may want to address this in summing up—that the regionalisation of those responsibilities will lead, at very least, to a downgrading in the IDBs' role. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will assure us that that will not take place. Even their continued existence may possibly be threatened.

I make the case in favour of the IDBs because they are lean, efficient, effective organisations, rooted in the community, doing a first-class job, as Governments of all hues have recognised. They deserve a champion on the Opposition Benches and, I believe, among Ministers. This is a real opportunity for this promising young Minister to become that champion.

Moving swiftly on, I just want to say a word about the delivery of public services in rural areas, such as the constituency that I represent. Other hon. Members will recognise that problem, too, because they also represent rural constituencies. For instance, the difficulties of providing access to good-quality health care in a sparsely populated area such as my part of Lincolnshire are profound. They will not be solved easily by any Government—this is not a party political remark—but we need to devise innovative solutions to that problem.

Part of the problem involves recognising sparsity and rurality more significantly in funding public services; part of it involves the method of delivering local services. Perhaps we need to be more imaginative about that. There are imaginative solutions—I think particularly of the SHARP project in Spalding, which works with people to ensure that they can return to their own homes after illness. Many elderly people, rather than getting stuck in a hospital—bed blocking, as it were—can regain their independence with the right kind of support, guidance and education within a project that combines the services of the local authority, the health authority and other agencies. I believe that such solutions can provide part of the answer.

Part of the answer also comes, however, from an acceptance that the decentralisation of power—devolving power, decision making and the services themselves to localities—is important. I suspect that we shall return to the view that smaller-scale local services provided in and delivered by the local community are the right way forward. Cottage hospitals spring to mind. I do not want to become too romantic about this, but I guess that that is the way we shall end up going. We will resist the idea of centralisation, but not before it is too late for a whole generation of people. Perhaps we can examine that in relation to my constituency and many other rural parts of Britain.

I also mention in passing similar difficulties with policing. I pay tribute to the good work done by the police force in my area They do sterling work in my constituency but trying to police a very large rural area is not easy. Again, we need to consider innovative ways of delivering high-quality law and order services. Policemen do a fine job but they are under-resourced. I suspect that they have been under-resourced by successive Governments, but worst of all by this Government—the House would expect me to say that—and that needs to be considered carefully.

As the Minister will understand, part of the problem is that funding police forces on a crime-led basis—the more crimes, and the more serious those crimes, the more money and the more police an area gets—reduces non-adversarial policing work, which, ironically, is what most law-abiding citizens want. That is rightly regarded as an important aspect of policing—policemen being present, high-profile and known to the community, and anticipating crimes before they take place. I know that the response will be, "Yes, but it is more important that we react to serious crimes." Of course I understand that; this is not a one-way argument. However, we need to look at ways of funding non-adversarial policing, which is rooted in the community, sensitive to local needs and would engage the support of the law-abiding majority.

As the House will hear in a moment, these local matters are not what I have really come to speak about—they are the prelude to the main act, the B-picture before the A-film comes along shortly—but I want to say a few words about overhead power lines. We are anticipating a power station in Spalding. There are mixed views about that in the local area; I make no bones about it. Some believe that siting a power station in a small, rural market town such as Spalding will have a devastating effect on the aesthetics of the town, which we should not ignore, but it will also create jobs, directly and indirectly, which is good for the local economy. I shall not go into those arguments now.

What I shall address—I hope that the Minister will refer this to his colleague who gave permission for the power station, as he may want to consider it again—is the issue of the power lines to this new power station. We are being presented with a scenario in which, in a flat, fenland landscape, 15 enormous pylons will carry power lines over a relatively small area. That will have a dramatic effect on that sparse, rural landscape. I have had a meeting with the national grid and the developers of the power station, along with local parish councillors, and have asked them to consider this proposal again. The Government could assist in that regard.

It does not seem inconceivable that the power lines could be put underground. I know that that is more expensive for the developer, but not only would it have a beneficial effect in aesthetic terms—with a knock-on effect on local tourism and other interests to which the Minister will be sensitive in an economy that is suffering because of the crisis in agriculture—but it would allay some of the health fears, some rational and some irrational, that exist in the local community.

I was disturbed when I met a chap from the national grid. He said that, although national and international research showed that there was no causal link between overhead power lines and general health problems, there may be some association between the lines and the electromagnetic fields that they produce and certain types of childhood leukaemia. He said that that could not definitively be ruled out. He said that in front of many people at a meeting with the parish council. It was not a private meeting, and I quote his remarks, because I asked him to confirm that that is exactly what he said. His comments will undoubtedly arouse fears and exacerbate them when they already exist.

I hope that the Minister will consider how the Government can support the suggestion for power to be supplied underground to the new power station. It is a genuine, local, all-party campaign. It is not a partisan issue, and I know that the Minister with his typical and almost legendary diligence will want to draw the matter to the attention of his relevant colleague.

I did not however come here only to talk about such parochial matters, important though they are to my constituents and passionately though I feel about them. I have come to speak about human happiness. I intend to conclude my remarks in about five minutes, so I have got to say a lot about human happiness in a short time. Oscar Wilde said: Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go. We could apply that remark to colleagues in the House. In fact, we could apply it to those who are sitting in the Chamber, but it would be discourteous and make me unpopular if I were to single out any individual, given the few Members present.

Mr. Greg Knight

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hayes

This may be a candidate for the very badge of honour that I mentioned.

Mr. Knight

My hon. Friend is the official Opposition pairing Whip. Which of the statements in the remark that he quoted does he think applies to him?

Mr. Hayes

It is not appropriate for Whips to speak too much about their job, as my right hon. Friend, a former pairing Whip, will know. However, my simple function as pairing Whip is to spread as much happiness as I can among the parliamentary Conservative party. I know that those members of the parliamentary Conservative party present today will want to say that I do a very good job. At least, if they do not say that, they will not be getting much time off in the future.

I prefer John Stuart Mill's definition. He said: I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to fulfil them. That contains an important consideration for the modern world and for this Parliament. I raise the issue, simply because this debate is one of the few opportunities that colleagues have to mention not only the local matters that Members have rightly raised, but broader issues.

Members of Parliament are often driven by imperatives, the daily routine and the legislative programme—and so we should be. However, parliamentarians also have a responsibility to reflect on some of the bigger issues that drive and shape society—human fulfilment and happiness. Perhaps I can spend a few minutes reflecting on them and allow colleagues also to reflect on the issues and to contribute to the discussion.

Modern man, with his obsession with the material and the immediate gratification of material self-interest, is straying a long way from what Mill described as happiness. Happiness is born of contentment, yet I suggest that we live in an increasingly discontented world—a world dominated by the material: and not just the material, but the basest elements thereof. Man surely understands that virtue brings contentment, yet the recognition that truth and virtue will spring from within is increasingly replaced by the desire to pursue the most base motives.

I believe that the recognition of virtue springs from within, but is God given—so that virtue also exists outside man. I do not want to become too theological, but the physical world is defined by our senses and our consciousness, and that consciousness is given to us by God. I go beyond saying that consciousness is purely about the mind; I think that it is driven by the mind, the heart and the soul, inspired by the divine. The idea that it is the intellect that matters, irrespective of feeling, is to misunderstand what motivates man.

Selfish materialism is corrupting our civilisation. Free from ideals, free from faith and perhaps even free from love, people seek excitement not through the real passions of heart and soul, but through cheap kicks, thrills and shocks. The glory of love and devotion, and the passion of the pursuit of truth, are replaced by the trivial. Such trivialisation of life, with its accompanying cynicism, which leads to nihilism, is the biggest threat facing society and the next generation of children.

There is nothing worse than believing in nothing at all. That applies to many people in society, perhaps especially to young people, although obviously not all of them. I met many marvellous young people last night in my constituency who devote enormous energy to their community as youth leaders of the brownie pack in Holbeach. However, it can be argued that an increasing number of people believe in very little. Once people believe in very little, they pursue self-interest. It is such base self-interest that leads to beating up an old lady for a fish supper.

Last week, the papers reported an attack on a schoolgirl because her contemporaries perceived her as being too lovely; she was too beautiful. When her father was asked why she was attacked, he said, "Because she is pretty and popular." When I read that, I thought that it is a deeply sad day for our civilisation when someone is attacked for being pretty. Such matters are worthy of our consideration. Incidentally, those people who pursue individual rights rather than collective responsibility may be unwittingly, and mainly with good will, feeding the pursuit of selfish gratification of personal desire.

