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7.39 pm

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): It is a great privilege to speak in this debate and I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I have an especially high regard for the vice-chancellor of his university, David Drewry, whom I have admired for many years. As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I was reminded that I am bereft, as an undergraduate from Hull who has been with me for the entire year, James Holden, has now returned to sunny Hull, abandoning me to a state of chaos and incompetence. I therefore have two reasons to be especially appreciative of his constituency. I also have a very strong point of contact with him in having to bemoan the destructive effects of much of the Liberal Democrat activity in my constituency.

It has been my privilege to represent my very beautiful tract of the country for the past 18 years, but I want to raise three issues that I think are especially serious. They relate to the good will and tolerance in areas such as mine, which pay very high taxes and are aware that increasingly high taxes are being charged through national insurance and the everlasting array of stealth taxes being introduced by the Government. Their tolerance of the inadequacy of the way in which the funding formulae work is growing very thin. The Prime Minister constantly says that such concerns are a plea for more money, but they are a plea for greater equity in the funding formulae.

I have the latest information, which shows that in Durham, the Prime Minister's health authority area, of the 12,000 patients waiting for in-patient treatment, only one has waited more than a year. In my health authority area, 13,700 patients are waiting for in-patient treatment—another 1,000 people—but 558 are waiting more than a year. I regret that, since the Government took office in

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1997, they have consistently distorted the funding formula. There is genuine inequity in health service delivery and they know full well that that is the case, although I am sorry that the Department of Health provides such paltry responses to letters. The current state of affairs is entirely unsatisfactory. Some 558 people in west Surrey are waiting more than a year for in-patient treatment. The Government have announced a very substantial increase in health funding, but my constituents feel extremely strongly that the money that is allocated should be delivered equitably.

With that in mind, two particular issues are causing concern in South-West Surrey. I give credit for the fact that Farnham's community hospital is at last under construction after many years of campaigning. Haslemere has the largest elderly population in Surrey. Very many elderly people live alone and they must be completely secure in terms of their community hospital. Frankly, I am confident that the hospital's future is secure, but following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Hull, North, there has been some scaremongering in the Haslemere community. I ask the Minister to use his good offices to obtain confirmation from Health Ministers that the Haslemere hospital is indeed secure.

In Godalming, the pressure in local accident and emergency departments and extremely serious waiting time problems have led to a request that a local care centre be developed. I strongly endorse that request and I know that Waverley borough council would act as co-operatively as it is able within the constraints of its resources. There is a serious issue: general practitioners are extremely cramped in their premises and there is a serious need for a local care centre. County councillor Maureen Nyazai and many others are working towards that, but if the Minister felt able to communicate with his colleagues, I would be more than grateful if he gave a fair wind to both those initiatives.

In passing, I should like to applaud the industry and endeavour of the health service managers who serve my constituency and the country generally. There has just been a meeting of our new strategic health authority, involving our new chief executive, Simon Robbins, and our chairman Terry Hawksworth, as well as our primary care trust chief executive Elizabeth Slinn and chairman Chris Grimes. People rarely thank health service managers, but I think that they are wrong not to do so, as the country is well served by their commitment and their trying to deliver services in the face of huge obstacles and, I am afraid, unrealistic rhetoric.

Our problems are compounded by the acute care sector crisis. I applaud the initiatives of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and their consistent approach in drawing attention to the problems of care homes. My hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and many others have drawn attention to the degree to which excessive regulation, lack of regard for the cost of living and many other issues have made the delivery of care home services acutely difficult. Woodlarks in Farnham is an example of a specialised and wonderful facility for women with physical disabilities, but it is having the greatest difficulty in managing to continue its work. The Meath home is somewhere that any of us would gladly wish any relatives with mild learning disabilities or epilepsy to stay. The pressure on those voluntary homes to make ends meet is formidable and unacceptable when one considers allocation of funding.

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That brings me to the recent consultation paper on the local government finance formula on grant distribution. I speak on behalf of TACFIG, the town and country finance issues group. Waverley, my borough council, has led on much of the preparation in advancing the case. There are problems in areas with a high cost of living and a population that is not densely packed, and where the presence of several towns means that the service has to be delivered in rural and urban areas. The needs of such areas are not sufficiently or fairly recognised by the formula. If there is to be a sense of equity and justice throughout the country with regard to the use of taxpayers' money, I urge the Government to accept that it is inappropriate and wrong to force areas such as mine to confront a situation of public squalor amidst private affluence.

