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Column 1286financial responsibility. Although there is some concern about the way in which the Child Support Act 1991 is being implemented, no one appears to dispute that the principle is right.
We need to extend that parental responsibility to areas of conduct of children for which parents must be responsible. There should be few exceptions to that. There is no doubt in my mind that if parents knew that they would be increasingly responsible for the actions of their children, they would be more careful in how they sought to raise their children in the first place.
Fourthly, our primary school teachers can spot the extreme potential troublemakers and lawbreakers at an early stage of their time at school. Often, such a child is simply reflecting its background, and is unlikely to change its ways without special attention. We can do more in directing resources at that point in a child's life to seek to place that person on the straight and narrow, rather than waiting until he or she has broken into our homes or stolen our car. I should like to see more active thought given to how direct intervention into that child's life might take place in a way that would make a real difference.
Fifthly, we need a gradual increase in the penalties for crime. Having given the help and the skills to encourage people to develop as law-abiding citizens, we must then punish severely those who choose to offend. The absence of a realistic deterrent is one of the biggest issues facing us today. I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for his excellent attempts to redress that imbalance.
Finally, it has long been my view that we should encourage responsible behaviour and discourage irresponsible behaviour through our tax and financial systems. More thought needs to be given to how our tax system can be designed to enable people to come together in long-term relationships and to stay together. Having recognised the importance of stable families, we should be ready to defend that institution through our tax and benefit structure. That would represent the investment in excellence that we need to see in our nation.
Not for a moment would I suggest that that is a matter for Government alone. I call upon the Church and all opinion formers to recognise the importance of strong family relationships and to redouble their efforts to promote the right message. Let us all work together on that vital task.
There are no short-term, quick-fix solutions, but we can do positive things to build for the future quality relationships in the home. It is a mighty mountain to move, but the lessons learned from some of the more extreme incidents of the past few years compel us to start that task. The tragic James Bulger case is but one. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given an important lead in his call to get back to basics and to espouse traditional values. It is for all of us to respond. As we approach Christmas, let us trust that the strong and stable family unit will once again become the foundation on which our nation is built.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) : I shall raise a rather more parochial issue--although one that is of concern in other constituencies apart from mine--than that addressed by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter). It is that of the A34, the Euro-route that passes from
Column 1287Southampton up towards the midlands and is the main trade route from our south coast ports to the midlands. The road has been improved year after year in its various different parts, until now the only remaining section that is not at least dual carriageway is that just to the south, and through parts, of Newbury.
Hon. Members will no doubt remember that in March this year the Government made a dramatic announcement that the route for the Newbury bypass had finally been agreed, and it would therefore go ahead. Interestingly, that announcement was made only a short while after it became clear that there would be a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Newbury. I am sure that the Government would not wish it to be felt that that announcement had been made purely because the by-election was about to take place and that they would not wish the electorate to believe that any such announcement could be made before a by-election and then not fulfilled after it. Therefore, it is disappointing, to say the least, that since May this year, there has been no firm guarantee that the money for that bypass will be forthcoming. Indeed, we have heard from the Minister that he is conducting a review of the full roads programme, and it seems likely, in view of the Budget announcement, that at least some of the roads that we had believed would go ahead will not be built--or, at the very least, will be deferred.
I spoke to the Minister the other day about other problems on the A34, when I and those with me suggested that the traffic could only get heavier once the bypass had been built and the road was dual carriageway from Southampton to Birmingham. He said that we could not make the assumption that the bypass would be built in the near future. That was a great disappointment to me and the people of Newbury.
The problems on the A34 are many and numerous. There is the immediate problem that the traffic through the centre of Newbury is extremely heavy and there are long queues, particularly during the rush hours in the morning and the evening. Those are a cause of great annoyance not only to those trying to get across the country from Southampton to Birmingham and vice versa but to the inhabitants of Newbury trying to go about their daily lives.
There is also the problem of blight along the route of the A34 bypass. A number of people live in houses that are not close enough to the route to be subject to compulsory purchase but are close enough to be severely affected once the bypass is built. Those people cannot sell their houses on the open market, and the Minister, sadly, is being slow to use his discretionary power to purchase them. Thirdly, there is danger on the route itself. The section of the A34 immediately to the south of Newbury is a notorious accident black spot, with acccidents every month, if not every week, frequently causing damage not just to vehicles but to people. If all those problems are to be solved, we badly need the money to be firmly allocated to that project.
