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2.44 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The management of a democratic society is never easy, and government becomes even more difficult when it appears that, for one reason or another, the Government are not explaining their policies sufficiently clearly that they take with them the members of the electorate who are most affected.

I believe that the House of Commons has a special responsibility. It has a responsibility not only to look carefully at legislation but to question and, indeed, to demand an open explanation of the decisions that are being taken, either in Whitehall, to use a generic name for Government Departments, or in local government. I would not like the House to adjourn without thinking seriously about two aspects of Government policy that I regret.

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The Committee that I chair produced a very specific, detailed report on the public-private partnership for the London underground. We set out the problems. Some of the problems have arisen from the fact that the underground has never been assured of a firm and continuing programme of investment, has never been able to plan properly and has always faced difficulties that are common in our railway systems, with old systems not receiving the maintenance or improvements that they need, but others have simply arisen from the fact that, over time, various Governments' policy decisions have impinged directly on the finance available—in this case for the London underground, one of the most important systems for our capital city.

I hope that the House will have the opportunity to debate at greater length the topics covered in the report. We went into not only the problems that had arisen with the PPP but the difficulties that we foresaw. We asked, among other things, for a number of safeguards that we considered important enough to be debated. First, we said that the Health and Safety Executive should be given more time to consider the case than it was being given. Secondly, we said that that contracts for the London underground should not be signed until it was clear that the House of Commons had debated, on a substantive motion, the implications of the proposals. Thirdly, we said that it was important that the House should examine the finance and the financial dealings involved in the public-private partnership.

I was therefore somewhat dismayed to receive the news that the House of Commons was not to be given the usual full 14 days to debate the issuing of what are called letters of confidence. Sometimes the English language is used, in government and elsewhere, as a means not of telling us precisely what we are doing but of confusing the issue, and in my judgment letters of confidence come rather high in that category.

It may come as a considerable surprise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that a letter of confidence is really a guarantee. Either the Government guarantee a public-private partnership or they do not, but if they choose to call the arrangement that is entered into the issuing of a letter of confidence, it is not always clear to the electorate exactly what is happening. However, this week letters of confidence were issued on the PPP of the underground, and normally the House of Commons would have 14 days in which to discuss, examine and report. Because of the imposition—I withdraw that word—

Mr. Tyler: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Dunwoody: I gladly give way.

Mr. Tyler: I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to comment on the expression "letters of comfort", which is the term that she uses in her early-day motion, which seems to sound more like a letter of discomfort.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I should have called it a letter of comfort, not a letter of confidence. The lovely thing about the English language is that it can frequently be used in the most wonderful and flowery ways to confuse an arrangement to guarantee—a banker's undertaking. It is as simple as that. In effect, the Government tell someone who enters into what is supposedly a PPP that they will guarantee whatever happens in the future. That is the basic point that concerns me.

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Many Labour and Opposition Members will have different interpretations. Some may say that PPPs are a good idea because they lever in extra money, about which many interesting arguments will be advanced. The difficulty is that if the House adjourns before it has debated those issues, it will foreshorten not only the period of time, but the responsibility of the House of Commons. That has happened not only in relation to the underground deal, because I have received a short letter from the Treasury in which it states that the Government's insurance undertakings to the aviation industry have been extended. That, too, will not be debated because of time constraints.

Let me make it clear that I have absolutely no objection whatsoever to the Government's undertaking to ensure that aviation is properly insured after the events of 11 September, so that airlines can continue to fly and people can continue to use them. I do not dispute the need for such a move. All I am saying is that the House of Commons has the right to debate such issues. If we are told that, unfortunately, such debates will not be held because of the Easter holiday, it is important to raise such issues on the Floor of the House.

I am sorry to say that that seems symptomatic of a rather real problem. Her Majesty's Government seem to have lost an ability that I prize among all others—the facility of explaining to us exactly what is their attitude on industrial policy and, above all, on a policy that directly involves the financing of major infrastructure deals. That problem should be debated, but I am very concerned about another aspect of this matter.

The House of Commons may be an inadequate organisation. Its procedures may not always be exactly what we want. From time to time, it may hold debates or behave in a way that others think are unacceptable, juvenile or even—dare I say it?—verbose and boring, but the reality is that the Houses of Parliament are the only safeguard that we and the voters have against an over-mighty Executive, who can push through decisions and decide that what is important to them is not necessarily important enough to be debated. I believe that both those tiny instances are examples of the sort of difficulty that we face.

