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6.7 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made an interesting speech. I am sure that the Government Whip on duty will have noticed that, so far, every Labour Member who has spoken has expressed concerns about the direction that the Government are taking, especially on top-up fees. When a political party says one thing in its election manifesto yet months later does a complete about-turn, it is hardly surprising that there is growing cynicism in politics.

Much of today's debate has been concerned with the need to improve public services. Nothing is more important than more effective police, good teachers, improved education, a well-motivated and well-rewarded NHS staff and a better health service. The only difficulty is that we hear the same claims from the Government every year. In last year's Queen's Speech, the Government trumpeted:

Can anyone name a single Act from last year that made a difference? Last year's legislation brought no real change to my constituents in north Oxfordshire.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Tony Baldry: No, I have only just started.

One year on, I doubt whether—

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman asked a question.

Tony Baldry: I gladly give way, then, to hear the answer.

Brian White: Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that the Communications Act 2003, which fundamentally changes how telecom companies and broadcasting will work over the next few years, made a major difference?

Tony Baldry: First, I must declare an interest as the director of a company involved in interactive digital television. However, if I were to walk down the high street of Banbury or Bicester asking people to name a piece of legislation that the Government introduced last year, I hardly think that they would be pressing me on communications legislation. The hon. Gentleman, rather tellingly, reinforces the point that I was making.

I very much doubt that much of this year's legislation will make much difference either. We have another rag-bag of Bills; there are 23 Bills and seven draft Bills. By my calculations, we shall be trying to force through almost a Bill a week for every week of the parliamentary year.

It is clear that the Government have lost their way, or their third way. On the radio last weekend, Ministers said that, as part of the third way, the Government would launch a national conversation so that they can hear what the country wants. Well, Ministers may listen, but they do not learn. I shall give two straightforward examples of that.

Home Office Ministers have proposed to build an asylum accommodation centre for 750 people in Bicester in my constituency. It was opposed by local people and the local authority, and by every organisation from the Refugee Council to the Red Cross. No organisation concerned with the welfare of asylum seekers supports the proposal, but Ministers pushed ahead and the proposal went to a public planning inquiry.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said at the Dispatch Box that the Government had made it clear that they would abide by the planning process and by the outcome of any public inquiry. She said that that was "both fair and democratic." I suspect that hon. Members hearing those words would assume that the Government would abide by the advice that they received from the planning inspector. However, the inspector said, unambiguously, that the asylum accommodation centre was a bad idea and should not go ahead. The Government's response was to execute a volte-face on their clear commitment. Notwithstanding the planning inspector's recommendation, they decided to go ahead with their plans. The clear inference is that planning inquiries are fair and democratic only when they tell the Government what they want to hear.

An asylum accommodation centre at Bicester would be bad news for the people placed there, as being stuck in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside for up to six months with nothing to do would be pretty

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depressing. However, it would also be a huge financial burden on the local authorities involved. We understand that, under the asylum Bill announced today, parents whose claims for asylum have been rejected will be offered a choice—to take a voluntary airline flight, paid for the by the UK, back to their native country, or to lose all their benefits in the UK and have their children taken into care.

If the Government proceed with the plan for a 750-person accommodation centre on the outskirts of Bicester, new and serious issues will arise about the financial burden falling on Oxfordshire county council. From ministerial statements, we know that a significant number of the asylum seekers who would be accommodated at Bicester would be families with children. I understand that, at present, taking a child into care costs £16,900 a year at the very least. Of course, children taken into care stay there until they are 18. Moreover, the county council pays as much as £90,000 per year so that some children with special needs can be in care. The cumulative costs are therefore likely to be very substantial.

Is the Home Office willing to give an undertaking that it will underwrite the costs incurred by Oxfordshire county council if it has to take into care any asylum seekers' children as a result of the forthcoming legislation, or are the Government expecting Oxfordshire council tax payers to pick up the extra financial burden, without compensation? The potential costs of the accommodation centre were one reason why the planning inspector gave his negative recommendation. How on earth can the country be confident that the Government will listen to whatever message is given to Ministers in the national conversation?

My second point concerns the Bicester community hospital. The previous Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), when he was Minister of State, made a commitment at the Dispatch Box in 1999 that a new, 30-bed community hospital would be built in Bicester. He said that it was important to develop "modern, effective and dependable" services, and "improved fairness" in Oxfordshire's health services. That commitment is now three years overdue.

Recently, I presented to Parliament a petition signed by 7,000 Bicester residents, outlining how NHS officials now say that funds intended for the new Bicester community hospital, following the closure of Burford and Watlington community hospitals, had been "invested in the system" already.