Another problem with the A34 is the noise it creates. I am speaking here particularly on behalf of the two communities of Chieveley and East Ilsley, just to the north of where the A34 crosses the M4. New road surfaces, some of which are still being researched but some of which have been proven, can reduce the noise on trunk roads. Sadly, they are more expensive and harder to maintain than the normal surfaces.
Column 1288There is a major noise pollution problem near trunk roads, and the A34 is a case in point. I urge the Minister to ensure that we take note of the need to introduce one of the new surfaces wherever there is a significant noise problem, even if that means a greater expense.
The Government have often made it known that they wish to do something about pollution, and I suggest that they do something about noise pollution, just as they are aiming to do something about atmospheric and water pollution. Apart from the new noise reduction surfaces, a number of other measures, such as noise reduction fencing or banking, can be used. I urge the Minister to consider those solutions as well in our case.
Perhaps the most significant change that could be made would be to legislation on noise pollution. It is ridiculuous that some people are eligible for grants to install noise insulation and others are not.
Let us take a hypothetical case of two towns joined by a major road, which passes through two villages, which constitute two bottlenecks. The Government decide to improve the road on the route, and remove one bottleneck through one village. Unfortunately, the other bottleneck still exists, so the increased traffic on the road will not reach the level at which grants for noise insulation are triggered.
The Government go ahead with the futher improvement in the other village at that point, and because both bottlenecks have been removed, the traffic up that route suddenly increases considerably. The grant level is therefore triggered, and the second village becomes eligible for grants for noise insulation. Unfortunately, although the traffic has risen by exactly the same amount in both villages, only the village where the work is being done is eligible for grants. That does not seem to be either logical or fair. As I said, it must apply not only to Newbury, but to other parts of the country.
If a route is improved and traffic levels increase, all affected houses on the route should be eligible for noise insulation grants--as in Chieveley and East Ilsley--not merely those immediately adjacent to the final work.
In the case of those two villages, the main reason why they are not eligible for grants is that the road running through was improved in advance of the new grant mechanism coming into play. Nevertheless, they suffer, because the road has since been improved in many other places and has gone from being a small, rural route to a major Euro-route that carries all the freight traffic that passes between the south coast and the midlands. That has led to considerable noise pollution in the villages, and so far Government have refused to do anything about it, either through noise reduction methods or by allocating grants for insulation.
Those problems on the A34 deserve urgent attention. I urge the Minister to ensure that something is done to address the problems with the bypass, which will solve some of the traffic problems in central Newbury, and the problems of noise pollution along the line of the A34 as it passes through Berkshire, and I ask that the necessary legislation is introduced before Christmas.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye) : It is somewhat ironic to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) when I, too, wish to discuss roads in my constituency and would not wish the House to adjourn
Column 1289until I have had some response to the special issues that I wish to raise. The hon. Gentleman's complaint is that there is too much traffic on the A34 ; my complaint concerns the need to upgrade the roads to make Hastings prosperous. I make no apology for once again returning to the subject--one which my predecessor raised regularly as, I suspect, shall I. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. The economy of Hastings is exceedingly fragile and, as if in recognition of that, while unemployment fell across the country in the past month, it rose in Hastings. I know exactly where that unemployment arose. Some of it related to what I consider to be a welcome decline in the need for such an extensive defence industry. However, I have enormous sympathy for the people who are consequently on the unemployment register. This shows how large decisions can have a dramatic impact on a small town such as Hastings.
Because our problems in Hastings were recognised, it was granted assisted area status, which is exceedingly welcome, especially as the Department of Trade and Industry has received well over 100 grant applications for assisted area status grants. However, the Department of Trade and Industry was clearly not prepared for the sheer volume of applications. Hastings is perilously close to losing potential business because the Department is not responding as quickly as it originally thought it could and it is even extending the revised period in which grants will be awarded to people in Hastings. The key reason that Hastings has assisted area status is the appalling state of our roads. One local business man in my constituency recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport and he has gone even further in his condemnation of the roads than my usual argument that they would be recognised by 18th-century smugglers. His view is that if the current state of our roads had pertained in 1066, King Harold would not have been killed at the battle of Hastings as nobody would have been able to get in and out of town.
