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The first game is between France and Senegal. I pay tribute to the Senegalese teamit is a fantastic, exciting, free-flowing team. I ran the London marathon in the Senegalese team strip. I have an invitation to the first game, but I will not be able to attend because I will be giving out Queen's jubilee medals to one of the excellent primary schools in my constituency. However, I hope that the Senegalese win the first match against France.
Finally, I congratulate ambassador Mahbubani, the president of the United Nations Security Council on his statement on Cyprus on 2 May. The direct talks between President Clerides for the Greek Cypriots and Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, have completed their third round. As the House knows, the negotiations are geared to finding a comprehensive settlement to the Cyprus problem that takes proper account of the relevant UN resolutions and treaties. It is hoped that a settlement will be forthcoming before the European Union makes its
Mr. Mahbubani expressed the regret of the Security Council that more progress had not been made in the talks. The council said that the time has come to set down areas of common ground between the two sides, with the aim of establishing the component parts of a comprehensive settlement and, where differences remain, to narrow and remove those through a process of negotiation focused on compromise formulations.
Compromise is the key word for both the Turkish and Greek Cypriot sides. There are many heads of termsI am sure that most of us know what they areand everyone wants everything on each of those heads of terms. That is not the way that a settlement will look. There will be difficult and painful compromise for both communities, but in the long run it is necessary and right to get a long-term solution.
The Security Council urged both sides, particularly the Turkish side, to co-operate fully with the Secretary-General's special adviser in achieving the compromise solution. Everyone in the House must recognise our special responsibility, and hope and pray that a settlement can be achieved.
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). I endorse his good luck wishes to the England team, and invite him and other hon. Members who want to make a patriotic punt to do so with Ladbrokesthe excellent betting firm based in my constituency.
I want to raise four entirely different issues. The first is the rise in hate crime that, sadly, has occurred in the United Kingdom. I shall focus my comments on the increase in anti-Semitism, although I hope that the House will soon have the opportunity to explore the wider issue more fully.
In the month of April alone, 51 incidents of anti-Semitism were recordedthe second highest monthly figure on record. They included the attack on Finsbury park synagogue, which was entirely ransacked. Swastikas were daubed on the holy ark, religious scrolls were ripped, trampled on and covered with paint. It is both sad and ironic that the vandalised scrolls came from the book of Esther, which includes the story of a tyrant's attempt to murder the Jewish community in ancient Persia. In addition, prayer books were ripped up and windows were broken. The synagogue was entirely desecrated.
Jewish communities throughout the country were utterly shocked by the scenes at the Finsbury synagogue, which is used by a mainly elderly congregation, many of whom escaped from the terrible events in Europe during world war two. The Jewish community in my constituency is worriedrightlyby the steady increase of anti-Semitism.
Sad to say, these are not isolated events, but part of a trend. During the past four years, there has been a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents monitored by the Jewish community. In 1998, there were about 385 such incidents; by 1999 that figure had risen to 402, and in 2000, it was 576. Last year, there were about 521 incidents. This year, to date, there have been about 126.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): May I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning those outrageous attacks? Our country has a strong tradition of religious tolerance that all Members try to uphold, so I am sure that, in principle, he has the support of Members on the Opposition Benches for everything that he is saying.
There is a sense that the number of incidents has risen as a consequence of the tension in the middle east. There is of course a genuine debate to be had about events in the middle east, but we must not tolerate the demonisation of Israel or extreme anti-Zionism, as that may legitimise anti-Semitic attacks. Such demonisation can embolden existing anti-Semites and create new ones.
Internationally, too, there is concern at the increase in holocaust denial. I am especially worried by the activities of the Iranian Government, who have granted asylum to several European neo-Nazi activists who fled their countries of origin after conviction for holocaust denial. Those activists have been involved in the organisation of conferences that promote holocaust denial, such as those that took place in Moscow and Trieste recently.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews has held a series of meetings with Ministers at the Home Office and I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will pass on our appreciation for those discussions with the Jewish community. I hope, too, that he will continue to express the ongoing concern of my constituents and of Jewish constituents throughout the country.
The second issue that I want to raise is the need to speed up the Government's consideration of reform of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. In our general election manifesto, we rightly gave a commitment to tackle the activities of loan sharks. We noted that the Act provided that a court, at a debtor's request, could consider whether a credit agreement was extortionate and, if so, change its terms so that they were fair and reasonable. Unfortunately, a series of cases has highlighted the fact that the law is deficient.
