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Bob Spink: That is a valid point, which I am happy to answer. Conservative Governments of the past made mistakes and went too far on Europe. I regret that, but we must look forward and prepare for the future. I want to retain British sovereignty. The constituents of the hon. Gentleman want to retain British sovereignty. If he does not join them, I suspect, sadly, that he will not be my hon. Friend in this place after the next election.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Bob Spink: I shall make progress, as the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for long.

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If the Prime Minister will not withdraw from the proposals or hold a referendum, he will be seen for what he is; outrageously arrogant and breathtakingly ambitious for himself at Britain's expense. In short, this is the last straw for a failed Government.

I am petitioning my constituents and calling for the Government to listen to the people. I have been out in my constituency on five occasions so far, campaigning for a referendum on behalf of my constituents. I am seeking to force the Government to hold a referendum on the draft EU constitution. I have been swamped by people of all political persuasions and of none who want to help and support me, and I offer them my grateful thanks. By their actions, they show that they care about Britain as I do. I am honoured to represent the good people of Castle Point.

I wish to refer to the housing Bill. The sellers' pack policy will do little to address the real problems of buying and selling houses in England. The Government's policy amounts to a vast increase in state control over yet another area, with more interference in people's lives, more compulsion and more regulation. It is another new law to create, potentially, a new class of lawbreaker among decent people in this country.

The additional cost to consumers of the pack is estimated to be around £322 million per year. That is the additional cost, over and above the current costs for buying and selling houses each year. There is some controversy over this figure, and I ask the Government to clarify it. I am told that 1.5 million houses are sold each year and that the extra cost could be as high as £650 per house sale, which could bring the amount of additional money levied to well above £322 million. I ask the Government to confirm the figure, either tonight or in writing as soon as possible. People need to know the figure before the Bill makes progress in the House.

The proposal for a home condition report is a key problem and should be withdrawn. We will no doubt debate the details in due course, but, in any event, 72 per cent. of failed house sales are as a result of the decisions of purchasers, not sellers. However, the Government are seeking to punish and create sanctions for the sellers and to push costs on to them, thereby inhibiting the operation of the housing market. The Government have simply got this one wrong, and I agree with the Select Committee that the policy is half-baked.

While on housing, I want to ask the Minister a question that, again, he might answer in summing up or by writing to me. Currently, there are 12 contracts with the public sector and eight with the private sector to provide housing for asylum seekers in this country; in general, they expire in 2005. Can the Government explain their position on the renewal of those contracts? Will the balance between public and private sector be retained, or is there likely to be a swing towards local councils acting as service providers? It would be most helpful if the relevant Minister could give me a steer on this issue.

The fire services Bill is based on good intentions and I hope to be able to support it during its passage, but I shall watch very carefully to ensure that my much-needed fire stations in Hadleigh and on Canvey Island are not threatened in any way, because I simply do not trust this Government.

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There are major problems in Britain today, and this Government have clearly lost their way. Nothing signals that fact better than this Gracious Speech. Violent crime is rising and is now at its highest ever level. People feel less safe, particularly on the streets. Recorded crime is up by 800,000 per year. Transport is also much worse. For example, there is increasing serious congestion in my constituency on the A13, and on the A130 at Saddler's Farm and Waterside Farm, and through the centre of Hadleigh. Yet the Government are forcing on my constituency thousands more houses, without giving any indication as to how the infrastructure can be developed and improved.

The Government have announced a rail travel target: to increase the number of passengers by 50 per cent. The London to Tilbury and Southend line, which serves my constituency, is already operating well over capacity, yet the Government refuse to hear my plea to increase its capacity by providing a rail terminus on Canvey Island—probably at Waterside Farm—linking up with Pitsea, so that we can achieve their target. Unless the Government are prepared to invest in rail, we will not see the improvements that our commuters deserve. They certainly do deserve such improvements: we have the longest commuting times in the whole of Europe, which is simply not acceptable.

Our hospitals are struggling. There are 1 million people on the waiting list, which is simply not acceptable. Change is happening too slowly, and bureaucracy is growing too quickly. The Government have lost their way in that regard, as well. Moreover, our pensions are in crisis, yet only the Conservatives are offering the right answers. Illegal immigration is also in crisis. The Government have no idea how many illegal immigrants are currently residing in this country, or how many are entering this country each month. That is simply not good enough.

Taxes, including council taxes, are growing too fast, yet still our borrowing increases. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that our borrowing level will reach 3.2 per cent. of gross domestic product, putting us in contravention of the EU borrowing rules, which set a limit of 3 per cent. Interest rates will therefore continue to creep up in the short term. This Government are certainly failing badly. In that context, the Government's programme is disappointing, although it will lead to exciting times in this Chamber in the coming months; I look forward to them.