The A21 is a single-track country lane--the main road through which 40- tonne trucks carry goods and services in and out of Hastings and it is almost blocked because of resurfacing work. The A259, the main south coast route, is undergoing significant remedial work to the west, and the eastern part has been totally closed for what has become seven weeks, but was allegedly to be 10 days. That has caused enormous problems not just for business but for residents trying to do what little shopping they can in Hastings in the run-up to the Christmas period. Clearly, local business men and women are exceedingly upset. Our problem is not just that the roads are worn out, hence the remedial work, but that they are not of good enough quality to create the stable economy that Hastings needs. I was struck with terror during the Budget speech when I heard that there were to be reductions in, and a slowing down of, the roads programme. It is ironic that almost every roads proposal produces instant and aggressive reaction but few hon. Members do little other than recommend more roads for their constituents. There must not be any further delay in the upgrading of the A21 and the A259 in Hastings. I understand that the Department of Transport is actively considering a number of bypass proposals, any one of which should improve our roads. However, they are all at different stages of development
Column 1290and none is linked. The A21 ceases to be a dual carriageway south of Tonbridge. There are at least six different proposals--all at different stages--for draft orders and public inquiries, but none has been given the go-ahead. None of the proposals for the A259 has yet reached public inquiry stage.
The problem is not only that delays are being built into the schemes and that the Minister for Roads and Traffic promised draft orders for the Hastings bypass in spring, but that he is now promising the orders in late autumn. As I reminded him in a recent letter, there are only four weeks before the end of the year. How is late autumn defined?
The links between the various proposals are out of phase and are not logical, resulting in excess costs. Each time a bypass is proposed, and because it is not logically linked to a subsequent portion, we dodge backwards and forwards across the A589 and it becomes a zig-zag instead of a straight line. That costs extra money, when the road is eventually built, and takes extra time. I am not surprised that the Department of Transport has come up with ideas to reduce from 11 years the time taken to get a road from the original proposal stage through to final planning permission stage. When I was first selected for Hastings and Rye, a venerable gentleman metaphorically patted me on the head and said, "Don't worry about roads. We have been trying to improve them since before the first world war." I should hate to think that there would be another world war or that we could not get our roads improved. We must ensure that we link many of the bypasses and that we use the speeded-up process so that we get a logical road. We must move quickly so that my constituents can benefit from logical and sensible roads which will help them to build up the economy of Hastings, which we all wish to see.
It is dispiriting to talk to people wishing to invest in Hastings who say that it is only half a town and that the other half is the fish in the channel. It is hard enough to attract business to a small town on the south coast without penalising ourselves and without the Department of Transport penalising us by slowing down the roads programme, which is so crucial to ensure that our unemployment goes down and that our average wage, which is one third of the national average wage, becomes a competitive wage so that we can ensure that we have prosperity in a town that desperately needs it. I should hate us to go into the Christmas recess without some comment from the Department of Transport about its proposals for the A21 and the A259 to benefit my constituents.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) : Having heard several pleas for roads, it comes to my mind that everyone has a road in which he or she wishes to see some investment. I put on record my disappointment that the Scottish Office is unwilling to fund the bypass that would avoid the Avon gorge between Lothian and Central regions. There have been a number of serious accidents there, although, thank goodness, no deaths, over the past 20 years. However, that is not the reason why I stayed in the Chamber to speak today. I was interested that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) let us know that he was involved in church work and I was interested by his definition of the concept "saved". He spoke about pre- marriage counselling for some of the people in his church and said that he saved
Column 1291one fifth of them from taking the step of getting married. That is a new definition of "saved" for me. I refer him and other hon. Members who listened and nodded sagely to a new book by my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), the second-in-command on our Front-Bench Treasury team, called "The Century Gap". Males especially should read the book. Her thesis is that whereas men are living in the 20th century, women have advanced into the 21st century, and that it is about time that men joined them before they find themselves out of step. We would achieve better results for our children if we regarded their upbringing not as a family matter, but as a parenting matter. It is not only the structure, but the quality of relationships that is important for the future.
I stayed to speak today because I was informed that there would be a debate on agriculture on the motion for the Adjournment. Scottish agriculture is suffering badly at the hands of the European Community. I feel some debt to the National Farmers Union of the Forth valley and I wanted to speak on their behalf. It is a pity that we are not having such a debate and I hope that we shall have it at some time. I recall the change to the sheep meat regime causing consternation among the hill sheep farmers. We had a debate here about that. People in Scotland are suffering.
