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Chris Grayling: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) for interrupting the debate, but Members will be extremely concerned about the matter that I wish to raise.

You may be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, of reports in today's newspapers that the bankers supporting National Air Traffic Services have asked the Government for emergency aid to prevent the collapse of the business. They also say that last summer the Civil Aviation Authority told the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that the business plan proposed for NATS was not sufficient for it to withstand a major shock such as that experienced on 11 September.

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May I ask, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you have received any information that Ministers intend to come to the House either today or early next week to deal with this important issue, which will be of concern to Members throughout the House?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): No, I have not been made aware of any Minister's intention to deal with that in the House next week.

12.40 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak. As another member of the Labour co-operative group in the House and a member of the Scottish Midland Co-operative Society, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on his choice of subject. As well as recording my membership of those organisations, I declare an interest, namely the support I have received from the Co-operative party in connection with a private Member's Bill of my own.

As a number of speakers have said, the Bill is designed primarily to prevent the asset stripping of co-operative societies and other industrial and provident societies by those who might wish to manipulate them for short-term gain. The gain to be made from asset stripping could be substantial. The co-operative movement may be more than 150 years old, but it is a substantial economic force with substantial assets that may be attractive to those wishing to engage in such activities.

We heard earlier of the failed Lanica bid led by Andrew Regan, who sought to take over the Co-operative Wholesale Society at a price of £1.2 billion—big money. Given that it was an apparent asset-stripping exercise, he presumably thought that the break-up value would be much higher. In fact, the total assets of the nearly 9,000 registered industrial and provident societies—not all co-operatives in the traditional sense—amount to more than £60 billion. As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) pointed out, in many communities the small co-operative store is a vital link; but the co-operative retail sector in general, although it has declined, is still an important force. Indeed, the Scotmid is now Scotland's biggest independent retailer, serving not just my area but much of east and central Scotland.

The Bill is especially valuable in giving added long-term security to what is termed the community benefit co-operative—or, somewhat inelegantly, the bencom co-operative. It provides strong underpinning for such co-operatives, which I believe can play a vital role in strengthening our communities.

It is a commonplace that the fabric of community life is now weak, and I think that that is true. A few days ago, Members may have seen media coverage of preparations for the Golden Jubilee later this year, and heard expressions of concern about the apparent lack of community preparations. They, and members of the public, may well have different degrees of enthusiasm for the event and different explanations for their level of enthusiasm, but I shall not dwell on that. What I found interesting was that it was said that one reason for the failure to arrange events to mark the jubilee was people's view that "no-one knows anyone around here now" or that "there is no community feeling nowadays."

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I am aware that it is always easy to look back to a golden age when communities were perfect and everyone knew everyone. I know that not everywhere had a wonderful, vibrant community back in 1977. And at the time when the co-operative movement was growing there may have been stronger communities, but they certainly faced many problems that we do not face today.

Nevertheless, for a whole host of reasons, there has in many cases been a weakening of community links over the past few decades. The reasons include smaller households; television and other leisure interests; more people working and undertaking their leisure activity away from their local community; dependence on the car; and fear of crime. However, whatever the reason, it is widely recognised that the weakening of community links can result in major social problems.

Rebuilding the sense of community is an essential step in tackling many of the problems that affect society today. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the co-operative movement and community-based co-operatives can play a vital role in the rebuilding of our communities.

Many Members have referred to housing co-operatives. The strong housing co-operative in my constituency—the West Granton housing co-operative—has played an important role in the regeneration of what was once probably the most rundown area of public sector housing in Edinburgh. It is successful not just as a housing co-operative, but as a foundation for other community activities in that area.

The housing co-operative movement provides an efficient mechanism for delivering public service precisely because the people who ultimately control the co-operatives have an intimate knowledge about how the service is delivered on the ground. However, in addition to that, the movement also brings people together. It builds communities by involving people in community activities. In that way, it strengthens local links and networks.

Mr. Kevan Jones: In places such as North Durham, housing co-operatives may provide a solution to the problems found in pit villages when landlords buy up whole streets and let both the streets and the fabric of the community go to rack and ruin. Does my hon. Friend agree that housing co-operatives can help to prevent the problems caused by landlords buying up whole streets purely to make a profit?

Mr. Lazarowicz: I agree with my hon. Friend. He makes the valuable point that housing co-operatives are valuable not just in the urban settings with which they are sometimes most associated. They can be particularly important in smaller communities where, as he points out, the whole social fabric can be torn up by people who are more interested in making a short-term profit than in the interests of the community.

By strengthening the foundations of the community benefit co-operative, I hope that the Bill will be used to expand the growing community-controlled sector. Together with the Bill on another aspect of the co-operative and mutual sector that I was fortunate enough to introduce and that received its Second Reading

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last week, this Bill means that the House has the biggest opportunity for 40 years—perhaps 140—to pass a package of legislation that is designed to encourage the growth of the co-operative and community sector.

I hope that the Bill will receive its Second Reading, that the Government will support it and that it will eventually become law. If it does, the opportunity that it presents should be built on and grasped by both the co-operative movement and the Government. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said. Notwithstanding the wide variety of activity in the co-operative movement and the mutual sector—we have heard many examples in the debate—we lag behind our many European neighbours that have a strong and vibrant co-operative and community-controlled sector. In many ways, they have encouraged and developed that sector.

I am pleased that the co-operative and mutual sector is working much more effectively together to proselytise its ideas. I pay particular tribute to the work of Mutuo, the trading name of Communicate Mutuality—a new think tank for the co-operative and mutual sector. That organisation brings together the co-operative movement through the Co-operative Union, the Building Societies Association, the Association of Friendly Societies and the Mutual Insurance Companies Association. All work together to conduct research, to campaign for better understanding of the benefits of mutual businesses and to develop new mutual businesses. I pay tribute to the excellent range of publications that Mutuo has already produced to publicise the case for the extension of mutuality.

I am pleased that the Government have taken a much more active interest, both in word and in deed. They have given much more active support to the promotion of the social economy and the co-operative sector than many Governments have for many years. However, there is still some way to go. At the grass roots, for example, notwithstanding the lead that is given at national level, many of the public or quasi-public organisations that promote economic development or business start-ups still do not actively promote the co-operative model of business organisation as one of the viable options for business. I have gone into one-stop shops or business start-up centres and seen no information whatever about co-operatives or how to set them up. If one asks for such information, it can be very difficult to find.

In many areas, there is still some political or bureaucratic resistance to community control of public services that would benefit from community control or involvement. In Glasgow, for example, the imaginative plans of Labour Ministers in the Scottish Executive to transfer housing to a community-controlled body are being resisted by an unholy coalition of the Scottish Socialist party, Scotland's version of the militant tendency and the Socialist Workers party; some elements, I am afraid to say, in the Labour party; and the Scottish National party, I understand. I trust that that resistance will not stop what is an exciting initiative for housing in Scotland.

To show that I do not wish to be partial to any party in handing out criticisms, I may say that the Liberal Democrat Minister in Scotland who is responsible for the area concerned seems to be hostile to the idea of transferring Scotland's water industry to a mutual along

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the lines of that operating in Wales, so everyone needs to look at the way in which they put into practice their commitment to mutuality.

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