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Column 368was that I understood it. In my view, there was a reason why it was made. I am not challenging it in any way. I am seeking to set out for the House why I think that that decision was taken. Many hon. Members had not thought through the implications of me bringing my complaint for contempt. If Madam Speaker had ruled that the motion be given precedence, and because the Government cannot vote against the Speaker, the Government, including Ministers and the payroll vote, would have had to go into the Lobby upholding the decision of Madam Speaker to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. My view is that that would have been impossible to do. Ministers could not have gone into the Lobby upholding the recommendation to the House, based on the Speaker giving precedence to the motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, because, in effect, the Government would have been undermining the very credibility of one of their Ministers.
That brings me to an interesting consideration. If the payroll vote--I do not use the word pejoratively--and Ministers cannot vote against a motion that is given precedence to go to the Privileges Committee, where a Minister is involved, because it undermines the credibility of Ministers, the Privileges Committee system no longer works. It means that the Speaker will always have to rule in the way that she did on that occasion. The Speaker has no option. I can see by the facial expression of the Leader of the House that, perhaps, I am not making it as clear as I should. I am arguing that if the motion had been given precedence by Madam Speaker, he and his colleagues would have had to have gone into the Lobby upholding the motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. That would have been an untenable position for a Minister. I do not think that it is possible to do that. Therefore, there must be another way of dealing with the matter. My view is that, in indicating support for that motion, they would be saying to the Minister that he would have to resign.
I am arguing that, had Madam Speaker given the motion precedence, knowing that Ministers would have had to have gone into the Lobby in support of referring the matter to the Privileges Committee, she would effectively have been securing the resignation of the Minister involved. I do not think that the Speaker of the House of Commons should be placed in that position. That is what would have happened if she had ruled, or announced privately to the Government that she intended to rule, in favour of the motion being given precedence. I believe that the Minister involved would not have survived another hour in post. He would have had to have gone, because the inevitable consequence would have been that the Leader of the House would have had to have gone into the Lobby to support the matter being referred to the Privileges Committee, and thus undermined the credibility of the Minister.
An important principle is involved here. If we cannot bring contempt complaints against Ministers because the Speaker is placed in an invidious position, the procedure must be changed.
Another matter is involved, which will inevitably come before the House in the coming months--the Scott inquiry. I am not talking about this same Scott, but the other Scott inquiry. There again, the issue is the deliberate misleading of the House of Commons. I do not think that I am being silly in saying that some of us are following those proceedings with great interest. If it can be proved during the inquiry that Ministers have deliberately misled the
Column 369House, the issue of contempt will arise again. If a complaint is made, will Madam Speaker be placed in exactly the same position as before--a position in which, if she rules that the matter be given precedence, knowing that Ministers of the Crown will have to support her in the Division Lobby, she is in effect sacking those Ministers before they have even been given the right to be heard ?
That is what worries me about the whole procedure. I do not know whether I have explained the matter clearly enough ; I know that many hon. Members find it complicated, but I have reflected on it long and hard following the ruling to which I have referred.
I believe--in a nutshell--that the Speaker of the House of Commons should not be compromised in the way that I have described. When the Procedure Committee examines the issues, it may well want to consider what might have happened if Madam Speaker had ruled that the motion should be given precedence. I do not believe that, if that procedure had been followed through, the motion would ever have reached the Floor of the House : the Minister would have resigned as soon as the Speaker had notified the Government Whips of her decision. I merely ask that the matter be considered. I know that it will not be considered before our short recess, but I hope that the House authorities will note what I have said.
Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale) : Debates such as this raise many lively issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) spoke of the problems of Bosnia. I do not think that anyone would dispute the fact that a terrible tragedy is going on there, but there is also a terrible problem in Rwanda : I believe that more people have been killed there in the past month than in the entire Bosnian campaign. The tragedy of Bosnia is being repeated in other parts of the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) referred to the Child Support Agency, a subject that I raised just before Easter, and I agree with everything that he said. It is no good for the Government to carry on as though everything were all right ; what began as a good idea has now become a minefield. Many of us have encountered cases in which former partners who divorced amicably have been set against each other as a result of the agency's actions. I am also displeased by its inefficiency : it seems to take an interminable time to reply to representations made not only by constituents but by Members of Parliament.
Mr. David Nicholson : Does my hon. Friend agree that the longer the difficulties that he mentions are allowed to fester, the more the legitimate objectives of the agency and of the Child Support Act 1991 will be undermined ?
