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10.41 am

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I wish to raise several constituency issues that have more general relevance, the first of which relates to the swimming pool in Central park, Harold Hill. It is partly a good news story in that it has recently benefited from a major lottery award of £4.2 million. That grant will be used to replace and refurbish the swimming pool and extend other sporting facilities, as well as to create a healthy living centre. Of course any community receiving such benefits applauds all those involved, as I do. It may seem churlish to criticise when one has the benefit of such an award.

The total refurbishment and reconstruction project will cost £6.4 million. The balance in excess of the lottery grant will be provided by a capital advance from the local

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authority. The difficulty with the scheme is that the replacement swimming pool will be smaller than the existing one. I am told that the old pool has a life of only about two or three years, so the matter is urgent. A mixture of community and competitive sports use the existing pool. Several swimming, diving, life-saving clubs and so on use the facility in an organised and competitive way. The pool is used from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.

The dilemma is that reducing the size of the pool means that some of the community use or the organised use will be squeezed out. Although the local community recognises the benefit of having a new pool, the major issue is whether the new facility will provide adequate facilities for all those involved. Such matters are of national concern because those considering such bids--Sport England and the various associations involved--need to consider the wider regional and sub-regional activities that take place in a particular pool.

Those organisations have informed me that there are few facilities for diving in east London and Essex, so not only the local community, but those in a wider area, benefit from that pool. Therefore, those who use the pool have to travel some distance, often in the early hours of the morning, just to get their pool time. Given the large sum involved--£6.4 million--one might have thought that all the various uses could be accommodated, but they have not been. The local community may lose out in a small way, and the organisations that use the facilities may be squeezed out or may have to travel much further to continue their activities. Much wider consideration is needed when planning such facilities to ensure that they are adequate.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made an extremely good announcement on sport this week. We all hope that our national sports will be more competitive internationally. We need to balance the needs of competitive sport and community sport and to encourage more people to take advantage of the benefits. However, we do not want to squeeze the organisations, almost all of which are voluntary. Much hard work is involved in running those clubs for the benefit of others. The local authority and all those involved are re-examining the project. I hope that a resolution will be found so that the pool can be increased in size. That will involve additional capital.

The second issue relates to access to railway stations for disabled people. There are two main-line stations in my constituency--Harold Wood and Upminster--neither of which has very good access for those with disabilities. Such facilities should be improved in partnership. I have made representations to Railtrack, the train operating companies and others and have got the various bodies together. One of the big failings of rail privatisation is that it is difficult for the transport organisations to plan strategically. A loose partnership has been formed in this case, and Members of Parliament have a role to play in trying to get organisations together.

Railtrack has been helpful and has informed me that it and the train operating companies estimate that the cost of addressing accessibility issues nationwide is about £300 million. Given the funding involved, it will clearly take some time to improve access for disabled people across the country, but that delay is too long for those who will suffer in the meantime. There are ways in which

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to get parcels of money together from the train operating companies, local authorities, Railtrack and, in some cases, businesses to improve such access.

Upminster station has four platforms, one of which is not served by a lift. That station is a major link between Romford and Lakeside, and Southend and Romford. Colleagues in the House may know the area. In effect, people with disabilities cannot make those journeys even if they wish to do so. We need to address those issues more quickly than is predicted by Railtrack and the train operating companies, especially in sub-regional hubs, as they are called in the parlance. I hope that the money allocated to transport in the comprehensive spending review will help to improve such access. I urge the Government to encourage local partnerships wherever possible.

Thirdly, I want to talk briefly about mobile phone masts. No doubt, that issue has been raised with other hon. Members. In recent months, there has been a proliferation of mobile phone masts in my constituency. I do not know whether that is a result of the recent inquiry and the Government's announcement of changes in the planning mechanism, but those involved seem to be getting in fast and putting them up wherever they can.

