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13 Nov 2002 : Column 69continued
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I welcome the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Time flew by when I listened to his remarks. I welcome also the remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay); I echo what he said about Northern Ireland. It was disappointing to me that even when times were much more troubled it was possible to find an angler from Germany every 200 metres when it should have been possible to find an angler from the rest of Britain every 100 yards.
I remember taking my family for a drive round the whole of Ireland in 1971, when times were pretty rough. At one stage, we had apparently driven over a 600 1b bomb. We still had a marvellous time in Northern Ireland. There is great hospitality both north and south of the border.
I shall cover a fair amount of ground, but not at length. I pay tribute to councillors throughout our country. We do not spend enough time considering the difficulties that they have when changes or proposed changes to rate support grant or equivalent moneys for the police or for both have an impact on what councillors will do. I wondered what the cause was. For a time, I was a junior Minister involved in rate support grant exemplifications. During my time in government, I do not think that we saw the sort of attack on certain parts of the country that we are seeing now. Some of the attack may be the result of misunderstanding.
I have a letter from West Sussex county council, which points out that a change in possible fines for county councils for not unblocking beds may cost the county council #3 million to #4 million a year, when the resources needed to make it possible to move people on will not be available. That penalty may apply to each of the county councils in my area with social services responsibility.
There are other changes, such as the possible changes in police funding. At one extreme, these might mean that the Sussex police force, which covers both East and West Sussex, might lose #19 million or #32 million, whatever the figure may be. In the end, I do not think that the situation will be as bad as that.
West Sussex has by far the highest proportion of over-85s and a very high proportion of over-75s. In my constituency, nearly half the population is above retirement age. If the county is penalised on policing money, social services money, housing money and other local government funds, many people on low fixed incomesthere is not as much unemployment as there is in some other areaswill find themselves penalised in a way that requires an example. I use some figures from about a year ago.
In the Prime Minister's health authority area, fewer than one person in 100 were waiting for in-patient treatment for more than one year. In West Sussex, as in west Surrey, one person in 10 were waiting for more than a year. That is postcode discrimination.
We should argue for a movement of resources to areas where people are waiting the longest and where most people are waiting. Yet the funding seems to move the other way. The Government should come to West Sussex and think about why they still pursue a system of penalty.
In 16 months, from towards the end of June 2001 to the end of October 2002, the Prime Minister made a number of official visits. Making allowances for some ambiguity, with some place names appearing in more than one county, I believe that the Prime Minister did not visit West Sussex, or for that matter East Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire or Gloucestershire. I challenge each local newspaper or regional newspaper to ask whether the Prime Minister has made enough visits, or in some instances any visit, to its county. I will not get involved in whether the right hon. Gentleman went to Brighton for the TUC or Labour party conferences. He has certain duties that we understand. However, the only time when he went to the south coast was for matters party political or near party political. He needs to come down to the south coast more often.
The Prime Minister should understand that there are many who would benefit by some of the policies that are put forward by the Government, and possibly by some of the proposed legislation in the Queen's Speech. The right hon. Gentleman should understand also that many people have been penalised by the apparent ignorance of what conditions are like for many people on the south coast. Many of them are on relatively low pay and many others are on low fixed incomes. They are struggling hard.
When Government decisions require council tax to increase by 10 per cent., many people notice that. They are the people whom we should be serving the most. They are the old-time generation, my father's generation, who are living on the south coast. They worry about social security, policing and health services which mean it is necessary to wait. I will not produce a great list, but I am aware of a person who had to wait 12 months for a 20-minute hearing test at the local hospital. These things matter, and it is one of the reasons why I cherish having an individual constituency responsibility.
I move on to the Prime Minister's e-envoy. I refer to the electronic government person, probably about four or five years ago. For most of the past year I have been trying to find the Prime Minister's e-mail address. People would not tell me that he did not have one but they would not say what it was. We now discover that some time in the new yearthat may mean the whole of 2003 or early in that year, given the ambiguity of language that comes out of No. 10there will be an e-mail address for the Prime Minister. Those involved should be able to cope with the blizzard of e-mails because No. 10 receives 12,000 letters a week. If they can cope with that number of letters, they can cope with e-mails, which are rather easier to dispose of. I condemn those who advise the Prime Minister for ensuring that he remained one of the few people in government without an e-mail address.
The Foreign Secretary is in the same position. When a Member of Parliament wants to make urgent representations to the Foreign Office about a constituentperhaps someone facing deportation or in trouble overseasit is helpful to have an e-mail address
The Prime Minister's office has not commissioned any focus group research since June 2001. That is perfectly reasonable. The Department of Health was asked what research it had commissioned and whether it would identify the topics covered, who carried it out, the total cost, and whether the research would be published on the Department's website. The answer was that a table had been placed in the Library and that the Department's expenditure on focus group research could only be provided at disproportionate cost. I do not criticise that if it is true, because I do not wish to put the Department to disproportionate cost.
A Department should be able to state that any research carried out with public funds is published and that a summary, at least, is put on an accessible website. It was a rule when I was a junior Minister that if public money was spent on research, it was published, however embarrassing or boring it might be or however ill-considered its commissioning might have been. For the same reason, PhD theses should also be made available to the public.