Sir Fergus Montgomery : I entirely agree. One of the points that concern me is that, although the intention of the Act was to catch wayward fathers who contributed nothing to their ex-wives and children, the only people who come to me for advice are those who are already paying their dues and are now being asked to pay a great deal more than they can afford. I have not yet encountered a case in which a wayward father has been brought to book and made to meet his responsibilities.
I take part in debates such as this quite often because they give hon. Members a chance to talk about anything they choose and to draw attention to matters that they
Column 370consider important and worthy of debate before the House breaks for a recess. Today I want to raise an issue that I have raised before. I make no apology for raising it again, because no one seems to have taken much notice of anything that I said previously. Accordingly, I shall continue to press the point.
I wish to discuss affordable housing, which I consider enormously important. I must first declare an interest as my wife chairs a housing association and is also a member of the Housing Corporation. I stress, however, that she did not write my speech : the responsibility is entirely mine.
More and more housing association tenants are caught in what I believe is known as the poverty trap. I fear that we are creating a growth in the dependency culture, which cannot be a good thing. We should encourage people to be independent. Of course we have great responsibilities in relation to the disabled, the elderly and the sick, whom we must help as much as we possibly can, but young people should be encouraged to go out to work and to help themselves rather than sitting back in the belief that the state should provide for them.
I find it depressing that people who try to help themselves by taking low- paid jobs often find that they are worse off than those on benefit. It makes no sense for people to be better off if they do not work than if they go out and look for employment. I also wonder about children who are brought up in such an environment : seeing that their parents are better off staying at home cannot be very good for their future. We must try to change that.
Housing associations are now the main providers of new rented accommodation. Not so long ago, the Select Committee on the Environment conducted a thorough study of the problem and we debated its report in the House earlier this year. The Committee warned of serious consequences if the housing association grant rate fell below 67 per cent. It has now fallen to 62 per cent., and those involved in housing fear that the Government have set themselves the objective of a 55 per cent. rate in 1995 -96. If there is any reduction in the grant, the number of tenants dependent on housing benefit is likely to increase and more and more tenants will be caught in the poverty trap.
The National Federation of Housing Associations has just published a valuable document which should be compulsory reading for anyone interested or involved in housing. It makes a number of points, some of them very compelling. It states, for instance, that if we move away from the system of "bricks and mortar subsidy" towards a system of targeting support for individuals, the cost of housing benefit will increase substantially. Because housing association grant is a capital grant paid towards the commencement of a project, and because the housing benefit bill accrues over the years, the comparison of direct savings and costs is difficult to quantify. However, I do not believe that such a change of policy will achieve any saving in public expenditure.
The report also points out that lower grant rates lead to a growth in benefit dependency and work disincentive. The federation has proved that the proportion of working households among new tenants fell from 32 per cent. in 1989-90 to 25 per cent. in the first half of 1993-94. No doubt that is partly due to the disincentives involved in being in work and paying high housing association rents. The federation forecasts that if an average 55 per cent. grant rate is introduced in 1995-96 working households taking up the new housing association tenancies will be
Column 371much worse off than they were in 1993. It forecasts that their rents will be 34 per cent. higher and that they will have to earn £220 a week to escape the poverty trap. That compares with £180 in 1993. The disincentive to work is therefore £40 a week greater. It forecasts that those people will be eligible for 41 per cent. more housing benefit and that the percentage of them paying rents that the National Federation of Housing Associations defines as unaffordable will increase from 73 per cent. to 83 per cent.
I have enormous regard for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction because he knows more about housing than any other right hon. or hon. Member and he cares deeply about the plight of the homeless and of people who have to live in rented property. In March 1993 he said that
"the poverty trap is a ditch rather than a cliff. It is perfectly possible to clamber out the other side, or indeed to leap the ditch at one bound if a reasonably well-paid job can be found." Evidence from the National Federation of Housing Associations shows that the poverty trap is not a ditch but a pit from which it is impossible to leap.
With a national average grant rate of 55 per cent., it is expected that between 1993 and 1996 the trend for working households will worsen. The federation's booklet suggests that rents will increase by 34 per cent. and that people will need to earn a further £40 a week to escape the poverty trap, as against £180 in 1993. It also states that the percentage of income spent on rent will increase from 29.4 per cent. to 33.1 per cent. and that, for the 83 per cent. of those paying rents which are unaffordable according to the NFHA's affordability criteria, housing benefit costs per working household will increase by 41 per cent. There will be a further decline in the percentage of working households among new tenants. All of that shows the growing disincentives to work which result from significant rent increases and their interface with the welfare benefit system. That is a serious problem.