My message to the Government is that we should get on with the changes in the regulations quickly, because consultation is needed. One of the big failings of the current system is that mobile phone masts are suddenly erected with only a few local people knowing about them. People find it difficult to make representations to their local authority and suddenly there is a big outcry. That is of particular concern--some of it perhaps unwarranted--because of the issues raised in the Stewart report.

The final issue that I wish to raise concerns local government finance. I know that all hon. Members say that their local authority does not get enough money, and I am no different, but local government finance needs to be reviewed. My local authority is embracing much of the Government's programme, especially education spending, the community legal service and crime reduction partnerships, and putting efforts into all those programmes. However, Government policies always impact on local funding. Yesterday in Westminster Hall, we discussed crime reduction partnerships and heard of good examples around the country, and those are certainly working in my area.

The standard spending assessment for my local authority does not meet the needs of the area and leaves it strapped for cash. It means that the local authority cannot deliver as it would like. The best example of that is social services spending. In the past four months, some 90 beds a week in the local hospitals have been occupied week in, week out mainly by elderly people who could have been cared for in other parts of the care system. That delays operations in the acute sector.

Local authority financing cannot be ignored in relation to delivery of the Government's programme. Will the Government look urgently at that matter, so that local authorities such as mine, which want to deliver their programme, not only for political reasons but for the benefit of local people, have adequate funding to do so?

10.52 am

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): In principle, this could be the last time that I ever address the House because, if the Prime Minister wakes up one

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night in his Tuscan retreat and decides that he would really like to spend more time with his baby, he might call an election this autumn, which means that I would retire.

The House should not adjourn without considering two related issues. Men of my age and stage are expected to be gloomy. We are expected to believe that the country is going to the dogs and that the young are decaying beyond repair. I believe none of that, but I do believe that the Government are neglecting two issues to the peril of us all.

The first is the real value--actual rather than rhetorical--that the Government put on people. We hear constant repetition of the mantras about respect for people. We heard almost the whole mantra canon yesterday in the Prime Minister's statement on the health service. However, when we look at what is happening in the public services, we are entitled to question the real value of the mantras.

Let us take, for example, social services. In 1997, 7,722 social workers were in training; in 1998, there were 6,254; last year, there were 5,1764. No matter how much social workers or other workers in the public services are praised by Ministers, we shall see no improvement in the services if there are no workers to call on.

Another example is teachers. In education authority after education authority, the story is the same: teachers are simply not applying for vacancies and the numbers leaving early have become a haemorrhage. Part of the trouble is that the Government, building on the bad example set by us, have so increased the bumf and the controls that professional staff prefer to walk away from the stress. Another element of teachers' disaffection, however, is that the growth of abuse, in language and physical violence, has reached proportions that, in these days of high employment, make the jobs very unattractive.

The Government appear to have no answer to the problem. Ministers often appear to accept that bad language is now so common that nothing can be done about it. On playing fields, in the streets and, increasingly, in schools, hospitals and refuges, foul language and the depersonalisation of staff that that implies is taken for granted by those in authority, while the staff subjected to it take it for a while and then leave.

If the Government do not start to take this epidemic of crude behaviour seriously, we shall all be undone. Instead of wittering away about inclusiveness--a principle of great importance to which I greatly subscribe, but which in practice often means making a teacher's life impossible--Ministers should think about how they can give an effective lead in a campaign to restore the idea of dignity and good manners to hundreds of thousands of adults and children. The challenge may be less dramatic than that of drugs, but it is no less important. Indeed, the two are connected.

What is so sad is that the Government, who claim to believe in joined-up government, wander along ignoring the damage that they frequently do to those who try to stem the flood. For example, Kent has 1,400 armed service cadets, devotedly looked after by volunteers, who give up two nights a week and many weekends to nurture boys and girls who would otherwise be on the streets making trouble. What happens? New dispositions for the regular services are brought in, making it impossible for them to continue the former level of support for the cadets. However, this joined-up Government take no steps

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to make those losses good. Little by little, that successful way of bringing children to a decent adult commitment to society will be whittled away, and the Government will not even notice.