The Prime Minister should instruct those preparing answers on his behalf to give a full answer. The fact that no untruth has actually been told is not good enough. An example needs to be set throughout Government so that if it is possible to give fuller information, it should be given. If that question were to be answered after this speech, I would expect that it would include an extra paragraph saying that those people covered by Orders in Council were exceptions.
I ask my Front Benchers to ensure that we go into the next election saying that we will not have any Orders in Council that allow anyone who is not a Minister or a member of the permanent hierarchy to give instructions to civil servants. It is not right that those Orders in Council cover Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, and I hope that there are no others about whom we have not been told.
It may amuse the House to learn that because of a rare slip in Hansarda heading has been missed outwe do not have our attention drawn to the fact that officials do not give reports on junior Ministers to the Prime Minister, and that if they have a complaint to make they make it through the Cabinet Secretary. I mention that as some encouragement to the junior Ministers who are in their places.
My next point is about VAT on energy-saving materials. The Government's scope for action may be limited by the European Union, but that may be up for review. It is important to have a lower rate of VAT on materials that will prevent the wasting of energyfor many reasons, including price elasticity, the signal that it would send and the recognition that if we are to take global warming seriously, we must take seriously the reduction in the use of energy and the reduction of the pollution that accompanies the creation of energy. If we took some of the tax reliefs that are available to the power companies when they purchase plant that generates energy, we could better spend it on helping people to be warm and snug in their homes. It is normally those in lower income groups who are slowest to obtain energy-efficient boilers and insulation materials.
The Law Commission has produced many reports to which the Government have not responded. I remind the House that our law is a combination of the common law, the decisions of the higher courts and the statute law enacted or authorised by Parliament. The main areas in which the Law Commission works include trust and property law, criminal law, contract, tort, commercial law, the law of landlord and tenant and damages. If the Law Commission, after consultation, has produced a draft Bill which it believes would clarify the law or change it to make it more just, and if the Government do not act on that within a short space of time, they should be required to report in detail to the House. If the Law Commission puts forward a suggestion that, by general agreement, would make things fairer or change the judgments that courts make, we have a responsibility to demand of the Government that they give it a much higher priority.
Some of the issues facing the Law Commission may not sound enormously important to everyone, when they include, for example, shareholder remedies; business tenancies; aggravated, exemplary and restitutionary damages; liability for psychiatric illnesses; the rules against perpetuities, and excess accumulations. However, the Government's response on the Law Commission's recommendations on offences against the person is not adequate, because insufficient priority is given to them.
I ask that the Law Officers and the Prime Minister consider introducing a system that would require the relevant Departments to say explicitly what is happening. If the Department agrees with the recommendations, it should say so. If it thinks that there should be a second round of consultation, and therefore delay, it should say so. If the recommendations are to be kept for the third or fourth year of a Parliament, because they are not controversial, the relevant Department should say so. The Law Commission does the work, and we should not be left wondering what will happen next.
I do not know whether the Law Commission has addressed the reform of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I return to a case that the House has considered in the past when it was proper to do sowhen no court case was pendingand that is the Wintercomfort case. Ruth Wyner and John Brock were sent to prison in a prison system where 19,000 of the 70,000 population have been
It is a scandal that Ministers did not intervene. They knew what had happened and they should have listened to homeless projects around the country. Ministers should realise now that the result of that use of section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was to change the sorts of people who could be dealt with by wet or dry shelters. If our homelessness projects, whether day or night centres, can cope only with the clean and the decent, or with those with sufficient self-control not to share or deal in drugs, and if the police will not co-operate in such cases, we will not find the volunteers, the professionals or the unpaid trustees who are willing to work together to help people lift themselves out of the misery of drugs that was described by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) as affecting his area and far too many other areas.
I turn to the curious case of Mr. JW. Two of my constituents have been involved with business premises in Spain. I wrote a letter on their behalf to lawyers saying that my constituents had not received justice in terms of shareholdings, dividends and ownership. I copied that letter to the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish ambassador. I received no reply for several weeks, so I wrote again, including in my letter an assertion that Mr. JW had not told the truth to a court. The matter proceeded. He has now written to me, saying that he is considering suing me for defamation for communicating to my secretary what was put to me by my constituents, and for communicating the information that I gave to the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish ambassador.
I have experience of defamation proceedings. I have not paid a penny to a lawyer yet, although that may be due as much to luck as to merit, and I do not intend to start now. So I have told Mr. JW that I am sorry that he thinks my action has lowered him in the eyes of the Spanish ambassador and the Foreign Secretary. I have received a letter from one of Mr. JW's associates, saying, XSorry about the information in the fax. It was not that he did not say something in court; he did." The word Xnot" was missing, which shows that the complications go round and round and round.I say to this man that if he thinks that getting at a Member of Parliament for getting a secretary to write a letter in some way defames the person, he had better find someone else to challenge. I am not inviting him to take me to court, but I can say, quite simply, that many people would be delighted to give evidence in court, which is just as privileged as making these remarks in the House.
I say to those who face inquiries from Members of Parliament on behalf of constituents, XYour best advice is to co-operate and give information openly. If there is some dispute over facts, just spell that out." Few of us here are pushovers for such a letter, which I could have taken the wrong way. I hope that I have not done so, but if I have, I intend to use every opportunity to get justice for my constituents.