Housing is essential to the national well-being. The construction industry should be given a boost. Too many construction workers are unemployed. If we could get them back to work, not only would more new houses become available for people who are desperately anxious to be rehoused, but people would be taken off the unemployment register and put back into productive work, which would benefit the Exchequer. We would spend less on unemployment benefit and the tax revenue generated would go to the Exchequer. It would also be an enormous help in the fight against homelessness.
I have said it before, but I say it again : I become depressed when in certain parts of London I see so many people sleeping rough. I know that some choose that way of life, but some are homeless because they have nowhere else to go. The problem exists in every other capital city in the world. Nevertheless, it should strike at people's social consciences. I hope that, if more affordable houses are built for rent, we shall see a notable drop in homelessness in this country.
I urge the Government to ensure that the Housing Corporation is given adequate funds to continue with the main task of providing affordable housing for people in need. Before we rise for the spring recess, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will assure me on that point.
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Mr. David Hanson (Delyn) : I was interested to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) because there is much on which we agree. Many more homes for rent should be built and local authorities should be given the opportunity to be a leading force in getting people back to work, creating jobs and providing a socially useful function. I hope that the Leader of the House will take on board some of those comments, even though we may disagree on some of the issues that were raised.
The debate has been wide ranging and interesting topics have been raised. The topic that I want to raise is not debated often in the House, but I hope that it will be of interest and that it will stimulate a response from the Lord President.
I was particularly keen to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and of my right hon Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, with which I agreed. Perhaps the most amazing speech this afternoon, which caused me great enjoyment, was made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), whose wide-ranging speech provided another example of a Conservative Member stacking up alibis for the day when he has to face the general election. As the hon. Gentleman has a majority of just 3,300, I can understand why he spent so much time shoring up his rear in preparation for that inevitable general election. The issue of solvent and volatile substance abuse was last raised in the House on 20 December 1988 by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry). I raise the issue today because I understand that the Lord President is chairing a committee of Ministers investigating drug misuse generally and ways in which the Government can respond. On 5 May, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), stated that the central drugs co -ordination unit had two major tasks :
"first, to ensure that departmental policies are planned, developed and implemented in England with a clear strategic framework and, secondly, to take the lead in devising an effective basis for local co-ordination of action to tackle the drugs problem."--[ Official Report , 5 May 1994 ; Vol. 242, c. 934.]
This issue is not often raised in the House, but it affects every constituency in this country and it should be discussed today because there will be few other occasions on which to do so.
The problem is widespread. In 1991, the last year for which figures are available from St. George's hospital and medical school in London, there were 122 deaths in the United Kingdom from solvent and volatile substance abuse, compared with only two in 1971. Since 1971, 1,237 people have died from such abuse. On average, the number of deaths has risen by 5.5 per cent. per year. Since 1985, there has not been one year in which fewer than 100 people have died as a result of solvent and volatile substance abuse.
Since the hon. Member for Wellingborough last addressed this topic in the House, an estimated 600 further deaths have occurred in the UK as a result of solvent and volatile substance abuse. Every week, there are many instances of such deaths in hon. Members' constituencies. Only this week, I read press reports of a 15-year-old boy from Congleton who suffered a massive heart attack following the inhalation of a cocktail of lethal solvents and
Column 373volatile substances. A 14-year-old Glasgow boy was found unconscious in the town centre following abuse of volatile substances. Efforts to revive him failed and he died shortly afterwards. In Crawley last week, a teenage girl suffered a massive heart attack after inhaling hairspray--one of the products that people do not generally associate with solvent and volatile substance abuse.
In constituencies throughout the UK people are inhaling and using a range of products to achieve their kicks. Those products are readily available in shops and other outlets. It is well-known that glues are used, but Tipp-Ex, felt tip pens, lighter fuel, hairspray and all aerosols which use butane gas are being abused by young people. That is why it is important that the Government should deal positively with the problem in the committee that the Lord President is chairing. I appreciate why it has been set up and I hope that it will act positively to tackle solvent and volatile substance abuse because the death toll will continue to rise from the 122 deaths last year unless action is taken.