Another problem is the milk quotas. When I was leader of the council in Stirling district, it was predicted that one tenth of farmers would be out of business, and would have to sell their farms or give up their tenancies by the end of the decade as a result of the quotas because they had invested heavily in new milk parlours. That has come to pass in the Forth valley and it is a great shame. There is a deficit in the milk supply in Europe, yet we do not transfer quotas across boundaries to this country. As a result, many of the companies that process milk have gone to other European countries, taking manufacturing jobs with them. That was verified when we met the Food and Drink Manufacturers Association just before the Budget statement. We have been remiss in a number of areas. In cereal production, set-aside is being forced on Scotland next year because of the quality and productivity of Scottish farming. I deprecate the fact that Scottish farmers will be punished when cereal production quotas could be transferred to Scotland to allow them to continue to produce cereals. It is a pity that we did not have an agriculture debate today. I would have been happy to take part in it and to speak on behalf of farmers, although there are few in my constituency. It is a national problem in Scotland and it is probably also a United Kingdom problem.
I intend to speak about a matter that is not as specific as the roads pleas earlier. I shall speak about the orange badge scheme--the disabled sticker scheme. I do not know whether the scheme works in the same way in England and Wales. In Scotland, it is becoming a regime that takes away a small benefit which gives disabled people a quality of life that they could not otherwise have.
I hope that the House will think about the scheme. It is not a great financial gift and it is not a licence for people to park wherever they like. Many road traffic schemes, especially double yellow line schemes, mean that people cannot park on certain roads even with an orange badge. Last Christmas, Strathclyde clamped down heavily on parking. A person with an orange badge who did not know the regulations well enough parked near the shopping centre. When he came back to find his car, he saw that it
Column 1292had been towed away by a private security firm hired for the purpose. He had to pay more than £50, and he was lucky enough to have money and a credit card with him so that he could get his car out of the pound. However, he had to walk and to take a taxi for almost a mile and a half.
People cannot use the scheme to park wherever they like, and that is correct. However, I wrote to Strathclyde council saying that it was being rather harsh and that there should be some zoned parking on roads that had double yellow lines near the shopping centre at Christmas for people with orange badges. The incident was a great shock to my constituent, and there has been great hardship for many orange badge users who have had to park far away from the shopping centre.
The scheme has been amended by regulation, not by debate in the House. The purpose of the regulation was to stop abuses, and I applaud that. There were many abuses. When the Labour Government were in power, my good friend Lord Ewing of Kirkford, from whom I took over, was a Scottish Office Minister. He spoke to some of my pupils when I was a teacher of children with learning difficulties. He told them about the orange badge schemes and he pointed out the many abuses. The problem became greater as the 1980s went on. It is right that the regulations should be used to stop abuses, but they have now gone too far and the scheme is far too rigid.
The regulations seem to make it practically impossible for people to get a new orange badge unless they can prove that they have had a double amputation and that they cannot even wheel themselves along. They are asked whether they can travel 200 yds by any means. Let us consider the case of my constituent Mr. Andrews of Grangemouth which illustrates the point well. He had had an orange badge for more than five years and he was told that he had to fill in a new form. He is a very honest gentleman in his mid-70s who has for some time suffered a number of problems with walking and who has had several operations. He said that if he leant on his wife's arm and stopped every 20 yds or so for a rest, he could probably travel 200 yds without a wheelchair. He was then denied renewal of his orange badge. The bottom line was that he could travel 200 yds by some means. It would not have mattered if he could only get himself over 200 yds on his hands and knees. He would still have been denied renewal of his orange badge.
I applaud Mr. Andrews's attitude, which I recommend to anyone who finds himself in such a situation. With personal advocacy that would have that it would send him a new form and that if he wrote that he could not travel 200 yds under his own steam, it would give him a badge. That is ludicrous. He had to be less honest than he wanted in informing the authorities of his circumstances, to obtain an orange badge. The scheme is now so strict that people who need badges are losing them and that small addition to their quality of life is taken away.
I am reminded of the new incapacity allowance. The suggested method of proving that one qualifies for that allowance reflects the same attitude. One must prove that one is so incapacitated that one cannot do anything for oneself. I hope that is not the purpose of the allowance, which should be to add to an individual's quality of life, not to transform people from being vegetables into active citizens.
