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5.24 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We have had an excellent debate in a spirit of good will, as one would expect in such a season.

One of my hon. Friends who always speaks in this debate is absent today. I am thinking of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). Hon. Members will know that on these occasions he almost invariably raises the case of his constituent Maajid Nawaz, who is in prison in Cairo. He is absent because he is visiting Mr. Maajid Nawaz today, and he has asked me to give his apologies to the House.

The debate has had at its core the care that hon. Members in all parties feel for others both at home and abroad. There has been a subset of issues to do with aviation and chemical escapes, but the broad theme has shown the House at its best.

The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) started the debate with some remarks about Cyprus, which were echoed in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). It is a tragedy that the island has been divided for so long. If the people can come together, perhaps in the spirit of the

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season, but certainly during the next months, and join the European Union, all hon. Members would think that an extremely happy outcome for a beautiful island and a friendly and hospitable people who would make marvellous members of the EU.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised the constituency case of Sergeant Steven Roberts and shared with us the post-mortem findings. He raised the issue of equipment shortages in Iraq and suggested that the necessary body armour had not been available. He also highlighted the National Audit Office report that examined those concerns. It is good that he has been able to raise such an important issue. It is, of course, the purpose of this debate that matters that have not been raised before Christmas should be put before us. The hon. Gentleman said that in the discussion following the recent statement on the Defence White Paper, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) did not mention equipment shortages. If I may, I shall correct him, as I was there: my hon. Friend did refer to the issue.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) spoke about airport capacity and the aviation White Paper, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and for Castle Point. Clearly, this has been a troubling, worrying issue for constituents in all those areas over recent years. When the hon. Gentleman spoke about his part of Essex I thought of my neighbouring part of Hertfordshire. I thought of the tracery of lanes and small roads with villages and market towns and of the rural life that has been lived there over centuries. It is heartbreaking to think what the effect of the Stansted expansion would be.

I fully understand how hon. Members from other places that are threatened in this way feel. It is so destructive. Earlier this year, a number of hon. Members attended a march in London. All the campaigners from all the campaigns against airport expansion came together and marched through London to make the point that there is a united feeling about these issues. Villages in my constituency, such as Braughing, Little Hadham and Furneux Pelham, will think the proposal for Stansted disastrous. It is wrong that an environmental impact assessment has not taken place. The local road infrastructure and railways cannot take that development, which will cause immense damage.

The description of the campaign given by other hon. Members was equally moving. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said that they ended one meeting by singing "Jerusalem". Perhaps the hon. Member for Braintree and I should try that next time we campaign against the proposals. Perhaps that is the answer. I am sure that the campaign will continue in Essex and east Hertfordshire in the new year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) told us about a Romford Christmas. He described the various events he attends and explained which schools and fairs he has visited. He also gave us the benefit of his thoughts on the UK and the EU, and how they interrelate; we heard about a useful charity in his constituency that supports people with sickle cell

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problems; and he ended by referring to Gibraltar. He gave us an instructive tour d'horizon, which showed how much he cares for Romford.

I am sorry that I missed the speech by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who I understand gave an impassioned speech on anti-Semitism and highlighted the extremism of certain Islamic organisations. Every hon. Member will share her concern. It is vital that we remain a tolerant, liberal society. We must stand up for that. We all know of the desperate conditions that can occur if such extremism takes hold. She was right to raise that important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) wanted an honour for his mother and complained that she would never get one because Labour has been fiddling with the honours system. He mentioned Gibraltar, council tax—for which we no longer have a level playing field—and post office closures. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried about post office closures. What has not come through sufficiently, however, is that the closures are the Government's fault. They have changed the benefit payments system and reduced the footfall in post offices. As a result, post offices are uneconomic and have to close. The Government decided to pay benefits directly and are stuck with the problem. They say, "Oh well, we are paying a little bit of money here and a little bit there towards the urban reinvention programme," but the scale of the closures is massive. The problem will continue throughout the new year and the Government must take much of the blame for it.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) raised a constituency case about Mrs. Stevens, who was involved in problems arising from a car accident and compensation for it. He made a more general point on compensation fees for coal-mining cases and explained that some solicitors are behaving unscrupulously by taking part of the award, even though the fees are set by the Department of Trade and Industry, which is prepared to pay them. He is right to raise that issue. Again, that campaign will continue.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) was against variable fees for students. I agree that the expense of important courses, such as medicine and law, run by prestigious universities, is a barrier to poor people. They might want to take advantage of those opportunities, but will be more frightened by the prospect of the higher debt that they will incur if they have to pay those higher fees. Her point was that that will create a permanent barrier to using education as a ladder, so that people can go from the bottom of our society to the top and get into careers where a great deal of money is made. She asked for her views to be passed on to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and I hope that he will listen to them, because the same point is being made on both sides of the House.