I would have preferred the House to debate both those extensions in Government arrangements. I should have preferred to hear a clear statement from the Government on the PPP for the underground on a substantive motion. I should have preferred Treasury Ministers not to appear the Select Committee and say that they had such a narrow brief that they were unable to debate the full implications of the financial deals. I should have preferred it if all those things had happened because I do not think that the Government have a right to override the basic and vital rights of Parliament.

We may be inadequate. We may not do properly what we are asked to do. We may, as elected Members, fall short of what the voters demand of us, but if we ever stand aside and allow those rights to be pushed gently away on the basis that, somehow, it is administratively convenient—I have seen many Governments of all colours do that—we fail the electorate. We then have only ourselves to blame if people no longer want to cast their votes, and we fail in the most outrageous way to fulfil our duty as Members of Parliament. I hope that I never live long enough to see that happen in the House.

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2.54 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who has, for a long time, spoken to defend the rights of Members of Parliament, and she has done so again today with the passion that we have come to expect from her.

I want to raise several issues to show why we should receive better explanations from the Government on exactly what is happening with their policies. I shall start with perhaps one of the most worrying aspects for several hon. Members. Just over 24 hours ago, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a statement on the future of the Post Office and Consignia. Several of us were very worried about the issues that were omitted from the statement.

I do not believe that yesterday's statement reflected the full range of problems that the Post Office faces and the future announcements that will be made by the Post Office as it strives to compete and to turn around its business. I am particularly worried about the rumour that some 2,000, possibly more, rural post offices will close.

For just over 12 months during the last Conservative Government, I was privileged to serve as the Minister responsible for the Post Office at the Department of Trade and Industry. I asked other colleagues who held similar ministerial positions in that Government how many debates we had on the Post Office during the last five years of the Major Government. The truth of the matter is that we had very few, because the Post Office was not a national concern at the time—things were going quite well.

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

Mr. McLoughlin: The Minister may say that from a sedentary position, but the only debate was on the Post Office Green Paper, and it was inspired by the then Government—I know that because I responded to the debate. I am not saying that the Post Office was not mentioned. Of course it was mentioned, but we certainly did not have the continual debates that have been held in the past few years. We have had those debates because hon. Members are concerned about the Post Office's future structure. We are very concerned about the way in which the Post Office is owned and managed by the Government.

I found out a fascinating fact yesterday. Apart from getting her geography wrong, the Secretary of State told us that the Government have decided that the Post Office will not have to pay a dividend. She also told us, however, that it is a wholly independently operated company—so why should the Government decide whether the dividend is paid? The Post Office obviously could not a pay dividend because it is losing so much money. If it were a company with proper commercial freedom, as the Government suggest, the Secretary of State or the Chancellor would not decide whether a dividend should be paid; the chairman of the Post Office would do so. Despite the mirage that the Government have created about the Post Office being a wholly separate company, we found out yesterday that it is still wholly controlled and operated by the Government.

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The other issue that I want to raise is the Government's continual increase in stealth taxes. Council tax increases throughout the country represent one of the biggest stealth taxes. I have the council tax figures for Derbyshire Dales district council, which forms the greater part of my constituency. In 1997-98, its precept on a band D property was £88.78. Council tax bills are just going out and the figure is now £118.23—an increase of £30 in five years, but that is a small element of the overall council tax bill.

In 1997-98, Derbyshire county council's precept on a band D property was £576. It is now £846—a huge increase over a limited period for people who live in band D properties.

The Government should be more honest and open about council tax rises, which are mainly a result of Government policy. As we are always being told that we have to brace ourselves for tax increases because people want better services, it was strange to discover in a small parliamentary written answer slipped out this morning that big business will pay less tax. On the one hand, we are told that the population must be prepared to pay extra taxation; on the other, the Government announce another course for big business.

The Chancellor uses stealth taxes and applies them to the British people. When I dug a little deeper to get more detail to explain the increases in council tax, I received worrying information from Amber Valley borough council. It told me:

tax levied by the Chancellor in 1997. That is one reason why Amber Valley had to increase its council tax.

One of the first things that the Government did when they took office—one has to admire them to a degree—was to do away with advance corporation tax. They said that we should not worry because the pension funds will be able to manage. That policy took £5 billion a year out of the pension system, which is fine in a bull market, but when things start to go wrong on the stock market it is not so easy to compensate for shortfalls. That is one reason why council tax is increasing throughout the country. Indeed, I understand that one of the largest increases is in the Prime Minister's constituency and I hope that his constituents make representations to him. However, council tax often falls hardest on older people because they tend to live on more fixed incomes. If the Government are not aware of that problem, they will become aware of it as the anger rises when people realise that the rate of inflation is 2 per cent., but the increase in council tax is, in the case of Derbyshire county council, 8.9 per cent.