Column 1293The inflexibility of the new orange badge regulations works against those who are temporarily incapacitated for one or two years and who have been advised by their doctor that they cannot get about under their own steam. The provision of a badge would help such people more easily to shop and in other ways. The regulations do not allow for a temporary badge. Must the applicant lie and state that he or she is permanently incapacitated, and not admit that--if the doctor is right--they will be able to get about in one or two years? Are such people merely to state that they are disabled and, after a couple of years, hang on to their badges as long as they can? To use a phrase that is common in politics and in life generally, such people are caught between a rock and a hard place. It is time that the Government examined the scheme's inflexibility.
Mrs. Reid from Bo'ness is one constituent who has written to me on that subject. The Scottish Office says that the regulations are set, but that a flexibility clause allows a local authority to use discretion but not grant temporary badges. There is something wrong if flexibility and discretion cannot be used to assist a person who is temporarily disabled or incapacitated. I will be harsh on the Scottish Office and say that it sets the regulations and then passes the buck. That is a favoured way of doing things. I was for 10 years the leader of a council that was weighed down with regulations with which it had to conform, but it was not given the resources to do so.
The transport planning authority appears to have chosen a person--I will not name the gentleman--having the least heart and soul in the bureaucracy to administer the scheme. The terms and tone of his letters upset people, in that he does not countenance any flexibility if he can get away with it- -and the regulations allow him to deny flexibility. The Scottish Office Minister responsible should add flexibility to the regulations and exhort local authorities to use the discretion that will give the incapacitated the small addition to their quality of life that the orange badge scheme can provide. The regulations appear to give plaudits and prizes for being rigid and inflexible, and I am sure that is not the scheme's true purpose. I enter a plea on behalf of my constituents and other people in Scotland and in England and Wales who find it difficult to renew their orange badge, and who are expected to enjoy a lower quality of life. The Government are providing a lower quality of life in everything that they do, but I am sure that they do not want publicly to be found out. I ask the Minister responsible to reconsider the scheme and to introduce a regulation that will provide for easier orange badge renewal by people who have owned one for a number of years--and certainly for those who are in the later years of their life--but which still keeps abusers out of the picture. I hope that we may see changes in the next couple of months.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : The House should address four matters in the context of my constituency before it adjourns for Christmas. The House will not be surprised to know that they are the high-speed rail link, as it passes through Kent ; grant-maintained schools ; the application for objective 2 status within the European Community ; and the routing of ambulances.
Column 1294The high-speed rail link has been a major problem for the people of Kent, as alternative routes have twisted and turned across my constituency and elsewhere in Kent over the past five years. I will highlight the plight of 90 households at Pepper Hill, under whose properties Union Rail currently wants to drive a tunnel. Union Rail blatantly states that those residents will suffer no noise or vibration. That is why I called for a geological survey to be commissioned, to assess the noise and vibration impact on those residents--what I call the rumble.
As the A2 action group of local residents and I are not experts in geological surveys, I asked the then Conservative-controlled Gravesham borough council to appoint a geological expert to investigate the Union Rail survey. I understand that the council eventually did so, and that that expert is already at work. The ball is now in the court of Union Rail. Last month, it delivered to me and to the borough council a preliminary report on its geological survey. It promised--we know about British Rail's promises--that the result of laboratory tests would be delivered to Gravesham borough council by 29 November. They have not yet been delivered.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport kindly gave Gravesham borough council and myself until 31 December to give our views, which will not least be based on the results of the geological survey. I ask that all pressure be put on Union Rail to deliver the test results now, as they are already nearly one week overdue.
I believe that the rumble will be felt by those residents living over the proposed tunnel, which strengthens the case for the alternative route 226. It would take the tunnel--and a tunnel would be of advantage to all residents of Northfleet--away from properties, to run under an electricity substation.
I understand that the National Grid Company, which owns and operates that substation, produced an option report on the costs and practicalities of renewing that ancient switching substation or resiting it. I hope that the Department of Transport will study that report with a positive mind, to ascertain whether a solution can be found. One must be found, because the existing plan is totally unreasonable for the residents concerned.
The Department of Transport paper for the channel tunnel rail link high- level forum, "Property Purchase and Compensation Policy", commented on compensation safeguarding when the route is announced by Ministers in January. That paper states :
"Safeguarding also brings into play the statutory blight provisions (and purchase notices) of Part VI of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. A blight notice may be served by the owner of any domestic property within the safeguarded zone seeking purchase."
