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6.28 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): By my calculation, we have had five hours of very wide-ranging debate, in which we heard 18 speeches that lasted about 17 minutes each. That leaves the Minister and me less than one minute per speech to make some sort of response, so I hope that the House will forgive me and even the Minister if our responses are not as full as they might be.

The Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), in his typical way, focused very precisely on the question that he wanted to raise with the

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Government. On the face of it, that was a proper and simple question, as is characteristic of the hon. Gentleman, and one to which I am sure he deserves a straightforward answer. As I understood his main question, it concerned the fact that key evidence on the prosecution side in the Lockerbie case has disappeared. He would like to know, as would I, on whose authority such evidence has disappeared and where it is. I hope that the Minister, if he cannot give a precise answer to that simple and direct question today, will ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets an answer because he directed his question at Ministers in Westminster and specifically asked that it should not be passed sideways to Edinburgh.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised a number of issues, not least of which was that apparently the Food Standards Agency—of all people—has given advice that, on the face of it, seems rather odd to most of us: we no longer need to wash fruit and vegetables before we eat them. The hon. Gentleman made a rather serious allegation when he suggested that the Government's advisers might be unduly influenced by commercial interests. That is a grave accusation and it should be taken seriously by the Government.

If we cannot obtain reassurance today, I hope that the allegation will be looked into closely. If the agency set up to protect our food is somehow under the improper influence of commercial interests, we certainly want to know about it. Something should be done about it very quickly indeed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the problem of VAT on church repairs. I would not be so uncharitable as to tell him that that is one of the many benefits flowing from our membership of the European Union. I should not be as crude as that—[Interruption.] In any case, he denies it. However, I sympathise with him: the problem appears to be intractable. Like him, I hope that the Government are hard at work on it.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), in a thoughtful speech, posed a question that occurs to all of us: why has the turnout in local elections fallen over the years? He suggested that it results from the demise of municipal enterprise and the reduction in the number of direct employees of local authorities.

I am not sure that that provides all, or even much, of the answer. If one considers the varying turnouts—at parish, district, county, Assembly, Westminster and European elections—one realises that it is difficult to find a direct relationship between turnout rates and the influence of different levels of government on their voters or through their employees. Nor can one relate—as should be possible—the directness of contact through, say, parishes, districts and small wards, to the turnout in elections. The problem remains intriguing and intractable. We are all obliged to consider it seriously; politics—our livelihood—is most affected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) spoke about telecommunication masts. She made the valid point that it appears that sufficient research has not been undertaken into their health effects, and referred to what we might be able to learn from other countries.

As my hon. Friend is aware, we are keen to learn from other countries nowadays—it is one of the new Conservative new approaches that, as we know, has such appeal to the electorate. Perhaps my hon. Friend can

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persuade Conservative central office to fund an extensive tour of other countries so that she can look at telecommunication masts. Failing that, she makes a fair point. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of Government, with all the resources available to them, to investigate what is done in other countries and why those countries seem to achieve such a superior result.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in a most succinct and pungent speech—as ever—questioned why the Government appeared to be saying that lack of time prevented the House from fully considering Select Committee reports, despite the fact that we are about to go into what I can only describe as "premature recess", when we shall be away from this place for a two full weeks. Meanwhile, the other place will be sitting for a further two days and will return earlier than us. That mystifies me as much as it does the hon. Lady. Perhaps the Minister, with his legendary ingenuity, will be able to tell us why we are bunking off for a long recess, when the Government tell us that we do not have enough time to debate Select Committee reports.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), in a comprehensive and all-embracing contribution, covered several important points. His final point—on the crisis in care homes—was the most telling. We are all becoming more and more aware that that is a major problem in all our constituencies. The Government bear almost the entire responsibility for the problem and it will give them serious difficulties. However, that is not the issue.

The important issue is the welfare of the people who are supposed to be looked after in those institutions. I hope that a solution can be found quickly; otherwise, the problem will have a severe effect not only on the well-being of the folk who want to stay in care homes, but consequentially on the health service through bed blocking. The problem must be closely considered.