We have a responsibility as parliamentarians not only to elevate our own thinking but to attempt to elevate the thinking of the people whom we represent. We have a responsibility once again to champion virtues such as responsibility, duty, compassion, care for our community and love of country. Through those things comes social cohesion—a sense of togetherness—that transcends individual achievement and unites us so that the things that we share are more important than the things that divide us; they become more important than our own successes and failures. Surely that is the responsibility of all political parties.

On senses and consciousness, common sense is always superior to book learning. An intellectual friend of mine said that we only need enough intellectuals to make a case against intellectualism. I thought that was a little harsh, but I understood what he meant. It is the common sense of the people of our country, combined with their genuine passions—their love of all things good—that gives me great hope in our struggle against nihilism. I think that most people are decent and honourable, have a sense of what is right, just and fair, and want all political parties and all those in public life to pursue those virtues. They expect that of us as they expect it of themselves. That does not mean that real challenges are not involved. Man is imperfect, but he is not irredeemable. We should not celebrate and revel in his imperfections, but aim to counter them by pursuing what is good and honourable.

Aristotle said: A man is not a good man at all who feels no pleasure in noble actions, just as no one would call that man just who does not feel pleasure in acting justly". He also said: Now it is evident that that form of government which is best is one in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily. So let us make it our aim to achieve human happiness, or at least to pursue that objective, conscious of man's imperfections, but in the sure knowledge that we have a special responsibility to do our best to try to counterbalance those imperfections and to create and spread as much happiness as we can.

12.46 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. At the outset, I thought that we would not have our three principal usual suspects with us. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) usually talks about Cyprus, so I am glad that another Member managed to discuss that subject. In every previous such debate, the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has discussed Royal Hospital Haslar. As he is not here, I can only assume that something good has happened there. I hope so. I thought that we would be denied the usual diatribe from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who always speaks eloquently on behalf of his constituents, but I saw him slip in a few minutes ago. I am not sure whether I was more disappointed when he was not here or when he arrived, because that might delay lunch even further. I am delighted to see him, and I am sure that he will contribute immensely.

Traditionally, this debate proposes that we should not adjourn. Significantly, however, although all hon. Members' contributions were extremely interesting and thoughtful, none suggested that we should not adjourn. I am not sure whether that means that the recess is now so attractive to Members that they feel that they can get their burdens off their chests before departing, but still depart in good conscience. It is an interesting change of attitude.

Although only a few of us are here, it is an important part of Parliament's job to raise such issues. That goes right back to the origins of this honourable House. In mediaeval times, we came here with petitions on behalf of our constituents. On the night before last, the Leader of the House gave an interesting lecture to the Hansard Society in which he referred to some of the roles of this House that are as important as its scrutiny of legislation and of executive action by the Administration of the day. Although it is disappointing that not as many hon. Members are here today as on previous such occasions, their contributions have been very interesting in their variety and the extent to which they raised constituency, and wider, concerns. The House has been doing its proper job.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) spoke about the housing crisis. The subject has been much debated on the Floor of the House since the last war and its immediate aftermath, when people thought that they had solved the problem. I recall that my first maiden speech was principally about housing in a rural area. The hon. Gentleman obviously spoke about the London situation. The housing shortage is an issue that successive Governments have failed to deal with. That relates to the issue of imposing development targets on different parts of the country.

I was struck by another recurring theme in our debate today: our dependence as a society on the work of volunteers. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred to that in relation to youth facilities. Not only facilities but the leadership of youth organisations is important. Perhaps that relates to the contribution of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). People contribute a huge amount to the local community through voluntary work and we depend on them greatly.

The hon. Member for Castle Point also referred to Southend hospital—that was before the hon. Member for Southend, West arrived. At least his subject was here even if he was not physically present.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) made an extremely important point about the need to reform consumer credit legislation. It is an undoubted and sad fact that loan sharks are with us. It has been said that the poor are always with us. While the poor are with us, so are the loan sharks who prey on them.

The hon. Gentleman made another important point about the way in which all forms of voluntary organisations that come within the province of the industrial provident societies are in considerable difficulty because of registration charges. That includes women's institutes, of which I am a devoted follower, if not an eligible member. Registration charges have increased tenfold. That has proved difficult for voluntary organisations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) talked about the specific and worrying circumstances of his constituents who still live with the consequences of the motor tanker Braer disaster nine years ago. He also made an important point about a more general issue: the causal link that victims of natural and human disasters have to establish before having a reasonable claim to compensation.

As hon. Members may know, I have led a small group in the House that is worried about organophosphates and their devastating effects on many people, but especially sheep farmers. Throughout my time in the House, I have also been worried about the impact on my constituents of the notorious Lowermoor water poisoning incident in 1988. I pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment, who has played a leading role in trying to deal with the problem. In both cases, the law has let people down because the victim has had to establish a direct link between the incident and his or her illness. That is a great indictment of our legal system. The victim is in such a difficult situation and often up against huge organisations. That makes it extremely unlikely that natural justice will prevail.

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) always presents a portmanteau of subjects in such debates and it is difficult to know which to comment on. I shall choose two. Her point about the national health service and the need for decentralisation should be applied more generally. We should not simply pick and choose those who happen to be doing well and say, "You can now take more responsibility." We have a huge problem in this country that especially affects public services. We have allowed ourselves to become far more centralised than other European and developed countries, and the health service is a classic example of that. There comes a point when the sheer scale of the operation is difficult for any human being to manage. The hon. Lady is right: we must ensure more effective decentralisation in services, especially the health service.

I also agree with the hon. Member for South Swindon about wind farms, of which there are three in my constituency. I do not claim that they are all popular, but we recognise that we are making a contribution to renewable energy. I have no doubt that there will be more wind farms in Cornwall. The one place where they would not be expected to cause additional damage to the local landscape is Ministry of Defence land. The hon. Lady was absolutely right to say that the MOD must be called to account and required to explain its attitude. It is not mirrored in any other European or NATO country, so I cannot believe that restrictions on national defence have anything to do with it.

Mr. Hayes

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the subject of wind farms and, no doubt, to that of my mother's butcher and her lamb chops, may I ask whether he agrees that local authorities must take greater care when considering the relationship between tall structures such as wind farms and the surrounding environment? I am thinking less of constituencies such as his than of mine, which is a flat fenland environment, and those of other hon. Members who represent areas similar to mine. Many people are considering afresh the impact of very tall structures in a landscape that is significantly affected by their imposition.

Mr. Tyler

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. My response is twofold. First, my experience is that all too often the decision is not taken by the local community, but goes to the Secretary of State on appeal. Under the Conservative Government, some devastating decisions were taken on the location of wind farms, with some sited right on the top of what we in Cornwall call mountains—although they are not quite up to Welsh or Scottish standards—and so extremely prominent in the landscape, or placed in an area that should have been protected for reasons of archaeological significance.

My second point relates to something that the hon. Gentleman said. Our recent ancestors had no concerns about the arrival of pylons because they were a symbol of electricity coming to the countryside: their response was, "Hooray! We're going to be connected up." Yet their descendants, today's residents, are far less enthusiastic about wind farms. Even if the turbines are right beside pylons, as is the case in my constituency, wind farms are a cause of great anxiety.

The hon. Member for South Swindon spoke about the modernisation programme, with which I am heavily involved. I strongly sympathise with the objectives of the Modernisation Committee and the Leader of the House. I share the hon. Lady's views on the payment of the Chairmen of Select Committees. That matter has now been put to the Review Body on Senior Salaries—as the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) said, that was the decision of the House. I regret that, but believe that it is now inevitable that other roles in the House will have to be re-examined. It is interesting that the Conservative pairing Whip, who is with us this afternoon, is one of those who draws a state-funded salary. It obviously contributes to his human happiness; no doubt he can enlighten us about whether it contributes to anyone else's.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), who is no longer present, is extremely pessimistic about the situation in Northern Ireland. People on this side of the Irish sea probably feel that, because the issue is currently out of sight, the troubles have gone away, so our being reminded that major problems remain in the Province serves as a useful corrective. However, I am sad about that because I believe that the House must stand together to support the peace efforts that are being made by all the communities in Northern Ireland. Although the hon. Gentleman's speech was on one level a useful corrective, it struck a discordant note with me to be told that all the problems were on one side of the divide. I do not believe that that is true—after all, neither side is decommissioning at the speed or on the scale for which we hoped. It is important to remember that.

I recognise that the Government's loss is the House's gain—no longer on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) is able to give us the benefit of his wisdom and his wit, and I enjoy both. However, I confess that I find his enthusiastic support for the second-rate football game rather depressing, although it is entirely proper for him to feel as he does. I come from Cornwall, where we play the real game—rugby. Although I am not able to follow the hon. Gentleman through all the intricacies of association football, I recognise that he is absolutely right to say that, even for non-enthusiasts like me, some extremely important issues must be addressed. If the reputation of English fans is to damage our opportunities for holding any major international sporting events in future, that is extremely serious. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, when he says that because the English language media are worldwide, far more attention is given to the actions of our fans than to others.

