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Mr. McLoughlin: I am sure the hon. Lady would not wish to mislead her constituents. I am sure she explains to them that Westminster Hall sits at 9.30 am two days a week, and that many Committees meet at 10.30 am. To say that an MP's day starts at 2.30 pm would be misleading, and I hope the hon. Lady will point out to her constituents that the House is working in one way or another at many other times.
Ms Drown: I entirely accept that point, but if this is indeed the supreme Chamber, why does its work start so much later than the House's other work? Of course, Members have two places of work. It is right for us to start at 2.30 pm on Mondays, so that constituency surgeries and the like can be dealt with in the mornings. But there is no reason for us not to work from 10 am until 7 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and start at 10 am on Thursdays. Then, perhaps, we could leave at 3 pm on Thursdays, and more of us could be in our constituencies by the evening.
The House is divided over the report on Select Committees. I do not think we should pay Select Committee Chairs extra; I do not think that that will change the culture in this organisation. I would prefer the money to be spent in other ways.
I hope we shall see two more measures in the Queen's Speech. Earlier today, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) presented a ten-minute Bill to draw attention to continuing antisocial behaviour on the part of travellers. My constituents regularly experience such behaviour, and I fully expect them to experience more in the summer. We could make sensible changes, which I think would be supported throughout the House.
Then there is the issue of legislation on sexual offences. The Government have rightly reviewed it, but it is outrageous that in rape cases the defence of honest but unreasonable belief in consent remains on the statute book. It has a real impact on all rape cases: it deters rape
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise so many of the issues that my constituents have raised with me. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will in turn raise them with the relevant Ministers.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I want to raise three constituency issues, each of which is the responsibility of a different Departmentthus landing the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy-Council Office with a varied task.
The first issue, the future of the sub-post office network, has already been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). I hope that the Government will act on the commitment that I understood the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make yesterdayto keep the House informed of further developments in the planned reorganisation of what we must now think of as the company formerly known as Consignia.
I willingly acknowledge that for many years sub-post offices, like other small retail businesses, have experienced the squeeze experienced by most high-street shops as shopping habits have altered. I believe, however, that their plight has been worsened by the present Government's policy of requiring all pensions and benefits to be paid into bank accounts from next April, rather than being collected in cash over the counter. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned that.
Coupled with the drastic restructuring of the Post Office organisation announced by the board in the last couple of days, that shift in Government policy raises serious questions about the future of the sub-post office network. All of us who represent rural or part-rural constituencies will know of sub-post offices that have closed for various reasons in recent years. My constituency has lost sub-post offices in villages such as Loosely Row and Great Kimble, and even Butlers Cross and Ellesborough. My weekend constituent, the Prime Minister, cannot just walk down the drive from Chequers to visit his sub-post office on a Saturday morning; he must mount his bicycle and cycle several miles to Wendover or Great Missenden to perform whatever transactions he has in mind.
I agreed strongly with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said earlier. Given the Government's record of handling information technology projects, the question of whether the new system will be up and running on 1 April 2003, as promised, is at the very least subject to some doubt and apprehension. When we look back on the national insurance computer system or on the systems of the Passport Agency and the immigration and nationality directorate, or if we even consult the 1901 census website, we see a track record of promises whichalthough I am sure they were made in good faith by Ministers and officialshave not been delivered. It is members of the public who have lost out.
For those of us who represent urban or part-urban constituencies, as I do, there is a real concern that the people who will be most seriously and adversely affected by such a change in the Post Office's strategy will live in the poorer areas of our towns and cities. In places such as Southcourt, Quarrendon or Elmhurst, in Aylesbury, or in large council estate areas of the town, people regard their local sub-post office and the small parade of shops that surround it as providing an important service in the local community and as an important focus of community life. I impress upon the Minister my hope that the Government will provide early opportunities to brief the House on further developments and to provide it with ample opportunity, in Government time, to debate the future of the Post Office system once we return from the Easter recess.
My second subject concerns the approach of the Ministry of Defence to the future development of the Princess Mary hospital site at RAF Halton, in my constituency. The site is part of the extensive RAF base at Halton. The hospital itself has been closed since 1996; two years later, the Ministry declared that the hospital was surplus to military requirements, and the site was handed over to Defence Estates for it to plan for its future.
Every organisation in the villages of Wendover and Halton, which are separated by the base at RAF Halton, accepts that it is reasonable and proper to have developmentprobably residential, in the mainon that brownfield site. The argument locally, which is now with the Ministry, is about the scale and density of the proposed development and about the way in which the Ministry has handled this local controversy.
This is a sensitive site; it lies immediately below the scarp of the Chiltern hills and is on the fringe of the green belt and the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. Wendover, the parish within which the site lies, is a small community of just under 7,000 people. The local services have been developed to deal with the needs of a community that size. Even so, the schools, the family doctor practice and parking facilities in the village are all under considerable pressure.
The Ministry of Defence wants a return on its site and planners want to squeeze houses into rare brownfield development sites. The local village communities are fearful that the development will make a sudden and drastic change to their size and character. Surely the right forum in which to resolve these competing demands should be the planning system, particularly the local plan inquiry for Aylesbury Vale district council. That had been proceeding for a considerable number of months in 2000-01 and is subject to an inspector's report. The initial conclusions are expected probably in July this year.
There have been competing interests as well. During the course of the public inquiry, Aylesbury Vale district council argued that the site should be developed to provide 230 homes, a hotel and a sports pitch, while the Ministry of Defence argued for a more densely packed
The application went in despite the fact that all the evidence and arguments were before the inspector, whose conclusions should be known in July this year. It went in despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence had argued for a significantly lower number during the course of the inquiry. It went in despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence had spent £67,500 of taxpayers' money in fees for its legal and other professional representation in the course of the public inquiry.
What aggravated and sharpened the sense of grievance in Wendover and Halton was the written answer that I received on 27 November 2001, reproduced at column 763. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), made it clear that the decision to instruct agents to submit the planning application had been made as early as December 2000, while the inquiry was taking place. So while the Ministry was submitting its evidence for 330 houses to be put on the hospital site, it was secretly authorising a later planning application for a much higher figure, without consulting anyone in the local community.