The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) will be glad to hear that I shall not dwell on breasts on this occasion, because she would not want to hear what I had to say on that subject anyway, but I take issue with her analysis of the time for which the House sits.

I do not regard this place as a legislative factory—I do not believe that the House of Commons exists to churn out more and more Bills. Therefore, I take issue with the Government's approach of ever more routine, systematic and vicious timetabling. However, I do not believe that it will be to the benefit of the House and its workings if we regard ourselves as a sort of office block where we work from 9 to 5. Apart from anything else—this is what I find so curious about the hon. Lady's argument—I fail to see how, unless one has one's family within easy travelling distance of the House of Commons, working from 9 to 5 adds in some way to family values or contributes to the family.

Most hon. Members, especially the hon. Lady's colleagues, have their families some distance away from London, in their constituency, so I wonder what the families think when they believe that Members of Parliament, instead of being tucked up securely in the Palace of Westminster until 10 o'clock every night, are out roaming London promptly after 7. I will leave that to the hon. Lady to explain; I certainly will not try.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made some important local points. If he will forgive me, I shall deal with only one—Central Railway and Chiltern Railways. My hon. Friend asked, very reasonably, why the matter could not be resolved more quickly. In particular, he reasonably asked why we cannot obtain more public information about the analysis performed by the Strategic Rail Authority and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Why is the matter being dealt with so secretively?

That issue pervaded some of the other speeches, not least that of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara). One of the keys to the fascinating but horrifying tale of his constituent seemed to be the secretiveness with which the matter was dealt with, and the plea for far greater openness. All hon. Members know that our individual constituents all too often get into confrontation with powerful bodies and institutions, and that those disputes must be resolved one way or another, but it is unforgivable that the powerful use secretiveness and failure to divulge information as one of their main weapons. Without judging which side of the argument is right in each case, surely the key must be that people must be given all the relevant information on which a proper judgment can be made, and that applies to the case that the hon. Gentleman raised as much as to any other.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was very critical of local government funding—aren't we all? I was involved peripherally in that process in my years in the foothills of government, and I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that whenever one tackles this problem, one runs into what is known in the trade as winners and losers. No one has yet devised a system in which everyone wins. One ends up redistributing both the goodies and the burdens across local authorities, and between local authorities and central Government, in a way that usually makes a few happy and a large number unhappy. I caution the hon. Gentleman about this; there is no easy answer.

Mr. McLoughlin: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth: I cannot possibly give way. I promised the Minister that I would sit down in two minutes' time, and that is what I intend to do.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made an excellent speech and some very positive suggestions. He identified a problem and, unusually on these occasions, provided some solutions. I congratulate him on that. He said that he believed that a standard form for changing energy suppliers would be a good thing, which it surely must be. He also believed that Ofgem should make more use of fines, which would be a perfectly proper solution. I thought, although I doubt that he made that connection, that the money from the fines could go towards compensation, where appropriate, for those who had suffered damage. I congratulate him on his speech. I hope that the Government listened to it and will pick it up and follow it through.

I shall finish soon. I ask some of my hon. Friends to forgive me—I cannot now possibly do justice to all of them—but I shall take my life in my hands by saying something, in the friendliest way possible, to my hon.

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Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). I listened carefully to what he said. As it happens, I am going to Florida on Friday, but not for the purpose that he was there recently. Let us consider the sort of cases that he cited—for example, the recent tragic case in Georgia, where the death penalty was applied. I am not convinced that well-meaning intervention in a country's judicial process by people from outside necessarily always bears the desired fruit.

I say that particularly of the United States, which, with all its faults, prides itself on having a proper, democratic judicial system in which—whether we like it or not—judges and attorneys are elected at county and state level. One should be very cautious in seeking, even with the best motivation, to intervene in the judicial process of the United States. I suspect that that is why such action is not as successful as my hon. Friend and others would wish. Having said that, I wish him well in his endeavours, and I hope that Florida's judicial system will come out of this latest case with as much credit as possible in the circumstances.

I have over-run my time, so I ask the Minister to forgive me for taking a minute of the time that I promised him. I also ask for the forgiveness of those of my hon. Friends whose speeches I have not been able to mention.

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