It is true that the Gracious Speech contains a number of Bills that have some merit. In fact, some are very good, and I shall support them, but the Government have missed a golden opportunity to make real progress where it is needed. Instead, they are pursuing Bills that will do real damage to communities such as mine in Castle Point. I am thinking, for example, of further forced overdevelopment. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is seeking to force the building of thousands more houses in my constituency, with, as I have said, no suggestion as to how the infrastructure to support that overdevelopment will be provided. I am also thinking of the access to higher education Bill and top-up fees—or the student tax, as it will become known. I hope that this House will defeat that.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has my hon. Friend taken account of the proposed changes in the planning Bill? As

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a result, instead of Essex county council's distributing the housing numbers, they will be decided by the East of England Development Agency, which is based in Cambridge. His constituency and his local planning authority will have no option but to adopt those housing numbers.

Bob Spink: I am indeed well aware of that aspect of the Government's centralisation programme, which takes decisions away from local, democratically elected people. I greatly regret that development, as do my constituents, which is why they will seek to throw out this Government at the next election.

As I was saying, some of the Bills are totally unacceptable, including the half-baked Bill on further reform of the House of Lords, which seeks to make it a wholly appointed House. Curiously but typically, the Government did say that legislation on top-up fees and on House of Lords reform to create an appointed House would be excluded from their programme during this Parliament. That was stated clearly in Labour's manifesto, yet such Bills are being introduced, thereby illustrating how little concern the Government have for open and honest public service. If this programme is the best that the Government can do, I fear for their future.

6.56 pm

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab): Like other Members, I believe that there is much to welcome in the Queen's Speech, but I certainly want some reassurance on the school transport Bill, which is a cause of concern to many. In all my time as an MP, not a single constituent has raised with me—at my surgeries, via e-mail or in written correspondence—the issue of transport conditions for schoolchildren. No one has said, "Something is wrong—we need to make major changes." By and large, most people are happy, and they certainly do not want to pay for school transport.

The Department for Education and Skills needs to talk to the Department for Transport, and to establish a joined-up approach. A DES press release stated that the legislation is

In my view, it will achieve nothing of the kind. We transport more than 700,000 children to schools across the UK—in urban, suburban and rural settings—and the system works perfectly well in most locations. If we start charging, we will put children at risk—it is as simple as that.

The Education Act 1944 guaranteed free transport to children living three miles from school, and to children aged under eight living two miles from school. That legislation has stood the test of time and worked perfectly well. The Bill on school transport will allow education authorities to opt out of their duties under the 1944 Act. Pilot schemes will be established, and it is said that such schemes will

That would be a major blunder, but trying to organise and manage a system that charges children would also be an administrative nightmare. Put simply, such a charge will have to be based on income of some sort. It cannot be based on each child; instead, there will have to be some complex means of management. The system

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cannot work, because pay and salary—which can include performance pay, productivity pay, overtime, sickness pay and injury pay—are never constant. Such a system will deflect schools from focusing on teaching pupils.

It has been said that pupils who receive free school meals may also be given free school transport, but they do not need to be given such transport because they already get it. There is no need to give them something that they already have. We need to be very careful about what we suggest in this legislation.

What do teachers think of the Bill? I offer two comments.

As Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said that charges would act as "a disincentive" to children going to school. As he suggests, the obvious outcome would be increased truancy in some areas.

Any move to end free travel will be met with the fierce opposition of not just parents but of politicians, too. Charging per child would be a real problem for a family with three or four children—as opposed to one child—attending school, so we must have clarification on that matter. Two families with massive disparities in their earnings would have to pay the same amount for their children to be taken to school, which is unacceptable to most people.

Arguments about damage to the environment and increased congestion would also become relevant if we moved away from the 1944 Act and the system that we enjoy today. No one could disagree with the fact that there is a problem today because many parents drive their children to the school gate. We see and hear of it day and daily. However, the Bill will not make a single bit of difference. Parents who already drive their children to school will continue to do so—with or without charging. If anything, the change will increase, not decrease, the numbers of cars on already badly congested roads throughout the UK. We should be trying to decrease, not increase, the number of car journeys to school. Every analysis, survey and investigation points to that goal, which should be the objective of any Bill. We must try to reduce congestion and the number of school journeys by parents in urban, suburban and rural settings. We should try to sustain and increase the number of buses in use to take children to school. The statistics prove that it is a safe way of transporting children to school: it improves the environment, and reduces congestion.

Other countries—and not just in Europe—show the way forward. In the US and Canada, yellow buses deliver more than 1 million pupils per day to schools safely. I should like to hear some reassurance that we will not introduce charging and that the 1944 Act will be the basis of any improvement in the transport of children to school. I believe that that is the only way to proceed and I look forward to hearing some reassurance on that.

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