The problem of solvent and volatile substance abuse is affecting children as young as eight or nine, who are in primary schools, and the bulk of the 122 deaths in 1991--the latest year for which we have statistics--were of young people in their teenage years. Of those 122 deaths, 38 per cent. were of people identified as first-time users. That means that the first time they abused a substance it resulted in their death. That makes even more urgent the need for the Government to tackle the problem before the Spring Adjournment, and to address it during the deliberations of the Committee that the Leader of the House is to chair.
One worrying aspect is the fact that many people, and even many hon. Members listening to the debate, do not recognise that the problem exists. I want to bring it before the House before the Adjournment so as to inform the House that the problem exists. We could go back to any of our homes tonight and find in the garage, the bathroom, the kitchen and the living room 50 or 60 products which can be abused, and which are being abused right now by young people somewhere.
In 1991, 33 per cent. of the deaths were attributed to the inhalation of cigarette lighter fuel, which is commonly available over the counter in many shops. Glue, which is also commonly available, claimed 11 per cent. of the victims, and Tipp-Ex thinner, which many of us still have in our offices, claimed a further 10 per cent. Such products are readily available, and it is important that when the Leader of the House and the committee are considering those matters they address the issues in a positive manner. Before my time is up I wish to raise a couple of points which I hope that the committee--and, in due course, the House--will consider.
First, a strong Government strategy is needed. I welcome the Government's policies and proposals, and the publicity campaign on solvent and volatile substance abuse that they have undertaken in the past couple of years. One of the commonest complaints that I have heard, both as a Member of Parliament and as someone who worked in the field before being elected to the House, was the tragic statement made to me by many parents after their child had died : "If only I had known what the symptoms were ; if only I had known that those products could be abused, I might have been able to do something to help." I hope that the ministerial committee will take seriously the issue of parental awareness.
Column 374Secondly, one of the main reasons why young people are drawn into solvent and volatile substance abuse is peer group pressure. It is hard to resist when one's friends and colleagues ask one to do something. In our time we have probably all had a cigarette behind the bike sheds. It is hard to resist the pressures. With solvent and volatile substance abuse, however, when some people are forcing and encouraging others to take part in such activities, the difference is that people can die from their first opportunity to abuse. I therefore wish to impress on the Minister the need for a skills-based programme in schools to ensure that people understand what the products are and why they should not abuse them. That would give them the self-confidence and skills to resist peer group pressure, and to understand and resist solvent and volatile substance abuse, which can often lead to further drug abuse.
Retailers, too, should be considered. All the products that I have mentioned can be bought in any shop in London, in any village or, indeed, anywhere in this country. Deaths are occurring in every part of the United Kingdom. We need a strong programme of retailer education so that the existing legislation--the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter)--is enforced by retailers and so that they know which products are likely to be abused and should not be sold to people under 18 who may possibly abuse them.
We also need to ensure that the statutory services--the police, the youth services, general practitioners and the many people at the interface with young people liable to volatile substance abuse--know about the causes, the symptoms and the remedies, so as to help ensure that young people do not get involved in the first place. I raise the matter because, although I know that the Lord President would not allow that to happen, it is tempting for a ministerial committee investigating drug abuse to concentrate on heroin, crack, cannabis and so on, and on the important problem of co- ordination. However, I remind the Minister that solvent and volatile substance abuse is killing more people in the United Kingdom today than all those other forms of drug abuse put together. It is a major problem, and the Government must deal with it.
In conclusion, I ask the Lord President a couple of questions. Will the committee be able to consider what action the Government will take to ensure that the problem of solvent and volatile substance abuse is central to their overall strategy for the prevention of drug misuse ? Many different Departments are now involved. The Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health and the Home Office all have a finger in the pie. Those Departments are all doing their own thing, but there is a lack of co-ordination on solvent and volatile substance abuse. I hope that the ministerial committee will be able to overcome that. Perhaps responsibility could be given to Ministers for such aspects as retailer training and the training of professionals, and for ensuring that schools are aware of the issues. If there is no ministerial accountability and responsibility, the issue will get lost within the wider problem of drug abuse, and within the general committee work.