A further measure that is causing deep concern is the pressure on debt-free local authorities to hand over the proceeds of council house sales to so-called "more needy" authorities. It is well understood that every time the Government weight a formula with regard to deprivation measures, it is a veiled attack on areas such as mine. I have long believed in the principles of the welfare state, even though it should be modernised, updated and altered, but if there is such a sense of injustice, it will not be sustainable to suggest that the good will of constituents such as mine can be maintained.

Let me turn to the last concern to which I should like to draw the House's attention. I ask for the Minister's assistance in getting confirmation that the plans for the A3 at Hindhead are on target and that there has been no moving back from the commitment that there should be a tunnel past this appalling transport trouble spot. The Devil's Punch Bowl is a beautiful area that is scarred by the problems of traffic. The traffic lights at Hindhead are the only ones to be encountered when driving between Scotland and Portsmouth, as I have frequently told the four Scottish Transport Ministers. The Highways Agency has been extremely helpful, but in accordance with what the hon. Member for Hull, North said about the mischievous behaviour of the Liberal Democrats, scaremongering and rumourmongering are rife in the Hindhead area to the effect that the scheme has been abandoned. I do not believe that to be the case, but I urge on the House and the Minister the importance of the Hindhead tunnel not only for my constituents, but for the regeneration of Portsmouth, Southsea and, of course, that very important area, the Isle of Wight.

I hope that the Minister will take up those points and reply to me in due course before the House adjourns.

7.49 pm

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I want to cover two issues of crucial importance on which I should like progress to be made before the House goes into recess. I make no apology for the fact that in the 19 years I have been a Member I have raised one of those issues in the House on more than 300 occasions, either in debate or in written and oral questions—that is, the empty housing in my constituency. More than 4,000 houses in Burnley are empty, many of them derelict and abandoned, and the problem gets worse week by week. Dozens of Ministers—virtually every housing Minister in those 19 years—have been to Burnley to look at the problem and accepted that it exists. Then, a year later, it is worse than when they

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came. This is our last chance to do something. The Government have to give the council the means and the ability to tackle the problem. If, in 12 months' time, the people of Burnley cannot clearly be shown that progress has been made, we will face serious difficulties.

Last Monday, I welcomed the Chancellor's statement, in which housing moved up the agenda for the first time in several years. It identified two key problem areas: first, the south—I do not in any way want to diminish that problem—and, secondly, parts of the north such as Lancashire and Yorkshire, where we face the problem of empty houses that nobody wants. The statement said that money would be available to deal with those problems.

When we heard Thursday's statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, I hoped that we would get further information about what was to be done to help. He mentioned the figure that would be available, but unfortunately did not give much detail. I do not say that as a criticism—I realise that he had difficulty in covering every issue that he wanted to cover in the course of that statement. Nevertheless, Burnley needs to know more than what was said last Thursday. On Friday, I attended a meeting in Accrington, which had been arranged before the statement, in which east Lancashire council leaders, the chief executives of the councils and local Members of Parliament discussed the pathfinder housing renewal project. There are nine such projects, one of which is for east Lancashire, of which Burnley is a part. We know from a statement that was made a few weeks ago that £2.66 million has been made available up-front. That is welcome, but it will not scratch the surface of the problem that we have in Burnley, let alone in east Lancashire as a whole. Of course, it is not intended to—it is there to help to prepare the way for what local authorities are going to do. But local authorities need to know how much money will be available over the next three years in order to be able to plan the right type of programme to match the resources that they will get. Will it be £150 million, £50 million or £250 million? Everybody recognises that at least a 10-year programme will be required to solve the problem.

On 16 May, I took part in a debate in Westminster Hall and made several points that I do not intend to repeat today. I also referred to the issue during the debate on the Queen's Speech on 20 June, the very first day of the new Session.