The hon. Gentleman was right also when he said that although important improvements have been made since we passed the Football (Disorder) Act 2000, there is still a diversity of experience in applying that legislation, which needs real attention. We may need to come back to that.

I was taken by the hon. Gentleman's final point about the use of the Union flag and the English flag. We have a different flag in Cornwall, but it is open to the same abuse. There is a case for examining whether we should be allowed in some way to protect the integrity of our flag, which unites us all. If it is effectively kidnapped by a political party, or in some instances, an extremist group, it becomes a symbol of disunity rather than unity. I am not sure whether that can be done by legislation, but it is an interesting issue.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)—I think that I have used the Essex pronunciation. Of course, the great seafarer and statesman, Raleigh, has no connection with the Essex equivalent, which is somewhere in the far east. The hon. Gentleman is right about the issue of tidal defences and sea defences generally. I share his anxiety about the bureaucracy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is mind-boggling when we have concerns about our entire coastline. DEFRA has become the byword for a mire of bureaucracy. I do not blame particular Ministers because the impact of foot and mouth and then the change in responsibilities last summer was devastating. However, the low morale of civil servants in the Department has to be seen to be believed. I do not know what anyone is going to do about it, but something must be done.

I find it more difficult to agree with the hon. Gentleman about the issue of deciding all development targets at a local level. Of course, that sounds right, and I would want to do that in Cornwall. However, the hon. Gentleman should recognise the natural consequence of the free market policies of the Thatcher Governments, who said that people must move to jobs. Lord Tebbit said, "Get on your bike." That is why people have left the north of Britain, and to some extent the west, to come to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and they want homes.

The difficulty about the provision of homes is that the homeless do not have a vote, or a voice. They are not here. No doubt they come to our surgeries—they certainly come to mine—but not in the same force of numbers as at the hon. Gentleman's town meeting.

Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that had that meeting been an American meeting it would have been referred to as a town meeting. As one person spoke in favour of the proposed development, I assume that there was the American reaction—a lynching for that poor individual who disagreed with everybody else. Town meetings—we have all had them—will not necessarily recognise the long-term interests of all our constituents.

We as representatives have a responsibility to think more widely about longer-term interests.

Mr. Francois


Mr. Hayes


Mr. Tyler

One at a time, please.

I give way to the hon. Member for Rayleigh.

Mr. Francois

First, on a point of correction. My constituency is spelled with a "y" and pronounced accordingly. The great admiral, Raleigh, did not have a "y" in his name and so it was pronounced differently.

Secondly, at the town meeting one person spoke in favour of the development. He was a Liberal Democrat councillor. Being as honest as I can, part of the reaction was not merely a response to what he said. If the hon. Gentleman had been present, he would understand that it was the way that the councillor expressed his opinion that upset many of those who were there. It was a classic example of how not to behave at a public meeting.

Mr. Tyler

I cannot comment on that.

As all hon. Members will recognise, if we simply say that there will be no new housing for those who need it in the south-east, we are talking nonsense. Of course we will have to find more brownfield sites. The Governments whom the hon. Member for Rayleigh supported, particularly the Thatcher Government, put huge pressures on London and the south-east by effectively saying that they were against the regeneration of the industries of the north and the west. We must return to that situation. I feel strongly about the matter. In my constituency and my county, Cornwall, as a result of Liberal Democrat efforts, it must be said, with the co-operation of the Government, we are now able to regenerate some of our industries.

I turn to the contribution of my hon. Friend—

Mr. Hayes


Mr. Tyler

I am coming to the hon. Gentleman's contribution in a moment. If he can restrain himself, he may want to respond to some of my comments about him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) made an extremely important point about the increasing extent to which we have become a litigious society. He referred specifically to one area, but the argument applies to several areas. As other hon. Members have no doubt observed, no accidents ever happen now—it is always somebody's fault. Nobody dies in hospital but something must have gone wrong. I am exaggerating of course, to make the point. I hope that we will find some way to reverse the trend. The insurance companies are very much to blame. They often take the easy way out and pay, rather than challenging the attitude that somebody is always at fault. That is not true.

Mr. Carmichael

Our hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) made the point in relation to ambulance chasers. Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) agree that as long as we continue to underfund civil legal aid, the situation will only get worse and give rise to firms of solicitors and others operating in the fringes of compensation claims working on a no win, no fee basis, which is the driving force behind the increase in so-called ambulance chasing?

Mr. Tyler

That is true. My hon. Friend speaks from legal experience. I would add that the no win, no fee attitude discourages genuine cases that may be a little more marginal. That, too, is a problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge spoke of the increasing incidence of self-harm, particularly by young people, and the connection with both attempted suicide and suicide. It is a considerable problem and I do not know where we should start, but clearly we must address it. There is a consultation process under way; I hope that that will be truly comprehensive.

A further point made by my hon. Friend concerned the way in which the House handles European directives. That is a scandal. On our Procedure Committee and our Modernisation Committee we have made some proposals, but we have not got very far with them. My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. If we could apply the principle of pre-legislative scrutiny to some of the legislation coming from the European Union, we would be far more likely not only to influence that legislation, but to ensure that subsequently it was adjusted to the UK situation, and we did not have the gold-plating that went with it.

I come to the interesting contribution from the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. So much of what he said was pure Liberal Democrat philosophy and policy that I wonder whether, as the pairing Whip, he would dare to make those comments if the House were full. Although I can assure the hon. Gentleman, especially in relation to the interesting section towards the end of his speech, that his human happiness would be greatly increased if he joined us on the Liberal Democrat Benches, although he would, unfortunately, lose his salary as the Conservative pairing Whip.

There are some issues that we should try to approach in the House on a non-party basis. One of the reasons why I so strongly agreed with the speech of the Leader of the House to which I referred earlier is that he, too, seems to have a real concept of trying to ensure that when necessary, the House can work on a consensual basis.

I shall give two illustrations. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred to the case of agriculture. He and I share a strong commitment to the agriculture industry. I was my party's agriculture spokesman—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the House at the time—when his colleague and neighbour, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I spent hours on these Benches trying to persuade the then Government that imports into this country—particularly, because of BSE, of meat—were extremely problematic, for many reasons including those related to human health, animal health and support for our farmers.

However, and this takes me to the hon. Gentleman's second point, the Minister replied that the food industry, by which of course he meant the supermarkets, wanted to be able to buy as cheaply as it could from wherever it could. I find it extraordinary that successive Governments have allowed themselves to be conned by the retail sector into believing that getting good, cheap food is all about buying wherever one can. We are importing meat from a number of countries where foot and mouth is endemic, just when we think we have cleared up our own problem. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that issue—I am sorry to embarrass him. The connection between the role of supermarkets and the role of imports is very close. The hon. Gentleman nods in agreement.

I regret that, although in the immediate aftermath of the appalling onslaught of foot and mouth on the livestock sector no less a person than the Prime Minister said that he was going to take on the oligopolistic tendencies of the supermarkets, we heard no more. It may be significant that the chairman, or perhaps the chief executive, of Sainsbury's sat on the Curry commission. We must look again at the role of supermarkets because it is very important, and our competitor countries in Europe do not have the same problem.

As a former member of a police authority, I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman about the police. I cannot follow him to the end of his speech, much as I would like to, but I appreciate the fact that he has helped me to write a speech for the annual dinner of the John Stuart Mill Society. That will save me a lot of extra reading. That great Liberal philosopher is clearly a significant stimulus and inspiration to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that one day we can increase his human happiness by welcoming him to these Benches.

Mr. Hayes

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I do not have a Liberal bone in my body, as my colleagues know. I am more driven by Burke than by Mill, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know. I remind him of the simple fact that when, during the 19th century, the enlightened policies of the Conservative party were reforming our factories, and taking children out of the mines and boys from chimneys, his party rejected all those reforms. The Liberal party was the most backward, negative and reactionary force of the 19th century, and I am afraid that its descendants remain rooted in many of those faults and failures. The hon. Gentleman cannot expect to welcome me to his Benches, but I thought that I should intervene to justify my small but well-earned salary.

Mr. Tyler

How can I follow that? If the hon. Gentleman and I were to swap facts about 19th-century history, which was my period of particular interest as a student, we might be in trouble with the Chair, although I suspect that this is the one debate in which we could do so. I am a great fan of Mr. Gladstone, who got more radical as he got older. The hon. Gentleman may agree that that is not a bad thing, and he may become a radical in his old age and join us then.