This may be a strange thing for an Opposition Member to say, but I welcome what the Government have done so far. I hope that before the House rises, and certainly when the committee is examining the issue, the Minister will not forget that this week, somewhere in Britain, two or three
Column 375people will die as a result of solvent and volatile substance abuse. The problem needs to be tackled as part of an overall co-ordinated strategy. It needs money, ministerial accountability and involvement, and I am sure that the Minister will provide that. Today is not the time to try to score party political points, but before we rise for the recess I want to ensure that the Minister knows that, although the matter has not been raised in the House since 1988, it is still important. I hope that what I have said today will at least help to form the agenda for the meetings that the Minister will hold in the forthcoming weeks and months.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : You will not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that I intend to raise the issue of the channel tunnel rail link before we rise for the Spring Adjournment, because the issue must be addressed. First, I express my thanks and those of my constituents to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The House will recall that, in January, he announced the route of the channel tunnel rail link from London St. Pancras to Cheriton, near the tunnel mouth. However, my right hon. Friend made exceptions for Pepper Hill and Ashford.
We all know that in the House we like to make great decisive announcements. The Secretary of State could well have said, "Here is my decision from St. Pancras to the tunnel. Here is the route, and everybody else will have to live with it, because the project is so important." However, my right hon. Friend had the courage to say instead, "No, I do not accept the case at two points on the route. I shall take the flak for not having made a final decision, and I shall instruct Union Railways, the subsidiary of British Rail, to examine those points again."
Union Railways did that, under the guidance of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport, and the process was carried through to success. Union Railways came up with a solution that has been accepted with delight and gratitude by local residents. I now look forward to an early decision on the intermediate international station on the high-speed rail link. I shall state the case for Ebbsfleet as the international domestic station. It is ideally sited to serve eastern England and the counties to the south and east of London, which are so well served by the M25. Such a station would draw off the traffic that would otherwise go to central London for passengers to meet the high-speed trains to the continent.
If the station were placed at Ebbsfleet, it would also assist and serve the developing area of the east Thames corridor, for which the Government have expressed such enthusiasm. For my constituents at Northfleet and Gravesend, the proposal for Ebbsfleet station would bring thousands of jobs related to the development, in light industry, in the distributive trades and--this is my particular
enthusiasm--those associated with a European conference and exhibition centre to be located near Northfleet. Such a development would also bring new roads to the area, such as a Northfleet bypass and links to the A2, and new developments, notably the proposed Bluewater park. It will not surprise my hon. Friends that, because of the severe impact of the channel tunnel rail link on my constituency, I still have some other concerns. The plans as
Column 376announced trap five properties between the line of the channel tunnel rail link and the A2--four properties at Longview, off the Henhurst road, Cobham, and The Lodge at Scalers Hill, Cobham. The lives of those constituents will be made increasingly intolerable as the channel tunnel rail link is constructed and then operated, and will be affected by the intensification of traffic on the A2, which is likely to be widened towards their properties.
The Department of Transport, quite logically, has responsibility for both the channel tunnel rail link and the A2, but it has passed the buck to Union Railways. The response of Union Railways to my representations on behalf of my constituents in those five households and to the pleas of the residents is deafening silence. That is not good enough. We want action now, either by voluntary purchase or by final compensation, to put my constituents out of their misery. I hope that we shall see a response to that.
There remains a major environmental challenge to my constituency. The plan proposes to cut through Ashenbank wood--a piece of ancient woodland and a site of special scientific interest--and Cobham park, which is a heritage site laid out by Repton. Concerns have been expressed about those plans by a wide range of environmental organisations and notably Cobham Hall Heritage Trust, the National Trust, the Countryside Commission, the Woodlands Trust and the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation. Concerns have also been expressed by Cobham parish council, Gravesham borough council and Kent county council. Those have been especially effectively expressed by the borough and county councillor for Cobham parish, Frank Gibson. An imaginative assessment of the environmental impact and costed alternative proposals has been drawn up by Dr. Nigel Haig, a member of Cobham parish council. That is being reviewed at my request by engineers and consultants of Gravesham council. I ask my right hon. Friends at the Department of Transport to instruct Union Railways to engineer definitive alternative proposals for consideration. As those all involve modifications of vertical alignments, it would not breach the safeguarding arrangements already announced.
The Member of the European Parliament for West Kent, Mr. Ben Patterson, has already drawn the matter to the attention of the European Commissioner for environmental matters, Mr. Paleokrassas. A member of the Commissioner's cabinet has already been to Gravesham to see the problems for himself and to report back. If we can have a clear, environmentally preferable alternative worked out in detail, we should be able to harness financial contributions from the European Community and elsewhere for those improvements at that environmentally sensitive site.