A few years ago, the Bishop of Burnley, Ronald Milner, who is now retired—we have had two bishops since then—produced an independent report in which independent experts from several sources, including housing associations and the industry, considered housing in Burnley and east Lancashire. It identified a real crisis. A few weeks ago, the bishop was back in Burnley celebrating the fact that Burnley has had a bishop for 100 years. If he had gone around Burnley or east Lancashire he would have been amazed to find that the situation that he so clearly described in his report is no better—indeed, it is far worse—than at the time he published it.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been to Burnley twice in the past 12 months. He has seen the decay and despair and understands the problems that so many people in Burnley face. We have to recognise that many houses are beyond the stage at which they can be improved and therefore have to be demolished. About 2,000 houses need to be demolished very speedily—in my view, within the next 12 months. We then need to be able to concentrate

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on improvements, whether it be knocking two houses into one or knocking alternate terraces down, according to the area. That is necessary because there is an oversupply of houses to meet an underdemand from people who would not want them even if they were in good shape and good repair, yet many are in an absolutely appalling state because they have been vandalised or used by drug addicts, causing great fear to people living in the area.

However, demolition is an extremely expensive option in a part of the country where after houses have been demolished there is very little or, in many cases, no site value available. That is completely different from the situation in London and the south. In Burnley, the houses are demolished and the area is cleared but there is nothing to go there. We cannot bring people into the area. If we could, we would do so, but we have to accept that we do not have the jobs for them. There is no point in saying, "Let's bring people from the south to relieve the pressure there", because there are no jobs to give them the security that they would want.

Every day I get at least one letter identifying a different problem. Today, I got a letter from the daughter of two old age pensioners aged 81 and 82. The father is critically ill. They are in an area that is to be demolished, but the resources are not there to allow for that, so it is not in this year's phase. I hope that it will be in next year's phase. Once the father is in hospital, it is likely that the mother will have to leave the house. Compensation will be based on the value of the house at the time when the council compulsorily purchases it. It has already lost a tremendous amount in value owing to the deterioration of the area. Just imagine what that house will be like in six months' or a year's time if the family leaves. Many of my constituents now live in negative equity. The value of their house has gone down, and the price that they are offered in compensation if they move out when it is to be demolished is less than they owe on the mortgage. When they get a new property, straight away they owe more than it is worth. It is a real problem, and the Government must show what they are going to do to help the people of Burnley, east Lancashire and the other pathfinder project areas.

I could speak for ages about this, because I am so concerned about it, but other hon. Members want to speak. The other issue that I want to discuss is mentioned on pages 1,4 and 5 of today's edition of The Mirror in an article by Steve Dennis. He spoke to me about it on my way to London today, as have people from other newspapers. The report is about the death of Christopher Alder at Hull police station in 1998. Hon. Members might wonder what my involvement in that case could be. His sister, Janet Alder, lives in my constituency, and she raised the matter with me just after her brother had tragically died in police custody.

Over the years, I have had considerable correspondence with the Police Complaints Authority, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Hull police force, Ministers, the Home Secretary—the present one and the previous one—and the Attorney-General. You name them, I have written to them about this case. It is a matter of great concern that a youngish lad who had been a paratrooper in the British forces could have died on that day. I have seen the video that is referred to in the report, as has the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for

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Blackburn (Mr. Straw), whose constituency is close to my own. Anyone who sees that video will be appalled at what happened at that time.

I have deliberately not raised this matter in the House before today, because I wanted to ensure that, when the case went trial, I would in no way have prejudiced that trial or assisted the police in saying that it should not proceed because I had prejudged the issue. The trial has now been heard and the case was thrown out a few weeks ago. The jury did not, in fact, take a decision on the case. So, it has gone.

The Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, who also represents a member of Christopher Alder's family, and I wrote jointly to the present Home Secretary a few weeks ago. My hon. Friend and I said in a press statement on 25 June that we were calling for a public inquiry into the matter. We stated:

in April 1998—

Our statement went on to say that we were asking for an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary. He has said that he would prefer to wait until the police disciplinary action had taken place, and I understand that. Indeed, for that very reason, I have not tabled an early-day motion or called for an Adjournment debate in the House on the matter. In view of the fact that the case has now been made public, however, I want to make it absolutely clear that both my hon. Friend and I will pursue this case vigorously, because we are very concerned about it.

I do not want to make any judgment on the facts that have been reported in the press, and I am not going to refer to them tonight. All I will say is that I believe that the House should be concerned about what happened on that tragic night, and about what has happened since in all the investigations, and recognise that the only way in which we can satisfy the family and the wider public—because wider concerns are now being expressed—is by having a full public inquiry. I believe that it is right that I should make that point in this debate tonight.

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