I thank the Minister and his office because, after the last such debate before a recess, they took the trouble, uniquely in my experience, to make contact with Members who had contributed to see whether they had had satisfactory answers from the Departments concerned. As I said, I have lost count of how many of these debates I have participated in, and that had never happened before. I only point out that the letter arrived at least two months after the debate, so the Minister's expectations of when his colleagues would get round to responding to our points match our own experience.

May I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all our colleagues here today an appropriate recess, both for refreshing their contacts with their constituents and for refreshing themselves? If in so doing they feel that they would like to come to Cornwall, which of course is the most attractive holiday destination on the whole globe, they will be welcome.

1.14 pm
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Today, Presidents Bush and Putin meet to sign a treaty that will reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the United States and Russia by two thirds. I am confident that I speak for all hon. Members when I congratulate them on reaching that agreement and wish them well in its implementation during the next decade.

It will not have escaped the House's sense of irony, however, that the agreement is being reached just as two other nuclear powers are squaring up to each other in preparation for what could be a terrible and devastating war. I speak, of course, of India and Pakistan. Today, the European Union External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten, is due to arrive in the region. Our own Foreign Secretary will visit both countries next week, and I believe it right that this House should make its views clear before he embarks on that trip.

I speak today on behalf of my many constituents who originate from the Indian sub-continent. I speak equally on behalf of ordinary people in Brent, North who have no connection with the sub-continent, but who recognise that a war between these two nuclear powers would be a human and political disaster the repercussions of which would be felt across the globe. I should also make it clear that I speak as the chairman of Labour Friends of India. I know that the House will accept that, although I count myself as a friend of India, that does not make me an enemy of anyone else. Indeed, I wish all India's neighbours only peace and prosperity.

The attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 11 September changed global politics. It turned a newly elected American President, who the world had feared would prove isolationist, into a foreign policy activist. Most critically, it enabled the United States and Russia to put behind them the rhetoric of the cold war and find common cause against international terrorism. Although that has focused the world's eye on al-Qaeda and the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the reality of international terrorism and Afghan involvement is that terrorism is nothing new. The largest democracy in the world—the state of India—has been a victim of international terrorism for more than 20 years. In that time, more than 60,000 Indians have been killed in terrorist attacks.

I do not wish to go back over the history of the Punjab in the 1980s, or the Mumbai bomb blast of the early 1990s, which killed 300 people in just one incident. However, I think it important that the House consider the relentless terrorist attacks made on India in just the past two years. In December 1999, Air India flight 814 was hijacked. Within a year, the Red Fort in Delhi was attacked. On 1 October last year, the state legislative assembly in Srinagar was attacked, and on 13 December, India's Parliament was itself attacked by terrorists. Any country would find that list of outrages intolerable, and all the more so given that each attack was clearly not just the work of an isolated terrorist group: the ISI, the Pakistan security force, was also actively involved.

India's democratically elected leadership are under the most enormous pressure from their own people to take decisive action to end cross-border terrorism. So what have they done? First, Prime Minister Vajpayee engaged in shuttle-bus diplomacy to Lahore. That was rebuffed by Pakistan's attack across the line of control, in Kargil. Secondly, Prime Minister Vajpayee invited General Musharraf—the very person responsible for Kargil, but by that point the new ruler of Pakistan—to talks at Agra. Those are not the acts of a bellicose leader. It should also be clear that, although both India and Pakistan are now nuclear powers, only India has committed herself to a no first use policy.

After 11 September, General Musharraf committed himself to siding with the US against international terrorism. Many saw that as a real and genuine opportunity for Pakistan to move away from the fundamentalism of the madrassahs and their involvement with terrorist training camps, and from its entanglement with the Taliban and the illegal smuggling of heroin and guns, into a new relationship with the world. We praised General Musharraf for the courage he had shown and we wanted to support him against the forces of fundamentalism within Pakistan that were ranged against him.

Everyone accepts that General Musharraf has an extremely difficult task, but the key test of his resolve is, and always was, whether he would change his policy towards India. Would he stop the training camps that were sending thousands of terrorists across the line of control to kill and wreak havoc in the Kashmir valley? On 12 January, we felt real hope that he would do so. His address to the nation was bold and new. He imposed a ban on five terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. He detained a number of known terrorist leaders and rounded up 2,000 cadres of the terrorist groups. He spoke of there being "no need" to interfere in other countries.

The world was impressed and welcomed General Musharraf's speech. India said that it would judge by his deeds. Within weeks, the head of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Mr. Hafiz Sayeed, was released. The House may know that, ironically, he has just been re-arrested for his involvement in the murder of 11 French engineers in Karachi. The head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Mr. Maulana Masud Azhar, although supposedly under house arrest, has been receiving a pension from the Pakistan Government. The terrorist training camps that were closed after the speech on 12 January have been reopened. Currently, there are 75 active terrorist bases along the Pakistani side of the line of control. Al-Qaeda activists who fled from Afghanistan into Pakistan have now been transferred to those camps for cross-border infiltration into Kashmir.

Earlier this month, three terrorists dressed as Indian army soldiers boarded a bus on the Pathankot-Jammu highway and launched an attack that killed 32 people, including 11 women and 11 children. The three terrorists were Pakistan nationals, and al Mansuren—Lashkar-e-Toiba by another name—and Jamait-ul-Mujahideen have claimed responsibility for the outrage. Since that attack just 10 days ago, there have been 58 other attacks, in which 14 security personnel and 14 civilians have been killed. The fine words of 12 January have given way to the same sordid state-sponsored terrorism across the line of control.

Despite repeated requests and international pressure, General Musharraf has taken no action against the most wanted list of 20 terrorists whom Pakistan is harbouring. As such, Pakistan is in clear defiance of UN resolution 1373 that mandates all member countries to refrain from giving any support to terrorist groups.

In the light of those facts, when the Foreign Secretary travels to the region next week, he should do so with the clear understanding that India, whose people are under constant terrorist threat and whose very Parliament has been attacked by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, will find it strange to hear Britain and the US, who launched their own war on international terrorism, plead with India to show yet more restraint.

India has shown remarkable restraint, but the assassination of Abdul Gani Lone, the Muslim leader of the Hurriyat conference, by ISI-sponsored Islamic terrorists based in Pakistan has pushed that restrained to its limit. Abdul Gani Lone was no friend of the Indian Government; he wanted autonomy for the people of Kashmir, but he made what, for him, became two fatal commitments. He committed himself to the democratic process and wanted to contest the Kashmir state elections for the legislative assembly later this year. He also committed himself and his party to do so without foreign interference. For those two commitments, his son said that the ISI sponsored his assassination.

The snows are melting in Kashmir, but positions are hardening. When the Foreign Secretary arrives in the region, he must make it clear to General Musharraf that the words of 12 January are not enough. He must insist on the following essential actions. First, Pakistan must declare that it, too, will adopt a no first use policy in relation to its nuclear arsenal. Secondly, Pakistan must arrest and imprison or deport the 20 terrorists on India's most wanted list. Thirdly, Pakistan must close all 75 active terrorist training camps on the Kashmir border. Fourthly, Pakistan must arrest and put on trial the leaders of the terrorist groups. Fifthly, Pakistan must arrest the al-Qaeda terrorists now stationed in those camps.

Unless our Foreign Secretary makes these points clear to General Musharraf, and unless the general acts positively on each one of them, the world cannot express its surprise if its largest democracy acts to defend its Parliament, its legislative assembly and its citizens, 60,000 of whom have already lost their lives to terrorism.

I welcome Prime Minister Vajpayee's statement today that India will suspend a decision on war for a period of some weeks. During that period, I trust that General Musharraf will reflect on the foundations of his faith. After the battle of Khyber, the Prophet Mohammed—peace be to his name—stated that the jihad-e-asghar, the small jihad was over, but proclaimed that the jihad-e-akbar, the greater jihad, had begun. He meant that the military conflict was over but the most important conflict was the one against illiteracy and poverty.

Between them, India and Pakistan have more than 40 per cent. of the world's poor. We must all pray that the jihad-e-ashgar, the small war against each other, will be defused and abandoned so that the jihad-e-akbar, the great war on poverty, can be won for both of their peoples.

1.29 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before the House adjourns for the Whitsun recess, there are a number of points that I wish to raise, and I shall try to rattle through them as quickly as possible.

I was delighted that my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) referred to Southend cancer unit. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), the four of us are absolutely united. We will resist any move to undermine or diminish the present cancer service.