I wish to draw the House's attention to an even more fundamental issue. Some weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland declared that the age of representative democracy was drawing to a close. His grounds for making that assertion were primarily that the new forms of electronic communication mean that we can ascertain quickly what the public believe about a particular issue and then fashion policies to take account of their expressed views. I have since heard on the radio Mr. Morris, an adviser of President Clinton, explaining that the electronic age has changed politics to such an extent that a Government have to fashion a new agenda each day or lose their popularity. The British Government appear to be doing that by allowing confidential memorandums to seep out into the press, although I am not sure whether that is deliberate.

Mr. Morris recommended that, not only should tiny elements of a policy be drip fed to the media each day but, more importantly, that the policy should be amended according to the daily popularity polls and other information available to the Government. That is the advice of one of the principal advisers to the President of the United States.

Moreover, the new communications age will make it ever easier and cheaper to hold referendums--I hope that you notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I deliberately used the spellcheck version of the plural to fit in with the electronic age.

The threat, not only to this place, but to democracy as we have known it, is so clear from those two examples that the House should have a full debate on them at the earliest opportunity. Let me put on the table at least some of my reflections on the scheme, and hopefully the Minister will take them seriously when he replies to the debate.

Let me deal first with representative democracy. At its weakest, our system of electing men and women who are expected to exercise their own judgment on the issues of the day can lead to an arrogant disregard of the opinions of those who send us here. It may be many years, if at all, before the electorate exercise the ultimate sanction of throwing out those in safe seats. That disregard is not common among Members of Parliament, who are nearly all conscientious in their desire to ensure that their constituents' views are taken into account.

When representative democracy is at its strongest, we have powerful debates occasioned by the determination of individual Members to hold fast to their own beliefs. It is clear that, on many issues, the short-term reaction of our constituents to a particular event is one that they would not hold over a longer time. The idea that policy of lasting value can be made on the basis of a daily thermometer reading of public opinion is as absurd as it is dangerous.

Secondly, every Member of Parliament knows that the first reactions of men and women in our constituencies to new ideas are usually hostile. That hostility is based on some of the commonest features of mankind: a desire to hold on to any privileges that we currently enjoy, a fear of the unknown, and, in particular, a fear that often leads

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to hostility to people who are perceived as different from ourselves. If it is suggested, for example, that a community should play host to asylum seekers, the mentally ill, or even a new housing development, a surge of self-interested hostility rolls out, and tries to drown out those who advocate the change. How should policy be devised if that is what the thermometer readings are telling the policy makers?

Thirdly, what part can principles play in the electronically driven computer game of policy making? If we are busily engaged in tailoring our policies to ensure that we stay ahead of the game each day, how do we make room for little awkwardnesses such as the idea that a person has the right to be deemed innocent until he or she has been proved guilty? Is it because the new philosophy is gaining ground at No. 10 that we have seen in this Parliament a weakening of even that ancient principle?

Yet, even for the Ministers who are most enthusiastic about the new democracy, there are some difficulties. Even they have some personal beliefs--or at least pretend that they have, for the sake of their activists. Among those beliefs may well be, for example, the idea that people should be treated equally, regardless of creed, nationality or colour. They may oppose the death penalty, or the smacking of children. Some may believe that it would be to the country's advantage to join the euro. If their beliefs are sufficiently strong, they will no doubt manoeuvre carefully in order to avoid altogether asking the public for their view. As a result of that, rather than the House being an arena for debate on matters of principle or the shape of our society, a handful of elitists close to the Prime Minister of the day would define for us all issues that are too important to be subjected to the activities of the otherwise ubiquitous pollsters.

I do not believe that the age of representative democracy is dead. I firmly believe that it remains the surest bulwark against short-termism in policy making and the vagaries of political fashion--and I trust that long after you and I have left this place, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it will be the forum in which issues of principle and practice are debated on behalf of all our people.


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