I should also like to raise another issue that the House should consider before we rise for the Spring recess. We should look at the cumbersome working of the law courts in helping people to recover debt. I should like to bring to the attention of the House a particular case that has arisen in my constituency.
It concerns a constituent trying to enforce a small debt on which judgment was found in her favour. She managed separately to identify the defendant's goods stored in a warehouse. Through the legal process, she reissued the previous warrant on 6 August 1992 and the court bailiff
Column 377went to the storage warehouse and took walking possession of the goods. That apparently means that the goods cannot be released to the defendant.
As a layman, I would have assumed that the goods would have been used to repay my constituent for the debts that had been properly identified in court, but not a bit of it. The defendant appealed on 18 August against the warrant. It was therefore suspended. My constituent appealed. The appeal was heard 17 days later, on Friday 4 September. The warrant, not surprisingly, was effectively renewed and costs were granted in her favour. So she faxed the court asking for a direction on the disposal of the goods which she had previously identified.
Apparently, a fax is inadmissible in court and, by that time, it was too late on a Friday afternoon to do anything about it, given the times within which courts work. So she had to hand-deliver the request on the following Monday, 7 September. That hand-delivered request in turn was mislaid by the court. In the meantime, the walking possession had lapsed on 4 September, the previous Friday. It could only be renewed by a bailiff responding to a court instruction, in turn responding to a request by the plaintiff.
Three days were lost because, in a Dickensian manner, a fax was inadmissible. Further delay ensued, because the request was lost. Yet another delay would have ensued because bailiffs take time to react to instructions. In the meantime, taking advantage of that courthouse charade, the defendant whipped along to the warehouse on Wednesday 9 September, collected his goods and has since disappeared. After all that rigmarole, time and expense, my constituent is left back at square one, empty-handed. All she has had is an apology that her request for a direction of disposal was mislaid by the court, and a bland statement refusing to accept that her position had been prejudiced by the actions of the court. That is not justice : it is cumbersome, Dickensian farce. Where is the redress for my constituent ? The House should look again at the practical reality of the administration of justice.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West) : Before the House goes into recess, we ought to consider two serious matters which cause not only inconvenience, but serious injustice, to many citizens throughout the country, and which proposals from Ministers ought to address. The first matter is one to which I referred earlier during business questions : wheel -clamping on private land. It is quite scandalous that it is now nearly a year--in fact, the year will be up during the recess--since the closing date for submissions to the Government's consultation document on wheel- clamping. Everyone recognises that it is not a simple and easy problem to deal with, but it will not get any easier or more simple if we wait another year. The Home Office ought to be bringing in firm proposals to deal with the menace. Every week, we still hear examples of outrages being committed by cowboy clampers. Only last week in Birmingham, a gentleman had to go down to the hospital where his wife was seriously ill after having had a relapse. He parked on some double yellow lines and put a note on his windscreen saying in which ward he was visiting his wife. He came out to drive home to tell his children that
Column 378their mother was dying, and found that he had been wheel-clamped. The staff at the hospital had to have a whip round to get the wheel-clamp removed.
In the centre of Birmingham, there is a notorious site opposite the Digbeth bus station, which is deliberately left open and, if anybody parks there for more than two minutes, the clampers are out and charging their fines. It is simply entrapment. Again, that is the sort of abuse that ought to be dealt with. The Home Office, in a good document on private wheel-clamping, recognised many of the problems, but, unfortunately, has still not come up with a solution. The matter should not wait any longer, and once the year has passed, it should come up with urgent solutions.
The issue which has already been aired two or three times in the debate, and which concerns nearly all hon. Members and their constituents, is that of the Child Support Agency. Before we go into recess, the Secretary of State for Social Security should come to the House with substantial proposals for a major overhaul, or for the abolition, of the Child Support Agency. The rising tide of public protest against the agency has continued unabated.
I have my suspicions that the Minister was hoping that the protest would die down, and that he would have been able to continue with the agency. He may also have hoped that the proposals put forward by some, that it is really an argument between men and women, would begin to win the day. I always thought that that was a fallacious argument, since, at most of the meetings that I have attended, as I am sure is the case with the meetings to which other hon. Members have already referred, about 40 to 50 per cent. of the audience have been women who are finding that their relationships and lives have been disrupted. It was therefore fallacious to try to make out that it was a straightforward argument between the sexes. That argument has not taken off.