In the light of the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point spoke about volunteering. My goodness—our country could not function without its huge army of volunteers. Only this week, I heard about one of my constituents, Mrs. Mude, who has been a volunteer at Southend hospital for 63 years, welcoming and greeting people. That is a fantastic achievement.

While I am on the subject of volunteering, I hope that hon. Members will make a firm note in their diaries that the scouts tea party will take place on 18 June. Scouts and guides do a magnificent job and I hope that as many hon. Members as possible will turn up on 18 June to support their scout groups.

I entirely agreed with the comments of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) about shellfish. As the Minister knows, I have raised that matter on previous occasions. It is crazy that, as a result of those European directives, our shellfish producers are being punished, and I hope that the Minister will contact the excellent Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who has responsibility for those matters. Perhaps we could hold a round-table meeting to discuss the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has left the Chamber, but as he seems to have dropped a pound coin on the Bench I am sure that he will be back—[Interruption.] Ah, he is back already.

I was fascinated by my hon. Friend's strictures on philosophy where I shall certainly not compete with him. I find the concept of happiness intangible—perhaps we could devote a day to debating it. It seems to me, however, that young people are "bored" because they experience everything much sooner and more quickly than we did when we were children. If my hon. Friend has an answer for that, I should be only too happy to hear it—we might adopt it as Conservative policy.

Mr. Hayes

I would never claim to have all the answers to human happiness; if I did, I should not be in this place but somewhere much more lucrative—I do not say "somewhere more noble", because there is nothing more noble than being a Member of the House of Commons.

It seems to me that fulfilment and contentment come from satisfaction with what one has, rather than the pursuit of the unattainable. My hon. Friend referred to boredom; if we reflected on the lovely and glorious things in the world instead of seeking the unattainable, perhaps we should all be a little happier and more content.

Ms Drown

How lovely.

Mr. Amess

I could not disagree with either of those remarks.

I also wanted to draw the Minister's attention to two health matters that have been completely neglected. In 1994, the Encephalitis Support Group was formed. I am sure that hon. Members know that encephalitis is inflammation of the brain and that it affects many people. Representatives of the group have contacted me; they are anxious to raise the group's profile in the House.

Another group that is subtly lobbying Members of Parliament is TOAST—the Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust. To be hugely overweight is no joke. Many companies market ridiculous diets and rip people off with claims that they can lose stones. That is extremely upsetting. I hope that the House will reflect on that and consider how we can give more support to people who are unhappy—for whatever reason—with their appearance.

I have pontificated about mobile phones on many occasions. I loathe them. We over-use them in this country. Everywhere we go, people with mobile phones clutched to their ear are holding inane conversations for everyone else to hear. I have often pointed out that using a mobile phone while driving could result in a terrible accident—as has happened. Recently, someone who caused such an accident was sent to jail for three years. What on earth is the House doing about it? Absolutely nothing. Now we have—

Mr. Tyler

Of course the House has had an opportunity to do something about it, and one would hope that the Government will take it up, because there is a private Member's Bill on the subject—the Telecommunications Transmitters (Restrictions on Planning Applications) Bill. The hon. Gentleman may have been about to mention that.

Has the hon. Gentleman seen the very important work done for BRAKE, the pressure group on safety on the roads, which shows that handheld mobile phones are not much more dangerous than the screen ones, because both are equally distracting if used when the car is in motion?

Mr. Amess

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that it was BT who tried to seduce me in the early days by giving me one of those contraptions for use in the car, and I found it just as distracting as the type that one holds under one's chinline. The work of BRAKE is absolutely excellent, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in that regard.

I want to draw to the Minister's attention a matter which I am sure will be repeated to him. We have a huge row in the constituency that I represent. We have in the town probably one of the finest restaurants in the country; it is wonderful, and it is the intention to plonk on that highly visible restaurant one of these mobile phone mast monstrosities. I have been inundated with letters and telephone calls from local residents who think that, aesthetically, it would be awful to have a mobile phone mast on top of the restaurant but who are also very concerned indeed about the health problems.

The House has discussed the subject ad nauseam but nothing ever seems to happen, and I am fed up with the buck passing. Local authorities look at the plans and turn them down. The matter then goes to appeal and the mobile phone mast goes up. I hope that the Minister will try to get some action.

I have received many letters from constituents who are totally unhappy with the 999 emergency service system. In the area that I represent, for whatever reason, we have these absolutely useless call centres, so instead of getting on to the local police station, the caller is put through to Chelmsford, and when he or she eventually gets through to Chelmsford, probably the person who is trying to mug them or has blocked them in has disappeared.

The Home Secretary needs to give greater guidance to chief constables throughout the country on call centres. Once upon a time it was possible to dial 999 and get through to someone immediately, and help would arrive. That certainly does not happen at the moment. These call centres are a disaster.

Ms Drown

On a recent visit to our local police headquarters, I was told about the increasing number of 999 calls. Would the hon. Gentleman support the introduction of another number that people could telephone for help, if the incident was not of a blue-light or ambulance degree of severity?

Mr. Amess

That is a very interesting point. I would be very pleased to work with the hon. Lady on that issue and see whether we could persuade the Home Secretary to take it up, because at the moment the emergency service simply is not working. The hon. Lady is entirely right when she says that the 999 line is blocked with other calls.

I never thought that I would be talking about the Palace theatre again in the House but, sadly, this week another crisis appears to be emerging. Once again, the theatre seems to need more funding in order to continue, but perhaps when we have more time I will wax lyrical on that.

I wish to raise two final points. First, Mrs. Narwar has contacted me about her son, who is an Egyptian in a jail in Egypt. I am glad that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) is in his place now because I know that he has a constituent in the same jail, and I believe that three or four other hon. Members are affected. A meeting took place between Baroness Amos and the family and friends of the people in jail. Unfortunately, no hon. Members could be present with their constituents, but I should be very grateful if the Minister would have a word with the Foreign Office, because these people are still in prison. We do not have time to go into the charges, but I consider that an issue of human rights is involved.

Finally, I had the privilege and enjoyment to be present at the Ivor Novello award ceremony yesterday. It was a glittering occasion; in fact, it reminded me of what the Brit awards used to be like. There I was, sitting with one of the singers of The Three Degrees. Anyway, there were some marvellous conversations. The bottom line is—I say this to the Minister as a younger Member—that the industry is feeling slightly neglected at the moment.

We have the finest writers in the world. Our music is better than anyone else can produce—never mind the fact that we did not have a single in the American top 100 for a week or so. The Government should carefully consider the way in which the industry has been affected by the fact that people obviously no longer buy 78s or 45s, that compact discs are given away free in magazines and that the blank tape levy is no longer an issue. Those people have a right to be rewarded in some way or other. I know that the relevant Department is a supporter of the industry, but the Minister knows full well that, without persuading the Treasury on the issue, we are wasting our time.

I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you and everyone else will have a very enjoyable Whitsun and, in particular, that everyone enjoys the jubilee celebrations.

1.41 pm
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

We have had a very interesting and wide-ranging debate. Although it seems as though we may not quite use all the time allotted today, that should not be a matter for concern or critical comment for two reasons. First, these debates are usually limited to three hours, so we have had more time today to deal with the very important matters that right hon. and hon. Members have wished to draw to the attention of the House; and, secondly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the constituency work carried out by Members of Parliament is becoming ever-more demanding.

More hon. Members simply find that they cannot discharge all their proper duties in their constituency just on a Saturday. They find that they have to be there on a Friday to undertake the vast range of constituency work that faces them. That is why I am one of those members who serve on the Modernisation Committee—the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is another—who are prepared to consider the House's sitting practices to find out whether we can improve the quality of time that we have.

For example, it was a matter of regret to me that the debate collapsed on Wednesday this week, when we could have had a debate of this nature if our procedures were able to take account of such events. The Modernisation Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of the Leader of the House, is prepared to consider such matters, and I hope that we will make proposals in due course that will be widely accepted.

Ms Drown

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider starting at 10, rather than 2.30, or even the proposed 11.30, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays? If we then sat until 7, we could have more debates in the evening. We could also finish at 3, for example, on Thursdays, which would allow more hon. Members, especially those from far-flung lands, to go home and have a full constituency day on Fridays.

Mr. Knight

The hon. Lady's comments find a degree of favour with me. I am not sure about starting at 10 o'clock, but we should certainly consider starting at an earlier hour, not only to assist our working practices, but to take account of the fact that those who report what we say in the House would probably pay more interest if it were said before they went off to have dinner.