I cite the case of six householders sandwiched between the A2 motorway, which itself will be widened southwards nearer to their homes, and the high -speed rail link route announced. Those houses have for many years been sandwiched between two main transport arteries. They are four houses at Longview off Henhurst road, Cobham, and two houses in Scalers hill, also in the parish of Cobham. The capital and amenity values of those properties have been ruined by public transport, and their owners must be compensated. I am told that their owners want to move. Those properties should be included in the safeguarded zone, so that their owners' rights will be taken into account.
Column 1295Reverting to the 90 households over the tunnel, I note that the same document states :
"Blight notices would not be accepted for properties within safeguarded zones over bored tunnels except where there are surface works such as ventilation shafts."
That is quite wrong as a policy. The tunnel does damage to the capital value and amenity of the 90 households that live above, and it is not fair to claim that the costs of that compensation make the high-speed rail link that much less viable. It is not fair to the residents, because the other side of the coin is that the proposal makes the capital value, and amenity value, of residents' houses equally less valuable, and they are less capable of sustaining that loss.
I shall now discuss grant-maintained schools. Conservative Kent county council was traditionally in the forefront of local financial management. It put, as a matter of policy, 90 per cent. of the funding of schools directly local financial management. It was not surprising, therefore, that, with the advent of grant-maintained school status, many Kent schools advanced to take 100 per cent. responsibility for funds and decisions relating to education. It is not surprising that the support of parents of children in so many schools for adopting grant-maintained status was overwhelming ; indeed, 50 per cent. of secondary schools in Kent have already become grant maintained. In my borough of Gravesham alone, five of the eight secondary schools and two of the primary schools have voted to become grant maintained, and two further schools are balloting for such status at the moment. Those that have become grant maintained have been successful. They are vibrant ; they are go-ahead ; they give good education to the young people concerned. The response of the new Labour-Liberal coalition that runs Kent county council has been one of unremitting hostility. The Lib-Lab coalition that is running Kent has allocated £100,000 of education funds to the mindless pursuit of opposing the will of parents in grant-maintained schools--£100,000 from the education budget, which could have been spent on new classrooms, on repairs to school buildings and on new equipment for our schools, just to pursue the petty party political prejudices of the Labour and Liberal parties.
What justification do they give for that approach? The Labour education spokesman on Kent county council, County Councillor Mrs. Esterson, said that, in previous votes of parents before the most recent county council election,
"parents voted against Conservative Kent County Council." Let us consider that. Now, at St. John's Roman Catholic Secondary School in Gravesend the parents have voted on the matter, and 75 per cent. voted for the school to become a grant-maintained school. Let us see the logic of Councillor Mrs. Esterson. Presumably the parents voted against the Lib-Lab coalition that runs Kent county council. What rubbish! Of course they did not. They did not vote on political grounds. They voted on the grounds of the education of their children. They voted positively because they felt that in that school they had a good headmaster, good governors, good teachers--indeed, a very good school--and they believe that they will get better education by having 100 per cent. power over the decisions and the spending of the education funds relative to their children. That does not bother the new Lib-Lab coalition that is running Kent county council. The council is now circulating a misleading letter to parents who are due to
Column 1296vote in such cases. I shall take as an example the letter sent to parents of children at the St. Joseph's Roman Catholic aided primary school in Northfleet.
The first claim made to the parents by the Lib-Lab Kent county council is :
"The Grant Maintained sector has not grown as Government Policy had hoped."
That is an odd statement to make, because what the Government hoped is irrelevant. What counts is what the parents decide, and progress has been made, because in those schools the parents have decided that it is in the interests of their children.
That letter goes on to ask, rhetorically :
"Do you want your Headteacher and senior staff to be heavily involved in non-educational duties? Or do you want money spent hiring extra staff to do such work?"
Non-educational duties? When one has those "Headteachers and senior staff" working on the delivery of quality education locally in their school? That is what they are working on, and they are deciding the best means of so doing. When one bears in mind the fact that the school gets an extra 10 per cent. of funds, they can judge what to spend it on, and that may be partly on administrative and clerical support if they so judge.
The letter also says :
"There is no published evidence whatsoever which indicates that standards in the Grant Maintained sector are either better or worse than in Local Authority Schools."
Where have the authors of those letters been living in the past few weeks? We have seen lists of exam results from schools up and down the country, and what does one note? The grant-maintained schools predominate in the top of that list.
I would point out that high up in that list is the Northfleet school for boys in the borough of Gravesham in my constituency--not a grammar school-- a school which is exceptionally well run. The parents are so supportive that the school has become grant maintained, and it has done exceptionally well, as those lists prove.
