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19 Nov 2002 : Column 596—continued

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The hon. Lady and I have discussed the problems of hard drugs before in the Chamber. Does she agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) that we need more facilities for the treatment of hard drug addicts? She has not mentioned that. Does she think that that should be provided by compulsion if people are convicted of hard drug offences?

Ms Taylor: That was an excellent intervention. I am probably rattling through my speech so quickly that the hon. Gentleman did not hear me say that the total number of drug treatments has increased since 1997 by more than a third. I would be wary of using compulsion. The police in Lancashire have a programme whereby, with the health authority, they are embracing young drug addicts. They are saying to them, XYou come in and receive treatment and we will do all we can to keep you off drugs. We are not interested in sentencing or compulsion. We know that you have to want to come off the drug." I am told that, to date, of the 36 youngsters given that opportunity, 35 are proving that they can stay off heroin. That is an important statement. I would love to introduce compulsion, but I think that we realise that we can want all we like; the youngsters have to want to come off drugs. I am therefore not convinced on the compulsion argument.

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I am convinced of other arguments. We must have a flexible system of support. There is no one size fits all solution. There are individual needs and we must approach the problem by recognising that. Universal acceptance that the state should provide prescriptions of heroin—obviously to a minority group, with great care and to achieve one thing: to cut out the dealers and get young people into a support service—is long overdue.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Lady's time is up.

9.1 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Like many of my colleagues, I intend to dwell a little on regional government. In common with many MPs, nobody from my constituency has written to me to say that they want a regional tier of government. The Government are making a great mistake by pursuing the policy. People have to feel a loyalty towards an area. They feel a loyalty to their town, village or county—or indeed to being British or being English. If we have to have an unnecessary tier of government, I might be able to persuade my constituents of the benefits of an English Parliament—

Angus Robertson: English MPs have got one already.

Mr. Syms: That is one argument.

People regard being English as very important but they feel no loyalty to the south-west, which is an artificial region that has no separate identity. The Cornish have very different problems from those of us in Dorset. Many of my constituents commute to Southampton, Winchester, Basingstoke and London, and tend to look eastwards rather than westwards, mainly because the road system is so awful that nobody in their right mind would go west of Bournemouth or Poole. The investment has not been made in the south-west.

Mrs. Ellman: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the case for regional devolution is a case for economic equity together with democratic accountability on the part of the existing unelected regional tier of government?

Mr. Syms: I do not accept that. The Government have been silent on how they would reallocate resources. The issue of Scottish funding and the aspirations of the north of England came up earlier. If the Government are honest, they will publish a paper on inequalities between areas of the UK. When people set out on the journey of regional government, it is perfectly reasonable that they know what financial settlement they would get.

My basic fear is that we will end up with unwanted regional government: a tier of politicians drawing salaries and building new offices. Most of my constituents would rather that that money be spent on social services, education, roads and other important things in their locality. I believe that there is no great appetite for regional government.

The issue of regional boundaries has been raised in the debate. There might be more logic to boundaries in the north of England, but there is certainly not in the

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south-east, the east or the south-west. The Conservative Government devolved the regional offices to places such as Bristol in order to create jobs there. It was never intended that the offices be a political unit, and I do not believe that they will ever be.

As a schoolboy, I grew up in Bristol. The then Conservative Government created Avon county council, cutting bits off Somerset and Gloucester and changing the status of the city and county of Bristol. There may have been a logic to that—indeed, there may be a logic to the creation of Humberside and other areas—but there was no emotional attachment. Campaigns began immediately, but after 20 or 30 years, the situation has changed. If one does not take into account local ties and concerns, one is storing up difficulties for the future.

I shall focus a little bit on Poole borough council, but before doing so, I should like to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) about the problems of flood defence and the various tiers of government that interfere with a solution. An opportunity has been missed in the Queen's Speech to deal with that.

Angus Robertson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware from UK media coverage that my constituency was hit over the weekend by devastating floods. Does he agree that the Government have missed an opportunity as they are not seeking to co-ordinate social security offices, the Inland Revenue and the financial services industry to deal swiftly and effectively with the many hundreds of people in my constituency who are now homeless and the many businesses set to go out of business in the near future?

Mr. Syms: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who has made his point extremely eloquently. The problem will become much bigger. We will have many more floods in future and it would be better to have a clearer, more comprehensive way of dealing with them.

As for the Government's planned local government legislation, we have heard their buzz phrases about freedom and so on, but I am suspicious of their reaction to local government, especially their proposed reform of the grant system. For many years, many of my colleagues and I have campaigned for a fairer grant system for Dorset, which has suffered as a result of the area cost adjustment. It is a great concern that schools in Poole, Bournemouth and out in sticks in Dorset have received #200 less per head than schools up the road in Hampshire and Ringwood. I am disappointed that the Government's reform proposals will make the situation worse. They are taking money from poorly funded authorities to give to better funded authorities, many of which have a political loyalty different from ours in the south of England, which is a pity.

Looking at the various options, it is highly likely that Poole will lose money. It is not an extravagant authority, and may need to impose a heavy council tax rise just to stand still. Changing the grant formula has a great impact not only on local government but on the police. Dorset police authority estimates that it could lose #1.4 million to #4.8 million—a substantial part of an #89 million budget—which could mean the loss of 300 police officers. There is therefore genuine concern about the changes, which could have a great impact.

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I welcome the opportunity for local authorities to get rid of the 25 per cent. council tax discount on second homes if they wish. My main concern is what happens to the money once that decision is made. The Deputy Prime Minister said that most of that money would stay with local authorities—the figure of #65 million was mentioned. However, many empty homes are eligible for a discount, and the #160 million that could be garnered from them may well be recycled back to the Treasury. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that that taxation will not be increased and recycled back to the Government, rather than to people at the sharp end.

Dorset has a serious problem with funding. Social services are under great strain, and the south and south-west have problems providing children's social services, which means that the provision of services for the elderly and the disabled are not what they should be. The proposal in the Queen's Speech to fine social services for bed blocking is not wise as those services are short of money. As the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) said, the fault may not be with social services—it may well be with the NHS itself. I hope that the Government will consider that proposal carefully.

My main concerns are the impact on my constituency of changes to local government and to the local planning system. By and large, our planning system has worked well at district council and county council level. I have concerns, however, about major infrastructure projects—it cannot be wise to spend #80 million on the terminal 5 inquiry at Heathrow when our competitors at Schipol and Charles de Gaulle airport can add two runways and compete with us. Faster progress needs to be made on major projects.

The balance that we strike, with local people being able to have their say through their local authorities, works pretty well. To move towards a regional agenda for our planning, with more decisions perhaps being devolved to planning officers, would be counterproductive. That is a cause of great concern among my constituents. We have a system in Poole whereby, if a matter has to go before a planning committee, it is green-carded. It happens a lot, because people want to see matters debated and dealt with on the floor of their local authority. If we move away from that, we will rue the day.

Earlier, the Government were patting themselves on the back for their achievements in respect of density and brownfield sites, but in Poole that means that many 1930s properties which have rather large gardens are being put under pressure to be pulled down and replaced with multiple housing. That is changing the character of many of our areas, which is a great pity. I would prefer much more power over planning decisions to remain with local people, so that they retain ownership of it. If the Government change the planning laws and get it wrong, they will rue the day.

I have concerns about regional government, the funding changes that the Government are proposing for Poole, and the planning system, which the Government must be very careful about changing.

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9.11 pm

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