I wish to raise with the Minister an issue of growing concern to me that directly affects my constituents' well-being. Tourism is an important feature of our economy throughout the United Kingdom, and English tourism dominates in Great Britain. The House may not know that English tourism represents more than 81 per cent. of the total United Kingdom tourism market. It is worth £52 billion, compared with £4.5 billion in Scotland and £2.3 billion in Wales. My view is that, with vigorous marketing, it could be worth even more. Despite the importance of English tourism to the UK economy, the English Tourism Council and the London tourist board receive only 23p per head of England's population. I wonder whether Members can guess how much the Scottish tourist board receives. Is it a little more? No, it is a lot more—a whopping £4.85 per head of population. The Wales tourist board receives a staggering £9.44 for each Welsh resident. Why should a person living in Dunfermline have 21 times as much spent on their behalf to promote tourism as a person living in Bridlington in my constituency? Why should Barmouth in north Wales—a most delightful place—have 41 times as much spent per head of population as Flamborough Head, which is also in my constituency?

The unfairness goes wider than money alone. Not only do the Scottish and Wales tourist boards receive more money than the English Tourism Council and the London tourist board—England receives £11.5 million compared with £24.8 million for Scotland and £27.8 million for Wales—but they also do less to help English tourism than English tourism does to help them. The English Tourism Council's website has a link to the Wales and the Scottish tourist boards' websites. That is reasonable, and I welcome it. Is it reciprocated by the Wales or the Scottish tourist board? No, it is not. That is to be deplored. The English Tourism Council's website mention Wales and the Welsh 42 times, and Scotland and the Scottish 51 times. How many times are England and the English mentioned on their websites? Twice.

Amazingly, although the English Tourism Council website blathers on about Scotland and Wales, it gives precious little mention to the tourist areas of east Yorkshire. I regard that as an affront. Clearly, it is not good enough. What are the chairman of the English Tourism Council and his colleagues doing to promote the delights of Yorkshire and other English counties? Will the Minister refer my concerns—more than that, my justified anger—about this dereliction of the proper promotion of the tourist delights of England to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport as soon as possible? Will he ask her to consider taking action to rectify this gross imbalance?

Ms Drown

I fully appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's comments, and agree that the three countries should help each other to promote tourism, which can result in gain for all. I would not want him to leave this issue, however, without clarifying his view on support per head. I hope that he does not think that every region of the country should receive exactly the same support for tourism. We heard strong calls to promote different regions if we are to address the pressure on housing. Tourism is a real job creator, which has an impact on population and homes. Will he confirm that he is not in favour of providing exactly the same support across the whole nation?

Mr. Knight

I am happy to give that confirmation. I have a great love for Scotland and Wales. I seek not parity but justice.

Many issues have been raised on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) referred to the right-to-buy abuse. He advocated legislation. The abuse that is occurring highlights the value of taking legal advice before entering into a contract for the purchase or sale of land. A house or bungalow is the most valuable asset that any of us are likely to own. It is incredible that people today are still entering into contracts to buy or sell a dwelling without taking proper independent advice. If local authorities are aware that a block of housing stock may fall prey to an unscrupulous property company, there might be a case for their issuing advice to tenants to see a solicitor or to go to a law centre before they sign anything.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is a vigorous advocate, and he did not let us down when he referred to several issues that affect his constituency. He started on the subject of street crime and the clear duty of the police to bring it under control. I sometimes wonder whether the police have a perverse sense of priorities.

For example, I mention a case that occurred a couple of years ago. It was not in Yorkshire or Humberside, so I am not referring to my police authority. A friend of mine, who is a musician, was leaving the venue where he had performed and a near-riot was taking place outside. Youths were fighting and bottles were being thrown, but not one police officer was to be seen. On his way home, he took a cross-country route and, as he turned down a small lane that is mainly used by farmers, he was astounded when two police officers with torches jumped out of a hedge. They stopped him at I am, and told him that they were doing a random check on motor vehicles. One questions whether the police have the right priorities in every case.

My hon. Friend discussed roads and the need for a new one to serve his constituency. I hope that his comments and those of other hon. Members will lead us to have a serious debate about the need for new road building. I hope that the debate will not degenerate into the sort of sloganising that we get from Friends of the Earth, which is currently running a postcard campaign saying "No new roads". If one takes that literally, no new roads means no new houses, because every housing estate must be linked to an existing highway. My hon. Friend made an excellent case for the third road that he mentioned, and I hope that it will be considered favourably.

Like a number of other hon. Members on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend then strayed on to the subject of the World cup. I enjoy the World cup finals, but not in the way that other Members do. I never watch the matches or pay them any attention. However, when they are on, I get great pleasure from getting out one of my classic cars and driving around the roads of Yorkshire. The roads are deserted, so it is like going back to the golden days of motoring. That is rather enjoyable.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) is not here, but he kindly left me a note to explain that he had a pressing constituency engagement. He raised the important issue of anti-Semitism. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I take it seriously. I am a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, and I know the details of the many shocking cases of abuse and threats of violence from which members of the Jewish community have to suffer. We should all deplore race hate violence from wherever it comes. More than that, we should do what we can to eradicate it.

The hon. Gentleman then discussed the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and his concern that the most vulnerable members of society could be seduced into signing the agreements offered by loan sharks. He made a very good case. I am aware that such agreements are often signed, but I am pleased to say that I am not aware of a case in my constituency. However, friends of friends of mine have suffered from signing such agreements, and I am concerned that the seductive advertisements for them are allowed to run on local radio stations. The advertisements say, "Come to us. We will offer you a loan. It doesn't matter if you have county court judgments against you or have bad debts. You don't need a deposit." Such advertising puff makes those of us who are legally qualified realise that the claims made are too good to be true, but they do have an impact on vulnerable members of society.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) complained that the geographical position of his constituency is such that his phone hardly ever rings. I would regard that as a blessing, not a curse. He expressed concern about salmon farmers and the pollution caused by the Braer incident. Indeed, he explained quite well the problems that communities often face in respect of the burden of proof when a local disaster or problem occurs. The community might know what has caused the devastation, but proving that to a judge in court is a different matter. I think that the hon. Gentleman should pursue that further. Perhaps we should even consider the burden of proof as it applies to such cases. I gather from his liberal use of Latin that he is a lawyer so, inter alia, I wish him well in pursuing his case.

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) began by telling us that she is a workaholic. She then went on to prove it by raising more points than any other hon. Member. I was probably a bit hard on her in my intervention because she went on to say that she supported the eight-year rule for Select Committee Chairmen, which is what I proposed in the amendment that was accepted by the House. I agree that there is a case for preventing a Select Committee from becoming the fiefdom of a particular Member. There is such a wealth of talent and expertise in the House that it is right that more Members are eligible to stand for election as Chairmen of Select Committees.

When the hon. Lady began her analysis of the health service, she sounded much like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) when he was Health Secretary. Just when I started to think that she was going to sit on the Conservative Benches, she veered off in a different direction, which was disappointing.

The hon. Lady raised many issues, such as fireworks, that concern hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am a libertarian and believe that if people want to celebrate 5 November, they should be able to do it without having to apply for a licence or being subject to a local authority restriction. However, as an animal owner I am worried how the event is spreading from the end of October to the second week in November. When I was a child, the whole community celebrated bonfire night on 5 November, and that was it. Pets had to be kept in for one night only, whereas now, the event is being celebrated over a two-week period in villages up and down the country, and that concerns pet owners.

Mr. Banks

Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that fireworks are not only used on 5 November? Other communities also use them to celebrate their festivals, which is one reason for their more widespread use. Perhaps we should consider each of those festivals and set a date before which fireworks cannot be purchased.

On the right hon. Gentleman's concern about animals, surely a limit should be set on the size of the explosive fireworks that can be bought. Some of them are huge: they are mortars. The amount of noise that they make causes enormous distress, not just to animals, but to old people and to people of a nervous disposition, of whom I happen to be one. They are frightening and it is about time that action was taken to deal with them.

Mr. Knight

I agree that we should consider the issue, and I hope that the Minister will feed that back to his colleagues. However, I have reservations about framing legislation on the hoof, so I would not want to talk today about the scope of such legislation or the clauses that it should contain.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) mentioned the problems caused to 1 million people, some of whom are his constituents, by Equitable Life. Some are also my constituents, so I join him in pressing the Minister to try to ensure that an equitable conclusion is reached.