The funding of sixth forms concerns me. Some time ago, the Government announced that they would de-layer the education funding system, which I favour. There is

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too much smoke around the allocation of the standard spending assessments to local government and the various spending bodies involved. The Government say that they have made a start by de-layering the funding system for sixth forms. Under the new proposal for sixth form funding, the Government will make grants to learning and skills councils. Those councils will make a further grant to local education authorities, which, in turn, will fund the sixth forms in their areas. I do not know how much simpler that is, but secondary heads in my constituency do not think that that does much to de-layer the system.

There are two issues to consider: the amount of money and the way in which it is funded. On the new proposal, a Derbyshire secondary head teacher wrote to me and said:

the real terms guarantee. The head teacher went on:

The school is told that it is getting a bigger allocation for its sixth form, for which it is grateful, only to discover the next day that the extra money for 16 to 18-year-olds is to be taken from the 11 to 16-year-olds—so extra money there is none.

The Government are supposed to be working on a new funding allocation for all LEAs and on school funding in the future. I just hope that they do not try to use the same card trick that they used on the 16 to 18-year-olds because they will soon be found out and that will cause greater resentment in schools. What happened in Derbyshire is a prime example of that.

Some Labour Members have argued that education in Derbyshire has been underfunded for some time. One headmaster told me:

The truth is that schools will cope because the staff are dedicated to ensuring that their pupils get a good education. However, they want to be treated more fairly. The introduction of the LSCs has not sorted out the problem; instead, it has added to the problem of the overall funding of schools for 11 to 18-year-olds.

On a separate issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned that she had written to a Health Minister. I have had the same problem with getting answers from that Department, which I wrote to on 13 February and 6 March. A former health centre in Wirksworth would make a tremendous care home facility, which is desperately needed. Such a facility was built in 1985 at Under Hall in Darley Dale. It has 40 flats and offers short-term care. Meals on wheels are administered from there—a service that does a great deal of good for the local community.

I am sure that the Government are concerned about residential care, but we have no idea how they intend to address the problem. Residential beds in care homes are being lost, partly because of the Care Standards Act 2000.

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Some 35,000 care beds have been lost over the past three years throughout the country, which adds to the problem of bed blocking. It is not a problem in isolation because it feeds back to the national health service. The Government must address the problem of residential care.

Local people are keen to establish a centre that offers residential care in Wirksworth. The project has been on their minds for more than five years. A hearty local campaign team has worked to establish a care home project, and a health care centre has now become available, but we find ourselves in an awkward position. All the trusts are about to change status, PCTs are to come online, the area health authority is to change, and so on and so forth—all of which is to take place in the next few weeks. The result is to make it difficult to assemble the combined effort needed to make our scheme work.

One of the trustees has written to me saying that the process for funding long-term care is "constantly changing", and that

as local people try to secure a solution that will have a great impact on the quality of life of elderly residents of small villages and towns in the area.

I should like to pass on to the House some information that came to my attention this morning. I shall also take some time to praise Derbyshire constabulary. Various hon. Members have heard me raise with the Prime Minister the case of Stephen Downing, whose conviction for murder was quashed by the Appeal Court in January. Since the quashing, I have called on Derbyshire constabulary to re-open the case, but there has been some question about whether it would do so. Mr. Downing's conviction was regarded as very unsafe by the appeal court when his case was heard, after he had served 27 years in jail—an horrendous length of time, as any hon. Member would agree.

This morning, I received a statement from the chief constable saying:

In short, the case is to be re-opened by Derbyshire constabulary. I want to put on record my gratitude to the chief constable for ensuring that that is to happen. I first met Mr. Downing's father nine or 10 years ago, when he first raised his son's case with me. The fact that such a miscarriage of justice could occur and last so long in this country, in this day and age, shows an appalling failure of and gap in our judicial system. I am extremely pleased by today's announcement that the police are to re-open the investigation. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, some sound solutions will emerge as a result.

When we returned to the House in January, it looked as though the Government could be confident. That has changed in the past few weeks, however, as the issues surrounding Railtrack and the Post Office—two major industries for which the Government are responsible—have blown up. As the Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee has just made clear, important questions

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remain to be answered and we will return to those subjects on our return after the Easter recess. I think that the issues I have raised today are also of great importance to local people and communities, and I hope that they will be addressed.

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