Here is another extract from that letter from the Lib-Lab county council :
"Whilst the early schools which joined the Grant Maintained sector received significant additional money this was not new' money. It has been and is being removed from existing schools, in other words robbing Peter to pay Paul."
That claim is the most pernicious of all. The logic of transferring that 10 per cent. of funds is that that is the amount of education funds that had to date been spent on administrative and advisory support to those schools from county hall. The grant-maintained decisions show that the schools believe that they can get better value for the same money locally in the school than can the county hall bureaucrats.
The problem for Kent county council and other councils is that they are losing that 10 per cent. of funds. How do they react? They should either win contracts from the grant-maintained schools to provide those same services, or they should cut the bureaucracy that provided those so-called services proportionately. Given the petty warfare of Kent county council, under its Lib-Lab control, against the grant-maintained schools, it is unlikely that they would win any such contracts.
My constituents, and even hon. Members, are great enthusiasts for that television programme "Yes Minister". We remember that Sir Humphrey always presented to Ministers painful cuts in services rather than cuts in Sir Humphrey's empire. That is precisely what is happening at the moment at Kent county council.
Column 1297Let us remember that the letter referred to "existing schools". The new Lib-Lab masters of Kent county council go on about cutting schools and nursery schools as a consequence, but they are addressing the wrong options. At the very first test of its competence, the Lib-Lab pact in Kent has failed. It claims that Kent taxpayers are confronted with only two options : either to pay higher council tax or to cut education services. That is not the choice. The bureaucracy has a responsibility to scale down accordingly, and we shall be watching to see whether it does so.
Incidentally, I welcome the 13 per cent. increase in the revenue support grant from the Government to Kent county council, and I would think that, with that 13 per cent., it should be well able in the coming year to develop services and impose no council tax increase whatsoever on the people of Kent.
Lastly, I shall discuss the British application to the European Community for designation of north Gravesham--indeed, of a wide area of Thames-side in Kent--for objective 2 status for European structural funds. My hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and I have long campaigned for such status, with the support of our Member of the European Parliament, Ben Patterson, and the local borough councils.
We particularly appreciate the enthusiasm of our right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry in making the application, and I should like to highlight two projects to which objective 2 funding from the European Community could contribute.
The first is Northfleet town bypass. Northfleet is an historic urban area which has always been dependent on heavy industry, but its roads were not built for heavy goods vehicles. Northfleet high street and the Springhead and Dover roads are quite inadequate for the heavy goods vehicles that daily pound along them.
There have been long-standing plans for such a bypass known as the Thames- side industrial route fourth phase. It is now known apparently, as the south Thames development route fourth phase. It would extend from the Springhead lower roundabout westwards to Dartford. This would be a very good project, with which financial support from the Community would help.
The second project that I wish to highlight is the north-east Gravesend access road. There is poor, ancient access to the two business areas--the Norfolk road industrial area ; and the Old Denton industrial area, which has large companies such as Comma and Southern Water. We need a new road from the Lion roundabout to the Denton industrial estate, over the north Kent line and onwards to Denton wharf.
This road would bring relief to the residents of Old Denton, an historic and compact area. Heavy goods vehicles are currently rumbling along ancient roads such as Range road, which are lined with very small terrace houses that cannot withstand the vibration those vehicles generate.
We have heard in the House that paramedics on our ambulances now have the expertise to diagnose emergency patients and therefore take them directly to the most appropriate medical centre. In particular, Ministers have highlighted the fact that paramedics can identify appropriate cases and take them directly to trauma centres
Column 1298--intensive care units. My belief is that if they can diagnose up to specialist cases, surely they can diagnose down.
Our intensive care unit in Gravesham is at the Joyce Green hospital, Dartford--an excellent unit, but many miles away. The accident and emergency unit to which all ambulance cases are taken is at West Hill hospital in Dartford, which is also excellent but is miles away. If we now have highly specialised paramedics, I do not see why they cannot diagnose down emergency cases that require, for example, stitches or treatment of burns, which could easily go to the casualty unit at Gravesend and North Kent hospital, which is in our town and is far more convenient. I hope that the national health service will consider this proposal for convenience and for cost-saving. 11.12 am
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : I shall speak reasonably briefly because time is, alas, too short, which is one of the reasons why I tabled an amendment. On Thursday, 21 subjects were requested for debate. The proposal that we should abandon Parliament from 17 December to 11 January seems wrong. The notion that we should occupy only three hours of a Friday when five hours are available for debate is entirely wrong. There are enough Members here well to fill the three hours available and I have no doubt that other hon. Members, had they been presented with the opportunity of a five-hour debate, would have been here to debate issues.