The hon. Gentleman then spoke with feeling about several aspects of what is happening in Northern Ireland, which is a tragic and serious matter. Northern Ireland politicians are not short of commentators, so I shall not give the House the benefit of my opinion other than to say that all hon. Members, on whichever side of the House they sit, hope that the peace process will succeed. I hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed on behalf of one section of the Northern Ireland community.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) devoted his entire speech to football and the problem of football hooligans. He spoke from a position of knowledge—even expertise—and I hope that Home Office Ministers and the Minister for Sport will read his speech carefully. I am pleased that he has neither lost his edge in debate nor stopped calling for action from his own side. His Front Bench has been diminished by his absence, and I hope that in the not too distant future he will experience ministerial life after death.

Mr. Banks

I would not take it for double the salary.

Mr. Knight

Perhaps the Government will be open to bids.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) covered several issues that affect his constituency. He spoke movingly about people's fear of their homes being flooded and the problems that they experience as a result of flooding. Part of my constituency has been flooded, so I know that it is an ongoing problem. The Institution of Civil Engineers recently considered flooding, and it said that one of the problems was that the Government's policy was piecemeal and inadequate and that spending should be doubled. I do not want to start to raise what may seem to be party political points, but I hope that the Minister with responsibility for flooding will bear in mind that if more money is needed to deal with the problem, Members on both sides of the House would expect the Government to vote more money to it. Nothing can be more serious than having one's home flooded and all one's assets destroyed as a result.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger—Ross) spoke about ambulance chasers. I think that he is on to something in that respect. I share his worry that we may be importing a trend from America. Last time I was in the United States, I heard a radio advertisement that ran, "Have you ever been affected by food poisoning? Did you get sick from a sausage or ill from an eel? If you did, telephone this number—we are attorneys at law and we will pursue your claim." That is something that we could do without. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am a lawyer. When I qualified as a solicitor, my profession had a rule that one could not advertise, and my partner and I managed to build up a highly successful firm without ever having to do so. The legal profession has lost something now that it is able to advertise and, in some cases, chase work.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge went on to discuss the problem of self-harm. He is right to say that those who are distressed or disturbed need proper specialist care. I want to add a third dimension to his comments. Self-harm admission may mask something else.

A young woman who is an artist and a good friend of two musicians whom I know showed all the signs of suffering self-harm for a long time. She would appear with bruises and claim that she had fallen down the stairs; she would have other injuries, and sometimes her clothes were torn. After deep discussion over a long time, it was revealed that she was not suffering from self-harm but was a victim of domestic violence. She was so frightened of revealing what had happened that she preferred to blame herself rather than admit that she was a victim of domestic violence. I therefore believe that those who look after people who admit self-harm need expertise to discern symptoms that may not always be obvious when someone presents themselves to a doctor or at a hospital.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) made an excellent contribution. I agreed with his early points. As in my hon. Friend's constituency, agriculture plays a large part in my constituency, and he was right about the unacceptable power of supermarkets. Many farmers, especially dairy farmers whom I know, are worried about that. My hon. Friend went on to mention policing and then started to consider the meaning of happiness. I shall confine myself to saying that, as long as he is our pairing Whip and can decide which members of my party can be slipped from the House, my idea of happiness is listening to him.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall gave us the benefit of his perspective on the issues that have been raised today. I hear a lot from him because I sit opposite him on the Modernisation Committee. I do not always agree with him, but it is worth listening to his contributions, which are always thought-provoking. He did not disappoint us today. He mentioned pylons, which are worrying. He said that in bygone days, people living in a village gave three cheers when they saw the pylons arrive. What's new? Early adverts for smoking told us that it was a healthy pursuit. We were initially told that asbestos was a wonder product that would not catch fire. It was only later, with knowledge, that we learned otherwise.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) gave us his opinion on matters further from home. He made a thoughtful speech and all hon. Members are united in our support for a peaceful resolution to the dangerous situation about which he spoke.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is a permanent feature of such debates, although he was a late arrival today. He made many points with his customary vigour and effectiveness. I believe that he agreed with in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings that happiness comes from what you have, not what you cannot attain. I am not sure whether that is true. I believe that Oscar Wilde said that there are two disappointments in life. One is never achieving one's lifelong ambition, the other is achieving it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West mentioned his involvement in the all-party obesity group. I wish him well with that venture because people tend to snigger when one refers to the problems that those who are grossly overweight can suffer. I believe that it is unacceptable in a civilised society that discrimination on the ground of size is still regarded as acceptable in many sectors of commerce.

Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall, I shall finish with an offer. If any hon. Member decides to visit east Yorkshire in the recess, I should not only be delighted to show them the Yorkshire coast, but to buy them a drink.

2.9 pm

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

If any hon. Member wishes to visit suburban north London during the recess, they are very welcome to do so—in fact, they can join me straight after the debate and assist at my advice surgery at 4 o'clock this afternoon.

We have, as ever, had a wide-ranging debate. I am always impressed by the way in which these debates are able to fill whatever time is allocated for them. When we arrived this morning and saw that the Benches were more sparsely populated than usual, some of us feared that we might not fill the full five hours, but we have done so. I shall do my best in the next 20 minutes to respond to all of the points raised. If I fail to do so completely in respect of every speech, I shall do my best to ensure that Departments respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I shall draw the remarks made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about tourism to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I was not aware of the apparently enormous disparity between England and Scotland and Wales. The right hon. Gentleman's rallying cry was that he sought not parity, but justice. I am not sure how near to parity one has to get to achieve justice, but it sounds as though there is a large disparity, and I shall certainly draw that to my right hon. Friend's attention.

I am pleased to concur with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the modernisation of the House, especially the greater constituency work load that we all bear these days. Fridays often afford hon. Members the opportunity to do that constituency work. I have to admit that I was rather pleased that business finished early on Wednesday, as it enabled me to attend the annual meeting of Enfield council and to welcome the new Conservative mayor of Enfield, Graham Eustance, to his position.

I shall now try to respond to the points made by a combination of the usual suspects and the pre-recess debate virgins, whom I hope we will welcome back in other pre-recess debates—the usual suspects of the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) expressed concern about the abuse of right to buy. The Government have commissioned research into the extent and type of such abuse and its effect on the housing market. The results of that research are expected in November and will be made publicly available. The Government do not rule out taking legislative action in future to close loopholes in the right-to-buy rules.

Right to buy has brought great personal benefit to many thousands of families who have bought their properties, but it has many negative features as well. In my area, about half the council property that existed 20 years ago no longer exists, and we have a serious shortage of affordable housing for rent for families in need. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, that is a major national issue that has been neglected by Governments of both main parties. We must get a grip on it.

As always, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is certainly one of the usual suspects in this type of debate, raised many issues and connected them to his constituency. Street crime is a hugely serious issue—one that most if not all of us encounter as constituency MPs. Although street crime is prevalent across the country, it is highly concentrated in a small number of mostly urban areas: it is a striking statistic that 10 police force areas account for 82 per cent. of street robberies. The Government are focusing on those 10 areas, but we must not neglect the rest of the country when tackling a major problem that must be grasped by the police and others.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the third road for Canvey Island and issued a challenge to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who was absent from the debate. I am advised that the Government recognise the importance attached to those transport improvements and that we are working with Essex county council to resolve the outstanding issues. It should be possible to complete the work well before the next round of annual progress reports, and we will consider the case for the scheme before the next settlement. If the hon. Gentleman wants to follow that matter up, I shall be happy to pursue it with him.

The hon. Gentleman raised several other matters that I will not have time to deal with if I am to respond to other hon. Members, but let me touch on Cyprus, with which he closed his speech. I have the privilege to represent a constituency that has a large number of Cypriots, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots—in fact more Cypriots live in Enfield, Southgate than in any other part of the world, with the exception of Cyprus itself, of course. There was some optimism earlier this year when the latest round of talks between President Clerides and Mr. Denktash began. It is positive that the talks are continuing and that the third round has been completed. The United Kingdom has a vital role to play. We are a guarantor power and we have an important role to play in supporting Cyprus's application to become part of the European Union.

I concur with the hon. Gentleman's remarks, including the talks between President Clerides and Mr. Denktash and the accession process. If Cyprus is to become part of the EU, as I hope it will, economically the greatest beneficiaries will be the Turkish Cypriots, if a united Cyprus comes in. If necessary, with a divided Cyprus, we would see the Republic of Cyprus coming in. I think that all of us hope that we can achieve a just and lasting peaceful settlement for Cyprus that will benefit that part of the world and all the people of Cyprus.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who is unable to remain in the Chamber, raised a number of issues. I shall concentrate on the matter of hate crime, and especially the extremely disturbing spate of anti-semitic attacks over recent months. Like my hon. Friend, I have a significant Jewish community in my constituency. I am well aware of the real fear and hurt that there is in that community at what we have witnessed in this country and in other parts of the world. That is most notable in France, where the scale of anti-Semitic attacks, and the nature of some of those in Paris, Marseilles and elsewhere, are appalling.