In the autumn, consultation documents were published, which proposed the redefinition of the term "extortionate credit" in the 1974 Act; the reduction of some of the qualifying barriers before cases could be considered by the courts; and the introduction of a requirement for
My specific interest arose from the case of one of my constituents who took out a mortgage in the 1980s with National Home Loans Ltd.now part of Paragon Finance plc. National Home Loans has had a somewhat turbulent career. In the 1980s, it was one of the new type of mortgage lenders known as centralised lenders. Such companies did not operate like traditional building societies or banks which take deposits to raise funds for their mortgage lending; instead, they raised funds on the wholesale markets and lent money at a higher rate.
Many of those companies were especially exposed to the property recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that may explain some of the more recent actions of Paragon Finance in respect of the National Home Loans book. The annual reports of Paragon Finance have alluded to the problem facing my constituent and several others. The reports show that charging rates are much higher than those in the market, and that reflects the overall profile of the company's home loan portfolio.
After a recent court case, an article highlighted the fact that National Home Loans borrowers typically paid double the market interest rate. Back in October, two sets of borrowers challenged the company's interest rate policy. They did so because Paragon was seeking possession orders on their homes after they had fallen into arrears. They tried to argue in the High Court and the Court of Appeal that the high interest rates applied by National Home Loans or Paragon were extortionate under the terms of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and unfair under the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.
Sadly, in those casesthe cases of Nash and Staunton v. Paragon Financethe borrowers were unsuccessful in persuading the court to endorse their case. The Court of Appeal decided that a lender's discretion as regards the way that it sets its interest rates, although not completely unfettered, should only be restricted according to the terms of the 1974 Act in a very limited way; and that crucial, very narrow, definition of the constraints on the lender's discretion meant that the two borrowers' arguments were struck down.
I have raised this issue in the House before, and the concerns that I voiced then were picked up by a law firm, which recently highlighted to me a case of a client who is due very shortly to be evicted from their home by Paragon's solicitors. The firm, in its preparation and its attempts to persuade the courts and Paragon Finance not to take such action, called in expert evidence to examine how the rates that National Home Loans was charging compared with those charged by more than 100 more conventional mortgage lenders. It concluded that although National Home Loans' rates had initially been very competitive, now they were traditionally 4 or 5 per cent. higher than those charged by other lenders and, in some cases, were utterly out of line with the market.
I hope that hon. Friends in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury will accelerate the review of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 so that this bunch of loan sharksI can think of no other term to describe the way Paragon Finance has operatedcan be brought to
The third issue that I want to mention concerns funding from learning and skills councils to local authorities and colleges when they are attempting to change the structure of post-16 provision in their area. In essence, there are no sixth forms in Harrow's many excellent high schools. That has increasingly become an issue of concern to constituents. On occasion, some 30 to 40 per cent. of Harrow's 16 to 18-year-old students are educated out of the borough, the bulk of them in sixth forms in Hillingdon, Watford or Barnet.
Although we have very high standards of education in our high schools and primary schools, many head teachers and parents are drawing to my attention as their Member of Parliament the fact that many parents are taking their children out of primary school in the last year, at age 11, to get them into high schools with sixth forms. They are concerned about the ethos of the tertiary college system in Harrow, and whether their child is mature enough to cope with the structure and nature of education in a tertiary college.
I should place on the record the fact that the tertiary colleges do have high standards of education, but we cannot ignore the concerns of parents in my constituency. I am pleased to say that a debate is under way locally, initiated by the Labour council and led by the excellent leadership on that local council, as to how we can change post-16 provision to protect the excellent provision offered by the tertiary colleges but also to recognise parental concerns for a more sixth-form style ethos in local post-16 provision. Obviously, to change the structure of post-16 provision locally will require additional funding, and I hope that the Government will ensure that learning and skills councils serving north-west London are properly funded for this purpose.
The last issue that I wish to raise is that of fees for registration as an industrial and provident society. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to introduce a private Member's Bill, the Industrial and Provident Societies Bill, to reform the legal form of industrial and provident societies. During the course of discussions with a series of organisations in the co-operative movement, including the Village Retail Services Association and the National Federation of Women's Institutes country markets, they have flagged up to me not only their desire to see the legislation that governs industrial and provident societies brought up to date but their concern about the Financial Services Authority proposals to levy a tenfold increase in the annual registration charges that must be paid to enable them to remain an industrial and provident society.
There has already been debate on the Floor of the House about this issue. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and I have met the Financial Services Authority to press the issue and I know that Treasury Ministers are already examining the issue, but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, when he feeds back to other Ministers concerns that have been raised on the Floor of the House, will continue to impress on Treasury Ministers the genuine concern that exists in this area.