If the Parliamentary Private Secretary, behind his master, keeps making little jokes, I shall have to analyse in great detail all his silly comments. The Conservative Members behind him, who wish to take part in the debate, will be very reluctant for him to continue his silly antics.
May I continue last night's Adjournment debate on the Child Support Agency? I was here for part of the debate, which was instituted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar), and was particularly interested and concerned by the Minister's reply, because, like many hon. Members, I have been presented with cases that are disturbing and distressing for the people involved and for hon. Members.
The Minister's response to my hon. Friend's valid points was simply lacklustre and inadequate. There is a head of steam to get the Child Support Agency legislation changed ; the Government should take note of it, because people from all walks of life are adversely affected. It is worth remembering that the Child Support Act 1991 was presented to the House as legislation to ensure that irresponsible fathers who were not paying maintenance would be traced and would make a contribution to their children. Everybody regarded that as a perfectly just and proper aim, but the aim of the agency is now to tackle the easy money--that of fathers who are paying, who are known, but who are being subjected to an entirely restrictive and unfair formula.
Hon. Members who write to Ministers who piloted the Act through Parliament are shrugged off with an inadequate response, and told that the chief executive will reply. When a reply is received, it is simply a straightforward computer printout that tells Members, for
Column 1299example, that courts previously made decisions about this matter--something, apparently, that the agency believes only people on Mars knew.
Of course we know that information, and that cases varied from court to court. Sometimes that was a strength, because courts took into account differing circumstances. The letter goes on in a pedestrian way, saying that the person can ask for a review, and if they are dissatisfied with it they can appeal. In the meantime, they have to pay for the assessment and collection, which is rubbing salt into deep wounds.
Last night, as the Leader of the House will confirm, the Minister admitted that, in 616,000 cases, the agency has traced only 9,000 absent fathers. I believe that Government policy is to use the Child Support Agency not as a child support agency but as a Treasury support agency. It has been given the task of raising money from people who already accept their responsibility and pay maintenance. I have a typical constituent's letter. I shall not give his name, because these circumstances are always private and distressing to the people involved. He writes :
"I am an absent Father' who firmly believes in the paying of maintenance for my 3 year old daughter. I made a voluntary arrangement with the DSS to pay £28.00 a week. I have never missed this payment ever since it was agreed by all parties concerned, approximately 18 months ago. I am currently making arrangements through my solicitor to transfer my equal share of the matrimonial home and its contents into my ex-wife's name.
I parted from the marriage with my car (value £1,800.00). The house has equity of approximately £12,000.00 plus contents.
I am now in a relationship with a Divorcee who has two children from her previous marriage. She receives £5.00 per week for child maintenance on an irregular basis.
I have recently had a form from the CSA and find that they do not take into account the fact that I am now in a new relationship with my new partner and that I also provide for two children aged 9 and 4 years. The CSA say they are not my responsibility. I am their Daddy as far as they and everyone else is concerned. They together with myself are going to suffer badly, to a point where we may have to sell our home, if the CSA is allowed to continue.
I ask you to look at the CSA formula and tell me if you agree with it.
For the sake of my family, myself and thousands of other absent parents who willingly pay maintenance, I implore you to do something".
That is not uncharacteristic for a person who is acting fairly and handing over equity in the home.
The Minister's response is that it is simply nothing to do with the formula that the Government have laid down. That is grossly unfair. If the Tories claim that they are the party of the family, the Child Support Agency is bringing pressure to bear on families which will lead to further break-ups. If they are trying to save taxpayers' money, if there are further break- ups, that will mean further claims on the welfare system. I strongly urge the Leader of the House to pass the information to the Minister who replied so inadequately last night. Things must be changed.
I shall conclude my remarks about the Child Support Agency by mentioning a female constituent who has written to me. She has received six maintenance payments in three years and has complained about the lack of maintenance. She is the sort of person whom, we were told, the Child Support Agency was designed to support. The Child Support agency took several weeks to write a letter. It then got the address wrong, although it had been given the correct address, and then said that it wanted information about the income of the former partner within two weeks. The former partner refused to give that information, so the agency allowed another two weeks. The woman wrote to me within the past few days to say