We are finding that enormous problems are being caused to many families by the Child Support Agency. One problem is the administration, which has already been referred to. I have had letters this week--the middle of May-- referring to my correspondence at the end of March. I have also received letters saying that I would get a reply within 10 days ; that seems to be the new reply. We await the result of that with interest. All hon. Members have found inordinate delays. It is difficult for us to make progress on constituency cases when we face such delays, especially when constituents have arrears building up all the time.
Not only we but our constituents face such delays, which they find frustrating to the point of unreasonableness. They get neither timely nor sensible replies from the CSA about their problems. As we have all found, when we get replies, the CSA gives a long recitation of Government policy and says little that answers our specific questions about the problems of an individual case. In the past few weeks, there has been a slight improvement, perhaps as a response to criticisms in the Chamber. Too often we do not get detailed replies to the problems that we have raised.
Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has conducted his campaign on the Child Support Agency for so long. What does he think of a letter that I received last week from the manager of the Child Support Agency in Falkirk ? The manager said that he refused to answer
Column 379detailed questions that I had submitted to him on behalf of a constituent in my role as a Member of Parliament, because of the rules of confidentiality.
It is enormously unfortunate that many of the agencies seem to take a cavalier attitude to Members of Parliament, and do not seem to have a full understanding of our role in these matters. That is not a partisan comment ; many Conservative Members have experienced similar difficulties in getting straightforward and courteous replies from the agencies. I am sure that that point is being taken on board, and I hope that we shall start to get an improvement in the service that we are being offered.
Even if we could improve the administration, and even if the replies started to come through faster, only the superficial part of the problem would have been dealt with. The core of the problem is the way in which the agency has been set up under the Child Support Act 1991.
That outrages not only those who are directly affected and their families, but many other citizens who read about the CSA. They perceive the fundamental unfairness of the way in which the system operates. What no one can understand is how the CSA has been able to overturn settlements that have been agreed between the parties and ratified by the courts. They count for nothing when the CSA measures them against its criteria.
People who make sensible settlements in the light of the existing law find that that counts for nothing and is being torn up. People have often transferred property ; I know that there are arguments about whether they have transferred the debt as well and how that debt is being met by the public purse. However, many people transferred not only property, but all the debts in a final settlement, as advised by their solicitors and financial advisers, according to the law of the time. They then find that the settlement is being torn up. That puts enormous pressure on their families, and creates enormous tension, as one can imagine, between previous partners.
People also find that little of the benefit goes to the children. As has been mentioned a number of times in the House, 90 per cent. of the money goes not to the children but to the Treasury. The letters CSA do not stand for Child Support Agency, but for Chancellor Support Agency.
Of course the guardians of the public purse have a legitimate interest in the matter ; everyone understands that. However, the serious burden that is falling on individuals means that there is effectively a tax on divorce and separation, which has been introduced heavily and without the transitional arrangements that have attended other taxes. As we changed from the rates to the poll tax, and then to the council tax, there were transitional arrangements to ensure that the burden did not fall too heavily and precipitately on individuals. There are no such transitional arrangements here.
Indeed, because of the delays in the operations of the Child Support Agency, almost by definition individuals are building up substantial debts. As one can imagine, that is worrying and frightening for people who have been prudent, and have never put themselves into debt before. They now find that, if they are paying off one debt to the CSA, they are concerned about whether they will be able
Column 380to pay their mortgage and whether their second family will be made homeless. Those are real and frightening concerns for people who have never before been in such a position. Those concerns should and could have been taken account of if the Government had only listened to others.
The Government should have listened, for example, to the Opposition spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), when the CSA was first considered. They should have listened to the Select Committee on Social Security, which took the trouble to produce a special interim report when the Child Support Act was going through Parliament so that the CSA could be considered before the Act was passed. The Committee suggested that the key problem would be retrospection.
The Select Committee interim report drew attention to the experience in Australia. The Australians carefully ensured that their legislation was prospective rather than retrospective. It is no surprise that the Australian legislation has not caused the uproar and widespread public concern that have occurred in this country. Other features of the Australian legislation should also commend themselves to Ministers, and they would do well to introduce them in the House. I refer especially to the possibility of an independent appeal, so that people could understand that they were being dealt with fairly. It is the fundamental unfairness of the legislation that is undoubtedly causing many of the difficulties and the widespread public uproar that has attended the CSA and that has already been referred to by a number of hon. Members in this debate.