As my hon. Friend said, we saw the recent incident at the Finsbury Park synagogue. As he said, it affected an old and longstanding—it is quite small now—Jewish community in that part of London. Everything must be done to tackle hate crime in all its forms, including anti-semitic crime. There is often a view that somehow anti-semitism is something of the past. Tragically it is not. It is still very much alive and with us, and it needs to be tackled seriously. I know that my colleagues in the Home Office have been in discussions with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, with the Community Security Trust and others from the Jewish community to ensure that all is done to take the matter forward.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) raised a number of important issues. Like him, I went to state schools. I am not sure that it is quite the same in this place as at Southgate comprehensive school, but it is rather like bringing the games in for the last day before the holidays. He referred to what is clearly a major constituency issue on the Braer tanker grounding of nine years ago. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of colleagues, particularly in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the common fisheries policy, which was taken up by other hon. Members. Clearly the matter needs to be taken forward. The Government expect the proposals from the Commission to be produced by the end of May. We are disappointed as a Government that the proposals from Brussels did not emerge sooner. We shall continue to press, and we attach great importance to the debate and to taking matters forward as set out by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) raised many issues, as ever. I will not be able to do justice to them all. I agree that we need to address the issue of fireworks, and it is being addressed in government. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) has raised the matter, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan). The Government are taking up the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon described the reform of local government funding as a bit of a nightmare. Having attended a Cabinet Committee yesterday that was considering it, I can say that it certainly is. I am sure that we shall have winners. But sadly we shall also have losers. It will be quite a task to get things right. Perhaps speaking sneakily as a London Member, I am aware that we have extremely serious recruitment problems in public services in London and the south-east. I know that they are not exclusive to our part of the country, but there is strong feeling about that.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's strong and consistent commitment to securing the modernisation of the House. I agree with her on term limits, but I disagree with her on the payment of Select Committee Chairs. That could be one way in which we can strengthen the Select Committee system and give greater weight to the task of parliamentary scrutiny, and therefore give Parliament a greater role in our national political debate.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) made a powerful speech on behalf of his constituents. It is important that we in Government listen carefully to what he said. I hope that it is not true that consent has gone from the Good Friday agreement, and that we can take the agreement forward. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues regarding the current status of the IRA ceasefire in relation to Castlereagh. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote to him this week, stating that there will be a full reply to the hon. Gentleman's question as soon as possible. I will chase up my right hon. Friend on that matter. All of us in the House want to see a genuine and fully-fledged peace in Northern Ireland. Let us hope that we achieve it sooner rather than later.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) told us that the French are the Olympic cricket champions, which I did not know. He also told us that he would be supporting France against the team of the hon. Member for Castle Point—Senegal. As an avid Arsenal supporter, I shall have to support France as well, although we may need to look to Senegal for players in the Arsenal team.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said that from his experience as Minister for Sport, he was careful about predicting what would happen at the World cup. Having listened to his story, I should make it clear from the Dispatch Box that I fully expect that England will win the World cup.

My hon. Friend went on to give us a detailed and highly informed analysis of the impact of the football disorder legislation that was introduced following the appalling events at Euro 2000. Clearly, significant progress has been made, but my hon. Friend highlighted disturbing differences in the impact of that legislation in different parts of the country. He raised the issue of training for magistrates. The figures that he set out, contrasting Merseyside with Staffordshire, were striking. I shall draw the matter to the attention of colleagues in the Home Office and in the Lord Chancellor's Department. My hon. Friend also told us about football violence in other parts of the world, and gave a plug for the BBC's series on the issue, the next episode of which will focus on the Italian club, Lazio.

Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall, I think that in his closing remarks about protecting both the Union flag and St. George's flag, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham made a powerful point, which I hope we will consider further. It is important that the flag should unite the people—the English people in the case of the flag of St. George, and the people of the United Kingdom as a whole in the case of the Union Jack. I will draw that to the attention of colleagues.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) raised a number of important issues, as did others, including the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, concerning flood and coastal defences. I am advised—it is nice to get advice on these occasions—that the Government are committed to sustaining flood and coastal defences.

Funding for DEFRA's programme for investing in flood warning arrangements and flood and coastal defences is increasing from £66 million in 2000–01 to £114 million in 2003–04. Funding for future years is being considered as part of the current spending review process. Significantly more money is thus being made available, and I am sure that hon. Members' arguments today will be taken into account as part of that important review.

Mr. Francois

I am grateful for the Minister's remarks about funding, which is clearly important. However, part of the problem is bureaucracy and the over-interpretation of EU regulations. Can the hon. Gentleman reassure me that he has taken that on board?

Mr. Twigg

The hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to the DEFRA bureaucracy. I confess that the DEFRA bureaucracy provided me with the answer on funding, but not on the other matter. I will pursue the matter with DEFRA after the debate, rather than making something up off the top of my head, which might not be the wisest thing to do.

Mr. Greg Knight

Very honest.

Mr. Twigg

Perhaps too honest. I shall be more careful in future.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh raised the issue of a proposed new estate of 1,700 houses and an industrial estate in South Woodham Ferrers in his constituency. Any such proposal, particularly on the scale that he describes, would cause concern in any of our constituencies. We face difficult dilemmas in striking the right balance between national targets and local autonomy. I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall that, although local autonomy is clearly the ideal, complete local autonomy on these matters would probably cause us greater difficulties in relieving some of the housing pressures that have been drawn to our attention in this and other debates. I am not necessarily saying that we have got the balance right; much more needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who is becoming one of the usual suspects, even though he has only been in the House for just under a year, raised a number of issues that have been dealt with by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and the hon. Member for North Cornwall, and I largely concur with their remarks.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge talked about his local youth council. The low turnout by young people in last year's election highlights the fact that one of our responsibilities as parliamentarians, individually and collectively, is to go out and seek the views of young people. I am impressed that in my area the Enfield youth council has developed into a youth assembly. All the secondary schools held elections, most of which were hotly contested and had a very high turnout. The youth assembly will provide a voice for local people, and that is very important and most welcome.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) raised a series of important issues, including constituency matters on which I will ask the relevant Departments to reply, and general issues about rural areas and agriculture. He also made a number of philosophical points, and it made a wonderfully refreshing change to have a little dose of philosophy in one of our debates.

The hon. Gentleman drew our attention to the fact that, instead of focusing on materialism as a source of human happiness, we should look a little deeper and a little wider. Although individual rights matter, it is important that we balance them against the responsibilities that we have as individuals and collectively. The hon. Gentleman made that point very powerfully.

Arising from that is the question of voluntary activity, to which many hon. Members referred. There are many positive examples of volunteering. When I got on the tube at Southgate this morning, people were collecting for ActionAid. I believe that collections are occurring throughout the country as part of a big charity appeal. Such initiatives are very positive and very welcome, but we need to encourage more of them, and I welcome the remarks that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made in that respect.

I have referred to a number of the points made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall. I did not have him down as a rugby player, and it was interesting to hear that he is one.

Mr. Tyler


Mr. Twigg

He is a former rugby player.

We had an interesting exchange about the relative merits of the 19th-century Liberal and Tory parties, but the main conclusion that I would draw is that neither really succeeded in liberating the poorest, which is why the Labour party had to be founded 100 years ago. [Interruption.] I had to make one tribal point in my speech.

I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North who made a very passionate speech. His work as the chairman of Labour Friends of India is widely respected in all parts of the House. The situation with India and Pakistan is very grave and disturbing. All efforts are being made to bring about a de-escalation of the present tension, but clearly there is a very real terrorist threat, as my hon. Friend noted. It is vital that the Pakistani Government do all that they can to end terrorism so that dialogue about the situation in Kashmir can begin.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made a number of very important points. Letters about the siting of mobile phone masts fill every Member's constituency postbag. The health case is not proven, but that works both ways and it is perfectly understandable that our constituents are concerned. I have to confess to being terribly addicted to my mobile phone, but I do not drive a car, so I am never guilty of the other practice to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I know that the Government are keeping that matter under review.

I thank everyone who has taken part in what has been a fascinating, wide-ranging and good-humoured debate. We now break for two weeks for the Whitsun recess, although listening to hon. Members today I was under the impression that it is really the World cup recess, but it would probably have to go on a little longer if that were the case. Of course, we are marking the Queen's jubilee as well. I thank the House authorities and all those who work here for what they do to assist Members of Parliament. In particular, I thank my private office, for briefing me throughout the debate and for the general work that they do to assist me in my task as Deputy Leader of the House.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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