I shall quote what the Labour party manifesto says on that point: one can understand Labour Members' nervousness on the subject when one reads:

If that is the case and one stood for election on that manifesto as recently as 2001, one can understand the nervousness involved in telling all the young people and

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parents in a constituency, "Oh well, actually, we are going to introduce top-up fees and the legislation to prevent them is being repealed." Let us hope that the Secretary of State will think further about that.

In addition to his remarks about airports, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge referred to the appalling conditions in which some refugees find themselves in Kosovo and Krajina. That issue has been raised in the House often recently, and it needs further investigation. I should be interested to hear what the Deputy Leader of the House has to say about that. Certainly, a promise that he will raise the matter with the Foreign Secretary would be welcome. My hon. Friend also mentioned rugby, and it is right that, as we approach Christmas, we should celebrate the fact that we won the rugby World cup, and the achievement of Richard Hill.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) raised some health issues, particularly in relation to Tipton, and he has some interesting ideas about using salaried general practitioners to fill gaps and about using physician assistants. No doubt the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on those ideas to the Department of Health.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point raised a range of issues, such as housing needs and the 200th anniversary of Nelson's birthday. Perhaps in that context I can mention the fact that Letchworth garden city, which is in my constituency, celebrated its 100th birthday this year. We have had a marvellous year. The Duke of Gloucester opened the new Broadway gardens. We have had firework displays, and a new green lane has been opened all around Letchworth. It has been a marvellous anniversary. Let us hope that we can do something very good indeed for Nelson's 200th.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point has a long campaign behind him, and no doubt to come, on youth drunkenness. I remember that he introduced a Bill on the subject in the 1996–97 Session. His Bill was enacted, and the Act was not repealed without a fight. I remember leading for the Opposition when debating the Criminal Justice and Police Bill in 2001, when we fought the repeal of that measure, so it is good to see it back. I congratulate the Government on that successful U-turn.

The Child Support Agency is another thorny problem that comes up regularly in the Chamber. Of course the problem is the computer. New cases have been working on the new computer system since March, but Ministers always say, "Well, look, we can't bring the old cases on until the computer is working satisfactorily." Hon. Members will remember that we delayed the new cases for about two years because the computer did not work. It is time that the Government managed to get some of those computer projects working. Almost every computer project seems to be delayed, to be subject to criticism and to experience problems. I could list a dozen or so Government computer contracts that did not work, so perhaps the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on the message that we hope that the CSA computer will be in better health next year than it has this.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) raised a concern about a chemical company in his constituency that involved four emergencies in a

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short time. Clearly, that is a very worrying situation, and no doubt the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us whether the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be able to go to the public meeting that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) mentioned another chemical company and the problems with it. He also mentioned special schools—many Members feel that they should not be closed and that there should be adequate school facilities—the Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the British horse racing industry, which is a complicated issue, and Ethiopia.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) told us about a tip with gas escapes—Ahern's tip. He also mentioned Sure Start schemes, and made a point with which I have a lot of sympathy about how the system is ward-based. It is a problem across the south-east of England that a ward can exist that has within it an area of valuable property and obvious prosperity, and right beside it an estate with all the indicators of deprivation that one would see in a totally deprived ward. Those who live there, however, cannot access some of the schemes that are designed to help people in their situation. That is a good point, which will no doubt be relayed to the Minister.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch also criticised us over Europe, which did not surprise me—it is a family tradition. Having said that, many Members on both sides of the House were very enthusiastic for the European project—I certainly was at one time: I went campaigning for Europe with Lord George-Brown in 1975. Over the years, however, we have come to see a different kind of Europe from the one for which we hoped. The hon. Gentleman will say that he always imagined that it would be just as it has turned out. Many of us, however, had hoped for something that was more a group of nation states co-operating together on issues of importance such as trade and the environment, and we feel that it has gone beyond that. That feeling exists not just in this country but more widely across Europe. If the EU does not come to appreciate that its peoples feel that they are not very close to the superstate that is developing, it will not survive. It is therefore important for Europe to try to move in a direction that takes it closer to its people.

Finally, the hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) made a speech that ranged widely, but on important issues. He talked about sustainable development. I followed him to a certain extent, but when he described the problems of capital and pollution, and environmental problems, I was forced to think about whether in the east of Europe, where there was socialism, there were not a lot of environmental problems. I seem to recall that there were, so it strikes me that talk of the cost of resource depletion and the polluter pays principle goes so far—it is right that we should address those issues—but we cannot say that it is all the fault of the capitalists. There were plenty of socialists making a filthy mess.

In saying happy Christmas to everybody, including you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in thanking the staff of the House, in all departments, for all that they do for us, which is tremendous, may I quote the words of Disraeli when he met a constituent on 24 December 1869? He said, "Merry Christmas."

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