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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your permission to join this debate at such a late stage. I want to speak about three issues, which might be called the three Ps: Post Office, planning and police. They are all national issues, but they all have a direct bearing on my constituency.
First, if we reach the stage, as appeared to be prefigured by the news yesterday, at which there will be a mass closure of sub-post offices the length and breadth of this country, I predict that there will be enormous dissatisfaction, upset and complaint from every conscientious constituency MP, irrespective of the party to which they adhere. The reality is that, in five years in the House, I have never seen such anger among Back-Bench MPs as I saw when similar moves were being carried out by the large banks, and when Barclays bank came to make a presentation, not to consult with MPs about what it proposed to do, but to try to explain the mass closure of local branches. The result of that was a scale of protest that eventually led the banks to agree a sensible policy among themselves: where there was only a single branch of one of the big four banks left in a given locality, that branch would not close. I do not know how the Post Office will be able to deal with the analogous uproar that I anticipate, but deal with it it will have to. I say to the Government in the nicest possible way that they are vulnerable on this issue. As the Opposition are now full of concern for the vulnerable, I wish to advise the Government that they should not neglect the people who will be sorely hit if many sub-post offices go to the wall.
The second issue is planning. I am deeply suspicious of the Green Paper on proposals to change the planning regime. Even as I speak, a major public inquiry is under way about a proposal to build a huge container port at Dibden bay in my constituency. I am confident that, day by day, as the inquiry proceeds, the weakness of the case for carrying out this massive project will steadily become apparent. At the end of the inquiry, I expect to see a detailed and dispassionate report on the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments deployed. Let us suppose
At present, the Labour party enjoys a huge parliamentary majority. The Labour-dominated city of Southampton, which is next door to my constituency, wants Dibden bay to be built and it would have every reason to believe that such a Parliament as we have today would be heavily biased in its favour on purely political grounds. The idea that Parliament should take a decision in principle first, with the detailed inquiry coming later is plainly to put the cart before the horse.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I have listened to my hon. Friend's remarks with great care, because it is a subject in which I am also interested, not least because of my chairmanship of the Procedure Committee. It will very shortly begin an inquiry into the way in which the Government's proposals impinge upon Parliament and its procedures. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions is similarly considering this dramatic change from the normal planning process. I hope that my hon. Friend will be somewhat reassured that Parliament as a whole is apprised of the problems.
Dr. Lewis: I can think of no one in whom I would have more confidence than my hon. Friend in trying to protect the interests not only of Parliament but of the population as a whole when such an amazing reversal of priorities is being proposed by the Government.
If that reversal of priorities took place, the result would be prejudiced in advance and the task of objectors would be turned into a far greater uphill struggle than that which they already face. In short, what is proposed would, if implemented, destroy local democratic control of the planning process. Any Government with a large parliamentary majority may be tempted to try to bury local democracy in that way. Sooner or later, however, the boot will be on the other foot and it will be a Labour Opposition's turn to complain about a prejudicial arrangement such as is now being sought. I hope that it never comes to pass.
Finally, I shall talk about the police. On 2 November 2001, I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on community policy in Hampshire. I was fairly tough in my criticisms of the way in which local policing was being centralised and about the invisibility of policing in the town of Totton and the villages on the waterside and in the New Forest that are in my constituency. I am pleased that, since then, there have been very clear steps in the right direction.
Having put last November the case for the prosecution against the police, I now feel obliged to redress the balance as I promised to do to the chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation, Mr. Alan Gordon. He organised an excellent open forum on 18 January, which was attended by several Hampshire Members of Parliament. The forum was the result of the growing protest about the reforms, particularly of pay and conditions, that the Government are proposing. I promised at the time that I would do my best to air in Parliament some of the police's concerns, and that is what I hope to do in the few remaining minutes.
Members of Hampshire constabulary who have complained to local MPs range from those at the top of the tree to those in the front line. At the top of the tree is the chief constable himself, Paul Kernaghan. His letter addresses in particular the point that
I respectfully suggest that the lack of safeguards and the effective bypassing of police authorities will result in a cadre of Chief Constables obsessed with pleasing the Home Office, regardless of their own professional judgement. Chief Constables cannot be above account but the current proposals will result in increased central control at the expense of local representatives."
In February, there was a vote by the police federated ranks in response to the proposals for pay and conditions. I am sure you are aware of the unprecedented rejection, a 75 per cent. turn out of voters with 91 per cent. rejecting the Home Office's offer."
If we are, from time to time, critical of the police, we must also, from time to time, realise why they are fighting with one hand behind their backs. I hope that the Government will not lock themselves into a corner on police reform but realise that they have made an honest mistake, back track and recognise the debt that we owe to those people who maintain law and order on our behalf and on behalf of our families.