For all those reasons, it is most unfortunate that the House is going into recess before we have been presented with proposals which would start to take us back to a sensible, balanced approach to child support, and which would bring relief to many of the families who are now fearful of what the future will bring. Many of them see no hope, and no way in which to get out of their problems.
I shall not dwell on the cases of those who have committed suicide. I am sure that we all realise that there are often a multitude of reasons in such unfortunate cases. However, we must consider those who have left their jobs and those who are saying to their employers, "When the next round of redundancies comes, please include me in, because in that way I can get out of this fearful trap into which I have been forced."
We shall not be able fully to enjoy our recess knowing that tens of thousands of our constituents and fellow citizens face the future with fear and trepidation because of the activities of the Child Support Agency.
Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : Before the House adjourns for the spring recess I shall make four brief points, but before doing so I shall comment on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). I particularly enjoyed his remarks about Europe in his wide- ranging speech. I agree with every word that he uttered. If one reads the manifestos of the Conservative party and the two socialist parties--Labour and Alliance--one has no doubt whatever that both want to sell this country out. They want to remove power from this House, and they want a united states of Europe, with one Government. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. If the British people read the Conservative party manifesto, I hope that
Column 381they will agree with our patriotic beliefs. I very much hope that Lionel Stanbrook, our excellent candidate, will be elected in our Essex constituency.
The points that I shall raise are the points that I raised during the Easter Adjournment motion debate. Sadly, they have not been resolved. I am delighted that the one point which has been resolved--I know that hon. Members will be interested in this--relates to the National Association of Hospital Broadcasting Organisations. In the previous debate, I said that the Radio Authority was considering the different bands and how they should be grouped, and I hoped that Mr. Baldwin would choose option 3. I am delighted that option 3 was chosen yesterday ; that gives hospital radio broadcasting the opportunity to have its own frequency.
My first point relates to the Commission for the New Towns. I pay a warm tribute to the Commission for the New Towns--the former Development Corporation, the chairman and all the officers. They have done a magnificent job in building Basildon up to the magnificent place that it is today. As the commission withdraws from my constituency over the next 18 months, it is especially important that it bears in mind community assets.
The House well knows that Basildon has the finest shopping centre, certainly in the country and possibly in the world. However, we need to complete the roofing of the remaining part of the shopping centre. It is essential that the commission reaches agreement with the local authority and the Department of the Environment.
The transfer of housing could not take place for many years, because of our previous rotten socialist council. There have been problems with transfers because contractors have, frankly, not fulfilled their original arrangements, and my constituents have been greatly inconvenienced. That must certainly be put right. My second point--I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) will be interested in this--relates to the Fenchurch street railway line. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has mentioned his railway line on a number of occasions. It is well known that the Fenchurch street line offers a disappointing service to our constituents. I support the privatisation of that line.
I am trying to secure a separate debate on the issue, but I have been unlucky in the ballot so far. Time is running out, as British Rail has dropped a bombshell on my constituents and the constituents of my right hon. Friend : the Fenchurch street station will close in July for seven weeks. It has been suggested that our constituents should go on holiday for seven weeks, but that is a little dramatic. In the future, they will have to use the tube from Barking or be transferred to the Liverpool street line.
I and other Essex Members who are affected by this service need to know what British Rail intends to do during the seven weeks while the important engineering works are being carried out.
Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the merits of Basildon, there is no doubt that the train service is not yet one of them ? If these vital works are to go on, it is essential that some compensation should be paid to our constituents for the great inconvenience that they will suffer during the seven weeks that the station is closed.
Mr. Amess : I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Over the past few years, I have found that, when the House is not sitting, some enormous body seems to allow individual Members of Parliament to respond to the chaos that breaks out. My right hon. Friend is entirely right.
My next point relates to United Artists cabling in my constituency. We all know that there is a lot of rubbish on television from time to time, except when politicians are seen. The idea of cabling was to offer a wider choice. My constituents had no idea whatever that the face of Basildon would be scarred by something that looks like an enormous python. It behoves United Artists to return the pavements of Basildon to their original excellent state. We have a wonderful Conservative council in Basildon ; United Artists must put the pavements right.
My final point relates to sex selection. The Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority has decided not to allow sex selection to be authorised in its clinics. One of the owners of the dirty filthy clinic in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) decided that he wanted to choose the sex of his own child, and it turned out to be the wrong gender. That shows that the process used in the clinic does not work. It behoves Parliament to take firm action on this matter, and to make the sex selection technique unlawful.