It is fair to say that we in Bicester were surprised and concerned to learn that, from the next financial year, there appears to be no money for project finance to take the work forward. Also, there appear to be no funds to finance the project team, as the mechanism by which the team has been paid so far is being scrapped. Understandably, that leaves a sense of great betrayal locally. Ministers cannot tell a community one day that it will have a new hospital, and then change the rules completely a couple of years later. It is not enough to say, "Terribly sorry, there is now no money for a

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community hospital, and no mechanism to take the process forward." If the Government cannot keep the commitments made by Ministers at the Dispatch Box, no one who asks for anything during the so-called "national conversation" should expect delivery.

Rag-bag Bills to wallpaper over bad Government policy have been announced today. For instance, this year we have yet another proposed antisocial behaviour Bill. The Gracious Speech states:

The announcement of another Bill on this subject in the Queen's Speech is almost as predictable as the fact that Christmas comes every year. I doubt that I am the only hon. Member able to recount how different antisocial crimes affect different parts of my constituency pretty much all the time. Ahead of last year's Queen's Speech, a constituent wrote to me as follows:

That is in rural north Oxfordshire, not some inner-city area. What do I tell my constituent of the Government's new Bill on antisocial behaviour? Should I tell him that last year he was the victim of the wrong type of antisocial behaviour, which will be addressed in the new legislation? That is absurd.

Last year, the Government presented a Bill to introduce antisocial behaviour orders. So far, Cherwell district council in my constituency has managed to secure just two ASBOs, and that took over a year. The process was subject to delays, red tape and, not surprisingly, obstruction by the individuals on whom the orders were to be served. If it takes a district council more than a year to get a single antisocial behaviour order, does that not suggest that a certain amount of gimmickry is involved? Would it not be better for the Government to look at the measures that they have introduced already and ensure that they are effective, rather than trying to give the impression that they are doing something about crime by producing more and more Bills and putting them on the statute book?

Yet another antisocial behaviour Bill is simply a Government decoy to distract people in north Oxfordshire and elsewhere from the real cause of the rise in low-level antisocial behaviour: the increasing invisibility of police officers on the streets as a result of severe under-resourcing for the Thames Valley force.

Every year since this Government came into office, spin rather than substance has dominated our criminal justice system. Practically every year, a new criminal justice Bill is dragged to the statute book to give the impression that the Government are doing something—anything—to tackle crime in general and antisocial behaviour in particular.

I suspect that my constituents want more than anything to know that there are capable and experienced police officers out on the streets. I should prefer the Home Secretary to give attention to the haemorrhaging of experienced police officers in the Thames Valley area, and the increasingly difficult financial situation in which that force finds itself.

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In a recent briefing note to Members of Parliament, the chief constable of the Thames Valley force observed that

He went on to say that for other officers, and especially those living in the south-east, there were

The chief constable went on to observe that

The concern about experienced officers is demonstrated by the fact that it is getting increasingly difficult, in the Thames Valley force, to identify qualified people to promote to the ranks of sergeant and inspector. That is a matter of real concern in a public service that relies on effective operational supervision. Last year, Thames Valley police lost 160 officers, and this year they lost 180 experienced officers. The situation is not getting better—it is getting worse. For year after year, Members of Parliament from the Thames Valley area, such as myself, have called on the Government to introduce sensible regional cost of living allowances for police officers and other key workers, but the Government do nothing to help.

I recently received a letter from the Oxfordshire weighting allowance campaign. It says that

Indeed, the Government's proposals will make the financial prospects for the Thames Valley police increasingly difficult. As the chief constable observed in his briefing to MPs,

He concludes that

I strongly suspect that my constituents would wish to see less spin on legislative gimmicks and more substance to enhance experienced police retention and police pay, and proper financial provision for the Thames Valley police as a whole.

The Queen's Speech contains many measures, but Ministers promised to introduce some legislation that, unfortunately, does not appear. One example, which does not even appear as a draft Bill, is legislation on corporate manslaughter. On that issue, I wish to refer to the tragic case of my constituent, Simon Jones, who was

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brutally killed. He was a student at Sussex university and had to work during the vacation to earn some money. He went to Shoreham docks and was killed on his first day in tragic circumstances. I do not use that word glibly, because in many ways his death has destroyed the lives of his parents and family.

I went to the Old Bailey to watch the trial of the chairman of the company concerned. Under our present law, it is almost impossible to get a conviction against an individual director or person responsible, and the company was fined a derisory amount. The Government have been consulting for a long time on the issue, and they had almost got to a draft Bill. However, they simply backed away in the face of pressure from employers. Such a Bill would not be about bashing employers, but about promoting safety in the workplace. When people go to work in the morning, they are entitled to know that they will come home safely at night. Many companies do a good job, but some do not.

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